The smoke, filled with underlying tones of sandalwood, blurred my vision. My eyes teared and I blinked.
I was home early that evening only to find Aparna in the garden. She had always loved the outdoors – flowering bushes, trees and butterflies – even the cactus possessed beauty in her eyes. She was tending to her roses that day, those timid little pretentious flowers. They were her favourite. Ayesha trailed at her feet, tugging at her mother’s kurta while barraging her with a volley of incessant questions.
“Why do the roses have thorns?” “Why are there so many different coloured roses?” “Why do we need to water them?” “What happens to the roses after they become big?”
Aparna shifted her attention from the flowers for a brief moment. I was still searching, but she had the answers to all of Ayesha’s questions. “Just the way you eat fruits and vegetables and become a big girl, the roses too need water to become big. Once they become big, they fall back to the ground where they came from.” Ayesha’s big, grey eyes welled up with tears. “But then they become little butterflies and fly from one garden to another!” The smile was back. Aparna had saved the day yet again. I smiled at my superwoman as she found me staring at her from the kitchen door. She winked back.
I blinked again. “Rajesh,” the priest put his hand on my shoulder, “it’s time.” I held the burning wooden stick in my right hand and drowned the remnants of my life into flames.
The fire ravaged every house in Atlanta as Vivian Leigh tried her hand at maneuvering a horse cart. Even though we were just halfway through Gone With The Wind, Aparna was tired, swollen and sore. It was five days past her due date and she was ready to burst any moment. I helped her into bed and kissed her on the forehead. “Promise me this will be over by tomorrow, Raj. I can’t take it anymore.” Her pleading eyes looked right into mine. I wished for her sake that it would end. A shooting star must have been falling somewhere.
The first stars were beginning to dot the evening sky. Dusk spread itself in a myriad of salmon and magenta. The fire had played its role. I stared blankly at the ashes that were the last eight years of my life.
The ash tipped off the edge of my cigarette. It had all happened so soon. Waking up at 3 am to Aparna’s screams, getting Saumya to babysit Ayesha, the ride to the hospital, the flurry to get upstairs, the worried look on Dr. Tyagi’s face and the red light of the operation theatre. I needed to get out of the claustrophobic waiting area. It had been two hours already. I flicked the cigarette butt and walked back into the waiting area just as Dr. Tyagi walked out of the OT. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Sorry for disturbing you again Raj, but you really need to get out of bed. Ayesha will be up any moment. She needs you right now Raj. Please.” Saumya begged me. I knew she was right. I walked to the bathroom and splashed icy cold water on my face. I looked just as crappy as someone who hadn’t slept a wink would look. I turned around to find Ayesha standing at the door, tentative and calculating, almost like she wanted something from me. “Where’s mummy?” she asked in a small voice. “Come with me,” I said as I scooped her into my arms. The sun was shining when we entered the garden, filling the air with a warmth I could not feel. I planted Ayesha on the grass, right next to the rose bush. She counted the roses in bloom. A puzzled look washed over her face. “One is missing from the last time I counted Daddy,” her voice trailed off as she counted again. I scanned the undergrowth and found the missing rose fallen against a rock. I pointed at it and said, “There, it has gone back to where it came from, just like mummy has.” I pulled my 4-year old into a tight hug. And just like that, a butterfly flew into our garden.
Photograph by Anurag Banerjee