This is no one’s fault. I have taken the decision on my own. There are fifty kilos of Sona Masuri rice, thirty eight one-kilo packets of Basmati, four sacks of pulses, and two big bags of salt and pepper in this room. I have already paid Abhiramayya for these, so if he comes around claiming that I didn’t, you know he’s lying.
Give them to Rama Shastri. He will do something good for the temple. There are other things too – chocolates, biscuit packets, betel nuts, shampoos – which I just cannot bother listing. Do with them as you see fit. You can sell them all and donate the money to the school. You can distribute them to the people of the village, tell them that Mahender Reddy wants them to have it all for free. (They won’t believe you, but do try.) You can keep it for yourself, whoever you are.
Do whatever. I don’t care. I’ve done stock-taking my entire life. Won’t do it on the last day too.
I wish I could say the right things – that life was good, that I was treated with love, that I have no regrets – but they would all be lies.
I wish I could say the wrong things – that life was bad, that I was treated with hatred, that I am filled with regret – but they would be lies too.
What is the truth? The truth is a joke.
The truth is a joke, and I am done laughing.
* * *
A suicide note is meant to pour out of you like rain. It is the breaking of a dam, the uncoiling of a long-wound spring, the coming of an angry flood. The words are meant to take shape on the page in breathtaking beauty, because if you cannot write on your last day here, when can you?
I always imagined writers of suicide notes as actors standing at the edge of the stage, dusty toes wriggling in mid-air, heels anchored, and delivering the last lines of their performance before jumping off. There is no time for hesitation, no need for self-doubt, because what are they going to do if they don’t like what you say? Kill you?
I know all that. I do. And yesterday was all right. But today, I find myself brooding over my verbs, stumbling over my nouns, questioning my choice of adjectives – what will Saraswatamma make of this particular sentence, I ask myself, when she reads this tomorrow? Will she say, ‘Gee, Mahender wrote well’, or will she snicker and stifle a laugh?
They say killing yourself is a cowardly act, but only those who try it know how much courage it needs.
I stood for the longest time last night at this very place, holding the knife over my wrist, counting down, counting down, first from ten to one, then from fifty to one, and then from hundred to one. Each time I got to the end of the count, I would shift on my feet and dig the point into my skin. It drew no more than two timid dots of blood.
I realized two things, then. One: this is what makes suicide an act of guts; the absolute blackness of what lies on the other side. No one alive can tell you what it feels like to die. What is the pain like? How long do you suffer before sweet mercy rains down on you? Do you see your last breath coming from a few seconds away, like an oncoming train whose headlight swells and swells in your vision before it takes you out, or does a cold hand come to rest on your shoulder and freeze the blood in your veins before you can blink?
No one knows. You have to do it to know it.
The other thing I realized? Even when you stab yourself right on top of a blue vein on your wrist, you still bleed red.
This morning, Sivayya came to the store and asked for Poppins. His girl has been sick for a while now, I know; I’d heard that he ties her up like a dog. And feeds her Poppins. I had a vision of him crouching on his haunches with a half-open packet of the candy, tossing them one by one into the air as the girl snaps them up with her teeth, wrenching at her chains with every leap.
He did not look at me while paying. Sivayya and I used to play together as kids; he was a couple of years older than I was (still is), and owned the most striking collection of marbles in the village. I don’t remember if we had ever been thick friends, but we could not have played together for that long without once catching each other in the eye, surely?
But he has a sick daughter. What time has he got to make small talk with a general store keeper?
No one else came to the store today. All day. At around dusk I notice that the tube light at the front has begun to whirr, as if a small motor had come to life inside it. I have to fix it, I tell myself, but immediately remember that it will not matter come tomorrow. It might even be a touch symbolic that the light has begun to go now, about the same time as me.
Tonight I am going to hang myself. I have the rope. The stool. The beam. I know how to tie the knot.
For those of you wondering why I am doing this, I am bored. There is no other reason. There is a voice inside my head that says no one in Palem will notice for a week if I were to vanish. I tell it that maybe it won’t take that long. Perhaps three days is more realistic. The voice then asks why I am writing such a long note. Do you think anyone will care about why you died, it says. They will just bundle you into the Godavari and move on.
I agree about that. So I am stopping right here. Goodbye, all of you.
* * *
I have failed again. This time it was Bijili that stopped me.
She snuck out of one of the dark corners of the room just as I was about to climb on the stool. She opened her mouth wide, showed me her canines, then stretched her snow-stained black front paws so that her claws came out. She pointed her ears at me as if to ask: what are you doing?
