‘There’s nothing we can do’ would have been far too final for the Bharadwaj family, too conclusive, not enough loose ends.‘There isn’t much’ suited them far better. If they only had the language to make fun of themselves and each other. Ravi, the oldest, was perhaps the one their parents could pride themselves most on, was a chartered accountant. From his three failed marriages spawned nine different children—nine—and he confused their names and ages frequently. Next in line stood Arjun, an animal rights activist who had, for the entirety of his life, puzzlingly resembled a pig. Worst of all, however, was Neesha, wildly creative and supremely sharp, for whom their parents had spent years paying for gifted and talented student classes. When she missed the Ivy League by what was generally understood to be a hair, the parents could neither hide their shame nor the other siblings their satisfaction. The Bharadwaj’s, defying norm and comfort, had put all their eggs in one basket, and they began to crack open, one by one, spilling wastefully onto the floor. She locked herself in her room for six days, coming out calmly on Sunday. The family never spoke of it again, and she abandoned her pursuit of academia, trading it in for a rich foreigner and a steady supply of new clothes.
Should they have chosen to laugh about the awkwardness that came to define them, perhaps they would have been close, even exceptionally so. Instead, they had only their hands for language, their fingers to speak. For Arjun, one is stuffed in pockets and the other scrolling through Twitter, and there is a broad palm on his shoulder, patting slowly before being withdrawn, rejected. Ravi’s. Ravi himself places his elbows at the front desk, then remembering it is considered rude, holds its edge like he is hanging off a cliff, then remembering it is unhygienic, gives up and opens his phone as well. Neesha sniffs, painfully aware that they have nothing to say to each other. She looks at her feet, crimson block-toe heels on a hospital floor. Nothing glamorous about that.
After a few silent hours in the waiting room, they shuffled into Room 105 of the hospital’s west wing, wholly unprepared to see their mother. Mina Bharadwaj’s friends, had she had any, would have described her as selfless. More candidly, they would have said she made her selflessness known at every available opportunity. Her children responded to this in different ways—Ravi was wracked with guilt, Arjun practiced millennial indifference religiously, and Neesha—Neesha wasn’t sure what to make of it. She would never understand the choices her mother had made, often resenting her for making them, but now they mirrored her own. They gathered around their mother’s bed now, watching her lie comatose, seeing her no longer as their mother but as herself. An old woman, who, Neesha knew, was once unmistakably beautiful. Her mind gets to work, smoothing her face, lining her eyes, painting her lips a deep plum. Before she can see the finished product, the disgust takes over, erasing her canvas. “I wonder if she can hear us,” says Arjun, regretting it instantly. She had always slept like the dead, with stone eyelids. The doctor tells them she’s doing well, as well as she can be. One of the nurses said she saw her smile yesterday afternoon. A most peculiar thing.
Mina, of course, knows exactly why she was smiling. She wants to laugh like a child, reassure her children that they shouldn’t be worrying. What a boring life she led, she thinks, and listen to what it produced—listen—to her spoilt darlings argue from somewhere above the clouds. Like the Gods, she giggles. If the Gods’ lives revolved around real estate. More than anything, she wants to tell them how happy she is here. She is lithe and free, her surroundings changing by her own invention. Mina sits in a strange garden, the tall grass sighing above her in a gentle archway. The flowers are alive as well. They kiss each other wantonly, stems twisting around each other. She has not felt desire like this for years. It rained last night, and saplings open their eyes out of the soil. She has to tread carefully with them, careful not to step on them like those crabs on Digha beach from a lifetime ago. Otherwise they cry out, and then there’s hours of inconsolable tears. This is a part of her mind that she lost long ago, a pain-induced numbness from her childhood she may never trace nor understand.
Now she hears the doctor’s voice from the sky, and so she tunes in. And there it is, the unacceptable nothing they are able to do. The pulling of the plug, a religious ceremony of modern medicine. It was a good thing Mina was measured, timid when she reached this place. Nothing dies here, everything is forever, only open to metamorphosis, which is enough. She does not have company yet, her mind is unable to devise a perfect person that isn’t infuriatingly predictable. This is a place for artists, she thinks.
Back at the hospital, the Bharadwaj’s read their mother’s decision. She wrote it in her thirties, so no matter what it says, it isn’t fair, she was a different person then. After trying for years, she had her children late, when all the women in her life battled new demons. This was another thing that kept her from their company. The hardest time, though, was high school, finding condom wrappers and love notes their bedrooms, trying to piece together the secret worlds they kept from her. Once, Arjun remembered her storming into his room and finding him with another young boy, trying her hardest not to react, sealing a ridge between them indefinitely. If she had been angry, like she was with the others, things would have been different, but her face was pinched. He only ever saw her make that expression again was the evening after Holi, when their father played cards his friends and drunk too much, and Arjun had helped her clean up the mess he had made on the carpet afterwards. Her eyes squinted slightly as she scrubbed, mouth twitching. Then he understood. It was revulsion.
And so it was there in writing that their mother wanted to die, and under no circumstances were they to stop her. If only they were so close as to have discussed this at some point, if only there was little to be said and be repaired. Their mother, who superstitiously clung to their lives and took paranoid care with her own, chose death over miracle, and worse, she requested it immediately. Ravi walked out of the room, his lawyer on the phone, already discussing loopholes. His knees bounced, a habit that was once the reason he was denied a job offer in an interview. Neesha and Arjun stare blankly. There is too much they share with their mother for them to feel the disorienting pain of grief, too much pride to cry. They are adults now, calm and stoic, old enough to have learned that no feeling lingers longer than embarrassment.
