The clouds had thundered over our Island on the day of my sister’s funeral. It was the midsummer of May 1972. The heat was rippling over our paltry Island. The parrots were screaming out of the Peepul and the sky like pewter was glaring.
The island of port Adamaro was a scattered affair. At one end of the island was the port and on the other end was the old factory. In between the two dwelled a town that had no desire to thrive. Our Island had small colonies and had a quaint quality that did not seem to grow on you right away. The days were the same, like the Mandavi over the harbour flowing so slow into the island, one couldn’t see it.
The sun was hiding behind the bulbous clouds and the grey sky engulfed the bay around us. The lurch that came first sounded like a rumble of thunder; it gurned of an impending storm on the horizon.
Mother, Father and I huddled together in a shed as the storm passed away. The pyre was lit. We watched it grow, blazing into a fire mountain, cascading, backed against the violent sea. The tempest’s wind couldn’t topple it over. Even in her death, she burned bright. They scattered her ashes into the sea. The pyre fizzled as the twilight loomed around us.
It was two weeks and five days after her death when the realisation settled on us.
I’d left the tap open and it had flooded the living room. I scrambled to remember. How had I forgotten to turn it off? Again. Mother and Father realised much later. I’d sit in a corner when the mourning guests would visit us, to trail off and ask them why were they here. I would forget to have dinner, only to eat twice in the middle of the night and vomit it. I would delete sister’s pictures and then search for them frantically on my phone. Mother would cry and scream, “I do not want any of this”. They watched their two daughters evaporate, slowly and then sharply, then all of a sudden, unlearning their own rules. The boats lost their oars and the lighthouse stopped navigating ships.
The doctor’s report from the city arrived on the Sunday ship. Amnesia. The aftermath of grief. My sister’s parting gift.
It all began with the murmurs and the whispers. On the day of the funeral, the members from the opposition party had come by in their jeeps, flaring their party’s flag. They had put up hoardings and graffities all over the Island.
THE VIGOUR SHALL LIVE ON…
‘The Panthers are an American menace. We do not want them on our soil too’, they would circle in the city market with loudspeakers.
The Dalits from the neighbouring town had attended her funeral. The police had intervened only to let the killers go off on a bail. Floating in the middle of the sea, our island was not safe. The violence had seeped onto our little Island. Distance couldn’t really hide the human ugliness.
The Island had flourished when my sister lived, now bleeding with musky tears of brown soil streams. On Sundays, we would go down to the beach. Mother, Father, Sister and I would go to the market and buy snacks. We would carry a picnic basket and would fish by the harbour. Sister and I would sleep on Mother’s lap and Father would tell us stories.
My Sister had become a ghost. An imaginary figment of our memory.
I would forget to carry books to school, the word for stairs became the word for sky and the curry cooking on the pan would dry into a thick paste. I would stack random items together: common juice boxes, caps, books, underwear, pencil shavings, wax cream.
I found myself forgetting conversations, discussing fuddled foggy memories, repeating stories over again and cherishing strangers as old friends. My mind felt like a pulp mango, ripe with the memories of my past but slowly sulking and rotting into a yellow lifeless seed.
The report revealed numerous spikes. A zig-zag of green and blue lines. A terrain of my diseased brain. I forgot what my sister looked like. She slowly faded away from the puzzle of my mind, one piece at a time, rumbling and smashing into the other pieces. Trying to make up an image that no longer existed. To make up something that had already been forgotten.
The local doctor analysed the report. He sat down beside me, with a notepad in his hand and looked at me with a countenance of utter vulnerability. “You will forget”, he said. I wasn’t upset at the sheer notion of sister’s absence. I was forgetting, while the others had already forgotten. Who would remind them?
“It is an incurable disease.”. It was not a disease; it was how humans survived.
We forget. We do not want to remember the things that make us uncomfortable. Father, Mother, the trees, the sand, the sun, everyone had let go. I wouldn’t.
It was during the morning prayer, that I’d questioned my sister. She had peddled on the cycle, back to the house in the wee hours of the morning. She had escaped through the back door and had come home with a document hidden beneath the pleats of her saree.
“Don’t tell Father”, she said. I nodded. It was then, the beginning of the end.
Father had been to the city. When he came back, he announced, that I would be going to a college in the city. Mother was apprehensive. Sister was elated.
“Why don’t you come with me?”, I asked her.
“To babysit you”, she laughed, “no, please”.
“What do you want? You could teach in a school or a college.”.
“From you? Or life?”
“What do want for yourself?”. She had looked out of the window.
“You’ll come visit me?”. She promised.
We went to the park and loitered around. To celebrate we ate coconut ice cream. She saw a Nightingale sitting on the tree. She stared at him for far too long. It was a few minutes before I realised that she was stuck. I waited for a long time. I was looking at her and she did not seem like herself.
Sister picked out the key with her yellowed fingers, “How many nights?”. She shrugged and continued to speak with the man. His silhouette was stiff, like spare people whom no one is concerned to introduce. I was now an accomplice in her late-night charades. We’d cross the narrow road between the high ivied walls that ran along the creek behind the parallel side of the ruined old factory. There, a man would collect the papers and the leaflets. He did not dare to count or read the text. He patted her with respect.
“That is some good work comrade”, the man said.
