It was the summer Dinesh had to leave on a work tour that a situation of unusual severity arrived at Rukmini’s doorstep. A light parcel wrapped in thick, grey paper sat innocuously on a mat of discoloured plastic leaves, such that when she arose to receive milk, its presence escaped her notice. It was only when she was turning to close the door that the milkman pointed towards the parcel. She nodded, bending to pick it up and on realising its lightness tucked it casually under her arm, her hands straining to hold litres of cool milk encased in a steel vessel. She didn’t think twice before releasing her arm to let the parcel land with the slightest of thuds on the dining table. A whole day lay ahead.
Rukmini was in her late thirties, a time of increasing discomfort for her. She had imagined that as she grew older, pockets of rest would appear in her days, hours where she didn’t need to be doing anything. Days when she could watch movies on the large flat television screen which hung on the wall opposite the dining table attentively, solely, with the scenes that played holding the centre of her mind. Or read the books which lay untouched on the shelves. A few years ago, friends had stopped gifting books altogether. Presents now included things of little or high functional use, to be placed in a corner and never thought of again: a crystal mantlepiece, or a superfast, low-energy mixer. Rukmini felt that there was an unsaid opinion which lurked in the mind of her family and friends: she’d lost her former brilliance. She observed how conversations over dinner parties that she hosted were rarely about ideas or events of significance and when they were she’d find herself the quietest, a state no one noticed or cared to change. She had accepted it as she helped her son finish up homework one day, explaining to him that a single word could mean different things. When Dinesh and she were a new couple, everyone said they ‘balanced’ each other, her frenzied energy tempered by his quiet affability. But she knew balance also meant equanimity, and that is what had happened. She had become more like him, as people do.
It wasn’t until later that night that Rukmini had a chance to examine the parcel. Assuming it was for her husband, she picked it up while cleaning the table after dinner with the intent to place it on his desk. But a name scribbled in a rushed script that was familiar caught her eye.
She felt a tremor in her pulse as she turned it over. No address or stamps. It had been dropped off, she concluded, feeling the muscles in her arm tighten, an old pain surging through her back. The surface of the wrapped parcel was bare, holding nothing but a single word. Only a few people called her by that name. And only one person she knew possessed that script.
I don’t have to open it now, she reasoned, pouring herself a glass of water. If I ask Dinesh, he would advise me to not open it right now. She decided to keep the parcel in the small locker in their cupboard. It sat oddly amid boxes of velvet holding jewellery she hadn’t worn since her wedding. Rukmini didn’t blink before closing the locker, letting darkness sweep over its contents.
Sleep was medically initiated that night, and every night for the next few weeks. People felt a change in her conduct, a distracted slovenliness that was not expected of her. She mixed up days of the week, sending her son off to school with the wrong notebooks. She let a sabzi burn, the base of the pan sticky with charred vegetables which she had to scrub repeatedly, an ache settling in her muscles. These were small mishaps but it was impossible to deny that she wasn’t her usual self.
‘Amma tells me you’re a bit strange these days,’ Dinesh said to her over a video call.
Rukmini’s smile wavered. ‘I think I wandered off trying to follow her story and she felt that I wasn’t listening.’
Dinesh laughed, ‘She does go on.’
‘I’ll speak to her tomorrow. Don’t worry, I’m alright.’
‘Hmm, okay. Does the AC need any repair?’
‘I don’t think so.’ A sense of softness surged through Rukmini, an effect she felt each time she realised that this was what she loved most in Dinesh. His ability to take her for her word, to not needle her with questions. To believe in her, with the fullness of true faith.
‘We’ll manage,’ she added, ‘but we’ll miss you.’
‘Why is it so hot now?’
‘We’re in the tropical belt. You have studied this.’‘Mummy!’
Her son was lying on the carpet, it had been six hours since the first power cut of the season. The inverter had run out, and they were left in the lingering cocoon of the air conditioner, the sensation of comfort dissipating with the cool air. It was time to use the hand fan to ease her son to sleep.
This had been their ritual since his infancy, and each year the time he took to doze off lengthened. Last summer, she had to hum for two hours till he was fast asleep. She wondered how much longer it would be this time, and whether she would be able to pace herself. Resting his head on her lap, she fanned with an easy rhythm, humming an old tune. She began slowly, her body rocking back and forth, her eyes shut as one hand traced her son’s forehead and the other oscillated the fan. Everything, her spine, the fan, the shadows plants cast on the wall moved to the thread of the tune and her son burrowed his head deeper in her lap. The room darkened with the arrival of evening and Rukmini imagined how she may look to someone else, outwardly whole if a little worn and bent, a blade of worry tearing through her veins.
