The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Short Story: Leo

Painting: Dariya Afanaseva

By Srirupa Dhar

This is the second straight day that he can’t go back to his humble apartment in Parel. He is on his night shift this Wednesday evening. The late August night looks as despairing as the one before and commuting all the way to the center of the city will prove more than a tested venture. Aadi simply has to succumb to his failure to beat twelve inches of rains. He feels the brunt of the Mumbai monsoon that is whiplashing the city with a callous violence, the climate crisis making its accents felt. The thought of climate change – quite naturally – brings Leo to mind. Aadi’s crow’s feet become taut. He feels older than forty-four at the moment. He looks at his ten-year-old patient, Gouri, who has been battling pneumonia for the last eleven days. Aadi thinks of all the patients – from the lowest floor of KEM – who have been moved to the floors above. King Edwards Memorial Hospital, the largest municipal hospital in Mumbai, is in no less a chaos than the clogged arteries of the rest of the city. The waters are rising, thick-skinned and invasive. Streets, offices, hospitals, and spirits of people – nothing spared. “Will she finally give in to the rains?” The lines on Aadi’s face tingle as the empty walls and chlorine smells of the hospital room get filled up with Gouri’s whistling breath.

Aadi is mustering courage – something that he has grown up with. He does not want to fail his family like he has been failing to cope with the ceaseless rain. He wants to live up to the strength that is part of his family legacy. A cab driver’s son and now a medical practitioner, Aadi, has always been too close to struggle to forget what it means. But it has always been a matter of encountering the hard truths of life, not surrendering to what is thrust upon them. To him, more than anything, his family has been an experience.

Aadi’s family has its own history of struggle that goes back seven decades when Mahendra, who wanted to reshape his fate, moved from the village of Patgaon to the slums of Parel. He was proud of his new town that boasted myriad cloth mills and put food on the table for people in want, people like him. Mahendra’s son, Amrish, became a taxi driver. Amrish, who often had animating stories to tell, never tired of his experiences of chauffeuring around the city. Meeting the bare minimums never fastened his spirit with rage or regret. Life was an exciting business for him. His two sons – both brain smarts – brought him the greatest joy. Mahendra should have lived to see his grandsons, Aadi and Avi, leap several generations and build their lives around Science.

A doctor in KEM, Aadi, lived in an apartment with his wife, two daughters and septuagenarian parents. An apartment, modest, meeting just above the minimum needs of the Bhats. The family was yet to figure out whether the move from the slum was a windfall. They had lost their slum-home to this middle-class apartment in the 1990s when there was a major slum redevelopment plan. Families like Aadi’s had then seen their slums completely demolished in favor of building opulent apartments. The Bhats were offered an ordinary apartment in lieu of their lost home. The razing of the slums could not, however, bulldoze Aadi’s and Avi’s childhood memories.

The pediatric ward had to squeeze into the cramped space on the seventh floor close to the department of Intensive Care Unit. Aadi saw through the challenge that the new set-up posed to the children. His young patients felt displaced amidst the somber quiet and tiresome seriousness of rushing nurses and doctors. This new area of the hospital – with its bizarre combination of dull stasis and mad urgency – was visually oxymoronic to the children. They did not know what the tight silence meant that got occasionally broken by the beeping of heart monitors. They were confused about the place that was so close to death. Their young minds and bodies felt old, older than their ailing states had ever made them feel. Death – looming almost at every corner of the ICU – paced along the children’s minds like an unwanted shadow. “Why did Nature have to do this to these little ones?” said Aadi to Neha, the attending nurse.

“Yes, Doctor, they look so lost, so unsure, poor things! By the way, I meant to ask you, Dr. Bhat, about your brother. How is he, Doctor? Isn’t he in Texas? I saw on T.V. that a storm hit Texas.” In a half-broken voice that was not yet ready to give up, Aadi replied: “Yes, Avi lives in Austin, Texas. But the storm didn’t go as far as Austin.” “Then you have nothing to worry, Doctor,” Neha said, observing the doctor’s rueful smile. In a moment of uncertainty, she debated whether she should go on with the conversation. The doctor, Neha thought, was hanging in some unknown gloom. A gloom whose blurry edges impeded any clear vision of its insides. There was no way of knowing whether it was an unsure hope or a confident despair that housed its nucleus. Rather strange, Neha thought. For all the four years of her service at KEM, she had known Aadi as the little patients’ favorite. Like an adept voice artist, he could instantly switch from the gravelly foghorn of a naïve starfish to the slushy lisps of a black duck. Aadi’s instincts about children never failed him. He knew to tune in with goofy kids and ease into their laughter. The children found his presence far from clinical – it was more Halloween-ish. They would see a colorful dinosaur swaying with a fat stomach and singing an all-too-familiar tune or a dimwitted Pooh exhibiting his gluttony slurps for honey. Disease became less of a reality when the pediatrician anthropomorphized the hospital ward into wish-fulfilments. But this night, Neha observed an absent-mindedness in him, a searching look trying not to surface his eyes. Neha contemplated a conscious silence brooding over the room as she followed Aadi to examine the little boy whose asthma worsened this season. As he read the details of the patient, Aadi turned towards Neha: “There is something to worry, actually. Avi had gone to Rockport, Texas for a vacation, mainly to bird watch. And Rockport is devastated. He loves bird watching, you know.” Aadi’s eyes suddenly jumped up with life. Neha saw him smile into the momentary jubilance taking over his bass voice. “He has always loved watching the flights of birds. When we were little boys, he would chase the birds in their directions. That is why I call him Leo after Leonardo Da Vinci, who had a fascination for birds’ flights too. And Avi was always sharp, much sharper than I ever was. I knew this early on and right from our childhood, I looked up to him as a genius. He followed his passions and found creative meaning in Aerospace Engineering. He is the kind who makes a difference in people’s lives. And I believe that one day he will be on the news proving that a boy from the slums could change the world.” Neha smiled, not quite sure if Aadi was talking to her.

