An exercise in Tragedy

Taken from my old blog, June 8, 2012

 

Let me tell you a story. There is this man I know, lets call him S. All his life, S has carried an unusual burden of misfortune on his back. Recently, something more was added to this heavy load, which has triggered this blog post. Let me start at the start, though.


S is the youngest of four siblings, an eldest brother, and two sisters. His dad was a big leader, a do-gooder in their village. Being a bit more privileged than their peers, all four enjoyed a happy childhood. Big brother is a large, caring man. Big sister is the rock of the family, the practical person. Little sister is the emotional one, the one who takes care of everyone. S is a combination of all three. He is by far the most naturally intelligent person I have met in my life. He is practical, caring and all that, but the most striking thing about him is his ready wit and intelligence. He was literally the apple of his parent’s eyes. “S will become the most famous doctor in this land” his dad would often say, with good reason. 


When he was young, S was a carefree youth. he had a big future in front of him, everything to look forward to. At this juncture, he did something inexplicable. He skipped his 12th exams. Just didn’t go. You ask why, but I do not know the answer to that question. He just did. His dad got him a job in the local sugar factory he had started. He was married off to a cousin. His dad soon died in a haze of alcoholism, leaving behind a shambles of an estate. The vultures soon moved in. 


The sisters married off to men outside the village, into big cities, soon lost touch with the family. The men were hot-headed, up and coming engineers who shunned their ‘callow’ in-laws as they moved up in the world. They had forgotten the all important push S’s dad had given them when they started. It was left to S and elder brother to take care of the mounting debts and old family home. Hoping to avoid conflict and acrimony, S left for a nearby city and elder brother took care of the family farms. 


In the city, S supported his wife and small kid by starting a small business of his own. Very precarious, but he managed to get a toe hold in by dint of hard work, ingenuity and his innate ability to talk his way into any situation and setting. This is the first time we meet his daughter. Looking at the precocious girl, you could shades of S in her. Very self aware, she had realised at a young age that her dad would have to slog all his life to keep his family and her just above the water and surviving. She vowed to lend a hand as soon as she could. She, with her single minded devotion, applied herself to her studies, building a dream to someday be an IAS officer. In time, S gave her a baby sister too. Big daughter looked at her and was spurred on. Things were looking good. 


One fine day, the business he had set-up went bust, and S’s partners ran away with a load of cash. He was broke, jobless with nowhere to go. During this time, S and elder quarrelled over the family estate and the farms were divided into two. So S did have something to do, go home and start farming. Mrs S didn’t want to go and live with her in-laws. She persuaded him to go and live at her folks place, them being old and alone and all. This is at a nearby village, so he could easily tend to the farms and such. Since education is such a costly business, he scrimped and saved every tiny penny and shored it up for the future. You’d be amazed at his resourcefulness and a rare capability of extracting the maximum use out of any object.


Farming in this area is hard. There is a severe shortage of water. S has a well near his farm, but its source has dried up. So his well is essentially a tank. What he and a couple of neighbours  do, is borrow water from the well in the vicinity that has water. Now since everyone wants more water, you have to be constantly aware of the levels of water, best times for use etc and make sure no one is cheating and that you get the best deal. 


In any case, he started to re-build his life, at his in-law’s place. Farming is a tough business, but he stuck to it. Daughters went to good schools in the area, progressing steadily. Mrs S found a job at a local school. Stability looked just around the corner. I use the word stability very loosely here. What kind of stability is this? The whole village laughs at the two brothers, for squandering the family fortune. They forget that most of it was spent in the betterment of the village and the villagers themselves. Their sisters try to find time and come and spend some time with them, as and when their husbands allow and help in their way. S lives with his in-laws, with taunts and jabs at every corner, not sparing even his small daughters. Everyday is full of hard work in the farms and come home to this. Each paisa he earns, he saves. Nothing for himself. His life is a patchwork of hand-me-downs and second hand things. S, though, is content. He knows, all this hard is going to pay off, when he see his daughters grow up to be strong, confident and independent human beings soon. 


As we enter the present, we see that elder daughter has passed 12th with flying colours. Trained at mofussil schools and a junior college at the local taluka place, it is a miracle that she secures a seat in a big engineering college. S is loath to send her away to big city centres like Pune or Mumbai, considering the cost of living. He decides to send her to a very good college in a middle sized town, keeping everyone happy. Without making a fuss, he somehow manages the gargantuan task of getting together enough funds to get her secured in this place. Here too, his in-laws mutter behind his back, saying why make such a big investment, who is paying etc. He ignores all, happy in the fact that his efforts have borne fruit. 


Her studies are going swimmingly well. He manages to talk her every day, go and meet her as often as possible. He has started a parents group of people who have sent their kids to that college and live nearby. She is also happy at her college. She works hard on her weak points and manages to get through the first year. 


This week are her year end examinations. On the eve of her 2nd paper, her room-mates call up S, reporting her missing. A frantic night is spent canvassing relatives and locals to see if any trace can be found. They wait till the exam time, to see if she turns up and immediately inform the authorities. 


