On the day I killed myself, it was clear and bright. It was a Monday. A working day.
25 October 1965. A day just like every other day, except I was dead and the world ground to an abrupt halt as the news spread.
People everywhere, in homes and alleys, in tea shops and at the railway station, the court and the college hostel, Swami’s printing press and the King George market, those who knew me and those who didn’t, all looked at each other and then looked away. She is dead, they said. She killed herself. Is that true? There isn’t a suicide note. Was it a murder made to look like a suicide?
They tried to explain my death: She had an incurable disease. She was in love with a married man. She was in love with a man who dumped her. She was pregnant. She was depressed. Something humiliating happened at the college which led to this.
The speculation was as dense as the grief.
An ordinary woman had become a legend, a tragic heroine, and it was the nature of my death that had turned me into someone extraordinary in their eyes. I was Kerala’s Virginia Woolf. We even had the same bristling, brooding gaze, a well-known artist claimed. Everyone, even those who didn’t know me, added to the legend of Sreelakshmi. Except him. Markose didn’t mention me, ever.
Instead, he came in the dead of night to the cremation ground. The dead do not clock time. He came on silent feet and with a ravaged face. He poked through the embers with a twig. Please don’t, I wanted to scream. Please don’t do what I think you are about to do. My love for you devoured most of me. What’s left, let death feast upon.
Markose took away the bone of my index finger from my right hand. He took my soul with him. He wrapped me in a red silk cloth and then, with the desperation and furtive stealth that had characterised our relationship, he placed me against his lips.
He had liked to see me write. He once said that I held the pen like no one else he had seen. “Do you realise your index finger has no role to play in it?”
It’s my guiding finger, I said, smiling and leaning forward. He wrapped his fingers around my index finger like he would never let go.
“The Weekly has asked me to write a new novel. What should I write about?”
His embrace tightened. As long as it’s about me, I thought it said.
He stroked my index finger with his thumb. I imagined touching his beard and running my fingers through its length, tugging at the knots and untangling them one by one. Who else would I write about? I wanted to ask. All of me is yours.
As it had been when I was alive, Markose kept me out of sight. He placed me in the mustard-yellow velvet pen-case I had gifted him when we last met. He would use the pen every day, he had said. Where the pen once lay, the bone of my guiding finger was given a resting place. I had not just killed myself, I had dug my own grave, I realised, as he embarked on an elaborate subterfuge.
There was a beautiful wooden almirah in his room with two opaque glass panels in the top half and a porcelain knob. He kept his collection of deeds and certificates, files and important papers there. He had the carpenter remove the shelves and fix a wooden pole beneath the line of pigeonholes. He was going to hang his vestments in it, he told his wife. They needed a sacred place of their own.
The carpenter fashioned a false back for the almirah. He did it all the time for important people. They had to be careful with aspects of their life that had to be kept secret. Markose sent the carpenter out on some pretext and took me out of the case one last time. He stroked my remains as he had once stroked me and then put me back in the velvet-lined case. When the carpenter returned, he had the pen-case crucified on the back of the cupboard. The false back was fixed and I was well and truly staked alive. As long as a part of me lay trapped in the physical world, there would be no escape.
The atheist and scientist in me baulked at the thought of an afterlife, but the writer in me wanted to know. Only, there was nothing the writer could do except wait in the forgotten vault.
The years passed. Not once did he take me out of the secret compartment in his almirah, or his heart. Soon, he stopped gazing at the almirah, as he used to each morning when he woke up. In those first few days, he would touch the satiny side of the cupboard as though he were running a finger down my thigh. He would open the doors and press a kiss on the false back, murmuring my name.
His wife didn’t like the old-fashioned almirah with its door that stuck, the creaking hinge and air of mustiness. Let’s get a steel cupboard, I heard her say. Steel is clean and efficient. Steel is the future.
When the steel cupboard appeared, the almirah was moved downstairs to a room filled with odds and ends, broken chairs and bronze vessels green with verdigris.
Time passed. The almirah was moved to another place, some distance away from his home. I stayed in the pen-case in the secret compartment but I had no way of knowing where I was. All I did was brood on the last few days I had been alive. Would I have done it differently if I had the chance to relive it?
Love fades. Love does, no matter what we believe. All that’s left are the what-ifs.
Once, I had a name: Sreelakshmi. Once, I was a woman. Once, I was a writer whose stories evoked love as much as disgust, inciting anger as often as they offered solace, a writer whose words sawed their way through the conventional. Once, I had withstood the sting of wasps.
But when I died, I was reduced to a forgotten bone, a ghost of her former self, and I may have stayed thus for the rest of eternity, locked in that pen-case and buried in that secret compartment, but for a child.
Excerpted with permission from Eating Wasps, Anita Nair, Westland.