“So you admit it – this plant’s dead,” Meher said.

“No, no, it’s just sickly,” I stepped in hastily. “It’s all the smog that was in Delhi and that yucky-mucky water. It’s not dead. The only thing dead here is...”

Mom winced and I wanted to kick myself. She turned away, pretending to look at the other plants closely. I bet she wished she still had her smog mask on, so it would hide that pained expression on her face. UGH, what was wrong with me? I didn’t mean to be mean, I never do, but somehow I just couldn’t find a way to be not-mean.

Here we were – saddled with forty-two plants and no green-thumbed father to tend to them anymore. Or to us. Mom had always done a fantastic job caring for us, but lately, she just seemed to be in her own planet of grief and loss.

We all were, really. Move over, Mr Musk and Mr Bezos – the Kumars had perfected the art of travelling into the void. And who could blame us? After all, we used to be a family of four. Well, four and forty- two plants. And now we were three, and what looked like forty-one plants.

“Come on, Mom,” Meher said.

“Fine, you are right. There is no helping this one. Anyway, how are we supposed to squeeze forty-one – oh well, all right, forty-two – plants into this tiny apartment?” Mom looked exhausted. Her grey hair was standing up straight, framing her face like an electrically charged cloud, her glasses were smudgy and askew and she now seemed to be leaning against the wall for support, precariously close to the cactus.

I stared at the brown spots on the plant. I couldn’t look at what was left of my family. If I did, I would start crying. “We will manage,” I finally replied.

“This is a tiny house, Savi. Where will we keep them all?” Mom sounded a little high-pitched now.

I straightened my shoulders. “They’re Dad’s plants – we cannot dump them. Even this de...sickly one.” I realised I was shouting. I had curled my hands into fists. My nails dug into my palms until I felt the pain numb whatever it was that was making me shout. All of a sudden, it felt like in the last few months, all Mom and I had done was to get on each other’s nerves and fight.

“You don’t even know how to take care of them. All three of us have such brown thumbs that we may as well be made of my terrible, burnt rotis. In fact, if someone gave an award for the ‘Most Lethal Plant Killers’, we would win that hands down.” Mom slumped against the wall, her hands trembling while clutching a brown leaf. “I can’t let these plants die, I’d rather give them to a gardener. Abhay would never forgive me.”

“We can’t give them away – he’d never forgive us,” I shot back.

We both stared at each other. Tears shone in Mom’s eyes.

It had been six months, four days and three hours since Dad had gone for a staff meeting and never returned. He’d had a heart attack and in four minutes and twenty-five seconds, he’d been declared dead.

Just like that.

One minute laughing, and texting on our family messaging group, and the next, dead.

And, along with it, the world as I knew it ceased to exist. Mom changed. My sister changed. I changed too.

Last year in biology class, Rangarajan Ma’am had taught us about a purple frog that lived in the Western Ghats. As she had pulled up a photo of the frog on the screen, the class had burst into ewwwws. The poor Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis looked like a wet, shapeless balloon carved out of rocks. At that time, I had felt bad for the poor creature which apparently was so shy, it spent most of its life underground, and scientists had failed to notice it until the early 2000s.

Since then, it felt like a bulbous purple frog was sitting on my heart all the time. Cold, hard and clammy.

Now it felt like that shapeless, heavy, bloated creature had taken permanent residence in my tiny heart-flat. It pressed down on my heart and my brain, making me feel exhausted. Constantly. Which is why every time I opened my mouth to speak, the words came out wrong. Like the steel that tore the earth apart in quarries and mines. My heart would start hammering, my mouth felt dry, and all the nice words I meant to say would just flop out of my brain. I was cold and hard to everyone.

To Mom. To Meher. To Shabana Fufi, our neighbour in Delhi. To Mamta Mausi, who had worked in our home since the day I was born. To Raghu Uncle, who had ironed our clothes. To Murthy Sir, my favourite teacher. To Khosla Ma’am, the teacher I dreaded most. To Rahul, Chetna and Feroze, my friends in school. To everyone. Soon, it felt easier to say little or nothing. Now I’d never see them again, which meant there was no chance of saying anything mean – the one good thing about this move.

A move that Mom made voluntarily. To get away from it all. New job, new beginnings or some rubbish like that. Shajarpur.

What sort of a name was that for a metro city – even if the air was miraculously clean and the weather perfect, untouched by climate change? Where people didn’t need to wear masks. How could the world keep spinning, how was everyone so happy when it felt like my heart was never going to beat again? How could it – with that purple frog squatting on it?

I really didn’t know what to tell Mom. But just then Dad’s pet plant (he insisted he didn’t have one, but we all knew it was the jasmine) shuddered even though there was no wind. What was up with these plants, I wondered, as a sweet, sad smell enveloped us. For a moment, the cold, hard grip of steel around my heart loosened.

“I will figure out how to take care of them,” I said while watching Meher as she held out her hand and helped Mom up. No one else was dying around here.

Savi and the Memory Keeper

Excerpted with permission from Savi and the Memory Keeper, Bijal Vachharajani, Hachette India.