The winter this year had knocked in early. It was mid-November and the chilly mornings had now become foggier. The crowd of morning walkers in the park behind the Joshi home had thinned considerably over the week.
The bell in the old church rang five times to signify the hour of the day. Shweta’s granny had been up much earlier though. An early riser all her life, here at Shashank’s place, she found it difficult to lie in bed after five. Nonetheless, she forced herself to be under the bright maroon quilt, keeping her eyes closed, as she knew that if she switched on the light, Shashank, sleeping in the adjacent room, would be up as his sleep would be disturbed by the light.
But Shashank had been awake long since. For an hour after midnight, he had been sitting in his bed gazing outside. The silhouette of the trees against the dimming sky had been swaying to and fro. A little afar, an uneasy silence brooded over the cluster of shanties beyond the road. Night never fully descended on the haphazard row of a dozen odd houses sprung over a piece of wasteland. With the nights becoming longer and cooler, some of the inhabitants preferred to sit by the fire and gossip the cold night away. Harsher the weather, greater the buzz; such was the norm. For Shashank, however, sleep was at a premium that night. During such hours of profound aloofness, he would become restless and feel as if he had been invaded, torched and shelled by an army of memories. They descended upon him from all sides, coiling around him, like a famished python, tightening its hold if the prey twitched even a muscle.
Memories of Udit were not letting Shashank sleep. Udit was lurking in his mind, playing hide and seek, a game that he so enjoyed as an infant. Shashank could almost see him—a lean figure, brushing his teeth, not caring to close the tap; leaving his wet, crumpled towel in a heap on the bed after a bath; one slipper lying upturned here and the other flung away no one knew where. Shashank could almost hear the faint sound of the refrigerator door being opened. Stealing goodies from the fridge in the still of the night was a habit that stayed on with Udit, till the day he left home, maybe even now, who knows ….
Since that fateful day, it had been five painstakingly long years. The minutes had led to hours, the hours into days, the days into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years. Shashank could never even imagine in his wildest dreams how a boy who had the fear of darkness and who always slept with a 20-watt incandescent bulb lit throughout the night, could one fine day shrug off all his fears, discard his cloak of timidity, pick up his satchel and slip into the shroud of darkness!
‘Perhaps, I ought not to have scolded him so badly; after all he had only failed an examination.’ He often said in those moments when words were privy to none, when drops of sweat trickled down his brow, no matter what the weather was. The danger of him being drowned in a deep pool of guilt was imminent and the only escape was to divert his attention. Shashank decided to leave the bed and go out for a walk. His body and mind were craving for some fresh air to cool his burning thoughts.
He rushed into the bathroom and splashed some cold water on his face. The water was icy cold, and he gasped loud. His gaze still transfixed on the mirror, he reached out for the hand towel, as he moved his left hand through the salt and pepper stubble. The towel was missing! In his home, using his towel was sacrilege and to top it, misplacing it was double sacrilege! Only Udit could get away with such blasphemy, each time, every time, without a single reprimand from his doting father.
Just then, a muscle in his leg cramped and all of a sudden, he slipped on the floor. The sound of the iron bucket that he had inadvertently upturned alarmed Granny.
‘What happened, dear?’
‘Nothing Ma, just slipped a little.’
‘But beta that’s nothing negligible, more so at your age and in this weather,’ Granny remonstrated as she gently massaged his back and legs, feeling each and every bone and muscle to ensure that everything was intact.
Shashank smiled at his mother indulgently. ‘Ma, there’s nothing to worry! I didn’t fall … just slipped on the floor and grabbed the tap.’ He was up soon, all wet from emotions. The bathroom floor was dry.
Soon enough, Shashank rushed out. His walk today was anything but brisk. He just went through the motions and completed four rounds on the concrete track. Sitting on the bench under the sole mango tree, that had grown within the cluster of tall palms, and waiting for Lallu, the tea-seller, to appear, he gazed at the three neem trees that stood in the centre of the park. The canopies were thin and open and the branches had begun shedding leaves to survive the harsh winter. Lying low and dormant when the conditions were hostile was the golden rule of life, be that among plants or animals, he had observed. He must continue to lie low, lie dormant.
About the book:
Udit never counted his blessings and he loved being a rebel. Little did he know that his rebellion would one day uproot him and toss him into an ocean of uncertainty. A moment of rage followed by remorse and then shame contrive to force Udit, the young protagonist, to plot a great escape! Soon he discovers that his ship had neither sail nor anchor. And when he is convinced that he would remain the eternal driftwood coasting along the waves, surfacing and drowning at the will of the current, someone walks into his life.
What happens? Does his life change course?
The Driftwood is a sensitive portrayal of the trauma the Joshi family undergoes while carrying on with the mundane tasks of day-to-day living burying deep the memories of an irreparable loss. Running alongside is the life of their neighbours and good friends Dr Arvind and his wife Yashoda who battle the empty nest syndrome only to discover greater heights of callousness and selfishness of their son and the unexpected graciousness of a total stranger.
About the author:
Pratima Srivastava is an officer of the Indian Forest Service who loves to don a few other hats when time permits. A keen nature photographer, an enthusiastic birdwatcher and regular traveller, she also enjoys composing poems in English and Hindi. Not to forget her full-time job of being a mum to two young kids! The Driftwood is her second novel. Recently the book has been awarded by the Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi as the best book in English category.