They say life changes in a moment. Admittedly, it takes a long time to reach the tipping point; maybe that’s why patience is a virtue. When I stepped out for work today, one day after my thirty-fifth birthday, cocooned in a comfortable routine of ordinary, I didn’t know change was coming for me in the form of a phone call; heralding a reversal of everything I knew and believed.
“He’s gone,” Vishu said from the other end of the line. My brother, chronologically two years older than me, but much older in terms of wisdom.
“What?” I manoeuvre over scattered piles of loose manuscripts and upturned heaps of books, to a corner in the balcony of my office. It’s the only spot that receives the slightest network. “Who’s gone? I didn’t catch that, bhaiya.”
A rustle of static pre-empts his voice as he adjusts his headphones. “Father,” he says. “He’s dead.”
My heart thumps once; a startlingly loud beat, and falls silent. “What!? How do you know? Are you sure? It must be a mistake!” I clamp down on the surge of emotion that threatens to overwhelm me.
“I’m sure, Anu,” Vishu says. “You remember Sharma uncle, who took him to the hospital last time he fell sick?”
“He just called me. It happened a couple of hours ago. Heart attack. There’s no mistake.”
I try to breathe through my parted lips, but the air I draw in is painful. Father’s dead. Heart attack. There’s no mistake. The words circle in an endless loop; like a mantra. As if by repeating them, I can bring myself to believe them.
“I won’t be able to make it in time,” Vishu’s voice cuts through my frantic thoughts.
Yes, he is in Singapore. The earliest he could reach would be tomorrow. How soon does the funeral have to be carried out?
“Hmm,” I say, unable to steady my voice.
“Are you going?”
“Of course I’m going,” I say indignantly. Father and I haven’t been on speaking terms for a while. “Mom needs me!”
“Okay, keep me posted. I’ll enquire about flights.”
“Will do. Talk to you soon.”
I hang up and lean against the wall. My knees are so weak I can hardly stand. The mobile slips from my hands and clatters to the floor. I shudder awake as if from a dream. My limbs are cold; ice seems to have replaced the blood inside my veins.
Breathe. Father’s dead. Breathe. Heart attack. Breathe. There’s no mistake.
The modest 2BHK that belonged to my parents, and now belongs to mom, is bustling with activity when I arrive. Somewhere in the parking lot is the Maruti Swift they’d bought just last year. A couple’s car that mom will drive now. Alone.
A harried line of people throng the gates as I ascend to the first floor of the building. Everyone is so busy offering condolences and commiserating with each other that I reach my mother’s room unnoticed. The lady standing guard at the door looks me up and down with moist eyes, recognition dawning.
“Anu, beta?” She wails and throws her arms around me.
Several unknown hands surround me, some patting my head, some stroking my back with gentle, grief-stricken fingers.
“Anu beta, your mother! Poor Kusum… she fainted…”
“I don’t know if she’s conscious…”
“Thank you, aunty ji,” I murmur and push my way into the room.
My mother looks inconsequential and invisible in the vast expanse of the king size bed. All the custom-made furniture of this house, made for two, seems too large for her slight figure.
Another aunty stands up from her perch beside mother and whispers words of consolation before going out and shutting the door, giving us privacy. I sit in the vacated chair and run my hands over my mother’s forehead.
“Mumma, it’s me.”
Her eyelids flutter open as if she has been lying in wait for me. We look at each other silently, unable to give words to our emotions. She buries into my embrace; my young arms too inexperienced to hold her aged form in all its fragility. We sit there for a long time, drawing warmth into our cold bodies from each other.
Women cannot take part in the cremation rituals. All the last rites belong to the males. Just as well that Rishi, my younger brother, is here. In Vishu’s absence, he is next in line.
He arrives just as we are sitting down for the final puja. His eyes search the crowd of strangers till they land on mine. He nods and quietly sits down at the end of the congregation. It would be inauspicious to walk through the mourners during the aarti.
Mother and I sit at the forefront, white clad and holding hands. I cling to her just as desperately as she clings to me; terrified that a moment’s loss of contact would hurl our painstakingly collected wits into an unfamiliar abyss.
Father lies in front of us. White clad too, albeit stiller than us. He looks peaceful. It’s hard to believe he is really gone; that this lump of flesh is not father. Not anymore. Now, he is it. A body. I cannot equate this unresponsive figure with the larger-than-life shadow father had cast when alive.
Oddly, the wailing noises are coming from the gathered neighbours and acquaintances. Mother’s eyes are dry, as are mine. We must be beyond crying, I think. Or, perhaps, we haven’t reached the point of absolute certainty. I cannot take my eyes off his chest. I’m certain the instant I look elsewhere, he will breathe again. I suppose we believe it’s all a cruel, sick joke. At any moment now, father is going to spring up from the palki and say, gotcha!
Perhaps, death is often like that. An incontrovertible fact and yet so illusory. So incomprehensible.
