Neera Kashyap has worked as a newspaper journalist and on environmental, social and health research & communication. As a writer, she is the author of short stories for children, Daring to Dream, Rupa & Co., 2003 and for anthologies from Children’s Book Trust. She has contributed essays that interpret sacred texts to various print journals. Her short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in Reading Hour, Muse India, Cerebration, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Earthen Lamp Journal, Kritya and Out of Print Blog.
The garden looked overgrown. The trees stretched bulkily above, the hedges had lost their shape, and the creepers grew thick and unwieldy. It was not Sheila’s garden anymore. It was a ruin, more brown than green, swarming towards the tiny house that she had joyfully chosen on rent – a garden first, then house as setback. The garden faucet leaked. A glistening sunbird whirred around it, catching each drop as it fell.
Aryaman’s bedroom light was on. Since Sheila’s death, he had never switched it off, night or day. As if one could draw comfort from an ever-burning 24V white fluorescent bulb, I had thought. Those were still early days when I had believed I could will my 18 year old to bear the grief manfully, manfully. It seared one through and through. I knew that. It disoriented, like nothing had ever done. I knew that. In unsuspecting moments, it took repeated stabs into one’s entrails, leaving one bleeding but not dead. I knew that. I wanted him to know that I knew. But he was not listening. His face, eyes, mouth, hands, mind were not listening. They had shuttered down.
Then I slapped him hard. For not having left his room six days in a row. Just sitting listless and inert, staring unseeingly at the television. Clothes mismatched, bed unmade, windows shut, food uneaten. His cheek flushed a stinging red. His eyes turned on me, stared into mine and said I knew nothing. He tried to push his feet into his slippers, gave up the attempt, shuffled bare feet into the bathroom and shut the door gently.
He was gentle. Like his mother. That was Sheila, she knew no other way. Except that her cancer hid ungently in her pancreas for a long while, then swooped down on her like a shikra on a sparrow, dressing its feathers before devouring it in one single bolus. Adenocarcinoma. One day her skin turned yellow, she couldn’t eat anymore, her treatment seemed to go well, then suddenly she was gone.
Aryaman did not protest being taken to the psychiatrist. In that coldly cheerful room, he answered all the questions in his gentle way, except that he was more slouched than usual and his words were dead. The psychiatrist then drew me alone into a small inner chamber, empty except for a few comfortable chairs around a table. The paintings on the wall felt familiar, intimate.
“How did you see Aryaman’s relationship with his mother?” asked the doctor.
“I think I admired it. They were very close. Sheila taught him all the things she knew – cooking, gardening, birds, nature, books, music, prayer. He can even bake a cake, arrange flowers, identify different ragas.”
I knew what his next question would be. “Did you think he needed friends of his own? Interests and activities that young men typically go in for?” he asked.
“I did. I had conflicts about this with my wife, also with Aryaman. She was so gentle and trusting of life, she left it to him. He made friends but he didn’t seem to need them. He went out with them, swam, played cricket……but felt most content with his mother. She completed him….also me…she completed me.”
Through the blur in my eyes, the doctor seemed to blend into the great red circle in the painting behind him. The moments ticked by.
“How quickly did you lose her after the prognosis?”
“When did she pass away?”
“She’s been gone seven months now.”
He nodded. “How are you coping, Sir?”
“Not well. I went back to teach at the university soon after, couldn’t focus so am on a six month sabbatical.”
He watched me take off my spectacles to mop my eyes. He focused on Aryaman’s case sheets. He pronounced his diagnosis formally: complicated grief disorder. Anti-depressants wouldn’t help nor interpersonal psychotherapy. This needed targeted psychotherapy to aid the patient feel his pain, face the reality, memorialize the mother through positive memories, move on. He spoke of professional methods: the patient is encouraged to write family history in a diary through words and pictures with associated feelings right up to the worst moment. To share this history with father as father is to share his with son. Additional techniques included distraction and thought-stopping and relaxation. I thanked the good doctor, pocketed the referral and took my son home.
I was very tempted when Sheila’s sister called from Mumbai to know how the session went. She offered to visit for a few weeks to see if this would help. I felt compelled to turn down her offer, explaining that her mother image would only bind Aryaman further. By now, I had also figured out what the complicated disorder really was: Aryaman felt he would betray his mother if he stopped grieving for her. He would continue to grieve as he would feel guilty if he didn’t. What manful or womanful thing could one do against that? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
This insight did not stop the worry, hellish worry, as one watched the boy leave for college every day, return and ghost walk through life. No friend came to visit him, not even a call. He ate little, slept for hours on end and spoke of headaches and little else. He read for short periods, then slouched in sleep like an old man. His light remained on, always on.
Slouched in an easy chair in our covered verandah, I toyed with the thought of visiting a psychiatrist myself, more for the anti-depressants than for anything else. It was dusk. I watched the sparrows return to the acacia tree to roost for the night. In the half-light my mind ceased for a moment as I listened to their noisy chatter. The birds seemed to be fighting for the best perch on the thorny branches, rife with little white blossoms. A lull followed. A male cozied up to a female. With noisy indignation, she shooed him away. The rejected one picked up a fight with another male in shrill agitation. The dominant tone was of chatter. As if not having met all day, the birds wanted to catch up with each other. With darkness, there was silence. I fetched a flashlight to explore this roosting site. To my surprise, the sparrows were not clustered together on one branch, but sat separately on individual branches.
Except for lights in Aryaman’s room and passage, the house was in darkness. From the acacia tree, I saw Aryaman move through the passage to the kitchen. The kitchen light came on. There was more brightness in the house now as he moved back through the passage without turning off the kitchen light. In his hand, he carried a kitchen knife. I dropped the flash and bound across the garden, bursting into his room, heart pulsing wildly. He stood at the window sill, his hand gripping the knife close to the steel. His wrist tendons were taut. I jerked the knife off his hand violently. It clattered to the ground.
“What do you want to do, man, kill yourself?” I shouted. “Kill yourself? Would mom want that? Would she want you to live? Or would she want you to die?”
There was no response. He just stood stock still with eyes that were dead. I stood terrified. I knew I would not be able to cope with suicide, not even with attempts.
“Mom…mom couldn’t even hurt an ant. How would she feel…..seeing you injure yourself…..now……every day. You could be hurting her…..living like this….hurting yourself everyday….do you see, Arya, you could hurt her……do you see, son?”
Slowly, his mouth puckered as it always did just before he started to cry as a baby. His face convulsed, he gulped for air, his spectacles fell to his nose, then to his lips. I peeled them off his wet open mouth. In my arms, his screams were silent.
Illustration: Bijaya Datta