I clearlyrremember the night my father died. I was sleeping. It’s very strange, for although I wasn’t privy to all the whispers and screams that passed between the mouths of unsuspecting mourners, the gap between the time he lazed off on a sofa and the startling gunshot that crazed me from my sleep was entirely my memory. I remember mother was already asleep. It was 11 on a cold December night and quietness descended upon us like a piece of madness. Father was watching that damn television, his head dropping, only to be raised again, pretending to himself that he wasn’t dozing off. That was his habit: to sit in the living room well past midnight, with the television mumbling in the background while he dozed on and off over the hours.
“He doesn’t want to sleep with me. He is repulsed by my skin,” said mother as she wore her gloves to hide fingers stained by white patches that had grown to cover her hands. “He tries to prolong his waking hours as much as he can.”
“Look at me,” she stared at the mirror, with her hands raised. Over the years, the disease had taken over a large part of her skin, and her forehead was blessed with a snow-white patch that covered it like a sandoor generously applied to a newly wed bride. For two years now, mother had seldom ventured out. She stayed at home as we were used to her presence – a fairy, white old lady, born brown. This was the whiteness that she didn’t crave, yet it came generously and embarrassingly to her. People would initially stare at her white fingers. There were whispers that she could hear as she passed them by; there was disgust sprinkled with a decent amount of fear. So, she stayed home as she couldn’t stand it anymore.
“People don’t like mongrels. Half breeds are fine. I am a sprinkling breed,” she remarked. “I wonder what sin I have committed that God should punish me with such a stigmatizing disease.” Father had grown distant over the years, or so she said. “He doesn’t look at me anymore the way he used to when we were young. He won’t touch the food that I prepare, and now he would spend the entire night, if he could, trying not to be on a bed with me.”
So that night father was in his usual place when he heard a knock at the door. There was no sign of hurriedness in his movements, as if the knocking refused to rush him over. The people at the other end were patient, he thought as he tried to roll over his heavy body. He grunted as the weight of his 120 kg flesh, along with the unmeasurable heaviness of his half-dreams, pressed him down hard on the sofa. Who could it be at such an ungodly hour, he thought. Don’t ask me how I know what my father thought. It was past midnight and the gods have relinquished these hours to the realm of spirits. Our gods are not possessive of the world. They know when to show up and when to quiet down. That is the best thing about them. They have their time that they clasp firmly, then release when it is over. There is no sense of clinginess. There is only liberty and the act that one can always let go.
Father couldn’t let go of mother, he used to say. He was someone her parents considered trash – jobless, ambitionless, without a good family name, and worst of all, a Catholic.
“When the world ends, all idolaters – Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics and Niam-tre people – will burn in hell,” said grandfather in his attempt to wean us away from father’s religion.
“Catholics are not Christians,” he declared. The kerfuffle of his gargling hookah stole the quietness of our living room. It was always quiet when grandfather visited. Words refused to pass between our mouths, our faces stiffened by the discomfort of his lectures. Grandfather’s visit hung around us like a scowling dream that died in our sleep. We forgot about it just as easily as it came to us. Grandfather had had his teeth as long as I can remember. They stubbornly refused to fall with time as a compensation for the deforming arthritis that had twisted his fingers, each folded onto the other like a piece of ginger. We learned that he chased mother away when he found out she was pregnant and that he threatened to chop off father’s head if he ever showed his face at his place.
“Leave my daughter alone,” he shouted at father, “you useless piece of trash!” Father could see the anger in grandfather’s eyes. They were red, burned by anger, disbelief, indignation, and the smoke from his hookah. But father couldn’t let go of mother. He was seventeen at that time, filled with passion and the willingness to risk it. Over the years, he still refused to let go of her although with each passing year, with each new discovery of his infidelity, how he fathered many children from different women, how he ventured to Bangladesh to spy for the Meghalaya Police who gave him a television, with each new speck that blotted on mother’s sad skin, with each new grey hair on his head, he had all the more reason to leave. But he couldn’t let go. He held on like the roots of a banyan tree would hug half the heart of a hill and never let go for hundreds of years. Unlike the banyan tree that holds because it is too intimate with the hug-full of soil, father had long lost his love for anyone, or so we thought. Few words passed between us; he would seldom nod in approval of our small accomplishments, like getting a good score in an exam. He didn’t bother to shout at my big brother when the latter beat up an old lady during an episode of drunkenness. He wouldn’t even look at me, “the cheap whore,” as he would say and would only look suspiciously at my friends who came to my house for group study. “His fellow whores,” he muttered to himself. “Why do you hang out with kids like Iong-I and Hyunsu? Do you even think you are their equal? How can you show up to their places with those dirty, cheap clothes?” he shouted at me when I told him I had just come from Hyunsu’s house. When he found out my youngest sister was pregnant at sixteen, he simply spent the entire night watching television. Mother would have loved him and respected him more if he told her that he hated them, or that he had an affair and three other children from two different women. She would have understood him if he hit my sister or beat my brother or kicked me out of the house. After all, a wife can only try to make excuses and try to understand her husband like a school child would try to figure out a lecture they find too unbearable. He wouldn’t give her that reason either. He simply existed to stop time in this house.
