Critical Junction
Sandeep Girish Bhatnagar


writings: story

December 2014

This was his third attempt and he was absolutely sick of it. Two successive failures can be really irritating as anyone used to doing a job well will tell you. He wanted to carry out the simplest of tasks, one well within the level of competency of a certified idiot.  And yet here he was, not sure whether he would manage to get it right, even this time around.


He walked resolutely along the road, neither looking this way nor that. Cars hurtled past on the freeway with complete indifference to the speed limit inscribed on signboards all along the road.  He ignored the huge buildings that loomed large over him like sulking gargoyles. They were cunning, sly to be precise. Just as one is about to take the plunge, urged on by all manner of conceivable omens, they entice you to take a U-turn and you are left high and dry, neither here nor there, suspended between shades of indecision.  He took no notice of the stars in the night sky that occasionally appeared from under the dense cloud cover.  There could be no turning back this time. He was determined not to fail.  This was something that he just had to do.


It got dark early at this time of the year; besides, there was no moon. There was, however, enough of a glow from the street lamps to show him the way. All of a sudden, there was a flash of lightning, followed by a peal of thunder. He looked up as a drop of rain fell on the nape of his neck and his face was lit up by the street lamp he was passing under. Brows furrowed, cheeks unshaven and sunk deep into an aged fragile skull, he seemed more a scarecrow than human. Once again, lightening streaked across the sky, this time in the form of a huge jagged trident. There was a crackling sound overhead and the street lights began to flicker and then went out altogether. Now it was dark, really dark, almost as dark as a tomb. He thought it only right it should be so, for it was in keeping with what would soon take place. There was no doubt about it: he would definitely succeed this time.  


How had he managed to fail the last time around? Everything had been so carefully planned out. He had selected a building far away from the busy shopping centres and malls, so as not to attract attention. He hated creating a scene of any kind. It was his decision and he was prepared to stand by it, so why should anyone else spoil his or her weekend? Just imagine finding a body hurtling through the air and landing at your feet on the pavement, just as you are entering your favourite pub or restaurant. Kind of puts you off the evening. Why should others have to bear the brunt of his problems?

Once again, he began to criticize himself. It had been a perfectly simple task, all he had to do was to get to the top of the building and jump off. Any fool could have done it. Right? Well, not this fool. What had he gone and done? he asked himself for the hundredth time. 


He had planned it out so well. It had taken him a while to find a secluded building, whose terrace was not locked up at night.  He took the elevator to the top floor and walked up a flight of stairs to the terrace. He then climbed onto the ledge and seated himself at the very edge, waiting  to catch his breath before taking the final plunge. He looked below and noticed that a fair had been set up in an unused field, a short distance away. He could make out the tiny figures seated in the gondolas of a huge Ferris wheel. It was lit up with red, blue and green lights and turned slowly, buoyed by the squeals of laughter that emerged with each rotation. At the other end of the field, a merry-go-round spun to the accompaniment of music and delighted children bobbed up and down on horses, zebras, giraffes, tigers and all kinds of mythological beasts. There were games, too.  Amateur marksmen targeted balloons. The ‘pop’ sound of an air rifle being fired floated up along with the occasional ‘bang’ of balloons bursting. There, below him, was a sea of merriment, frothing with the joy of people who had turned up to collectively enjoy themselves.  A warm glow appeared on his cheeks as he watched all this happiness.


So deep was his reverie that he did not notice that other people were also present on the terrace. He was abruptly startled back to reality by a voice behind him:


“Now, I didn’t say that, did I?”


“Of course, you did. Don’t lie!”


He tried to get off the ledge before the courting couple discovered an eavesdropper in the vicinity.  But he had been spotted:


“Hello, there. Would you like a hand, sir?” said a teenage boy with an ingratiating smile.  


The old man indicated with a dismissive gesture that he was perfectly capable of managing on his own. The boy, however, was not convinced and watched him with considerable curiosity as he retreated from the ledge and into the safety of the terrace.  The old man then slunk away, full of reproach at having missed such a fine opportunity. It was so easy, leaping off a building. All one had to do was to get to the edge and nonchalantly step out into the night. Simple?  But what had he done? What did he think he was, some kind of a poet? What on earth had he been thinking about? he asked himself again and again.


Did he or did he not wish to end his life?


Indeed, he did.


But why think of committing suicide at the ripe old age of 76 when there was so little time left?


Because he was so dammed fit. What with the Peter Pan genes he had inherited from his father, he had no ailments worth mentioning; at least none that in the near future were likely to become life-threatening. He would probably touch a hundred or more before the grim reaper paid him a visit.  He couldn’t bear to think of twenty years of solitude, endless days without any purpose for going on.


At this point, one could well ask, “Why do you wish to end your life?”


