The World without Us

By Uday Kanungo 0

My sister told me two things on the same day, one after the other: that she was going to have a child, and that she would never reveal, not to me nor to anyone else, who the father was. I tried to reason with her, saying that no reason or explanation for this secrecy could compensate for the absence of a father that was to follow. All through my confusion and anxiety she kept calm, her secret securely fortified by her decision. She said she accepted this absence, that she would live with it, and voiced this with such implacable tranquillity as if this was a life she had already lived a million times. After a point, her refusal dissolved into the bloodstream of our daily lives. Perhaps her resolve was made easier by the fact that except for me, there was no one else left in our family to hide this absence from.

Illustration: Shamanthi Rajasingh

Illustration: Shamanthi Rajasingh

Deaths in our family had a habit of coming suddenly, in neat strokes of raw chance. For this reason the absences that followed these events went forever unredeemed by any sense of fate or destiny, or indeed, by sense itself. Our father, who is more secure and alive in my sister’s memories than in mine, was caught in a stampede at a train station on the outskirts of the city—the kind of death your eyes alight upon by chance while smoothing the crumpled corner of a newspaper page. I remember our mother better—a frail, sober woman whose appearance into rooms was announced by the silver sounds of her anklets, who sighed heavily after sitting down, and on whose face I never remember seeing any sign of anger or disgust. The last years of her life were eclipsed by the shadow cast by our father’s death, when my sister and I were much younger. She died four years after him, in a freak landslide on a rain-swept road, when she was on her annual pilgrimage to the four holy shrines that dotted our religion. In the consolations and condolences that followed after, relatives said that the supreme being who watches over us had loved her so dearly that she had been taken away, that there was nothing more noble than dying in a pious pursuit, that she was now with our father. My sister and I knew very little about the world and ourselves at the time, but we had instinctively sensed that there was something shameful in giving death the dignity of design.

My sister and I knew very little about the world and ourselves, but we instinctively sensed that there was something shameful in giving death the dignity of design. What followed was an absence divisible between us, a sorrow shared in silence, a grief with a grammar of its own.

What followed was an absence divisible between us both, an absence approached from either end, a sorrow shared in silence, a grief with a grammar of its own and known equally and only to us. We shared many things after their deaths—the house, a piece of property back in the village, and everything else they had left behind. Even those white spaces above dotted lines at the bottom of countless forms and documents were shared by our signatures. There was a pure limitlessness to their absence that their lives could never feign, and my sister and I knew there was enough for both of us in that strange, inexhaustible peace their deaths bequeathed to us. There was nothing to fight about, nothing to divide, nothing to envy, even if around us things changed like seasons. The visitors who frequented our house dwindled after a few days. The gardener could not be convinced to stay on, the postman seldom left a letter for us, and the nameplate that once shone in the sunlight lost its lustre. We both began to fear that we would turn into one of those families forsaken by the regular patterns of life, untouched by events large and small, living in one of those moss-covered, half-collapsed houses with weather-beaten walls that somehow seem to hold within them the ruins written in their future, and whose members are glimpsed now and then through dimly lit windows of cracked glass, a myth to others and a mystery to themselves.

In a certain sense, we did become this family, but our worst fears about our house did not come true. We lived in a single-storeyed, light yellow-coloured house at the dead end of a narrow lane. The rough pavement of cracked cement that began at our doorstep and ended at the main gate was roughly the length of a cricket pitch, bordered on either side by wild bursts of grass and a row of rose bushes uncared for. The façade, with its faded paint, had space only for a single window capped by a small rectangular roof of its own, jutting outside and laying the shroud of its own shadow on sun-shot days. There were four rooms inside, with a small veranda running through the middle like a spine, and a dark little cobwebbed store room tucked alongside the kitchen like a secret pocket. It was my sister who arranged and packed the many things that had lined our life but were not to be used anymore—the shoe stand that must be carried inside, the sewing machine that must be stowed in its carton. I followed her directions, moving things from here to there, covering them with sheets to not let them gather dust, sealing the boxes with tape, using a long stick to push the objects into the darkest depths of a high, attic-like space. She gave the most meticulous attention to preserve what our parents had possessed, collecting things from unkempt corners of the house to keep them together in the cobalt blue almirah that stood in the corner of the bedroom. She took care to keep everything clean and close at hand—their clothes, their pillows and sheets, the documents and forms that proved their past, clothbound photo albums with thick red covers, jewellery, wristwatches, purses—every item haloed by the history of hands that had touched it, all shelves dusted, all memories mothballed.

