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The Last Laugh (An Extract)


In these times when a prosperous city man is forty-five – he is not supposed to look a day beyond thirty. And five years ago when my Abhigyaan was that age he didn’t look even that old. I remember watching him fondly from the front door every morning as he got into the backseat of the grey Ambassador at 9:20 sharp to be driven away to work. It was the one time in the day that I saw him from far enough to really know how handsome he still looked.

But then that had been the time  that he was only MY Abhigyan. The husband I loved… the father of my children Maneka and Pranay. He did not yet “belong to the people” then as he belongs now.

The man that lay before me at this moment was not mine alone. I had to remember and remind myself of that so many times in a day. He did not even look much like the Abhigyan I knew.

In the last five years, he had aged twenty.

It was not a  disease, a calamity, or  the excesses of a corrupt lifestyle. None of these. It was due to what he often called “the turning point in his life” when interviewed by admiring journalists.

Abhigyaan had always been philosophically inclined – and had insights into life and its problems like few had…. It was a quality that mesmerized all those who came in contact with him…. It was a rare person – amongst his half score staff at the ministry that he worked – who  had not turned to him for advice at some point or the other in those twelve years that he worked there. And those were the twelve most beautiful years of my life too.

How beautiful they were I realized only much after they had long passed. At that time I was often irked at how few of his off-duty hours Abhigyaan had gradually started to spend at home. True that the children were now old enough to be almost completely on their own. True also that romance in our marriage had somewhat dulled. In fact we had both often talked of how our lives needed refocusing… only I imagined that we’d do this together .as we’d done all the earlier years of ‘focused parenting’.

I thought then that at that time we’d read together, go for long walks, maybe get to know each others’ fantasies and perhaps even help them come true. That’s what ‘refocusing’ meant to a foolish woman like me. For I did not want to admit or accept that my man was meant for a larger purpose in life. That I should be grateful, that his mid-life crisis did not lead him into the arms of another woman. but  it in fact led to the forefront of a fight for justice, for people he had earlier never even had anything to do with.

The tribals of the Teesar district of U.P. were protesting the cutting down of some of their forests for the making of a road that would help connect the district to all the  prominent towns of the state. The state government claimed that it would change their lives for the better… the environmentalists with a handful of tribals were convinced it would be their nemesis.

It was true that previous examples of the effect of such developmental projects went to show that dispossessed and displaced families never really came back strong enough to be on their feet. And so Swami Dhireesh… a social figure of the region was determined this time to give the government a run for their ideas and spearhead a movement to oppose the road plan tooth and nail.

Abhigyan was then deputy secretary in the Public Works Department…. Given his ability to deal with and convince people with his oratory he had been pushed forward by the department to deal with the Swami… and hopefully win him over to compromise, so that work on the road construction could begin.

I still remember the date. It was the 19th , July 1996. Abhigyaan had shared his state of mind with me that morning before he left to meet Swami Dhireesh.

Swami Dhireesh was a man whom he had long admired and hoped to meet… and I knew that there were few men that Abhigyaan actually looked up to. And Abhigyaan admired Swami Dhireesh for being one of the few men who had not donned saffron robes to escape from his ability or conviction to do something for society. Abhigyaan had explained to me  that the Swami was so much  like  the social reformers of previous centuries like Swami Vivekananda and Shri Rabindranath Tagore , for whom the espousal of social causes was as important and perhaps linked to their personal quest for spiritual salvation.

Abhigyaans anticipation at meeting Swami Dhireesh that morning had however been tinged with the realization that his mission was to convince him to abandon the campaign to lead the tribals. He shared his divided state of mind with me. And the only way I could help him out would be to counsel him that it would be allright if he couldn’t succeed in his expected line of duty. What would be would be… and that really was a highly comfortable feeling in public life. And privately I was sure that Abhigyaan, unable to espouse something that he did not a hundred per cent believe in, would come back with mission unaccomplished. I would never have dreamed however that that would be the day his  life’s own mission would be found.

Abhigyaan returned in the evening looking preoccupied…. I had learnt not to intrude upon him in those initial few hours of his return from the office. He usually opened up much later and on his own. But that day he slept early.The next morning he woke up early too and asked me over our morning cup of tea whether I loved him enough to stand by him in any kind of times to come.

“Of course I do and I  will.” I had said and he had looked relieved.

I had meant what I had said. But it was much more then I had bargained for. Abhigyaan resigned from his prestigious IAS post that day. The next day he left us all to live life from then on like the tribals whose cause he had completely crossed over to and whose lifestyle he felt he must adopt if he were to truly empathise with them.

A few weeks later Swami Dhireesh moved back to his headquarters to lend his name to another cause. So Abhigyaan was left alone to became the messiah of the tribals. He moved into the cottage near the Beenwa river where they  looked after him as one of their own. Abhigyaan had insisted that Maneka, Pranay and I live  in a small flat that he had bought for us a few kilometers away. Money was very tight but Abhigyaan said that that was in a way a good thing, for Maneka and Pranay would now perforce have to toughen upto face life.

Life changed rapidly over the next few months… Abhigyaan locked horns with the very people that he had once worked for.He went on several fasts at various points in the agitation, and that combined with the legal steps that he took on behalf of the tribals, had succeeded in stalling the road construction work now for almost four years.The tribals, their cause and Abhigyaan became international media entities… and thanks to them  Teesar became a tourist spot of Uttar Pradesh.

