He sat on the rocking chair in the veranda watching the Ganges flow lazily by. She could be ferocious and then at times she was calm. The evening sun made her glow – a fiery saffron just like the ‘tikka’ on Mishti’s forehead.
Mishti, he missed her. Oh how he missed her. They had had forty seven years together, almost unheard of in the generation of these days. His Mishti had been like the Ganges – sometimes fiery and sometimes calm. It had been so difficult to see her just melt away , those last month’s …..
“Babuji, are you thinking again? Why don’t I get you a book to read?” Arya, his housekeeper called out bustling into his room and fussing away with the bed covers.
He glanced back at her, a smile on his face. “For heaven’s sake girl, let it be. It is fine, does not need to be precise you know.”
“Yes it does, otherwise people will say I did not take care of you,” she said walking out into the veranda . She stood silently by the door, mesmerised by the sight of the Ganges.
Gazing out in the same direction he sighed wistfully, “Beautiful she is at this time. Reminds me of the ‘tikka’ on Mishti’s forehead. Soon I will be with her.”
“Oh Babuji, why would you say such things,” Arya said frowning at him, “You have a lot more to do, a lot of people to still help and cure. You know Jamna was asking me just the other day if you would look at her little girl. Seems like the English doctor has told her she has asthma. Jamna does not like those English medicines. We all don’t and you know that.”
“You are not sleeping well are you? Is your stomach bothering you again?”he asked, as if he had heard nothing about Jamna and her troubles. “Go to that Dr. Indra Prasad, let him examine you and give you some medicines. Tell him I suggested Nux Vomica.”
“If you think it is Nux Vomica, why don’t you give it to me. Why should I go to that quack? Do you know he works at the government hospital also, as a RMO? What if he ends up giving me some drug I know nothing about?”
“Arya, times have changed. He is well trained and he is intelligent. A good man. So what if he works at the hospital? He has a family you know and money as a Homoeopath can be scarce. He is young , a long way to go. And you know they don’t want me to practise anymore. I have had no training as such”.
“Phaa…what rubbish! Training as a Homoeopath. Did you not spend years training under Bhatnagar Babu? HE was the best if there was any? Even those ‘Phirangi’s’ (foreigners) came down to stay in Calcutta to train with him. So what if you don’t have any degrees to show off or any papers to validate your knowledge. Even a child in the streets of Calcutta knows you for what you are. Ask the sisters at Shanti Niketan. They have seen you perform miracles with the sick children. WE all trust you and that is your qualification”
“Ah Arya, you honour me. They were not miracles but the most simplest of homoeopathic cures. Times have changed and we have to change also. How many times have I told you that? It is the time for science to rule and it is time the world woke up to homoeopathy being just that. My time is gone. I have done what I could and now the reins lie in other, younger hands. Off you go now, your children are waiting for their evening meals. Leave this old man alone, I have a lot of memories to keep me company.”
“Stubborn old goat”, said Arya affectionately. “Don’t forget to take your medicines before you sleep and the food is all ready. Heat it before you eat. I will see you in the morning.”
“Ok, ok…now go,” he said closing his eyes, as if listening to some inner music. He hummed a song, a haunting melody, a melody from long past times. He heard the door to the street close and sighed. Sometimes he wished he had just enough will to actually listen to Arya, but he did not. Mishti had taken his will with her. Oh he knew he needed help. Depressed, they would call him. But he did not care. The love of his life had moved on. His lifelong work was being questioned. He was 81 years old and his eyes had seen a lot. He had every right to be tired. He so wanted to move on, to be with Mishti again. He smiled. Eyes still closed he felt her presence like always. He remembered the day he first met her, at Bhatnagar Babu’s house. She had looked like a royal princess, all decked up with flowers in her hair and a red sari. She had taken his breath away. Such grace and that laugh! Oh he knew that she knew he existed but he was a nobody and she the daughter from one of Calcutta’s most influential families. So he kept his distance.
