by Sandhya Srinivasan
Troy High School
The Room of Love and Shattered Dreams
Welcome home, the laburnum trees whisper, sending down golden petals to caress my shoulder. My footsteps echo on the tiled pathway. I am brought back to my childhood days, laughing and frolicking in the flowering garden, the sun beating down on my back. You were always there with me, rolling around in the grass, sticking sweet white champa flowers in your inky black hair. Then we would go in and down a glass of Horlicks, even though we hated it. I told you I once saw oil droplets in the milk, supporting our theory that the milk was adulterated. We hated the muddy brown color. You hated it most of all, refused to drink it unless you had to. Yet we were thirsty after playing, so we downed it. I wonder if you still drink it now. I doubt you do. But do you still think about it? Crave it even if you hate it?
The door stands in front of me. We have passed through its frame countless times. It has been years since I have done so. I fish the keys out of my handbag, fingering them sadly. Mum’s wooden elephant keychain still hangs on the ring. Dad’s Imperial College keychain is on the duplicate set. The door swings open to reveal a lonely house. Eerily quiescent. I cannot imagine our house without some kind of noise inside. Even the street is quiet. I cannot hear the koels calling nor the pigeons cooing. Have they left because you have gone?
Shutting the door behind me, I look up at my surroundings. The house feels too big, too silent. Too empty. With Mum and Dad gone, we are the last two survivors of the family. And yet I am the only one here. I climb slowly up the steps, feeling the smooth iron railing underneath my skin. My hands have touched this years ago. So have yours. I find myself on the landing, facing our old room. And it is still our room, because everything is still there where we left it. Our bed, our dressers, our mirror. Your beautiful painting of the Red Fort at sunset. My sketch of Queen Elizabeth II as a young woman. This room is full of you. Your face hangs on the wall, some staged, some natural. Your arms clasped around me, a radiant beam on your face. My head on your shoulder, your head on my head, staring out onto Lake Lucerne. Those were the days when you loved me.
You were my everything. My lighthouse, tall and proud, always guiding me home. I, the little ship tumbling on the stormy waters of my life, lost and disoriented. When you left, the light sweeping the sea suddenly snapped off, plunging me into darkness. I crashed into the coast, into those treacherous crags, splintered and battered by your betrayal.
And yet I loved you. Hated you. They are the same thing, are they not? I longed to kiss you, envelope you, run my fingers down the cascading ebony waterfall of your hair. And I longed to pummel you, scratch you, scream at you about your betrayal. Oh, the elision of my feelings. Fire and ice battled within me. But which one was which?
I remember the day you confronted Mum and Dad, revealing your plans for the future. A year hiking in New Zealand, working on farms. And then, painting. You always loved painting, didn’t you? You looked like a painting to me, always so vivid. Vivacious. You could have been a muse, a model. You, my beautiful Alekhya, my wonderful sister. While I preferred sketching, the stability and control of the pencil in my hand, the stark grey and white, you loved the colors of paint. You loved the fluidity, the graceful strokes on the canvas, the wildness. You loved it so much that you stopped loving us.
“I’m leaving, Tarana. I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again,” you said, your exquisitely sculpted face impassive. Dust particles floated in the soft afternoon light. You were by the window, looking out onto our garden, onto the tree-coated street filled with parrots and pigeons. Koels were singing – for you, I liked to think.
“What do you mean?” I cried, toying with my fingers uneasily. “You’ll visit, won’t you?”
“Mmm,” you murmured, your eyes never leaving the street. “Perhaps.”
I did not understand why you were so distant, so cold. Our parents hated your plan and wanted you to become a surgeon like you were going to become. Like you had already started to become. But I did not hate it. You were my sister and I was going to support you in everything you did. There was no reason to hate me. But perhaps you didn’t need a reason.
“This is goodbye, then?”
You turned around to look at me. This image has always stuck in my head: the sunglow illuminating your beautiful cheekbones and lucid hazel eyes. Your hair looked copper, like it was aflame. I ached to take a picture in that moment, sketch you, paint you. And then your smooth, full lips moved to form that terrible word.
