She felt like the water within an abandoned well. The green, viscous slime that couldn’t be perturbed into ripples, not even when it rained, not even when the children dropped pebbles into the haunted well, not even when a leaf from the overgrown Peepal tree fell into it. She hadn’t been moved for years. No one came to her, no one needed what she had to offer. The frogs disowned her, the crows flew past, and the algae refused to grow because she had grown acrid. “You are not fertile” When the doctor said those words, she froze. Years of dreams, of seeing her daughters off to school, of marrying her sons to brides who’d never be to her liking, of holding grand children in her arms; they broke into smithereens. Splinters bore into her skin, and the shattered pieces lay nonchalantly on the floor, reflecting light as if they were born to perform that duty. The light hurt her eyes. She closed them, one by one. Shutting out reality in segments hoping that the thin barricade of her eyelids would create a distance so large between what is true and what is not, that it would change. She opened them, one by one, taking back the reality in segments hoping that the time taken between the two acts, would alter what is true and what is not. Nothing changed. The lights, too strong, still made her wince. Her dreams still lay like shards of polished glass on the polished hospital floor. She picked up the crushed remains off the white polished tiles, one by one, keeping them close to herself.
As she walked out of the hospital, she thought of Ma. The ever-kind, ever-loving, round at the hips and narrow at the wrists, Ma. Had this happened with Ma, she would not have been welcome into this world. There would not have been any annaprashan, there would have been no first words or first steps, there wouldn’t have been any preschool or middle school, there certainly would have been no high school or college, and as if reaching the last hurdle, there wouldn’t have been any talk of marriage with Vishwa, there wouldn’t be any marriage with Vishwa.
Vishwa, the Universe. While walking back, she wondered what the plural for Universe was. She knew more than one Vishwa, but she knew of just one Universe.
Universes. Universi. Universeries.
Would Vishwa be all her Universes? She surrendered herself to the single verse she would have to write over and over again. Uni- verse.
The first thing she had ever written was in school. An essay about ‘You’, the teacher said. Madam Bose knew of Erikson. Erikson has said that children of that age focused on themselves. Centrality, he said. So, she asked them to write about ‘You’. Every notebook had scrawled ants and spiders over them, going out of the margins, diving under the lines, the ‘j’ inverted and the ‘t’ not crossed. They were words with misspelled lyrics. Just one notebook had ants and spiders marching in order, following the regimented lines, songs still with misspelled lyrics and the songs sang about ‘YOU’. Madam Bose, thus, read a page about herself. And an hour later, while making chai, she smiled and gave an F to the girl who wrote about ‘You’.
An autorickshaw burst through the thick smog that happened to cover her city. The smog was like the blanket her Ma used to dust, before every winter. It was a ritual she avoided, the beating of a duvet with the fat wooden daanda that was specifically meant for the blanket and her brother. She was three years elder to Bhai. Bhai was five inches taller than her. At three, she remembered Bhai concealing his blue black scars, like the black grey duvet, with Ma’s concealer from the Make Up box. At five, he had been moved to a Boys’ Hostel in the hills. She was always close to home, close to Ma and Baba. She wanted to be close to Bhai, but she only met him when they went to the Hills. Every holiday used to be the repetition of the first. The first one had her excited. The second one, she had an agenda. The third one, was to meet Bhai’s friends. The fourth was exciting. The fifth, became a repetition. She avoided the sixth. She skipped the seventh. She met Vishwa in the eighth. She was not invited for the ninth. Bhai stopped writing the letters he used to. The tenth never took place, Bhai died before they could make it for the vacation that year, to the Hills.
“Why do we have to go? Why can’t Bhai come here?”
Seven years after the question was asked, she found the answer in the letters Bhai had written after he had stopped writing. It was hidden in the Alcohol cabinet, behind the cob webbed books, inside “The Animal Farm”. The single letter, the only letter written in year number ten. He was not Baba’s son, he was never her Bhai.
Half-bhai was all she had, for five years of her life and almost nine visits.
She coughed, dryly. The auto sped away leaving another blow of black smoke. Her eyes closed shut, one by one. She thought of the shards of dreams in her arms. She cradled them, like the children she would never cradle. A patchwork katha was one of her favourite things when she was a child who Ma cradled. She stitched her dreams like the katha, the colour of her future, the glass of her dreams and the thread of her reality. She wrapped it around herself. It wasn’t chilly, but her toes curled in like they had, the first time Vishwa had entered her. She had felt pleasure then; she felt the pain now. She felt cold, like a rabbit in the desert, deserted.
Back home, the news hit Ma like a rabbit in the desert, stunned by headlights. Vishwa gulped, and poured Ma a glass of water. He then, put one hand around Akriti’s shoulders, over her patchwork of dreams’ katha. The thin separation of her make-belief became a moat between her and the Universe.
It slowly became thick, like the grey-black blanket that was beaten to rid it off the dust.
It gained weight and bloated.
It grew in size and consumed her.
It became heavy and difficult to carry. It became impregnable. It grew as a limb, a hunch-back. The colour became darker and the dust kept growing like a mound of an anthill. Small red ants crept in and out of her hunch-back. They reproduced and grew in number like the thoughts in her head. She thought of the life that they would have had. The anthill on her back grew like an idea.
Her Universe embraced her. Ma finished drinking water. It was cold, Akriti pulled the black-grey katha, that was now an anthill, closer. The dust had hardened, within the few minutes took Ma to sip water from the glass. The water trickled down her throat and reached her periphery, calming the nerves that couldn’t be reached. The water never reached her stomach.
She felt a kiss on her forehead. The universe kissed her. Her face was uncovered. The impregnable katha couldn’t cover her thoughts. It was made of the dreams from the future, but her present was unstitched. She realized she hadn’t taken a single breath after telling them the ‘News’.
It gushed into her body and reached the periphery, calming the nerves that air couldn’t penetrate. The air never reached her lungs.
The ants suddenly grew wings and lifted off the Anthill. The anthill was empty, like a home without children; a house without children. Vishwa made her turn toward him. The anthill crumbled. The black-grey blanket shook dust off itself. The katha unstitched and she was left with the shattered dreams in her cradling arms. They looked just like the daughter she wanted to hold, just like Bhai, when Ma had brought him home, a tiny, life-full doll with pink lips and no hair. Her dreams reflected light that oozed out of her Universe. She did not want multiple Universes/ Universi/ Universaries. She didn’t want to write any di-verses of sing tri-verses.
Unlocking her cradle, Vishwa took her hands and held them. His gentle grasp confirmed her belief that he would have been a good father. The crest fallen shards of dreams, stared at her from the mosaic floor while Ma tried to lift them up.
“It is all right, Ma. We will adopt, it isn’t the end of our Universe.”. Ma did not bend down to pick up the broken dreams her daughter had so artlessly strewn on the mosaic floor.
It was their universe. Two people in one Universe which had no plural. A shared Uni-verse. Akriti took a torn page and wrote about ‘Me’. The alphabets were cursive, the words sang lyrics with correct spellings and the verse was littered with fresh dreams and misfit plurals.
katha : a stitched cloth, a special type of embroidered cloth.
daanda : a thick stick.
Vishwa : also means The universe.