Story 73: Under the Circumstances

I asked Mother where you went. I don’t think she knows.

(I don’t think I know either.)

Sometimes she says you went to sleep.

(I did.)

Sometimes she says you went to a place far, far away. A place where you cannot return from.

(I did that too.)

But it’s a nice place, she says. I think she is lying about that, though. Because she cries. Like a lot. When she is doing the dishes. When she sits by me and watches me eat. When she is giving Father his lunchbox.

Which is funny. When they all came to our house that other day she did not cry at all. Mouleshwar Uncle took Father aside by the arm and whispered something into his ear. They looked in Mother’s direction and nodded. I meant to ask Father what they said. But I forgot.

Do you know?


The food they made was very nice. I had a second helping of the gulabjamuns. Mouleshwar Uncle sat with me and said you’re having your brother’s share too, huh? And he ruffled my hair a bit.

He was smiling, but I didn’t like what he said. It made me angry.

I came and sat next to you, then. I don’t know if you saw me. Your eyes were closed.

(I did see you, Golu. Thank you.)

They stuffed cotton into your nose. I pulled at Mother’s sari and asked if that was okay. You know how she gets about us sticking stuff into our noses. She leaned closer to me while watching you – and she nodded, and shook her head. Like she was confused or something.

* * *

Mother often calls me Bolu. The first time she called me that I did not mind it. But now it is beginning to get on my nerves. This morning, I had to remind her that I am Golu. Bolu has gone away, remember? She slapped me hard on the cheek when I said that. Then she hugged and kissed me.

She keeps a picture of you on her locket. Remember the one where you were carrying me on your shoulder? She has torn out the top half of the photo – you can only see my legs in it. And my fingers in your hair.

(How do you feel about that, Golu?)

Feel about what? Oh, I don’t mind. That’s the only way you can fit that picture into the locket. Either you tear it or you fold it. I don’t mind.


Father gets a little impatient with Mother sometimes. Says she has to pick herself up now, it has been three months. They talk in whispers after they think I have gone to bed. But of course I listen. These days I listen more than you and I used to.

Golu is with us, Father says. And he is only a boy. You have to be strong for him. Both of us need to be strong for him.

I don’t like him saying that I am only a boy. I will turn eight next month.

Mother says nothing in return to Father. But she is crying, I know. She cries all the time for you. Sometimes I wish it was I who had to go and you who had to stay back. She would have then called you Golu, wouldn’t she?


Is it possible for us to trade places now, Bolu? Or is it too late?

(I don’t know.)

Is it pleasant where you are? What is this place that Mother has said you’ve gone to?

* * *

Annamalai Uncle said it was normal.


Mother took me to him yesterday. She has been watching me differently for the last two months or so. At first I thought it was because I have turned eight. But then she began to ask me questions: why did you go to Avadhanayya’s farm that day? Was it your idea or Bolu’s?

I told her I don’t remember.

But she won’t stop asking. A few days ago both Father and Mother sat me down after dinner and said you can tell us anything. We love you. You don’t have to hide anything from us. And Mother began to cry and Father got so angry at her. At me he would smile and say we love you, and at her he would snarl, quite like a dog.

It made me laugh. Mother cried some more, and Father said things to me that are quite cruel.

(Yes. I know.)

Anyway, they took me to Annamalai Uncle. They gave me a lollipop and asked me to sit on the bench outside. I tried to catch what Mother was saying. I only caught a few words – sleep, pushed, accident… and a few others.

I kept sucking on my lollipop and listening.

When it is about half done, Annamalai Uncle calls me in. He points the torch into my left eye first, then the right. I am sitting on the operating bench, the one with the green sheet over it. He says do you like the lollipop? And I say yes, it’s not too bad. Next time I’d like a choco-bar, thank you. He laughs and says yes yes, of course.

He asks me about school, how I am doing. He tells me to tell him some of my friends’ names. You know, typical grown up stuff.

Then he asks me about what happened on the day you died.

(What did you tell him?)

Do you not know what I told him?

