Faiz and I broke up a week after my mother’s death. It wasn’t a painful conversation. It was what it was. I hadn’t loved him for a long time and I was too passive to break up with him, he said. I had become monosyllabic around him, hadn’t even bothered to invite him to my mother’s funeral. Yes, he used the word invite.
Is this a bad time? he asked.
Is it a bad time? I said. Yes, all things considered. Yes.
Would you rather we didn’t break up? he asked.
Not really, I said. Let’s get it over with.
He sighed loudly, performatively. He wanted me to listen through the phone that he was exasperated, that he had been for a while with me. That now, I would pass his life like a relief that had been a long time coming. Can I tell you something? he asked.
You don’t care about anything, he said.
That’s your opinion, I said.
See, you don’t even care enough to fight me on this.
Okay. I hear you, I said. But I cannot change someone’s mind.
I care about you.
Okay, I said.
But I don’t want you to call me back and ask me to come over. I’m not doing that again. Not with you. This is exhausting.
Okay, I’ll remember.
I lay in bed for what seemed like a significant amount of time. Because I hadn’t been sleeping lately, days bled into one another. Sunlight became sedative, a comfort that would leave and inevitably return the next day. I had quit work recently, so there was nothing that required my attention. I spent hours on the laptop. I took quizzes, psychology tests, studied inkblot illusions. I did everything but cry, sleep, and eat.
My aunt called me a few days after Faiz. It was the customary post-funeral call all relatives had been dropping in. I hadn’t bothered to answer any of them. But I knew that if I didn’t answer my aunt, she would come right home. And I did not want her to see how my house had started to smell like the cigarettes I would have never dared to smoke with my mother still around, how dust had quietly settled on furniture, how a cloud of gloom had taken over.
Hi atha, I said.
Kani, she said my name with a slow hiss. It was meant to sound painful. It caused my aunt a great deal of anxiety that she had to make this call. She wanted me to know that. That her sympathy took effort. A burden. How dare my life be so sad to her, it seemed to be asking. How are you?
I’m okay, atha.
Have you been eating? she asked.
Yes, absolutely. I have been cooking in fact.
I thought to myself what this lie meant to serve. Would my aunt think I was suspiciously functional just ten days after my mother’s death? Should I have feigned some degree of emotional anguish?
That’s good. I’m calling you Kani because I don’t know if your mother taught you any of this, and now it all falls on me you know.
Hm, I said. Ever since they were children, my aunt had the uncanny ability to walk into any room and make my mother feel like she wasn’t enough. It drove my mother mental. Turns out she would do it even after her death.
Tomorrow is the eleventh day of your mother’s death, she said. You know what this means.
Yes, I said. No, I don’t, I thought.
My aunt sighed again.
You have to clean the entire house down. Wash every piece of fabric that has touched you in these past ten days. Discard all the food in the house. You need to throw away the unused rice and lentils too. Wash the curtains, the bedsheets, the mats, everything. Kani, are you listening?
Yes, atha. Yes.
Will you need my help to do this?
No, atha, I’ll manage.
It is customary that you do this, Kani. It’s what we do. The purification ritual is meant to signify a new beginning. You can start afresh now.
Without my mother, I thought.
Yes, atha. I’ll do it. Thanks for calling.
Kani, my aunt paused.
Nothing. Call me if you need anything.
The next morning, I sent Faiz a text message. I told him that I was sorry for having strung him along. That he had been right. That I had to work on myself. And that he did not need to carry the burden of breaking up with me a week after my mother’s funeral. I do not, he replied, among a bunch of other things. What now? his text said. Good-Bye! I said. Just like that. To demonstrate a finality that was definite but did not take itself so seriously. A theatrical adios.
