Death, in Thanga’s life, did not come softly like her breath. It came thundering in, like her anger, ripping her world to shreds, as she helplessly watched her mother slip through the cracks. She felt she was in a field of fire, with giant black flowers opening their mouths wide, swallowing all that was familiar, safe and predictable. When it was over and the silence of unspoken words lingered in the air, she felt alone and confused, like a child lost in the darkness of a sleeve.
Her mother’s body, lying there on the stringed cot, shrivelled like a limp gunny sack made her want to throw up, but she held it in. She wiped her hands, got up from the room that opened out like a surprised yawn off the long corridor from door to backyard which was all of her house, and walked to her grandmother sleeping outside on the ancestral swing, the only thing of value not sold yet. She was unsure of what to do next. Should she wake her up just to tell her that her only daughter was now dead? As if in answer to the question expanding in her stomach, she felt something sticky between her legs. She went back into the yawn of a room and lifted her pavadai up, careful to face away from her mother. When she saw what she saw, she let out a scream that later her grandmother would tell her could have woken up all the dead in the graveyard just beyond their house and Thanga would always wonder why it simply hadn’t woken up the dead lying in the same room. She would soon discover, however, that maybe it had.
Forty five years later, as Thanga hurtled in the train to meet the past she had left behind, the memory of that scene would come to her. They were all equally frozen, not as if in a photograph, but as if they had all turned to stone. She looked ludicrous with her skirt up, her head down and her scream flowing out like an old curse. Her mother looked dramatic, eyes open, legs and hands splayed and undignified, body stiff, as if she was simply holding her breath, waiting for the curtains to come down so she could sit up and rub the soreness off her feet. Her grandmother looked the most natural, sleeping in the foetus position on the sturdy plank of wood, her breath keeping rhythm to the gentle swaying of the swing, her long white hair cascading in all directions like scattered dreams.
Thanga wasn’t sure why this was the only scene that stayed with her of that long, long day. She should have remembered her grandmother rushing into the room, wondering who to go to first—the daughter or the granddaughter—as both were stepping into different worlds. She went to Thanga first, held her tight to stop the screaming, and then whisked her off to the make-shift bathroom in the backyard. She drew water out of the well and poured it over Thanga’s head, not sure if she was washing away her childhood or the stench of death. She then pulled the palla of her sari and tore a long piece of cloth that she deftly folded and showed Thanga how to use to stem the flow of blood. There was no time for any more conversation; she had a dead daughter to attend to. Just as she was leaving the bathroom, Thanga said her first word since the terrible hand of death had branded her for life.
Her grandmother stopped, crushed by the quiet plea in the word that had become her name the instant she held a slippery, slimy Thanga in her hands, the umbilical cord waiting to be cut. She suddenly felt gripped by an insane fear in the fibre of her soul. But this wasn’t the time. She quickly patted Thanga’s hand, afraid that any more touch would tip the fragile balance of reality they had found themselves in.
Thanga should have remembered sitting behind a screen in the corner of the same room where it had all begun, listening to the whispers and the crying and the wailing and the shuffling of feet and the beating of chests. Ironically, the screen was made from her mother’s sari, to keep this new Thanga with the cloth between her legs away from prying eyes. Thanga could smell the sickening sweat of the grave keepers who had come to bundle her mother’s body up to carry her to the graveyard, where neither her grandmother nor she could go. There were no men left in this family to walk her mother’s final walk, and the thought of her frail, always-ill mother, abandoned for another by the man she loved, made Thanga’s body fill up with a deep sadness. The tears rushed out like a stampede, and as she covered her face in her mother’s sari, her grief spread like the blackness of a moonless night blotting out the sun.
