Not long after Aakash drowns in the Netravati River, Vibha’s younger son Rahul begins to see him everywhere around their house. Vibha and her husband Sanjay cannot explain what their son sees, but still they are desperate for a solution, desperate to keep their living son with them. Parul Kaushik’s “Lost in Smoke” is a carefully crafted exploration of grief and guilt that you won’t want to miss.
Though it was only seven in the evening, Vibha found the house immersed in darkness. All the lights were off. As soon as she unlocked the front door, she smelled algae, fish, and dampness as if not only her elder son, but her entire house had drowned in a ruthless river. She called out for her younger son Rahul and went to his room. He lay trembling on the terrazzo floor. She shook him and placed the back of her hand on his damp brow. “You have fever? What happened? Did you fall?” She tried to lift him but couldn’t. At sixteen he was too big for his frail mother.
Rahul stirred and opened his eyes. “I saw Dada again.”
She bit her lips and smoothed out Rahul’s hair.
“Dada was there.” Rahul pointed to the window. “He wanted me to open the front door.”
Vibha knitted her brows, opened her mouth to say something, and closed it. She held Rahul to her bosom.
“Dada wanted me to come outside.”
Vibha’s eyes widened. She rose and walked to the open window and wept into the vacant night. A few children returning from their evening tuition classes eyed her curiously. She shut the window.
* * *
The next day was her son Aakash’s teravih, the final day of the thirteen-day rites for the dead. At the entrance of the pandal Rahul stood by his father Sanjay in a white kurta pajama, head bowed, hands folded. The overhead tent kept the sun out but not the heat, so people clustered by pedestal fans. At lunchtime, behind the pandal, a potbellied halwai, in a loincloth, fried fluffy puris. A boy delivered finished puris to the rows of guests sitting cross-legged on a rug. Another boy poured potato curry into bowls––made of banyan leaves stitched with toothpicks. The entire tent smelled of burning oil, and people’s fingers dipped in curries smelled of cumin seeds and tomato paste. The boys’ knickers smelled of salt and flour, their hands of sugar and grease. The brother Rahul was not hungry. The father Sanjay was not hungry. And the mother Vibha wondered if she’d ever feel hungry again.
In one corner, underneath a dusty pedestal fan, women circling Vibha on the floor forced her to chew puri, which she did––the chewing. Someone said, “So young, only eighteen, still a child.” A woman holding Vibha sniffled. “How can God do this? Can He be so merciless?” An older woman, who sat in a chair, unable to fold her arthritic knees, said, “God takes away those whom He loves the most. I’m sure Aakash is in a better place.”
A chunk of puri stuck in Vibha’s throat; she looked up at the old woman sitting stiffly in her starched cotton sari. She cursed God for loving her son. And cursed that better place where Aakash had gone.
* * *
If you were to pierce the bellybutton of India, you would be stabbing Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh. A sturdy city, Bhopal survived the world’s biggest industrial accident––the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984––exposing half-million residents to toxic methyl isocyanate, killing and disabling thousands. People in Bhopal have tasted mass death and suffering; some claim they still smell obnoxious gases; others swear that after nightfall, when the fog is dense and vision murky, they hear the screams of long-vanished children trapped in the perplexing web of time and space.
In the E-7 block of Arera Colony of Bhopal, around a ground-floor flat in the yellow building across from the municipal park belonging to Sanjay Mishra, people tried to be tactful––with Sanjay, as he waited with a stainless steel milk canister in the queue outside the Mother Dairy Booth, and with Vibha, as she came out, occasionally now, to hang clothes on the balcony or to feed leftover chapattis to street cows lying in front of the Gupta Stationery. No longer could they say, “How’re the children?” Nor: “How are Rahul-Aakash?” They had to learn to separate the two names.
So it was that the return of Aakash witnessed only by Rahul confounded everyone. Rahul’s grandfather said it was just grief that over time would harden into a scar that Rahul would get used to. A neighbor––a psychology professor at Barkatullah University––proclaimed it to be the firing of nerves in the brain gone haywire. Sanjay and Vibha were both astounded and ashamed by this theory, yet they took Rahul to the dispensary doctor for an opinion. The doctor said everyone dealt with tragedy differently. He prescribed tranquilizers, which Vibha refused to give to Rahul. She wouldn’t pump chemicals into her only son. He didn’t need the crutches of pills. Though secretly she hoped this window of his lunacy might grant her a glimpse into the other world: a flash of clarity piercing through the smoke that had swallowed her older son.