But still, there is too much pain to be indifferent. Mina strains to hear the rest, but it’s strangely quiet. There is a lemonade-pink beach here, and sleepy mountains. The sand is soft, endless. It’s so perfect, she almost forgets the way she begun to die—friendless and alone in their house, freezing cold, her husband long gone and her children deliberately scattered around the globe. It was probably the dog who noticed first, she thinks bitterly. Her insecure, doting Doberman, another contradiction to its breed. He was a good guard dog, though—having a dark, muscular creature bound towards you with its teeth bared was enough of a deterrent for anyone. She smiles. Apollo could have been immobilised by anyone with a belly rub, but of course no one knew that. The smile turns sad. Where is he now? She wonders. In the first few weeks of her being here, she created hundreds of puppies, and some follow her as she walks over to the water. The waves part, and they begin to run, making a beeline through like a school of fish.
As a schoolgirl, Neesha had been her mother’s favourite. She woke up early every day to help her with her homework and braid her hair. They were beautiful women, and like many beautiful women, they shared an understanding of what it meant. They loved to be envied, to be disarming. For her daughter, Mina made special allowances. It would be easy to say that their relationship began dying when she didn’t get into those schools, but she knew it hadn’t mattered enough to break her mother’s heart. No, it was her fault, Neesha knew. With her husband and their friends, she became a different person, a girl who’d indubitably been popular in high school, whose degree made for dinner party conversation and little else. It was too painful to switch back, and so she made excuses to avoid her home on holidays. It was as if none of her old clothes fit, and she was indecent without them. She wondered what her mother would have said to her now, what her parting words might have been. Would it have been pity, she thinks, or contempt? It was hard to tell. Memories of their mornings together had blended into one, but they existed, she knows. Her mother’s voice has become her mind’s, and Neesha knows this is how she will remember her.
Her mother had specially requested, the document reads, to be ‘let go of’ immediately. There is no reason for anyone to wait anymore. “What could she possibly have been thinking…” Ravi mutters, and the other two smile privately at his furrowed brow. He looks like their father reading the news in the morning, struggling to make sense of the acronymic parties and policies splashed across the front-page headlines. Their father, who never trusted nurses with painted nails, who joked to the world about having such a big heart he needed to be large to hold it. At home, he was vacant, a stranger to his children, then his wife, then himself. On her birthday, Mina’s mother-in-law had taken it upon herself to tell the children how her son had died as if they had not already known. Lost in her story, she had forgotten to finish it, and began to stare into space, quiet, until an aunt of theirs had taken her to her bedroom to lie down.
Perhaps they had been an unhappy family, and not just a distant one, as Mina had always described. But she and her husband had not been an unhappy couple, at least not to begin with. They sacrificed for one another – she her ambition, he his wandering eye. It worked, the thin thread that tied them together, sparse but sturdy, but the weight of becoming parents had snapped it at last. She wonders where he is now. Without realising it, this world she has created has become a tribute to him, an attestation to what their lives should have been. Without noticing it, she has been waiting for him all this while.
And so they stand together at the foot of their mother’s hospital bed while doctors come in silently, gently removing tubes from her sleeping body. It is mechanical and fluid, their condolences are solemn. Now, there is nothing anyone can do. To someone watching, they wouldn’t look like a family—individually, each has the capacity to be stared at, businessman, peacock, and pig, but together—together, they’re unremarkable. Arjun considers asking them to breakfast at Ayaz’s, where they always went for birthdays, the only family tradition they really had. Perhaps it is too early still. Neesha and Ravi might have considered agreeing to go. Instead, no one says anything, and Ravi mumbles and leaves, patting Neesha on the back in a distinctly avuncular way. He will make the funeral arrangements, he mentions over his shoulder, as he walks out of the room. Arjun is the next to go, not bothering to pretend he has to. Neesha stays until the nurses return. In a movement, she slides off her wedding ring, slipping it onto her mother’s finger, whispering a promise.
Mina, of course, knew none of this. She guessed. It poured again at night, and in the morning, the voices in the clouds were too faint to hear. To feel this invincible, to inhabit this beautiful body, was wondrous. Of course she had been pretty, but now her body curved and flattened like a goddesses’; some women would be willing to lose years off their life for this sort of thing. She had taken up cliff diving, amongst other dangerous pursuits, knowing nothing could touch her anymore. Stripping down, she poised and fell, cutting the water with her hands. It slid off her skin like the pain did.
There was never any traffic this early in the morning, and so the three Bharadwaj’s found themselves driving their cars in a line, a row of ducks. Slowly, they sectioned off. Once more, Ravi was first, already on his way to his parents’ house to sort their belongings. Arjun followed, turning left into Ayaz’s, ready to eat the meat he had sworn off for three years alone in silence. Neesha did not make it through the whole length of her driveway. Turning, she steered into a street she had never been before, looking for unchartered territory, driving until she recognised nothing and couldn’t find her way home.
Something shifted. Mina gasped for air, paddling desperately, feeling for the warm embrace of the water, wondering where all the salt went, why she was no longer buoyant. Up above, the clouds are gone, and the sky is clear. Through her spluttering and the crash of the waves and the wind, she heard a familiar laugh behind her. An old friend, now a young man, holding a new ring that looked familiar, too. AQ