When Chup Vakil came home from his interview, he didn’t expect his mother to ask him to help her die. As he contemplated his mother’s request, the day flashed through his mind: pale grey cubicles, women clerks, black ties matching thick mustaches, firm doors—an inauspicious, solid black—cold air from the AC raising the hair on his arms, and a large street sign reading Golconda Legal Associates of Radhapur in Hindi.
“Why should we hire you?” They spoke only in English—not his mother tongue—but he managed. He had been a lawyer for nine years, recently laid off due to financial reasons but with good references and not a blemish on his record. The conference hall smelled of lilac air freshener and dark coffee. He sat alone on one side of the table in his lucky suit.
“You did well,” the secretary told him as she printed his appointment letter. Her name was Rosa Andrews—a Kerala Christian. She had unruly, curly hair and her dark skin highlighted the whites of her eyes. She looked like his Paro when she smiled.
But now, his petite, wrinkled mother in a crimson, cotton sari waited for an answer.
“Ma, I can’t do that.” He stared at her lap, trying to think of ways to distract her.
She sighed. “But Chup, it’s my wish.”
“Won’t? But you won’t even have to strain your muscles, Son.”
“Ma, what would you like for dinner?” He headed toward his room to undress.
“I want to die,” she said. “Death can’t seem to find me fast—”
“I got the job.”
“I knew you would. Lord Ganesh told me already.” Amma Kaosalya smiled despite her missing canines. “My son’s a lawyer for the best law firm in town.”
“What would you like for dinner, Ma?” he asked again but she didn’t reply.
Having cooked for years now since the death of his father, he moved with ease in the kitchen. Labeled containers of lentils, sugar, paprika, turmeric, curry powder, oil, and rice were organized on white-washed, stone shelves. The refrigerator was only used to store bananas and homemade yogurt. A red, gas cylinder was attached to a steel stove.
Following the doctor’s orders for Amma Kaosalya’s diet, he made some flour rotis and garbanzo beans with low salt and spice. She leaned against the kitchen door for support. Every few minutes, her face broke into another smile as she exclaimed, “My son’s a lawyer.”
They ate dinner outside in the veranda, enjoying the cool night breeze coming in from the wired screens. They had a small front yard with jasmine, marigold and rose shrubs. Chup cut the flowers for his pujas.
“Mr. Vakil built the veranda just for the breeze…” Their house was the only one with lights still on in their neighborhood. Most of their neighbors were newly-weds or families with very young children.
“I know, Ma. You told me.”
“He was a builder. He—by the way, Mrs. Calulu had another dream.”
“About her daughter running off with their milkman again?”
Mrs. Calulu, a God-fearing widow living with her twenty-year-old daughter, often worried about whether or not she had raised the girl with rich Indian values. Anisha, the daughter, was nice enough, didn’t really talk much, at least not to Chup or any of the other grown men in their neighborhood. Nonetheless Mrs. Calulu feared her daughter might someday elope with “a roadside Romeo, a hoodlum, a nalayak” and she would have to answer to her husband in heaven.
“No, this time it was about her daughter eloping with a girl. Poor Mrs. Calulu. What does she know about youngsters these days? Son, if only she…she needs to find Anisha a husband. No more study-duddy, I say.”
“Ma, stay out of their business,” Chup warned.
“Oh, ra. I know.”
They gossiped more about their neighbors and talked about Mr. Vakil’s days. Chup felt he made Amma forget her wish to be drowned in the waters of Varanasi.
However, the conversation Chup avoided that night became a daily event.
“Listen, Son, it was your father’s last wish.” Amma said as Chup tied his shoelaces.
“He didn’t ask me, so I don’t have to do it. God doesn’t permit murder, Ma.” He checked his briefcase twice to make sure he remembered his files.
“It’s not murder if I want this. Ma first, then God, go read the Vedas. Don’t try to school your Ma.” She yelled on his way out of the door.
