The Wait is and is Not
- Nitasha Kaul
You Don't Mess with Viru - Jayant Kripalani
The Last Journey Home - Siddhartha Gigoo
Family Trip - Mihir Vatsa
For the Longest Time - Mridula Koshy
The Tree's Passport - Sumana Roy
I Try to be so Buddhist - Robert Sugg
Oh God, My God - GB Prabhat
Stroke at Noon - KL Chowdhury
Unbroken Awareness - Tendair Mwanaka
Island of a Thousand Mirrors - Nayomi Munaweera
My Hungry Workers - Sourabh Gupta
The Stone - Anupam Choudhary
The Return - Shirani Rajapakse
The Unsent Email - Shyama Laxman
Poetry: Naseer Ahmed Nasir
(Translated by Bina Biswas)
Dr Bhikbab Changes His World - Sheela Jaywant
The Pillar of Society - Manju Kak
- Attia Hosain
London Company - Farrukh Dhondy
The Cripple and His Talismans - Anosh Irani
Their Language of Love - Bapsi Sidhwa
(Arjun Raj Gaind)
Silk Fish Opium - Jaina Sanga
The Blind Man's Garden - Nadeem Aslam
The Almond Tree - Michelle Corasanti
Nobody Can Love You More - Mayank Austen Soofi
Along the Red River - Sabita Goswami
Tales of a Journalist, Bureaucrat, Spy - Som Nath Dhar
Che in Paona Bazaar - Kishalay Bhattacharjee
Oh God, My God
- GB Prabhat
That morning Seth had saved God. He was filled with an ineffable ecstasy. He had saved the Master. Finally, the fateful tryst with the Master that he had been waiting years for, would happen that evening.
The Master had claimed himself to be an incarnation of God. Seth, like millions of devotees all over the world, believed it. No, the Master was not merely spiritual, not just a messiah – that was a common misunderstanding. He was God Himself. It was rumoured that he came from distant Himalayan country. Some said he was half German. The Master himself never spoke on the subject.
You couldn't meet the Master at whim. The call had to come. From the gathering of thousands of followers at his monastery, the Master picked some by calling out their names. He would stop midway through his discourse and screw up his eyes as if struck by some mystic intimation. His body would tremble and his hands would flail briefly. In his thundering rasp, he would then call out the names of some devotees. Not once had he chosen from his audience, looking at the crowd. There was no telling when he would call. Some discourses had passed without any names being called. But there had never been an occasion when he called out for a person who wasn't present. They came from far off lands, the ones he called, and reverentially lined up by the podium when their names were announced. Each chosen person would then be led for a conclave with the Master. No one else was privy to those discussions.
Seth had been introduced to the monastery by a couple of his colleagues – one a dermatologist and the other a paediatrician – who had both been called within a few weeks of their visits. Problems that had become permanent bugbears had been resolved by the Master. None could help Seth, they said, but the Master. Seth tried asking obliquely what had transpired in their private meetings. Both clammed up immediately, fearful of breaking the unspoken commandment of the monastery that the private conversations with the Master should not be discussed. However, they were generous with their reassurance that Seth's seemingly intractable problems would be solved by the Master.
After many visits, reaching the monastery had become a ritual to Seth. To get there, he had to take an overnight train and then travel by a suburban bus for nearly four hours. The Master had chosen a very tranquil but remote spot. The monastery was a large, austere affair situated at the foothills of the Hingha Mountains. Once a month or so, the Master was known to walk to the summits of the hills behind, reinforcing the rumour that he was a creature of the mountains. There was practically nothing in the vicinity of the monastery. The nearest town was about ten miles, and not much of a town at that. Two hotels with plaster peeling off the walls, ravaged by rains, that still prided themselves on offering deluxe A/C rooms, half a dozen tea stalls where farmers tore into the tough buns and mollified their gums with oversweet tea complaining how no money could ever be made in agriculture and how the next generation aspired to be IT and BPO professionals. An understaffed hospital and shops that supported the local agricultural and trading economy.
The suburban bus passed the monastery twice a day. Almost all the passengers alighted at the main gate. For the indigent, there was no other easy way of reaching the monastery or leaving it. The affluent visitors, who were the majority, drove there in their cars. The rest who could not afford a car or catch the suburban bus pooled meagre ticket fares and hired private vans.
