“Is your grandfather sleeping?” said Krishnan to the boy who opened the door. He was standing outside his friend Raman’s house.
“My grandfather died ten years ago,” said the boy.
“Died…Don’t you live here?” said Krishnan
“No! I live in the house across the street,” said the boy as he ran past Krishnan who entered the house.
“Grandfather is having his breakfast. He has asked you to join him,” said another boy who came running out of the house.
“No that is ok. I just had my breakfast. Who was that boy who just opened the door and ran out?”
“That was Ismail. He lives in the house across the street. Every morning he comes here and has breakfast with us.”
“Do they not make breakfast in his house?”
“They make it a bit late. He has two breakfasts in the morning. After he finishes off here, he runs over to his house and eats his second breakfast there.”
“No wonder he was in such a hurry! He must be Abdul Kadir’s grandson.”
“His father’s name is Basheer. I don’t know any Abdul Kadir in that house.”
“That is because Kadir died ten years back. That is before you were born.”
The boy shrugged his shoulders and ran back in.
“Appupan says he does not want to eat. He had his breakfast.” Krishnan could hear the boy shouting inside the house.
He smiled. The old boy had addressed him as Appupan or grandfather. Krishnan had never married so had no grandchildren.
“Since Raman is having his breakfast. I might as well check the books here,” said Krishnan.
He went towards the bookshelf. The wooden bookshelf was six feet tall and about six feet wide. Books were stacked in neat rows on the shelf. He picked up a thick volume from the shelf. He went over to a chair near the window, sat down and began reading.
“Did you know there is a reference to the Ganges in Dante’s Divine Comedy?”
said Krishnan as he saw his friend Raman Unni come out.
“Where did you get Divine Comedy from?” said Raman.
“From your bookshelf where else,” said Krishnan.
“It must be one of Sumi’s old textbooks. She did her Masters in Literature. Most of the books on the shelf were purchased by her. After she became a lecturer she moved out of the house. Now all that remains are the books.”
“You have a great collection of books on that shelf. How many have you read?”
“Not even one. I do not like to read highbrow books. I am more of a light fiction reader.”
“These are classics, my friend. You can explore the world, its history, art and culture through these books. The best part is you can do all that exploring from the comfort of your living room!”
“I hated reading in school. Now it is too late to change.”
Krishnan shook his head and said, “So what do you read these days?”
“I saw an article in the newspaper yesterday. There is a new cure for cancer. Doctors in the U.K have come out with a wonder medicine. It is still being tested, but they are optimistic. They think it can detect and destroy cancerous cells in the body.”
“Maybe it can be cured if detected in the initial stages. I do not think there is a cure in the final stages.”
“This cure is going to be released commercially soon.”
“Any way who wants to live forever. You are eighty-two years old now. That makes you one year younger than me. You married early, had children, then your children married. Now you are a grandfather. If that girl, your grand-daughter marries, who knows you might even get to be a great-grandfather! What more do you want from life?”
“I do not want to suffer. I do not want to end up with a disease like cancer. I want a painless death!”
“If wishes were horses … you know the rest, don’t you! Let us not waste our time arguing. Remember today the panchayat library is being inaugurated.”
“Oh yes! I forgot all about that. Give me a minute I will get a shawl and come.”
The two old men walked towards the library. There was no hurry. The function was at ten. It was only eight-thirty. As they passed the gates of the Neyyarinkara Shree Krishna Temple, Raman stopped.
“Wait here. I have to pray. I will not take long,” said Raman and entered the temple gates.
“But you came here in the morning!”
“It does not hurt to say a quick prayer. Wait for me here.”
Krishnan moved over to a shady place and looked around for a place to sit.
“Uncle, come and sit in my shop,” said Unni who was the owner of a tailor shop nearby.
“Thanks, Unni. How is your father Gangadharan now? The last time I heard he had slipped and fractured his leg.”
“He is recovering. He is in his seventies… so you know… recovery is a bit slow.”
“I know. I am eighty-three. At my age, there is no recovery! Did he slip in your house?”
“No uncle. He had gone to stay with my sister in Trivandrum. She has built a new house near Pattom. It is a huge house with lots of rooms. The floor was made of polished granite. It was slippery and Father slipped.”