Every morning and night, he tried to avoid the conversations, push them aside, distract her from morbid thoughts, be definitive in his answers, be optimistic, tell her to be happy, remind her of Mr. Vakil, but no matter what he did, its effects only lasted until the next day when his mother would bring up her request again.
He forgot to pack his lunch. He spent the day in his rectangular cubicle thinking of new ways to help his mother at least for that night. He was distracted. He turned in his reports late. “It won’t happen again,” he repeated to his bosses. He was rude to the clients. He lost the easiest cases. He failed to show up on time for hearings. He forgot important meetings and deadlines. He was late to work three days out of the week. After three months, even the secretary saw him as the weakest link until they cut him.
They were nice about it, told him it was a “financial decision,” the firm wasn’t doing as well as they had hoped, and he was the last to be hired so the first to be fired. It was life. It happened. In fact, he wouldn’t have come home sad had the secretary not said “do the work at your next job, Chup,” on his way out of the black doors.
He leaned against a wooden column in the living room with a crumpled termination letter in his hands. Wet sweat stained the back of his collared shirt and poured down his face. “Ma, they fired me.” His lips quivered, but his mother neither heard nor saw him.
“Son, Shiva talked to me today. He said it was written that you’ll end my life in the holy waters of Varanasi,” she said. “You’ll cleanse me of my sins.”
Chup didn’t care to argue. Not that day. He sunk to the floor and put his head in his hands. “Fine, Ma…you want to go die? Then, let’s go.”
Throughout dinner, she told Chup, “Your father built this house when we married, you know? Now I’ll join him. We’ll build a new house…right next to God,” as the cool night air filled the veranda.
Chup knew she blamed herself for Mr. Vakil’s heart attack. She wasn’t a good wife. She cut corners while sweeping the floors; she didn’t wash all the dirty dishes or clothes with real detergent; she used more than the recommended salt or butter; she never reminded Mr. Vakil to take his medications.
“God punished me.” She told the psychiatrist after years of therapy. “Nothing I can do now. I have to apologize in person…in heaven.”
After a few sleepless nights, regretting his words to Amma, Chup decided to visit the temple closest to his house, missing another interview in the morning. It was an old, roadside temple, built in the fifties after the independence. An old man had married a young, pious girl and his wedding present to her was this little Ganesh temple built along what became a main road.
Faded red and white stripes along with the unadorned, black Ganesh statue didn’t attract as many visitors now as it once had; heading for the bus stop across the street, unemployed men paid enough homage to keep the priest and the temple barely running. Passing cars, motorcycles, city-buses and people drowned the priest’s mantras. Regardless of how loud he recited, the road remained indifferent.
Chup came to the temple often to hear Bhagvad-Gita and ease his mind.
“Chup? Golconda job well?” the priest asked, scratching his graying hair. His orange dhothi was wrapped around his waist and a white thread hung across his chest. It was a punishment to be assigned to lowly, roadside temples, but after five years, the priest forgot his crime and assumed, with great optimism, he had been meant to work there for some greater purpose.
Chup held out his hands to receive the prasad. “They let me go.”
After a moment of pause, the priest said, “Chup. Don’t worry. Ganesh has other plans for you. I’m sure.”
“God tests his devotees. Just the other day, a young girl—I don’t know who—in so much trouble, Chup. She was crying, crying with happiness. Her mother needed some heart operation. Over two lakhs.” The priest shook his head and pointed at the black idol inside the dome, “But Ganesh helped her.”
“How did she manage two lakhs, Guruji?”
The priest chuckled. “She only had three thousand rupees. She went on a yatra. Poor girl. Didn’t eat anything for three days. But God heard her prayer.” He raised his hands in praise and then stroked his wispy, gray beard. “The hospital called her when she came back. They told her it was a mistake. They switched some reports. Her mother only had a small indigestion, heart burn problem. No operation needed.” The priest gazed up at the sky. “See, God is great.”
Chup smiled. Even though he didn’t know the girl, it inspired him to know that she wouldn’t be motherless because of money. Leaving the smiling priest, he used the fifty rupees he had in his shirt pocket to take an auto to the train reservation office.
