My dearest Bochka,
By the time you read this, I will be gone. I only wish it had happened sooner. Had I been able, I would have ended this life – this wretched, miserable, tortured life – a long time ago, but I lacked the courage. I cannot even say that I soldiered on for you and your brother; that would be a lie. I know I have been a terrible mother to the two of you, a truth that has tormented me these last few months, the pain of it worse than the cancer that has been devouring my insides.
Perhaps this is my punishment for the life I have lived.
The Ashram doctor says I have a month or two at best and that I should say my goodbyes. He tells me there is not much more the medical staff can do other than ease the pain and I should consider going back home and spending the last days with my loved ones. I decline politely saying I would prefer to be alone in my last moments.
My garb of spirituality may even make it believable.
But then Doctor Tyagi is a wise man; I’m sure he notices I have no visitors except Ronen Da, who only comes by once a month to help with the practicalities.
In place of my last goodbyes I write this letter, more on days when I feel stronger – because there are good ones and bad – less when it feels like a hundred metal talons are scraping my guts, when all I can do is summon a nurse who sees the pain in my eyes and wordlessly adds something to the drip. It dulls the searing ache but fogs my mind.
I hate those days.
You see, painful as it is to write what I am about to, I do look forward to it. I feel a certain connection; almost back in the moment when you were sitting next to me on the verandah of our house in Maharani Bagh, suddenly turning to ask, “Ma, why don’t we go on holidays any longer?” A question so innocent yet loaded that there could have been no answer. It had swamped me with such a storm of emotion – sadness, regret, guilt – that all I could do was look away.
I dreamt just the other day that you were sitting by my bed, stroking my face, saying, “It’s okay, Ma. I still love you.” I woke up so happy, only to feel crushed soon after. I don’t even deserve the happiness of dreams. It must be difficult for you to believe this but I love you so dearly, my Bochku.
I have asked Ronen Da to hand you this letter personally when no one is around, and to insist that you read it when you are alone at home, up in the hills of Mukhteshwar. I hope my instructions have been followed.
What I am about to tell you will explain many things that transpired in your life from the time you were about six years old. Growing up, you must have struggled often to understand why things turned out the way they did. Why everything fell apart. It’s not that I never considered telling you but faltered every time, fearing the damage it could cause. But now I feel it can also offer some hope of closure.
Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, I thought about writing a final letter to you. You must be wondering why, what is the point of it? Is it a maudlin farewell from a dying and remorseful parent? A last appeal for forgiveness, for the emotional neglect I subjected you and Chhotku to when you needed me most?
It may be all of these but more than anything, it is a confession.
If my death had been sudden or accidental, I would have taken my secret to the grave. It is perhaps in the fitness of things that I was not allowed to shirk the responsibility of that decision. I have had many months of suffering to burn through while contemplating whether I should leave you the huge burden of this truth as my last bequest.
It seems that in death, as in life, all I have for you is misery.
My hands tremble as I write this. It is a secret that ripped our family apart – one that I have carried within me for twenty-four long years.
Chhotku is not your father’s son.
There, it is out now – Chhotku was born of an extramarital affair. It didn’t last very long, perhaps a few weeks, ending the day I discovered I was pregnant. Your father had to know but no one else, to the best of my knowledge, has ever known. It wrecked our marriage, destroyed your father. Our lives were never to be the same again.
All your innocent questions – “Ma, why don’t we go on holidays any longer?”; “Why don’t Baba and you talk anymore?” – do you now see? Everything had changed. All the anchors in our lives had been thrown away. One mistake, sometimes that is all it takes and nothing can be fixed again. Nothing.
I have no words to console you with, probably the reason I have never, in my lifetime, been brave enough to tell you any of this. I am a coward. I have to hide behind the screen of a letter sent from the depths of my private hell, secure in the knowledge that I will not have to look you in the eye again. I fear what I may see there will feel like a thousand deaths.
It is not only your father I betrayed. You and Chhotku have every right to ask why I distanced myself from you. You were only twelve and Chhotku six; little boys. You needed me the most then, and I failed you. Guilt and remorse had turned me into a being I couldn’t recognise – devoid of any kindness or love. Even my sense of duty deserted me. I was in such a state that I feared my mere presence would harm you. You and Chhotku had to be sent away, I feared I might contaminate you; I had to run away. Then the years passed by and I could never muster the courage to bring you close to me again. I told myself you had learnt to cope and were better off on your own.
When I discovered my illness, I instructed the caregivers at the Ashram to not let you know.
Towards the end, Ronen Da tried his best to persuade me but I refused. I wasn’t sure how I would react on seeing the two of you after so many years. How long has it been now since Chhotku came by – six years? He may have tired of our meetings, so few words were spoken. His resentment towards me was far stronger than yours, I could feel it. He is angrier. He always carried that accusing manner about him, as if it was only a thin veneer of civility and respect that stopped him from blurting out those damning questions. Then he did away with the charade. A customary call after the Pujas, that was all. I don’t blame him.
You haven’t visited me in quite a while either. Perhaps you sensed too, after your last visit, that I wished to be left alone. Yet you always remembered to send me a card on my birthday. And books. I am ever grateful to you for remembering my fondness for reading. The books you sent sustained me. The last lot was the three novels of Marilynne Robinson. I read them over and over and wept every time I did.
I have thought a lot about whether I should be writing to Chhotku as well. After all, these truths pertain to him more directly. Something stops me from doing that. Maybe it is fear. In my head, he is still little Chhotku, less mature than you, volatile. I don’t know whether you will choose to let him know. It is a big decision. He has a family as well.
There, I burden you again with these impossible decisions.
I feel spent now. I wish I could say unburdened, relieved; but I don’t.
All these years, I have wallowed in remorse but it still won’t let go. It’s like I cannot take a breath without feeling it. Time has dulled the edge of grief but cannot wash away the regret I feel – now with a greater intensity, as I approach the end of my days.
Today I sit here, Bochka, trying to imagine what you would be feeling as you read this. Disgust? Hatred? Sorrow for your father? Anger at the unfairness of it all?
At times, I ask myself – I was so young – can I not be forgiven one lapse, however grievous? But whom shall I ask forgiveness of? The man I hurt the most is long gone. I ask you, my son, not to think the worst of me. I leave this world with no hope of salvation but if you can, try and forgive me. Not for my sake, but for yours.
With all my love, Ma.
Five pages of unlined paper folded neatly, written in his mother’s immaculate, elliptical hand. Not a single word scratched out, just a slight downward slant to the lines on the page. The college teacher till the very end.
But there was a sixth page, clearly a postscript.
Ronojoy took one look at it, and turned away, unable to accept the truth of it. Just three lines, but these hurt the most; lines that even he couldn’t bring it in his heart to accept.
Excerpted with permission from Dark Circles, Udayan Mukherjee, Bloomsbury.