All through my trip to India, I heard so many people saying that I was not recognizable at all. I grew bald and I put on a lot of weight. My elderly uncle told me that I was so different from what he remembered me to be. Only from my name, he could identify me. This vagary of memory troubled me more than once, and in my recent visit to the village and Sirisha, I suffered a very striking experience.
Yes, it was a sad story, which would haunt me forever. For almost thirty years, I kept this story to my heart. This belonged to my heart only. When I collated all events of the last thirty years at one time, it became a story with a big impact; otherwise, they would remain as stray incidents of my life.
That was the only period of my life when my pragmatism gave way to emotion and left me with some unknown feelings for Sirisha. I was in my twenties when I spent a few weeks in a village to assist my uncle in restructuring his house. Sirisha was a girl from next door. No doubt, she was very attractive. Her big dark eyes, with long eyelashes, were mesmerizing. Her cheeks were high and rosy. Her skin was fair and glowing. Her hair was lustrous and wavy. Her simple attire and her natural face enhanced her looks. My age encouraged me to look at her, to speak to her with some excuse.
My uncle told me that she was a neighbor’s sister’s daughter and was studying in a city college. There was some issue in the college and she was asked to complete her degree privately. The lonely elders also needed some help. So Sirisha was asked to assist his sister in the village.
That whole summer, almost three months, I was there in that village. I was preparing for my post-graduation entrance examinations. I was reading Arthur Hailey and Robert Ludlum during that vacation. Sirisha was in the second year of her degree. I created an interest for Sirisha in reading English novels. It was an excellent excuse for us to meet and exchange our looks along with the books. Most of our meetings were public and there was no way to exchange our feelings. But I was sure that similar thoughts would have strayed into her mind. I was struggling to find a proper excuse to speak to her privately.
The first two months of my stay in that village passed without much interaction between us. I was tentative about my feelings toward her. One day I was returning from an assignment given to me by my uncle. My house was still two streets away. I found Sirisha in front of a shop waiting for receiving the merchandise. I got the opportune moment. I waited for a few minutes and joined her on the way back home. She knew that I was waiting for her. I started the conversation,
“So, how long will you be in this village”
“I don’t know, it may be a long time. I will write final exams privately. My father is sending material from the institute” Sirisha replied.
“Can we meet again sometime convenient for you?.”
“I am not sure. Why do you want to meet me” Sirisha asked with a vivacious smile.
“I don’t know, just like that. I want to just keep talking. I will be leaving in a month for my studies.” I said.
By my repeated asking, she said that she would try after a week.
After a week I could meet her at temple ground. In the second meeting, she clarified that she was sent to this village for a marriage proposal to the son of the uncle, with whom she was staying. Other than that she spoke about the books she read and about a younger brother at home. I asked for one more meeting. Our meetings continued four to five times. I noticed the attraction was becoming more bonding. In that village boredom, the meetings with Sirisha were of great relief. I could only dare to say that I liked her to which she replied with a smile.
In the last meeting we had, she broke the news that her uncle’s son was arriving the next day, morning.
“Capt. Vijay is arriving tomorrow. I don’t know if I would be able to meet you hereafter. I thank you very much. You are a very good person”. Sirisha said. I preserved those words.
“Very disappointing and congratulations to you, ” I said and I continued “But I think you have still a choice. Whatever you like, you should choose. My only suggestion is to do what your heart says. Never do anything under pressure.” “I wish you good luck and also I offer you unconditional assistance at any time in your life. I want to remember you as a great friend. Take this address and never hesitate to post your welfare.” As I said that, I felt like a movie hero. I spoke as if I was sacrificing my entitlement. Indirectly I suggested she could look towards me for a choice.
She also said that her cousin was an army Captain. She would most probably be moving to places along with her would-be husband.
While parting I asked her ”Can you give me your photograph, as a souvenir ?.”
She said “I do not have one here. We will be around here for some more time. I will try to get one from my father.”