The raucous sound of Thanga’s cellphone broke into her thoughts like the sharp prick of a needle and brought her back to the present. It was her daughter. She told her she was fine, told her she had eaten, told her not to worry and that she would call as soon as she reached. She hung up and placed the phone back in its holder in her purse. She looked around her and suddenly felt overwhelmed by the crushing flow of life. A mother was battling with her twin boys trying to get them to eat the rice and not just the fried fritters accompanying it. A man was talking on the phone with his laptop open on his lap, the cloak of impatience almost making him invisible to Thanga. A newly-married couple were marooned in the berth above, the girl’s fresh mehendi drawing a patterned veil over the ordinary world below. A young boy, sitting right next to Thanga, was immersed in an Amar Chitra Katha comic, absently chewing on some chips on his lap. She tried to imagine him in a boarding school, but perhaps his family was sitting elsewhere and they were simply on a holiday? It surprised Thanga not to see any form of gadget in his hands. She wanted to talk to him but what could an old woman possibly say that would interest a young boy? Maybe she could talk about the time the first house in her village got a radio, and how all of them would huddle around that strange instrument, wondering where the voices were magically coming from. Maybe she could tell him about how they imagined all the sinners of the world were punished by an evil witch to forever live inside that box, tiny as ants? And that when the first television came, they all decided that it was the one with the purest soul that could live inside that box, forever flawless and unblemished? Maybe she could talk about her first airplane ride and how when that colossal machine shuddered to life, Thanga yearned to slip her hands into her husband’s but couldn’t in public? Or maybe, just maybe, she could talk about The Swing.
“Chaya, chaya, chaya, chaya.”
No, it was better to just buy a cup of tea from that man with the furtive eyes; it was better to allow the warmth of that tepid tea still the waters of her past; it was better to keep it all within, like her mother and grandmother before her. So there would always be something to discuss in the afterlife.
After the funeral, after her grandmother had washed the house and the familiar swish of the broom reached into her dreams and pulled her into consciousness, Thanga emerged from behind the screen. She half expected her grandmother to admonish her for this unscripted little nap, but then she remembered that this was no ordinary day and their lives wouldn’t be ordinary anymore. She saw her grandmother carry in heavy pots of water to fill the drum inside, she watched her grind the rice for their dinner, she watched her wash and dry out her newly-stained clothes, and she watched her grandmother fighting grief in her own way. Normally, Thanga would have helped in all of these chores, but she felt listless today and her grandmother didn’t seem like she wanted company. They ate dinner in silence, feeling burdened by the unnatural stillness around them. After thirteen days of this forced wakefulness and breathless grief, it happened. Thanga’s mother came back.
Thanga’s train lurched to a stop. She had reached. When she took out her solitary suitcase from under her seat and stepped onto the platform, she had a distinct feeling that perhaps she had never left. Perhaps it was Thanga’s ghost that had lived the last forty-five years, journeying into married life, bringing up two children, living in distant shores and coming back, packing and unpacking hopes and aspirations, setting up futures, stumbling and falling through cracks and fissures, and forever carrying exhaustion in her womb. Perhaps she had left the best of her here, in this Neverland of her childhood, so that, someday when she came back, her other self would be waiting for her, fresh as jasmine flowers in the hair.
She hailed a cab and gave the driver the address. She was so excited that the incongruity of hailing a cab in her village of bullock carts, now a town, still with bullock carts, but also with buses and motorbikes and scooters and cars and autos and vans, completely missed her. So what if the house had been locked since her grandmother died, alone and old, fifteen years ago. So what if she couldn’t come because it was too expensive to fly down from the United States. And so what if undying guilt was the price she would have to pay for that as it chipped at her soul with the precision of a sculptor till it took the shape of her house. Thanga knew it would all be okay once she opened that moth-eaten door and smelled the musty air, holding all her memories like a bubble waiting to burst, leaving its delicious wet imprint in her hand. Most of all, Thanga was anxious to see the swing. She was anxious to see if her mother was still waiting for her as promised.