No one other than Rahul had seen Aakash since the drowning. Since his macerated body was loaded in a goods train leaving behind wailing college boys and a distraught principal who patted Sanjay’s shoulder and folded his hands in apology. Since his body tied to a wooden bier was carried on the shoulders of four men chanting: Rama nama satya hai––the name of Lord Rama is truth. Since a dazed Rahul was made to circle the cremation pyre with a torch in his right hand to ignite his brother. Since Vibha had collapsed without shedding a tear and cried only after the shock that lasted twenty-four hours.
It had been three weeks since that phone call from Aakash’s college seven hundred kilometers away and yet whenever the phone rang, the Mishra family still shook in alarm. One afternoon they sat on the drawing room floor drinking tea. It was dark and damp inside with heavy curtains blocking the autumn wind. Deep in thought, Vibha combed Rahul’s curls with her fingers. He had seen Aakash outside his mathematics tuition class that morning. Sitting cross-legged by the Onida TV wooden stand, Sanjay said, “Then, why don’t we see or hear him?”
Vibha gave her husband a quick, sidelong glance. He had refused to believe the astrologer years ago who had said he couldn’t predict Aakash’s life beyond his eighteenth birthday. Sanjay had dismissed even that priest in Haridwar who with his long white beard looked a century old. As Sanjay had ducked a crying young Aakash into the holy Ganges to purify him before the evening prayers, the priest had called out, “Protect your boy from water.” Sanjay had pretended not to hear and later mocked the priest as a saffron-donning madman high on drugs.
* * *
Vibha had never wanted Aakash to go to that engineering college so far south in the Western Ghats by the Netravati River, where they fed growing boys watery sambhar and sticky idlis. She wanted him to retake their state’s pre-engineering test the following year. Perhaps then he might have gained admission at Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology in Bhopal and remained with his parents for another four years, stuffing himself on homemade butter with potato paranthas. And perhaps then, Lord Brahma would have been forced to inscribe the remainder of Aakash’s destiny on his forehead. Though Sanjay would also have preferred Aakash to live with them for a few more years, he was against Aakash losing an academic year. And what could Vibha do when Aakash had already begun shopping for colognes, ragged jeans, and shirts with stand-up collars? If Aakash had not gone so far off to college, if he had lived under her canopy, Vibha would not have allowed him to go near that slimy river, its banks tangled in slippery algae. She would not have allowed him to befriend those shady boys––the one with dithering green eyes and the one with a set of crooked teeth––who swore, even to the police, that they had done all they could to save Aakash.
* * *
One evening, Rahul, holding his pajama drawstring, ran from the toilet to tell Vibha that a drenching and shivering Aakash was in the shaft. The toilet window opened to a narrow shaft. Barefooted, Vibha dashed to the common shaft in the back of the building that had water pump motors fitted to the brick walls. Pigeons fluttered there and cooed. It smelled of flaking plaster, damp limestone, moist clay, and pigeon droppings. She sat on the concrete stairs by the shaft door and held her head. A lizard stared out from behind a motor. Vibha looked up, silently pleading to the pigeons and the lizard. Had they seen someone? Might the pigeons release their droppings on her to let her know? Might the lizard blink once to reassure her? She had lost a son and she just couldn’t find him.
It wasn’t the first time. Ten years ago, he had been lost as well––the evening Aakash had gone cycling and not returned for dinner. Vibha had called friends and neighbors. Two hours earlier he had been seen pedaling behind the municipal park. And a half-hour before cycling by the dim-lit market, where the crowd gathered at roadside stalls to eat onion fritters, potato patties, and wheat flour cakes loaded with chickpeas and spicy tamarind juice. Vibha had sent Sanjay to the market to inquire from the street hawkers and the shopkeepers. Yes, many had seen eight-year-old boys bicycling in the market. It was a common sight in the evening. Boys winning cricket matches came to celebrate––bought cotton candies and plastic water guns, or ordered the spicy chicken tikka freshly fried on a cart by the rows of parked scooters. But in the flickering light of the food carts’ kerosene lamps, who could tell one boy from another?
Standing outside her building, Vibha wiped her eyes and focused on the gloomy road. Children returned from the football playground. She strained to hear Aakash’s voice. She pulled her sari to cover her hair, shaking her head when passersby asked if Aakash had returned. She tried not to cry, but when a six-year-old Rahul held her hand, or a neighbor volunteered to file an FIR with the police, Vibha broke down. She had promised a hundred-day fast and a dip in the cold Ganges in Haridwar.
It must have been past eleven when she saw the silhouette of a man and a child walking toward her. The dusty wind dissipated, and she saw a tottering Aakash without his bicycle. The man accompanying him was not Sanjay. Vibha ran, tripping over stones. She held Aakash and kissed him. The stranger said, “I found him weeping by the E-4 bus stop.”
