Short Story: The Void

memory
Painting: AISTĖ JURGILAITĖ

By Swati Moheet Agrawal

After my sixteen-year old sister died, my family life changed dramatically. I felt like somebody sneaked in while we were asleep, dismantled us, then rearranged us rather haphazardly and left in a huff: Mummy became uncharacteristically reclusive and anxious, Papa unusually bitter and ill-tempered, and my younger brother was more lost than ever.

As for me, the laughter went out of my life. I consciously kept myself occupied so I wouldn’t think about my dead sister.

Every day, after she died, I wrote poems about her so I could keep her alive, so I could immortalise my pain in my work. Poems about her favourite ruffle dress and matching sling bag, about her pom pom sandals and stylish tic tac hair clips, her floral turband, her infectious smile, her light brown eyes that sparkled every time I bought her a jar of Nutella, her black lustrous hair that gleamed with coconut oil, her delicate neck fragrant with magnolia talcum powder and her prized collection of neon stationery.

Yes, my little sister was a stationery fetishist. She was obsessed with everything neon – neon gel pens, neon pencils, neon highlighters, neon tape dispensers, neon bags, neon clipboards, neon diaries, neon staplers, neon scissors, neon drawing pins and everything neon displayed in stationery aisles.

She even surprised me with twenty-nine neon bookmarks on my twenty-ninth birthday and promised to buy me a neon ergonomic swivel chair on my thirtieth milestone. Why an ergonomic chair you would ask? Well, she decided it was time to replace my overused nondescript chair with a bright new fancy chair. As a matter of fact, I read and wrote endlessly which often led to acute pain in both my shoulders. She believed the flashy ergonomic chair would offer respite from discomfort and fatigue. She had spotted one of these chairs at an upmarket furniture showroom on her way to guitar class one day. She even inspected it closely and learned about its benefits from a kind salesman. She also thought it would be a great addition to my repertoire of writer accessories.

My sister’s ability to empathize was something that my brother and I lacked. All of sixteen, she could not only feel other people’s pain but also did her bit to comfort them and bring happiness into their otherwise morose lives.

One time, she happily parted with her multicolored butterfly soft toy to pacify our maid’s three-year old daughter who had been chasing after a beautiful butterfly all afternoon. The little girl lost her balance and tripped badly in our garden.

My sister graciously offered her toy and remarked rather innocently, “This butterfly will remain with you for life. Play as much as you like.”

That soft toy was very special to my sister since it was a complimentary gift given by the owner of the stationery shop she frequented after school hours.

***

I shudder to think of that fateful day when my sister was returning from guitar class and her rickshaw collided with a car. She died on the spot! The auto-rickshaw driver died too, while the car driver succumbed to injuries a couple of days after the accident. A road accident is perhaps the most gruesome way to die. A couple of shop owners and onlookers still get goosebumps when they recollect that gory crash.

What must have transpired in my little sister’s mind then? How her heart must have pounded in her chest! How panic-stricken she must have been. How alone she must have felt in her final moments!

My mummy, a woman who used to be the life of every party, who was at the forefront of every social event, who was forever pulsating with life and energy, is unusually withdrawn and reclusive today. She has stopped going to kitty parties, she has resigned from the Rotary and she does not even step out for her routine morning walk. She has literally shut herself down.

Papa, who hardly ever raised his voice at us, is now a grouchy old man. There is a permanent scowl on his face. A man who was cool as a cucumber flies off the handle easily today.

And my younger brother who was anyway a little lost is now more disoriented than ever!

***

Some things just are, no matter how much you analyze or try to make sense out of it. Try all you want – you cannot connect the dots.

We feel entitled to perfect lives. There are things we wish would stay the same forever. We never want to stop making memories with people we love. A memory is a beautiful sketch of the past, but memories can also be a huge burden that we carry around with us for the rest of our lives.

Memories can be heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. The upside of a beautiful memory is that it fills you with bliss and joy. The downside of a beautiful memory is that it tears you to pieces. Too much past can be paralyzing.

