She was toiling inside the damp heat of the kitchen, looking into the thin streaks of the midday sun that poured through the small kitchen window. She was cutting succulent summer vegetables and frying the freshwater fish in simmering hot oil when a nameless gray shadow flew to her. Rapt in her early morning Sanskrit slokas and daily rituals of washing and repetitive cleaning of her hand, body and the kitchen utensils, she saw it, at first, fluttering from side to side like a little moth, and then, like a thick mass of a body growing within her, smudging her like soup, spreading all over her like old moss.
It was supposed to be a usual, sluggish and unperturbed late summer afternoon, marked with a sense of silent surrender to the household and a keen breath of anticipation and usual anxiety for me, her daughter staying in the faraway lands.
Her days and nights were marked with a heavy, potent wait to hear her daughter’s voice, her sudden, untimely long-distance calls filled with redundant queries, breathless arguments, renewed energy, paranoia and the unseen rainbow hues of love. Love spoke to them in varied signs and expressions they had been a part of, together, with their jaded conversations and the drought of silence hanging in between the missed calls and voicemails, text messages, and virtual correspondence. The nameless grey shadow had roamed around her for quite some days, waiting like the unforeseen apparition of a stranger that emerged with his slender limb of temptation in all her insomniac nights, in her weary mornings and the glad tidings of her hospitality.
“I just had my blood pressure medicines and sleeping pills. I must have some sleep now,” had been her daily dose of assurance to the daughter.
She lifted her weary body, her trembling legs all the way to the steep stairs, the cold, narrow landings, and the old, worn out rug that marked the entrance to her bedroom. Gulping an array of medicines that she routinely ingested since her first mild stroke with a glass full of water, she woke up from her sleep at irregular intervals with parched tongue and heavy breath. Often, before the break of dawn, when stray dogs in the neighborhood barked incessantly, she looked into the shadow vainly, thinking of the tides of life surrounding her ebb and flow with the fading moonlight.
“Your mother has gone completely out of her mind. Ask her how long she stays awake every night in her bed, staring at the laptop and your pictures,” had been the father’s daily complaint.
Often, at the wee hours of night, at the break of dawn, when a calm, composed sleep blanketed the house, the long-distance calls hovered around her mind, at times fraught with anger, differences and distance, at times beaming with revelations and love.
The daughter painted to her the fantasies, visions and dreams of another world, and the mother dreamt of those dreams with a painter’s quest for beauty and richness. The daughter was at times hopeless, insecure, solitary, walking on the cold snow of anomalies when the mother showed her the path of benevolence and ingenuity. The daughter at times went on trips to cities, mountains and oceans with her family in the faraway land, trips to unknown vistas, the pictures of which appeared in her Facebook page like decorated wallpapers. Sometimes, these days, she thought of her six months stay in the distant American Midwest, her first passport and visa appointment at the US Consulate in Kolkata, her first glimpses of her daughter in her late pregnancy, the baby shower she had arranged in the traditional Bengali way with a table full of scrumptious food and her blessings. Often, she thought of the first glimpses of her daughter with her newborn and the way her God had appeared in her painterly dream in that cozy hospital room, promising to bestow health, reward and undying love.
“Did Papai call today morning? Did you get any news?” The father asked his wife in the open courtyard in the midst of his strong coughs, his daily brushing and shaving rituals and the usual cacophony of the neighborhood, its people, vegetable sellers, stray dogs.
“She will call tomorrow, she promised when I spoke to her yesterday. She has to pack her bags today. They are going on a vacation to some beautiful mountain. She told me the name of the place so many times, I just don’t manage to remember things easily these days, you see,” the mother replied.
The shadow played with her for a while in that quiet summer morning as she continued with her slow, labored walks to the kitchen and the courtyard, her short trips to the neighborhood grocer, the repartee with it being in the nature of a hung proposal.