Vibha held Aakash firmly, afraid if she let go, he would vanish again. After a long time, when she looked up, there was no one beside Aakash. “Where did that man go?”
“He left,” Aakash said.
“What was his name? I didn’t even thank him.”
“You were crying for a long time.” Aakash shrugged. “So he left.”
Vibha had not seen the stranger’s face. She had not asked the man who he was. She had not asked him if he would return with her child again the next time she lost him.
* * *
Growing up, Aakash had been the mischievous one. He’d switch off the ceiling fan of his grandfather’s room on a summer afternoon so that the old man woke up sweaty and swearing. He once hid Sanjay’s inventory ledger behind the rice and soybean sacks in his grocery shop. He stole Rahul’s fountain pen and once went off to the playground with Rahul’s cricket cork ball. Always doing exactly what Vibha told him not to.
When he was nine, she had warned him about taking the names of snakes just as her own father had warned her lest the poisonous beast responded to the calling. “We don’t take their names at night.” The two of them sat side by side on the balcony, peeling peanuts.
“Can they hear us?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where do they live? Do they live in Arera Colony?”
“Stop asking silly questions. Just do what you’re told.”
Aakash filled his mouth with the edge of Vibha’s sari and mumbled, “Snake.”
“That’s it.” Vibha yanked the sari out of his mouth and called for Sanjay. “Listen, Aakash’s father. He’s not listening to me again.”
When she turned back, Aakash had vanished.
A few weeks after Aakash’s death, Vibha sat on the balcony floor remembering that December night when he had said snake into her sari. She smelled peanuts, tasted their salt and fat, felt their papery rinds in her dry hands. Can they hear us? Where do they live? Until now she had never wondered about them. She’d never questioned her own father, instead, obeyed him blindly when he forbade her to take their name in the night. Now she wanted to know if she called them would they slither out from their underground world? Could her thoughts spoken aloud materialize, just once? She switched off the overhead bulb and sat with her knees folded against the wall in the dark. She enunciated the names carefully. “Snake, Rattlesnake, Cobra, Python.” She repeated them like a mantra, closed her eyes, and waited for a hissing, for something to glide over her arms and sting her unconscious. Mosquitoes buzzed around her, biting her. The longcase clock in a neighboring house chimed two times, then four, then six, and then from a block away the rooster of an egg merchant crowed. Vibha opened her eyes. Mosquito bites on her arms stung and bled. She wiped them with the edge of her sari and stood up to put water on the stove for morning tea.
* * *
Twenty years together and maintaining the respect that a husband demanded, she had never called Sanjay by his first name. He had always been Aakash’s father to her, but now she had to remind herself to call him: Rahul’s father. Each Sunday morning, head capped in a grey helmet, he kicked his Bajaj scooter’s engine, held its handles, and called out for Rahul to drop him at his physics tuition class before opening his shop at ten. Each time she watched him from the kitchen window, behind the greasy iron grills. As he started his scooter, their eyes would meet briefly, his hollow and hers accusing.
The Sunday evening Sanjay slapped Rahul, Vibha ran from the kitchen to the drawing room where the TV blared news and the water cooler spat damp air. She asked, “What happened?”
Sanjay bellowed, “He is dead. Do you both get this? He will never come back.”
She held Rahul, who covered his slapped cheek with his right palm.
“Vibha, tell your son to stop hallucinating and focus on his exams. I’ll not accept excuses.”
Vibha looked at Sanjay. “Should I also tell him to continue trusting his father, like Aakash did?”
“Didn’t you want him to go to that college in Karnataka, even when you knew his horoscope was blank after age eighteen?”
Rahul looked at his mother, opening his mouth in bewilderment. The lines on Sanjay’s forehead deepened. Someone knocked softly on the front door and whispered outside, perhaps trying to ascertain that everything was all right in the Mishra household.
“You know what is blank? Your head.” Sanjay removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. “Now I know who is feeding these crazy ideas to him––his secondary school pass mother.”
Vibha felt her face burn. Her hands were already hurting from the steam of the burner and from the searing chapattis she had been flipping on flames. All to feed the man who stood in front of her. The man who had touched her coarsely many times. And as a young bride, how many times had she touched his feet––his filthy, smelly feet––for his blessing? Or fasted on the day of Karva Chauth until the moonrise so that the gods would grant Sanjay a long life? She stood with Rahul now, on the other side, believing Aakash, too, was on her side. She said, “I’m not educated, yes, but at least I try to protect my children, which with all your education, you’re not capable of.” She wished she could pronounce Sanjay. Shout it so loud that he and all the men of the neighborhood and all the men of India heard her; so loud that even her dead father, who had decided she hadn’t needed education beyond secondary school, felt its echo in the other world.
