Last month, on September 1, I sustained a foot injury, left foot to be precise, that proved later on to be a fracture. Movements were restricted, the surgeon prescribed what he called an ankle binder and my left foot had to remain in bandaged state 24 hours a day since that fateful evening. It might have to remain that way for the rest of eternity or the end of my life, whichever arrived later. Not allowed to take it off even when I went to sleep at night. A somewhat uncomfortable state of existence. I don’t recommend that you try it out, or else, like Alice’s smile without the Cheshire cat, you might end up with a bandage without a foot.
Such stray thoughts were assailing my otherwise peaceful ruminations on life, when to my horror and dismay, I realized that my right elbow was sending intense pain signals as well. I could hardly fold my right arm at the elbow joint without “ouching” loudly. I didn’t know the source of the problem, for as far as I recalled, I never injured my arms, even in my dream. And I wasn’t dreaming as the pain alerted me. I was wide awake. I was disturbing neighbours the way you are not allowed to in Churches when a service is in progress.
She was reading a book right next to me and the ouch disturbed her concentration. She was not genuflecting in a Church of course, but disturbed she was. She turned her head sharply, asking nothing. I suspect she was trying to figure out if I had sustained a heart attack. The silence continued till my vocal chords produced yet another ouch, louder than the first one, this time accompanied by a visual signal, a pain distorted face. I have no idea how alarming an expression I wore on my face. But she knew I am sure and appeared to conclude that my heart was not under siege and shifted her gaze back to her book in total indifference. I didn’t deserve her attention anymore.
Normally happy though I am, I find it difficult to put up with indifference to physical pain. Generally those that I suffer myself. So, I turned up my ouching volume a few notches higher to express my agony.
“What’s gone wrong?” she asked now in an annoyance radiating voice. “What’s this lugubrious noise all about?”
“My right elbow is in pain, can’t you see?” I retorted accusingly almost. “And the lugubrious noise you heard was the last gasp of a man in pain, one whose right arm has declared to carry out a non-cooperative non-movement.’
“No, I can’t see the pain. But I can hear coarse sound waves emanating from your direction. And I am tired of your ceaseless complaints. OK, what is it this time? And what on earth is a non-cooperative non-movement? You are misquoting the Mahatma and that is sacrilege!”
“I told you didn’t I? I am unable to bend my right arm at the elbow. Most painful. It’s a non-movement alright, Mahatma notwithstanding.”
She stared at me wide eyed for a long moment and then came out with her advice. “Well, since it is the right arm, your heart is safe. So if it is painful to bend it, then keep it straight and let it rest on a pillow. You can see a doctor tomorrow morning. At this time of the evening, doctors don’t fall like manna from heaven. Or at any other time for that matter.”
“But how can I keep my arm straight,” I moaned “if I need to reach behind for something?”
“Don’t try to reach for anything behind. I can see a pile of books behind you. Do you want anything from that collection of garbage? I can fetch it for you.” My books belonged to an untouchable category as far as I could make out from the nauseated expression on her face. She was being helpful probably, even though her tone didn’t suggest philanthropy. I began now to growl in pain. Physical as well as mental.
“No you can’t do anything for me,” I replied, in the manner I suppose of a terminally ill person lying on a hospital bed. “I don’t need books. No book on earth can help me now.”
She sounded more than amazed. “Then what on earth do you need behind you?” She searched the empty wall behind the table on which the books lay. If she was searching for a cockroach about to walk down my neck, it wasn’t there.
“I need to scratch my behind,” I announced, expressing distress in no uncertain terms.
She was completely taken aback, though I thought I detected the flicker of a semi-cruel smile on her face. But it vanished almost instantaneously. Controlling her emotions, whatever they were, she replied sternly, “Well use your other hand then, since you are not athletic enough to employ your right foot to serve the purpose.” I noticed with some satisfaction that she was well-informed about the condition of my left foot. I was not a victim of total indifference, thank God.
Nevertheless, she was being endlessly unsympathetic I felt. I stared tearfully at my bandaged foot. The silent tears failed to impress her. So, I sought refuge in my vocal chords once again.
