This is the last boarding call for the flight number…..
The voice had trailed off and faded long ago. Amongst the milieu of strangers she could only hear her wailing, holding his limp hand, ‘ don’t leave me Aru, don’t leave me alone.
The brightly lit corridor was stark and bereft of any life, quite antiseptic. The faces mouthing routine apologies had long receded inside the closed doors leaving her alone to her miseries. Her tears had dried and left streaking marks on her face, a face aged but still beautiful, any blemishes carefully covered up by well applied makeups, now horribly gone wrong by all her tears. She took out the cell phone from her bag. Who should she call first? Does it matter now?
Years ago, in a different time and a different world, these same words had been music to her ears opening the doors to her dream world. Aru was holding her hand as they slowly proceeded to the opening leading her to a new world.
‘Aru, you will never leave my hands, will you?’ She was apprehensive as she was about to leave all she had known in her life till that time and was about to step into a world that she had only read about and heard from Aru during the last few days.
‘I shall never leave you’, said Aru.
‘ Aru, you promise? Promise Aru.’
‘ I promise my darling. I, Arun Dutta, hereby solemnly promise that I shall never leave the hands of Mrs. Anuradha Dutta as long as I live. Now let’s go, otherwise the flight will leave us behind.’ Arun said with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
‘Oh, if I only had known to read your eyes then as well as I know now, I would have known you left yourself a wiggle room. You always did’, Mrs. Anuradha Dutta dabbed the corners of her eyes with some kleenex as tears started rolling down her cheeks again. What is she going to tell the kids?
Anuradha Miri, better known as Anu to one and all who knew her, grew up in a bucolic village by the side of the river Subanshiri in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas. A brilliant student, she didn’t have much option of schooling at her village and against her father’s wishes she was taken by her maternal uncle to the nearby town, where he lived and worked, with a promise to continue her studies. She hated the town. Not that her uncle didn’t enroll her in school, he did, but with household chores helping her aunt and taking care of her young cousins, she didn’t have much time in her hands for studies. Her teachers loved the sincere student and because of their constant inspiration and her own hard work she shined in her matriculation examination. All her teachers urged her to go to Guwahati, to Cotton College in particular, the premier educational institution of the state. Her father was extremely reluctant, her mother didn’t have much say but due to the push of her teachers and well wishers her father ultimately relented. She was accepted to Cotton and as she was awarded a scholarship, the financial burden on her parents was not that high. However, moving from her village and the small town where she studied to Guwahati was a shock for Anu. She felt lonely and mainly confined herself to her studies. Due to her friendly nature, she was loved by her hostel mates but they more or less left her alone. Her loathing for big cities grew and she often became homesick, crying herself to sleep many nights. After four years, she graduated from college with high honors but this time her father was adamant. No more higher studies. It is time to get Anu married to a suitable groom. Anu was getting mentally ready to a life of teaching in the newly established school in her village. She was happy to be back home.
And then the miracle happened.
Arun Dutta was a brilliant student all throughout his studies and after finishing his masters from Delhi University in Mathematics, he was pursuing his doctoral studies in a prestigious university in the USA. He had already finished his coursework and was well into his research when his family wanted to solemnize his wedding. Being from a middle class family, they were looking for a suitable mate for their son. A simple but educated girl with good looks would fit the bill. Arun’s sister Mitali had exactly the most suitable girl for her brother in mind. Anu was her classmate in college and she always had a soft corner for her studious but sincere classmate.
It was mainly due to Mitali’s push and recommendations that Mr. and Mrs. Arun Dutta had flown to USA that day long time ago, hand in hand, to start a new life.
Much water had flown down the Mississippi from the time Arun and Anu had landed in the small university town. Arun had to curb his ambition to go and work for a big name university that he was well capable of doing because of his educational career. Being deeply in love with his newly wedded wife, he was disturbed to see her slowly going into a cocoon of her own world. He initially didn’t realize that big cities frightened Anu. He was busy in his research and Anu kept herself confined to their small one bedroom apartment in the big city. The glow had vanished from her face. Most of the time she would keep to herself, rarely talking to Arun, answering only when Arun asked her some questions.
