Your mother, unbeknownst to you, tries to reach you. With a barren heat mere inches from her scented palms, she breathes deep unthinkingly at home. Somehow, through bone and palpitated beat, you hear that mellow chime, muffled and all. Your breath catches itself, stiflingly, and you attempt to halt. You take a seat on the grizzled granite: it’s cold and feels wet, but it’ll have to do. Ring. Ring. Before answering, you do a quick calculation: very late here, so reasonably early there. So, this isn’t anything urgent; she’s about to light the lamp, probably, and she figured she might as well call. You pick up the now-chilled aluminum, and you answer:
The wind bleeds past your nape, exactly when the two of you — almost certainly misrepresented by intercellular lag — breathe in cutting synchrony, just as the other did. You walk unstiltedly. She asks why you’re up so late, and you ask why she’s up so early. Studying, you tell her, as you always do. And she took a bath and is about to light the lamp. An acknowledgment from you, and then a pause.
Kutta, she says with noted omniscience, are you tensed about something? Your voice sounds out-of-breathy.
You’d never knowingly lie to her, so you choose a half truth and tell her that you’re nervous for an upcoming exam.
Aiyyo, she exclaims in a worrisome, distant, motherlike fashion. Deep breaths, she says. Take three deep, big breaths.
Not twice, but thrice. Breathe in and out. Then, again and, then, once more. You listen to it, as you have many times before.
Ah, Mummy, sheri. Breathe in and breathe out. Manasilayi.
Ha-ha, good, good, she replies. Anyway, no emergency or anything. Wanted to hear your voice, so just like that called. Need to do morning prayers now.
Sheri, Ma, okay, you say. You stand upright; the blood rewarms your dulled toes. Speak to you later. Give umma to Papa and Ari. Ta-ta. Umma.
Okay, makalle, ta-ta. Miss you. Be a good boy. Umma.
You kiss her umma, and, in less than an instant, she is back home, some twenty-odd hours away, somewhere east and slightly south. You walk onward. Slight perspiration within your sweaters. The outside air and emptiness not quite as soothing as one would hope.
Hazily, a realization slips in, and you fill with bubbling regret. You forgot to tell her. You didn’t say it, and she most certainly didn’t hear it. You intently resolve to not forget the next time, whilst recognizing the minuteness of such an act. Your pace is now irregular: slow, fast, even somehow sideways. You will remember to not forget — if for nothing else — because you must say it and because she must hear it.
You’re waiting at a coffee shop for her; the very one you met at for your first date. The poetic part of your head finds it charming, lovely — in that cyclical, meaninglessly-meaningful sort of way. You glance at the clock midway between the unmasked ceiling and the cheap flower painting. You attempt to take mental note of the time, but something about the clock’s build — its cordial stature — seems striking. It’s professionally brown and sun-burst, and it reminds you of a clock piece from the short story about an especially sad individual. You wonder if this were the very piece the author pictured in his head, and you think how terribly unlikely that might be. Still — you think how so lovely it would be if it were the case nevertheless. This aside, she’s late, and you should’ve guessed that. Her feet were too little for any of her lofty distance-time estimations. But you’re here; you have to be. You have to see her before she sets off for good. You couldn’t not be here.
You recall thinking how, back then, you thought you might marry her. Two ceremonies, in fact: one for her family here, and one for your family there. You smile, and your eyes glaze down, looking away from nothing in particular. Past it all, she did mean something to you. She would hold you and whisper that it’d be okay, when it didn’t quite seem like it would. You remember dotted skin and how it loved to share its warmth. You readjust your weight on the chair. On fine reflection, it seems so precious, so soft. It glimmers — in vague pastel — behind bare eyelids.
She said she wasn’t sure about having children. You, however, absolutely were. It seemed like a certainty in your mind — a necessity even. There’s a joy to children, you often think. A joy, too, in their creation, their protection, their sustentation. It felt right somehow. If there were any reason to existence, this had to be it. You remember trying to explain the feeling to her: how much you love your little brother, how much pure and ineffable beauty lie within children, how lovely it is to love and care for them — and just how much your heart immeasurably swells at the thought of them. Yet, she didn’t seem to quite get it, you felt. You can only explain something so much.
Still, she gave you comfort, a coveted rarity. You do miss her every so often, and you tell yourself that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Shame was to be reserved for much, much worse. You look at the sun-burst clock again, but you forget how much time has passed. You should’ve paid more attention. She should be here any minute now.
