Featured Story • January 2015

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The Absence of Words

 

Swapna Kishore

 
 

Music blasts my ears when Mom opens the door. A glance to check that Mom’s okay—no bandages anywhere, nothing wrong with her walk, face not particularly tenser than normal—then I put down my overnight bag, kick off my high heels, and stride across to switch off the over-energetic, earsplitting disco music. Things must be worse with Gran if Mom needs such cacophony.

“So, what happened?” I say.

Mom had summoned me by using the “emergency” word and then e-mailed the Delhi-Bangalore-Delhi e-ticket. Three days, Nisha, that’s all I need, she had said over the phone. It’s a three-day weekend, no, Good Friday morning through to Sunday night? I’ll tell you when you come. Please? Our project didn’t “do weekends” as my boss put it—we worked all seven days and late hours at that—but I had been sufficiently alarmed by Mom’s desperate-sounding parental pleading. And here I am, tired because I woke up at 2 a.m. to catch the flight. I’m still clueless about the problem.

Mom waves me to the sofa.

“I’ve bagged a two-year assignment in New York,” she says. “Researching and writing on a series of health topics. Prestigious stuff.”

“Congrats,” I say tentatively. My gaze snaps to Gran’s bedroom door.

Mom sighs and plunks on a chair opposite me. There are traces of white at the roots of her hair. Her housecoat is crumpled, smudged with turmeric splotches, and her slipper strap is frayed. She used to be so particular about remaining meticulously groomed even at home. Things change over the years, I guess.

“You’ve accepted?” I say. I already suspect the summons is related to Gran. Gran’s eighty years old, frail but with no known problems other than the one we never talk about. Still I can’t imagine Gran living alone, doing stuff like buying groceries, getting gadgets repaired, ordering gas, taking auto-rickshaws to the nearest ATM, and I guess Mom can’t imagine it either.

“I shortlisted some old-age homes where I can pull strings and get bumped up the queue,” Mom says. “I contacted a couple.” She pushes her bifocals up her nose and tucks back a wayward strand. “One said they don’t accept elective mutes. The other wanted a medical certificate and full psychiatrist evaluation.”

Fifteen years ago, I’d been away at boarding school when Mom called to inform me of the diagnosis. That someone would choose not to speak creeped me out; for a while I blamed myself for my spat with Gran, even wrote a bunch of letters promising to be a good girl if she started speaking, but Gran never replied. Then I came home and saw the rest of the problem. It still creeps me out, Gran’s muteness and the weird stuff around it.

“You could refer them to the psychiatrist you used earlier,” I suggest. I can’t imagine what any doctor would say now about Gran. How would they even ask her any question?

“Actually, Nisha,” Mom smoothens her gown over her knee, “I didn’t take her to any doctor at that time.”

I gape at her. “But you had told me…” So she had lied fifteen years ago. I feel rage rise in me, sizzling, in my core, branching through me, dividing, narrowing, till I am a network of fire. I force my anger to invert into ice. It turns shard-sharp under my skin, solid as icicles. But my incomplete sentence lies heavy between us.

Red splotches stain her cheek.

“Amma and I had argued,” she says. “I’m not sure you remember what had happened the night before you left for school that year. You’d returned late because of some silly friend’s party and I’d scolded you.”

Of course I remember. ‘Scolded’ was a mild word for the fury Mom had unleashed on me for a minor teenage mistake, but I’d managed to stay absolutely quiet by freezing in my rage. That time, after Mom stormed out, was probably the only time Gran scolded me. I hadn’t known that Gran argued with Mom afterwards.

Mom continues, “So later that night Amma barged into my bedroom all preachy and saintly. Apparently my,” she annotates the air with curly quotation marks, “legacy of anger would spoil your life.” Her chest heaves, her voice is ragged. “I just lost it. I told Amma she had screamed often enough herself. At least I hadn’t abandoned my daughter.”

“Abandoned?” I repeat.

“I—” Mom’s mobile rings. She blinks at the display, clears her throat, and begins speaking in a smooth voice with a cultured BBC accent. Her shoulders straighten, completing her morphing into her competent journalist persona. I wonder whether to head for Gran’s door and finish off the obligatory visit, but Mom’s call is over and she’s glaring at me.