I lived under the illusion that I possessed a near-complete inventory of recollections of our time with our parents. I remember thinking that surely I had been alive long enough to salvage a variety of vivid episodes, surely I had memories that spanned weeks and months.

I was twelve and she sixteen when this life began, and soon there came the days when we could reach all the shelves, when we had opened all the bottles, and swept every nook of the house with the broom, and when thoughts of mother and father didn’t cross our minds even for a moment. The first time I realised the arrival of such days, I noted in my mind that this was the true date that our childhood had ended.

During our premature passage into a state of sudden adulthood, I lived under the illusion that I possessed a near-complete inventory of recollections of our time with our parents. I remember thinking that surely I had been alive long enough to salvage a variety of vivid episodes, surely I had memories that spanned weeks and months, and recalled enough to last my lifetime. But the truth was that the images that flooded my mind were pathetically finite and belonged mostly to the period immediately preceding their deaths, preserved as if by being caught and permanently illuminated in the blinding brilliance of their approaching ends. When I strained my mind to summon something from the past, I ended up recalling merely a handful of images that carried a whiff of dreamlike exaggeration, as if all the memories had fled like fugitives and left behind these imposters as consolations. Our father most often appeared no more than a modest, blue-shirted breadwinner lounging outside in the wicker chair, facing away from me, his tranquil demeanour somehow reflected in his languid grip on the magazines he was reading. Our mother too I see in a few images—roaming idly in the garden holding a cup of tea, or standing on tiptoe to place a bottle or a box on the top shelf.

When I saw her come and go with her friends, the lives of adults seemed distorted and strange, like something looked at through the wrong end of binoculars. She walked alongside unfamiliar faces, and on the phone talked loudly of things I found hard to follow.

More often than not it was from my sister that I listened to the memories of our past. She reminded me when we were cleaning the courtyard how father had once climbed the copper-roof in a last desperate attempt to catch the two parrots that escaped to blue freedom because he had forgotten to lock their cage where they had perched for most of their flightless lives. On humid nights when we had a power cut, we sat outside in folding-metal chairs to feel the breeze, and she recalled aloud how mother’s soft voice would start humming, humming, and then slowly cover like a cloak the lyrics of the song that played on the radio on nights like these. Listening to her narrate these things from the past felt to me like rereading particular passages of a book of which I only retained a vague sensation, or rediscovering bits of old paper with some surprise in one of my pockets. She made resurface in my mind memories of incidents that I had not known I’d forgotten: when mother broke her ankle after slipping on a polythene bag that was wheeling low on the ground, her near-accident on the street in front of our house when the motorcycle swerved at the last moment to crash into a big garbage truck. With each of her renditions I regained the various angles through which I had glimpsed these things all those years back, where I was standing and what I was doing, what month and year it was. Remembering them through her voice in the dark, silent air, with the wind periodically rippling through the swaying trees as if leafing through the pages of the night, felt like shining a torch-beam into the vast hazy hereafter, searching for the slightest trace of them.

Not only did my sister remember our father in elaborate and minute detail, she had also inherited many of his moods and tendencies. Often, in the background of her behaviour, I could sense the imprint of his impulses, as if she was the most recent layer of life being written on the palimpsest of our bloodline. In his manner, she preferred the scholarly seclusion of the desk, and his prudence and foresight in financial matters was well reflected in the decisions she took on our behalf. She had made father and mother’s room her own, since it already had all her and mother’s clothes in the wooden cupboard, while I was given the room we had once shared. The third one was made into a kind of study which she used more than I did, sitting at the mahogany table facing the front window and the daylight framed within it, her economics course books lining its ledge, her pencils that lived longer than her erasers pointing in different directions, her slippers lying parallel between the legs of the wooden chair, her steel table lamp inclined at a studious angle, and the rust-coloured rings left by numerous teacups on many a midnight.

