by Susmesh Chandroth
Translated from Malayalam by Jyothi Haridas (firstname.lastname@example.org )
Original Malayalam Title: “Sisuvayi Maranam Maathram” (ശിശുവായി മരണം മാത്രം)
The wall clock chimed to tell me that the time was 10. This April night was as hot and stuffy as the ones that had preceded it. The clock ringing had reminded me that it was dinner time in this mediocre home of a mediocre couple.
I was in the drawing room pouring over the editorial pages of today’s daily. It was a second round reading of the paper after I was done with the statements and stupidities which our ‘so called’ leaders had made on that day. That was a ‘must to do ‘ for a satirical cartoonist like me.
I kept the news paper on the table and rearranged the table back into an orderly manner and walked into our bedroom. That was when I first felt it. A small heaviness in my chest. Like a small piece of paper stuck to my throat. In the blue glow of the computer screen I could see meera was busy jotting down some points in her diary with a pencil.
Hearing my footsteps she turned her head around and again turned back to the screen. She was carefully reading the screen contents and recording them in her diary. I gave a small cough. Partly to clear my throat and partly to grab her attention. I was surprised to feel a cold pointed pain somewhere deep inside my chest. One or two small coughs and I was not having any cold or cough symptoms. Meera looked at me from the screen.
“Let’s have dinner” I answered to her inquisitive glances.
She turned back to the blue screen after a node of consent and after a few more irritating minutes it took to save her work and turned the System off, she pushed her chair back and stood up. In the mean time I was carefully experimenting with various amplitudes and frequencies of drawing a breath, like a trained sniffer dog. Though not as accurate, my instincts were starting to tell me that there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere around me. Sadly I was only human and my nasal capabilities weren’t good enough to tell me what the cause of my discomforts was. As if to reassure myself, I told Meera
“I think someone is burning waste on the roads again. Am feeling a suffocation” To validate me, she also started taking long controlled breaths….. And her face started turning red and she started coughing too. I realized then that something was actually stopping my breath from going in. Meera through a confused glance at me while coughing.I pushed open the window and stepped into our balcony to see the cause of our sudden discomfort. That’s when I slowly comprehended that my instincts which were slowly raising a raucous of alarms in my head were not lying……
In front of me was the stretched layout of the city…… nothing was missing except for the fact that it appeared as if I was viewing everything through a thick smoked glass. A layer of thick yellowish white smog was slowly descending over the city as I watched like the veil lowered over the face of a bride.
It slowly registered in my mind that Glass-factory road where our residence was located fell within the boundaries of the industrial area. Beyond a couple of streets of residential and commercial buildings, the dark silhouettes of the chimneys of different factories loomed like cannons aimed at the heavens. The precise reason for our present discomfort still remained to me as a mystery.
I quickly stepped back inside and latched the open windows. Fear was slowly sinking into the insides of my brain like the white blanket which was being lowered across the township. I could hear Meera coughing violently in the background.
“There is an uncharacteristic smog all around the place. Actually no idea what has happened ”
I almost cried out to Meera as I hurriedly closed all open windows and latched them tight. Our home was in the top floor and was open to the mercy of the winds coming from all four directions.
“My eyes are burning…….. I can’t open my eyes!!!
Me who was searching for towels to cover our faces left my mission and ran to Meera. But by that time my own eyes wear itching and the burning sensation was slowly building in my eyelids. I switched on the fans and turned the AC to maximum cool condition and sat next to her all the while trying to rub out the wretched sensation from my eyes. In shocking suddenness, we had barely enough strength even to talk.
I reached my hand out for the remote and switched the TV on and started searching for any form of warnings or messages in all the local news channels. But none of the stations reported anomalies of any sort in any nearby areas. The white formless smoke which had started its slow infiltration into our haven also seemed to be filling up my mind. I vaguely saw Meera dialing a number from my cell phone.
