“Chandramathi,” I couldn’t think of anyone else to summon. She’s been my anchor ever since she stepped into my life. Now, at the sprightly age of 93, she’s the one who’s shared the most moments with me. I know I can be a bit demanding, but she’s always been the compass guiding me through every challenge.

Today, Arathi approached me with news of her imminent marriage. I can still vividly recall the day I cradled her father, Mohan, in my hands. That moment marked the onset of my realization of how hard it is to be apart from Chandramathi. She hesitated before entering the labor room, and I had to pledge not to budge until the doctor confirmed her safety. Back in those days, opting for a midwife was the norm, but I couldn’t fathom her enduring the pain without professional assistance. It’s amusing that while I can recollect events from long ago as if they happened yesterday, anything from a moment ago slips away from my memory. Even yesterday, Aarathi’s mother, Maya, reminded me to give her a heads-up before I headed to the restroom. These days, there’s a remedy for every need, and it’s disheartening when Maya tends to my basic needs, surpassing even my daughter Chinnu. I always prayed for a departure when I could no longer tend to myself.

In the fourth standard, after being transferred to Manikya Mangalam School by my father, I resisted my mother’s efforts to prepare me. Reluctant to wear the black dot on my cheek, she insisted her ‘sundara’ kutty (handsome boy) shouldn’t attract any negative energy. Walking to school with that dot embarrassed me, and even after rubbing it off, the residue lingered. The school attendant escorted me to class with a note from the principal. I vividly recall the teacher’s introduction: “Kids, Achutha Menon is the new admission. He will be in your class henceforth.” A concealed giggle echoed, and when the teacher called out “Chandra, stand up,” I saw her for the first time—a spirited, mischievous face with mascara-laden eyes and two side-braided tresses. Apologies followed, but she couldn’t stifle her laughter. Our first encounter was awkward, but we evolved into friends, and I seamlessly transitioned from feeling a connection to realizing I couldn’t imagine life without her.

Post-college, securing admission to medical school with homeopathy as my main subject emboldened me to propose to her. Her response deepened my affection. “I’ve known you for a long time, for the same reasons, but I’ve been with my parents longer. I need their acceptance and blessings for our marriage.” I concurred. What ensued were days of anxiety, juggling two colossal challenges—convincing my parents and hers. Despite being a medical student, I feared my father’s disapproval and the menacing belt he brandished. Arguing with him mirrored a debate with a lord, regardless of whether his son was in medical school or the fourth standard. My approach to him for daily expenses and approvals involved navigating my mother.

The attempt to persuade my parents, starting with my mother in a seemingly casual manner, involved aiding her with household chores. Grating coconut, a formidable task at the time, served as my starting point. My mother, sensing my ulterior motive, inquired, “What is it, Achu?” My throat parched; I wished for a sip of water. This was the prologue, and I couldn’t afford to get jittery now. In one breath, I confessed my admiration for a girl and implored her to approach father. Predictably, she retreated, admonishing, ‘Don’t you dare, Achu. Sort it out between yourselves.’ The pleading ensued, and eventually, half-convinced and terrified, she consented to mediate. Father, engrossed in his wooden easy chair, responded abruptly to the news. “Seems like he has something to say,” my mother ventured. “Doesn’t he have a voice?” he retorted. I faced his ire as my mother relayed the conversation. “I told you to talk to your father directly.” “What does he want, aside from wasting my hard-earned money? I don’t understand why he goes to college. I’ve never seen him open a book. He should have enrolled in a medical college for English medicine. Alternatively, he could have apprenticed under Ayurvedic doctors without spending a penny, assisting them. This is futile.”

My impulse urged me to challenge his nonsensical assertions, but preserving any chance of him accepting the proposal necessitated silence.

“Why bring this up now?” exclaimed my mother. “He seems to fancy a girl and wants to…” Father erupted from his chair, discarding the newspaper. “Ah! His lordship is eager for matrimony. Tell him to concentrate on his studies. It’s settled. I don’t want him struggling to marry some peasant. Those folks have enough wealth for generations.”

“But you didn’t even inquire about the girl or her family,” Mother interjected. “I don’t want to hear. Tell him he has two options: stay with me and obey, or vanish from my sight. I don’t want to see his face again.”

“If that’s his wish, I’ll disappear from his view,” I summoned the courage to utter. I retreated to my bedroom, grabbing clothes and whatever could fit into my trunk box.

“Where are you going? He just spoke in anger. He’s your father; doesn’t he have the right to guide you?” Mother followed, attempting to halt my departure. “If you want to go with your son, better join him. But never entertain the notion of returning to this house,” my father roared. I could see him trembling with anger. I walked away, clueless about what awaited me. Nowhere to go, I strolled to the market where I encountered my friend. Aware of my father’s hesitancy, he reluctantly pledged his support. He introduced me to Dr. Shenoy, a practitioner of homeopathic medicine, and I apprenticed under him. Meanwhile, Chandramathi, anxious due to my prolonged silence, hadn’t heard from me in two weeks. Spotting her friend in the market, I instructed her to convey to Chandramathi that I’d begun working for Dr. Shenoy. In a bustling afternoon, with Dr. Shenoy attending to patients, I felt a sudden embrace from behind. She wept incessantly, leaving me dumbfounded, unsure of how to console her. The impromptu scene surprised onlookers.