“Don’t you see that it is my left arm alone that is usable?” I said, plaintiveness oozing out of my voice, reminding me of lambs protesting in vain on their way to the slaughter house.
“Then use it man, use it,” she admonished me. “Why waste a useful thing? Haven’t you heard the PM advising children not to waste electricity or other scarce resources?”
“But it’s not use-ful clever woman,” I let out a dismal scream now. “You are overestimating your genius. It’s the right bottom that I need to scratch.”
“Well, when did I suggest that you scratch the wrong bottom. Scratch the right one by all means, but do so after I have left this room. I don’t wish to witness the disgusting spectacle.” She got up on her feet, ready to disappear.
“I didn’t mean right as in wrong,” I made a pathetic attempt at explanation. She halted near the door, hesitating it seemed. Expressing sympathy perhaps? She kept me suffering in a state of suspended animation as it were.
When she finally vociferated, sympathy could well be the sentiment she expressed. But one couldn’t be sure. She looked up at the ceiling appearing to ask for God’s mercy to drop “as the gentle rain from heaven//Upon the place beneath”.
“Dear Lord,” she wailed, “why have you deprived this man of any semblance of grey matter? ”
To set things right, I yelled in greater desperation. “I meant right as in right. But my kind of a right bottom is not your kind of a right bottom, you understand?”
“No, I don’t,” was her instantaneous reply. She looked insulted and humiliated, as Dostoyevsky might have seen things at this point of time. Heaving several sighs of despair, she appeared to take a final decision of sorts. “Mental home, that’s where you need to be transferred. I think I should call an ambulance before you turn violent.”
“No, please no,” said I. “I am not a mental patient. I am perfectly aware of the difference between your bottom and mine. But you don’t seem to be aware of this simple difference …”
She didn’t let me finish my all clarifying sentence.
“First of all, you are offending a woman’s modesty by your crude reference to female physiology. Secondly, you are suggesting in no uncertain terms that I am soft brained. Not a mental home, you need to be reported to Women’s Rights Organizations. They’ll take proper care of you.”
I had no choice but to let her finish her sentence. And then I finished mine, the one which, if you remember, I had left unfinished.
“… between right as in right and right as in right. They are homonyms,” I ended up mournfully.
Confusion reigned supreme. As far as I could make out, there were at least three senses in which the word right had been used by now. Right as opposed to wrong, right as opposed to left and finally right as opposed to coercion. And she was showing an unmistakable inclination to stick to the third. So I decided to follow suit.
“Do you agree that a man has a right to scratch his bottom? Right, left and centre?”
“Of course I do you vulgar fool. But he doesn’t have the right to insult a woman.”
“When and how did I insult a woman?”
“But you just did. Insult all the way down to the bottom.”
“No, I didn’t. I was merely trying to make a grammatical point regarding your interpretation of a right bottom as opposed to mine.”
“Oh, that’s it, is it? A linguist scratching his bottom instead of his head? In search of a grammatically correct procedure for bottom scratching may be?”
Evidently sarcastic I thought. She continued before I could respond.
“And what is this grammatically correct procedure Sir, may I know?” The frown in her eyes drove a red hot iron rod through my very soul. “You don’t expect my hand to scratch on behalf of yours, do you?”
Friends, to tell you honestly, the idea hadn’t occurred to me till that moment. But now that she brought up the possibility (or the impossibility perhaps) of the job, I muttered softly to myself, “Well, idea wise at least, that’s feasible, is it not?”
“I see, that’s what you expect do you?” she hissed now like a cobra disturbed in its sleep.
“Well no, I don’t expect you to do this. But assuming that I do not expect you to, will you do it? I mean, please?”
Something in the nature of an earthquake occurred now. Measuring around 15.8 in Richter scale. Rescue work could well be in progress, provided of course that civilization hasn’t breathed its last.
I had no idea that it was R.K. Narayan’s birthday yesterday (10 October). But Google, my ever faithful butler, delivered the information as soon as I turned on the computer.