The familiar swish of paper floats in from the adjoining room and I look up from my laptop. A half-smile irons out the furrows of concentration on my glabella. I press the ‘save’ button and push back my swivel chair to stretch myself.
12.30 am…time to log out!
It’s been a long day at work. I switch off the lights and retire for the night.
Wonder what’s holding up Ma so late… a new painting, for sure. She’s had this mysterious smile playing on her face for the past few days. Must be having something interesting up her sleeve!
The thought lights up my face, even in the darkness. The click-clack of paint brushes and bottles and a gentle humming assure me that Ma is in her happy space, doing what she likes the most these days…well, the second most. Her favourite activity still remains rummaging through old family pictures, either in the mothballed photo albums or in her phone gallery, and staring at Disha’s pictures for what often seems an eternity.
My thoughts involuntarily stray towards Disha – not a day passes when Ma and I don’t discuss her.
Disha, my beautiful, bubbly 20-year-old younger sister…the apple of my parents’ eye and, truth be told, the cynosure of all eyes! With her porcelain skin, dense wavy tresses, and her inbred joie de vivre, she seemed to reinvent the very hackneyed phrase ‘beauty with brains.’ Blessed with an innate charm and innocence, she invariably managed to draw people towards her. While I, the quintessential introvert and dreamer, had opted to pursue Literature and Psychology, Disha volunteered to study Science in her +2 grades, to the absolute delight of both Ma and Dad. My parents are both super achievers in their own right – Dad is a successful investment banker while Ma used to helm the R&D cell of a multinational software giant here in Delhi. The fact that she was a remarkably gifted painter, was somehow lost in the pursuit of a financially more rewarding career. The disappointment that my parents felt with my career choice, was more than made up by Disha and her consistently superlative scores. Post school, her entry into the most elite engineering college here happened almost organically. I still remember how my parents’ eyes had lit up when the admission list was released – relief, validation, happiness — all fused into one heady sense of triumph!
“Now I can finally make that trip to Vaishno Devi and offer my thanksgiving prayer,” Ma had declared, her voice brimming with blatant gratification. “God knows how long I’ve waited for this day…at least one of our daughters is doing us proud!”
The congratulatory messages kept pouring in as did the constant comparison between Disha, the accomplished all-rounder, and Sneha, the plain Jane elder sister who was, well, somehow trying to complete her basic studies! The unsolicited gems of advice were offered as a freebie – part of a generosity package, I assumed!
“Sneha, do consider taking a break year so you can prepare well for your MBA entrance exams. Some people need it, you know!”
“Why don’t you attempt the UPSC tests next year, Sneha? At least, you’ll get the feel of a top-notch competitive exam!”
I winced imperceptibly at these barbs. The fact that I had landed a decent job right after completing my Masters at 23, did nothing to assuage their ill-conceived notions. More than them, it was my parents’ nonchalance and complete dispassion to my situation that harrowed me.
Ma, Dad…why don’t you stand up for me? For heaven’s sake, I’m doing what I’m doing for the love of it, and not because I ran out of options! Surely you know that?!
I started drifting away from them, slowly but surely and purposefully. A small but cosy 1-BHK rented flat became my oasis of solace, away from all myopic judgements and arbitrary comparisons. Ma and Dad took it with their characteristic indifference.
“Children do fly the nest and take flight into the big, wide world, don’t they? And that is how they learn to weather all storm and soar higher…we’re both happy with Sneha’s decision.” I heard my mom explaining to someone on the phone once.
Sure Ma – only, in this case, it’s become my defence mechanism, a fight to uphold my own dignity and sanity, and not for survival!
But strangely Disha, the person caught in this melee, remained surprisingly unaffected by all this.
“Oh Didi, how can you pay any heed to what these folks say? They simply need a reason to stay connected with us. After all, who would want to miss the rocking parties that Mom and Dad throw – the sparkling Chardonnay, the lavish food, the upbeat music, and of course, a chance to hobnob with the corporate honchos?! Even my college friends rave about our bashes!” Disha explained animatedly. “But believe me, all this high praise for me amounts to zilch. You are, and will always remain, the best!” Disha threw her head back and broke into a wholesome, spontaneous laugh which made me give her a tight hug. She was my biggest, and probably only cheerleader!
Exactly four months later, I received a phone call from Dad. Disha was no more. She had leapt off the tenth-floor terrace of our apartment. She was gone. Forever. In an instant.
The subsequent days passed in a blur. Medico-legal procedures…inquisitive friends and family…an endless stream of visitors, phone calls and messages…some basic religious and social obligations…the days seemed to stretch forever and beyond. Come night, and I would find Ma, curling up in the balcony, her body racked with sobs. Dad sought refuge in work…he would remain glued to his laptop till the wee hours of dawn, zombie-like, with jaded, unseeing eyes. Gone was the ambitious, self-assured business head…here was a man with a broken spirit, whose face mirrored complete defeat, betrayal and a lack of purpose.
The question that haunted all of us was a big WHY!
