‘You turn old at sixty. We’ve got five more years of youth.’ My friend looked no older than forty. I wondered if the mere fact of having money could slow age down. Ten years after we graduated, she founded a comic book company that grew into an empire. Not long after, she married a painter whose latest work recently sold for more than twice the worth of everything I owned.

‘My body tells me otherwise,’ I said, and as if to show her what I meant, I coughed. It was involuntary. Years of breathing in stone dust and smoking cheap cigarettes have aged my lungs twice as fast.

‘Oh, don’t be dramatic,’ my friend said. ‘Didn’t you once tell me about your plans for when you turn fifty and sixty and seventy? Come on. I know that guy’s still in there somewhere.’

The restaurant music faded out. Murmurs, the clinking of glasses, and scraping sounds of silver on fine china filled the interval.

‘Feels like a lifetime ago,’ I said before another faint boring piece of music began again. Our annual rendezvous bar had closed down earlier this year. They had plastic stools and tables there, and food and drinks were cheap. But the signs had been on the walls. The economy couldn’t sustain a place like that forever. In a way, I was glad it happened that way. Every year, my friend looked more and more out of place at that rundown bar we first discovered in college, when we still thought we were bohemians simply because we were broke, filled with fancy philosophical ideas, and we went to a college of art. Sitting there now on a cushioned hardwood chair, dining at a table with layers of shades of white, in dim yellow light from ornate lamps above our heads, the dust on my jacket and my frayed sleeves announced so painfully that I was the invitee.

‘It does, indeed,’ she said. ‘And it’ll feel even longer unless you do something about it.’

Even at forty, I would’ve seen the challenge in her words, and I would’ve done something about it, or at least convinced myself that I would. But now, I was tired, and all her words did was made me reflect even more on how my life has turned out so different from what I had imagined for myself when I was a younger man still full of hope and strength. When did I change so completely?

‘But I’m content,’ I lied. ‘This growing old thing isn’t so bad once you get the hang of it. People vacate seats for me on public transport.’

She smiled. I knew her better than most people even though we only saw each other once every year since she came to my wedding two decades ago. And she knew me better than anyone. I could say all I wanted, and she’d always know all the things I left unsaid, or if what I said was the opposite of what I meant. Her smile wasn’t because of the humour in my words. And she knew better than to say some of the things on her mind, or offer me things she wanted to.

I looked at my watch and groaned to segue from the silence. ‘It’s nearing an old man’s bedtime. I have an early flight tomorrow.’

‘Of course,’ she said. She waved for the bill.

If I were anyone else, she would’ve insisted she paid.

*

We stood, waiting for the cab, looking out onto the street that was deadened by the depth of the night, cigarettes between our fingers. The smoggy warmth of a Delhi summer day had been replaced by pleasant gusts of wind, preludes to a summer storm. Our cigarettes burned down faster than we could conjure up topics. All the ‘remember when’s were used up earlier in the night, and neither of us found diversion in talking about our works. And the comfort in the silences that used to exist between us has aged into discomfiture.

I exited the cab and my friend followed me out. We stood together there for a moment, the broken light from the hotel sign blinking at us. She made as if to say something but no words came out. And then she smiled a sad smile. In her eyes were all the words she wanted to say, all the words she could not say. I knew it all. She knew that.

She stretched her arms out and I embraced her. We let a distant thunderclap have the last word.

*

My flight was delayed by an hour due to the weather. I entered and exited stores. I used to bring gifts for my daughter Mary from these ever-evolving stores when she was younger. She had grown into a bright young woman, starting college very soon. I was proud of her. I envied her.

I entered a bookstore. I thought I should get her something since I had a feeling this would be the last time I could, and I hoped it would serve as my olive branch. When I first told her that I had a degree in Fine Arts, I felt an elevated potency of her love. And in the face of that, the feeling like I was a destroyer of dreams was agony. She was a magician with a pencil. The beauty of her inventions would reverse time and dilute the harshness of my reality. Her creative sketches were mnemonics of my own youthful fancies, and sometimes the tears in my eyes would submerge my own failures and subsequent resolves. She had potential for greatness, but my mother said the same of me when I was my daughter’s age. I simply didn’t want her to make the same mistakes I made. I didn’t want her to become me. I prayed now that time would pass quickly and reveal that I had indeed made the better choice, and that she would grow to accept the path I wanted her on.

