I have been alive for as long as I can remember.
I have died more times than I can count.
These are my remembrances.
My sister, Sunaina, preferred to be called ‘Sun’ (the hindi word for ‘listen’).
She was, for lack of a better term, A LOT. Pinning her down with adjectives seems futile because the moment her memory looks through my eyes and reads them, she revolts.
When I write, ‘she was enthusiastic,’ the Sun inside my head boos and calls me names.
When I write ‘she was quick-witted’, the Sun inside my head says, “no you.”
When I write, ‘she was lazy,’ the Sun inside my head points to a white mug she made for my sixteenth birthday. It’s an ugly piece of home décor, don’t get me wrong, but I love it with the ferocity of the fire in which it was kilned.
So. I’m gonna say Sun loved interrupting and disagreeing and arguing with me while I was working, to the point where I would give up on the idea of whatever I was doing and make something entirely different just to piss her off.
The Sun inside my head is quiet.
Did she just checkmate me?
It was a perfectly boring summer vacation. The kind where I would usually find myself walking around the house with bleary eyes from not getting enough sleep and a headache from knowing that our spluttering mess of an air conditioner wouldn’t be turned on until 11 pm on an automatic 8-hour sleep timer.
Naturally, Sun and I were up all night.
Recently, she’d found a way to make an old Gameboy Pokemon title work on the ancient computer in our room. We worked out a deal: she had monitor privileges and I, speaker.
It was one of these nights when I was watching an ant undertaking an epic wall-climbing expedition scored by Led Zeppelin’s Ramble On, that Sun added a whispered refrain of “Fuck these Zubats” to Robert Plant’s iconic chorus and pushed herself away from the old desk to look me dead in the eye.
“What do you think happens when we die?”
This wasn’t an uncommon line of questioning to expect when you lived with someone who spent half her time downright abusing Wikipedia’s Random Page button, so I played along.
“If you’ve been good, they give you a hundred Master Balls to catch every legendary Pokemon that’s ever existed. If you’ve been bad, it’s an infinite walk down a Zubat-infested Mount Moon with no Escape Ropes or Repels.”
“And if you’ve been decent?” she challenged me.
“Do you really wanna be in the decent book?” I shot right back, doing my best Regina George impression as I said ‘decent’.
“Depends on who’s judging,” she said, grinning. Her face turned thoughtful and she made her serious eyes, asking for a serious response.
I gave her a quick nod to tell her I was thinking about it. My eyes moved back to the ant that was currently doing its best to navigate the less-than-ideal terrain presented by the half a million scraps of paper taped to the wall which represented everything Sun and I loved about the outside world.
“I think we forget,” I sat up, catching even myself by surprise by the sudden clarity as this idea took hold of me and I went into what Sun called ‘Professor Mode’, “you know how everyone who’s been close to death and survived talks about their life flashing before their eyes?
I think it’s because when we’re finally at the end, we’re trying our best to remember everything we wished wouldn’t die along with us. Maybe it’s because we know that, on the other side, we forget who we are and everything we ever were. It’s a last grasp at memory before we fade away into nothing.”
Okay, I talk a lot of shit about Sun but she never made fun of me for going out on a limb. No matter how dumb or pretentious or wordy the idea, she could tell when I was being earnest.
“That’s definitely interesting,” she said after a minute, “but I think your grand theory’s missing something.
What you said sounds very much like Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night, which is fine if you’re Chris Nolan pretending to be Stan Kubrick, but it’s quite depressing. Sure, we get forget everything, but some people would prefer that, you know? Maybe it’s not them fighting to remember but just peacefully taking stock and letting go. Like, taking a shit a few hours after lunch. Knowing there’ll be dinner soon helps but even if there isn’t, you gotta get the shit out.”
I giggled, “Yeah, I guess I see your point. So, we’re both agreed on no life after death.”
“That’s the verdict for now,” she sighed and went back to avoiding Zubats.
I turned to the ant. It had made some progress and was trying to climb the switchboard now. It went around the nearest corner but as soon as it set foot on the glossy plastic, it lost its grip and fell to the ground.
A few lifetimes away, I stir awake inside the warm, wet earth.
