The Sphere of Old Age
On the day before she died, Mrs Florence seated herself on an easy chair on the porch, after her midday meal, at the Old Age Home near the seashore, where she now lived. The other inmates of the Home had gone with the Administrative officer on an excursion, on that day. They would not return till nightfall. The watchman alone was sleeping near the gate, under the shade of a tree.
Florence was waiting for her son, Solomon, to arrive. It was Sunday. The day on which he visited her, usually. He must come. There had been Sundays on which Solomon had not, though. But the medicines she was prescribed would finish today. Solomon knew this very well. Even if for nothing else, he would come at least to hand over the medicines. He would surely come.
The street was peacefully gathering heat. The sky seemed a vast expansive sheet of glittering blue. In a remote corner, it appeared as if something sparkling was seeping from the essential core of a curl of white cloud, bleached even whiter by the blaze. The sea breeze had not yet set in.
For some months Mrs Florence, as a means of coping with her loneliness, had developed a singular love for gazing steadily at the sky. During the day, at all other times except that of her afternoon rest, she would look constantly at the sky. Never bored, she would watch for hours. Seeing little white clouds gave her joy. She didn’t much care for blackish, ash grey ones. Both Florence’s gaze and thoughts spread continuously across the sky and its formation and dissolution of clouds. She used to ponder with diligence their shape and position. She tended to imagine that her feelings changed swiftly along with the shifting panorama of the sky. On rare occasions when forced to confront a cloudless sky, she shrank within herself. The sky’s reflected emptiness afflicted her deeply.
On summer nights she would look up at the sky with eagerness. She would be transported, while taking in with a single glance, first the moon and then the thousands of stars in the jewelled spread of the sky. Then she would keenly contemplate each celestial sphere by itself. She watched with avidity how black clouds gathered, formed circles and through them little twinkling stars shone. She thought she would never be able to describe the emotions that coursed through her mind when she looked at each star on its own. If her eyes felt strained by staring too long at a single object, she would once more return to taking in the whole expanse. The ecstasy she earlier experienced would vanish and she would be possessed by grief and a sudden sense of helplessness. In the eye of the universe one is no more than a speck of dust, she would think with detachment, and smile.
Two months ago, Florence was attracted by a tiny star in the night sky. It had distanced itself from the stars in the west and was twinkling magnificently. That night, accidentally or by her own will, the star appeared within her vision repeatedly. Florence who had not been concerned by it at first, was all of a sudden drawn to this star. She was surprised at how this star was absorbing her attention so absolutely. She noted its position once more, before she fell asleep. The next night, she noticed the same star again. She started looking for it every single night after that. In a few days, Florence was possessed by a yearning to see that star. Every evening when stars began to bloom in the sky, Florence would wait eagerly for the one star that attracted her. And at times, during the day, she it would seem to her she perceived an innocent oneness between the little star and herself. But at nights, she wondered whether there wasn’t a secret reason or a mystery in her yearning towards the star.
Mrs Florence closed and opened her eyes wearily. She walked up to the gate, opened it and keenly looked at the street for some time. Then, she came back and sat down. From the coconut tree in the opposite house, a crow came gliding slowly without fluttering its wings, and settled on the compound wall gracefully. It looked straight into Mrs Florence’s eyes. She looked back at it. Then, the crow took a couple of small steps on its tiny feet, and moved to other side of the compound wall. It turned its head after lowering it twice or thrice. Then it looked up and showed its open beak to her. The small grey strip across its tiny neck shone beautifully in the light. Florence looked at it fondly. After few minutes, the crow opened its wings fully and flew away. As it began to fly, its claws grazed over the stems of the rose plants and made them sway. There was a freshly blooming yellow rose on the plant, glistening in the sunlight. Florence leaned herself on the chair and sat back.
It was three years ago that this disorder had suddenly attacked Mrs Florence. One night after midnight, she gradually started speaking in her sleep. It started as a murmur that sounded as if it was a part of a quarrel; then words came out more loudly and clearly. Finally, a horrifying scream. Solomon, his wife and children woke up frightened. The little ones started crying after that. Mrs Florence murmured something and soon fell asleep.
The next morning when Solomon told her about the screaming, she failed to believe him. She said “Me? Screaming?” and teased him for saying so. But Mrs Florence screamed similarly the next night as well. It was probably just a hallucination, thought Solomon; she will be fine in few days. But unfortunately the next day and the day after that, Mrs Florence continued to scream every single night. Prayers, medicines, treatments, Solomon tried everything possible but nothing seemed to work. At last, following his wife’s advice, Mrs Florence was admitted to an old age home.
Near the porch, a huge black beetle was buzzing loudly. Mrs Florence, who was sleeping on her easy chair, tried to ignore the slight disturbance and go back to deep sleep. But this noise, which had started ringing painfully in her ears a few minutes ago, only became even more insistently loud. Now she was wide awake, her sleep disturbed. Random images of various shapes in black and grey that appeared inside her eyes discomforted her greatly. When she finally managed to tighten her features and open her eyes, the beetle was flying right above her head. For a few moments, Mrs Florence kept staring at the insect. Then, she suddenly sat up straight. Immediately, the beetle too moved a bit above her. It kept flying higher and higher in small circles until it finally flew out of the window after accidentally bumping its head on the edge of the ceiling.
