after almost a month passed and we had not heard from you, my father asked your mother if he should approach his friends in the police department and look for you. but your mother refused. ‘I know my daughter. she will not come back unless she wants to. she doesn’t want to, yet.’yamuna venugopal
I am sitting on the dining table, my knees facing out, right foot on the shin of my left leg. I have folded my toes, making my feet look curved. There are exactly seven cake crumbs on the black shorts I’m wearing. The dark brown skin of my legs shines. The long-sleeve shirt is red, with lots of tiny black cars, lorries, aeroplanes, scooters, and bicycles sprinkled all over it. Both my hands are smeared with cream and I am licking my right hand. My mother is holding my left hand, but she must’ve been a small distance away, because only half of her arm is in the photo. Her two thin gold bangles have gathered at her wrist, grazing my hand. I am smiling, but my lips are holding tight the hand I’m licking. Both my brown cheeks shine in the flash of the camera and my glowing mane covers most of my forehead. My big, round eyes are looking at you.
The photo must’ve been taken on my first birthday, as we were in my grandmother’s village during my second birthday and my mother wasn’t there for my third. I found this photo twelve years back, a week after my grandmother’s funeral, along with my mother’s belongings, bundled and thrust into the loft. Until then, my grandmother had never let us clean that loft. When I found the bundle, I understood why.
When my mother died, I was only two years and three months old and my father was only 30. My father and I were nursing our sadness and we didn’t want to do anything with my 2-days-old baby sister. My grandmother, who was then 63 and who, after my father’s marriage, had spent her time outside the house, gardening, visiting temples, and gossiping with neighbour oldies had to go back into the house and work. She had to feed us and also look after my baby sister. She had no time to grieve or deal with our grief. So one early morning, before we woke up, she had bundled up all my mother’s things, wrapping them in three of her own sarees and stuffing them into the loft. When we woke up, she told us that she gave away all my mother’s things. My memory of what happened after that is hazy. All I remember is my father storming out and my grandmother softly sobbing over the pan in which she was making sambar.
Like you taught me, I still title my photos. I have titled this: ‘When I knew happiness, I was a baby.’
Sunlight is flooding the small garden in your backyard. My sister and I, holding hands, are sitting on the low wall that separates the garden from the veranda, the stalks of flowers standing up a little taller than us. She is plump, her grey frock grimy. She is holding a petal, probably jasmine. Her head is cocked towards me, the tips of her short hair tickling her neck. I am looking at the camera, but I’m not smiling. I’m in my school uniform, stained as well, and my free hand is on my lap. The photo ends at our knees.
This is the first picture pasted on the first page of the photo-book you gave me. The first and only photo-book anyone has ever given me. Below the photo are the words: ‘You look at me, but do you see me?’
Did you give me this photo along with the photo-book? Or, did you give it to me even before that? Anyways, whenever it was, I don’t remember. Just before writing this, I took a peek at your garden. There are no flowers now. Or, anything at all. After you left, your sister tended to your flowers, but after she died, the flowers withered away, too.
When it is not raining, or not too windy, your mother sits on that low wall. And sometimes, when your stepmother visits, both of them sit outside on that wall. Your stepmother doesn’t stay for long, though. Thirty minutes. An hour, at most. I’ve never seen them laugh; they just talk. Or, sit in silence. Your mother walks her to the gate and waits until she reaches the turn at the end of the street. Just before she walks out of your mother’s sight, she turns back and shakes her head goodbye. Your mother reciprocates.
When my daughter was a little girl, she looked exactly like my sister in this photo! It’s amazing what trickles through our genes. And now my sister’s hair is down to her calves; dark, thick, and silky. ‘Just like your mother’s’, my father used to say.
And you might not be aware: he died a year ago. A natural death on the same bed he used to share with my mother. That November night, my wife and daughter had gone to visit my wife’s parents; during dinner, we spoke about Mother. It was not a usual topic on the dinner table, but that day Father said, rather casually, that it was he who had suffered more than my sister or me. ‘Yes, you lost your mother,’ he said. ‘But I lost my wife. You won’t know what a loss it is until you have a partner for yourself.’ And my sister replied: ‘Maybe. But you don’t know what growing up without having seen your mother’s face is like.’ We sat there a little longer, not talking much, and then went to our rooms. He died that night. My sister says that she doesn’t regret what she said, but I think she does. On the days she visits us, under the light of the small golden wall lamp, she sometimes sits all by herself in the dining room late into the night.
