Half-Burnt Legs

by Takbeer Salati

When they saw her closing her eyes for the first time, they knew death had arrived at their home. Everyone knew it would be difficult for only three people, maa, granddaughter and her grandson. It was quite an ordeal. For almost a year maa had devoted herself to her mother who was a ninety-year-old dementia patient. What happened to her, or what had happened to her or what would happen to her were few questions that she kept looking answers for that one year. Maa had lost her husband at a young age of twenty-nine, her body learnt the art of mourning very young. Since then, she and her mother were the only one who could look after the children, house and society. 

Dementia I asked my maa. 

What is it? I remember my grandfather having it faintly. 

The loss of memory, she replies. 

I remember. My grandfather also suffered from it. 

Really? 

Yes. We would serve him dinner and all. He would go upstairs, change into nice clothes, and in a firm voice tell us, “I am going out to a hotel, for having dinner”. 

This was my only journey with humans having dementia. When I met my husband and his mother, sister and grandmother, I realized it was beyond the loss of memory. His grandmother who had a series of tragic events at a very young age, was now in her nineties. As the family recalls, once she had gone into a garden, she had maintained with love to see what had uprooted that year. It was only when after fifteen minutes of it, that they had found her plucking all the lettuce leaves in her excitement. That was the very event that they had known, she had developed dementia as well as Parkinson’s. My grandmother also had a very strange childhood, which everyone thinks is a part of who she had become now. It was in her late twenties, that she lost her first daughter to domestic abuse and cancer. Her daughter who was fair, tall and slim had an upbringing of a higher class and knew what it meant to have a self-respect. When her husband had come as a suitor to my grandmother, she had said yes only at one factor: that he was educated. Time had proven that to be a lie. Even though her husband had just passed LLB degree, he could not match her upper class thinking and as a result she became a victim of domestic abuse and suffering. This event in my grandmother’s life had created a havoc. She had lost her loving daughter to someone who had promised to be someone else but came out to be a different person. Meanwhile, maa was also turning to be of a certain age of marriage. Learning from the first daughter, my grandmother waited for her second daughter’s husband as Muslim’s wait for Eid Chand. After a lot of anticipation, maa’s prince charming had arrived a with a mustache. He was fair, rather blonde. Had olive brown eyes and thick eyebrows. When he walked everyone cried out Sahab! Sahab!

Guddi! I have chosen a guy for you. 

Maa, really mai?

Yes Guddi! He looks like English.

Maa, looking at his photo, smiling. 

It was at this moment that their engagement was fixed. My grandmother wore a polka dot phiran and maa’s husband wore a tie-suit. Looking a proper downtown gentleman. At the early hours of August, they were engaged to each other, and both promised to write letters to each other, travel and explore each other like anything. During the turmoil, in Srinagar, the city saw itself burning. The shops were burnt, the roads were painted black, and the graffiti asking Azadi were sparkling in the light of gun shots. How did they know what kind of azadi lovers wanted? My maa had written to her then fiancé. He had replied rather spiritly,
“ to make love under the gun shots” that kind of azadi, my dear Guddi (as she was lovingly called). 

Days passed and the conflict had somehow maintained its rhythm. Both my maa and her fiancé had decided to explore the Dal Lake and cinema. To her surprise the cinema halls had all the actors dancing through the camera. That day he had also sang for her old songs defining her beauty and charisma. It was however, on this day, that my grandmother who was furious on maa’s late coming, decided to put a curfew on newly engaged as a fact of protest. Then my grandmother who wasn’t in dementia and worked actively since 6:00 am to 10:00 pm around the household chores etc., was adamant of not letting them meet anymore before the wedding. My maa pleaded and begged to be forgiven for being that late, and that her fiancé had no mistake in it. Extremely angered my grandmother called their act a selfish act which only caused tension to their parents and humility in the society. 

There were many days to the wedding. With a strong protest my grandmother showed, both maa and her fiancé wrote letters to each other. They wrote about how their parents were angry, how state had gone nuts over politics and how they were eager to get married. My maa’s fiancé had even written in one of the letters, that there are 1000000 etc. constellation of stars waiting for us to get married. 

After few weeks and days, on the decided date, finally, they got married. She had worn a beautiful brown and golden dress, while he embraced his blonde self in a brown suit. Everyone sang, danced and gave blessings to the new couple. Her body looked like a tree full of flowers glittering in heaven and it is this beauty that he couldn’t hold. It is known that in the seven days of their marriage, she got pregnant with my grandmothers only grandson: my husband. 

That was the time when sunset spoke itself in poetry, and the sunrise spoke in verse. They frequently went in taxis and roamed around the city exploring the ghats and lake with shikaras. All of that included the series of letters, they continue to write to each other. It was after some five years that maa had conceived again and it was a girl. Both had wished for her birth as a dream. And God had heard it. The ways they had built this beautiful family of four, everything felt like magic. It was only after some years that maa’s husband had sensed a deep pain in his knees. It was not before two weeks, that it was diagnosed that he had lung cancer. The body had diminished into week bones sculptor and had left nothing but an empty structure to it. In the anguish, deep emotions, and trauma that maa had to undergo, she felt as if she had to mourn again. Or else her body was preparing to mourn again. They had waited in lines for the hospital bed in Batra, New Delhi and were lucky enough to get one. But for what? His cells had already diminished and lost its power. Doctors had declared that no amount of blood, energy or fluids will save him. Cancer had slowly, slowly spread all over the body not realizing what would it mean for the family who had just started the magic of happiness? 

