You were sixteen when you almost died. You’d been sick for 64 days but your father knew you weren’t going to die because his astrological charts said nothing about grieving a son’s death.
It was typhoid, you found out years later, when health care stopped meaning shamans, amulets, mantras and prayers. In 1949, you were just unwell. Neighbours’ whispers spoke of a dark spirit that was eating you from the inside. Slowly, leisurely. ‘There’s nothing more powerful than a mother’s prayers,’ a family elder mournfully told your father. Your mother died when you were so little that you don’t remember if it was an illness that took her or a demon that was accidentally summoned when you and your brothers were fooling around with an Ouija board. Your mother couldn’t watch you almost die in 1949, so, your father had to become your mother. He prayed – like she would – to whichever God would listen. ‘Seek the help of the guruji who lives by the river,’ the village elders advised. Guruji arrived to see you, after being paid with two sacks of long-grained rice, three filled to the top with lentils, and a fat goat.
He made you sit in a wicker chair that belonged to your grandfather and covered you from head to toe with the biggest, heaviest blanket in the household. Coals were smoked at the bottom of your feet, so the fumes could rise up to the top of your body, swirl their way into your nostrils, burn your eyes, blacken your lips and coat your tongue. You were smoked and smoked and smoked to the low, guttural sounds of mantras that nobody understood. By the end of a long, sooty, smoky hundred and twenty minutes, you were sicker. The neighbours’ fears had come true: you were caught in the iron grip of a spirit. Black and malefic. ‘Might it be related to the one who took your mother’s life?’ they wondered aloud.
You became so sick, you couldn’t walk anymore. Your meals were fed to you by your father. Sickness in 1949 was not ameliorated with comfort food. For you, that would have meant small hills of rice sweetened with jaggery and yellowed with turmeric, and fragrant, slow-cooked goat curry. Sick-day meals meant, instead, rice and dal and boiled potatoes. That was what you ate all 64 days, once a day. Your weight whittled down from a healthy 51kg to a scraggy 40.
You were so light, your brothers and friends took turns carrying you around in the wicker chair. They took you outside. To the open grounds on whose red earth you’d spent boyhood hours playing cricket with handmade wooden bats. To the small, open-air courtyard outside the house that moonlighted as a make-shift theatre where you acted as hero, villain and sidekick. To the river where you spent summer afternoons skinny dipping with friends. To the ancient mango tree whose fruits you knocked down with practiced-perfect stone throws. They took you everywhere because they weren’t as sure as your father. They weren’t sure if you’d survive your sixteenth year.
A pandit from a neighbouring village arrived on the 62nd day to tell your father, ‘A cow will save him.’ So, a cow’s head was moulded out of flour. Carefully, meticulously. The index finger on your left hand was pricked with a needle. Rusty. Unsterilised. The pandit held you by the wrist and turned your finger over. The blood dripped onto his fat palms, he made slow, red circles with his ring finger. Round and round and round. When his finger was bloody enough, he rubbed it against the cow’s mouth. The cow drank it up.
Your rate of recovery was so rapid over the next 48 hours, the neighbours spoke of a kind spirit that had been summoned just for you. It now dwelled in your bones. You got better and better and better, got off the chair and finally stood up without your father’s arms holding you by the elbows. The very moment you stood up on day 64, a cow, one of the four who homed in the shed in your father’s backyard, dropped dead. A young, stout cow who’d never seen a sick day. The pandit was paid not with rice and lentils and goats but with two gold bricks.
You told me all this ten days before you left for Tralfamadore. It was the last of the 607 stories you told me over the 28 years we got to share here on earth.
We’re Vonnegut fans, you and I. ‘I’m never going to die. I will only appear to die,’ you often told me in your last couple of earth weeks. We’re both strong believers of the Tralfamadorian concept of time. Of how when a person dies, he doesn’t actually die because all moments in the past, present and future continue to exist forever.
Does your 88-year-old just-died self get to meet your 16-year-old-recovering-from-typhoid self now that you’re there? I wonder. Have you already met him? As he sits on a chair, trying to kill typhoid with smoke? How does it work? Is there a way to step in and out of the past, present and future? Or do you get a see-only pass where you can simultaneously witness all moments without altering them?
I tried explaining the idea of Tralfamadore. To grandma. To mom. To dad. That you’re in Tralfamadore now, so there’s no point praying for your soul and hoping you rest in peace. They teared up. I know they don’t quite believe me. I suspect they think it’s only my way of coping with the fact that you’re not around anymore. That you’ve died. That’s obviously not true. My charts don’t say anything about grieving my grandfather’s death.
Amrita Lall is a writer and editor based out of Bombay and Bhubaneswar. Her work has appeared in Out of Print, Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Architectural Digest India and others. She scours for stories in personal, first-hand experiences because she strongly believes that the best stories lie hidden in plain sight.