It was five in the evening and Thanga’s grandmother asked her to light the lamp in the little alcove in the corridor that had pictures of four gods—Ganesha, the remover of obstacles (Thanga wanted to ask him how removing her mother was removing an obstacle), Rama, the perfect man (He was Thanga’s favourite), Krishna, the wise and naughty one (This one, Thanga did not approve of. How could he not have married his childhood sweetheart, Radha?), and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth (Ha!). Thanga poured out the oil in the lamp, twisted the end of the wick and struck the match. Just as the lamp came to life, so did the house. Thanga heard the sound of footsteps behind her. Her mother’s footsteps with her anklets tinkling against flesh and bone that did not exist. She turned around and saw the swing jiggle gracefully and then gently sway to the wind that also did not exist. Thanga stood rooted to the spot, and did not remove her hand from the alcove. She felt safer with some contact with the gods. She did not know how long she stood there, but when her grandmother returned from the temple after selling idlis and coconut chutney, she found Thanga staring at the now silent swing, tears dried up like a river in summer. Her grandmother rushed to Thanga, dropping the empty steel containers, and held Thanga close to her breast, hoping the rhythm of her heart would still the wild thrashing of Thanga’s.
After a few moments, her grandmother sat Thanga down, placed her head on her lap and gently stroked her hair. Thanga was still staring at the swing.
“Thanga, shhh, she’s gone. Don’t be afraid, she will not harm you.”
Thanga couldn’t speak. She felt bereft of emotion, like almonds without their skin, naked and white.
“Sometimes, when death comes before it’s time... the dead can choose to stay back, you know? Don’t blame yourself, Thanga. Now rest, we will talk tomorrow.”
But Thanga could not rest. She felt like a volcano had erupted inside her and questions oozed out of her being, like debilitating lava. What scared her even more the next morning was the fact that she was actually anticipating her mother’s presence. She was strangely excited and nervous. What would her mother do today? Would she come at the same time? Would she come at all? The whole day Thanga went about her chores like a girl possessed. Every few minutes, she would look at the swing; she would watch it like a hawk circling its prey. If her grandmother was worried, she didn’t show it, nor did she try to talk to Thanga. She tried a half-hearted attempt at trying to convince Thanga to accompany her to the temple to sell the idlis, but she knew Thanga would refuse. She wondered, for a brief moment, if perhaps she had made the wrong decision in forbidding Thanga from leaving the house ever since that fateful day. She had pulled her out of school, and refused to let her go anywhere alone. If it was hard bringing up a girl, it was harder to have to do it without a male member around. Her grandmother sighed and left.
As soon as she left, Thanga ran to the alcove and in her haste, dropped the oil and messed up the little home of the gods. She would clean it later. She lit the lamp and waited. She wasn’t disappointed, because she immediately heard her mother walk to the swing and sit down; Thanga watched the swing move. She was entranced, but also uninhibited.
She began talking to her mother, hesitantly at first, but growing bolder and bolder with every passing sentence. She told her everything that she had kept bottled inside since she was four, when her father walked out of the house, taking her mother with him and leaving just her shell behind. She talked about her best friend, Shanta, how Shanta got a new watch last week, how grandmother wouldn’t allow her to go out, how she fell down from a tree when she was five trying to save a cat, how she stole candy from the potti kadai at the end of the street, how she was dying to see the latest MGR film and could already sing all the songs by heart, how she spotted her father once in the village fair... Thanga’s words tumbled over each other, like children rushing out of the gate at the end of a school day. She felt like she was the radio—a girl trapped in the box with only her voice carrying her forward. So what if she couldn’t hear her mother’s voice? At least her mother had tuned into her channel. That was enough.
Even if it only lasted an hour, till her grandmother returned.
The next few days Thanga was ecstatic. Her laughter poured out like temple bells, her eyes sparkled like the star-lit night sky and her heart brimmed with something warm and comforting, which she would later call love. After a few weeks, she settled into this daily routine and felt, for the first time in years, that she finally had a mother.
So when Thanga turned eighteen and her grandmother fixed her marriage to a businessman in a place that was at least a two-day train journey, Thanga cried like she had never cried before. She felt like her reservoir of tears, meant to last her this lifetime, were completely spent and dry. She pleaded and begged with her mother to do something who couldn’t say anything back, and then she pleaded and begged with her grandmother to do something who wouldn’t say anything back. That night, Thanga dreamt of her mother. She was dressed in a deep red sari, with a deep red, round bindi on her forehead, where her third eye would be. Strangely, the third eye was now open and Thanga was staring directly into it.