“My son Mohan, also wanted to convert all the flooring in my house to marble. I told him the rough cement floor we have at present is good enough for me. After my death, he is free to do whatever he wants. He can change it to marble, wood, concrete whatever…”
They could see Raman returning from the temple, his forehead adorned with a sandalwood paste tilak.
“‘Religion is the opium of the masses’ do you know who said that?” said Krishnan.
“Karl Marx,” said Unni.
“Right. See what it does to old people Unni! Stay away from religion and opium!”
Unni laughed as the two friends walked away.
“You are an atheist by choice. That does not give you the right to convert others to communism,” said Raman.
“Tell me, my friend, what has religion done for you?” said Krishnan.
“It gives me a sense of reassurance. A feeling that someone is there looking out for me,” said Raman.
“Does that make you happy -safe?”
“Yes. I get a handsome pension. Today I am earning more money as a pension than what I got as a salary when I was working!”
“That is your definition of being happy- making money?”
“Yes! What else is there in life? If you have the money you have everything.”
They had reached the Panchayat Library inauguration venue. The show organizers were still arranging the chairs, setting up the microphones and adjusting the loudspeakers. About fifty chairs had been arranged in neat rows. Raman and Krishnan occupied two chairs in front.
“I have a cough since yesterday night,” said Raman, “Do you think it could be something serious?”
“Are you not listening? I said I have a cough since last night.”
“What cough? I have not heard you cough even once in the last two hours.”
“It comes all of a sudden,” said Raman. He tried coughing a couple of times.
“Do not make it up if it is not there. For now, keep quiet and listen to what these people have to say.”
Two hours later the two friends were on their way back home.
“You know sometimes I wonder who will take care of me when I fall ill,” said Raman.
“Our village library should have better quality books. Something like what Kurup has at his house. I wonder if Kurup would lend some of his books to the panchayat library,” said Krishnan.
“I wonder if my children would take care of me if I were to fall seriously ill,” said Raman.
“Maybe we should ask him. Let us go to his house and talk to him,” said Krishnan.
“Do you think that is a good idea to talk to only one of them?” said Raman.
“One of them?” said Krishnan.
“Only Devan stays with me here in Neyyarinkara. Sunil and Suma are in Trivandrum,” said Raman.
“What are you talking about? I am talking about going to meet Kurup.”
“Why are we talking about him?”
“We should go and meet him.” Said Krishnan.
“I am talking about who will take care of me when I fall ill.”
“I am talking about us asking Kurup to loan some books for the Panchayat Library.”
“Why do we need more books in the library?”
Krishnan shook his head. “Are you coming or not?”
“You know Kurup remarried recently?”
“Yes, I heard, he married some woman he met at the festival in the temple.”
Everyone knew Kurup in the village. He lived in a huge house near the temple. He never refused any request for help. People with financial problems went to his house, told him about their problems and he helped them with small sums of money. They were free to return the money whenever they had it. He never charged any interest for this ‘help’.
` “During the morning hours he can always be seen in the verandah reading a newspaper,” said Raman.
“I know, I have come here a couple of times to talk to him, “said Krishnan.
“Kurup!” said Raman.
There was no response.
“Kurup!” said Raman now almost shouting the name out.
Still, there was no response. They looked around.
“That is strange. What was the name of that boy who worked for Kurup?”
“Satyan,” said Krishnan.
“Satya! Satya!” said Raman.
There was no response.
“Maybe there is no one here,” said Krishnan, “Let us go.”
They turned and made their way towards the gates.
“What do you want?” they heard a woman’s voice from inside the house.
“We came to meet Kurup,” said Krishnan as the woman came out.
“What do you want from him? If it is money then forget it. You villagers are a bunch of free-loaders. Everyone is trying to get some money out of him.”
“Now look here,” said Krishnan, his voice tinged with anger, “We came to meet Kurup. Not everyone in this village lives on hand-outs.”
“I know your type very well,” said the woman.
“He will be in the temple,” another woman’s voice from inside the house called out. A young woman came out of the house. She said, “He must be in the temple. He can be usually found there.”
The two old men walked out of the house.
