Saturday, August 08, 2015

WHY CAN’T AUGUSTINE FERNANDES SLEEP?



He lies down pretending to sleep but sleep will not come. He doesn’t blame anybody, but deep inside him are a great many worries about his daughter Anita. He worries a lot. At night he lies on bed, his hands stretched above his head, thinking, his eyes closed. He questions himself, "What is Anita doing now? Is she lying in the arms of her love, her husband? Is he violating her in any manner? What are they talking? Is there a future for my daughter in this world?” Fathers normally have a lot of plans for their daughters, because they love them. Now her love belongs to another man. A man he hates. When sleep comes, when his hands go slack, when his mouth opens to snore, he would awaken with a start, as if in a bad dream. Even small thoughts gravitate towards some deep depression and imagining of fearful things happening.  

In the morning he tends to the plants in the balcony and again falls asleep. He doesn’t go for a walk in the valley as he used to. He has neglected his body and it shows. Age is catching up with him since he is in his sixties. His well-toned body looks loose and slack now. Rings appear under his eyes, rings one would associate with age and disease. He doesn’t lift weights, proud possessions; or, even look at it. They lie in a corner gathering dust. He starts drinking heavily from morning and comes home every day stone drunk and falls into bed to sleep. But sleep evades him. He will not have dinner at home and would say he has eaten. His wife Maria can’t believe what her husband has become in so short a time. He had dreams for his daughter and his son, but all that is shattered now because of the unthinking act of his beloved daughter. How could she – his precious daughter – not think of him? How could she do this?

It has been going on for six months. Anita married a man of her choice six months ago. She was his first born, whom he loved deeply, as the lucky child. The second was his son, Dominic. Anita was a sweet child spoilt by him, given all the freedoms, unrestrained by barriers. Augustine, Ossie to friends, didn’t put any conditions on his love for her. According to him she is a princess and can have anything.

“You will spoil her with your love. Just you see,” Maria would say. His wife was Konkani from Goa; unlike Ossie, who was a Malayali from the southern state of Kerala. They met at a wedding and fell in love and married.

“No, no. How can I spoil the apple of my eye, the jewel in my crown, my sweetheart,” he would say kissing Anita.

The sweet child grows up to be a moody teenager. Anita goes to music classes and swimming lessons regularly but she has her stages of unpredictability.

“I won’t go for music classes, the teacher is a bad man,” she says one day. She doesn’t say why she thinks the teacher is bad. Did he make a sexual advance,

Maria thinks. Such things happen in this city. Men are increasingly preying on little girls, even infants, she has read in the papers.

When Maria raises this issue with Ossie, he dismisses it. He says the teacher is known to a friend of his, so he can do no such thing. If he did, he would have his knees broken.

But the strange behaviour of Anita doesn’t end there. Some days, she will keep to herself the entire day, either watching television or texting on her cell phone.

“I won’t go to tuition classes,” she says one day.

“How will you pass your exams if you don’t go to tuition classes,” Maria scolds her.

“If I don’t go what will you do?”

Maria is chagrined. She composes herself.

“Nothing, wait till I tell papa.”

One day when admonished for not doing household chores she says, “I will not do it. It’s not my work.”

Augustine will not entertain complaints about Anita. To him Anita is blameless, pure, and a child. Instead he scolds Maria. She burns seeing as to how much he loves his daughter, not her, even to ignore how insolent she has become.

Though she doesn’t study Anita passes the degree exams. She isn’t brilliant, but she manages to receive passing marks in all subjects.

Anita’s graduation brings great joy to Augustine. “You would surely have got a first class if you had studied,” he says.

“How will she get first class if she is watching television and texting on the phone?” Maria says.

"You keep quiet. She is my daughter, aren’t you sweetheart?”

Maria has no reply to that.
x-x-x

After graduating Anita goes to work in a call centre. It’s there she meets Salim, her future husband. She works at night and during the day she sleeps. When Augustine goes to work in his cargo clearing business, she is sleeping. When he comes home, she has already left for work. They don’t see each other for months. Ossie is caught up in his business, his only source of income, and can’t talk to his daughter. Insidiously, they are pulled apart, as if by some force.

They live in a flat near the intersection to a cluster of houses inside the trough of a valley formed by the Parsik Hills. To one side flows the meandering Ulhas river and on the other is the land marked for the new international airport. He hasn’t seen the beauty of the nature of the valley for many months now. He only tends to his plants and looks at them tenderly. He regrets not going for a walk but he can’t do anything about it. He is worried about the growing chasm in his relationship with his daughter. Depression has spread its tentacles deep and he keeps sinking inside.

One day Anita tells her mamma of her decision to get married. Ossie’s and Maria’s son Dominic is in the final year of college then.

“What? Are you mad?”

“No mamma.”

“Who is this person, this price of yours?”

“He is a colleague, we work together.”

“But he is not from our caste, no?”

“I don’t believe in caste and religion. You and Papa are from different castes. You also married for love, didn’t you?”