I spend days shaking off the drowsiness that comes with being a newborn and explore my surroundings. I reach out around me and grab at microscopic veins of nitrogen, carbon and a few other minerals whose names I’m not educated enough to know.
As I tap into those resources, I feel other consciousnesses; their messages reaching me through subtle changes in the temperatures of the minerals I was so hungrily consuming. I don’t understand what they’re saying but their presence is soothing.
Consuming, and growing towards the great heat above me, I start trying to decipher those messages.
The day I break through the surface and finally feel the great heat on my body is also the day I successfully decipher my first message. I don’t know how I knew this, but I understood that it was from a consciousness born centuries before my great grandmother. I will try transcribing their emotions to your language to the best of my ability.
“Awake, young sapling?” says Elm.
I know what they mean. While my mind has been active and striving to understand my reality, breaking through the surface gave me what I didn’t even know I was missing. Like three different senses coming to life at once.
The first, and most important, was bathing in the great heat.
I felt its light sharpening my fledgling mind.
The second was the realm of breath. My whole life up until this point, I had spent constricted against the warm, dark underrealm. The realm of breath is its polar opposite. Its touch is gentle and ever-changing. The warmth from the great heat radiates to my extremities above the surface and the realm of breath exchanges that heat for moisture.
It took me weeks to figure out the third. The words Elm emoted through minerals in the underrealm were fused with air from the realm of breath. It was only after I had understood this, that I was able to send my own message. I thought hard about how to respond to Elm’s gentle welcome.
You may have trouble understanding this but conversations in this lifetime were punctuated with days, weeks or sometimes years of silence. Impatience was not an emotion our kind ever knew because there were endless curiosities to occupy the imaginations of even saplings like me.
In the year that it took Elm to respond, I recognized lifeforms of various sizes moving on and around me. Sometimes, something large would push me out of its way. Smaller creatures would crawl up my body and find a comfortable spot on one of my arms to rest.
There were others that wouldn’t move for weeks, slowly consuming my extremities until they came to a stop for a long, long while; hanging onto my arm as a dead weight until suddenly they turned hollow. The changes in the realm of breath would inform me that the dead weight had given birth to a creature with rapidly fluttering wings.
“Good,” comes Elm’s warm response with a spike of nitrogen signifying what I assumed was a gift.
That threw me off. Was I supposed to send a gift of my own? What possible gift could I send to a consciousness as ancient as Elm? My concerns led me to sending out messages to the other, younger consciousnesses around me.
The consultation lasted a decade.
In the decade of summers that followed our last conversation, Sun and I grew apart and closer in spurts.
She became a journalist and, as is tradition for journalists in our great nation, was thrown in prison for various heinous crimes such as suggesting maybe Kashmiris weren’t doing so great or daring to question the legitimacy of a democracy where bureaucracy strips half its population of voting or, my personal favourite, dubbing a jingoistic citizenship bill “PakiMan! Gotta catch ‘em all!” in a lacerating piece of satire.
I, on the other hand, had been focussing my efforts on making all the right career choices.
Comfy corporate job that pays the bills? Ugh, boring.
Putting my back into actually writing fiction like I’d always wanted to? If the world doesn’t give me three book deals and a movie sight unseen, then the idiots don’t deserve my talent!
Gaining even ONE marketable skill that didn’t depend on the mercurial whims of middle managers who said things like ‘hashtag innovation’ unironically? For shame! I am a creative!
It’s a special kind of pain when you need to withdraw cash from your credit card on a god-knows-who’ll-pay-this EMI to bail out your revolutionary little sister who’s arguably more broke than you are but is at least doing something with her life that helps heal the world rather than hurt it.
I sold my soul and all I have to show for it is an empty bank account and a couple of nice sneakers.
Of course, Sun noticed my anxiety and general quarter-life angst.
“You know it’s just a job, right?” she asked me one day while we were walking around the neighbourhood market looking for something to snack on. I had just finished telling her how I proud I was of her, for the umpteenth time. She picked up on the ‘and I’m garbage’ subtext hidden among all the ‘you’re amazing’.
I looked at her, wanting to believe what she was trying to tell me, that what I did and what I was worth were two ideas completely unrelated to one another. I wanted to tell her I understood but all I could manage was a weak smile, because I didn’t understand.