There are people all around. The background is completely green and lit up by the sun. To the right is your mother; she is sitting on the grass, her arms around her legs, her chin on her gathered knees. Her oiled hair is jet black and tightly held. Strings of jasmine pinned to her hair are overflowing onto her violet sari. She is smiling, showing her upper line of teeth and her pale-pink gums. Beside her stands a small, light-green wire bag. To the left is my grandmother. She is sitting cross-legged, her navy-blue sari wrapped around her in her old-school Brahmin style. On her lap is a long umbrella, the U-shaped handle half-buried under one of her sari folds. Her thin-rimmed glasses are resting on the top of her long, pointy nose, and she has her usual stoic smile. A straight parting runs through her silver hair, exactly perpendicular to her broad forehead. Her diamond earrings glint brighter than your mother’s teeth. You are at the centre, and my sister and I are standing to your sides. We three are dressed in white. My sister in a white frock, I in a white t-shirt and shorts, and you in an embroidered white salwar-khameez. You have your white lace shawl over your head, little bursts of your curly hair pouring out of the shawl near your ears. You have your arms wrapped around our hips, holding us close to you. The three of us are smiling.
It must be April or May, the time when the park is usually that crowded and that green, the time when the town has its summer vacation. But I remember that it was the day your father brought home your stepmother.
We were on a picnic, spending the whole day in the park in town. My father had come along and he was the one who took the photo. Only you were going to come with us, but at the last minute, grandmother had exhorted your mother to come along, too.
I still vividly remember the events that followed. It was already beginning to grow dark when we returned home. All along the way, your mother was a little anxious. After serving several months in his company’s Delhi branch, your father was going to arrive that night; she was hoping that your sisters would have started preparing an elaborate dinner.
The next morning when my sister and I came out to play, it was close to seven. Your house and windows were closed, which was weird because we thought it was impossible for all of you to have gone out so early. So we decided to check what was going on. We knocked. There was no answer for a while. So we knocked again. You opened the door and instantly I knew you were crying. Your eyes were a bulgy red and your lips were parched. You looked at us for just over a second and went back into the room, leaving the door wide open. We didn’t come in; we didn’t go away either.
There was absolute stillness in your house. In the front room, your father was sitting on the worn-out sofa and a little further away sat a lady. She was in her salwar-khameez; I don’t remember how it looked, but I remember thinking that it was too grand for early-morning wear. Your father didn’t look at us; he had his hands folded over his chest and was staring at the floor. The lady looked at the 100-watt bulb on your ceiling, riddled with housefly’s faeces, at the framed picture on the wall of a sunset you had captured from your terrace, at the Chinese wind chimes that hung near the door, at the framed photo of your family on the wall opposite her, at the rusted grills twisting and turning across your windows, at the money-plant that had grown around one side of the windows, at the design of the headrest of the sofa on the other side, at the white lace screens, at the vermilion-smeared lemon hanging from a nail above the door frame, at the brown straw mat at the entrance. But not at us. My sister, unamused by the lack of acknowledgement of our presence, walked back to her bicycle. But I was curious.
I removed my slippers at the entrance, quietly walked in, and peeked into the bedroom next to the front room. All of you were there. All three of your sisters were on the bed, leaning against the wall. Your mother was sitting on the folding chair near the door, sitting parallel to your father and the lady in the front room. You were crouching on the floor. No one in that room looked at me, but everyone was crying. I slowly walked out.
I ran back home and told Grandmother and Father all I had seen. They must’ve guessed, I don’t know. You kept your doors and windows closed. Throughout the next two weeks, every now and then I came out to see if your doors were open. Except for your father, who left to work at 9 am, no one went into or out of your house.
Then, one morning, when I had just woken up and was still in bed, I heard someone knock on the door. I heard the door being opened, and without a word, your mother’s sobs. I crawled to the end of our bedroom and strained to listen to your mother saying something to my grandmother. I couldn’t really hear anything and when I went to the front room, my grandmother ordered me to go back to bed. That evening, when Father came back from work, my grandmother told him all about your mother’s visit. This time I hid behind the dining table and listened to every word of it, though I didn’t really understand all of it.
After a month, my father developed the photo and gave it to me for my photo-book. I wrote below it the things I understood: ‘Uncle brought a lady from Delhi. He went to live with her in a rented house in town. He will never come back. Aunty never smiles these days.’
There is a big red dot of vermilion and within it is a small yellow dot of turmeric on the top-centre of the monitor. The monitor, keyboard, and the bulky CPU are placed on a wooden table that is covered with my grandmother’s old shawl. The colour of the shawl is not quite clear as the room is murky in the little light that enters from the small square window behind the CPU. My sister is standing to the right of the table and I am standing to its left. You are beside my sister, and the photo only shows you up to your face, and the right side of your body is cut-off by the edge of the photo. My sister and I have our hands on the table, on either side of the keyboard. Both of us are smiling, but you are not. You are pensive. All of us are looking at the camera.
