When Pavarti died, the sunlight went with her. Any fledgling rays that had once, cautiously, shined down on a family so desperately in need of light, left nothing but the dust of Mumbai roads clinging to the windows. It was hastily snuffed out, like the lazy wisps of a tobacco beedi, purchased by a seedy rickshaw driver at cheap roadside stalls.
We were the meager funeral procession, my father and I, the now oldest child, and we watched the two disinterested day laborers unfeelingly carry her remains to the cemetery of an abandoned church. The smug sunlight languidly settled into a distant horizon. Even as the blazing humidity diminished, sweat continued to trickle down my shoulders. The dusty white kurta pants were slowly coming apart from the makeshift knot I had tied.
Absently, I ruminated about the thick black plaits that used to run down my sister's back, how the perishing temperatures before the monsoon storms would make cotton salwaar kameez she wore to work stick to her body by the end of the day. She would return from the bustling trains crammed between hundreds of sweaty bodies, each with their own preoccupations assembled only for the convenience of transportation. We were a part of thousands of extras, in a country where too many people were born and in a city that did not have the slightest concern.
The humdrum toils that all members of the middle class inexplicably share never seemed to faze that resilient weed. And with a wry smile I remember her smiles and laughter, how she was the perfect epitome of happiness and thankfulness, the complete antithesis to my own overwhelming cynicism. I think back with a sad fondness. She was not like everyone else, scrambling out of the rains and lamenting the slightest wetness. She ran into the rain with her arms outstretched, embracing the warmth on her skin and in her hair.
And now, here she was, about to enter the earth that had once given her life.
My father was walking a little ways ahead of me. His face was long, drawn, and his lips were puckered tightly together, stained dark shades of purple along the outsides and moist pink tinges on the insides. Years of heavy smoking had drained the color from his lips.
His features were rigid in place, and I could tell by that that he was trying to restrain his tears. His palms rubbed against his eyelids and each hand covered the contoured hemispheres of his jaw. I heard a deep intake of breath, and I knew that when he wrenched his hands away, his eyes would be red.
I turned away, half way out of respect, but mostly out of fear of seeing my lifelong rock, the silent pillar of our family's strength, slowly crumbling before me.
My father had loved Parvati. It was always plainly written across his face, the broad grins and the affectionate ruffling of her hair was always a pleasant sight in our household. He pulled her into his lap and carried her on his back spontaneously, wanting to feel the warmth that just radiated off of her skin, perhaps directly from her heart. He never held our mother's death against her, and instead believed that the gods had been merciful to him, giving him a beautiful child to take care of.
He held a special affection for his oldest daughter, and I think it was because she became our mother personified. She was sturdy, someone we could all lean on, and who fixed us when we were broken. She took absolutely no nonsense, yet I do remember that she worked terribly hard for us. The gifts of youth and beauty were cast away, unused, as she was plunged into the adult universe much before her time.
My father's adoration of her only increased after witnessing her strength, and I knew that he admired the grace with which she met the looming challenges of life head on, and because she did not grow weak but stood up and battled the demons away.
And now we were losing her. It was as if every sacrifice she had made in the pursuit of love and family, those two overly-romanticized classical virtues, was bravely accepted as in vain.
I wasn't sure we would get through this.
As we neared the humble remains of the cathedral, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Thick coatings of cheap blue lacquer bulking into a cloak, substantial paint slathered on like a sun cream. I found this pathetically humorous, if only because I did not the courage to witness the final lowering of the body into the grave.
I had never seen a burial before.
With the thorny burden of the eldest child, a responsibility I never wanted nor needed, I banished the tears I so desperately wanted to shed to the furthest corners of my mind. My father's pithy sobs created a symphony of grief, permeated by the arid winds and grimly complimented by the incessant rustling of dry leaves. There was momentary silence, an acknowledgement of the unnatural coexistence that we had unknowingly allowed to blossom between us.
Death became to us not a loss that could wrench the heart right at the moment it struck. We found death to be a perpetual ghost not a fearsome monster, a bitter grief that burned our throats and gnawed at our stomachs that could only come to us in the forgotten vestiges of the world that our departed had left behind. It would be later that my father would walk into a room and never be able to turn around, lest he see some memento of hers whispering stories that he knew were lost to the past. She was gone from us body and soul, heart and mind, and I could only silently bid farewell. Down went her remains, down to depths I could never reach into. They began to fill the grave, pouring chalky dirt onto her casket. I was thankful not to see her face disturbed from its sleeping tranquility, not to see her beauty obscured from the common ground. I wished I could come with her, yet there were depths to this world I knew I did not belong.
