Somendra Singh Kharola
The steam of my breath manifests the glass like a pebble the surface of penance still water.
Inside, a morgue. The walls: A hilsa fisherman's desiccated palms.
I murmur a couplet once sung by Kabir who wept
when he saw proud grains of wheat being crushed to bone-white flour
between the violence of two grindstones.
Was not even Father’s charred skull turned to flour when I crushed it with a bamboo pestle?
The toe-tag of the corpse in front is blank. Perhaps, he was a loner, oblivious to the world like that shoe
rooted to the sea floor; a baby hermit crab peeks out. Or like the ecosystem of insects
and dust beneath the stained carpet of a widow’s home; her rice boils over and spills, she only stares.
I imagine tree ringed thumb-prints on the steel of his spoons dangling in the kitchen.
The image is as poignant as when I had slipped into an abandoned house
in our mountains and seen dated pencil marks of a growing child on the wall.
The toe-tag twirls caught in a draught.
The iron gurney is not padded and would be cold, no different from the hard clay floor
upon which we used to sit cross-legged and eat: First Father, and then, us.
Brother and I would fight for the spot where he had just finished because of the warmth.
Age’s advance, I realize, is subtle.
The hairline recedes as slowly as Arctic ice, and the flesh dwindles like the thick steak
eaten by a proper lady with a fork, meat stuck between her front teeth.
I murmur the couplet by Kabir once again.
The grindstone of the universe above turning this way,
the grindstone of Earth below turning the other way. And in between, this reaped grain of life.
Nothing survives, weeps Kabir, Nothing survives. Morning’s axe falls hard upon the sparrows.
I really, really only want to slide a pillow beneath the acute arch of his neck.
Swollen arteries have suffocated the nerves of her limbs dead. Her feet, calves atrophied, dangle
like the hollow tubes of the windchime hanging in the balcony.
Grandfather kneels in front of her, the swollen lump of a benign cyst protrudes
through his kurta, and he carves out the thick dirt from beneath her toe nails.
It is my duty, he says, quoting the Bhagvat Gita. Only half an hour ago, he had dragged
her to the bathroom on a plastic stool and plucked out shit through her anus.
He no longer uses gloves because it is too painful an endeavour to slip his hand
into their intractable rubber.
Her abdominal muscles have wasted away. Even four spoonfuls of psyllium husk
dissolved in water are too weak an impetus for the vestiges of her lunch – of half a bread, and a bite
of skinned apple – to move through her intestines.
The pale nail dust falls on the old leaf of a newspaper he has laid below.
It is not about whether I like it or hate it, he says, it is my duty.
The hymns of the Gita have indentured him to her.
Every night he wakes up and helps her pass urine by pressing
against her bladder with his palms. The fan overhead, he ensures, is always on ‘1.’
And he even insists on cleaning her bed pan –
four drops of antiseptic swirled around the pan’s soiled contours with half a mug of water.
I only wish that she goes before me; I have only that singular wish.
Before her gall bladder operation, twenty years ago, he bartered with God his addiction
to alcohol for her good health. Only last year, he gave up smoking hookah because she began to urinate
blood and pus – he learned a word from this disease: Escherichia coli. And, yesterday morning, to rein in
the spread of this nerve eating disease, he vowed to forfeit chewing tobacco.
Unsatisfied, he lifts her leg and digs deeper into her nails.
He even scrapes out the dead skin from between her toes.
She will be finished within a week without me. Finished, I say. She will die in her own shit.
The windchime cries. How age has humbled them.
He, a retired police officer who used to break
the wrists of criminals with an umbrella during interrogation. And she, a Kumaon Rajput
who used to ride on elephants and go out on long shikaars to hunt tigers in the lower Shivaliks.
He folds the newspaper and dumps it in the bin. He allows no one to touch her dirt, a totem of intimacy.
She admires her nails and gestures at her makeup box. Grandfather hands it over and
holds up a mirror. She streaks a thick black with a pencil and fills up the barren emptiness of her
hair bereft eyebrows. Her drooping earlobes, which look like the teats of an old she wolf suckled dry, sway
as she powders her cheeks. Naaniji turns to me and asks how she looks. I only smile.
She looks like the still windchime outside: Beautiful but subservient to an external force to breathe life into her.