|| Almost the Last to Go ||
(A letter from one imaginary friend to another)
You must be upset that I have not replied to your mail for almost a month.
I have been busy – busy for more than a month now, engaged in an arduous task. Not physically (well, to some extent it is), but mentally it has been quite agonizing and exhausting. To do it without distraction, I had to seal myself off from contact with everyone, including Atul. Over the last couple of months Sarala and I have not spoken to him much. Luckily, he has been too busy to miss his parents.
Do you recall that my parents ‘separated’ from me some thirty years back, soon after I had changed my job to come over to be with them? Papa was going to retire, and mummy wanted to continue to live in the place where they had lived through papa’s entire working life – almost forty years. They did not have a place. Few days after he retired, they moved in with us.
But, after six months he decided to buy a flat and move out. He said Sarala and I should enjoy the freedom to bring up our child the way we wanted. We tried to convince him that sooner or later both of them would need others’ assistance. But, Papa just smiled gravely and said so long as he was strong enough he would like to carry on, on his own. I had to relent.
Subsequently, things did not work out the way they should have. We exchanged visits. But, gradually their visits became rarer, ours more and more formal – as if a curtain slowly descended between us. Towards the end, papa would sometimes ask me for help or things, but only indirectly. It was as if he hesitated to depend on me. I could see that mummy was greatly pained by this expanding gulf of separation. But, as always, she kept her feelings and words to herself.
You know mummy died about ten years back. She died of cancer, after being treated for three months. She did not really suffer much physical pain. But, her bed-ridden last days stretched into almost a month. This was the time when Papa started losing his grip on life. We had not told him that mummy had cancer. Her operation had been carefully concealed. When she died, papa did not grieve much. I guess he found it difficult to believe. He just began to wane, waned, and left us in another six months.
For a long time, I did not know what to do with papa’s flat. It became a chore to go, open it up for airing, and clean it up at times – because, in spite of being locked, dust kept creeping in. In every visit I found the furniture and all the other things looking a little older. It was particularly painful to look at the sofa seats where mummy and papa sat to watch the TV. Their bed, closets, dining table, fridge, oven, various utensils and other usual stuff in the kitchen – all looked less and less connected with any life ever. It was as if, with the going away of mummy and papa, those things had lost their souls. At one point it became quite unbearable, and I stopped going to the flat, though I had still not concluded what to do with it.
After almost a year, I got a call from a neighbour of papa’s flat, informing me that there was an awful stench emanating from it. This person had been asking me to sell the flat to him. So, I thought it was some kind of a ploy to precipitate my decision. After dithering for a day, I went to the flat. As I climbed the stairs I was hit by the stench. It was really awful – not very strong, but oppressive in a terrifying way that evoked putrefying dead. Opening the front door was hard labour, as it had jammed during the monsoons. I was assailed by the most nauseating sight. Overflowing sewage from the water closet had flown into the rooms. The sewer connecting the water closet had apparently choked. The rooms now stood in ankle-deep turbid water with floating excreta and settled slime. Maggots crawled everywhere. At my appearance, some disturbed rats scurried away.
I suppressed my nausea, bolted the door and rushed away to get help. It took several days to find the sewer blockage, drain the stagnant water and clean up the rooms. When it was done, I had to leave the windows open for a couple of weeks to let fresh air in for removing the stench. Luckily, it was winter, and the dry air was able to remove all but a faint trace of the lingering smell.
By then everything looked alien. Mummy’s picture taken after her death, which hung on the hall wall, had a faded look, like one of those daguerreotypes from a bygone era. The window panes had turned opaque and the cobwebs on them had shells of dead insects. The sofa cushions had mould on them, and their wood had turned black and cracked. The TV had tons of dust stuck to it that could not be removed anymore. The dining table and chairs had lost their sheen completely, and seemed to have seen the last supper decades back. The fridge stood with its door open (it would not close anymore), its inside discoloured to an unhealthy yellow like the teeth of very old people. The kitchen had been overrun by rats and birds coming in through the chimney hole. Their droppings spread a nauseating stench.
The bed on which papa and mummy had slept looked dirty and dank. It smelt awfully musty. Its creases looked damp and cold, as if dead bodies had rested on them and let their body fluids drain and seep into the mattress. Just the bed made me feel that I was not in a house, but in some medieval subterranean chambers filled with sarcophagus.
I have never felt as miserable as I felt then. Slowly, I realized that I had clung to that flat to posses those lifeless objects, and thus continue to relate to my parents. But, with their departure, my parents had taken away the souls of those very same objects, leaving behind only their dead carcasses.
In a few weeks I had spoken to my papa’s neighbour, and asked him for an offer. He promised to make a reasonable offer. But, he insisted that I must first rid the rooms of all the stuff.
This took a very long time. I realized that no one wanted stuff that belonged to dead people and that too after such a long time, which had made the things immeasurably lifeless. Yet, too much memory was associated with them, which stretched back to my childhood. I was loath to throwing anything away. But, in the end I succeeded, and sold the flat.
Last December, Atul gave up his job in Philadelphia and moved to Boston. Sarala and I visited him, wanting to help him with moving house, as Trisha was in the family way. I was surprised that Atul sold off most of his stuff, keeping only a few. I realized our children attach much less emotion to earthly belongings than we did at their age. Obviously, comes the day, Atul would feel no sentiments about the stuff we would leave behind. I had a discussion on this with him soon. He simply laughed and told me, “Papa, for all you know, I may not come back to India. Even if I did, what would I do with the stuff you have accumulated all your life?”
Frankly, this left me quite shaken, and made me wonder, ‘Why am I then so attached to whatever I have? No doubt, I find the house a great haven. I love my rocking chair, and I love running my fingers over the rows of my books in the bookcase. Sitting and watching the TV with Sarala still takes me back to the day we bought our first TV. The fridge, microwave, dish washer – everything has a memory attached to it. But, that is true only for the two of us – not our son.’
So, I drew up my resolution. I told Sarala, and she agreed, though initially she was reluctant. But, after I had my bypass three months back she saw my point.
Now, my scheme is almost complete. It is founded on a simple wish. I do not want Atul to deal with stuff that belonged to dead people. They must go before their owners.
I have since been disposing of our stuff. It has been slow, it has been painful, but it has also been a liberating experience.
We have already sold off the sofa. The dining table and chairs too have gone. Next in line is our bed. The stuff of the guest room is all gone. I have lined up buyers for our dish washer, washing machine, fridge and microwave. A not too well-to-do newly married couple will take them. They were a bit surprised, and wanted to know if we were going to move out, in which case they would be interested to buy our flat. I do not know if we will be able to do that too.
So, if you are going to visit us as you say, make it soon. Be ready to do your dishes and hand-wash your clothes. Sarala will, of course, do the cooking, even your favourite dishes. If you are too late, you may have to eat out of disposable plates.
Atul and Trisha are going to visit next April. He has already let me know he will be staying in a hotel, because the summer heat would be too much for their baby.
So, that’s it. That’s why I have not been able to sit down and write to you. But, now I will be free more and more.
Let me know when you are going to visit.
So long …
P.S: I have hundreds of books, which probably will be almost the last to go. They are all the books I ever bought, borrowed or stole. I would like you to take as many as you can – no one wants to have books these days. Your reward may be getting back quite a few of your books from the college days.
© mikupa / 24 February 2015