* * *

Dusk trailed after me. The air of Lamka seemed to get drier every time I left and then came back, no matter how brief my absence. And our house, standing on one corner of a busy street on the edge of town, looked lonely in twilight despite the abundance of activity surrounding it. I stood at the gate for a moment, feeling the ache in my joints, before I dragged my feet inside.

Mary wasn’t home. She was celebrating a friend’s birthday and she was staying for dinner. I tried not to be disappointed. I left the gift in her room.

*

Similar to recent evenings, the dinner table was subdued. Mary’s absences were always pronounced by the stuttering silences they brought. Although I knew her feeling of injustice would last a while, I’d hoped the passive tension would only last for a few days. It has almost been a month since her college application. My wife was on Mary’s side, asking me to let her make her own choice. That was the closest we came to a fight in our two decades of union.

‘You haven’t finished my uncle’s stone,’ my wife said, bringing me out of my trance. ‘It’s more than a month now, and they want to start planning the ceremony.’

‘It’s almost finished,’ I said.

‘You said that a week ago.’

The headstone they wanted wasn’t complex with minimal embellishments. I could’ve finished it in the same week the stone arrived even with the outdated tools I had to work with. I was spending most of my time working on something else, and to work on anything else was tiring. ‘This week,’ I said. ‘I promise.’

I dreaded tomorrow, going back into the same little shop I’d gone to for more than a third of my life. I could do most of the work I did blindfolded, and if I wanted I could do it all in half the time they took me. The dread has been there for as long as I could remember. But it came in whiffs in the past, easy to ignore. My reasonings were sound—I needed to be responsible, to live in the present, to face reality. The whiffs have become a steady breeze recently, and now, at the thought of tomorrow, I suddenly felt like I was suffocating.

The shop remained the same through the years while the small buildings and the establishments surrounding it changed and grew with times. When I first rented the thirty-square-meter space, it was with the belief that in half a decade, I would be moving on from it. Nineteen years later, I saw through the eyes of passers-by as they would peer into my shop—a man in the twilight of his middle age, entrapped and wrinkled by punitive materialistic necessities, enclosed by walls of framed unfulfilled dreams, employed by the dead.

I was so lost in thought that I didn’t realize I was spoken to. When I looked up, I had searing eyes on me. I had a tendency to leave the moment and go places far away in my mind, even in the middle of conversations. This time there was something different in her silence and the shake of her head when I asked her what she said.

She got up and began to clear the table with a reckless show of her displeasure.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked her. I wished I could be anywhere else.

She said nothing as she did the dishes, by the end of which I anticipated there would be some broken ceramics.

I took my plate to the sink. ‘Tell me what’s wrong,’ I said.

She shook her head and, without looking at me, said, ‘Does it matter?’

‘What do you mean? Of course, it matters,’ I said.

‘Does it, really?’ She looked at me now. Tears pooled in the corners of her eyes.

‘Just talk to me,’ I said.

‘Why?’ she asked, and then waited for a response for a long moment. ‘When did you ever talk to me? When did you ever tell me what’s wrong?’

‘Where is this coming from?’ I asked.

‘Do you really not know?’ she said.

‘Is it your uncle’s stone? I promise, I’ll have it finished by the end of the week.’

She shook her head slowly, not as an answer to my question, but a response to my words. She bit her cheek and closed her eyes. Her tears overflowed and ran down her cheeks and dropped from her quivering chin. In all the years I’d known her, this was the second time I’d seen her cry. The first was when we had Mary.

She sat down at the table and put her head in her hands and sobbed.

