There must have been about ten or twenty of Them, circling above the house like the beginnings of a tornado. Their smooth, steady flight was a stark contrast to the clamour within.
Anxious voices mingled with footsteps, something clanged in the kitchen, and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Of the twenty or so people in the house, some were grieving, some provided solace, while some were still in shock. A man sat huddled in the corner, unable to move. In the midst of it all was a wail, a cry that rose every few minutes from within the house and floated slowly outward. But They remained indifferent, a set of black wings and sharp beaks, dark silhouettes against the sun that had just begun to set. They flew round and round, while chaos reigned inside the bungalow. One of Them ruffled its feathers.
How did it happen.
It was his liver, it seems.
They never really take care of those.
He knew it was coming. Smelt it on him for days.
Didn’t he tell anyone?
Didn’t have the words for it.
A heavily built man walked out onto the bungalow’s terrace. His mass of gray hair and thick moustache fluttered in the slight wind. Standing by the edge, he fumbled for a smoke. As he struggled to light it, a priest walked to the main entrance of the house. He was welcomed by a woman in a white saree. She seemed to be crying and bowing her tear stained face, touched his feet. He blessed her with a touch of his hand.
‘It’s chaos,’ she said. ‘Nobody knows what to do.’
‘He has left behind a vacuum. Great men always do,’ said the priest with a nod. ‘Come.’
They went inside, leaving the front door wide open.
The man on the terrace watched this exchange. He shook his head. A few moments later, the metal door on the terrace creaked open and a young man strode out. He had similar broad shoulders, and a thick head of hair. He ran a hand through it, and abruptly turned around when he saw his uncle; who had called out before he reached the door.
‘Wait! I was just going downstairs.’
‘There’s no need,’ came the curt response.
‘I know you could use the space, beta. We’re all going through a lot—’
‘No thanks to you.’
He paused. ‘Watch your mouth, boy.’ His voice wasn’t as sharp as it usually was while telling his nephew off.
The young man looked up sharply.
‘I saw you. Every night with your ‘one more drink bhai, just one more.’’
‘There was no way I could’ve known.’
‘But what was the need? To make him more like you? Or just to prove he wasn’t perfect? You can’t let go, even today, can you?’ He gestured to the cigarette still hanging by his uncle’s fingers.
‘He was a busy man…I just wanted to be with him.’
‘To be him. Well, now you can.’ The young man’s eyes were accusing, but were weighed down by the things he’d lost.
The old man sighed and leaned against the terrace wall as his nephew walked away, slamming the door shut.
Didn’t they use to be pretty close.
Oh yes. They used to have – what do they call it – piggyback rides.
Funny thing, what time can do.
Time’s got nothing to do with it.
It’s just people.
Soon after, the man left and the terrace became empty. There was no other sound except for the piercing wails which escaped the house every few minutes. The cries seemed to be full of a profound emotion, something incalculable. When it reached out to the skies it even struck Them silent.
A young boy ran out onto the terrace and began bouncing a ball. He tried to bounce it off the wall, but kept missing and then had to run after it. The sound of footsteps and low voices drew him to the edge of the terrace. , He stood on his toes and peeked over the low wall. A couple was leaving the house across the street. They were both dressed in white and looked as if they’d gotten ready in a hurry.
The boy caught scattered bits of the conversation: ‘…how to cope…great man…maybe we can…’ He frowned on hearing his grandfather’s name.
The boy’s mother banged the door open and exclaimed. Her hair was curled into a perfect bun, her forehead was creased with worry and her blouse stained with sweat.
‘What are you doing here?! Come on, come down.’
‘Too many people,’ he whined.
‘I know, bachcha, but I have a lot to do and there’s no one to keep an eye on you here.’
‘But I want to play. Where’s Dadu? Jenny Aunty said he’s gone away.’
She used the end of her sari to mop her brow and cursed under her breath, not for the first time that day. Then she bent down and pulled her son’s cheek lightly.
‘She’s right. I was going to tell you later, but yes, Dadu has gone away.’
‘He won’t come to play?’
‘No, darling. You know he really liked playing with you, no?’
‘He’s with the stars now. But he’ll always love you.’
He was silent for a few seconds and then said, ‘Will you play with me later?’
