I got hit by a sudden bout of darkness. One minute I was stepping outside of my home to visit my son's residential construction site; the next I was slowly slipping into an unconscious sub-zone, where everything failed to exist. I tried grappling my way through the darkness to the faint streak of light that kept fading away. My left hand and leg obliged, but my right did not. Suddenly my muscles started going into a spasmodic dance that I couldn't entirely control. My mouth twitched at an awkward angle. I felt like I split into half, my left fighting my right. And my right side fell defeated.
"Thaatha!" I heard a feeble tone from a distant tunnel.
"Wake up Appa!" I heard a familiar voice that sounded distressed. I could listen to the slow commotion that swirled around me; hear many distinct shouts, but the power that pulled me into the endless void was too strong to resist, and I surrendered.
I woke up with a pounding headache and a bitter taste in my throat. The smell of cheap hospital antiseptic filled my nostrils. The bright room left my senses dazzled, and my eyes shunned away clearly preferring comfortable darkness to the mind-prickling reality. The half-dead feeling refused to go away.
"Appa!" the familiar voice pulled me up from the anesthetic-induced fogginess. My mind cleared, so did my eyes.
"Sudhir!" I croaked gently trying to hold his hands with mine. My right side refused to respond to my command. A dreadful premonition settled in me, and I panicked.
"Sudhir... Kanna! Am not able to move my hand!" I tried flailing my arms and legs in desperation. My son faced me with a solemn look pasted on his face. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could register my left hand and leg moving about, and it was only my right that was giving me the trouble.
I finally understood the look on my son's face. "What happened?" I whispered anyway.
"Stroke Appa!" he said. "Your entire right side paralyzed" his voice sounded defeated.
"Where's Suman and Suresh?" I asked, trying my best to look around.
"Suman just went to call the doctor."
"And Suresh?" I asked, though I already knew the answer.
"He was here the night, Appa!" my son said in an unconvincing tone. "He's now at his place's construction site."
We exchanged silent glances, and the little interaction was cut short by the severe looking, plump doctor.
"How are you feeling Mr. Dhinagaraj?" the doctor asked in a gentle yet professional tone.
"I don't think am well" I whispered looking at my right hand.
"Don't give up hope sir!" - The doctor said while he went about doing his professional examination of my half-useless body. "We could do some Physiotherapy for your father Mr.Suman and see how he responds to it and we'll take it from there."
My sons nodded their consent.
"His right side is not functional so he's going to be bedridden. Please make sure he doesn't become bed sore. I am authorizing to discharge him today. Please collect the medical summary and bills from his attending nurse", said the doctor.
Suman walked the doctor back talking to him rapidly, most probably about the insurance claims, medicine discounts, concessions and every possible way of shrinking his pocket spend. That was the core definition of my first son. His pockets never shelled an extra penny than the absolute minimum. The wife he chose was his perfect companion as she made money with whatever scrap they had at home. The empty milk packets exchanged for 1kg of garlic; Old clothes became plastic buckets and mugs. They lived frivolously, saving everything only not to lose the ego game called "Who's the richest of us three?"
I sighed trying to control my wandering mind. Maybe that's why your body shouldn't be half-dead. The brain had too much space in it to think about absolute random crap. I turned to my second son Sudhir. "Did Indhu go to school?" I asked.
"Yes!" he said, quite visibly absent-minded. His eyes focused back to me as though he suddenly remembered my currently invalid situation. "Why don't you take some rest appa. I'll just see what Subathra has cooked and ask her to bring some food" he said and walked away.
"All three of us are here!" I could overhear Sudhir talking heatedly to his wife. I sighed as he closed the door behind me. I knew what was happening. Subathra was probably questi0ning about the invisible rule that kept her tied to the kitchen and why it was her responsibility to cook a meal for all of ‘them.'" I can't blame her now, Can I? She was the kind of woman whose love and affection could easily get mistreated as slavery and living along with other two daughter-in-laws who came from a better economic background than she didn't do any good. She developed a deep mistrust of everyone and commendable inferiority complex that came out in the form of sharp words. She lashed out on my son for everything possible, making a son who loved his family into a barren, no-man land torn between caring for everyone and leaving his earthly things away and finding a refuge in the deep vastness of Himalayas.
I breathed slowly becoming angrier at myself for my condition. Though considered a burden after my wife's death, my daughter-in-laws had tolerated me as I helped them with their chores as much as I could. I walked the kids to school, swept the house and occasionally cooked when one of them fell ill. I firmly believed in the concept of one family, and unlike my elder brother who had given different properties at different places to his sons, I had built a large, single house with a floor for each of my sons. Initially, things looked all happy and rosy, and the wisdom of my plan worked. And then it became disastrous. In the hopes of keeping my sons comfortable, I had foolishly forgotten to think about my wife and myself. As they got married one after the other, we moved from one bachelor son to other and then we found ourselves living with each of the family for a turn of four months each. It had become impractical and intolerable after a point that my first son had taken another house giving his floor for us to live. And things changed once again when my wife died. I had still managed to live with whatever I could cook and with the meagre savings that I had. But it looks like I had much more troubles and humiliations to bear; Here I am, reduced to a state where I had to depend on someone for every second of my physical survival. I wanted to kill myself at that moment, and the harsh reality that I cannot do it by myself hit me like a boulder. A hot, wayward tear of frustration trickled down my cheek.
