The Eyes That Don’t Cry



My grandmother does not understand what the crack of dawn is. Neither does my grandfather. They rise before the sun has begun its rounds. They rise even before the sun has thought of getting out of bed. Perhaps that explains their tranquil camaraderie. A pot of tea shared in the calm of an outrageously early morning would bring anyone closer.

My boyfriend, an anthropology major, thinks it is the penance of this early rising that has acted as a social glue and consolidated their attachment to each other- their one obstinate act of rebellion in their seemingly ordered lives.

I roll my eyes at his analysis.

“The only thing that has kept them together is the perverse tragedy in our family.”

“Death of a child ruptures marriages, Kay.”

“Child. Not children. No one can endure the loss of both their kids alone. In their togetherness is the story of their survival.”

I had met Abeer at the ‘corner aunty shop’. It is a makeshift general store, with most stuff displayed over foldable tables and the floor. But the lady who runs the store keeps the essentials- cigarettes, coke for rum, Maggi, bread, milk, and eggs. She suffices. Her two snotty kids run around the lane in their bloomers and throw stones at my bike when they think I am not looking. They are brats.

She doesn’t tell my grandparents that I smoke behind her shop every morning before I pick up milk. I don’t cuff her kids. That is our truce- no emotional violence in lieu of no corporeal one, a secret guarded for the concealed pique.

One November morning, dehydrated and groggy, I had walked up to the shop’s backyard, yearning for the stone steps where I usually flumped and smoked the precious morning cigarette. I had found Abeer sprawled there with a plastic tumbler of tea beside him. Then I didn’t know it was Abeer or that we’d hook up after a few months.

“You even get tea here?” The gross inequity of life had chased out all sleep, sense, and propriety out of me.

Abeer had squinted at me. “Are you always this screechy?”

“That’s my spot”, my indignation sheathing my pride.

“I know.”

I stood there unsure about what were the post-pandemic rules of engagement with people who took your favourite spot for the first smoke of the day. Should I give it a miss instead of having it standing there after having made a complete fool of myself?

Tufts of breath whispered out of our mouths, the evidence of winter buoying before my eyes. “You look like Lazarus there”, he said, his lips moving barely.

“Huh?”

“With all the halo of sunlight and scruffy curls.” Then silence.

Involuntarily, I had run a hand through my hair. You would too if someone pointed out early morning that your out-of-bed look was too authentic for polite society.

“Here. Take your spot. I was about to leave anyway.” He sprang to his feet, the sudden agility at odds with his earlier indolence. His smirk took all joy out of my day that morning.

Those beaten steps, their edges blunted with years of shifting feet and slamming sacks of groceries witnessed our eccentric morning assembly-tea, tinder, gregarious Abeer, reticent I. Meeting in that courtyard became a ritual to our mornings. Five months later he had asked me out and we had been together since.

My love story would put the dead to death. It is sedate, solid and despite the million arguments that we find ourselves in, we are going strong. Today Abeer and I had crossed some makeshift hurdle in my understanding- today my grandmother had publicly expressed her love for us as a couple. Her unspoken approval and not my graduation was what we were celebrating.

We were sitting on the craggy terrace wall- as grey as the subject of our discussion. When our house was getting renovated, grandpa had a falling out with the contractor and that chap rounded up his men and walked off. The terrace bore the brunt of it all. Each of us was reluctant to dissolve the inertia that prohibited us from hiring another chap and making the terrace pretty.

Abeer and I have got used to the pokey bits now. We know the spots from where to dangle our legs to shield our bums that didn’t have the buffer of adipose cushioning.

“She wore her wedding saree today for the graduation” I can’t hide the pride in my voice.

Abeer sits up and slides the bag of peanuts. “Why did she work so hard for this? She didn’t need to.”

“Because her son died.” The bile rises in my throat but I plod on. “And then her daughter.”

I have never spoken about my mother’s death to Abeer. She died a few months after I was born. For seven years of her married life, she kept trying to have a baby. She lost three of them- the first was stillborn, the second had the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck choking off its breath and the third was a miscarriage. Then I was born- after countless prayers and temple visits.

She’d often wake up at night to check my breathing, a part of her more sure of her bad luck than my living, breathing self. She’d keep chanting that I get her share of her life. Guess what? I think I did.