“About Gran’s silence,” I prompt. “If you think she’s not speaking because she’s angry with you, have you tried apologizing to her?”

Mom’s glare could frizzle anyone normal, but me, I have my ways to meet her crest of rage with my troughs.

“Fine,” she says. “Fine. One more time won’t hurt.” She snaps her fingers, like she’s saying, Nisha, heel. I keep myself cool, distant, visualize my return ticket right down to its Times New Roman font and the airline’s logo, and tell myself it is just a few days.

Mom strides towards Gran’s room, her housecoat swishing at her ankles. I follow her. An abrupt halt at the door, with me just a step behind. I am aware of the thud in my chest, the clamminess of anticipation on my skin.

Gran’s room is still like a world in a time warp. Dust motes thicken the slants of light. Gran is sitting near the window, her wrinkled skin translucent in the morning sun. There are no other sounds, of course, none of the tiny sounds that define us: a throat being cleared, dry hair crackling, the gentle swoosh of breath, the rustle of Gran’s starched cotton sari.

Gran looks up at us, sensing us in spite of the absent footsteps.

“I said something fifteen years ago,” Mom shouts from the door. “I’m sorry, okay? How many times must I say that! You can start talking again, can’t you!”

Horns on Mom’s head would have matched that tone.

“Your voice doesn’t reach her,” I remind Mom.

Mom frowns and steps into the room, her footfalls cushioned into nothingness. Whenever I dream of Gran, I imagine her cocooned in a soft grey gel that presses on the skin of anyone approaching her—cold, firm, resistant. No such gel is visible in real life, but even so, Mom takes tiny steps, as if she, too, is forcing her way past some invisible gel.

When Mom is a couple of feet from Gran, she opens her mouth. Her face twists like she is screaming, her mouth keeps opening wide, closing, opening, closing. I hear nothing. I know Mom can’t hear herself, either. How the hell does Mom tell Gran anything? Food’s ready. Geyser water is hot enough for a bath. Do you want this sari starched? Stuff needed to coordinate the minutiae of life.

Mom’s expression stiffens. She presses her lips together as if to catch words before they are swallowed. She grabs a notepad, probably kept handy for this purpose. She scribbles something and holds it in front of Gran, who glances at me, then adjusts her spectacles and squints at the pad. No nod, no shaking her head, no twitch of her face. Her hands remain folded restfully on her lap. I retreat to the living room.

Mom follows me a few moments later, crumpling the note. “Breakfast?”

* * *

Spoons clang against plates, cupboards and drawers are opened and closed with violent bangs. But apparently the noise is an inadequate antidote for Mom, because her eyes are over-bright—this, the woman who has never cried in my presence.

I wish I was far away, safe from whatever is about to tumble out. It is as if we are both standing at the edge of something dark and viscous that we have been avoiding all these years. I wonder if we will finally admit that “elective mute” cannot explain that gobble-all-sound sphere that’s been growing around Gran all these years.

Mom gulps hard. She cracks an egg with unnecessary force. Whisk, whisk. Chops onions. Whisk, splatter, mop, curse. A pat of butter sizzles in the pan. In goes the omelet mix, and then Mom finally looks at me. “She walked out on me again that time.”

The toaster belches out toast charred at the edges. I place it on a plate. I absorb the words. Walked out. Again.

“After I dropped you off at the railway station the next morning, Amma wasn’t there and her clothes were missing. She had left a two-line note saying I shouldn’t worry. I didn’t tell you because you’d get tense. You were so fond of her.” Jealousy tinges Mom’s voice in spite of the stretch of years.

I run my finger across the rough, burned edge of the toast, stare at the charcoal on my fingers. “Then?”

“I called up friends and relatives acting casual and probed them without explaining why. No one mentioned Amma. I wondered whether to report her as missing but she’d said, don’t worry. A week later, she rang the doorbell and marched to her room with her bags. That’s when it started, her refusal to talk and the…rest of it.”

