I never thought I would get married. Till I met her. Or rather, till she met me.
Sitting on the bench outside the ICU, I was thinking about our short life together. Just like the opening scenes straight out of a movie. And to think, I was a movie shunner. I was the guy who would shrug my shoulders and tell friends, ‘That only happens in movies’. Was it a stray curse from a movie buff whom I must have derided in the past for believing movies depicted reality? Because waiting for my pregnant wife to deliver while I spent anxious moments sitting outside not just a hospital chamber, but outside the emergency ward of a hospital was anything but straight out of a movie. Because, just like in the movies, the train of thoughts in my head were jumping tracks and making me relive all my moments with her. But unlike a movie’s carefully scripted manuscript, my mind was an untidy time-traveller; spilling over memories in no chronological order. I closed my eyes and started arranging these snapshots frozen in time, in order. It felt like a puff of marijuana, relief washed over my body and my muscles relaxed as I remembered how I met her.
The mix up of umbrellas on that rainy day at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) where all the wet umbrellas were made to stack up at the entrance of the theatre and coupons handed over to the owners. Little did I know that my Cupid would turn out to be a scruffy looking tea boy who was the keeper of umbrellas in the city of dreams. This was a city that knew how to enjoy its rains. When I shifted to Mumbai, little did I know that rains and tea boys would play such a pivotal role in my life.
After the play got over that day, I was waiting to get my umbrella when I noticed that a girl, ahead of me had been handed over mine. And she was walking away with it. She was so busy talking to someone on her phone she barely noticed what she had picked up. I let it go. Just an umbrella.
When I presented my umbrella coupon, I was given another one. Suited me fine. Later, when I was waiting at the bus stop, someone patted me on the shoulder. I turned, it was her. My heart did a little flip flop. The stars were aligned in my favour that day. Mumbai rains played along, in this impending love story. We swapped our umbrellas but I was not a quick thinker nor a charmer. I let her walk away. But wait, she was walking to the nearest bus stop. Life gave me a second chance that day and I grabbed it. I walked to the bus stop as well. It rained so hard that no bus showed up. Silence stretched languidly between us. I kept thinking of opening lines to initiate a chat but each was more pathetic than the previous. I fretted. I was letting them down; the tea boy, the rains, Mumbai for having conspired to get us together and I was whiling away my opportunity.
Finally a lone cab was passing by. I let her take it. She gave me a grateful smile. Then she turned around and said that she didn’t want to leave me standing alone in the rain. My heart skipped not one beat but three. That night, it took us three hours to reach her home. Best three hours ever.
We became regulars at NCPA, not so much to watch any plays but to just amble around in the premises, holding hands and watching the Arabian sea lick the tips of the plot of land on which stood NCPA, jutting out its chin haughtily, the last building at Nariman Point. Our Cupid was always to be found, serving tea to the patrons of NCPA. She called him her dirty faced angel.
He was the reason of our first fight too. I had seen him holding hands with another boy. When I looked at him disapprovingly, she gave me a scathing look. She said, love is love. I said it made my stomach turn.
The doctor looked grim when he told me to step in. I kept telling myself everything would be alright. I had struck a deal with God, while waiting outside. Surely, it was an offer God could not have refused. I sat near her bed. She lay there, motionless. The nurse brought me our baby.
Initially I thought, my being a reticent person was making it difficult for Rohan to start picking up language. I gave it time. I felt inadequate. A mother’s love would have cajoled the words out of him. But something was amiss and it wasn’t just my words amiss. Rohan’s rage tantrums were different. I couldn’t put my finger to it. Then one day, things came to a boil when he screamed for two hours non-stop. I didn’t know what had triggered such an outburst. He had kicked and flailed and the ensuing drama had earned him a deep gash in his right foot. A flower vase fell on his foot as he kicked a nearby table in a frenzy. Any attempts made by me to calm him were rebuffed the way a beautiful girl would spurn her cloying suitors.
Once his little body drained itself out and he had no choice but to calm down, I took him to the nearby pediatrician to get his injury dressed. It was not easy to take Rohan to a hospital. Nor was it easy for me. When I had taken her to the hospital, I was a happy man. When I had stepped out, instead of three, it had just been Rohan and me. That swing from a happily married man to a single father in one blow; somewhere hospitals and doctors had got seared in my memory as horrific territories. A sense of trepidation gnawed at my heart as I walked him to the hospital. But I tried to push back such apprehensions and reminded myself that it was just a harmless foot injury that needed tending. No life and death situation.