Her body wasn’t made to birth kids and for putting it through repeated coercions, it sought its revenge. She couldn’t stop bleeding after delivery. I was a squalling three-month-old punching my fists at my mother’s broken, damaged womb when she died.

My father remarried and the new wife didn’t want a reminder of his life before she came along. I was shoved off to my grandparents, to be offered the gift of a phone call on my birthdays and no more. Honestly, I grieve more for my dead mother than my living father. It’s good that I didn’t have to stay with them. An unloved life would have been harder to swallow than the idea of a lost one.

“I am ok, Abeer. Take a sip.”

“I am sorry.” He means it. He doesn’t know how to imagine me now. So I help him along.

“Don’t offer me pity. Or sympathy.”

“What happened to your uncle?” He deftly changed the direction of our conversation.

“He died before I was born. It was a freak accident. A trailer crashed into his parked car. Instant death.”

“Mannn… I feel awful now. I want to hug Nani. How has she lived through this?”

Nani had studied till tenth grade- the most educated amongst her circle, as she likes to remind me. With no girls studying further, her parents were hesitant to send her to school amongst all the boys. At 19 she got married to my grandfather.

This is what good marriages can do. They inspire the other person to achieve their potential. My grandfather was a reader. His home was filled with books. Lining the walls of the living room, the dining hall, and even spilling over on the floor, the books were stacked in nooks and crannies.

Fascinated, my Nani first marshalled them into order and then set about going through each one methodically. Her alphabet was rusty, her reading slow. She’d spend months on one story, get stuck on a word, and not know what it meant. She could have asked my grandfather but she was unsure if her enthusiasm would be reciprocated. What if he’d make fun of her- would she still have the courage to plow on with her reading?

She began writing down the tough words alphabetically. Through conjecture and speculation, she would arrive at the meanings, still not sure if it was correct. She built up her vocabulary like a kid. One day my grandfather walked in early to find her poring over the books, her back stock still in the arched sunlight- a pen in her hand scrawling over the paper- on, on, on she was writing with the ferocity of a writer with an idea.

He left the room and called out for her as if he had just arrived. She asked him to wait out said she was changing. When he entered the room after a bit, the books were neatly stacked on the table, the pen in the stand, the notebook shut. If he felt any betrayal, he didn’t mention it ever. She wanted her pride and he saw no reason why she should not.

But from that weekend on, he began talking about his favourite stories to my grandmother. Where he had brought the book from, what he felt while reading it, did he agree with the writer, could he find another story similar to this one- once my grandmother began asking the questions, she couldn’t, she wouldn’t stop.

Soon he helped her improve her reading till she took off on her own. As her confidence grew she enrolled in a school and resumed her education. By the time her kids were born Nani had finished her 12th grade. Being a mother meant her hands were full and no spare time to study.

When her son died, Nani couldn’t speak for a few years. The shock of the tragedy had muted her grief. She filled diary after diary till they became too many. Then she would light them with a matchstick and watch that pyre of undeclared pain go up in smoke. Did that alleviate her heartbreak?

A few years back I had asked her why she burnt down those diaries.

“I never thought I could feel anything else ever again. I believed it would keep coming wave after wave. And I would keep writing it down. For as long as I lived.”

We were taking an after-dinner walk in the lane outside our home.

“Did you heal finally?”

She stopped, mulling over the question. Even after she resumed walking she didn’t speak for a bit. I had transgressed but was it too far? A long time ago the three of us had promised not to tiptoe around our shared loss. We had given each other permission to ask anything about the deaths in our family.

“Can you ever heal from a loss of this magnitude? No. Eventually you just face it better. You still break into countless pieces but grief makes you kinder. That kindness gives you the strength to outgrow your pain. You become larger than your sorrow. Whenever I have met people who are too kind, I have always wanted to ask them what is it that they mourn?”

We had reached the frangipani tree, our favourite in this locality. I picked up a few flowers strewn on the curb and offered her one. She spun it between her fingers.

“Then Maa died.”

She snuck her palm in my hand. I held it tight and brought it to my chest and gave her fingers a light peck.

“When your Maa died, you kept me alive. What was my loss compared to yours? You got me through it. And your grandfather. I’d wake up most nights unable to breathe. He’d bring a pot of tea and in the quiet hush of early morning we’d have it.”

