Portrait of a marriage

PROLOGUE 
Rajgarh, Madhya Pradesh

It happened in the wee hours of my sixteenth birthday, well before the crack of dawn. 

The news of my father’s sudden demise came summoning me urgently home. My mother was curt with the information, saying we would discuss it later. As the news sunk in slowly, I remember feeling a tinge of sadness, although I wasn’t particularly distraught. My father and I weren’t very close, as far as I could remember. 

I envisioned his lifeless body which had been strapped to a wheelchair for the latter part of his life, now perished and probably laid out on a white bedsheet, cold and still. And imagining that, I realized I actually felt relieved. I was relieved and grateful – even if it’s a sin to say that – at his passing away, as it meant a life of lesser ordeal for my aged mother. 

As I threw in the bare necessities in my bag and prepared to leave in the next few hours, I considered it could be a good omen. Perhaps it was time I confronted my own demons. I decided to tell my mother the truth about me that neither she nor anybody else in my family and circle of friends, knew about me. 

Little did I know, then, that my mother had secrets of her own that she had kept from me. 

********** 

I arrived shortly before noon. Most of the relatives had started to trickle in; our home had turned into a milieu of swirling emotions and madness. I waded through the swarm of familiar-unfamiliar faces, mumbling pleasantries, while my eyes darted around, looking for her.

I saw my mother standing in a corner, discussing the funeral rites with my paternal uncles. I nodded my head at them. They grimly nodded back. 

“Unfortunate, that we have to keep meeting like this,” said the younger chacha*, “We last met on an occasion such as this, years ago. Tch, Tch.” 

I said nothing. 

My mother then turned towards me, and excusing us, whisked me away. Alone in my parents’ room, she looked at me with concern, and asked, “Did you eat anything since morning? It’s been five years since I last saw you!” Then, ruefully, she said, “Happy Birthday, Tapun.” 

I smiled feebly through the tears. 

“Go, bid adieu to your father, now. He is in the hall.”

“Wait – how, exactly?” I asked, tentatively. Nobody had told me yet, just how he had died.

“Ah, you don’t know yet.” A pause. “Forgive me, I thought it better to tell you in person: He passed away in his sleep this morning. I found him unresponsive. That’s when I called you. It was a peaceful departure,” she added, as though to comfort me. I nodded and left.

The scent of burning incense hit me before I entered the room. Then I saw him, and it struck me, he was, indeed, gone. Bathed and laid upon the floor, with innumerable incense sticks around him, he was yet to be placed in a casket. His mourners either sat or stood silently around him, paying their tribute. 

“He said he was sorry. Wept bitterly like a child, too.” Said an old, raspy voice behind me. 

I whirled around. It was my maternal grandmother. I had not seen her in the room before or heard her come in. 

”Oh, Nanima*! You scared me. When did you come?” 

She continued, ignoring what I had just said, “He wished to apologize to you. He apologized to her, wailing like a madman.” 

“What? I mean, How?” I asked, startled. 

“Oh, she just unstitched his lips,” said my grandmother, as if it were all in a day’s work. Then without another word, she turned and limped away to stand by my father’s side. 

I blinked after her, unable to comprehend. 

You see, my father was an invalid, and had become a vegetable since his fall. He had lost the use of his limbs, along with his ability to speak.

********** 

As soon as I walked into our childhood room, I was awash in memory. The furniture, the old paintings on the wall, everything –  was a reminder of a past frozen in time. The room even carried a whiff of forgotten memories. I walked over to our faded photographs on the dusty bedside table. My older brother and I, back when we were children, grinning at the camera.  Another of him with his school-hockey team, having just won the game, wearing a proud smile.

You know, how fragments of your life flash vividly before your eyes, in bright technicolor? I could have pushed my head through these memory-wisps and entered them, these snippets of a past life playing before me.

Dada*, I miss you, I whispered. I fingered the dust on the photographs and looked out the window. It had begun to drizzle. I gazed at the moist haze and remembered.

It had been half a decade since his death. It still makes me uncomfortable to think about it, let alone, talk about it. I rarely do, even to myself. Probably because it was a taboo of sorts to discuss his untimely death. Tapas was just fifteen when he had decided to take his own life. While I had been too young and confused at the time to take in the concept of suicide. I remember my mother had later tried to explain it to me. 

“It’s like a noise, a kind of chaos, that looks and feels like an accident. A colossal car-crash. But it’s on the inside, and nobody can really see it. Until one decides to do something about it and it manifests on the outside.”

My mother had a way of explaining things you rarely questioned; she made it seem so plausible. 

A loud ‘meow’ behind me jolted me back to the present. A big, black cat with glowing, amber eyes stood staring at me in the doorway.

“Ah, Meow! You scared me. Come here to me, you naughty cat!” I called out to her, cheerily. Meow was our favorite pet from our childhood days and belonged to our Nani*. I remembered chasing after her, whenever we would visit Nani* during the holidays. She would often be found curled into a thick ball of black fur, underneath the bed.

She stood rooted to the spot.  Her mistress soon walked into the room.

