Rahul Viswanath: Coconut Tree Leaves, Bangalore, Karnataka, India, 2020 (Unsplash)
by Nishi Pulugurtha
I now inhabit a photo. No, you did not misread that. An enlarged image, blown-up and framed in heavy wood with wide borders. It’s dark brown, so it took some effort to look over to ascertain the colour. Having lived in this world for over eighty five years, the end came none-too-sudden. I might be wrong with my age though. I am not going to talk about the end as I was happy when it all ended. I was finally at peace. I had lived a good life, on my own terms. My husband fell sick years ago, thankfully he did not suffer much before death came — god bless his soul. I lived for over thirty years without him, a long time. He was a nice man, simple and down to earth and he listened to all I said. When he passed away, I started wearing white, stopped eating non-vegetarian food. I was old school. I did not have any problem with it. No one asked me to, I knew that these were the things I had to do, and I did. Many, many years later, I began to enjoy colour again, that red border on my white saree looked so nice. When I draped it, my son looked at me quizzically.
Life seemed to chip away slowly about twelve years ago. I was no longer able to do what I could always do before; people said I was losing my marbles. I am not going to talk about it now. Maybe some other day. Not going to mope and pine about how bad things became, either, or about how no one really bothered about me, about how my friendship circle shrank with my trials, how no one visited, no one gave a thought as to what I would like to eat or whether I had eaten anyway, no one seemed to care whether or not I wanted to talk, or if something was bothering me. It is a long list, as you might understand. I lived alone in this big house for most of the day. At times my son would be around but in the main he remained busy at work. The house was otherwise empty. I would like to talk about something else today, about what I saw after it all came to an end.
I saw my body dressed up in a saree. I hadn’t worn a saree for quite some time. I needed help putting on any piece of dress. A nightie was my usual dress and, you know what, it brought some colour back into my days. There were green, brown, blue and pink ones. I loved looking at the colours and small patterns on them – small flowers, criss-cross designs, some lines that appeared to move up and down. Well, there I was in a saree. It was a white one with small blue patterns, a few lines, some leaves, some branches too. What surprised me was the beeline of people who came in after it was all over. I was the last of my generation. The room was packed with relatives, I think, and there was so much noise. If there was one thing I did not like, it was noise. Even after I was dead, it troubled me. There was a lady who tried to look bleary-eyed, to feign sorrow. I had no clue who she was. Must have been one of my many nieces. She looked different. Maybe my in-between body rendered me incapable of identifying her. Perhaps it was just the passage of time. I was seeing her after many years had passed. But then, she resembled her mother, my brother’s wife, my mejo boudi – yes, she did. That helped me. Now, when did I last see her? – Well, why talk about that?
Anyway, there was also a gentleman giving instructions as to what was to be done. That must have been one of my many nephews. There was a business-like proficiency with which he handled things – as if he was used to such cases. He was loud too. I think I knew him. Well, why bother with that either? Most of them seemed to know one another. There were groups of people scattered all around. The ayah who cared for me was standing by the corner of the door, eyeing people moving in and out, people talking – among themselves or on their phones. She cared for me well. At times she irritated me with her loud phone conversations – that small thing she set close to her ear and went on endlessly. She was really loud. She even sang, completely out of tune. I laughed at her songs. She went on until I was clearly miffed, she would then take the hint and stop singing. She caressed my hair gently, the way my mother once did. The way I did with Titli when she was a child.
By the way, I had not yet found a home in the photo frame. I was hovering, waiting to see what happens after it all. You might not believe it, but it doesn’t matter to me. I have to say all this – perhaps someone might listen to my account, someone who enjoys being regaled with a life remembered. This was my house after all, my home for so many years. I had cared for it for as long as I could. It was now dull and colourless, the paint peeling off. A chunk of concrete lay broken, revealing the iron rod, rusted and rotten. Well, let that be, why talk about bricks and mortar? In the garden was a tall coconut tree, surrounded by white flowers, spread out far.
My daughter and son now sat down to choose the right photograph. It needed to be framed. Unfortunately, the choices they had were few and far between. Some were black and white, a few in colour, fading, some photos thoroughly frayed. There was one where I was dressed in a nice white and blue silk saree. I looked lost, though. I was lost – I could not stand crowds and unfamiliar faces. I was with my favourite grandchild, but she looked different. It took me some time to identify her in the photograph. She was dressed in a striking red saree with jewellery and looked so very different. It might have been her wedding day. That little one was now all grown up. We spoke a lot earlier in her life, she spent a lot of time with me during her holidays. Titli, I called her, my beautiful butterfly. They did not choose that. It looks glum, she looks strange, I heard them say. We need photos where she looks happy, one with a smile maybe.
By the way, that entire process of deciding on the right kind of photo took a real long time, measured in tea and snacks. They zeroed down to two photographs, old ones, full of people. But then technology can make so much of a difference. And it was put to good use to remove me from the group, to isolate me. The original was a small fading photograph. A friend of mine used to joke that we needed to get good photographs so they could be garlanded when we were no longer around. She left us all years before I did. I don’t recall her name now either. I remember telling her that it really didn’t matter after we were done, after we’re gone. But she said a good photograph was needed for the rituals that would follow, to be hung on the wall and to be garlanded, at least once a year – on the day it all ends here. I always wanted to be around to see what happens and I never expected that I could hover about seeing all of the drama unfold.
Finally, I had two homes, two frames – that heavy wooden frame I spoke of at the beginning and a smaller one. My ayah plucked whatever flowers she could get and arranged them in front. She put that frame on what used to be my bed. I loved mishit doi, something that the smiling lady who had lived with me in the house got for me. The ayah brought some more and put them in there too. It was a waste now, I think. The ayah insisted, though – she said at least keep these for ten to twelve days, till the rituals were all done with. There it was, a small bowl before the frame.
I was looking sideways in this smaller picture, smiling. Something must have made me grin, something good. In spite of it all slipping away, that new lady in the house made things a little better. At least she cared for me and I liked to have her around. I don’t remember her name or why she was in that house, but she made me feel nice, she spoke to me, she smiled at me and held my hand. She was standing there amid all those people and she sure looked tired.
About the Author
Nishi Pulugurtha is an academic, poet and writer based in Kolkata. Her publications include a monograph on Derozio (2010), a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019), an edited volume of essays on travel, Across and Beyond (2020), a volume of poems, The Real and the Unreal and Other Poems (2020), and a collection of short stories, The Window Sill (2021). A second volume of poems Raindrops on the Periwinkle is her recent book. She also writes on Alzheimer’s Disease. An edited volume of essays Literary Representation of Pandemics, Epidemics and Pestilence is forthcoming from Routledge.