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The International Writers Magazine

Life and Death
Kiran Kannappan

Suma was looking gorgeous in her new white Kanchivaram saree with dark green border, as she was being slowly led to the mane (Dais) by her sister-in-law. She had a shy sparkle on her face, which seemed to be echoed by the emerald necklace and the earring that she wore. It was a moment of great joy for the entire family.

Suresh stood on the side, watching his bride parade in this novel glamour. It was a ladies affair, so the men took the sides, while the ladies managed the center stage. Amma and Atte (Suma’s mother and mother-in-law) were beaming like the marigolds in summer. There was such a festive mood; the entire gaze was concentrated on Suma. Suresh was trying hard to catch a glimpse of his beautiful wife, which was being constantly obstructed, by the ladies flocking around her. Suma was in her ninth month of first pregnancy. According to the doctor there was about three weeks left for the new arrival while Ajji (grandmother) predicted a girl in about a week. The entire family had assembled to bless Suma on her Srimantha (A social/religious get together hosted by the groom’s parents in the ninth month of pregnancy – similar to baby shower). One could recollect the scene from Indian Mythology where Annapurna served nectar to devas, as Suma served us kshera with a silver spoon after the ceremonies.

Kusuma was looking pale and weak; a white hospital gown covered her bony frame. The sparkle in her eyes seems to have given way to a dark void in its place. The rosy lips that carried a smile looked dry and faded. The dark hair that was once well platted and decorated with Jasmine, lay spread and scattered on the white pillow. The hands that had once jingled with colorful bangles and had blessed me a good number of times, lay bare on the green bedspread. The spring outside the four walls, failed to stir the gloomy weather inside. Suresh sat next to their bed, staring at Kusuma waiting for the rare event when she would open her eyes and try expressing herself. She had been in this state for over two weeks now. The deterioration happened very fast.

About a month ago, on their wedding anniversary; Kusuma had covered up the physical pain, wore a smile on her face and had accompanied Suresh and their only daughter Rupa to temple and dinner. Kusuma had discovered that she had breast cancer about two years ago, which was revealed to Suresh only after his return from US. She had the slightest intent of disturbing him from his professional responsibilities. He was after all toiling day and night to save some money for Rupa’s wedding and pay off the apartment that they had bought a decade ago. Suresh was quite shocked when he learnt about the medical condition of his wife, and had put her through a surgery, chemo and other modern therapy. Very little had changed. Kusuma not only suffered the agony of the host decease but also the side effects of the therapy. She seldom complained, lest Suresh might feel that he left any stone unturned in getting her treated.

The strain on the smiling face became apparent as days went by. During the last two weeks, Kusuma had gone from taking only a few steps to being unable to getup or even open her eyes and respond to Rupa, crying out Amma.

Suma had just finished a sumptuous lunch and was napping, while her mother-in-law and Ajji were catching up on TV sitcoms. The situation on TV was tense as always, for Maya had just reveled to Tamarai that GJ (Tamari’s hubby) had a second wife who was none other than Chelvi, Tamarai’s best friend. Owing to the tension Ajji has pulled the cotton in her hand too hard that the traditional wick, tore in two. Atte (mother-in-law) could not believe, how an educated and well-off lady like Maya went to this length to avenge her one-sided-love? While the tension on TV gripped the post lunch sedate afternoon, Suma started feeling bouts of pain and called out to Amma. Ajji and Amma (Mother-in-law) rushed to her side at once. After administering Jeera juice, Ajji declared that what Suma was going through was the labor pain of the good kind and that she has to be taken to the hospital.

Suresh was summoned out of his client meeting at work and Suma was admitted to the hospital around godhuli (Around Dusk when the cow would return back home). Even as Suma tried to keep a brave face and await the coming of the child, one could see that the shooting pains were unbearable. Suresh was furious at the hospital staff, as they seemed to do very little about his wife’s condition. The suffering seemed to last for ever and go on and on. It was not clear; if Suma was to be let to suffer the pain or if surgical means were to be employed to bring the baby to this world.

Finally at around mid-night a baby girl was delivered. Suma was so exhausted by the end of it all, that she was unconscious by the time Indira was cleaned and brought to her side. It had been a week since Suresh had slept or shaved. He was looking exhausted and worn out. He sat close to Kusuma’s bed and watched over her, as she struggled over every breath. It looked like an evil plot between Yama and Vayu (God of death and God of armosphere), Vayu stealing all the oxygen around Kusuma while her lungs gasped with great struggle for it, to stay alive till Yama could come and take her away. The oxygen cylinders brought in the night before had made very little difference. The doctors had given up hope and said it was just a matter of time. While the absolute truth about all of us having to leave this earthly abode is clear, the anxiety around death is unbearable.