“What an arrogant woman,” said Raman, “I heard after his marriage Kurup has lost all control over his property. The woman who came out first must be his new mother in law. The other one is younger. That must be his wife.”
“Now you know why I did not marry,” said Krishnan, “I could never stand such arrogant women.”
“You never married because no one in the village was ready to marry his daughter to you. You were the fire-brand communist youth leader -in and out of jail. Who would want to marry you?”
“Ha. Well, I know you meant that sarcastically but yes, that was a reason why I never thought about marriage.”
The two men had reached the temple gate.
“Can you go in and look for him?” said Krishnan.
“You want to meet him. Not me. It is you who wants to discuss books with him.”
“Come with me, Raman. I do not know my way around a temple.”
As they walked through the gates of the temple, Krishnan said, “You know this is the first time in my life that I am entering the gates of a temple!”
“It is never too late to convert. Communism is dead. Eastern Europe, USSR all have thrown communism out. China has something that is a mix of capitalism and dictatorship. You should start thinking about turning to religion.”
“I am impressed. For a change, you are talking about issues which are not about health and medicines.” Said Krishnan.
“Is that Kurup?” said Raman.
A man was huddled in a corner of the temple. As the two men went up to him they realized it was indeed Kurup. The once handsome, well-built landlord of the village was now a thin, unkempt shadow of his former self.
“We came to talk to you about the Panchayat Library,” said Krishnan.
“The Panchayat Library?” said Kurup.
“Yes. There are very few books there. We were wondering if you would lend us a few books from your collection.”
“From my collection?” said Kurup.
“Yes! If possible. You have one of the best collection of books in the village, if not in the whole district,” said Krishnan.
Kurup did not speak for a few minutes. His eyes screwed shut he was a picture of concentration.
“I think I will donate my entire collection to the library,” said Kurup.
Krishnan almost fainted.
“All your books?”
“Yes, nobody reads them anymore. This way they will benefit the entire village. Please have someone come and take them tomorrow itself.”
“Thank you, Kurup. This village and its people will forever remember this contribution of yours,” said Krishnan.
The two friends walked back a few steps when Krishnan stopped and went back to Kurup.
“When you say all the books, you meant your copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica as well, didn’t you?”
“Yes. Take that as well,” said Kurup.
“Thank You, Kurup. Thank you very much.”
As they walked out of the temple Krishnan was charged with excitement.
“I cannot believe what just happened. Imagine we just added about five thousand books to the panchayat library. We also got the only copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the whole district!”
“See that is how God helps you. Remember I prayed at the temple when we started in the morning,” said Raman.
“God has nothing to do with this. Do not spoil my day by saying this was a miracle. Now I have to get someone to cart the books out of his house first thing in the morning tomorrow. We need to move fast before he changes his mind!”
A week later it was Raman who came to Krishnan’s house in the morning.
“What happened? Why are you here this early? Said Krishnan.
“Come let us go to the library. I want to read up about a few of my medical problems. The Encyclopedia is supposed to be the ultimate authority on all definitions so let me check-up some of my problems.”
“I should have known better. Why can you not go to Dr Shivaraman and have him look at you? He retired as a Professor from the medical college. He would know what your problem is.”
“I went to him and he said it is age-related. He asked me to walk regularly, eat light food and get plenty of sunlight.”
“There you have it. Now, why do you want to go to the library.”
“I want a second opinion.”
An hour later Raman was more confused. The explanation was given to his problems only made matters worse.
“I think I have cancer,” said Raman.
“How did you arrive at that conclusion genius!” said Krishnan.
“I know. The book does not say that but I know. Cancer of the throat can start with a cough. Do you remember Devaki? The girl who used to come to our house to sweep?”
“No, I do not remember girls who come to sweep your house.”
“Well, she had a cough for a few months. Then she went for a checkup and it was diagnosed as final- stage cancer. She died four months later.”
“There could have been several other reasons as well. Do not jump to conclusions. I am not a medical expert. Even then I know that one should never self-diagnose oneself. We have a small hospital in the village now. There is Dr Shivaraman as well who can advise you.”
