Dr Suresh Venkita, our Group Medical Director, a senior cardiologist and an avid writer, has yet again shared this lovely story from his desk, about the elderly parent who was home alone, and thought he was going to soon meet his maker!
Knock, knock, who is there?
It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back....
I heard it again, distinctly this time. It was certainly a knuckle, knocking on wood. Polite, patient and pacific, but the message was clear-no hurry, take your time, but it is time.
I knew, for sure, that the door below was closed, and locked. My son, who was overdue to return, had forgotten to carry his key, which was still on the hook behind the door. I had not heard steps coming up the wooden stairs. So who was this?
“Who is that?” I inquired. My voice sounded to me shrill and nervous, which embarrassed me. There was no reply. But, moments later, the knocks came again-each time double and distinct. My heart skipped a few beats and I began to breathe harder. My body went cold, I began to sweat and shiver. I was a nervous wreck.
I gingerly opened the door, a crack at first. All my senses acute, I slowly opened it all the way, and saw no one. But I smelled a water buffalo! Just a whiff, but unmistakable. I had grown up as a village lad in Kerala and was used to taking them down to the river for a bath. I turned back smiling, puzzled but amused. "A buffalo walking through a closed door and coming up the stairs to knock on my door?!" I laughed out loud.
I was still laughing when I remembered that I had left the door open and turned to shut. But my laughter caught in my throat as I saw this trim and dapper man quietly standing at my door. Where did he suddenly materialize from?
“Are you a sales man?” I stammered. “You should have stopped at the door below”, I felt foolish even as I said that. This was no sales man; this was an intruder.
“Yes, I am a sort of sales man, I sell an idea whose time has come” he said calmly. "I am here to make a pitch” he added.
“Of what sort?" I stammered.
“I am here to propose that you get ready to die’’ he said very quietly, businesslike.
‘’Who are you?’’ I gulped. In Mumbai, only a hired killer, given a ‘quotation’ by your sworn enemy, threatened you like that. Often they kill you first, and talk afterwards. Who would want to kill me? I wondered. I knew that I did not matter in this wide world. Mine was a mundane life. I was a minor government official in an inconsequential department. Off work I doubled up as a Hindu priest in an obscure local temple where the presiding deity seemed cross at being ignored by devotees. I was truly a zero, and any number that preceded me did not gain value either. No body gained by disposing me off. It achieved nothing, solved no issues, made no path safer to tread for passers-by.
‘‘I think you know who I could be’’ He smiled.’‘I thought you caught the smell of my mount’’, the smile became broader and mischievous.
The coin dropped. The water buffalo!
Mythology which I learnt from my grandmother came to my aid" Oh, you must be Yama, the lord of death, the ruler of the departed! Is the buffalo down there, outside my gate? He must be cold and wet out there. The mongrel might bother him.’’
I could not believe that I was taking this so lightly. I guess not having an intruder or a thief in the house was a great relief! He was no murderer either, his mission was to escort me, lasso and all if I resist, to the other side.
‘’Where is the costume?’’ I queried, like an inquisitive child. ‘‘You are in a lounge suit!’’
‘‘Would you like me to change? No problem’’ He flicked his fingers, and lo, he became massive and menacing.
He became of dark colour, resembling the rain-cloud, with flaming eyes and sharp side-tusks. He was attired in resplendent red, with black borders, and was seated on a he-buffalo. He had four arms of which two were occupied, one holding a noose (pāśa) of rope and the other holding a danda (stick). I was surprised and pleased that this celestial spectacle found ample space on the first floor of our modest home.
“Does this please you Sir? Now, can we talk?’’ He suggested.
His moustache and eye brows were luxurious and eyes were fierce and piercing. I felt greatly unnerved. “Could you change back to something informal please?" I pleaded. A flick of jewel-bedecked fingers and he had switched to jeans and sweat shirt! He pulled a chair, sat down and graciously waved me to sit too.
Instead I bowed deeply and reverentially and implored "Oh, Lord of Death", I am so delighted and honoured that you have come visiting me. Allow me to pay my respect by prostrating myself in front of you and touching your feet, seeking your blessing. Kindly consider me like Nachiketa, the child who wanted to learn from you the mystery of what comes after death. You taught him self-knowledge, and about the separation of the human soul from the body. You freed him from the cycle of births. Please instruct and free me too, I am tired of this global warming and anxious about impact of El Nino on our glaciers and oceans. I don’t understand Bitcoin one bit and I also worry that there are no good vaccines yet against HIV, Tb and Malaria though Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have put all their money into it. Before a mosquito, virus, bacteria, protozoa or a strange worm makes me gravely ill, I would like to be delivered painlessly from this troubled world. You will not need to lasso me with your rope, the ‘pasa’, to take me across. I shall offer no resistance. But I need an hour or two. I need to say good bye to my son, after I give him some dinner.
Yama was unimpressed by my histrionics, which personally I thought were rather good.
"Use your smart phone, human, google me and Wikipedia will tell you all about what I taught that kid" said the casual and cool Yama.
At this point I heard a loud ‘Moo’ from below, which must have emanated from the water buffalo who was invisible to me when I looked down and saw the drenched mongrel.
‘‘That is a call from my Uber, human” said Yama. “I have to go, I see you are not ready, you have a request to which I find hard to say ‘No’. I have a hungry beast down there who can get quite mean when he gets mad. I shall go feed him and shall be back in an hour”. Flick of a finger again, and he was gone.
I gave a big sigh of relief and congratulated myself on earning a reprieve, albeit valid only for an hour or two.
I was pained at the thought of saying goodbye to my son. It was just the two of us who were left to call ourselves a family. I loved him greatly and he was generous in reciprocation. I consoled myself reflecting that though he would miss me for a while, time would heal, and he will get on with his life.
I was hoping he will marry, that my daughter-in-law may sometime serve me ‘Kumbakonam Degree Kappi’, that I will see grandchildren prancing about and that I shall have the privilege of telling them stories from our mythology as well as folk tales. Alas, that was not to be, with this new development.
I heard his car coming in and then his knock on the door below, soft and apologetic. I walked down on my unsteady feet and opened the door for him.
He stepped in and I immediately hugged him tight and kissed him on both cheeks.
He was surprised and puzzled at this profuse and abrupt demonstration of parental affection, on his return from the daily grind.
‘What is up, dad?’ he raised his eyebrows.
Briefly, but clearly I told him about the encounter with my recent visitor, described his persona, and outlined his mission. I left nothing out, including the water buffalo whose characteristic odour still lingered in the air. Acutely aware that my bonus hour was running out I told him goodbye and added that I loved him very much. Tears began to stream down my cheeks. My doctor son closely held my hands first and then touched my cheeks.
He put his arms around me and said "Appa, you are hallucinating. You are running a very high fever and you are shaking, shivering and sweating, all at the same time. I am taking you to hospital. You have Malaria".