“And you know what he did then? He went and made his own.”
We were in raptures listening to the story. Aunt was the best at telling stories, and her chest of stories was bottomless. She had so many stories to tell. All of them so very old, all of them based on some truth. Or so she said. We never could be sure. How many of them were stories she came up with herself? And how many were stories she heard from elsewhere? Questions for which we never could know the answers. It wasn’t like we could just ask. We knew what her answer would be. “Of course these are stories of the old I was told, some read.”
The answers weren't important though. They were beautiful stories, and just listening to them was pleasing. It was like there was magic in her words, carrying us into the story, transporting us to the distant worlds, to the days of old she spoke of. Igniting our minds to see what she spoke of, be a part of the story.
Today was no different. Aniya was in bed with me. I wasn’t well, but that wasn’t going to keep her away. The only thing mom and aunt could get her to agree to was to stay out of the covers I was under. But not even the covers could keep the heat I was spitting out from reaching her. It made her even more worried, increasing her longing to be with me. Afraid for me. All while mom prepared rasam, the best food for a sick stomach she loved saying. I loved rasam anyways, so I didn’t mind.
Aunt was sitting across the bed, cross legged on the chair. A habit I had too, as did mom. Even when we went out, that was how the three of us preferred sitting, how we were most comfortable sitting. As aunt crossed her legs on the chair, we shared a smile of appreciation, a smile that wasn’t missed by Aniya even if she wasn’t a part of it. She was more disciplined in the proper etiquette than mom, aunt and I together. Settled comfortably, she started with the story. Aniya and I couldn’t be more excited.
As aunt neared the end, mom walked in with three bowls. One for aunt, one for Aniya, and one for us. None complained, because mom’s rasam was the best. She was the greatest in the kitchen.
“So what story is it today?” she asked, winking at aunt as if knowing. “The old favourite about the grand old man?”
As we nodded in affirmation, Aniya and I shared a look that was the same as the one mom and aunt shared. We both knew how mom knew. It was our favourite story, one we saved for whenever we were ill, and in bed. It wasn’t a big mystery.
“That’s so smart of you aunty,” Aniya said, earning us a laugh.
“Alright smart lady, here’s your bowl,” mom said, handing Aniya’s bowl to the eager recipient.
Helping me up, mom sat by me. Scooping spoonfuls of crushed rice mixed in spicy red rasam and feeding me. For every spoonful she fed me, she ate a half full spoon of the same. I knew she was cheating but I didn't mind. I liked rasam and I liked mom feeding me even more. Just ass mom said, nothing felt better in a sick stomach than rice in hot rasam.
We were done with the story, now that mom had come. Bringing along the fight. Splitting us along the middle. Aniya and I against mom and aunt.
“It is the best story of them all,” Aniya said, willingly falling for the trap.
“Of course it is, only for you though,” mom replied, smiling happily at having ensnared us.
“Oh yeah? Which then is the better one?” Aniya asked, despite knowing perfectly well what mom would say.
“The beast,” I said in unison with mom. And suddenly, the lines had shifted. The teams were changed. I was with mom, leaving Aniya alone.
“Of course the beast is the better one,” aunt said, unable to think of anything else to say. “You have no idea.”
And just like that, with Aniya all alone, the fight ended in complete victory. Finally, the years long battle of the best between the two stories was ended. An unexpected victory. And it was that victory that saved us from the quandary, taking us to a new place, a new field.
“Holy shit,” Aniya exclaimed loudly. “I can’t fucking believe it, the beast won?”
We were all too busy laughing to ask Aniya to watch her language. It seemed like there would be no end to the laughter, with Aniya coughing out the rasam that she had managed to send up her nose. The stinging rasam bringing tears to her eyes. As if the sight of Aniya blowing rasam out her nose wasn’t funny enough, aunt’s comment brought even more laughter.
“That’s what happens when you have no control over your vocal cortex.”
“What the fuck,” Aniya exclaimed, struggling against the tears welling up.
We had a good long laugh, finding space to squeeze in the moment of silence for the defeat of the old man. It was a great afternoon, losing my sickness off our minds. It was the best way to feel better, a bowl of spicy rasam rice along with a good dose of chatter and laughter. The afternoon came to an end with me too tired to continue. Aniya and aunt left, as I closed my eyes to sleep. Mom stayed though, as I knew she would. Right by me, through my sleep.
When I woke, mom was still by me. She was reading the new novel she had bought last week.
“You’re up,” she said looking at me. “How’re you feeling?”
“I think I’m better,” I answered weakly. I didn’t have to lie, not to mom. It wouldn’t work even if I did. She could read my mind like an open book. I wasn’t lying though, just stretching the truth. Mom could see even that.
“Good,” she said to me. Leaning over, kissing me lightly on my forehead. “You know, you don’t have to worry about anything. We’re here for you. Always looking out for you. Rest well, and get better.”
“Yes mom,” I said, returning to sleep.
I didn’t know why she said that. I didn’t even remember it, until now. So many things said, so many wonderful days spent together, so many unforgettable memories. None felt more precious than they do now. It was just how things were then, a course of reality. Now, everything is changed. Everything that was taken for granted, now shows it’s prominence.
Picking myself up to my feet, I am greeted by the sight of our parents. Lifeless in the morgue. The cold from their departure spreading through the room. Freezing me through to my bones. I stand by them, looking into their faces, into their eyes which are no different from an endless abyss of nothingness. If I hope to find any signs of them, I am lost. They are gone.
Mom’s words come back. “We’re here for you. Always looking out for you.” I want to scream out, ask her where she is now. Demand an answer. But I know I shall get none. She isn’t here to even hear the question. None of them are. They have broken the promise, gone where I can never be. Until I don't know when. Even when I do get there, I can’t be sure they would be waiting.
I know I am supposed to be full of pain, anger. And I am. But there is something else too. Stronger. Overwhelming everything else. Something that grows over me. It worries me, losing me in a maze of confusion. It takes my attention, fuelling my want to understand. Egging me deeper, deeper into myself. Beyond the pain, the anger, the fear. There is something else on the far end of the road it takes me on. Something that feels as alien as it feels familiar. Like it was always there, a part of me, but never seen by me until now. As I reach it, as I reach for it, I feel it grab me.
I am in the morgue. Standing by the lifeless bodies of the greater part of my family. And I find the words. Of farewell. To let them go.
“Bye guys,” I tell them. “I will miss you, more than you can ever imagine. Or maybe not. You have aunt with you, and there’s not point arguing someone outdoing her, is there. And then, you have dad too. Who else can claim to be absolutely certain of winning an unwindable argument. Just imagine if he had been a lawyer, the courtrooms would have been on fire. Then there’s mom, the greatest owner of the kitchen. The maker of the best rasam in the world. And uncle, the man of peace. Could we ever hope to see another who could compare to his levels of tranquility? The four of you together, just like the old times. Just like always. Take care of each other. And have a blast. We’ll hang tight here. Goodbye.”
It is the perfect farewell to those I loved the most in the world. A farewell sufficient for the two of us. I will definitely bring Aniya too, so she could say her farewell. Until then, this will have to do. Until then, I have more things to do. And I have a feeling, I know what it is.