“What happened to you, sister? Are you ok?” the old neighborhood grocer asked her as she descended the stairs of the shop, rubbing her sweat with the ends of her cotton sari.
“It’s nothing serious. My head is reeling a bit, will be alright once I reach home. It’s just the heat outside I can’t stand,” she replied as she walked around, the world around her eyes gradually descending.
At noon, in the open courtyard, amid the hissing sound of buckets being filled with tap water, the slippery mess of washed kitchen utensils and a plastic tub full of washed clothes, the shadow had entwined his arms around her, draining all his vastness into a growing, blossoming cold.
At noon, there were a couple of knocks on the door, followed by the shrill, repetitive ringing echoes of the calling bell.
“Open the door, Didi. I’ve got something for you,” one of her younger brothers, living close by, had come to meet her.
“Who is itttttttttttt?” She labored to utter, the shadow under her cover of routine housework as he slowly creeps, her words, sense of language and the world outside fading into a deep abyss as it seeps into her, overpowers her like a crafty monster.
She tried hard to put her cold, wet, trembling hands and feet into motion, trying to catch hold of the walls, the corners of the tables and chairs in the dinner space, the railings of the stairs. Her bones and muscles rattled and crushed behind the loosely closed front door. Her body collapsed on the floor with a growing thud.
Her eyes, still open and groping for meaning and assistance, the fading universe of words, language and expression came to her in a sudden, flickering flame.
“Keeee enecheeeeeeshhhhhh?” (What have you brought?)
“What happened to you, Didi?” her brother stooped to the floor in an effort to give her hand so she can lift her body.
“She probably had a stroke. It looks like the clots have already started in her brain. Looks like we have to call the doctor.”
“O God, look at her, when did she fall flat in the ground? What happened to you, Mamima? Can you hear me? Can you lift your body?” The puzzled, bewildered part-time maid tried to fathom the sudden fall.
Deep in an ocean, she floated, shrunk, drenched to the core, before being suspended motionless, in pain. The water, quiet, celestial, whispered to her in a dazed, primordial language. She held her arms out straight, her head and legs hung loose, limp. She could sense her mouth, stealthily, gradually sucked into the mud, far, far behind, buried in liquid clouds of dust.
For some still, burdened seconds, she wanted to reach and grasp her memories and her reflection, the unwritten prologue to the prose of her life’s end, where shadows and sounds still lingered in some faint distance. Could this be the edge of this life, and the other, where the apparent darkness melts to a different waking?
Her head and body, heavy and laden, sank and rose in currents. She could sense an unexplainable lightness, as the domains of her brain dissolved into tiny bubbles of eternity. She nosedived into the water, the faint footsteps of her drip-drop heartbeats stirring, dissolving into the water. A brief pause and a long silence. Another heartbeat—this time, only louder, amplified and sharp, agile, dissolved into the boundless blue. The last one, louder and more profound, drove through the dead, motionless water where she had surrendered. There she lay, surrounded by deeper notes and wilder music of pain that crushed her with a crescendo and fall, as she gradually sank into painless absolution.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At 8.30 in the morning, I wake up to the soft, cushiony touch of little hands and feet clasping each other in their usual mirth and warmth. I wake up to the glaring sunlight peeking through our bedside window, to the soft, secret whispers of the untold promises of the day that was about to bustle. I begin to pace upstairs and downstairs, preparing egg poach and toasting waffles, emptying the fridge of leftover fruits and vegetables, making our morning tea, tidying the rooms and calling out my kids for breakfast in haste and in a heady concoction of delight and discovery. In a few hours, we would be leaving the plain terrains of Nebraska for the mountains of Vail, Colorado, swim in the overflowing glass of life while reaching the unknown elevations, the bumps, crests and rims of the majestic Rockies.
