“She always forgives,” Mother whispered.
Earthen lamps floated on the Ganges, their flickering flames twinkling through tangles of flotsam—dried and decaying flowers, saffron cloth, broken statues, plastic bags—evidence of innumerable rituals performed upstream. Mother, Brahmin-born, once atheist, had recently reverted to religion for succor; she probably yearned for goddess Ganga to rise from the river, a dazzle of gold and gems and billowing silk garments, radiating light that cleansed all sins, or doing whatever else Hindu mythology empowered the goddess to do. Mother no longer commented that downstream, this holiest of rivers bloated brown with silt, chemical effluents and city sewers, a sick miasma replacing its gentle mist.
A garland of rotting jasmines snagged on a rock; water swooshed around it, rescued it, and bobbed it along.
“We eloped thirty years ago.” Mother’s face softened with nostalgia. “My red wedding sari cost his entire salary. He borrowed money for flowers for my hair.”
“Forget him, he’s gone.” My voice was sharp.
Six months ago, after the formalities, Dr. Murthy told me, “She needs time to recover. She’s…” He didn’t have to explain. Mother’s vacant expression, her abrupt transitions between laughs and tears, her repeated opening and closing a pen, her forgetting whether she’d eaten, and the black smudges overwhelming her face—all blared the reality. And while Murthy, our family physician, did not call her bluff, there were just so many bruises Mother could blame on bumping into doors or falling off steps.
Now, in this isolated village off the Ganges, far from grand temples or heritage hotels, we were safe from ‘helpful’ friends, relatives, and colleagues. Mother gardened and cooked. Her hands remained steady. The monsoon from her eyes had dried up, and sometimes she smiled wistfully.
But the fact of him remained braided with her personality.
Dawn. Shrouds of vapor obscured the river. Mist rose in swirls, sank, lifted, and dropped again. Shapes formed and dispersed. The smell of moist earth and the murmurs of water dragged out memories. Mother, telling me stories. A beach, ice cream, balloons, Mother and…
He was so different then.
Tears condensed on my eyelids; I blinked them away. What was wrong with me? I switched to the abundant gush of bitter memories and their energizing anger. Maudlin would not do; I had a busy day ahead—I wanted to mail my questions and comments to Delhi. My guide had accepted slipped deadlines because of my situation, but how long could I expect such concessions?
Returning to our new ‘home’ past the sugarcane fields, I imagined Mother sipping tea and humming an old Geeta Dutt song, her voice still somewhat diffident, tentative.
Normalcy shall come a day at a time, I told myself.
Faint footprints on the path to our cottage: a man, barefoot. My stomach cramped; I broke into a sprint. It had to be a stranger; the villagers respected our need for solitude. But a thief could target us, assuming we were rich. “At least keep a dog, Damayanti,” one of my aunts advised Mother when we left Delhi. “You know I can’t stand animals,” Mother said. “If we want, we’ll employ a village boy.” We never did.
The impressions deepened nearer our cottage, each toe distinguishable. Muddy marks pocked the threshold. I snatched an umbrella off the stand and rushed in. “Mother!”
A skeletal man in filthy robes lay slumped on the living room floor, bones angular and sharp under grimy skin. I gripped the umbrella, poised to strike. “Tum kaun ho? Yahaan kyun aaye ho?”
He looked up; his eyes were unfocused. “Kissine bulaaya.”
Someone called him? Ridiculous.
“Jaao.” I waved the umbrella at the door. “Hamne nahin bulaaya.”
“What happened, Meeta?” Mother entered, wiping her hands on her sari. She frowned at the stranger. “Who’s that?”
He faced her. He raised his arm—it shook—and pointed at her. He fainted.
“An alleged saadhu, I guess.” I lowered the umbrella. “Drugged, possibly opium.”
We approached the pathetic form cautiously. A couple of flies settled on a gash on his leg. I shuddered. Mother said, “Now?”
“Let’s revive him and shoo him off,” I said.
Mother made strong, over-sweet tea. I held his chin through a towel sprayed with antiseptic, tried not to breathe in his sour, soiled-clothes smell, and pried his mouth open with a spoon to drip in tea. He gulped and opened his eyes—black, unexpectedly intelligent. A trickle meandered down his dust-caked face.
“Ab theek ho? Chal sakte ho?” I asked. Are you okay now? Can you walk?
He nodded and propped himself on twig-like arms. “Thank…you.”
India’s booming tourist trade has ensured that even beggars (especially beggars) manage enough English to say Thank you and Good morning and Only five rupees Madam, I no eat long. Then he added, “Needed…that.”
