I first met Death as a seven-year-old in the form of a glassy-eyed stiff furry-bodied rabbit. I had not had it for long and sort of liked the routine of feeding it bananas. It had no name yet and I lacked any knowledge of what it ate. My parents had no idea what to do with a dead rabbit and asked me to get rid of it in a nearby dumpster. I obeyed as always and instead of immediately away, I stood there to examined with great deal of curiosity, the ants swarming its body. I felt Death staring right back at me and instead of fear, I felt a bubble of a feeling forming inside and before I could turn my attention to it, it popped right out of me and continued existing and all at once, I understood that there were certain ingredients that were a prerequisite to be normal and right now, all of them lay outside my body, and inside the bubble, swaying slightly out of reach.
The next time I met Death was when I was twelve. It arrived via four people with bent knees, and dangling between them was an unconscious wife held up by her arms and legs. But it was her husband, who I was extremely fond of who had passed away after a long bout of sickness. This time Death was wailing, singing, screaming, and smoky, and I was ready. Someone splashed water on her face and the wife woke up. I took notes. The bubble appeared again, but this time as a shimmering shiny disco ball, that stayed just out of reach of my fingertips. I looked at the people gathering around, wailing, and accusing the powers above of the greatest travesty and unfairness. Then the children found me, and we calmly discussed the situation, heavily borrowed from all the stories from the Mahabharata and agreeing that it was all a test from God. That if we just got the answers right, God would let their father wake up and that he would be so proud. A screaming grandfather heard us and accused us, a bunch of eight, ten and twelve year-olds, of not taking Death seriously enough. I saw the disco ball floating away from me and knew that I needed to step up. I went out into the other room where the body lay on the floor, a thin layer of hay beneath it and watched.
I noticed the mourners sitting on the floor, beating their chests and wailing. I sat down next to them and copied. At first they ignored me, then eyed me interestingly side-ways and finally concluded that I was a novice. Not one to back down, I took it up several notches and began beating the floor with my fists, throwing the screams from my stomach to the ceiling. That seemed to cause a re-categorization and now others came to console me as well. I was getting better at this, I concluded confidently when some women squatted next to me, gathered me into their arms, and hugged me. The act unleashed upon me an unexpected gush of real tears. I was ready to take up wailing full-time if it was going to lead to hugs like this.
I was unwilling to let this rush to end. I decided to try harder and walked out of the house, found the arthi and began beating it with a stick lying nearby, in an attempt to break it. This was my attempt to channel a grief that someone in my position must feel. This surely warranted more hugs. After what felt like a few hours but must have been a few minutes, I looked around hoping to see others running towards me. I was quite disappointed to know that no one was interested in a child acting like a lunatic. The people milling in groups away from me, paid me no attention. That is when I realised that there were circles of Death. The love that I craved so much shone brightest near the dead-body, and as one travelled towards the outer rooms, the glow went away. To thaw the tundra inside, I needed to be close to the glow. For that to happen, the world needed to believe that I had the glitter from the disco ball on my being. And this happened only if one were in the innermost circle, wailing next to the dead-body, the farther you went from this circle, I realised that the existence of glitter did not matter.
Instead of clarifying things, this confused me.
I do not remember the relative being carried away in his last bed (the arthi), but for years after if the scent of the agarbatti used that day would make me freeze. I would stop and peregrinate the VR created by my memory, and details hitherto unknown to me would populate and make themselves plainly evident to me. They had used half of a raw potato to stick the agarbatti, placed next to the body. I did not know why I remembered that. Or the racist remarks in the wails and had wondered if death-wails were exempt from being sensitive. If those remarks affected the people around me on that day. And I wondered what it said about me as a person if I was far more worried about the people around me than the actual person who died. I also saw the shiny disco ball drift farther away from me.
