There is silence after death.
After the wailing of the loved ones, after the mourners retreat from the funeral, once the winds of sadness subside from the outside world and cave in within the heart of the handful few-to persist in an emptiness, creating an emptiness itself, there is silence.
“Richa, you have a call on line two! It might be those Canavra guys!”
Hearing her colleague’s voice, Richa came awake though she was not exactly asleep. She looked at the phone, ringing on the desk not more than a few centimeters away from her. “Thanks,” she said, without taking her eyes off it.
Canavra was the name of the newest client that the company had got. It was all Richa could do to suppress a laugh-thinking how something as mundane as serving a client would still be her priority.
She attended the call.
As a business consultant for a company that creates accountancy software, Richa has handled quite a few clients. And it was her habit, especially if the client is a new one to learn as much about them.
Reading the contents on their website would just be the beginning. More often than not, it’s the myriad forums that discuss about business that offered her the greatest insights about the way a client functioned. Thankfully, the company she worked for attracted clients of statures that merited such forums.
Her job was to understand the client’s business and their requirements and brief the technical team about those requirements, and most importantly, ensure that the version of software that they customize for the client meet those requirements
Like with anything software, constant updates are called for. And these updates, more often than not have to be made proactively. Meaning Richa would have to be on the pulse of things-constantly keeping an eye out for changes in the market dynamics so that the software could reflect those changes if need be.
Usually, the bulk of the research happened during the commute to and from work. Reaching home, she wouldn’t want to do anything other than spend time with Anila, her 6 year old daughter.
But today, as she sat in the car which was moving slowly through the ridiculous Bangalore traffic(which one of her colleagues recently put as a ‘harassment’), she didn’t feel like reading up about a client.
Even though the road was chock-filled with vehicles, the car itself was a cocoon of silence.
“You can play some music, if you want to,” she said to the driver.
The driver, young though he was-somewhere in his thirties by the look of him, was an adroit fan of old Bollywood songs. Even when Richa would be reading up on something, it was his habit to play music-though always in a low volume so as not to disturb her.
Richa has never complained, though she herself was not a huge music fan. The way she saw it, anyone whose job it was to drive through the ridiculous infrastructure of what’s called as ‘India’s Silicon city’ deserved his music.
But ever since she has rejoined work after her husband…died, if that’s what happened, he never plays the music when she was in the car.
“It’s okay, madam,” he said, looking her in the mirror, offering a weak smile that was more a symbol of sympathy than happiness.
The driver let her off at the gates to her apartment building, driving off to his next fare. Richa was one of his regulars.
It was only after she reached her apartment on the 14th floor that Richa began to feel herself relax. Largely because of Anila who was relating all the incidents that happened at school today- a boy brought a teddy bear to classroom, and everyone made fun of him because he was a big boy!she was saying.
The relief Richa felt also had to do with the presence of her mother, and the ginger tea that she made her, like no one else could make it.
“Would you like dinner now, dear?”
“Later ma,” said Richa.
Later, the three of them had dinner in silence.
The bathroom can be a sanctuary at times.
Earlier, Richa would find solace as she stood under the shower, after a long day at work. And if you are a corporate employee in Bangalore, all work days are long.
These days, it was in the night that she found the bathroom to be a bringer of solace. Because, here, she could sit, with the closet lid down, a bottle of gin in hand, feeling the warmth of the spirit embrace her from within.
It’s been 98 days since the accident. Since transatlantic flight A-1876 of Swiss airways went down over the Pacific, the final recorded voice of the pilot an unenlightening but grim, “We are going down!” 84 passengers went down with the plane, among them 8 Indians, one of whom was her husband. Arvind was on his way to a client site in Italy.
Now, no one knows where exactly he, or any of the other passengers are. Floating somewhere in the vast Pacific, that’s the bottom-line that all educated guesses brought forth.
Richa took another swig of gin. Then, she listened to sounds from beyond the door, from the bedroom. Sounds of Anila stirring or murmuring in the sleep. Such things happened a couple of nights-after she saw the reports about the flight in the news channels. But thank God, it subsided.
