Short fiction: A life in limbo

Uma Bharathi Kosuri

A story in translation from Telugu1

Telugu original by: Uma Bharathi Kosuri | Trans. by: Atreya Sarma U

Narrative of an NRI woman who was battered by crises and lost her mental stability

Someone was tapping me hard to wake me up. Rubbing my eyes I sat up and found an elderly American. “Are you okay? Do you need any help?” anxiously he asked. I couldn’t make out the situation. I peered around and realised that I was on a bench under a tree in the Houston Downtown Park. I was in the employee uniform of ‘Jack in the Box’ fast food restaurant.

It was blurry. What happened? I remember having started out to my work place. Then, how come, I’m here! It was confusing. I looked up at my watch, and it was 01:00 pm. It was hot. He handed me a water bottle. I gulped a little and got on my feet. I felt a bit dizzy. Returning the bottle, I asked him haltingly, “Could you please give a ride to ‘Jack in the Box’? I work there.”

He gave me the ride and walked into the restaurant along with me.

As soon as my colleagues Tara and David saw me they were taken aback. “What happened over the last two days?” queried Tara, tensely. I didn’t know what to say. I took out the phone from the pocket of my pants. I found that there were a number of miss-calls from Tara and David. I guessed what could have happened but didn’t say anything.

The gentleman who gave me the ride said “Take care,” and left.

I turned to Tara who was still waiting for a reply from me.

“Being unwell I stayed back home. Maybe I couldn’t hear the ring because of headache,” I faltered. “You look like you have just recovered from a long illness. What exactly happened, tell me at least, Renu... please,” said Tara. I knew she had always been loving to me, but what could I say? I was in a muddle myself, so I kept silent. Slowly I walked into the kitchen and sat in a corner.

I remember having told Tara that ever since my husband died a year ago, it became usual for me to choke in a whirlpool of grief, suffer severe headaches, and lose concsiousness of the surroundings. But losing the way like this..., and surfacing much later in some park on a bench happened for the first time. Musing so, I closed my eyes.

“Get up, I’ll drop you at home. I have told the manager.” Tara clutched my arm and helped me get on my feet. After reaching home, she said “Take rest,” and left. I went into the kitchen, made cofee and lay down after having it. How at all did I surface on the park’s bench...? Yes, now I realised it. I wanted to call Tara but it was past midnight.

In the morning I called her up. “Yes, Tara, now I recall it. What happened the other day was... I recollect that as usual I stepped out walking. Though the way was familiar, I somehow felt confused. A while later I vaguely came to know that I kept walking around in cycles. So it was how in that mindless disarray, after making rounds and rounds of sleepwalk in the vincinity of my home itself and turning weary, I finally took myself off, unconsciously, onto the bench in the park.” As I recounted this, a pall of gloom descended into my mind.

“Stay on at home, I’m on my way,” she hung up. And in ten minutes she was at my place.

She took me to the doctor. After conducting the tests, he diagonosed it as dementia. “Over the last three or four years she must have been in a state of mental aberration and amnesia, though in a subtle measure. Has she encountered any traumatic or tormenting instances during the last two years? If she has her family, I would like to speak to them. There has to be someone who takes care of her constantly. Medication would help her, but the situation may aggravate also. In that eventuality, she has to be treated like a child. Or better join her in a home.” Dr John offered his advice.

“One of my sons is a doctor, the other an engineer,” I began to say. “But they are very busy, and Tara knows about it...”  I was held back by Tara who cut me short.

On returning home, she called my sons, and said, “Tomorrow is Saturday, so do come over here. I need to talk to you about your mom’s health. I had her tested by the doctor. She is under severe mental stress, and her condition is not good. She couldn’t comprehend the aspects that the doc had explained. Anyways, you’re coming here tomorrow. I’ll detail them to you.”

***

My sons Ram and Bharat and I sat across Tara and listened to her reading out of the medical report. Putting the file aside, she looked at them. “From now on at least, be visiting your mom as frequently as you can. After all, who else can she look up to? Whatever ordeals she is undergoing are not something that you can’t manage. Meet the doctor once and talk to him. What she needs is not your money but your affection and support. Given the bond of my relationship with your parents, I’ll keep standing by her to the best of my ability.” Tara exhorted them and had them sign the Medicaid papers for the sake of medical insurance.

