The Looking Glass
The Looking Glass12 mins 172 12 mins 172
We have lost Appi, our grandmother, my father’s mother.
No, she has not expired.
She is lost. Like untraceable. Since yesterday evening.
Appi suffers from amnesia and at eighty-one years of age has to be reminded of her name. Still, it seems weird – losing a person like this, as if she were a needle or a handkerchief, or a pair of socks – to be misplaced in a moment of inattentiveness. It is awkward. Sad.
At seventeen, I am not certain if it is shock, or sorrow, or a mix of both which engulfs me. I wonder if there is an ideal way, like those for most of the common circumstances, in which I am supposed to react at the moment. Should guilt be one of those? I can sense it within – the regret - for not spending even a few minutes with Appi in the last few months. We were all always too caught up.
And today It is an atmosphere of palpable uneasiness all around. Visitors swarming our usually capacious bungalow, by noon the place falling short of space. People continue to walk in, offering words of sympathy and concern. Most of the men are out in groups scanning the small town – from narrow gulleys to the bus stand, the ladies are either sobbing or speaking in low voices amidst themselves. My father and both uncles are making trips to the local police station to check for updates.
Amongst Appi’s grandchildren, I am the youngest - the only one yet to join the grad-school. Hence, while my cousin brothers have joined the people scanning in the vicinity and the girls have dispersed into the ladies’ groups, my task is to baby-sit a couple of toddlers and keeping them contained within the periphery of my room on the first floor. Going to school is not an option for a few days to come. With that realization came the pang of guilt. Somehow it did not feel right - to be able to have any other thoughts than finding Appi. I wonder if the elders are feeling the same way.
Not that I am longing to be part of these activities, I am relieved to be left alone. It’s better to converse with your own self when we are desperately looking for answers.
One of my aunts came in with a sandwich for me and handed a few cookies to the children. It is something I cannot comprehend - this practicality of the grown-ups…the matriarch is missing but meals are not to be missed. I am not sure if am hungry. Has Appi eaten anything since yesterday? I keep the snack aside and walk to the window - beside the street below there are a dozen cars parked, almost all of them belong to visitors at our place. I continue to gaze outside.
Where is Appi?
Would she be able to find her way back home?
Or would someone find her and bring her to us?
There could be accidents on busy roads. Is she safe? She does not even know her name.
Will I see her again?
I choked upon the last thought. As my sight grew hazy I faked a cough and rubbed off the moisture from the eyes, cautiously checking if any of the kids noticed the tears. They had not. I sighed. And I felt hollow. And the void took me by surprise.
Appi has been a petite and shrivelled old lady for quite a few years now, lost in her own thoughts. For the past two years she has not been able to recognize any of us, which includes herself. Once we had overcome the initial sorrow of seeing her like that, we had gradually got used to ignoring her words, which often meant nothing to a sane mind – at least that is the way most of us thought. Elders have been busy with their usual chores - Appi being a reluctant entry into that list, my cousins have been busy with their excitements in life – from fashion to travel adventures, and I have been too caught up growing up and out of my teenage. Post the demise of our grandfather four years ago, Appi has been mostly spending her time by herself. I tried imagining her stuck in a world of increasingly blurring memories. I had to put up another coughing streak, the thoughts went on. In the past few months I had hardly spoken to Appi, often hastily walking out of the vicinity whenever I spotted her anywhere nearby. And I was not the only one behaving that way. Now, that realization pierces through my heart, I move closer to the window and try to breathe in more air. I can’t find the tissue papers on the table, and the tears would not stop. I cough and rub my eyes.
People say that I had literally grown up playing upon Appi’s lap. I still recall that warm secure feeling of her embrace. With no one younger to displace me, I had reigned the playground of her lap like an empress - till around my tenth birthday, and that was much longer than any of the cousins. Appi was also an excellent storyteller…I suppose all grandparents are. In the evenings and sometimes after dinner, all of us children used to huddle around her for the tales. She had not heard of Cinderella, but she knew of talking animals - clever foxes and cleverer rabbits, of warrior royals, of a boy who grew up in the mountains, a girl turning into a lotus and singing her story – the list was vivid…and endless. Then she had begun to falter – the brave prince would turn into a rose and forget to be a human again, the little birds forgot how to outwit the clever fox, the lotus girl could no longer remember her song. We waited for her to recall, but the tales could not be completed. And gradually we chose the television over the now vague sagas.
A strong guilt engulfed me. I have wronged her…we have all wronged her - immensely. For the first time in many months, I wanted to sit with Appi, hold her tight and speak to her.
When we find her and bring her back home, this time I shall do everything differently.
And what if we never find her?
An ache twisted me from within. I did not want to think further. I could not.
Am in a much weakened frame of mind – with thoughts spiralling out of control. It has startled me – this sudden multitude of emotions surging within. For this entire time grandmother was a few steps away and I had made almost every effort to avoid being with her. Now she is gone, in the worst possibility – never to return, and I am longing for one glimpse of her, to see her safely return. May be this time I see her I would burst out crying. In a childish manner I imagined Appi regaining her memory on seeing me weep. Or may be like they show in the melodramatic movies, she has a minor accident (I dread to think of a major one) during this episode of disappearance, hit her head and be back to her non-amnesic self.
For a moment, the visual lightened my heart. I peeped onto the street below – almost seeing Appi standing in front of our gate with a crowd of ecstatic kin surrounding her.