Assured by the knowledge that her daughter, her only comfort in this dark was fast asleep, Richa rubbed a hand across her forehead.
Sitting herself down on the floor, she leaned her head back on the tiled wall of the bathroom. She sighed, a sound that went up in the air like smoke from a chimney. Or so she felt, reading the sound of herself as a sort of pollutant, racked by guilt which was only partly brought on by the fact that she was trying to drink herself to oblivion while her daughter was sleeping just a few feet away.
But it was to drown her guilt that she was drinking, or so she told herself.
The last couple of years have been terrible for their marriage. A period of protracted egos clashing for dominance. She, because she saw herself as among the women who was changing the face of India, being an educated women who was handling some major clients for her business. He because he saw the necessity for her to leave the job and take charge of the household, something that was extremely feasible given how he earned enough for the family.
But Richa couldn’t see it his way.
Though she loved Anila, it was also a fact that she loved her job. The job has helped her pay off whatever debt her father has amassed in his life as a failed small businessman-a failure which incidentally sent him to an early grave. A job that has also helped define herself as an astute professional which notwithstanding the stress, she quietly enjoyed.
And there were the occasional travels abroad which the job afforded-the chance to see places she otherwise wouldn’t visit. No, she wasn’t ready to leave all that. Not yet, at any rate.
She has told Arvind that much. To give her a few more years.
“How many years?”
“Three to five,” was her answer, though it could have been anything. For the simple truth was that she didn’t know when she would be ready to quit the professional domain.
Aravind didn’t say anything. But whenever an issue occurred, whenever Anila felt sick and there was not enough attention that she was receiving and whenever something that should have didn’t happen the way it was supposed to be-something as simple as the absence of curd in the fridge, Arvind would blow off his top, eventually insinuating or stating explicitly that she was ruining the household by not being dedicated to it.
Now, Richa knew that her husband wasn’t a bad person. The only reason he said such things was because he was strung with tension from work, as much or more than she herself.
But knowing something is different from actions based on that knowledge.
Whenever Arvind lost his cool, so did Richa. Even more so.
Bitch! Motherfucker!Son of a bitch!Evil slut!..Hideous and at times comical were the words they hurled at each other-always dissatisfied with the effects though. Words that replaced the terms of endearments-another farcical element introduced into their life.
One night, the row got so loud that it woke up the sleeping Anila who came to the door of the bedroom and seeing her parents fight, transformed in their grimaces and passionate gesticulations into monsters, began to cry.
Turning away from her husband, Richa walked to her daughter.
A dot of silence preceded her husband calling her, not loudly, but loud enough for her to hear, “Bitch!”
The fingers of one hand grazing her daughter’s shoulder, Richa turned around. She wanted to resist the words coming from her mouth, for the sake of her daughter. But she couldn’t.
“It’s your mother, you pig!” she said. Taking Anila with her, she closed the bedroom door.
That was two nights before Arvind’s flight.
Richa’s mother moved in with her as soon as she could-which was two days after the news of Arvind’s flight going down broke.
She now occupied the second bedroom in the house- the one which was meant for Anila once she was grown enough (As of now, the thumb-sucking child would begin to wail immediately if she woke to find she was alone in bed).
Richa’s mother didn’t hear anything but in the other bedroom, Anila stirred awake.
But it wasn’t any sound that work her, rather a feeling. The feeling of the sheet beneath her curling at the edge of the bed, near her left foot.
But upon waking, Anila’s immediate attention was gained by the light which spilled out from the bottom of the bathroom door. It was her mother.
Then, she slowly turned her head.
The bedroom was suffused in a calm blue light of the night bulb. Richa had said how blue light, or any light for that matter, would result in poor quality of sleep. She has read that in a science journal recently. But Arvind disregarded it and brought the bulb anyway, seeing how Anila was so thrilled about the idea(She picked it up from a movie she saw in the tele).