***

Ever since I began visiting the doctor six months ago, my ‘Jack in the Box’ family – Tara, David and manager Joseph – had been looking after me like a child. They didn’t allow me to drive. It was Joseph who daily drove me from home to the restaurant. Once inside the restaurant, he would make me seated in a corner where I needn’t involve myself in every chore. I was allowed to chip in only when the restaurant was busy. Whenever David picked me up at home, he complimented me, “You’re doing good. You’re stepping out of the home only after I call you.”

“Yes, one must be careful, mustn’t one?” I would say. Whether it’s lunch or dinner or walking, I invariably had someone around with me.

“Management has granted you an allowance of two hundred dollars a month for your medicines and daily needs. So better buy some beautiful clothes as well,” said Joseph during lunch one day.

“You know how Renu really looked like earlier? Her face always sparkled with bottu (traditional forehead mark) and eyes lined with mascara. But now she is neglecting herself. Yes, we should buy her good dresses,” said Tara, seated beside me, adjusting the buttons of my shirt.

“What! Don’t I look good, Joseph. Don’t you always say, ‘You look good’ whenever you pick me up?” I asked him.

And we burst into a laughter.

“Our Renu behaves like a kid on some days; and on some other days she talks with a full sense of maturity. How to cope with her, Joseph!” smiled Tara.

“And all of you are taking good care of such a person. I know that you are concerned about me. I’m also apprehensive about it. Anyways, let’s see... Well, shall we go to see a new Hindi film?” I asked Tara.

***

Tara looked after all my money matters and explained them to me in detail. “Renu, you know we’ve disposed of your old car and I have deposited the sale proceeds of four thousand dollars into your account... Have your sons visited you at least once during the last six months? Don’t they know that your husband’s pension coupled with your salary is enough for you? And that you don’t need their monetary help?” Her voice was a little stern.

“Anyways, Tara, you mean everything to me, you’re my only confidante.” I looked adoringly at her. 

***

Of late, I was once again weak and slack quite often. And I felt heavy in the head but was managing it without disclosing it to Tara. I was simply attending work, getting back home and lying down curled up.

“Renu, we have missed ten Hindi movies over the last ten weeks. Even when I suggest that we visit the temple, you’re skipping it. We bought new dresses for you, but you’ve stashed them away. Walking is making you weary and you always look absent minded. What happened? Unless you share your problems, how can anyone know about them?” said Tara, during lunch one day.

When I looked up, I noticed Joseph gazing at me with an implicit prodding ‘Yes, let it out.’

Putting aside the half-eaten sandwich, I burst out. “I hit the bed to slip into sleep, but suddenly some thought or the other racks my mind, and I lose the sleep. Most of the thoughts revolve around my husband. He wouldn’t have died so suddenly. With our American earnings we had acquired properties in our home country but we were cheated out of them by relations on my husband’s as well as my side. The shock was too much for him and it dashed him into death. And his death has thrown me into an eddy of grief.” Unable to contain myself, I broke down and cried, even as my friends tried to console me.

Joseph gripped my face and shouted “Stop crying!” and slapped hard on my cheek, saying “She’s hysterical.” I felt the pain. And I faintly remember only one thing. That a little later Tara took me out in her car.

***

“You had fever for four days. Only today it’s normal. Doctor Rajan had visited you. From day after tomorrow, it’ll be routine again. You can come to work. Joseph would pick you up daily, okay?” said Tara, handing me the bed coffee.

***

I waited for half an hour before I locked the door and got out to work. The sun had been long up, yet Joseph didn’t arrive. Anyways, the work spot was near enough, so I’d walk up. As I increased my pace, a car pulled up in front of me, halting me in my tracks. Tara slid out of it.

“What Renu! Why are you walking along the road in a night dress?” Grumbling against me, she walked me back into the apartment and seated me on the sofa.

“Joseph called you to say that he couldn’t pick you up today, but you didn’t answer. He immediately conveyed it to me, so I am here. Where’s your phone?” She griped, and began to search for it in my bag and the room. She had never raised her voice like this against me. I was tense. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was in a hurry to go to work. And I began to weep.

Sensing my tenseness, Tara looked up and said, “Hey, what are you crying for? I’m sorry, Renu. I lost my cool only for fear of what would happen to you. That’s all. Rest for a while, and I’ll be back in a couple of minutes. Locking me in from outside, she left. I went in and rested on the bed. A web of thoughts came over. The moment I began to muse on any thought, it was getting snapped like a thread. A headache began to mount and I slid into sleep.

By the time I woke up, it was evening. It was dark outside. As I was lumbering toward the kitchen for water, I heard the unlocking of the outside door. Tara and Joseph were coming in. They went into each room and collected and packed my clothes and essentials in three suit cases. “From today onward, you’d be living with me,” announced Tara and took me along to her apartment.

