Urns by Tara Menon, Lexington, MA
Cash award $300
Negative Space by Ranjani Nellore, Mountain View, CA
Cash award $200
Mrs. Rahman’s Dilemma by Javaid Qazi, San Jose, CA
Cash award $100
Leather Soles by Neela K. Sheth, Pewaukee, WI
Life and Times by Chitra Parayath, Lexington, MA
We housed Acchan’s ashes in a small cement shrine in our garden. Every evening Amma lighted wicks on a brass lamp and we paid our respects to his soul. I tried to be brave for her, and in a month I could genuflect and lower my head towards the opening of the shrine without tears spotting the soil. Happy memories helped. As a little girl I used to dance on his outstretched feet, our hands together, my body swinging up and down to the rocking of his legs. After his long absences in the forest he’d run his fingertips through my hair, narrating stories about the wild animals he’d encountered.
Acchan had died of a rare disease that made his sickness the headline news in our town. At first, the doctors couldn’t find out what was wrong with him. Amma described his seizures and pinched the sides of his shirt to show how much weight he’d lost. They sent Acchan to New Delhi for a round of tests. He returned thinner but with the name of a curable illness, Sarcoidosis. The local doctors assured us they could treat him though they hadn’t seen anyone with the disease before. Despite his continuing weight loss they pronounced him better, and slapped his sides to test his reflexes and convince us of his improving health. We believed them. Amma and I were in the room when Acchan suddenly struggled to breathe.
Following the tragedy people gawked at me. I saw pointed fingers and heard hushed whispers, “She’s the daughter.” I wanted to take off a sandal and beat the offenders. They speculated on my age, some of them pushing me back to childhood. Though 20, I looked 16 because of my slight frame and small face. I asked the gossipers if they saw horns on my head and I shamed them into looking away. Sometimes they whispered to each other that I was as bold as a man and that perhaps it was just as well since I’d lost Acchan.
I preferred the privacy of home. In my earliest memory Acchan and the house are intertwined. He holds me in his arms close to the window, where I can see the rain pouring down from the roof and swirling into the murky gutter waters that spill over and muddy the yard. He points to the water gushing down from the trunks of trees and to the pool of floating leaves and sticks.
The house had many windows where the sun slanted through the bars and departed hastily. Each room had a naked bulb dangling down from the middle of the ceiling. The wooden furniture was neither sturdy nor pretty. A few curios gathered dust and cobwebs in two corners of the living room. The bathrooms were old-fashioned but we were used to a squatting position. We’d pull a long chain that groaned and let everyone know that the business was done.
On nice days the wind would blow about freely in the house, rustling paper, flapping calendars, and rocking the ballooned skirts of our papier-mâché kathakali dancers. At other times it would knock down the screen between the eating area and the drawing room. We’d run from window to window, securing each shutter. I’d been doing it from the time I was strong enough to place the hooks into their eyes while I battled the blasts of wind pushing me back.
Amma’s favorite place was the veranda though there was nothing special about it. The west side of the veranda opened to a bedroom with an attached bathroom. Amma’s only brother, Raju chettan, used them, and though they weren’t accessible from the rest of the house he was very much part of our family life.
Some people’s calm lives lull them into false security. Until Acchan died I felt we were immune from tragedies. Once upon a time, the prince Siddharth had been stupefied at the sight of a corpse. He was very moved though he didn’t know what it was. He would become the Buddha seeking an answer to the meaning of existence. I too hadn’t seen a corpse. But after Acchan’s body was brought home from the hospital, death became a reality and life a struggle.
Barely a month later, Amma was boiling water for a cup of tea when the kerosene stove blew up. She stood dazed at the speed of the galloping flames. Fortunately, a few men in our neighborhood were as good at putting out a fire as they had been at idling their time outside our compound. They formed a chain, passing buckets of water from the cement sink outside to the kitchen. After the fire was doused they sat in the yard, their sweaty backs against our wall, their legs stretched out. Someone opened a cloth pouch and handed out betel leaves. I saw a jet of red shoot through the air and land on the sandy ground. Soon more stained spit dotted the yard. I hacked bunches of plantains off a tree as a reward. The men grinned at my gratitude. They remained in our yard until they became restless with boredom.