Now, basked in the hazy blue sat her father- or rather a grotesque representation of her father.
He had one hand resting on the bed, palm down. Half of his face was just charred flesh and except for the red-rimmed glass which he always wore, he was completely naked. His torso was a criss-cross of wounds and exposed entrails whereas his penis was enjoined to his thigh permanently in an embrace forged in fire. A few spikes of hair grew out of his disfigured groin.
And when he smiled, Anila could see that his tongue was just a mass of black.
She looked to the bathroom door which still remained firmly shut, and back at her father.
Despite the damaged appearance, it was evident that this was her father.
Anila’s chest began to rise and fall rapidly as her heart beat rose dramatically. Along with her fear was also a strange sort of fascination which Anila, with her limited vocabulary could never articulate.
Her father looked way more monstrous than when he would fight with her mother. And yet, he was smiling at her.
It was too much to consider it as a smile, in fact. It was a grin, a grimace of happiness if you will-something that showed affection and charred black gum.
“How are you, my little princess?”
Little princess. That’s what he always called her. Despite the fear, despite the overwhelming stench which felt like a mixture of rot and burn(which it probably was),Anila felt the fear drop off from her, like the old skin shed by a snake.
“I missed you, daddy!,” she said, “We missed you!”
Grinning again, Arvind offered her a hand. Anila noticed that two of the fingers were missing from that hand, and the remaining three were more or less webbed together-the skin, a ruin of molecules.
But she had no qualms taking the hand.
She followed him out of the room, past the door and the other bedroom where her grannie was still fast asleep, past the corridor to the kitchen and on to the balcony door. Mother has asked her never to open the door unless someone was round.
But now that father was here, it was alright.
So, opening the door, one hand still held by her father, she stepped out to the balcony.
Which was when she remembered the obvious. “Why are you naked, daddy? What if someone sees you?”
Instead of answering her, he pointed to the sky. She looked where he pointed with his crooked finger, which was more like a withered piece of twig than a finger. The sky was star-filled, a deep blue ocean of twinkling stars.
The balcony was just wide enough for the both of them to stand side by side with enough space for a pot of plant on either side. The close proximity to her father made the stench from his body overpowering but Anila was too enthralled by the sky to truly take note of this.
She had never seen so many stars together. She has never seen the sky at this time(near midnight).She has always thought that the night sky would be black, and that the later it gets, the darker it would be. The azure blue surprised her almost as much as the overwhelming number of stars.
“I fell from the skies. Down and down I went. Like a shooting star. Fire on my body.” Father spoke in a raspy voice, not like how he used to before the accident. There was an edge of melancholy to it, something that Anila couldn’t quite understand. But even she got the feeling that he felt alone. She clasped his hand tighter.
He looked down at her. In the quasi-darkness, Anila could see those eyes glinting.
“Would you like to be a shooting star, little princess?”
Anila didn’t know what was happening. Because no sooner had he asked the question than she began nodding her head, though even now she wasn’t sure she understood her father’s question.
But never mind. It was her dad. He was back. And they were going to play a game-just like he would play hide and seek with her before the accident.
Anila had no trouble getting on top of the railing, aided by her father’s webbed-fingered hand.
Richa felt drowsy. The thirst in her throat was a burning sensation. Even in her inebriated state, she didn’t trust the tap water which came from the tank. She had seen the moss et all inside the tank once when she was at the terrace putting up some clothes to dry where the plumbers who came for some repair left the tank open when they went for lunch.
And that was enough of a deterrent.
I must keep the gin bottle in the wardrobe, I don’t want Anila to see this, she thought, opening the door making as little sound as possible.
As said to herself she did keep the bottle in the wardrobe-again making minimal sound. It was only when she closed the wardrobe door that she remembered that she has left the bathroom door open, and also the light.
“Shit!” she whispered hoarsely, turned around and walked to the bathroom door cursing her oversight. The light would now spill directly on to the bed, on to the face of her sleeping beauty.
But wait, where was she?