“Tired and hungry, aren’t you? Go and relax in the sofa,” said Tara.

Joseph brought the three suitcases inside.

“Joseph, from tomorrow onwards, Tara would bring me along to work for she says I’d be staying with her here only,” I stated, to which Joseph nodded.

Tara went into the kitchen, fixed lunch and brought it to me. She made tea, and passed on a cup to Joseph.

“Joseph, I don’t know whether I told you earlier... When my husband Jeevan cheated and walked out on me, it was only Raghava, Renu’s hubby that came to my rescue like an elder brother. The couple took such care of me for a full year that even their dearest and nearest ones couldn’t have received such loving treatment from them – until I got a job in ‘Jack in the Box’ and settled down with it,” said Tara, taking out my clothes from the suitcase.

“Tara, you’re such a close friend of Renu. What happened to her sons?” inquired Joseph.

“I’ve known Renu for two decades. You know that her husband died all of a sudden when he was just sixty with the blood vessel in his brain bursting. This tragedy has weighed her down very badly. She has no other source of income than her husband’s pension. That’s why I talked to you and had her join with us for work...” Tara paused for a while.

“You have been all so good and helpful. It has strengthened our friendship,” said I. Tara flashed a smile and resumed folding the clothes.

“Yes, Joseph, let’s come back to Renu’s sons. Their dad laboured hard as an electrician and at the gas station, pinched and scraped to have Ram study engineering. Likewise, he sold away his apartment in Hyderabad to get Bharat into the medical course in the Philippines. These two visit their mother only to have her make curries and roti for them, but they don’t care for her,” said Tara, bristling with anger.

“Let it go, Tara. After all, they are kids. They have their own headaches and priorities,” I said.

“But what about the families in India cheating Renu’s husband? And how come Renu and her husband were affected by it?” asked Joseph.

“We’re all from the same place in India. We’re from a middle class background. If we come to America for a job, our relatives in India imagine that we will be earning millions of dollars here. To begin with, they seek some financial help for their families. Later on they would tempt you to invest in this or that dangling a return of ten time over. This was what exactly happened in the case of Renu and Raghava. Their relatives got them execute a power of attorney in their favour for this purpose, and ultimately swindled them rendering them stone-broke, I presume,” returned Tara.

“Yes, all of them over there are well-heeled with the multi-storeyed buildings, cars and businesses which they have acquired at our expense. Whereas here, we had been eking out a living by regularly remitting to them half of my husband’s salary and my entire income from my catering job and managing to live in a small apartment here. Anyways, there’s nothing we can do at this stage. At least, the Almighty will credit us with a charitable deed. My husband couldn’t gauge the situation. It was only by the time he retired, he came to realise the bitter fact of not having any funds either there or here. He couldn’t come to terms with it and that shock led to his death. And I’m only to blame for it, for I lapped up whatever my brother and my husband’s brother were trying to sell.” I spewed out my pent-up feelings and shot into an uncontrollable lamentation.

***

Seeing her come in, “Why do you lock me in and go out every time? It makes me mad,” I said.

“Is it something new? It has been happening for all these three months. Don’t you recognise me? Don’t you recall my name? It’s time I gave you haircut and bath. If you don’t cooperate, I’ll have to tie you up and do it. The other day when I had to thrust medicine into your throat, you beat me, you know? Now on, I’ll keep you roped up.” She grinned. And she unwrapped the package she had brought in and placed the sandwich before me.

She walked into the kitchen to make coffee. Handing me my cup, and sipping hers, she said, “In a couple of weeks, I’ll join you in a home, Renu. Your sons are not keeping in touch. I need to go to India on some urgent work. If it’s in a home, they will take care of you very well and serve the food you like. And you’ll have friends around.” Pausing for a moment, “Okay, dear?” she asked.

Then surveying me for a while Tara went on,  “Your face will be good to look at, only when your forehead gleams with bottu and your eyes with liner... the way Raghava likes you,”  and proceeded to pick them up from her makeup box.

***

Now I found myself in the Houston Geriatrics Medical Clinic in the company of Tara and Joseph.

Mary, identifying herself as a social worker, told me that I had been admitted as an Alzheimer’s patient. She read out the details and history, explaining a few things in between –

“Name: Renuka Kumar. | Age: 62. | Husband: Raghava Kumar, 65, died. | Contact: Tara Sarma. | For the last two years you’ve been suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease. | It’s a disease where the living cells in the brain are dead. | Now you need 24 hours care. Don’t you?”