“Hello is it Thambi sir? This is me Meera…. Mr. Rajiv’s wife. Sir, have you heard of any mishaps happening in the area?”
I instinctively snatched the phone from her hand and held it close to my ears.
“Oh my god….. Are you guys still there??? There has been a sulfur dioxide leak…….. Didn’t anyone tell you?”
Before anything else could be said the phone got cut. I looked straight at Meera’s eyes and like a condemned man walking the plank I told her slowly.
“There has been a leak in one of the plants…..”
I could see a mixture of disbelief and fear in her eyes. I calculated that the leak must have been from one of the closer pesticide plants. The rushing gas would mix with the air and would spread the deadly mixture around the area. With the easiness of a dictator the deadly mixture would take over my lungs and sabotage my pulmonary functions. I knew that death was imminent if it reached to such a scenario.
My wife,architect Meera and Me Rajiv, the Cartoonist would be a photograph in tomorrow’s news paper. Blank staring eyes. Blood and body fluids spewing out of our pores. With the many dead bodies transferred in masses, our bodies will also be taken to the mortuary , Cold and lifeless. Mortuary would be filled with the smell of ruptured pulmonary arteries and blood. Doctors would tear away the dirty clothes stuck to the bodies and prepare for the final consultation.
“Meera……..” my voice cracked…..
I protectively held her in my arms and hugged her closely . My only thought was to hug her away from the demons surrounding us.
“Rajiv……I am tiring out……”
keeping her lips on my sweating face she whispered.
“We’ll get through this…”
My voice sounded false and unreal .I didn’t know where to go I saw her tired eyes and her sweaty green blouse.I felt I hadn’t had enough of this life. That was when it struck me. We have to survive. It wasn’t an enquiry. It was an order. It was a duty which I was entitled to do. And I had no option but to do it. Some how…. Any how..
“Call up Dr.Rajalakshmi, ask her what can be done for first aid. I will just go meet Basheer in the ground floor .”
Basheer and his family lived in the immediate down floor. I slowly walked out of the room with the sight of Meera searching fervently for numbers in my cell phone. I opened the front door and was awestruck. All I could see in front of me was the off whiteness of the smog. The smog enveloped me like a solid wall. My eyes were burning and my innards were beating against my stomach walls. Biting down the sensation to vomit, I slowly started towards my neighbor’s home. The everyday familiarity which I had acquired by the continual usage of the stairs helped me reach Basheer’s front door even though my eyes were closed.
In the wake of imminent death I forgot all forms of social conduct and started pounding my fist against the door. But there were no signs of life inside. Even the lights were out. I stooped for the ground and started searching for the footwears outside the door. Not finding any, I ran to the stairs and leaning out, screamed the name of Ravi, our other tenant. But no one replied back. That’s when it struck me. Everyone was gone and we were alone in this concentration camp.
I remembered an incident that had occurred in the town around 3 weeks before. Ammonia gas had leaked from a factory and a lot of people had been hospitalized as an aftermath.I also had drawn two cartoons for my paper on that. The only action which the authorities took in response to the cries of the people was to close down the plant for a few days. They re-opened it after wards and the poison bogey was back in fully working condition. But I wasn’t sure weather I would be alive tomorrow to express my strong discontent towards this new leak in tomorrows news paper…….
I suddenly remembered about Meera being alone in the home. I ran back up the stairs fighting the dense smog. It appeared as if the steps where never ending. I could hear the human screams and fire engine sirens as if from a distance…… far away distant. I burst into my home violently swinging the door open.
Meera was lying on the floor. When I lifted her in my hands, I heard her whimper like a blinded lost lamb.
“Raju…. I want to vomit…..my head is spinning ….please….let’s go somewhere…”
I could hear in my head the bell toll of a ship. A million bays with a million ships in them was lining up in front of me. But as I looked carefully I found out that the bridges to each and everyone of them where obliterated and destroyed beyond my help.
