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.

Day 2: A Tamil Me

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Is there room for me in Tamil literature?

A part of me thinks often of no. 8, Arundale Beach Road, and the sound of my family speaking Tamil around me, to me. I speak my mother’s language, the Tamil of a non-Tamil; I’m a Tamil outside of my language, who has made a home of the white man’s tongue.

But say sambar in English- a vegetable broth with a tamarind base, thickened with pre-cooked lentils, flavoured with asfoetida, fenugreek, red chillies, and coconut, and topped with fried mustard seeds, curry leaves, and un-ground red chillies

Say Jallikattu- a popular sport involving the taming of the Bos indicuscommon in parts of Tamil Nadu during the festive season

Say kanmani- jewel of my eye-

Tell me the story of Ponniyin Selvan all in English, without using a single Tamil word, without the cadences that only a Tamil speaker could have, even in your language, the lilt that we use to make your language ours while your tongue and fingers slip and slide on the surface of mine.

Are there stories that can only be told in their own language?

It doesn’t sound the same, ya!

Is there room for me in Tamil literature if I write about Tamil people in a language to which they do not belong?

where will my stories rest if you say no

?

 

 

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.