The lockdown has divided us into two kinds of people. The first kind copes by doing productive things like exercising, making art, reading, and taking courses. The second kind copes by doing absolutely nothing. No prizes for guessing which category I fall into.
My paints and my creativity have both frozen. I’ve become an expert onion chopper, a waiter, a dishwasher, and a general handyman though. The situation has forced me to.
“Arush, do you want me to chop that while you peel the ginger?” my aunt asks.
“No, Mami, it’s fine. I can do it,” I reply. My eyes sting as I chop the onions at my uncle’s restaurant.
“Such a blessing having you here. Really, I don’t know what we’d do without you,” she says as she stirs the dal in the pan.
I detest being here. The very smell of spices hitting hot oil and lentils in a pressure cooker is nauseating. There’s nothing more I want to do than get out of this place. But how can I not help out? After everything our families have been through, I have no option but to assist my aunt. Without this restaurant, she will drown. Her son who is in the US has asked her multiple times to shut it down and move there, but she won’t hear of it.
“What do you know of our early struggles setting this up? It’s easy for you to tell me to close it. Do you know it’s only because of this that we could afford to send you to the US?” she yelled at him on the phone. She resents the fact that he couldn’t come to his father’s funeral. Though I want to point out to her that it’s not his fault that the pandemic took away my uncle, I don’t. I pretend I haven’t heard. It’s been almost a year since we lost my uncle, but I still have nightmares about it.
I wake up sweating and it takes me a while to fall asleep again. The horror of that day, when the hospital called us, is etched in my brain. The pain is raw. I don’t know how my aunt copes. The worst part is that it’s only after a person has gone that you realise how much they mattered to you. While my uncle was alive, it wasn’t as if I chatted with him every day. But he was always around. Now there’s a kind of emptiness when I go to their place. My aunt’s eyes have lost their sparkle. Everything is shrouded in a thin layer of grief.
At last, I am done chopping and my aunt thanks me. Both of us have cleaned up the kitchen, washed the vessels and made every surface shining and spotless. I tell her that I will be back the next day as I leave for my home, which is next door.
“Arush, there you are! Did you eat something at Mami’s place?” my mother asks, as I let myself in with my key.
“Not hungry, Ma,’ I say as I head for the shower. The smell of the spices gets into my clothes, my hair, my nails and I need to wash it all out.
“Arush, you’ve become so skinny. You need to eat properly at your age. I’ve made biryani …”
I shut the door to the bathroom and her voice trails off. I don’t want to be rude, but today I am in no mood to even listen to her. I am exhausted. Physically and emotionally. I want to crawl under my duvet and sleep. But I can’t. As soon as I finish my shower, I have to head over to my parents’ saree shop and help them out.
The shop is one of the most popular shops in Derbyshire that sells Indian garments. They need me there. Now that flights have resumed, the first shipment of sarees from India has arrived. Business has just begun to pick up after two years of very little sales. The existing stock had been depleted. I know Dad had to make many calls to make this shipment happen and how important the reopening is for my parents. At their request, I designed little flyers announcing the reopening of the store, and Jenna helped me distribute them among people visiting the gurudwara. We stood outside in the cold for about four hours and every Indian who visited the gurudwara that day went back with a flyer.
My parents are excited about the grand reopening. Mami is supplying the snacks from her restaurant and she thinks it is good publicity as all the customers will get to sample the food, and will also know that the restaurant is opening after being shut for months. It feels nice to see my family bustling about and working hard. After months of depressing news all around, it is good to see a glimmer of hope on their faces. The flyers are the only design work I’ve done ever since I graduated.
Jenna, bless her, keeps trying to motivate me. She drops in every now and then and shares the work she has been producing. Puja, in her own way, tries her best too but over video calls and emails. It’s just not the same as meeting her in person. I am tired of this long-distance thing we’re doing. I want to see her. I want to hold her in my arms, kiss her, and thank her for all her long emails. But I have no idea how I can travel to India anytime soon. My life now seems to be tied to my aunt’s restaurant and my parents’ saree shop.
Puja also doesn’t understand why I am unable to paint anymore. I’ve tried explaining but she insists that I try again. Painting is not about “trying.” Painting isn’t like cooking, where you chop up a few ingredients and follow a recipe. How can I make her understand that after seeing my family in so much pain, after taking on a lot of responsibility for my aunt’s restaurant and my parents’ shop, art has lost its power to soothe, to comfort? Art doesn’t come to me anymore.
Puja has asked me to take grief counselling many times. She recommends Dr Harsh, who her sister Divya is speaking to. When I hear what he charges, I am shocked. I tell her that I can take free sessions here in the UK, but I don’t want to. It’s not therapy I need. I just need my family’s financial situation to improve. I wish I had not overheard Dad speaking to Ma about how the money situation is very tight, and how the savings we have will last only for two months if the business doesn’t pick up. I am worried. I haven’t shared this with Puja because she will offer to send me money and that’s the last thing I want. Also, I’ve read up all about the grieving process and it is going to take time to heal – whether I speak to a grief counsellor or not.
Jenna understands. She lost her grandmother and she is grieving too. But, at least, like she says, her granny lived a full life. Unlike my uncle, who was only 51. Jenna has inherited her grandmother’s cottage, and she says every room contains her memories. I’ve been urging her to redecorate it and get rid of her granny’s stuff. We must let go of the past at some point if we have to move on. But Jenna can’t bring herself to do it. So, we all go through grief in our own way, doing what we can to cope.
I am tired of it all.
But there’s nothing I can do except go on.
Excerpted with permission from All the Love You Deserve, Preeti Shenoy, Westland.