So this was the rationale behind their morning tea routine. Or was there any logic behind this? Her agony, her hell, their hell- tethered to each other through torment, the torture of living while their kids were dead. In each only the desire to see me through sustaining their life.

A bat rushed out from a tree and for a moment both of us were startled. Nani continued, “I began reading voraciously. I’d give myself no room to think. I’d take care of you and read. And as you grew up, you needed me less but my appetite for books never reduced. I didnt allow it to. Reading was my trauma response, I guess.”

Since childhood, I had seen Nani fascinated with my books. At the beginning of every new session, she’d read through all of them and strut around the house because she had a get-go before me. One day I saw her reading my English literature books and the idea struck me.

Nani scoffed at it at first “I am too old for this much drama”, she said.

“No one’s too old for getting educated.”

“Your friends will stop hanging out with you.”

“If I know you, you’ll be introducing me to all the popular people before long.”

She laughed knowing that to be true.

Between my grandfather and I, we convinced her to enroll in my college to finish her graduation. For three years she sat in the backbenches, paying attention, keeping a low profile as much as that was possible for a 79-year-old extrovert with the heart of a 25-year-old.

She aced all the exams and felt bad for the rest of us. The teachers would show us her answer sheets as examples of cultivating thought, how the periodic table could be observed with the eyes of literary philosophy. She would seek to be excused when this happened a few times and leave the hall embarrassed at her ingenuity.

Every time the results were declared she’d take us to Hard Rock Cafe and treat us to a beer each. Nani taught the boys in my class how to woo their crushes and the girls how to own their space unapologetically. She blatantly pampered Abeer who was pursuing his Master’s in Anthropology. She won the award for the most popular student of the year. Three times in a row. No mean feat since all the college students vote for it.

“I will take the liberty of calling you friends because I am only a few years ahead than most of you.” There were loud chuckles, even from our constipated Dean, when she began her Valedictory speech.

She continued, “I offer my life and its convoluted history as an illustrative example of the indomitable human spirit. I was born with a silver spoon but partition made us paupers. When my father crossed the border into India, from a rich businessman he had become a beggar. He believed, even at his darkest, that he was meant to do better and he did.

There is a name for this feeling- when you know something about yourself that no one else does. When your idea of who you are meant to be is so real in your head that you make it come true eventually, even if it is completely at odds with your current life. There is a name for this feeling. It is called ‘Destiny’.

When I got married, I was a young girl. The norms of our society were such that our wings were clipped even before we learned to fly. But my destiny wasn’t what was happening to me. My destiny was what I thought should happen to me. I raised my kids from tiny infants into people whom the doctors would pronounce dead. There are different kinds of hell on this planet and I entered mine twice.

I am not stronger. I am not different from you. I am just as heartbroken, just as damaged. Only my destiny led me to a book instead of a blade. My life changed irrevocably when I lost my kids. And then it changed again when I picked up a book to numb the grief.

Not the fact that I lost my children, not the fact that I graduated at 82, not my quest for knowledge, not the fact that I am a bit old standing here giving this speech- no. My legacy is the students I went to college with- the young minds that elders disregard for not having enough experience but who are as sharp as any pepper-haired, slouchy senior and better too-for they are yet unwounded by the battles of life, yet unmarked by the tragedies that will reduce them.

When that happens, trust the quiet, unassuming voice that tells you that you can get over the trauma, that better things will happen to you, that your destiny is larger than your strife.

And believe in it. Because that is you giving yourself hope when no one else will when no one else can see beyond your immediate destruction. Stay unreduced by the things that happen to you. It isn’t easy, it isn’t pretty. There are many weepy nights, and broken mornings, the crunching heartbreaks deafening you, filling you up with pain so you think you can’t breathe, you can’t live another day.

But offer yourself hope. For if you get through that one day, over and over again, you will get through anything. And let that be your legacy.”

She thanked Karthik, her grandson (I stood up, moist eyes and all, because Abeer kept pointing at me- the two of them had launched some scheme of completely embarrassing me), my grandfather, her two children who lived in her heart, and Abeer for bringing so much joy to our lives.

And then she walked down to a standing ovation- my 82-year-old grandmother, in her pale pink saree, with more silver in her hair than anyone else in that room, her words acting as a talisman for that day and years after.

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