He traveled around the city arranging money, tickets, clothing, and food. When he returned home in the evening, he told his mother, “I’ll keep my word, Ma. I’ll take you to Varanasi.”
She turned to a picture of her dead husband on the wall. “Your son’s very much like you. I know you’re so proud.”
“But Ma, before Varanasi, we must go on the Char Dham Yatra.”
“Char Dham Yatra is a pilgrimage. You have to do this if you want to enter into heaven. It washes away all sins, even better than Varanasi. We’ll see Puri Jagannath in the east, Ram in Rameshwaram in the south, Krishna’s Dwaraka in the west, and of course, your own Badrinath in the north. Four temples.”
“But it seems like a waste when I’m so close to seeing God directly.”
“Ma, babuji would want you to go. Don’t you want to see him in heaven?”
At the mention of her husband, she nodded in agreement pretending to understand and didn’t argue anymore. So it was settled.
Days later, after asking Mrs. Calulu multiple times to watch for robbers and water the flowers, the pair set off on their pilgrimage, neither knowing the other’s thoughts.
Although Chup was exhausted from the sleepless train ride, Amma Kaosalya didn’t waste any time unpacking in the hotel room.
“There is so much to see, Chup. We’re in Puri. Can you believe it?”
They left the hotel room in the evening for dinner. She was wearing her cotton yellow sari and he, the khaki trousers she had sewn for this thirtieth birthday. The sun was setting. Street markets and vendors turned on their lights to illuminate the insides of the shops. The owners yelled from the front counter at the passerby to “Come try on these pajamas,” “Try our new eggplant curry,” or “Buy an idol of Ganesh today and receive a free painting.”
Children played with emerald marbles, using only the light given off by the various shops along the street. Laughter, yelling, different languages were masked by the waves of the sea. Three women, heading toward Chup, carried woven baskets on their head filled with bananas, mangoes, and coconuts. They were street sellers. Their skin was dark and if they hadn’t been wearing bright clothing, Chup wondered if he would’ve seen them at night. But even as he wondered, he remembered that he always noticed Paro. Even when she wore her favorite black sari, she never failed to attract his attention. The tight black blouse gave the impression that she was nude. For a moment, Chup fancied seeing her at a temple. She loved singing at temples. It wasn’t unlikely. After all, summer was peak season for pilgrimages.
They walked to a side street daba where Chup thought it was quiet enough to enjoy a meal. The daba had few wooden tables low to the ground with net chairs even lower. In the corner, a middle-aged man scolded his teenage son in harsh, hushed tones while the boy wiped his tears on his shirt sleeves. The only light came from a bulb directly over the stove. The cook was a young man with bushy black hair wearing a stained wife-beater.
After dinner, his mother wanted to walk along the beach. Over a hundred steps lead from the temple to the shoreline. The temple entrance faced the sea. Tourists, fellow pilgrims, children, newly-weds, seniors, ice-cream vendors and beggars stared at the ocean waiting for it to change its monotony, but it only disappointed them. From the beach, no one could see the dancing sculptures on the temple dome. They were just shadows. Chup could only see the vague outline of the cemented dome against a sparkling, navy blue sky.
Chup moved along between two massive objects, the Bay of Bengal, created by God and the temple, created by man for God. It all seemed circular, and he felt his mother as the focal point. A prickling feeling near his left buttocks interrupted his thoughts. Chup grabbed behind him and pulled forth a small boy with a razor blade in his hand.
“Sir,” the boy said, “you’ve thought wrong. Twist’s not a thief; you had a bug on your pants. Twist tried to kill it.” The boy couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. He was wearing a faded white T-shirt and short trousers. His skin was as dark as the night sky.
“What’s your name?” The boy’s wrist felt like a bone with a cloth wrapped around it.
“Twist’s name is Twist Oliver, sir, but sir can call him Twist. Been his name since he heard a golden haired angel say it.”
“So, Twist,” Chup held back a smile, “where is the bug then?”