You’re nervous to look at the entrance that’s a few feet from your back. It’s a slight grumbling worry. You don’t want to turn around and see her the very moment she enters. You don’t want that anxiety. That desperation-laden eye contact must be avoided. You need none of it. Might as well keep the thought at bay until it absolutely needs to be here. A chair creaks nearby, and you wonder why you chose to sit in such an unideal point of orientation. You concede you’ll never really truly know. All you really know for sure is that you, if only for a little bit, didn’t want to feel afraid.
Through all of it though, you tried to do good, and that soothes your mind. That, you believe, is the important thing here: the fact that an attempt occurred. That a genuine, true-to-heart, sincere attempt existed. You tried; you tried to do right and be communicative and caring. With it all, you really tried. Like a good man, you tried and failed and tried again.
You, in primal mindlessness, twist yourself and look at the entrance. You see no one of particular note. It’s all right, you whisper silently. Your stomach gurgles and boils. Any time now, she’ll softly walk in and tap your right shoulder without saying a single word. You’ll smile in reply and keep it together and hopefully remember to breathe. It’s all right, you repeat in what you imagine to be choirlike cadence. If it all fails, try again. If you fail, just breathe and try once more. It’ll be all right. Just try and try and try.
Ammuma says she’s fine, she says in response to your query. Appupa is feeling okay-okay, but he needs to stay localized. Can’t exert too much. Can’t go upstairs, like that.
You listen, with good intention, but you are thinking about work. That kind that categorically needs to be done. That too in the now-blackening chill. It’s horridly frigid outside; colder than cold, yet you still need to go.
Ammuma also said that she’s going for a special puja on Saturday morning. So, you can call her after in the afternoon, her time. It’s a ceremony for us all… she’ll pray for all of us, she said.
A concentric orange tint emanates from the nestlike lamp on your room table. It holds its heat, somehow. The thought is dreadful: the several stale layers you need to wear, the unholy slush you have to drudge through, and that utter austere lack of hotness.
Do you pray, Kutta?
You’re caught off-guard. Your spine shifts into a hunch, as you wait for reconfirmation.
At night… before you sleep, do you pray to God?
Unexpectedly direct, but you’re paying attention now undoubtedly. For a fraction of a second and a fraction of that, you aren’t sure what to tell her: what you want to say, or what you think she wants to hear. Words have weight; they have impact that mustn’t be unconsidered. You, however, are an adult — a somewhat-formed, semi-fledged individual. And, she’s wise. She can handle a truth, surely. So, you tell her:
Okay, Kutta, she says as if in unbroken stance. But you used to pray a lot when you were small, no? Why did you do it then?
Because you made me, Amma! A response of unrivalled immediacy. You think of the sheer gall of this woman, and you, perceiving such absurdity, can’t help but giggle audibly.
This coming from the woman who took you along to hundreds of ceremonies: loud ones, messy and hot ones, ones with holy smoke. This coming from the woman who taught you to stay still and close your eyes and pray. This coming from the woman who would bend over and huddle, blanketlike, over your tiny, boned figure and clasp her hands over yours. With her soap-scented fingers over your gritted ones, she’d make a lamp-lit cove, and she’d tell you to focus.
You remember it.
With careful mandate, she tells you what to do.
Put your hands together… just like mine, and then whisper it, Kutta.
And you do so:
asato ma sath gamaya
tamaso ma jyotir gamaya
mrityo ma amritam gamaya
The lamp’s heat warms the crest of your nose.
What do these words mean?
You look at the flame. The searing wick stares back and blissfully dances past.
Don’t worry about that now, Kutta. For now, just try to say it.
She speaks with a tone of patient urgency, and you hear it all.
If you don’t understand it, breathe and say it slowly. Manasilayo?
You nod and wonder if she’s smiling.
Good, good. Repeat it then it’ll be fine. Breathe and say it slowly, and it’ll be all right, makalle. Sheri?
Now, with an ache, you’re brought back. And you feel cruel. How dare you laugh at her. How unfairly, mockingly unkind. Your lamp, with inflamed orange and all, witnesses the indiscretion. You pause and hold breath.
And with pure and aired and unadulterated mercy, she interrupts — and laughs.
A-ha-ha-ha, yes. Aiyyo, yes, true. That’s true. You were only being a good boy, she says with teeth bared, probably, hopefully.