It is 5 pm. We come into the police station where he is waiting for any news. There is no place to sit, he is standing in the courtyard. He cuts a forlorn figure, waiting for any news of his little girl. No sleep, no food. His sister has come to see if she could help. There are about 4-6 people around him, sounding out suggestions and strategies. After the discussions, everyone turns to him. What do we do now? My heart breaks into tiny pieces as he says “I cannot think of anything right now, please do whatever you think is best. “. A “Help me” goes unsaid. 


Around 6 15, about 24 hours since he last talked to his daughter, news filters in through the police station, that a body has been found in a local well. No one tells S. He immediately figures something is up. By the time they reach the site, he knows something is wrong and makes up his mind. You wouldn’t believe me, but he doesn’t shed a single tear. He has made his mind up. As we move towards the hospital to retrieve his daughter, he is the one who handles everything. His sister, a few friends and relatives who have come with him are all lost for words. Crying. He calmly identifies her. He is told there will be a few procedural delays. He relays the information home, where they prepare for the funeral and the word spreads. 


Here was a daughter who was the most rooted girl you will ever meet. She had a meticulous diary, written from the first day of college to the birthday in February. She outlines her hopes and dreams and daily expenses in simple and straight-forward details. No one among her friends suspect an affair gone wrong. The pressure of success was there, as is omnipresent in all engg. kids, but it wasn’t blown out of proportion. She would talk about everything to S, or at least to her cousin sister, who was especially close. There are close to a thousand people at the funeral. Each and everyone is saying the same thing. There has to be foul play, this cannot be something she would do. The post-mortem and police action remove all traces of doubt or foul play. It was truly one of those random events. 


A note here, on the funeral. As soon as word spreads, that S is arriving by afternoon with his daughter, people start coming to the house. Not his in-law’s place, this is the family place. As soon as you enter, you see S’s brother sitting on the floor. He is weeping copiously, a husk of his former self. Inside, a bevy of ladies surround Mrs S, trying to console her. S’s sisters sit in a corner, their faces twisted in agony as they denounce the cruel God who doles out this fate to their kid brother, silently, as tears roll down unhindered. A group of S’s nephews stand outside, faces blank, wondering how did this happen. Slowly, the place fills up. People turn from all around the village and nearby places. Large carpets are soon laid out on the road outside, to accommodate everyone. Some people stand along the roads. As we stand outside, you can feel the grief mounting to a peak, as the news of the hearse filters through. Half an hour away. Now 15 min. 5 mins. Just around the corner. 
As he disembarks, S heads straight for the house. He embraces elder brother, who bursts into tears, piteously crying out aloud. The calmest man in the whole mêlée, S consoles his brother. As the daughter is brought out, the women rush out. There is a lot of shouting and crying. One of S’s sisters faints and her kid and husband revive her. A couple of kids keep a glass of glucose water handy. The bier is quickly whisked away to the funeral home, to be cremated. The ladies all array themselves around the grieving mother. She cries out, her sharp comments tearing at every heart in the vicinity. As we move over to the cremation, a group of enthusiastic organisers quickly get it over with. Some politically minded person addresses the large group of people assembled there. The family quickly disperses, sickened by the whole process. 
Some semblance of sanity returns as everyone goes home. Only the close relatives are left in the house. To dispel all doubts and rumours, S tells the whole story in detail twice. To see him speak with an even voice, emphasizing each important point, you wouldn’t know what a titanic struggle must be raging in his breast. 


He married according to his dad’s wishes. He was duped out of his business just as he was starting to break even. He has to live in a place infested with taunts and jibes. He has two pillars of strength, his daughters, but one has been taken away from him in her prime. 


Fiction has a sense of balance to it. Even tragedies, they end. But real life doles out its emotions without regard for aesthetic equity, a novelist’s sense of equilibrium, of justice. It just goes on. We are left with a tragedy of colossal proportions, apparently without rhyme or reason.  


We stumble through life, thinking we have seen sad and joy and everything. It is precisely when you least expect it when life slaps you hard on your face, and says look! Someone else has it worse. 


As we depart the village, leaving this grieving family to their lot, you can see a house near the end of the village all decked up in finery as the sounds of dhol waft through the air. There is a wedding here. Life, it seems, goes on. 




p.s.: I havent spent much time on the reactions and implications of S’s younger daughter. This isn’t because it isn’t important or that I haven’t given much thought to it. It is simply because I cannot string more than 2 sentences together without choking up. It is simply too much for me to handle. Probably, S could do a better job. 


p.p.s: Some details have been embellished or downplayed for privacy. This voyeuristic portrayal of S seems to be a selfish thing to do. He doesn’t know I wrote this, and I don’t think many will agree. We all have our ways of grieving. Some cry. Others are S. I hope to think that the memory of this sad turn of events will live through this post, and that at some level, in some unexplained way, it will help. 

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