Death in the Family

The sky was beautifully painted today. The birds chirped and shopkeepers greedily rubbed their fingers in anticipation of money. Little shops sold trinkets, highly intricate jewellery, soft shawls and various kinds of footwear. Foreigners and NRI’s frequented this place. Non-Resident-Indians, a term coined to describe an Indian living elsewhere. It was just another way of determining a potential money pit. Abhi took out a cigarette and lit it with his match. The smoke rose up to his eyes and he exhaled. ‘That feels so good.’ He looked around and smiled. His two shops were doing good, very good in fact. Two shawl stores played off each other for prices and stocks. Customers never realized that they were still paying over and above a reasonable amount. ‘Yes, life is good.’ Abhi looked around some more and noticed an empty shop across the street. He walked towards it thinking of some other business he could put up. Not another shawl store. This was a little bit too remote from the other two. He thought of a little accessory store, but there were quite a few there already. Abhi took another puff of his cigarette. A very long puff allowed the glowing ember to creep closer to his mouth. Abhi thought of a little furniture store, he did not see any nearby and it could be good business. He decided to look around some more. Abhi’s phone rang. He reached down into his jeans pocket and pulled out the little black device. It was very simple phone only used for text messages and phone calls. Abhi looked at the name on the phone. ‘Anisha.’ ‘A…Abhi?’ Anisha sobbed. Abhi could hardly understand what she was saying. ‘Anisha? Is everything ok?’ ‘Abhi it’s your mom. She passed away. I tried calling your office but you weren’t in.’ Abhi’s cigarette dropped from his mouth. ‘What? What happened?!?’ Anisha sobbed some more. ‘I don’t know Abhi she just passed. The doctors said its old age.’ That didn’t make any sense. Abhi’s mother had no health problems and was very active. ‘How about uncle and aunty? Where are they?’ Anisha stammered. ‘They…they…they went out of town to arrange for the funeral.’ She paused for a second. ‘Are you coming home?’ What a stupid question…of course Abhi was going home. ‘I’m going to be there tonight. Tell them to start tomorrow ok.’ Abhi composed himself as he slid the phone back in his pocket. He had to look for a travel agent. He walked past a row of stores, went down through the underpass and ended in the inner circle of the city centre. Abhi headed up against a bustling crowd. He spotted a chain of fast food stores, a coffee shop and a man selling pirated books the sidewalk. There by the corner shop was a travel agent. The door chime signalled Abhi’s entrance and a man approached him. The man was fairly tall and sported long brushed hair, thick plastic specs and a blue pinstriped office shirt. ‘Good morning sir. How can I help you?’ His smile was wide but it reflected no warmth. It was the kind of smile that Abhi used to practice in front of his customers. Abhi looked around the little air-conditioned office. Posters and pamphlets of little tourist destinations both locally and internationally filled out little transparent boxes. They all claimed to offer hotel packages that seem too good to be true. Unsuspecting tourists wouldn’t know any better until they are charged with enormous taxes or dumped in some forsaken place with no way back. ‘I need the earliest flight out of Delhi.’ Abhi told the travel agent hurriedly. The man ran his fingers through an ancient computer. The modem blinked red, yellow and green as he scrolled through the choices. Abhi sat down on the cloth-covered chair and looked at his old text messages from his mother. ‘When are you visiting me?’ ‘Why don’t you move here back with me?’ ‘Who is there to keep you company?’ Abhi stumbled across an old unopened message. It was dated two weeks ago. ‘Abhi why don’t you come visit me. Anisha has been keeping me company these past few days. She has been very helpful at my old age. Who knows what will happen to me.’ Abhi’s mind raced. ‘Why was Anisha there?’ He decided to look for Anisha’s messages. The last one was a year ago. On the day he left home. ‘Abhi I never wanted us to part… always know that you are in my heart.’ Abhi never replied to this message. He read it over and over again in the train to Delhi but things would not have worked out. He went to Delhi to make a fortune on his own and he had forgotten about her. ‘Sir.’ The young man looked up from his screen. The clock behind him struck. One thirty-two P.M. ‘There are two flights available this evening, a Kingfisher and Jet Blue.’ Abhi discussed the times and the prices with the travel agent. They were both quite steep but he had no other choice. The agent took Abhi’s money and printed out the ticket. Abhi stood up and walked out of the office. He had arranged for a taxi to pick him up from his house. Abhi didn’t have much time. In a few hours he would leave for the airport. He traced back his steps to his car and headed home. Abhi lived alone in a three bedroom apartment. He could not imagine himself sharing his living space with complete strangers. He didn’t want to end up with some local from the village with horrendous hygiene or a foreigner from the east who expects Abhi to go with him everywhere because he couldn’t learn the language. Abhi rummaged through his closet and pulled out a few necessary clothes. He stuffed them in a maroon gym bag and headed out the door. He packed what he needed for a few days and any additional things he might need he could purchase it from the shop across his mother’s house. The taxi arrived on time. Abhi hopped in and they sped through the highway. The sky was still clear blue and white. The sun shone stronger than ever. Abhi settled down. Thoughts of his mother appeared and disappeared. When Abhi was much younger he never cared much for school and always skipped the afternoons to play with some kids around the block. His mother would ask how school was and Abhi would reply. ‘It was good.’ He did not say anything more than that. Until his marks came and Abhi’s mother found out that he was skipping classes. Abhi remembered how he got the beating of a lifetime. Such a sweet woman could be very strong when needed. Abhi’s father passed before he was born and Abhi was raised by his mother with little help from my uncles and aunts. The taxi arrived at the airport. The driver sped as per Abhi’s request and he gave him fifty rupees on top of the agreed price. The driver smiled in delight and handed Abhi his business card. It read. ‘Hanuman.’ Abhi was fascinated at how everyone on the outskirts of the city was named after a mythological being. Abhi slung his bag over his shoulder and walked into the airport. He flashed his ticket and passport to the security guard and bee-lined towards the check-in counter. At the boarding gate Abhi looked at his watch. It was a replica, a very good one in fact. The only distinction was the name. They often changed a single character, this one read ‘Bolex.’ Abhi had thirty minutes until boarding. He decided to buy a book and sit by the window overlooking the tarmac. The book was from a newly published author. The blurb intrigued him and Abhi related to it somehow. But he could not open the book. His thoughts were still scattered. Abhi looked around and saw a very cute girl typing away on her laptop. She sipped a cup of ginger tea. She looked at Abhi with annoyance on her face and then returned to her work. Abhi shook his head and his thoughts returned to his childhood. He remembered when he met Anisha. She was his next door neighbour. When Abhi was ten years old their family moved in. Anisha was a daughter of a mixed marriage. Indian and Chinese. Back in the day this was unheard of. Now however all these little rules have been broken to the delight of children and disappointment of parents. ‘Change is progress.’ They always said. Anisha was always playing with Abhi in his house. Abhi’s mother didn’t mind Abhi having a playmate and such a good companion as well. Anisha was very smart and really helped Abhi get through school. Abhi’s mother dotted Anisha and Abhi’s mother would give Anisha little presents especially when Abhi and Anisha started dating. Abhi’s mother always pushed Abhi to take Anisha out to the movies or the new restaurant. Abhi of course refrained. They didn’t have too much money to spend for these things. The day Abhi left both of them there were tears on Anisha’s face but no expression on Abhi’s mother. Abhi knew that she wasn’t sad. He knew she was angry and frustrated. He knew that his mother did not understand why Abhi had to live the life that he had. Looking back at everything neither did Abhi. Abhi lined up at the gate. The flight was of course