The day is exactly the same.
I remember a line from a 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' novel by Ann Brashares that always stuck with me - "At Christmastime the world had celebrated birth and Bee had remembered a death".
It could have been that day. So much has happened, everything is different and yet, this moment is exactly the same.
It’s automatic. Maybe it’s the winter stillness. The coolness in the air. The faint music from a distance, notes and voices lingering in the air, their echo holding the silence moments after they’ve begun. Until this morning, the anticipation of festivals and celebrations of other people, smiling and counting down just like everyone else, and inside counting down to something else too. And then the actual day, when I wake up, silent and calm, the turbulence ended. A tear or two fall, but less than they have been in the past few days. As it was that day, four years ago.
Four years now. I don't think anyone really remembers. And I remember the defining moments of that day, of that previous night, of the nights that followed. The agony. But also, the people. The strength and warm arms of friends and family. Those moments changed my relationship with people forever, completely transformed the way I feel about certain people, the fondness and gratitude towards them, irrespective of the fact that they are in my life today or not.
I remember B’s ex-girlfriend who came in with a friend. And how the two of them stayed with us the whole night around the sofa positioned in front of the front door. How she lay down beside me as I lay in the darkness, over Nanin’s place in bed, trying to absorb the remnants of his last living being, his skin, his hair, his warmth, his smell now already disappearing. She cried with me in that semi-darkness, this girl whom I didn’t really know so well, and whose association was dependent on my loyalty to B. But she was comfortingly there, there with me. And I think we both fell asleep for a while. I can’t remember how I could fall asleep. Her friend was with Mum and my aunt in the drawing room, strong and silently protective.
The doors had to be open all night. And there were fears. There were unsavoury elements in that night, familiar strangers and dangers to my family, now reduced to two. There was Nanin in an ice box, looking like he was asleep. Completely healed and normal, like nothing had happened in the last five months. He looked like he was breathing. We all thought so. His hair grey-white, his shirt and lungi white, his skin ever so “white” like all my friends used to say about his complexion, the complexion that caused a lot of envy among his friends and relatives, when his own looks were something that never really mattered to him, this man who was often proclaimed “the handsomest man in Madras”.
There was my father, the man I called “Baby”, more than Nanin. He would never speak again. I would never hear his voice again. I would a few months later, one day, call my eldest Uncle and hear the similarity in their voices and break down.
There were the other Uncles and Aunties, the ones I hadn’t seen in months or years. They were there, gentle reminders of the childhood I was losing, gentle reminders that I was still someone's child. Someone nudged me to change out of my T-shirt and tracks. The tracks I had been wearing as armour, as if to strengthen my toughness during duty doctor calls on 3 different hospital stays, on pharmacy runs and in my mode of fierce protector.
I would never wear those tracks again. Or the T-shirt. Or the kurta that I changed into for the pre-funeral ceremonies in the morning. In the driveway where he would lie. The driveway which he built. Where photographs were taken of him walking me up and down as an infant, my short, stubby legs wrapped around his at-that-time rotund stomach, both of us freshly bathed, brown hair combed back and straight, faces scrubbed, twins across generations maybe.
This was his house. The product of his imagination and his sweat and toil as a professional ENT specialist and surgeon. All this belonged to him and he was being prepared to leave it.
He had already left. He was gone before anyone else came in. He was gone after he, by chance, watched a snippet of himself on an old Telugu film on TV and pointed it out to Mum, after he asked Mum to feed him pesarettu and pindi by hand, after he had pointed to the angels, the Divine presence surrounding him the next morning, Christmas morning, after he smiled and squeezed my hand one last time. He was gone before they took him to the hospital, me rushing in our car with Mum right behind that ambulance with the redundant oxygen tank. Gone as they wheeled him on to the wrong floor in that nursing home bedecked with halfhearted Christmas decorations, as I screamed at them for wasting time, as his nurse handed his watch to me for the last time, as my gentle and oldest cousin asked me to leave the room so as not to witness them pumping his heart, as I stepped outside reluctantly to my sobbing mother and we knew that it was this time, actually over. And we knew it was time to let go. And the one reason it was necessary is because his suffering, and it was suffering, was over.
And there's my beautiful Mum, who's back in Madras, keeping up her end of the tradition alone, whom I miss being with today. I yearn to talk about him to her, release some of the emotional memories, relive those specific spaces - the mosaic floors, the dining table, the cane verandah chairs, the diamond-shaped window bars- in our place, his place which I have been traversing in my mind. But when I speak to her, she reminds me about life to be lived. She herself as a person reminds me of the fact that life is to be lived and celebrated. Love isn't to be mourned, she tells me. Celebrate him, because he was not the wallowing kind. When I think about Christmas and how complex it has become for me now, she tells me it isn't. It's simple. Nanin left on a day when the world was in prayer, when there was holy music. So, this Santa Claus of my childhood tells me that Christmas has been made even more special as much as Nanin's Day adds beauty to Christmas. And there's my dear Alby whose face reminds me of the spirit of Christmas today as he willingly leaves out his sock to be filled with Santa's goodies. And who playfully, secretly fills Santa's sock in return. He reminds me of the love. In his eyes I'm reminded of the words from the song that I used for Nanin's obituary, the words of the flamenco tune that he sang and we sang together, etched in my memory:
"Love will not die, gypsy..."
And I think about the beautiful play (if I say so myself) that we created, embellished by Nanin's portrait as part of the set, travelling with us all over the country and some of the world, helping me tell my story, our story and now everyone's story.
It's 1:16pm this 25th December. It would have been the time, though I don't remember how the hours passed so fast that day.
I close my eyes and I see tall, glittering Christmas trees, glowing like the one K has WhatsApped me of his Bombay house. I see snowy, bedecked New York, hear Christmas carols and want to taste hot chocolate. I open my eyes and think of my mother's smile (thanking God every moment that she is safe and well today, having braved the Madras rains). I think of yesterday, when I watched my brother-in-law walking with his infant son perched on his stomach, how bittersweet tears pooled up as I showed him pictures of another new father 27 years ago, who walked in such a similar fashion.
I think of the all the love I am grateful for. I think of the day ahead. I think I want to celebrate it with my Alby.