She had to open the parcel. Someday she would have to open it, and she was gaining no strength from the act of deferral. She had run out of being able to think of the advice Dinesh would give, she couldn’t pretend that this was just another worry to hand over to him. The only way to know what he would say would be to ask him, but she knew that was impossible. He would return in three days, and in that time she had to confront and discard what was wrapped up.
As a child, Rukmini had been unbearably diffident. Her parents resisted the temptation to play favourites, but could not help leaving her adrift as signs of her brother’s brilliance emerged. Athletic, sharp, and quick witted, he was moulded from beams of light, an instant star in every township they relocated to as their father was assigned new roles. Rukmini observed his radiance quietly, neither resentful nor enamoured of its promise. Well-meaning aunts would take note to assure her that her time in the shadows was not for long. ‘Her report cards read otherwise,’ Baba would interject. It was Ma who always concluded the conversation, ‘She’s a hard worker but she’s naturally shy, slow. It can’t be helped.’
Rukmini knew something else was being implied. All of this would be excused, her parents seem to be suggesting, if she wasn’t so unremarkable or ‘average’—the word most commonly scribbled by teachers on her answer scripts. The summer they were enrolled in a local swimming centre, she kept up with her group but her brother was singled out within days as somewhat of a prodigy. They would only begin everything at the same point, and from then on, their paths would always diverge. That fleeting moment of togetherness which they shared while approaching the new, hands briefly held, siblings in a group of strangers, new students in the school, brother-sister to the neighbours, would evaporate before it could be grasped. Dushyant, her infallible brother, teeming with brilliance, flashing so bright that he never noticed her fully, would always let go of their hold, his frame slanting in the urge to join in with others as only himself, a single body. For Rukmini, that was the order of nature, the predetermined steps of every performance.
It was inconceivable that he would contract something as unseemly and ordinary as chicken pox.
Within days, things worsened and Rukmini could barely keep pace. Dushyant had a fever one day, a sore spot on his back the next, and suddenly his body was dotted with blisters that shone piping hot. Ma and Baba called every doctor they could think of, until it was evident: there was an outbreak at school, he had contracted it from a classmate. This was not rare in small townships and everyone usually recovered but these facts did not bring relief to them. They did not care if many other children had the disease. Their son was howling in pain, weeping for hours with the desire to itch his blisters, his beautiful face was marred with spots. Ma boiled water with neem leaves, holding back tears as she sought ointments of all kinds, calling up everyone she knew who had faced this disease. Rukmini was asked to assist with everything. She couldn’t possibly continue attending school while her brother lay sick, Baba declared. So she went around the street with him, plucking branches off trees or watching him haggle for fruits. At home, she ground the leaves to a paste, helped Ma wash the sheets, prepared soups and syrups of unknown heritage.
‘It’s just chicken pox,’ an aunt said offhandedly while sipping tea in their living room, a day after the diagnosis was confirmed. ‘Everyone gets it, calm down.’ Rukmini saw Ma bristle at this suggestion. ‘It’s Dushyant,’ Ma snapped, gripping her own wrist with such intensity that Rukmini was afraid her hand would break and fall off.
‘He will heal but the infection is much worse in an adult,’ their uncle stressed. ‘You have to be careful. Before you know it, you’ll have a crisis on your hands.’
Like an electric toy gone bust, everything paused with a lurch. Rukmini understood that neither her father nor mother had ever contracted chicken pox. ‘I’ll do it,’ Ma announced immediately, looking at Rukmini. ‘He’s my child. I’ll do it.’ A strange silence followed, and the visitors looked away.
Baba took a minute before speaking, ‘Rukmini, go to your room.’
It was then that Rukmini felt the first stirrings of rebellion. She wanted to stay, to know what was going to be said. A sense of discomfort had shrouded the room, she could tell that worry and fear had been replaced by something else, something unrecognisable to her. She wanted to apprehend its shape.
‘Rukmini, move!’ Ma glared at her. She walked out as slowly as she could, aware that her mother was following the sounds of her footsteps. She entered her bedroom and closed the door, a heaviness anchoring her to the bed. She looked at the rotation of the ceiling fan, a simple, repetitive movement, emitting low, irregular sputters of noise; she could hear it these past few days only when Dushyant was asleep, his cries drowning everything else in the air. She wondered what was being discussed without her.
An hour later Baba opened the door and leaned against the frame, ‘You have to take care of Dushyant. You are his sister, okay?’
‘You may fall sick, but we are here, we will manage everything. There are things we must do.’
