My short story titled ‘A Boon for Sara’ was published last year in the bimonthly journal Indian Literature by Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of letters in India). Whatever recent work I have had a chance to publish, has mostly been in an online format. This time, thanks to my father-in-law and mother-in-law who ordered an actual copy of the journal containing my story and sent it here to the US, it felt nice to hold a physical copy in my hands for a change.
In the story, I mixed the old with the modern by referencing a legend from the Mahabharata. Besides enjoying writing the dialogue-heavy tale between two characters, I think the theme is relevant to young Indian couples who do not necessarily want to be forced to go with the flow. Although I myself have purposefully chosen the particular path mentioned in the story because I really wanted to, I wholeheartedly support those who don’t choose it. I believe that this choice is personal and should not be put under the harsh societal microscope in order to be judged unfairly.
Enough with the preamble! Here is the story:
A Boon for Sara
Sara woke up in a chair at the foot of Varun’s bed. Her head still heavy, she felt as though she had been lost in a maze for hours, only to land up in the harshly lit, sterile room that she now found herself in. It was when her eyes fell on the still figure of Varun, his body hooked up to a host of machines and his forehead under a swath of bandages that she remembered she was at the hospital. It felt as though the road accident they had been in had taken place only seconds ago.
The ugly screech of tires, the sudden shock of being flung into the air, the smell of burnt rubber and the slow spinning of the world around them. The surrounding commotion came back to her in fragments, disappearing and reappearing under cloudy memory, like a light switch getting flicked on and off. She had escaped almost unscathed, with minor bruises, while he had not been so lucky. She had spent the entire evening sitting there in the hospital room like a statue, mutely studying her husband’s unconscious face. She furrowed her brow. How odd! She seemed to have no feelings, no strong emotions at all. Her mind felt blank, her heart, as dark as the night during which they had been travelling back from a friend’s wedding that had taken place at a farmhouse venue outside of the city. Had the shock of Varun’s current state shrivelled up all the grief, fear and hope within her?
A shadow fell across the room. Wondering how she had missed hearing the door open, she turned around, expecting to see a nurse or the doctor. She nearly fell out of her chair.
“Oh!” Was all she could say.
He stood before her, six feet tall and built like an ox. In fact, his head resembled one, with thick black horns emerging from the front of his wide skull and curling back into sharp points. They gave a dull metallic shine against the sparkle of his gold crown. His complexion was as dark as the night and yet a bushy moustache curving over his full cheeks right up to his ears stood out clearly against his face. Behind him stood a sturdy black buffalo, its leathery body gleaming as though it had been scrubbed clean only moments ago. Together they took up all the remaining space in the room. If it weren’t for the fact that her husband lay in critical condition, Sara would have laughed aloud at the odd sight before her. It took her a few seconds to place a name on the man standing in front of her.
“I think you have the wrong room,” she said. He was perhaps an actor who had come to visit someone at the hospital straight after work. She had to hand it to them though. He looked like he had stepped straight out of one of the epics like the Mahabharata. Even the buffalo looked remarkably real.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked in a voice that was surprisingly gentle, given his muscular physique.
“Of course! You are playing the part of Yamraj – the Lord of Death,” she replied.
The man threw back his head and a booming laugh thundered up from his exposed belly button above his gold-embroidered dhoti*.
“Ha ha ha! You think I am an actor?”
“I am Yamraj himself!”
Sara kept on staring, not knowing what to say.
“Let me prove it to you,” he said and extended his hand, palm facing upwards. He moved his fingers as if summoning her.
There was a sudden shift in air pressure. A feeling of utter helplessness overcame her. Every breath she took seemed to require tremendous effort. She felt trapped, as if locked in a box, with its walls closing in on her every second.
The man dropped his hand to his side and just as he did so, Sara felt her wildly quivering heart begin to restore itself to its normal pace.
“Now do you believe me?” He asked.
Sara’s mouth hung open. Her mouth formed the words ‘oh, my god’, but no sound came out.
A mounting fear started to uncoil itself from somewhere deep within her. She looked at Varun and back again at Yamraj, who was nodding in reply to her unasked question.
“Please don’t.” Her voice squeaked past the lump in her throat.
Yamraj shook his head. “I must.” He said and took a step forward.
“Wait! Wait!” Sara sprang from her chair. “Listen to me, just listen to me first.”
The burly man stopped.
“Just look at him! Isn’t he too young?”
Yamraj shrugged his massive shoulders.
“Oh for God’s sake! He hardly ever even falls sick and he gets up at 5.30 every morning to go to the gym.” She said.
“His time is up…” Yamraj started to say.
“How can you walk in here and take him away just like that?”
“This is what I have been doing since the dawn of time.”
“No, no, no. He can’t die.” Sara almost shrieked. “Not now and not like this. You just wait and see, in a few weeks, it’ll be like this accident never happened.”
“But there’s still so much to do! What about his dreams? His utmost desires? Do you know how long he has been planning on starting his own business? All that time spent working hard outside of his usual office hours, chipping away at his late nights and early dawns. ’Sara,’ he would say to me, ‘I know my ideas are going to take off and explode. And once it is all done, we are going to take this splendid vacation to travel the world. The first stop will be Egypt. Imagine standing hand-in-hand in front of the pyramids as the sun goes down, gazing at them in stunned silence till the first bright star starts to twinkle behind those magnificent monuments.’ How can you deny him all that?” She asked Yamraj.