***

Aadi thought of Avi – his little brother so fresh-faced even at forty-one. People always said that the two of them shared the same broad promising smiles, as if, they could happily taunt both age and sorrow. Their brotherhood was also caught in both their defined eyebrows, high cheekbones, medium heights, and straight-edged noses. The difference was in their eyes. Aadi’s eyes looked soft but impregnable. Avi’s were more liquid, as if they were fossicking some invulnerable secret, something like the mystery of birds whirring their wings, gliding, and soaring in boundless liberty. Aadi could not resist thinking of those freedom-loving eyes even as he tried to assess the auscultating sounds of his child-patients. Leo was, as if, standing beside him and living through the experience of every beat of those children’s hearts and crackles in their lungs. “I will sit on your shoulder to gaze at your physician’s antics.” Aadi smiled to himself as he recalled Leo’s first reaction on knowing that his brother had officially become the detector of people’s health. More than twenty years back, that was. And even further back – years of their boyhood wafted into Aadi’s mind like the Sunday makkhan ka roti that their mother used to prepare, the buttery aroma, filling up their shack with peaceful ambrosia. Those early days were as much a treat to his soul as the thick flour bread greased with ghee was. Avi – Aadi’s Leo –brought back to the older brother’s mind that childhood smell of Sunday warmth.

An echo it was now – a far-away voice making itself present even in its absence. That high-pitched nine-year-old voice came back to Aadi, this day, on the seventh floor of KEM. “Bhaiya, do you see how each of those pigeons shows perfect timing in flapping its wings?” Leo would tell Aadi when they chased pigeons in their slum. Back in the eighties, Leo would sit on the mud floor of their home and draw the gliding and hovering flights of birds. He admired the V-shape the birds created, the birds that were carelessly nonchalant about their natural creativity. Leo was in love with the lift and drag of bird-movements – how the birds opened their wings and then spread and lowered their tails. Those aerodynamics were more than a science of movement to Leo. He read into these movements the shape and spiral of life itself. He found in them the genius of merging the physics of geometry with the breath of art, the two coalescing into a harmonious whole. Nothing was disparate, according to Leo. Life was all about movement, motions translating into human sensibilities. “Everything – light and shade, birth and death – is connected,” he would say. Leo’s convictions never faded. They grew stronger with time. Aadi – with his knowledge of the mind of the Renaissance genius – was in no doubt that his brother was the Leo incarnate. Right from their young days, Aadi felt so. Both the brothers had an appetite for reading and they borrowed any book that came their way. Their unfurnished home would gurgle with the spirit of knowledge – a spirit fluidly flowing from and trickling down into both boys. Aadi read Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography and could not resist finding parallels between the Italian legend and his own little brother. Aadi knew that his Leo’s avant-garde mind was like upbeat jazz never afraid to bring dissonances together. Leo’s vision of life was inspirational like the technique of sfumato involved in the elusive but fascinating Mona Lisa smile: things merged often with blurry lines forever teasing us with the mystery that flickered out of them. Aadi thought he believed that his brother would awaken the sleeping world with the dynamics of chiaroscuro – enhancing the image of life and giving it a multidimensionality – and energize it with a new angular kinesis.

***

“Have you heard from him recently?” To Neha’s question Aadi replied, “No, I haven’t actually. He calls Maaji every day before he leaves for work. That is, evening, our time here. The last time we heard from him was when my mother spoke to him on the 22nd of August before he left for Rockport. Avi’s wife, Sonam did not hear from him either. Sonam is home with the kids in Austin. She is seeking help from the police to find out about Avi.”  “Am sure your brother is ok, Doctor,” said Neha.

