(Inspired from the lives of a few real people)
In April evenings, when the skies dimmed and sprinkled stars on our grassy cricket fields, we dropped our playthings and our concerns to lie down awhile. We had known our entire lives that these stars immortalized people long dead. To us, they were peepholes into the afterlife of those we were taught to love. Abhi would often point out one that was his grandfather. I knew of one which was my birth mother. If only I ever learnt how she died, she would become less a star and more a human. I turned sixteen in the moist months of twenty-twelve, the year Mr. Remarkable last caught me her star.
Mr. Remarkable was sixty-seven and dead forever, his passing an unremarkable case of heart failure people his age were often afflicted with. The day he died, clutching his chest with half-hearted desire to halt the inevitable, we were all living one day at a time. After this drama had played out, we all had something to return to. All my maashis would fly in that day and share whispers and nods in grief and sympathy. We would have to find a room for everyone – a room for the men, a room for the women and one for the children, a room for everyone who lived, and carried in their hearts a room for death.
As someone who regarded death as the means to stardom, I did not view it in the melancholic blue-black shades that pervades our fiction. No, my concern was distinct. With Mr. Remarkable gone, there was no humanity to the stars any more. They were, unlike ever, distant and untouchable by mortal hands. While people around me filled in their own rooms, I had to make within my heart some space for two deaths. With him gone, I could not hold my birth mother any more.
Mr. Remarkable now perched on the mantelpiece near his wife, frozen eternally in a gentle posture, exuding warmth from unflickering eyes. His lips curved upwards waiting to break forth a genuine laughter. All in all, he did not look dead in his picture; they are not supposed to. Framed pictures frame life, not death, and lie to children who stumble upon them every day questioning the essential nature of things.
When I was six, the lamenting siren of the fertilizer factory scared me in my sleep. Maa would then hold me close and say that all was well in the world, but the quiver in her voice would always give away her lie. Always, I would ask myself if my birth mother would have spoken in the same quivering, lying voice. If I would be any less scared if Maa would transform into my birth mother next to me. If people would no longer say about me, ‘What an unfortunate little child! He lost his mother without having seen her.’
Death, like love, like coming of age, is something human hands cannot fully control; it is best left to the universe’s undecipherable machinations. We best only talk about it in whispers and nods, describing without speech what we collectively know. Everybody collectively knew how my birth mother had died; everybody, that is, except me. I would often uncover these whispers in silent corners of populated rooms, trying to decipher some nameless name in shy stories. Everyday, I would see my birth mother framed in her life and wonder whether she was better framed in her death.
Every winter, our badminton rackets escaped our closets and paired themselves with their neighbourhood kin. Half our evenings saw us hitting the shuttle every which way over Das Aunty’s fence, and in the other half, we spiritedly sliced the air with our rackets to determine who made the sharpest, crispiest ‘woosh’. When night engulfed our weary feet and droopy arms, and the mosquitoes swarmed over our heads, our parents’ faces would dot the windowsills, beckoning us home. Maa would be among those faces, searching for me amidst the silhouettes of children dissipating into the night. And each face would discern that Maa’s relationship with me was untrue; that even if she appeared at the balcony every evening and called out my name, she was not my birth mother.
I would return home to warm food and a mother not my own. We were misfits, she and I, trying to build a relationship with photographs, picnics, parent-teacher meetings, and forced conversations. We were also trying to build a home with the same dysfunctional elements, both knotting a broken thread from either end without realizing that we were undoing what the other did. Baba had insisted I call her Maa. To my birth mother, we had never assigned a name.
When Mr. Remarkable was sixty, Maa had been dead for quite some time. To have lost two parents at my age was a tragedy everyone pitied me for, everyone except Mr. Remarkable. He believed that I had been made stronger by my misfortunes, that I could see in the stars what no grown-up could see. He said that my loss, like his, had allowed me, as it had allowed him, to touch the stars.
‘Death is a disaster, Ayush,’ he would say, ‘but to each of us it is a disaster of varying degrees, and to some of us not at all.’
‘Are you saying that it makes us both some kind of heroes? Without even having died for it?’ I would snigger.
‘Death is romanticized life,’ he would explain. ‘The only chance someone has at becoming a hero or a villain, but no choice to determine which.’
Each summer break when I returned home, Maa would be a little paler, a little sicker. Breathing heavily, having walked from the kitchen to the bedroom, she would sit down for a moment beside me. ‘What are you studying?’ she would ask, as if that question could disguise the weight upon her and our household. I would choose not to answer, assuming that a grunt or a mumble sufficed, shifted the clouds away for just a little longer. I would choose to be ignorant a little longer, to be unconcerned a little longer.
In college that year, I took up some Literature and some Sociology. ‘It will make you sensitive, Ayush,’ Maa had advised, and I had shrugged from across the telephone line. That summer I did not go back. I compared Keats against Poe, and studied the suffragette, the economy and the jazz. My floor was strewn with notes, books, stationery, missed calls and packs of cigarettes. At night, I exhaled smoke rings into the starry sky, apologizing to my birth mother every time I did so.
On twenty-ninth of August, twenty-fifteen, Baba called me. ‘Can you come back immediately?’ he asked. They had known for a while but had decided against telling me. A cab and a train took me home somewhat early for the cremation. I waited at our doorstep for a moment to absorb the wailing and the crying. I thought that in a while, I would walk through those doors without shedding a single tear and everybody would see a hero in me. In a while, everybody would say, ‘See how strong this boy is; doesn’t even cry at the death of his second parent.’ In a while, I thought, death itself would be of little importance to the bold display of life I would impress upon everyone.
But in that while I also wondered if I would be scared again of factory sirens. Of not being spotted if I dissipated into the night. Of probable absences of warm food in the many homes I would thereafter inhabit. Of the lack of photographs and forced conversations. Of not being asked what subjects I was studying, whether I had taken up that difficult Literature course. I wondered if her last call to me was one that I had missed. If that call might have bounced off some erring tower and was never completed. And I wondered if, looking heavenwards on all starry nights hence, I could ever distinguish her star from my birth mother’s.
In those intervening years between Maa’s and Mr. Remarkable’s deaths, I picked up the bricks of my former self and built in myself a room for death. I added to it doors one could enter and exit from, and windows one could gaze into to remember. There were desks for me to contemplate at and framed pictures on the walls framing life. Every day, I would add a new book to the room — books on life and books on love, on hope and distress and on people unable to return home. Sitting on a chair in this world completely different, a world completely my own, I would imagine a home with my birth mother, and a home with Maa, and whether they would be very different.
We would all sit down one evening, many months later, reminiscing Mr. Remarkable in life and after. Someone would remark that he always wore that wretched glazed white kurta over his casual pajamas, and someone would correct that the kurta was not white, but off-white. We would all sigh at the fickleness of whites, and of yellows and greens and blues and the other vibrant colours of life. We would sigh at the fickleness of the human heart and its propensity to halt mid-sentence, mid-narrative, and mid-life.
One fine day, Mr. Remarkable would have sat at his desk, clutched his heart, and fallen flat on his face across the oak panels. Years later, people would remember this room as the room of his death. I would then argue that this was not the room of his death, but the room where he lived till he lived no more. I am a deeply flawed romantic, you see. I cannot write about death without also writing about life.