You said it clinically, unblinkingly. I gulped, my lips and hands trembling. I could not imagine a life without you. You, one of the pieces of our family puzzle. Without you, I was not me. Mum was not her. Dad was not him. We were incomplete, a small piece of our hearts ripped out. My dreams flashed through my head. Dreams of what we would do together. You were going to volunteer at the shelter with me, walking dogs, feeding cats. You were going to test various hairdos on me. You were going to comfort me when I needed to feel safe. And now you were leaving, perhaps forever.
I remember you walking down the garden pathway, your taxi outside the gate. Mum and Dad watched from the doorway, anger and sadness swirling inside them, powerless to stop you. I stood by the window, watching your beautiful figure recede. My lighthouse, the light broken. You never looked back. My mouth twisted into a scowl, disgusted and hurt by your actions. You had broken the unwritten, unspoken Sister Code. We were supposed to be there for each other. We had to support each other. And then you let me down, let me fall to the hard ground. It was like in those movie scenes where a character walks casually away from an inferno. That was what you did to me.
I have healed, I suppose. I have learned to live without you. I have adapted, acclimatized. Mum and Dad, however, could not bear the thought of losing their firstborn. They grieved every day. They sobbed, clinging onto me like they were petrified of losing me too. I was scared and shattered. My strong, loving parents were suddenly reduced to such pitiful conditions. I no longer had anyone to look up to be comforted by. I had to take on that role. You left behind chaos. A broken family. I wonder if it ever tormented your conscience. Or did you paint us all away?
They were scared, Mum and Dad, to send me away to university. Back to London, far away from Delhi. Far away from their reach, their influence. They were worried that I would become like you: too independent and reckless.
“Don’t become too wild,” Mum told me, her eyes wide with concern. Don’t become like your sister was what she didn’t say.
“I won’t,” I replied firmly, determined not to be like you. “Alekhya and I are two wholly distinct people.”
We are, are we not? That is why I idolized you, was enamored with you. You were everything I was not, and much more. And yet, I did not want to be like you. I could not be so reckless, so free. I was always cognizant of consequences, always looking ahead to the future. You always said I worked much harder than you did. It was true, I think. I prepared myself to hit the books, complete the task. You, naturally brilliant, could get away with less work. You were always calm and relaxed. I was – and still am – an anxious girl, now an anxious woman. I worked so hard to relieve my stress. You said that I worked myself into even more stress. It was true. But that was how I functioned. I did not have your cool grace – your sangfroid.
I worked hard in university. I did not succumb to temptation like you did. Things like sketching, music, and writing stayed as my hobbies. I did fencing and horse-riding on the side. I still do all of these things. But I have yet to make a living out of them.
I sit on your wheelie chair. I wonder if you make enough money painting – if you still paint. I long to see your paintings, those swirls of self-concocted colors. I want you to deliver a painting in the mail to me so I can hang it up on the walls of my flat. But I know you will not. The moment you walked out on us, we ceased to be your family. I cannot fathom the reason why. We never gave you any cause to hate us, not that I know. We loved you. And a long time ago, you loved us too.
You loved me in this room. You also loved me in our old room in England, but you loved me for longer here. I remember playing carrom with you, my fingers sore from flicking the hard pieces. You always won. And I was jealous, yes, but also in awe. You painted in this room, dragging your easel out from its crook in the wall, exposing it to the strong, beautiful sunlight.
“I want to be a painter,” you confided in me once. “To do this forever…that’s bliss.”
“It sounds like it!” I responded enthusiastically. “What wonderful works you create.”
I should have seen it coming. Those were the first signs that you would go astray. But only to us, not to you.
So I said nothing, settling myself down to watch you paint. I feared I would make you uncomfortable, watching your every little stroke. But you tuned me out, wrapped a bubble around your head and worked.
Eunoia. That is what you had. What you still have, I am sure. A beautiful mind. I loved the way your mind worked, seamlessly blending logical analysis with unadulterated creativity. You viewed every painting analytically, sketching the lines first, working out all the proportions. And then you let the brush possess you, your hand moving so fluidly, like it was a dancer. I watched in fascination, my wild locks tumbling down the side of my face, my lips curved in a smile.