No, no one can be sure. No one can be sure if my little brother would come to visit us this winter like he does every year. The kamikaze hurricane could have sucked him into the vacuum of time, into a dark nothingness. Has his resonant voice faded into its last pitch? Will that voice never call me “Bhaiya” – that love-filled word meaning brother? Will Leo lose himself to the country he always believed that whisks dreams and makes those dreams come true? If death claimed him, in his last moments, were his large and deep eyes holding onto the will to live? No, Aadi mused: Avi has to live. Live up to his name, the name signifying sun. He is like the energy around which our planet moves. How can his radiance fritter away into a dull Earthshine?

***

 Aadi’s mind, swinging like a restless pendulum, felt that he was sinking into quicksand. A granular pain loosening and throwing him into some unknown mercurial territory. He could see Leo taking in the sapphire-blue waters of the Rockport coast and admiring the flight patterns of migratory birds with a visceral gusto. A gusto resonating Leo’s soul as he shouted to his brother, “Bhaiya, I know how to fly. Let’s fly above those grand high rises in Worli.” Those words that echoed the secret pleasure of the teen siblings living in the muck and filth of the slums. As boys, they vowed to each other that someday they would fly beyond those big, ornate towers of Parel or Worli. Their innocent conspiracy resolved to overturn those places into L-E-R-A-P or I-L-R-O-W and making way for poor families like them. All that decoding of names could never be lost, not by a distant storm. Couldn’t we go back in time and spell those names backwards again? Couldn’t we play those word games again when Leo visits us this December?

***

No such winter might ever come, Aadi thought. A hopelessness – like the despairing rains – seared through his body. Snippets of memories – those moments from last winter – struck him with a pain, at once seething and nebulous. It all started with a casual conversation: Leo’s mission of changing the education system in India. “Every time I come to India, I feel that the experience of your girls in school is very narrow. Amrita and Smita are caught in a net of exams. Actual education lies beyond their textbooks. My boys, Manish and Mukesh, even in sixth and fourth grades in Texas, do integrated studies and hands-on projects. Their curiosity about the world is not locked in pen and paper. Their schools allow them to explore, create, and think independently.” Agitated, Aadi said, “What do you mean? You mean that my girls are not getting any decent education?” Leo’s nutmeg skin grew tense. “I didn’t mean that. I had in mind of introducing integrated ways of creative thinking amongst the students here. I am from this country and I wish to better the perception of education here. I want the people to understand that education is far more than a rigid system; it is a way of crossing and merging boundaries and disciplines and expanding our children’s minds. Science and imagination can blend into meaningful wholes and learning is not confined to the classroom. Learning can be fun when it is drawn from life and becomes part of our everyday lives. Education in this broad sense can embrace people indiscriminately and slowly conquer poverty. I have been thinking of ways to launch programs to materialize my plans into Indian schools. But I need help from you to get in touch with school administrators and teachers. We could start with the school your daughters go to.”

Aadi could hear himself breathing through his nose, the breathing getting fast-paced. A metallic bile was knotting his stomach. The rancor needed a release. The Scorpio within him thought it was time. “Hear me out. You don’t have the right to comment on anything we do here. What responsibilities have you taken so far other than leading a lavish life with your wife and sons in the U.S.? Did you take care of Pitaji when he had a massive stroke three years back? Does your wife put up with Maaji’s constant naggings? Driving a car every day to work, loading dishes in the dishwasher after dinner and going on cruises to the Bahamas don’t get you too far. You don’t even come home for Diwali in late October or early November when our entire country sparkles with lights – the little diyas brightening our humble lives with hope and joy. You conveniently make a tour here during Christmas claiming that is the best time for your sons since they are out of school. The truth is, you come here around this time because the weather is super pleasant then. You don’t get the mugginess of summer or gloom of the monsoons. When did we ever celebrate Christmas? Wasn’t Diwali always our real holiday, you and me lighting all the tiny lamps before sundown?”

***

Aadi recalled how, at that moment, his brother’s eyes widened, the corners of his mouth drawn down. And those limpid eyes effused a deep sense of abandon. I see his eyes betraying his guilt, a guilt also trapped in his button down Whitetails fleece. Aadi thought he was sure. That moment felt so indelibly sure for the older brother – his frustrations that stuck to him like a limpet had finally found a vent. Aadi felt it as a moment of triumph, a release of his mad exasperation.

He remembers all that now. That moment lives in him now as one caught in a net of vapid shame. Aadi shuts his eyes and remembers Leo looking at him with disbelief and hurt. That face trying to touch those never-forgotten resonances of their brotherly childhood. Aadi suddenly feels the air smelling of jealousy – that smell on that day when Leo’s eyes silently bore whatever came from his brother. A metallic smell, a smell of blood woven not out of their kinship but of some deep-seated venom. A poison that Aadi did not know had imperceptibly spidered into all that he believed himself to be part of – innocence, childhood, love, admiration.

