‘One hundred point four. Mercury says you got fever, Ammu.’
‘Ammu is sick’, said the little Prarthana touching her forehead with her left palm.
Tara looked at her seven-year-old daughter, dressed in the white shirt and blue skirt school uniform, and smiled.
‘You would have to take the day off. Rest today, and you would be fine. How unfortunate to fall sick on the day of your math test, isn’t it Ammu?’
‘Yes, Amma. Very sad.’ replied Prarthana, looking away.
‘Change your uniform, and go to bed. Amma would be back with you shortly.’
‘Where are you going? What if I need you here?’
‘Amma has a very important appointment today that I cannot miss. Take a nap, honey. I would be back by your side before you know it.’
Prarthana shrugged her shoulders. ‘A doctor has to save lives, I guess.’
There were no further dialogues. Prarthana went back to her room, changed her clothes, and blissfully embraced the comforting warmth the cozy bed offered.
Tara placed the thermometer in its case and picked up her phone.
‘Hi Gowri Ma’am! This is Tara Prakash. My daughter Prarthana is in your class.’
‘Aah..yes! Tell me, Tara.’
‘Prarthana is unwell, ma’am. She would have to take this day off.’
‘She too! I am sorry to hear that, Tara. A lot of kids are falling sick these days. Should be the weather.’
‘Don’t worry Tara. I would take care of this. Ask her to get enough rest.’
‘Thank You, ma’am.’
Tara hung up and checked the time. It was thirteen past nine. The appointment was scheduled to be at ten, and she wished to be there on time. Punctuality was one of the few traits that she earnestly adhered to. She got dressed hurriedly, picked up her white coat and stethoscope, and reached the garage.
The thermometer that was kept back in its case by Tara still showed the reading at hundred point four.
It was a fifteen minutes drive. Twenty, considering the traffic. She would reach with five minutes to spare. As she drove through the busy city lanes, her daughter’s words echoed in her mind atop Sukhwinder Singh’s rustic singing from the stereo.
‘A doctor has to save lives.’ Tara felt it ironical that she spoke those words today of all days. Her appointment for the day was very unorthodox, to say the least. The first of its kind in her four-year-old career as the Medical Officer at the Central Prison.
She was unsure if she saving lives is what she would be doing today.
The headlines that created a ruckus some ten years ago came back to her. She was in college then. One of the hot-headed young guns.
‘A man had raped and then murdered his own son. The police had found the man in a drunken stupor, his son’s yet warm corpse lying beside him. His eyes were staring at the ceiling as if he hated the sight of his father even in death.
The news had awoken the collective conscience of the entire nation. She remembered organizing a candlelight vigil for the fallen boy whose name was never made public. He had acquired a name from the masses though. Amar.
She no longer believed in candlelight vigils. Those were mere statements. She believed in actions. Today was one such day where her actions could mean something.
The face of the man who had killed Amar was also never publicized. Today, that man would have a face. She imagined looking into his eyes and asking him why. She wanted to know how he would justify himself. Tara knew that no matter how heinous an act was, a person would have to believe in it to commit it. The Holocaust had occurred because Hitler and his army believed in the Aryan supremacy.
She reached the prison premises well in time, and waited. The cops produced Govindan at ten. He walked alongside the uniformed men with the conviction of a man who knew his days were numbered. He was weak. He did not seem afraid.
Tara felt that the President would have faced enormous pressure in dismissing his mercy petition, despite the charges levied against him. The times were such that the society was increasingly becoming pro-life and the push to abolish the capital punishment was getting stronger by the day.
Govindan was seated in a chair next to the doctor’s desk. He was still handcuffed. Two armed cops waited at the door, ready to spring into action in case a need arose.
‘State your name’, Tara said, and added after a pause, ‘for the record’.
‘How do you feel?’
‘Okay? Do you realize why this is being conducted?’
Tara checked his blood pressure. Normal. Temperature. A bit more than normal. She pressed the diaphragm of her stethoscope and asked him to breathe. He was having difficulty in inhaling. Dry coughs interrupted the silent air hanging in the room.
‘Your throat has an infection.’
‘It’s nothing. The beedis we get in the cells are not that great.’
‘Tell me your story.’
‘Don’t you know it, already?’
‘I have followed the media stories, yes. I am interested in your version.’
‘There is no my version.’
‘Why did you..?’
There was no reply. Tara prodded. ‘What was it? Drunken stupor? Were you high? I even read that his face resembled that of your dead wife's.’
‘It was me.’
‘Me. It was me. Not alcohol, or weed, or the face of my poor old wife who has been dead for the last seventeen years. I did it. You want to know why. I honestly don’t know what to say. It happened. I wish it hadn’t. Every single day reminds me of the monster that I had become.’
‘Save the speech. You had appealed to the President for mercy.’
‘I was tired of arguing to the Red Cross volunteers. They used to visit me and tell me why each life was sacred, and why it was wrong to take one’s life no matter what. I failed in explaining that it was disgusting to carry on knowing everyone around you hated you. I have failed in a lot of other things.’
‘You are sick. You show early symptoms of pneumonia. I believe you are aware of the laws. One has to be healthy...Well, what do you say?’
‘I no longer take a say on things. I let the world decide for me.’
Tara stared at his face. The face of the monster, that she always wanted to punch hard when the news had come out. The face looked like one of the many faces that she had come across in her life. The monstrosity could not be seen. She signaled the cops to take him away.
The jail superintendent was expecting Tara as she went inside his office. He gave her a questioning look. She handed him her report.
‘What about him?’
‘He is alright, sir.’
‘Unlucky guy!’, commented the officer, who then went on to laugh at his joke.
‘I heard that your daughter is sick. I am sorry you had to take the trouble.’
‘It is alright. She’d be fine.’