I wonder how it must have been, that week of uncertainty, then Gran returning, and Mom not getting any explanation or even the satisfaction of a good slinging match. I wonder how it must have been, sensing that zone of silence and fearing showing it to a doctor. That summer, when I’d come home for vacations and noticed how sound got deadened when I approached Gran, I’d felt so frightened I’d pretended there was no problem. Back then the sound-soaking shroud extended a foot around her; now it fills her room.

“Bloody-minded, that’s what she is,” Mom murmurs.

I am about to ask whether bloody-mindedness explained the gobbled words when I remember something else. “You said she’d walked out before.”

Mom hesitates.

“Tell me,” I say. “I’m old enough to know family secrets.”

“Fair enough.” Mom nods. “When I was a child, your Grandpa and Gran had a major fight.” She sips her coffee. “She stalked off to an ashram at Rishikesh. Everyone was upset with her. Women aren’t supposed to abandon a husband and daughter for spiritual practice. Besides, no one believed she was religious.”

I am careful not to look up as I quarter the omelet and place it over toast, edges aligned. I’ve seen a couple of photographs of Gran as a young woman, faded sepia photos of a slender woman in a cotton sari with a broad border, a face that was overwhelmed by fiery eyes and a frown. I try to imagine Gran as an impetuous woman leaving a family and boarding a crowded train to the Himalayas, a small cloth jhola on her shoulder as her sole worldly possession. No Internet to get an advance hotel booking, probably no safe hotels for women. No mobile phones, only trunk calls that needed to be booked from post offices, and telegrams that could be sent. Gran arriving in an ashram in the foothills of the snow-covered mountains, shivering in a cotton sari, or perhaps snug and warm in a pashmina shawl.

“Five months later,” Mom continues, “your Grandpa got into a legal hassle, and they somehow managed to inform Amma, and she returned. She’d changed. Earlier she would just get angry all the time, but now her moods swung between rage and a fake sort of calm during which she spouted condescending platitudes.” Mom pours herself some more coffee. “Once, reprimanding me for something, she blamed our entire family because she had left a critical siddhi work midway and her guru would not accept her back.”

“You think she’s been struck silent because some spiritual siddhi accounting system kicked in?” I can’t help the sarcastic edge in my voice. “Or are you saying some other guru started her on another siddhi in that week she went missing later?”

“Let’s stay focused,” Mom says, as if I’ve been the one reminiscing. “The problem I’m facing is finding a place for her when I’m away.”

“How does she interact with others? Milkman, car wash man, whoever. What do they think of that, er, stillness around her?”

“She just folds her hands when anyone approaches her and gives that saintly smile. She takes her morning walk on the terrace when people are barely awake. I’ve not heard her talk to anyone when I’m there.” Mom pauses a beat. “As for that penumbra around her, well, people don’t come close, and I avoid talking when I’m close to her, so I don’t look like a cartoon character opening and closing my mouth soundlessly.”

“No risk-taking, eh?” I blurt out. My words sound more caustic than I intended.

I sense the heat of her rage even before her face contorts, and instantly I am ice, I am far away. I don’t live here, I don’t have to do anything. I only have to survive for two days and then return. She runs the course—the tightening body, the clenched fists, the eyes bulging out just a teeny bit more. I wait for the outpouring. Minutes pass like hours. But she presses her lips tight. I guess she realizes I am older and can walk out.

Finally, I decide to take a risk myself and lower my rigid, distant stance. “I guess we have a—what they call—situation. Now?”

Mom face deflates like a punctured balloon; this is how her rage always dies—like a tornado hitting a black hole.

“I just don’t get it, Nisha,” she says. “If I leave an alarm clock near her and go away, it rings. I hear it ring. But if I am holding it, even if it is rocking like mad in my hands, there is not even a chooo of a sound.”

“How does she handle something like, say, a dentist trip?”

Mom squiggles and squirms. “The last trip was almost five years ago. She didn’t talk in my presence. The dentist took her in, and she gestured to me to stay out. I have no clue what happened inside, and I couldn’t ask the dentist, could I?”

So Mom’s been avoiding Gran’s checkups. I bite back my comment about health journalists not doing what they preach. Who am I to criticize Mom when I have been avoiding visits?

“But now…” Mom mumbles.