Mrs Florence’s head began to ache because she had woken up so suddenly. She got up from her chair, went and washed her face, and returned. The heat had abated by then and the sun was hiding behind the tall buildings. Mrs Florence was staring at the sky in the west and failed to notice Solomon opening the gates. Even when Solomon came very close to her and put his hand on her shoulder and called her “Amma”, she sat there, quite still. Then all of a sudden, she started crying with her eyes flooding with tears.
Solomon looked at his mother in silent embarrassment. He did not quite comprehend the situation. A few moments later, Mrs Florence dried her eyes and tried to regain her composure.
“Why Amma, what is this? Crying like a small child?”
“I was just thinking of something and the tears came. Just leave it. Anyway, how are you?”
“I am the same as always – I am well. How are you though? Tell me about yourself first. Are you sleeping well? Are you taking your medicines?”
“Didn’t you bring the children? What is David doing?”
“Glory has gone for her music class, and the little one has a slight fever. But don’t you worry too much, he will be okay soon.”
“I haven’t seen the children for two months. Every week you put me off with some excuse or other. Why does your wife not send the children to see me?”
“It is nothing like that. I promise, I will bring them with me next week.”
Solomon looked at his mother. Her withered face seemed pale and shrunken, and her lips were cracked and trembling. With more than three-quarters of her hair turned grey she appeared heartbreakingly pitiful.
Mrs Florence remained silent for a while. Then suddenly, she broke her silence, saying “I cannot stay here any longer. Take me back home now.”
“Just hold on for a bit more Amma. As soon as you regain your health I will take you back home. The doctor says that it will only take another two or three months. By Christmas everything will be all right again. Just wait patiently.”
“There is nothing wrong with me. I am perfectly well. That doctor doesn’t know anything. I don’t like taking the medicines he gives me. Every time I take them, I feel ill – I feel very faint and my chest aches.”
“Please don’t worry. You will be fine soon. Only two more months, no? You must manage somehow.”
“You all think that I am mad, but I am not. Here, nobody says that I scream in fright at night, or that I inconvenience them. If you want to, you can ask the people over here. Ask whoever you want to. It is only the two of you who say that I am mad.”
“Who said that you were mad? Please don’t start imagining things. What you have is nothing so serious – it is a very simple psychological problem. It can be easily cured. Just wait patiently for a bit more.”
“If it is such a simple problem, then why can’t I stay at home and take my medicines there? If it is all that ordinary, why have you kept me locked up in this hell hole for the past two years? I know what is what. You will never take me out of here again. I will be left here until I die.”
“Please don’t talk nonsense. It is necessary for you to have some solitude so that you can recover soon.”
“What is this big solitude you keep talking of? I don’t want any solitude. Once I return home and see the children’s faces I will become completely alright.”
Mrs Florence bowed her head. She began breathing rapidly and her face rumpled in distress. Again, she seemed close to tears.
Solomon held his mother by her shoulders and spoke in a voice one might use when comforting a crying child. “Please don’t cry, Amma, everything will turn out well in the end. Everything will turn out well in the end. I pray to the Good Lord every week for this to come true. Look, here,” he said, “I know you love raisins and I bought some for you”.
Mrs Florence stayed silent. After a while, Solomon gently helped up her to her room, leaning against him.
For a long time there was silence between mother and son. Mrs Florence lay slumped on her bed and Solomon sat on a chair close by her. But all the while, Mrs Florence was looking closely at her son’s face. Solomon’s nose had widened and jaws were beginning to sag. Around his ear, she could see the beginnings of grey. Marks of helplessness and sadness lined his face. Solomon too is getting old, she thought. Poor boy, what can he do? Who does time leave untouched? No one is left unmarked by time. How can I make demands on his love? Love is very much dependent on circumstances. Now perhaps there is no scope or opportunity for love.
Mrs Florence suddenly broke into laughter. Although shocked and confused, Solomon soon found himself laughing with her. The tension that had prevailed between them suddenly disappeared. And Solomon and his mother spent a long time talking to each other in an easy and natural manner. Then Solomon said goodbye, after giving his word that he would return the next week, with the children.
Mrs Florence escorted Solomon to the entrance door, and sent him on his way. She remained there for a time and watched him leave. Then she raised her head and looked at the sky. The western sky was darkening, obscuring that unknown favourite of hers, her little star.
When Solomon returned to the retirement home the next day, on being told the news, he found Mrs Florence’s body bathed and her possessions neatly ordered. Iruthayaraj, who occupied the room next to Mrs Florence, told Solomon: “For a long time last night, her light was burning. Just after midnight I heard sobbing and weeping. I knocked on her door, but she refused to open it. Immediately after, she turned her light off. A good night’s sleep will soon mend all ills I thought, and I went to bed myself. Only in the morning I came to know about it.”
Solomon looked on the face of his mother, lying before him with her eyes closed. He remembered how she had been yesterday, her eyes springing with tears, yet smiling like a child who was suddenly too old, as she said her goodbye.
Dilip Kumar, whose mother tongue is Gujarati, is a well known short story writer and editor in Tamil. He usually writes about the Gujarati Tamil community in a self-reflective and ironic manner. This story is somewhat unusual for him, with long passages of description which often reflect the state of mind of the protagonist and are quite difficult to translate.
The story was translated from Tamil by Shash Trevett, Sharada Bhanu and Nandhini Dharuman, with support from Lakshmi Holmström and Subashree Krishnaswamy and the author, as part of the 2015 Translators Lab organised by the Select Centre and Writers’ Centre Norwich.