It was a difficult question to answer. However, one thing was certain:  he was tired of living. There was nothing more he wished to see or do. It was more a question of complete disenchantment with the processes that constitute life than any single cause or reason; at least, this is what he liked to believe. In actual fact, however, his desire for death had become more pronounced after his wife passed away. It had been a long and tortuous battle but the Big C had won out in the end. Three years previous to this, he had lost his son, along with his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, in a bomb blast.  The young couple had been were travelling home in a train  with their two children,  after a weekend at the  old man’s house, when half-way through the journey,  a concealed bomb ripped open the compartment they were seated in.  The old man and his wife were completely heartbroken and took it in turns to console each other. It is easy to say, “Bear it with fortitude, for one cannot control the hand of providence.” But actually coming to terms with bereavement is next to impossible.  They had just about accepted the inscrutable workings of fate when his wife was detected as being afflicted with cancer. Everything seemed to come apart after that.


For a few days after his long-suffering wife was finally laid to rest, the old man was totally numb. But as the fact of the departure of a companion of almost 50 years began to sink in, he realised he just couldn’t go on any more. There was no way he could fill the emotional vacuum created by her exit. Together, they had managed to weather the earlier storms, but now even she had deserted him. How many people can a man grieve for and hope to survive? He was not sure whom he should mourn for, his son or his wife? He soon came to the conclusion that enough was enough and that it was time for him to go.


His first attempt had been made with poison: simple and effective, nothing to it.  He had only to imbibe the prescribed dose and he wouldn’t wake up the next morning. Much to his embarrassment, however, he did wake up the following morning and that too in the ICU ward of the local hospital. Apparently, a technician, working on the window ledge, repairing a cable TV connection, happened to peep in just as the old man was taking the fatal dose. Seeing the old man collapse, he immediately called for an ambulance. The old man couldn’t for the life of him understand why people had to be so meddlesome!  It was his life and what he did with it was his own business. Had it not been for the interfering, wannabe Good Samaritan of a technician, the old man would not have had to go through the ignominy of psychiatric counselling. He was well aware of the sanctity of life but one can have too much of a good thing. He had been on the verge of directing some very scathing remarks at the psychiatrist, regarding the absurdity of being in an irrational universe, the very futility of existence and so on. This, however, would have led to his being locked up or put under surveillance. So instead of blasting the well-meaning doctor with a barrage of choice abuse, as every atom in his body urged him to, the old man thanked him most courteously for his kind advice and promised to never again give vent to his depression in such a drastic manner.


But was he really depressed?


It was not so much a sense of melancholia, dejection or misery of any kind but more a question of an overwhelming feeling of fatigue, the old man thought as he ruminated over his encounters with the good-natured psychiatrist. He was sick and tired of it all, the whole pointless rigmarole of things repeating themselves in endless cycles, day after day, month after month, year after year, ad nauseam.  Everything was so pointless. Nothing seemed to go the way he wanted it to.  What he wished for did not matter in the least.


The old man was really desperate now. He had not imagined that the taking one’s life could be so difficult. Perhaps, the Internet would provide an answer. He keyed in the required phrase in the text box of the search engine and waited anxiously for an answer. Much to his surprise, there were a number of websites that specialised in matters concerning the termination of one’s own life. There were also Blog Spot entries, where altruists guided people to their ends. It is truly fascinating, thought the old man as he surfed around.


He learned that the use of firearms is the most popular method for the taking of one’s life, followed by an overdose of drugs, hanging, poisoning, the inhaling of carbon monoxide,  suffocation,  jumping, wrist slitting,  electrocution and drowning. He had already tried poison and there was no way any local chemist was going to sell him anything even remotely life-threatening, not after his previous fiasco. He rescanned the web page and stopped at “jumping”.  By “jumping” they meant leaping off an elevated structure; but what about jumping in front of a fast moving vehicle? That’s a good idea, he thought as he stroked his gaunt cheek meditatively and considered the possibility of extinguishing his life with the help of a speeding truck. There was the off chance that it wouldn’t work out; on the other hand, this approach left no room for second thoughts. Once he had planted himself before an oncoming vehicle, there would be no time to change his mind. That clinched it, as far as he was concerned. How’s that for clear thinking?


With his mind set and completely at peace with himself, the old man continued to walk towards his destination with a determined stride. No point in dwelling on the past, he thought as he walked deeper and deeper into the night. He was heading towards an accident-prone crossroad junction, where vehicles were known to speed and involve themselves in all sorts of mishaps. This was the spot where he planned to throw himself in the path of a speeding car. No one would be blamed. It was almost certain that the driver would not stop to render assistance and would leave him to die on the road. Or better still, he would be killed on impact. That would be much better, for in this way, there would be no scene of any kind. In the morning, the police would discover his body and take it away to the local morgue. All very neat and clinical.


Trudging wearily along the road, with only the random flashes of lightening to guide him in the darkness, the old man at last arrived at the infamous junction and began his wait for a speeding vehicle. In the distance, he could see well-lit buildings, with all the lives being lived in them. But this time, he ignored the emotions the sight of such domestic harmony evoked in him. Instead, he kept his eyes riveted on the road. He needed a fast-moving vehicle, where the driver was not likely to apply the brakes in time. The first one to pass by was a lumbering container-carrying truck, so slow that the old man could well have walked along with it. This was because the driver was on engaged in a conversation on his cellphone. The old man fumed with indignation. Really, the nerve of some people!  So inconsiderate! Imagine slowing down the traffic on a fast-moving highway merely to make a phone call.