We sip our coffees, and then Mom’s lips part, her eyes soft-focus on me, like she’s got a brain wave.

My stomach cramps. Surely Mom isn’t thinking, no, she can’t think, that Gran should stay with me? I’m holed up in an itsy-bitsy one-room barsati in Delhi. Heck, I don’t even take Mom there when she visits Delhi for short trips; we do the mother-daughter ritualistic cozying up in a coffee shop, or her hotel, or just talk on the phone.

I want to cut Mom’s suggestion off before she makes it. “I think,” I say, stalling for time, when the answer flashes upon me, brilliant in its simplicity, “I have an idea.”

“What?” Mom’s eyebrows arch.

“Ashrams accept inmates, no? And silence is respected as a sadhana amongst spiritual seekers. Spin a yarn about her having taken a vow of silence or elective isolation or something.”

It takes but a moment for a smile to fill Mom’s face and crinkle her eyes, and the wrinkles suddenly transform into a poster for dignified ageing. Then she’s calling people, gathering information, invoking favors with her contacts.

I steel myself and step into Gran’s room. I break into a run when I cross her threshold, only too aware that I will not be able to enter the sound-deadening zone if I stop to think. Then I am there, standing an arm’s width from her. “Hello, Gran, how are you,” I say, and my voice is lost in the silence she enforces on me. Gran smiles at me. Nothing in her shows the energy and animation she had when I was much younger. Her fragility intimidates me.

She extends her hand tremulously.

The last time we’d touched was when she hugged me years ago, the night after my minor teenage mistake and Mom’s explosion. First Gran had begun scolding me, saying I shouldn’t have got so “angry” at Mom, though I’d not said anything to Mom, just stayed silent and kept my eyes lowered, masking my curled-up rage with a docile expression. I’d expected sympathy from Gran for my self-control, even praise, so when she began admonishing me my rage uncurled and erupted at her. I yelled at her how nasty she was, flinging, for good measure, words I’d seen scratched on school desks and in the toilets, hoping to slice through right to her core, slash her. Gran, after a few moments of stunned silence, said, You want to hurt me, Nishi, have I hurt you so much?, and she smiled as if she’d got some life-saving insight, and then she hugged me tightly, forgiving, consoling me. That evening, the evening of the last hug I’d accepted from her, was also the last time I’d heard her voice.

Now her frail hand remains extended, but I cannot get myself to even touch her. I stand awkwardly for a couple of minutes and then tiptoe out.

* * *

A duly deferential darshan of the ashram’s Swamiji is obligatory before we can leave Gran for her week’s experimental stay at the ashram. Gran, Mom, and I wait in the hall, surrounded by scores of devotees including parents and kids. Kids laugh and play and hit one another, embarrassed parents scold them, women chatter, men argue. Noise engulfs us, but Mom and I cannot speak because we are throttled by Gran’s proximity. Her sphere has shrunk but not vanished. I find myself missing work—lovely, stressful work, predictable random crises, buzzing with the challenge of office politics.

A baby bawls loud enough to hush the room into silence. The hapless mother cajoles the baby, offers her breast, rattles a colorful jhunjhuna, all to no avail. Kids, really!

Gran stretches her arms out. The mother’s eyes blaze with fierce protest; I shrink, embarrassed. But strangely, the woman passes the baby to Gran, who cradles it. It stops wailing, and contemplates Gran with wide-open eyes, beautiful, kohl-lined. Its face squeezes a bit, and I fear a renewed audio output, then fear that the output will be seen but not heard, and how weird that would seem, exposing us as freaks. But what erupts is a gentle burp as its mouth softens into what doting adults consider a smile. A burp that can be heard.

Gran returns the baby to the mother.

Mom walks off and returns within a minute with the ashram manager. “Please come in, madam,” he says. I assume Mom’s handed in an over-generous donation.

Swamiji is in his eighties, more wrinkled than Gran, with matted locks and sandalwood paste on his forehead, very stereotype. We fold our hands in greeting. For an awkward moment, his disciples seem to expect us to prostrate, something neither Mom nor I are comfortable doing. Gran beams, Swamiji smiles back, the tension breaks, and a disciple grabs the offerings I have assembled—coconuts, flowers, sweets.

