There is a small welcoming committee in the shade of the big banyan in our village square waiting for him to arrive. Although the noon sun is scorching, I break away, my mind crowded with memories. It has been thirty-five years, but I still vividly remember what was the turning point of my life. I had descended from the gleaming black Mercedes to the amazement of the villagers, in front of my home. Home being a mud-and- cow dung hut with a tiled roof. Clean, but Spartan. I was wearing my medical student’s coat and a stethoscope around my neck and more significantly had Parth in tow.
What had followed was a blur. Anna, Aai and my extended family had excitedly descended upon us. But in the midst of the commotion, I had sensed their puzzlement. A genuine worry in their long looks. A sense of Otherness in the way they had offered Parth his tea in a china cup with a proper saucer and had then remained standing long after he had sat down in the chair, both items hastily procured from a neighbour. The latter a necessity, as our string charpoy had a sag, which made it difficult to extricate ones’ self after sitting down.
My 22- year old self was excited to introduce Parth to my folks, albeit with a maidenly blush. But not so excited that their lack of enthusiasm had failed to register.
An hour later, I had had the good sense to draw the meeting to a close. But not before my grandmother with her failing vision, acute hearing, but the intense perspicacity and brutal frankness so typical at her age had taken me aside. Holding my wrist in a firm clasp, she cut through my lovelorn haze with just one question, “The eagle and the fish may fall in love, but where will they build their home?”
Words, that had echoed in my ears long after we rejoined the medical camp that had brought us close to my village. I had seized this camp as an excuse to introduce the people that had loved me until now, to the person that I intended to love for the rest of my life.
The bitter dose of grandmotherly commonsense had, however, brought me back to earth with a thud. I returned a vastly different person; introspective, reflective and resigned.
To Parth’s credit, he didn’t treat me any differently after that visit to my home. It was all me. The scales had fallen from my eyes. I was now more conscious than ever of the chasm that separated us.
He belonged to the Kelkar family, a family of legends in the fields of Indian medicine. His great-grandfather, Parth Kelkar (after whom Parth was named) had been a Vaid, a practitioner of Ayurved, and had written a book on Ayurvedic pharmacology, which is referenced even today. His grandfather Purushottam and father Parshuram, practitioners of Allopathy, had in their respective specialities treated and operated upon eminent public figures. Film personalities, classical singers, political leaders, wealthy industrialists all thronged their clinic. Real stethoscopes and syringes had been Parth’s toys as a child. Dinner table conversation at the Kelkars was about difficult medical cases. Their drawing room shelves were crammed with awards, and walls covered with pictures taken of his family with eminent figures.
That did not mean that he was proud or arrogant, because he was not. He was just different. Different from me, that is.
His world was different.
Far removed from my world of mud huts and scholarships. I was my father’s pride and joy, his academically brilliant child who was still a puzzle to him, but for whose education he had mortgaged his land. I knew my path long before I had graduated, and that it would lead to a small medical practice in my district, treating the ailments of the poor to the best of my ability. And maybe, eventually, a hospital that would cater to a larger cross-section of the needy. That was the dream that I’d dreamed all my life. A part of me had naively thought that Parth would share this dream with me. And that together it would lead to something that was bigger and far-reaching than what each of us could individually achieve.
But my grandmother had been right. Parth was an eagle who was destined to soar high in the sky! How could he be expected to start a practice in a village, when he could be treating the who’s who of Mumbai and perhaps, the entire nation! A fourth-generation Kelkar does not traipse through muddy pastures. He sits in air-conditioned consulting rooms and treats celebrities. He lectures from a podium to a respectful audience, not drone on convincing villagers to vaccinate their babies. Parth would come to resent me, or I him, if either of us changed our life-goals to suit the other.
As a result of our visit to my home, my destiny had changed or rather, I had come to terms with my destiny or at least part of it. I was still headed down the same path but without Parth. He was my lover, my best friend, someone who shares my sense of humour, with whom I had shared all my dreams, my hopes. I knew that I would miss him.
A frank talk with him upon our return and I convinced him with some determination that we were unsuited. What could have blossomed into a lasting love was nipped in the bud by me. I could sense his hurt, and later his anger, but he was too much of a gentleman to question me. At the end of our internship, we parted as ‘friends’, promising to keep in touch. But I knew that I would not. …keep in touch, that is.
I was not heart-broken, but not heart-whole as well. A lacuna still exists in the place in my heart where I know my soul-mate could have been.
Thirty- five years have passed, but I have never regretted my decision.
Frequent newspaper reports have confirmed that Parth has, indeed, risen high in the medical profession, a course destined for him even before he was born. As for me, years of working in my village has given me a peace and joy that surpasses any that I have felt. A mother’s tears of happiness when I save her sick child, the pleasure of feeling the delicate clasp of a newborn’s fingers after a difficult labour, a son’s gratitude for having stabilised his father after a ghastly accident; are some my treasured moments. More so because I know that they would have had no one to turn to, had I stayed in the city.
The one thing that I have not experienced is being in love. I have married, of course. My need for companionship, sexual satisfaction and motherhood as well as the pressures of being a single woman in rural practice, ushered me to the gates of matrimony. But the sense of feeling complete was always missing with Arun. He was a good man and a kind one and gave me two wonderful children. Although I loved him till the day he died, I was never in love with him.