Pandit ji calls Rishi forward. He rises and firstly, approaches mother. The look they share is as profound as ours just an hour ago. They hug and mother clasps his hand. Now, we form a threesome.
I can’t tell who is holding up whom.
They carry the palki through the courtyard of the building complex, and we watch the male mourners file past, head bowed and shoulders hunched.
“Ram nam satya hai,” they chant.
The cry resonates through my being, and I shiver uncontrollably. Ram nam satya hai… escapes my lips. Mother holds me, I hold her. We return to the house and the ladies direct us to the bathroom.
“Help your mother,” they say. “Wash your hair.”
I pull mother into the bathroom where we pour chilled water over our heads. The cold stirs us from our trance-like state. Mother crumbles to the bathroom floor and rocks back and forth.
“I can’t do this….” she murmurs. “I can’t! Anu, your father!”
“I know, ma.” I soothe her.
“I can’t…” she shakes her head, her eyes squeezed shut. Water droplets streaking down her cheeks are indistinguishable from the unshed tears.
“Yes, you can!” I tell her, authoritatively. “I’m here. We’re all here for you, ma.”
“Bhaiya…?” She looks a question at me.
“He’ll be here tomorrow. Don’t worry.”
She nods. Vishu could always calm her down when Rishi and I would fail. First-born sons and mothers have that kind of relationship, I guess. Like they say about fathers and daughters.
Bile surges in my throat and I choke it down, as the image of father’s motionless body flashes across my vision. Breathe. Father’s dead. Breathe. There’s no mistake.
Meanwhile, the ladies cook the funeral meal. I force a few morsels down my constricted throat as mother gazes at the plate, unseeing.
“Shocked….” I hear the murmurs.
“Not a coma..? Hope to god..”
“Poor children… don’t even know how to cry…”
I push my plate aside and force a morsel into my mother’s protesting mouth. “Eat,” I say. “It’s tradition.”
My phone pings. It’s a text from Vishu. His flight is arriving tomorrow morning. Another ping reveals a series of question marks. I send the same text to Rishi. He responds instantly with an awkwardly clicked picture. A blurry shot of the funeral pyre. The caption says: RIP.
Rishi, Mother and I spend the night in one room while the mourners overtake the rest of the house. Nobody sleeps, of course. But, it’s easier for everyone to believe that someone is. Cups of tea make the rounds all over the house. So much so that the air is rich with the aroma of tea leaves. It doesn’t completely subdue the odour of sweating bodies, but it helps. Conversation is murmured. Rishi and I field calls and messages.
“Yes, father passed away early this morning.”
“No, bhaiya couldn’t make it.”
“Yes, funeral rites are done.”
None of our extended family could attend the funeral. While my maternal family is solely concerned with mother’s well being, my paternal uncles wail their despair endlessly over the telephone while planning for the terehva and pind daan. I wonder why they care. They never bothered to check up on us when father was alive. Why should this be any different?
I want to ask them, but I repress the urge. “I will ask bhaiya to call you,” I say instead.
Vishu arrives just as the mourners are departing. The three of us thank them with folded hands and make apologies on our mother’s behalf. “She’s in shock,” we tell them.
One Month Later
We are gathered in the cluttered living room. Tauji, Chachaji with their wives, mother, Vishu, Rishi and I. Some are sitting on cardboard boxes, some on the floor. I’m standing near the balcony slider. There are no chairs as we’ve packed away most of the furniture. We decided it was best for mother to move in with me for a while. She shouldn’t be alone at a time like this. Besides, this house has too many memories. Memories that would cause her pain. Memories that cause all of us incredible pain.
Vishu has been speaking of selling it. But, of course it has to wait till the reading of the Will. There’s a strange anticipation in Tauji and Chachaji’s demeanours. What do they hope to gain from being here? I arch an eyebrow at Vishu and he shakes his head grimly.
“The last will and testament of Mr. Harit Prasad,” the harried looking lawyer says, adjusting his fat bottom on a carton of books.
“Well, there isn’t much here. Mr. Prasad had this made a few months prior to his sudden demise, and instructed me to destroy the earlier one.” He looks at his silent audience with protuberant eyes, perhaps expecting someone to rise with an outcry of protestation, like in the movies. If so, he is disappointed.
“Well. It says here: I, Harit Prasad, of sound mind and body… blah blah…. Yes, this is the part: I leave all my assets and both my houses to my wife, Mrs. Kusumlata Prasad.”
An inadvertent sigh escapes my mother’s lips. She closes her eyes and looks down at her hands, apparently lost in thought. In the other corner, the consternation of the surviving brothers is badly concealed.
Presently, the lawyer gathers his belongings and bids us goodbye while the disappointed guests stay back and help us pack; all the while entreating mother to come away with them, to their ancestral home in the village. There is an unpleasant gleam in their eyes that I dislike. But, I needn’t worry. Mother politely refuses their offers.
“I don’t know how long I have,” she says. “I want to stay close to my children.”