“Wait till I tell this to your papa.”

For Maria religion is caste, her understanding is such. When Maria tells Ossie about this, he feels faint and almost falls down. It’s as if a lightning has passed through him, head to foot. That night and the subsequent nights he drinks heavily. There is not a minute that he will be sober. Maria decides to take over the work of the forwarding agency and goes to work in his office, which is nearby.

“This man would ruin me, look how he drinks. No shame. What will the parishioners say?”

They attend the St. Mark’s church situated in a corner of the valley.

x-x-x

Maria’s sister comes from Goa for her niece’s wedding. Ossie doesn’t go. He feels it is not necessary. He sits at home and drinks the whole day.

There are only Maria, her son, her sister and her sister’s two daughters from the bride’s side in the wedding. They say it is a grand betrothal, the band plays, and people dance. All Anita’s and Salim’s colleagues from the call centre come for the wedding. Ossie isn’t sure of it; he thinks they are exaggerating to make him jealous.

On the wedding night, Anita, the girl who had grown up in her Papa’s loving care for twenty-two years, moves to a flat with Salim. Ossie cries into his drink day and night.

Anita comes home one day and Ossie is happy to see her. He gives her a cheque of half a million Rupees. He says it is the dowry he has saved for her wedding. Anita is happy. She goes and buys gold jewellery with the money.

Once, Anita brings Salim to meet her parents. He seems like a nice chap, good-looking and has good manners. Ossie is at home and is, as usual, drunk. He calls Salim aside.

“If you give any cause for my daughter to shed tears, I will not spare you.” He warns.

x-x-x

Augustine Fernandes can’t sleep. The pictures of the last few days linger in his mind, his daughter’s visit, the day of the wedding when he sat alone drinking. Maria calls the church priest to come and counsel him.

“Mr. Fernandes, you can’t do this, you have to look to the future, anything else would be disastrous.”

“Father, I am a broken man, understand? How can I show my face to people in church? How can I meet friends? They all know about the wedding, still they are asking me if Anita is married.”

That is true. The whole church community has made a joke of it and is laughing at him. Maria hears sarcastic remarks during mass on Sundays. Ossie doesn’t go to church anymore, he prefers the company of his bottle.

The entire parish says, “Augustine Fernandes can’t sleep.” They repeat it so many times that it assumes the musical quality of a refrain from a hymn.

The priest visits again, with a counsellor. The counsellor speaks to Ossie in private. Nothing is known about what they speak and Ossie will not say what they discussed. They spend two hours together, murmuring to each other in the only bedroom of the flat. The door is closed and even the priest isn’t allowed inside. But that helps. Ossie starts going to office, but he doesn’t resume his daily walk.
More importantly, Maria thinks, the meeting cures his alcohol addiction, though he drinks sporadically.

“Thank God for giving me back my husband,” she prays before the Grotto that Sunday in church.

x-x-x

But that doesn’t last long. Ossie again hits the bottle. It seems he can’t get over his depression about Anita. He keeps imagining things till his thoughts takes on the colour of certitude. He blames himself for letting her grow apart. He imagines things happening to Anita and prepares to go to where she lives. Maria knows if he goes to his daughter’s place there will be a fight. So she physically blocks all his attempts. One day when he comes late after drinking Maria asks where he has been. He is silent. On prodding a lot he replies.

“I went to see my daughter, is it any concern of yours?”

“Did you go to her flat? How is she? Was Salim there?”

“No. I didn’t go to her flat.”

“Then?”

“I stood outside the building till she came back from work.”

“How many hours did you stand there?”

“None of your business. Go to sleep. I had my dinner.”

This way his obsession progresses to something of mania. One day he starts throwing all the things they keep in their bedroom. He throws down the pictures mounted on the walls, the music system, the clothes kept in the cupboard. Maria and Dominic grow alarmed and call Richie Gomes from the building next to theirs. Richie is a nice man, always cheerful and can control Ossie’s anger. He takes him on a walk around the valley, where they sit on a park bench and talk for a long time. Richie doesn’t say what they talk, but that seems to help Ossie resolve his anger and depression. His mind opens up.

The next day Ossie goes for a walk in his beloved part of the valley where he admires the trees and the sound of birds. He wonders why he hasn’t been coming here often. It is morning and the sun hasn’t risen. He stands before the majestic hills that form the valley and raises his hands towards the sky. The strong wind tousles his hair. Immediately thereafter the sun rises and bathes him in its golden light, he becomes animated and starts dancing, an uninhibited dance. He screams loudly and the noise reverberates in the green hills, and scares the birds, groups of which flies over him into the dense trees. He feels a weight lifting off him. He runs up and down a path leading into the forest.

From that day he vows never to drink and goes for work and returns at his usual time. He also starts sleeping normally. Anita comes on Sundays when she has a holiday and he talks to her. The next Sunday Maria stands before the Grotto in St. Mark’s church and offers another prayer.

"Lord, don’t rob him of his sleep," she implores.

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