I didn’t think I would ever fall in love again. I know that everyone says that after a heartbreak, but the difference is that I’m not heartbroken. I’m not cynical, or pessimistic, or sad. I’m just someone who once felt something bigger than anything else I’d ever felt and when I lost it, I honestly believed I would never have that again. But…I was 22 then and life is long. And I’m feeling things now that I haven’t for a long time.
I’m ready to fall in love again.
My heart is beating with new hope. And has been, ever since my inbox had first pinged with an e-mail from the Kelkar Medical Foundation two months ago. Since then, I have been steadily exchanging emails with the trustees of the Foundation. I know that Parth is the chief trustee. I know, because I immediately Googled the Foundation to find out! Google also informs me that he is divorced and has one child- a son.
The Foundation is planning to make a sizable donation towards my ‘dream’ hospital….the hospital that I have been trying to build over the past year. To this end, Foundation officials have already visited the hospital site. Funds are sorely needed to make this hospital a reality, as a lifetime of being paid by my patients with vegetables, livestock and grain have kept only my larder robust, not my bank account.
I have not met or spoken to Parth. We have corresponded via e-mail. Although the e-mails have contained nothing that can be construed as remotely romantic or over-the-line, and are, in fact, all business, I just know what he is feeling when he writes it. The respect and warmth in his missives are unmistakable. He signs off like a stranger, though. ‘Regards, Dr P. P. Kelkar’ – each e-mail says at the end. So painfully formal. But then that is Parth; always a stickler for propriety.
I have wondered if he knows that I am single. I Googled my own name and there it was– Dr Gauri Lad, followed by an endless list of whatever I have done over the years. And at the end, widowed two years ago, followed by a rather unflattering mug shot of me, wearing spectacles. I look stern and schoolmarmish, I decide. I wonder if Parth has seen the picture and if so, what he thinks about it!
The Foundation secretary called me an hour ago. Dr Kelkar would like to complete the formalities of the donation in person. Is today convenient? Can I make the time?
“Yes!”, I answer.
I find myself daydreaming, as the time for us to meet draws near. In the past hour, I have read and reread his emails. I find myself blushing like a young girl and sneak a trip to the nearest mirror to check on my appearance. I know from Parth’s Facebook picture that he is balding and portly, but his eyes are just as intense and warm as ever. I picture us taking long walks inspecting the premises while the hospital is being built, talking incessantly….about our work, our families, talking about anything, everything and …nothing at all…when our silences would speak for us.
Some of my staff is waiting with me and I feel slightly annoyed at the lack of privacy that we will have, for this, our first meeting after so long!
After what seems like a long wait, I see a black car in the distance, raising dust clouds in its’ wake. I am reminded again of that other car that had arrived in our village thirty five ago; the difference being that this arrival is reawakening all my dormant dreams.
The car slows and stops in front of my little group. I hold my breath, sternly admonishing myself to be polite and friendly, and not overwhelm Parth with my excitement. The rear door opens and a young man alights. I look at the car in bewilderment. Where is Parth?
The car moves off looking for a place in the shade in order to park. I crane my neck. Is Parth driving? But….he should have at least stepped out for a moment or acknowledged me with a wave!
“Dr Lad? Dr Gauri Lad?”, says a voice beside me. I whip around. The voice familiar in its’ cadence and deep baritone belongs to the young man who has just arrived in Parth’s car. The voice, the demeanour, the posture; all remind me of Parth. This is his son, I realize.
I feel a rush of maternal affection for this boy who could have been my son, had things been different. I smile cordially and fold my hands in a Namaste.
“Dr Purushottam Kelkar.” He introduces himself. “You were my Baba’s classmate in medical school.” I fondly recollect the Kelkar family tradition of repeating first names after three generations. He has Parth’s eyes too, but I sense a sadness in them.
He continues, “We have been corresponding, I know. But, let me once again repeat that I sincerely admire the work that you are doing here.”
All of a sudden, I feel deflated. The initials Dr P.P. Kelkar belong to Purushottam! Clearly, I have jumped to conclusions, imagining things and mistaking innocent e-mails for love letters.
Although my embarrassment keeps me from being loquacious, Purushottam seems eager to talk.
“Dr Lad, your hospital is very important to my Baba.”, Purushottam says, “He has a notebook in his desk with a list. One of the first entries in it is ‘Help Gauri to build her Hospital’. Probably first written many years ago….the ink is so faded. Every few years he updates the list, but the first entry in every list…always the same. He had, in fact, started the paperwork for this donation over six months ago. I apologise for the delay.”
“Is he planning a visit here?” I ask, elated at this bit of information. Hope stirs in my heart.
“Baba is unwell…has been in and out of the ICU for the past 2 months……he has cancer…metastasised, and inoperable …” He pauses, his voice sad.“Past 3 days he has worsened… don’t know how much time he has left.I know how important your hospital is to him. I am fulfilling his wishes…before he can depart from this world.”
Long after Purushottam has left, I sit alone in the deserted village square feeling Parth’s love for me across the years and miles that separate us. Anger and sadness at what I have lost pierce me like a physical pain until I can barely breathe. What a high price I have paid for the fulfilment of my dreams!