In the small room upstairs jammed with office supplies, scrapbooks, an old ironing board, tons of hangers and clothes, I have emptied two of our backpacks, and am stuffing clothes, light jackets, brushing and shaving kits, make-up kits, baby creams and light snacks for the journey. Downstairs in the kitchen sink, the gushing sound of water thawing meat mingles with the melodic ring tone of the cell phone where a friend calls up to know how and with what ingredients I would be marinating the meat. Both our families are supposed to go together for the mountain trip, stay in a vacation rental in Vail, cook our food together. I talk to her, drenched and soaked with the light and secret music that play on the unseen strings of my heart, brimming with contentment, trembling with the sweet nothings of hope, expectation and exploration.
Sprinkling the thawed meat with ginger, garlic, beaten yogurt and coriander, mixing them with the spoon, I remember my mother, her soft voice and lilting tunes, the way she uses her wet, sloshy hands to marinate fish and meat with turmeric and spices, the way she washes her hands and rubs them again and again with the corner of her faded, worn out sari. I remember the last words that she spoke to me the day before yesterday, which was ‘Subha Yatra’ (Bon Voyage). I was not ready to take that token of blessing from her so soon, I said, as there were almost 48 hours in between the time of the call and the start of our journey. I had promised to call her again, within that time frame.
“Hello, are you there? Can you call home as soon as you get this message? Your mother has suddenly been very sick today and admitted to the ICU of a local hospital.”
“Where are you, Didi? We tried contacting you a couple of times since yesterday night. Please call home as soon as possible. Thoughts and prayers for you.”
The Facebook page in the screen of my laptop glares at me in opaque whiteness as the message boxes blink and hover around quiet, virtual spaces. There were these messages since the previous night, messages from my parents’ immediate neighbor, messages from my younger cousin sister, missed calls and the quick, stealthy rush of doom, messages and calls which had been unchecked and unaccounted for during the entire night that had passed, as I had slept, made love to my husband, sang nursery rhymes with my girls, all the while rooting for the unperturbed pleasures of a family vacation.
My trembling fingers track down the fifteen digits of the international call in India, my heart breathing in the burning sulfur and flames of the words deciphered on the screen: “Call home, mother sick…….call home, mother in the hospital…..call home, thoughts, and prayers”.
Words from these messages continue to dance until I shut my eyes, fall down on the stairs, emerging into a pocket of stiff, restless, suffocating pain. I inhale and exhale the pain as I pace around the rooms, as I listen to my father’s voice at the other end of the world, listen to the surrounding voices of curious neighbors, friends and relatives filling the room with promises, assurances and unsolicited advice.
“Nothing worse will happen to your mother, rest assured. She will have a bypass, or an angioplasty, and come home within a week.”
“Is it a stroke or a heart attack?” my husband clarifies with relatives. I am still listening, my teeth clenched and wrists squeezing.
“Well, it started as a sudden stroke, and then her heart has been blocked as well. Anyway, don’t you worry. We are like a family, after all, and will have her transferred to a different hospital if she comes out of ventilation.”
“Let God be with her. As of now, we don’t have any positive news of her regaining consciousness. You must come home, so book your flight as soon as you can. Bon voyage. Please do keep your faith in God.”
From the small room upstairs, my husband drags the backpacks to the narrow landing of the stairs. The backpacks that had only a couple of hours ago been filled with clothes, fall jackets, baby creams and chocolate chip cookies are now filled with a new set of clothes, kids’ shoes, books, crayons and other mundane, everyday belongings. He also stuffs our two other trolley bags with a generous number of our belongings—clothes, toothbrushes, medicines, fancy saris and kids’ bedtime story books. I watch all this loading and unloading of bags, dreams, hopes, aspirations and the desperation of surrendering, my feet, my body bloated and crumbling, my mouth throwing up unwanted food, liquid and phlegm at regular intervals along with tremendous jerking motion.