"Thaatha!" a little voice called, followed by a creak of the door. My youngest granddaughter tip-toed into my room followed by Menagha, my youngest daughter-in-law.
"Come Sweetheart!" I signaled her to my left, craving for the love and warmth of her innocent little fingers.
"How are you feeling now?" came an automated question from her mother.
"Yeah! am okay!" I answered as I signaled my granddaughter to sit beside me. The little one kissed me on my forehead and excitedly asked: "When are you coming home thaatha?" I smiled at her and said "Today da Kanna!"
Her face dawned with a genuine happiness - "Then we'll play hide and seek this evening."
That hit a raw nerve in me, and I turned my face away so that she couldn't see my tears. "Kithu! come here, don't disturb thaatha" Menagha commanded her daughter in a stern tone. There was an awkward silence that short-lived thanks to the kind little nurse who asked everyone to move out so that she could give me a sponge bath.
Things after that were a blur. I heard that my sons split the bill amongst them. Three ward boys transferred me from my bed to stretcher and then placed me inside the ambulance. My son Sudhir and his wife travelled in the ambulance along with me, and the other sons arrived in their respective vehicles. The ambulance stopped in front of my house, and all my sons along with it and I knew right at that moment they were all at the brink of the most significant decision and burden of their life.
"We should keep him in surrounding he's familiar with!" my eldest son said in a tone that implied that his house was out of the option. The other two reluctantly agreed.
"We might not be able available all the time" Suresh piped in, "you know, because of the construction!" That left Sudhir with the only dialogue.
"Subathra! Can you clear up the guest room, We'll have it set up for Appa," he said in a resigned tone.
We could all hear Subathra's anger with the many accidental clashes of things and the slow murmur of her seething voice.
I sighed. It was everything I feared.
Days moved in a painful routine. Sudhir tried to give me a sponge bath once every day. Subathra was kind enough to provide me with some hot porridge three times a day. My other sons visited, and my other daughter-in-laws advised Subathra on how to do a better job in taking care of me.
Within ten days, they had had enough. A huge fight ensued, where each fought over about my situation with Subathra refusing to make me a meal. The arguments then passed on through the things that were building up inside them for years about several things that they had wanted to tell each other but had restrained so far.
"You have always been about the money!" Sudhir spat at his elder brother.
"And you have always been about being the model son, aren't you?" Suresh hurled at his second brother. "Since both of us have our properties now, you're looking to claim this house being the good son."
"So, what's wrong with doing that?"Subathra interfered. "You people used us to build extensively. While my husband struggled with taking care of the old baggage and I slogged in the kitchen cooking feasts for you royals, three times a day, you walked all over the two of us, and built yourselves comfortable lives."
The argument ensued, each painful word turning kith and kin to strangers. I let the bitter words wash over me, as I began to crumble and break inside. The words thrust my heart like spears, their sharpness searing through my arteries, cutting them harshly with blood spurting all over. My heart lay there slowly bleeding to death while my eyes refused to shed any tears. I lay there immobile; my mind vacuumed of all thoughts; All except for one.
"Sudhir!" I called. The argument outside instantly turned to hushed whispers. Sudhir came in quietly, trying to hide the anger and resentment that shone on his face.
"Shift me to the first floor. To my bed!" I commanded.
"But father…" he stopped at my stern look.
"Suman!" I called, motioning for my elder son to step in. "Hire me a day-nurse to take care of my needs!" Suman nodded his assent.
"Suresh!" I asked for my youngest son. "Hire me a night-nurse to sleep in the guest room on the first floor and take care of me during the nights."
My sons looked at me dumb-founded. "Did I make myself clear?" I croaked.
"Yes Appa!" they nodded in unison.
"Inform your respective wives that it would be great if I can get one meal from them, just for the sake of good karma and I would pay them in kind when the time comes" I finished in a calm tone.
Two weeks later:
I got shifted to my bed, and I lay there drawing comfort from the familiar surroundings. My day-nurse Sugantha gave me a sponge bath once every couple of days never once losing her professional smile. The night nurse Kishor was a silent company who obliged my request to read few pages of Bhagavad Gita every night before I slept. It was one of these days that I started observing the spider on the corner wall. It lay there slowly spinning a web from its essence; it was relentless, slowly yet steadily spinning its home trying to lure its prey. I watched it work every day completely mesmerized.
"He hasn't taken a dump for almost twenty days now" I could hear Sugantha talking to eldest son Suman.
"Is that why he stinks?" asked Suresh.
"Yes!" Sugantha said. This accumulation of excretion in his body is not good. We might lose him sooner than we think.
"Oh!" Suresh sounded worried. "I should hurry up the construction works then and arrange for a house-warming session in the next ten days or so."
"That is not the most important thing to do now!"Sudhir chided.