It was two days before my sister’s birthday. The assembled computer was my father’s gift to her for her birthday. When my father brought home the computer in an autorickshaw, I ran into your house in excitement. You were knitting something, the baby-pink wool cushioned on your lap.
‘My father has bought us a computer,’ I said and held your hand. ‘Come with me!’
I pulled you from your chair and you had to hurriedly throw the wool and the knitted piece on the chair before I could pull you out of the room. You ran with me, crossed the road, and ran into my house. My sister was squealing with excitement, and my father brought our camera for a picture of us. You offered to click the picture so that my father could pose with us. But my father said that he knew I liked you more than I liked him. We all laughed at that, but I was glad my father knew. I had always carried that guilt, you know? Until you left, I have spent all of my Diwalis with you, not with him. The number of days I have slept over at your place, on your bed, next to you, far exceeds the number of days I have slept in my house, next to my father. My father never knew about my best friend or my crush. You did. Those times when I just wanted to cry and didn’t know why, I never went to him. It was always to you I went. He was a great father, no doubt. But my sister and I needed our mother’s warmth. And you were the closest we could find.
As soon as my father clicked the photo, even before our smiles for the pose waned, you said: ‘You look after your children well. Even after your wife is gone.’ My father smiled. Below the photo are the words: ‘Father knows.’
The photo begins with your terrace. On the left and right, a little can be seen of the houses to the left and right of your house. The photo ends in the middle of the road between our houses. The road and the terrace are wet. And throughout the photo, there are people’s heads, some black, some silver, some a bit of both. Roughly in the middle of the photo are the bodies of your two sisters, covered from head to toe with white sheets, and white and yellow garlands resting on them.
It had been raining throughout the previous night and the wind that swept our suburb was chilly. That morning, wearing the sweaters you had knitted for us, my sister and I had come to your house right after waking up. We had Idli for breakfast and your younger sister had made the beetroot chutney that was my sister’s favourite. Then your younger and older sisters went to deliver the knitted sweaters in your scooter. When they didn’t return even after lunch, your mother began to panic. Since I was a grown-up boy by then, you took me to town with you in an autorickshaw. When we got near the bend before the pan shop, we saw your scooter, dented and smeared with blood, lying on the side of the road. You cried out to the driver to stop the rickshaw. And you headed straight to the pan shop. I ran after you from the rickshaw to the shop and back from the shop to the rickshaw.
By the time we saw their bodies in the morgue and returned home with them in an ambulance, it had started pouring again. As the hospital men brought the stretchers to your front room and made brown slipper marks on the tiled floor, your mother stood near the gate, drenched in the rain; transfixed, but not crying. My father took the fading golden phonebook lying on your phone table and called up your friends and relatives, avoiding only your father. As the night grew, the house filled up with people. My sister and I sat beside you, around the bodies, and cried. My grandmother made cup after cup of steaming tea and supplied the friends and relatives filling your house. Throughout the night, I held your hands and didn’t sleep.
At around 8 am, your father rushed to our little street in his Ambassador. He later said that he read about the accident in the morning newspaper. When he came to the door in his worn-out white shirt and an old veshti, probably his night clothes, your mother looked up and the first streak of tears flowed. He sat next to her and they quietly cried. The day was grey, but there was no rain. It was decided that the cremation would be at noon, and that the bodies would be kept on the veranda until then. When they moved the bodies out, I rushed to my house, retrieved my father’s camera from his cupboard, and headed to our terrace to take a photo of your sisters, for, during the sleepless night, I had realised that I did not have a photo of them.
When it was time for the cremation, your father got up to take a bath for the ritual, but your mother stopped him. She said that he didn’t have the right. All I remember is that there was a lot of arguing – your mother and you on one side, all your relatives on the other side, and your elder sister, speechless. After a lot of arguing and crying, an old man, who I later found out was your father’s maternal uncle, asked your mother: ‘Okay, now tell me one thing. You do not want him to cremate them. Then who else will do it? They don’t even have a brother.’
Everyone was quiet. So quiet that the old man thought he’d won the argument. He was about to say something, when your mother spoke.
‘He,’ said your mother and pointed at me. The whole crowd turned their heads towards me. I was standing next to my father, near the feet of your younger sister’s body.
‘He will cremate them. He is their brother.’
‘That’s nonsense,’ said the old man. But your mother snubbed him right there.