My older kid, a delightful 5-year-old package of sunshine and hope, insists on accompanying me to India. She knows she would have to miss her pre-kindergarten classes that just started a couple of weeks into the beginning of fall. I somehow manage to tell her that her Grandma is sick and taken to a hospital. With her deep, rapt gaze which is still in a mountain reverie, she starts stuffing her own little backpack with Barbie dolls, pretend food and utensils, books and coloring kits, her own little world that she hopes she will show Grandma once she comes back from the hospital. In my mind, I know I can pay any amount of ransom to trade the sandy, barren hell that I have already stepped into with her world of sweet dreams and make-belief.
As I walk past the luggage check-in area of the airport at the breaking of dawn with sleepless, weary eyes, entering the big, serpentine queue of security checks, I hold one of her tiny, eager hands that smell of apple juice and bath bubbles. With her other hand, she waves her father and her sleepy sister as they see us off at the departure gate. In my mind, I enter the hallowed ground where hope is a shallow inhale. I am undone in the nothingness of human reality, while she still waves her hands, in expectation and anxious longing.
At 2 o’clock, under the mourning late August sky, I come back to your arms in a sweet surrender. Together we know we will weep crystal tears buried in shadows deep as I scurry past the creepy gaze and hushed talks of known and unknown faces of uncles and aunts, cousins and neighbors, friends and foes, faces carrying the burden of the yet untold—the burden of death. At 2 o’ clock in the night, as I open the door of the cab and the driver empties my belongings in the narrow, overcrowded alley that leads to our front door, I feel that odd whirr of wings in my head. At 2 o’clock, in a daze, stupor and trembling, I am taken back to the sweaty jostle of clumsy people peeping through our rusted, yellow front door, I can see the crescent moon that weeps silently facing our narrow, cement verandah, with the crickets chirping in the neighborhood.
I am surrounded by curious, silent faces with occasional burst of tears as I fall down flat on the floor, lifting myself up in lonely hues of grey that travel the world of the mourning, the living. I have seated myself in the living room, guarded by the scrutiny of my mother-in-law, my aunts and cousin sisters. I have come back to my childhood den, to the deep embrace of the damp yellow walls and the haunting lullabies of my childhood slumber that wander endlessly in the faraway winds, the snapshots of my yesteryears lying in their graves in the unknown nooks and corners of the half-torn couch, the wood-and-glass showcase and the old, forsaken television set. What is this smothering crowd of near and distant relatives who pat my back and stroke my head? I am still groggy with jet lag and disbelief, pushing through the choir of their discordant voices gushing through the room. There is a lump in my throat, a lump of thorns, and the words that I want to utter, are buried under its heaving, aching, stinging presence.
“She’s gone, has she?”
“Shon, Papai, lokkhi shona, mon shokto kor” (O honey, listen, be strong), one of my aunts, calling me with my pet name, begins to ramble in a nonchalant stance, trying to feed me some water.
“Let Mithi sit in her Grandpa’s lap. The---re you go. O dear, she looks so exhausted from the long journey,” my mother-in-law dotes on my five-year-old daughter, as a mantle of silence canopies the room on one side.
From the other end that leads to the verandah, I hear voices of people pacing the floor, the bright yellow light of the verandah and the yellow street lights which have always flashed from the narrow alleys of our neighborhood. The dance of death had begun, a dance that soon became brutal and blinding.
“She’s left us, hasn’t she? The body’s there from the hospital, isn’t it?” I shout.
My father holds his granddaughter even more tightly in his arms, stares at me with a blank gaze, as I clutch the collars of his shirt.
“Can you for God’s sake tell me the truth? Her body has arrived, hasn’t it?”
“8.30 in the morning, that’s precisely the time, Papai. She had a cardiac arrest to end it all” my cousin sister, four months older than me, seated on the couch with the pride and abstinence of an elderly, responsible Bengali housewife, delivers the news to me with the precision of an early morning newsreader.