"Well, it is for me!" Suresh retorted. "I want my father's blessing for the new house." "So stop fussing about things and let me mind my own business!" he stormed out.
All the words swished past like a passing breeze. I couldn't recognize one voice from the other. They all sounded the same to me. All needy, all desperate, all lost it in the miserable circus called life. Nothing existed in my life beyond the spider. He had become my silent companion spinning his web diligently, working without other thoughts.
Sudhir padded over to me quietly and touched my hand gently. He let out a heavy sigh. "I don't know where things headed," he said; "younger one is hell-bent on finishing his site, and the elder one is running out of reasons to delay payments for the nurse" I kept watching the spider, entirely unwilling to respond.
"Sorry, we couldn't bring the kids to visit you, the doctor said it might cause some infections to the children" he droned on. I still couldn't find the energy in me to answer.
"Your daughter-in-laws are already making plans for mother's jewelry. I think Subathra wants the Kaasimaala" he hinted. Somehow none of it fascinated as much as the spider.
Sudhir lost his patience "What are you staring at?" he asked looking at the direction of my sight. His keen eyes narrowed down to the insignificant spider building a big nuisance of a web.
"I should have a word with that bloody maid" Sudhir murmured as he picked up the broom. He walked towards the corner wall with purpose. My slurred mind slowly picked up what he was about to do.
"No!" my voice came out as an anguished cry. Sudhir froze in place, slowly dropping the broom. He was instantly beside me.
"What happened Appa?" he asked in a concerned tone.
"Let it be there!" I said pointing at the wall with my strong hand. "Don't disturb it!" I pleaded. Sudhir dropped my hand in disgust.
"I'm talking some critical matters" Sudhir fumed, "And you're worried about a stupid spider."
I just looked at him with pleading eyes. "Fine! Have it your bloody way!" he murmured and turned to leave.
"Ask my nephew Kumar to come and meet me" I whispered. A frown crossed Sudhir's face as he nodded. I dismissed him without a second glance turning all my focus back to the spider.
The next day when Kumar visited me, I discussed with him at length about the necessary details and precautions. He came back by the end of the week with the things that I had asked him to prepare, I gave him my final seal of approval.
Memories started fading away slowly. One of my sons had visited me asking for my blessing for new home. He said he was holding a house-warming ceremony the next week. Sugantha came and fed me a glass of glucose. She changed my wet adult diaper and gave me a sponge bath. The three ladies who used to visit me occasionally had stopped their visits as they couldn't bear my stink. There were some distant memories of the past that blurred with a light which carried a familiar voice "Come to me soon!" it said. I could feel my life slowly seeping away from me, running towards that sound. I looked at the spider again, trying to memorize it.
I just realized it was old and quite near its twilight period. It had struggled to move in the last few days, it's usually spindly, agile legs buckling underneath it. It got trapped in its web unable to move. Its life force slowly sucked out by the very source that sustained it. I watched as it crumbled down to the floor, not being suffered by its own home, and I could feel my life force finding a kindred soul in it, and I joined it with a heaving sigh.
Sixteen days later:
Kumar opened the will in front of the waiting family. His mind raced back to the day where the withering old man had formulated his dying will and wish. "Ask them to bury the spider along with me dead or alive!" he had murmured. His family didn't understand the strange request back then. They would learn it now. He took a deep breath and read the will.
"My request might have been strange for many of you!" the will read, "But reflecting back, I think it's the way of life. We're all spiders, building our webs called life, dancing around it consciously, building it over and over with many complex emotions that string from us. We make a prey of some people and dance around that complex web, thinking that we own it; without realizing that it is the other way round." Kumar paused and looked around the grieving family. He continued after a deep breath. "I was a spider in a way. This family and this home was my web. As long I thought I was in control, I juggle around all of you, managing to keep this home intact; and like every spider that died in its web, I didn't realize my fatal flaw. I got trapped in my web as I started firmly sitting on my web, cementing myself with emotions, instead of waltzing through it as I should have. The spider that you buried with me was a reminder of this important lessons. You're all spiders with your webs, and it's not my place to tell you how to manage it, but I do want to do my best to make sure you stay alert on your feet instead of cementing down" the will read.
"So, with this, I leave this house equally divided amongst my grandsons who would get equal portions of this property as cash after selling it. They would receive it when they are 25 years old with my second son Sudhir being the guardian of it till then. Sell this property when my eldest grandson turns 25.
I leave all the jewels of my wife and also my meager savings for my granddaughters. The gold is to be melted and cast as coins and distributed weight wise amongst my granddaughters equally. They would receive it when they turn 23 or when the eldest granddaughter gets married whichever is the earliest. I do so they don't have the discrimination and inequalities their mothers had.
As for you my sons and daughter-in-laws', I've cut down the webs that you hoped to sustain. Please build your own webs, and don't forget to waltz and not settle."
Kumar closed the will and looked at the family who were in various stages of shock, denial, and resignation. He sighed and looked at the photo of the old man that hung near the window.
A small spider moved to the picture frame, and started a methodical dance with its dwindling legs, slowly building its web.