Twist gulped. “Sir, sorry. Sir, Twist just lied. Twist hasn’t had anything to eat in two days. His stomach told him to—”
“Where are your parents?” Chup’s mother asked, standing behind the boy.
“Twist’s parents? They’re lost…somewhere. They’re not dead, just lost.”
“You mean you ran away, boy?” Amma Kaosalya turned him around to face her.
“Well…Twist did what needed doing.”
Amma Kaosalya bent toward Twist. “Son, are you stupid? Why would you run away from your parents?”
“Ma,” Chup said, “we should feed him tonight.”
They walked to the same roadside daba and ordered a couple of chapathis and spicy, red kidney beans. Amma kept Twist at a distance. “But why did you run away, Son? Are your parents from here? Can we help you find them?”
Chup leaned against the bamboo fence and listened while his mother interrogated the eating boy.
“Twist knows Twist should do what pleases Twist.”
“Does that include addressing yourself as some sort of God?” Amma Kaosalya scoffed.
“That’s what Twist likes to do, so Twist does it…parents wanted him to study like the Brahmin kids, but that wasn’t what Twist wanted, so Twist told them to get lost.”
Amma Kaosalya glanced at Chup. “See my son Chup? He’s a good boy. He’s a good son…a lawyer because he listened to his parents…wanted to be some arthur person…no, wait, author, but no way, Mr. Vakil told him ‘no’ and that was the end. He never ran away like you, no, no—”
“You like being…a liar?” Twist asked Chup.
Chup, caught off guard, forced a weak smile, while his mother replied for him, “No, he’s a lawyer, not liar…and of course he does. He’s working for the best firm in our town. Why wouldn’t he like it?”
“Well, Twist doesn’t want to be a lawyer…sounds too much like liar.”
Amma Kaosalya grimaced as the boy finished his meal. Chup, who had been silently watching the scene, dug in his pocket for some cash. He gave it to the boy and told him to “never steal if you can live without doing so,” a memorized moral bit, before helping his reluctant mother back to the hotel.
It was a two-day journey to Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu from Puri, Orissa by train. The train had bunked beds made of pale blue, pleather and at night it tried rocking its passengers to sleep with its high speed. But restless passengers moved through the corridors all night. The bathroom smelled like feces and urine no matter how often the facilities officer claimed it was cleaned. Once an hour, the train bellowed a whistle stirring a baby or scaring an old man. The ticket collector came by after every train station to count empty seats.
“Chup, I’m hungry. Can I have some chips?” Amma asked the second morning as he came down from the top berth.
The outdoor platform was busy with greetings and goodbyes. It was a hot day and the sun beat down on the concrete. Fruit flies landed on people looking for shade. The vendors sold bottled water, warm chai, bags of chips, magazines like Swathi and some abridged English novels. Chup bought a bottled Dasani and unsalted potato chips.
His mother was talking to a young couple when he returned. They had seats opposite the mother and son. They seemed to be in their early twenties. They told Amma Kaosalya the town was Nelloru and introduced themselves as Ravi and Rani. Rani kept looking out the barred window, pushing her hair back.
Chup opened the bag of chips for his mother. He wanted to ask the girl if everything was okay, but didn’t.
His mother, however, never restrained her thoughts. “Is everything okay, dear?”
Rani and Ravi exchanged looks before Rani answered, “My parents might be here looking for us.” Her voice faltered. “We’ve eloped.”
Amma Kaosalya narrowed her eyes and turned to face the platform outside. “Oh.”
Ravi replied while the girl bowed her head, “We had no choice. Her father’s a faction leader here. He would’ve killed me.”
“No, no…it’s not your fault…” Amma sat on her hands and rocked back and forth. “I blame those bloody love cinemas. Look at you two…Not more than twenty and already this love-shove business. In my time, our parents’ decision was final. None of today’s nons—”
Chup placed a hand on Amma’s shoulder.
“Chup, ra, what has happened to Indian culture?”
“It’s okay, Ma.”
“No, ra. It’s not okay. I’m embarrassed for her father.”