I did not ask Bijili if she was hungry, nor did I toss her a ball of twine. She licked her front paw and ran it across the top of her head. Her black-and-white tail slapped on the floor but made no sound. I held the rope in front of my face with both hands and looked at her through the noose. She took no great notice of me, but every second minute she would pause her grooming and fix me with a lazy blue eye.
A black cat is said to be auspicious if you’re committing suicide.
Bijili is a white-stained black cat. Or a black-stained white one. Even as she sat in front of me she leaned to the left, to spare the leg she had broken while swimming in the gutter and smashing it against a stray tree branch during the year of the rains. A yawn. The tail came round to wrap itself around her feet.
In Kanakangi’s voice, she said, ‘Our daughter would have been seven years old today.’
She was being stupid, of course. There was no way to know whether the foetus was male or female. The doctor had said it was too early to tell. But he had said the baby had a heartbeat. And tiny round limbs that flapped and flapped inside Kanakangi’s stomach.
But she had promised me that it was not her time of the month. She had said that if it came to it, she would take care of the baby, without telling me.
‘I should not have asked you to come to the doctor with me,’ said Bijili, her left ear bending to one side in response to a scurrying sound in the corner. ‘But they said that there was no harm in showing the father the baby’s heartbeat. And I – I wanted to keep it, Mahi.’
‘We spoke about it,’ I said. ‘You said you didn’t want kids.’
‘I didn’t. Not until they showed it to me on the TV.’
At once I cursed with all my heart the doctors that came to Palem in their white vans and green curtains and screaming lights. They brought with them these newfangled machines attached to what looked like television screens, and they rubbed some jelly on a woman’s stomach and pressed a whining grey device to it. Something black and golden flickered on the screen then, and they pointed at some shifting shape and said: See, that’s the head.
I’d tried to tell her that this was just their magic, that it was their way to make us bring this baby into the world, this baby whom neither of us wanted or could afford to have. In my mother’s time they had none of this, and after she had me, my father took her to the clinic twice to get rid of her belly. Both times they got back home before sunset. No trouble.
But now they show you what those things look like inside the mother, and they hope that we’d break down and say we no longer want to get rid of it. Well, if I created it, I can damn well get rid of it, I told the doctor that day. And he had just looked at Kanakangi and shrugged.
‘It’s not your fault,’ said Bijili in that old voice.
Damn straight it wasn’t. We’d spoken about it before we left for the hospital, and I’d be damned if I let some image on a television screen sway us from doing what was right. For both of us.
‘For both of us,’ said Bijili.
Now was it my fault that Kanaki did not stay true to her word? That she went cuckoo in the head and told everyone in the village that she had lost her baby? She defamed me at Mandiramma Banda, with Rama Shastri and Avadhani and half the village in attendance. Was that not when they’d started turning their faces away? They say that Kanakangi endured all this pain, and they named the road after her. But what about me? What about my pain?
‘You went through a lot too,’ said Bijili. ‘My death was not your fault. I said so in my note.’
‘No one believes your damned note,’ I told her, and she sprang up on all fours with a sudden, low yelp. Then she looked up at me with this hurt in her eyes. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘no one believes suicide notes. Why, tomorrow they will read this one and think that Mahender Reddy lost it in his last moments. He saw a dead cat speak in the voice of a dead woman, they will say.’
Bijili shook her head, as if to say no. In her triangular face and sharp silver whiskers I saw the face of Kanaki, black-eyed, golden-skinned Kanaki, the way I knew her that distant still night on the shore of Ellamma cheruvu. Not the withered, rubbery lizard she had become in her last days.
‘It is not your fault,’ said Bijili, the white parts of her now turning golden-hued in the darkness. ‘Put aside the rope and step away from the stool.’
‘Perhaps the lord is punishing me,’ I said.
‘For what? You did nothing wrong,’ she said. ‘You stuck to your word. You did not budge. You knew what you wanted. I was the fool. I was the ditherer. You were the rock.’
‘Yes,’ I said, nodding. ‘I was the rock. And I did good things in the village after you passed. I donate to the school every year.’
Bijili’s head went up and down, once, in a grotesque imitation of a human nod.
‘I give all my old clothes to the temple.’
She nodded, again.
‘I don’t keep anything for myself. I give it all away.’
‘No amount of good washes away the bad,’ said Bijili, twisting her lips sadly. ‘But what have you got to worry? You have done nothing wrong.’
‘You and I know that,’ I told her, ‘but not the village. Even after all I had done for them – even after all the donations – I lit up this dark hell hole of a street – and yet – these ungrateful wretches –’
Bijili smiled. A kind smile that made me let go of the rope.