“Yes,” Tara said.

“Yes,” I muttered.

“In a short while, I’ll be back with Dr Rajan. We’ve set up everything for you, Renu,” said Mary, and left.

After a few minutes, Dr Rajan came in. He was the same doctor who had examined me earlier. It felt good to see him. I greeted him.

“Hello, namaste, Renu ji,” he greeted back with a smile. “How’re you? Have you recognised me?”

“Yes, I do. I remember everything, and that Tara had been taking me to you. But, now and then I am not aware of things. Tara told me that she would have me admitted into a home,” I responded.

“Very good. I’m happy you’ve recognised me. But why does Tara say that you’re not remembering her name and that you’re beating her...?” he asked, casting a side glance at Tara.

“From yesterday Renu has been recalling everything. But her behaviour suddenly changes from day to day, and hour to hour like this,” said Tara.

The doctor picked up the file. “Look here, Renu ji. When you were 58, you were diagnosed with dementia. When you were 59, you were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Now it’s only for your safety that we have admitted you in the home. I’ll be visiting you. Now and then, Dr Robert or Dr Golden will attend you. We all take care of the nursing home patients in this area. We’ll look after you without any inconvenience to you. Is it okay?” asked Dr Rajan.

Turning to Mary, he directed, “Please document this case and update it to Special Care.”

“Sure, doctor. It pains me, doctor, to see that a mother is in this condition even as she has two sons. During my fifty years of service, I have come across very few cases of Indian families, and this one is very shocking. I can never imagine that well-settled sons could abandon their parents like this with no one to take care of them.”

“It’s not only her sons but even her brother and her husband’s brother are responsible for this condition of hers. The family members in India – who are under a delusion that their dear ones working here in America are leading heavenly lives so that they can serve as a golden goose for them – are also a cause sometimes for a plight like this. In reality, however, for some of the Indians working here, it’s like getting caught in limbo,” bemoaned Tara.

Dr Rajan who was listening to her while writing down the report until then, remarked, “Yes, I agree with you. We have known and heard of many instances like this.”

Notes:

1. Original Telugu title: triSanku swargam

***

Uma Bharathi Kosuri

Uma Bharathi Kosuri (from Houston, Texas) is a Kuchipudi dance exponent, dance guru and writer.  As a child artiste she acted in 3 Telugu movies – the award winning ‘Sudigundalu’ (1968); in the lead role in ‘Chillara Devullu’ (1975); and as Urvashi in ‘Yamagola’ (1977). She has produced and directed Kuchipudi dance documentaries for the Govt of Andhra Pradesh, and for the TV channels of Johannesburg and Singapore.  Played the lead role and choreographer for Indo-US telefilm/TV serial ‘Aalaya Naadaalu’ for Gemini TV.  She is the founding Director of the Archana Fine-Arts Academy in Houston, Texas since 1984.  She led cultural delegations for the Govt of Andhra Pradesh to raise funds through dance performances for the 2nd world Telugu Conference and the Rama Subbayya Scholarship fund in Malaysia and Singapore in 1982, for Telugu language & Culture propagation in South Africa and Mauritius in 1980 and for scores of fund-raisers to benefit over 40 temple construction & community development projects across the USA during 1980-2014.

Apart from scripting a few lyrics, poems and concepts for her Academy’s dance projects, she has taken to writing short stories, articles, poems in Telugu since 2013.  Published 2 story collections, and 3 novels so far.  Received the Vanguri Foundation’s ‘Ugadi Puraskaram’ for 3 of her stories.  And 3 of her books – Videshee Kodalu (2014), Vedika (2018), and Natyabharateeyam (2019) – were selected by the Raja Rammohan Roy Library Foundation and distributed to the public libraries of Telangana state.

She is also the Founding Director of Sri Sarada Satyanarayana Memorial Charitable Society in memory of her parents since 2018.  The society’s activities include literary competitions and recognition of deserving persons in various fields. She also focuses on animal welfare and rescue.   

She is grateful for numerous awards and honors for her artistic contributions from many world organizations.  She is also grateful for the love and respect she has been receiving from dance and art lovers and Telugu readers, world over.  And she feels blessed for the support from her parents, her husband Dr. Murali and children Dr. Silpa and Dr. Satyajit.

Email: ukosuri@hotmail.com

Mobile: 832 588 1039


1 comment :

  1. I sincerely Thank SETU Magazine for publishing 'Life in Limbo'.
    Atreya Sarma ji through translation into English has captured the essence and spirit of the original Telugu version extremely well. I thank him for the same. Uma Bharathi

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