‘Where were you when your nephew ran away to sleep with a woman his daughter’s age?’
The old man remained silent.
She beckoned me. I slowly walked to her. ‘He will cremate my daughters. Anyone who has a problem with that, please leave,’ she said and turned to your father, ‘including you.’ Your father didn’t leave.
Dressed only in my father’s veshti folded into two, I was shaking all over on the way to the cremation grounds. My father must’ve understood that I was terrified; he walked alongside me and kept telling me that it was OK as they were dead and would not feel any pain. When they placed the bodies on the pyre and handed me a long, flaming part of a branch, I felt my stomach rumble and my legs go weak. Till today, till this moment, my mouth goes dry at the thought of what I did. We stayed there until your sisters’ bodies burnt down, bones crackling, the smell of melting flesh permeating the air.
Below the photo are the words: ‘I became their brother at their death.’
You are standing at the centre, wearing a plain red sari with a thin golden border. The light-golden blouse is wrinkled at your elbow pit. I am to your left and my sister to your right; both of us are in our night clothes – tracky bottoms and t-shirts. We are holding hands, our fingers intertwined. My sister’s fingernails are painted yellow. Not one of us is smiling. Behind us, our street stretches on until the lush green trees along the street umbrella its horizons.
That morning, when you knocked on our door and woke us up, my grandmother was unwell. Sitting beside her until her fever came down, we had slept only from around 3 am the previous night. So when you said that you were going away and wouldn’t come back and that you didn’t want to tell us where you were going because you wanted to be alone, I didn’t really get you. Nor did my sister, or father. Or, my sick grandmother buried under two lamb-wool blankets.
The next day was the 8th day ritual for your sisters. ‘People will ask for you,’ said my grandmother, clutching the end of her blankets under her neck. ‘I know,’ you said. You hugged my sister. She was gutted. You then looked at my father and nodded. By this time, I had grasped the news. So when you approached me, I hurriedly said: ‘I like you very much.’ You patted my shoulder. ‘Goodbye,’ you said and walked out.
Your mother and sister were at your gate. My father took this picture of us just before y ou got into the waiting autorickshaw, a red and a black suitcase occupying most of the space on the seat. You looked at us and then at your mother and sister and then asked the driver to leave. All of us stood there long after the autorickshaw took the right at the end of the street and went out of view. I wanted to ask your mother what had happened, but they went in and locked the door.
Throughout the day, we mulled over the possibilities of your destination and the probable causes for this decision of yours. And that night, creeping out of the house to the terrace after everyone slept, I cried. You had left. Just like my mother.
People gossiped about your disappearance. There were theories, from eloping with a guy to going to your father. Your mother said to people’s faces that she didn’t want to answer any questions about you. When your father arrived with his concubine, she asked them to leave, politely, but sternly.
My grandmother couldn’t attend the ritual as she was still unwell. But after everyone left, your mother and sister came home with food. By that time, my sister and I had told G randmother about your mother not wanting to talk about you. So when your mother arrived, my grandmother sat upright, pulled her blanket up to her neck, and asked your mother ‘How are you?’
‘I’m good enough,’ your mother said, ‘considering that I’ve lost three daughters.’
Sitting on the edge of my grandmother’s bed, I listened.
‘She is angry. For what her father did to us. For what I did to us. She thinks that she and her sisters didn’t get married because of me.’
Before she could finish, she was crying.
Your sister, who had been quiet since the funeral, spoke. ‘She has been asking my mother to divorce my father since the day he brought the other lady home.’ And she looked at your mother, in a way which made me understand that she, too, held your mother responsible for everything that had happened.
We were all quiet for a while. The monsoon was striking the single window in my grandmother’s room.
‘How can I divorce him? He might have left me, but he’s still my husband and your father. And do you understand what she’s asking of me? If I even think of applying for a divorce, our community will frown upon us. And no sensible family within the community will ask for your hands,’ your mother said.
‘But why has she left?’ said my grandmother, exasperated probably by her fever and her inability to help your sobbing mother. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘She is angry. You know her – always finding fault with society and our culture and rituals. She asked me to divorce her father and let them marry men who are OK with their mother-in-law having the nerve to divorce her husband and their father-in-law living with another woman. Men who may not be from our caste and who may not have our status.’ There were fresh tears. ‘What kind of men would they be? How can we be sure that they wouldn’t leave my daughters for other women?’
‘You married into the same caste, from a family of honour into a family of honour. You were a good wife. Then why did your husband leave you?’ burst out my sister.
‘Talk some sense,’ said my grandmother.