Rukmini repeated these words to herself, things we must do. She stretched these words to their farthest possible meanings: things Ma would do or Baba would do. What would Dushyant have done, if she was sick? She knew the answer, but she also knew that broaching this question would only bring rebuke. Looking at her parents, she knew they couldn’t bear the discomfort of such a thought, they were already struggling to control the difficulty at hand.
The nights Rukmini spent by her brother’s bedside, watching him flounder, were transformational. Dushyant developed a series of complications, as his sickness extended from ten days to a month, and then longer, a period after which the act of keeping count lost value. Each night he would writhe in pain, twisting his withering body. Her efforts to ease these episodes were redundant, no amount of cold compress or honey could keep him from crying. During daytime he drifted in and out of sleep, gulping down more medicines than food, as a set of doctors checked in. His illness wasn’t severe, they said. He just needs to buck up and fight his way through.
Ma gave up on the pretence of waiting till they had left to curse at medicine.
‘He is wasting away,’ she sobbed to whoever would answer her call. ‘How can this be?’
Both parents had weakened, Rukmini thought, as if an unseen tunnel under their beds drained blood and flesh from their bodies. Baba’s face had shrivelled to resemble an overripe mango. He would come home from work and sit quietly, barely eating before pouring himself a drink. It had been days since he had spoken to Rukmini, preferring to sink into a corner of the sofa in silence. Sometimes Rukmini would hear them talk, Ma urging him to find alternatives. Godmen, powders with strange powers of revival, the possibility of travelling to a city with better hospitals, a pilgrimage to sacred places, everything was considered and yet nothing came to pass. To Rukmini, they looked like the cartoon hamsters she’d seen on TV, running endlessly on a wheel, thinking they were moving forward. Ma’s anger, having found all possible prey, now shifted to Baba. ‘He’s doing nothing,’ she cried over the phone. ‘Our son will die here.’ Rukmini witnessed Baba’s inaction toughening to indifference, he stopped visiting Dushyant’s room altogether.
Strangely through it all, Rukmini stayed upright, never falling sick or tiring of chores. As her brother floated out of chicken pox and into an unknown state, she started spending more time sitting next to him, adjusting her mind to the sight of his emaciated, pockmarked body, his frail voice, which held no surfeit energy beyond gesturing for necessities. Rukmini fed him and made him drink water at planned intervals, read aloud bits from comic books, and monitored medicines. In no time, doctors began addressing her, Ma silently hovering behind, as feeble and broken as the patient.
And then one day, when she was alone next to him, reading a book on animals, Dushyant spoke a sentence that was other than a request for something. He asked her what was happening. ‘You are getting better,’ she said, ‘and we are waiting for it.’
‘No, what is happening here?’ he flung his head towards her. ‘Why are you by my side? Why are you not going to school?’
Rukmini didn’t have an answer. ‘Baba said there are things we must do.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense.’
Rukmini knew she had disappointed her brother with the answer. Had he been in her place, he would have said something cleverer. ‘It’s the truth,’ she mumbled. ‘Anyway, he doesn’t speak much now. No one does.’
Her brother was undeterred. ‘You don’t need to be sitting here all the time.’ Rukmini kept flipping through the book.
After some time, he said, ‘Don’t tell Ma.’
She had decided not to tell Ma about this conversation on her own. She could see how frail Dushyant was, he wouldn’t withstand the outpour that would come his way. She gave a slight nod.
With immense effort but clear purpose, Dushyant managed a smile.
For the first time in years, Rukmini felt joy, certain that a bind which had vanished, which had once connected them had reappeared. To Rukmini, that was the moment things changed for good. Dushyant gradually recovered but was weak, something which the doctors informed them would be a permanent state. A life of accomplishments were now beyond his reach, and as if to balance the change in his body, he changed his personality. He spoke less than before, and found ways to fit contempt for their parents when he did. His grades suffered, he never completed the exams that year and fell behind. A rift had appeared among them, and each day Rukmini saw it grow larger. She watched as it crept outside the confines of their home, separating them from the world. Fewer people invited them, they were unable to fabricate the appearance of happiness around others. Now Ma travelled alone to her home, and visiting relatives held a look of pity in their eyes that angered Baba. A few altercations upset everyone enough that no one wished to mend things. Weddings, birthdays, festivals were given a pass. The home was decorated, the rituals performed with the barest of efforts.
When Rukmini scored the highest in class tenth exams, it shook their house up like a bolt of lightning. She was looked at and spoken to, asked questions and paraded, taken to the market to pick up sweets, which were then distributed in the neighbourhood, and Ma's visits to the temple became frequent. Baba gifted her a watch with a silver strap. They dressed and assembled on the sofa for a portrait with her, the pleats of Ma’s sari impeccable. Dushyant clicked the pictures, promising to have them developed.
