Why is it that you can’t find the words or the voice, when there’s so much to say. How do you explain your grief through words?
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Garima Kumar is one of the winners of the November 2020 Muse of the Month.
Ramya slouched against the balcony wall with her legs stretched out on the floor. The cool marble underneath her body faintly offset the balmy Mumbai breeze. A doodle pad and a pencil rests on her lap, and a cup of black coffee remains untouched beside her amidst scraps of paper. She stares at the blank sheets of paper on her lap for a while and then vehemently shuts her eyes. A few straight lines, she thought, that’s all she would trace today. A few seconds later she gently lifts the pencil and points the nib, her arm prepared to move linearly. But her fingers tremble, slightly at first and then vigorously, making a fragile tear in the middle. She flings her art tools on the floor, wary at once of her damp blouse and a throbbing pain emerging in her temples. Her palms are sticky with sweat. She presses one side of her temples with two fingers and draws in long breaths.
Ramya, the budding illustrator of CanvasTale comics, hadn’t drawn in four months.
Drawing was a way of life for Ramya, let alone her profession. It was her emotional release in agony and in joy. When most new parents gurgle words out of their infants, Ramya’s parents handed over a box of crayons. She would draw red dots for excitement and white for tantrums. While all the young girls her age played with dolls and teacups, she would prance around the big Peepal tree outside her house, and draw different fruits on the branches and leaves with chalk. Then she would call out to her parents and ask them with hopeful big eyes if it would bear the fruit she drew. She spent most of her adolescence sketching her favourite superheroes and fables from Indian mythology and completed her masters in design from the local university later on.
When she married Shantanu two years ago, she made a pencil portrait of him and presented to him on their wedding night.
‘Is this me or Chris Hemsworth?’ he had teased her.
Ramya rolled her eyes. She leaned forward and whispered in his ear, ‘You’re so full of yourself, aren’t you?’
A year later, Nihar was born.
At dusk she makes two cups of ginger tea, one of them she places on the dining table and covers with a steel coaster. The other she sips on, leaning against her bedroom window that overlooks the apartment lawns. There are no children in the playground today. A light drizzle begins to fall, as the salmon sky slowly dissipates into its vast blueness.
Her phone buzzes on the bedside table. She tilts the phone carefully, not to unhook the charging cable still in the socket. She has two notifications.
• Whatsapp: Shan: stopped to pick up tomatoes, reach in 10..
• Google calendar alert: Nihar- shots due tomorrow @MCC
She swallows the knob in her throat, and forcibly pulls the phone close to her face, detaching the cable with a snap.
Ramya feels an uneasiness in her head, as if she was being pulled down unwillingly by her own body weight, a numbness slowly creeping in her fingers and toes. She places the tea on the bedside table and lays down on the bed, letting a quiet melancholy engulf her.
She scrolls through a number of moodboards saved in her phone for work, before she stops at a video of Nihar. The only video that remained undeleted in her phone.
He’s on his fours, wearing a lime coloured onesie with faces of farm animals all over it. Shantanu is kneeling on the floor and calling out to him from the other side. He is crawling towards his father on the living room carpet, looking at him with bright, limpid eyes. Shantanu is wearing a paper mask of a dog, fastened with a rubber band around his ears. Ramya had attached his socks to the mask to make droopy ears for the dog, that reached his chest. Nihar lets out a shrill squeal for the first time that day, struggling to stretch his tiny arms to grab the dangling sock-ears as Shantanu hopped around him barking and making dog voices. Nihar’s face lights up and is followed with a loud bubbling laughter each time Shantanu hops and sways. The video lasts 12 seconds. Ramya shuts her eyes and replays the video to hear Nihar’s shrill squeal, as if listening to his tender voice again and again would at some point rewind time and take her back to that moment, the moment she heard her infant son laugh for the first time, and the last.
It was SIDS, a common disorder that ended infant lives without a coherent explanation. The memory of that day in the hospital room has faded away, but fresh wounds kept appearing ever since, without a warning. Like sometimes you see a scar on your body but don’t remember how exactly it got there.
Ramya became a recluse since then. She saw no point in talking in general. Shantanu’s parents stayed with them for a week after the incident to help them with rituals and formalities, and made them promise to join therapy to help them cope.
Shantanu and Ramya hardly spoke to each other since then and seldom made eye contact. During meals, they would ask each other routine questions without expecting elaborate answers. While Shantanu rejoined office two weeks after the incident and immersed himself completely in work, Ramya could hardly find the strength to get out of bed.
Once a top-notch illustrator with a promising career ahead, she had not gone back to work since the tragic loss of her son four months ago. Now she would sit in her 3rd floor balcony everyday, with a notepad and pencil, unable to conjure up any ideas, like someone had vacuum-cleaned the artist out of her.
