‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.
The day Amma left for the land of temporary workers, my bones splintered.
My therapist asks me to start right at the beginning, so I begin with this day. My first real memory of life: Amma hugging me goodbye, the smell of sandalwood powder and the rose in her hair; pressing my snot-filled nose to the dusty mosquito mesh door; later, falling from the tree and the nurse at the local hospital shaking her head as if the pain was a figment of my imagination. I had climbed the guava tree hoping to catch a glimpse of Amma’s airplane. Paati said I fell on purpose. ‘Showing off. Trying to get attention. Her mother just left for the Gulf, you see. Don’t know when she will be back,’ she told the nurse, as she put my ankle in a plaster cast. I was only five, but I never forgot those words—the earliest assessment of my personality.
Amma was gone a long time. We spoke on the phone—but I didn’t know if it was even really her. There was so much static that her voice sounded too different—otherworldly. I couldn’t see her, smell her, hold her or show her my school projects. There was no tangible evidence that she was in fact, my mother. As weeks and months passed, I worried I was forgetting what she looked like. I would stare at the photographs on Appa’s desk and our wall, trying to memorise her features. What was she like there, I wondered? Did she miss me? In the early days, each time I cried on the phone, Amma would tell me to ‘be brave’ as if courage were something already inside me. For years, I practised not crying. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to be anything that she would think commendable. I didn’t cry when the girls at school teased me about the messy braids I wore to school. (Appa could never master this.) I didn’t cry when the curious teachers asked, in hushed, whispering tones, if my parents were ‘divorced’. I didn’t cry when a mean girl on the school bus asked if my mother was actually dead and I was only pretending that she had gone abroad. I didn’t cry when I told Paati about this later that night, and she responded by first yelling at me and then holding me close while she wept.
I was eight when Amma returned. Appa was more excited about it than I was. Amma looked thinner than I remembered. There had been a softness in her face now replaced by ridges and roughness. When she hugged me, she felt like a stranger. She even smelled different—a curious mix of leather and the ocean. Appa put Amma’s three large suitcases into our new car. I sat in the back with the plastic covering still on the seats. ‘Do you like it?’ Appa asked Amma, eagerly. ‘It’s so big,’ she replied with a weary smile, running her right hand through his salt and pepper hair. They seemed so much older suddenly, and I had never felt more like a child. ‘Let’s go get some breakfast?’ Appa suggested. Then turning to me, he asked, ‘Dosa?’ I nodded. That night, she unpacked clothes, stationery sets, trinkets and chocolates she had brought for me. There were scented erasers, a book for stamps, sheets of stickers, an electronic watch and a singing clock. I was fascinated. I took the things from her but resolved to never use any of them.
Soon afterwards, we had to move to a bigger house. Amma had a lot of work to do. Her life in the land of temporary people had made her permanently important. We had lots of dinner parties, adults milling around the stove, men asking for more chicken fingers and peanuts to go with their drinks. The women ooh-ed and aah-ed over the preparation of the meal, narrating stories of their neighbours or gossiping about an unfortunate person who was conveniently absent from the occasion. The glint of bangles, earrings and sari embroidery would catch the light. The horde of children would be banished to a separate room, but I was always listening to what was happening outside. Appa didn’t seem to enjoy any of this. He wrapped an arm around Amma and smiled, but his eyes were tired, and he never once drained his glass of its drink. I missed our old evenings, sitting in front of the TV watching cricket matches, as he sipped on his glass of Coca Cola, and I drank warm Horlicks, and we shared a packet of potato chips. I wonder if he missed those evenings as much as I did.
I miss my Appa with his kind face, calloused hands and unconditional warmth. I pause to drink some of the green tea that has gone cold. The therapist gestures for me to continue as she takes notes.
I didn’t mean to punish Amma. I was trying to test her, perhaps to see if she was still the Amma I once knew and loved. Beneath these new smells and the gold in her ears and this sudden allure she seemed to have in the neighbourhood and with our relatives, I wanted to see some glimpse of the person she was before she left. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t angry with her. I was angry with her for leaving and angry with her for returning so suddenly—just when I was getting used to being brave. I couldn’t stop the tears those days. I was no longer the centre of Appa’s existence, and this bothered me. We couldn’t just hop on his bike and go for a drive to get ice cream. He didn’t watch cartoons with me as frequently because he had to help Amma strip the cabbage leaves and chop the onions. I now had strict study times and couldn’t work on the floor beside his desk. I got a new wooden table: I used the edge of my ruler to carve patterns into it, and Amma scolded me for ruining it. Appa didn’t defend me, although his eyes looked pained. I think he knew I was hurting because he kept trying to tell me how much better our life was now. How Amma had sacrificed so much so that we could have a bigger house, a better school, nicer clothes and more expensive holidays. After all those years I had spent wishing Amma hadn’t left, I now started to resent her for returning. In this new, supposedly better life, I had never felt more alone.
