John Denver’s 1971 classic became exasperatingly louder and louder on my cell phone. The screen showed ‘Naru calling…’. I knew this meant goodbye sleep.
“Y-e-s,” I drawled.
“Come right away. Shabnam is dying.”
When I drove out the SUV, I made surethe N95 was in my shirt pocket.
‘Country roads, take…’.
“Started. Reaching in five minutes.”
As I turned on the ignition key, the fuel meter showed the tank was almost full. The car clock showed 1.30 a.m. I hoped the clock was right. In haste, I had forgotten the wrist watch. Of course, I could see the time on my cell phone, but that would involve the trouble of pulling it outevery time from the trouser pocket.
I drove down the deserted highway, knowing very well that I was out on a risky venture. But, I had no option. Had I refused, I would have died in the inside.Naru has always stood by me, since the time we met in the primary school twenty-five years ago. He had passed many sleepless nights on a bench in the hospital with me, when my father wasbattling cancer. After cancer won, I was left with a house, a grocery store and this white SUV. I was thirty.Quite an eligible bachelor in a suburb, I thought.
However, I neither had a girl friend nor the hope of getting a bride in the horizon.He had both a girlfriend, and the hope of making her his wife. Naru said, I lacked courage to enter a committed relationship. He had the courage tofall in love with a Muslim girl, who lived in a village 95 kilometers away from our place.His courage lay in the fact that his grandfather and father had been famous Vedic astrologers, and one of his cousin brothers was the would-behead priest of the local temple.
As I approached his house, I saw him standing outside the gate. He was in blue jeans, white T-shirt, and a comforter wrapped around his mouth and nose. He carried a bag in his hand. I stopped the car, letting the engine run. He opened the front door, sat beside me, and slammed it close.
“She’s alone. Her brother and sister-in-law have run away in fear. Three hours, up and down. That’s the time we have, I think, though the doc has said six.”
“Panic’s an enemy to driving.”
I was doing 105 km/h onan average on the high road. We did not talk. There was no need for it. Naru was on a mission to save Shabnam’s life, and I dearly wanted him to be happy. From the high road, I took the left turn that led to Shabnam’s house across a bumpy, dusty, narrow stretch of around 5 kms. I strapped the N95, and Naru got down with the bag.
“Why don’t you take out the mask?” I asked, pointing at the bag.
“It’s for her.”
‘Country roads, take me home’, it was Naru’s sisiter.
“Dada’s phone is unreachable. Have you reached?”
“Tell him to….” The call was disconnected.
The gate of the house was open, and the soft groaning led us to Shabnam’s room. I had seen her two years ago, when Naru’s sister came here as a bride. Nobody could blame Naru for falling in love with her. She was like a Greek goddess: fair with sharp features, smooth rounded arms, and she had an enticing look in her eyes. Now, she was pale with skinny arms and painsuffused eyes.
I followed him into the room. When she saw Naru, tears rolled down her cheeks.She lifted her right hand with an effort and feebly waved, evidently pleading him to go away. Naru stood motionless for a couple of moments, and then seemed to fall backwards. I caught him, and made him sit gently on the floor with his back leaning against the wall. Removing the bag from his hand, I took out the N95 and strapped it around Shabnam’s nose and mouth.Naru was profusely sweating. I removed his comforter, and put it in the bag.
“Can you stand?”
“E..yes.” His trembling tone did not betray conviction.
I took Shabnam up in my arms and Naru held on to my shoulder, as I slowly walked back to the car.I was not in a posiNaru scrambled on to the back seat and half reclined at the farthest corner, and I placed Shabnam’s head on his lap, folded her legs from the knee and closed the door. We were back on the bumpy stretch, and then on to the lonely highway. The car clock showed 2.55 a.m. I was doing a 110km/h now on average. I was racing against time, when again, irritatingly, began ‘Country roads take me home to the place I belong country roads…’. I brought the car to a halt.
“Is dada alright? His phone is still unreachable. How is ….”
“I must reach the city hospital at the earliest.”
Having pushed the phone back into the trouser pocket, I was about to start the car when my eyes fell on the rear-view mirror. Naru’s head was resting against the window, and his mouth was dribbling. Shabnam had removed the mask, and was using it painfully to wipe the dribble. We flew.
When the sickly dawn was breaking, I entered the city hospital. Four uniformed men immediately came to the car. Two stretchers were brought, and the lovers were separated. Naru lay motionless, while Shabnam softly moaned. I followed them into the emergency ward.There, one of the doctors did the quick check-up. “The man has two cardiac attacks, and the lady needs to be observed in isolation,” he said, and added, “you also better be in home quarantine.” I drove home, and waited for Denver’s song to begin.
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