No one had wanted him. He was an orphan boy from the streets of Calcutta who Bhatnagar Babu had taken under his wing. On the streets they called him ‘amanya’ – the lost one , although he had been named Manav by his parents. They had gone to the Ganges for some religious ceremony and never came back. The boat capsized, people told him. Fate had brought him to Bhatnagar Babu. A kind soul who found him dying with cholera in the back streets had brought him to Babu out of pity. Veratrum Album had changed his life forever. It gave him a hope to live and curiosity did the rest. Bhatnagar Babu was only too happy to have a child stay on his premises. Manav did his share, helped around the house with the chores after school but when Babu sat down in his dispensary in the evening he sat there too. He listened and learned. He questioned to learn more. He never spoke when the patient was there. Then he was the silent assistant or dispenser. But when Babu sat on the porch in the evening the questions were never ending. Babu had insisted on school and although Manav had hated school he was grateful. It had helped him quench his thirst for knowledge. His understanding of Homoeopathy grew by leaps and bounds. Slowly Manav Babu gained his own set of patients. Bhatnagar Babu liked to travel, to teach and so he went to other cities. Even without a college degree, Manav could run the dispensary with a competent hand. Homoeopathy was growing and flourishing in those days and Manav soon came to be known as Manav Babu, a ‘hakim’ and homoeopath par excellence.
Then came that day, a day Manav would remember forever.
“Mishti is back at her parent’s home,” Bhatnagar Babu said one evening as they sat discussing cases on the porch. “It is such a pity. Only twenty three and a widow. Her husband passed away after an accident.”
Manav was speechless. He had buried his love for his princess so deep that no one would ever know. But to see her as a widow, it was not something he had ever envisioned. He knew how difficult it would be for her. Indian society was still not happy to receive widows, even though men like Ishwar Chandra Vidhyasagar had propagated long and hard. His heart went out to her.
It was months later when Bhatnagar Babu brought the topic up.
“Manav, you are almost 30 now. When do you intend to settle down and get married? You are making good money now. I would be happy to give you my blessings if you decide to use your skills elsewhere.” Manav simply nodded his head. The image that came with the word marriage in his head was Mishti – first in a red sari fit for a princess and then a white one which only a widow would wear. He was torn. He had hardly slept at nights. There was no cure for a heart in love. He wanted to marry Mishti. He wanted her to have his name, his protection.
So he simply spoke up. Bhatnagar Babu was stunned. “ Why? There are other girls you know? People respect you.”
“But my heart calls out to only one. Will you speak to her parents on my behalf? If there has been a father I have ever known, it is you. I will keep her happy. I promise. She will never be unhappy again. I want to see her dress in vivid colours again, a ‘tikka’ on her forehead.”
“You will have to move to cities. Society will not hesitate to frown on her or you and you know that well,” Bhatnagar Babu said with great sadness and worry.
“You remember Deshmukh Sahib? He has always said I should come to the Doon valley. He has a place for a new practise near his estate. You are fine on your own and I will come over when you need me, when you travel. I think it is time I stepped out into the world. It will be a good change.”
He had never forgotten that conversation. Even today every expression on Babuji’s face was etched in his mind. He had been blessed that day for not only had he secured Mishti , it had also been the day he had gained a father. Babuji’s blessings and paternal pride had held him strong and given him a sense of confidence beyond anything.
The Doon valley became his new home. Deshmukh Sahib was so happy to have him there that he very kindly offered them the gardener’s cottage on the premises of his estate to live in. Mishti immediately set about making it a home while he set up the dispensary in the little town close by. Under the guidance and goodwill of Deshmukh Sahib Manav soon became an acclaimed homoeopath and family physician. Mishti’s smiles lighted his days and warmed his nights. Life had been so perfect then and perfection is seldom forgotten. Even today he bowed his head and thanked God for those days and moments of bliss. But then Mishti’s smiles had slowly dimmed. He knew something was bothering her but she would not say anything. All is okay . I am happy. He always got the same reply. Was she missing her parents? But she said no she was happy in Doon. Her home was there, with him she always said. But then one day when he came home early he found her weeping silently. There was unbearable grief and it cut through his heart. He pulled her close and repeated his request, “ I can’t help you if I don’t know. What is bothering my Mishti?” That’s when she had broken down. In the joy of work and marriage I had not realized that time had flown. More than two years had passed and Mishti’s heart was set on a child. Motherhood had been her dream like it was for any married woman but her dreams so far were unfulfilled. Tears pouring down her beautiful face she urged me to treat her, give her something, anything that would ensure she became a mother. But she was to be his greatest failure. He could not help her and that took its toll on her and their relationship. Then they made their first trip back to Calcutta.