I pulled up a chair and sat down beside her. I wanted to comfort her, I wanted to reassure her. I wanted to rub her back, I wanted to run my fingers through her hair. I wanted to tell her all the things she wanted to hear, tell her all the things she needed to hear. I wanted.

She composed herself, and then, without glancing my way, she got up and resumed doing the dishes.

‘I’ll be outside,’ I said, and made my exit.

I sat down on the porch steps and dug my cigarettes out of my pocket. The day of our marriage crept into my mind. I remembered I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t animated. I just wanted to get it over with, and my wife was much the same. Neither of us cared for the pomp or the circumstance. And for the both of us, it was nothing more than something we had to do, and we made sure it was a modest affair, an affair we put up with for our families’ sake. We were both thirty-four when we said our vows, and we’d known each other for half our lives at that time, never knowing we’d marry each other until a few months before we did. And on our wedding night, after all the guests had departed, after all noise had died and all the lights were off, we had lain on our bed in the dark in silence, and then we drifted off to sleep.

I was still very much a hopeful man back then, with a steadfast confidence—misplaced, as it turned out—in my own abilities to create a future I wanted for myself. I stayed hopeful for as long as I could, longer than was good for me, until, somewhere along the way, I wasn’t anymore and it dawned on me that I had failed. I fought it. I denied it. But there was no escaping it.

It was some time before the back door opened. I did not turn as my wife sat down next to me, half a metre of space between us. I kept my eyes on the fading light over the horizon.

‘Do you regret it?’ she asked, after a more than a minute of quiet. I knew she had the question in her head for a long time. As a matter of fact, so did I.

‘No,’ I said.

‘If Mary wasn’t there, would you regret it?’

I answered honestly, ‘I don’t know.’

‘Me too,’ she said.

‘But she’s here, and I would do anything for her.’

‘So would I,’ she said.

I reached for her hand, half expecting her to pull away. But she didn’t.

She held me. She put her other hand on top of mine. ‘Do you remember what you said the first time you held Mary?’

‘I don’t think I do,’ I said.

She moved in and closed the gap between us. ‘You said, “All the bad days before and all the bad days to come, it’s all worth it for this moment”.’

‘I don’t think I have been a very good father,’ I said.

‘No, you have,’ she said. ‘You just haven’t been good to yourself.’

Haven’t I? I asked myself, but the answer was already said. It was a matter of accepting its truth.

‘I know you better than you think, maybe better than anyone else. And I know you’ve been holding on to some things you should be letting go, and you are wearing yourself out.’

‘I know,’ I said, ‘and I’ve known for a long time that I’ll never accomplish the goals I set for myself when I was young. I’ll never fulfil the potential some people saw in me . . . I saw in myself. I’m not holding onto those dreams.’

‘I understand that, but, and I’m sorry if it cuts, you are holding on to your failures. You’re letting yourself be consumed by them. Anyone else could be fooled into thinking that you don’t want to move on, that you’re addicted to the grief and the self-pity it brings you, and it hurts me to see you this way. Maybe you are afraid that, if you move on, let go of your past, you’d lose a part of who you are. But is it all really worth tearing yourself apart over?

‘I know the circumstances we married in,’ she continued, ‘but I . . . I have grown to love you. So much. I know I can’t expect the same of you, and I don’t, but I need you to let me be your friend. Let me in. Let me help you.’

A cold wind blew in the wake of the dying day, a commencement of the night. Crickets chirped, and in the dark corners of our backyard, fireflies blinked. I felt a shiver.

‘Yes,’ I said, barely as whisper with a catch in my throat. It was like the word had a life of its own as it was refusing to be ousted.

‘Yes,’ I said again, ‘help me.’

It hurt to say it, and I felt the strength drain from my body. And as if those two words were all that had been keeping me all this time, the moment I uttered it, I broke into a fit of emotions.

My wife embraced me.

I rested my head on her shoulder, and I released myself. I let go.