“God bless you, children,” Swamiji says. “Anger is bad, love is good. Regret paves the way for good actions, but correct action needs love and wisdom.”

Yeah, sure. We’ve driven a hundred kilometers for this unique advice. I move away from Gran so that my voice can be heard.

“My grandmother has not spoken for many years.” I gesture at Gran. “Silence surrounds her. We worry about it.”

“People choose paths based on their karma.” He chuckles. “Shanti, shanti.”

I hurry to add, “She was once trying for siddhis. We wonder whether—”

“Tranquil minds hear eternity. Shanti, shanti.” He nods at his disciples, who herd us aside. The next devotee in the queue proffers flowers and hard cash. We weren’t expecting answers, I console myself. We are here to settle Gran in, not play Sherlock Holmes. Besides, our stay in the hall has confirmed that Gran’s sound-deadening weirdness affects only Mom and me, so Gran’s stay should pose no problems. Gran can pass for a pious lady who has taken the vow of silence, the revered maun vrat.

The room allotted to Gran is small but well lit. Gran sits on the bed while Mom unpacks her suitcase into a cupboard. Outside the window is a sprawl of low buildings and geometric gardens. Residents with serene but vacuous expressions weed vegetable patches and teach kids under canopied neem trees. So very idyllic. I shudder.

Mom pulls out a pad and scribbles: I am going to New York for two years. If you like this place, you can stay here.

Gran’s head snaps up. Mom had only mentioned a week’s retreat to her earlier. I feel ashamed of this way to break the news, but I can’t fault Mom; I hadn’t helped her either. Gran extends her hand towards Mom, who quickly steps back. She scribbles again: We will find another place if you don’t like this ashram.

Gran starts neatening the pleats of her sari.

My mobile vibrates. I step outside to take the call: a crisis at work. I calm down my boss, then blow up at a subordinate before instructing him on how to resolve the problem.

By the time I finish, Mom is outside, talking to the ashram manager.

“Your Mataji will be happy here.” His reassuring way smacks of practice. “She looks peaceful.”

A prominent lump bobs up and down Mom’s throat.

“I’m sure she will,” I tell the manager, and lead Mom away.

* * *

Mom’s knuckles are white knobs on the steering wheel and her shoulders are hunched. I’m scared a single wrong word can shatter her. Sounds abound near us—the grunt of gear change, the swish as she swerves the car to avoid potholes, my own heart, thudding loudly. Car horns penetrate our closed windows. But loudest of all is the silence between Mom and me, thick-textured, dark with foreboding.

Later, while clearing up after dinner, Mom scrubs a plate clean with unnecessary vigor. “You must be having a sleep backlog.”

I nod and escape to my room upstairs.

I lie awake for a long time. Past midnight, I dash an e-mail to my boss, pleading an emergency. Then I resume staring at the fan overhead and the ominous shadows it casts on the ceiling thanks to the neon street lights outside.

* * *

On Sunday, I mall-walk, shopping for gifts. I am clueless about what Gran likes. And Mom’s a successful career woman, articulate, energetic, but what sort of books does she like? Does she enjoy clothes, jewelry? Does she party? Which movies does she see? I have stayed safely distant for too many years—after college, I found internships, summer courses, residencies, jobs, anything that kept me away. Not that Mom tried to get closer.

I select a small sandalwood owl for Gran because she often called me ‘ullu’ as a kid, her affectionate way of saying I was as silly as an owl. For Mom, I buy a Parker pen, a congratulatory gift for the prestigious assignment we haven’t talked about.

When I return home, I tell Mom I have rescheduled my ticket for Monday night and will visit Gran before that.

“Tomorrow? I won’t be able to come with you. I’m interviewing a doctor for a lead article,” Mom says.

“No problem,” I say, relieved.

* * *

A small girl holding a doll is sitting near Gran. “Dadima, will you play with me?” When the child sees me, her smile wavers and dissolves. It reminds me of my office, of the wariness springing onto the faces of my juniors when I approach. I try to remove the snarl underneath my smile, the tension beneath my skin, but the girl scurries away.