“Looks like she, too, has forgotten you, like this old room of yours,” chuckled my grandmother, “Now, your mother has taken the liberty to use it as a guestroom for me. Chalo* jao*! Off to your new room,” she commanded.

Then she eyed me, warily, before she continued, “Don’t lose yourself in the cobwebs of a distant past, Beta*. Rest a while, before the duties of life summon you. Gather your strength and be brave.” 

I nodded.

The remains of the day fell listlessly into a black, moonless night.

********** 

The dark gloom of the previous night had colored the morning of the burial, a grim grey. As the casket containing their loved one finally lowered into the moist earth, the cries of his loved ones rose up in the air, along with the prayers of the presiding priest.

Amidst the heart-rending wails, I instinctively looked at my mother.

She simply stood with an unreadable expression, pursing her lips. Was she choking back the tears? 

I wanted to cry. Even though I remember mentioning earlier, that my father and I were anything, but close. But at that moment, I clamped my eyes shut and tried hard to remember my father. I needed to shed a few tears – whether they were tears of hurt, resentment, or betrayal ( of having him leave us so prematurely) – it didn’t matter to me, then.

I remembered my father as a good father, albeit, mostly an absent one, as he spent most of his days at work. A railway officer, he had worked hard to give us the comforts that only money could buy, and with his admirable rank, he had earned himself an agreeable two-storeyed bungalow, that was our home. Even after the mishap, he had goaded enough wealth to get us by. He also believed in ‘not sparing the rod’ when it came to rearing his children. I remember being a little afraid of him as a young boy. Nevertheless, he had a demeanor that commanded respect.

But was he a good husband? The kind one missed? Sure, he was a good father. But that was for me to say, wasn’t it? I knew nothing about their marriage. 

I was too young when my older brother had died – no, had killed himself – and then almost immediately after, my father had succumbed to life in a wheelchair. As for me, I was bundled up and sent to boarding school at the age of eleven. But I remember my mother wailing at Tapas’ funeral. And hadn’t she remained stoic in the wake of my father’s injury? Was it courage or something else? And then, the thought hit me, out of nowhere: Was she a good wife? The kind who could not bring herself to cry in front of all his friends and relatives, unashamed and unprovoked?

Then from my peripheral vision, I saw my chhota chacha*, the one who had spoken to me with denigration the day before. He stood noiselessly weeping and shaking his head at me. It would only be the following morning, at his departure, when he would tell me what exactly had been running in his wretched mind, as he saw his older brother being buried before his time. 

It would also be the first of my mother’s secrets, like a pile of crumbling skeletons, that would tumble out of her heirloom closet.

**********

I decided to confront my mother when the last of the guests had left our bungalow. Only my Nani* remained; she had declared she finally felt at home now, “now that my father was gone”. 

“Is it true?” I asked my mother, after dinner. My grandmother had retired to her room leaving us alone. Meow had followed suit. I missed having a warm cat curled up upon my lap, especially at a time like this.

“What is?” 

“Is it true that we are cursed, the males of the family. That’s why Tapas and now Baba*…” I stopped, unable to continue.

“Who told you that?” She asked, wide-eyed.

“So, it is true…” I began.

“I never said that.” She snapped.

“Then, tell me plain and simple: Why didn’t you cry? At Baba’s burial? You howled when Tapas passed away, but not a drop of tear for my own dead father?” There was a catch in my voice. I realized I was trembling with emotion; I hated confrontations.

She sighed and only said, “A mother loves her children, differently.”

“Does she?” I said with mild impatience. “But that doesn’t answer my question, Ma.*”

Then I remembered something else my chacha* had said – no, almost hissed into my ear – before he boarded the bus.

I looked her in the eye, and – not wanting to ask, and yet wanting to know the truth more – asked, “Are you, uh… a woman with mysterious powers…?”

“You mean, a daayan*?” She finished for me. What she did next, took me by surprise: She threw her head back and laughed. A full, guttural belly-laugh.

“Ah! They finally told you that!  About time, too.” A smile. “You know, Tapun. I had been waiting for them to tell you that, and waiting for you to ask me that – someday, eventually. And what a day you picked, too! – right after your father’s tragedy.  Well, what is of more importance to me, personally – is whether or not, you believe that?” She peered at me.

I didn’t answer. I was old enough to understand when adults evaded questions.

“Nani* also told me, you unsewed his lips. Before he died, he wanted to apologize to me, as he did to you. Ma, please tell me, what was it?”

The question caught her unawares; the color drained from her face.

“Bas! Let’s leave it at this, for now? That I am a terrible man-eating daayan* and I have feasted on the flesh of your brother and your father.” She rose to her feet.

“I didn’t say that, Ma…” I cried out in defense.

“Tapun, I think you have said enough for tonight. And don’t worry, Beta*”, she smiled a wry smile, “You’re not the first to call me by that name.” 

With a heavy heart, I trudged to my room. Throwing myself upon the bed, I wept from exhaustion and extreme bewilderment.

********** 

I had hardly had a few winks when I woke with a start. I felt a heaviness upon my chest, and opening my eyes, saw a pair of spherical orbs glowing in my face in the dimly lit room. I shrieked and felt for the bedside switch. Light flooded the room. I groaned aloud, “Oh, Meow!” She purred at me, loudly, urgently. 