The next car was so small and light that he was not sure if the impact would actually kill him. He was about to step out onto the road but then he decided against it. What if he was only battered and bruised? Besides the pain, there was the embarrassment of psychiatric counselling he would have to endure. Maybe, this time, they would go ahead and charge him. He considered the irony of the situation: the punishment for  being unwilling to go on living is arrest and imprisonment! But if a person is bent on ending his life, there is little anyone can do to prevent him. Where there is a will, there is a way! They could, of course, put him under observation in an asylum for the mentally disturbed or something of that kind.


What is life? mused the old man. A succession of experiences and memories, or is it just the will to go on existing? The desire of certain particles of matter to exert their independence from the rest of the universe. The will provides the cohesive force that holds the matter together and gives it an identity. Without this driving force, a body would disintegrate and return to the earth from where it originally emerged. In spite of going deeper and deeper into the enigma of being and existence, the old man kept a watchful eye on the lonely road. It was easy to spot approaching traffic, even at a great distance away, on account of the darkness due to the faulty street lights. They occasionally sputtered on for a few seconds, only to be extinguished in the next instant. Once they had remained on for a whole minute, causing considerable trepidation in the old man as he did not want to be spotted by a patrolling highway police van. He heaved a huge sigh of relief as the lights went out again after flickering ominously in the rain for a few seconds before doing so. He felt tired, so he sat down on a milestone by the side of the road.


Life is a cycle of dust to dust, thought the old man as he resumed his reverie, flesh and bone yearning to return to what they had emerged from. That would mean all life has an urge to extinguish itself. But then, how does one answer for all the attempts made by mankind to prolong existence on earth? He mused over what appeared to him at the moment to be a paradox of sorts. “Prolong” is the key to all existence, he thought. All one can do is try to extend one’s existence on earth, not better it or improve it any way. So, the intrepid few who were willing to put an end to this unequal struggle were the only truly sensible ones. He nodded sagely to himself as he blushed with pride.


Such clear thinking and courage, he thought as he waited patiently by the edge of the road, close to the zebra-crossing.  After a while, the headlights of an extra long trailer-truck came into view. It looked like a mechanized version of the fabled Loch Ness monster, with its huge tail-like trailer that lashed from side to side along the highway. He was marvelling at the power of the engine, wondering whether the driver would have enough time to brake if he were to throw himself in its path, when a car crossing the junction rammed into the side of the truck. It must have been doing at least 100 miles per hour on impact. The top of the car was ripped off and the mangled heap, which emerged from below the monster truck, went careering off the road and smashed into a tree. Just then, the street lights came back on and the highway was once again clearly lit up. The old man was stupefied by what he saw.


He was taking in the bizarre sequence of events when something bounced onto his leg. Stooping down, he discovered the severed head of one of the occupants of the ill-fated vehicle. The sightless head stared back as if in a drunken stupor, absolutely unaware that it was on its own and that its body lay elsewhere. It was the head of a young man of around 25 years or so, clean shaven and with neatly cut hair. Battered though it was by the impact, which had dislodged it from its torso, the face still possessed a certain youthful charm, a sense of quiet dignity mingled with the innocent confidence only the truly young can be said to possess.  The old man couldn’t bear to see the head so far away from the rest of its body, so he picked it up and gently placed it  next to one of the two  bodies lying amid the twisted wreckage of what had once been a  sports car. Sirens wailed mournfully as the police arrived on the scene and began their investigation. The old man gave them an eyewitness account and then began his slow journey home.


The next day, the old man reopened his clinic, whose shutters he had downed three years ago after his son’s funeral, and let the sunlight in. Yes, he is a doctor by profession; but even the most rational of medical practitioners can become disillusioned with life. On weekends, he runs a guidance centre for manic depressives, which is where I first met him. His methods are unusual: he doesn’t counsel, preach or offer big-brotherly advice, but simply allows his patients to get a slice of life first hand. He takes them on nature trails and treks to the mountains, where they can enjoy the panoramic view, fly kites in the fresh breeze, collect interesting rock and plant samples, and in general try to be one with their surroundings. The basic idea being to get us to do things that we enjoy doing.


Does this mean that the good doctor has found the answers he was searching for?


I don’t think so, for I often watch him when he thinks he is not being observed. There is something very stoic about him: his face turns hard as granite as he goes within and tries to arrive at the first causes of everything, including the enigma we call life; then all of a sudden, he breaks into a smile and a peaceful, easy feeling lights up his features. Of late, these moments of calm have become more frequent than the stormy ones. He appears to be coming to terms with himself. I hope I, too, can emulate his success.

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Sandeep Girish Bhatnagar studied literature at the University of Bombay (Mumbai) and plans to carry out research on aspects of Indian Writing. His work has been published in various literary journals such as Himal, Euphony, Shakespeare (a magazine), Kavya Bharati and Avatar Review (an online journal). He is also a professional seafarer and holds a Foreign Going Master's Certificate of Competency.
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December 2014


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