The blackened kitchen walls depressed us throughout the day. By late evening Amma paced in the corridor, worrying about Raju chettan who should have returned from his work at the Handicrafts Emporium. When the stars brightened Raju chettan ambled into our yard, tossing an empty bottle aside. “I lost my job. I should have died instead of him. You’d have had a father,” he said, bringing the tips of his fingers together and then opening them out as if he were sprinkling the air. I’d seen him do it a million times. The gesture expressed his pessimism, a trait he shared with Amma. Acchan had tried to make him think positively, hoping that Raju chettan, only 10 years older than I was, was young enough to change.
“I wonder what turn our bad luck will take next,” Raju chettan said.
Amma screamed one afternoon as though someone was attacking her. Raju chettan, grabbing a kitchen knife, went into the bedroom ahead of me. Amma stood in the middle of the room, staring at the built-in cupboard a few feet from her. Out of the slightly parted doors, an intruder poked its head. It flashed a pink forked tongue and then started to slither. When the green scales moved downwards Amma and I ran to the door, though the snake seemed in no hurry. “It’s poisonous,” Raju chettan said. Acchan, who’d been in the forest service, had known a lot about snakes and this one didn’t resemble a cobra, a krait, or any of the other dangerous kinds he’d described. “I need a stick. I’ll be back,” Raju chettan said, while we watched it drop to the floor. It was as long as the stem of the ceiling fan. Fortunately, it chose to creep under a tall table instead of disappearing into the blackness below the dresser. From where we stood, we peered under the checkered tablecloth. Its beady eyes were still but alert. Raju chettan came armed with a broom.
“Be careful,” Amma warned.
Raju chettan’s blow missed the snake. It frantically slithered up a table leg. “You’d better leave,” he told us. We left, but I returned with a stone pestle from the kitchen. The snake sped from the table and I threw the pestle on its head. The 10 pounds of stone crushed it. Amma rushed in. Raju chettan and I stood looking at the flattened head and the unharmed body. Amma furrowed her forehead. She said, “What if its mate is still alive?”
“Is that what you have to say after all the trouble we took to kill it?” Raju chettan asked.
I glared at him for taking half the credit. “We killed it?”
He conceded, “Brave girl.”
“I’ve heard that snakes come looking for their mates,” Amma said.
“We can kill another one,” he said.
Raju chettan planned to scatter the ashes in Banaras. He left with Acchan’s urn wrapped in cloth. For the first time I wished I were male so that I could have done the final rites. Looking at the mirror, I imagined a masculine image. I covered my upper lip with my hair, creating a moustache with one bristly end. My figure could easily be mistaken for a boy’s. I wore the smallest sized bra. An insulting shop assistant used to enjoy humiliating me by asking me to repeat what size I wanted. I once shouted into his ears and watched him turn meek. He treated me like any other customer after that.
During my childhood, I’d broken the rules for girls. When I was 10, Raju chettan and I had walked to the highest point in our town where we could see the blue ribbons of the Arabian Sea cutting into the sand and palms tossing their fronds to the beat of the waves. I circled my hands around the trunk of a coconut tree. Climbing was impossible in my restrictive girl’s attire. I slipped off my long skirt and blouse. Tentatively, I began my ascent. “What are you doing?” Raju chettan asked.
“The view will be better at the top.”
“You’ll kill yourself,” he said.
I continued climbing. Raju chettan tugged at my ankle. I took frog leaps like seasoned coconut gatherers did. But I was panting when I reached the fronds. Raju chettan looked frightened. I threw the coconuts to the ground. The sun blinded me from looking at the shore. I shaded my eyes with a hand. A few seagulls skimmed the ocean. I would have painted the scene if I were an artist.
On our way home, Raju chettan said, “I won’t mention what you did at home.”
“I’m going to tell Acchan about the view from the top.”
“I hope you’ll live by the rules for women when you grow up. Otherwise who will marry you?”
“Do men only marry women who don’t break rules?”
Amma and I had arrived at a new stage of mourning. The ritual of visiting the shrine was over. The temporary shelter was empty and it would soon be demolished on Raju chettan’s return. He’d be gone for a few days. Amma made comments on his journey for my benefit. “He’ll be past Coimbatore.” Later, “He’ll ask someone to guard the urn while he goes to the bathroom.”
“Who’d want to steal it?” I asked, horrified.
“It’s not that. If the train brakes suddenly the urn may fall.”
The next day she announced, “He must have reached. He’ll be getting into a bus.”
When Amma swept the yard, she paused, raising the pallav of her sari to wipe her eyes. She said, “He’s throwing Acchan’s remains into the river.” I imagined white specks floating and sinking.