Manav’s return was a great relief for Bhatnagar Babu , who by then was struggling with an ailing heart. He had not wanted to worry Manav and had simply kept his illness under wraps. Manav was happy to take over the running of the dispensary and give his mentor a few days of rest and relief. Mishti suddenly had a purpose. She did her bit and looked after Babuji’s meals and his routines. She had learnt a lot about food and its value from her husband. Her meals were healthier and lighter and the Bhatnagar family’s cook was only too happy to learn and adapt. She mothered the two men and found happiness in that. Soon she started going to Shanti Niketan with some women from the temple. There she helped the sister’s look after the orphaned children. The children were often sick, many of them were brought in from the slums of Calcutta. Most of them had no homes and no hope. Her maternal emotions found a channel and she sometimes lost track of time holding and soothing a sick child. Slowly she started dragging Manav with her too. Both husband and wife had found great solace in restoring smiles and relieving pain. The hugs and shy smiles kept their marriage alive and suddenly the strains on their marital bond seemed to lighten. There was joy in selfless service and it grew by leaps and bounds when they adopted Manya. A girl child was often unwanted in India. It was an expense many parents did not want. At least Manya’s parents had been kind enough to abandon the infant at the doors of Shanti Niketan. Many simply got rid of them. Manav and Mishti were only too happy to name her and make her their own. Manya brought a sense of completion in their life. For Manya her father was a hero. Whenever she was sick he gave her sweet, fairy medicine to make it all better. At four she would rattle off the names of the medicines like a pro and by six she knew how to use the home kit. If she fell she knew it was Arnica and if she sneezed she took her dose of Allium Cepa. Often Mana reprimanded her for such indiscriminate use and often she reminded him that it was harmless and it did help.
When Manya was eight, Bhatnagar Babu passed away. Manav still remembered those last days. Babuji had given up all pretence of work by then. He would simply sit with his shawl around his shoulders in a corner of the dispensary, there because Manav had wanted him around. On the day before, he had even said that he was really tired and would like to go to sleep early, but then Manya had come in from school full of excitement about the new art teacher they had and he had sat up listening to her jabbering away. He never woke up the next day. Manav had been heartbroken. Bhatnagar Babu was all the family he had ever had.
Life flowed on just like the Ganges. Manav nodded off on his rocking chair as dusk set in with a cool breeze. Memories of the days gone past flowed through his mind, sometimes gentle, sometimes turbulent. While some made him smile, others made him wonder if he could have done anything differently. Manya had grown. She had brought them as much joy as a natural child could bring to his or her parents. But along with the joy had been tribulations. Like when she had learnt that she was adopted. Oh there had been tears and hurt, but also the warmth of a family and the love of parents who had wanted nothing more. It had changed her. Almost as if she suddenly was out to prove to the world that she was worth the time and attention. “ Give her something to help her through this horrible phase she has fallen into,” Mishti would say. He smiled, could almost hear her say it even now. As if he would use Homoeopathy to deny his daughter her natural growth as a person. Sometimes sleepless nights are good. He knew that. He had had his own share at times. They are times to think, to meditate and to plan. And Oh, Manya had planned. She had sketched an entire journey of her own and made them proud.
“I must call her. Speak to her . Say goodbye,”he thought suddenly waking up from his stupor.
“No time my love,” Mishti whispered softly. “Come along . She has found her mark and she will go on.”
The sun rose on the Ganges and slowly spread its glow on the veranda. Arya came in for the day and found him in eternal sleep. Grief tore through her heart and although she knew he was at peace, she ran to call in the neighbours. People who had known him for a long, long time. People who trusted him like their own family. He had known them all with an intimacy that his profession demanded. The house was soon crowded but there were so many who came to pay their last respects. An amazing life had ended. The Ganges flowed by peacefully.