Dr. Anuradha Bhattacharyya is a
creative writer of international repute, who has been widely published
in India, U.S.A, Spain and Australia. She is Assistant Professor of
English in Postgraduate Government College, Sec-11, Chandigarh (India). She has
authored seven books. They are The Lacanian Author, The Road Taken - a
novel, published by Creative Crows, New Delhi and 3 collections of
poetry published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata, namely – Fifty Five
Poems, Knots and Lofty - to fill up a cultural chasm. Her book on
European Literature with special concern for Indian (Hindu) readers is
due in 2016. Over 30 poems and 10 short stories of hers are available
online in various international anthologies and journals. Her latest
novel is titled One Word.
Death by Water
Mr. Roy was software professional in a multinational company. He was a very busy man. He had only one son, Raghav who had just completed secondary school. Mr. Roy had applied for study leave under the Quality Improvement Program of the company and joined a research program in IIT Roorkee in the department of computer science. So he moved to a married research scholars’ wing of the IIT campus with his family.
His son got admission in standard eleven in the Roorkee branch of the same chain of missionary schools. He had a doting mother and a pet dog for company. The father was likely to be busy all day and all evening working on his research project. He needed to attend classes like a student once again and made a great uproar about it every day. In the eyes of the son, who attended five hours of school daily and did very well in studies, the father was indeed a joker. His mother had the habit of saying that Raghav had inherited his father’s brains but now she expressed some doubt. Now it appeared that probably the little educated mother actually showed signs of the kind of patience the son displayed regarding studies while the father made long faces and cribbed and complained like a toddler who goes to school for the first time and gets homework to do.
However, the father doted on his son and was ready to do anything for his wellbeing. One day the boy fell ill. He vomited endlessly and the doctor diagnosed food poisoning. The father got very angry with the son. He asked him where he had got rotten food. Raghav had no ready answer. He recalled having tasted a friend’s tiffin; that was all from outside. All that he ate was his mother’s preparations. Mr. Roy loved his wife too and would not accept that she could have served him rotten food. So he gave up the research on the cause of his illness and concentrated on the cure.
A few months later, Raghav met with an accident too. This time Raghav did not get a scolding from his father. He was riding his bicycle to school as usual when a bullock cart crossed the road all of a sudden. Since Raghav had to apply the brake suddenly the brake string of his bicycle broke and he headed straight for the rear of the cart. He suffered from some bruises and did not avoid going to school. But when his wound began to swell, his teacher sent him home. This too was a minor infection but his father came home and nursed him like a baby.
Mrs. Roy believed in astrology. She had been consulting a pundit in her hometown regarding everything in her life. Her mother knew this astrologer ever since the daughter was born. Her marriage was arranged by this astrologer’s advice. Now in Roorkee, Mrs. Roy began to feel restless. She wanted to go home to consult the astrologer about her son. She felt that the place Roorkee did not suit her son. She wanted to ascertain that everything would be fine after all.
Mr. Roy did not allow her to go away in the midst of his research work. He was going nuts about the project which was hardly making any progress and with which he did not feel the least bit at home and here was his wife deserting him in the midst of chaos. He clung to his family as if it was they who would ultimately secure him the degree of Ph D.
Raghav was a friendly boy. He loved to play football and soon formed a team of young boys in the neighbourhood to play football with him. There were boys of all sizes. The youngest among them was 9 years old who was usually made the goal keeper. The goal post was the front verandah of a bungalow. In Roorkee there are quite a number of bungalows which were built by the British when they constructed the college of civil engineering a hundred and fifty years ago during the time of Dalhousie.
These bungalows have now been renovated to suit the need of Indians. The British made skylights and sloping roofs as if it would snow here. They made fireplaces and chimneys which are not required now. These ventilators and chimneys have now been blocked and the mantelpiece serves only as a shelf for showpieces and the telephone. The surrounding verandah has been covered in most of its parts to house toilets and storerooms and a servant’s quarter. The back and front yards which are adorned with mango, guava and orange trees have been enclosed with concrete walls so that cows and buffalos do not stray into them. Such a big enclosure was selected by Raghav as his football ground. This was the home of one of his team-mates. The other end of the ground was marked by the large trunk of a mango tree which had been trimmed at the bottom and which could not be climbed any more. If the ball went behind the tree it was a goal. Raghav’s team often chose this as their opposite goal so every now and then they had a goal. The scores soared to forty or fifty at a time.
