The Right Payal

The Right Payal

8 mins 22K 8 mins 22K


The mango tree extended its branches into the window. The window of a house that could never be shelter to what it had been built to protect. Now he was gone. She would leave soon, taking even the memories of him.

The house was the only one that they had ever known together. With its peeling paint and mossy walls, it should have been reborn a long time ago, like the several apartments that had mushroomed around them replacing the older homes as the old were replaced in them. But old homes have their own miraculous way of surviving. This one did too, thriving on memories created around and within. Reminiscences of children playing kabaddi on the mud roads; a mother lovingly dressing a scratch of the young player, nodding as she acknowledged the cut to be tremendous, and other similar joys of the days long gone by. Each story was written into the bricks, fingers just had to brush these walls to momentarily go back in time.


But, for her, it was entirely different. She awoke in a state of vigilance, as her hand grasped for her walking stick even before her eyes could adjust to the sunlight. She had hobbled her way half way out of the room when her mind awoke and thoughts flooded in. He was gone.


Gone were the days she had to run to the next room with her heart pounding. She could now walk, and walk slowly. How lovely it felt to be her age. The payal on her left foot jingled softly as she entered the next room. She stood at the doorway blinking in the dim light. The half drawn curtains blocked the light that the mango tree past it couldn’t. The minimal light was just enough to see an unmade bed, a small table with a water jug on it. The smell of jasmine flowers mingled with that of medications, both in symbiotic harmony in this room.


After all, she had awakened to this smell every morning for many many years. Her mind remained blissfully blank as she looked around. The bed, the table, the smell and even the sound of the mango tree scraping the window were the same as yesterday but it felt different, oh so different as the strange feeling lingered on.


She pulled open the curtains. Light… and memories rushed in. He had stood at this window, his fingers wrapped around the grill, like a prisoner in his cell, while she pleaded with him to take his medications. Every morning began with this scene. Some days he stood placidly with his long grey hair sweeping his thin shoulders. Most days, his shoulders would shake with fury and his arms would rattle the window grill as he screamed and howled with frustration. He would hit his head against the window until she pulled him back. Sometimes she would cajole and persuade him to take his sedatives, mostly she would leave the room exhausted and bruised and even more bent than she had been when she went in.


Shaking the recollection from her head, she crossed over to the opposite wall running her fingers over the cuts on it, the thousands of cuts that had been made, one for nearly every day. Every day he had woken trapped in his own mind, in a cage he didn’t know he had built.


She had awakened that distant day to cries for help and run to her brother’s room. In place of her brother stood a person she could not understand. She watched scared, as he yelled and hurled abuses to his left, only to then cower with fear when he turned to his right, two people each striving to dominate the other. Surrounding him were glass pieces from a china plate, the biggest shard he held in his hand. She had run to him in a desperate attempt to make him see sense but he had simply hurled her out of his way, as if he couldn’t recognize her either. The payal on her right foot had caught on a nail in the wall and she had fallen breaking in half.


Some years ago her brother had seemed to get better. As if young children again, they had sat in the garden and planted the mango tree. But as the tree grew taller, he had grown worse.



Gone was the cheerful sound of the payals on her feet. After sixty years of her life, she never thought she would have to study again but from that day she was forced to, and the subject was ‘schizophrenia’. Visits to a never-ending stream of doctors began and her carefree happy days ended. Gone. The china plates were sold along with every precious item they had had. Gone. Her black beautiful hair turned silver. Gone. In the beginning her son had aided her but his future beckoned him across the seas.


Her son who had been her staff was replaced by a real one, a stick as bent as her. The brother whom she had loved and treasured became her duty. Years of joy now simply tears and toil.


Her fingers rested on the last cut in the wall. She felt a smile forming on her face. She was free. She felt elated, no longer bound by duty with the realization that she no longer had something or someone holding her back.


In a weeks time she would travel across the globe to her son’s home, her new home. Her son had wanted to come to her but she had denied him, till now, saying that it was not safe. Instead, now she would go to him! She would spend her days holding her young grand daughter, whom she had never seen, in her arms. She could be a part of a family again, where love preceded duty and age got its chance to rest. Giddy with joy she twirled her cane and flapped the bed sheets. She folded it away neatly, as she had every day, this time folding and packing with it the years she yearned to forget.


A sparkle caught her eye. Slowly she pulled out from beneath the edge of the bed, her right payal. It was worn with age, as if someone had held and rubbed it with over and over again. Her fingers traced cuts on the inside of the metal, ‘akka’, sister. She stumbled blindly outside and fell at the foot of the mango tree.


Finally she opened her throat and let the tears flow. Her grief racked her lungs and her ribs heaved painfully but the physical pain could never match her emotional agony. How could she have been so selfish? Her brother had been dead for less than 2 weeks. She was filled with remorse.


It was still the same brother who had been her hero. As a child she never took her eyes off of him and his big eyes had filled with adoration for her. Every day she would run home from school to play with him, sit with him as he studied and then worked. His eyes sparkled at her wedding and fumed when she came home heartbroken. He never let go of her again. It was the same brother, who had been a father to her son, spending time with him, buying him whatever he desired even though his own income was meager. Their days were spent with endless cups of tea, carrom games and experiments in the kitchen and the garden. Finally they’d collapse in chairs on the terrace and stare up at the sky with contented faces.


The kindness and love she had received from him when she came home with a child and a dozen bruises, the hours he had slaved away to support the three of them came rushing into her head.


Just one day had changed it all and she felt as if all the love she had for him was being given away day by day. Thinking back on the times she had despised her brother because of the situation he had put her in amplified her shame. Tears rained down her face. She beat her chest with her fists. Guilt flowed through her and misery filled her heart. She clutched at the soil to balance herself. She stayed in that position, on all fours like an animal, until her tears ran out.


But the wickedness she felt in her remained. The fault of being even the tiniest bit happy that her brother had died, the self-reproach of living the last few decades as a curse, not a way to expand her love, the remorse of forgetting how a man she felt afraid of standing in front of, had once given her his everything when she needed it most… The guilt ate her alive just as the grief had all these years.


Finally, many hours later, she walked through the doorway for the last time with a suitcase in each hand. She had a payal on her left foot and one on her right hand. She realized that no matter how far she went, she could never leave behind the mango tree the house and her brother, they would always be with her, in her heart. She smiled as she walked away, the payal jingling on her wrist and the memory of her brother’s hand in hers.


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