Hydra – that’s what Aadi sees in his mirror ever since that moment that was thick with poison breath. The walls of his apartment – even after all those months since last December – seem to close in on him bringing with it that moment, those last minutes he shared with Leo. Whose face had actually shrunken with a diminutive pallor, the paleness coded with a small voice? The shadow of that face never seems to go away. A shadow, gyrating within his mildewed conscience. The miasma of it all keep pounding his heart and contaminating all the togetherness that two boys from the slum had sanctified. That moment still hovered in Aadi’s mind like the shameless butt ends of a burning cigarette announcing litter.

***

Twenty years or so – all the long years burdened with too much difference. A big, grave difference. An everyday fatiguing commute to a cramped apartment cluttered by cheap Chesterfields and complaints of ailing parents as opposed to a luxurious drive on leather seats to the birch wood tasseled pillows of Kensington collections. The regality of the Victorian flair of Leo’s home and his chic office with the Austin skyline luring behind the tall shiny glass windows – smiling through e-photographs – made Aadi feel heavy. The onus of an ordinary life and the shouldering of elderly parents were growing like a greasy patina thickening itself over the years. The layers on his soul were taking away cherishing memories. They were taking away acknowledgement of the truth – the truth of Leo’s constant monetary and mental support for their parents. The truth of Aadi himself thinking of dumping his parents in an old age home and secretly cursing the filial codes of Indian society for never being able to do so. The fear of social criticism wore around his mind like a menacing snake-bite. Nothing seemed different until last winter when he was one with the abysmal layers of his mind and fought some of his best family moments. That moment was a spinoff of the two decades of stark difference. Or, was it? There was silence after that moment – a funereal silence. A silence from which one often wishes to run away but can’t. Aadi knew that he had lost the happy drawl of all those back spellings, the energy of all those sprightly bike adventures, the irresistible urge of all those truant schooldays – all, on that enervating Christmas day in 2016. After that fiery encounter, Leo had not kept in touch with him even though he continued to call their mother every day.

***

Aadi didn’t want to lose his brother once again. Not when Leo was chasing the energy surging his soul along with the spine-tailed swifts and flap-bounding of myriad avian creatures, his own soul gliding into wingtip vortices of brown falcons and seagulls. Not when Leo was being Leo. At least, the older sibling thought, he should be able to tell Leo how sorry he was. Every time Aadi visualized the Texan coast, he shuddered at the thought of his brother reduced to an anonymous meaninglessness. Was he now one with all those lost birds in the limitless sky? I’m sorry, Leo! I was wrong. Come back. Please! We cannot part like this! No, Leo, you can’t do this to me! Aadi cried in his mind, his pain beating against the shore of his tongue. He had often thought that Leo was meant to go lawless, mutiny against all possibilities, and create the wondrous effects of anamorphosis – teasing the eye to see the same thing differently by changing the angles of perception – everywhere he went. Perhaps he could even change death into something less unknown. Right now, Aadi desperately wanted to believe that Leo would come back with the same swing and spark defying the power of Nature and redefine the undying regenerative spirit of humanity. Left-handed Leo would write his own destiny and turn it around just like his unique way of writing from right to left and drawing each letter backwards. The letters could be read only with a mirror. This time too, could Aadi’s Leo – no less than the left-handed Mona Lisa creator himself – find the most creative way to conquer death and leave darkness forever tantalized?

***

Just then Gouri was slowly opening her eyes. Gouri, still feeble, but not beaten. Aadi asked the little girl, “How are you feeling now, Gouri?” The doctor’s intense look was fixed on the half-open amber eyes of his patient. He was looking for some sign of a resilience in them. Gouri smiled, a frail but promising smile. The doctor felt a soaring flight within himself. He smiled too. It was a smile as full as the sun. Because like Avi, Aadi had to be loyal to his own name too. Among other things, the word “Aadi” means sun-god. Aadi was meant to bring light. He could never wane. No matter what.

Bio:
Srirupa Dhar is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She has three Master’s degrees in English Literature. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. from the University of Kolkata, India. She has a third Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a young lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in many forms of art. Currently, she is a writer of fiction. Some of her short stories have been published in The Statesman and Café Dissensus. Recently, one of her short stories has been published in Muffled Moans Unleashed, an anthology on child abuse and sexual violence. Her nonfictional article, “Self-realization of Women through Binaries in Chokher Bali and Ghare Baire” was recently published in “Reading Rabindranath: The Myriad Shades of a Genius.” Occasionally, Srirupa acts in plays in Columbus. She is part of an amateur dramatic society.

***

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

***

Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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