When a woman showed up with a child at our house – he was four – mother cried and started pulling her hair. That was the first time she had discovered about his affair. She was eight months pregnant with me. Six years later, another woman came to our house, with a machete. She was mother’s friend.
“Where is that useless son of a six-legged dog?” she shouted. Mother stood in disbelief, startled at the sudden appearance of her friend, weighted by the machete she carried and the sullen anger that she was keen to translate into action. Discernible actions.
“My sister is pregnant with your useless husband’s kid,” she threw the news to my mother carelessly, as if she savored the sting that it gave my mother. “Where is he? I’ll chop up his head.” In a way, it seemed as if she was trying to blame my mother for what happened. “You better watch over him before he sires children with half of the women here.” Why my mother should watch over him, she would not explain. It seemed as though she was implying and insinuating something. After all, mother had only three children and father had more children from other women. “She’s not fertile or good enough,” people would say. And mother would want to make excuses for that. She may not have a womb enough for twelve children, but she could have a heart big enough to forgive a man for a thousand sins. Mother kept on forgiving like a lonely spring brook.
Father’s work was seasonal. He used to work in a broom grass plantation in January and in a betel nut plantation during the rest of the winter months. For all his vices, father was a man of many talents: he could play the guitar. Grandfather would say, “you can judge the worth of a man by how well he played guitar. The better his skill, the worse he is as a human.” He could sing, and at some point, he claimed to have learnt how to perform rituals and talk to the gods. Father had the ability to win over people. We didn’t know how. He seldom talked to us and so we were deprived of the sensory perception of his ability. But he could persuade anyone, including the dreaded insurgent groups that nested in Bangladesh.
The evening of knocking came slowly, like a consumed betelnut chaffed and grinded by teeth. There was no sense of rushing. The knock continued slowly as if the people both within and without measured their time slowly, cautiously. Father approached the door with a particular sense of boredom that he used to approach anything in the house. His pajama ruffled against the cold, dreary breeze that filtered in against the small gaps in our door. He opened the door. That was when I woke up. I heard something loud in my dream. I sat up on my bed startled. I scanned the room and realized I was dreaming. But the sound felt real, external. I looked at my table. All my things were in their proper places: a bottle of coconut oil, a glycerol ointment, a deck of cards, books, Ponds Cold cream. Unused incense sticks. Papers scattered over my table like unfamiliar algebraic equations. Everything was the same just as at the moment I went to bed. I tried to sleep again. It was then that I heard my father’s filtered voice as he groaned. He sounded hurt and his labored voice was impregnated with the sound of fear, like a dog dragged by the leash to its death. Unlike a dog, however, death tried to invade father quickly and without pain. But that damn man knew how to cheat on everyone, including death. He just lay there screaming, his hand flapping against the cold cow dung-plastered floor. I knew that this was something serious, unlike those countless nights when he pretended to be sick or having a heart attack, I knew that a misfortune always come to those who invite it, and father had been inviting it ever since that day he beat grandfather with the end of the old man’s cane. The old man could only scream as blow after blow descended upon him from the angry hand of my father, each blow for every insult he hurled at my father. That was the day my father had his revenge. It was also the day my grandfather swore to get revenge.
