As the taxi drove through the gates of her Alma Mater, Mira wondered if she had done the right thing to come for this Alumni get-together. She had flown half way across the world for the occasion. Her batch of 1968 was to be specially felicitated this year. For the last thirty years, Mira had made no contact with her college mates.
“Will they remember me?” she wondered.
Her eyes scanned the campus. So much had changed, yet so much remained the same. The grey granite buildings were a special feature of this college; The hill on the opposite side of the college had been a rendezvous point for so many young lovers.
“If only that hill could speak!” she thought.
The very atmosphere made her feel young again. She was only seventeen when she entered Medical College.
“The years I spent here were my best. So carefree! Nothing to worry about except studies. And though the rules for inmates had been strict, there were always ways and means of circumventing them to have a good time.”
She wondered how many of her classmates would attend. Would they recognize her?
“Perhaps they have given me up as dead. Thirty years is a very long time to hide from the rest of the world. The main reason I’ve come is to meet that one person to whom I owe an explanation. The person who must have felt betrayed and cheated.”
Mira checked into the accommodation reserved for her, then freshened up and changed into a peach coloured sari. She highlighted her large luminous eyes with mascara, and a touch of lipstick brought colour to her pale lips.
There were quite a number of batch mates in the dining room, busy exchanging news and laughing over their reminiscences.
“Welcome Mira!” they shouted in unison, “Where have you hidden yourself all these years?”
They crowded around her eager to hear her news.
“All in good time, girls,” Mira said, as she hugged each one of them in turns.
“How nice to be back! I feel I’ve never been away.”
Vijay was at the bar, twirling the ice cubes in his glass. The sudden commotion at the door made him look up. For a moment he stood paralyzed as though he had just seen a ghost. Mina’s eyes scanned the room. The men were huddled around the bar.
“Not youthful anymore,” she thought, taking in their paunches and receding hairlines,
“Where have all the handsome young fellows gone?”
But in spite of their years, they had reverted to being young medicos again for the duration of this get-together, recalling those carefree years, the mischievous pranks they played, the girls they flirted with and the teachers they harassed.
Vijay quickly moved behind a portly classmate, reluctant to be recognized.
“Good Lord!” someone said, “Isn’t that Mira? She’s been out of circulation ever since her marriage.”
“Mira indeed! After all these years, she still looks gorgeous.”
“Yes, she’s as good as she looked way back in college. Remember, she had half the males drooling over her? Hey Vijay, wasn’t she your girl right through college?”
Vijay had slipped out on to the porch and positioned himself in a place where he could observe her but not be seen.
“I can’t believe that even after all these years, she can make me feel like a teenager.”
But there were changes. He noticed that she talked too much and laughed a lot.
“There’s a hysterical pitch to her voice,” he thought, his psychiatrist’s antennae on the alert. “What has suddenly brought her out of her seclusion? I must observe and not get too close.”
But how could he avoid her for three whole days when they would all be in such close proximity?
“Why do I feel the need to hide? Does the fact that she ditched me still rankle?”
Sleep was late in coming. Vijay walked back and forth on the balcony until his legs cried out for rest. They had been a pair right through college, mainly because of the alphabetical proximity of their surnames – Mira Chandrashekar and Vijay Coelho – from the dissections in Anatomy and experiments in Physiology till the final year when they did their Obstetrics postings together.
“But it was the month long postings at the Rural Hospital that turned our relationship into something more than friendship. We felt we had a future together.
However, Mira’s father a powerful businessman in Hyderabad, had other plans for his daughter. Soon after her internship, a tearful Mira was sent off to Canada for post graduate studies.
“I’ll be back as soon as I get my P.G. degree,” she promised, “Or you could plan to join me there and continue your studies.”
Neither of them imagined that this would be the end of their romance.
Distance played spoil sport, and though the epistolary dispatches continued for a while, Vijay lost hope. He could not leave his aged parents alone and fly off to Canada. So he opted for a post graduate degree in Psychiatry at his college and hoped Mira would return some day. When he finally arrived in Canada four years later, Mira had vanished from the social scene.
The mornings of the Alumni reunion were taken up mainly by scientific sessions. Many of the doctors were super specialists in their own fields and presented papers on the recent advances in their subjects. Vijay’s paper was on “The Limits of Psychotherapy.”
It was a very erudite paper reinforced by appropriate case studies. At the end of the lecture he said, “I want to conclude with a quote from John Powell. He said ‘There is no plastic surgery to remove the kind of psychological scars that all of us bear to some extent. Therapy can never be a substitute for a life of faith.’
Mira, who was sitting in the last row, got up abruptly and left the room, dabbing at her eyes. Vijay wondered if he had touched a raw nerve. It was obvious that something was bugging her.
Mira made it a point to sit next to him at lunch the next day.
“You’ve been avoiding me as though I have some infectious disease,” she said, “Can’t we communicate like grown-ups?”
“I don’t think we have much in common. Otherwise it wouldn’t have taken you thirty years to communicate.”
“So you’re still angry? Don’t you want to know what happened to me in the interim?”
“I really couldn’t care less.”
Then he looked up to see the pain in her eyes. Her face on close inspection was marked by worry lines.
“Don’t create a scene here Mira. People are listening.”
“Then give me a few minutes of your time when I can talk to you without interruption.”
“Very well then, we can go into town for a cup of coffee. Perhaps Everest Bakery still serves good coffee and Japanese cakes,” he said, thinking back to those days of long ago.
“Too public,” she said, “I want quiet.”
So they settled down in a sequestered spot on College Hill. They sat in silence for a long time.
“Get on with it,” Vijay said irritably, “I don’t want to miss any of the evening programmes.”
“Gosh! You are as prickly as a porcupine.”
