A sharp ringtone rips through the still night. It has to be an emergency because my phone is on silent-mode for everyone else.
“It is Raghu mama,” my sister gasps. I am relieved everyone I love is safe, but I don’t tell her that. She goes through the details while I blink into the darkness. A motorbike engine coughs aloud. Some people don’t sleep.
My pillow still holds my warmth, some drool and a slight impression. I snuggle back in after the call.
Raghu Mama’s face pops up. Silvery strands stick out like blades of grass. He had perfect teeth even at 87. I almost laugh thinking of all my root-canals.
My favorite ringtone I have reserved for Amma rings.
“Kannamma, you heard?” Amma uses my pet name. It means she is feeling low. I hear her sniff. “A good soul,” her voice trembles. “But we all have to go one day.” She is philosophical, and I can’t help wonder why death brings out the philosopher in all of us.
It was Raghu Mama who bought me my first crayon, took me to the Richie Rich ice cream parlor, got me my first pile of comic books and the animal stencil box nobody else in my class had.
I want to stop my mind from wandering and go to my happy place. Fresh dew drops on the grass, a pattering of rain, the strumming of veena and the creases on my forehead ease, but the green border of my yellow Pavadai peeks in. It was a birthday gift. Raghu Mama took me in a taxi to the air-conditioned store in T. Nagar. The man with the sacred ash on his forehead showed us colour after colour. My fingers had traced the silvery motifs along the green border, and Raghu Mama had bought it right away. It remained my most expensive outfit for the longest time.
No. I grate my teeth and bury my head.
Wisps of cotton float and I prance in the field, but a familiar music breaks my trance. What happened to that silent mode? I grumble.
It is my cousin from Atlanta. He is the only family living outside India other than me.
“Hey.” He says and his blurry image fills my phone screen. Is he in a grocery store wearing his work clothes?
“Are you going to the funeral?” He stares at me.
“No.” I furrow my brows.
We are at the dinner table eating idli – sambar. Raghu mama is to my right. He is wearing a super white dhoti and a checked shirt.
“She doesn’t like her Raghu mama anymore,” he throws an accusatory look at me. I avoid his gaze and focus on my plate.
“Why?” Amma chuckles, but arches her right eyebrow. It means she is unhappy.
“She refused to go with me to the cinema.” Raghu Mama reaches for my hand and I move. “I had homework,” I blurt out. Surely a twelve-year-old would have homework.
“You can do it on Sunday,” Amma chips in.
“But I have a math test on Monday.” I arrest the conversation with an imaginary math test.
My alarm goes off.
A good run should make up for everything.
The air is crisp, and a sliver of moon teases from the clouds. There is no one on that stretch till I turn the corner.
“The tickle game is my favorite,” I hear Raghu Mama.
I turn on the music and slow my pace.
A jogger from the other side waves.
“Your hands are so thin. You should eat more.” He is massaging my arms, or that’s how I like to remember.
There is more. Scenes that were long forgotten slip out. They threaten to play with alarming clarity. Laughter, his breath, his stubble, his eyes, mock in circles. My knees wobble and everything blurs. I don’t know if it is a car, but something screeches to a halt. But I am safe and seated on a bench. A bird flaps to the tree and a dull pink blankets the sky. I wish to do nothing but watch the ripples on the lake.
A series of beeps snaps me from my trance. I struggle to my feet to head home.
“You never use the lipstick Raghu mama bought you,” Amma had asked once.
Why didn’t Amma know?
I threw his gifts one morning. There were perfumes, nail paints, colourful bindis, bangles, bracelets. I never used any of them.
“At least give them to our maid,” Amma was shocked.
“They are not good,” I had protested.
There was never any confrontation. All that remained was anger and pain while he had happily gone ahead and died. No remorse.
I dash to the shower to scrub away every touch and every kiss from my skin. Cold water washes over my body and a knot loosens. Nobody knows the tears that flow down the drain.
A piping hot coffee and newspaper greet me. Messages from every known relative pour into my phone. Someone has uploaded a picture of him resting in peace. Three lines of sacred ash glisten on his forehead and a smile is etched on his lips. The world will never know the beast that lurked inside, but he had read my message. I knew he had because of the blue tick.
“I will never forgive you for what you did.” I had said. He had not replied.
Did he delete my message? Or is it still there? Will anyone read it?
I scroll down my phone screen and I see it again – tiny, sharp, uptick in blue.
My fingers shake as I make the call.
“Amma,” the throbbing lump gives in.
Sudha Subramanian is an independent writer of Indian origin living in Dubai. Her words have found space in many anthologies and magazines. Sudha loves a good chai and dreams of visiting 50 countries before she turns 51. She is a tree hugger and an amateur bird watcher. Connect with her on Twitter @sudhasubraman or on Instagram @sudha_subraman.