If I’d known it was the last time I was talking to my little sister, I would have never snubbed her away. I vividly remember that scene. I was knee-deep in work and she was desperately seeking feedback for her guitar recital. She was hovering over me like a bee around a flower. She was brimming with enthusiasm, that sparkle in her ever radiant eyes, I will never forget those eyes as long as I live. Sadly, neither did I have the time nor inclination to indulge her then. Honestly, I had been battling with challenges personal and professional and I just did not have the bandwidth or mental clarity to accommodate anyone. I was totally out of my element that evening.

God! I had been so selfish. Sometimes, the guilt we feel over a mistake is worse than the mistake itself.

I would have sat in rapt attention and heaped praises on her. I would have hugged her tight and never let her go. I would have spoiled her with all the Nutella in the world.

I wonder what is harder – making peace with the way things are or carrying the weight of denial! What is worse? Pain or our endless ability to endure it?

My sister’s untimely death created a void in my soul. No matter how hard I tried to fill it, no matter what I did to escape it, the void grew crippling and suffocating with each passing day. I feel like I have been scarred for life.

The gnawing ache of losing my sister continues to haunt me. No man, friend or distraction can take away that sense of sadness that overwhelms me from time to time. I feel like I’ve been stripped bare. The days are long, and nights longer. The more I try to bury the pain, the more it comes floating to the surface. Every corner of our home is full of memories; every nook and cranny evokes a lovely memory of her. Her laughter is still ringing in my ears. I can still see myself reflected in the light brown of her radiant eyes. And the air is still heavy with the scent of coconut oil and magnolia.

I hopelessly try to seek refuge in words. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. As a family, I don’t know if we will ever find closure.

I don’t show emotion but on the inside I am falling apart. I shrink into long silences. I rarely utter more than two consecutive sentences at any given time. I don’t read anymore. I hardly ever laugh. And if I write, I only write about my dead sister. More often than not, I wake up with a start – my heart thumping dangerously inside my chest – as if I’m standing on the edge of a cliff or railway platform.

***

Sometimes I visit my sister’s favourite stationery shop and spend hours loitering and languishing in its many aisles– it is the closest I can get to my sister. I buy neon writing pads, neon sticky notes, neon pens, neon pencils, neon erasers and I even invested in a neon laptop recently.

I even bought myself that neon swivel chair my sister inquired about. The salesman seemed to remember my sister and was distraught to learn about her sudden demise. He spoke rather fondly of her. “I am sorry to hear about your loss. Your sister was so excited about buying you that neon swivel chair. She said, “Papa will take care of all the expenses, but I shall repay him when I become the world’s most sought-after guitarist and perform to a hall full of crazy people rooting for me.”

***

My dear sister,

My heart is tethered to yours.

I know things will never go back to how they used to be. We will never have each other again, but we will always have those memories of yore – lots of laughter and unrivalled family time. Playing hide and seek, collecting sea shells, running around barefoot on grass, running through water sprinklers in our garden, chewing mouthfuls of gums until our jaws ached and even gulping it to irritate mummy, the taste of gooseberries, those late night conversations – what a gift to have had these moments! It was the purest feeling of happiness – those were simple times. Those were happy times.

***

Some of us feel everything so intensely – it is both a gift and a curse to feel that way.

My dear readers, never judge a pain you have not endured. Never advice someone to move on because they simply cannot move on. There is a lot of darkness that people hold within themselves. When memories sit with you, when grief strikes in the middle of the night, when everything you’ve held dear crumbles like a pack of cards before your eyes, forget moving on, you hardly want to live at all.

Too much past can be dizzying, especially if it’s streaked with the untimely death of a younger sibling. The once pleasant memories begin to cloy and stifle.

My sister left, and with her a part of me died forever.

Bio:
Swati Moheet Agrawal is a freelance writer based in Mumbai, India. She has contributed to the Times of India, Indian Economy & Market Magazine and India’s premier mind-body-soul magazine, Life Positive. When she’s not reading or writing, she likes to engage in creative pursuits like decoupage artwork. She also has a penchant for long, aimless walks and deep starry skies.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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