It was then that the curtain of mystery shrouding Rohan’s behaviour lifted itself up in front of the doctor who besides tending his wounds, asked me numerous questions about him and then made a diagnosis. I felt I was on a stage with the limelight suddenly on me. I felt as though I was supposed to perform. Say something. Anything. But the synapses and neural transmission pathways of my brain had had a short circuit temporarily and a blackout of my communication abilities.
The doctor went about it fast, maybe to hide his own discomfort on having to break such news. I missed her. I was so ill-equipped to handle this alone. She would have known what to say. What to do. I felt angry. I didn’t know, at who. Women are lucky creatures, they have a rainbow of emotions at their disposal to pick from and the ability to cope. All through life, I had only one emotion to throw out. Anger. If I was baffled, I would be angry. If I was stressed, I would be angry. If I was hungry, I would be angry. If I failed at something, I would be angry. Because men are taught not to cry. Men are meant to be stern and strong. No place for soft sentiments. And when you take away such crucial emotions, what is left is fury.
The clinical phrases swirled in my mind, ‘lifelong affliction’; ‘great difficulty in communicating or expressing thoughts’; ‘crippled social interactions’; ‘incurable mental condition.’ Say hello to Autism. The doctor tried his best to help me come to terms with it. He cited examples of people who have successfully tiptoed around autism and managed. ‘Mild autism streaks in Einstein,’ said the doctor and tried to cheer me up.
I paced my breaths and tried to hold on to the silver linings. This wasn’t a fatal disease. I would not lose him too. My son, I reminded myself, was so much more than just a diagnosis. I remembered when Rohan would be asked to pick his favourite colour, he would point at the sunset and not the colourful crayons sitting pretty in front of him. His own magical world where colours were in splashes of sunrise and sunset, where ants and spiders held unending charm for him – not toys, where chewing on erasers gave him greater pleasure than chocolates, where sitting at the window sill and watching people for hours unending made more sense to him than being boisterous with little kids of his age.
I finally understood why communication was such a chore for him. His senses would be in sync with his world, not mine.
I realised I would have to face an accusation from him – not just through his turbulent teens but all through his life and mine. Only, he would never slam it on me and say it the way I used to scream at my dad during my terrible teens and storm out of the house – ‘Dad, you won’t understand me, it’s a generation gap,’ leaving a hurt dad behind.
My son, on the other hand would never hurt me. But I would be hurt, nonetheless.
While the doctor’s advice buzzed through my ears, a parallel conversation was humming in my head. Memory has a strange way of popping up and mocking at you when you least expect. The teasing bit of memory that was doing the pirouette in my head at that moment was a conversation I had with a neighbor some days back. He was worried about his son being gay. He cribbed and cursed at his son. Somewhere between having that conversation with him that day and sitting here at the doctor’s clinic, my emotions churned and did a backflip.
On my way back home I felt my feet dragging along or was it Rohan clinging onto my hand while he walked, that caused me to slow down? I could barely walk those fifteen metres home. I called up my sister, my throat choked with a million fish bones. I spluttered for a while. Struggling with words, I finally managed to string together borrowed lines of the doctor to let her know what had happened. By the time I reached my apartment lobby, I spotted my sister pacing up and down the lobby. She unknitted her brows and smiled at me as I took long strides to cover the distance between her and me. I needed a hug.
At that moment the elevator door opened and the neighbor stepped out. I recalled the sharp words he had used against his son for loving a man. He stopped and greeted me, I looked past him at my sister. Then I turned my gaze at him again. Something within me cracked.
After that all I remember is; the look of horror on the security guard’s face and the shocked faces of people who were walking past us, had stopped dead in their tracks. Rohan had burst into tears when he saw me fly in such a rage. Like son, like father. My sister looked from son to father. For a minute she wondered if it was the son who was autistic or the father. This unexplained, abrupt, uncalled for act of temper tantrum by me.
The sharp sound of the slap ricocheted off the neighbor’s cheek and seemed to ring like the peals of a hundred temple bells. The acoustics of the lobby had been wicked, very wicked to amplify the sound of the crackling slap. It had been a day of slaps.
At least his son would know what the father would mean when he would have told him, ‘I love you.’ And all the wretched man was bothered about was disowning his son for loving another man. What would I not have given to have my son understand what it meant to hear those three words, from me and from someone special someday!