Your son calls me an infidel( The Fish Head-Part 4)
Yes, that is what your son called me the day he lit your pyre- you’re an infidel. You stay and enjoy the United States. Try not to call. My stomach churned, and my thighs wobbled as I pulled strands of hair from the crown of my head, pulled them so hard, it bled, and now a tiny bald patch is visible. The pandemic created travel rules I couldn’t break, a distance I couldn’t traverse, and circumstances so new to everyone around us, we stopped being people we knew. With your double mastectomy, you were the most vulnerable person to being spotted by the virus. The citadels erected around you proved permeable as the virus wormed and hoisted itself into your body. I was incapacitated, but your son stood right beside you; he did all he could, and so did your daughter-in-law, your husband, your brother, and even your sister-in-law. I was the only one missing because, years back, I chose to plant myself in a different country. But I tweeted and posted. I begged for oxygen on Facebook, I begged for a hospital bed on Twitter. All I did was beg. After a week of struggle, they removed you from the isolation ward and placed you in a plastic body bag decontaminated with hypochlorite. I was on the video call when the ambulance got you home and unzipped your face for a minute. An electric prod punched my gut as I struggled to swallow the canyon of pain in one breath. Because I don’t have an Apple iPhone with superior video quality, all I could see in the video was bones. An hour later, the pyre was lit amongst several thousand pyres and grieving faces.
On my birthday last month, nobody wished me. I waited and waited, and then I got tired of waiting. Somehow, I am coming to conclude they burnt me in the pyre too. Tell me something—do you also believe I am a traitor who betrayed not only her family but also her country? All I did was marry the person of your choice and follow him and his dreams to a different country. You relocated from Kanpur to Agra to Coimbatore and then to Bangalore. I relocated too. What makes my story any different from yours? Why must I live under the weight of what he calls a sin? just because I wasn’t there when I should have been. Aah!
Were you thinking about me in your last moments? Did you remember my braids and frocks? Did you remember the cards I made for your birthday and wedding anniversary using pages from my drawing book? The five-petalled jasmine flower was a permanent fixture in my handmade cards, just the way it was around your small bun. You taught me how the tips of the upper three petals were more pointed compared to the bottom ones. Even your grandson blunts the pointy edge of the bottom petals. Did anyone keep a string of jasmine flowers next to your ventilator?
Did you want me to be by your side in your final moments? Was I the last thing you wanted to touch, hear, and feel? Tell me, Amma, was it me you wanted to see, was it me you were waiting for, was it me who caused such remorse you couldn’t take it anymore and departed? No, right? Of course not, right? Tell me NO. Tell me that you didn’t care about anything because you couldn’t feel anything. Tell me you were unconscious, incapable of any thought, and it truly did not matter if I was by your side or not. Tell me that you understood we were all going through difficult times, times we have never seen or experienced before, and in difficult times we die differently. Tell me please before I hit my skull on the kitchen tiles or cut the median nerve on the wrist with a boning knife.
A yawning vacuum stands between us as I struggle to find your trace in this world. Once this pandemic is over, I will travel back and collect you in whatever way I can. I asked them to leave your belongings untouched. Your daughter-in-law informed me that your cardigan, the color of a parakeet with two side pockets, is safe in plastic wrap. Hopefully, I will find you in the kitchen, sauteing bitter gourd with only one tablespoon of mustard oil. If not, then for sure in the bedroom, next to your sewing machine or knitting tools, or the wooden temple, cleaning the silver idols of Ganpati and Laxmi. Another place could be the terrace, your favourite spot to dry clothes and do your pickling activity under the golden sun. This is still a mystery, but in modern times when mixers and blenders are as standard as Tupperware in everyone’s kitchen, what made you hold onto the grinding stone and pestle for your spices? Do you remember the day I almost discarded it in the backyard behind the banyan tree, only to see it back the next day in the courtyard? It belonged to your mother- the mystery was unveiled amidst tears that spread on the charcoal grooves. My Cuisinart mixer has been doing great for the past five years; however, I feel the dry spices don’t powder well. I will get your grinding stone, and one day, along with mustard seeds, I will ground my heart too. Thump! Thump!
My spiritual guru at Chinmaya informs me that this body is not reality. He discloses to me that death is not the finality. But I don’t understand. Yesterday night I dreamt of my death—the 7th stage of cancer. I heard a friend say, "Don’t waste money on her treatment; she is bound to die in a few days." My heart felt as if it was going through an industrial shredder. The only faces I clearly remember in that harrowing dream sequence were yours and your grandson’s.
My neighbor’s wife passed away a month ago from breast cancer. I heard sobs from my kitchen window in the afternoon and wails in the deep silence of the night. It added to my restlessness. People believe that you see a white light when you die, and you merge with it into nothingness. Some say you go to either heaven or hell based upon the calculations of Karma. Some even say you turn into a ghost on a peepal tree, and some believe you are reincarnated.
My friends here send me messages on Whatsapp about moving on and handling grief and some kind of show that must go on because I am 42, and I have some divine capability to process the loss of such magnitude. What they don’t understand is that I am motherless, just like my neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter. We don’t have a mom, and that will always be a part of who we are.
There is so much I can’t wait to tell you, but we are not speaking. Technically, we are still daughter and mother, but there is so much porpoise grey in between that I cannot see where exactly you stand. Do you have anything for me? A fish head, maybe?