I looked around the room. My aunt had wanted me to wash the house down. Purify the space my mother once occupied as a whole, breathing person. I lay flat on my back. Smoked a cigarette. A pinch of burning ash dropped on the fleshy inside of my forearm. I winced at the sting, but let the ash cool itself down. Maybe this is what Faiz meant when he called me passive. Maybe I did little, and let things happen to me. My mother had called me lazy. Also she said it showed a particular lack of character, my lack of initiative. If she were alive, she’d be so mad at what I had been doing to her house. How I had stopped cleaning it, let the place rot. She would first be shocked that I had taken to smoking indoors, and then scandalised to know that I smoked. I had kept it from her. Among a bunch of many other things. Faiz. The others. Sex. Friendships. Drugs. Cigarettes. Alcohol. And severe, crippling anxiety.
My mother had moved to Mumbai after her wedding with my father. And theirs had always been an unhappy marriage. She hadn’t been consulted on the whole arrangement, she used to say. My father would never have been the man she would have willingly chosen. He was self-centered, but not in a selfish, all consuming way. He provided for us and was ostensibly generous. But he could be very unsympathetic. For instance, he never understood why my mother would cry every night after their wedding. He could never surmise the pain she carried for having left her family to move with my father to a new city where she couldn’t speak the local tongue. He never understood how lonely she was, and took to sleeping in the living room because her sobbing kept him awake at night. He had a tendency to hurt me in the smallest ways incessantly, my mother said. Sometimes I wish he would slap me, so I could be more specific about how he hurt me.
They barely spent time together. My mother was social, and my father was not. He hated going out. Hated visiting people. He didn’t like to talk and catch up over the phone. He preferred to sit at home, watch television and listen to music. A story my mother liked to narrate often went like this. A year after their wedding, they had a huge fight. My mother was crying. She had moved to a new city for him, but she had never actually seen the city. My father never took her anywhere, she complained. So the next day, he took her to the Gateway of India, the tall gothic arch guarding Mumbai’s seaside.
You know how when we go out with your father, he sprints quickly ahead and expects you to follow him? my mother said.
Well, it was our first time spending a whole day out together. He would walk very quickly, and I’d sprint too but wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. I’d always be ten steps behind. That day I suddenly lost him. I couldn’t find him in the crowd. I didn’t know which way he went.
And then? I asked.
So I walked around, and took a turn I shouldn’t have. And this was before mobile phones. There was no way to find him. I kept walking around and I didn’t even have any money. I didn’t even have a purse then. I was thirsty and hungry. But I walked around for a few hours, and found the Gateway of India. He was there. Waiting for me, he said. I got so mad that day that I refused to get my photo taken in the camera he brought along.
What did you do after? I asked.
Nothing. We ate something and came home. But I never saw the Gateway of India after that. He never took me.
I can take you, I said.
No. It wasn’t much to look at.
They never separated even though they should have. My mother had never had a job and she was raised to be a homemaker. She’d have had nowhere to go. But she threatened him with divorce very often. It was a hollow warning. We all knew she would never leave him. It was similar to a hyperbolic joke with your friends. If that happens, I swear I will kill myself. Something like that. My mother never left him. Their marriage got so bad toward the end they stopped speaking to each other entirely. They took to communicating through me. Tell your father to buy some oranges when he goes out. Tell your mother that I will be skipping dinner tonight. I never repeated what they said. They would usually be speaking like this in the same room and heard each other well enough.
When my father died, my mother was devastated. She made me share their bed with her, said she couldn’t sleep alone. She never touched me while sleeping, never snuck in close to take in the smell of my body. She slept with great discipline, at least an arm’s length away. I suppose it was the weight of my body on the bed that soothed her. Sometimes I would wake up and find her pillow wet with tears. She would lay awake crying the whole night. Much like the month after she moved in with my father. She was reliving her marriage with me. But I didn’t leave the room. I kept sleeping with her on the bed.