But then, Kutta, why don’t you pray now?
Now your mind rushes. You think of how much you don’t want to get into it right now. There’s work to be done elsewhere, but you still think of what to say, carefully. There are reasons, and a lot of them too. So, you tell her:
School, Amma. Classes, studies, exam, college, quiz club. No time, y’know.
That isn’t the actual and whole truth, and you know it. So, oddly emboldened, you tell her:
Honestly, none of it seems to help or ever make sense to me. Why act for something you don’t believe in? Don’t know, Ma. It’s that… why do something if you really don’t feel like doing it.
You think of how she must feel. All in vain: all those temples, traditions, her early mornings, recitations, all of it. A lifetime of honest, genuine effort gone. Grinded — suddenly and unsparingly — down into dust.
You say nothing, not because you wish to, but because you know not what to say.
Okay, sheri, sheri. Thank you, Kutta. Thank you for being honest… for telling me.
The silence stills you.
Although, you should pray, y’know. Don’t want to force you or anything. That’s not fair. Don’t do it for me or Papa or anything like that. Do it because you want to. Nothing else. Only that, sheri.
Ah, Amma. Sorry. Nani. Thank you.
Ahye, poda. Oh ho. Thanking your mother, it seems. Poda. Spoken in a meter that’s humorous and almost paternal. Aiyyo, da. Anyway, got to light the lamp now. Time to pray now.
Sherienna, Mummy. Umma. Love you. Ta-ta.
Bye, Makalle. Umma. Have a good day.
Ah, Amma. Love you. Umma. Love you, Ma. Love you.
Your bid her ta-ta again, and you don’t forget, thankfully. You tell her you love her, and you feel decent again. You made sure the words left your mouth: that you said it and that she heard it. Ever since Appupa’s third heart attack, you make sure that he hears it clearly too: from the chapped curves of your lips to the speckled creases of his ear. He must hear it, undoubtedly, and so must Ammuma and Amma and Papa and Ari and everyone else. The hue of your lamp strengthens, as you make treatise. They have to hear it, you think, simply because they must.
You put down the phone and grab your orderly work things. You, with still uncorrected posture, lurch to the door when you find that your feet feel leaden. It keeps you in place as it intensifies steadily. You think of the work you need to do right now. And just how much you’d give to not have to do it. To not have to do it out there, where it’s dead frozen, from marrow to unatrophied muscle. To stay inside and to listen to her voice, even if to simply ask her a question or two. All of it, even for a little bit longer in the orange lamp-lit light; just one more second in the heat.
There’s a happy crowd buzzing all around, and you despise it. Your insides cringe, in that creaturelike and nearly tragic manner. The air-conditioner, unswayed, focuses right onto your bared, desert skin. People bustling for the event to begin. You told yourself to be here — with people who are like you — and that you would at least try. So here you are trying and trying to try.
You look around, and a rather pretty girl sits a single seat away from you. You’ve never seen her before, yet you still guess what her last name might be. Something about her make seems cobbled together from other places: a familiar cartilage bend of the nose, the spacy asymmetrical fold of the eyelid, and hibiscuslike hair curled along straight shoulder. She seems to be like you, just like everyone else here. You wonder if she can say your name the correct way, with the proper inflection and exactly right emphasis. Either way, you’re here right now. This where you have to be. They’re like you, and you’re like them. This is where you’ll fit in.
She’s alone, apparently, and not on her phone, and you want to talk to her. She might be a fascinating person, and there is only one real way to know. Something about the girl — either her clothing or her gelid stance — compels you to think her voice is akin to smoothened gravel. You want to find out. You sense your heart quicken, and it frustrates you. You remember when this was easier or, at least, when you thought it to be.
You think of your best friend from years ago. You loved him. There was something about him — something just pulled your mind. You have no idea what it might’ve been, but it was there: you’re sure of it, even from the moment that you first met. After school, and most everyone gone home. With an oddly manipulated orange-soda can behind him, he conversed about a topic that you can’t quite recollect right this minute. The way he spoke, the way he paused and responded and set out in his own thoughts. The way his wavy, stony black hair never inched away from its place. The two of you spoke for about a minute, probably less, but you could feel something about him. You could so easily speak with him. He seemed a man of good nature. He was what you liked and wanted from people. Something intangible in your head pushed and ached; it needed to be his friend.
