They called him Sanju. His picture stared at me from the front page of the newspaper. Tall, dark-complexioned and strikingly handsome. But his eyes held a cold blooded stare that made me distinctly uncomfortable.
The Sanju in my memory is different. I remember him from his childhood. A child with sparkling eyes. He was a chubby baby, inquisitive and restless. I remember the aunts rocking his cradle, humming lullabies and putting him to sleep. He would kick his legs frantically the moment they stopped humming.
As a child, he was blissfully unaware of the cruel equation of the world he was born into.
Those early years of his life were filled with loving unmarried aunts and uncles, and grandparents. And so, he was oblivious to the schizophrenic edge to his mother’s personality or to the relative indifference in his father’s attitude.
I remember the time his sibling was born. Sandeep was a fair child and as is the case in a lot of Indian households, he received a lot of attention and pampering. There was a palpable discrimination in the way the aunts and uncles treated Sanju and Sandeep. When guests visited, everybody asked for Sandeep. Nobody bothered with Sanju. As the siblings grew up, this equation continued. Sandeep was asked to recite nursery rhymes and sing songs while nobody seemed to notice Sanju. He stood there, perhaps unsure of what was expected of him. I remember the way the oldest uncle would cane Sanju for the slightest mischief on his part.
And yet, Sanju was in love with the world. He loved going to school. He loved his uniform, his school bag and his umbrella. He loved the mud trails that took him to school and the little puddles of water on these trails. He loved playing with other children at school. He also loved music. He learnt to sing and he would sometimes sing in the chorus for temple festivals. He loved watching kids swim in the pond during monsoons. He was enchanted by the world he saw on the rare occasions his uncles or aunts took him out. Like all boys his age, he loved buses and cars.
Sanju had a special regard for his father simply because he saw his father very rarely. His father was 10 years older to his mother, and this was his second marriage. He was a quiet man who always spoke in soft and sweet tones to the children, but his involvement in the family was minimal. He lived with his extended family, and visited his wife and children rather occasionally. When he visited, he would bring sweets and savouries for the children, and this would make them happy. But they never realized that their father cared little for them….that he never paid for their education or other necessities…that he never involved in decisions and responsibilities concerning them. His responsibility ended with these little visits that meant nothing in the real scheme of things. But the children were too young to understand this and they regarded their father with much love, and despised their mother who constantly nagged them and scolded them.
My vacations in Kerala were an important component of Sanju’s life. He looked forward to my visits because that meant a lot of outdoors. I would take the siblings to an acquaintance’s house to watch television. We went to the theatre to watch movies. We played badminton and we went fishing. We went to Seaview park and sat on the rocks to watch the sunset. We ate ice creams there. I would read them stories from English storybooks and translate them. Sometimes we would just walk around the orchards and allow ourselves to be fascinated by the wild berries and flowers we discovered. We would go to Meenakshi edathi’s big house to play hide and seek. We would run to the local bakery to get a loaf of freshly baked, soft, uncut bread.
The three of us shared a special bonding because I celebrated Kerala as a welcome break from my life in the city and they celebrated my urban spirit as a welcome escape from the restrictions that dominated life in Kerala.
Every year, we looked forward to this time together. Every year, it was heartbreaking for me to say goodbye to them at the end of my vacation.
As years went by, my encounters with them reduced. I met them less often. Sometimes I got to spend only one day with them. That day would be very precious for all of us. I still remember one such day that we had spent together. At the end of that day, when I was leaving, Sanju asked me,”Have you watched the movie Kakothi kaavile appooppan thaadikall?” I hadn’t. He didn’t say anything more, but I could gather from his eyes that the movie had touched a deep chord within him. Years later, when I first watched that movie, I could relate to his feeling.
The carefree nomadic life portrayed in the movie, the deep bonding that develops between the free spirited Revathi and the troubled little boy Murali, their pranks and their laughter, the way their bonding fills up the void in both their orphaned lives, Revathi’s youthful spirit that celebrates the simple joys of life despite the nothingness in her life, the enchanting wilderness that forms the backdrop of their lives, their ability to be mesmerized by something as simple as a milkweed…I could connect to every still of that movie for they were stills from my own life- the carefree vacations I had spent with these two kids, believing in fantasies and fairy tales and folklores. We built our paradise on earth from these stories and from our aimless wandering, reveling in its bliss and freedom.