“Thanga, my little warrior, go in happiness. When you come back, whenever you come back, I will still be here. Don’t worry; I will not go back on my word.” The third eye blinked once, and then her mother disappeared.
After that dream, Thanga thought she would feel peaceful in the morning, but she only felt more distraught. She found her grandmother near the well, drawing water out, and stood next to her, waiting for the right moment between pulls to push her words out.
“Paati, you once told me the dead could choose to stay sometimes. How long do they stay?”
Her grandmother was silent at first. How much could she reveal?
“However long they please.”
“But what if they want to leave?”
“They can’t. The price for choosing to stay means you stay till another death occurs in the same house. Lord Yama won’t come otherwise. He is a busy man, you know that now.”
Thanga began to think furiously. This meant that when her grandmother died, her mother would be taken. She looked at her grandmother, like an artist looks at his subject before he paints. Her wrinkled face breaking out into a sweat, her frail hands straining against the rope, her furrowed brows like deep craters, her slightly bent back bravely holding the weight of their world... Thanga knew it wouldn’t be long. She felt the rumblings of fear in her stomach.
“Can they still decide to stay... when, when He comes again?”
Her grandmother turned her weary eyes on her granddaughter. She was afraid this would happen. The spirit of the dead, no matter how loved they were once in your life, always chose one of the living and lived off them. She could already see parts of Thanga that had disappeared. Her compassion, her selflessness, her pride.
“They can... But that would mean the price of another soul in return, any soul that the dead wish to take with them. Yama then comes for both.”
Thanga walked to her friend Shanta’s house next door. Shanta was settled abroad now, but her mother still stayed in the decaying house. She had the keys to Thanga’s house. Cataract in both her eyes had made Shanta’s mother partially blind, and her loneliness had made her completely bitter. She pretended like she did not recognise Thanga, made some scathing remarks about her mother with a husband who ran away, and Thanga having lost her husband too, and the sacrilege of one of her daughters marrying a white-skinned man. Any other time, Thanga would have allowed herself to be ruled by her famous acidic tongue and spit out some equally horrifying truths about Shanta’s family. But right now, Thanga just wanted to go home.
She took the key from Shanta’s mother, who looked oddly pathetic at this lost opportunity of a fight, and then walked home. Thanga slid the key that was still surprisingly smooth, and stepped into a familiar dream. She touched the swing and felt comforted. The alcove was just as it had been with the gods coated in dust. She looked for remnants of her grandmother, but there was nothing. The house had been emptied when her grandmother had died. All the clothes had been donated and the odd little chair and table given to a local school. Only the swing was untouched.
Thanga had heard rumours of thieves breaking into the house, trying to steal the swing and how they were unable to remove it. Another time, someone heard the swing creaking inside, and when they tried to peek in, there was no one. The house soon got a reputation of being haunted. But Thanga knew. She knew all along, even when the ugly feet of doubt left its imprints in her mind after her grandmother died telling her that her mother would have definitely gone. Thanga walked into the room, the one untouched in her memory, and she suddenly felt like she was twelve again.
There, her mother was still dead in that cot. And there, outside, her grandmother was sleeping. But something rose out of that familiar picture, like a mole in her palm. Something that she had never noticed before because her mind was busy projecting what she had wanted to see, not what was actually there. Her grandmother... foetus position... swing swaying... hair cascading... eyes open. Eyes open? Her grandmother had known, maybe even before Thanga did, that death had come and gone. Then why was she still lying there? Why did she leave Thanga alone, struggling in that quicksand of black despair? Had she known all along what Thanga had done? What she had been asked by her mother to do? Had she known before the scream that the remnants of poison from the crushed leaves staining Thanga’s hands had bloodied her for life? Had she understood, perhaps, that sometimes the only way to love someone is to be cruel?
That evening, when Shanta’s mother would walk in to give Thanga her dinner, she would find Thanga sitting on the floor with her head on the silent swing, eyes closed, the dull flicker of light in the alcove the only source of light. This time, death in Thanga’s life, did come softly as her breath.