At the time I believed she was meeting boyfriends. The man then left the ruins unobserved, looking around, making sure he was not followed. Not that there was anyone to follow him, but it was a sound procedure. We would enter the backyard by the iron gate, climbing up the tree and skirting across the roof to our bedroom window.
On other days when the house seemed silent, when Mother and Father had an early dinner; she would slip into the bleak dark of the night and disappear into the obscure madness, to come home at dawn with the nocturnal wind. She would stretch into her bed, smiling at me through the sheets to wake up with a fiery expedition at the first drop of Father’s morning call.
In my own lifetime, the creek had changed from blue to dead grey brown, so thickened with the scum that humans bring with them, that one could not see one’s feet in the shallows.
Sister persuaded me to come for the poetry reading event at the school. My sister was a teacher at the only school on the Island. The kids wrote about local folklores and mythical monologues. Only the Dalits, one kid recited, are bought together by forces unknown, so very far from the many rivers and the roads, and are deserted into tiny Islands and secluded waters across of India. The other recited a poem: The golden nightingale of the empire wails, who has withdrawn sailing earthward. One could glimpse her shadow against the edge of the moon, disappearing from the daylight.
In the sun and silence, I would sit on the warm trunk of a fallen Peepul tree, from where one could see the old post office. Perhaps before the goons had marched there with their guns and batons and had found sister’s post records. They had ransacked the office, leaving letters and documents flying through the roof, stomping over them, frantically looking for evidence.
It was the first incident.
The goons from the opposition party, who had led the anti-Dalit rally, had received an anonymous tip that had every postal detail coming to the Island. In the quiet that followed, they traced links coming from international cargoes- The clippings of the Panther Chronicle, letters to the Panthers, leaflets, post from the Americans. The letters which started with,
“My brothers and my sisters”.
I knew then that the world was constructed solely for subjugation, nothing was fair and forgetting was necessary. I still feel how wrong was I then. They cajoled Mother and Father. They ransacked our home. We had our mouths half open, breathing slowly, eyes suspended over the batons. One of them spoke to Father; it was a small husky sound, barely a whisper but clean and distinct: She stops or we kill her.
I focus, steadily, on a moment from my own past. I have watched my mind evaporate like camphor into the air, in love with what is left of my sister. On Fridays, I practise remembering her voice, duplicating her walk, mimicking her body language, humming songs the way she would to which my Mother interrupts me, “Stop, you won’t remember!”.
At night, when Father falls asleep, I hug Mother, pressing my face into her chest and listening to her heart beat while whispering sighs of grief. We both shut our eyes and endure through the night.
I dance to music to realise that I have been listening to the same song since half an hour. I keep waking up in the middle of the night and walk towards the window. Peering into the dim shade of the abyss at the end of the street, I expect sister to wave at me from there, promising me that she’d be home soon. I wake up in the morning, and the rest of the night seems like a blur.
Amnesia and grief, are sisters, they work hand in hand.
My mind is persistent; it doesn’t remember. I try to keep a last broken picture of my sister in my mind but it holds on its desire to burn it away.
The neighbours come by to ask for some salt and for some sugar. It frightens me, Mother and Father have forgotten. The days refuse to change at her absence. I cannot tell if she was here. Her ghost lingers somewhere. But not here.
Once in a while, when I am in my bed, not asleep, I see Mother and Father standing in the doorway of my bedroom watching me. I know their thoughts. They think of my sister and how they cannot keep me away from harm. There is no answer but they are relieved that I am forgetting. I could see the dissatisfaction and the jealousy their eyes screamed; like they were the ones who deserved to forget it more than I did.
Mine is a family of believers. There are lies which are fading away and diminishing with time. We either deem to accept it or forget it. But the Island remembers.
The collective amnesia basks on the surface, till it chips into tiny screams which seep into the Island, deeper and stronger by night. The Island shakes at the nonchalant animosity and the sheltering of the forgotten. It births baby turtles and baby crabs between the same sand grains.
Only the Island remembers. It rumbles in her memory. The coconuts crack open and the leaves recite her tales. The baby turtles grow older and ask their mothers about my sister. The ocean growls and the Peepul’s roots reach for the soil wanting to go back into the earth. The Island slips into the rhythm and its shadow strangles me. The Island howls for her.
The doctor switches off the machine and scribbles on his pad. How do I tell him I need medicines before I forget her or a reminiscing syrup for Mother and Father. It frightens me, the lingering silence and the comfortable oblivion that everyone has settled into. In forgetting her, we are erasing a part of who we are.
I look out of the hospital window and I see fleeting images; I envisage faces peering through the sails, searching for the forgotten voice that had chanted from a tiny Island and echoed across oceans and continents.
My mind struggles to keep her alive. I panic; will I forget her? Perhaps in the end, I will not remember her at all. Perhaps, she will be forgotten. The doctor prescribes me the medicines. The report says positive. “It is not forgetting, but remembering that we need”, I murmur. The doctor does not hear me. I want to scream instead.
On weekends Father and I play songs on my sister’s piano. In the late evening, we go down to the departmental store. I buy biscuits for us to eat by the beach. Mother scuffles around in the food section. There are many tourists buying fishing supplies in the store. The beach is crowded and there are youngsters buying alcohol from the store. Father waits by the door for us. I glance out the window. It begins to drizzle. People run to get shelter. I look at Mother and she smiles at me through the shelves. Outside a storm thunders and the Island, it roars.