Before the light
On the 14th day, when Anju appeared on News Live to talk about her mother’s death, she wore a white salwar and covered her head with a dupatta. Maa, Pulakesh mama, and Poornima baido sat so close to the TV – weeping silently and wiping one another’s tears – that Baba had to scold them for behaving like lunatics. They held one another’s hands as if in preparation for an apocalypse, while Anju stared blankly into the camera and said in a voice, completely unlike her own, that before her father could run to the bedroom to get the blankets, Moromi Khanikar, her mother, after throwing herself onto the burning stove, glowed wildly like an insect held over a candle flame and collapsed on the floor. The whole house had already started smelling of burnt flesh and Boroplus – an ointment her mother liked applying to her cracked soles before going to bed. And now, since Anju had already lost her mother, she could not afford to lose her father. If need be she’d appear in court to say the same and testify against the empty threats from her mother’s family. News Live reported it as one of the most tragic suicides of the year: the death of the wife of the much-loved Dr Pritam Khanikar – a powerful candidate from the Hajo constituency for the 2010 state elections.
A month ago, that year, I had just returned home having spent some time at Dr Deepen Kalita’s psychiatric rehab in Sonapur and had still not resumed classes at the hospital. I had suddenly developed a pathological aversion to hospitals and couldn’t continue going to classes. I had flunked my seventh semester examinations and was almost certain I’d eventually give up medicine. My days were spent sleeping on the cold marble floor of the attic to beat the unbearable summer, completely indifferent to my mother’s pleas to resume college. By six in the evening, I’d wake up and sit down to write my unfinished experimental novel – a series of love letters to a future lover in Auvergne. And almost all of them would begin with the same pent up desperation:
Dear X, I’m writing this to you with the sad knowledge that you will never reply back. But then I guess there is, after all, no comfort in the world of knowledge. Also, no eagerness in the event of a reciprocation. Of all shapes, both can coexist, only in the linearity of the line. Where things just leave you. It only follows itself. And never comes back.
Baba would come back late those days because he’d go to my college after office, to each of my professors from every department, and plead with them to allow me to sit for the next semester examinations, though I had stopped going to classes and had zero attendance. When he’d come back home, Maa would already be asleep and I still writing my love letters. I had stopped speaking to my father because there was nothing to talk about. He’d never understand how a man was capable of breaking my heart and leaving me so damaged. Even when Dr Kalita tried to explain it to him, he was furious, saying such people are born only in ‘foreign places’ and no one in his family has been ever ‘like that’. This young, 30-year-old man in question, Dr Niloy Bora, who’d come to our place almost every alternate day, was a very good friend and a mentor to his son, he’d tell Dr Kalita. He was a resident at the Department of Microbiology and belonged to a respectable family of lawyers and doctors in Kharguli, Uzan Bazar. Such people were dignified, had high moral values and were completely harmless. Such people could never lead anyone down the wrong path. When my father met Dr Bora at the microbiology department, a few days after he came to know the entire story from my mother, he thought Niloy seemed genuinely worried that I had stopped going to classes and that my falling grades might affect my career graph as a medical student. “How can such a person be of any harm to my son? This is all rubbish. All these men loving men and women loving women. Nonsense!” He had shouted at Dr Kalita and told him that he’d take me to a better psychiatrist.
On that night I was on the verge of finishing my last love letter, at around 1:00 am, when Bimala baido rang me up. She was Poornima baido’s sister and had been living at Moromi maahi’s – my mother’s youngest sister – place for the last 17 years. She was the one who’d brought Poornima baido to our place when Maa had requested her to find a female helper, someone simple and non-fussy just like her, who would wash and cook for us. Poornima baido had come to our place when I was 12. Since then, she’d been staying with us and had refused to get married and go elsewhere. She’d only go to her village in Koniha twice a year. When her father threatened to cut her out from the family if she didn’t marry Horen, one of his fellow bhaang junkies, she stopped going to her village altogether. Seeing Bimala baido’s number flashing on my mobile screen in the middle of the night, I expected something as urgent as a death in the family that she wanted to tell her sister but was unable to get through to her perhaps. So, I rushed to Poornima baido’s bedroom with the ringing mobile clutched tightly in my fist. She was fast asleep. I called out her name; she only turned to the other side of the bed. By the time I started tapping her back to wake her, the phone had stopped ringing.