‘Tum toh chhupa rustam nikli!’ (You’re quite the hidden gem!) they would exclaim this every few days, as if taken by surprise each time they were faced with the fact of her excellence.
It was Dushyant who gave her money. ‘You are bright, Ruki but someday you will need to leave all this,’ he waved his hand to signal the ground below from where they stood on the terrace. ‘They will stifle this brilliance. They are machines.’ Rukmini did not know what to say but she took the money, it was a thick wad. She looked up, surprised. He wagged his finger, preventing her from asking where it came from. ‘Think of it as a key for a door you haven’t found yet,’ he said, making the sound of a click with his thumb and forefinger.
‘You’re reading too much poetry.’
Dushyant laughed. It filled Rukmini with a unique warmth, the knowledge that he was close to happiness only with her.
‘And you’re not reading it enough, topper,’ he thwacked her on the head gently.
The next day Dushyant was gone. He was to begin the last year of schooling, which would stay unfinished. There was a note, and he was past eighteen, so ‘you can’t force him to return,’ their relatives insisted. Ma cried for a few days, though Rukmini wasn’t certain if it was her brother or their life before his illness that she was lamenting. Baba was on the phone constantly, asking about his friends, past associations, thinking of him as a person outside the walls of their home. Dushyant’s departure had opened something in him, and in these frantic efforts to trace him, Rukmini found Baba’s voice present in a volume she hadn’t felt in a long time.
Despite the weeping and restlessness that followed, Rukmini was certain her parents were more relieved than worried. With Dushyant gone, a weight was lifted from them. They found it easy to make excuses for his absence, and no one prodded their reasons. She saw the old patterns return, cautious dinners hosted, small trips to hill stations, his absence laughed away with false claims that rolled smoothly on their tongues. It was like losing an important but unnecessary object, something that became dearer when it could only be remembered and not held.
Hiding the key, what she had taken to calling the bundle of currency Dushyant had given her, became a frequent exercise, even though her parents never pried into her belongings. Ever so often, Rukmini would open the box she had placed it in to confirm its presence. She believed that some part of Dushyant’s joy that evening on the terrace was captured in this bundle, that in keeping the key safe, she was keeping him with her.
Rukmini lifted her son’s slumbering body and placed it on the sofa, her back straining to support the weight. Looking at his still face, she remembered how even in sleep Dushyant had looked tortured that year, there had been no moment of respite in that illness. She had only met him twice after he’d left. At her wedding, he was a phantom, the topic of much speculation. She’d been surrounded and cordoned on all sides by people for her to be able to speak to him. He stood aloof, spoke a little with Baba, moved stealthily at the edges, never stepping too close to the centre, where she was seated. She had questions for him, about the course of his life and what he had become, but he was far, separated from her by something she could not name. He touched everyone’s feet, served food, and then vanished, leaving a trail of tongues wagging about his character. ‘His presence or absence will cause equal noise,’ Baba had predicted. Rukmini had insisted that he join them regardless, ‘I’ll invite him myself if I have to.’
The year Ma’s knees gave way and had to be operated on, he had called her and Baba, visiting them for a brief while. He’d sat patiently by their mother’s bedside and spoken to her. Whatever they discussed was effective in mending their rift, but this much was certain: he would never be a part of their lives.
‘Only there when you need me,’ he’d told Rukmini as they stood outside the private wards. ‘You’re doing everything so well, Ruki.’
‘Someone has to, you know?’ Rukmini answered back, her voice laden with the exhaustion of hospital runs.
Dushyant smiled then, ‘You have changed a lot, I saw you holding fort at the wedding, barking orders. It was good to see that.’
Rukmini shook her head. To hide her anger, she joked, ‘Thanks for the gift, by the way. Dinesh loves it.’
‘I came empty-handed. I didn’t even realise I had come empty-handed.’
‘I’m kidding. I’m surprised you showed up at all.’‘
A gift should be useful,’ he mused. ‘You’ll have it when you need it.’‘
Another key?’ She’d tilted her head, a smile breaking out on her face.
She recalled his response to her reference then, laced with an uncertain wryness she could only remember as his, when she took the parcel out of the locker.
‘You’ll know when it clicks.’
Arushi Vats writes on arts and culture, in the form of reviews of exhibitions and photo books, as well as longform essays on cinema and visual art. Her writing has been published on online platforms such as Alternative South Asia Photography, LSE International History, Critical Collective, Write |Art |Connect, Scroll, Mint, and The Quint; additionally she has authored curatorial notes for Galerie Mirchandani Steinruecke, Mumbai and Aicon Gallery, New York. She lives in New Delhi, India.