We waited, basking in the dappled early sunlight on our veranda. Amma finished the newspaper and re-read the spiritual column, which she loved. She folded the newspaper into a rectangle and fanned herself. We watched the people who passed our front gate: vegetable vendors glancing hopefully in our direction, children stooping under the weight of heavy satchels, and office workers hurrying to their jobs. Raju chettan had common features, average height, and a small frame. That morning he seemed to have many look-alikes. I grew tired of scrutinizing each face.
The railway clerk informed me over the phone that the train was running behind schedule. I asked him when we could expect it. He laughed and said half-an-hour, and added that perhaps it wouldn’t come at all because the railway employees were threatening to go on strike. Another laugh, followed by the click of the receiver. Amma commented that we live in Kali Yuga.
Occasionally she glanced at her watch, as if by doing so she could summon Raju chettan through the gate. Finally, Amma went to the kitchen to reheat his breakfast. I got up to practice typing. I’d been called for an interview as a typist supervisor in an institute where the benches sagged and the typewriters had missing keys. But we needed the money.
My fingers pecked the keyboard until Amma came in frowning an hour later. “No sign of him,” she fretted. I volunteered to call the railway office again. She accompanied me to the phone. Her breath moistened my nape.
“Madam,” said the clerk in response to my “Hello.” I recognized the voice. His new politeness was reassuring and I proceeded with my enquiry. But he stopped me in a hesitant manner. “I’m very sorry, Madam. There’s been an accident. The train derailed near Trichur.”
“My God,” I said. “My uncle was a passenger. Did anyone die?”
“Unfortunately many died,” he said.
“Do you know the names of the survivors?” Amma moved to face me. She licked her lips. She watched my face.
“We don’t have a list yet. Was he traveling by first or second class?”
“Second class,” I said. His question struck me as irrelevant. It didn’t matter whether a person died in a dirty, crowded compartment or in cushioned luxury.
The clerk sighed into the phone. “Sorry, madam. Very few survivors in second class. But perhaps he’s one of the lucky ones.”
One of the last things Raju chettan had done was hang the towel on his clothesline. I could see it whenever I passed the door to his room. I cried, unclasping the pegs, knowing its owner could never take the towel down. We were told that his body wasn’t mutilated. Amma kept butting her head against the wall. When I tore her away she flailed her chest.
In the days that followed I feared for Amma’s sanity. She neglected her hair, letting it fan across her back instead of coiling it the usual way into a round bun. She refused to eat anything except rice gruel. Sometimes I’d dash to her side, summoned by nervous laughter. I’d shake her furiously, trembling myself.
I wondered whether Raju chettan had thrown the ashes as planned. The train could have jerked the urn onto the ground. The earthen containers would have cracked and spilled the remains and the wind from the windows would have sucked them out into a paddy field or desert or mountainside.
The supervisor position I needed was offered to me. I busily walked back and forth between the rows of girls and boys in the typing institute, instructing them or fixing their old machines, which frequently stopped working. Amma’s sadness trapped her into slow motion. She went about the house doing things sluggishly. She used to make vegetables fly, slicing them in seconds. Now her knife seemed to rest in her hands as she cut carrots, beans, and potatoes. The tragedies darkened our lives, excluding the color of festivals and the liveliness of social visits.
Before Acchan died, I was the daughter of the house. His death and Raju chettan’s changed everything. Amma didn’t have to be looked after but she had no will. Her head always turned towards me in situations requiring decisions. Mundane things bothered her because she couldn’t be concerned with them anymore. I felt responsible for both of us.
I once returned from my job and saw Amma waiting in the porch. From a distance her white sari outlined her figure. She sat in the cane chair, gazing at me. I quickened my pace and saw that she was absorbed in her thoughts. She slowly looked down towards her lap that held a brown object. She spoke as she did these days, halting between the words that seemed to be stuck in her throat. “We must do something with this.”
I took the urn containing Raju chettan’s ashes from her lap. “I’ll make arrangements to have his ashes immersed.”
“They must be dispersed in the proper way.”
“Leave it to me.”
That weekend I scattered Raju chettan’s ashes. I feared a hysterical outburst from Amma when I left with the urn. She showed no emotion, sinking gently into the chair, staring into the horizon. Her vacant look suggested detachment. Her shoulders sloped, hinting at her weariness of living—a weariness of living with death. I thought she too would soon be nothing but a handful of ashes, going away forever in a temporary shelter of clay. I’d be alone in this house, remembering.