When she awoke, I asked Poornima baido to call her sister, while I stood aside, clasping my mouth, lest I exclaimed in anxiety. Poornima baido, before uttering a word, with the phone glued to her cheek, cried out and dropped to the floor. Even in the dark, in that split second, I could see the horror sucking the colour out from her face. When Maa woke up to the chaos and came running into the room, her wails grew louder and longer. She held Maa by her shoulders and spoke in unintelligible, incomplete sentences between her sobs, “Moromi baido. Jui lagil. Fire. Moromi baido. Jui lagil. Fire.”
Poornima baido’s incomplete sentences were enough for Maa to understand that whatever little remained of her world, after her son’s ‘incurable illness’ had rent-apart most of it, had collapsed. She screamed as I’d never heard her. Deafening the whole world.
When we reached the emergency ward, we saw Pritam moha, standing next to an iron stretcher covered with a stained green bedsheet, shaking his hands frantically, and shouting at the medical officer and a couple of interns, that in his medical career of 20 years he had saved almost 20 patients with 75 percent burn. And that his wife was no different. He could save her as well if his hands could work tonight. When he saw me, he repeated the same and looked at me questioningly, as if seeking my approval of his medical knowledge of 20 years. I turned to look at Maa, who still stood at the entrance. Renu jethai – my mother’s elder sister – stood behind Maa, holding her tightly by her wrist. When I turned back and didn’t say anything, Pritam moha splayed his fingers in front of me like a guilty child. The ends of his fingers were covered in a white paste and I could smell Colgate on them, close to my face. “While I held her from behind, I burnt them bad. Yet I managed to drive the car all the fucking way from Narangi, you see!” He exclaimed to me earnestly, desperate for my response. I stayed silent, pushed him aside, and went up to the stretcher.
Moromi maahi, supine and breathing, lay on the stained green sheet. Her whole body was covered in rolls of fluffed gauze up to her neck, including the ends of her fingers. An IV line ran from below her right ankle where the skin was cut to reveal a vein. The rest of the veins in her hands had already collapsed and shrivelled, one of the interns said, when I placed my palms close to her feet. I had still not seen her face. It was the only part of her body that was left uncovered. I could not imagine it any different from what I had seen last when she’d come to our house, flushed and sweaty, in the middle of a July afternoon. When Maa asked her why she hadn’t bothered to call before turning up, she said that she’d been to Fancy Bazar where someone flicked the phone from her purse. And that now she was very tired and hungry. Maa had offered to heat up some rice and daal from the previous night. But Moromi maahi asked her to serve it the way she liked – a plate of cold rice with two green chillies and a bit of salt on the side. While she chomped with great relish, I sat by her side and looked at the green vein running across the side of her right temple, fading and brightening against her red, pale skin to the movement of her jaw as she masticated the food.
Niloyda had the same green vein on his left temple. During the time before he had met Hiya Das, I’d often visit him at the department. He’d either call or send a junior to my hostel room. On one of those days, I’d look at him from the corner of my eye at the lab, spilling excessive Carbol-Fuschin on my TB specimen slide. He’d be leaning over a microscope and staring intently into a cluster of germs, adjusting the screws on both sides of the instrument. I’d be staring at him, to which as if by clairvoyance, without raising his head, he’d say softly, “Concentrate on your slide. You’re ruining the culture completely.” I’d immediately shift my gaze, cough loudly, frown and furrow my eyebrows to acquire a serious expression and start fixing my slide. That week he’d had to take practical classes for the fifth semester students and asked me if I could help in preparing a set of mycobacterium slides. After we were done, he took me out to dinner at Citi Dhaba, the only decent restaurant near our hospital. There, he told me how much he liked me, that for the first time in 30 years he felt this strongly for another person.
