Farewell, Sister in Pain: A Tribute to Ashita

 

The thinking mind knows, but the heart keeps seeking the lingering traces of presence.

Days after Ashita’s passing, the heart returns to that void inside itself. I was in the middle of wedding preparations at home. Bala’s early morning message on the phone was cryptic: Ashitechi is gone. I sat up on the bed, trying to collect my feelings which had fled in all directions at the shock. It was not unexpected, I told myself, be reasonable. She had suffered too much, do not expect her to suffer more just because you’d find emotional stability in having her somewhere around. All through the daytime, I kept myself busy with the wedding arrangements. But at night, when I sat down alone on my bed, the void rushed back, and no rational argument could stop it.

So, now, I admit it: her death leaves a void which no rational understanding can prevent. It will take its own time to heal.  There will be pain. We were, after all, sisters in pain. Feminism lets us women who have survived patriarchy sisters in power. After all she was very minimally feminist, really, being suspicious, even frightened, of power in all its forms. But we had seen patriarchal violence; we both knew what it was to be trapped in the respectable, homely-looking torture-chambers of Malayali patriarchy.  She was one of the few who called me by my childhood pet-name: Devumol. I would always smile, remembering that I had reached my fiftieth year. When I once told her of this, she laughed and said, “Oh, but I am senior to you in years, and in other ways too!!” I knew what she meant – she had survived much worse, and compared to her, I was just a stripling, a novice in surviving patriarchy.

Farewell, then, my dear sister in pain. Older to me in so many ways, that I will keep learning from your life.

May you be blessed in the infinite, serene inner silence that you craved.

What bound us was much more than a bunch of words.

Below is a translation of one of her short stories, a favourite of mine. Sreebala K Menon and Ayisha Sasidharan took the initiative to get a selection of her short stories translated, and I embraced the chance. She saw the layout before she passed away. The book is to be published by Cinnamon Teal, with an introduction by Mahesh Mangalat. It will be out soon.

 

Passover

It was a troubled day – a Thursday. The Feast of Passover. Gauri was playing in the balcony of our thirteenth-floor flat. Looking down from there, all the vehicles and people on the ground can only seem toy-like. The clouds, and perhaps the sky, may appear more near and real. Especially for Gauri, who was all of five Picturing the sheet of daylight falling on the balcony to be a flowing river, she was cutting up newspapers to make boats to set afloat on it.

I can see the clashing, quarreling headlines of the newspaper run on the outside of her paper-boats, hanging on them like waist-chains. I was inside, ironing her school-uniform. Her school may reopen soon. After all, the woman reading the news on TV was repeatedly informing us that the law and order situation was returning to normal, though the honking of a police jeep on the road below was tearing through the air still.

Gauri, who was playing alone, stopped suddenly and asked in an irritated tone, “Amma, why is there no school again today?”

“Today’s Passover, isn’t it,” said I, without looking at her. “That’s why.”

“What’s that?”

The light on the iron-box was still green; not hot enough, and so I straightened up and said, “A long time ago, there was a King: the King of Kings.”

Gauri’s half-decayed tooth flashed; it was clear that she was up for a fun story. I began: Bethlehem, the manger, the star …

Opening and folding the boats, she hummed on. In the river of light, the boats now were four in number. In the TV, the news was over and the prayer-hymns were on. From the road, the helpless scream of a fire engine rushing ahead was rising.  Gauri looked fearful. I noticed ;it made me uneasy but I continued, pretending otherwise: a feast for a thousand from five pieces of bread, water turning into wine, sight to the blind, life to the dead – as the miracles resurrected in and through my words, Gauri left the scissors and the paper and came and stood beside me.

“Amme, is this King of Kings a Muslim or a Hindu? Shanawaz in my class was saying …”

My hand burned brushing against the red-hot iron-box.  Or was it my mind, brushing against that question? I fell silent all of a sudden. An uproar, below now. Violent sounds, cries of rage. The police jeep, again …

Tugging at my saree-fringe, Gauri’s clear-sounded question, again: “Amma, are you Hindu or are you a Muslim?”

As I settled into my chair with the needle and thread saying, Gaurikkutty, the button’s come off your uniform, I searched for an answer in Gauri’s eyes that were waiting for my response. I am seized with fright as I see the cavernous depths into which the roots of her question entered. On my table, the picture of the Son of God. His eyes locked in eternity, his tender gaze. On the TV, the Last Supper. To escape it all, I continue the story – how easy it is to tell a tale!

The last supper, the kiss of betrayal, Pilates, the cries, “crucify him”, the wooden cross and the crown of thorns for Gauri’s King of Kings …

Gauri was listening in rapt attention; her expression was changing. The tender fingers pressed down on the chair’s armrest were throbbing. The air felt heavy.

She said with eyes quickening into tears, “Don’t want to hear this story. Bad story. Bad Amma. Gauri’s feeling sad.”

Quickening my stitches I continued, pitiless.

The crown of thorns, Calvary, the Cross, the lashes from straps of leather …

Gauri’s lips shaped into a cry. The words having melted in the searing heat of my throat, I stopped and held her close.

At the end of the road, a cry rose up and fell half-way through. Now there was silence all around, only silence.

On the TV, the Son of God was climbing up the Calvary. Now he is right in front of us for a split-second, his face covered in blood and sweat. Gauri waits for another of his miracles and stops weeping abruptly. Nothing happens. The whip rises and twitches on the screen.

Gauri is now sobbing uncontrollably. I lean forward and switch the TV off. Something has gathered inside me too, something beyond words. The ball of thread falls off my lap and rolls, the thread lengthening like an unending story. I hold the weeping little one and lie on the chair, my eyes closed. No, I can’t …

When I opened my eyes, Gauri was on the balcony again. She is playing with the picture of the Son of God. In her game, she is now his mother. She gently caresses his wounds. Says tender words of comfort. I see her eyes fill in between those caring words. Filling her eyes thus and caring and loving for a while, she comes back, seeking me.

“Amma, have you seen God, Amma?”

Like the clear tones of a temple-bell, that question. Its ringing tone that does not falter. I took her hand gently and walked to the balcony. Once more, I did not know what to say.

The retreating sun now spread all over it, Gauri’s river is now a lake.

The city in which the army was conducting a flag-march was quiet, soundless. Like hands folded in entreaty.

Suddenly, a gust of wind arrives, one that makes the lifeless dust and the dead leaves rise above the ground. A cupful of fragrance, stolen from somewhere, brims over and flows everywhere. Everything begins to move. Between the visible and the invisible, the laughter of the flowers bloom. A bird, its wings unmoving, seeks its nest and drops a leaf. How pretty, that falling leaf!

Murmurs, murmurs … is someone calling me by my name? It was as if a silent and other-worldly music was flowing everywhere above everything. In my hand, Gauri’s little fingers. The warmth of that touch. The image of the Son of God held against her breast. The moisture in her eyes that glints even now at the thought of his wounds. The radiance of the eternal truth that is destroyed by naming, by building fences! How radiant, indeed! Gauri’s river was now an ocean of light.

Patiently she repeats her question. “Eh, have you seen God, Amma?”

I kneel before her. Kissing her little hands, spying that spark of light glinting in her eyes even then, I say, “Amma sees only God.”

[Ashithayude Kathakal, ‘Pesahatirunaal’, pp.96-8]

 

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