‘Promise me that you will.’
I read the message through the morning haze in my eyes. The words are unclear, but I don’t need my reading glasses to decipher them. Those words are deeply etched in my memory, yet I read them every day, first thing in the morning, only because I now know no other way of starting my day. Or ending it.
There comes a point in love when even the subtlest expressions can be interpreted without the help of the sense organs. You don’t touch, feel, hear, see or taste love anymore. Knowing that it is there is enough. You merely live it, as if it is what paves the way for the air to fill your lungs. Your breath then becomes your love’s abiding companion.
Early morning musings like this have now become a routine, and I lie in bed for a good half hour reeling in them, at the end of which I get up, and reach for my journal to document the first thoughts of the day. Whatever I scribble in it then are extensions of my thought triggered by the first thing I set my eyes on in the morning. Mira’s five-year-old message. ‘Promise me that you will.’
It hasn’t been easy for me to preserve those five significant words in my phone. I have always lived in the fear of losing it to a random technical snag that might obliterate it forever, and it forced me to store it as an image in my email. Umpteen number of mails sent to me by me, all unopened in the in box. I even have a hard copy of it saved among my other paper documents in the bank locker.
I have kept the message safe from every possible hazard. From software virus to a fire in the house. It is the only thing that gives me a reason to exist, to continue living the way I never thought I might after her exit. It even made me survive a covid attack and spend days on the ventilator without capitulating to death.
It is strange that I never responded to her message in categorical terms, but for reasons I can’t clearly say, she knew that she had my promise. All she did was to keep reminding me about it, casually sometimes, poignantly at other. Saying it holding my hand lightly or thrusting her head on my chest. Laughing sometimes, teary-eyed at other.
By reiterating it several times, she was only making sure that I ingrained it deep in my heart, making it hard for me to forget it even in my sleep.
‘Promise me that you will.’
And I have, so far.
At least the first part. I have continued to live without her.
And perhaps, today, I may keep the second part of it too if my heart and mind come together at the appropriate time.
The rain could have stopped in the morning, but it hasn’t. Having fallen all night and flooding the low-lying areas in the city, it had no reason to be so relentless. I crane my neck near the window to catch a glimpse of the sky. It is overcast to the edges meaning the monsoon woes aren’t going away anytime today. I wonder if I must call up mom and ask her for a postponement of the meeting.
Rain has always been a good alibi to me to avoid doing things. A wet outdoor isn’t my kind of thing. But to Mira, rain was a reason to celebrate the smaller things in life. Like stepping out without the umbrella and soaking like sponge. Sipping ginger tea in the balcony and letting herself be sprayed all over. Taking out the car and driving to a faraway restaurant just to have choley bature. She pushed the boundaries when I found reasons to shut the gate. She constantly sought and found fresh grounds to flourish as if life was entirely at her disposal.
But she was wrong. Life wasn’t at her command. And the day she knew the reality, she began the groundwork to make sure that I didn’t not use it as an excuse to bulldoze my life and bury myself under the debris.
‘Promise me,’ she kept repeating, taking my hand in hers, as she began slipping into the abyss gradually. Several times in a day, making it tough for me to escape the obligation she was nailing on me. And I sat silently, staring into her ashen face, running my finger on her cracked lips and clearing her forehead of the strands that had strayed in. And she smiled as if she had found her ultimate peace in the mere touch of my finger.
Those were moments that made me want to both die and live. Moments that gave me a reason to give up and carry on. It was hard for me to know which way I would swerve once she was gone, and she knew I could be mulish and maverick, defying her with a vengeance.
The rain is striking hard against the windowpane, and I realize that if I wanted, I could use it for deferring an occasion that has been upon me for a while now.
‘Keep it for another day. Tell them. It won’t be possible for us to get there, ma. There is water all around this place,’ I lie to mom on the phone, peering into the road that still was good was traffic. The water hasn’t started causing disruptions here yet.
Mom doesn’t agree. She knows that if she lets this opportunity slip out of her hands, she might never have me go again. She knows that I was using rain to dodge the meeting and begins to blackmail me emotionally with tears. Her sobs are distinct, but I refuse to take them to heart knowing her penchant for melodrama. She laments as if she is a newly bereaved woman, mentioning every sorrow in her life from losing her younger son in Kargil, to Papa’s state of acute dementia to Mira’s untimely departure. She makes it sound as if I am responsible for every woe in her life, and the only panacea to it was by getting me to accept her proposal.
‘There is only one way for life to go. Forward,’ Mom says with utter despair and disconnects the line. I stare at the screen for a while and look outside. The rain isn’t an alibi now. It is indeed falling hard as if it has scores to settle with the city.
