Twenty six. Twenty seven. Twenty eight. My skipping rope flew through the air and under my feet in perfect arcs. Whoosh. Whoosh.
It was not the fact that he had died, it was how he had died. There were a lot of mutterings about it. It was clear enough though that concrete and skulls don’t meet amicably. I thought he looked very peaceful as he lay there. I wanted to leave him there. Of course, they would have none of it.
“Should we call the police?”, Malathi mumbled.
“I don’t see why. It was an accident. He slipped and fell. There’s no more to it.”, Bala answered.
“Let’s call Doctor Akka. She will know what to do.”
Someone was promptly despatched.
The word must have spread. More and more people started to gather at the gates.
“What happened, child? Something happened, no? We heard Malathi scream.”
I nodded nonchalantly, and kept skipping. It was none of their business.
“Strange child that is, I tell you”, one whispered to the other. I ignored them. Fifty one. Fifty two. Fifty three.
Doctor Akka arrived ten minutes later and bustled in, stethoscope hanging loosely around her neck.
“He is dead”, she pronounced with grave solemnity. Malathi and Bala nodded in agreement. I could have told them that without a stethoscope.
All three looked down at him as he lay contentedly lifeless on the bedroom floor. Flies had started to buzz around him, attracted by the pool of blood under his head.
“Well”, Doctor Akka sighed dramatically, ” He was old, and his time had come. But what a shame. I always told him to ask for help. This would not have happened if he had. Such a proud man…”, she sighed again, “I will sign the death certificate. Do you want to call the priest?”
Bala nodded. “Yes, I will. Only problem is that he wanted Damu to do his last rites.”
“Damu?”, she looked over at me. “But he is….”
“I know”, Bala interjected quickly. “He can be coached.”
Malathi wasn’t convinced. “He rarely listens to us Bala.”
Then in an undertone, “He is a bit of a loose cannon you know”
They stared at me.
Hundred and three. Hundred and four. Hundred and five.
“Call Rekha. He might be persuaded if she is here.”
“I cannot abide the girl. Why must we have her under our roof again? Such a snake in the grass.”
“Malathi, we cannot afford to be on our high horse now. The quicker this is over, the sooner we can move on.”
Doctor Akka looked at them quizzically.
“Perhaps, it is not my place, but a man has died in very unfortunate circumstances. What is it that you want ‘over with’ quickly?”
Malathi hastened to assure her,”Oh, don’t get us wrong, Doctor Akka! We are so very upset. He had a good few years left in him. Of course, we are grief stricken. It’s just that, well, we have to be practical. So much to be done. And with Damu, it is always so difficult.”
“Yes, yes, I understand”, she nodded. “So much to be done.”
Hundred and thirty seven. Hundred and thirty eight. Hundred and thirty nine.
People came, people went. His body was moved. The floor was cleaned. He was bathed. Someone even shaved him. Then they laid him out in the courtyard, all wrapped up in a white sheet, with holy ash smeared on his forehead. The priest waddled in, followed by three assistants, who stared at me curiously.
“Don’t mind the boy. He is like that only.”
The priest looked offended but set about preparing all his samagri. The coconut, the flowers, the vermillion, the incense sticks were all laid out in a particular order that fascinated me.
“Come here, Damu. Come and see”, Malathi called to me quietly.
I was torn between getting to five hundred and investigating this curious ritual. At four hundred and sixty seven, I threw the rope aside and allowed myself to be lured to the spot.
FIVE HOURS EARLIER
“Damu… Damu?… Damu..!”
I relented enough to enter the old man’s room.
“Damu”, he said placatingly. “I know you are annoyed with me. But truly, I am not in any condition to play with you today.”
I stood in the doorway.
“Come and sit by my side. I will tell you a story.”
I stayed where I was.
“Come boy. It is a good story and a true one.”
I watched as his mouth moved. His lips were thin, and his stubble grey. I knew he had dimples when he smiled. He so rarely smiled these days. His eyes were a peculiar green that I had inherited.
“There was once a beautiful Princess. She was loved and spoiled in equal measures. Anything she wanted, she could have. And she did have the best of it all…. All except one thing.” He looked at me expectantly. I refused to take the bait. After a pause, he carried on. “That one thing was to be married to the man of her choosing. A peasant; a poor wretched man with no background to speak of. After all, she came from an illustrious pedigree. It would bring dishonour to the family- to her father’s good name.”