A year later, I had a baby sister. Amma and Appa were very anxious. I had not been on my best behaviour. I talked back to teachers, didn’t respond when I was spoken to, frequently misplaced things, refused to eat and made no friends. I had tasted rebellion, and I liked its power even though it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I had taken to swimming in a pond after school—a frog-filled, murky, green water body at the perimeter of our property. I knew Amma hated the foul smell and would have to wash my uniform. I was a ‘difficult child’, and I wore the moniker proudly. So, when the baby was due, Amma watched me closely, wondering if my behaviour would worsen and whether I would be a threat to the newborn. I found myself wondering that too. But we needn’t have worried. The minute I laid eyes on my little sister, I was smitten. Here was someone I could love who had not disappointed or abandoned me. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of my affection for her: it was as if a dam had burst in my heart. This was my person, my little sister.
I was upset with Amma for something that day. I hated the ocean anyway, so I refused to go. Amma tried to persuade me, bribe me and finally scold me, but I didn’t care. I stayed with Appa. I don’t even remember why I was being stubborn. Amma took Neha and left. She would be back after the conference. I remember hugging Neha—she smelled like chocolate and faintly of Amma’s rose and sandalwood powder. The intensity of the hug and the smell shocked my system, and I was suddenly the terrified little child clinging to her mother. It had been nearly 10 years since that moment. I released Neha with a sudden jerk, and she gave me an oblivious smile. ‘Bye, Akka,’ she said gleefully. I planted a kiss into her wispy hair. Everything was okay. It was okay, I told myself. They would be back in three days.
I brace myself for what I am about to wade into. I think of Heraclitus. How every time I lay my head down, this river threatened to swallow me whole. This was the part of the story that changed me, that haunts me, that won’t let me move. There are some days when the anchor drops—when I bob silently along an ocean of nothingness. But most days, I wade through thick, polluted water, and I can barely move. This is why I am here.
I have this recurring dream. I am beating on the glass, but it won’t open. I see a car float by, followed by our old neighbour, Rekha, in an auto, still arguing with the stout, uniformed driver. I wave, but she doesn’t see me. Doesn’t she care that we are drowning? She was always a bit of a scatterbrain, I remember. I start pounding on the glass even harder, hoping it will shatter. I’m sweating in the water, and the saltwater makes me feel sick. I can’t vomit in here—it will be disgusting. I mustn’t, I tell myself sternly. I see a jellyfish float by my foot and am unaffected until I feel it wrap around my ankle. I try to shake it off, but it sticks determinedly to my skin. I reach down and grab it hard, tearing it apart. It is plastic. Holding what’s left of it, I look around and see shards of wood, pages of books, black wisps of oil now swirling around me. The water is becoming filthy. I have to get out. I open my mouth to call for help, but only bubbles come out, playfully wobbling in the water. ‘This isn’t a game,’ I think angrily. Hot tears begin to form, and through them I finally see someone swimming toward me. I blink away tears and shake about violently, waving my hands, trying to get their attention. It’s a girl. She’s almost here. I bang on the glass. ‘FINALLY!’ I think to myself with relief. She bends down and peers into the glass, and our eyes lock. My heart breaks. My beautiful girl, Neha. I try to touch her perfect face through the glass. Her innocent wide eyes, large nose and crimson lips are framed by thick black curls. Her brown cheeks grow rounder and glisten as she smiles wide. ‘Akka?’ she says, looking elated to see me. Just as she says those words, a bubble pops, and I start gasping for air.
As I walk through the door to my apartment in the evening, I see Amma sitting by the large glass window, staring out at the terrace garden, with a warm tea cupped tightly in her hands. Her silvery hair is tied in a loose bun with a string of jasmine coiled around it. Meenamma, a chatty old lady, calls at the house a few times during the week to string a long chain of jasmine that then lies in the refrigerator for Amma to adorn her hair with. Sometimes, it finds its way to the dusty framed photograph of Appa on the wall. I like it that way—it is as if they still shared something. Amma looks so frail and delicate today as if even the innocent tweeting of a bird might frighten her. Outwardly, she has retained her stoic beauty. Her stacked saris and bespoke jewellery have continued to dazzle while her personality faded.
She didn’t have the privilege to fall apart. I wish she had. It would be easier to put her back together if we knew where the cracks were—Appa may have done something; maybe Periamma would have stepped in to get her the help she needed. Somebody would have taken it seriously. We could have picked up the debris of her scattered self and pieced it together.
