The Sister Who Wouldn’t Smile: A story by Monisha Raman

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The Sister Who Wouldn’t Smile: A story by Monisha Raman

"To phrase it like Tolstoy, our family was unhappy in our own neurotic way."

This hospital bed is a familiar place for my disabled sister Rose and I. We come here as one would visit their holiday home in a hill town. The plain white sheet with the usual black logo in cursive font gives her solace. Strangely so, it is in this den that her lips get close to curving, revealing a smile. However, the curve is just a fraction of a millimetre and not a wholesome, intense one like Mum’s. That kind of vivid smile has never darted through her minimally verbose mouth. If it has, I have never been witness to that.

For both of us, our worlds begin and end within the frontiers of this hill town. Dad’s work as a manager in a tea estate meant we grew up within the thickets of huge plantations, away from civilization. This was to our advantage. The many whimpers, deafening arguments, wails, shrieks and tears were absorbed into the lifeless tea bushes that spread endlessly to the horizon. At social gatherings we were a fabricated happy family; Mum was the much-in-love artist wife wedded to the man of her dreams, with two daughters. The only aspect that attracted sympathy was my sister’s condition.

If the biochemical reactions within a person’s brain were to be given fancy terms, wouldn’t we all fall under the brackets of certain conditions, disorders and diseases? I am sure a large percentage of people I meet on my evening walks and in supermarkets conceal rage and other intense emotions within. But those humans with expressive neurons that do not filter the remnants of such reactions within the brain bear the brunt of being called names. Within our family my sister is defined by her condition, Down’s. Mum said it was just a matter of chromosome play and she was just like the rest of us. Mum’s minimal attention, similar to mine would make us attention deficient. Dad with his unruly rage and limited ear for criticism falls under the umbrella of disruptive behavioural disorder.

To phrase it like Tolstoy, our family was unhappy in our own neurotic way. I often feel every time Rose tried to smile, the cheer melted in the vociferous arguments between my parents or the silence thereafter. Growing up, we were exposed only to extreme decibel limits. The stillness was more gut-wrenching than the raucous sounds of arguing and metals clanging that filtered through the closed teakwood doors.

Despite these odds, Mum brought cheer into our world. Rose did not smile even in the warmth of Mum’s embrace or in the delight of her tickles. On summer evenings when we walked with Mum to the nearby stream, Rose would squeal as Mum cupped handfuls of crystal clear water and hurled it at us. However, there was neither laughter nor a smile.

Mum’s colours

Mum brought the colours home. Like her studio and her creations on canvas, our lives and those of everyone around her were filled with the myriad shades of the earth and sky. There was a rhythm in her work, a discipline and an insane beauty that she so generously bequeathed to us. On the night of her disappearance she took with her the luminous hues, leaving behind gloomy dim ones; most of which were obscure.

Like a filler between the layers of silence and deafening squabbles between my parents, there was glee and cheer. There were two polar families within the four of us and our helpers were witness to it. Mum, Rose and I were the merry bunch who welcomed anyone to be a part of us and so the gardener Natraj, the cook Helen and the domestic help Selvi became a part of this unit. There were lively conversations and sunny days despite the erratic monsoons. Deep within we knew there is no escape from the unseen storm; the one that could emerge one day with its monstrous vile head. Yet, there was a dream of the pleasant summer wind and hope of remaining a single unit called family.

Dad, Rose and I were a troubled bunch who could not turn to anyone for comfort. However, there were carefree days spent in posh city hotels, tours of grand palaces that made no sense to us, visits to the waterfall and many hours of frolic in the lawn and ball games in the backyard. In these memories of our joyous moments, there is not even the faintest picture of Rose’s smile.

Mum believed that Rose smiled with her eyes. I remember her words ‘You see that twinkle there. Do you see how those big black balls light up, like the rising summer sun? That is her smile.’

Mum also believed that Rose lit at the sight of colours and the palette. In a corner of Mum’s studio, Rose had her tiny palette and small-sized canvas spread on the floor. Rose loved to paint the sky and Mum’s work was also filled with the different shades of that celestial sphere. ‘It is endless, mystic and is a reminder that our mind and thoughts are also endless.’ Mum always said. What I saw as light blue and dark blue was blasphemy to them.

‘No, baby. This is azure and this here is arctic’ Mum would correct.