He fiddled with his watch.
“They ran away. She broke her poor father’s heart. Slowly, he lost his riches and his will to live.”
He looked at his shoes for a long time. I shuffled my feet impatiently. Then he looked up and smiled.
“His beloved Queen nursed him back to health. They had another child, she reminded him. Together they rebuilt his Kingdom, and took care of the Prince. The King lost a lot of his arrogance. He learnt humility and tolerance. Two virtues that are absolutely essential in one who has to lead.”
He looked over at me.
“Does this story have a happy ending?”, I asked.
“Well, that depends on a lot of things.”
“Stories are somewhat linear, they begin somewhere and end somewhere else. Life, on the other hand, is not a straight line. It is like a graph with many highs and many lows. If life finishes you off at a low, then it is a sad ending. If the full stop comes at a high, then it is a happy ending.”
I was bored now, and wandered off, leaving him to cough and splutter blood into his handkerchief.
“Come on dear, it is only a quick wash. You cannot perform the puja without it.”
Rekha held me firm. I thought of biting her arm, and then thought better of it. I liked her. I let myself be led to the bathroom and given a bath. The soap smelled of him- of the old man. I suppose I would never smell sandalwood again without thinking of him.
Outside in the courtyard, people had gathered. Humming, buzzing,droning, they were like a swarm of bees. They scared me. Rekha allowed me to cling to her sari pallav.
“Come on Damu. The prayers have to start. You must listen carefully to the priest and follow what he chants.”
They had set up a small fire. The priest had started his chants and indicated with his head where he wanted me to sit. It was too hot and all at once I did not want to do this.
“Come on Damu…come on….it will be over soon. Don’t you want Thaatha’s soul to have safe passage?”
I did not know what that meant, nor did I care. I shook myself free and ran upstairs to the terrace.
I let the cool breeze caress my face. All around me I saw rooftops, with washing lines extending to miles. Clothes billowed in the afternoon wind. Footsteps followed me upstairs. It was Rekha again.
“Damu, I am sorry. I know you are sad. I am sad too. But this is something that needs to be done.”
“Why can’t Bala or Malathi do it? Or you?”
“Because Thaatha wanted it to be you. Besides, you know women cannot perform last rites.”
I did not know this.
The fire was hot and the priest kept glaring at me. I sat submissively, throwing in the oil, mouthing the prayers, staring at the old man who would never speak again, nor teach me how to play chess.
THREE MONTHS AGO
The old man was having a meeting in his room. Malathi kept hovering at the door. I thought she had done more than enough dusting when she suddenly looked at me.
” Damu, why don’t you go and sit inside with Thaatha? I am sure he wouldn’t mind.”
I shook my head. I was enjoying my book and didn’t want to leave my spot.
“Oh, but it is so hot there, Damu! You’ll be so much cooler under the fan. I will make you some mysore pak, if you listen.”
I loved mysore pak, the ghee filled sugary dessert that melted in my mouth, and would have walked to Siberia for some. I peeled myself off the swing in the courtyard, and opened Thaatha’s door.
“What is it?”, he growled at me over his half moon specs. He was surrounded by papers and a slight, officious looking man was pointing something out to him.
I was surprised. The old man never growled, not at me at any rate.
“I am hot”, I declared and promptly planted myself in his armchair, near the fan.
He looked at me somewhat suspiciously, then asked me to shut the door.
” Krishnan, I will have to appoint a guardian. He is too young to…”
” Yes, Mr Subramanium, he is too young. However, that is not the only problem. Even at twenty one, will he be capable enough….?”
Thaatha cleared his throat quite dramatically.
“So, what do you suggest?”
“A life guardian, with a stipend perhaps. Enough to keep him or her in comfort, but not enough to make a huge dent in the capital.”
” How does one insure that the boy will be taken care of?”
“My firm will do monthly checks on his well being, for a small fee, of course.”
“Of course. But make it fortnightly.”
There was more shuffling of papers and lengthy talk of sums that I half followed. My book got more interesting and soon I was swallowed up whole by the adventures of the intrepid seven.
Malathi plied me with mysore pak, and asked me lots of questions.
“Was Thaatha very busy?”
“Did he talk of a will?”
” Was Mr Krishnan saying anything to Thaatha about the house?”
I tired of this silly game, and had quite enough mysore pak for a while. So, to shut her up, I said, “They were talking about appointing someone as my guardian, and giving them money to take care of me.”