While I continued to live, puzzling over the matter of Death, it was everywhere. Of course, that was the side effect of being amongst the living. It was everywhere I went. I would be innocently driving when I would have to swerve sharply to avoid driving over a dog dead in the middle of the road. Then there was the time when a bird flew straight into my windshield. I had held the dead bird in my hands transfixed by the decision it made. It was getting ridiculous. I could not escape Death even at work. Colleagues who would be unable to come in since they needed to attend a funeral, sometimes the colleagues themselves were dead. Phone calls informing me of the death of an acquaintance/s. My grandparents died one after the other in the space of a couple of months. I stumbled through them and since I was no closer to solving the mystery of my shiny glitter ball of feelings naturally, I did not attend their funerals. I continued to remember the warm glow of acceptance in Death’s inner circle and this is what motivated me to keep attempting to understand it. Then it came to me. Not staying away I deduced but getting closer to Death was the answer.
I was twenty-five when the glittering ball shed all its mirrors and metamorphosed into a matte-grey lead ball that as always seemed to rotate one-step ahead of me, and on some days, it came close enough, floating right above my shoulder.
One day I started to shiver while I was at work. By the time I took some over the counter medication, I was shaking and by night, I was alone and delirious with fever. I was hallucinating that I had failed to broker the peace talks and now the Prime Minister was going to have to announce war with its neighbour. From the corner of my mind’s eye, I could see my body floating towards my lead ball and away from everyone who was berating me for failing. The lead ball was finally with reach. I was ecstatic. I could feel the stretch in my arm as my fingers reached out to grab it. A chill entered my fingertips when I touched it and I desperately grabbed on. To my immense surprise, it acquiesced. The ball was in my hand, and the screeching arguments of the Generals heading the Indo-Pak war began to recede, taking along with it all the color and I watched as existence itself slipped into a black-hole that had revealed itself to be behind the wallpaper that I knew as the world. The lies were slipping away and the truth was being revealed like Kim Bassinger’s arm after she took off her glove for the first time in Nine and Half Weeks. There was no color or sound. I could not see my hand in front of my face. I simply presumed that it continued to remain attached to me. Of the several realisations that dawned upon me that night, the most important one was that I could set fire to everything, as I had wanted to as a child, with no real consequences. Nothing would matter to the world because it did not exist.
I pulled the matte ball into my lap and that is when I began to descend. It was funny that out of all the laws of Physics only the big G was the truth. I don’t know why I found that funny, just that I did. Therefore, I understood that humour was also a law of Physics.
The air around me rumbled and I realized that I was hungry. I looked at the ball in my hand and took a bite. I had expected it to crunch but it was grapefruit jelly. I ate it all at once, filled with a primitive hunger and wiped the juice off my chin, continuing my descent to an imagined ground. My palms placed one upon the other, facing upward, completely surrendering into the black ink around me that seeped into my veins.
Three days later, I woke up drenched in sweat, certain that the world had changed and in the few seconds that it took me to blink away the fever dream - that I deemed a prophecy, I decided to make some sweeping changes. My life was no longer going to be about answering The Man. The possibilities were endless. I could be a taxidermist who moonlighted as a serial killer (stuffer?). Maybe I would be captured by the RAW or Interpol while in the midst of another stuffing (I approve of this word furiously.) I felt a fundamental clarity of thought and resolved to become the master of dealing with Death.
I spent the next few months awaiting Death with the eagerness of a boy on his very first date and just like the girl on the same date, I was disappointed. For the first time, it felt as though Death was on a holiday. The obituary pages were at an all-time low. I waited, at first patiently and then fitfully. I imagined an elusive Death sauntering down the nudist beaches of Nice, spilling bottles of sunscreen and sipping cocktails, in a tutu as a member of the traveling company performing Black Swan, floating next to the satellites in the sky playfully kicking them causing the network to die or just eating cheese on a Saturnine moon. I waited for a long time for Death to reappear in my life, wondering how it would feel if I could just invite it over for tea but I was an old-fashioned girl, I wouldn’t make the first move besides it wasn’t as though we had shared phone numbers.