The bed in the centre was a dense zone of blackness against the fainter shades of everything else around it. It took my eyes some moments to sense her presence on the bed—curled up, quiet, almost dissolved in the darkness, she was simply her own outline.

She used to have a routine when we were both in school, simple and similar to mine, but soon after joining college, she started carving a life of her own. There was a gradual and due divergence that diminished the things we had shared—school, pencils, tuition teachers, friends on the street we lived. She handed down her dog-eared textbooks, an old orange geometry box with the compass missing, along with a few other odds and ends that started living with me, while she stepped into a world unknown to me, without uniforms, timetables, and unnecessary subjects. She would stand for a moment on the doorstep, leaning on the sill while slipping on her shoes, and shout back into the house: “I’m going!” I’d murmur a response and emerge well after her voice had died out, to lock the door left half-open and the hinges slightly swaying in her wake. When I saw her come and go with her friends, the lives of adults seemed distorted and strange, like something looked at through the wrong end of binoculars. She walked alongside unfamiliar faces, and on the phone talked loudly of things I found hard to follow. As the days passed, the times at which we met or left the house changed too, and soon I started keeping my own set of keys.

In the following three years it took for me to finish school, she had graduated from college and was taking all sorts of entrance tests while studying for a diploma in accountancy. In the three years after that, when I was studying undergraduate history, she completed her course and studied at home for a year, preparing for the All-India exams for bank officials. Later, just as I chose to start my research in linguistics in the city university, she received the appointment letter from a state bank branch, a ground floor office merely two kilometres from our home. This contrapuntal harmony of our progress, as if I was a lower musical note running under the successes of my sister, pleased some of our relatives. But between us things remained much the same, with everything eventful lying a long way back in the past, floating up to the surface of our lives only now and then, in dinnertime talk, in the arrival of certain dates in the calendar, or in coincidences or patterns that we happened to notice and mull over for a moment.

Sometime in college I had realised that my true nature was not to finish my course and enter a profession, but to remain forever in a phase of modest indifference where any kind of goal, ambition, or proper prospect did not imminently await me. So I kept choosing paths that made me suitable for nothing but further study in the subjects I chose. Pushing the near future to a farther one, I hoped I could keep deferring everything else just enough to create an illusion of eternal learning.

*

It must have happened around then, in the summer or autumn of the year 1992. She had worked at the bank for a couple of years, and I was in the middle of my research while moonlighting as a temporary teacher for a batch of freshers. My day was finished by four in the afternoon while she returned by six, taking the town bus in the twilight, so that I didn’t see her depart and she didn’t witness my return. That day, she was quite late getting home, and speechlessly made her way into the room. I thought nothing of it. It was only after I made the customary two cups of tea in the evening and shouted her name from the kitchen did I realise how strangely stirless the house was.

I could see very little when I stepped into her room. A few long arms of light sneaking in from the streetlamps outside fell across one of the walls, casting a pale golden glow on the room. The bed in the centre was a dense zone of blackness against the fainter shades of everything else around it. It took my eyes some moments to sense her presence on the bed—curled up, quiet, almost dissolved in the darkness, she was simply her own outline.

I asked her what happened, and went closer. She was bordered on both sides by two pillows, with her oblong purse lying unbuttoned beside her. But I was already too late; at some point in the evening, she had made her decision.

It was true, we had spent our time barely aware of the momentous fact that half of their lives remain forever closed to us, just as a side of the moon is forever turned away from all humanity. I went inside their room at the hospital. She said he looks quite like our father.