Some people tend to think that, one is better prepared for the loss of a loved one by an ailing disease, as in the case of Kusuma as opposed to a sudden death as in the case of an accident. Suresh and Kusuma had shared the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, haves and have-nots of life for over thirty years now, that living even a day without each other sounded impossible. The day passed by unbearably slow, everything felt so uncertain without a clue what the next moment had in store. Various relatives and friends came and went.

The place looked busy and festive, yet felt so empty and desolate. No one knew what the right things were to say to Suresh or Rupa, some just held them and assured them, that all will be well, others said words of wisdom and philosophy while others talked good about Kusuma. Suresh was not sure, if his own mother or daughter understood his grief and emotion. It was getting dark outside and was time for the lamps to be lit in front God’s alter. Paati (Suresh’s mom, Rupa’s granny) asked Rupa to do so; for come what may the light of our life glows on. The doctor visited again by around nine, stood watching Kusuma for a bit, patted Suresh on his shoulder with warmth and silently walked out. Amma (Suresh’s mom) called Suresh to her side and said, "Its hard to see Kusuma suffer, talk to her and tell her that its ok for her to leave, and that you will take care of yourself and Rupa… you were her whole and sole, she is finding it hard to leave you guys and move on…" wiping her tears with her pallu. (edge of the sari) Suresh hugged his mom and wept.

He then went to the bathroom to freshen up and talk to Kusuma. With moist eyes and warm emotion, Suresh held Kusuma’s hands and communicated with her in silence. He looked at her eyes as they (her eyes) looked at the sky, remembering the day when his sight had first met hers, on the day when he and his family had gone to meet her and her family for the first time. The shy naughty sparkle in her eyes had so taken him; for he had decided to stay in their shades for the rest of his life… (or hers was it ?) For a split second, it felt like good old days were back… Kusuma looking at him with her deep sparkling eyes, teasing him with a slight smile at the edge of her lips… when a loud gasp for air was heard and the room went total silent. The struggle over the breath was over, the anxieties of the day had ended… prevailing the ultimate reality, death.

White line drawings (ma kolam) and floral decorations of the entrance way reflected the joy in the hearts of the people residing inside the threshold. Indira was twelve days old, a ball of joy wrapped in silk and wool. The tiny fists were tightly closed, which she had used to rub her sleepy little eyes, smearing the black eye paste all over her rosy cheeks. Ajji (Indira’s great grand mom) was so overjoyed to have a baby girl home, after two generations of male kids. Amma (Suma’s Mom) had a slight hankering that a first male child would have been nice. Suma and Suresh were so lost in their ball of beauty that it hardly mattered if it were a boy or girl. The little girl wore small jingles on her ankles, black and silver beads on her wrist and smelled fresh with dhoop (Sambrani) having been given her daily oil bath and traditional drying. A few close relatives had assembled to take part the ritual of putting the baby in the cradle. The little time that Indira opened her eyes to feed, she seemed puzzled to see all kinds of strange faces trying to pick her up and talk to her, thrusting a roll of folded currency into her small fisted palms. It’s a south Indian tradition (finding its origin in the Bhagavatham), to place a new born child in the cradle on the tenth day of birth, and bless the child to grow strong and righteous, like the stone used to grind the Idli dough. As the tenth day happened to be an Amavyasa (new moon day), the twelfth day was picked to put Indira in the cradle. A decorated cradle stood waiting to receive her, while the ladies tried to pass the grinding stone above and below it before Indira was to occupy the cradle. It was not clear whether Indira enjoyed the festivities or if her baby nap was getting disturbed. These disturbances seemed like a preparations for the various challenges that she might have to face during the course of her life.

Suresh had to get up early and meet the priests, to work through the twelfth day rituals of his wife. As the couple had no male offspring and Kusuma had no brothers, Suresh had to perform all her last rights. In the Hindu scheme of things, the soul of the departed being, is said to be with its loved ones for twelve days and its given a decent send off and united with its soul - three generations of ancestors (sapindas) with the Sappindi ritual. The rituals go over for more than, half a day concluding with the sumptuous meal to the departed prata atma (Soul) followed by sumptuous meal to the Brahmins representing the ancestral three generations of the departed soul.