“Achutha, take the rest of the day off,” Dr. Shenoy declared.

“I was terrified not hearing from you. I’m fine wherever, and I don’t want to go home,” Chandramathi, still teary-eyed, asserted. From that moment, we never stayed apart for long. I sat for an exam, RMP, allowing me to prefix “Doctor” to my name and treat patients. I often treated the destitute without expecting anything in return. In the morning, I pedaled to town, while Chandra managed affairs at home. Post-lunch, we’d read our favorite novels from a weekly magazine. More often than not, I’d doze off in the chair, a detail she’d jest about during our next week’s follow-up, as I inevitably missed parts of the story. Aarathi playfully teased us, calling us the best couple, observing our routine of having lunch together, reading novels, and indulging in a brief afternoon nap.

I should inquire with Mohan about any preparations needed for the marriage. Why isn’t Chandramathi excited about it? I’m thrilled and should request her to wear her favorite white set mundu with a golden border. Adorned with a broad smile and a little tikka on her forehead, she radiates, and I find it hard to look away.

“Acha, how are you feeling?” Achuthan interrupted my musings. It’s Mohan. I’m intrigued by his unexpected presence amidst the wedding preparations.

“Where is Chandramathi? I’ve been calling her for a while.” “Acha, Amma…” “What happened to her? Don’t play with me. Ask her to come. By the way, do you expect me to do anything specific for Arathi’s wedding? I don’t want people crowding me and asking about my health. It’s her day, and the focus should be on her.” “Acha, I…” “What’s going on, Mohan?”

“Acha, Amma fainted, and her asthma has worsened. She’s in the ICU.” “What? What happened to Chandra? Why didn’t anyone keep me informed? Update me on what’s happening. Have I become a burden? Where is she now?” “Acha, you won’t be able to go there. You’re unwell and couldn’t even sit up straight. I didn’t deliberately hide anything from you. I’m sorry, Acha,” Mohan, with teary eyes, explained.

He knows how challenging it is for me to be away from her for long. I don’t even want to see her with all those medical devices connected. Why hasn’t the good lord called me first, and how do I stay here without her? The human experience of traversing the cycle of aging is truly disheartening. I find myself in the stage of ‘being curved.’ Waiting for ‘my time’ has left me exhausted.

“Can someone end it for me?” I cried out. “I devoted my entire life to you, and I don’t even know what Chandra is going through.” Arathi rushed to me. “Never say that Appoopa. We all know you can’t bear Ammooma being away. The hospital doesn’t allow visitors. We’re waiting for their call,” she cried, and I realized how much I had hurt them. “Acha, we’re considering postponing Arathi’s wedding.”

“Why? Has someone died here? Why are you spoiling my child’s special day?” I’m certain nothing will happen to Chandra. “It’s close by, and both of us can bless her at the venue.” I couldn’t fathom letting my child’s wedding be affected by any incident involving both of us. Chandramathi wouldn’t approve. Just then, the phone rang. Mohan answered, and from the doctor’s tone, I could see his eyes welling up. He dropped the phone, looked at me, and cried.

“Acha, Amma is…” I didn’t want to hear it. I just wished the earth would crack open, and I could dive into its molten core. Maya approached Mohan to inquire about the doctor. “He advised us to take Dad to the hospital, as there’s little hope for Amma’s recovery.” I cursed myself. In my current state, I can’t walk or even go there with ample support, and I can’t bear to see her in that condition. Mohan and Arathi, with assistance, wheeled me to a wheelchair, and we reached the hospital. Time seemed to crawl, and I wished I could fly to reach the ICU. They pushed my wheelchair past the ICU door. The doctor came to us and said, “We’re sorry. We don’t have anything better to offer.”

“Chandra, please don’t leave me here. I’m all alone,” I couldn’t stop screaming, clutching her legs, my tears streaming onto her feet. Maya embraced me to offer solace, and I saw a blurry image of Mohan leaving the ICU, wiping his tears.

Some days later…

I heard a knock on the hospital door.

“Where is she?” It’s Arathi with a smile, and she came and hugged me. “I’m quite envious of both of you. The doctor said you literally brought her back from death. As in the movie dialogue – by the way, Mr. Achuthan, where is Chandramathi?

I pinched her in her little hand. “You are naughty to the core, and that made us contemplate leaving as soon as possible.”

Chandramathi entered from the bathroom, laughing at both of us. “What is she saying about us? Don’t you let Appoopan get some rest. Do you think we should attend your marriage or not?”

Our laughter echoed in the room while Maya packed everything we brought for Chandramathi. I could hear Mohan walking toward the door with the wheelchair for me.