Like the Sun Disappeared Behind the Clouds
Vishnu pulled the stool closer to the wall, and Mahesh watched him. The bulb needed to be replaced. Mahesh raised a brow at the danger this activity signalled. Their feet were no longer steady, and their eyesight, even with glasses, was only getting worse. If Vishnu did manage to get himself on the stool, he would surely not be able to get himself off again safely. Mahesh watched his twin brother place tentative fingers around the stool. This was his chance to say something. Vishnu would have probably listened to him too, for his warning would re-assert Mahesh’s physical presence in the house; Mahesh was here, back in the house where their life had begun. Vishnu, the egotistic, unsuccessful bastard! Mahesh faltered here. That made him a bastard too, did it not? And, he remembered having loved their father dearly. It made him feel like a six-year-old at fault. Vishnu, the egotist! He settled on that.
‘Mahesh, come and hold this stool. Stop looking and do some work.’ The similarity in their voices had the capacity to startle Mahesh even after all these years. He ignored it, and turned around.
‘Mahesh, have you gone deaf?’
‘Stop shouting. I am not doing any work. I pay for all my expenses. I am not a free loader. And this house is as much mine as it is yours.’
He could see Vishnu's mouth open and then close like that of a fish. It meant Mahesh had managed to conquer the argument, and yet he felt no triumph. Here he was. Seventy-two years old, a widower, on medication for high blood pressure and type II diabetes, probably childless, living with his brother in a renovated version of the house where they were both born decades ago. ‘This house is as much mine as it is yours,’ he repeated. ‘I am a pensioner, not like you, who came back with his tail hanging between his legs at the first sign of challenge.’
Vishnu pretended not to have heard, and steadied himself for the climb onto the stool. Mahesh could see his arms fumble. Somewhere in his head, his words rang as unfair. Vishnu had a near-death experience in the textile mill. Failure and fear were two different things. For a second, he toyed with the idea of apologising to his brother, or better still, helping him steady the stool. Mahesh took a step forward, and then stepped back. Clearly, if it was that simple ... He turned around.
There was the sound of the stool crashing against the mosaic-tiled floor. Would there be blood? Mahesh shuddered, unwilling to step out of the safety the kitchen provided. The water in the glass in his hand was only half-drunk. Just when he was about to take another sip, he heard Vishnu's first shriek. He was calling out to their long dead mother. Mahesh was mildly offended that his name hadn't been called out. But soon, he was relieved. That only proved what he already knew. He finished the water in his glass and then put it back on the water filter.
Vishnu was huddled on the floor. There was a small pool of red around his forehead. His eyes were closed, and his fingers had bunched into fists that pressed desperately against his thighs. Mahesh heard soft whimpers.
He walked up to his brother and bent down. Vishnu was a lot heavier than he was. And, what would he do once he had lifted him off the ground. Maybe, a doctor would be required. Where was the nearest doctor now and how would they get to him? And money? How much money would be needed? What if the doctor said Vishnu needed more than a few stitches and suggested an operation? How would he manage all of this? How had he managed this when they were still little boys who had never given a thought to wearing anything other than short pants? Oh, he was being silly, trying to attach any sense to those days. Did they even count in the long journey that had unfolded after.... Vishnu whimpered again. Mahesh touched him on his shoulder.
‘Get up, Vishnu.’
Vishnu did not respond. Mahesh attributed this to defiance. He clamped both his arms around Vishnu's arm, and tried to pull him up. Vishnu did not budge. Mahesh moved away, embarrassed at the lack of strength in his arms. He walked away and then walked out of the house. His next-door neighbour Asha was out on her porch, oiling her long, gray hair. Mahesh found it hard to believe that he had once found this woman attractive. Somehow this made it easier for him to approach her. The woman's two sons lifted Vishnu off the ground and put him on the bed. Blood was still oozing a bit, but it was starting to dry out, solidifying into ugliness. They asked Mahesh for a cloth to tie around Vishnu's head. Mahesh brought one of Vishnu's lungis. The men offered to take him to the doctor, but one of them, bluntly told him they were ‘running low on money and so would not be able to help much more.’ The rickshaw driver said he could only manage three people in the rickshaw, and one of them would have to share the driver's seat. The bleeding man would have to lie down, he declared.
Mahesh struggled to find a foothold on the driver seat, and the experience was terrifying. Separated only by a piece of glass from the vehicles around him, he wondered if he would come out alive.
The doctor stitched up the wound, and said things that were meant to be comforting. He also expressed amazement at seeing twins of this age for the very first time. ‘So amazing that you two look so alike even now.’ His young face was flushed with something that could have been warmth. A good fellow, Mahesh decided, but boring. The doctor told them that the stitches would have to be checked everyday, as it would be good to not take any chances. The neighbour's son offered to organise the rickshaw for them. Mahesh said nothing. The doctor gave him a slight discount, citing it was his first visit, and then once more commented on how incredible it had been to see twins that age. Mahesh said nothing.
Back at home, Mahesh paced the verandah. The neighbour's second son had managed to send a telegram to Vishnu's youngest daughter. All of Vishnu's daughters were married and had kids. Mahesh did not know their genders or their ages, but remembered seeing them all. He also remembered feeling no emotion for any of them. His only daughter was older than all of Vishnu's daughters, and Mahesh was stunned to realise he had forgotten her face. It had been over five years now. She had come back to her parents, battered by years of emotional abuse from her husband. But the prospect of having this jaded woman back in their lives had terrified Mahesh and his wife. They asked her to reach a compromise with her husband. She agreed and left. No one ever saw her again. His wife withered away with that guilt. She believed their daughter had ended her life. Mahesh wasn't so sure. His version of guilt was restricted to wiping out all memories of their last conversation.
He thought of her now. Why couldn't her life have turned out like that of Vishnu's daughters? Sure, they had no achievements, but wasn't prolonged survival an achievement of its own. It all seemed extremely unfair. The loneliness, the loss of independence, the guilt, the failure, and then the loneliness all over again. He had a huge urge to burst into sobs. Instead, he walked up to the room where Vishnu lay.
Mahesh watched his brother stare at the ceiling, his bloated belly rising in soft rhythms.
‘Why did you have to change the bulb yourself? So many people could help.’
‘Doesn't matter. You could have helped me.’
‘You don't get it. This is not about me. This is about you. And you could have had it much worse.’
This time Vishnu turned to look at him. Mahesh struggled to read his face. He wanted to feel his brother's pain, wanted to sit down next to him, and tell him it would all be fine. That like the days of their boyhood, the wounds on his forehead would disappear like the sun’s glare disappeared behind the clouds. But Vishnu had turned his head away, and closed his eyes. Mahesh opened his mouth to continue the conversation. The simplest of words eluded him. What was he even doing there? He walked out of the house and sat down on the verandah bench. Asha's granddaughter, a bony girl of around two was playing with their pet dog. The child noticed him, and then smiled. Mahesh caught unawares, could only smile back. He felt sad for that child. Someday all of this would cease to exist for her. Someday, she too would turn into an unimaginable entity. How terrible, and what a loss. He closed his eyes and lay down on the bench, struggling to disconnect himself from the mild thumping of his heart. Soon sleep claimed him. For now, life had moved on.
Prashila Naik is a writer and technologist born and raised in Goa. Her short fiction has previously been published in various online literary magazines in India and elsewhere, most recently in the 2014 New Asian Short Story Anthology. She likes to call herself a pescetarian, and is particularly fond of reading in the dark. She is based out of Bangalore.