A month after my father’s death, my mother asked me to take her somewhere. Anywhere, she said. It was a beautiful morning in February, and she didn’t want to be home. I took the day off work. She put on a crisp yellow cotton saree with a flaming red border and I wore a long blue cotton dress, and we went to an art festival in town. I took her hand in mine as we walked around and inspected handmade artefacts at the various stalls. I offered to get my mother a set of bangles but she hated my spending money. She said she would break them if I insisted on buying them for her. But we stopped at every stall, looked longingly at the work on display. My mother carefully paid her compliments to the artists without missing a single one. We ate ice cream and chaat. We walked over to the seashore, watched the sun set behind tall Mumbai skyscrapers. My mother giggled at a child rolling about in the sand. My mother blushed at the sight of young lovers sharing clandestine kisses. My mother ate her ice lolly gracefully, without letting a single melting drop hit the sand. In the evening we watched a musical performance by a troupe of vocalists from Rajasthan. My mother visibly held back tears as the singers hit impossibly high notes. We took the late evening train back home, and my mother momentarily went to sleep with her head on my shoulders. I felt like we were sisters then, that I could uplift and support my mother in ways only an equal can.
One week later, my mother discovered a text message from Faiz on my phone. Can’t wait to see you, it said, lying unread on the home screen. My mother was not dexterous enough to unlock my phone and read the message. Faiz? she said. Faiz? she repeated, louder, elongating the short syllable of his name. A muslim? she asked.
It’s not what you think, I said.
Is this what you’ve been up to? Is this what you mean when you say you’re an atheist? You want to marry Muslim boys now? she said.
Don’t be ridiculous, I said. I’m 24. I cannot be marrying anyone at 24. It was the wrong answer. I should have said I wasn’t dating Faiz. I should have lied. It wouldn’t have been the first time. It was an ambiguous message at best. It wasn’t particularly incriminating of our liaison. He said it because I’m lending him a book he desperately wants, I could have said. We’re working on a project and I nailed it, I could have said. We are just friends, I could have said. But I didn’t.
So now you will go around dating Muslim boys you don’t even want to marry? How many men do you intend on dating before you decide on the one?
I’d much rather test the group than jump into bed with the very first person I see.
Chi! my mother spat out. Is this how I raised you? Jump into bed with a man? How can you talk like that to your mother?
I didn’t say man, I said.
My mother was disgusted. We’d always had a strained relationship. I knew I made her strangely uncomfortable. I was her blood and flesh who had gone untethered. Refused to obey. Around me her body would get tense and nervous. But after my father’s death we had only just begun forging a friendship. In one way, I was jeopardising all of it.
That’s not what girls do in our family, she said. We trust our parents to choose the groom for us.
A fat load of good it did you, I said.
Our relationship pretty much went downhill after. She kept wanting for me to do things I didn’t want to, pray to Gods I did not believe in. She was adamant I get married and even tried to trick me into a few meetings with prospective grooms. But I burned every chance I got. Sometimes it was impossible for us to stay together. I would pack a small bag and live with my friend Adu for days on end. We fought about the politics on television, the clothes I wanted to wear, how late I was going to stay out at night. She would call my office and catch me at my lies and accuse me of destroying her life. Every time I would try to talk to her, tell her that I was independent now, that I thought differently and that I wanted to live my life a certain way, she would start crying. You’re not the daughter I ever wanted, she said. Your acting out is why your father is dead, she said. When I’d return home late, she would always be awake, waiting for me with sunken, swollen eyes.
The last time we fought, I did not return home until four am the next morning. Not because I was particularly enjoying myself. I wanted to test my mother. See how far she could go to make me guilty. That morning, I quietly opened the lock, and tiptoed into my house. My mother was awake, buried in her shawl.
You scare me, she said.
Sorry, I meant to enter quietly.
Sometimes I don’t know if I’m scared of you or scared for you, she said.
You needn’t be, I told her.
Sometimes I wish you were never born, she said softly. With so much love. I wish my mother had slapped me instead. Then I could be more specific about all the ways she hurt me.
