It was the second time I felt it of late. That four letter word. Fear.
I was reading Disgrace by JM Coetzee. All I knew that it was well past 11. I know this because I was quite sleepy, but determined nevertheless, to finish off the last few pages. Absorbed in the scene where Lurie is injecting deadly needles in the veins of hapless animals…I first felt it was some sort of a stir within my mind. That’s when I heard the bed (on which I was sitting) thudder against the floor. Damn it. It was an earthquake. I immediately stood up, a little unsteady. Sounds from kitchen, clink-clank of steel utensils shifting to find a new balance, corroborated my fear.
My first instinct was to run and wake up my parents. Save them. The blood in my legs curdled. They felt like trunks too heavy to move…no longer a voluntary body part…oppressingly adamant.
In the few seconds that the quake lasted, I imagined waking up my parents and rushing them downstairs to the open park in our society. As if I was their parent. Curious, how crisis brings out the parent in us. But wait, what was I supposed to do with my 92 years old grandmother? Someone who barely walks. Who can only manage a doddering few steps to the washroom leaning on her walker. Images of I and papa mounting her on a chair and struggling to carry her downstairs crossed my mind. Thinking all that, in split seconds, my body had stiffened and my heart was drumming so hard I could feel every tremor…both inside and out.
Seconds later, the quake died, but the feeling remained. An overpowering sense of helplessness. A question looming large: What if?
Another incident. Far greater in severity. Nauseating in effect.
I came back home around fifteen minutes from 8. Excited to see the kids. Didi was home with her two little devils, and I couldn’t wait to mess with them! Too bad, they were out to the market. Later, I was to thank life for not keeping them around in that hour.
Washed clothes, took bath, and got ready for dinner chores. Began serving dinner. Seated in the drawing room, as usual, were papa, bhaiya and aaji (my grandmother). Glued to Discovery channel. I was getting back to the kitchen when papa and I started chit chatting about something…as always, he was making some witty remarks (he has the best sense of humor in the world!), and I was laughing away like a neurotic when the disaster fell.
With no prior indication, no sign at all, with a crudeness and suddenness ranging between outrageous and tragic…the huge glass chandelier of the drawing room fell. Since I was the only one standing behind it, I saw it falling. An earth-stopping grand sight it was. The shiny glass structure, with multiple ornate lamps, coming down in its full shape. More like descending than falling. As if on will. Call it reflex action, I stepped back in horror. Till date, I don’t know whether to be guilty or feel fine, because if I had not stepped back, one of the arms would have hit me. Cut me. I know I could not have averted what happened…two seconds are not enough to strategise a reaction…but if I had dared to change the path of that mammoth structure, it might have landed on my skull.
This is the justification I give myself for not being able to help Aaji. When the darned thing came down (I swear I had vehemently argued against buying one, just like I had argued against getting tiles laid – both to no avail), so when the chandelier fell, one of its five designer fangs hit my aaji’s shoulder. Barely escaping her head. Time froze. We froze. When the structure hit the floor, it shrieked in a most indescribable way. The floor turned into a sea of shimmering mess.
Aaji let out a brief yelp. That’s when we realized that she’d been hit. Dodging glass pieces, we rushed to her. We saw no cuts. And then, in a perfectly synchronized manner, blood started streaming from places all at once. Her neck, her shoulder and her middle finger. All on her right. In no time, drops of squeamish red started painting her tunic. The rusty smell of blood filled the room.
Without exchanging words, action began. I ran to find dettol and cotton…first went to the bedroom, then bathroom, then bedroom, then bathroom…dammit…I was losing my head. I went to the bathroom for a third time and picked up the kit with trembling fingers. Got cotton from ma’s almirah. An unusual calm started dawning on my head. I wanted to cry. I wanted to act. I wanted to move faster by my body betrayed me. My stomach was a knot and my heart was all lump. I remember how my head was spinning and how I thought I will faint. ‘Be brave…be brave…it’s time to act and not cry’ is what some alive part of my subconscious kept telling me.
I kept my balance holding aaji’s chair, staunching the blood on her neck and shoulder while bhaiya worked on her finger, the nastiest of all. All the cuts were bad. Puffs after puffs were getting drenched in blood. I thought I will puke and pass out. I sat down on my knees, while still holding on to the wound. Thinking of rushing her to the hospital, I called a doctor cousin. Explained to him as best as I could, in a cracking voice and dizzying sense. He explained me the course of action in clinical clarity.
Clean the wound with dettol. Staunch the blood. If the cut is deeper than some millimeters (he specified a number I cant remember), then rush her to a hospital. If she gets unconscious with pain, hospital again. But if she is talking and blood gets staunched within half and hour (half an hour? she could bleed herself to death I felt like saying…but he knew better) then treat her at home. Apply some cream after that. Wash with some solutions. A few more instructions along with all that. My memory of that day is an ugly blur. I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember every turn of my innards.
Over with the call, I sat down holding my head, on the brink of an implosion. Then got back to business as usual. Tried inspecting the ‘depth’ of her cut. Thought I will faint again. But I guess we are more resilient than we think we are. Within twenty minutes, blood had stopped. Aaji was going to live. A glow of relief swept our house. A strange mix of fear and euphoria. I observed, ma, papa, bhai and i…had our eyebrows knit in the same way.
Later, we collected shards of glass from unreachable corners of the drawing room. It took me days to collect my own pieces though.
Fear of death. The worst, maybe the worst, of all fears.