They saw the world in colours that my mind could not construe. They knew the right combinations for teal, cyan and turquoise. I could not infer when Rose’s eyes lit as Mum did, but I knew what kept her happy.

On the days the colours in Rose’s sky turned to grey and black, there were tantrums and morbid demonstrations of rage. She would run into the lawn and scratch herself, bruising her lemony skin or find a flat stone to hit her head repeatedly. Mum and Dad would yell at each other as they try to pacify her. The household ran helter-skelter looking for an object to soothe her. At those instances, I watched the mayhem from behind the clear glass of the large French windows with Selvi’s hands on my phlegmatic head. Like Mum, after a fit of rage, Rose too shut herself in a room with nothing but colours for comfort. On such occasions, her sky was the shade of Prussian blue with big black balls attacking the shadowy shade of blue.

Rose’s otherwise cheery sky remained the shade of Prussian for a long time after Mum left. The morning after her disappearance is still etched in my memory. I was sobbing, yearning to read the note Mum left Dad.

‘Nysa, Mum took away the Arctic and Turquoise with her,’ Rose barged in as I tried to conceal my tears.

‘It is okay. Work with the regular sky blue or sapphire,’ I replied.

‘Mum said they are gloomy.’

‘Then we will have to learn to create our own turquoise and arctic.’

I hoped to see a tear or a whimper. Rose didn’t cry then. She did not yell or shriek like she always did. She stood frozen by the door. Just when I learnt to decipher the smile in her eyes, Mum took the light away. It is ten years since Mum left and I still haven’t found that gleaming spark that she traced in Rose’s eyes.

The Colours of Spring

By the time Daniel arrived in our lives, late in our adolescence, Rose learnt to complement beautiful landscapes with her gloomy skies. We were in the same estate house that rang Mum’s laughter from its memory.

Daniel brought along the colours of spring and Rose’s landscapes changed dramatically. Until then Rose’s paintings that had grass or trees or shrubs shaped like Mum’s hair was replaced with flower beds intensely coloured like Daniel’s smile. With the sprout of colours, her rage, turmoil and the sense of disarray gradually reduced. Rose sang at odd times and squealed in excitement at certain works of her creativity. However, even after several brainstorming sessions that included Dad, we were unable to recreate Mum’s version of turquoise.

Daniel’s glee melted into the colonial structure we called home, his warmth spread across the garden and estates and soon it blended with Mum’s jocundity that reflected here, much to Dad’s annoyance. However, Dad was content to see us perky again. During these warm summers and cosy winters, Rose never smiled.

Three years after Daniel came into our lives, Rose had the first setback in her health. That monsoon was our first visit to this hospital room which she slowly grew accustomed too. Today, the medical workers and providers are her extended family. Her skin is acclimatized to the intravenous needles and to her auditory system, the noise from the monitors is a soothing tune.

With every passing year, her body had a new label, an unknown pathosis or a novel metabolic mishap. In those years, her landscape left the forlorn mountain and explored the vigour of the sea and its spirit underneath. All the while, her cerulean shade was what she called ‘gloomy.’

‘Nysa,’ she distracts my thoughts in the dark of the hospital room. Dad is fast asleep by my side. ‘Daniel…’ she mumbles.

‘He is coming. He is supposed to fly next week, but he changed the dates. He must be on the flight now.’ I stroke her hair.

‘From the Atlantic coast….’

‘Yes. From the Atlantic Coast.’

‘It has Mum’s turquoise?’

‘I suppose it has. I cannot differentiate as well as you do.’

‘Will Daniel bring Mum’s turquoise?’

‘I don’t know. I have never known, Rose.’ My voice begins to choke.

We were preparing for Daniel’s annual visit when Rose fell unconscious in her studio. The doctor’s statement, ‘This could be it; we are doing our best’ while she was in the ICU five days ago came like a hard blow from a dagger to Dad’s ailing heart. My mind that was benumbed the day Mum left wanted the best for Rose; even if it meant the shades of twilight in her work.

‘Nysa…’ there is a whisper at the stroke of dawn.

‘Do you want the nurse?’ I ask.

‘Daniel had a dream?’

‘Rose, we spoke about this a billion times! Yes, he had.’

‘You had no dream?’

‘Mine was to be with him, Rose. Nothing much.’

‘What about Mum, then?’

‘Mum had a beautiful dream too.’