For a few moments I was unable to swallow, registering his words in my head and letting them still my heart. At night, I stayed back with him at the PG hostel and called Maa to tell her that I was appointed night duty at the department. Not many students are given a chance – a way to learn better. I asked her not to worry as Niloyda was there to keep me company. At the hostel, in his wrought-iron single bed he held me close, my face pressed to his chest, his powdery chest hair smelling of Carbol-Fuschin, his hands clasping my behind, and lips pressing at my throat.
I went back every week, almost every Saturday, and spent my nights at the PG hostel with Niloyda. On certain days, he’d come to our place, chat with Baba and stay back. Maa would make her best shukto and duck-meat with sesame seeds and I’d be overjoyed to see Niloyda eating with such gusto and becoming a part of our family. I’d imagine living with him for the rest of my life and sleeping in the same wrought-iron single bed from the PG hostel which compelled us to sleep pressed against each other’s naked bodies. So close that nothing separated us except the warmth of our skin. In the following days while I was with him he didn’t speak much about ‘this feeling’ – since that revelation at the Citi Dhaba. He’d spend most of his time at the department staff room and talk for long hours on the phone. In between he’d take a break and ask me to prepare as many slides as I could and glide back swiftly to the staff room to resume his chat. We’d have dinner at the hostel mess and not at Citi Dhaba. And after dinner, he’d rather drink a bottle of beer and hurry into bed with me than discuss anything else.
Three months later he wrote to me saying that now that he had almost completed his post-graduation, he planned to get married to Hiya Das, whom he had met a month back at a conference in Chennai. When I asked him if everything with me had been a hoax, he said such things often happened to lonely men in colleges and hostels. It was just a phase. That it was an experimental, transitional phase of life that I too must get over and find a girl for myself.
When I stopped going to college, Moromi maahi asked Maa to send me over to their place. “A change of environment might just make him change his mind, baido.” She’d try to placate Maa. “And seeing his moha do so well, I’m sure he’d feel inspired. You mustn’t worry so much.” Maa would request her not to tell ‘things’ about me to Pritam moha or Renu jethai who lived near her. Not just about not going to college but other ‘things’ too. Moromi maahi would reassure her by saying that no one better than her could understand how puerile hearts worked.
On my arrival in their newly built house in Narangi, Anju was thrilled to see me at the door. She told me that, in me, she found the perfect carefree, broad-minded cousin with whom she could discuss her numerous affairs at school. That she liked this boy, Himanshu, from Hindustan Kendriya Vidyalaya, whom her mother loathed because he smoked weed. It disturbed her so much that she felt like running away from the house. I’d listen to her silently. At night, Moromi maahi would ask me to sleep with her in the bed. She’d rub my head, run her fingers through my hair and tell me how she always desired a son like me. She’d hold me close and weep saying that her husband didn’t love her anymore. She was certain that he had something fishy going on with Namita, a widowed nurse from Bonda who worked at the same asbestos-company hospital where Pritam moha was posted as a senior medical officer. For days he’d stay away from home saying that he was campaigning at Hajo for the upcoming elections. And when he returned he’d only quarrel with Moromi maahi and accuse her of shackling ‘his’ daughter’s freedom and making her feel miserable by not letting her meet her friends.
Anju would be sitting at the dining table, silently eating her pasta, feeling absolutely content that her mother received just the treatment she deserved from her father. She could not care less since she started seeing the boy from Hindustan Kendriya Vidyalaya, Moromi maahi would tell me, rubbing the soles of her feet with Boroplus.
The soles of her feet hadn’t burnt. In fact her entire lower half was spared. One of the interns told me that even her pubic hair was left intact and unscathed when they brought her in. When I asked him if I could see it, he didn’t allow me and said that I could attend the post-mortem later. Suddenly I felt my mouth going dry. Felt my breath fading out of my body into the thick air of the emergency ward filled with the smell of formalin and acetone. It felt like the smell of death. I felt my intestines uncoiling, I wanted to throw up. I held my stomach and bent over. Two other interns came running and held me from behind. Nothing but plain-tart-tasting water came up to my mouth, which I swallowed back and got up. I thanked the two of them and asked them to stay for a while, while I looked at Moromi maahi’s face.