“Who are you?” I asked, switching to English. “What do you want?”
He attempted a smile. “Not…you know?”
“A mad man.” Mother peered at him and paled. “Amit?”
The only Amit I knew was my father Amit De, a corpulent fifty-five with sagging skin and a perpetual ugliness to his face, testimony to years of drinking and other decadent habits. “Who—”
Mother gave a tremulous smile. “Meeta, this is him, from before.”
As Mother pulled on plastic gloves and dabbed his cheeks with tissue and Eau-de-Cologne, I squinted at the emerging face and tensed. The man did resemble Father in his marriage photographs. But why would a confidence trickster bother to exploit a superficial similarity to Father? No neighbors lived close enough to hear our shouts. He could attack us and take everything we owned. Or did he have a more ambitious plan, say, making Mother sign off our Delhi property?
I rushed inside and hid our property papers. From my suitcase, I retrieved the pistol I had packed (unknown to Mother). I resumed my vigil in the living room, my protection snug in my pocket. Mother gave the man an old kurta-pajama to wear. She fetched a blanket, then a pillow. She fetched water. She made tea again. “Is the sugar okay?” she asked. “Is it strong enough? You used to like it this way.” He gave an over-gentle smile and nodded. She soaked Marie biscuits in tea and fed him like he was a baby. She massaged coconut oil on his sponged-clean skin. His blemishes had disappeared—make-up, of course. His cheeks glowed pink. He even seemed plumper.
When Mother left the room to prepare dinner, I accosted the fraud. “Tell me who you are, or I will call the police.”
Yeah, sure. Blame me for amnesia. “What’s your name?”
“Your age? Address? Do you have a ration card?”
“Age.” He kneaded his brow as if solving a complex equation. I glared and waited. “I… old…no… young…no…always…”
“Meeta, stop badgering him.” Mother set down a tray. “See, ji, your favorite dinner.”
The smell of potato curry and deep-fried poories filled the air: Father’s favorites from when he still treated us as humans.
This was too much. “Mother,” I said, “we can’t have a stranger here. It is getting dark.”
“You call your own father a stranger!” Mother said.
“I…go,” he said.
“And your dinner?” Mother said.
“Meetsi…not want.” He struggled to get up. I watched him hobble into the crimson sunset dust, wearing the clothes Mother gave him.
She scowled at me. “You didn’t let him eat.”
The poories lay deflated and limp on the plate, unappetizing.
Meetsi. Father used to call me that, oh, ages ago.
I punched my pillow with clenched fists, my mind seething with anger built over years of neglect and tyrannies. But a deep sense of loss welled from inside me, loss for the father I knew as a child. I caught myself sobbing once. “Stupid you to think of him—a monster replaced that man fifteen years ago,” I scolded myself, and continued battering the pillow though my shoulders ached.
Mother shook me awake next morning. “Get ready.”
“Your father will return today, now that he knows the way home,” Mother said. “I have faith.”
Faith in what? White flowers peeped from her hair-bun. A red bindi shone on her forehead—a traditional symbol of a married woman.
“You really think that man is Father?”
“You don’t believe?” Mother said. “It is my fault, stuffing atheist nonsense into your head.” Her face brightened. “But you must admit, Ganga maata gifted us your father.”
“Mother,” I said, trying not to sound exasperated. “That man was barely thirty whereas Father—”
“That makes it more wondrous, doesn’t it, Meeta beti?”
I touched a long scar on her hand, one of Father’s numerous legacies. “He wrecked your life. How can—”
Mother rushed to the door; I slipped the pistol in my pocket and dashed after her. I would pack off the charlatan today.
“Meeta beti, help me arrange aarti.” Mother held a brass plate with a lighted candle stuck on it, a couple of hibiscus flowers, a small heap of turmeric and rice, a miniscule bowl with water, and a sandalwood joss-stick curling out thick, sweet fumes.
I had been fifteen when Mother gave up religion. “No god could allow such a man to exist,” she told me, pointing to her latest stitches.
“Let’s leave him,” I said.
“You are not old enough,” she said. “He’ll bribe lawyers to get your custody.”
Now, as the stranger squatted on a mat (he wore saffron robes, like all sadhus did), she circulated her puja thali around his face as if he were a god, or at least a holy man worth reverence. Her face glowed.
“Sit near me, Damayanti,” he said after she finished worshipping him. “Let’s talk.”
My, my. And he could barely manage a coherent sentence yesterday.
“How did you return?” Mother asked.
“Exactly.” I plunked myself opposite him. “Tell us.”