delayed. He noticed a man wearing a superman tee shirt and sandals. Abhi guessed that even superman could get stranded in an airport. Finally Abhi boarded the plane and sat on his seat. He requested an aisle seat. This way he can get the attention of the stewardesses easily. To Abhi’s dismay he was always attended to by a male steward. The male steward looked quite refined in his blue uniform and was very polite and eager… too eager Abhi thought. He still held the book in his hands. The cover was of night blue and black. It seemed interesting enough Abhi thought, but he decided to stow the book away. Abhi reclined his seat as the plane hit optimum altitude. He counted the seconds in his mind, six thousand nine hundred and thirty two seconds to go. Abhi closed his eyes and his mother appeared to him again. This time Abhi was learning to ride a bicycle and his mother was always there beside him telling him of all the chores he had to do now. ‘You have to buy the vegetables.’ ‘You have to take this food to your aunty.’ ‘You have to take me to temple.’ Abhi would peddle faster and hoped to escape any more chores. He hit a rock and fell off his bike. Abhi’s mother held him up by his arms before even scratching his knee against the dusty ground. At such a young age Abhi was light enough for his mother to lift him. She gave Abhi a reassuring look and he fulfilled all of his chores. The plane was descended. It was approaching the destination and it had been a long day. Abhi pulled out his bag from under the seat and waited until the plane taxied. The steward sternly looked at Abhi in disapproval. Seemed like Abhi was not the steward’s type. He breathed a sigh of relief. Abhi left the plane and stormed through the airport as others waited in line for their luggage. Outside the vast building a commissioned taxi waited for Abhi. He quickly instructed the driver to drop him at the address stored in his mobile phone. The taxi vibrated to life and zoomed through the uncanny dark streets. Small temples crept up everywhere. From niches along outer walls to large red-bricked monuments. Three wheeled auto-rickshaws beeped as they weaved in and out of traffic. Their brown shirts and thick moustaches always a welcome sight to any commuter but not to pedestrians. The taxi passed through a section of shops. Little pharmacies, general stores, shoe stores and the occasional sweets vendor. They sold little concoctions made of milk, nuts and lots of sugar. Little green diamonds wrapped with silver foil, brown and yellow balls coated with syrup. Abhi used to favour the little syrup-covered orange swirls. Hi mother would treat him to one of them when he scored good marks. Abhi would then share half of this treat with Anisha. Without her help he would have not even passed. Abhi’s mother would always smile. She would always tell Abhi what Anisha liked or to remind him when Anisha’s birthday was. Somehow Abhi knew that his mother was aware of his feelings for Anisha. Abhi knew even more that his mother was unhappy when he left Anisha. It hurt Abhi that he left a frown on his mother’s face before she died. It hurt him even more that Anisha was by her side and not him. Abhi scrolled the messages on his phone again. ‘Anisha.’ He whispered. The cab stopped in front of a five-storey building. The entrance was off the main road and the pavement was unfinished which left loose pieces of rock scattered all over. A small family of cows sat down quietly eating some food offered earlier in the day. The calf rested in between the parents and looked peaceful as it slept. Abhi took comfort that there was a family of cows in front of the house. He hoped that they would still be there for next few days. It would make funeral prayers much easier. Abhi grabbed his bag and paid the fare. He walked through an open gate and passed the guard who was sleeping off his heavy dinner. Inside the gated compound, scooters lined up in organized chaos. On Abhi’s left was a little temple. He placed his bag down and removed his shoes. Abhi prayed for the soul of his mother. Abhi picked up his bag and walked up the stairs. The apartment was on the second floor. He did not mind stretching his legs a little bit. Upon reaching the second floor corridor, Abhi noticed the apartment on his right. The door opened repeatedly and several men walk out straightening their clothes as women waved goodbye to them. One of the