She came to a complete stop and turned to face me, fire in her eyes, “I need you to tell me you understand that it’s just a job. I need you to say the words.”
“It’s not, Sun,” I said, offering an admittedly pathetic protest, “I can quantify the good you’re doing. I can point to specific people whose lives you’ve made better by doing what you do. All I do is lie about fucking Air Jordans and air purifiers for an amount of cash so low, I couldn’t afford either. It’s a job to me. It’s a life to you.”
“You seem to know a lot about life,” she said quietly, “my life and your life and all the lives of all the specific people you think are doing great because of me. You have it all figured out, right? What makes one life great, and the others a waste? You’ve built yourself another of those grand theories and you’ve told consigned yourself to the worthless pile.”
“Those are my general feelings, yes. Thanks for catching up so fas-”
She slapped me before I could finish my big anti-hero sarcastic conversation-ender.
Alright, kids. Here’s a few things you should note before you go around dramatically slapping each other in public. First, try doing it in a deserted area. We had to do a full ten minutes of damage control by assuring concerned strangers that this was just a case of sibling infighting and nothing much more sinister.
Second, it’s probably going to take you a while to get back to whatever it is you were slapping/getting slapped for. Before we got anywhere close to a conversation, it took us half an hour of walking, splitting a cigarette, splitting another cigarette and coming across one of the rarest public amenities in India: a bench to rest our tired asses.
“Been watching a lot of Splitsvilla?” I offered the half-hearted joke as an olive branch.
“I’m not in the mood”
“I’d offer my other cheek, but I’ve read your piece on Gandhi”
“Good, because I’m not done beating the stupid out of you”
“You’d need kickboxing lessons for that. There’s a lot of stupid in me”
“Can you stop doing that?”
“Talking about yourself like you hate yourself”
“I do hate myself”
“That’s stupid. Want me to beat it out of you?”
She laughed despite herself. We were okay.
“Sun, I know what you’re trying to tell me. I don’t know where to find the strength for that. If I could afford therapy, I’d get it, but you know how it is.”
“That’s not why I’m mad at you.”
“Is this about the time I deleted your game before you finished your Pokedex? I said I was sorry!”
“This is about you being a fucking idiot. And you are an idiot. All those times, you’d go into Professor Mode and I’d be astounded because you sounded like someone who had understood things. But what you said earlier really makes me doubt that.”
I didn’t respond. She was looking at me with her serious eyes.
“You made this whole story about my life in your head and you left out the most important part. Not only that, you’ve taken the most important part of my life, you’ve taken YOURSELF, and you’ve doused it in hatred, set in on fire and thrown it in the trash. What do you think that feels like?”
She was close to tears. So was I.
“You’ve been taking my life and systematically editing yourself out of it. What gives you the fucking right? You think I care more about people I’ve never met than you? Do you need me to remind you of every time you’ve shown up for me without hesitation when no one else in the world would? You’ve taken my job, which I happen to love by the way, and weaponised it against yourself. As if those two parts of me could EVER be at odds.”
She was ugly crying now. So was I.
“You think you’re worthless when you’re worth more to me than anything this world could offer me. And I keep thinking you’re doing this, you’re writing yourself out of my life, because you’re planning to do something stupid. I see your fucking arm. Don’t you DARE try and hide it away. STOP. BEING. SO. FUCKING. STUPID.”
Let’s fast-forward a bit.
You’re not missing much. We did a lot of crying and hugging and telling each other how much we love each other. We got ice cream later, picked up a bottle of Old Monk and binged Drag Race through the night. #TeamYvie for life.
I moved in with her, we lived happily ever after for a while. And when things got dark, one of us could usually bring the light.
And then, the virus.
After a lot of careful consideration, The Grove settled on a plan.
Every spring, the forest lost an Elm to the light-footed weapon-wielder.
There were precious few left.
Considering the pattern of mineral nodes which went quiet, we knew this year the weapon-wielder would have their sights on our ancient friend. We also knew the light-footed were incredibly intelligent yet incredibly fragile. Their young would climb our arms; some were as nimble as the furry nut collector; others would inevitably set their eyes on a fruit out of their reach and inevitably fail.