I was twenty-seven when I met Death again and it was by proxy, this time in the form of black-til and a fresh leafy radish. A relative was dead and I wasn’t around when it happened. I arrived in time for the rituals that I was told were more important than the passing. Everyone seemed eager to participate in these with a fanatic devotion and cemented their possible importance in the death-circles. A man, not related to the family but consulted for these rituals called me and with all seriousness asked me to buy the til and radish. I must have looked confused, the man exasperated by my ungrateful self, immediately announced regret on allowing me an important participation role in the rituals. But he did not have a choice since I was the only one with a vehicle. Everyone else had been dispatched on their respective quests. He weighed his options and finally with an exaggerated sigh brought his hands up and in a pushing motion as though asking me to roll back my questioning look, informed me that these items were necessary for Death to allow for the departed soul to be nourished. This is what the scriptures said that Death needed. I was annoyed. I had no idea that Death was a gym-bod ‘gram bro. The vegetable vendor from whom I had bought the radish asked me if it was for Death and when I nodded, he picked the whitest radish with unbent greens that were still waving in the breeze. By now I was furious. The living never get anything as fresh and my hopes that Death was a pepperoni pizza connoisseur died. Despite my anger, I chalked this meeting as a success because even though I was being toyed with, I was more than prepared for our next encounter and I decided to play hard-to-get.
I was thirty-three when I fell in love, a grand love of epic ballad proportions. I loved so deeply that I was convinced that our DNA fused. In the mornings our limbs would be entangled, like one didn’t know where he ended and I began, as though he was water and I was colour and so my future broken heart caught me unawares.
For months, I tossed and arched in the bed where he taught me to touch myself. The emptiness of the house became an extension of the void of swirling black ink under my chest. A packet of biscuits at the supermarket would catch my eye and the pain of his loss would punch me in my throat. I would double down, falling on my knees, clutching my throat, helpless as the glug of pain would escape my mouth. I wondered how pain found its course through a person, the map it followed. After a lifetime it must spend time finding newer places in the body to hide. Overflowing like a river, finding newer courses, the body like the earth, a mute spectator to all the disfigurement. Just as fire on steel, burning its way through and any happiness could never fill-in the scorched paths. I reasoned that happiness could fill one up as the ocean covers land, hiding the scars, but the body always remembers.
The pain always started in the heart, hitting me with the intensity of a massive earthquake, gushing through the bones. One would imagine that your teeth endure most of it, but it was the back that hurt and thighs that ached. Tears flowed because there was no bread and the stomach clenched waiting for the phone to ring.
I was losing my mind, slowly enough for me to know that I was losing it and not fast enough to feel blissful ignorant.
One night, my body refused to lie in the bed, without him, and contorted seeking some kind of relief that did not exist. I followed it, as it crawled out, on its knees as though it had forgotten to walk, forgotten its purpose to exist, clutching and dragging the sheet as though it was some form of talisman. I was sitting on the balcony floor staring at the tops of the world when I felt the goosebumps. I saw Death calming smoking next to me.
Wordlessly Death scooched closer, arms around me and for a moment felt nothing. No pain, no sadness. I let go of the sheet around my body and felt a welcome wind on my freezing nipples. I felt Death put a gloved hand under my chin to raise it and kiss me deeply. A small sob escaped my mouth as I kissed back.
It slowly moved to my moist cunt and made love to me until I passed out. I woke up with the sun on my face, gathered my sheet, wrapping my nakedness and walked back into the house with my breath no longer in knots.
After that night, our relationship became complicated. I was a people-pleaser but after the last time, I had decided to spend my energies only on Death who had shown up in my darkest hour. And I was no longer going to look for something as unreliable as love from humans. It was clear that it was Death who had been my constant companion, providing an unconditional acceptance that the living had never. I wanted to show my gratitude. I had the perfect speech with the perfect lines (I am sorry for your loss! Please let me know if you need something) and almost predictably Death stayed away.