The day after tried its best. There was something off, something aslant, about the renewed normalcy, as if it was an amateur impersonating the rhythm of professional yesterdays. When I woke up, I found that my every movement or gesture was becoming a feeble, vain attempt to restore the balance, seeking desperate shelter under daily routine to achieve an oblivion that was all the more haunted by what had actually happened. I asked again. All through my anxiety and confusion she kept calm, and said that she accepts this, and will live with it.

A haze of anger and shock clouds my memory of those initial days. I have a vague recollection of the dramatic feel of that period, my disbelief and panic, as if she had been infected with a terminal disease—how alike the aura of ultimatum in imminent death and near-certain birth. It was simply a matter of the passage of a few days, and then it would happen, and all you can do is prepare. Perhaps our case was especially strange because we were two people who knew not how to prepare for a sudden presence, and there was a certain oddness in remarking that for us death and life had come unseen and unwanted. By the end of the first month, it was clear that she was going ahead. We had both breathed in and out the absurdity of the situation so many times that it had gained the granular coarseness of everyday reality.

Sometimes I lost my temper. I remember threatening to cut off ties. I had even called her stubborn and selfish once, a woman unknown to the ways of the world. What more could I have said to convince her, I sometimes think. Maybe one of those days she could have said something equally horrible to me, something that could justify my packing my things at once and leaving her to herself. But, I would realise, as soon as my worst moments faded, that I was fooling myself. I had never told her how to do things, and there was nothing I could tell her about the world. There was simply nowhere else I could go, nothing I could say to convince her, and nothing could change what was going to happen. Every night, after all the voices were raised, all the tears shed and tablets taken, I would know again that everything would go the way she had planned it.

After a few days came the first pains, and in the following months she learnt a lot about herself—the awareness of her weight, the dark patches that formed on her fingers overnight, sudden shivers running between the shoulder-blades, the brief dizziness she would feel when she stood up suddenly. On the worst days, I had to stand beside her with a towel coiled on my hand and watch her bend over the basin and pour her stomach out. The doctor assured us that nothing was amiss and every sign of her body pointed calmly towards a new life. She tried to learn whatever she could, she bought books and special issues of magazines, and immersed herself in manuals collected from the sofas in the waiting room of the clinic. She wrote discreet postcards to far-flung school friends and telephoned relatives who had seemed to understand. She often searched for early morning or late night Doordarshan shows that discussed home remedies or invited a doctor as a guest for a programme on the topic. She kept a glass-encased thermometer by her side and walked with newfound caution for the world of objects around her, as if every edge or step could prove deceptively fatal. As the new year began, we started looking for the nearest ultrasound clinic, and soon I was taking her from shop to shop to buy all the new things and food supplements she needed, on dim sunless afternoons that had a February faintness of winter to them. By March, I was collecting prescriptions from the doctor on my way back from college, pushing them deep in my pocket, and flattening them on the tabletop of that one old pharmacy counter on our street from which we used to once buy Band-aids and Iodex balm. By April, she needed my help to mount and descend the foot-high first step of the town bus while going to office and, by May, her travels were limited to the outer gate of the house, near which she would water the few marigolds that edged our garden.

She spoke like someone who believed in the inevitability of happiness, its typical tenacity to sneak back in between long, grey intervals of grief. To her it seemed unbelievably foolish to pursue the thread leading to the source of the sorrow.

In those days, I made some changes of my own. After bringing the tea-table to her bedside so we could avoid the hassle of arranging the dining table altogether, I spread a mattress for myself on the floor in her room in case she needed anything during the night. Because I felt an ominous concern whenever I was in the other room, I moved my mint-green Remington typewriter to her table so I could work there too. After clacking away at my work for a few hours, as I would sink back in my chair and feel my mind descend from the noise of thoughts and settle down to the silence of the night, only in those crystal moments of midnight clarity would I become fully aware of the strange life I was living.

In August, just after we had finished lunch on a quiet, windless day, she gave me a meaningful look. I said I would call the doctor.