(I do. But I want to hear it from you.)

How much do you know about us? Are you hovering around the house at all times? Do you see everything, hear everything? Do you know our thoughts?

(I certainly don’t hear everything.)

I told Annamalai Uncle what I told everyone else. That we were playing by the well. That I’d slipped. That I was about to fall in. That you’d pushed me away, lost your footing, and fell. That I’d come home running as fast as I could, to tell someone about it. But by the time they’d found you…


Annamalai Uncle was nodding as he heard it all. He said hmm a couple of times. Then he scratched at his beard. He scribbled something on his pad, tore off a sheet, and gave it to Father. Give him this twice a day for five days, he says. Don’t worry, this is quite normal under the circumstances.

He then turned his attention to Mother. And how are you doing, he said, leaning in a bit closer to her. Father and I went out of the room and sat on the bench for a while. Father kept folding and unfolding the prescription. Mother cried inside.

(You did well. Are the tablets helping?)

It’s a syrup. And yes, Mother is a little more herself these days. Though she still calls me Bolu every now and then. Last night, I went to her room to ask if I could sleep with her, and I found her speaking to your picture. She stopped when she saw me, and she called me in, but I went back to our room.

* * *

(Happy birthday, Golu.)

Thank you! Can you believe it, I am ten. Father gifted me a new bicycle. Mother made aloo bhaath. I made a comment at dinner that I am now as old as you are.

Mother laughed and said well, he is not going to grow any older, is he?

I’ve begun to notice that Mother laughs more than she cries when we talk about you now. I don’t know if I like it any better.

Father made a sound deep in his throat. Did we not agree to talk about him, he says in a serious tone. And Mother says no no, I am fine. Why must we not talk about him? He is here, isn’t he?

Where? I asked her. Where is he?

Well, Bolu, she said. And I didn’t correct her. You are and aren’t here.

That is my birthday gift, then, Bolu. I get called by your name. Our mother looks me in the eye and speaks to you.

(That made you angry, didn’t it?)

Oh, you are here. Sometimes when you don’t say anything I wonder if I am speaking to myself. Annamalai Uncle is happy with the progress I have been making. He says I can be taken off the syrup now. He asked me if I have been sleeping well. He said if there is anything that is not normal, I should tell him.

I asked him what he means by not normal. And he said anything.

Then on the way back I wondered – is this normal, that I am talking to you and you are talking to me?

(Absolutely normal.)

Do other people who are dead – in that place where you are – also do this? Do they sit around and talk to people they’ve left behind?


You have never told me anything about how you are. Is it true that you don’t age once you’re dead? Will you always be ten, Bolu?

* * *

We are moving today. Father went to Dhavaleshwaram a week early, to look for a place to stay and to find a seat for me in Saint Bernard’s. He tells me that Sister Fatima was very impressed with my report card from last year. Even though your son is only twelve, we will accept him into ninth standard. I am sure he will cope.

Mother is excited that we will be moving to town, closer to the barrage. She has always liked the river, as you know. Now we will be so close to it that we will hear its roar in our ears the whole time. Only god knows how we’re going to sleep!

Annamalai Uncle paid us a visit three days ago, when Father was away. Mother sent me to get some flowers from the shivalayam while she sat speaking with him.

(I am so envious of you, Golu.)

Envious of me? Because I went to the shivalayam to get flowers?

(No! Because you get to live with Mother and Father. You have them all to yourself.)

That’s not true! Mother still calls me by your name every now and then. And no matter what I do – no matter what I do – she is always saying if Bolu was here he would say this. If Bolu were here he would say that. I snapped at her and said well, he is not here, all right? And she would laugh in her crazy way and say of course you are here, darling. Of course you are.

And Father – I don’t know. I don’t remember the last time we spoke to each other directly. It is always through Mother, you know. I sometimes wonder, did he ever smile, this man? Had he ever smiled? When you were alive?

(I remember him always smiling.)

