Monday, December 8, 2008

The Biggest Problem (Fiction) by Paritosh Uttam

The Biggest Problem
by Paritosh Uttam

As soon as the old man woke, he realized his condition was precarious. The growing pressure in the pit of his belly had disrupted his nap. Without a window in his side of the partition, it was as dark in the afternoon as it was at night. He was lucky, considering he had woken in time and not wet the bed, thus avoiding the hell his daughter-in-law would raise if the sheets had to be washed and hung to dry. But that also meant he couldn't wait much longer; he would have to go to the toilet soon. The cold only made the urge stronger.

But was she awake? He strained his ears to catch any sound of wakefulness from the other side of the partition--utensils clanging, water running, bed creaking--but he heard nothing. His heart sank. His daughter-in-law was asleep.

She had forbidden him to cross her room while she had her afternoon nap. Was it his fault the way to the toilet led through her room? The sliding door in the partition creaked and scraped, his shuffling across the room was noisy, and then the racket he created in the bathroom with bucket and mug, everything, she told her husband, destroyed her fleeting sleep. And of all the people in the house, if she didn't deserve an uninterrupted hour of sleep, then she didn't know who did.

Sitting up in his creaking cot, the old man groped for his slippers on the ground with his feet. Was it his fault the house was full of sounds? His cot creaked, the partition door creaked, the floorboards creaked, his very bones creaked. But it was their bed that creaked the most, especially at night.

When every other sound was stilled, and sleep came to him with increasing reluctance, the creaks from their bed were easily audible through the wooden partition. When the creaking picked up a rhythm, a relaxed tempo at first, then quickening, building up a crescendo, he tried hard not to imagine them. But his greatest difficulty on such nights was reaching the toilet.

He found one slipper, but for the other he had to get down painfully on his arthritic knees to reach under the cot. How long could he withstand the pressure before he had to cross the room? Fifteen minutes, twenty at most? He prayed her nap would end before that.

On those nights, he waited as long as he could, long after the last creak signalling the climax had died, before starting on his trip. He sensed her awake, her resentful glare boring into his back, as he sidled against the wall in the darkness. And again, on the return trip, after he had relieved himself of the burden of his bladder.

"Why does he have to go two-three times in the night? Wants to have a look, the dirty old man," he once heard her tell his son, who thankfully ignored her, pretending to be asleep.

Should he sit, or stand? The pressure was less if he stood, but if he walked, the creaking floorboards might awaken her. He decided to continue sitting.

Her bed creaked. Was she waking up? Or just turning over in her sleep?

Ultimately, it was blood that counted. Were it not for his son, he would be out on the streets, hungry and homeless. His son's heart would have quailed at the idea of abandoning him, and in one of the rare instances where he overruled his wife, had built this partition in the room to accommodate him. In a house with a single room, a closet of a kitchen and a closet of a bathroom, it was no mean sacrifice. Abhorring every moment of his presence, his daughter-in-law extracted revenge in a thousand little ways. But he could bear everything--what needs did a 75-year old have?

No, he couldn't complain too much. He had a roof over his head, and food, meagre but regular. He hadn't been able to hand down much to his son. The poor fellow hadn't done well either; he did all he could, working till late in the night to keep them afloat. Had they been a little better off, perhaps even his daughter-in-law wouldn't hate him as much as she did. He could understand the frustration of thwarted dreams.

The bed creaked. And again. And again. The old man sat still in shock as the creaking picked up a familiar tempo.

Couldn't be his son at this hour. Who then? A neighbor? Her paramour must have slipped in while he was napping. But surely she knew he could hear them. She was counting on his silence, on his tacit connivance. He held his head in his hands. It would be so easy for her to poison his son's ears against him if she put her mind to it: a word here, a word there, and he could lose whatever he had. And what would his son gain if he knew?

A spasm of pain shot through his groin. He couldn't delay it any longer. He rose tottering to his feet. The creaking grew vehement.

The problems of youth--fidelity, trust, jealousy, passion. His son would learn to deal with them on his own.

He threw aside the partition door and lurched through.

"Oh god."

"Who the hell? You said no one--"

The old man staggered towards the toilet fumbling with the drawstring of his pyjamas. The problems of old age were different. When he was old, his son would come to realize that sometimes the biggest problem in life could be reaching the bathroom on time.

Author bio:

Paritosh Uttam is 31 and leads a Dr Jekyll-and-Mr Hyde existence in Pune, India. During the day he is a regular software engineer and turns into a writer at late night or early morning. More on him at:

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