I rushed to the living room, my feet carrying me with a sense of urgency that I had never experienced before, with a sense of anticipation of something sinister and something quite uncanny. I saw my mother kneeling beside his cursing body as he held her by the hair, her vitiligo white skin stained by his blood. “That mother fucking goat of a human!” he cursed. “Those cunts, those bastard sons of hairy women.” Father knew a lot about hairy women. Even in his hour of agony and approaching death, he couldn’t banish the stink of his habit away from him. “Sons of a ten-armed whore,” he continued to shout, but slowly his voice started to fade. His dark red blood trickled from his body and pooled in a shallow depression on our floor, a depression that we had not noticed until that moment, when his blood pooled there, a chalice holding the blood of Christ. It is the small things in life that we neglect that eventually devour us. In his final days, that depression became a receptacle of something that gives life but had now claimed that precious fluid for itself. Father lost this battle to the small thing in our house that no one ever noticed. Mother was crying, holding father in her lap, grieving over a body whose life had slowly started to ebb. My big brother reeked of alcohol and dendrite. He staggered to the room. My sister was already there pressing father’s feet as she cried and screamed at the top of her voice, “Don’t leave us, Pa!” As tears gushed from her eyes, she begged and begged him not to leave, as if he had the sole authority in deciding when to leave. Probably she always believed that.
My sister Alee would walk around the village without wearing her Diakiong. Mother would complain, “Only loose women walk around like that, and you aren’t young anymore.” Alee wouldn’t care about any of that stuff. “I want to burn this house down,” she confessed once. It was the first time I came to see that side of her that despised us and what we were made up of. The month of May was hot and humid as moisture from the Bay of Bengal started to drift to the hills, like scattered rumors. Alee wore denim shorts and a top. She kept her hair in a bun and her sandals had a nice red rose on their shackles. “You look like a whore,” I would say. “Shut up!” she retorted, “you’re too young to use such words.” It was one of those unusual occasions – grandfather had passed away and we kept him for one day in the house. Never too eager to discard the dead, they would say. So, we keep them close for three days and let ourselves be familiarized with the sight of the dead. We must hold on to what we have, even if it’s just a corpse, cold and stiff, undone by time. We claim it the way we claim our possession and we make it familiar with our house. “Wait for us,” we would say to the corpse, for we are deeply aware of our fate. “Wait for us,” we bade, “till we meet again.” Grandfather started to smell like what a corpse without a rush of formalin would smell. Alee took me away from the room, and we went to the river.
My cousin tagged along with us. He was nineteen, and his grandmother was my grandfather’s cousin. Alee was sixteen, and I was twelve.
“We are supposed to tolerate the smell,” he remarked.
“That’s fucked up. Even now I feel as if the smell lingers on my clothes,” she said.
“As if you were wearing any clothes. You look like a whore,” I said.
Alee wouldn’t mind a few cigarettes offered by cousin brother James. Judging by the way she tucked it between her fingers and how she puffed smokes like a beekeeper, I realized she must be smoking a lot. Alee was the only girl in our village who smoked, at least to my knowledge. “What else do you do besides smoking?” I asked her.
“She snuffs dendrites too,” remarked James, as if he’s proud of her.
“Are you crazy?” I shouted, “Pa will kill you if he knows.”
“That little shit who climbs into bed with every woman he sees? I don’t care about his perverted ass. He is in no position to lecture me.”
“Well, what about Mea?”
She didn’t answer me. Mother once struck big brother with a stool. She flung it at him with all her might when she caught him smoking in his room. Years of fighting with the neighborhood kids, and sometimes with kids from other villages, had prepared him very well in the art of dodging. His body was fine-tuned to an instinctive response from a hand that tried to strike, or a stone flung from some mendacious hands. He dodged and the stool hit the mud-plastered wall. A portion of the wall cracked open. Mother left the room that day, and big brother knew better than to smoke in the house. However, over the years he had learnt how to be furtive in his chase for the small pleasures of life until they weren’t small anymore. Soon they would be visible enough. Mother could only cry as big brother staggered home from his nights of drinking with nothing in his pocket and a butchered song half sung, half recited prancing on his mouth. Alee was a girl and should mother find out about her… I could only imagine the worst. After all, our people are expected to be kinder to their son’s vices. Mother could carry on despite my brother, but she would consider it a judgement upon herself if she learned that my sister smoked as well.
During this time, Alee was fucking James. “Why not?” she shot back when I asked her one day. She was combing her wet hair. “He’s better than the rest, tall and has a big thing.” “He’s still our brother,” I said, not wanting to accept the fact that they were in love. In fact, they weren’t in love. “We were simply doing things,” she said to me, “not dating.” My sister was very open about her personal life. In fact, she was open about our lives to just about anyone who would ask. “Her mouth is looser than her vagina,” father would complain, and mother would silently pray for Alee. It’s one thing for father to fuck with every woman; it’s quite another for a girl of Alee’s age to do the same. Alee didn’t love James, but she found his presence reliable. She got used to it. His shadow would sting her, and she traced the sting. He was someone that came as a surety, a bond, an affidavit that one could take with good faith. James was ours.