Why, Disha, why…you had everything going for you, personally and otherwise. You were the ideal gold-tinged child. Your one picture on Instagram would send your friends in a tizzy! Our exotic family vacations were stuff, dreams are made of! Two more years of college and then a promising career awaited you. Then what is it that drove you to the point of no return? And more importantly, how come none of us noticed the red flags?
Meanwhile, the rumour mills started working overtime.
“How come Disha’s parents never got wind of what was troubling her?”
“This is what happens with women holding white-collar jobs. Poor girl…she had no one to share her problems with!”
“I’ve heard she even travels outstation for work, can you imagine?!”
The entire onus of responsibility seemed to be thrust upon my mom. Overnight, her reputation changed from being the coolest mom to the most irresponsible and unreliable one! I desperately wanted to reach out to her, to hug her, comfort her. But the impenetrable wall of disconnect that had been built between us over the years was difficult to break or scale. And so, I helplessly watched her waste and wither away, in a deep abyss of grief, self-doubt and extreme mortification.
The sniggers, the questions and veiled accusations mounted by the day; the answers continued to elude us. From whatever we could gather from Disha’s close friends, she was not able to cope with her engineering studies. She was hopelessly trailing behind the others in her class and the professors had issued her a warning to be prepared to repeat the semester. She had a reputation to live up to…how could she open up to us? The unreal expectations we all had placed on Disha, became the proverbial albatross around her neck till she could carry it no more!
I shifted back home – my parents needed support, I realised. In this emotional maelstrom, my personal grief and mourning took a backseat. Dad tried hard to get back his bearings. After a brief hiatus, he started attending office. The familiar workplace, with its warm, welcoming ambience, embraced him and helped him heal. Ma, too, tried hard but she failed to focus on any task or take appropriate business decisions, and quit her job. I supported her in this decision – after all, she needed time to process all the upheavals that had rocked and changed our lives irrevocably.
Disha always used to urge Ma to paint. Her unexpected passing rekindled Ma’s passion for painting. She brought out her cache of paint, brushes, canvas and paper and started with light strokes, at first. Gradually, she reclaimed her innate artistic flair – the brushes and the palette combined to design magic on the canvas. Almost parallelly, a magic of a different kind was created at home. Ma, very gradually, began pulling down her defences and started considering me first, as an ally, and after some time, as a confidante. She started sharing with me her innermost thoughts, fears and doubts; and as she laid her soul bare, I realised how vulnerable and disquieted she had become. After a very long time, I started having normal, meaningful conversations with Ma without either of us flying off the handle. It felt good…almost like a panacea for a festering wound. Standing in the background, Dad would observe it all and give me a reassuring, relieved smile.
It’s been three years since…I often wonder how life would pan out, had Disha been with us today. Would Ma and I share the same warmth and attachment as we do now? I immediately feel guilty for harbouring this thought. This was all pre-destined, our collective nemesis probably, from a previous birth…I console myself. On the surface, all may seem calm, but things move forward exactly as they should, in tandem with an unseen natural rhythm.
The clock ticks away as I scroll down my phone photo albums, my nocturnal ritual before I sleep. I have meticulously chronicled and organised hundreds of Disha’s photographs. Dancing, playing, pirouetting, shouting, and always smiling, my kid sister was an embodiment of carpe diem, in life and in death!
“Sneha, are you still awake?” Ma calls out from the study.
I smile at Ma’s rhetorical question and turn on the lights. She eagerly walks into my room and shows me an e-invite on her phone. It’s for an exhibition to be held at her friend’s recently inaugurated art institute.
“I’m so nervous, Sneha, my first ever public exhibition…how do you think it’ll go? Will anyone even look at my work?” Ma rattles off in one breath, her voice laced with trepidation and uncertainty. “After all, I’m a rank newcomer with no established credentials…”
“Ma…calm down! This is wonderful news!” I wrap my hands around her tightly. “So this is what’s been keeping you so busy, and happy, and all excited… now I understand! Don’t you worry Ma, it’ll be a huge hit!”
“Do you really think so? Or are you simply trying to pacify me…to boost my confidence…” She trails off, unsure of how to continue.
“No Ma, I mean every word of it. You are a genius! And so is your work. Mark my words, some day in the not-so-distant future, you’ll have your solo exhibition at all the leading galleries in India…you just need to have faith and keep persevering.”
We sit on my bed, snuggling close to each other.
“Do you know what I’ve named my collection?” Ma quizzes me, myriad emotions crisscrossing her lined face.
“Aah, let me guess…is it Disha? As in, a new direction or a new path…?”
Ma gives a tiny nod. We hug each other, tears rolling down our eyes unabashedly, as if celebrating the new bond that Disha helped us forge. In her death, Ma and I have mended our fences, walked paths that we never knew existed…and this has served as a nepenthe to heal our despairing hearts and soldier on through this multi-hued pastiche called life!
First published as a prize-winning entry on Women’s Web in December 2021. It went on to become a part of their annual e-book, too.
P.C. Genessa Panainte on Unsplash