Shadows of a mind
e stood at the corner of the street waiting for the traffic light to show pedestrian crossing turn green. The imposing church building was just across the road and he was well before time the mass would begin this Sunday. Many devout congregate for the holy prayer, dressed in their best costume as he himself was attired in a pretty decent outfit that matched his personality well. He had, however, let his beard grow over the last one year and only trimmed it as it was painful to shave his rugged face that had weathered over the past seventy years and the skin was no longer so smooth. He weaved his fingers through his hair and managed to move his straight lock backwards to prevent these falling on his face and obstruct his field of vision, as he got ready to cross the road.
Wilson Alfred Pereira, known to his friends and family as “Willy” since his growing up days from boyhood, was by no means a stranger in this part of the town where he lived in a Christian community cluster and he never missed his Sunday mass. He carried his lanky frame of six feet very erect and felt very proud of himself for being in good physical condition even after having gone through the surgical blade twice, once for his gall bladder and then for Vasectomy. His family and friends had admonished him for siring four kids with his second wife without showing any signs of stopping, the first wife having left him half way as she battled through the process of a difficult childbirth with a stillborn baby. All his four sons from the second marriage were now settled well in their own life and lived away from him and their mother who now looked after him in his sunset days. Not that she was any young herself; Nancy had her own girlish charm at sixty-two and she never felt disoriented as she smiled away at all the odds she had to face in her daily routine. She in fact loved to look after Willy and do all her chores by herself.
Willy retired as a Customs Officer at the International Airport at Bombay, now known as Mumbai. He had worked his way up from a much somber beginning. He was not very well educated as he strived to find his footing working initially as an export assistant for an export house where he prepared export documents and other papers relating to the trade. His father knew the guy who managed the show and got Willy the job he badly needed to keep the kitchen fires burning. He managed to go up the career ladder a hard way, studying part time for a college degree and also passing a few government departmental examinations. He may not have earned any accolades for his unblemished service of thirty-five years in the government service, but he felt contended when he retired with a pension. At least he did better than his own father who worked as a waiter and then a bar tender in a medium sized hotel all his life and could not give a decent college or technical education to his only son. He felt even better as he considered his two sons doing well in business ventures of their own and the other two at good positions in the state service. He had managed to bring them up well and given them proper support and education the way they desired. The boys invited their aging parents for dinners and family functions individually once in a while and even brought presents for them at Christmas. Life was good, not only for him but for his kids as well.
There was the only one thought gnawing his mind all these years and that was the memory of his first wife whom he had married after a prolonged courtship of three years. He had loved Jessica from the depth of his heart and had been deeply pained at her passing away. She was the source of his strength as she urged him to move up in life from an errand boy to a position of status in the Customs Department by prodding him on to study and do hard labor simultaneously. He would attribute his success to her unfailing attention as he prepared to boost up his career. She had been the torch bearer all the time through thick and thin and when success did finally begin to show, she decided to knock at the doors of the heaven leaving him alone to fend for himself. He never stopped to remember the days that they lived together, the first three years in courtship and the next two as a happily wedded couple. He considered these five years of his life as the golden years and the memory of the period would not fade away. Try as he did to play down the courtship days, the thought of her existence would not leave him at peace. The affection of thirty-six years of marriage to Nancy did nothing to underplay or undermine the importance of his first love Jessica and their togetherness for just those five years.
Every Sunday as he came from his Bandra home to the church at Mahim for prayers, he would talk to her in the silence of his mind as he pray for her soul. She would appear to him as a shadow and playfully reprimand him for being away and not take notice of her and he would have tears roll down his cheeks, as the recollection of her face was made lifelike the moment he would think of her. The worst problem was that Jessica would refuse to grow old alongside in his memory. She stayed young, vibrant, lively, pure, and full of love for him. She never aged as he did and he liked to see her thus, as he last knew her forty odd years ago. During such brief moments he himself would feel young, energetic and very much in love. It did pain him, however, that he could not share these thoughts of Jessica with anyone else. These were his private feelings about her and he did not like anyone intruding in his thoughts for Jessica. Not even his wife Nancy or the four sons she gave him during their lifetime. Yes, he would even grieve for his stillborn baby from his first wife. He had not even seen the dead body of the girl child.
After he knelt at the Alter and said a silent prayer to Mother Mary and Lord Jesus with gratitude in making his life so comfortable and good, Willy took his seat as usual in the last row of the benches and closed his eyes for a sight he always longed to see. The smiling face of Jessica sprang up before his closed eyes and it appeared to him she was saying something to him today that he wanted to hear and understand so that the bond between them remained unbroken. He saw Jessica with a supposedly ailing baby in her arms but did not understand why she had the baby with her today and why she looked aggrieved. She had never reminded him of the dead baby and this was the first time ever he witnessed this phenomena. It scared him a little and he started a silent conversation with Jessica to learn what she was trying to communicate. Willy stayed through the service with a nervous and shaken body as he failed to discern the meaning of today’s thought process when he would be in union with his lost love. He suddenly felt cold and could not control the slight tremor going through his body. He got up on his weakened knees and started towards the exit gate. Once outside the church doors, Willy saw a woman beckon to him and she asked him for help in providing assistance for a treatment facility for her fragile looking baby in her arms. Willy enquired as to what ailed the little child and the woman gestured that she was running a high fever for several days now and only he could save the baby. He opened his wallet and handed over one Rs 100 note to the woman, but she insisted that he come along to the hospital nearby where he should recommend her to the Doctor to provide care for her daughter. Well this was taking a different turn now and Willy was not prepared to alter his plans for the morning. He had promised his wife to accompany her to their elder son’s house where he wanted to share the festive occasion with his son and the grand children. He looked around him and saw his youngest son Simon coming out of the church. Willy beckoned his son and asked him if he had his car with him. Together they drove to the hospital at Bandra with the woman and the ailing baby and the doctor on duty, known to Willy, examined the patient and said he needs to admit the child for further examination and treatment. Having gone through the routine Willy thought things were under control and was due to take leave of the woman, when she declined to let things go out of her hands and she insisted that Willy should stay in touch until the baby was discharged from the hospital.