I wonder what Mira would have done on a day like this. She’d have forced me to pull the car out without the faintest worry of it getting submerged in the city underpass. She would have cocked a snook at the weather that was striving hard to rob our sentient joys and dragged me out to be a partner in her crime.
If there is one thing she would not have done, it is staying indoors, brooding. Mira would have taken the rain in her arms and whirled with mirth. The rain was her primary lover, and I was only an add on, she often said to rib me.
Suddenly I feel a faint motivation to get ready. I open the cupboard to decide on the shirt. What does a forty-six-year-old man with a flourish of salt and pepper hair and an impeccable French beard wear when he goes to see a woman of thirty-eight who as per his mother wore only pastel shades ever since she became a widow? How dapper has he to look? Should he appear enthusiastic or stoic in his approach?
I don't have answers to the questions. As my resentment mounts, the interest to get ready slumps as quickly as it had risen.
‘Oh God, should I even show an interest in this?’ I mutter shutting the cupboard hard and releasing all my pent-up frustrations with a bang on the door. My hand hurts and I wince. The dilemma of making choices in life has never before been so stark and challenging.
Suddenly, I lose all my nerves and sink into the couch. If I ever consent to this, it is like losing Mira all over again. My days will not begin and end with her last text message. 'Promise me that you will.'
It will take away the sweet sadness with which I had filled the void of her death. The shape of my sadness that had stood in my life like an iceberg will begin to melt. Mira’s vibrant contours will be substituted by a pastel-shaded silhouette. Her memories will be usurped.
She will eventually cease to exist, even in my thoughts. It’s not what I want. But then again, it’s what she had made me promise I will do once she was gone.
I hear the phone ring on the bed. It’s mom and I am not inclined to take the call. I let it ring a few times before deciding to leave it there while I go in for a shower. Outside, I hear the phone ringing on a loop, making me spare a vexing thought for mom.
I wonder which form of love deserved the precincts of my heart. Love for a mother or for a deceased partner? Which of the two sentiments had more credence on a rainy day like this? Or any other day when the paths forked, and your heart conflicted with itself over which way to choose.
‘I am coming,’ I scream from under the shower as if mom is standing outside the bathroom door.
I am angry for having to choose. I am angry because I have no choice. Mira has decided it all for me. And now mom too has joined the cause. Of course, I could dare them and go my way, but what will I be establishing by doing that? That I had sparse regard for Mira’s last wishes, that I put myself above mom and her? That I have a mind of my own which at its best served neither me nor them?
‘I was in the bathroom, ma. Now won’t you let me have a shower at peace?’ I snap into the phone.
Mom sounds hurt by my words, and she begins to drawl the way she usually does whenever she has to slip into a sob to blackmail me. I feel as if I am caught in a cleft stick, between Mira and mom. And I realise with an increasing sense of certainty that they both were on one side. I am the outsider, the ditherer, the one who wanted to keep his grief swathed safe in the name of memories and irreplaceable love.
That Mira cannot be replaced is certain. What they together are conspiring to do against me is to make me find life in pockets other than the pains of the past. And it isn’t a wholly wrong idea, is it? Ever since Mira left, I have only been unliving.
At this rate, mom said one day eyeing Mira’s framed picture on the wall and sniffling into her saree, I would soon crumble and be gone. And that, she would not allow, not until she was alive. I could do it after her death, she said, as if she had a date on her mind when she would go and when I could start the process of breaking down into parts. Like an old car that no one had any use for and would eventually be lugged to the junkyard.
I try to to brainwash mom into changing the day’s plans. She rejects all suggestions to postpone the meeting and says, if need be, we can take a cab.
‘Cabs during Corona?’ I say irritably and promise to pick her up in an hour, if the roads are clear that is.
I randomly pick a t-shirt to make the occasion informal, and then decide against it. Mira never liked t-shirts. She said t-shirts stole solemnity from a man. Made him look frivolous.
I ignore her favourite green Ralph Lauren shirt that I have not worn for five years and pull out a plain white half kurta that I wore whenever I had no interest in looking any better than I must. Which I didn't have most of the time. All my old dressing habits had changed, the only exception to it being the use of the Lacoste perfume that both Mira and I liked equally. So much that we both used it without gender distinction.
I spray the perfume liberally on me and feel Mira’s presence in the vicinity. I remember her telling me that she would take this scent with her to heaven as their love’s keepsake. Fragrances, according to her, have an all-pervading and immortal quality to them. They don’t expire, neither in the senses of the living nor in the spirit of the dead.
There has to be something so intimate between two people in love that it transcends time, she always said. To me, it is this fragrance. And the other thing that will keep me bound to Mira are the words that have become gospel to me. Promise me that you will.
To honour those words alone, I am going today. This perhaps will be the end of my unliving.