She took a deep breath. “Alright, that’s a bit far off into the future. What about simple plans for the weekend? The cricket match he has been looking forward to watching with his friends. The gift he was planning to buy his favorite uncle for his 60th birthday. The book he was planning to finish reading soon so that he could find out if the missing girl in it is found. He’s almost done. Just a few more pages to go…”
Her eyes turned dreamy. “He was planning this elaborate evening for our third year wedding anniversary next month.”
Everything felt unreal, disintegrating into nothingness even as the words left her mouth. Looking at Yamraj standing there like a statue made of stone Sara had the furious urge to hurl something at him.
“Alright, you don’t care about him then. But what about me? You think I will be able to live without him?” Tears sprang to her eyes.
“Life goes on, my dear,” he said.
Sara sat down heavily in the chair. “That’s what they all say, don’t they? Move on. You are young. You have your whole life ahead of you still. Blah, blah, blah. But what do they know of falling in love? What do you know of falling in love? And staying in love? It’s been six years since Varun came into my life and three since we have been married. No, it was not love at first sight. It was better than that. We were best friends above all else. Best friends and lovers. We still are. And we make each other happy. If he’s gone it will be like half of me is missing, like one side of my body is amputated. Why don’t you take me instead of him?”
Yamraj shook his head, “That won’t do at all. You are destined to grow to a ripe old age.” His moustache arched downwards in a deep frown. “Child, I am helpless.”
There was a moment of silence before he spoke again. “I feel sorry for you, I really do. So I have decided to offer you a boon. Ask for anything except sparing the life that I have come to take.”
Sara gave a short laugh. “You really do go around granting wishes to potential widows, don’t you? I’m familiar with the legend of Satyavan and Savitri. When Savitri begged you to spare her young husband’s life, you told her to ask for something else. She came up with the clever solution of her wish to give birth to Satyavan’s children and this left you with no choice but to leave him alone. Are you expecting the same request from me?”
Before Yamraj could reply, she continued with a wry smile, “It’s funny how it has come down to this. If Varun were awake now, this would have totally cracked him up. You see, he and I had already decided not to have any children.”
“Why not?” Yamraj raised his bushy eyebrows.
“Because we had come to the crystal clear conclusion that childbearing and child-rearing is simply not our cup of tea. Varun is not very fond of small children. And even though I enjoy their company and I pamper my nieces and nephews, I know I will not be able to stand the hard times. We’d rather spend our time doing other things. Both of us love our highly demanding, yet fulfilling jobs. And in our free time, our creative selves take over. He writes poetry and I indulge in photography. We read, we watch movies, we travel and we also donate time and money to charity. We are a pair of happy lovebirds in our cozy nest!”
Her voice turned bitter all of a sudden and she rolled her eyes. “Ugh! The countless times we have been pestered by parents, nosy neighbors and elderly relatives about us not having any” – she drew imaginary quotes in the air with her fingers around the words – “good news after three years of matrimony. Some of my colleagues and acquaintances will look at me funny when I declare that we never want kids. Can’t a family be just two in number and still be happy?”
“And you know what? People have children for all the wrong reasons.” She continued. To bring a precious life into this world and more importantly, to raise it half-heartedly just because society says so when you are not ready, do not deserve to or are not even willing to is just plain wrong. It’s inhumane. How many times have I heard an elderly meddlesome relative advise a fighting couple who is caught in a failing marriage to bear a child? ‘Have a baby,’ they’ll say, ‘then everything will be alright’. Or the husband is a wife-beating drunk and she’ll be told to bring a baby into his life to sober him up. The poor unborn soul has no idea what a horrible childhood is in its destiny.”
She became thoughtful. “Also, as a matter of principle I alone cannot go back on our mutual decision.”
Yamraj smiled. “Your maturity and clarity of thought leaves me impressed. Pray, what is your wish, apart from that which I cannot grant you?”
“Here’s what I wish for then.” There was a glint in Sara’s eyes as she spoke. “You said that I would grow old and then die. So I want to die in Varun’s embrace, his sweet breath lingering on as I fade away after he kisses me goodbye.”
Yamraj threw back his head and laughed his rumbling, hearty laughter. He raised his hand and said simply, “tathastu!” So be it! The buffalo behind him tossed its head, flicked its tail and they both disappeared into thin air.
Sara woke up with a start. There was an imprint of the folds of Varun’s blanket on her cheek and her neck was aching from the way her head had lain sideways for a long time. How long had she been asleep for as she dreamt her outrageous dream? The story of Satyavan and Savitri of all things! And it had all seemed so real! She couldn’t help but look over her shoulder half expecting to see a fat black buffalo standing behind her but of course, there was nothing there. She smiled faintly as she remembered how the dream had ended.
And what was this? Was she feeling something at last? Where there had been blank whiteness inside her mind before, a rosy tint seemed to be seeping in along the edges now. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she gazed at her husband with hope that had newly sprung up in her heart.
* dhoti – a long loincloth worn by men.