You sneakily look to your side, and the girl is now busy speaking to someone else. They talk like recently unacquainted friends, and any other thought would be mere speculation. People around are still loud, and the air still hushes through. The pretty girl’s voice is drowned out; closure impeded.
You haven’t spoken to him in years: not really, anyway. You wish he were here though, to keep you from being alone. He’d be here, and he’d undoubtedly sit beside you. He’d make you feel less bad for again failing to speak to a woman. He’d even say your name the way your mother does. You look to your left, and your eyes meet temporarily with the pretty girl’s friend. His eyes feel older; unkind in its unavailability. Sweat beads down the prickled texture of your cheek, and you feel bare. You know they can tell — they know you’re not like them. They sense it. It’s so nakedly apparent: all in your voice, in the way your legs rest, even in the way your combed hair sits and permutes itself on your scalp. The pretty girl senses it too, and she doesn’t want a thing to do with you.
Your stomach churns, now in excess, and you make this your cue. Time to get food; time to leave. You shift back onto your toes and heel, but it’s a lackluster failure. It’s colder now. You’re held in place; something wrought, dense doesn’t want to weaken it’s hold. Your heart upticks. You don’t want this to be it: not here; not in front of these people. You tell yourself that this isn’t real. None of this — absolutely none of it — is happening out there, out in actuality. It’s only in your skull, and no one else’s. This is not real — it mustn’t be. The shuffling and reverbed laughter heighten: louder now and more often. Yet, somehow, your ears discern something. You think you can hear it amongst this din, and you act as if you do. With unbroken lilt, her tone lends itself and speaks. You listen, and, with compromise, you obey. So, you try to breathe. In — and out. And again — but you falter. You hope the pretty girl was too occupied in her conversation to notice. The air-conditioner has scotched your palms: dry and iced. It’s fine. If only it were slightly warmer, God. But, it’s all fine; it’s all right. Hold it together, you tell yourself. It’s just in your head. It’s fine. It’s all in your head, and it will only ever be in your head. It’s all right. It’s all right. It’ll be all right.
On occasion, a moment substantiates itself in your skull. As you sit here alone, with a piercing and intolerant breeze outside, it solidifies: the curtains of the room, and your mother hunched over in her hands.
Hints of sniffling murmur float down the dim hallway and find its way to your ears. So, your unfashionable, young body traces towards it, silently. You peek into her room, and a shrill white surrounds her frame. The undrawn curtains allow such harshness. Eyes adjusting, you slowly see it: you see your mother cry. A small pressure builds in your tiny chest. From her side of the bed, the sniffles now evolve into breathlessness, into choked tears. You’re struck by this, and so you do nothing; the woeful inaction of youth. The pressure deforms into pain: you want to help her but don’t know how. You think of the appropriateness: what you can do to help, what you can’t, what you should do, what you shouldn’t.
Drowned in thought, however, you barely notice her movement. Eyes moist and unjustly red, she stands and walks through the glow of her room. In the corner, she quietly finds a matchstick. Fingers tremble in action. Strike it once, then twice, and a last time: it’s set alight, finally. The lamp, now illuminated, leads her into closed eyes and whispers. Devi rakshekenne. Lekshmi rakshekenne. Earnest in petition. You witness that with every repetition, with every single utterance, her face steadily unwrinkles. Swami rakshekenne. Your body stays unmoved — enraptured by her sound, enraptured by the light.
It’s tidy and quiet as you lie down now. The room fan drones on, hardly masking the brazen wind outside. Thinking now, it seems cloudy, slightly faint — much of the moment seems lost within itself. And yet, you remember how it felt. How much you wanted to help, and, perhaps more than anything, how much it seemed like an oddity: just how much you don’t understand it. A shiver creeps beneath your ribcage. The window is ajar: enough to let in the icy, inarguably fresh air. A wind descends outside, right when you hear your phone. Ring. Ring. And lo: who else?
She answers with infallible excitement. She asks you about your classes and your lunch and whether it’s too cold yet. You want to respond with that you’re sorry, that you wish you would’ve comforted her. You want to have helped her. You wish — in an every-screaming-cell-of-every-splintering-bone kind of way — that you had helped her. You ache dearly. The words foam right up to the arched slights of your dry lips. But, unsurprisingly, it stays in; barred fervor and escape. The thoughts instead remeasure themselves haphazardly, intently. Better some truth than all of it. And so, you ask her something:
Why, Amma? Why do it? Why pray?
