He made a pathetic whimpering sound just before he exhaled for the last time. Vaara clenched the sides of her damp saree with trembling palms as she watched her beloved Vaayu Uncle fall from sleep into death. Sweaty and stunned, she stood in the corridor for a long time after he had passed. He had taken her secret with him. Now all she had to do was discard the bottle of Zopiclone, go back to her room, lie down for a few hours and let the maid discover his body in the morning.
Their house was among the few spacious, old-style apartments left in the city. As a little girl, Vaara used to run around the place, squealing "Kaka, Kaka!" as she chased after her darling Uncle Vaayu. Sometimes they played chor-police, andhali-koshimbeer - the Maharashtrian version of blind man's buff - and pakda-pakdi or 'catch catch', games that existed in the collective consciousness of a timeless Jungian childhood shared by most Indian kids. On special evenings though, they played games that Uncle Vaayu had invented for her, with rules, scoring systems and cheat codes only they knew. 'Traveller traveller' was Vaara's favourite; each room in the house was a different country and she had to look for clues that led to the right visas so that she could complete her world tour. Now, four decades later, visions and echoes from their private version of treasure hunt came rushing back as she slowly walked to her bedroom, leaving Uncle Vaayu to rest in peace at last.
Conflicted as she was about what she had just done, Vaara knew she had merely ended Uncle Vaayu's life technically; he had started dying, in spirit and in being, about seven years ago, when the first signs of Alzheimer's emerged. What began as adorable absentmindedness, endearing forgetfulness and the casual misplacing of everyday objects, steadily morphed into serious amnesia. Slowly, as his brain continued to atrophy, Uncle Vaayu lost the ability to register and record new information; older memories of his childhood and early adulthood were intact but he had regressed to that era and now lived in a time capsule, stuck somewhere in the 1970s. When Vaara tried reminding him that it was 2023 and he was 75 years old, with grown up children who were settled overseas, he responded with a demented, glazed look - a frightening window to a shrinking brain that was past the point of no return on its dark descent into dementia.
Many a meal he consumed would be forgotten immediately after the last morsel, and he'd look at Vaara innocently and ask her why she was starving him. Wasn't he her darling uncle? The memory lapse overpowered any signals of satiety his stomach sent to his brain, and he insisted he was hungry. Convincing him that he had already eaten was never easy, but it was easier than handling him when he hallucinated and simmered with unexpressed rage towards people, objects and monsters only he could see. Though the changes in personality and confusion with identity were constant factors, sometimes, magically, the fog would lift and Vaara would meet her boisterous, intelligible Vaayu Uncle for a few miraculous minutes before he disappeared behind the clouds once again.
It had been particularly painful for Vaara to behold her uncle in this condition, because he'd always been her sharp-witted, charismatic, self-assured protector, the man who'd raised her after her parents died when she was too young to form any real memories of, and with, them. Photos filled in the visual gaps, so she thought she remembered how they looked, but she didn't really know them. Growing up, she heard many stories about them - sometimes different renditions of the same bunch of incidents, over and over again - from relatives and close family friends. But each person's version of her parents was so different that merging them to create schemas of the kind of people they might have been, left her with two incoherent characters that made little sense as individuals or as a couple.
Vaayu Uncle, himself an early widower, decidedly refrained from talking about his wife or Vaara's parents. He was her paternal uncle, but seldom spoke about his brother, especially at home. When Vaara asked him about her father, he'd begin narrating some outlandish story from their childhood in Belgavi, Karnataka - "… then Burman Dada submerged those rubber swans and they bloated up and became thrice their size and started floating…" - but the story invariably veered from trying to draw a portrait of his brother to describing his own experience of that time and place. For Vaara, this was just as well. Behaviour that may have seemed narcissistic or, at the very least, self-involved, to someone else, was heroic to his fawn-eyed niece. Besides, he told her a different story each time; as she got older, she realised they were all tales Vaayu Uncle made up on the spot, designed to entertain and delight her. He had never really shared an authentic anecdote about his brother with her.
The sky now lightened and Vaara was exhausted. She peeled off the label and tucked the empty bottle of sleeping pills between two piles of folded clothes in her cupboard. If there was an investigation, she'd be caught in under ten minutes; she was the only one around him these days - besides the maid, who had a key to the house - and she had a prescription for insomnia. But she knew there was no reason for anyone to assume anything other than what it looked like. An old man had died in his sleep, while his 40-year-old niece and sole caretaker slept two rooms away. Her cousins who lived abroad would be more relieved than sad. They nursed a lot of useless guilt about having chosen their careers over caring for their father in his twilight years. Wrecked as she was over what she had done, Vaara wasn't worried about being found out.
