Black And White

Current Issue

Word Count: 1569

Nandini Devdutt Tripathy

Nandini is an unpublished writer and poet from Delhi, India, with a Masters degree in English Literature. She loves sunsets and clear skies, and things a rational mind can’t explain.

The morning after Noor cremated her husband, she found two of him sitting at the dining table. Between that morning’s pot of chai and today’s, four more of him have appeared, each time in pairs, each time in a different part of the house. One of the two at the dining table is staring at her chai. She’s already tried offering him a cup — two spoons of sugar, one spoon of milk — but like speaking and moving, drinking is something he can’t do anymore.

She doesn’t know why he’s here. Her eyes dart to him every time she takes a sip, but he doesn’t seem to want anything. His face is as she’s always known it — round and open with enormous mud-brown eyes — only a little bit paler, and lacking completely in life. The man sitting before her is dead, definitely, but he’s also not a figment of her imagination.

Krish Three is sitting beside Krish Two with his face turned away from her, his mud-browns fixed on the cereal cabinet. No shame in loving coco puffs, he’s said before, but he can’t say that now. And he did love them, sometimes more than her, but never more than the pills, which are also stashed in there. He can’t eat them and will stare blankly when she will take them out later and empty them into the bin. She will then scoop up some coco puffs with her fingers and shovel them into her mouth even though she hates chocolate.

Krishes Four and Five are in the kitchen, both wearing his favorite t-shirt. Urdu letters scream khanabadosh in lemon yellow against their black chests. One of them watches the stovetop when Noor cooks her meals — chicken curry, mostly, in defiance of mourning protocol because who’s going to stop her? When she eats, she eats for him too. Krish Five squats next to the fridge because that’s where the rum is, wedged between the vinegar and the sticky bottle of Rooh Afza. This, she doesn’t drink for him.

Krishes Six and Seven are standing with their backs to each other in the bathroom. Each time she comes in through the door, she finds Krish Six looking at his vial of attar, now nearly empty because he left its mouth open when he used it for the last time. Gill 1460, which made him smell like the rain, now makes the bathroom smell like the monsoon. Krish Seven, looking the other way, stares at his splintered reflection in the mirror — once shiny and whole, now webbed like a windshield that’s been hit by something hard enough to crack, but not break it. The narrow shards of glass lodged in his knuckles glint darkly in the LED light.

Krishes Eight and Nine appear on the sofa the next day. She positions herself between them and watches a mushaira for Krish Eight, who is facing the wall-mounted television, letting Ghalib’s poetry mist over the 4K display and perfume the room like incense. Krish Nine sits on the other side of her with his hands clapped to his ears, his eyes squeezed shut, and his mouth thrown open in a silent scream.

On some nights, curled under the dohar on her chosen patch of carpeted floor outside the bedroom door, she thinks about how all of this is Ghalib’s fault.

کوئی ویرانی سی ویرانی ہے
دشت کو دیکھ کے گھر یاد آیا
There is a desolation more desolate than all others:
a desert reminds me of home.

Pulling the dohar over her ears, she tries to hear the sound of her husband’s voice reciting this sher. But a different couplet curls vapor-like into her mind, dragging up with it her first real memory of him. In a classroom where Mathematics was taught in the mornings and Urdu in the evenings, he had offered it to her like it was a rose.

ان کے دیکھے سے جو آ جاتی ہے منہ پر رونق
وہ سمجھتے ہیں کہ بیمار کا حال اچھا ہے 
When she looks at me, my face becomes so awash with light 
that she thinks I — an ailing man — am well.

Krish Eighteen is looking at a wheelie bag in the closet. A black American Tourister, hard-shelled and reliable. It holds the clothes he carried on his last business trip. Fancy dress time, he would joke every morning while putting on his office shirt, aware of how ridiculous he looked in it. The fit was never quite right, no matter how many sizes and cuts he tried on.

Noor took the bag down from its shelf yesterday, thinking she’d empty it over the next few days. Now Krish Nineteen is curled up in its spot with his face to the wall. She remembers this from last year, when rum and employment were distant memories and the pills weren’t killing pain like the pharmacist had said they would.

I want to be a father, he said in that evening’s haze and something he saw on her face ignited him. There was some shouting, a dinner plate hurled at the wall, a chair smashed into the floor and kicked a few times, finger-shaped bruises on her neck, a brief blackout, hours of worrying and calling former friends, before she realized he’d never left the house.

In the morning he said, I should never be a father.

درد منت کش دوا نہ ہوا
میں نہ اچھا ہوا برا نہ ہوا
The pain is not indebted to the medicine,
as I am neither better nor worse.

Krish Twenty-four stands facing an empty dust square on the living room wall. There are many others like it, but the one his eyes are fixed on previously held a picture of their wedding. The two of them outside the registrar’s office, him in a cream kurta pajama, her in a red-and-gold Banarasi saree, looking happier than they’d ever be again. The former inhabitants of the other dust squares — their families — had chosen not to attend.

A few feet behind him, the carpet covers a black smudge marking the spot where he started the fire using the photographs he took down. Krish Twenty-five sits cross-legged on top of it, his face turned up toward the patch of soot still suspended from the ceiling.

جلا ہے جسم جہاں دل بھی جل گیا ہوگا
کریدتے ہو جو اب راکھ جستجو کیا ہے
Where the body has burnt, the heart, too, must be charred
As you scrape through the ashes now, what are you looking for?

There are too many of him, blighting the house, crowding every room but one, against whose door she now stands clutching her dohar. She searches behind her back for the doorknob and hears it click against the enormous silence of his everywhereness.

Inside, there is only one of him — the very first, who appeared by himself on the night of his disappearance. She spotted him in the far corner of the room, a few hours into her routine of searching the house and calling people, and knew what had happened before the police called.

She spent the auto ride to the hospital trying to decipher what she was feeling because she really couldn’t tell. The closer she pushed herself to how this was supposed to feel, the farther she felt from everything she knew. It was like trying to fit Krish into a shirt — grief was a piece of clothing she looked ridiculous in.

When she stood before the stretcher, the morgue assistant looked away so she could weep like all the other young widows who came in every day. But all she could do was stare at Krish’s open eyes, which held a strange look of wonder, like he had witnessed a miracle in his last moments alive.

At the crematorium, the scent of rain wafted up to her as he lay on the trolley, a white bundle on the whirring metal belt, restless to be on its way. The cremator swallowed him before she was ready, and in the deafening echo of its mouth slamming shut, days and days and days had passed, soaked in the surprise and unreality of it all.

Every other Krish who had appeared in the house was one of two truths, black and white, and choosing one while denying the other was as easy as breathing. But this one — he was too many truths at once. Desert and home and light and dark and ailing and well and medicine and pain and worse and better and body and heart and she loved him and hated him and wanted to remember him and wanted to forget him and she thought her head would explode. So she slept on the floor outside the bedroom door and never came in.

But now she’s here, with nowhere else to go, and there is only one thing to be done. She walks up to his corner, stands in front of him, and looks into his eyes. They look back at her and begin to fill with wonder, like she remembers from the morgue — like they’re witnessing a miracle. The room feels warmer than before and the floor, cooler. She becomes suddenly conscious of how hard and smooth the granite is, how solid beneath her feet. As she lets the weight of what she’s been trying to wear leave her, he begins to crumble until all that’s left is a pile of grey ash on the floor.