I do too, but you know, now I wonder – maybe I dreamed it. I sometimes think of Father carrying me on his shoulders to Avadhanayya’s farm, and you’re holding his hand. And we’re all three of us singing some silly song or the other.

(That’s not a dream. It did happen.)

That’s what I thought at first. But then we’d reach the edge of the well, and Father would go real quiet, and he’d say shh to you. You’d look up at me, our eyes would meet, and you’d walk backwards, away from us. Father would then swirl me around to the front, hold me in his arms and say, time to go now.

And he would throw me over into the well. I would descend in silence. Hit the water in silence. But as soon as I am underwater I hear you and Father laugh together. And Mother too. Mother is laughing too and she is saying you are here, darling, you are and you aren’t.

That never happened, did it? That is how I know it is all a dream.

But maybe this is a dream too, and we will wake up, the two of us, any moment.

* * *

(Father says he forgives you.)

And Mother says she forgives father. The people from the barrage have come around today, and they have promised that I will get Father’s job next month. I am only sixteen, Mother told them, but they took a look at my school records. Sister Fatima said she’d vouch for me. So I will be learning on the job, and they will pay for my degree.

(We’re both very happy for you, Golu.)

I will have to look after Mother now, won’t I?

(Yes. You’re the man of the house now.)

Yes. She has become a little more erratic in her behaviour now. We found a psychiatrist who said her patterns were normal under the circumstances. It’s the same phrase that Annamalai Uncle used to use. Under the circumstances. I wanted to ask him what he meant by ‘circumstances’. But who can answer a question like that?

I did not mean to tell Father, Bolu. You should know that.

(I know.)

After the school day function, after Sister Fatima gave us our letter of recommendation and all my certificates, Father gave me a hug. Did you know that? He gave me a hug!

(Yes, he told me.)

And he said he was proud of me. Mother made aloo bhaath and said something about what you would have said. She still thinks that you will return one day, and that you will still be ten.

(That is funny.)

It is. But you know something? There are times when I think that too. If we had not gone to Avadhanayya’s farm that day – how might things have been different?

(Or maybe they wouldn’t be different at all.)

Maybe. Maybe.

(You would have had to share Mother and Father with me.)

That would not have been so bad. I don’t remember anymore how it was with you around, Bolu. A part of me remembers one kind of universe, where our parents divided their love equally between you and me. Where everything was a-okay, you know? A loving, happy family – where everyone met everyone else’s needs.

And then another part of me remembers something – quite different. Mother and Father always loved you more deeply, didn’t they?

(How is that relevant, Golu? You got to keep them for yourself.)

Ah, but now you have Father with you. Maybe now we’re getting to more equitable terms.

(Look at you speaking of equitable terms with your elder brother.)

Ha. But then, you’re ten and I am sixteen. Who is whose elder brother?

Anyway, I have heard that people who kill themselves are considered sinners. Does Father get any extra punishment over at – your place?

(No. All that you’ve heard about dead people is wrong.)

All of it? Even the part where it said that some dead people can speak to some living people?

(Yes. Even that.)

Then you’re not dead? Or am I not speaking to you? Which is it?

(I am dead. You are speaking to me.)

* * *

At Mr Trishanku’s office this week, he assured us that Mother is doing just fine. She has the occasional bad spell of sleep, and that crazy laughter that scares me out of my guts. The things she says when she is in one of those moments, Bolu! Oh, I wouldn’t wish those words even on my worst enemy.

And then Mr Trishanku leans in closer to me and says how are you doing?

The wedding is in five days, I tell him. How do you think I am doing?

At the barrage a bunch of people have begun to spread rumours that I have seduced the General Manager’s daughter. Bullshit. If anything, she seduced me.

And as Mother pointed out, it is not as if the girl is marrying a man with no prospects. At twenty four, I am the youngest Chief Engineer in the history of the plant. When Malini and her parents came to speak to us, Mother made all her famed dishes and they left happy. They said that they were sorry about all the tragedy we had to encounter – first with your death and then with Father’s.

Mother laughed and said it was quite all right.