It is late evening now. The day has passed without any news. My solitary room continues to be encroached by the children. More of our relatives have arrived, and with four kids sleeping on my bed, I continue to sit by the window which now overlooks a deserted road outside.
Is grandmother asleep at the moment?
I imagined her sleeping on one of those green coloured benches beside the town square, her soft white hair quivering in the cool breeze. It is summer, yet a night in the open could be cold. May be she is sheltered in an abandoned storehouse instead, it would be more comfortable there. Her face kept floating in front of my eyes, and I felt an urge to cradle her head on my lap. This time I let the tears descend.
How was father feeling at the moment? Was he thinking of the happy memories he shared with his mother? Was he feeling guilty too?
Was everyone feeling guilty in some way? Were we all missing grandmother, now that she was not around?
I recalled reading these words somewhere - sometimes to realise the true value of something (or someone) we needed to lose them. I had thought of my bicycle then. Now, staring at the stars beyond the window, I feel I have grown up much quicker in this single day.
But the elders had been grown-ups for a long time now, still many of them had hastened away from grandmother. I had been rude enough to suppress a giggle and run away myself often. These memories now are hurting me like never before.
What could we do now? What should I do?
I cut off the thread of thoughts. Emptiness seemed more peaceful. I walked out of the room.
It is Appi’s room at the end of the corridor. I took a few steps towards it. When was the last time I had looked that way? May be more than a year. I walked up to the doorway - hesitating to step inside the now empty chamber. From the gaps in the light blue curtains I could see the wooden armchair – varnished in brown. The single bed had a clean white bed-sheet and two large pillows upon it, all well set – as if in a hotel room - ready to welcome a guest. Where was her prayer place? I peeped in through the blue drapes, and found the decorated frame with the brass idols of the deities, placed just near the window. Does Appi remember those Sanskrit hymns? Does she still recite the long verses? What about the stories of Gods and Goddesses she used tell us?
At the moment, there was no way to know the answers. I looked at idols and I prayed…for Appi to return…for that one chance to do the correct thing – to be her granddaughter again.
Walking towards the milieu of people downstairs, I prepared myself to sit all alone, surrounded by people.
I knew I was sad, they assumed I was pained; still somehow it did not seem proper to lose my composure. I sat through the conversations as batches of concerned guests arrived and left. Our family seemed more composed now, may be the past day’s experience making them more adapt. I saw a couple of police officers speaking to a few elders. They were calm and went around unhurriedly sipping cups of tea. It was nearing dusk, and we did not have any news of Appi yet. I felt my heart sinking.
Someone has arranged for a prayer session in the late evening. I joined others in the front yard, listening to and reciting a string of devotional songs, it was as a trance-like atmosphere. I saw my mother sitting in the front row, gently clapping with her hands, her eyes closed as she swayed to the rhythm amidst a group of relatives. I closed my eyes and thought of grandmother.
Long after the prayers, the house stood soaked in a reflective silence. I returned to my room, curling up beside my cousins. May be I will dream of Appi, or maybe I will not. And even if I do, I might not remember. Just like her amnesia.
From the shadows of the night Appi’s face haunted me.
Was she okay?
In a fraction of a second, scenes flashed through my mind – of her lying in a pool of blood, hit by some rogue, run over by a speeding truck, attacked by a pack of roadside dogs. I stood up. Father should be somewhere downstairs.
I found father and my uncles in the front porch – occupying the plastic chairs someone might have placed for the visitors. After a long time I saw them together, somehow looking alike - burdened with tiredness and melancholy – like siblings that they were, tied with common bonds - of blood and shared memories.
I walked up to them, half expecting one of them to instruct me to return to my room. They looked up at me, I saw father’s lips move slightly but he didn’t speak. I sat on the staircase nearby. We sat in silence – somewhere a pack of crickets continued to chirp.
It was as if I could feel the silence…the air was thick with moisture, heavy. Like father and my uncles, I sat staring at the emptiness in front.
What are they thinking? Of their memories from childhood?
Are they thinking of grandfather? Are they missing him? Missing that thunderous voice of his, to guide them with confidence today?
What might grandfather said, if he were to walk in now? Would he have blamed us for losing his wife like this?
May be he would have helplessly watched us all, regretting leaving Appi alone with us. She was with us – but alone.
Now we have only questions – more and more queries – from our own selves, from the people. And there are no answers.
Father’s voice brought me back from the trail of thoughts.
“Don’t worry, she would be back soon”, he said slowly. Uncles nodded reassuringly at me. I tried to smile.
Father bent forward to pick up a stack of papers from the table in front.
“For your school.” He handed me the pamphlets.
And now I saw the note. The word ‘MISSING’ was printed in bold capital letters on the top, a black and white photograph of Appi staring at me from below it. A brief description of hers followed – 5 feet 2 inches height, 52 kilograms weight, eighty one years of age, thin built, white hair, wheatish complexion, and walks with a limp. Her amnesia was mentioned and that she would not know her own name. Hence, it largely depended on the finder to confirm her identity. Father’s and uncles’ phone numbers were at the bottom, along with an unfamiliar landline number – most probably of the police station. I had seen such posters at public places - pasted on roadside walls, train stations, bus stands and also within the buses – I could hardly recall any instance when I had read any of those carefully enough with an intention to recognize the missing person.
“Please come back.” I whispered.
The leaflets fell off my hands as I slumped onto the floor. The sobs would not stop. I could not fake the cough. Appi stared at me from the black and white photographs strewn all around - a faint smile played upon her lips.