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Mom told me that I peed all over my elder brother the first time we met. I was two days old at the time. She and I were at my Nana’s or maternal grandfather’s haveli in Lucknow. Dad, an army officer, was posted in a Nagaland convulsed by insurgency; it wasn’t safe for him to take his wife and family there.
My brother or Bhaiya, as I called him, was away at boarding school in Ajmer. That day he had been granted leave to travel to Lucknow to meet his newborn baby brother. He had just got off the rickshaw from the railway station and was still wearing his school uniform of white shirt and dark-blue trousers, tie and blazer. Everything nicely ironed and starched, I am sure, with the black leather shoes properly shined. He’d never put on anything that wasn’t ironed, including underwear, and would don well-polished leather shoes even for a trip to the neighbourhood bazaar.
You didn’t pee all morning, Mom said. It was as if you were holding it inside just for him.
She’d say it with a smile, sometimes a laugh that would bounce off the walls of the various homes in which we lived in the seventies and eighties. She’d say it in a wistful voice, with faraway eyes that revealed just how much she missed the old days after Dad was killed in a car accident soon after we settled in Delhi in 1987. She even said it that night in 1998 as her life and lucidity ebbed away to leave the past and present enmeshed in a ramble that ended only after her heart grew silent.
More than fifteen years have elapsed since that night. I haven’t spared a thought for those words in all that time. This morning I can’t get them out of my head.
It is the last day of 2013 and I am going to Brar Square, where Bhaiya and I planted peepal trees in the memory of our parents a week after we cremated Mom. But I am not thinking of Mom and Dad today. I am thinking of Bhaiya.
Almost seven months have passed since his heart stopped dead in its tracks. It went out like a light, as if the gods had suddenly decided to switch off his life. In a matter of seconds, he went from being a tall, broad-shouldered man who could command the attention of an entire room to a messy corpse laid out on the floor. And it happened so quickly that he didn’t even have the time to cry out against the injustice of it all.
Four months after he died, I planted a tree in his memory in Brar Square. Right through the planting, I could see the two of us with the caretaker in 1998, discussing plans for the memorial we wished to create for our parents on a clear patch of lawn a few feet away from where we had cremated Mom. I couldn’t have imagined then that one day I’d be planting a tree for him.
I haven’t been to Brar Square since that day. Today I am going. It is December 31st and I can no longer shut out the voice prodding me to visit the departed before the year rolls over. I went to bed last night, drowning in memories that had reared up like a tidal wave. But this morning my thoughts are full of a day of which I have no memory; a day I only know through Mom and the words she last uttered more than fifteen years ago.
The ringtone on my phone starts to sound, forcing me away from my thoughts. It’s Sonia.
‘Are you ready?’ she asks. Her voice is loaded with concern. She may as well be asking if I am okay.
‘Yes,’ I mumble. I hesitate before saying, ‘Are you sure you want to come along?’
I’ve asked her that before. More than once. So why do I keep asking? Is it that hard to believe that a woman I met barely a month ago is accompanying me to a cremation ground to pay respects at a family memorial? Or is it that I cannot fathom why I’m taking a woman I’ve known for barely a month on a journey made that much harder by Bhaiya’s recent demise?
“Didn’t I tell you that you no longer have to do difficult things alone,” she says. Her voice is free of the irritation she must feel. She is a doctor. Years of dealing with sick people have given her patience. I don’t say anything. I am thankful she is coming.
She says she’ll pick me up in half an hour before saying goodbye. I put down the phone, grateful for her offer to drive. Today I don’t trust myself behind the wheel.
Dead faces gaze at me from the pictures on the walls. I am used to Mom and Dad. But Bhaiya’s face claws at my heart. I stare at his pronounced chin and full lips; at his broad nose and high forehead; at his eyes shrinking with the passing years until they practically disappear amidst a crowd of shadows; at his black hair slowly diminishing to nothingness; at his slim figure growing larger with the passage of time.
The last time I saw him alive was in the morning of the day he died. I was leaving for work. He had just come out of his bedroom and was still dressed in his nightclothes. I had a full day in front of me. My thoughts were full of classes, students and faculty meetings. I don’t even remember saying goodbye in my anxiety to get out the front door. He did say goodbye, though, and then just before I was out of earshot told me to take good care of myself. He never said something like that. But that morning he did as if he knew he’d be gone before the day was out.
I was twelve when Dad passed away. Bhaiya was the closest I had to a father for the greater part of my life. Losing him was like losing my father all over again.
Swallowing, I turn away from the pictures. Slowly, I put on my shoes and jacket. As I wait for Sonia, I try to pass the time by watching TV. Nothing interests me. Finally, I switch it off and lean back in the sofa to sit with my hands clasped behind the back of my head. The minutes drag past. It is an eternity before my phone sounds to tell me she’s here.
She is parked on the other side of the street. After I get in beside her, she takes the long way round to the main road so that we don’t pass in front of my house. We kiss only after rounding the bend. Delhi is a small town at heart and tongues will wag if the neighbours and servants see us together.
She is dressed in a pair of jeans and a red turtleneck sweater. Even though the heating is on in her car, the tip of her pointed nose stays bright red. Her long, black hair, combed back from her forehead, reminds me of a hood as it drops on both sides of her face. Her large, black eyes inquire if I am fine. I nod, even though I feel queasy. She squeezes my hand at a red light.
She hasn’t been touched by death even though she has seen patients die. Her family is intact; a retired, bridge-playing father; a mother active in charitable causes; a younger sister trying to make it as a musician. When she finishes with work, she goes back to a home chockfull of love. She has no idea what it means to wake up one morning and realise everyone who loved you is a memory. It does not matter. She is here and being there is all anyone can do for the bereaved.