“Look, we can move if—” Ravi grabbed his suitcase.
“No, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” Chup told him. He knew the couple wasn’t offended. They would know most of his mother’s generation was against love marriages.
They sat in silence until the train left the green pastures and farmland of Nelloru.
Amma Kaosalya kept her eyes on the boy and girl. “My son always respected his father the most… But he had a love story too…He didn’t run off like you two. He listened to us.”
The lovers didn’t say anything, only exchanged guilty looks.
Chup put his other hand on his mother’s shoulder again to calm her. But she brushed it off, “I’m not saying anything.”
“Ma, not our place.”
“Why isn’t it? We need to correct the youth nowadays.”
Chup gleaned his mind for ideas to distract her. But she continued, “Paro, Paro Gupta that was her name, right, Chup?” Chup looked away and she took it as affirmation. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
His mother continued, “Chup loved Paro…yes, he did. It was his love story. They had dreams of marriage, children, house…But Mr. Vakil didn’t approve. Love isn’t the only thing in life.”
“Caste?” Rani asked.
“No, color. Paro was very dark…too dark for our Chup.”
Rani and Ravi, who had wheatish complexions, both knew most families wanted fair-skinned daughter-in-laws.
“She was well educated…from a decent family, only child, everything was fine. Even the dowry was approved. Her skin was just too dark, not the poor girl’s fault. It was her father. She tried every facial cream to lighten her skin…Fair and Lovely, Lacto Calamine lotion, sunscreen. Poor girl. It was her father’s fault.”
“They say ‘love is blind’” said Ravi.
“Love is blind, but should it be foolish?” The wind coming in from the windows ruffled her sari.
“Did your son marry someone else?” asked Rani.
“No, he’s too busy these days, taking care of my old bones,” Amma said. “He works for a law firm in Radhapur. Any girl would be lucky to have him.” She patted Chup’s knees.
“My father wouldn’t understand. He wanted me to marry my cousin…family money,” said Rani. “He would never approve of Ravi because he’s Shudra and we’re Kshatriya.”
Ravi held her hand, “We don’t have to justify our decision to them, Rani.”
“Sure, love now…then divorce in a year…you’ll see why parents say things they do. When the attraction’s gone, what then?”
“Ma, stop.” Chup opened his eyes and stared at his mother.
“It’s not attraction. What do you know? Not everyone can be like your son. Our love is important to us…more important than parents who don’t bother to understand us,” said Rani.
“Okay, dears. Do as you please. Who am I to tell you otherwise?” Amma whispered “stubborn youth” to Chup. His mother coughed and Chup handed her a water bottle. The movement of the train soon weighed her head down; she fell asleep on her son’s shoulder.
They crossed a narrow river onto more golden, wheat fields. Rani and Ravi talked amongst themselves about their decision, Rani’s parents, the temple marriage, the money they had brought, moving to the city, apartment, jobs, children, and then maybe come back years later to apologize to Rani’s father.
The images in Chup’s mind moved around in his sleep. A dark girl materialized on the back of his eyelids. The only part of the picture that was clear was her left dimpled cheek. She had the most perfect dimple, but only on her left cheek. She smiled and he smiled back. “Paro,” he said, “will you be a Vakil one day?”
Paro’s dimple faded as the train came to a halt in Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu. The lovers had already left. There was some confusion initially, but then the mother and son, recovering from their nap, gathered their luggage and left the train.
Even from the platform, they could hear the temple bells. The afternoon sun made the concrete outside their hotel shine. The manager only spoke Tamil, but he had an assistant speak to Chup in Hindi. The room had no air-conditioning but was twenty rupees per night.
After they refreshed, they went to the temple. Chup had to fight his way through the crowd just to help his mother see the statue. Holy music, candle lights, incense and the smell of jasmine filled the inside of the temple. The statue was covered with large rose, jasmine and marigold garlands. Gold bars stopped the worshippers from coming too close to the statue or priest.
