Gas Agency – Rtn. Dr. PP Radhakrishnan

Mobile kept ringing. He hurriedly moved and picked it up because the ringing noise will disturb the children studying through online classes ever since ‘corona’ started and his daughter in law might go angry and usual blaming would start. She is very restless and not at all happy about he staying there. She with her husband lived in the middle east for a long time with nobody else sharing their space and the only small change was when they came and visited old house once a year or two. This too got stopped when his wife passed away six years ago out of prolonged illness and since then he lived there alone.

His son and daughter then decided, insisted and prevailed upon him to sell the house and property and share it equally between

 

them and he would be looked after equally by them – on six months rotation each, perhaps as a compensation or good reciprocal arrangement. His daughter was in Chennai with her husband and kids and his son with whom he now stayed was for the second time. They returned from Middle East for good and decided to settle down in Dombivli, the place where his son’s wife was raised. So it is a completely fair deal based on principles of equality and justice, morality and righteousness – he heard them saying and pacifying themselves several times.

He had no options and they were in a hurry to decide and share the property ever since his wife became more critical as they were in urgent need of money; expenses, responsibilities, and need for funds was mounting on them for children’s education, living and maintaining social status. They expressed it in many ways and many times

 

whenever they visited and spent a few days with them. Time and again they spelt out that today’s world was completely different unlike the earlier; things have become costly, one needs to be with the rest of the world and there was no substitute for money. It soon became unbearable and his wife persuaded him to share the property and assets equally and register everything in their names; they agreed to take care of him well turn by turn once his wife departs and she gave away her gold chain, rings, bangles and alike to them as doctor already concluded that she wouldn’t have more days left.

And then that happened, she bid farewell in less than three months, every ones’ sadness and tears dried up, sooner than he expected because ‘these were not old days, world has changed in its entirety and the show must go on’. The very next month everything got over and he had to go along with his

 

daughter to Chennai and then six months later to his son’s place at Dombivli. As per norms and in all fairness he was to be packed off to Chennai by tenth April but due to corona lockdown he got stranded , so realistically speaking it was more than six months plus about five months. His daughter in law counted the overstayed days every day and she put a pencil mark on the wall calendar. Though she complained about the corona virus, it was not so much as corona lockdown and she kept saying why this was restricting people’s travel. In her view, it was alright for people to do long travel but make face mask compulsory so that life would be a bit easier for other people. He sensed, understood all this but endured as he had no other option. He remembered his old days, the odds, difficulties and the problems with which he had to take care of his son and daughter coupled with constant need of

 

caring his wife owing to her serious medical condition, the inexplicable problems he underwent in completing their college education and the money he had to borrow for sending his son to the Middle East for his job.

His daughter in law put more restrictions on him saying corona came to the old easily. She insisted he should wear mask always and even at home, stopped his going out even for a stroll in the compound; he was confined to a room most of the time looking through the window, the garden and the trees, sun, sky and the moon. His grandchildren were repeatedly told to concentrate in their online classes and studies; she and children mostly ate earlier letting him to eat alone as his son invariably was busy engaged with his laptop and mobile under the excuse of working from home which evidently kept his wife rather happy and pleased, though partially.

 

He heard it all; saw it all but was just helpless. He started feeling the increase in the level of his loneliness, days became longer and the nights became scary.

He kept wishing and praying for the lockout to be relaxed so that he could move out to her daughter’s place in Chennai, not because things were very different either but he just longed for a breath or a change. He had already stayed there twice – six months each and both times he was packed off to Mumbai as soon as the last day got over, the very next morning itself in a very precise and professional manner as though it was a six months valid visa with no clause for over stay. Both his son in law and daughter are working with a maid at home to cook and take care of the children who had a lot to study and other things to do like dance class, swimming, badminton and so on. Children were also told not to spent all the

 

time talking with grandfather or hearing his ‘ Hanuman Chalisa’ or Ramayan and such other old things. His daughter already told him not to go on and on with these things, as all these were too out dated or useless and will only spoil them and make them less smart. Her view too was the world had changed but conveyed it to him perhaps a little less harshly – a lavish tribute or expression of respect to her father. How much more one can expect as it was a new world and everything became too cumbersome and competitive.