Six Months Later
I knock impatiently on the hardwood door. The flight from Mumbai to Singapore was tiring. The straps of my carry-on baggage dig into my shoulders. The manuscript that lies within is a long forgotten dream. It’s day in the light is not far now.
The door opens and I beam. “Mumma!”
“Oh, mera beta!” She envelops me in her embrace. We sway on the doorstep, rejoicing at the reunion.
“How are you, ma?”
“I’m fine, beta, come in. I’ve cooked all your favourite things!”
Vishu peeps out from his bedroom and grins. “Finally! I thought you’d get lost somewhere on the way!”
“I’m slow on technology, bhaiya, not dumb!”
“Moti! What took you so long? I’m hungry!” Rishi’s shriek of joy from the bathroom has us all guffawing.
“Oi! First empty your bowels, then speak of food; uncultured pig!”
We settle around the dining table and Rishi joins us. Soon we are teasing each other and laughing. Vishu opens a champagne bottle and pours us a good measure. Even mom indulges today. We clink our glasses together and take a sip.
“It’s done. I settled everything.” he informs us. “I have liquidated all the assets and transferred all the money to separate accounts.” From a drawer he withdraws shiny new debit and credit cards, and hands them to us. We smile at each other.
“You remember when he said we’d never make it on our own?” Rishi asks, looking incredulously at the card in his hand.
You are nothing without me. I’ll make sure you beg for a living.
Mom is weeping. Her body shakes with great, wracking sobs. We rush to her, and three pairs of arms encircle her.
“I still can’t believe he’s really gone,” she hiccups.
I stroke her back. “I still can’t believe we made it through the funeral without laughing!”
Vishu and Rishi giggle. Mom snorts and wipes her tears away. “I wanted to cry, to keep up appearances. But, it just wouldn’t come. I guess I’ve cried enough because of him.”
We assent and settle down on our chairs again and wait as she gulps down the last of her tiny measure of champagne.
“How did you convince him to change his will?” Vishu asks.
“They say iron cuts iron. But, I knew I couldn’t fight his evil with evil. Kindness can be a weapon, beta. Those last few years were very hard, I won’t deny it. He didn’t hit me physically, no,” she said in response to Vishu’s look of barely stifled rage. “But, he had his ways. He made me cut contact with you three. Wouldn’t let me talk to my brothers. He was vile and manipulative.”
She takes my hand and squeezes it. “If you hadn’t pointed it out, I might never have seen it, Anu. I was so used to how he treated me, I never knew there was any other way to be!”
I nod. He liked to control things, father did. And, people. And, most of the time, us. I remember how stunned I was the first time I realized that not all fathers were like him.
My peers would regale their friends with happy holiday anecdotes and I’d sit in a corner and imagine how I could sew up my father’s ghastly mouth so he wouldn’t scream at us. Or, if I could shut him up by placing a pillow over his mouth one night as he slept.
“My father is my hero,” they’d say.
“My father is my monster,” I’d say.
I read somewhere that only flashes of childhood memories survive past adolescence. Memories before the age of three or five, are simply gone. It’s true. The only difference between us and other happy children is that our memory flashes show us the sadistic pleasure in father’s eyes as he beat us to a pulp. Tying us up and poking sewing needles into our tender flesh. Throwing our meals on the floor and making us lick the food up, just because he could. And that time when he fed the three of us plates full of green chillies, denying us the mercy of water that entire night.
Nothing he did to us, however, came close to the extent of his abuse of mom. Physical, mental, sexual. We’d never been good enough. Nothing had been good enough for him.
In hindsight, it doesn’t seem so horrific that I dreamt of killing my father. What else could I do? What could any of us do?
“I just wish he had suffered more.” Mother shivers, bitterness etched deep into her wrinkles. “I wish I had made him suffer.”
“That’s not who you are, mom,” Vishu says.
I nod. “You wouldn’t have been able to forgive yourself if you’d been anything but kind to him. I’m glad you gave him a second chance. After that fight six years ago, instead of filing for divorce, like we wanted you to, you returned and served him till his last breath.”
“I had to return! He sucked out all meaning from my life. I couldn’t let him leave without some sort of repayment. He’d named his rascal brothers as benefactors in his Will! That was my money too. So what if I was a housewife? I paid for that money with blood, tears and years! So many years!”
“He died knowing that despite all the horrible things he did, you gave him nothing but kindness,” Rishi says. “That’s why he changed his will, I think. Not remorse, but shame.”
What an utter waste of a life, I think. The only four people who could’ve truly mourned Harit Prasad, didn’t have any spare tears for him. The only people who could have carried on his legacy couldn’t wait to forget it. Yes, he should be ashamed.
I open my bag and place the loosely bound folder on the table. All the hatred I had bottled inside me has leached into this manuscript over the years. The title on the cover page clamours for our attention.
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
The true story of my family’s struggle for survival from Domestic Abuse.
For the first time in a long time, I feel weightless. Breathe. Freedom. Breathe. There’s no mistake.
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