*

His birth meant that, for the first time in our lives, my sister and I had the chance to know someone from the very beginning of his life. Suddenly it struck me as terribly unfair that all that had happened to both of us, every moment of our past that had led to this moment, would be forever foreign to him. A ghost of its meaning could momentarily flash through those places where our past lay paused—in the albums full of our childhood photos, in the scribblings of our schoolbooks, or perhaps he would find them in the endless reserve of memories my sister kept of everything we know and remember that he can merely imagine. But this unfairness started feeling fair when she asked me to remember that both of us too had to imagine the way mother and father had led their lives in the world without us. It was true, we had spent our time barely aware of the momentous fact that half of their lives remain forever closed to us, just as a side of the moon is forever turned away from all humanity. I went inside their room at the hospital. She said he looks quite like our father.

A year later, I was told that I would be transferred to teach at another state college in a town four hours away. Before I left, on my last weekend with them, we thought of going to the riverbank. I stopped the rickshaw to buy two rolls of colour positive film from a photo studio. I had planned to take a few pictures of him in the sunset, and hopefully get them developed before I boarded the bus on Sunday. We walked back and forth for a while on the sandy gravel along the water, weaving past a few dignified families sitting on woollen rugs around open tiffin boxes for their afternoon picnic. After a while, I started clicking. In the tender, ebbing light of the afternoon, he sometimes half-turns towards the lens, and sometimes she has to hold him from running and face the camera. In between shots, he stoops and momentarily examines a pebble. Half a dozen kite-flying kids are dotted across the horizon behind, and we will wonder about who they were, maybe ten years later. In the viewfinder the two of them appear delicate and fragile, their eyes half-closed from the sun-flecks through the row of trees lining the road. Then she carries him up, and he is splayed flat across her loud, bright yellow dress. Within minutes, I had exhausted half the roll.

We sat down on a backless bench, facing the breeze from the river, and I asked her if she had reconsidered. She had to know that after some years, I wouldn’t be the only one wondering.

She said she knows, but she felt it will all be fine, no matter what happens in the middle, no matter who asks the question. She spoke like someone who believed in the inevitability of happiness, its typical tenacity to sneak back in between long, grey intervals of grief. From her point of view it seemed unbelievably foolish to pursue the thread leading to the source of the sorrow, to plead and beg whoever it was to complete the picture, to remain with us for the sake of an origin story. When I think about it now, her explanation was not totally unlike her. Even after our parents had died, she had found this idea of returning to roots vulgar, of going to the ancestral village and distributing sweets on death anniversaries, arranging a priest for the sacred fire, the rituals of ash and dust, drawing concentric circles from the centre of our lives to create a hierarchy of relatives—cousins first, then uncles and aunts, and then in-laws and outlaws swarming at the outermost rings. All this was too demeaning, this cheap chopping up of a tragedy and scattering it outwards, like breadcrumbs flung for crows. Perhaps she treated deaths and births as things arising out of small, strange chinks in the knitwork of intercrossing lives—better to not quibble about their reasons and simply accept the aftermath. The time had come for an absence of her own, something she would possess all by herself, and I was entitled to phantoms of my own.

After a patch of silence, I moved on. I asked her about something that had happened in the past, just like the old days. She thought about it for a bit, her face still until the ripple of recollection runs through it, and she answered. Again, I added, half-teasingly as usual, knowing perfectly well that she remembered, “And how are you so sure?”

“Because I remember that. . .,” and she described the scene and the events neighbouring it, every rendition surer than the last, as if memory is the purpose and not a consolation, and all of reality had been a rehearsal for remembering well. I think this is the closest thing to a family tradition we have—my forgetting and her remembering, and this will keep repeating itself, over and over again in our lives, until the world is without us again.

It was time to go. I picked up the camera and her bag—I’ve been carrying it ever since he was born. I have taken up the responsibility to teach him language. I said I’ll try my best to take the intercity bus and come home on weekends. Even at the end of a long reign of absence, I feel a strange warmth for whatever had begun all those years ago when we started living by ourselves, for the texture of that time, when the days undulated differently than they will do now.

***

 

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