‘The Departed’ by Vijayender Cherupally (India)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

When I opened the window, I felt it was cold. The sky was cloudy, but I felt like going out for a stroll. I looked at the street. Involuntarily, I focused more on how much it had changed. “Sid, wear sweater. It’s cold,” I heard mom’s voice. She was in the kitchen, making tea. Some years back it always irked me when she thought more about me than about herself. But now, it didn’t.

I pulled on a sweater. As I was putting on my shoes, I noticed an old diary tucked in the bottom shelf of a cupboard. It was twenty years old. It was more out of curiosity than a rush of nostalgia that I opened its cover. The pages had aged. I remembered that it was dad’s gift for my birthday. The first page had dad’s favourite quote, written in his neat handwriting: “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman.” – Beethoven

Dad was an artist, impelled to compose and play music. He performed for years, held audiences captive, and taught music at university. For him, music was not a discipline to be learned; it was the very essence of life. On an evening when I was about to fall out of our car, he caught me but had his fingers crushed by the car door. Doctors broke it to him that he could never play the piano ever again. The next evening, he jumped out of our flat on the fifth floor. I lost my dad at an early age.

As I sat and enjoyed mom’s tea, she ran her fingers through my hair. When I left home eight years ago and chose to stay in Ladakh, I had no intention to detach myself from anything or anyone. Yet, even as I met strangers and made friends, a sense of distance had slowly crept into me. With every passing day, the world looked further afar, and I thought its affairs would never touch me again. Along with the feet that battered and bared many a rough terrain, and felt hardened, the heart, I thought, too, had become stronger. But how wrong I was! A simple gesture felt like the touch of a breeze in the midst of a desert, wafted across lands and sea to soothe a forlorn bird and break all walls and doors of the cage to set it aflutter in joy. I realised I didn’t become detached; I merely shielded myself from all care. It was fear; strength was a pretense. It felt so absurd that it choked me.

She didn’t say it, but every glance of hers said, “I am so happy you are back, my child.” I had regularly written to her about how life was like there in Ladakh, what I ate and drank and where I stayed and slept and worked. But she asked about it all again. I answered in brief, as ever. But it was enough for her. She didn’t ask to know answers; she asked just to hear me talk. She recounted how the neighbourhood has changed over the years, who moved in and who moved out, how unfortunately Steve met with the fatal accident just a day after he had agreed to marry Jennifer and how sad she felt, how prices have increased, how fast the neighbour’s baby has grown up, how fond the kids in the society have become of her… As I listened to her, I didn’t mind it was getting late for the stroll. But she remembered.

I went to Steve’s. Shortly after his death, a family from Goa had moved in. The house looked refurbished. I rang the bell and an old man opened. He put on his glasses when he noticed me. “Evening, Mr Benjamin. I am Sid, Steve’s friend.”

It took him a few moments to map. “Come on in.”

I walked in and looked around. An old woman entered the hall and smiled at me. “I… I just dropped by to… to just see the place… and say hi to you. He was my best friend, and I used to visit him often. Steve.”

“I understand. Let me get you some coffee,” she said.

“No… it’s fine. I just had tea at home. Next time, surely,” I replied.

As I got up to take leave, he gave me his card. “Do call up and drop by with your mom. Would be a pleasure,” he said.

“Sure. Thanks!” I would rather never call or visit them again. I had nothing against them; I had nothing to do with them either. Steve is gone, and what does it matter who lived there? I wasn’t sure why, but I was angry. I didn’t expect Steve to receive me at the door, but I didn’t want the house to look so alien either.

After a while I wanted to call Sameera. I heard from mom that Sameera got married a few months ago. The world runs its course. None of my former friends lived in town anymore. Sameera was the only one. I called her number.

I wondered if she could take some time out for coffee. She suggested I should drop by at her place instead. “You could get to meet Armaan, too. He has met all my friends except you, so he would love it,” she insisted.

“I would love that, too. Will drop by, one of these days. Take care.”

I walked back home, observing people and streets. It felt cold, and it was not just the weather. Streets were buzzing with trade, people were rushing, and it confounded me how distant and cold urban spaces are. But then, it’s probably just me; I never felt at home in cities.

After supper, mom liked watching news and playing some music. I waited for the newscast to finish.

She knew how much I hated watching the news. “Just five minutes, sweetie,” she smiled.

“No problem, mom.”

Soon after, she wanted to listen to Kishore Kumar. Listening to the music, she fell asleep. I switched off the player, closed the window and went to my room.

Lying on the bed, I stared at the ceiling. I saw no sky or stars; only dark concrete. I don’t remember when I drifted into sleep, but something woke me up early next morning. It was five in the morning. I heard someone gasping, trying hard to breathe. For a few seconds, I tried to make sense of it all. I realised I was at home. I rushed to mom’s room. I switched the light on and saw her writhing in discomfort.

“Mom!” I rushed to hold her. She was not in pain. It was rather a feeling of being strangled. She was trying hard to breathe. “Mom, are you all right?” A stupid question, but I just wanted her to say something.

Recollecting herself, she said, “tablet… it’s on… the… table… coffee table…”

Quickly, I fetched the medicine. A minute later, she could breathe normally.

She looked weak. Weary. Her forbearance was worn out. She couldn’t open her eyes. Sitting beside her and holding her hand, I noticed the wrinkles on her face. It scared me. All these years, every day of my life, every morning when I woke up, every evening when I went to bed, I took her presence for granted. I held it with certainty that she was always there, whenever I needed her. I could walk out in anger, booze and return home at midnight and find her serving me food, and I could stray for years and return and still find her welcoming me with a hug. For the first time, I found my certainty shaken. For the first time, mom looked mortal. For the first time, I realised how fragile it all comes down to when you sense the end. It felt as if I was looking at her for the first time.

Shortly later, she opened her eyes. “Don’t cry, my child! Old age, you know. But… not much time left, though. I have lived well and I lived happily. I am proud of you, child. I am happy you are back. I have no regrets and nothing to seek. If this is it, this is it. I love you and I’m always with you. Always.” She had tears in her eyes.

“I know, mom. I know. You will be fine. No worries.” I didn’t have it in me to think of her death. Maybe, it seemed to me, this is why I left home. Having lost dad, I was perhaps scared to see her age every day. So I ran away.

I had a quick breakfast. She refused to visit a doctor, but eventually I convinced her. She wanted to go to the temple too.

“I will be ready in five minutes,” I told her.

I came out of the shower, pulled on the tee and jeans and walked into her room. I found mom lying on the floor. I pulled her up.

“Mom! Mom!” She didn’t respond. It didn’t take us more than twenty minutes to reach the hospital. The doctor put her in intensive care unit. She lay on the wheeled-stretcher gurney quiet and motionless.

The hands pushed in haste, the wheels slid effortlessly against the granite floor, and the gurney moved away. And with it, my mom.

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Vijayender Cherupally is an Indian national who is intrigued by randomness and uncertainty. He has a collection of books many would envy. An avid reader and a travel freak, he enjoys being lazy and considers ambition a vice. If you prefer a quiet evening over a cup of tea, then he makes for good company. Besides writing for pleasure, he enjoys designing graphics for print and web media, covers for books, and offers consulting services in digital marketing. He has published poems in Platform magazine and his short story, Invincible, is scheduled for publication in an Indian anthology.

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