A thunderclup rent the time the pyre was lit on the television. It was not the time the actual pyre was lit, mind you. The pyre had already been lit earlier, cremation done, mourners dispersed. This was a re-telecast. Not everyone would remember the unseasonable thunderclap in the city that night or the sudden drizzle that followed. It happened in the place and time where Nayna lived, this Nayna, the one watching this Dyanora television with its rabbit-eared antenna, in this city, in this country, in this time, in this universe. Outside the window the sky flickered for the briefest moment, like a portal to another dimension had been peeled open roughly and then closed again. Not lightning, that was of this earth. The flickering came from something far beyond it.

This Nayna, here, did not notice it. She was glued to the television screen, which also flickered at that exact same moment, a flickering that brought for a moment the buzz of static to the screen.

The prime minister of the country had been assassinated, shot dead by her personal bodyguards while walking across from her home to her office, where a television channel was waiting to interview her. She had around 30 bullets shot at her point blank.

A pogrom had swept through the country, a pogrom so horrific that decades later the victims would find no closure. The country was now in state mourning. Maa and Pappa had exchanged cross words again this morning, and it had ended with Pappa saying he did not want to stay home with such a daayan and stomping out of the house. He had slammed the door with such force that the television went grainy and Nayna had to get up to adjust the antenna.

“Are you really a daayan?” Nayna asked. Maa smacked her across the face in reply. It stung. Maa did that often, and was sometimes contrite. This time she wasn’t, not even when the blood pooled in Nayna’s cheek and turned blue-black after a while, creating a Rorschach blot all its own. “He thinks I’m a daayan. I should really drink his blood.”

She had laughed in that strange way she sometimes did, with her laughter reaching a high-pitched crescendo that made the peeling, faded walls ring. It frightened Nayna when Maa laughed like this. Perhaps Pappa was right, Maa really was a daayan. But then she would be her loving Maa again, the moment would pass, like all such uncomfortable moments did, trembling beneath the veil of conscious acknowledgement, buried within the subconscious only to resurrect itself, years later, when Nayna would seek Maa out in the distant recesses of her memories. Nayna didn’t realise that yet. It upset Nayna to think of her mother drinking up her father’s blood in quite the nonchalant manner she would drink a glass of Rooh Afza or Rasna. What upset Nayna more was that she wouldn’t quite put it past Maa to do so.

Pappa would notice the bruise on her cheek in the evening and not comment on it. The bruise would be soothed by a thin layer of Boroline. Nayna had learnt to apply it immediately so it healed quickly. Pappa had taught her that when the slapping and hitting became a regular occurrence, but had never told Maa off for hitting Nayna. Parents hit children. Nayna swore to herself she would never ever hit her child when she had one.

Outside, unseasonal droplets began pitter-pattering on the tin cover that shaded their balcony from the sun. There was no sun right now, of course, only the unseen light of the night sky and dead stars sending them love from billions of years ago. Light that leaked from behind the clouds, edging them with the orange blue of the distant nebulas they came from. Something or someone had opened the portal that enclosed this earth, and passed into this time, this place, in that brief flickering that no one noticed.

“It’s raining, Maa.”

“An omen,” Maa grumbled. “Why else would there be thunder in November?”

“Just a drizzle, Maa,” Nayna replied.

“No, it is an omen. She sent in the army into a place of worship.”

“It was sunny when they lit the pyre,” Nayna replied with the practicality of youth that knew all the answers. The gun carriage bearing the assassinated prime minister’s body was escorted by a guard of 175 soldiers over a three-and-a-half hour journey from Teen Murti Bhavan to the banks of the Yamuna, where her older son lit the pyre. Her younger son had died a few years ago in a plane crash. They had said she’d been curiously dry-eyed at the funeral. Four days of violence had preceded this cremation. Though Nayna was vaguely aware of some unrest, the real horror of what had happened would unfold later, much later, for decades later the dead and the living would cry out for justice and reparation.

The day it happened, there had been nothing on the television or radio until the night. Old Bosco uncle, retired professor of philosophy, University of Mumbai, on the ground floor of B wing, heard the news on the BBC radio and had been yelling it throughout the day from his balcony at whoever was passing by. He was half crack everyone said, no one paid him much heed. He could rightfully be called “Doctor”, he told Nayna once. He was a PhD, and Nayna had laughed at him saying, only those who studied medicine were doctors and a PhD meant a phone directory. He had laughed back and nodded, saying his PhD was not worth the paper it was printed on, and wouldn’t even fetch him anything in raddi money.

He stopped yelling about the prime minister being shot when his grandson gently escorted him back into the house with the promise of tea with bread and strawberry jam. They realised he had been right when Salma Sultan announced the death of the prime minister on the 9 pm Doordarshan news on October 31, with her characteristic gravitas and immaculate diction. Nayna couldn’t remember whether the iconic newsreader had her trademark rose tucked behind her ear the night she read out the news. Perhaps she had not. It would have been disrespectful, and Salma Sultan was always so proper, so graceful, so elegant. Maa could have been a newsreader. She was beautiful, with her limpid grey eyes, strong brows, lips like a bow and an oval face framed by thick, wavy, black hair, hair up in a bun or down her hips in a long plait. Nayna had inherited all of her, her grey eyes, milky skin, hair black as night. Maa spoke beautifully, liltingly, correctly, softly. But when Pappa was around, her voice grew and grew.

All Those Who Wander

Excerpted with permission from All Those Who Wander, Kiran Manral, Amaryllis.