Om bhur bhuvas suvaha
tat savitur vareNyaM
bhargo devasya dhîmahi
dhiyo yo nah prachodayât
A woman sang into the microphone in the far right corner of the temple. Chup thought he recognized the voice so he fought hard to see her face. “Paro…”
She wasn’t more than a few feet away from him, singing with a child in her arms. The boy wiggled, but she didn’t lose her concentration on the notes. People moved around a dark man behind her. Even from far away, Chup saw her left dimple when she moved her head away from his direction. Her hair was pulled back into a single braid, just like he liked it. Her dark skin glistened in the candle light of the temple. He had the sudden urge to walk to her, to hug her, to run his finger over her dimple, but he knew he couldn’t. She was married. She was probably celebrating, praying for her marriage. She had a husband, a child, and he…he had his mother.
It seemed absurd to him, seeing Paro there with a child in her arms. He thought it was his imagination, his eyes, or something about the singing that might have made him think of her. He searched for Amma Kaosalya, but she too had seen the singing woman. Not only seen, but was inching her way through the crowd toward her.
It had been over five years since he had told Paro he couldn’t marry her. He told her she was too beautiful for him and then, that he wanted to focus on his career, become a member of Golconda, successful, rich. Marriage was a distraction he couldn’t afford. She accused him of lying, slapped him and wished him to fail. He didn’t tell her that her complexion ruined their chances; he didn’t tell her it was her father’s fault. He didn’t tell her he couldn’t stand up for her in front of Mr. Vakil. And now, he couldn’t tell her he was sorry.
He found his mother before Paro’s saw them.
“Isn’t that Paro?” she asked.
“Yes, ma. We’re leaving.” He pushed through the crowd with his mother behind him.
“But what about—I want to say hell—Are you afraid?”
“Ma, I don’t want to talk to her.”
“But why not? She looked married—I was—”
“Ma, please.” He turned around and shook her. “I don’t want her to see me.” She winced when his fingers tightened around her arms.
“You yell at your Ma?” she said.
“Ma—just stop. You don’t understand…” He relaxed his fingers, regretting his anger.
“Why wouldn’t a Ma understand her son. I know you, Son. I really do. You’re a talented lawyer…you wor—”
“Yes, for the best firm in town. No, Ma, no, I was fired. I was fired. I was fired.”
“What?” she said offended, “you mean, you’ve lied to me all this time?”
He heard Paro singing even from outside the temple. His eyes stung from tears. Loud bells rang inside the temple as if their function was to keep God and his devotees awake for the ceremonies.
“I bet you’re lying to me now too, aren’t you?” Amma accused her son.
“What are you—Ma, don’t you hear me?”
“Taking me to the Varanasi was a lie. You weren’t taking me there, were you?”
“Why would I?”
“God of the Universe, All mighty, save us from reincarnation. Cleanse our sins.” Everyone yelled praises when the singing ended.
“You lied to me?” asked his mother.
“Ma, I’m not helping you drown. It’s a crime, sin, Ma. Understand—”
“It’s a sin to lie to your Ma but you still lied.”
“Ma, we’re going home.” He said, regaining his composure. He had hoped the yatra would clear her mind.
“No. I’ve disgraced my husband. You lie to your own Ma. You’re a liar, you liar. A liar.”
By now the people around the street started to take interest in the mother-son conversation. Chup, aware of the people, turned to his mother and said, “Please, stop. I’ll do it.”
They returned to the hotel, but Chup didn’t sleep most of the night. The next morning, Amma made him buy direct tickets to Varanasi. He protested, but she didn’t listen.
“I won’t drown her. I won’t drown her,” he recited as he walked back to the hotel room with the tickets in his hand. He would not help her. He would take her there, to Varanasi, let her bathe in the waters, but wouldn’t help her drown. He wouldn’t. I won’t was his mantra.
He wished she would understand. He couldn’t help her die. No, I won’t do it. But she refused to speak to him.
As they drew closer to the city, Chup worried about his mother. She stopped eating altogether even refusing water. She shook her head. “I don’t need a liar’s help to live.”