For a moment I thought she was going to have one of her spells, but Mr Trishanku had upped her dose, and she caught herself rather well.

Plenty of time, she would have said, for secrets to be revealed.

* * *

Mother and Malini had a row about what to name the boy.

(Let me guess. Mother wants to call him Bolu.)

You get no points for that. And Malini of course wants something meatier. Both her parents are alive, so she doesn’t get how important this is to Mother.

(You can always give him two names.)

Yes, something like Bolu Parameshwar.

(Or Parameshwar Bolu.)

Both of them suck equally big time.

(I agree. You’re on your own.)

Listen, Mother and Malini don’t get along at all. Whenever I tell Mr Trishanku about it he smiles and says it’s quite normal. He has dropped ‘under the circumstances’ now. I think he got the feeling that I hated to hear those three words. It’s quite normal, he says. The story of every house.

I tell Mother to stay away from Malini as much as she can. Especially when she is feeling a little under the weather. But does she listen? And Malini too – she cannot let things be, always a retort on her tongue, you know? Man, how much I envy you that you’ve never had to grow up and marry.

(Ha ha. Father says the same thing.)

And I have asked Mother to throw away that damned locket. Every time she walks around the house talking to it, she freaks Malini out. And the baby has begun to cry as well when he hears Mother’s voice. Think of it from Malini’s point of view for a second: here is this child who died a long time back, and your mother-in-law is speaking to his picture. And she wants your child to be named after him.

How creepy is that.

(Very. Has Mother thrown away the locket?)

I made her. She would not listen to me, and I said I’d tell Mr Trishanku about the whole thing if she wouldn’t obey. It was quite a big scene in the house I can tell you that. But Malini is happy now.

(And Mother?)

She mopes a little, but I think she’ll manage. I get the feeling that you’ve been haunting our family ever since you died, Bolu, and we’re only just now escaping your grip.

(My grip? It is you who has a grip on everything I’ve loved. Now you won’t even let Mother keep me in her locket!)

Oh, shut up! Do you know what torture – what living hell – this is, always being second best to you, always having to hear her babble on about what you would have said, what you would have done – and all these things we’ve heard of a thousand times before.

So you don’t get to play the victim here, okay? You left. It is I who has had to deal with all this shit.

* * *

Malini is pregnant again. I don’t want to have the baby.

(Why don’t you get it aborted?)

Don’t you know? As a man you only get to sow the seed. Whether or not it germinates is apparently not up to you.

(Why not? It’s as much your baby as hers.)

Hah. Try telling her that. It is her body now. And her body has rights. Mother is on my side, she thinks it’s best if we aborted. Better not have a second child, she says. Second children are evil!

(I would not read too much into that.)

Oh, but I would. I’ve been sleeping badly again, ever since Parameshwar. None of Mr Trishanku’s medicines work on me. I sleep separately most nights, because Malini has to take care of the child. No one ever tells you just how much your life changes once you have children.

(I want you to calm down a bit. Okay, Golu?)

You want me to calm down? I bet you do. Mother has been hanging about my bedroom door, I think, listening in. I think it is from her that I got this filthy eavesdropping habit. And she has been giving me these strange looks again. Like she used to when Father was alive. She watches, watches, watches – and then she breaks into a laugh. It gets on my nerves, man!

I did okay while Malini was here. But now she has taken Parameshwar and gone to her parents’ place. Eighth month. She plans to stay there until delivery. ‘And a few months longer,’ whatever that means.

(That’s quite normal.)

Under the circumstances? Just say those three words and we’ll all have turned a nice corner.

(I won’t say it. What has Mother been asking you?)

What else? Why did you and Golu go to Avadhanayya’s farm that day? Whose idea was it? What happened when you went?

(And what did you say?)

The same thing I’ve been telling her all these years.

(But you’ve been sleeping badly. And she’s been listening to you. Is there any chance –)

Now what do you want me to do, huh? Do you want me to monitor what I say in my sleep? How the hell do I do that, dear brother?