The sky was rancorous the last time I went to Brar Square. Before I was finished, thundery rain hammered down with a fury that made the trees quake. It was as if nature had come out in full-blown protest against Bhaiya’s sudden death. Today a still grey sky hangs above us. A light mist hovers on top of the neem trees lining the road. As we edge forward in choked traffic, a cacophony of shrill horns and growling engines plays on the other side of the car window. Inside the car, we are silent. She puts on some music that sounds like a backbeat to a montage of my years with Bhaiya playing in my mind. Moments appear for no particular reason to flow into others that took place at a different place and time. It doesn’t matter whether they were happy or not. Even the happy ones dredge up sadness. In the end, I put on a pair of dark glasses and stare fixedly out the window.
The packed roads ensure it takes twice as long to reach Brar Square. Almost an hour after we started, we ease into the parking lot. The skies are greyer here, the mist thicker. The cold stabs a little closer to the bone. The parking lot is empty. The day’s business has been concluded. I pause momentarily outside the tall gate. She takes my hand. With a deep breath, I enter the place, sensing her hand tightening round mine as we see smoke oozing from one of the pyres. Someone was cremated there earlier today and the body is still burning.
A skinny dog sidles up to us. The rest of his brood have scattered and are not visible. He trots beside us on the cement walkway, with his eyes fixed on her. A little later, he casts an inquiring look in my direction. Upon seeing the caretaker, he runs as fast as his thin legs allow him to halt several yards away. He stands there, eyeing us, poised to take off in case the caretaker goes after him.
The caretaker hasn’t aged in more than fifteen years. His hair and beard remain as white as ever and his dark face is remarkably wrinkle-free. The faded brown sweater he has on over his white kurta-pyjama is flecked with grass. The hands he folds in greeting bear welts from a lifetime of working with the earth. Years of dealing with authority have taught him to camouflage his curiosity well. Only the narrowing of the eyes indicates he is wondering about her. Even that disappears behind a genial smile.
After a few words with him about the well-being of the trees, I take her to where the five trees wait in a cluster, the one planted for Bhaiya still a mere shoot. The other four are big now and swaying to the breeze that has sprung up in a way that reminds me of temple devotees moving to the lilt of a favourite hymn. I point out the two trees we planted for Mom, and then the two for Dad. I don’t have to tell her about Bhaiya’s tree. As I look at it, my throat fills up.
One of the caretaker’s helpers arrives with a bucket of water and a sheaf of burning incense sticks. I hand her half the incense sticks. It just feels right for her to be part of this ceremony. She appears surprised. I take her free hand and nod to the caretaker’s helper. He leaves us. We water the base of the trees, before sticking the incense sticks in the wet earth surrounding them in a sign of reverence. She pauses to pray like Bhaiya would while I, who haven’t prayed in years, step over to collapse on a stone seat.
The two of us met via a matchmaking site, one to which Bhaiya, no doubt concerned about my persistent singlehood, forwarded my details without my knowledge a few days before he died. Almost six months passed before her email arrived. She wanted to meet. We set up a rendezvous in a coffee shop. I went there expecting nothing, determined, above all, not to get hurt. I found her seated in one corner of the coffee shop, with her dark head bent over a notebook. By the time I asked her about the notebook more than two hours had whizzed past. She picked it up with a laugh and told me that was where she wrote her poetry. ‘It’s my fallback plan,’ she said. ‘Fallback plan?’ I asked her. ‘Yes,’ she nodded. “I figured if I didn’t like you I’d stay twenty minutes out of politeness. If I liked you enough to see you again, maybe twenty more. If I really liked you, an hour. No matter what, I’d need something else to do for the rest of the evening.” Then she glanced at her watch and exclaimed, “Oh, my god!”
At forty, I’m old enough to know how rare something like that is. The memory fills me with an elation that even the bleakness of the place and moment cannot drown. Before I know it, I am on my feet and she is in my arms and we are locked in a kiss that I don’t want to end. It is she who finally steps back to stare as if she can’t believe what we just did. I shrug my shoulders with a goofy smile. She looks down, shaking her head. I take her hand and we start to leave after a final look at the trees. The dog watches us, with his teeth bared in a laugh that seems to rise all the way from his gut. The caretaker meets us halfway to the gate. I say something about taking good care of the trees to which he nods vigorously. It is only after I have taken his leave that I realise I didn’t give him any baksheesh. I turn around with my hand on my wallet. He stops me by raising his hand, his face opening in a smile that makes him look like a kindly grandfather. With pursed lips, I wave a final goodbye and come out of the cremation ground with her.
As I get into the car, I am reminded of the thought I had all morning. I see Bhaiya, all of fourteen, jumping down from the train as it grinds into the old Lucknow station in Charbagh. He charges through the melee of coolies, hawkers, and people waiting to receive passengers. After bounding out of the station he paces outside, unconcerned about the April heat pressing down, frantically shouting down an empty rickshaw. In a breathless voice, he tells the driver to go to Paan Dariba. Right through the short jolting ride through the narrow alleyways of old Lucknow, he is in the driver’s ear, telling him to get a move on through the milling crowd When the rickshaw finally pulls up in front of Nana’s haveli, he jumps down, flinging whatever change he has at the rickshaw driver, to burst into the haveli with his voice bursting out in a shrill mantra of where is he. As he rushes about the courtyard, someone, possibly a cousin, informs him that I am in my crib in Mom’s room upstairs. He races up the cement stairs to dash into the room, parting the cluster of relatives admiring the babe in the crib. With a big smile, he lifts me up and hugs me to his chest. That is when I let loose.
Tears form in my eyes. Her face lines in concern. I shake my head to tell her I am fine. A smile quivers round my mouth as I say, ‘Did I tell you what happened when I met Bhaiya for the first time?’