It was strange for my grandmother. This was the second most brutal death she would witness in front of her eyes. What did the family of the husband say? Weren’t they robust about their son who was going to marry. I asked maa sometimes, how does it feel to have lost so much?

“I don’t feel anything. My tears have dried up”.

Really?

“See, I cried for almost one year, shutting myself inside the room and not letting the sunlight reach me”.

Hmmm.

“I was very fond of him. I made little dreams about life with him. We also had plans to teach our kids poetry”.

That sounds great.

“He was a great poet. In his letters to me, after every paragraph he had written a verse to compliment or match the words in the paragraph”.

In those few months, we dated “he showed me the love of a century”.

I am sorry. I sighed. This shouldn’t have happened to you. When he was buried what did you feel? How was your body syncing in with the burial of your loved one? I kept asking. She mildly laughingly said, “Patience”. I had watched my sister die in her husband’s house through my own eyes. Her patience in tolerance with her mother-in-law’s dialogues over everything. She gave me her patience in a way that I can’t return it back. And when she passed away, my husband had warned me to be patient forever. I did remain patient with life, kids and other challenges that it had to throw on me. 

It was my grandmother who had insisted her to remarry. Maa was yet only twenty-nine years old. For the love of the dreams that she had shared with her dead husband, she refused every offer of remarrying to anyone. That was when my grandmother had her second shock of her life. Her body had started to shrink, memory weaken, and wrinkles spread from every direction created a design of impossible life events. 

*

From that point on my grandmother’s health started to deceive her. It was like a never-ending tale of retrospect and future mixed with the little tinge of present. At least that is how I describe and saw dementia. Her mornings began with a typical excitement of calling everyone out. She used to call her daughter’s name, twice/ thrice and an infinite time just to tell her that she was right there sitting in her everyday corner. Her phiran which was a fine work of silver tilla spoke of every meal my grandmother would spill. Her daughter who used to nurse her by wrapping around the napkin around her neck and then help her hold the cup in her hand. It was a task but always a failed one. With age, my grandmother had grown more into Parkinson’s. The loss of the grip of her hand caused her enough stress on how to hold the cup straight and upright. Maa would always then leave everything and hold the cup in her hand and make her eat her desired meals. This was the time when maa knew that this wasn’t going very well. 

My grandmother behaved like a five-year toddler. Her anxiety towards everything had raised to a point where every other person in the family felt quite nauseous. She would go to the toilet thousand of times, ask for food numerous times, and look up to the sky as if she knew when it would rain or snow. What is the sign of this? My grandmother yelled as one day the sky gathered clouds around and burst into light showers. Maa screamed. She ran out to the main door just seconds after my grandmother had announced that it would rain. The two of them looked at each other, grabbed each other as rain dropped itself on the glass panel and made a sound. Maa turned to look at my grandmother and grinned. ‘How did you do this’? she said. ‘Did what’? The Rain. 

The two women in a Victorian constructed kitchen looked at each other. Maa heard her mother’s screeching of her hair. ‘Spare it,’ she muttered. 

‘I know’, said the grandmother. She raised her hand and called for maa. I know that you think I caused the rain. But how could I? I can’t neither walk nor eat with my own self. Maa stared up at her old mother and calmed her down. 

‘I am too exhausted’. 

*

No wonder maa was exhausted. She was the one who took my grandmother whenever she wanted to go to toilet. Feed her, wash her and even at times dress her. She once said to her son, my husband with pursed lips, 

“Look Son, she is going to die very soon”. “I want to be of her use till I die”. 

I Understand it, but why would it matter to me. 

“Because even I am not that young now”.  I have multiple illness and medications. I feel exhausted, she fumbled, while patting his hair. Maa was flushed and closed to tears. She thumped back on the chair and looked into his eyes. My husband twirled his beard between his fingers, and into his time to sooth maa into calmness and peace. 

*

It had been a week since my grandmother had fallen in front of the washroom. Maa shrugged and had said, “I had warned you for not coming here”.  Maa had vowed never to leave my grandmother alone now. She nursed her through her last days. In a rented hospital bed that had been bought from an SRO, she could sit day and night in patience caretaking and powdering the burnt half legs of my grandmother. 

My grandmother kept her eyes shut. And when she seldom opened them, they twinkled. 

‘So, what do you think’? Doctor, maa asked. 

‘Uffoh, Dr. Zoravar said’.

‘She is waiting for someday. She is 90% dead’. 

‘You heard me’. She is in coma. The doctor said, when he came to the front door out from his own shadow. He picked his kit and began to leave but turned again, my money. 

Maa slammed her fist helplessly on the bed. With this warning and announcement everyone came to meet my grandmother for the last time. She laughed at some faces who had come for the first time. She struggled as she knew tomorrow, she had to re-learn the art of mourning. My grandmother twitched her fingers and groaned at exactly 5: 30 in the morning. It was at that time, she promised her mother, for one last time, that she will become like her till her last breath. 

*

Author’s Bio:

Takbeer salati was born and raised in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. She has submitted her PhD which emerges from the everyday politics of South Asia especially through Saadat Hassan Manto at School of language, linguistics and Indology (Manuu hyderabad).  She writes short stories and fiction which are influenced by the daily struggle of life in Kashmir. Her various short stories are published in Samyukta fiction, Muse India, Cafe Dissensus, Life and Legends, The Bombay Literary Magazine et al. 

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