And then Anu was pregnant with their first child. Arun was happy beyond belief but Anu became more gloomy. One day when Arun came back home from the university, Anu was lying on the bed unconscious with blood trickling down her wrist. She had cut the vein on her wrist.
The psychiatrist had talked to both Arun and Anu separately and together many times. Arun, who promised never to leave Anu’s hands till death, had by that time decided to move to the small university town rather than risk another episode of depressive bouts.
Anu was happy again with the wide open spaces of the small town, the house with a big front and backyard and the small rural community. She gave herself completely into bringing up her son and the daughter that they were blessed with after their move to the town. She was a good mother. Many times when Arun felt a tinge of regret thinking of what could have been, it would evaporate the moment he would hear the laughter of his wife and children and contently he would go back to his studies.
The kids had grown up and flown the nest long ago, the boy to the west coast working for a multinational company and the girl to the east coast working for an investment banking farm. Both were married, though Arun and Anu had no way of knowing whether they were happy or not. Though they tried to come home during Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays, it was either one or the other as their spouses had to visit their side of the family too. The grandkids would come sometime during summer but as they were growing up those trips soon dried up. Too many other commitments, rural towns were boring, nothing much to do etc. etc.
Through all these Anu was happy. She was a village girl at heart. Though her heart yearned for her kids and the grandkids, the thought of moving either to the east or the west coast filled her heart with great fear. She had visited both her son and daughter many times with Arun. The clogged roads, the skyscrapers filled her heart with anxiety. She just wanted to come back home to her little corner of the world.
‘ Anu, I booked the tickets. Brian will take care of Ruff, Rose and Billy as usual when we are not here’, Arun had said. Ruff was their cocker spaniel, getting there on age. Rose and Billy were her cats. They were family. They were flying to Los Angeles to attend the high school graduation of Mit, their grandson. Mit was Ajit’s, their son’s eldest. Diti, their daughter along with her kids were flying in from New York. After a long time the whole family would meet. It would be a joyous occasion.
On the cell phone keyboard, Anu pressed the numbers one by one. She called Ajit first. She didn’t know what she was going to say? Where is Arun when she needed him most.
She waited till Ruff died. Ruff was Arun’s baby. He wouldn’t have liked giving up Ruff for adoption. Who would anyway adopt an old dog though Ajit and Diti were insisting on it and make the move at the earliest. Brian had taken in Rose and Billy. Brian was sad to see her move but he understood. Everyone may have to go through something similar one day or another.
Anu went through the list meticulously. The house was given on the market some six months back. Properties move slow in small towns. She had made a trust and the sale proceeds would be deposited there. The trust and the will were explicit so nothing would go into a long probate process.
She went to the backyard, picked some flowers and placed them on Ruff’s grave and bid goodbye.
She locked the front door and opened the realtor’s lock and put the key inside and locked it. She would drop the envelope with the spare car key and instructions addressed to the charity where to pick up the car on her way to her destination. Then she called the realtor. The house no longer belonged to her.
As Anu walked down the long stretch of sand, she realized that she had finally overcome the fear that had dogged her all her life. It didn’t matter now. The doctor’s report had come in after she had decided to move. She never wanted to be a burden on anyone. Why did Arun go back on his promise? Did he think she would be a burden on him in his old age?
The pressure on her ears was unbearable. Her eardrums were about to burst. She thought she was hearing someone announcing ‘This is the last boarding call for flight number ….’. She was not bothered at all. This is the first time she had chosen her flight and it was not going to leave without her.
A small bubble rose from the bottom of the lake and spread out in concentric circles. And then there was silence, dead silence.
At the same time Fiona, Ajit’s wife, was frantically trying to call Ajit that Anu didn’t arrive by the flight as was supposed to be, a park ranger, some thousand miles away from LA, shone his torch light through the windows of a car by a lake shore. Finding no one inside the car, he looked around. A set of footsteps on the sand led him to the lakeshores where the footsteps had vanished. Frantically he called the headquarters for backup help.