The Outcast

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The sunlight poured in through the blinds as I thrust my hand out of the quilt, trying to reach for my phone. I squinted under my sheets to check the time, it was just past nine. But then I could wake up late now, the lock down allowed that luxury. I didn’t need to rush to work, iron my clothes, pack a hurried lunch…. I would have pulled up my quilt and slept longer, had it not been for the fifty missed calls I spotted on the screen.

I hadn’t put my phone on silent, how could I not hear? But then of course, I slept pretty deep. Moreover, being the weekend, I had treated myself to some wine and cheese last night, could be that too.

A myriad of thoughts rushed through my mind as I unlocked the device. I couldn’t help but notice, my hands were a bit shaky. The calls couldn’t be from the work place, they wouldn’t ring continually at night, it definitely had something to do with Arvind.

My hunch proved just right, as I browsed, almost all calls showed Arvind, and a few from my mother. I could in fact hear my heart racing, I was up and awake now. Had something happened to him, something bad?

His phone rang but every second weighed heavily on me, why wasn’t he answering. Of course, it would be night time in India, but he seemed to have been awake a while ago.

“Amma !” he answered. My God, finally. “Where have you been Amma, I have been trying to reach you all this time.”

“Hey.” I cut him, shouting down the phone. “Are you alright? I mean are you physically alright? Did you meet with an accident?” I could hear my own voice trail off, I was weeping.

“Not me, it’s Appa. He’s…” he was silent and I understood.

“Is he serious? How did it happen?” I was calmer now.

“He passed away Amma. He’s no more. They called from the hospital, I wasn’t allowed to accompany him.” But I wasn’t listening anymore.

It felt like an eternity, since the day I had moved to his ancestral home in Palakkad as a newly wed, twenty five years ago. His parents weren’t very happy, theirs was a conservative orthodox family, mine wasn’t. I was unaware of many rituals, I wasn’t the religious kind, they found me over educated and perhaps a bit too over smart. Because a few months into the marriage, I expressed my desire to work.

My husband struggled a lot initially, caught up between his parents and me. There were restrictions every time, a new issue every day, so much so that my husband gave up being the mediator and I left home with our three year old Arvind. He refused to accompany us, he couldn’t leave the house and I couldn’t stay. So we separated, I wonder why we never got a divorce, or had anyone else in our lives. Perhaps we were waiting, for the other to call, just once.

“Amma, you there?” I was jolted back from my thoughts. “ He was alright when the lockdown just began, in fact he celebrated with a small POOJAat the temple, because I couldn’t return to the US and my Indian vacation got extended unexpectedly. It’s been just a week that he developed some symptoms. But of course I examined him thoroughly Amma, I am studying medicine. I can tell the difference…”

“What are you saying, are you infected? Did you go to the doctor?”  I panicked all over again.

“Amma, no.Paatti had a mild infection when I arrived here, Appa would have caught that. It wasn’t Covid.”

“Then how did he die? I’m sure there was something wrong.” I was going crazy.

“ He had a heart condition, we all knew that. Must have been some medicine he took or I don’t know. He had a massive attack, he passed on in sleep. The doctors confirmed that later, but when I called for help, would you believe, the neighbours were all reluctant to help? The hospital employees arrived in Covid suits and masks. They asked, so I did mention the cold, and they let neither me nor Paatti accompany him. The entire neighbourhood is behaving as if we are outcasts.”

He fell silent again, I knew he was extremely upset. We had problems, but Arvind loved his father nevertheless. If only I could be there, with him…

“Amma, I can’t even mourn his death peacefully. There are aunts and uncles calling incessantly, many kind of knew Appa had cold, so they have all declared it was Covid. I hear that all the time. Paatti is hysterical, she just lost her son and now she thinks I’ll be affected too. But you know what’s the worst?”

I knew what was coming.

“Amma, the doctors say it’s better they cremate him in a crematorium close to the hospital. Just the doctor and some police perhaps. I insisted I wasn’t infected, it wasn’t what they thought it was, but they couldn’t take any risks. Amma, he will be laid to rest, like an unclaimed body, with none of us with him on his final journey. No brothers, no relatives, nobody. I’m his son, the least I could do for him were his last rites.”

“Arvind, I’ll talk later. It’s all a bit too much for me. And remember, the administration knows it’s job, what they say is right. You take good care and go to a doctor if needed.” I hung up, I couldn’t let him mess with the police.

I was trembling, I sat down trying to gather myself. All his life he had stuck to his beliefs and customs. He had chosen them over me, and God had denied him his proper last rites. The pandemic didn’t distinguish, I guess.

But then he was gone forever. My wait had finally ended.

Glossary:

Amma- Mother

Appa- Father

Paatti- Grandmother

Pooja- Rituals

***

Photo By: unsplash

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Preethi Warrier
Preethi Warrier works as an Assistant Professor in an Engineering College in Mumbai and is a mom to a fourteen year old son. Her short stories have been published in many anthologies.

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