* * *

Mary was coming along with me to the shop. We’d made a plan some time ago to clean up the place and catalogue my old paintings. A few months ago, she told me of her inventive idea to turn the shop into a gallery in addition to the work I was doing. I had most of my old paintings—and there were plenty—hidden away in the darkness at the back of a seldom-opened cupboard, feasted on by termites. I opposed the proposal for arbitrary reasons at first, but the idea grew on me until I relented, delegating all the work to her. She was excited, and she was ready to do all the work. Since the disagreement regarding her college course, I was of the belief that idea was dead and buried. After she came home last night and found the gift—I suspected she wasn’t too excited for the particular book I got her, but she had the grace to feign gratitude convincingly—she told me she would accompany me tomorrow to the shop and begin the execution of the plan. I was surprised, but all my reservations about it had already disappeared some time in between, so I was elated as well. I wanted to think that my olive branch had been accepted, but I had the suspicion that it had little to do with her enterprise.

The shop looked lonely, small, and threatened by the looming buildings surrounding it, as if waiting to be swallowed whole by the ever-expanding town. I’d been dreading going back into the shop, and I have had the same feeling every morning for a long time. But not today. Today, it was a strange feeling that I had inside me. It wasn’t new. But it certainly has been ages since I felt it.

We spent half the morning clearing up the mess I’d been making for years and putting a new shine across all corners of the place, moving and rearranging just about everything that took up space, leaving room for future additions. I had no idea the shop had the capacity to look half decent.

We spent the other half of the morning exhuming old memories and emotions. The rolled-up sheets of paper were like doorways into a life not my own, a life where reality wasn’t quite real and hope was easy to come by. Some of the paper, turned brittle by age and neglect, crumbled in our hands, our gentle touches unable to prevent the erasure of a forgotten memory. Each time one had to be forsaken, an ache ran through my heart.

I told Mary many stories that morning, retelling myself as well. On one of the last ones we unrolled, she asked me to tell her more. On the yellowing sheet was a picture of a young girl dress in blue. She held a candle to the moon that shone through dark rain clouds. Her hair was black and had a shine, her feet dirty and bare. She stood alone atop a hill, circled by leaves in the wind, but on her face she had a smile that captured all the emotions inside me when I first held Mary.

*

We finally sat down to rest after noon with cups of tea, both our faces flushed and glistening with sweat, looking about us, taking pride in our work. It was as good a time as any to finally address the elephant in the room, I thought.

‘Mary,’ I said. ‘About your course . . .’

‘We don’t need to talk about it, Pa,’ she said.

‘I think it’s good that we should,’ I said.

‘It’s okay. Really,’ she said. ‘Ma and I spoke about it yesterday, before you returned. I understand.’

‘You do?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she said with a smile in which I saw a hint of sadness. ‘And it’s not like I have to give it all up.’

‘Quite right,’ I said.

‘Promise me one thing, though,’ she said. ‘I know you’ve packed your easel and your brushes and colours away and locked them away, but promise me you’ll do one more. Just for me.’

‘Mary. . .’

‘Please,’ she said.

‘In my own time, then.’

‘Deal,’ she said. Her smile now had only joy.

*

I ambled into the back room after Mary was gone with half the paintings. In one corner of the room lay a rectangular slab of stone wrapped in a piece of cloth, the ends tied together to keep the cloth in place. It was what I’d been working on most of the time instead of all I should’ve be working on.

I untied the knots and pulled the cloth away. It was a simple stone, but elegant. It was my best piece of work yet.

The epitaph read, ‘He dreamt too much, did too little.

The name, date of birth, and the people who were survived were all inscribed. The only thing missing was my date of death.

I stood up and approached the other corner of the room. Half the contents of the cupboard had been cleared, but what remained were the very things I vowed a long time ago to never touch again.

The door creaked as I pulled it open.

There they were—the dismantled easel, moulded and dark; the tarnished metal box holding my brushes and colours that has no doubt expired—as if hiding, afraid of the light, afraid of me.

I stayed standing for some time, looking between the instruments that had once given me such hope and the cold stone on the floor that was almost complete.

I took the cloth that lay crumpled on the floor and covered up the stone again.

2 thoughts on “Epitaph

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