As the day was progressing towards dusk, Suresh realized that the symbolic lamp that was kept aglow the past days was no longer around. Kusuma moved on from the mortal world to join her immortal ancestors in the higher plane of existence. She might come back here again in a different form…. Various thoughts and blurred visions kept Suresh in a zombie state until, Amma stood before him with a steaming cup of coffee and called out to him. As she handed him the cup of coffee, she sat next to him patting his shoulder and called out to Rupa, who was napping in the adjacent room. After one or two calls, a drowsy Rupa came out and stretched out on the floor with her head on Suresh’s lap. Suresh, gave Rupa a warm pat, as tears rolled down his eyes and dropped on Rupa’s cheek…. Amma warmly patting Suresh on his shoulder to console…

Indira was no longer a sleeping beauty that she was a year ago. Ajji had given up most sitcoms on TV, to keep Indira company in conversation. The little girl literally wanted to know about everything, she was curious and questioning about everything. The world seemed such an exciting place to her, with her gestures and few broken sounds, she was able to communicate with Ajji, who only seemed to have the patience to explain to her. Amma was proud of her grand daughter and had stitched a kanchivaram (kind of silk) pavada (long frock) for her birthday. Indira’s first birthday happened to be on the same day; both, by the Julian calendar and the Hindu calendar, which is a rare occurrence. The same day held two kinds of celebrations for her first birthday, the first (primary) half a spiritual/religious endeavor at the local temples, with few close relatives. Indira looked like a little damsel in her blue pavada, she was all ready to get out of the house, tugging on her dads hands to hurry up… what was she in a hurry for?

As the younger ladies were adding final touches to their dressing up, Ajji was getting impatient lest the auspicious muhartam (time) to start the religious events would pass. "After all, we are heading to the temple, and the affairs are related to devotion with the one (God) who has seen and known us in our best and worst, is being presentable not enough… why does it need an extra touch of Glamour", was Ajji’s thoughts on dressing up to the temple. Suma, shouted from inside…. "Ajji, God needs to see the best of me, when I am willingly going to see him.." with a giggle. After these friendly taunts back and forth the entire family decked in silk and white cotton left for the temple with flowers and fruits. Indira, was at the front in her dad’s arms… with very little realization that it was her birthday that’s being celebrated.

Things have not been the same, during the course of the past year. Suresh, had found a lot of solace in his reading and writings, to cope with the loss of Kusuma. Amma had managed to take up the kitchen responsibility, with some aid from Rupa. Rupa kept her dad company and concentrated on her final year exams. Suresh, was happy with the fact that a conducive alliance had come by for Rupa, who were willing to wait till her exams were over and Kusuma’s first devasam (first death anniversary) had passed. Rupa’s would be, Raghu, occupationally dropped in for a dinner or Sunday coffee, when the family shared a light moment and let the past rest. It had not been easy for any one to get used to the changes, but time had shown each a different path to cope with the situation and continue on with the affaires of life. The first devasam was generally a longer affair compared to the ones to follow in later years. Suresh, to some extent was loosing interest and faith in these timely rituals, after having gone through the 12th day, the monthly and bi-monthly ceremonies during the course of the year. He was willing to give a whole hearted himself if it were to let Kusuma be in peace, where ever she might be. The family got back home after the Devasam meal, to rest a bit before Suresh and Rupa could go and attend the First year birthday of Suresh’s very close friend’s grand daughter, Indira.

Indira was a bit cranky; as she was awakened half way from her afternoon nap, to get her ready for the evening’s party. There were a large number of invitees from friends and relatives. Indira was dressed in a white satin gown, decorated with velvet roses. An event managing group which specialized in kid’s birthday was engaged to entertain, with games and gifts, followed by a short magic show. North Indian buffer, Dosa stalls and ice cream were lined up for supper. As Suresh and Rupa entered the hall, they were warmly greeted by Suresh and Rupa. After a bit of hesitation, Indira slipped into Rupa’s arms. The kids in the hall amused themselves, playing with the balloons or bursting them. Suresh and Rupa sat themselves for the Magic show, as the hosts were busy greeting other guests. As the curtains rolled up, a well built man in white gown, with golden robe holding a magic wand, addressed the crowd. The young and the adults, one and all were quite amused by his magic tricks. The kids were jumping with excitement as the magician picked candies from the air and threw at them….Suresh, looked at Rupa with a smile, going back to the day when Rupa had turned one… now she was a young lady ready to get married. He said to himself, we are the magicians for our lives, come what may, it’s in us to keep the magic alive.

© Kiran Kannappan March 2007

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