She had been given a rousing send off from Rosary College when she secured admission in London School Economics, which was one of the reasons she didn’t want to return to Rosary College for her Masters.
“You are being silly”, her mother told her, but Shikha was insistent. Her father’s illness was the other reason. She somehow did not feel up to facing her old college with the secret of this terrible reality haunting her.
Ever since she returned from London, a burning feeling in the pit of her stomach was her constant companion. The thought of her father having a fatal disease obsessed her in her waking and sleeping hours. She always kept an eye on him for any sign of discomfort and was ever alert to attend to his comforts and requirements. Realising that her father was rather uncomfortable with the attention he was getting from her, Shikha tried to keep her concern as little conspicuous as possible.
Her mother seemed calm and brave but did not wish to talk about papa’s illness. Was she in a denial mode, Shikha wondered.
On Wednesdays, Shikha took part in the Novena to Our lady of Perpetual Succour in the nearby church. She drew great strength from prayers. During the family prayers in the evenings, Shikha sometimes found it difficult to control her tears. She would look at Michael covertly, not wanting to think of the day when he won’t be sitting there with them praying.
She remembered the song velliammachi taught her and sang it silently every night before going to bed.
Akkarakyu yaatra chuyyum zion sanchari
Olangal kandu nee bhayapedenda.
Niyanthrikkan kazhivullavan kadavilundu
(You sojourners in this world, don’t be afraid of the surging waves. He who can control the sea is with you).
Those first six months after she returned from England were traumatic. The burden of living in the company of impending death was weighing her down. Yet she had to act normal, for her parent’s sake. She yearned to tell velliammachi who, she knew, despite her sadness about her son being afflicted by a deadly disease, would have something consoling to tell her. But both papa and mama were adamant about not informing her paternal or maternal grandparents. Shikha found her mother’s silence on the issue oppressive. Her parents turned down her offer to accompany them during Michael’s visits to the doctor. The appointments usually were during college hours. Shikha, in a way, was relieved she was spared that ordeal. The thought of the three of them waiting to see the doctor with the death warrant hovering over them silently, was painful. She did not insist on accompanying them after the first time.
The new college and new friends did not help matters. Shikha lost her appetite and began to lose weight. Michael and Rani tried to maintain an atmosphere of normalcy in the house. They tried to make the usual light conversation at the dining table. But Shikha could not involve herself in the discussions as before. It didn’t seem to matter to her anymore if A.K. Antony’s Chief Ministerial chair was shaking or whether BJP would come back to power in the next general election with the India Shining campaign or if there was a vertical split in the Indian cricket team. Her father and his impending death seemed to fill her mind all the time.
It was on the 18th of October that Rani texted her asking her to call. Shikha was in the University library when she got the message. As she rushed out of the library to call Rani, she could feel something like an icy hand clutch her heart while that burning sensation in the stomach surged upwards.
“Shikha, great news!” her mother sounded almost hysterical. “Dr. Dutta says papa’s condition is not motor neuron. It’s a manageable version of SLE”.
Shikha broke into a sob. “Are you sure Ma?”
“Yes. Dr. Dutta himself spoke to me. Guess you know that papa knows him from his Delhi days”.
“Oh Thank God Thank God Thank God! ”, sobbed Shikha into the cell phone. She packed up her books immediately and headed for the church where she attended the weekly novena . The church was locked but she went down on her knees on the steps of the Church and thanked Our Lady of Perpetual Succor profusely, tearfully.
Then she went home. Papa had dropped mama at home and had gone back to the office. Shikha was greeted by her mama smiling from ear to ear. Remembering a line from the Sudden novels, she said, “If not for your ears, your smile would go right round your ears, Ma!”
“Yours too Shikha”, replied Rani.
It was celebrations when Michael came home. Shikha threw herself at him and was crying and laughing at the same time. The dinner was a real spread, which reflected the culinary skills of the mother and daughter. Michael’s favourite dishes were all there. Prawn and mango curry, prawn olath sautéed in the forbidden coconut oil were the special dishes for the occasion. Shika made his favourite desert – tender coconut soufflé.
That was an unforgettable dinner for Shikha. After ages, she felt normal. She laughed and joked her heart out. They made plans for the Christmas vacation. Christmas was to be in Rani’s house this time because a get- together was being arranged by Shikha’s maternal grand parents. Rani’s brother Varkey was coming down from UK with his family. Grandpa Kuttiparambil and velliammachy would also be there. The world suddenly looked different to Shikha. Life is beautiful. No cliché, that, she thought.
But she couldn’t help that odd gut feeling that either something was on her father’s mind or he was not comfortable with himself. Impatiently, she shoved the thought out of her mind. Papa was not going to die. Nothing else mattered.