It’s Fiction, Of Course

I was at my bi-weekly writer’s group meeting.  I started reading aloud:


I struggled as I picked through the bones in the fish. I was having hilsa after a decade or so. Even then, a true Bengali would never forget how to have hilsa. And, everything about my upbringing was as Bengali as it could be. I felt a sudden sense of shame. Along with the many things I had bid goodbye to over the years, had I also lost my identity? I tried to shake off the feeling and convinced myself that I needed some more time. I glanced at my grandfather. Thankfully, he was oblivious to the internal dialogue I was having with myself.

“Do you like the fish? It’s the preparation you used to like as a child.” he asked.

“Yes, I like it.” I wanted to like it.

I struggled through lunch. The taste of the different dishes seemed alien to me. It didn’t have my grandmother’s touch.

After lunch, I sat at the piano. The chords were discordant.

“Since you don’t stay here anymore, it hasn’t been tuned,” my grandfather said apologetically.

Yes, I knew that. I didn’t stay here anymore, so why should it be tuned? Even then, I felt another part of me slowly crumble away.

The piano had been my companion for over a decade. It had been my grandfather’s dream to enrol me in piano lessons. He had bought me the piano. He would sit through my practice sessions and instantly understand if I hit a wrong key. I would keep playing and secretly hope that he hadn’t heard it. But he would always catch it and I would start all over again.

I moved on to my bookshelf. I had covered it with transparent paper before leaving. The paper had done its job, the books remained as I had left them. They were frozen in another era. An era when my grandmother was a person, and not a photograph on the wall.

I opened the cupboard and touched her saris. Some of the memories came rushing back. Me pulling on her sari and trying to follow her wherever she went. Me holding on to her sari fearfully in a crowded market. Later in life, it was me holding on to her sari to help her get up from the bed.

She had been a fervent believer of superstitions. She yelped in fear whenever a black cat crossed in front of us. She forbade us from cutting out nails once it was dark. Owls were auspicious for us. She would say that a white owl had visited when I was born, and that meant I was a special child. Her conviction was so strong that after a while I started believing it too. I felt as though I had a wonderful secret that made me different from everyone else.

I would ask her, “Will you always pray for me? No matter where I am?”

“Yes, of course.”

“If you stop praying, then my luck will end, and good things won’t happen to me anymore.”

She reassured me, “I will always pray for you.”

I had lost that protection. There was nobody looking out for me anymore.

I moved into the living room. My grandfather was sitting on the sofa, watching television. I felt like an alien in this house. The same house in which my grandparents had brought me up. The only house which would ever be home to me. I would never look forward to coming here again. When I looked around, all I saw were reminders. Reminders of pain and loneliness. My grandmother’s crutch stood in a corner. And there stood her oxygen cylinder. She had had breathing difficulties in her last few days. Her medicine bag overflowed with medicines. Had those all expired by now. Had they helped her? Why hadn’t they extended her life?

I had been busy ever since I had left home. Busy working, busy socializing with people, busy trying to shake off the identity associated with my lazy sleepy home-town. My visits home became infrequent. I knew that my grandmother was unwell, but I didn’t think it could be anything serious. She was too young. She wouldn’t die. Eventually, I would go home. I would sit with her and make up for lost time.

I remember that call, exactly a year ago. It was my mother. “Your grandmother is really sick, you should come home.”

“What happened to her?”

“She’s not well…”

“But, she came back from the hospital last night. I thought she was feeling better. Should I book tickets for next weekend?”

“No, you need to come home now.”

Something in her tone frightened me. I booked the next flight home.

My mother was waiting at the airport. On seeing me, she burst into tears. “She is no more.”

“I thought she was fine…what happened?”

“We lost her. Yesterday in the middle of the night, she started coughing. It was over soon. We didn’t tell you as we didn’t want you to get upset on the flight. But we told you to come so that you could see her one last time.”

The relatives told me later, “In the last few days, she spoke of you a lot. We told her to hold on a little longer, because you would be coming home by the end of the month. But she had waited for a long time already.”


I stopped reading, and looked around at the group of fellow writers for feedback.

Someone asked me, “Do you still feel guilty?”

I shrugged. “This is short fiction.”

There was a moment of silence. I smiled, and everyone burst into laughter. Who was I fooling?

I sighed. “No, I don’t feel guilty. It happens, you know. Life goes on.”

In my head, I thought, “It’s been six years. The guilt never fades.”

Karabi Mitra is a writer of Indian origin, based in Toronto. She enjoys reading, traveling and playing the piano.