Watching For Goodbye

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How does one wait for death? What do you look for, what signs do you wait for when you watch for it?

we are dying, we are dying, we are all of us dying,

and nothing will stop the death-flood rising within us

How do you greet death when it’s not coming for you, but for one you love? With tears and pleas? With a wobbling smile? With brickbats and burning chillies and ash thrown in that inevitable face?

I ask and ask; it’s at times like this that you realise that adulthood doesn’t mean having the answers to everything. Most adults, it seems, put a wise expression on guesswork and shots in the dark embroidered with a little perceived truth and optimism or pessimism, depending on who you’re talking to.

She gave me her name, her face, a nose-pin. I used to sniff the powder from the soft folds of her neck like a baby-faced crack addict; she would sit on the floor as I inched my way through meals, tell me stories, put me to sleep.

‘She’ is my grandmother, and my grandmother is dying.

When death comes for an immortal, hope goes first. Grief is going, draining at a jerky rate. Tears become texturised, gritty with salt because the human body is only 70% water, after all. It runs out fast when death comes for your immortal.

I want her to slip away in peace, to a place beyond pain. I want to cover her wasted body with mine and scream until Death shields his ears and runs for cover. I want her to sit up and order her kidneys to do their duty.

I want my grandmother, and my grandmother is dying.

I love her beyond reason. I hate her for dying, for being un-immortal, for forcing me to say goodbye to her without a kiss, without a wave, without a balcony in sight. I hate myself for not coming back sooner, for not having magic under my skin or in my voice, for not making her well. I hate having been born because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have lived through losing her.

I love my grandmother, and my grandmother is dying.

What do I watch for, what do I listen for? A whisper of cloth against a wall, a shadow slanting wrong? How will I know when to sit up and hold her hand, when to say goodbye for the last time so that it matters? Adulthood is a shot in the dark; a perpetual game of Bluff and old music. I have no answers. I can only hum the sounds of my Paati’s time (or a section of), and hope I get the timing right.

We are all, all of us, dying. She’s just going first.

S***

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“They… they’re saying you’re such a slut…”

I was thirteen, and the above line was murmured to me by my then-best friend, whom I’ve rather lost touch with and I hope is doing well. At thirteen, I wasn’t very shocked; not because I’d heard worse, but because I didn’t know what it meant.

“Papa, what’s a slut?”

“It’s a sexually promiscuous woman.”

Well, I didn’t know what ‘promiscuous’ meant either, but rather than talk more during a tense CSK match, I sought out the next best source- a dictionary.

In the columns of the gigantic, moth-eaten Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary Of The English Language, I found that I’d been termed someone who has sex with any man who asked. Please don’t run for the dictionary; that’s not how it’s phrased, but my copy’s halfway around the world.

Which, I reasoned, was rather ridiculous, because we were thirteen; who wanted to have sex anyway? It sounded like an uncomfortable business.

(It had been the late Khushwant Singh who had contributed greatly to my sexual education. I don’t recommend it)

That’s not to say it didn’t sting, of course; which teenager doesn’t dread being gossiped about? On the other hand, a whole new world of insults now opened up before my slightly-shocked eyes, although it took three years for me to actually use any. When I did, though, it was to a boy: with the air of someone delivering her coup de grace, I informed one of my classmates that he was, in fact, a man-whore.

“You should say gigolo.” He replied. I was late to the party, it seemed, and not fashionably.

You might wonder why I’m writing this now. And yes, while there’s a part of me that’s gleefully typing up words like sex, whore, gigolo, for all and sundry, I still feel something like a bee-sting when I type the word slut.

There it is again.

That’s one word I try not to use. It may have slipped out at some point over the years, but I try. There’s something particularly filthy about it- and even, I feel, something maliciously female. I can now easily call a man a whore without tacking the ‘man’ to it, but slut always seems so pointedly female.

Slut-shaming. I hate the term. I hate the practice. I hate the casualness of it, how easy it is when the target is a ‘she’.

A sexually promiscuous woman. But a man is just a playboy. A Man.

This isn’t a rant against slut-shaming; honestly, I don’t quite know what this is, even. I don’t often dislike words in and of themselves- even stuff I’ve made my peace with. But slut is one thing I’ve never been able to find middle-ground with. Maybe it’s personal. Maybe society’s ease with it. I don’t really know.

At any rate, it’s a good word to dislike.

