‘Tell me a bedtime story, bhai,’ pleaded Radha to her elder brother Raman.
‘I hope you remember you are going to get married tomorrow! And here you come with the same pleading as you used to as a child!’ said Raman with unmistakable affection.
Raman had shouldered the responsibility of their household since he was merely 10 years old. He’d never had the opportunity to go to school. Nevertheless, through his diligent industry, he had managed to provide well for his widowed mother and aurally-challenged sister. He’d had to grow up far too soon under the looming shadow of responsibility. But it was his sister who still had access to the child inside Raman.
Owing to her hearing disability, Radha suffered from learning issues early on in life. It was only after Raman could afford a hearing aid did her education take wing. With this elegant device, she could listen clearer than ever before. Gradually she learned to comprehend and converse in her mother tongue, Hindi. She began her formal studies in a school when she was 10. Today, at age 23, she was the only lettered person in their ancestry. She’d managed to find work as a teller at the local co-operative bank where she’d met her fiancé, Govind. She’d enabled other little girls in her village to dream big. She was the light of the household.
Radha, still a little girl around her elder brother, wanted to enjoy the last day at home before she gets married and leaves for her husband’s place, as was the custom in the village.
Raman was resting on a coir bed in the veranda of their freshly painted pucca house, one of the few in their village. She sat on the floor, rested her cheek on the bed and wore a look in the eye that she knew would melt her brother’s heart.
Radha had heard her first story only when she’d developed her aural comprehension to a fair degree, at around age 14. Perhaps the belated foray of storytelling in her life was the reason for her fascination for tales from lands far and beyond. So, on every visit to his village from the city, along with the gifts he would bring for his family, Raman would also lug a satchel full of stories for Radha.
The faint aroma of drying henna glistened Raman’s eyes. Hoping to find expression through a story than a teardrop, he took a deep breath and asked,
‘What kind of a story would you like to listen to tonight?’
‘Tell me about your childhood. What is the first visual memory you have? What’s the first sound that you remember hearing? Something that you will never forget?’ asked Radha.
‘Don’t you want to hear a nicer, happier story?’
‘No. Today I want to learn about my brother’s childhood.’
Raman wondered how to evade this innocent inquiry. That familiar expression, of a restless search for an excuse, surfaced on Raman’s face. Radha could read him like a book.
‘Come on, bhai!’ she wheedled.
‘It is a long story.’
‘I am all ears,’ she said, trying hard to muffle a yawn.
‘Look at you. You will fall asleep halfway like every other time!’
‘No, I won’t, I promise!’
‘Why the sudden curiosity about my first memory?’
‘Well, because I was wondering today, what my first visual and aural memory in life is. And I remembered the day when you’d finally managed to ride a bicycle without holding the handle bar. How boastful you were! And that day, while showing off to me, you’d bumped into the neighbour’s bull and gotten flung into a pit full of cow dung. I can never forget that image. And that squealing that even my deaf ear was able to feel! Your artificially amplified cries did little to help you gain any sympathy. How useless was that gimmick!’ Radha shared amid irrepressible bouts of laughter.
‘As much as I’d like to forget that, you would not allow me to, would you?’ asked a red-cheeked Raman.
Radha tried hard to stop laughing but the fruitless effort only magnified the mirth of the moment.
‘Shh… You’ll wake up Maa!’
As she recovered gradually, she said, ‘And the first sound I remember is hearing my name in your voice, at the doctor’s clinic, right after I got the hearing aid. The first time I heard laughter, yours and mine, at the clinic. That is a priceless memory.
I wanted to share this with you. My first visual and aural memory is of you, bhai!’
Raman smiled as he reclined onto the comforting cushion of nostalgia.
‘Does your first memory have something to do with me? My birth perhaps? You must have been a 5 year old then!’
‘Well, that would have to be my second memory in life, the moment of your birth. My first memory is of a day before you were born.’
‘Tell me about it!’
A solemn silence filled the void in the moments that followed. Raman seemed as if in deep thought. Not because he was trying to think hard about his first memory. That memory was indelible. He was wondering if it would be right to share it with her sister, a night before the auspicious day of her marriage. But he felt Radha deserved a peek into the recesses of his childhood. He heaved a sigh and spoke.
‘I was living with our father in Nagpur during that phase of my life. He used to work as a labourer at a food processing unit. One day, father received a message from a fellow-labourer who’d just returned from a visit to our village.
Our grandfather was not doing well at that time. He was due to leave the earthly plane anytime soon it seemed then. Our mother was nearing the end of her third trimester while she was pregnant with you. Father had borrowed beyond his means from money lenders in the city and had no money left to buy a train ticket back to the village. So, in utter desperation, he decided to bicycle all the way to our village. Since he couldn’t leave me alone, he strapped me onto the carrier of the bicycle and I became the clueless pillion rider.
I don’t remember much of the week-long journey to the village. I was semi-conscious for most of the journey due to hunger and exhaustion. It was on a rainy evening that father and I reached home, two days before you were born.
Our mother was overjoyed to see us back at home. She could barely walk at that time, with you in her womb. At that moment, she must have thought that the days of pain, sadness, and separation were finally over. But fate had other plans.
The rain grew intense with each passing hour. The thatched roof of our house was bravely fighting the onslaught of the wind and rain. But soon, father realised that the roof had to be secured, else we’d end up without a roof on our head in the middle of the night. Father, even with his deathly exhaustion, worked all alone and secured a tarp over the roof, aided by the flashes of lightning on that dark night.
He came back inside the house and went straight to see our grandfather. In the feeble light of a flickering oil lamp, he tried to converse with his ailing father. Their shadows shivered ominously on the weakening mud-plastered wall. Our grandpa could hardly see anything. He touched and felt my face and a smile surfaced through all the creases of pain engraved on his face. Our father sat on the ground and watched over grandpa all night. Mother and I fell asleep watching that pious union, with a hazy picture of a complete family in our memory.
The next morning, the whole neighbourhood woke up to a deafening cry. Our mother bawled hysterically while trying to wake our father and Grandpa from sleep. But both of them had transcended to the plane of no return.
I remember being whisked away to the neighbour’s house through the slush of mud on the streets, in an attempt to shield me from the horror.
Our mother was inconsolable. The whole village had come to a standstill.
Later in the day, I remember being handed a burning log of wood. I lit a fire on two piles of wood on the banks of the Saryu river. I stood there quietly and saw the flames engulf the cold bodies of my ancestors.
That visual is the first vivid memory of my life. An inferno that roared to reach the sky. And the first aural record is my mother’s spine-chilling scream that I woke up to that morning.
The next morning, after painless labour, she delivered you. It seemed as if pain, as an act of compassion, had decided to not inflict itself on our mother anymore.
In a few months, it was discovered that you couldn’t hear so well. Some villagers saw you as a bad omen. The legend grew that the absence of cries of labour pain during your delivery, our mother’s still silence, was the reason for your near deafness, for the silence in your life. But mother never saw you the way the villagers did. She believed that you will learn to hear and speak soon.
She felt guilty for the silence in your life. The whole village was convinced of the reason behind your deafness. But mother knew, as I did, that the reason for your deafness could well be, her deafening scream the day before your birth.
But the hearing-aid has changed everything, hasn’t it, Radha?’
The bride to be had succumbed to a night of beauty sleep. Raman added a number to all the stories that Radha had never heard in its entirety.
He gently took off the hearing aid from Radha’s ear. Bearing a satiated soul, he fell asleep looking at his sister’s seraphic face.