The Russian old man
Of course, as you must have guessed, Rosakutty is probably not her real name. I just like to call her that. I wouldn't be able to tell you if the name would suit her either as you see, I have never seen her. But I know enough to meet her entire family and have an affable tea time conversation - for every morning, she would sit in the cabin next to mine and narrate in her imitable shrill voice, every single event of even the most trivial consequence to her fellow nurses, interspersed with an equally shrill laughter. Sitting there, I could share her anxiety over her daughter's oratorical competition the day before, and her relief the day after, her husband's temper and her neighbours nagging. And I forever wonder if I could do something to make her life better - probably meet her daughter sometime and tell her how proud her mom is about her.
It's something about being hospitalized that suddenly shrinks your entire world into a cabin and a lone, dull view from a window that you forever try to reach out, break through and believe anything is possible 'out there in the real world'
And one day, she stopped coming.
He had a way of talking that you would immediately attribute to someone who studied arts in one of those christian colleges back in the forties and fifties, and has seen life from behind his impeccably pressed shirts and trousers for over half a century. Someone who never forgets his daily walks in the morning, writes letters to the editor in 'The Hindu' and speaks in a tone that demands attention. He was not a man of many words - he quietly listened to the instructions the nurse gave him, settled down in his bed and soon sunk under the same blanket of silence that I spend my mornings under.
Looking back, I am not sure whether I missed Rosakutty's stories that day. It must have been like sitting next to a fountain for hours and suddenly realising the void around when it stops - a feeling that's neither relief, nor panic but an emptiness that accompanies silence.
The next day, I could hear the old man coming in and settling down in his cabin. But in a couple of minutes, I could hear the words clearly delivered in perfect diction.
"GROHOLSKY embraced Liza, kept kissing one after another all her little fingers with their bitten pink nails, and laid her on the couch covered with cheap velvet."
I am by no means an authority but there're very few things that are written to be read, as is Russian prose. And of all russian authors, if one had to choose a writer's work for his leisurely hours at tea, it must be Anton Chekov. Such is my admiration for the author that you will not be surprised that I realized right in the first few lines that it was one of Chekov's earliest stories - 'A living Chattel'. I smiled to my pillow, kissed my luck and sat there in pindrop silence listening to him read. By the end of the morning, he was done with the story and I could hear him pack his bags and leave. Unfortunately, I was still under a mesh of wires to be able to go thank him personally for making my day.
And since then, every day I was treated with a new story. So many times, I wished to interrupt him to applaud, appreciate, share an anectode or request for a favorite story. But I found it extremely disrespectful to interrupt him while he's reading. Soon, it was a pact between us that I would continue to enjoy his stories provided I don't disturb him during his reading sessions.
I have for long tried remembering the details of the day it all ended. But try as much as I might, the details remain sketchy. I have a feeling that he was reading the "Grasshopper" but I can be wrong. But somewhere in the middle of the story, he paused longer than a breath. As I waited for him continue, I heard him call out in a distinctly shaky voice.
"Hello, can you hear me?"
I was not sure whether he was talking to me. So, I remained quiet and waited for him to end the conversation. But he continued to call out, each time his voice getting louder and shakier than before. I realized that he might indeed be talking to me. Strangely, I felt offended and even mildly irritated - he had broken the pact and I didn't see why he wanted to induldge in a conversation and that too, right in the middle of story. I buried my face in the pillow and waited for him continue. After a few more persistent attempts, he fell silent. A couple of minutes later, I could hear him leave.
As much as I wanted to stop him, I was still angry at him for having broken the pact. I then deemed it fit that I should emphasize upon him the clauses of the arrangement so that it would never happen again. I decided that I will indeed have a conversation with him tomorrow, thank him for his efforts so far but make it clear that we abide the pact. Tomorrow dawned, and I settled in my cabin rehearsing my lines.
It was only an hour later that I realized that he wasn't going to come. I wanted to call out for him, in case he was waiting quietly in the cabin for me to initiate the conversation. I didn't know what to call him and decided to call him the 'Russian old man'. Soon the nurses arrived - I asked them about the Russian old man who reads out chekov's stories. They said they didn't know any one like that and worse still, they said there was never an old man in the adjacent cabin. I found it ridiculous and told them so. I could see that they were trying hard to suppress a giggle. Suddenly, it stuck that they were lying to prove me a fool, an idiot. I didn't want to cry and let them know that they have had their victory. I turned away and started drawing figures on the wall that my mother taught me. I hoped they could go to the other side of the wall and tell the old man I am sorry. I realized, he was indeed reading The Grasshopper the other day. I could even remember the line he stopped reading ....
"Dymov!" she called aloud, "Dymov!" She wanted to explain to him that it had been a mistake, that all was not lost, that life might still be beautiful and happy, that he was an extraordinary, rare, great man, and that she would all her life worship him and bow down in homage and holy awe before him. . . .But now it was all too late.