That was the last time I talked to Sirisha. She smiled and looked at me. I imagined one thousand words from that look. It made a big portrait in my memory which, I preserved till recently. All along I kept that village experience pure and serene.
The next few days were very insignificant and fast. Sirisha moving and talking to her cousin with giggles and laughs made my remaining stay a little uneasy.
I also completed my mission in the village and was ready to leave for the city. Sirisha returned the novel, which she borrowed from me. Her parting thanks and my return courtesies were mechanical and philosophical. As I was about to keep the novel back in my baggage, I found a photo of Sirisha slipping and falling from the pages. I grabbed it and looked at it with disappointment and despair. Sirisha became a memory and her photograph made its way to my secret shelves.
My life raced briskly with changing careers, marriage, children, etc. Years passed, places changed and many experiences got layered into memories. But, lonely evenings and reflective moods always brought back the imagery of village life and Sirisha. The wife, children, and parents presented a mundane aspect whereas Sirisha and her smile were like aesthetics of life.
After ten years of gap, I contacted my uncle and came to know that Sirisha settled in the village in the same house with the children. I made a trip to the village. As her husband was on army service, Sirisha could not follow him all the places. I met and spoke to her. She looked like a normal housewife. I took the photograph she gave me. I showed it to her and proved that I cared for her a lot. She still looked elegant and beautiful. Again I inquired whether she needed any help. She smiled and said that she was very happy and asked about my welfare. The picture in memory got repainted and reassured.
I left for the United States for a job along with my family and other important documents. I also carried memories and the photo of Sirisha, safe and secured. I continued to cherish the memories of old encounters with Sirisha at every opportune time. I entered into a very busy and progressive life. Ten more years rolled. My uncle was no more and no one was there in that village. But I could gather that Sirisha was living in the same village with her husband. Her husband retired from service and settled for agriculture in that village.
I did not visit the village as there was no excuse for me to go over there. Another five years rolled. I came to visit India alone. And the first agenda was to visit Sirisha in the village. No excuse was required to be given to my family or anyone.
As I reached the village, I went straight to Sirisha’s house. A lot of things have changed. Neither my uncle nor her uncle was there to recognize and give introductions. As I entered the compound, I noticed a very serious and silent atmosphere. A gentleman in his fifties countered me at the door and asked for my introduction. When I gave the purpose of my visit, his eyes filled with tears. He said that he knew me well. He asked me to be seated in the hall and offered me water. I started feeling uneasy.
He said “Sirisha was suffering from cancer for the last three years, but was detected when it was in an advanced stage. Doctors gave up and she is lying unconscious inside that room.” The gentleman showed me the direction of the room. It was a very rude shock for me. I never expected such a situation.
Involuntarily I asked, whether I could be of some help. The gentleman thanked me and said that every possible treatment was tried and it was a hopeless situation. Immediately I remembered all doctors in my knowledge and asked whether we could shift her to any place. The gentleman asked me to calm down and said that it would be a matter of hours for her to live. I wanted to rush inside to see Sirisha. The gentleman stopped me back and said,
“I strongly advise you not to see her. You cannot withstand her condition.”
“No, I want to see her. Nothing should happen to her. I will talk to her.”
I rushed into the room. Three-four people were standing around her bed. From under the blanket, the face was visible. She was a bag of bones. She was struggling hard to keep her eyes open; the eyes were grey, lifeless and were devoid of eye lashes. Her cheeks were hollow and sunken. The skin lost its sheen and had ugly folds. Her head became completely bald because of the chemotherapy. Someone was holding her hand for the pulse.
I ran out of the room and rushed onto the road. I covered my face with both hands to hide the flow of tears. What a cruel finish for my beautifully preserved dream. That was the end of my story. I don’t want to remember anything about Sirisha.
I would have avoided seeing her last on the bed heeding the advice of her husband. But I was cursed, that beautiful imagery of Sirisha is erased. That is replaced by a skull-like face of Sirisha without life. How can I take it off from memory?