Lalli was preparing to die.

Nothing warned me. Not her brief illness a month ago, not Savio’s insomniac vigils, not Dr Q’s unusual generosity with books.

July seemed more quiet than it had ever been.

Rain muffled the raucous noises of the street. Its music restored a gentler landscape. The house, too, altered its pulse, and retreated into tranquillity. That suited me. After the alarm of Lalli’s illness, I needed a blank page.

Absorbed in a new novel, I noticed nothing till it turned around and bit me. Words went wide, sentences spun askew, the plot skittered, unravelled and swung loose, and I turned as usual, to Lalli for solace.

It had been a particularly frustrating morning. I had burst in with my woes, when my voice died away as I caught sight of her, and the truth blazed with sudden clarity. The rain-lit room turned harsh and hyper-real as I took in my aunt’s appearance. Her book had slid to the floor. Her eyes were far away. Every line of her slender frame was intent on something I couldn’t see. I steadied myself, giddy with understanding.

The others had known it weeks ago. Lalli was preparing to die.

There was no other term for it. She was not dying. Dying implies a passive helplessness. My aunt was energetically withdrawing from life.

She was not ill, although she ate hardly anything and slept not at all. She perched bright-eyed on the beige sofa, distant but courteous, acknowledging our attentions, and unobtrusively rejecting every one of them. She was not apathetic. She heard us out with interest, but volunteered nothing.

She seemed to have retreated to a place of no return.

I imagined how we might seem to her as she accelerated into this powerful new gravitational field, our diminished faces regressing faster than expected, so soon to be lost in her own blur of speed.

It was a terrifying thought. I suggested coffee. She answered, as I knew she would, “Later.”

Dr Q’s books, treasures, I should say, were at her elbow. She read greedily, at random, and then abandoned each book with a petulant push as if it had got in her way.

Savio sat up late, talking to her. When I woke up at five, he would be snoring on the sofa, legs sticking out a mile. Lalli was rooted in the balcony, staring at the rain. She would take her coffee tumbler from me, with the smile that ignited my day – but after a sip it remained untouched till I took it away.

I went crazy in the kitchen trying to conjure up something to her taste until she stopped me with, “Please don’t, Sita, it only makes it harder for me.”

Savio sternly ordered me to leave her alone. He did, and so did Dr Q – at least, they did their bit and bowed out reassured, by what I found very difficult to tell.

Dr Hilla Driver, Lalli’s erstwhile friend, dropped in, only to prescribe useless vitamins. It hadn’t been easy to persuade Hilla to come. “No, morning’s impossible, I have my yoga, and then it’s a whirlwind,” she’d said when I called. “Ill? Nonsense. Lalli’s never ill. Oh well, I’ll squeeze in a few minutes between appointments.”

Hilla didn’t stay long. “There’s nothing wrong with Lalli,” she murmured as I saw her out. “She’s just throwing a tantrum. Old people do that off and on.”

“She’s not old, and this isn’t a tantrum,” I answered hotly. “She hasn’t slept for a week to my certain knowledge. She barely swallows a morsel or two.”

“Look, Sita, she isn’t physically ill. She isn’t mentally ill, either. This is entirely volitional. Only she can tell us why.”

“And she won’t.”

Hilla shrugged impatiently. These days Hilla spent more time on herself than on her patients. A vacuous hunk ogled me from the back seat of her luxurious new BMW as I left her at the gate.

“Hilla has a trainer,” I remarked.

“What’s she training for?” Lalli asked with a flash of her old wickedness. But it didn’t last.

It couldn’t. Despite her iron will, she was worn out. She stopped talking. She began to drift, first into absent spells, and then into a restless drowsiness. I roused her much against my will to coax a sip of milk or fruit juice.

She didn’t fight this off. It was necessary to power the exhausting rituals of personal care. It took her an hour to emerge from her room, bathed and dressed for the day.

I couldn’t bear to see her usual brisk stride transformed into a hesitant shuffle. There were times when she sat up alert and expectant, as if listening for a distant note of music. It always eluded her. The lost look would return, her eyes glitter hard and angry. What could we do but retreat, defeated by her carapace?

Monday started the same way. Lalli hadn’t been to bed. She was in the balcony, staring at the rain. She came in, picked up her coffee, inhaled the aroma and abandoned the tumbler. She sat on the beige sofa with a little of her old poise, as if about to begin a conversation. I waited, but after a while, she leaned forward to touch my cheek and waved me away.

Savio and Dr Q came in around lunch time. Lalli had fallen into either abstraction or sleep.

This far, Lalli had made all her own medical decisions, refusing tests and therapies. Dr Q was my only hope. The trust between them was absolute.

“What’s making her do this, Dr Q?” I demanded.

He looked away sadly. It was his way of saying that was no question to ask her.

He sat by her now, his hand resting lightly on her hair. This unexpected intimacy filled me with dread. Savio and I made a pretence at eating in the kitchen, till he broke down, pushing his plate away. He didn’t cry so much as dissolve. It was awful seeing his huge frame actually dwindle in a helpless crouch of grief.

“She won’t say a word,” he wept bitterly. “Why won’t she tell me what’s eating her? How can I ask her? What if – ”

Lalli had barricaded herself against us all. I sensed that in all their years together, she had never done this to Savio. She had been parent, mentor and friend since he was fourteen. This abrupt exclusion baffled him. I had no comfort to offer. There was no amulet, no charm or apotropaic to ward off the evil eye. Only this limbo.

“Dr Q’s doing blood tests,” Savio said at last. ‘She hasn’t let us in so far, but now – ”

She could no longer resist.

She could no longer resist the intrusion of the caress, or of the needle. I was shocked to discover I resented that.

She endured them.

She endured us.

I couldn’t bear that. I could never bear being endured.

When Savio and Dr Q had left, I stayed in the kitchen staring at my notebook. No thoughts came, no words scattered on the page.

The doorbell rang. Neighbours. Utkrusha, B Wing, was concerned. By now, Building knew.

It was Ponni Mami from upstairs. Her husband Ramachandran and his boon companion Patherphaker hesitated on the landing.

“We heard about Lalli,” Ramachandran said. “Savio says it’s nothing serious, but his face tells a different story.”

“What can we do?” Patherphaker joined in, adding cautiously, “without intruding, of course. What can we do? Can missus help?” Manda Tai, unlike her twitchy husband, was stolid gold.

“No, no, we’re fine,” I assured him. Lalli needed her space – how could I explain that to these kind souls? “She’s taking a nap right now.”

Raagam Taanam Pallavi

Excerpted with permission from Raagam Taanam Pallavi, Kalpana Swaminathan, Speaking Tiger Books.