Seth found it an ordeal to drive himself six hundred miles from his home. He equally dreaded riding in a van where private sorrows became public, and gloom built on gloom. He found it easier to sleep the night on the train, and take the bus which was well connected. If he missed the bus, or it broke down, which it did from time to time being a piece of 1960s vintage, he had to goad a sleepy taxi-driver outside the railway station. After much persuasion and four times the fare, the taxi-driver would deign to drop him. Invariably, the engine sputtered on the way and the taxi would glide to a stop where the barren landscape, bereft of any movement, stared lazily at him. Seth would then have to get off the taxi and push it until, after one or two coughs and lurches, the engine mercifully gunned back to life. He would spend the rest of the journey wiping his brow with the back of his shirt sleeve since his damp handkerchief could take no more.
The road was dusty and full of potholes till the main gate of the monastery. Thanks to the generosity of the followers, despite the Master's protestations against such luxuries, a concrete road had been laid inside the campus. Even at the main gate, the fragrance of the eucalyptus trees from high up in the mountains wafted down to the monastery filling your lungs with hope. The frangipani trees in full bloom, the carefully manicured lawns, and the monastery buildings with Mangalorean tiled roofs made the campus a reward even without the exalting presence of the Master.
When returning, Seth usually did not take the bus since it didn't offer a convenient connection to the night train. He had to hitch a ride with the monastery jeep that made a trip to the town for daily supplies or request a returning visitor to drop him at the station. When either option did not work out, he had to hail a farmer carrying his produce on his tractor-trailer. Even though the trailer ride tested the spine, he enjoyed it: the innocent chats with the farmer, or four hours of a silent ride punctuated only by the farmer's gentle humming of folk songs; reading in the twilight to the cadence; the approaching lights of the town, and the first strains of the music being played in the tea stalls.
Come to think of it, he actually preferred the tractor trailer to sharing a ride with another follower, which invariably led to a discussion of miseries. The farmers were a carefree, non-interfering lot. Some of them barely registered his presence in the trailer and acknowledged it with a slight smile only when he dropped a token of gratification in their palms at the end of the journey. With his broken Hindi, Seth could not have managed a rich conversation anyway. Sometimes, the stench of dung and other manure from the farmer's produce assaulted his nose. Yet, something about the ride back was cathartic. It took his mind off his gnawing melancholy, and gave him hope about his next visit.
Seth had waited for ten years, all the while bearing his pain silently and privately. Every third Tuesday, the only day on which the Master gave the public an audience, he would turn up dutifully with the eucalyptus air in the lungs and the grief, stuck like a spear, in his heart. His name was never announced. Once, a middle-aged man sitting next to him was called. Seth made visible effort to signal frantically to the Master with his eyes. He even waved his hands on the pretext of making way for the called man to go. The Master stared blankly at the ceiling. Seth bit his lip hard, frustrated at how close it had been. On subsequent visits, he seated himself in different spots: front, back, middle, left and right. It didn't seem to make a difference. The Master stuck stubbornly to his habit of reading names from the air without as much as even glancing at the gathering. Seth realized that his ploys of attracting attention didn't work against determinism. Destiny is as destiny does. After each visit, he went back consoling himself that it was not yet divinely ordained that he be called. When the time came, the Master would call.
After ten years of waiting, the call came that morning. Rather strangely, he thought. Nevertheless, it was the call.
Seth had showered in the monastery dormitory after the train and the bus rides, eaten the frugal brunch of two rotis accompanied by chickpeas and lentils, downed a salted lassi, and found space in the front row by squeezing himself between two men who conversed rapidly in Bhojpuri or some such language he did not understand. The two men didn't seem to mind his presence between them, and continued talking across his face spewing tobacco and betel fumes as they spoke.
The Master arrived in his customary splendour and a hush fell on the assembly. He was dressed in the usual black shirt and dark green trousers, attire that resembled military fatigues than a saint's robes. His thin pearly-white hair was combed back with gel, and his luxuriant beard and moustache appeared trimmed after a long time. Today was one of those days when he wasn't wearing a turban. His fair complexion, ruddy at spots, supported the speculation that he was from Himalayan country or was half German. The first wrinkles had started lining his face. The administrators of the monastery stood with deference behind as the Master sat on his pine and ebony chair and began his discourse.
Seth, seated in the front row, tried hard to catch the Master's eye. It was futile. Today, the Master spoke most of the time with his eyes closed. Unusually, he faltered once or twice, interrupting his fluent flow and reached out for a sip of water. A few seconds of quiet followed every sip. At the height of his impassioned exegesis, the Master collapsed and fell off his chair. One moment, he was a picture of equanimity; the next, he was an unmoving bundle on the floor. There was a stunned silence and everybody waited to see if this was divine behaviour at work. However, as a seasoned cardiologist, Seth recognized the signs. In a few seconds, he was on the podium. 'Make room, make room, I am a doctor,' he cried. There were no protests. The administrators of the monastery cleared the way for him.