Now wait what is that, thought Willy. How does all this concern me? He was kind of nice in taking his son’s help in bringing the ailing girl to the hospital and getting all the attention of the doctor to set things in motion. The woman had refused monetary help from Willy and was insisting he take total control until the discharge of the baby from the hospital. But how did it concern him, he failed to understand. She was neither known nor related to him and yet with alacrity she demanded all the attention. His son Simon had already excused himself and had left. Feeling tired he seated himself on the nearby bench and pondered over the happenings of the past hour. He was not a philanthropist, and nor was he a person to ignore the cry for help from a destitute, but this was taking things a bit too far. He had not indulged in this sort of philanthropy anytime in his life. And yet he was here providing succor to a needy person though unwittingly. Why was he listening to this woman’s cry for help and why was he staying put all the time, he did not realize or foresee the reason to do anything of this sort. Then it suddenly dawned on him and it was like a bolt from the blue.
He had not clearly seen the face of the woman who asked for help and now when she was standing before him and thanking him for all the help he was providing, did he realize he had seen this young woman someplace. This was no one else but Jessica, who was standing in front of him and thanking him with folded hands. Willy was stunned and strung with fear. He felt his knees go wobbly and fearfully looked at the woman. Where did you come from? He asked. Well I have come from Nasik to the city for my ailing daughter, replied the woman. What is your name young lady, Willy asked and she said she was Jalsa and happy that she was correctly directed to him for help by a lady at the church who had finger pointed the gentleman who would help her. And where is the father of this child, asked Willy. Jairam is a daily wager in a Gujrat town and he could not be contacted as the baby’s condition worsened over the week. It was like a lightning bolt that struck Willy who remembered something about seeing Jessica in the church trying to show him an ailing baby that needed help. But the resemblance of the woman with Jessica was what he was most disturbed about. This must be crazy, he thought, to confront a woman who just looked like Jessica and even her name rhymed so well with that of hers. She was in effect a shadow of Jessica.
It was after about a week when the baby was discharged from the hospital with all parameters functioning well and Jalsa profusely thanked Willy for his help and attention all through the week when he would take regular check on the patient’s status. His interaction with the Doctor about the welfare of the baby was personal and the Doctor in turn left no stone unturned to make things easy for the patient. Jalsa remained at the hospital all the time by her side looking after all her comforts. During her stay at the hospital Jalsa was respectful of Willy for his help and his regular visits to the baby recuperating at the hospital. Willy used to steal glances at her from time to time and was surprised to see the similarity of her face with that of Jessica and he did at times wonder what all was really happening. Jalsa later departed for Nasik with help from Willy who managed a rail ticket for her in the train through a travel agent known to him. The hospital expenses were borne by Willy from his bank account and he knew it would not severely dent his pension funds.
Many days later when he recounted the help he provided a woman and thanked his son for being there with his car and carrying the duo to the hospital, his son Simon said he never was there at the church and nor did he take any woman with a child to the hospital. Willy was taken aback and thought Simon was of course joking about the incident, until he learnt that he was indeed away on official assignment to Delhi during the week when the incident occurred. He did not understand what to make of it. But when he met the doctor one day at a local restaurant, his astonishment soared sky high as the doctor refused to acknowledge the fact that he had treated a baby girl at his hospital at his insistence though he had seen Willy a few times moving in the precincts of the hospital. Something told him things were out of place and he checked his bank accounts and learnt that no amount was debited from his account to the hospital for any treatment to a baby girl, though a check stub was indicating that he had in fact written out a check, the entries of the recipient being absent from the check-stub. Had Willy any further ability to withstand shocks he would have, if enquired, learnt from his travel agent that no rail ticket was issued to a woman named Jalsa on any train to Nasik on the day she was supposed to have traveled and no payment was ever demanded for issuance of a ticket.
Willy has not spoken about it to any other person but he keeps recounting the incident to himself thinking at times if he has gotten insane after all or if age was playing tricks on him. He still goes to the church every Sunday and he interacts with Jessica as he always did for the past forty years. She smiles at him more affably than ever before and now regularly appears to him with her baby in her arms. The baby in Jessica’s arms happily looks at Willy just the way the ailing baby looked at him at the hospital on the day of her discharge. The only thing that has left Willy puzzled is why all this fuss over the stillborn baby after so many years. He may not really know the answer to that puzzle after all. Strange are the ways the shadows filter through one’s mind.
Shri B.L. Dhar was born and brought up at Srinagar. After completing his Master’s Degree in Mathematics he ventured out of the state and found a job in the Civil Aviation Department joining as a Gazetted Officer. His area of activity was at Delhi and Mumbai International airports. He was selected to undergo training at the school of aviation; Luxembourg under the UNDP program and later posted at the Corporate Headquarters in New Delhi. He had in the meantime joined the newly formed PSU, Airports Authority of India, from where he retired as a General Manager in 2000. He has written innumerable articles about aviation that was published in the house magazine. He is now settled in Delhi and keeps his interest alive in writing..
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