Richa had one arm raised towards the switch on the wall. It remained so in suspended animation.
Just for a moment.
Rushing out of the bedroom, Richa looked like she was being chased by an invisible beast. Looking hither and thither, she squinted into the dark, not bothering to turn on the lights. Not yet.
She must have gone to the kitchen, to get some water from the fridge, she told herself, though that didn’t seem too possible. Anila never did that. In fact, had she woken up to find her-Richa not in bed she would have cried.
But she clearly didn’t. Drunk though she was, Richa wasn’t so far gone not to hear her own child’s crying.
This pointed to the alarming possibility that someone-an intruder has taken her away. The why of the question could be answered with a number of possibilities-a small time crook who wanted some ransom money, a pervert who lusted after young flesh or a crazy man with no intention but to torture.
She pushed her negative thoughts to the back of her mind with as much strength as she could summon. Upon reaching the kitchen, she turned on the light. From atop the cooking counter, a couple of cockroaches scurried off at the sudden invasion of light-the only sign of life in the kitchen.
Finding herself in full-panic mode now, Richa retraced her way back through the corridor, intending to wake her mother. But just as she was past the corridor, when she reached the painting of the unicorn hung on the wall around the corner to the balcony(the painting was something she did for Anila when the latter went through a few months of intense love for unicorns), a cool gust of wind ruffled her hair. It was cool enough to make the skin on her cheek sprout goosebumps.
Exhaling slowly the held-up breath, she walked towards the balcony. The fact that the door was opened alarmed her.
But even more alarming was what she saw next-her dear one standing on top of the railing, one arm pressed to her side while the other half-raised, clutching thin air.
Her first impulse was to scream. But realizing that that might startle Anila which could be disastrous, she proceeded slowly, barely daring to breathe, worried it might alert her to her presence, making her turn around and lose her footing.
The few feet which Richa covered to reach her daughter was the greatest distance anyone has ever attempted, greater than what mountaineers tread or outerspace voyagers undertook, or so Richa felt.
But at the end of this particular journey was not an achievement which made one scream with the joy of conquest. It was the simple but intense joy of life reclaimed that Richa felt as she clasped an arm from behind Anila and took her down from the railing.
Anila kept repeating, right up until she fell asleep again about how her father has asked her to soar like a shooting star.
Richa didn’t counter her-didn’t tell her it was just a nightmare or an illusion, she just kept nodding to her, tears streaming down her face, guilt poking at her brain with flaming tips of spears which penetrated the gin-created sheath with the easiness of a war tank breaking down a cardboard wall.
Once Anila feel back to sleep, Richa’s mother gently yet firmly admonished her for drinking every night. “Don’t think that I don’t know,” she said. “I keep mum but I do know. But I think it’s time to stop now.”
Richa didn’t contest the idea; only hoped that she would have the strength to stop.
“I will sleep in this room tonight,” said Richa’s mother, once she was back after closing the balcony door, this time she shot home the upper bolt too.
But even with the two of them on the bed beside her, when Anila woke up two hours later, she was the only one to do so.
This time her father had a finger pressed to his lips, and she found this version of the game even more thrilling as this involved tiptoeing out of the room without alerting mom or grannie. She was worried that they might come awake when she pulled a chair across the floor to the balcony door so that she could open the upper bolt. But they didn’t hear.
She couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of having fooled them, when holding onto her father’s arm, she bent her little legs and fell forwards, to be greeted by the heat of air rushing past her ears- the blazing glory of a shooting star.
The tender giggle did woke her mother up.
But by then, it was too late.
The decision to sell the present house and move to another place was initiated by Richa’s mother. Throughout the process, Richa was barely anything more than a fleshy machine that could sign at the dotted lines pointed out to her by the lawyer.
This phase of her life-if it could still be called that, she was just a spectator, lacking any strength or willpower to interfere and actively navigate it.