‘I am talking sense, Grandma,’ said my sister. ‘Even after these many years, has Father left us for another woman? A man who wants to leave, leaves. When a man decides to leave, what caste he belongs to is the last thing on his mind.’
My father, who had, until then, been staring at the night on the other side of the window, looked at my sister. And he smiled.
After almost a month passed and we had not heard from you, my father asked your mother if he should approach his friends in the police department and look for you. But your mother refused. ‘I know my daughter. She will not come back unless she wants to. She doesn’t want to, yet.’
Below the photo are the words: ‘The road she took had trees.’
You have short hair, like a man. All of it silver. Your cheeks have shrunk and stuck to your face bones. A chain, with drum-shaped brown and black beads, holds a black-metallic dollar. The dollar has a small black stone at the centre. From your ears dangle brown, drum-cut earrings. Your plain, maroon kurta has a round neck. You are embracing my wife, your wrinkled hand on her shoulder. Your nails are not painted. Your lips are glossed a mud-brown and stretched over your teeth in a full smile. Behind you is the wall, painted cream, and spotless.
I didn’t recognise you the first time I saw the photo. My sister had come to keep my 15-year-old daughter company during the week my wife was away in Bombay for her teacher training. When my wife returned, she sat us down and showed us pictures from Bombay on her camera. We saw all of them, flipping through the photos. My wife doesn’t have it in her, the photographer’s bug. She is not like me or my sister. Or, you. However much I teach her the techniques, she never quite gets them. We teased her about her photos and heard her stories of Bombay. That evening, my sister left for her house. (The first thing she did as soon as she got a job was to buy a house for herself in town. It is near the school we attended; do you remember? It is a new flat; only about seven floors, and she is on the seventh. She moved there after my engagement. My wife and I told her it was absolutely not necessary, because my wife is her best friend and that’s how we started seeing each other, but she insisted.)
After two days, she called me when I was at work. It was around three in the afternoon. As soon as I picked up the call, I said: ‘Is everything OK?’ because she never calls me when I am at work.
‘I think we found her,’ she said.
‘Found who?’ I asked, but it had already struck me. ‘Where is she?’
‘In your wife’s photos from Bombay – it’s been nagging at me from the time I saw her, but just now, just right now, I understood.’
By 3.30 pm we were at my wife’s school, going through 100s of photos she had taken in Bombay. But this time, the instant we saw you in that photo, we recognised you.
When your elder sister passed away five years back (it was a heart attack), your mother asked if we could try to find you. We tried. We contacted the police and filed a missing person’s report. We gave an advertisement, pleading with you to return, in all regional and national newspapers. My sister gave a heart-wrenching message to you through radio ads. But when there was no response for three days, your mother asked me to cremate your sister (Your father died the previous winter).
‘Let’s wait another day,’ I said. But your mother refused. ‘Maybe she knows but doesn’t want to come. She is capable of that.’
Cremating your elder sister was not as terrifying as the time I’d cremated your other sisters, but it hurt more. For days after that, my sister and I grieved along with your mother. For the daughters of the family reduced to ashes, for the father who had left his concubine for another woman, for the lady who was now neither a wife nor a concubine, for your mother whose hand life held as she outlived her daughters, and for you – lost, living, dead, happy, regretting – we didn’t know what for.
But now I know. Of all the schools in the country, should you be working in the school my wife chooses to train at? I am grateful to the universe for that.
When we recognised you in the photo, the first thing that occurred to us was to fly to Bombay to meet you. My sister and I hurried to our homes to pack our bags, but by the time I got home, I was anxious. What if you didn’t want to be discovered? So I am writing to you.
I don’t have the heart to tear those photos from my book. What if you ignore this letter? And now, after these many years, I understand what your mother had once said. You are capable of that.
When your mother dies, I will cremate her. As per her will, I will sell your house and hand over the money to your stepmother. I know you know I am not writing to you for that. I also know that you are capable of something else, too: empathy.
I have printed out this photo and stuck it on the backside cover of the same photo-book. And I have written below it: ‘Until we meet again.’
‘Madam,’ the office boy called as he entered Maya’s room. ‘A letter came in for you yesterday.’
‘Thanks,’ Maya said, getting it in her right hand. There was no ‘From’ address; only a ‘To’ address printed on the outside. She drew the scissors from the pen stand on her table and cut it open. It was a letter. In a hand that she remembered teaching how to write.
Yamuna Venugopal could be called a writer, a developmental editor, a mother, a vegan, a holistic lifestyle practitioner. Of course, all of these things are part of her human existence, but she has realised that she is none of these things. She is in search of who she is and what she is on this earth for.
Picture credits: Garrick Maguire