Mira had waited for three long years, hoping Vijay would come to Canada. She was young and life was lonely after working hours. Her friends felt it was time she started dating. She fell in love with a young Indian scientist, who was attached to the Institute of Physics at the University of Toronto. He wooed her with an ardour that swept her off her feet. She was pregnant even before he could lead her to the altar.
“The child born to us had Spina Bifida. Being such healthy specimens, neither of us imagined that we would have a child like that. The thought that God was punishing me for getting pregnant before marriage, took hold of me. I sank into a state of depression for almost a year. I even hated to touch the child, and my husband was afraid I would harm him.”
“Did he live for very long?” Vijay asked.
“All of twenty nine years, and long enough to drive me around the bend. What a vicious creature – the very devil incarnate – rude, aggressive and cruel. I was his prisoner all his life.”
“Perhaps he was frightened and insecure. He must have had to put up with the teasing of his school mates and the heartless remarks of grown ups.”
“Yes. He was teased all through his school years. I remember how he used to stand in front of the full length mirror supported by his crutches, with his legs splayed out for balance. He’d go berserk banging the mirror and yelling at God and his parents especially me, and the rest of the world. The children in school would question him, ‘Didn’t your mother get tested? She’s a doctor too. Why couldn’t she get the pregnancy terminated?’
He would come home in a rage eyes red and angry, face flushed, and would pound me with his fists as he hurled abuse at me. Some kind of abnormal strength would flow through him when angry.
But he was very intelligent . Always at the top of his class. Perhaps his classmates were jealous. He took up Law in college, but refused to practice. He wanted to keep on studying.”
“Where is he now?” Vijay asked.
“Dead, thank God. That’s why I’ve come out of my prison. My husband and I went bankrupt with all his medical and surgical expenses. There was nothing he didn’t know about his deformity and he blamed me for bringing him into this world. The cruel things he said ripped my heart to shreds and left me with a terrible feeling of guilt.”
“I’m sure you would have known that his deformity made him emotionally labile. Why didn’t you get help from a psychiatrist?”
“He wouldn’t come. ‘I may be physically handicapped but I’m not loony. How dare you even think that way?’ he argued. Now though he is dead, my feelings of guilt have multiplied. Was I responsible for his death?” she sobbed.
Vijay took her ice cold hand in his hoped that the warmth from his own body would flow into her.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked, “You should get all these feelings out of your system. Don’t punish yourself with doubts. Have you spoken about this to anyone else?”
“No. There’s definitely something wrong with me. While on one hand I’m thankful for the reprieve, part of me misses him very much. My life revolved around him 24×7. Now it’s empty. I stopped working many years ago, and wonder if I can ever go back to hospital work again.”
“And your husband?”
“Kunal my son, saw to it that we had no life together. He wanted me for himself. We had no privacy whatsoever. No time for ourselves. He drove my husband to his death. A massive heart attack claimed him in his forties. ‘Good riddance’ Kunal said, ‘Now you can give me your full attention. You owe me that.’
He was always abusive. Not a kind word of appreciation for the way I looked after him. Many times he was violent and would beat me black and blue.”
“Why didn’t you call the police or the social services? I can’t believe that you suffered in silence and didn’t call for help. Didn’t you realise this was an abusive relationship?” Vijay asked, “You with your intelligence and qualifications, how could you let yourself be intimidated by such viciousness?”
“He was my son. Part of me loved him and part wished him dead.”
“And now that he is dead, you miss him and want to take on the responsibility for his death? Isn’t this something like the Stockholm Syndrome? Tell me why do you feel guilty?”
“Kunal kept saying he wanted to get married. In spite of his deformity I knew he was capable of sexual arousal. He kept scanning the matrimonial websites for a girl who was also disabled. There were two girls he invited at different times, and I was expected to look after them too. Luckily they both saw how he treated me, and opted out.
We were upstairs in his bedroom one day, and I was standing by the large open window. I don’t know what got into me and I taunted him
‘You don’t want a wife. You want a nursemaid like me whom you can bully. You’re a sadist. In any case who will marry you?’
His face had turned an ugly red. He came charging and raised a crutch to hit me. Some instinct of self preservation made me move in the nick of time. But he couldn’t keep his balance on his wobbly legs and went crashing out of the window. He fell to his death.”
She began crying as she re-lived the scene. But together with remorse, she thought of all the wasted years, the humiliation and hurt she suffered, all because she had brought a deformed child into this world.
“You’re going to be fine Mira. Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to the psychiatrist here. He’s a very able person. You can stay back after the Alumni meeting for as long as is necessary. He will help you get rid of your guilt complex and win back your self confidence.”
“But why can’t you treat me? I hear that you too are good at your job. I could come to your clinic in Ottawa. I have a flat there.”
“No,” Vijay said firmly, “I’m afraid I will not be objective. You need someone who has had no connection with you. You couldn’t have come to a better place Mira. I suggest you take my advice.”
It took her six months of therapy to reclaim her sanity and rid herself of guilt. She also did a refresher course in paediatrics, so that she could resume working again when she got back to Toronto.
“Thirty best years of my life were lost. Perhaps I can do some research on the psychological repercussions of deformity in the young. It’s so good to feel free again. I brought it on myself. I shouldn’t have succumbed to the guilt trip and become his slave.”
Mira was back at work in her old hospital. It kept her busy leaving very little time to brood. One day she heard her name announced on the intercom.
“Dr. Mira Chandrashekar – wanted in Reception.”
A tall dark man walked towards her with a grin on his face.
“Hullo Mira,” he said, “I had a meeting in Toronto and thought I’d look you up and see how you were doing.”
But from the look in his eyes, Mira knew that he had made this trip just to see her. Was it too late to fall in love again, she wondered. They were both in their fifties.
Only Time would tell.