In my opinion, I became mad because of Appachan’s departure. Appachan – Mama’s appachan, actually, and my grandfather – did not die; he went away.

This is how it began.

I had to prepare myself for two eventualities:

1. Appachan’s departure.
2. My isolation.

Up until then, whether we were physically together or not, Appachan’s spirit was always with me. Not performing miraculous deeds or anything, just making sure that I knew I was not alone. Like everyone else, I too had a family – Papa, Mama, siblings – but Appachan was the anchor of my life. So, to be perfectly honest, it was not his death but my imminent orphanhood that scared me the most. I felt guilty about my selfishness but, as I am sure you know, these are not feelings that are within our control. Appachan saw the terror on my face. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I will always be with you, even after my death.”

The issue was this: I did not take the existence of the spirits of the dead all that seriously. For me, Appachan’s spirit was something embedded in his material body. I did believe in the spirits of the departed, but I saw them more as comical beings riding around on spears. Not that I thought the spear made them necessarily cruel or animalistic – I just took it to be an instrument they used for navigation. Also, I could not imagine that the spirits of Mathiri valyammachi, Kuncheriya valyappachan and Anna valyamma would possess positive qualities like love or empathy. As far as I was concerned, they had always been comical beings. So how could Appachan be any different?

“Listen, Maria,” Appachan said, holding my hand, “I’m giving you an important responsibility. You must take me safely across to the Other World. You’ll see many of our people along the way but avoid them all. You should hand me over only to Mathiri valyammachi. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Appacha.”

“Right, then. Hold on tight. Let’s begin our journey.”

I liked the dramatic way in which he behaved at the time of his death.

On the first day, I did not see anyone special. Perhaps I was still outside the gravitational field of the Other World. Or perhaps I was not yet fully prepared mentally to enter that world.

I was not able to eat anything properly because I was holding onto Appachan’s hand the entire time. The only consolation was the snacks Ammachi brought me from time to time. Ammachi was very practical and continued to take care of the affairs of the household, perhaps more efficiently than usual. The house was packed with relatives – Appachan and Ammachi’s children, their children’s children and so on – who had come to attend Appachan’s imminent death. Ammachi knew death was only an ordinary, if rare, event that occurred in every family. All that the rest of us could do was to ensure that the person about to die could do so in peace.

I was munching on a neyyappam held in my free hand when Appachan opened his eyes and looked at me. “Maria,” he said in a serious voice, “try and do the job you’re given with a bit more integrity.”

I looked back and forth at Appachan and at the half-eaten neyyappam in my hand, not knowing what to do with it.

“Well, finish it then. Otherwise, you won’t stop thinking about it.”

Those were Appachan’s last words.

I want to hug Mathiri valyammachi. But, unlike the mischievous person in my imagination, the person I see is a stern-faced old woman. She is not attractive to look at – I didn’t really know whether she had been an attractive person because I have never seen a picture of her. She looks human but she reminds me of the alien creature in the movie, ET, except that the ET alien had a soft face whereas hers looks parched and has an expression like a smoke-cloud.

I begin to tell her about Appachan.

“I know,” she says, interrupting me.

“I’m your great-granddaughter, Geevarghese appachan’s granddaughter.”

“Leave the thing here and go.”

“What thing?”

“The thing you brought.”

“Aiyo! That’s not a thing, that’s Appachan!’

“Yes, leave it here and go away.”

“But Appachan is not a thing, Appachan is Appachan!”

“When you’re in someone else’s place, learn to respect what they say. I told you to leave it there, so just do so. Understood?”

“Yes. Here it is.”

I want to say “Yes, Valyammachi”, but refrain because I am afraid I might break some other rule.

The place is like a desert, windswept. Everything I see is two-dimensional, and the sights, well, images more like, appear and disappear at great speed only to be replaced by new ones.

“Why is everything here two-dimensional?” I ask Mathiri valyammachi, unable to contain my curiosity

“Everything you see here is real. Reality is not attractive. But three-dimensional things never have the clarity of the two-dimensional.”

That much is true. Everything has a rare clarity, but the excessive clarity also makes them seem artificial.

“Mathiri valyammachi, were you like this before?” My curiosity gets the better of me again.

“I told you, the only thing that is real is what you see here,” she says, looking at me with her smoky eyes. “What was before doesn’t matter.”

And, like smoke, she disappears. I feel sad thinking about Appachan. My poor Appachan who had believed that the Other World would be something super. I feel an even greater sadness for myself. This has been the greatest disappointment of my life.

All I can do is cry about the loss of a beautiful dream. By then, within me, Appachan has transformed into something like a sackcloth bundle, a “thing” like Mathiri valyammachi said. I sit in that place that was like an overly exposed black-and-white movie and begin to cry. Suddenly, a strong smell reminiscent of death – sandalwood joss sticks and frankincense – assaults my nose. Usually, the smell makes me faint, and even in the middle of crying, I feel anxious and apologetic about fainting in that unfamiliar place.

Excerpted with permission from Maria, Just Maria, Sandhya Mary, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, HarperCollins India.