“When you both remembered me with such deep intensity, my memories gathered strands of essence from oblivion and bound me to dust. Mother Ganges carried me to you. Some day she will carry me back for eternal sleep in the Himalayas.”
I smirked. “The Ganges flows into the ocean, not back to the Himalayas.”
“Remember the water cycle?” he said. “All creation is connected and cyclical. Of dust, to dust…”
“I bought you thermocole and blue chart paper for it.”
I was seven then. Father came home carrying a bag. He grinned and upturned it on the dining table—paper, scissors, Fevicol, poster colors, brushes, felt pens…
How well these tricksters cased us!
Still, to know the color of the paper?
He rose after a while. “I will come tomorrow.”
Mother got up to follow but he gestured her away. “Meeta, accompany me to the river bank.”
“You can’t fool me like you fooled Mother,” I told him as soon as we stepped outside. “My father died in the hospital six months ago. I helped wheel his dead body to the morgue. Doctors signed the certificate. The next day, on Nigambodh Ghaat, I circled his pyre, a burning log in my hand, listening to Sanskrit mantras. I coughed when your ashes clawed my throat. I broke your skull to release your soul, and appeased our ancestors with pind daan. I mixed milk and marigold flowers with your asthis and immersed them in the Ganges at Garhmukhteshwar.”
The day after the cremation, trying not to inhale soot, I stirred the ashes over his still-warm pyre and examined the charred lumps—was this a burnt bone or merely charcoal? Fingers pressed hard over the brittle pieces, I thought, is this what a tyrant reduces to?
“If I am not your father,” the stranger said, “you did not break my skull or immerse my bones.”
I turned my gaze away. “Why are you here?”
“Your summoning pulled threads from nothingness and wove me into flesh. I am patchwork—”
“You re-opened Mother’s wounds,” I said bitterly. “We were healing before you came.”
“Healing? You have not accepted the past, or reach peace. You compacted acrimony over your despair and loneliness, and she hides her ache under cheerfulness.”
“Those were wounds you gave us,” I said. “And now you are back. Why?”
“Maybe we will find out,” he said. “I really don’t know.”
We reached the embankment. The Ganges flowed before us, swollen with offerings of piety. In the evening haze, the reflected sky made it seamless and vast. A sudden gust of wind caused dust to swirl. By the time I rubbed my eyes clear, I stood alone.
The jeep’s rattle startled me. Garden shears clicked in the backyard: Father, pruning the hedge.
“Hide him, someone’s driving up,” I told Mother.
She frowned. “Huh? Why?”
“He’s dead, don’t you remember? He can’t be here. What will we tell people—hey, bunch of ashes ganged into a thirty-year-old version of the late unrespected Shri Amit De.” I snorted. “Absolutely believable, yeah.”
“You call him Father.”
“It’s just…convenient.” I squirmed. “Hurry. Any visitor—”
A police jeep spluttered to a halt outside, and a man descended: Shastri.
Shastri, Father’s colleague at office, had accompanied him for years for drinking bouts and lecherous nights. As an adolescent, I often dodged Shastri’s attempts to paw me. Luckily, he was abroad when Father died; I was spared clingy hugs disguised as avuncular condolences. Today he wore a white dhoti-kurta as if dressed for a religious function. He entered without knocking, ogled at Mother and folded his hands in a pseudo-humble Namaste.
“Bhabhiji,” he simpered. “So devastated to hear Amit Bhaisaheb is no more.” He lurched to touch her feet; she jerked away.
“God’s ways are unique, Shastriji,” Mother said. “Your bhaisaheb is at peace now.”
At least she didn’t say, your bhaisaheb is clipping bushes.
Shastri flashed me a lecherous smile; his breath stank of tobacco and rotting teeth. “And dear beti, orphaned at this tender age! Don’t worry, I am there.”
As if I were twelve, not twenty-four.
“We are fine, Shastri Uncle,” I said. “Thank you for coming but you should leave immediately. You will get late.”
“Oh no no, what are a few hours in this life journey if I don’t pay respects to Bhaisaheb’s family?” He turned to Mother again. “I hope you faced no problem, Bhabhiji, about pension and insurance and all?”
“None, Shastriji,” Mother said. “Meeta is right, you should leave. These roads are dangerous at night.”
“At the thana, they said a man came troubling you.” Shastri beckoned the constable. “Maybe I should stay here.”
I had forgotten that I called the police station the day Father first appeared. True to their reputed inefficiency, the police took a week to send someone across.
“The man turned out to be a harmless saadhu maharaaj.” I hoped Father had gone. “Shastri Uncle, you must—”
“He?” the constable said.