Then I went back to my book, but not before catching her startled look.
The Crematorium had filled with people too. The old man had been popular. I knew he had been respected from the way someone or the other would come and consult with him everyday. But here, there were people sobbing, and talking about what a great man he had been.
Rekha led me to a quiet corner.
“Damu, you do understand what you have to do now?”
I did not understand any of it, so I just stared blankly at her.
” You will have to light the pyre”.
“That is the wooden structure that Thaatha will be placed upon, before you set it alight”
“But then he will burn”
“Yes, Damu, but that is only his body. His soul is already making its journey”
“I don’t want to burn Thaatha”
Bala came over. He looked tired and slightly pale. Rekha and he exchanged a look.
Then he said, “Perhaps I should do it. It is too much for the boy.”
“Those were not his wishes.”
“I am tired of listening to ‘these were his wishes’, ‘those were not his wishes’. What about us? Are we not family? Everything…everything has been about the boy. I am tired of it!”
Rekha reached forward and touched him on the arm
“I am sorry Bala. I know it has been very hard for you.”
Malathi appeared at his elbow and hissed at Rekha, ” You leave my husband alone!!”
“But Akka, I was just…”
“Don’t you dare call me your sister! I know all your wily ways. You tried ensnaring him the last time as well. If I hadn’t found out in time, I would have been without a husband or a home. You keep your filthy hands off him!”
Rekha looked abashed, and steered me away from them.
“Damu, please. Do this for me, and I will not bother you again. I am only here for you and for Thaatha. Once this is over, I will not darken your doorstep anytime soon.”
I nodded and soon found myself near the pyre. Thaatha had been laid out on the platform. His body was covered with kindling, but I could still see his face, which had been left uncovered. Someone handed me a flare. I walked around the pyre five times, then touched it to the kindling. It ignited immediately. I stepped back and watched Thaatha go up in flames. Crematorium workers prodded at his body to make sure the fire spread evenly. At one point, there was a loud bang.
“Oh, that’s just the skull exploding” , someone said.
We stood there for a while watching the fire blaze long and high, and then were told we could leave.
“I will come back and collect the ashes tomorrow”, Bala said to one of the men there.
Most people had left now. We slowly made our way to the waiting taxi. Rekha hugged me hard and wiped a tear off her face.
“Ahhh, Damu. I don’t know when I will see you next.Promise you will come and visit me?”
I nodded again. I felt exhausted from the day’s events and just wanted to lie down.
FIVE YEARS AGO
Rekha held my hand and walked into the large house. I had never seen such high ceilings before. My house had been small, and had consisted of just two rooms. This house seemed to have many many rooms.
“Is that him?”, the man looked at me from his rocking chair.
“Yes”, Rekha answered softly.
“Why did it take you so long?”
“I was trying to manage on my own. I didn’t know if you would entertain any communication from us.”
“Hmmm. How long has it been?”
“Car accident, you say?”
“Yes. They were on their way to Tirupathi to offer prayers.”
“Was the boy with them?”
“And has he said anything?”
“No…but…you have to understand….he does not speak much anyway.”
The man looked at me again. He called me over to him. I refused to budge.
“He has my temperament….and my eyes….”
We were allocated a room. I slept with Rekha. She held me and soothed me through my nightly terrors.
“Shhhh, Damu, shhhh. You are safe now.”
I was introduced to Bala and Malathi. They tried their best to disguise their shock and dismay, but even at seven years of age, I could sense I was not wanted.
“What does this mean, Appa? Why have you taken him in? Give that girl some money, and be rid of them. ”
“Why are you threatened by the boy, Bala?”
“Threatened? What nonsense! I just feel that after all these years, and all the hurt caused, it makes no sense to bring him into our lives. We know nothing about them. She is a low caste, just like her brother. And he…he is a strange little creature. Do you not find it odd how he says nothing, just stares at us all the time?”
“Be that as it may, this is my opportunity to make amends for all my wrongs. I will provide for the boy as long as I am alive. He is here to stay Bala, and your wife and you had better get used to the idea.”
“And what will you tell him as he grows up? Will you tell him about how you threw his mother out when you found out she was pregnant with that low-caste’s child? Or how, when she begged for forgiveness, you refused to listen to her pleas? How will you explain the fact that you never wished to see your grandson’s face till he appeared before you after his parents’ death?”