Instead, the rust settled on her, and she slowly began to crumble. I was the only one close enough to notice. For months, she lingered in the bedroom that Neha and I shared—holding Neha’s pillow, her toys, her books and rocking back and forth, sobbing silently. I wanted to hug her so much that my belly would ache with guilt. I couldn’t because she never knew that I was watching her. All those years ago, in my tiny, still-forming brain, I knew that if I did hug her, even these stolen little outlets for grief would close up. She would put on a strong face while the sadness pressed up against her insides like a rushing river against a solid dam. So I watched her like a ghost. Every morning, she would brightly serve me chutney, potato masala and dosa as if nothing had happened. Having seen her at her most vulnerable should have made me feel like I knew her better. Instead, I felt like she was drifting further and further away from me—that I may never really have known her at all, and now I never would. I don’t think Amma ever realised that I was processing her every emotion—reading every lift of an eyebrow, quivering chin, forced smile and knuckle-cracking moment of frustration. As a child, although I was an ever-present responsibility, no one noticed I was present.
Over the years, I became adept at documenting even the faintest flickering indications of doubt, anger and hesitation. I became a sort of guardian of her emotions, her personality, her entire self and ignored my own soul—for years. This evening, many years later, she feels like my old familiar Amma. She sees me standing in the doorway.
‘Va, ma.’ She beckons for me to come and sit beside her, patting the sofa seat gently. ‘Ma’—a word used interchangeably between mother and daughter, shopkeeper and customer, servant and mistress—a word in which respect, familiarity, affection and endearment crowd out authority but retain a sense of power. I sit next to her on the floral-patterned loveseat. She turns to face me and winces a little in pain.
‘How are you feeling, Amma?’ I enquire, gently. ‘Does it hurt?’
‘Stupid stitches,’ she mutters, grabbing an embroidered cushion and wedging it between her back and the sofa. ‘Ah, better, better,’ she mumbles.
‘Listen,’ she continues, touching my arm. Her fingers are spindly with blue-green veins staining her arm—like rivulets of water on sandy terrain. The insides of her palms are as smooth and cold as worn stone. She smells strongly of jasmine and talcum powder.
I study her face today. She is worried. She has always detested change and greatly fears losing her independence.
‘I don’t want to be a burden,’ she says. ‘I can ask this nurse to stay at my house for a while—Shashi says she is very good and helped her mother-in-law very much when she dislocated her hip and—’
‘Amma, you are never a burden,’ I reply, hoping she will read the honesty in my face. ‘In fact, you’d be doing me a huge favour; I would never be at peace knowing I wasn’t with you to see how you’re doing.’
Her face crumples a little. She was hoping to return to Coonoor and to be as far from the ocean as possible. I suspect she feels that living around people will make it harder to hold herself together. She was never good at being vulnerable. Not when we lost Neha all those years ago. Not when she is sick now.
‘Uh, okay. If you insist,’ she says as disappointment settles like clouds on her face.
She takes a sip of her tea, as I fight back tears. Why am I upset with her for wanting her space?
‘Can you reheat this?’ she asks, holding out her half-drunk cup of tea. ‘It’s gone cold.’
Amma had never been very affectionate. But after the tsunami, she made more of an effort to try and hug me. It felt forced, panicked and uncomfortable. Eventually, she stopped that too. I would catch her looking out of the window or stirring a pot of curd curry, just staring into space. A stray tear sometimes escaped her. I longed to cry with her, but Amma resisted—always tut-tutting and pretending to be fine. ‘Nothing, nothing.’
‘I was just thinking.’
‘Crying, ah? Chha chha’
Mourning was considered an indulgence—only acceptable in the face of immediate disaster. Amma tried to be brave. It was what she had always taught me to do. When I couldn’t cry at Neha’s funeral, Paati looked at me worried; my cousin tried to explain what had happened in case I hadn’t understood, and my father kept checking my temperature to see if I was unwell. My mother kept dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief, but her eyes were dry, and her skin was worn and cold to the touch. A week later, when my whole body began to feel like a buoy in a sea of sadness, my mother floated about like a ghost, keeping herself busy. I woke one night, howling uncontrollably. It was the first time I had the wretched dream of her floating in the water and calling out to me. I cried when I absent-mindedly peeked into her room, recalled her laughter or remembered something I wanted to say to her. Later I cried for the mother whom I had lost to the big waves of grief—a mother who was there but whose maternal link to me lay buried with my sister. I hated the water for the way it had separated me from my mother first and then my sister—leaving me marooned on an island of my own.
My therapist is patient as I tell her about my aversion to any kind of loss. It is why I am still unmarried and will never have children. These generational shackles bind me. I have inherited the independence my mother had with the inability to express any sort of vulnerability or manage my emotions.