Sanjay raised his arm. Rahul closed his eyes. Vibha did not flinch. Sanjay let his arm drop and left the house. Outside, a neighbor asked something, and she heard Sanjay reply that the commotion was due to Rahul’s negligence in his studies. A few minutes later, Sanjay’s scooter rumbled, and everything went quiet.
* * *
Each time Aakash called Rahul, he wanted him to open the door and step outside. One evening, Vibha saw Rahul stretching his arms through the grilled window of his room into darkness. She ran to the window. There was no one outside. She pulled at Rahul. His eyes were glassy and his voice hoarse.
“He was there, outside the window. Dada is alone, Mummy.”
Outside, a car headlight flashing past cast a glow on the frame. The potted holy basil plant on the windowsill shook in such sudden radiance. Vibha said flatly, “He wants you to come with him.” She repeated this so forcefully that it startled Rahul. “He wants you to leave us, too.”
Vibha shuttered the window and drew the curtains. “Don’t open this again.” She went to the steel almirah, pulled out a thin hand-woven cotton mattress and laid it on the floor beside Rahul’s bed. “From now on, I’ll sleep here.” The obscure darkness outside the window challenged her. She said, “You’ll never go to him. You’ll stay with us. Do you hear me?” She walked to the shut window and shouted, “Do you hear me?” She sighed. “When will he stop his tomfoolery? He is eighteen.” She took a deep breath. “He was eighteen.”
That night she couldn’t sleep, but walked to the window many times, opening it, and waiting. Other than an occasional auto rickshaw or a car curving around the alley, there was no motion from the outside world. She hoped anxiously that at least once she could see or hear as Rahul did. There was a gritty feeling to her skin, as if sand clogged her pores and no amount of scrubbing or washing would do. Aakash was three when he had refused to come to Vibha, and to tease her, jumped into the arms of her mother-in-law, who said, “Of course, he loves his granny more than his mother.” Vibha had wanted to grab her son, slap him, and then kiss him. But now she could do nothing. If he chose to show himself only to his brother, if he chose to call out for only his brother, there was nothing Vibha could do.
For weeks Vibha slept in Rahul’s room. A few times as she awoke at midnight with dry mouth and looked around for her water tumbler, she gasped on seeing a stupefied Rahul wandering the room or standing by the open window whispering into nothingness. One night when she saw Rahul sleepwalking toward the main door, she gave Rahul the pill the dispensary doctor had given. The remainder of the night she sat by his pillow, counting his snores.
* * *
One day in November, when leaves had lost their color and vigor, shrubs had begun shriveling in the cold, and a baffling autumn had seeped into dreary winter, both Sanjay and Vibha agreed it was about time. Rahul’s grandfather had delivered the ultimatum. “Either do something or lose this one, too.” Neighbors, schoolteachers, and tuition masters, all had expressed concerns. The final straw was when Vibha’s cousin shared the story of a friend, whose younger son hung himself from a ceiling fan, less than a year after the elder son had jumped from the fifth-floor balcony.
On a foggy morning, Sanjay and Vibha hailed an auto-rickshaw to take Rahul to a psychiatrist at Hamidia Hospital. Vibha rubbed Rahul’s knuckles. Sanjay, who had never believed in physical affection with his sons, touched Rahul’s head. They tried to reassure him and themselves that the visit was only a formality. Rahul was not like those who required electric shocks to jump-start their faltering brains. Rahul was not like the homeless beggar who screamed at drivers stopped at the red light of the B block that he was the chosen one, or like the son of Sanjay’s cousin born with a mental disability. Rahul was a teenage boy who until recently was a first-rate student, played table tennis, and borrowed English classics from the public library. How could he need a psychiatrist? Even cancer made more sense to Sanjay and Vibha. But this strange illness that derailed a healthy boy without as much as a physical touch? They didn’t have a word for it.
The psychiatrist’s assessment was grief and guilt causing depression and hallucinations. Sanjay and Vibha blinked. Rahul stammered, “But I really see him.”
Sanjay interjected, “He is a very smart boy.”
Vibha said, “Rahul has nothing to do with Aakash’s drowning. Why should he have any guilt? If someone is guilty, it’s those boys.”
An hour later, at the chemist shop behind Hamidia hospital, Sanjay asked the chemist the same question he had asked the psychiatrist, “Which one of these medicines doesn’t affect mental concentration? The boy needs to study for his finals.”