I sit down on the floor, holding my head with both my hands. 8.30 in the morning, I had probably crossed the Atlantic today. 8.30 in the morning, only a couple of days back I had hurriedly given her a call and both of us had talked about everyday affairs, about household chores and the silly antics of my daughters, about schedules and deadlines, and about our forthcoming trip to the mountains of Colorado.
I am stifled inside of me, an air of disbelief hanging loosely around me as I ask, “How come nobody broke the news to me in all these hours? How come nobody told me even when I called from Delhi in the afternoon, before boarding my final flight? How come nobody told me even when I was coming home from the airport with the cab?”
“Now, now, calm down, dear. We all know what you are going through now, Shona,” a relative sat down by my side and started to pat me.
“No, you don’t. I don’t believe in you. I don’t believe in anything you do or say now. I don’t believe in all your prayers of God, your concocted stories and your damned nonsense,” I somehow manage to utter, resisting her touch with both my hands.
“Shon, omon kotha bole na ma. Onar shomoy hoye gechhilo, tai thakte parlen na (You mustn’t say like that, my dear! Her time was up in this world, so she had to leave),” she said.
“You were already so sick, tense, dear, traveling all the way with a child. How could we have told you before?” the choir of discordant voices came to me in a unison.
“The body’s there in the verandah. We kept her for this long only for you. Go and see her for one last time.”
I am suddenly a motherless daughter silenced by this midnight coup d’état, while every image around me, every name, every voice, every lament and every bit of worldly advice seems to evaporate into nothingness. I take off to the end of this world before the breaking of dawn, unable to run from these voices of the void. Beneath all this sluggish rhythm of relatives pacing the room, beneath all their orchestrated chaos, I see myself, face to face with darkness and ruin; all my courage, determination to see my mother come back to her senses, come back to the physical world of this routine assembly of people failing, melting like hot wax.
While I look into the eyes of my bewildered, wordless father, into the silhouetted darkness of our small living room, my childhood den and the storms that have raged within those nooks and corners, I know in my bones and soul, that a part of me has gone, gone forever, rising up above in ashen flames. I have come back to this room, twenty years back in time, where the smell of my mother’s pale, unstarched yellow sari, her hands smeared with turmeric and raw fish beckon me in a numinous light. While my aunts, uncles, in-laws, cousin brothers, and sisters escort me to our narrow verandah where her pale, lifeless body decked up in heavy silk and lush spray of vermillion lay over heaps of ice, I suddenly see myself in this coup d’état, not in a gradual, imperceptible turn of events, but in a single moment, in a quantum leap of fate.
And while I stand on one end of the verandah, faintly looking at her beautiful, tranquil body adorned in a wreath of flowers and incense and the busy loitering of known and unknown faces cramming the narrow passage, preparing to take her body for cremation, I suddenly realize that this goodbye was preordained. I met her, once every year, or once every two years, from another part of the world, saw her gradually sinking, dwindling, yet the frail fabric of our love, our camaraderie binding us together in this mortal world. My life went on with its usual turns and paradigms, as did hers in her uneventful, sluggish little paradise. Just when I had got myself completely used to our unmatched rhythms, the song ended abruptly.
All I know is that a new communion of solitude is under way, as I travel through the mists of time, groping for unsaid words, childhood mirth, punishment, lies and stolen memories buried under the crevices of that ever-resting, lifeless body. I hear the echo of the sighing music, its crescendo and fall in the room and the verandah, the staircase that leaps from one corner of the room, the damp walls which still have the imprints of both our hands, whispering in the pregnant air where weeping angels caress this quiet, unceremonious melody. I look back, one last time at the decorated corpse, trying to fly those uncertain miles where the darling bird of light has flown away, as I shut myself behind our rusted, yellow front door. I walk right in, through the blinding haze of the dawn, a sudden orphan in flesh and soul, amid the hullabaloo of unsettled faces and voices, waiting for you, my long forsaken childhood den, waiting for you, my newly deceased mother, in the eager darkness of return.