On the verandah stood the nine year old boy Rene, who was born in France and had the privilege of owning a strange name. He was always called Rony by the servants who could not associate with that name. The boys also called him Rony whenever he complained that goal keeping did not suit him.
Mr. Roy noticed that Raghav was always playing with boys younger than his age. This irked him because he believed that if someone played with older companions one learned a lot of things inadvertently. However, he had no choice and he believed that these things were determined by destiny.
One day Raghav came running home asking for a bandage. His mother handed him some and asked who was hurt. Raghav mentioned a name which his mother could not recognize. She went after him. She saw that one of the boys was bleeding in the first finger of his right hand. The lady of the bungalow had already emerged with tincture iodine and she was asking this boy, who was about 11 years old, how he got hurt. The boy was howling and crying like a baby. The lady said to him that he was a big boy now and he should not cry like a small boy and she patted his back and caressed his head and tried to calm him. One of the other boys told her where he lived and they decided to take him home after the bandage was wrapped round his finger. As they walked towards the house, Raghav’s mother asked softly, ‘How did you get hurt, my boy?’ he promptly replied, ‘Raghav hit me with a stone’. Mrs. Roy was stunned. She looked at Raghav who shook his head. Raghav said, ‘Monu, I did not hit you. I don’t know how you got hurt. I was looking elsewhere.’ ‘Then why is he blaming you?’ asked the mother. Raghav had no answer. He had rushed to Monu when he heard him scream and done the needful to attend to the wound. Otherwise he was engaged with the ball. There was no reason for Monu to blame him. He should have actually thanked Raghav for his help. His mother became very angry with the boy. She asked Raghav not to play with silly boys who could not take care of themselves. She too concluded that it was not worth playing with children younger than one.
Mr. Roy came up with a new idea. He said, ‘Why don’t you join swimming? The swimming pool here is very clean and they have a coach who teaches children after four p.m.’
Raghav liked the idea and agreed immediately. He was enrolled to learn swimming in the older boys’ category for which swimming lessons started at 5 p. m. The mother was a little uneasy about this decision and she mentioned it to her husband one day. ‘I think the astrologer had said that Raghav would suffer death by water. Shouldn’t we keep him away from water? You are sending him to the swimming pool; that is also water.’ ‘Yes, that I think is going to do him good. In fact, come to think of it, I do remember that the astrologer mentioned some danger related to water in Raghav’s natal chart, but if he learns swimming he may be safe! What do you say? Danger is more in the sea or the river where accidents happen. We are not taking him to such places and if in the future he does go to such places, he would be able to take care of himself if he knows swimming.’
The mother agreed. After all, the swimming pool here was very clean. One could see the bottom of the pool and the cool water was very refreshing for the boy. She also compromised her views because recently Raghav had a bad experience while playing football. She also noticed that Raghav enjoyed going to the swimming pool because a couple of his classmates who lived far away came to the same class of swimming. Now Raghav was in the twelfth standard and doing well. The other two boys were his friends and they spent an hour or two sitting by the pool and discussing well, studies perhaps.
Raghav did sit with his friends at the
swimming pool. He learned bubbling and floating from the coach. He found
the water splendid and spent a long time floating and jumping in the
swimming pool. His friends showed him several tricks which one could
play in the water.
Each boy was trained at a different level. One of them had just started while Raghav had already mastered the strokes. The other friend had crossed over to the deeper side of the swimming pool. The deeper side was meant for diving. Raghav often watched his friend dive into the water and waited for him to emerge, shaking the water off his eyes.
In summer the afternoons are always sultry. No one feels like going out of doors. The fan is not sufficient to cool off the moist body. Heat rays seem to spread from the eyes and closing them is the only solution. Tucking one’s hands under the pillow and digging one’s head into the pillow one feels like sprawling one’s legs and leaving the back open to the whirling fan above. The nape feels hot and sweat trickles down from one’s hair. In this condition one dozes off with complete disregard for the passage of time. At six o’clock when the sun rays are too far off to penetrate one’s skin and there is darkness inside the house, one wakes up refreshed. Then it is time to go to play.