(Maybe it’s best if you speak to Mr Trishanku.)

I have already. You think I’d wait this long? He thinks there’s nothing wrong with me. I wonder if I have to have a chat with him, tell him everything. Like I told Father. Or maybe I should tell Mother everything? What do you think?

What do you think?

You cannot stop talking to me when you want. You stop talking to me when I want. I am the one who is alive!

* * *

I think Mother hates me.

(Father says he forgives you.)

Mother follows me around the house. I am locking myself inside the bedroom now. I’ve begun to eat at the barrage canteen. I don’t come home until it’s late. And whenever I am home I try to avoid her.

(How do you know she hates you?)

She has told me. Well, not in as many words. But she has begun to speak with you as if you’re in the room. She says things to you, you say things back to her. And you both agree with each other. What do you think, Bolu, she says, are you feeling a bit lonely up there? Would you like me to send Golu too? And she waits as if she is listening, and she nods. Hmm, she says. Hmm. I think so too.

I swear she is going to kill me if she can get at me when I am sleeping. I have to move before she does.

(No. Golu.)

Don’t you understand? She wants to kill me. She knows everything. I swear she knows everything. The other day, I was taking her to Mr Trishanku and she turns around in the car and fixes me with this smile. With this gaze. What a pretty little liar you are, Golu, she says. How well you deceived all of us with that innocent face of yours. One of these days, when I am all okay in the head – because I don’t want to do this when I am crazy, oh no. I want to be aware. Did you lie to me about your father too? Did you? Hmm? I am pretty sure you did.

She kept talking that way throughout the journey. I just kept quiet. She talked and talked and talked and cried, and fell asleep.

(That doesn’t mean anything.)

She knows. Everything.

(She cannot unless you’ve told it to her.)

And I may have. Who knows? I cannot deal with this any longer. Listen, it’s just me and her in the house. I could stage an accident. I could tell people that she committed suicide. I could say that she had a heart attack.

(You said you loved her. You said you wanted her all to yourself.)

I do love her. I do want her all to myself. But I wanted what she was when you were alive. I wanted Mother and Father as they were before you died. Look at her now. She is a witch. She is a proper witch out to kill her own child. What kind of mother does this?

I need to. I need to.

Keep her to yourself. Keep Mother and Father to yourself. I don’t want them. I don’t want any of you. I have my Malini. I have my children.

(Get out of the house. Stay away from her if you’re scared.)

What do I tell people? She only has me. What do I tell Mr Trishanku?

(Why do you worry about them?)

They will all call me names. They will all say that I am shirking my duties as a son. Who will believe that she wants to kill me?

(She won’t kill you. She won’t be able to, Golu. She is your mother.)

She will kill me. I am telling you, you haven’t seen the look in her eye. There is this gleam about her. She will kill me, and then she will kill herself. I have to kill her before she kills me. And I can. I am a pretty little liar, remember?

(You won’t be able to lie your way out of this, Golu.)

I will. I have to.

* * *

(Mother forgives you.)

Does she say that?

(Yes. She says she forgives you. We all forgive you.)

I had to do it, she understands? She knows that I know that she planned to kill me?

(All I know is that she forgives you.)

Okay. I made sure it was painless for her, Bolu. You know that, right?

(Yes. She does too.)

The tablets of Mr Trishanku. I mixed ten of them together into her glass of milk. And I made her drink it. She said the taste was a little off. I told her she was just sleepy. And she looked at me and smiled in that crooked way. No, no. She did not know that I was behind it all. Did she?

(She did not then. She does now.)

No one doubted me when I told them the story. The inspector. The doctor. Everyone knew that she was gone in the head. Mr Trishanku put his hand on my shoulder, and he leaned in close, just like Uncle Annamalai had done all those years ago – how many years has it been, Bolu – oh, who cares – and he said to me, how are you doing? I said I am doing okay. In my mind I am thinking: under the circumstances.

He nodded, as if he understood.