She no longer had that vein on her right temple. Her face only looked like an ugly vegetable, a roasted brinjal. She had no eyes. No nose. No lips. Only the hollow of her black mouth open and breathing forcefully. Inside, plain dark soot covered the cavity blackening her gums, teeth and the remnants of her tongue. And I could feel that the little hope that still held my heart in place was finally fading away. I stood there, unable to step ahead, and turned back to look at Maa and Renu jethai, gesturing at them to come near and see their dying sister for one last time. But both of them shook their heads silently, and stood by the pillar holding onto it. Maa, pulling the end of her saree to her face and holding it tightly to her mouth as if gagging herself. Renu jethai, with her head on Maa’s shoulders staring into the clinical whiteness of the tube lights in the room. Everything in white moving in haste against the stillness of death.
Moromi maahi passed away at eight in the morning. Maa and Renu jethai still didn’t dare see her face. When they took her away in another dirty green stretcher from the ward, Maa ran behind them screaming expletives at the ward boys, calling them inhuman, and when they were gone, she sat on the cold wet floor of the ward and screamed at Pritam moha for killing her sister. He hung his head low and kept quiet. He didn’t say anything to defend himself. He didn’t weep. Didn’t break down like Maa and Renu jethai. Pulakesh mama and Baba had reached the hospital by then. They had gone to fetch my grandfather from his house in Rangia. He didn’t weep either but said earnestly that he wanted to see maahi’s burnt face. Pulakesh mama, his only son, said that it was better he didn’t see her. Grandfather didn’t argue with him. Instead, he sat down silently next to Pritam moha and stared at Maa, still crying, lying on the floor.
Baba had to rush to pull her up. Renu jethai ran quickly ahead to help him raise her. She then held Maa’s head close to her breasts and asked her to cry as much as she could. While Maa’s wails grew louder, Pulakesh mama came near me and asked if I had Bimala baido’s number. He asked me to call her up and let ‘them’ know. Tell her to call up other people and inform them as well, he said. I looked at him for some-time, thinking he’d say something about Anju, but when he turned away, I walked out of the ward, through the driveway up to the parking lot.
The sun had still not come up, the air was damp with the watery darkness of dawn, and I could see puddles of muddy water collecting by the row of freshly washed ambulances, glistening. I walked up to an empty spot and stood there looking at my phone screen. Without trying to imagine what I’d say to her, I tried dialling Bimala baido’s number. But my fingers turned numb. I considered going back to the ward and telling Pulakesh mama that I couldn’t call or tell anyone of Moromi maahi’s death. I’d ask him to call himself. Just as I paced ahead contemplating how I’d tell him this, forming the right words in my head, a blue Maruti car turned in. I remembered I had seen it before, been in it for the first evening when it was bought. We had gone to Urvashi Restaurant at Kharghuli for a change, and not to Citi Dhaba. It was the evening when he had quoted a line from Virgil’s Doomed Love, which strangely had left me depressed for the whole night. In spite of the passionate love we made. “To have died once is enough.”
As I saw Niloyda get out of the car, nothing actually stirred inside me, the way it had been the first day at Citi Dhaba when he’d told me about ‘this feeling’. He too saw me standing there and for a moment he seemed to freeze. I turned away and took out my last cigarette, one that I had preserved to get me through the love letters. Knowing completely that he was still there looking at me, I lit it. As I took in a long, uncontrolled drag and exhaled, I felt something shooting up in my insensate nerves and taking rein of me. I felt embarrased and riotous at the same time. I felt the strength returning to my fingers. Felt my joints opening and a pool of dark liquid dissolving into impalpable vapour inside my head. I mashed the cigarette in half and took out my phone once again. Before dialling Bimala baido’s number, I decided I no longer wanted to write those letters. I no longer needed to. I decided I would burn them and throw the ashes into the wind. It was quite easy to kill. And to have died once was, quite rightly, enough.
~Gaurav Deka has published fiction, poetry and reviews in the Open Road Review, the Tenement Block Review, the Four Quarters Magazine, among others. His fiction To Whom He Wrote From Berlin won the Open Road Review Short Fiction Contest, 2014.