I first saw her on the bank of Yamuna. Her eyes, dark, lost where the sun bled into the river. She did not blink, nor did she cry, she might have been saying a hundred goodbyes to her sister. Azan from a nearby mosque floated through the cold air and dissolved into the golden river. Her eyes moved up from the billowing waves to the wooden boat carrying her sister. The dusk shone gold, the light caressed the boatman’s head, her sister – wrapped in white – was still cold. The Azan stopped abruptly. Now there was silence, except for the waves. “Waves are Yamuna’s breaths,” she remembered her sister’s words. The boat soon came to a standstill; the boatman, with his oar, shoved her sister into the river. A splash was heard; the azan resumed. Her eyes were now affixed on her sister, floating on the breaths of Yamuna.
I saw her sister again when I crossed the bridge. The sky had turned dark by then, just like her eyes, staring down at the floating white.
It rained the next day. The river roared under the bridge, toppling a boat with her flow. When the rain stopped, I went to the slum to find her. The entrance to it was narrow, bordered by shanties. The roads were flooded ankle-deep; a dead cockroach floated on the waves. Bodies wrapped in white were being carried out of some houses to be dumped in the river. I walked forward – most of the shanties were not plastered, red bricks stared into the narrow street. At one end of the street, I saw a young woman drawing water from a borewell. Her thick black hair hid a good portion of her face. When she turned, I saw her again, the same dark eyes that I saw yesterday.
“Beti?” I called.
She tucked the plastic pot on her hip, spilling some water.
“Who are you?” she asked in a polite but scared tone.
“I am from the hospital,” I said as I took my ASHA identity card from my bag. Her face quickly turned red, her fingers trembled, spilling more water.
“Why are you here?” she asked, refusing to suppress her anger.
“Why did not you save didi?” she interrupted me. She must have figured that I did not have an answer to her question, in fact, to any question. I was as lost as she was.
Dark clouds have again gathered above us. A flash of lightning lit up the clouded sky, a thunder followed scaring a hen and its two chickens that nestled near the well; they ran to its owner’s house.
“You all killed her. You will kill me too,” she said. Tears trickled down her face.
What should I tell you, my dear child? Have not we all borne losses? Have not we all died many times already?
“Beti, your didi was sick. It was nobody’s fault.”
Would you not accept my apologies, my dear child? This is no truth. This is no truth.
“Please come to the hospital tomorrow. We will get you tested,” I said.
“Let me die, didi” She cried. “I am begging you, didi, let me die. How can I live here without her? Let me die,” she wailed. The plastic pot slipped from her hip and fell on the flooded floor. I took her into my arms. A lean ray of the sun pierced a dark cloud and fell upon us.
“I am here. I am here,” I whispered into her ears.
I saw her again almost a week after at the hospital. It was a Saturday, I remember. She was made to lie on a bed outside the main hospital building, with some other women from the slum. An oxygen mask covered her nose and mouth. There was a puddle of brown water under her bed, on it, a cigarette butt floated.
She waved her hand when she recognised me. I did not go near her. I knew she was in fear, but I chose not to go, for I did not have answers to any of her questions. What will I tell her if she asks, “Why did you kill my sister?” What will I tell her if she asks “Will I survive?” The hospital’s oxygen supply would run out soon. I saw the chief doctor making many calls, but it all proved futile. I went back into the hospital and inquired the nurse about her situation. The nurse did not reply, instead, she gently shook her head and placed her hand on my shoulder.
Outside, an ambulance wailed.
I saw her last on the bank of Yamuna. Those dark beautiful eyes are not to be seen anymore, she became a lump of white mass, which would soon float on the breaths of Yamuna. The boatman tied a rope around her neck and ankles, and boarded her onto the wooden boat. It was a moonlit night – a silver glow smeared over the pleasant waves. A priest from a nearby temple blew a the shankh (conch shell). The boatman, for a moment, got dissolved into tearful prayer. I too closed my eyes.
“Yamuna, the divine,
Yamuna, the nurturer,
Yamuna, the preserver,
Take this daughter of yours,
in to your motherly arms.” The boatman chanted.
I stared into the silver river. My heart whispered to her, “I am here, I am here.”