Sunday, 9 October 2011

light her up

The call came at 4.30 one Friday morning, and I thought to myself, what a brilliant start to the weekend. Then of course, I felt guilty, because that’s not what one is supposed to think when you’re told that your mother has just died. But I told myself not to be stupid. Nina would probably have laughed and apologised for ruining my chances of hooking up with the latest girl I’d set my hopes on. And she would have said, “Technically, I’m not even your mother.”

My stepmother was not much older than me, she married my father when she was very young, just twenty. I was five then. My mother had died in childbirth.

I walked out of the shower in a towel to ask my father what colour to wear, whether I should shave. He was staring at himself in the mirror. Just staring.

“Pa?” I repeated. I saw the mental shake he gave himself before replying, “Wear whatever you want, you know she wouldn’t have cared. Just try to look a little sad.” Black kurta and stubble it was to be, I decided.

We went to the hospital in complete silence. My father was driving, he looked straight ahead at the road. When we got there, the interfering relatives were already there. You see, Nina had inherited a lot of money. The only daughter of a rich business tycoon who was disinherited when she married at twenty, to a man fifteen years her senior. He forgave her of course, when she developed ovarian cancer for the first time. That was when I was thirteen. She went into remission twice, first when I turned sixteen, and then again when I was twenty. “Third time’s a charm,” I had laughed when she lay pale, a bag of bones, against the hospital bed. She had laughed with me. My father was not there to lose his temper or start weeping at the time.

I wondered why the relatives even bothered. I highly doubted that she left them anything. Pa would obviously get it all. Not that he wanted it, ironically. I had told him a few days earlier that he should just give it all away to the relatives and ask them to leave us alone forever. I knew he had no idea what to do with the money and could not bear the interferers either. He did not think that was such a good idea. “Maybe I should give it all to you,” he suggested mischievously. I was too impressed at his attempt at humour to react to that.

I pretty much did nothing at the hospital that day, aside from making sure that my father got something to eat and didn’t throw himself off the tenth floor of the hospital. But even that wasn’t pretty.

“This is the first meal I’m having after she stopped breathing,” his voice quivered over his chapati and dal. “Yes, so? Don’t worry I haven’t poisoned it. I don’t want her money yet,” I told him as I dug into my own meal. “Oh and this is like, my third meal since she died,” I said over my stuffed mouth. He just glared malevolently at me.

The next morning, Saturday, I woke up early. I usually never rose before noon, Nina knew better than to wake me after a night of intense partying. But I managed to wake up around six that morning without the help of an alarm. I was quite impressed at myself. My father of course had not slept all night.

“Wear white,” was the first words we exchanged that day.

It would be a day when the first match I lit would not be for a cigarette but to set fire to my stepmother’s body, I remember musing. Dad and I had decided earlier that I would light the match, because his hands would be shaking madly, and we would light her up together.

Which is exactly what we did. Though I’d expected Pa to be sobbing by then (which is why I said I would do it along with him, I didn’t want him accidentally setting fire to his own foot) he was surprisingly calm. He took a minute to look at her pale, gaunt face. Her nose and mouth were stuffed first with cotton to soak up her body fluids, and then with rice. Someone had put kumkum on the middle of her forehead, I had no idea why. She was wrapped in white.

Strangely it was me found it hard to leave the pyre, though the heat seemed like a good enough reason to get away. Dad stood with me till the flames were too much to bear and the priest told us, “It’s not good to see the body after setting fire to it.” I had wanted to tell him why we didn’t choose an electric pyre was because we wanted to see her, but held myself back.

We walked away in silence, before I asked him, “Yo Pa, we’re allowed to eat today, no?”
It was like a scene out of a movie. We were all seated around a conference table at Dev, Nizam, Mehta and Associates, waiting for the lawyer to read out Nina’s will. I didn’t want to be there, but knew that my father wanted me there. “I’ll give you my dresses, toots, don’t worry,” Nina had winked at me when she was around. “Much appreciated, yo. The girlfriend will find that much easier to take off.” “What girlfriend? You’ve settled on just one girl now?” “No, I just said that to make you happy.” She laughed. “Since when have you ever tried to make me happy?!” “Well, you’re dying. Shouldn’t I try to make you happy at least now?” She reached out and pinched my cheeks.

There was dead silence when the middle-aged stuffy looking lawyer walked in, wearing his full-sleeved pin-striped shirt and steel grey trousers. He was even wearing a black waistcoat. I stifled my laughter. Nina would have found it ridiculous too, such attire in our weather.

He started reading out my dead stepmother’s will.

“This is the last will and testament of Vidya Nina Subramani. All earlier wills...” blah blah blah.

It was amusing actually. The first few things were ridiculous. I could picture her in my head smirking while she wrote it or discussed it with Mr Stuffy-in-a-waistcoat. She left her clothes to her nieces, her shoes to her sister, her books to me (though I hated reading, so it was another joke), her DVD collection to another niece and me, and her dogs to dad.

This went on for about fifteen minutes, which must have seemed like fifteen years to the nearly salivating relatives.

“I hereby leave all my stocks and shares, currently under the control of my chartered accountant S Krishnan, to my bereaved husband Anil Poddar.

My precious jewellery, all thirty seven pieces of it located in my State Bank of India locker number 291, Poes Garden branch, I leave to my son Gaurav Poddar...”

I snorted when I heard that. Trust her to leave shiny stuff to me. The lawyer continued after shooting me a death glare befitting a star trooper.

“My entire estate in Wellingdon hill station, covering four acres, and the house built there, I leave to my son Gaurav Poddar.

All the cash in my four bank accounts (in my name, Vidya Nina Subramani) amounting to approximately Rs 79 lakhs, I leave to my son Gaurav Poddar.

The fixed deposits in my name at my main bank Standard Chartered, worth Rs 1.3 crores, I leave to my son Gaurav Poddar...”

“Wait, this is a joke, right?” someone spoke up. I don’t remember now who it was.

“Please, could you leave your questions for when I finish,” the lawyer said firmly, more than asking the relative. My father murmured in agreement.

I don’t remember what came after, but when I heard my name again after a few moments, I looked up. “Sorry, could you repeat that... I didn’t hear you.”

Stuffy looked at me in resignation and read it out once more.

“And finally, I leave to my son Gaurav Poddar, twenty three letters which are in my husband Anil Poddar’s possession. Following my husband’s demise, the letters will be in the possession of my husband’s sister, Shilpa Murthy. These are one letter each year on his birthday, till he turns forty five-years-old.”

The lawyer looked up, took of his glasses and began folding the will up. The relatives began murmuring loudly amongst themselves. It was probably anger directed at Nina and me, but I don’t remember much now. I remember the ringing in my head. What was wrong with her, I was thinking, why did she leave me everything? I remember Pa asking me if I was okay, but I got up and ran outside.

I remember asking the secretary where the men’s toilet was. I found my way there and locked the toilet before making my way to the mirror.

‘Why would she do that, why would she give everything to me,’ was all I remember thinking. Then I thought of the letters, she would have probably written during those long hours in the hospital, when she was waiting to die, a bag of bones, the woman who was the only mother and sister and female friend I had ever known.

I started crying and sank to the floor as the pictures of my mother flashed through my brain.