women dressed in pyjama shorts and an oversized t-shirt stared at Abhi and the door closed slowly. Abhi still noticed the woman looking at him through the gap. Abhi did not consider himself very good looking, but what he lacked in appearance he made it up in confidence and this showed. He wondered why the girl was still looking at him, but he cleared his head of any distractions and walked to his mother’s flat. Abhi was surprised to see that there were no shoes outside and the door was closed. This seemed strange. Abhi rang the bell but there was no response. He knocked on the door a few times and turned around. The girl slowly opened her door. Abhi sensed her smile through the darkness. ‘Abhi?!?’ Abhi felt a warm embrace from behind. He turned around and saw Anisha. He hugged her and comforted her as she cried. She let go and Abhi noticed a knife in her hand. ‘Anisha? Why are you holding a knife?’ Anisha looked away and ran into the house. ‘No…Nothing. Come in.’ Abhi walked in and to his surprise the furniture was still cluttered. Long sleeping couches, a wooden shelf holding an entertainment system and old photographs. The floor was not covered in white sheets and there was no picture of his mother adorned with garlands. Most importantly there was no one in his house. Not a single person paying respects and praying. Abhi took out his phone. He searched through the contacts. ‘Kumar Uncle.’ The phone rang and Abhi got a tired old voice which was very sharp and abrupt. ‘Hi Uncle. Abhi here.’ ‘Ahh Abhi beta. How are you? You never call your uncle anymore.’ ‘Sorry about that uncle. Anyways I am here in mummy’s house now and…’ ‘You are home? You did not tell us?! Achaa tomorrow come by my house for tea ok? You should visit your uncle while you are here.’ ‘Yes uncle, but aren’t you coming to the house? No one is here.’ ‘Why beta? Is there a party? You did not tell us? It’s too late to leave now.’ ‘No… No… No party. I will… I will pass by for tea tomorrow.’ ‘Ok beta. Take care and give mummy our regards.’ Abhi looked at his phone screen and wiped it with his thumb. He stood in the middle of the living room and thought that something was amiss. Abhi’s uncle was supposed to arrange everything for the funeral and yet he seemed unaware of anything. Abhi dropped his bag on the couch and walked past the television set on his right and into the living room. There was only a solitary picture on the wall. It was a picture Abhi and Anisha cycling down a trail in the park. Abhi guessed that this was taken just before he and Anisha started going out. He had never seen the picture before and it seemed that it was a new addition to the decorations. Abhi turned and walked to the dining table. The table was an old wooden table covered by a white knitted cloth. Abhi’s mother often knitted things for the house, including little things for Abhi such as skull caps, scarves and gloves. They did not have much money and knitting articles were cheaper alternatives to buying new things. Abhi was always made fun of because of his knitted skull cap, but Anisha always thought he looked cute. He remembered holding her hand the first time she said that. The wooden table was situated by the terrace and there were six flat wooden chairs around the table. Abhi remembered that the chair closest to the terrace had a cracked leg. He checked the chair and noticed how the deep crack created a splinter from the base. Memories started flooding him. Abhi remembered how he used to run around the house chasing Anisha as he tried to force a dead spider on her. He ran and ran until he scalded his arm on the boiling pot of water that his mother carried around. It was on that chair that Abhi’s mother consoled him. There was still a faint trace of that burn on his right bicep. He rubbed his arm and smiled. ‘Mom.’ Abhi pulled out a chair and sat in the terrace. He rested his right leg on the rails and rocked the chair slightly with his left. Abhi spent many nights on this terrace staring out at the stars. ‘Abhi?’ Anisha walked into the terrace and sat on the railings just beside Abhi’s leg. Anisha wore a long aqua skirt which fluttered slightly around her calves. Her hair was straight. It was completely different from the loose curls that she sported before. Abhi looked at her, his eyes were locked at her big brown eyes and he thought that Anisha looked even more beautiful than the day he left. ‘Anisha are you ok?’ Abhi dropped his right leg and leaned close to her. He could smell her perfume, jasmine, she always wore jasmine perfume. ‘Why do you keep holding that knife?’ Anisha looked down on the knife in her hand. ‘Oh! I forgot!’ In an instant she hopped off the railings and darted out of the terrace. Abhi smiled. He remembered when Anisha came crying into his arms one day. That was the first week that they got together and he had given her a dolphin bracelet as a present. She sobbed and apologized to Abhi. ‘I lost it.’ She rubbed her eyes and pounded her fist on her legs. And then Abhi’s mother would call out for Anisha and asked if the dolphin bracelet on the kitchen counter was hers. The smile on Anisha’s face was priceless. Anisha was smart but very forgetful. ‘Oh Anisha.’ Abhi muttered. Abhi walked out of the terrace and looked for Anisha. He walked into the kitchen but Anisha was not there. More than that there was no food prepared. ‘What is going on?’ Abhi whispered to himself. ‘Abhi!’ Anisha screamed from Abhi’s mother’s bedroom. ‘Do you want to see your mom?’ ‘Mo…Mom?’ Abhi asked from the hallway. No reply. Abhi thought about seeing the frail lifeless body of his mother. How did she look like? Was she sickly? How about the expression on her face? His mind ate at him. He could have been with her during her last days but he left her and forgot all about his mother. Abhi took a deep breath and cleared his mind. He gathered the courage and walked towards the room. The door was slightly open and the room was dimly lit. Abhi could only see shadows of objects in the room. The closet, knitting table, and bed. He turned his head to the left and saw a flickering bulb. There was the spare bed that Anisha used to sleep on and beside it was chair. The back of the chair faced him but he could see that someone was sitting on it, someone with greyed hair that was wrapped in a bun. Suddenly a faint glimmer took Abhi by surprise. Just on the right of the chair was Anisha and she thrusted the shining knife downwards. ‘Anisha stop!’ He ran to the chair. ‘What do you think you are doing?!?’ Abhi held on the chair and looked down as he felt old wrinkly hands lightly touch his arm. The figure was wearing a thin white cloth with blue trimmings wrapped around the body. The scent was unmistakable it smelled of coconut oil and dried fruits. It was the scent of Abhi’s mother. ‘Quiet down beta.’ Abhi’s mother rested her hand on her leg. ‘Anisha is just cutting some fruit.’ Anisha giggled and continued cutting up more fruit. Abhi sat on the bed across his mother. She looked calm and at peace. The healthy shine was still present in her eyes and even if her leathery face hid her facial expressions Abhi’s mother still had enough energy to go one. She wasn’t going anywhere soon. ‘Wha… What is going on?’ Abhi shook his head and buried it in his hands. ‘I thought you are dead?’ Abhi’s mother replied. ‘I am dead.’ Anisha passed Abhi a plate of apples. Abhi placed the plate of apples beside him. ‘What are you saying?’ Abhi’s mother continued. ‘I am dead tired of waiting for you Abhi.’ Abhi looked at his mom. His arms trembled and he felt several emotions all at once. The flutter of fear in his heart, the rage that boiled in his head and the tiredness of his muscles. Abhi’s mother leaned close and held Abhi’s hand. ‘I am not getting younger beta.’ She takes Anisha’s hand and motions her to sit beside Abhi. ‘Why did she tell me that you passed away?’ Abhi’s eyes watered and a tear rolled down his cheek. ‘I…I didn’t know what to do…what to feel.’ Abhi rubbed his eye. ‘I started thinking of you in your last breath and I wasn’t there.’ Abhi calmed breathed rapidly and slowly calmed himself down to a single large breath. ‘It was only Anisha who was beside you.’ ‘Anisha is a wonderful girl.’ Abhi’s mother smiled. Abhi nodded his head. ‘Yes, she is very special.’ Anisha giggled. Abhi turned to Anisha. ‘Why did you tell me that mom died?’ Abhi’s mother placed Anisha’s hand in Abhi’s and smiled. Abhi looked at Anisha’s hand in his and then looked up at his mother. Abhi’s mother spoke. ‘Tell me beta. When are you going to marry this lovely girl?’ Anisha blushed. ‘Is this why you did all of this? To ask me when I would marry Anisha?’ Abhi asked. ‘Yes beta.’ Abhi’s mother replied. Abhi fell on the bed and sighed. ‘Oh mom!’

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