I approach Gran, allowing myself to hope that things will be normal now, but when my footfall is smothered by her, I feel rejected, slapped shut, and the twinge in my chest leaves me breathless for a moment.

Paper does not rustle as I unwrap the owl. My fingers trace the carved wings; hesitant, I hold out my present. Gran cups her palms, and I lower the owl into them. My fingers brush hers. I stiffen, but force myself to relax. It could be the last time I’ll be seeing Gran. I can handle it.

Gran grasps my hand; her skin is baby soft, even softer than it used to be long ago, when she hugged me at every pretext, back in those days when I would let her hug me. Why have I hesitated to touch her all these years? My eyes smart. I think of blinking away my tears, but what’s wrong if a tear or so meanders down?

“Gran,” I say.

Waves of silence absorb my voice, cool like an evening breeze. Not like the brittle ice I use to form my protective guard when yelled at—no, this is a soothing, caressing cool shell. I feel all soft and liquidy inside.

“I’ve been an ullu all these years.” My words are lost as sound, but they make my skin tingle.

Tears stream down Gran’s cheek in rivulets, dividing, combining, dividing. Tears drip onto her lap, and some of those tears are mine.

Gran’s lips move soundlessly, but the air suddenly has a hint of jasmine, like an offering to gods unknown. A blessing? Perhaps she has been speaking thus for years, words lost to me because of my frigid distance. Perhaps this gift of calming me is what she traded her voice for. Not stubbornness, not hypocrisy or anger, but quiescence—only I had held myself rigid against it.

Maybe Gran didn’t know that Mom and I were too busy being bristly and angry, one by yelling, another by freezing.

I snuggle into Gran’s lap as if I were a child again.

* * *

Mom chatters continually as she drives me to the airport, churning out tidbits about this person and that, people I don’t know or care about, about her new project, about some press coverage she got. I let the words float around me, an alphabet soup devoid of anything meaningful. It is only after she parks at the airport, after we are safe and crowded in the rush of humanity, that she asks, “How is she? Does she speak there?”

“She was very peaceful. Happy.”

“Obviously she’d be happy, now that she’s away from me.” Mom’s eyes blaze with a familiar, corrosive rage.

“Mom, please.”

“Okay, so I was not the best of daughters. I tried but Amma never…”

The gravel in Mom’s voice, that tautness, tenses me against her assault. But even as my defense snaps in place, her voice loses meaning. Her lips move, but all I hear is a gurgle and burble of something rushing at me, searing-hot waves of lava, wave after wave, lapping, foaming. And then the sounds vanish. It’s just silence all around me. I wince and jerk back, shocked.

Shock has paled Mom’s face, too—she has noticed the absence of her words.

I inhale deeply, unfreezing the tightness inside me, trying not to resist. Please, I plead to gods I have never worshipped, this sort of silence is not my way.

Mom’s face turns rigid, turns soft, her lips quiver.

I wonder whether to risk speaking.

“Mom?” I cannot hear my own voice. I try again, and again, and finally I hear my whisper. Thank the gods, if they exist.

Mom looks sadder than I have ever seen her. “I will book my flight via Delhi so that we can meet.”

I nod. “Good.”

We continue walking, the brief aberration unacknowledged, my throat clogged with doubts I dare not utter. I soak in every little sound—the swish of my clothes against hers, the drag and creak of my strolley bag rolling behind me. Mom clears her throat every few seconds—just checking, perhaps.

Standing at the entrance of the passengers-only area, Mom’s smile is forced, woebegone. Perhaps she dreads returning home, a lonely home even more silent without Gran. I surprise myself by pulling Mom into a hug. She tightens, but then lets her body yield to my contours. Last we hugged was probably when I was five years old.

“Take care,” I say.

 
 

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Swapna KishoreSwapna Kishore lives in India and writes fiction and non-fiction. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Nature (Futures), Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, Sybil’s Garage No. 7, Warrior Wisewoman 3, Breaking the Bow, Apex Book of World SF (Volume 3), and various other publications and anthologies. She has published books on software engineering and process management, including a business novel. She also blogs about dementia care in India and creates online resources for dementia caregivers in English and Hindi. Her website is at swapnawrites.com.

 

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