‘But, Daniel comes back every year from his dreams. Why?’

‘He comes to check on us and make sure we are okay.’

‘Can’t Mum come from her dreams as well?’

‘Well, Mum’s dreamland never allowed that. She will come whenever she can from there.’

She gazes at the ceiling.

‘Rose, when Mum comes she will bring her best version of turquoise, a mixture of cadet, teal and sapphire shades.’ Her eyes light up at that moment and there is a delicate stretch of the lips.

Finding the melancholy shade

Yet another dawn breaks in this missionary hospital. Today is another morning in the company of Daniel’s merry smile, the radiant shades of spring blossoms that Rose’s paintings marvellously captured.

‘Did you find it?’ Rose asks Daniel post breakfast as we settle down to our routine conversation. He takes a moment to ponder.

‘No one can find it, Rose. It is Mum’s secret,’ Dad intervenes.

‘I asked Mr Kurien to find it for me.’ Rose whispers from her bed.

‘He couldn’t Rose. He already said that.’

Daniel then brings out neat sheets of white painted in strips of blue. They are cut to fit in his palm and each sheet holds two shades of blue.

‘No... no... no,’ she begins to let out soft screams crumbling the sheets with what is left of the strength in her arms. It takes us a long time to pacify her.

~

‘Rose, I need your help,’ Daniel speaks after her afternoon nap. ‘Mum used a hue of green that she is very familiar with to arrive at her special turquoise. She did not use white as a base. Can you help me find the green?’

‘Daniel has tried the colour of grass and Acacia in our backyard. He also tried the colour of rose shrubs.’ I elaborate.

‘Daniel… Mum is there in your same dreamland….’ Rose replies in a whisper.

‘I couldn’t meet her there, Rose. There are a lot of people there.’

There is silence as she looks outside the window. Her bed is placed in such a manner as to get a clear view of the sky outside, obstructed by the branches of Jacaranda that are not in bloom.

‘Mum’s skies were the happiest,’ she whispers.

‘Yes,’ we reply in unison as Daniel strokes her hands.

Early the next morning, while I try to come to terms with the vanishing haemoglobin count in the blood report, Daniel is called for. He arrives in his sweatpants and sneakers.

‘Daniel. I know the green,’ Rose’s voice is steady today and not a whisper. ‘It is the colour of the blossoming tea bud in the rays of the morning sun. 7 o’clock sun.’

‘She means the colour of Pekoe.’ I tell Daniel.

‘It is the shade of Harlequin then.’ He pats her head.

Dad smiles for the first time since Rose moved here. In a few hours, the bottles of paint, brushes, palette, white sheets and a canvas arrive by her bedside.

‘Let’s try 2:1’ Daniel is careful with the measurements. A few minutes later, they arrive at many possibilities.

‘I have to paint,’ Rose tells.

‘Will you know the colour when you do that?’ Daniel asks.

She nods in response.

The following morning, when the heart rate monitor displays her dwindling pulse, Rose seems upbeat with the result on the canvas that she worked on overnight. She does not show that to us. ‘I want to Daniel to see along with you,’ she tells.

As she pulls the hospital sheet covering the canvas, Daniel gasps and I sob uncontrollably. Dad holds my hand as we marvel at her thoughts etched on the canvas.

There in the midst of Shamrock shaded tea plantation, sprinkled with robust sliver oak trees are three figures dancing, clothed in white kimonos. The sky sparkles above them in the most brilliant shade of turquoise and from within the cumulus clouds shaped like Mum’s face, a hand reaches out to us.

‘Thank you for Mum’s turquoise Daniel,’ she pats his hands.

As I kiss her cheek, the unique shade of blue reflects in her black eyeballs. She looks at me and then her lips part a mere millimetre and then slowly like a spark set on a hearth, it spreads with warmth. Her lips separate revealing her misaligned teeth and then her eyes light some more. As the luminescence increases in her eyes, her cheeks reveal their prominence and lips spread wide over a face. My sister flashes the most intense smile, similar to Mums. Outside, the hues of twilight converge on her happy skies.

***

Monisha Raman is a content editor by profession, and she finds her solace in words. Her works of fiction and essays have been published by The Punch Magazine, The Curious Reader, Kitaab, Phenomenal Literature (Vol.4 No.1), New Asian Writing, Active Muse and Juggernaut (writing platform). She lives in Chennai and blog here .

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