Sanju’s circumstances changed over time. His grandparents passed away. The aunts and uncles got married and went away. His mother’s insecurity grew with time and her delusions occasionally surfaced, clouding her ability at perception.
It is true that mental illness is the ultimate coping mechanism of a fragile mind that does not understand the selfish and cruel ways of the world.
I had always loved his mother. She was a very selfless and straight-forward woman. She always talked about old memories. And I love people who cherish memories. I believe they are capable of much good. She always made my favourite dishes. She had a jar that I called the ‘Akshayapathra‘ for it always seemed to have a stock of sweets. I had a sweet tooth and every time I visited, she would be very upset if she had not stocked up sweets for me. I would automatically open this jar, and would find some sweet. And her face would light up and she would say,”Oh! I had forgotten all about this. Ragini had brought this when she visited.” This happened many times and so, the jar became our ‘Akshayapathra‘.
The irony was that she was brilliant at comprehending difficult things. Her understanding of medical literature and the human mind surpassed the ordinary. But in day to day life, her thoughts were entangled and clouded. And as the loneliness in her life became palpable, this entangling increased. Sanju’s father’s untimely death devastated both Sanju and his mother. Though that man contributed little to their lives, his absence had a huge psychological impact on both their lives.
They derived a strange sense of security from his presence, and that was now gone.
Sanju transformed as a person. He was into his teens and he was totally lost. The aunts and uncles never took a genuine interest in his life. His mother was paranoid and lost. Sanju took the only path that gave him pleasure. The path of no return.
The next I heard was that he was arrested for being part of a gang that was into manufacturing explosives. He was released on bail, and I had the opportunity to meet him once. He seemed detached from the reality of his life. He cracked jokes and laughed as if nothing had happened. He had no guilt or remorse. His eyes had changed. I felt a little strange talking to him. He was closed as a person; we could never get him to discuss the private details of his life. But apart from that, he joined in our conversations and went about life as if nothing had changed.
His mother was admitted subsequently for an acute worsening of her schizophrenia. She was delusional for a long time and it had taken her a long time to get back to the routine of life.
Sanju got his father’s government job. Sandeep got a job in Dubai. Things seemed to have taken a miraculous turn. And then it happened.
I still remember that day clearly. I was coming back from work, and I spotted a huge crowd gathered at the house of the deceased. Somebody in the bus told me about the murder. I was horrified listening to the details. Coincidentally, we visited Sanju’s mother that evening. She talked about the murder because the boy was a close friend of Sanju. They were classmates from school and he would come over to play cricket. She described the state in which the body was found. ‘Can’t you just shut up? Don’t you have anything better to talk about?’, Sanju had shouted at her. We had suspected nothing then.
He was arrested the next morning. And he confessed to the crime. I was in shock for a long time. I heard about his bail, but I never wanted to see him again. It took me about 6 months to muster the courage to confront him. I was shocked to see Sanju. He sat there, almost oblivious to his surroundings. He looked at me, and I was gripped by a strange fear.
For there was nothing in those eyes anymore. They were cold; his soul was long gone.
His mother spoke a lot, occasionally drifting into delusions. In a way, it was a blessing. She could cope with this situation only because she was mentally ill.
I do not know why I visited them many times again. I do not know how I gathered the courage to talk to Sanju all those times. I remember Sanju’s pet cat. When the cat was unwell, he had taken all the trouble to take the animal to a vet and had nursed the animal until it was well again. Animals loved him.
And here he was, unaware of the brutality of the act he had committed.
“Accused sentenced to life-imprisonment for cold-blooded murder”, the headlines read today. The article went on to describe the murder of a 21- year old boy that had hit the headlines in 2009. The boy’s mutilated body was found on a desolate hilltop and the circumstantial evidence pointed to 21-year old Sanju as the culprit. He was arrested and then bailed out, and it had taken 6 years for the case to be taken up in court. Today was the verdict. “The accused remained impassive throughout the session. There was no trace of remorse or guilt on his face.”, the article read.
I thought back to the little inquisitive boy with sparkling eyes who had known little happiness in his life. I thought back to our little paradise when we were children. I thought back to his affection for his father. His love and empathy for animals. And then the infinite, unspoken moments of loneliness, emptiness and humiliation. Those untold stories that led him to the paths he eventually walked. That we were fortunate to have the security of a family on our side and he was not, makes me shudder. For it could have been any of us. What the journalist who wrote the article did not know, was that we as a society, were responsible for what Sanju lost- the paradise that the sensitive little boy with sparkling eyes believed in.