Wearily, we paid our respects. The sun beat into our backs and the heat smothered against out shirts. A cheap metal cross dipped low against her grave, and there was no headstone to mark her name, only a small inscription scrawled against the cross. The day laborers looked upon us with boredom, the sight of weeping mourners becoming eerily commonplace in their lives. It was nothing they hadn't seen before, and I ruminated, nothing that they wouldn't see again. Nameless and faceless, that's how graves were supposed to be, if only because it made the burden of grief easier to bear. It was so we could not be consumed by the memory of what once was and what could never be.
The silent trudge downhill was the same morose procession it had begun as. We walked with an air of solemnity. Feeling that someone had to say something, I looked at him, with round, open eyes, silently asking if he needed anything. The white cotton of his shirt was see-through now, white patches permeated by great pools of sweat. Lines were drawn throughout his forehead, and his hands kept clasping and unclasping uneasily. He made no motion towards me, and I realized that he would want, desperately, to be alone. We walked in thoughtful silence. The familiar sights and sounds of the bustling town entered into our line of sight.
The persistent fruit-wallas presented their home-grown wares on rickety pushcarts, bargaining with unrelenting housewives preoccupied with sending their children to tuitions classes and what they would prepare for their husbands' dinner. The medicine shop was open and the harried chemist was selling prescription tablets and bars of perfumed sandalwood soap to an eldery grandfather hobbling about on his daily errands, thinking fondly of the mischievous granddaughters waiting at home. School children were playing erratically in the streets, rough games with much taunting and shoving, the physical mentality of moving themselves forwards without a care for others slowly making way for future corrupt government workers and scheming businessmen.
This was the portrait of the small town we had grown up in.
It was the portrait of suburbs all over Bombay. We passed through the busy streets and absorbed the local chattering like sea sponges calmly absorb the rising and dipping of the temperamental tides. Our sober attitudes did not give way to the general calamity; we walked in an impenetrable daze, the prolonged silence reflecting the extent of our dependence on Parvati.
As her name embodies, she was our mountain of strength. Her broad smiles filled in the vacancies of communication. I realized that the unending chatter that once annoyed me was actually what had glued this family together.
We reached the gates of the apartment building. Rust peeled off the surface, covering our hands with maroon red shavings, because the typical laziness of the landlord had left it unmaintained. The watchman was nowhere in sight, so we were saved (at least for today) from the lecherous grins and waggling eyebrows of a man who truly had no work.
There was no elevator either; rather the insipid contractor had added a stone staircase for our convenience. There was one bedroom, which we had immediately given to Parvati, because she was a woman and needed her privacy. My father and I spread two folded futons on the living room floor. We had the smallest of luxuries, a veranda and a color TV.
I needed to clear my head. Softly shutting the wiry door, I settled onto the middle of the veranda. There was an excellent shading roof, small but plucky enough to protect from the strongest rays. The veranda was sort of my sanctuary, but in a crowded house where heaps of extended family and friends arrive with no warning, nothing is truly your own.
Bulky clothes drying wracks, made of cheap white plastic and frequently blown over by strong gales, cluttered the surface. Chilies were often set to dry on thick cotton sheets, as these made the best spice powders. Crows and mosquitoes also shared my space, scavenging any leftover garbage they could detect.
Sitting on the rickety porch, feeling the jagged texture of the tapered planks and running my rough palms against the peeling paint, I tried but in vain to imagine her sitting next to me, as she had done so many times in the past.
Maliciously, the termite bitten boards dug into the undersides of my calves. I unloosened the constricting necktie I had worn for the funeral ceremony. Soon after came the button up shirt, with tiny cotton balls dotting the surface as a result of the intense heat.
There I rested in my undershirt and dress pants, the few formal clothes I had never thought I would need to pull out of the furthest corners of the armoire.
I looked down on my stomach, at the various scars and cuts that childhood happens to leave on us. As per usual, my eyes rested on the dark brown birth mark almost touching my navel. Parvati had the same complexion, wheatish like an essence of milky tea in the afternoon.
In truly dramatic style of the monsoons, the warm rains splattered onto my cheeks without warning, but to me it was the welcoming embrace of a young mother coaxing back her fondest memories. It helped me reconcile with that innocent smile, a cheeky grin with the smallest of gaps between the two front teeth, and that lovely complexion so quick to a sanguine blush.
Only now could I comprehend that they were lost to me forever.
I lied down onto my stomach, feeling the hard-edged planks on my sallow cheeks. This sort of solemn thinking was not good for me. Wearily, I turned onto my side. My ribs were in pain against the wooden planks, but I turned onto my side and promptly fell asleep.
We moved away after that. Far away, where my father could find her in every corner of the house, haunting him in his dreams and as his fingers lingered over her things.