‘Hello…Hello, is it the gas agency?’, from the other end a lady spoke. He put off the mobile saying ‘wrong number’. The lady might have dialled the wrong number and it was quite possible he thought and went to the bed and started reading Ramayana; he read it every day because that was what his mother used to do. She recited Ramayana

 

and after her demise he kept that copy with

him. He also chanted ‘ Namah Shivaya,

 

Narayanaya Namah, Achutaya Namah,
Anunthaya Namah, Amrutaya Namah,
Govindaya Namaha, Gobalaya Namah,

ShriKrishnaya Namah, Vishnuve Namah’, several times every day, like his mother – her minimum target was ten thousand times a day. But he never counted.

Mobile rang again and he hurriedly picked up thinking maybe this time the call could be from his daughter just to check if things were fine as it was eleven months since he reached Domblivli. ”Hello, is it the gas agency? Our gas cylinder has not yet come.” It was the same female voice. He replied “this mobile number does not belong to any gas agency, something wrong my little girl”. She responded immediately “sorry, maybe I am making a mistake and will have to check; I am not a little girl but a grandmother above

 

sixty five years. Our gas cylinder has not yet reached yet, causing worry. My daughter and son in law now are away and two grandchildren are with me. But sir are you a Keralite?”. He said ‘yes’ and disconnected the phone. A long phone talk would be a concern for daughter in law.

The next morning he sneezed three times. Daughter swiftly cautioned her husband and insisted that he be taken for a Covid test and getting admitted in the Government hospital immediately, “can’t take risk, we need to be careful about us and our children; he is pretty old and anything can happen”. He was devastated after hearing that and then quietly followed his son to the hospital. “Let him be quarantined for two – three weeks, we can collect him when he is fine”, that was her parting instruction to her husband. His granddaughters stood there helplessly, wept

 

and wished him well while their mother did not come out.

In a little time they reached the Government hospital and son suggested and pleaded to the doctor to keep him there for detailed covid check and he said to his father ‘ bye’ and left in a hurry. He was kept there for a long time, taken to several different wards, and finally put him in a general ward where roughly another twenty people were admitted, all more or less same age, late sixties and seventies; many looked tired, weak with anxiety and frustration was clear on their unshaven faces. It was difficult to identify or recognise people because all were heavily masked and covered with the PPE kit. Even the doctors, sisters all were in similar robes and all looked alike – light bluish or white coloured big birds as only their eyes were visible, nose protruding and faces looking conical.

 

Nothing much happened for the first five to six days except two sisters alternatively came once every day and did some test and gave some tablets. A bit of food was served to them and everyone was given a separate plate, mug and table spoon. No visitors were allowed and their movements were highly restricted and they were noticed. He ate very little and received no phone call in the entire week; he longed to see or hear from someone or even that gas agency wrong call which would have been a great solace, he thought, as in the hospital all were almost ninety five percent covered – he did not get to see even an animal or a bird. Most of the time the whole atmosphere was silent except for the occasional sound while the sister walked around or when food was served; there were certainly no structured medicines or visits by doctors or no medical checkups and so on. It was just that you were sheltered or isolated

 

and mostly left to yourself to hope, pray and heal. He chanted Namaha Shivaya but the lighting inside was not good enough to read Ramayana that he carried along with him.

Then it happened on the seventh day. His mobile phone rang and he picked up without losing anytime thinking it would be his son or daughter from Chennai. ‘Hello’, strangely it was the same female voice. “Gas agency, please listen don’t worry or get angry or disconnect. Called you to say sorry for my mistake. I got the right number of the agency and in anyway the cylinder has been received. I just thought of hearing your deep and measured voice and I presume that you are a Keralite”- She spoke almost nonstop. He enjoyed and keenly listened. He liked her voice – it was very soft, melodious and reassuring. He said ‘yes I am a Keralite’. “Very good, so I was right in guessing so. I live with my daughter in Dombivli East, have