Do you ever paint me, Mum, or Dad? Sometimes I think you have forgotten what we look like; we have strayed so far for so long. Why? I know you loved us – maybe you still do. Sometimes I feel phantom hugs, your warm arms touching my cold skin. And then I desperately want to find you, crush you in a fierce embrace, kiss your cheeks a thousand times.
Perhaps we became obstacles to your dreams. Mum and Dad hated the idea of you becoming a painter. I did not, but I was worried. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his whole life; would you fare any better? I did not want you to gain fame posthumously, but rather while you were living so you could sap up the accolades and praise. Becoming a surgeon was safer, I thought. You must have sensed some inhibition on my part, perhaps when I looked down while you asked if I supported your choice. You wanted my backing, didn’t you? Even though I still supported you, you knew I was worried. I let you down because I thought I was doing the right thing for you. I’m sorry, my dear Alekhya. I must have broken the Sister Code, too.
The sky is slashed with a pinkish-orange. I have to find dinner. There is nothing much to cook with in the house: only packaged snacks are left. I wonder if the small restaurant in the marketplace nearby still stands. We used to go there, remember? Me, you, Mum, and Dad. It was a hole-in-the-wall, but you and I learnt never to underestimate them. The food was ambrosial, bursting with spices. You always had the garlic naan; I preferred the rumali roti, with its warm, soft texture. In any weather, the four of us would have a glass of fresh-lime soda. You and I shared, both fans of the sugar syrup we poured into it. Mum and Dad liked the salty soda, though we hated it. I suddenly desire a soda, sweet and quenching, capable of rushing me back to my childhood. When you were there and were my sister.
Much to my surprise, the restaurant is still there. I order what I used to order: rumali roti, dal makhani, and malai kofta. And, of course, a sweet fresh lime soda, never salty. I bring the food back home, pausing in the kitchen briefly to find a plate. Then a climb upstairs to sit in our room. It has a magnetic pull – almost like you still inhabit it. You too had a similar pull, alluring and charismatic. Your insouciance, your talents. Your bright smile and glossy rippling locks. You drew people into your orbit so easily. They loved you. I think they must still do, whoever they are.
I have a crazy urge to stay in our room forever. Perhaps in this whole house. It is full of Mum, Dad, and you. The only things I have left of my family.
I eat at my desk, the very same surface I used to do my homework on and draw. The house is so silent, yet I think I can hear voices. Mum calling me for dinner. Dad singing to the Rolling Stones. You singing to Les Miserables, perhaps while painting. I know I am imagining it all, so longing for the past that I am invoking it in the present. I sing softly, pretending I am singing with you. We are harmonizing, our voices complementing each other’s, your golden-honeyed voice trilling, vibrating tenderly. Suddenly it peters out, and my voice is left exposed, frail, quavering in light of the truth. You are not here.
I plod downstairs to wash my plate. You always delegated this task to me, skipping away happily before I could protest. Vexed, my soapy hands would vigorously scrub the dishes, my mouth set in a scowl. But now I long for you to come through the kitchen entrance and shirk your duties, entrusting them to me. I long for Dad to call after you and tell you to come back and do your chores. If only I had known to relish washing dishes in my childhood. If only.
I wander around the kitchen, touching surfaces I hadn’t touched in years. Thin layers of dust have migrated onto them, but I am not surprised. In fact, I am warmed, just ever so slightly. Only in India can dust settle so quickly; I know I am home. These particles are my old acquaintances, though I used to wipe them, hate them. I don’t love them, but as I sweep my finger across the black countertops, I look at the grey grains on my hand with slightly kinder eyes. Dust. You are floating with them too. Your essence. Perhaps your cells, still lingering long after you have left. With each dust particle latching onto my finger, there, I hope, is one particle of you.
“You,” I breathe, unsure of why I opened my mouth. I need to say something, something to fill the silence in the house. Something to fill the gap in my heart.
I wash my finger in the sink. The dust whirls down the drain. Maybe you do too.
I go back upstairs, shadows painting the walls. Pictures of all of us are scattered on the walls, though not in a haphazard fashion. I can barely make out our faces, but I know these pictures by heart. Something escapes from my body suddenly. A sob. Mum and Dad look so alive in these pictures, when in reality, they are simply ashes scattered over the ground. I did not pour them in the Ganga like other people do. I simply released them back to the earth, back to their mother.