“Enough! I have revisited my sins any number of times. You do not have to remind me of anything.”
I dreamt of them often. Her with her slanted green eyes, and lustrous brown hair that she would knot at the nape of her neck. The smell of the jasmine flowers she would wear around the knot. The big red dot of kunkumam she would align between her eyebrows. He, with his charcoal black skin, his great big hugs and a laugh that would boom and reverberate in our little home.
Then I would dream of them dead. Their bodies a mangled mess of skin and bones and blood. I would wake up drenched in sweat, shaking in terror, unable to voice my utter utter desolation.
I stayed in my room for three days after the old man’s death. Bala and Malathi tried to persuade me to join them for meals. I refused to answer. They took to leaving a plate of food outside the door. They would often find it untouched. Some of the time though, overcome with hunger, I would demolish the contents.
I could tell they were worried. They did not want to be saddled with a twelve year old boy who was not right in the head.
On the fourth day, the lawyer came home.
The conference was to be held in the large living room. Chairs had been placed in a semi-circle around Thaatha’s rocking chair. The lawyer looked discomfited to be placed in what had hitherto been Thaatha’s symbol of authority and assurance. He kept trying to control the chair’s movement with his feet planted securely on the floor. Every so often though, he would forget, and the chair would jerk involuntarily, startling him no end.
“It is my sad duty to inform you of the contents of Mr Subramanium’s will. However, I cannot begin, till all the family members are present.”
Bala looked around the room.
“Mr Krishnan, we are all here. As you know, our family has shrunk over the years. My father broke his ties with a lot of our relatives. And we have no children of our own. So, I cannot imagine who else you are expecting?”
When Rekha walked in, Malathi jumped to her feet.
“I knew it! Didn’t I say, Bala, didn’t I? He has left her and the wretched boy everything. We will be out on the streets. That conniving old…”
“Mrs Subramanium, please calm down. I haven’t read out the will yet.”
Malathi sat down in a huff, shooting venomous looks our way.
He started reading out the legal document in a low, monotonous voice. I rapidly tuned out, finding the proceedings dull to an extreme. My eyes wandered around the room. They took in the paintings Thaatha had on the walls, (expensive ones I knew, for Malathi had scolded me for trying to draw a moustache on the woman), the artefacts that decorated the shelves, the silk curtains that hung over the windows. Occasionally, I caught a gasp or a mutter. My name was mentioned several times. Rekha squeezed my hand now and again. It’s only when she tried shaking me awake, that I realised I must have fallen asleep.
The lawyer was gathering up his papers and saying, ” I will, of course, confirm it all in writing. However, if everyone is in agreement, then the arrangement can begin straight away.”
When he had left, Malathi sat with her head in her hands.
“To think….to think….he would do this to his own son!”
“Hush, dear, hush. The boy is awake. Anyway, it’s not like we’ve been left penniless. As long as we have him here, we can live in the house too.”
“And what about her?”
“You will have to learn to get along with her, Malathi. And I swear, I will not…I never…you misunderstood….”
Rekha took me to my room.
“Damu, I will be living here. With you. Isn’t that wonderful? Thaatha knew how much you meant to me. Come here! Give me a hug.”
SIX YEARS AGO
The thunder had woken him up. His heart was pounding. His hands searched for Rekha, but found an empty spot, still warm. Panic stricken, he stumbled out of bed, looking for her.
They were locked in an embrace in a cool corner of the kitchen. Bala kept running his hands down her back, pulling her closer, nipping at her ear, as she giggled softly.
He turned around as quietly as he had come in. His eyes met with another pair of green eyes. The old man shook his head lightly, and ushered him out.
SIXTY TWO YEARS LATER
I live alone now, in this house of secrets and lies. Malathi was the first one to die. They called it cancer. I called it a broken heart. It didn’t take Bala and Rekha long after to tie the knot.They had children together. Children that had been provided for, in the will. What foresight father had, Bala had exclaimed.
I was well looked after. There was always enough food, enough clothes, enough education. As for love, is there ever enough?
When I was thirty, they moved away. Each of them living their own lives, in their own ways.
I am an old man now, just like Thaatha was, when he died. I sit in his rocking chair, and watch the world pass me by. I think of him, of his genuine desire to right his wrongs. And then, I think of that strange line in his will:
I want all of Damu’s family to live together and take care of him, and one another. I want this to be a happy family again.
Of course, he knew then, as well as I know now.
There are no happy endings.