Father blocked the door, grand in his orange robes. I froze.
Shastri looked at Father. “What the—Bhaisaheb? You look so young…but you are dead…” A glint came to his eyes. “A fraud, huh? To get insurance money, no doubt. What man does for greed, such evil.” He turned to the constable. “This is the man who died.”
“Shastriji,” the constable said. “Saadhu maharaaj lives.”
“This man is this woman’s husband, and she’s his widow.” Shastri looked flustered. “They did chaar-so-beesi for insurance money. Interrogate him. Find out his name.”
The constable did a deferential Namaste. “Maharaaj, aapka shubh naam?” What is your good name?
“Those bound to flesh use names, son,” Father replied in chaste Hindi. “I am dust cast on Mother Ganga.”
“How question I a man of god?” the constable asked Shastri. “See you not goodness of him? How broad his forehead, like god Rama himself, how big his eyes!”
“Superstitious fool,” Shastri murmured. “Wait for me in the jeep.”
“I don’t know how you managed this, Bhaisaheb,” he said after the constable left. “Raman told me he attended the cremation, and my own son-in-law works in the hospital where you…no…”
“A miracle, perhaps?” Father said.
Shastri snorted. “Miracle and you? You are no saint. Have you forgotten those randi ghars of Old Delhi? The way you and I pawed nautch girls and haggled with pimps, and then you would stagger home to force this woman—” He leered at Mother, and glanced around the room. “Useful, huh, the insurance money? Cosmetic surgery very good, heh?”
Father thrust out his hand at Shastri. “You want to share the loot?”
Shastri nodded and took Father’s hand. Rather, he tried to. His hand went right through Father’s. He tried again. And again. He began trembling. “An optical illusion, cheap jaadu-tona magic. I’ll report you.”
He turned and ran.
“You shouldn’t have shown yourself,” I told Father. “They’ll gossip about Mother and me.”
With Mother busy frying bhajjis for Father, I had cornered him in the verandah where he was relaxing on a canvas rocking chair, basking in the sun and gazing at the distant sugarcane fields. I placed my hands on my hips, and glowered at him.
“In the real world,” I continued, “dead people don’t return as younger versions.”
He looked up at me, a fold between his eyes. “I formed because you thought of me and I—”
“Resonated, hah,” I said. “Tell me the truth. Do you need a forgiveness certificate to enter heaven? Does the gatekeeper of swarga have a closure or release form protocol?”
“Don’t be skeptical. Of what use, Meetsi, has your anger been?”
“It kept me safe from you,” I retorted.
He steepled his fingers and rocked gently. “You retained it after my death.”
“The world overflows with Shastri sorts. I must survive. How else—”
“People attract similar people.”
I was too shocked to speak. Father, with his smug, beatific smile, looked translucent in the sunlight. Summer dust irritated my lungs. A fly buzzed near me; I flicked it away and it began describing lazy circles around me.
I found my voice finally. “So, your behavior was my fault? You drank and chased women and beat Mother because I was angry? God!”
“Not cause and effect, more like a clustering of attracting entities.” He sighed as if tiring of a dumb kid. “Anyway, whatever, you are old enough to discard the past.”
“Why should I?” I tossed back my head. “Who are you to preach? You haven’t apologized for all you did.”
“I am not the entity that troubled you.”
“Ridiculous. You disown your cruelties? If you are different, why do you, what do you call it, resonate with us and get corporeal or whatever?”
He tilted his head and pondered. “I have achieved harmony and need not come. But my presence helps you reconcile—”
“No way, your presence upsets my sense of stability,” I said. “It is irrational, absurd. Leave me alone.”
“I’m sorry you are upset, Meetsi.”
“Are you?” I wanted to shake him and tell him to get lost, to—
He vanished. There was nothing on the striped canvas slung on the chair—no haze of dust, no shimmer, nothing. No elbows rested on chipped wooden armrests. I almost touched the seat, but hesitated. I glanced around though he could not have slipped past me. My mouth felt dry.
“Mother, come fast, he’s gone.”
She rushed out. “What?”
“He disappeared. I got angry and…”
She smiled and placed her hand a few inches above one armrest. “Amit, what’s she talking about? I’ve got bhajjis in the oil; they’ll burn.”
I gaped at her fingertips, flattened by their press against nothingness.
“Shastri saw him,” I said, almost shouting. “Why’s he gone invisible on me?”
“Maybe you didn’t want him?”
The pity on her face stung me.
