I have always been afraid of fire.
This realisation does not come to me in a second, incised down the middle. I’m not lamenting a lover, cloaked in white, sitting at a funeral pyre as I watch ashes incinerate into dust. Because children have no place at a funeral. We call them prayer meetings. I see them in my apartment lobby on Tuesdays sometimes- mothers mostly, the sharp sheen of kurtas reflecting into the monsoon wind. Most conversation is in the lack of it- in the knowing nod when they get into the elevator, the clumped-up mascara around their swollen eyes and the unmade hair, still soft from last night’s parlour visit with their daughters, now decaying in party schools in California while white boyfriends visit.
The first person I remember losing was a family friend’s father. He was forty. On a spur, he went to the country club instead of the gym. Played thirty minutes of tennis instead of a slow jog on a treadmill. His body couldn’t take it. The way the news reaches me is like wildfire, grazing my fingertips. Flames felling banyans to the ground. I know his son from a dream. Three days later, the wife’s Facebook status says look at my love / he is with the stars now. I think that’s what she tells herself every day. I hope it keeps her from falling apart.
The eve of Diwali is known for having no stars. They say the people held wisps of light for the warrior king to be welcomed home. How the people outshined the sky. It is already Diwali and I am wearing the clothes Ma picks out for me every year- the blue cotton kameez and the sequins that itch and leave red marks all over my body, like bruises from dancing too hard at a Pune wedding I didn’t want to go to. It is already Diwali and I have spent three hours crying in bed. No one takes naps on Diwali. No one studies on Diwali, because here there are no expectations, no white-collar job, no unpaid internships to go to, no fathers that come home too late and shout for too long. There are only those tepid moments of revelry, and the flash-bang-crack of your neighbour’s sparklers out on the lawn. I remember the first time I lit one with my father, his wrinkles illuminated by the candlelight. How I would always step back a moment too soon, think it sparked before it really did.
When I trip my fingers over Debussy on the piano we bought from a family friend before they moved to the South, I see a flame in ivory. And I flinch. It belongs to the diya we light overnight, the one that never dies out. My fingers have always been far more chubby than I would have liked, so they move stagnantly off the keys, mocking my dissonance. I play the piano on Diwali because it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like finishing the raisins in the dry fruit bowl before the guests do and then eyeing the grand, you know how to play then why don’t you show us? The opening from that one Shahrukh movie everyone loves, the perfect man, his arms open wide. He lives for the show.
I play again. I continue like this- some raging meditation of an unkempt, starving artist. My hands slipping off the ebony, fingertips scorching the slick metal till it dissolves into incandescence.
We don’t eat meat on Diwali. Though, I do. I’m a good girl though, I swear. I don’t talk to boys with gelled hair on Snapchat or drink cheap Old Monk on weeknights. I finish my milk every day, listen to industrial pop and think about shattering the glass ceiling. At garden parties I flay the skin off of chicken and place little toothpicks beneath my palms. The ones in grade school always ended the same- at the end of all the animated movies that should have made me cry and the party games that did, there were return gifts. Goldfish: a pair of fins darting above clusters of fake coral, eyeholes pressed into the Plexiglas. More often than not, they die on the way home, a brake applied too quickly, piscean entrails all over the highway, their corpses floating upwards. To heaven, perhaps.
When my grandfather dies, I am reading a poem. The rough Hindi syllables that years of a high-end job couldn’t kill make their way out through the bedroom. In this moment, I take it to be my father, screaming at customer service. I take it to mean, duty, forsaken. Instead, it is duty, ceaseless. They cut the cord. The ventilator sputtered out. Cause of death unspecified.
Dada died, you know. Yes, I do know, I tell my brother. We hold each other for a bit. The last time I held him before he went to college. Somewhere in an elevator, a man says expired, not dead. I hate this, how we compare a breathing entity to a tangerine, rotting away in a refrigerator door.
I open an incognito tab and Google how to stop being angry at everything that tries to make me better. What to do when you’re grieving is the top result.
On a walk, my mother tells me we may have to move soon. But I’m selfish. Because I want to stay in this city that has expensive apartments and bad roommates and poverty porn and girls who live by the sea and push their big-city dreams into the water, wanting to stay afloat. Because it is familiar, and here I can pretend it does not touch me, how I can mould my sadness into the skyline and forget.
There are children in the trees and birds on the ground. And I remember that since it is Diwali, there is light. I think daughter is a synonym for light.
In Hinduism, when a man dies, his son shaves his head. This tradition also takes place when a child is born. Rebirth and ending collide into one another. When my father performs it, it is strikingly cosmetic. Relatives stand around him, watching the barber clip away at his hair. I think he’d joke about his greys finally disappearing, how all the boxes of hair dye were wasted. I remember a boy from school who shaved his head once because he wore a baseball cap wherever he went. He was eight. I hope there were no men in elevators he had to face.
They say the shaving of the head symbolises selflessness- to let go of the world, and embrace your deeds. I don’t know if my father wanted this life. If he wanted to be an astronaut, a chef, the founder of a tech company that sold for millions and then retired to a cottage in Spain with his perfect family that never fussed about the electricity bills and always showed up for Sunday brunch.
When we would spend Diwali with Dadi, she would light a single diya on the windowsill, raking the edges of the gulmohars, their leaves rust-brown, decayed by winter. I hope the trees don’t catch fire.
I hope they burn if they do.
Dadi: paternal grandmother
|Anoushka Kumar (she/her) is a student and writer from India, with work forthcoming or published in Vagabond City Lit, perhappened mag, the Ekphrastic Review, and elsewhere.|