Too bad, he thought, that’s the only help I’ll offer.
The morning they arrived at Varanasi, Chup gently tapped her face. His mother didn’t wake up when the train stopped as she usually did. He wet his hands and touched her face with lukewarm water. Her eyes opened. The passengers around him were busy gathering their luggage and finding family on the station. He kneeled next to his mother, “We need to go home, Ma.”
“You are a really good son,” she said.
“Ma, are you okay?”
“You’re a really good son.”
“Ma, why are you saying—”
“Because you’re a good son.”
He helped her lean against the window. “Ma, home…let’s go.”
But before he could move her, she said, “Son, please do this last thing I ask. Take me to the river.” She coughed and Chup handed her the water bottle. “Let me let you be free.”
“Ma, I won’t do it. Just get over it. We’re going to the hospital.”
“So I’ve really raised a liar, haven’t I?”
Chup led his mother toward the river. She walked slowly, holding his arm. “Yatra was supposed to work.” He cried, “The priest said it did. It has to work. God, hear me. Help me.”
She closed her eyes and leaned on his shoulder. He kept his eyes on the pale, brown river. Wide steps ran into the water. Women and men bathed in separate areas while the children bathed with their mothers. They sprawled out on the concrete steps with their towels, clothes, jewelry, and food. They held their hands together in namaskar and dipped three times before returning to shore and changing into dry clothes. They walked out sinless, washed and renewed facing the temple on the water’s edge. Dark orange, pastel blue, and saffron colored buildings with golden flags mounted on their windows faced the water. But the water didn’t reflect their colors. It didn’t even reflect the sky. It was dirty, but most didn’t doubt that they were clean when they walked out. If not physically, then at least in the way that mattered most. Their dripping clothes wet the concrete steps closest to the water.
Chup walked down the steps. Women and men pushed past him, vying for the best spots. “Here. We’re here, wake up.” Chup nudged his mother’s head with his shoulder, “you want to die so badly, there it is. Now, let’s go home.”
She opened her eyes. Her face was pale. She trudged toward the water, bending forward to keep her balance. Chup stayed where she left him. I won’t he recited. When she was more than ten steps below him, she glanced back over her shoulder.
Chup shook his head I won’t. She turned her back toward him again. Loose gray hairs from her bun fell down her back. She held up her sari with one hand. She moved toward the next step. Nearby, a dark woman spread out her son’s wet clothes on the drier parts of the steps. A man in a white wife-beater held his daughter on his shoulders as he dipped into the water. Once. Twice. A mantra for sins. As the man and his daughter emerged from the water, her heel slipped. Their splashes didn’t mask the crack of Amma’s head as the grey concrete turned maroon. Chup held out his hand as he ran down the steps. Her body curled on two steps with her finger pointing toward river.
“Ma?” Chup cried. “Ma. Someone help.” He ran down the steps to his mother’s body. He searched for a pulse on her neck, but there was none. “Ma, now what?” He checked for a pulse again. “Ma, what do you want now? Tell me, Ma. Ma, please? Am I still a liar?”
People pushed past him to the river to wash their sins, not bothering to help. The river flowed with its indifference, not even reflecting his image although he was nearby.
That evening, he paid a priest to come chant the funeral mantras. He collected the logs, he walked around her body carrying the pot of oil, he lit the logs underneath her body on fire, and finally, he picked up the ashes and remaining bones into a silver pot. The smell of jasmine incense and Vedic chanting filled the air.
“Spread the ashes, Son,” the priest told him.
Chup cried holding onto the smooth silver pot. But when it was time, he pushed his body up with the strength of his knees and carried his mother’s ashes down to the river. He walked deep inside of it, farther from the steps than anyone else. With the pot of his mother’s ashes in his hands, he dipped three times facing the setting sun. When he emerged from the water, his hands were free.
Pramodini Parayitam is currently an M.F.A. Fiction student at the University of Iowa (Iowa Writers’ Workshop). She has lived in the U.S. for sixteen years and aspires to be a writer.