Now, the last of the furniture was being moved out to the new place. Richa watched as the movers shifted the couch from the living room, an orangish piece of comfort which holds its share of memories. She wondered if the memories would remain strong as it is transplanted into the new home-a place she hasn’t seen yet, didn’t feel the interest to. Her mother-active for her 62 years, has seen to everything. She reported the new place to be in a more tranquil neighborhood, not in the urban sprawl but removed from the toxicity of haste, not to mention waste.
It was an independent apartment, though smaller than this one. “It will do you good,” her mother had said with a conviction which Richa wanted so much to believe in.
The last night in the home that was not hers anymore, Richa lied in the very bedroom from which her daughter woke up and walked towards her death.
She was lying on a mattress. The night was unusually hot for Bangalore in April. She had the fan in full blast though the A/C remained turned off. Sweat beads originated from her forehead and pooled around her neck, appearing unsure how to proceed from there, unsure about their destiny.
A couple of walls away, her mother was also lying asleep. The old woman has seen so many tragedies- the failure of her huband’s stationery supply business to local stores, the death of her husband when things were falling apart, then after a period of relative happiness, the death of her son-in-law and then her grandchild.
She used to live with her son-Richa’s elder brother who was in Delhi, and who couldn’t make it to Bangalore to help Richa in her time of distress because he was a busy man. To be, he did come down when fate claimed Arvind’s life. He was here for many days that time, having taken time out of his busy schedule.
Richa’s mother would think, not for the first time about how things would have been better if everyone in the family lived in the same place. Then she would sigh at the inconsequentiality of such thoughts. But right now, she wasn’t thinking. She was in a deep sleep, her mind enjoined in the light of hope that her daughter who has been so distraught of late would become better with the move to the new house.
She was oblivious to her daughter waking up with a gasp in the middle of the night. Woken by the knowledge of someone being in the room.
And there they were- her dead husband and daughter-hand in hand, disfigured, uglified by death but her loved ones nonetheless.
Tears welled up in her eyes .She has left the blue light on, just as a reminder of her daughter, and seeing her now in that same light, felt motherly love welling up within her heart.
“How are you, darling?” she asked though her daughter couldn’t probably answer, for in place of her face was just a splattered wound, a rose flower in complete bloom, only at the wrong place and made with the wrong material.
It was Arvind who answered for her.
“She couldn’t stay content without her mother,” he said. “So we have come for you.”
So, it’s only for her sake that you have come and not for your’s, is it? She wanted to ask but repressed the question. An odd sort of calm was settling on her now that they were here.
Arvind’s body was finally retrieved by a search unit, along with many others’ only last week. According to news reports, some of the bodies were locked to the plane’s interior by steel that pierced through their bodies which kept it in place, while the burning happened.
Though advised otherwise, she insisted that she saw his face before the burial. And by god, it was a grotesque vision. But if anything, the Arvind that now stood before her looked even more incongruous, maybe because of that red rimmed spectacles which he still wore despite the fact that his eyes had parts of their whites alone and nothing else-loosely hanging by fleshy threads from their sockets.
But she didn’t feel repulsed, not any more than by her baby’s face which wasn’t really a face anymore.
“Come,” rasped Arvind. “Join us.”
Just a moment of hesitation before Richa stood up on the mattress. A moment in which a shadow of doubt flickered in a corner of her mind, doubt regarding her sanity.
But the moment passed all too soon as any moment does.
Soon after, she was following the lead of her husband and daughter. Past the front door, they led her out of their apartment block. There was a man-a neighbor who was talking on the phone in the corridor outside. Had he looked to his left he would have seen Richa-whom he knew by sight walking out of her home with a delirious look on her face. As it was, he was too busy having a fight with his wife on the phone, regarding the colour of a saree which he chose for her.
Richa’s dead leaders ushered her out of the front gate of the complex. The gate had a small adjacent which always remained open for people to move in and out though it was much too small for vehicles.
Of course, there was a guard’s cabin beside the small gate and had Richa stopped to look, she would have seen the young guard-in his early twenties but already showing traces of gray in his moustache, sleeping blissfully like a baby, his head resting on the table over which hung a calendar with the image of Ganpathi.
