As i say the word, a peculiar unfamiliarity washes over my insides. The kind that seeps in gradually over the years, as moments turn into memories and memories dissolve into oblivion. Like the edges of a photograph slowly betray the promise of permanence, like the rusty hinges of a childhood bicycle screech under weary adult legs, like the yellowing pages of a book surrender to tenacious silverfish. This strange unfamiliarity with a word, that once slipped out thoughtlessly in excited childhood shrieks and injured whimpers alike, hurts. It reminds me that i have forgotten. How could i forget?
April 28, 2015. It’s a good day at work. I get a lead for a story, and a hotline to the source in a remote disaster-stricken area against all odds of a scratchy network. The story finds its way from the precarious place between his life and my words to the newspaper. Another story of a man shrugging off his missing limb to scale summits will also find space today. An unexpected privilege announces itself, too. Amidst almost habitual discontent, today has been spectacular! I shall sleep well, for once.
The next morning comes with the knowledge that my stories are being read across a country. There’s nothing more a writer needs. Except coffee, maybe. The smell of a fresh brew is as good as smells get. Ma talks about reading my articles as we speak over a phone line that stretches over 1,062 kilometres. She is my most loyal reader, and my favourite too. And probably the proudest mother in the whole world right now. We discuss how hot the weather is, whether i’ve had breakfast yet, and when we’ll meet next; in other words, the usual. Meanwhile, Facebook tells me i got my first ever article published on the same day three years ago.
“How uncanny! Yesterday was lucky for me, i guess.”
She asks me what date it was.
“Uh.. April 28. Why?”
“That’s Dada’s day, remember?” she says.
How could i forget?
April 28, 2003. It started out like any other day. But by the time the sun was halfway around the sky, you lay on the floor, cotton swabs uncomfortably plugging your nostrils. I felt a pressing urge to remove them. ‘How will Dada breathe?’ I’d think every now and then. I stared at you for a long while, waiting, hoping, almost believing in miracles. Gradually, rigor mortis set in, making your lifeless form pale, and alien to me. That wasn’t you. That’s not how i’d remember you; i looked away. While everyone cried and grieved (even Sammy dragged his feet that day), i stood by, numb and comfortably oblivious. They often came looking for tears rolling down my cheeks, and found none. No, i didn’t cry, not that day. Not for the next few in fact. And i saw eyes watching me, probably judging me for it. Slowly, guilt set in. How could i not be sad? You’d loved me the most. What would you think if you were in the room watching everyone mourn but your own grandson?
Back then, my teenage mind hadn’t been introduced to denial. It did not know why it made fun of the pujari who recited all sorts of incomprehensible verses, why it bolted out of the house to play pool at a cafe, why it pondered over the colour of the mat on the floor instead of the body on it. Until one day, when the rituals were long over and the house restored to its stillness, i saw grandma looking at a picture of you on the wall. Behind her was the empty spot you always occupied on the bed. Maybe i expected you to be sitting there reclined on your custom-sized pillow complaining of some ache instead of smiling lifelessly in a frame, or maybe it was the emptiness that filled her eyes – that day I cried. You know i cried.
Twelve years ago when i lost you and my brain finally got around to accepting it, i wore the date as an indelible scar on my heart. It was the first time my heart had broken, the first time i looked to the stars to find someone i missed. In the years since, I have written about all my heartbreaks. Each time a separation shattered me, i collected the pieces and used them to bleed words. How then could i forget my first heartbreak? I’ve shed too many parts of me in the name of growing up. This one, i refuse to shed.
Do you know i’m a journalist now? I’m sure you wouldn’t have approved of the erratic lifestyle, but would be proud enough to stack up all my stories in your old cupboard, alongside the life-size picture of an infant me that you treasured all those years. We found it after a certain April 28.
I know you look out for me, and not just on a certain day each year. Know that I still look for you in the stars; I find you in some of the first and dearest memories I preserve. I hope there’s piping hot tea in heaven at 4 every evening. Along with biscuits that you share with Sammy.
P.S. I haven’t played carrom for ages. You’d have to play really, really badly now to let me win.