Death abhorred prep. Who knew? It was a moment-to-moment Kit De Luca type of chick. I hated being unprepared, yet it seemed Death was trying to teach me to surrender control. Fat chance!
Five more years passed without any run-ins. I was thirty-eight now. I read of Death in various parts of the world, busy collecting passport stampings and with no time for a visit. As always I read all the obituaries in the paper trying to understand the distance between us, charting its exact course on maps, trying to guess the next location. Spending time on the edges of terraces.
I read about a place where people reported that they could hear a hum that had no explanation, a hum that drove them to murder. After numerous investigations, the reasons were still unknown and the case closed with an inconclusive report. I obviously understood Death’s attempts at alternate career paths and it was hilarious. Thankfully, it stopped those experiments. The living were hardly prepped to see the genius or humor of Death.
On the day I turned forty-seven, I heard the door ring. I was shocked to see lilies. It was a huge bunch, I estimated that there were approximately 50 budding lilies. The arrangement was spectacular and looked as though the lilies were caught mid burst and wrapped into the crystal vase that they had come in. I was spellbound. I ran out, after the delivery person, in my housecoat to ask who had sent them and he asked me to check the card since he had no idea. I found one that said ‘Just because, with no name and almost immediately, my house overrun with the scent of lilies, peonies, and hydrangeas.
I did not understand. I knew of no one who would think of sending me anything so ostentatious. I sat down at my table and mentally ran through the list of exes – lovers, friends, family but came up short.
I felt like Proust when the delicate scent loosened the gnarly tangled tight knot within me and inexplicable memories of love poured out. Unbidden, thoughts of everyone I had loved and all who had loved me came rushing. Powerless to do anything else, I let them run free to play in the garden created and surrounded by the scents. I deeply inhaled the gift and let it drown everything else. When I snapped out of my stupor, because of the door-bell, I opened the door to see the same delivery man again. His feet were shuffling and his mouth was mumbling. An apology. The flowers were delivered by mistake.
Where does love go when it has no one to understand it anymore? Does it evaporate like camphor leaving behind just the scent, till eventually it too vacates, making space for the memory. I wondered if memories seep out with every new breath and that’s how love leaves.
I walked back and sat in the chair, my vision occupied by the ghosts of my memories, of lives unlived, promises made with no intention of being kept, and the flowers. I wondered that if you don’t have a family that you can trust, you don’t have children, you bleed every month losing your eggs, you don’t have love, job, money, home, roots, a place to call your own, friends who want you, lovers for whom you exist, but not beyond a fantasy. If you have no one who will stand up for you or has ever stood up for you, then at what point is it a phase and not your life? If you have no one who desires you back, your body nurtures no one, your soul is always parched for a dream then at what point do you stop being a woman and are just a collection of blood, snot, tears, bone and whole lot of fat? How do you remind yourself that nothing about your life was either a parody or pastiche, and in the end what did it mean to be a human anyway?
I stood up and walked to the sink. I carefully rinsed a cup of tea gone cold. I was tired. I found myself buttering my toast standing next to the stove, examining the ridges of the butter knife closely. I pressed my fingers on the ridge finding it utterly calming. I then pressed my thumb harder. I could feel the thump of my heart on the tip of my thumb. It wasn’t enough. I shattered a water-glass on the slab and rubbed the jagged edge of a piece. A bubble of blood popped out. It looked gorgeous against the white of my finger. Transfixed by the bubbly red, I see-sawed it a few times on the parts of my body, the veins started to sizzle. I looked up to see Death was putting the kettle on to make some tea.
Death poured itself a cup of tea, sat me down on the floor, and took the ragged piece from me. I sighed and welcomed it. “You’re always away too long. This chat was long overdue.”
Death said nothing and silently sipped tea with me.
is a Kashmiri Pandit woman who has been published earlier in digital and print. She is an alumna of the University of East Anglia Creative Writing Workshop and currently resides in Mumbai where she binges on both books and media.
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