Malini called me – and she sounded suspicious about it – I told her all that I could. I think she believed me toward the end. She delivered last month. The baby is doing fine. We have a girl now. I would have hated, hated, hated to have a second boy. It would have reminded me too much of myself.

Now I am sleeping better. Tell Mother and Father that I am sleeping better.

(I will.)

And tell them I love them. Oh, how much I envy you for having them both for yourself now. You must be feeling rather nice about life now.

(I am. Thank you. They know you love them.)

I am sleeping rather well, now. Yes, very well. No tablets needed.

* * *

Malini came back yesterday.

And oh, Bolu. She knows everything!

(She doesn’t know anything.)

She knows everything. I can tell by the way she looks at me. They have given me notice at the barrage. They told me that I cannot work until I ‘pull myself together.’ I don’t understand. I have been sleeping well. I have been very, very clear in the head. No dreams. I’ve not been talking to you either.

(You haven’t been. I have missed you.)

That boy of mine – he is two now – Parameshwar. He looks exactly like you. He speaks like you. He has the same brightness about his eyes. And like you he likes me to carry him on my back. Wraps his legs around me and coos into my ear. Just the other day I was walking around the backyard with him, and I had a vision – of that old dream I told you about – of Father carrying me to Avadhanayya’s well, and twirling me around and tossing me over – I remember – only now it is me who is tossing me – wait, it is not me that I am tossing – it is you.

And you’re laughing from that safe distance. No, it is not you that is laughing. It is me.

You’re floating away silently. You hit the water silently. You drown silently. No, it is not you that is drowning. It is me.

I am the one carrying. I am the one tossing. I am the one drowning. I am the one laughing. I am the one rushing back to the house. I am the one lying. I am everywhere. I am everything.

And I know the truth. This is not a dream.

My second child, our daughter – she looks like Mother. She is only two months old, and they say her eyes are yet to focus, but she looks at me. She knows too. She knows everything.

(They know nothing. They cannot know anything unless you tell them.)

Maybe I have. Who knows?

I need to go, now. I cannot handle this. I have to act before they do.

(You’re not harming the children. Golu.)

Oh! You think I am going to harm the children! No. No, no, no, no, no. What is the good in that? Everything I ever did, I did because I wanted to keep Mother and Father for myself. Now they’re with you. Not the Mother and Father that they became after you died. Now they’re the Mother and Father they used to be. Are they not?

Are they not?

(They are.)

Then I want to come to you. What is there here for me? My son and daughter are you and Mother. Malini knows. She knows everything. I need to come to you. I will never again want to have them for myself, Bolu. I promise. You can have them too. Share them with me. Let us go back to how we were when you were alive – even though I don’t remember any of it. Let us go back.

I am going to come to you.

(You cannot come to us.)

Why not? You said Mother and Father have forgiven me. You have forgiven me.

(We have. But I also told you – everything you think you know about the dead – it isn’t true.)

I don’t know what you mean.

(I am not Bolu. I am your image of who Bolu once was. I live inside you.)

No, you’re not! You’re lying.

(Maybe I am. If I am, I am lying from inside you.)

This is filthy. This is filthy of you.

(What do you mean?)

All these years and you haven’t changed. You want to keep Mother and Father to yourself again. You want to shun me, keep me in this hell while the three of you become a nice little family without me. You feed me lies like this – you give me this bullshit. I am not going to listen to you. I am coming where you are.

(I am nowhere. I am nothing.)

Shut up. I implore you. I command you to shut up!

(Listen to me. There is nothing after death. No afterlife. Nothing. There is no place the dead go. Are you listening to me?)

(Are you listening to me? Your brother, your father and your mother are all dead. You have killed them. There is no place where they’re all together. There is no place. You knew that when you killed them. Didn’t you? Otherwise you would not have killed them.)

(All you have now is the family you have made for yourself. Your wife, your son, your daughter – all of them – you can build a life of love with them. Bury your lies behind you. In your past. The past is dead. The people are dead. Nothing in the past can hurt you as long as you don’t let it.)

(Listen to me. Listen to me. Are you listening to me?)