 

two grandchildren and son in law”. ‘Fine, nice to know that; I too live in Dombivli – Dombivli West but. ‘That is too fine, East and the West, but at the same place; to sides of the railway station. Hence, there is a good chance that we would be able to meet sometime; you have a good caring voice, and you must be a man with good patience, I can guess that as I studied psychology during graduation. Maybe we can meet up sometime at or outside the station’. ‘But I am not at home these days and so would not be able to meet’. ‘That is fine, for that matter even I don’t live at home these days’, she said. ‘so where are you residing these days?’ , he enquired. ‘I am in a hospital for nearly a week and do not know when will I be out?’. ‘What happened to you?. What kind of illness.. or you had a fall or something like that?’, he interjected a little anxiously. ‘ No no I am In the government hospital, the

 

covid ward, third floor earmarked for women but no big issues; but my daughter in the family wanted me to be safe’, she said. He took a deep breath and said, ‘So, we have already come very close and yet not… I am a staircase down on the second floor – men’s ward since a week but no big issues’. From the neighbouring bed someone quipped ‘ koun keheta hai ki buddhe ishq nahi karte, farak sirf itna hee hai ki uspe koi shak nahi karta’. (Who says old man has no romance, the only difference is none suspects him.)

He became more careful while talking on the phone and more or less if some hospital authorities get to know, then it might become a problem. Then she suggested that out of the two nurses who visit them on alternate days, the tall younger one is a malayali women and they can exchange or communicate through her as well, in Malayalam. The sister belonged to Trissur

 

and they found that she is too sweet and kind; one day when she asked for his name he said ‘strange, we have come quite close, though we do not know each other’s name even and all we know is both are living in East and West’. When he heard her saying that she saved his name as gas agency he laughed loudly and said he too saved her name as gas agency to avoid any suspicion at home.

He said ‘ I am Gopan, originally from’ Tirur’, to be exact from a place called ‘Mangalam’, left that place for a while now and settled with my son in Dombivli and Chennai with daughter on half yearly basis’. ‘Oh my Allah, you are Gopan of Mullasseri House! , don’t you recognise me – I am Fathima, your younger sister’s classmate’. She spoke with extreme joy, hope and firmness. He too was excited and nearly jumped on the bed which made a fairly loved noise and

 

quite a ward mates came to notice. The man in the neighbouring bed commented ‘Love is in the fourth gear now – applying break is difficult’. The Malayali nurse laughed, came a little close to him and whispered, ‘try to control – my best wishes’.

Fathima was from his own hometown, not too far, say one fourth of a kilometre away from his house, studied together with his sister – four years younger to him so more or less of the same age and he has now crossed seventy. Fathima, perhaps one of the most beautiful girls around which the teenagers and the grown ups have also noticed. She was slim but healthy, tall, with an extremely beautiful face to which her well rounded slightly greenish eyes, the eyebrows, long nose and nicely proportioned ears all matched well. She had long hands with long fingers, long brownish hair though mostly covered under a silky ‘hijab’, blouse and long

 

skirts and there were multi-coloured glass bangles on both her hands. She walked extremely beautifully and so lightly as though she did not want to hurt the ground or the road. In other way she never walked, but merely flowed.

He has seen and watched this whenever she came to see her sister from a close distance and on every such occasions he felt immense joy; the happiness and excitement lasted for a long time. It seemed she sometimes noticed it and shyly giggled which though highly fascinated, he did not, nor did she move or took it forward any further for fear of his sister.

Then they met again after some years – that was in Kerala Varma College Trissur where she joined as a degree course student and stayed in the women’s hostel; his sister went to a different one. Gopan was doing his PG course there in English Literature. Soon they

 

chanced to meet and naturally came closer as there was nothing to be afraid off. Several times they went out, saw film shows and ate in restaurants, but all during day time cutting classroom lectures, because the women hostel rules were rather rigid and inmates were to reach back to the hostel before 8 pm at any cost. Fathima was the only daughter and her mother stayed in the village home while father worked in Dubai. Every two months she took permission and visited her mother, leaving the hostel on Saturday afternoon and returning next day by late evening.