But Richa didn’t look. She never even slackened her pace, following her dead leaders with a joy which she has rarely felt in the recent months. And with each step that she took, the joy mounted and the joyous self began suppressing the doubtful self though the latter did pose the question, “What are you doing?” repeatedly.
Eventually, they reached the edge of the highway.
The night sky was a deep blue though it wasn’t as filled with stars as on the night that Anila died.
Turning around, her husband said, “Are you ready?”
Without even understanding the question completely, Richa nodded. As if to assure her, her daughter clasped her hand. Somehow, the cold of the touch was a great comfort for her.
What are you doing? The doubting part of her self, the analytical half of her brain, asked loudly. Louder than the sound of the truck that was fast approaching. The highway was largely empty at this time of the night, except for these trucks.
Shut up! said Richa’s joyous self, the one she clung to with all her might.
They were standing beside a bush that would hide them-that is, Richa from view of the driver. They stood near a bend in the road.
As the truck neared the bend, the driver honked.
Richa took a step forward.
What are you doing! This is insane! said her saner self.
“No!” she shouted back, this time not just in her mind. “Living will be insane.
Without my daughter, I don’t want to. And for all his shortcomings, I still love my husband, especially given that I was also wrong many times. No, it’s with them I should be. Not here, not in the land of the wretched living where there is nothing but subsistence-which is cold and hard! Let me go!” she shouted.
Had the doubting self but remained silent at that moment, that would have been the end of Richa.
But it said one word: “But”
And unfortunately or not for Richa, her mind filled up the rest: But there could be something in the future. No, not another family , she can’t even imagine that. And not any glory of profession, she doesn’t think that it will substitute domestic joy. But there could be something-she was an intelligent woman, she was resourceful, she could do something, be of use to someone, maybe even pick up her old passion of painting, something..something..
“Mom!” called her daughter from her mouth less face, urging her to jump in front of the truck that was just about to pass them by.
And that was the last straw. Hearing that voice, so loud and clear, almost as though the truck’s overwhelming sound was negligible, as if the fact that the person who said the word didn’t have a mouth to speak from, heck, that the person was no more in the world!(what was I thinking!, she thought) brought it home to Richa that it was all just illusion.
She ran back, feeling the cold grip fade from her arm like the melting of icicles.
The guard who was awake by now watched with a perplexed curiosity as the madam from the 14th floor rushed in from the night, clad in her night dress.
A few feed behind him stood two figures from another world, poised at the edge of the darkness, there and still not there.
The new place was everything that her mother said it to be.
Calm surroundings, plenty of trees around. There was, she was told, even a lake in the vicinity.
The bedroom wasn’t as big as the one in the earlier home but it was spacious and cozy enough. Opening the window, her eyes fell on a mynah bird chirping from the branch of a mango tree. Sunlight shimmered through the leaves, as if twinkling eyes at her.
Her mother, who stood silently at the door, was delighted to see the smile that spread across her daughter’s face. It’s been so long since she smiled like that that she was beginning to think that she won’t see it again.
“Shall I make you some ginger tea?” she asked her.
Turning away from the window, Richa nodded.
The nights were still warm. Some attributed this to global warming, some to the rape of Bangalore by the realty lobby which has turned the city into a concrete cage.
And this night was warm too when Richa’s mother had gone to sleep. But sometime in the last few minutes, a cold has seeped in which made her wrap herself up in a blanket, though she didn’t wake her, not completely.
She had left the door to the room ajar-a habit she has developed since the death of her husband. Shutting herself inside a room made her feel too lonely.
Had she woken up, and had she looked through the space between the open door and the jamb, she would have seen a silhouette-her daughter making her way past the door to the front door, following some invisible being or beings.
Though she would have missed the crazed look on Richa’s face-a smile that was a mockery of anything joyous and beautiful, she might, just might have caught the sound of the words that floated out of her mouth: “Yes, let’s go to the lake!”