The boys played in the evening till it was too dark to see the ball. The mothers would not bother to call them indoors even after sunset as the evening is very pleasant. They would rather drag their garden chairs to the verandah from where the boys on the street could be seen. Usually they played cricket. Ever since Raghav started going to the swimming pool, the other boys who used to play football with him started playing cricket again. Every father in the neighbourhood gifts his son a cricket bat. The ball is rather soft, usually a tennis ball, so that no one may get hurt. The football is occasionally gifted by friends on birthday parties. Once the ball collapses, very few people go to fill it up. The cricket bat is a better toy. It lasts longer and remains lying under the bed. One can play with any ball one comes across and the minimum number of members required to play cricket is 2.
Raghav’s mother watched the younger boys play and wondered what her son might be doing in the swimming pool. He would go there at 5 p.m. and return home two hours later. Once she visited the pool to watch him swim. But the officials discouraged her. They insisted that the place would be overcrowded if guardians of the boys entered the swimming pool premises. She was asked to wait near the entrance which was a wicket gate at the back which led to the dressing rooms. The boys were supposed to take a bath before entering the pool and also after leaving it. This ensured common hygiene.
One afternoon, Raghav was sleeping heavily at about 5 o’clock. His mother came to his room and asked without touching him, ‘Baba, won’t you go to the swimming pool today?’ Raghav did not move. So she shook him by the shoulder and said, ‘Baba, it’s time to go to the swimming classes!’ He raised his head from under the pillow. The face was red with the pressure of the pillow and he did not open his eyes. His mother said, ‘well, if you don’t want to go today, never mind; go back to sleep’ and she turned away. She went out of the room and into the backyard. There she sat stitching a pajama of his which was torn at the bottom.
Raghav was very tired and sleepy but he decided to go for swimming as the thought of the cool water appealed to him. He knew that his friends would also be there and they might talk about things that he did not want to miss. He thought that if he failed to go there they would also wait and lose time at the swimming pool. He did not want his friends to be grumbling about him so he got up and dressed. He went out into the backyard and told his mother that he was now going to the swimming pool. He took his bicycle and rode to the pool. His friends were indeed waiting. They had not even undressed till now. He chuckled and entered the dressing rooms.
At the pool about the time one would return home, Raghav had a tremendous urge to go for diving. He saw the others diving and felt that it would be great fun to cut the water across and swim upwards like a fish. He wanted to experience the flash of the water when he hit it. The other two boys were in the water on the other side when Raghav took the stairs up to the diving board. They did not see him go up. When he dived in which was in a flash no one noticed. After a while one of his friends called out for him but he was nowhere to be seen.
They walked hand in hand all around the pool and then went downstairs to the dressing room. There they saw his clothes hanging from the peg as usual. They went back. It was completely dark by now, nearly 7: 30 p.m. and the instructor was asking everyone to pack up. The friends called his name a couple of times more and then descended to the cubicles. They changed into their clothes and went up to the watchman. They told him that he should keep their friend’s clothes properly since he had left for home in a hurry without changing.
At home the mother started worrying after the boys of the neighbourhood had all gone indoors. The father had the habit of returning home after 8 p.m. so she stood outside waiting for him. Then impatiently she went over to the friend in the bungalow to make a call. Over the phone she talked to her husband and he immediately went to the swimming pool. There he was told by the gatekeeper that one boy’s clothes were still hanging in the cubicles. The father recognized the dress as his son’s. He told the gatekeeper that the boy had yet not arrived home. The gatekeeper agreed that possibly the boy never left the swimming pool since his clothes were still here. Had he gone off with his friends for some other place, he would have changed his dress first.
Finally the gates of the pool were opened
and flashlights were directed at the water. Nothing could be revealed by
the flooding lights. Then someone offered to dive down and there he
found Raghav’s body. Accidents can happen anywhere. Sometimes destiny
follows you and sometimes destiny tricks you into following it. Raghav
was astrologically doomed.