She might not have turned out to be such a risk taker had her own parents raised her. But Vaayu Kaka had taught her to suppress her inherent inclination towards caution and to be quick and courageous with decisions. That's how he carved his way in life, from business deals to board games. She remembered the way he played carrom, with gusto and volume, pausing for no more than a second to aim before taking a shot. Fragments of an old memory sprang to Vaara's mind as she tucked her saree between her thighs and curled up on her bed, exhausted - "…this whole unnecessary business of teeth falling off and new ones coming in their place, you see? I mean, what's that about even?" he had said, while fingering the striker and roaring with laughter after watching the queen glide across the board to the farthest hole. He spilled most of his drink on the floor during that game, but made even that kind of clumsiness look charming. A wide-eyed, seven-year-old Vaara, missing two front teeth, had looked on with pride and reverence. Uncle Vaayu made everything look so easy.
The only time he lost his sense of ease was when his children visited him from the States. The way he walked about in the house changed when they were around. Vaayu Uncle had a strange kind of strained and formal relationship with them. They, a daughter and a son, spoke in accents that weren't native to the household, kept fussing about ridiculous things like toilet roll and wet wipes, and constantly grumbled about the heat, pollution and traffic in India. Besides, they didn't find him funny the way Vaara did. "To an Indian, 'black forest' will always be a cake. In Germany it's a mountain range, in Scotland, the phrase may have some Macbethian reference, something nonsensical about a 'walking forest', but in India, it is a cake!" Vaayu Uncle declared at dinner one evening, between mouthfuls of spicy schezwan manchurian noodles, leaving Vaara in splits. Her cousins simply stared as she clutched her tummy and laughed, tears streaming down her face. By the end of their mandatory three-week annual visit, everyone was always happy to go back to normal life.
There are families within families. There are islands and countries within families. Vaayu Uncle and Vaara lived in their own little choreographed existence - chaha at 8:00 am, an hour with the newspapers, an argument over the speed of the fan at lunch time - "…you do realise, doll, the fan does nothing to lower the temperature, don't you? It simply circulates the existing air around the place…" - a game of rummy, a nap, a walk, a peg of scotch, and an animated discussion over dinner about how the world was going down the drain - "…I'm telling you, Vaaroo dear, nothing is just right anymore… everything is either too loud or too sweet or too wet or too vulgar or too fast or too violent or too far…"
Simply by virtue of having stayed in each another's company, in that house, for so long, they had developed a language of their own that no one else understood. It was like a network of associations and connections born out of time spent, space shared and life lived. At any rate, that house was a black hole; nothing just sat where they last left it. Objects travelled, moved around or simply disappeared. Messy was inaccurate. Their abode was maddening. Yet, the two of them got frustrated in a way that was native to them, as creatures of that house. The act of working out where something might be was an intensely familial process. "Haan, baby, the new tube of Odomos is lying next to the vaati where the bottle opener that Sheela Maushi gave me used to be kept." Only Vaara knew where to look when Vaayu Uncle made such inadvertently cryptic statements. They spoke their own secret tongue at the top of their voices.
It's not like Vaara was averse to moving out or getting married. It just never occurred to her to take proactive steps towards such a thing. If their story were a Hindi movie script, it would have ended happily with the doting uncle giving her away to a suitable groom, and then crying before a framed photo of his dead brother while telling him he fulfilled his promise of taking care of his precious daughter in his stead. No such mush in reality, oh no. Vaayu Uncle knew his Vaara might choose to marry and leave at any point, but wasn't particularly invested in the idea. Not that the concept enthused her much. She was content in her routine; her part-time job as English teacher at the school next door gave her the right amount of free time to read and look after her Kaka. Consequently, she embraced spinsterhood with an understated passion that amused onlookers.
When abnormal plaques turned his brain to pulp, Vaara's heart broke. The only other person who spoke the language of that four-bedroom house had ceased to exist. Over the years, she had watched his confidence and dignity slip away along with his memory. She, in turn, became progressively lonelier as the months rolled by. But it wasn't herself she pitied; he, a strong, beautiful man who lived with purpose and enthusiasm, wouldn't have wanted to exist like that, his essence hollowed out by pathological senility.
One morning, after leaving him in the care of the maid, while walking to work, she remembered something he had said in passing many years ago, well before the illness had turned his mind into a sieve. They had just finished watching 'Awakenings', a touching movie based on a book by Oliver Sacks, about a miracle drug administered to a group of unfortunate Parkinsonian patients in an infirmary. "Miracle medicine, my foot. If I ever lose my mind to a disease, just, just… just…please just…" he had muttered.
She'd decided that day. She would set him free.
Previously published in Oranges Journal, 2023