Meow had done the impossible, sneaking away from her beloved owner and coming to me just when I needed her. She jumped off the bed and slid past the doorway into the hall. I rubbed my eyes and followed her. 

I stopped in my tracks. A strange glow exuded from the bottom of my grandmother’s door. Intrigued, I gave it a slight push.

“Nanima*…”, I began and drew in a sharp breath. The sight before me was surreal.

The entire room was ablaze in silvery-white illumination. A woman stood in the room, standing before something that looked like a moving mirror, its surface rippling like the surface of a pond. Blinding, bright light radiated from it, painting the room in silver. The woman, too, shone silver. She turned to me and beckoned. She looked like my grandmother and I could even see the faint dimples of my grandmother in her cheeks as she smiled. Emboldened, I went up to her. 

“This is the Pool of Remembrance. A place where all our ghost memories reside. Come, have a look,” said the woman, in her far-away, forlorn voice.

I squinted into the rippling mirror. To my surprise, it didn’t blind me. Also, I didn’t find our radiant reflections there. Instead, it reflected the room from my childhood, bathed in sepia tones, like old photographs from a bygone era. 

Then as my eyes adjusted, figures emerged in the sepia-colored room. That of my father and brother. My father crouched upon my brother upon the floor. My brother wailing in pain, with his stomach pressed against the floor. 

I flinched. Something about it didn’t seem right. This is not how I remembered them. I felt gutted.

“Keep looking, Beta*.” 

I obeyed her without a word.

As I looked on, my mother now walked into the room. She threw herself at my father, enraged. I saw her push him against the wall as she rained down blows upon him, screaming words I could not hear. 

I felt my eyes stinging.

Suddenly, the ghost-memory unraveling before us, blended into another. 

My brother – this time, all alone – lay upon the ground, with a smashed skull in a pool of blood, having jumped off from the terrace. My mother collapsing at the sight. My father standing motionless, with a look of horror upon his face. 

Then I heard a sound –  similar to that of a whimpering dog, which on having been kicked, cries out. I stood aghast, as realization dawned on me: the sound of whimpering came from “me”. That’s when I saw myself in the mirror of the past, whimpering at the body of my dead brother.

I was there, too, only much younger.

I looked away, tormented. My heart hurt with the weight of having remembered.

“There is still one last one you need to see,” she said. And I knew nothing could possibly hurt more.

With growing trepidation, I turned to look: A fierce argument had erupted between then. Then, as I watched, I saw her levitating, with her arms in the air. My father seemed to be simultaneously hoisted up towards the high ceiling. An invisible force seemed to pull him upwards, with him screaming, spluttering and flailing his arms, in vain. Then, a loud thud. I saw his body fall like a rag-doll, limp and broken. 

And in that split second, I knew.

The moving mirror now stopped. No more ripple-like movement, no more silver beams. The room we were in, was back in its natural state. The grandmother that I knew was back, too; she only looked older and sadder.

“Now, you have your answers. Don’t you, Tapun?” 

********** 
EPILOGUE

I stopped to stare at the wedding portrait in the hallway. The couple beamed back at me. Did I really know them? Do we ever?

As I prepared to leave, I thought about what my grandmother had later said to me:

She could have killed him, but she hadn’t. 

She had then asked me to take comfort in the fact that her daughter forgave him in the end. That she was no Rakshasi*. 

Was he?, I had asked her. No, just a fallible human, she had replied.

My mother now stood at the door, wearing a sad smile. It was time to say goodbye.

I hesitated. I wanted to tell her, yet I felt a stab of shame. 

She seemed to have read my mind. “You know, Tapun? Secrets are funny things; sometimes they tear us apart, but they can also draw us closer.” 

She grew somber as she continued, “Never cheat yourself, Beta*. Because when you do, you’re cheating others, too.”

I swallowed a lump and blinked back the tears. 

You see, my father was a closet homosexual. He let his demons get the better of him, ensnaring him to devour his own flesh and blood. His secret was his undoing. 

And I resolved that day, mine didn’t have to be.
________________________________

GLOSSARY of Hindi Words Used:
~ Nani/ Nanima: Maternal Grandmother
~ Dada: Older Brother
~ “Chalo, jao”: Translated as, “Well, go now.”
~ Beta: Son
~ (Chhota) chacha: (Younger) paternal uncle
~ Daayan: Witch, sorceress
~ “Bas!”: Translated as, “Enough!”
~ Rakshasi: Mythological man-eating demon.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:
Three central themes wrestled in my mind, as I wrote this. The topic of child abuse, though always such a difficult one, is something I feel strongly about. 

Also, it being Pride month, I really wished to write a story, keeping my queer friends in mind, and I take this opportunity to dedicate this story to some of my super-amazing friends, out there! True, one’s sexuality shouldn’t be something we need to give an explanation for.

The central theme of my story (atleast the way I intended it to be written, and hope it came across that way, gulp!) is the precarious nature of human judgement. I imagined a world where even “witches” could be seen in the light of truth, untainted. As for man, what a fragile creature! – doomed to fall… to rise again.

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