Before all this there’d already been one death. That of a man, whose wife refused to lift herself up with his cane. This man was the husband of this same mother and the father of this same daughter. His presence was still felt, even in death. But regardless of whether or not he had died, it seemed his widow certainly had. At least that’s how she looked as she lay in her room.
Their room. In a corner of the house. Their bed. In winter. Thick quilt. Hot-water bottle. Woollen cap. The cane still hanging from its hook. The cup still sitting on the teapoy by the bed, with no water in it. When he was alive, this was where he placed his teeth at night. In the morning, he’d reach first for the teeth, then for the cane.
Outside, tooth-chattering cold; inside, Ma, teeth a-chatter.
She was a bundle, shrinking ever more from moment to moment, sending out a scrambled signal from within her vast quilt that she was still in there somewhere. The bundle scrunched-up on one side, then slid up a bit, then down, then over there. Was she testing to see how far she could spread herself? Or was she just turning her face away, turning her back on her children and grandchildren, and in the process dragging herself towards the wall to press against it with all her few-years-shy-of-eighty might to see if she could slip into it entirely?
The wall plays a special role in our story (As do the doors, since you use them to get from one side to another, from here to there, on and on through the centuries, from forever to forever).
It’s not an unusual wall. No special artistic features. Not a Thar desert wall studded with tiny mirrors, or a wall covered with a collaged design of rocky peaks or some such, with different shapes and colours, or spangled with tinsel garlands and printed with designs for a wedding; nor was it seized with a duplicitous desire in the sweep of modernity to appear old while being new, nor eager to trick our eyes into seeing a plastic wall as mud-plastered, bristling with fake grasses, or set with a mosaic pattern in smooth marble; nor still was it an awesome, colourful, tall, shiny orange-blue-green wall made by multinationals that would never fade or scratch or peel, imperishable, immortal, enduring.
It was just a simple brick-and-cement wall – a yellowing, whitewashed, middle-class wall, holding the ceiling, floor, window, and door together, with a network of pipes, wires, and cables arrayed within, enfolding the entire home in its wailfulness.
This was the sort of wall towards which Ma, now just this side of eighty, was sliding, gradually. A cold wall, during those winter days, and riddled with cracks, the way ordinary walls can be.
What can never be known for certain was whether the wall was playing the greater role in pulling Ma towards it, or whether it was her own desire to show her back to her family that drew her in. Ma just kept getting closer and closer to the wall, and her back became a wall itself, keeping at bay those who came to coax and cajole: Get up, Ma, Get up!
No, I won’t get up, no getting up, not now, the bundle wrapped in the quilt mumbled. No, no, not now, not getting up.
These words alarmed them, and her children grew more insistent. They were afraid. Oh! Our dear mother! Papa’s gone and he’s taken her with him!
Stop sleeping so much, please get up.
She keeps sleeping. She just lies there. Eyes closed. Back to them. They whisper.
When Papa was alive, she had put her all into looking after him. She was alert, at the ready, no matter how tired. Busy getting ground to a pulp; very much alive. Irritable, upset, coping, faltering, breathing breath after breath after breath.
Everyone’s breath flowed through her, and she breathed everyone’s breath.
And now she’s saying she won’t get up. As though Papa was her only reason for living. Now he’s gone, has her reason too?
No, Ma, no, the children insisted, look outside, the sun is shining, get up, pick up the cane, it’s hanging right here, try some roasted rice, it has peas in it. Maybe she has loose motions, give her a digestive powder!
No, I will noooot. No, nyo, nyooo, Ma mewls.
She’s tired, poor thing, alone and defeated, lift her up, get her involved; entertain her! Sympathy flows from them immeasurable as the waters of the Ganga, washing over Ma’s back.
Noooot nooooow, Ma tries to scream. But her voice comes out a whimper.
Did Ma think that her children’s efforts to make her live were pushing her into the wall? Was that it? When footsteps neared the room, she’d turn her back, she’d stick to the wall. She’d play dead, eyes and nose closed, ears shut, mouth sewn, mind numb, desires extinct; her bird had flown.
But the children were also stubborn. They dug in. How to make eyes nose ears grow on that back?
It was all the same old, same old to her. Same squabbling and squalling. Same fire, fuel, and flour. Same wash the diapers. Nyoooo, nyooooo, she repeated.
Here was no machination: her words – machinelike. A machine winding down. A worn-out mechanism. In the languor of conserving energy, she mumbled weakly, no, nnnnno, nnnoooo.
Nooooo not gettting up anymooooore.
Just a few words, but they alarmed the children. Ma is dying!
Words. But what are words, really, hmmm? They’re mere sounds with meanings dangling from them. That have no logic. They find their own way. Arising from the squabble between a sinking body and a drowning mind, they grab hold of antonyms. The seed planted was a date tree; what blossomed was hibiscus. They wrestle with themselves – wrapped up in their own game.
No, now I won’t get up: who was playing with the fear and death of that phrase? These mechanical words became magical, and Ma kept repeating them, but they were becoming something else, or already had.
An expression of true desire or the result of aimless play?
No, no, I won’t get up. Noooooo, I won’t rise nowwww. Nooo rising nyooww. Nyooo riiise nyoooo. Now rise new. Now, I’ll rise anew.
Excerpted with permission from Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Books.