Bhatt Uncle had eaten more than his share of pooris for breakfast and his wife’s anaar daana pills did little to contain his flatulence. Seema Aunty expelled her own fuel of criticisms about the choice of clothing of the others in attendance.
A few stepped out to smoke, even though the havan had consumed most of the oxygen within a comfortable radius of the house. The rest of the aunts and uncles chatted along in different batches that would closely resemble formidable cliques in school.
Anand did not fashion talking to most of them so he plastered a smile on his face to survive. His mother, Urvashi, was resting in bed during the entire ceremony.
The pandit, who was reading his shlokhas from his latest Samsung Galaxy phone, kept muttering them with increasing pace towards the end of the havan.
The puja was held as a last means resort to cure Urvashi’s debilitating condition.
Anand kept picturing her in healthier times with every proclamation of a god or goddess that was to be repeated by him at the request of the panditji. This signified that the named God was invited to bless their home, from Rama to Parvati and her better half Shiva, and not to forget the lower rung deities that would be typically worshiped as incarnations of the more popular ones.
When the doctors had declared their limitations of science to treat her, Anand relied on the remnants of faith and hope still beating his heart.
He could recall a prayer or two, but he wasn’t an ardent follower of God by any means.
The concept of a supernatural force taking care of mankind from above is strangely soothing for those who admit their defeat to rationality.
A week after the ceremony, Urvashi collapsed on the floor. Blood test and body scan results at the hospital demonstrated that recovery was unlikely.
On the third day of her stay, Urvashi regained partial consciousness and touched Anand’s head with affection. He knew how badly she wanted to live. She had expressed that desire one too many times.
To see his kids grow old.
To make more meals for him with her own hands; the same hands that were connected to multiple machines for nutrition and pumping blood.
She tried opening her mouth to talk, but no words came out. Her pupils were dilated, as if her eyes wanted to convey something that her lips could not.
He comforted her face and whispered, “I know Ma. I know.”
The time on his watch read 11:11.
Like a fool, he made his wish again. The nurse advised him then that visiting hours were over. It ached his heart to leave her alone, but he was a puppet in this game of fate.
Urvashi struggled to inhale the few breaths she had left.
Anand began to recite every prayer that the panditji had advised him for his mother’s condition. It is amazing how desperation can turn a man of science into a faith-monger.
He was willing to travel to every holy saint and heavenly spot that alleged promises of a miracle.
“I just have to do another few chants. I know you will be all better any second. Hold on Ma,” he thought to himself.
He had just completed the penultimate chanting when the doctors rushed in.
Anand was elated to see that her eyes were completely open.
Amazed that the miracle finally occurred, he looked at the doctors for similar countenances of glee. Instead, they requested him to leave as they prepared her for immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
The monitor refused to show any signs of a heartbeat.
Anand was watching from afar.
The nurses called him back in. He moved forward and simply closed her eyes that were still staring at the blank wall.
Relatives gathered again in a similar fashion as in the time of the havans, the futility of which was now evident in the traces of soot clinging on to his home walls.
“Look beta, such is destiny. We do not know what happened in Urvashi’s past life,” Bhatt Uncle said with a hint of satisfaction on preaching his belief system.
“What do you mean Uncle?”
“Beta, I just meant that she may have some bad karma….”
Anand began to chuckle as this man, whose own past was riddled with gambling and spousal abuse, was lecturing him about karma.
“Don’t worry. We are still alive to help you. God has put us here to take care of you.”
Jai/Hare/Wahe/Holy (insert God name here).
“Uncle, it doesn’t matter how much longer you live than my mother. You will never match the legacy of charity and virtue she left behind.”
“Arey, what kind of upbringing do these kids have now-a-days?! Is this the kind of respect we get as elders!” Bhatt Uncle fumed.
Anand had already made peace with his last statement and quietly walked away.
Anand remained alone for a few weeks to heal from the trauma. He ate his meals in silence, but he did not hold his sense of taste as captive as he did in the States.
The house-help prepared every meal from scratch, a significant change from the take-outs and packaged meals he was accustomed to in the past.
All that freshness of food did some good for his spirit too.
Finally, he made the leap to dial an old friend.
And only one friend – Sanjana.
She replied to his Whatsapp message the moment he sent it. He did not mention his recent loss and simply asked if they could meet over a cup of tea.
Her presence was just as calming as their days of studying together in school. When he finally disclosed the demise of his mother, Sanjana reacted with the kind of empathy he sorely needed.
“I know how much you loved her Anand. You tried your best.”
“I still don’t get it Sanjana. She thought as positively as she could. I really thought the Universe listens to that kind of stuff.”
“I think you need to forgive the Universe as much as you need to forgive yourself.”
“Yeah, maybe the Universe doesn’t actually bother about us as much as we thought it did,” Anand added despondently.
“Why do you think that?”
“Oh c’mon Sanjana! The Universe doesn’t owe anyone a favor.”
Sanjana placed her hand on his back to comfort him.
“I knew that Alchemist book was nothing but gibberish,” she added to cheer him up.
He finally showed a hint of a smile.
“You know what I realize now?”
“I’m all ears Anand.”
“I think we all try to find too much meaning out of everything. Today, a bunch of ants got killed by the accidental stepping of my foot, but the Universe could have done something to prevent such a massacre. But that didn’t happen. Perhaps the only understanding that concerns us is that there is no profound meaning to be realized. Life just comes and goes.”
“You do realize you are going to put a lot of self-proclaimed Godmen out of business.”
They both let out a hearty chuckle.
Anand and Sanjana met again over more such dates. They had the uncanny ability to guess each other thoughts without thinking them through.
It was relieving for him to share his sufferings without having the courage to reveal them.
“I didn’t have too much faith in this God system before and I have completely deserted the belief now,” Anand stated nonchalantly.
“The mind is a tricky thing to tame Anand. Faith can help in that department.”
“Is Sanjana, the committed atheist, condoning religion now?”
“All I’m saying is that it works for some and doesn’t work for others. Unless of course some holy fella starts telling me how I’m doomed to go to hell for wearing this skirt and drinking some wine.”
“Skirts suit you….I mean you look nice… in everything.”
She caught him blushing and pecked him on the cheek, just as spontaneously as his response.
A month later, Sanjana was taking an auto to Anand’s new apartment in Delhi when she saw him heading towards the Mata Mandir that was located around the block.
He emerged from the temple with a tilak on his forehead and a thali of prasad to feed the local beggars.
Urvashi used to do the same.
Surprised to see him in this avatar, she did not utter a word.
He did not respond either.
Seconds later, they both erupted in laughter.
“So Mr. Anand has finally caved in, has he?”
But Anand could not stop laughing.
She hugged him with as much love as she could beget.
The laughter ceased, and she could feel his warm tears rolling down the back of her kameez.