‘Of course. Now, come on.’ She nudged him through the door and they went inside.
The heavyset man appeared again, this time a tall woman trailed behind him. She seemed to be in the middle of trying to say five different sentences at once.
‘…throwing orders around, as if he’s in charge now. Don’t look at me like that, they both act like they’re above everybody else, forget that we are their elders, not the other way round. I’ve never gotten enough respect in this house, and your brother was another one like them. Kept you under his thumb despite everything he owes you—’
‘Owed,’ he corrected.
‘Don’t be naive.’
He sighed and lit another cigarette.
She took a step closer, her features softening in earnestness. ‘You’re just as much of a man as he was. Show them, show your nephew, what you’re made of.’
‘He already blames me for this—’
‘He’ll get over it. He’ll realise that you can guide him equally well.’
‘You helped your brother get all this,’ she gestured around them. ‘And yet it was his name that was on the door. Now, it can finally be yours. Don’t shake your head at me, you know we need this.’ She prickled with impatience. ‘We have a wedding coming up next year.’
‘I know, I know. I’ll do it, you know I will. I just need a moment.’
Satisfied she turned around and walked out the door before adding, ‘Come down soon, pandit ji must be ready by now.’
Half a cigarette later, a woman in travelling clothes and shoes walked out.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Just needed some air.’
He dismissed the apology with a shake of his head. ‘It’s too crowded, na?’
‘Definitely.’ She laughed. ‘Papa didn’t even like half of those people.’
‘Nor they him.’ He was surprised to find himself being honest.
‘Bhai’s been saying a lot of things,’ she said, slowly. ‘Don’t take it to heart.’ When he didn’t respond, she said, ‘Can I have one?’
He raised his eyebrows but passed her a cigarette and the lighter. ‘Haven’t had a chance to rest?’
She shook her head. ‘Didn’t sleep throughout the flight.’
‘Of course. How’s the job?’
‘Better than being married off isn’t it.’
‘When do you return?’
He nodded, he understood not wanting to be here.
A slender woman stepped out on one of the balconies. Her hair was graying at the temples and she had lines around her mouth. Her phone rang. She told the person on the line that she was okay; she just had to see it for herself and yes, she’d be leaving soon.
Is this the wife?
Oh, no. She’s not the wife.
On the other side of the house someone opened the door to a smaller balcony and helped a man in a simple kurta on to a chair. He rubbed his chest and his eyes roved wildly in every direction. He was still trying to grasp things, the truth, but was unable to swallow it completely.
‘Sit here for a while. You’ll feel better,’ he was told.
Why do they always think problems can be solved with fresh air?
Because they usually begin within walls.
He’s the servant isn’t he?
The second most important person in the house.
They glided in circles, eyeing the man in his tousled kurta at one end of the house and the woman in her clean, white dress at the other. How very different. How very similar.
This man hasn’t lived a life of his own.
The woman held the railing, leaned out, almost as if she wanted to escape.
Eyes shut, she let a slow breath out of her mouth.
He had served the old man since he was a teenager; followed his every rule, his every order.
Her face crumpled as she struggled against the weight of the truth.
Nobody left to lead him anymore.
She faltered and finally a sob broke out of her.
Tears rolled down her cheeks.
He’ll have to start living on his own.
Her knees buckled.
Must be terrifying.
The sun was grazing the horizon when they finally left the house. The whole family, their friends, neighbours and priest walked alongside the soul, covered with a white sheet. The priest chanted, while everyone else held each other’s hands, as they walked towards the crematorium. The wail was let loose to the open skies. Its source, was the old woman, small and bent, at the very front of the procession. She was held by her son and daughter on either side, without whom she’d have probably collapsed in the street. Her cries punctured the air, startling all surroundings. A cascade of emotion that was finally breaking free.
Oh. Said the oldest of Them. Interesting. It’s not grief.
Rati Pednekar is a writer based in Mumbai, India. She is currently working as a content writer. Some of her work has been published at Kitaab, Gaysi, and Aloka. Her education includes a BA in English Literature from St. Xaviers, Mumbai and an MA in Creative Writing from University of Birmingham, UK. Her stories focus on the everyday lives of people. More of her writing can be found at her blog and you can reach her on Instagram.