a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
Every morning he wakes up before dawn in a world being dilapidated by a mere microorganism that is invisible to the naked eyes and drinks water from the brass urn kept on the table beside the bed.
Everyday he offers the same variety of marigolds to the effigy of Lord Krishna standing on top of the wooden cabinet where he keeps his books.
Day after day he makes his own toasts, sprinkling sugar on top of the brown crumbly crust and eats it, following it with a cup of lukewarm Darjeeling tea.
Today, he sits on a red plastic chair without an arm-rest in his wrought iron balcony. The curtains framing the entrance to the box sized balcony flutter in the early morning breeze, touching his face, reminding him of the soft cotton of Bela's sarees. Even after six months of her death, Bela lingers everywhere- in the cutlery curated by her over the years, in the yellow lilies embroidered by her on the borders of pillowcases, in his dreams where the part in her hair is bright with vermilion; but above all, she lingers in their seven year old, fair-skinned daughter Meera, who has his hazel eyes though they are slanted like her mother's.
In Meera, he finds Bela when he least expects it. Her thick eyebrows remind him of her; he finds her in the frown that sometimes creases Meera's forehead; he recognizes Bela in the way his daughter refuses to leave behind a single grain of rice on her plate. What astonishes him the most, however, is that he had never noticed these striking similarities between them when Bela was alive. He believes he notices these things now because he refuses to forget the details that made up Bela.
It had been on the thirteenth day after Bela's funeral, as they'd seated themselves on the floor to eat fish after two weeks to mark the end of the mourning period, that he'd first seen Meera pick out the tomatoes from the gravy like Bela had done for years. Over the course of that lunch, he had learnt things about his daughter that he hadn't known before, partly because Bela had always acted like a middle-man between Meera and him. He had seen Meera discard the skin of the fish after eating the flesh as Bela had always done; he had seen her taking sips of water every six-seven bites—a habit of his wife's that had annoyed him.
Strangely, this discovery, coupled with the knowledge that Meera was now solely his to care for, had frightened and frustrated him.
Today, as the day brightens, he hears Meera flush. As if on cue, he walks over to his room, locking himself inside. He doesn't wish to stay in her company much longer than it is absolutely necessary, for she is a reminder that though Bela had lived, she is now beyond his reach.
He doesn't cook her breakfast, knows she will do it herself- she's been doing it for months now; already practicing an independence that he himself had welcomed only after he'd left the city to complete his masters. His own mother, who had cooked and served him breakfast every morning, would've been appalled at his aloofness. Bela would've accused him of being an irresponsible father.
He is an irresponsible father, he thinks as he switches on his computer to teach the first lecture of the day, to dictate entire paragraphs from memory to people he knows only by their surnames. He can't remember the last time he spoke to Meera in something more than loose phrases and monosyllabic words.
For the next couple hours he teaches the theory of demand, acutely aware of how it's thousand times easier to speak to his students than to his daughter. He is aware of the fact that his students depend on him, and that Meera's dependence on him is infinite times greater.
Between lectures, when his mind is free to wonder, he wonders if he'll be able to let go of Bela's phantoms.
Perhaps, words will come easier if he gets to go out of the house; maybe his cluttered brain will declutter itself in the midst of human commotion when the world reopens.
In the summer, the world reopens. The air starts to smell of diesel and sweat again; beams of light start getting encased in smoke billowing from the rear of overcrowded buses.
Everyday, he drops off Meera to school; teaches his lectures under the high ceiling of the university hall. He reacquaints himself with the world. He learns to live with Meera in the absence of silence and in the presence of her voice.
After his lectures, he stays in the staffroom, asking for recommendations for movies he might watch with Meera over the weekend, buys her story books every other week, learns new words each day from the dictionary, teaching them to her over dinner.
Later, as he washes dishes she tells him about her day at school, her eyes bright and her hands always moving to illustrate.
One night she asks, “Baba, you didn't talk much earlier because you had no stories to tell me since you were stuck at home. Is that right?”
“Something like that, yes,” he lies. He doesn't have the courage to own his faults, to tell her that he had deliberately ignored her, had left her uncared for as he wallowed in his own misery. He doesn't have it in him to tell her that Bela's death had left a gaping wound in his chest, that his pain had been omnipresent even in his sleep, that the shock of losing her when both of them where in their late thirties had overpowered everything else. He cannot bring himself to tell her that he'd been scared of the resemblance between her and Bela like a child is afraid of thunder, and that the complete lockdown had only aggravated his sense of loss and loneliness and fear too, to some extent. He doesn't know how to tell her that talking to other people through video calls had been easier than talking to her face to face.
“Baba?” she says softly. He has almost dozed off.
“I love you, Baba.”
“I love you, too.”
“I love you more.”
“That's my job, Meera. Besides, it's impossible for you to love me more.”
He thinks, before saying, “Love is contained in the heart, Meera. And one's heart is as big as one's fist. And you know my fist is bigger than yours, so it means my heart must be bigger in size than yours. Naturally, a bigger heart can contain more love than a smaller one.”
She takes his left hand and folds it into a fist. In the darkness, she raises her fist and makes him do the same. She squints. Then, with a tired sigh she drops her fist, tucking it under his chin and goes off to sleep, just like that.
Throughout the night, he drifts in and out of sleep; he is aware of every breath that Meera takes in through her open mouth.
He is beyond grateful that she is too young to resent him for what he did, too young to remember how careless he has been as a father.
Already she has begun to forget the death of her mother and how the covid claimed her life and the life of millions of people and about the wretched pandemic.
He seems to be the only one between the two of them to remember how the lockdown had not only cut them off from the world, but had also expanded between them like liquid poison, cutting them off from each other as well. She doesn't know he had spoken to more than a dozen people each day behind the closed door; she doesn't know that she was the exception, being left out on purpose.
But the pandemic is past them now; ahead lies a gazillion possibilities for them to embrace.
As the sun ascends outside, invisible messages start filling the air. The rays of the sun interlace with electromagnetic waves, transporting one hundred ‘good morning's and one thousand ‘have a great day's and one million ‘I love you’s from one phone screen to another.
Dust from the streets and the aroma of freshly cooked breakfast become one, the way Bela and him had become one in bed a countless number of times. During one of those nights, Meera must've had been conceived, in the glow of the moon or to the sound of rain.
As he looks at her- her eyeballs moving behind her pale eyelids- he has ten trillions and more things to say to her. But for now cupping her face, which is webbed with pillow creases that are few and far between, is enough.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.