It took a while for the fallers to try climbing up on our arms again, which led us to believe they weren’t really much of a threat unless they were wielding weapons. We liked them without the weapons. Some of us had even got into the habit of concentrating our fruit where the young could easily get them.
Others would shake a little extra vigorously on breathy days, shaking loose some fruit in the process.
A few springs ago, one of us, Etra, had discovered on accident that the light-footed didn’t much like buzzers. A light-footed couple were resting against Etra’s trunk when a breath flowed through the forest. Etra thought it might be nice to reward the couple with a few fruit.
However, Etra was also playing host to a colony of buzzers and when they shook themselves, the colony of buzzers dropped an arm’s distance from the couple.
We had never known such anger from the buzzers, and such speed from the light-footed.
Both, the buzzers and the couple were lost to us quicker than a nut collector.
Thus was born the plan to repay Elm for their kindness.
The spring before Elm’s felling was due, The Grove spent an extraordinary amount of our resources to make our arms attractive to buzzers. We made our flowers sweeter than usual, and asked the forest surrounding The Grove to lessen their sweetness. They graciously conceded once they were informed this was for the ancient Elm.
One does not grow ancient by being unkind to their neighbours.
The day the light-footed weapon-wielder arrived, every tree in The Grove had a colony of buzzers on their arm. As the weapon-wielder made their way to the Elm, all of us received a message through the myriad mineral nodes that fed us all,
A separate, quieter message to me,
“Stay awake, young sapling”
The weapon-wielder was now next to the Elm, making their preparations. They leaned their belongings against Etra, the closest to Elm, and struck.
The mineral node shuddered with pain.
We waited for breath. It will not fail us today. It must not fail us today.
The weapon-wielder struck again.
A softer, stifled utterance of pain made its way through the mineral node. The Elm had been caught unaware the first time and they were doing their best to stifle their cries. The Grove shuddered with sudden anger but we were powerless. Without breath, all we could do was witness.
The weapon-wielder struck a third time.
This time, the utterance was barely noticeable. A simple vibration instead of the spikes we’d felt earlier. This was not the Elm quieting their cries. This was the Elm slowly losing consciousness.
The mineral node network lit up with an energy rivalling the great heat. Frantic messages to the Elm to sustain their consciousness just a bit longer. Every tree, every plant, every sapling sent whatever resources they could spare the Elm’s way until a quiet but firm message rang out from the Elm,
“Save your heat for the cold, saplings.”
The weapon-wielder struck once, twice, three more times.
With each strike, The Grove glimpsed more clearly an emotion they had never felt before – impatience. And suddenly, as if attracted by the sight of a species spontaneously evolving, the breath came.
Cool and firm, the breath surrounded The Grove.
Building momentum, the breath danced among us.
Furious and frenzied, the breath danced among us.
Calling its sisters from the corners eight,
Summoning its mother from heaven’s own gate,
Humming a war hymn spun by Fate:
Gather ’round, saplings. Sorry we’re late.
Whipping, lashing, freezing, gnashing,
the breath. danced. among us.
Sufficiently loosened, Etra was the first to drop her buzzer colony. The weapon-wielder stood no chance. They left their belongings where they were and tried to scurry away, but their path was blocked by a buzzer colony wherever they went.
The Grove was huge, and we were all children of Elm.
Once they were away, the Elm gently spoke,
“That was quite the presentation”
The mineral node network lit up like nothing I’d ever seen.
It remained that way a few days, but by the end of the week, the weapon-wielder brought down earth-shifters and clawed beasts. The Grove was gone in less than half a day.
Nevertheless, we had given ourselves a Farewell the Forest would remember for centuries to come.
These are two among the countless lives I have known.
Forgive my manner of speaking, I am, how you say, quite The Boomer.
Sun was my sister, and Sun was me.
Elm was my parent, and Elm was me.
I was Etra. I was the ant.
I was every sapling in The Grove.
I was the weapon-wielder.
I was the breath.
I was the buzzer.
Though, I never know it at the time.
I forget myself whenever I am born.
I remember for a few moments, after I die.
And then, the cycle begins again.
I am no god. I have no power.
I exist. And I remember.
If you are, if you ever have been.
Know that you are remembered.
Farewell, for now.
I am off to be a hippo.