Two Years

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Chapter 4

Memories Make Me Cry

Karthik returns in the evening and I withdraw into my shell. The only safe place as I grapple with the known that is unknown.

And yet, like an eager child, I wait expectantly, hoping for an apology, some clearing up of this misunderstanding. He freezes me out, instead. I don’t seem to exist for him as he switches on the laptop even before he freshens up. I have cooked dinner and I place it on the table mechanically. The tension of the morning is back and I can’t help wondering why I am still here, prolonging my humiliation. We are clearly “estranged”; I cannot understand why; he will not tell me why. I try to wrack my brains to understand what happened before I went to the hospital, but it is all a blur. I had been unwell for quite a while. I wonder what disease I suffered from that could make me so forgetful and change my behaviour. Bipolar? Alzheimer’s?

A cold hand grips my heart.

I hope for his anger to cool off. Tension ripples in his movements if our paths clash. He barely stays in the room if I walk in. Do I have to chase him around the house to get a word in! Definitely not! After all, he is in the wrong too, not just I!

I sit back simmering as I play with dinner. He doesn’t come to the table. Tears well up in my eyes. I call out to him.

“I have finished mine,” he says.

I get angry. “You could have told me.”

He looks coldly at me before going back to his accursed laptop. “What’s new about it?”

I sit still. What am I missing? A weakness envelops me.

I clear the table but away from his presence, in the kitchen, I bury my face in my hands. Out of the blue, I hear a voice from the past – get a hold on you, dum-dum. I look up, startled. Kavitha? We haven’t been in touch in the last 10 years at least – ever since she moved to the US for further studies.

But there was something reassuringly positive about her. She stood by me when I lost my mother to throat cancer. It started as a throat infection, but apparently, my mother was too far gone by then.

How she laughed when my father cautioned her against the chill when we went to Darjeeling that December. A carefree laughter. As careless as only a healthy person can be, one who has never fallen ill. She was always on her feet, brushing any minor ailments aside indifferently.

This had been her dream come true, this visit to Darjeeling, riding on the horse, watching the Himalayan range in the distance. A mere cough couldn’t get in the way of this enjoyment. Next year, that is where we will go, she said, pointing to the snow-capped hills. Darjeeling this year was disappointing in not having snowfall. But it was cold, freezing cold. Oh, how I hate the cold!

My father indulged us as much as he could. But he worried when the cough hadn’t subsided in almost six months since returning from Darjeeling. Though the viral was in the air in the humid weather of Calcutta, it rarely ever touched her. This time, though, her cough had gone on for too long, and now mother was sounding hoarse.

Even she was worried. She agreed to see a doctor – unthinkable for her till then. Course after course of antibiotics followed, but her condition did not improve. I could see her getting worried. She started losing weight so that even I noticed something was wrong. Finally, she agreed to go to the hospital for tests because she was unable to swallow even water. There were blisters in her mouth, and it hurt all the time. It was horrible, watching her suffer. The ever-cheerful person was transformed gradually into a coughing, worried individual. At this stage, fear was still a distant emotion.

But after the tests confirmed throat cancer, we almost collapsed as a family. Death had claimed us even before it actually took my mother’s last breath away. If my father hadn’t rallied, and if Aunt Vibha had not quietly entered our lives, we would have simply tottered and collapsed. Or maybe, that is all in my imagination. I was too young to be able to cope. I needed my mother still.

Now I need her all the more. I have forgotten how to play the game called life, and like a board waiting for players to move to the next slot, I feel suspended in time. I don’t know what my next move should be.

Aunt Vibha, my father’s sister. Quiet, efficient, caring. She was my surrogate mother, trying to anticipate my needs. But the average teenager is thankless, ungrateful. I was no better. I was angry with her for trying to take my mother’s place! How dare she, telling me to buck up, to focus on my studies, to attend my classes. I screamed at her all the time, wanting no one but my mother back. Get lost, woman! Go back to your son and husband. Why are you here?

Oh Aunty, where are you now?

What she sacrificed to be with us! Her own son was not much older, entering college and coping with his own teenage problems. Thankfully, her husband, uncle Vishwanathan, was surprisingly understanding. Only I was dense, dense, dense…thinking only of my mother and me. The face that stares at me even today is one with circles around the eyes, too large for the now thin face, pleading that the misery end; or closed and drugged.

No! I will not think of my mother like this. I dig through my letters stored in the loft to find a photo of hers. We didn’t take many pictures back then. Maybe it is there at the house. But here, no. All I have is this muffler of hers – the hated one, the one that she had around her neck even through the summer. How did it get in with my things? Did Aunt Vibha put it in as she packed my things? Did she have it? Or was it with my father? Why did it come to me, this legacy of pain?

Neither my rants, nor Aunt Vibha’s ministering, nor the hospital care could bring back mother. She was dead and gone after three months of terrible suffering. When I cried, all father had to say was, “Remember, she was in terrible pain. She is happier now.”

I was angry with him, for saying that. But he is all that I have today.

I bury my face in the muffler, the white and red squares spiralling into my mind, whirling me through the years, nudging me to remember the happier times when I had seen her wearing it. But only the bad years stand out. Only the last six months, when it was part of her attire, keep coming back.

And it was Kavitha who stood by me, saw my worst side and yet tolerated me, sometimes even made me laugh.

I pushed her out too, unable to handle the distance between us. What she couldn’t see, I couldn’t tell her through letters.

My tears wet the muffler. I will give it away tomorrow. Should have done it years ago.

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