‘I think that being aware of this is a great starting point. You can work through this fear now that you have identified it,’ my therapist tells me.
‘It isn’t that simple,’ I reply. ‘To try and purify the blood is one thing. But our family is more complex, more tempestuous and more catastrophic. We are also water. And water can never be tamed.’
Later at night, a mighty clap of thunder rouses me as if God is calling me to attention. It is around 4am. The rain comes down suddenly as if the sky had been holding a reservoir of grudges that had burst vengefully. Then comes the blackout. At this point, I should know that something is gravely wrong. Instead, I check on Amma, who is asleep in the guest room, and I go to the toilet. I look out the window, and the whole city is covered in the blue-grey blanket of night. In the glow of the streetlights, raindrops glisten. There is no water in the taps. I make a mental note to flush the toilet later in the morning and go back to bed where I try to read myself to sleep with only the light of my phone to aid me. A sense of dread begins to form in my belly.
Urgent knocking on the door wakes me 10 minutes later. It is the elderly gentleman from upstairs in his blue-black chequered lungi and white banyan. He is holding a lantern and seems cold. ‘Please come upstairs; this flood is becoming dangerous,’ Mr Palaniappan beckons. My brain tries to process the seriousness of the situation. There is a sheet of water falling heavily behind him. Amma emerges from her room and stands beside me in the doorway. She looks pale and gaunt. As he repeats himself to her, sludge comes rushing through the drainpipe. My stomach drops. I know we have no choice but to go to the Palaniappans’ fourth-floor apartment. I turn around to look at my own small apartment—for which I took out a huge loan. The damp smell of sewage begins to fill the room; we’re running out of time. I look at the framed picture of Appa on the wall. Amma begs me to leave immediately, but I dash to my room to get to the folder with important documents. Amma follows me and grabs my arm tightly. I look into her wild eyes, and it frightens me—the fear of someone who knows what is coming, of someone who has seen ghosts, who has fallen to the depth of the ocean and made it back to dry land. ‘Leave everything; we have each other. That is enough,’ she says in a raspy voice.
Outside, the city is sinking. As we climb the stairs, we see cars swallowed whole as their alarms beep helplessly, fallen branches floating limply like paper boats. Mrs Palaniappan offers us cups of tea. Amma looks cold and worried. Her hair is in disarray. Nervousness hangs heavy in the air—in the darkness, it feels more tangible. The couple gets a phone call—it is their daughter from the USA, calling because she has seen news of the floods on television. She knows more than we do—how this happened, what areas are affected and details of the rescue efforts underway. I think about how we are at the centre of this storm, and yet we gather information from many oceans away. All we can see is what is happening in a limited radius right around us—nothing of the wider reality outside. Army personnel have been deployed to help those who were stranded on the roads. People are walking around in waist-deep water. Whole houses have collapsed off the side of the street, like a biscuit into a teacup. We are horrified as we sit in silence and wait. As his wife gets more information from her daughter, Mr Palaniappan erupts angrily. ‘This isn’t nature’s fury; this is entirely man-made. Bad management, lack of communication, an unwillingness to see what is right in front of us. This is not the first time.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I ask as I take a sip of tea, feeling grateful for its warmth and then a pang of guilt for enjoying it while countless others suffer in the cold outside. ‘We have not allowed nature to take its course—we willfully stopped them up. But there is only so much pressure it can take. We never learn. Now here they are.’ I must have looked completely clueless because he very emphatically declared. ‘The rivers—the Cooum, the Adyar and the Kosathalaiyar. We thought we had overpowered them with our roads and our buildings, but they’ve been here all along, biding their time under the surface. Now they are a team, and we are no match for their might. At some point, this was going to happen. Water doesn’t forget.’
I think of the flooding outside, how eerily similar it is to the horror of my recurring nightmare, and, for a second, I can’t breathe. In the dark, my eyes instinctively find my mother, who is bathed in the faint light of flickering candles. She is hunched over in a chair, holding the pallu of her sari to her mouth, rocking back and forth like a ball of paper in the wind. She is weeping quietly like a punished little child. I think of all the things I could have done differently. I think of all the times we rerouted our hurt by shutting each other out. How our grief had circled the drains of our home, gathered all the dust and become muck. I walk over to Amma and envelope her in a hug, as she lets out a god-awful wail like a siren. She smells like sandalwood and rose. I hug her tighter.
Mrs Palaniappan shoots her husband a look, begging him to stop talking. ‘Aiyo, don’t worry, ma; everything will be okay,’ he says, apologetically. ‘At least you two are safe, no? And you have each other. Everything else, we can see later,’ he continues. I could hug him too. He rescued us from ourselves. We cannot escape the water, but we do not have to drown. Not this time.
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