He felt the pulse of the Master, which was racing. There was no mistaking it.
'The defibrillator,' he shouted.
This was the first time the sparsely equipped monastery's defibrillator came in handy. So did the oxygen cylinders.
After three hours, Seth emerged from the makeshift emergency room he had hurriedly put together with the assistance of the administrative staff. Since the Master's private quarters were at least five hundred meters away, a room used for storing records had been speedily emptied. Seth had written a long list of essentials that a self-appointed team of disciples fetched from the town hospital. Since the room looked grim and forlorn, he ordered the staff to get a vase of freshly picked flowers. By their cringing he could sense that it was not the custom of the monastery to pick flowers in the campus. But today was different. Who could dispute the command of the doctor who had saved their God? He ignored their discomfort enjoying his new authority.
Once the Master was sedated and stable, and the drip had started its rhythmic drop-by-drop fall, Seth emerged from the room.
He announced to the anxious administrators and the prime disciples, 'Cardiac arrest. The Master is out of danger now. He is under sedation. He needs rest. No noise, no disturbance. I'll be back in the evening. Call me if you need anything.'
He started walking, but turned around.
The administrators ran up to him.
'When he recovers, you should make sure that he has more carbohydrates in his meal. Rice and buttermilk, perhaps? That will help his heart rhythm. I have prescribed some heart regulating medicines which he may have to take forever. I am from out of town. A local cardiology team is taking over. They should be here before night. I will stay back and give the team my best advice.'
The administrators nodded.
'And, oh, the Master may need a pacemaker.'
The administrators sucked in their breath.
'Don't worry. Not immediately. Just a possibility. And it's not a complicated surgery. I'll be back in the evening.'
Seth wondered whether he should have upset the administrators by talking about the pacemaker. Maybe it was a little premature? Had he not shown negligence to the time-honoured principle that a physician should create no unnecessary panic? He consoled himself that he wouldn't be the physician attending the Master constantly, so he couldn't have shared this news later. Clearly, experience told him, the Master was heading towards a pacemaker.
The thousands of visitors who had been shocked by the incident did not leave. A restive few raised their voices and demanded that they should be told about the condition of their God. Their protests were so conspicuous in the violation of silence that they fell quiet. Only an anxious buzz remained. The devotees were hoping that this interruption would be brief and the Master would meet them the next morning. Many of them were accommodated in the monastery's dormitory while others sought lodging in the rickety hotels in the nearby town. Of course, not everybody could get a deluxe A/C room. After the administrators had adroitly managed the restless crowd, they had to deal with a rapacious press eager to get some photographs. Cars with the logos of prominent TV channels were now parked outside the main gate. News had spread about Seth, and he was suddenly confronted by a journalist and his photographer assistant.
'No. Please don't...' he masked his face with his hands.
Two administrators swiftly removed the journalist and the photographer. They couldn't stop many cameras from clicking or journalists from shouting questions.
Seth made towards the dormitory, but was stopped by the two administrators.
'Sir, please. Not there,' they said with affectionate outrage. 'We have organized a more comfortable room for you.'
They took him to another building that he had never been to before. A bedroom had been prepared specially for him. The Spartan interiors made it clear that the comforts of the bedroom were an impromptu arrangement except, perhaps, for the split air-conditioner. The tiffin carrier on the table contained freshly cooked food and snacks he could eat in privacy if he did not want to go to the dormitory's dining room. A concession that wasn't granted to any inmate.
Seth's mind wandered as he relaxed in the room. He knew from many years of treating cardiac arrests that the Master should be in a position to talk that evening. After ten years of waiting, he would be given an audience today. The meeting had to happen. He thought momentarily of the misery of the waiting many. Debilitating illnesses, relationship problems, stress. Those who wailed helplessly. Those who bore it with quiet dignity. Weren't they, particularly the latter, waiting their turn with consideration for others? Was it fair that he had exploited the opportunity to meet the Master when people in more abject circumstances were forced to wait? Wasn't he jumping the queue? No, he had been divinely yanked out of the waiting sequence and given a privileged position. None of this had happened through scheming. Perhaps many of the troubled attendees wouldn't be called. The poor wretches. What the hell, this was the call. Why else should the Master have collapsed this morning? Why was I in the front? Why was I given the chance to save the incarnation of God? I am entitled to an audience, he told himself.