And you. You are alive in these pictures too, laughing and smiling. In some you look pensive, your beautiful face quietly reflecting on something I do not know about.
My feet feel leaden as I reach the landing. Sorrow, the pressure on my body, on me.
I change into sweatpants and an old shirt, then brush my teeth. I briefly consider having a sweet, but it seems wrong, illicit, to be savoring all the wonderful saccharine when my parents have died and you have left me. No, my dessert will be the memory of you and my parents.
I read for a little while – a book plucked off the shelves in our room. Narnia, my childhood refuge. I wonder why I did not take it with me when I left for university.
Lassitude slips its warming embrace around me, shrugging itself onto my shoulders like a coat. My eyelids droop and I struggle to open them to read the words on the page. Even though it is only afternoon in England, I feel weary. I put my book away, flick off the lights, and sink into our bed, alone.
Soft grey light streams in through the open curtains. I stir, sitting up slowly. Another morning in New Delhi, except that it is my first in ages. I shuffle to the window, looking out onto the garden and the street. It is tranquil in the early hours of the day, almost like it is another city. It is unlike India’s nature to be so peaceful. Yet here, the mornings are calm, relaxing. Small signs of life were threaded into the city here and there.
My impending decision sits heavily in my chest. I came back here to sort out the family affairs, picking up from where Dad left off after he passed away. He tried so hard to move on from Mum’s death; it broke my heart to see him coping with his loss, our loss, alone. I regret not coming home sooner. He said he could manage, that he would be fine.
“After all, I think I’m strong, right? I’m your strong father, Tarana. I’ll get through it,” he said, trying to disguise his quivering voice and trembling fingers. Oh, Father. How he suffered. You were not present when Mum died, nor were you present when Dad did, too. I did not expect you to be, though I had a foolish hope that you would be there.
I wanted to sell the house initially. But now I cannot bear the thought of losing everything I have left of you, Mum, and Dad. Giving it all to strangers, watching my family evanesce. No, no, I cannot do that. I must keep it.
Oh, it is an impulsive decision. It was not my intention to have two homes, but I cannot walk away from this house, this room. This alluring, magnetic room. This room where I loved you and you loved me back. Where you shattered me and left me to pick up my pieces. Where you were my sister and I was yours.
No, this room must be preserved. Mum and Dad must be preserved. You must be preserved.
I still cannot understand why you left us. That, I think, will be the biggest mystery in my life, one that will remain unsolved. I am content with that, however. I still have you, who you used to be, with me. In this room, this empty house that seems to be filling up now. Filling with memories, joy, sadness. A bittersweet cocktail of every emotion.
Something rushes into my heart, and I can feel it in my chest, my head, my whole body. Something inexplicable, but I know what it is. I have not felt it since you left. It is like some sixth sense that tells me how you are. I know you are not dead or suffering. My bones and muscles relay the message. She is not dead, nor suffering. Alive and well, yes. Happy. As long as you are satisfied with life, so am I. I shall wonder about you periodically, but I will not fret. It is hard coming to terms with your disappearance, but, for your sake, I will. Alekhya, my sweet sister, I will always remember you as you were, my beacon of comfort, my heartbreaker. Wherever you are, I shall love you. I shall keep this house somehow, even though I must fly back to my other life. But I will not let my loves fade away after their deaths and disappearances.
Goodbye, Mum and Dad. I never got to say farewell properly. I don’t think I ever shall. I love you both too much. Watch over me and Alekhya. And Alekhya, darling, goodbye. Goodbye, my beautiful family. But also, hello.
Up in the laburnum trees on the awaking street, a koel starts to sing.
"The Room of Love and Shattered Dreams" was the winner of our 2018 Stephen Bonga Award for High School Students (Prose)
Sandhya Srinivasan is a student and avid writer in Troy, Michigan. She can be found either reading, drawing, listening to music whilst doing a crossword puzzle, or watching movies and television shows. She loves collecting foreign currency, model horses, and hotel key cards, but also stories, to write later.