It’s only a moment’s difference between ripe and rot. That’s what my Amma would always say. “Fruits will blush with a succulent sweetness just before they turn over and die.”
At that time I thought it was, like everything else, a lesson on marriage.
As a child, I’d run from tree to tree in the palace gardens, plucking the figs while they were still green and hiding them under my bed. If they stayed hidden from the heat of the sun, they would never ripen. Their time would never come. Or so I thought, until I woke up one morning to a bloody mess of flesh and juice and the sour tang of broken dreams.
I sense that stench in the air again, thousands of years later, when he walks into the University campus where I teach.
I cancel a lecture, make excuses and take the weekend off. All day, I sit by the window in my apartment, snipping the overgrown pink bougainvillea twined with the grill. I toss the flowers, one by one, into a wide, brass vessel filled with water and wait for the petals to age like prunes.
When I find the courage to leave for class on Monday morning, the flowers have still not withered or sunk to the depths. It gives me a sort of hope. But when I put my books down on the class table and turn, he is there, sitting in the middle row, scribbling in the back of a notebook with a red-and-black-striped Natraj pencil.
Two young women in the front keep turning to look at him. I ignore them and dive into teaching.
An hour later I am close to concluding, when his hand flies up in the air. I continue to speak, even though something in my stomach has caught spark and burst into a bright, blue flame. “And this is the point Simone De Beauvoir is making. She says every time a woman, a female character makes a move towards self-assertion, it supposedly takes away from her femininity, her likeability...and her...seductiveness...”
I lose my train of thought as we lock eyes.
He has the courtesy to look down and smile at his notebook for a moment before he says, “This is Western thought in an Indian classroom. In our culture, the women in our stories asserted themselves all the time. Draupadi’s hair left untied and dishevelled until washed in the blood of the enemy. Sita, steadfast, even in the face of fire. And who was it that haunted Death himself until he gave her husband back? Ah,” he says, his perfect bow-shaped lips curling into a smile. “Savitri.”
The heat from my stomach jumps up to lick my face.
“Th – the women from our mythologies,” I say, stressing on the last word, “were trapped in the complexity of their own time. And were constantly punished for asserting themselves in their own ways. It’s...er...an entirely different subject from what I’m discussing...”
“But ma’am,” he interrupts, waving the Natraj pencil rapidly in the air so it looks like a trident...or a pitchfork. “They are brave women. Norm-breakers. And still seen as idols of femininity in this country.”
“If you still want to pursue this debate, you can see me after class,” I say with some force, hoping I sound brusque and dismissive. But the corners of his lips curl again, like it is some sort of an invitation. I rush out of class after the bell and sit in the staffroom among the other teachers, pretending to correct papers. No matter how gentle I am, the ticks of my red pen look like slashes.
Later, when I walk out to the terrace to get some fresh air, he is there, sitting among the potted plants. The black-and-white kitten adopted by the staff purrs in his lap. My heart jumps as he turns to look at me, stroking the kitten with absurdly long fingers.
“You don’t need such an elaborate ruse to talk to me,” I say, drawing the pallu of my saree around my other shoulder to shield against the strong breeze.
He beams. His teeth are mostly straight. His eyebrows thick and wormy like twin caterpillars, his dark hair, straight and windblown. He looks completely different from the last time we met and yet, it is Death in that white T-shirt and jeans.
“I was just curious,” he says, in a deep voice that could bend the wind into submission. “To see what perspective you would bring to a – what was it – an ‘Introduction to Gender Studies’ class.”
I fold my arms. “Why are you here?”
“As always, puppet. To see you.”
The wind whips around us, fiercer than usual. The sky darkens, its edges orange, as if catching fire. I don’t miss the signs. There are few things Death loves more than spilling blood in the sky.
“Who is going to die?” I clench my jaw.
He rises to his feet and takes a step towards me. Then another, and another, until a hard, warm hand reaches up to touch my cheek. “I had forgotten about your questions, Savitri.”
It’s a trick. To call me by that name is to touch me in many different places at once.
I close my eyes. “I have a different name now.”
“Hmm... But to me you’ll always be the same 15 year old I found on a forest floor, weeping next to her husband’s body, begging for him to be returned. How many centuries has it been? Do your beloved humans even know how to count back to that time? Hmm? Do you remember?”
The stories people tell now, they once heard from their grandparents, who heard it from theirs, who read it in a book, written by a saint, who was told by five other rishis, who say they read it in an ancient text written by an elephant god.
In that story, Savitri haunted and followed Death and begged him for her dear husband’s life. She impressed him with her wisdom until her beloved husband was returned to her, whole and alive.
Unfortunately, I am not that Savitri.
Let me tell you a story.
Excerpted with permission from the story “The Girl Who Haunted Death” by Nikita Deshpande, from Magical Women, edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan, Hachette India.