Five hours later she wakes up, parched. Her tongue feels like sandpaper as she grapples for the water jug in the dark. Her phone lights up instead, the video is paused. It’s 1.30 am. Ramya carries the empty water jug to the kitchen. When she returns, Shantanu is sitting up with his legs crossed, squinting in the night lamp light.
‘Did I wake you?’ She asks in a low voice.
‘You slept through dinner again’, he says softly.
Ramya sighs. She parts her lips to say something but stops.
‘Any luck today? I saw a few pieces of paper out in the balcony’
‘None’, she says, pulling the blanket over her body.
Shantanu switches the lamp off and slides into his blanket.
’I can make an appointment with Dr.Veena. Maa tells me how she was able to help her friend’s daughter‘, he hesitates for a moment before saying, ‘Maybe she could help us.’
Ramya sleeps with her back facing Shantanu. She wants to explain how much talking tires her. How could he then expect her to talk about her feelings to a stranger, when she’s not sure about it herself?
‘Rimi?’ He places a hand on her shoulder. ‘Talk to me.. please’ he implores.
Ramya wishes he could just read her mind. Why is it that you can’t find the words or the voice, when there’s so much to say. How do you explain your grief through words?
Shantanu closes the washroom door behind him with a soft click. Three flushes are heard one after the other. Ramya pretends she doesn’t hear his sobbing.
The next morning Shantanu gets ready for an early day at office. With his product launch in two weeks, he decides to give himself a head start.
He packs his briefcase with work files and places it near the door, then sits beside Ramya. She is curled up in her pyjamas in one corner of the sofa, her index finger making circles along the edge of her cup, her gaze caught in a standstill.
Shantanu clears her throat, and stretches his hand out, offering her a piece of paper. She doesn’t respond. He keeps the sheet of paper on her lap.
She tilts her head slightly to look at it.
It’s a poster of the new Thor movie. Cate Blanchett and Mark Ruffalo pose on either side of Thor. Everything looks ordinary, except for Thor’s face that has been cut out neatly and replaced with what seems like Shantanu’s attempt at a self portrait. The rough sketched piece of paper has been pasted on the poster in a way that the head appears too large for the body, and instead of appearing grim and powerful like his counterparts, it looks like he is grinning hopelessly, holding a hammer.
While Shantanu hopes this would amuse her in the slightest way, Ramya stares at it like she’s trying to solve a mathematical equation. After a while her fingers find their way back to the cup.
Shantanu lets out a loud sigh. He glances at the watch, and goes over to the shoe cabinet.
‘You’re not even trying Rimi ..’ he says, his back turned towards her as he bends to get his right feet inside a sock.
The ticking of the seconds hand echoes in the room. He glances around to check if she’s still in the room.
‘This is supposed to be easier with time. But you’re making it difficult. You’re making it difficult for you and me both’, his voice is calm but firm. She doesn’t respond. He struggles to put his other foot inside the sock.
‘For God’s sake Rimi, I don’t understand why you’re pushing me away!’ he whines, his voice slightly raised.
She is silent.
‘We have to start.. ..living.’ His voice trails off, as if he is not sure what ‘living’ comprises of.
He walks towards the dining table to grab a banana from the fruit basket, but stumbles at the first step and lands with his butt on the floor.
Ramya looks up.
She feels something rise from the pit of her stomach, waiting to be released through her throat, like she is about to throw up. But the next moment, she is in splits!
Shantanu is wearing Ramya’s glossy red stilettos that he inadvertently puts on over his socks. When he loses his balance, he comes down crashing, breaking one of the pencil heels in half.
Still on the floor, he gapes at Ramya incredulously. Her unrestrained burst of giggles fills up the room. He is entranced with the sound of her voice and the light in her eyes, as he looks fondly at the childish charm that beguiled his heart the first time he met her. Her laughter doesn’t cease for another minute. Shantanu drags himself close to her feet and places a hand on hers. Her fingers grab on to his tightly. Her candid laughter has now retracted to a dull chuckle, as she peers at him. A few second later her chuckle dissipates into sobbing. She clenches Shantanu’s body with all the strength in her arms, her head rested on his shoulders, shoulders that are now drenched with her tears. He runs his hand over her hair, holds her face in his palms and wipes off her tears. They kiss briefly, and he pulls her close in an embrace. It’s half past nine.
Language often feels restrictive when you want to express the most intense emotions. Everything between the lines hides behind a tight hug, beneath a doting look, under a caressing hand.
Editor’s note: Mexican portrait painter, Frida Kahlo, was an influential artist who combined traditional themes with a contemporary style and also helped to promote the role of women in the art world. She had to make her style big and bold as an artist, as it was the only way at the time to succeed as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Self portraits were to dominate her career, as the artist in her constantly experimented with new twists around this same theme.
The cue is this quote by her: “There is nothing more precious than laughter”
Garima Kumar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the film Talaash
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Garima Kumar: Marketer by profession | wannabe writer | Dance enthusiast | Cat mom | Chai lover | IIM graduate
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