“And Shastri did? Or that constable?” I jammed my palm against my mouth and ran to my room. If I succumbed and called out to him, he may respond. I wasn’t sure I wanted him back.
Shastri returned two days later, accompanied by a bashful police inspector.
“This gentlemen claims you faked your husband’s death to cheat the insurance company.” The inspector cleared his throat. “He says your husband lives here.”
Mother turned to me. “Meeta, give Inspectorji the file, will you?”
While the inspector peered at Father’s death certificate, and the condolence letters and photographs of the thirteenth day ceremony, Shastri nosed around the house.
“Feel free to check, Shastriji, Inspectorji.” Mother glanced behind me for a moment, and a faint smile turned up the corners of her mouth.
The inspector straightened up. “No no, all very okay here, Madam, sorry to disturb.”
He frowned at Shastri who was flipping through my notes on subjugation of female children. “Mister Shastri, let us go. Enough time wasted because of you, no?”
The footprints appeared daily, sometimes as indentations in the wet mud just paces ahead of me. Mother often murmured and cooed to apparently empty air. Once, I almost asked her how Father was, but stopped myself—he was dead, wasn’t he?
Instead, I took long walks, organized my papers, and drafted notes. I fretted over my advisor’s comments that my work lacked depth and insight, and over the references I could only access if I visited the Delhi University library.
“We must go back to Delhi,” I told Mother one day after she returned from the riverbank looking particularly dreamy. “My work has reached a standstill.”
“But your father—”
“He’s dead and cremated.”
“He comes to meet me.”
I bristled. “Oh pluhleez. So his ghost visits, but has he ever said sorry? No! That entity wasn’t me, he claims.”
“I don’t need his apology,” she said. “It is enough that even after we scattered his mortal remains on Mother Ganga, he responded to my heart, to your heart—”
“Responded? He left me, remember?” My voice came out shrill.
“You gave up.”
I glared at her. “I have a life to live, and it’s in the present, it’s in the future, it’s not some stupid stay-stuck-in-the-past style.”
“You don’t sound happy about it. You don’t sound peaceful.”
“Peace? He’s beaten you with his hands in the past, and now he traps you with pretend philosophy.” I softened my voice, desperate to make her understand. “Mother, please. We cannot live in the past.”
If she didn’t agree…
“Sometimes the past continues to live in us.” Mother kissed my forehead. “He loved you. He loves you.”
I held myself stiff. “Life has to go on.”
She sighed and went to her room. She came out a few minutes later, shawl pulled close. “I’ll take a walk.”
I waited up all night. A few times, I opened my notes and tried to read, but my mind felt stuffy and dense, like I had a head cold. Several times I walked to Mother’s room but stopped at the door, not brave enough to check the table for a white rectangle. After sunrise, I followed her trail to the embankment. A pair of steps joined hers after a while. I felt terribly excluded. The impressions stopped at the edge of a rock. Ganges frisked below, tossing up decayed flowers and broken earthen lamps. Mist settled heavy inside my lungs, cold and clammy. I thought I heard a distant strain of a Geeta Dutt love song. I shivered.
She abandoned me for him.
I reached out to my core of fury, but my insides had been scooped and turned inside out. There was Father, his hand enveloping mine and guiding me as I drew clouds and rivers on my chart. Evenings, he read out stories to me, and I leaned against him, small against his broad chest, breathing in his astringent aftershave and feeling clean and safe. Mother and he sat in the park, holding hands, as I reached out for the skies from the swing and hooted in delight. And with the gushing memories came the tenderness long denied. My anger, my sorrow, bereft of substance, flowed out of me, my own Ganges. I sank on the grass and let sobs wrack me. Warmth rushed to occupy the interstices.
“Meeta.” Mother stood near me, erect, her skin glorious in the rising sun, a dew-fresh gajra sparkling in her hair. Her face was tranquil. I felt a lightness fill me: she returned. I imagined her sitting with Father all night, he young and handsome and ever so gentle, she haloed with silver hair.
“How is he?” I stood up and brushed my clothes.
“Okay.” She tucked a wayward strand behind her ear. “He…moved on.”
I hugged her. She smelled of jasmines. We stood there, flesh soft against flesh; I soaked in the freshness of her. The sun, dawn-soft, cast no shadows.
“We can go to Delhi,” Mother said.
Her shawl trailed behind her; I draped it around her shoulders.
“Yes,” I said.
I read somewhere that most people never forgive their parents. This, combined with possibilities that speculative fiction offers, gave me an idea to start with. I added memories of picking burnt bones from a still-smoldering funeral pyre, and my childhood journeys on the river Ganges, and the story grew.