As their understanding and relationship grew further they decided to take off from the hostel on a Saturday morning, spent couple of hours in the town hotel room before leaving together for home in the evening. But alas that was not to be. Next day early morning her father came, struck her name

 

from the college and hostel quickly, as he had fixed her marriage with a boy working in Dubai who also came on leave and hence the wedding had to be held in the ensuing week and they had to depart to Dubai soon. They never met each other since, that was forty eight years ago. When Fathima’s husband passed away in an accident she lived with her daughter in Dubai from then and eventually her son in law decided to quit the job and settle down in Dombivli where he grew up, by setting up some business. So naturally Fathima followed them, sold of whatever she had in the hometown and most of it was handed over to the daughter’s husband – all in good faith and love but corona brought a big change in the whole behaviour of Fathima’s family. They started feeling elderly Fathima as a burden and problem as well as the wide spread scare mongering that the people of above fifty are more prone to the

 

disease and recovery chances were minimal. Fathima overheard sometime these kinds of hushed talks in the house and felt uneasy at the start which then grew to frustration. But then she had no other option and so she had to endure.

Then it happened a week ago she sneezed three or four times that day, and by evening she landed in the corona ward. They discussed this and more through their mobile phone mostly in Malayalam and exchanged or conveyed feelings through the Kerela sister who sympathised and appreciated their love and affection for each other with such intense though after a lapse of nearly five decades. Their love grew day by but still they haven’t met. Gopan’s mobile was an ordinary low priced phone, gifted by her daughter this time which had no features of sending images but was just sufficient for calling and sms texting.

 

They planned to live together immediately on discharge without letting their people know, to some distant place and she said she still had some funds in her savings account and bank deposits to begin with and eventually hope, will and prayers would work. She had a copy of ‘Quran’ with her and some essential cloths. They decided to disappear together instantly on discharge and later letting their families knew what had happened between them and things like that, for the fear of sarcasm and condemnation and embarrassment which they would face otherwise. Then the good news came – both were completely Covid negative and could leave the hospital on the next day. They had planned to escape through the rear gate while the respective families collected papers and their car waited outside at the front gate separately. The plan was to fetch a cab and go to some place and then plan further and

 

move on. The Keralite sister was the witness and a well wisher, she knew it all. In the afternoon she came and presented bouquet of flowers separately to each of them saying she would not be able to see them the next day for she would be on a long awaited two day off. Fathima communicated to her that she would be wearing a blue hijab and a photo of her was shown to him by the nurse from her phone. She told him ‘uncle, you got your soulmate, congratulations’. From the next bed, the man raised his hands and uttered ‘congratulations the old man, all the very best’.

That night was abnormally longer and two people did not sleep at all – a women on the third floor and a man on the second. Fathima kept the Quean on her chest before returning to the bed and he did the same way with his Ramayana.  Both cursed the

 

night, prayed for the dawn to arrive early; in a great hurry to greet the sun.

When the morning broke he did all his work quickly and got ready; he was to meet Fathima by ten at the rear side gate of the hospital and she would be wearing a blue hijab. Then from there they had to disappear quickly. He walked towards the rear gate stood there for quite some time but he could not see her. A bit later he saw some people carrying fully covered body into an ambulance and the vehicle slowly motioned towards the front gate. There were only three hospital employees wearing the PPE kit, exhibiting their eyes. He enquired with someone as to who had passed away. And someone said ‘we do not know but it’s a female body, she was totally free of covid and was to go home today. Some complications all of a sudden, and by the time doctor came all was over. The other man said ‘ She was

 

one Fathima, here is a copy of Holy Quran and we do not know what to do with this?’. No relatives can come near the body. He said ‘give that to me, I know her and her people’. When he reached the front gate his son almost shouted with anger. ‘Where were you dad, I have been looking for you since a long time and was very worried’. He slowly walked without saying anything and sat in the car; when he reached home, he straight walked to his room and shut the door – he just cried in deep pain keeping the Quran close to his heart.

——x——

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