“I do not trust these people. This is a small village. Why would a good doctor come here? I will go to the Regional Cancer Center in Trivandrum and have this tested. Will you come with me?”
“I am not going to waste my time on such silly issues.”
“You think it is silly to treat cancer?” said Raman.
“You clown! You do not have cancer. Why are you assuming things?” said Krishnan.
“Have I ever asked you for a favour? This is the first time I am asking you to help me and you refuse?” said Raman. His voice choking with emotion.
“Ok… Ok, I will come with you. Ask Dr Shivaraman if he has any contacts in the hospital. That way it would be faster,” said Krishnan.
A week later the two friends, got on a bus which took them to Trivandrum. From the bus stop, an autorickshaw dropped them at the Cancer Center. Raman had not informed his children about the trip as he did not want them to worry.
“This is a super speciality hospital. I hope you understand what you are doing. This is a place where actual cancer patients come. We are coming here just because you doubt in your mind. The doctors here are super-busy with patients. The last thing they want is some old man coming here just to confirm his doubts,” said Krishnan.
Raman did not answer. He was not even listening. His heart was beating rapidly. He was sure that the doctor was going to confirm his worst nightmare. He would be diagnosed with cancer and then be told that he had the most malignant form. He knew he had just a few days left to live. Raman was worried about how his wife Parukutti would live without him.
“My children will take care of her after I am gone,” Raman thought, “but I do not want to go so soon. I want to live to see Sumi’s children grow up.”
Raman began to sweat. There was a ceiling fan just above him but he still sweated. The fear of the unknown was enough to make him feel uncomfortable.
“You sit here. I will go and book an appointment,” said Krishnan and went with Raman’s documents to the reception. There was a row of chairs and Raman occupied one of the few empty seats and looked as Krishnan went and stood in a long line of people waiting at the appointment counter.
“Is anyone sitting here?”
Raman looked up and saw a middle-aged woman standing there. She held the hand of a young girl.
“No. You can sit there,” said Raman.
“Sit down Jessy. I will go to the counter and book an appointment with the doctor. Do not wander,” said the woman. The young girl sat down next to Raman. Before the woman walked away she turned at Raman and said, “Sir, please look after her. I will be back in a minute. We have come here a couple of times so I only need to check if the doctor is available.”
Raman nodded and the woman disappeared into the crowd. Raman looked at the crowd. He tried to find Krishnan in it but was not able to find him.
“Are you a patient here?” said the girl.
“What?” said Raman.
“Do you also have cancer?” said the girl.
“I do not know,” said Raman.
“I have cancer. Blood cancer. I am undergoing treatment under Dr. Swaminathan for six months now.”
Raman looked closely. Then he noticed the spots on her head where the hair had started to fall. The girl saw him look closely at her hair.
“Mother says it is because of the treatment I am getting.”
“How old are you?” said Raman.
“I am eight years old,” said the girl, “How old are you Sir?”
“I will be eighty-two this September.”
The girl thought for a minute and then said, “You are seventy fours years older than me. That is a lot of years.”
“Yes, it is a lot of years. I have children and grandchildren. My oldest grandchild is four years old.”
“I do not know if I will reach nine,” said the girl, “My mother says I will get well, but I know she just says that to keep me happy.”
“You will get well, child!” said Raman.
“How do you know? Are you a doctor?” said the girl.
“God will heal you,” said Raman.
“Mother also says that,” said the girl, “My mother is coming back.”
“Come child, let us go and see the doctor,” said the girl’s mother and lead the girl away.
“Goodbye Sir!” the girl said and waved at Raman with her thin hands, “You will also get well.”
Raman got up and went towards the queue in front of the appointment counter. After a minute of searching, he found Krishnan standing.
“Come let us go home,” said Raman.
“What do you mean, go home? I stood there for half an hour and now I will reach the counter in five minutes.”
“Krishna, I am perfectly alright. Let us not waste the time of the doctors here. They have more important things to do that treat an old man at the fag end of his life.”
Raman grabbed Krishnan’s arm and pulled him out of the line.
“You are a fool. First, you make me stand in that line and now you say you are fine. What is the matter with you?”
“I am fine Krishnan. Come lets us go home. I am perfectly fine.”