[Issue 9 / May 2014]
I was in my second year of college at Xavier's when my brother Rolfred was diagnosed with cancer. Mamma had handed me a bunch of reports when I came home from college one damp July evening. I leafed through them fearing the worst. Finally, I asked Mamma what the doctors had said, and she told me that Rolfy had the disease.
When Rolfy came home from work that evening, he told me over dinner that things were a little fucked up but there was not much to worry about. He'd start treatment soon, and there was a good chance that they'd be able to get rid of the damn thing. Mamma didn't say anything. She just sat at the table, mixing her rice and curry, casting glances at the two of us every once in a while.
Over the next few weeks, both Mamma and Rolfy took turns at pretending everything was okay. Some days when Rolfy was really weak after the chemo, he talked about the practical consequences of his not being around. Like how his bike was to go to his pal Gavin because he was the only fucker in all of Bandra who would ride the damn thing like it was supposed to be ridden. When Rolfy started saying these things, Mamma would bring in the little stool from the kitchen, and sit by the bed that Rolfy and I shared (in those days, Mamma slept on the couch in the living room), and ask him to quit being so dramatic, the doctors ("cancer specialists, men") had told her his treatment was progressing well.
Other times, Mamma would break down all of a sudden. Like when she'd be chopping tomatoes and more frequently, in the middle of mass at St. Andrews. Rolfy never came to church, but he heard about these episodes from Gavin, who in those days was making eyes at some choir chick. When Mamma and I would get home from church, Rolfy would give her a tighter hug than usual.
I had developed some sort of a passion for photography. And also for this girl from Pali Village. Her name was Marisca and she was studying English at Xavier's. She had a soft, rounded mouth, almost like a fish, and she smiled with her eyes. A little silver stud in her nose made the slightly hooked thing look even more distinct. We would take the train from Bandra station to VT. She was the intellectual type, always reading something or other, hardly noticing when I made eyes at her as Bombay sped past us (or did we speed past Bombay?) on the Harbour Line.
Sometime in October, I saw a poster advertising a photography contest on the college notice board. There was an expensive camera to be won, something that the professionals used and which I obviously couldn't afford. The theme was "Techincolour Life" and they wanted a less than hundred words description to accompany the photograph.
I remember I spent the next couple of weeks with my second-hand Kodak slung around my neck, taking shots, mostly outdoors. I told Rolfy about the contest, in an attempt to make conversation, but he only grunted and continued puffing on his smoke. It was during this period that Marisca and I really got talking. While I would be taking pictures from the floorboard as the train would slow down as it pulled into stations, she'd stand leaning against the cheap sunmica-topped partition in the compartment, looking outside, taking the world in with those big, brown eyes of hers.
Once she had started taking me in with those eyes, I took her home. Mamma seemed to take a liking to her immediately, but Rolfy was unimpressed. I was not surprised because I knew Marsica was not Rolfy's kind of chick. ("Why are you chasing these reading types, men? They think too much, men. Makes it harder to get into their pants.")
Meanwhile, Rolfy was not getting any better. At night, he would cough violently and it was not uncommon for me to see reddish-brown droplets on the sheets next morning. He would shuffle to the bathroom, and make loud noises as he gargled, battling blood with municipal tap water, an unequal war if ever there was one. Hobbling back to bed, clutching his side, he would sit down, breathing heavily for a few minutes. After lying down, he would toss and turn until he descended into the restless sleep of a man who has not known what it is to wear his heart on his sleeve. I would lie absolutely still for a while, and when I was sure he had dozed off, my body would relax, free from the strain of pretending to be asleep, and I would drift off to sleep myself. My mind would not let go though, for the contemplation of mortality does not make the distinction between waking and sleeping.
Marisca had begun to come over a lot more and it looked as if Rolfy was getting used to having her around. Sometimes, Marisca would make dinner for all of us and Rolfy was considerably less crabby after having some of her chicken soup. After Mamma had gone to bed, the three of us would sit watching TV and talking till Rolfy would tell me that it was time to drop Marisca home.
He was only three years elder to me but we had never really bonded while growing up. Now, Rolfy and I were talking to each other more than we had in years. In my head, I would try to rationalize this change that had come over Rolfy. A part of me wanted to think that it had nothing to do with Marisca. It would have happened even if she hadn't come into our lives (and, more importantly, our home). It was the kind of change that comes over a man who has grasped the finality of his time on earth. But to think that this was the only reason for Rolfy's bridge-building exercise made me even more despondent, and afraid of things to come.
One day, after college, Marisca and I got into a taxi to go to Marine Drive. On the promenade opposite the Air India building, I started taking pictures. I dropped off my rolls of film at Almeida's Photo Studio on Hill Road on the way home. The next day, I laid out the photographs on the floor in the cramped living room. Choosing was much easier than I thought. The Arabian Sea in the background, its ripples turned golden-yellow by the setting Bombay sun. Marisca in the foreground, looking away, as if contemplating the Backbay, the heart and yet the end of this bitch-city, strands of hair strewn across her forehead, flush of pink in her cheeks, her jaw firmly set.
Now I'm no poet so I struggled with the caption to describe the photograph. Rolfy saw me at work, impatiently tapping my pencil on the table as I tried to conjure up words that would do justice to the image. He walked over to me, picked up the photograph, stared at it for an uncharacteristically long time and put it down. Looking at me, he said, "It's beautiful, Aaron". Lightly tapping me on my back, he hobbled out of the living room.
I saw Rolfy for the last time on the day before he died. Marsica and I were sitting by his bed in the hospital, hand in hand. He was so weak that he could barely talk. He tried to, but Marisca put a finger on her lips, to indicate that he must not exert. Just as we were leaving, he pointed at the two of us and offered a thumbs-up sign. It was then that I realized that Rolfy had learnt to smile with his eyes.
My entry did not win the contest. About a month after Rolfy had gone, Mamma handed me an envelope she said Rolfy had left for me. I opened it to find one of those lined pages that seemed to be torn out of a college notebook. Sitting on the bed that I once shared with him, I read what my brother Rolfred Coutinho had written in his cursive scrawl,
Green (with envy, when another woman pays me a compliment), pink (look how the colour rushes into her cheeks!), yellow (when she had jaundice, of course), almond brown (her eyes, oh, her eyes, are they the colour of lies?), silver (subtle treasure on that hook nose, underground manna for this believing miner), white (expertly concealed when I'm reading her my poetry), golden (the colour of warmth, and also destruction in daylight).
Technicolour is my strife, technicolour is my life.
Vikram Shah was born in Bombay and is a student at the National Law School of India University.