I had only remembered Maya’s birthday on the day itself. I had been at a café choosing my lunch, and the person in front of me had ordered a coronation chicken roll, a combination so derived from India, and so equally divorced from any real concept of it that I smiled. How Maya would hate it.
And then I started.
It was the second of March. I took out my phone to confirm the date, and saw that it was past two in the afternoon. It would be nearing dinnertime in India. The woman in front of me was vacillating over her drink, and I typed a quick message to Maya:
Happy Birthday to the best sister in the world!
I pressed send, cursing myself for having forgotten, and for having thought of nothing more than a cursory message. Had anyone else remembered to mark the day? Had there been cake bought, or the luridly bright balloons she had always loved? I would order something to send to her – half a dozen pineapple pastries, or some flowers. Something to show I cared. The queue cleared, and I stepped forward to place my order.
The day turned out to be a long one. The press had heard reports of store closures, and my phone was ringing until late in the evening. It was past ten by the time I returned home hungry and crabby, and the thought of Maya had slipped my mind.
“Siya,” came the call, Tasha-di’s voice impatient. “When did you last speak to your sister?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. There was a sigh across the phone, and I knew I was being judged. The silence stretched thin, and I wondered if Tasha-di had hung up. But there it was, another sigh, and I said, “We haven’t spoken in a while.”
“I’m worried about her, Siya.”
“Is she ok?”
‘That’s just it,’ said Tasha-di, the softness returning to her voice, and I began to worry. How long had it been since we had last spoken? Had it been this year? When Ma was alive, the main days were marked – birthdays, Diwali, the turn of the year – but now, as I thought of when I had last spoken to my older sister, I realised I couldn’t pin down a date. I had last seen her in India, when Ma’s affairs were being dealt with, and she had been fine. Tight-lipped, unwilling to show frailty, but fine.
I had asked her to come to London with me, for a holiday, for a break from the house and its ghosts, but she had refused. She had the family around her – Tasha-di, the cousins who remained in India, and the house. And, I thought, Maya was Maya. Inscrutable, obstinate, slow to embrace change, but essentially resilient. She would be fine. “I’ll call her,” I said. “I’m sure you’re worrying about nothing.”
“Siya,” Tasha-di was saying, “Maya has retreated into herself since your mother’s passing. She was always quiet, but I thought that was your Ma’s influence. But the girl hasn’t written an article in months, and anytime I offer to visit, she tells me she’s busy.”
I tried to think of something positive to say. Maya would be fine. And yet, I was back in the past, trying to think of the last time we had spoken. How long had it been since Ma’s death? A little over a year. We must have spoken recently, must have messaged each other a joke that Ma would have disapproved of.
Ma, I thought, and then, “When did you last see her?”
“That’s just it,” said Tasha-di. “I can’t remember.”
The room was still shrouded in the night. I looked at the window as we spoke, and saw that a light rain had begun to fall. The window was open an inch, and I shivered as the wind blew in. Such weather, and just as spring was beginning to flex its muscles! Just yesterday, I had found daffodils sprouting out in the pavement outside the flat, like so many wayward weeds, and had found myself filled with hope. The air had been crisp, and though they had swayed in the breeze, they had remained sturdy. I had found myself laughing, smiling at passers-by, but by the evening, chill had settled in the air.
I watched the rain splatter against the windows of my room, bringing a fine mist, and I rose to shut the window.
“Yes, Tasha-di,” I said as she told me I needed to get in touch. “I’ll do more,” I promised. “I really will.”
I looked out again. It was a deluge now, the downpour, like the Indian monsoon, until my ears were suffused with the noise. It would be the work of a moment to look up a flight. I could be in India within a day. Benjamin could wait; my job search could too. Then I blinked as a raindrop splattered against my hand and shook my head. I was rushing to conclusions. Tasha-di’s alarm was ludicrous and Maya was fine. I wasn’t needed. My sister was fine.
And my life was here. Maya would have to get used to being without Ma, but that would have to be her solitary journey. I could provide a distraction, a stay of loneliness, but no concrete assistance. The thought of my upping sticks just because neither of us had thought to contact Maya was as needlessly self-indulgent as my aunt’s night-time call.
There it was again, that loaded sigh. “I’ll call her,” I said to my aunt. I could do no more. Tasha-di grunted her displeasure, and I said reassuringly, “I will, Tasha-di. I will check in on Maya.”
We must have exchanged parting pleasantries. I must have found my way off the call, and then, improbable as it was, I must have found my way back to sleep, as I found myself waking up long after my usual time. My back hurt, and I saw that I had slept in an awkward position. Had I been in India, Ma would have massaged my neck.
The thought of Ma brought with it the memory of her passing, and I gulped. It was still new to me, in spite of our silences. For years now, we had barely spoken. Any interaction we did have was usually bookended with fights. There were stilted calls on birthdays or Diwalis, then a desert of quiet. And yet, after a year of her passing, the thought that I would never wake to rage against her filled me with a sadness I couldn’t quite understand. I could laugh. No, I could cry. All this emotion for a mother I had neither looked after nor missed.
Excerpted with permission from Civil Lines, Radhika Swarup, Simon & Schuster India.