Everyone told me that I should be proud of Abhigyaan… whose selflessness and ideals were now beginning to be compared to those of Gandhi. My Abhigyaan? Were they really talking of him I often wondered?

It is the fifth day of his fast unto death… and I’ve been in this tent staring at him in his stupor like state for three days now. Maneka and Pranay have been coming and going but otherwise managing pretty much on their own. Their friends go to parks in the evening and discos at night. But my brave children work part time then and even cook themselves a spartan dinner at night if I am late in returning from the tuition classes that I take. They haven’t yet protested too much, against this toughening up. Nor have I. It’s not easy to do that when the entire nation considers you the family of a national hero.

And the hero lies before me at this moment… his hair coarse and dry. The lips that once transported me to ecstasy , are now chapped and bleeding. The deep warm breath that made me secure all night  is now hot, raspy  and short but  I’m grateful its there at all. The stomach that Maneka and Pranay used to tease him as being a paunch is now sunk below his ribs and his skin is stretched somewhat loosely over his bones. All the hundreds of hours I’d spent cleaning and cooking the best of food to nourish his flesh and blood have come to nothing, as the cause has sucked at his very form. And yet it  remains unsatisfied .

The doctor told me clearly this morning that Abhigyaan’s life now hung only by the slender thread of his will power. And  it is only  I who know that that thread might be slender, but unfortunately it was very stubborn!

Yes, I dare to say unfortunately, because it is  this very will power that is going to make it difficult for Abhigyaan to give in and end his fast if the state remained firm in their stand favoring of the road project. That incidentally, was another truth that the minister had told me three  mornings ago , for now that the Supreme Court verdict had ruled in the government’s favour… all that they would have to contend with were the emotions of the people and the media and the conviction of Abhigyaan.

The minister had told me that everything was in my hands now. The project would be going full steam ahead anyway… but since the contractors would be happier to work without fear of controversy or revolt they had requested me to convince Abhigyaan to concede so that the tribals would do so too. Not only that they had promised that if Abhigyaan did concede, they would all contribute a percentage of their budget towards any other cause he might want  to fight for.

The contractors had come to me every morning in these last three days and I had honestly pleaded that I had no influence over Abhigyaan’s decision to call off his fast and thus make the tribals agree to adjust to the government’s alternate plans for them. That was really the truth but it didn’t seem so to them. “Bhabhiji surely he’ll give in to your wishes if you convince  him to” the grey safari suit had said. “ Just think about it… we’ll come again later.”

Abhigyaan opened his eyes slightly… I noticed that his pupils moved involuntarily from side to side along his upper eyelid. I held his warm  hand… I noticed that his thumb stuck stubbornly to his palm… trying but failing to respond to my touch… the doctor had said this was a sign  of severe dehydration.

He seemed to be looking at me… if that’s what looking could be called without the pupils in place. And I   could clearly see our  future in the glaze of his blank eyes.

I can see myself  sitting in this tiny hut  with folded hands as hordes of people float past me whispering words of condolences. Then Pranay and Maneka come to my rescue and take me back to our small home in town.

Maneka the girl whom we had once planned to send to Harvard… has given up her studies. Pranay no longer plays football… the game he could once kill for. They are lovely children, only I am a wretched mother.

“Abhigyaan?” I whispered into his ear “They have agreed to everything.”

Abhigyaan pressed his hand against mine. I knew he was asking ‘Are you sure?’

“Yes, yes Abhigyaan… have I ever told you an untruth.”

This time his hand jerked to say “No, of course I believe you.”

“So have this and leave it all to me.” I said, lifting the cover from the glass of water kept by his side . I helped him rise slightly and put the glass to his lips “No, no  only a little right now… it must go in slowly.” I said even as I watched him clench the rim of the glass with his teeth his hot breath causing bubbles in the water.

“That’s enough for now. You rest  awhile” I said as I slowly helped him lie down again  and then got up to leave the room, looking at him one more time.

The news of Abhigyaan breaking his fast soon spread like wildfire…. Within minutes grey safari suit had come with the bag of contributions from the contractor’s which he handed over to me to manage and use  for the cause of my choice.

I bid grey safari suit goodbye – warning him to be discreet for a while about what I had accomplished for him. Clutching the bag I peeped into Abhigyaans room one last time. He was surrounded by his beloved tribals, one of whom  was patiently feeding their hero some fruit-juice teaspoon by teaspoon. His eyes had begun to focus and looked as if they searched for someone.  I knew he would be fine in course of time… but by then his eyes must not find what they searched for.

I turned away and walked out of the hut. Maneka and Pranay were walking towards me… fear writ large on their face.

“How’s Papa” Pranay asked.

“He’s going to be fine for he’s ended his fast. But we can’t see him now… we are leaving for Delhi right now.” I commanded.

“But why” asked Maneka.

“So that we can live our lives.” I said as I turned both of them roughly by their shoulders to ensure that they walk with me, and not towards their father. The   nonplussed. children did my bidding as I had finally done theirs  today.

“How can we leave like this Ma? We haven’t got anything with us. Let us at least pack our bags at home? We’ll need at least a few basic things wherever we go.” Maneka spoke  again.

I clutched the bag of money that I now held even more tightly. “This is all we shall ever need again my children.”