My mother and I spoke little after that, and she died soon after of a sudden cardiac arrest. The day I came home from the funeral, alone and orphaned, I smoked my first cigarette at home. I couldn’t stop after that. The thrill that I was somehow desiccating her lived space was very enticing. It would have made her so mad. I took to keeping indoors, stopped going out. After my father’s death, my mother had somehow made a lot of friends in the neighbourhood. Every time I would walk out for some milk, aunties would come, hold me tight, and press my face against their breasts. It scared me that they would smell the cigarettes on my breath. It scared me that I was incapable of performing the kind of grief they wanted from the daughter of their late friend. It scared me that someone would mention how I hadn’t cried when my mother’s body went up in flames on the funeral pyre. How I had looked indifferent. I would squirm my way out of those conversations. Pretend I had somewhere to be. But I had nowhere to be. So I stayed home. I would slather jam on slices of bread for meals, drink whole cups of coffee to keep awake. I smoked up a whole chimney.
On the eleventh day of my mother’s death, my aunt called again.
Hi atha, I said.
Hi. Did you clean up everything? Did you wash all the clothes? she asked.
Yes, I lied.
Do you want me to come over with some dinner? she asked. You must have thrown all your groceries out.
No atha, I’m really tired. I’m going to go to sleep. I had bread for dinner.
Okay, my aunt said. I called because I need something from you.
Hm, I said.
Before your family got a phone, your mother and I would exchange a lot of letters. That’s how we stayed in touch, you know.
I remember, I said. I remember her taking my glue to stick the envelopes, pouring over the papers on my desk.
I was wondering if you didn’t mind looking for the letters I sent her. I want to clip them to the ones she sent me, so I can read our conversations.
Oh, I said.
It’s not urgent, my aunt said. Whenever you can get to it. I know you’re not working now, you have more time. Soon you will be too busy to look for them. I would hate to bother you then.
No atha, it’s okay. I’ll find them, I said.
That night I filled myself a glass of wine and began to sieve through my mother’s shelves. The letters were easy to find. She had kept them in the safe with her jewellery and spare cash. She had stacked them on top of each other, and tied the bundle up with a rubber band. I took the pile out and carefully separated them. There were some from my grandmother before she had died, from my aunt, one from my mother’s friend from childhood. All written in Telugu. My grandmother’s script was neat and childish, my aunt’s was messy, hurried. I couldn’t read the letters. I had defied my mother by never learning to read and write her tongue. To me, the letters were ultimately unintelligible. I gathered the letters from my aunt, when I noticed a half-written letter my mother had never sent. It was marked on the day we went to the art festival, a month after my father’s death. My mother had stopped writing letters entirely by then. We had a telephone. But for some reason, she began writing one on that day. I opened it up half-expecting to understand anything, when I realised she had written nothing in letter. The papers contained drawings my mother had made and coloured in. My mother had carefully drawn the fancy pots, vases, jewellery we had seen at the festival that day from memory. She scribbled the face of one of the vocalists from the Rajasthani troupe, and wrapped his head in a turban. At the bottom, she also drew two slim figures, one in a yellow saree with a flaming red border and the other in a long blue dress. My mother and I.
And suddenly a deep sadness wrapped itself around my chest. My body felt buried under weight and light and formless. My mother had been happy that day. Really happy. Draw the day out in amateur doodles happy.
I looked up from the drawings to her open cupboard and spotted the yellow saree from that day, from her pictures. I pulled it out, took it to the bathroom, squatted into the floor and began washing it with soap. I beat the cloth with the washing pad, smothered it under the lather of the detergent. I wrung the remaining water from the saree, hung it to dry outside the window. I smoked cigarettes waiting for the hot summer air to do its thing, watched the sun set, felt the air turn heavy and humid. Then, I carefully took my mother’s saree, ironed its wrinkles and pleats, folded it neatly into a rectangle, and placed it on the top of her clothes. Something like a sigh, or an exhausted breath, or smoke shaped relief escaped my lips in orderly fashion.