* * *
Two weeks after the visit to the psychiatrist, Vibha’s father’s younger brother, Dhruv, who had not been heard from in years, arrived unannounced. Vibha told him Aakash had died that year, for Dhruv was not aware. He did not keep in contact with any relations and lived in an ashram in Pune where he meditated, read scriptures, and chanted all day. This time he was on a tour of temples in North India and cruising through Bhopal, so he had decided to visit his niece, whom he hadn’t seen in a decade.
Vibha brought tea and potato patties, but he refused, accepting only a glass of warm turmeric milk. Suddenly, Dhruv said, “Did he drown?”
Sanjay, who sat across from him, nodded. Vibha jumped. “Who told you, Chacha?”
Dhruv looked around the living room. He went to Rahul’s room, opened the window by his study desk, and peeked outside. Vibha and Sanjay, exchanging glances, followed him. He came back to the living room, pulled out a package from his cloth shoulder bag, held it in his hands, whispered something, and gave it to Vibha. “Burn one incense stick every night for two weeks.”
Sanjay said, “What is this for? I don’t understand. What were you looking for?”
Vibha held back her tears. A hope arose in her that Aakash might indeed have been playing hide and seek with her for months. All she needed to do was to part that one curtain, and in the end, she would find him hiding behind it, unscathed and smiling. A strong desire to hold her son welled up inside her. “Do you see him, Chacha?” She asked, “Do you? Where is he?”
“He is here,” Dhruv said.
Vibha dropped to the ground. Sanjay fell back on the sofa, removed his spectacles, and let his tears flow unimpeded.
* * *
For the next two weeks, Dhruv did puja for Aakash’s salvation in his ashram in Bhopal. And Vibha burned the incense sticks every night in Rahul’s room. As the black stick seethed in flame and crumpled into ash and fell on Rahul’s desk, Vibha felt as if her son Aakash had died again and was cremated again and again every night. And with him each time, she died too. Each night, she collected the ash in her palm and swallowed it, the hot chalk dust smarting her throat.
* * *
Later, Sanjay said that Dhruv must have stopped by the Mother Dairy to ask for directions to their house, and thus had learned the story of Aakash’s death and his return. And that he was putting up an act to prove his clairvoyance. But a few weeks after Dhruv’s visit, and after a bottle of antidepressant, Rahul stopped seeing Aakash.
Vibha trashed the medicines on Christmas when she saw Rahul––getting ready to play table tennis with his friends––tying his sneakers, humming, and whistling. She went to him and kissed his forehead, which made him blush.
* * *
The chilling winters had passed. February promised a fresh crop of fragrant flowers. Vibha sat on the balcony beneath a sky that had begun to darken, revealing stars that sparkled from so very far away. She checked herself from labeling the stars as she had done since age seven when she named one after her grandmother. The year she got married, the brighter one to the west became her father. And after she had borne two sons, the one that seemed closest and biggest became her mother. In that way, whoever passed from the earth went to the sky and shined light on her. She had believed until Aakash drowned that the distance between the living and the dead was just that––merely distance.
She watched the stars erupt––the strangers they had now become. Dhruv had said those who died were embedded in smoke, which our vision and mind could not penetrate, like after the end of a show when actors disappeared behind a curtain, still near, yet vanishing from the stage and creating a void where they had once stood. Her grandmother, her parents, and her son were behind some curtain. But which curtain? So, the distance was not some physical distance but a film of smoke that blurred everything? She swung her arms around her. Could she feel anything? Friction in the air? A crack in the joints? She whispered, “Aakash.” Then closed her eyes. Eight months ago, she had agreed to give him the freedom he so desired. Letting him go three states south. Now, she had to accede to yet his other demand, the ultimate freedom––from returning home ever, from holding her shoulders when she stooped, from the duty of the eldest son to ignite his parents’ pyre. Freedom from having to live.
She opened her eyes. The clarity of the night burned them. It must be nine. Rahul and Sanjay must be waiting for dinner. She had to go to the kitchen to knead flour for chapattis and chop squash for curry. She had to rise for her family.
Parul Kaushik is a practicing physician who grew up in New Delhi. Currently, she lives in Dallas, hosting a popular radio show while working on her PhD in creative writing at the University of North Texas, where she is a scholarship recipient. Her writing has been supported by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She holds an MFA in fiction from Pacific University, and her work is forthcoming in The Georgia Review. She is working on a short story collection about places and traditions wrapped in Indian culture and mysticism. You can contact her at email@example.com.