That evening, when Seth walked into the Master's room, nobody tried to stop him. He had the moral and professional authority. He walked without raising his eyes lest they should sight devotees more miserable than he was, who needed an audience with the Master more desperately than he did. He noted with a thrill that the mysterious innards, where ordinary disciples were not permitted, had opened to him. But his preoccupied mind couldn't take in much.
The sea of administrators parted with hands half-raised in curtsy. He nodded perfunctorily to the hangers-on at the door.
An attendant was swabbing down the room. Even before Seth could order him out with a wave of his hand, the man hastily retreated mumbling an apology.
Seth then peeped out of the room for a moment and faced the administrators.
'I'd like to be alone with the Master for some time. No intrusions, please,' he said peremptorily.
'Of course, sir. We will stand watch,' a senior administrator volunteered and ordered a strict vigil.
The ingenuous fellows! They must be thinking it was only medical duty.
Seth closed the door behind him and secured it.
Upon hearing the click of the door, the Master opened his eyes with great effort, showed recognition, and said, 'Oh, it's you. What exactly happened?'
'Master, you suffered a cardiac arrest. A minor one. You are okay now.' The blood drained from his face before he could finish the sentence. Seth noticed his cool professional voice was now quaking. With a powerful, meditative effort he regained his physician's cool.
The Master's ruddy skin had turned sallow and there were bags under his eyes. The wrinkles on his face were more pronounced and, at close quarters, he seemed more aged than he appeared in the photographs. His heavy eyelids indicated that he hadn't got over his sedation.
'Do I have to take medicines for the night?' the Master asked.
'Are all readings okay?'
Seth nodded vigorously. 'Yes, Master, everything's fine. All the readings are okay. The medicines should take care that they stay that way.'
'Do I need surgery?'
Seth was startled by this question. Had some idiot blurted out this morning's conversation about the pacemaker?
'There's no need to worry about it now, Master. This is nothing major. For now you should just relax.' He was proud that, in spite of his personal urgency, consistent with his work ethic, he had put the patient first.
'Master, I have to give you an injection.'
The Master closed his eyes.
Seth had trouble administering the injection. His hand hadn't shaken this much even when he had held the scalpel for his first incision. He was startled by the hard bone under the loose flesh of the Master's arm. How old was he?
As the needle sunk into the flesh, a troubled expression crossed his face, but the Master's eyes remained closed.
Seth's pulse was now racing. The ten year wait was over. Yet, a strange paralysis overtook him. He was confused about where and how to begin. He cursed himself for not rehearsing this scene better. He had somehow assumed that when the time came, he would respond spontaneously. Terror and bewilderment clobbered him. To divert himself, he clutched the table and read his prescriptions which failed to register. He glanced at the drip. The silence amplified the sound of the drop-drop rhythm and made it ominous. In a desperate gesture, he removed his glasses, fastidiously wiped the smudges, stared through them, and wiped them again and again until the last speck of dust was removed. With studied slowness, he put them back on. That seemed to help a bit. His rational mind had used the brief respite. He knew his current glory would be short-lived. Blindsided by the Master's cardiac arrest, the monastery had been clumsy in its initial responses. But he knew better than to underestimate the Master's empire. Besides, the high-profile cardiology team, corporate bigwigs, prominent politicians and cricketing celebrities were on the way. In a few hours, the place would be swarming with potentates and control would be brutally wrested from him. Seth's instinct urged him on. Now is the moment of salvation. Rush. Seize it before it's too late... He realized that there was sweat on his forehead.
He paused to gulp before calling out hesitantly. 'Master...'
The Master did not open his eyes. He only raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement.
Seth continued, 'Master...I have been waiting ten years for this moment. My life's problems...none but you can save me. You have to help me, please, please...'
As he choked on the last sentence, he chided himself. Be professional, maintain your composure, you are still a cardiologist in his setting.
The Master's brow furrowed and a grimace appeared on his face. He turned to his side gingerly, seeming to avoid a stab of pain and said, 'Can we discuss this some other time?'
GB Prabhat is the author of Early Indications, a novel published by Gyaana Books in 2012. His first novel, Chains, was published in 2000. Eimona, his second novel, was published in 2006. His short stories have appeared in the Asia Literary Review, The Hindu, and The Indian Express. Some stories have been translated into Telugu, Hindi, and Chinese. Prabhat has spent over twenty-five years in the IT and consulting industry, and is considered the pioneer of the offshore consulting model. He has been featured by the media worldwide.