The Beginning

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I recently came to the decision that I would like to meet my third grade math teacher again.

Why, my parents ask, why after so many years? Closure, I say. Mom asks, Forgiveness? And I can’t tell her, can’t say everything that I thought, sitting in the shower.

Forgiveness. Closure. How interchangeable are these terms? Mom says that forgiveness leads to closure. I’m not so sure.

You do not humiliate eight year olds. Not even if they find it hard to add two three-digit numbers. Not even if they gave the wrong answer in an inter-class quiz- or you think they did, anyway. Not even if you think their stomach ache is a sham, and their tears are tap water, and their red eyes are a little more ingenious, achieved by violently mashing their knuckles into their eyes. Even if you don’t trust the eight year old, you do not tear into them in front of their peers, and use your tongue as a shovel to scoop them out of themselves.

I remember crying, a little. But mostly, I remember fear, Fear of math classes, fear of getting answers wrong, of not remembering my tables. Fear of the half-hour between her entering the class and leaving it. Fear of being left alone if my new best friend- protector, helper, sister- were suddenly sick again. Eight years old, and so much fear.

Hunched over, holding my stomach, tears dry and sticky and shiny on my cheek- “I’ll give you one tight smack if you don’t go back to class now”. 

Shaking pencil lead, and what if I’m wrong- “Always wrong, and so untidy, why do you even come to school?”

Nearly screaming that it wasn’t me, that I had been right, Diya had given the wrong answer, the captain didn’t remember- “I made a huge mistake choosing you in the quiz team.” And everyone staring, and Diya silent.

I still hate her for that, a little. Just unfriended her on Facebook. Oops.

Eight years old and teaching myself not to cry, to hold back tears because she mustn’t see them; thirteen years old and slicing my arms into sections, a veteran at being (faking) strong; nineteen now, and knowing where it all began; Because, from before that, I don’t remember pain. I don’t remember the tears.
Before 3-B, I didn’t know fear.

I want to meet her, because she is the first and most potent demon in my life. She took my self-confidence, and my happiness, and my joy in schooling, chewed it and spat it back in the form of venom that burnt into me, and has left its mark on my soul. When I second-guess myself, when I feel that I’m less than I am, I know that that is the part of Mrs Mitra that I carry around with me, eleven years later.

I have these moments of euphoria where I go, Yes, Goddamnit, I’m fucking hot!!. I want them to be more than than moments. I want them to be my whole fucking life.

I need to see her, not even to ask her why (though I will). I want to talk. will talk to her. I spent all that year, I’ve spent all these years Iistening to her. Now she’s going to hear it all- she’s going to know exactly what she did to me, and how she isn’t going to do it anymore. This will be my closure.

A reason may come. It doesn’t matter, really. And by some miracle, I receive an apology (I’m not fool enough to even hope)- why, maybe I can even forgive.

They aren’t the same thing, you see. But they do both bring peace, in their own way. Sometimes they do go together. But not for me.

Because I’m not even sure I have any forgiveness left for that woman anymore.

She Is

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Eyes like glass, eyes like the wind.

The words chase each other, never quite catching up, tearing through the walls and flimsy compartments in her brain. They’re everywhere; she sees them blow in on a sigh of hot wind through barred windows; they float, glittering mica flecks and more poisonous, in her water bottles. They bubble up at the back of her throat, blocking her breath so that her vision flickers white and grey and specks of black, blocking her breath so that she can hardly breathe for shortness of breath and pain and words and she loves them when they come at the right time but this is too much and she can’t keep up and why can’t they just leave her alone?

It’s like she sees everything as a construction of the words that her own mind seems to be made up of. She’s more than the words she writes, I’m more than my words, I’m more than a set of letters strung together to make sense, I’m more than the things I say.

She loves writing. Fingers flying across the keyboard, black Sheaffer ink traced and pressed across white sheet, ink-smeared fingers and black under the nails, she loves writing, yes, she does. But she dances and she plays, she laughs and she sings horribly off-key, she talks and she runs and fights and cries, cries, cries; she lives and loves, and she is not just words across paper and cross-outs and people who don’t exist.

So when words try to define her, when they overwhelm her, when they tell her we are all that you are, she turns her head away, ignores them, makes them go away at least for a while, instead of taking them in and fashioning something beautiful out of them, as she should.

Is it cowardice, she wonders?