I quickly tied a towel around her face and hurriedly locking the door, I stepped into the gas chamber outside with her sweaty palms in my hand. I held her on to me as if she was sinking into an abyss. I wanted to erase the image in my mind that it was not just her and we where no longer sinking but already inescapably stuck inside the damned place.
I felt like hearing the scared last breaths of people who died due to the lack of air in the congested rails of Tirur. While I hurriedly climbed the stairs I felt as if a gas chamber and a polymerization bureau of the cursed dictator was waiting for us in a distance. I stopped midway. Meera looked at me enquiringly. I thought of the poor commoners who waited humbly outside the Oshoveats concentration camps to pass the chemical test. Who all would be alive in the city to see the next spring arrive? I could still see Meera’s dark lined face in the dim light.
That was when I understood how strong and inspirational the will to live in a human being can be.
We stood blankly in front of our lonely apartment building. There were markings of someone’s vomit all around the front porch. Maybe the person was running because it appeared in a streak. The road was empty in all other senses. There where no humans or vehicles anywhere in sight. Ravi’s car also was missing. Maybe Basheer and his family also had escaped from the place in that car. Maybe it was because there wasn’t enough room in the car for two more people that they conveniently forgot about me and Meera. I saw a crippled dog running on the other side of the street barking helplessly.
“Meera, let whatever happen. I think we should go back to our home.”
I hadn’t considered anything other than what my heart told when I said these words. After the dog ran away without scaring us or without getting scared by us, we slowly started back into our home.
“Hasn’t it been six years since we started living here? I’ve been telling you that we should move from this place from a long time. We don’t even have a baby. How can that happen when we are living in this poison chamber……” Meera stammered along with the utmost bitterness in her voice.
“We will move. If we make it alive through the night, we’ll definitely move.”
Rubbing our spasming bellies, we reached back into our apartment. We removed the towels covering our faces. I lay down on the bed holding meera close to me. I’ve always thought that my ideal death would be in front of a flash of press cameras hugging my life close to me. I felt even meera was thinking of a death like that. I could hear her whimpering next to me.
I looked at meera with the eyes of a man who was in love with life. I rubbed my hands against the small wedding locket which she wore. It was the only piece of jewelry which I was ever fond of. I patted her cheeks and told with surety.
“You don’t have to be afraid. We WILL NOT die today….”
Even when I uttered these words my mind was filled with gruesome images of dead bodies which would scatter the locality tomorrow. A month before, in the same factory there was an acid leak which happened into the local river. That day we had seen the water surface rippled with the dead bodies of fishes. Tomorrow the same river would be filled with human bodies. Skinless human carcasses.
It was a situation when the pen and mouse and brush in a man’s hand were all rendered useless. The poisonous molecules acted like bullets which perforated the lung walls. The wretched dictator had learned that fact such a long time before. He was still creating the off springs of that history from hell.
I again hugged Meera. I was tired and scared like a lost child. She started coughing again. She asked me:
“Will we live through this?”
Even though my hope had set, Even though I was waiting for a quick approaching death, I said with firmness, “Yes…. We are going to live for years after tonight”
“I haven’t had enough of our life yet”
She cried to me with a helpless agony in her voice.
The deadly particles still kept inching into the house through the unseen pores in the walls. It was cold outside as if the winds of Siberia were blowing on.
“It is more adventurous to live than to suicide or to murder. Aren’t we adventurers Meera? ”
She slowly shook her head as if to agree and lay her head on my chest. I could see her breathing out the deadly blue vapors, which were being breathed in by me. As I lay in my bed, I saw the roof of our house being torn away and the sky being ripped apart. Dirty liquid and indistinguishable filth was falling all around us. I saw the walls surrounding Monovits Buena and Birkinadiv around us. I heard the whimpers and sirens of ambulances. At that moment, through the torn void in the sky, I and meera slowly started rising up, hand in hand.
At the same time we could hear one of our cell phones ringing merrily near the computer desk…..