‘That is the way of the world,’ she said, and raised her front paw to lick it. ‘Step off the stool now. I don’t want you to die.’
I realized that I did not want to die. Not tonight. So I obeyed her. She lay on her side with her feet spread open, exposing her abdomen, as if she were welcoming a hungry kitten to suckle. I went to her in slow steps. The golden shimmer on her dissolved into white again. Her nipples shone pink and pert. I sat cross-legged before her for a while, watching. Then I touched my cheek to the ground so that my mouth can grab the swollen teat.
A thin, tasteless fluid filled my mouth. I gulped it down as my legs kicked the air, and my eyes buried themselves in her black fur, which was filled with the moist fragrance of Kanaki’s armpits.
* * *
I woke up this morning long after sunrise, my throat burning. Drinking Bijili’s milk had left me thirsty. I opened the store’s shutter about thirty minutes later, and saw that I had forgotten the night before to turn off the light. It was still humming and buzzing in the sun. The milky light flickered off and on.
No one came to the shop, of course. Once or twice during the day I spotted Sivayya passing by, but he steadfastly refused to look up. My next door neighbour, Seenu, was standing in his porch with hands on hips, his scissor set laid out – freshly washed and glistening – on a pristine white cloth on the wet earth. I waited for a moment to see if he would turn to me. He didn’t.
I threw away yesterday’s suicide note. Now it is dark again in Palem, and the Diwali chill is beginning to gather in the air. I am sitting on the same stool as yesterday, and in my fingers I am twirling the bottle of tablets that the doctor had given me. They will help you sleep better, he had said. Somehow I knew that if I took enough of them at once, I will sleep so well that I will never wake again.
I think of Kanakangi and the baby we’d lost. I think of Bijili, whom I’d grabbed by the tail and whirled around in the rains as a child. I think of the night on which the doctor – a man with a sweaty forehead, I remember – asked me whether I’d like to reconsider, and how vehemently I’d shook my head. If only I had said yes, would Kanaki be alive today? Would she and I have been sitting here right now, watching over a chirping seven-year-old girl? Or would we have been out there in the village, at the temple, at the lake, at the rock, laughing and singing and bursting crackers with the others? Would Palem have turned its back on me if I had paid heed to Kanaki’s imploring eyes that night at the hospital? Is there any way out of this crushing guilt that settles on me every evening with the weight of the whole night?
They say there is a man – I have never seen him – who sells mirrors by the village gate, on Kanakangi Road. The story goes that if you look into one of his mirrors and say Kanaki’s name three times, you will hear the wail of an unborn child. The unborn cannot be killed, Rama Shastri had told me once, merely pushed back into the womb, back to merge with the soul of the mother. Kanaki had eaten the child, then, and it is the child that had turned her golden skin scaly and rough, like the bark of a dying elm.
Bijili strides out of the corner at this moment, and yawns at me like nothing had changed. It’s just you and me again, dear friend, she is thinking, and what is that in your hand?
A bunch of tablets that I intend to take, I tell her.
But it’s not your fault, she says.
But it is, I answer. Isn’t it?
And then she shakes her head with sympathy at me, and proceeds to enumerate the reasons why nothing is ever my fault. Even the fact that I’d smashed Bijili’s head against the wall of our hut twenty years ago because I was curious to see the shape in which her skull would crack – even that wasn’t my fault, Bijili says.
In truth, her skull did not crack. It burst open, like a water balloon, and her brains spilled out.
Not your fault, says Bijili. I was limping. In great pain. You liberated me from it. As she says this she places more weight than she intends to on the bad leg and winces. In that instant of eyes narrowing and mouth widening, the face of Kanakangi smiles at me. Wait, no. Not quite Kanakangi – it is a face I’ve not seen before; she has Kanaki’s eyes but my beaky nose, her small lips but my dimpled chin, her ears but my eyebrows. A girl of about seven, who shakes her head at me and says that it’s not my fault, that it was she who had eaten her mother’s soul and turned her into a parched shell.
And then Bijili lays down again, on her side, and shows me her erect pink nipple. I set the tin of tablets down at the foot of the stool. I shift onto my feet and go to her, my fingers already trembling with need. My tongue passes over my upper lip. When I sit by her she smiles up at me, and touches her soft, cool paw to my cheek. And then she nods.
As I settle into her embrace and seek her nipple hungrily with my teeth, I arrive at the knowledge that I will wake tomorrow in the middle of a hot dark room baked in mid-morning sun. I will throw away the note I am writing now. But I will start another one at night, and hope that for once Bijili does not emerge from the darkness of the corner. Just one night is all I ask, and it shall set me free.