Snow now falls, stippling the hue-transitioning soil. It eagerly trickles down the chipped windowsill.
And you listen to her.
Aiyyo, Kutta… Think it’s part of my routine by now. Also, Ammuma prayed… her amma prayed. It was like they loved to pray to God… getting up early and lighting the lamp and going to temples and praying.
You breathe slowly. Your mind stays.
To say these things out loud, you know… helps a bit.
Slower now. Still staying. Snow falling.
It’s calming… can be so peaceful. Don’t know, da. I just like it.
Your heart feels tender tonight. There’s a blizzard brewing outside the yet-to-be-frosted glass, and you wish it would keep away. Your room is dark, merely out of preference. You seek some comfort, so you look at baby photos of your baby brother, a proper infant. Tiny, immobile, loud, and the loveliest thing on earth. The snow gets seemingly worse, but that’s fine. You look at the picture of a picture, and your heart can’t help but quiver dearly at the sight of him and his up-tilted, anuran nose. A big brother, beyond most anything else, has one true duty: to keep his baby brother safe; to protect him. That’s simply what they must do. You breathe to bring levity, hopefully.
You think of your own child and wonder whether he’ll be just as sweet and just as lovable. You think of that moment sometimes: the second he’s real and in your arms. Would you feel what they say you’re supposed to feel? Love raised to the nth degree? You figure you’d never really know until that very instance. Your harsh, coarse fingers cover his exactingly pure hands. You cradle him and soothe him down. You hold him tight to your chest — close enough to feel his heartbeat and for him to feel yours. You wish to never ever have to let go. You already love him, in every conceivable, meaningful expression of the word. You know this. Love raised to the nth, to the nth, to the nth. You need him to exist, and you need him to keep you alive. You need to keep him well. You need to keep them living well, too: Amma and Papa and Ari and Ammuma and Appupa and all of them. Keep them living well, as a good man would.
And so, with unknown intent, your breath hardens. You sense a distance: how far it all truly is. Your son isn’t here now. You can’t have him and love him and save him. You realize it slowly, and then all of a sudden: none of it is here right now. Sweat again. Colder breath. None of them are here, and they couldn’t, even if you willed it. You’re alone here. Alone, freezing in deathly, barren cold. Your prickled hand shivers, just as you remember from back then. The bruised base of your neck about to crumble. A subtle, valiant pressure from your retina.
You breathe, consciously, and you fail. You breathe again and fail, somehow much worse. Thoughts fumble over themselves. Diaphragm beaten velvet. Your heart, incessant. You think of them, of everyone who matters to you: your child, your father, mother, brother, and just how much they can’t be here. Amma. You beat harder. Your hands somehow colder. With mad and unrelenting haste, you rush for your phone. Find it, and then hear her voice. She’ll help. She’ll tell you it’ll all be okay.
It’s all right. Just hold on.
Just wait. Soon. Please, soon.
Amma, c’mon. I’m sorry.
Ring. Sorry, the caller can’t be reached at thi–
God damn it, no. No, no. Please, no. Call her again.
Ma, please pick up. I’m so sorry. You beg to her.
Mummy, please help me. I’m sorry. I can’t be alone here anymore. Please. I don’t want to be by myself.
Sorry, the caller can’t b–
Damn it. Damn it.
Mind unbelt, you attempt to pause — to breathe. The cold penetrates you.
Air drifts and finds its way in. Amidst this, your mind — in some unseen manner — calculates weakly.
And you realize.
Your feet rise, feebly, without an ounce of hesitation, and they rush you to the spaced, unrugged corner of your room. For half a moment, you think of where to face. You give up and simply face south-east. Your knees fall and touch ground, as if weighed down upon. Your heart bursts right past your chest and ears. Your head tilts down, modestly. Hands clasped together: palm to palm. Eyelids closed. And, now, you take a breath.
You think of your mother; you imagine her sitting in silent supplication. What if she were whispering, too, the very words she once taught you. You breathe deeper. And what if she has her hands calmly to her own, just as she showed you. And — oh — how so wonderful that would be. Just like this; just this very second.
You feel it inside, and you feel it live. Your eyes relent and now lay in rest. And so, you go on, just as she would. Your heart softens with a warmth, and you breathe in once again.