“I wish pa would die,” she said. Now that the smell of grandfather’s corpse had disappeared completely, she had stopped smoking. The smell of the river and the trees drowned away grandfather’s smell that tried to linger on our noses. She rested her head on James’ lap. “Seriously, I won’t shed a tear for that miserable son of a bitch. Imagine the peace in our home if he’s gone.”
“Well, he had been drinking a lot. Hopefully he will drink himself to death,” answered James. They both laughed at that as if death was a joke to them. A few days before father bought a TV, Alee learned something about him. She told me that she had overheard a man and father talking about Bangladesh and the insurgent group.
“Which one?” I asked.
“Who else? The HNLC.”
“Apparently,” she continued, “the man is a police officer, who is working with Pa. Pa was in Bangladesh these past few days, taking pictures of the group’s members and has handed the pictures to the police. All for the price of a television.”
“Yes. He’s going to get us all killed.”
“Don’t tell Mea about this though. She will lose her mind, like she should.”
I nodded. I was too young to understand the implications of what father was doing. Alee did. Afterall, she was a very bright girl. Top of her class. Mother dreamt of sending her to medical school. To be a doctor. To do something for our family that we could be proud of. Children are meant to be just that, a way for parents to live their lost dreams.
“I don’t want to be a doctor. That’s so shitty.” Alee would protest to me. Not that she couldn’t protest to mother. She didn’t care about any of them. She just didn’t want to disappoint mother just yet. There will be plenty of room for disappointment, she thought.
“Why don’t you?” I asked. “I mean it’s a good job and people will respect you and you’d have plenty of money to buy TV for your kids.”
“Just the thought of it makes me cringe. I want to start my own business,” she said, almost dream-like as she hung the wet clothes on a line. “I want to start my own construction business.” Alee knew how to dream the way other people wouldn’t dare to dream. People like mother are bereft of imagination. They don’t have the ambition of their own. Their dreams and goals are reproductions of what people around them are dreaming. But Alee saw something different. It’s no wonder then that she wanted father to die. He would have resented her if she became successful. He would have called her a whore. He would have beat her simply for having a dream that was so different from her mother’s dream. He would have resented her, for he would imagine her marrying a man who was in a better station then he, her father was.
Alee was crying as father lay on the floor, joining mother in her shocked sorrow. My brother cried as well. This is the benefit of having a family – even if they want you dead, they will have enough grace to pour out their tears as you leave, if not out of love, then surely out of your own luck for having a family shaped by place and time. Father died that night in agony; his body had lost too much blood. We had his funeral the day after. “Not too soon,” mother said, “we will not relinquish him too soon.”
This is how we lived our lives, unwilling to let go, unwilling to forget, determined to etch out memories in stones, untarnished by time. Alee wasn’t sad when we lowered his body in the grave. She looked just the way she always did. Morose, a whiff of being absent from the hullabaloo, and her eyes caught the imaginations that were never imagined. Big brother reeked of alcohol, dendrite, and whores like he always did. He wasn’t sad either. He wasn’t alert either. He stood there, his eyes devoid of emotions as he stared at the coffin of a man who had come to define and undefine him. Mother was grievous. Her eyes wet and her eyelashes heavy. She was a banyan tree, always a banyan tree, holding on to those hug-full of earth for five hundred years. Memories, ghosts and the wish for things to be different made her sad when father died. All the years spent, all the trials endured and for what? She would have thought. Father’s death undid her never-ending expectation. She always dreamt of her own happily ever after. But she dreamt of it only through father, just like she did when they were teenagers. Not through us. Certainly not through Alee. We didn’t care why they shot him. We wished no vengeance. All we knew was that a few months later, we received a citation from the government of Meghalaya, attesting to our father’s service to his country. This wretched of the earth had become a martyr and a hero, as if these come cheaply, though at a cost to us. All for a television.
 A traditional cloth worn by War women that goes underneath their one armpit and pinned or tied on the other shoulder. It flows and covers their body up to their shin and it is supposed to be a cloth that honourable women should wear. The War community is the sub-community within the larger Khasi tribe.
Photo by Tersius van Rhyn on Unsplash