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Neelakurinji

Story by Vibha Balaji (Read author interview) September 18, 2023

Art by Drew Beamer

The year you disappeared, I turned twelve.

I blew a candle out in the middle of the night and Achan made me wish for normalcy. What I really wished for was something simple. I asked for a sign. After Achan went to bed, I stayed awake waiting for the valley to speak to me. A collared dove bypassed the window and flew into my palm. We looked at each other, two diurnal creatures parlaying with God. You would have called this chinna athisayam, little marvel.

But you called everything a little marvel. The rain in Kodaikanal washing away the grass seeds in our garden, the Tuticorin boats disappearing in the winter, the neighbor’s grandson passing his board exams without arrears. And me, though I was neither little nor marvelous, mostly quiet, unpalatable, a daughter to you sometimes, other times a peculiarity.

In the morning I woke up and told Achan about the dove. He said nothing. When I came back from school I saw that he’d sealed our windows shut with polyurethane.

He was like that now. Unkind.

Maybe he was afraid of the signs.

You see, we cremated you after six months of waiting. Achan burned half a kilogram of neelakurinji and collected the ash in a steel dabba. Neelakurinji was your favorite flower. They bloomed in the valley every twelve years, a phenomenon you called periya chinna athisayam, big little marvel.

For eight weeks straight Achan went to work with blue petals in his pocket. He held onto signs like they arrived straight from God. One evening I found him in the kitchen making payasam out of the leaves.

I think he really believed you’d return.

*

Twenty-four came and I threw a party.

I made a drunk speech in a matchbox room about the future. Acquaintances gave each other bewildered looks. My friends signaled to me with their eyebrows that they were concerned.

I clambered down from my throne of gifts and waved a pinkie finger at my roommate Nila.

The door to our toilet is jammed, she said. Let’s use the neighbor’s backyard.

Squatting in the grass I told her about my mother.

She pulled her underwear up. I kept mine down. Piss dribbled down the sides of my calves.

I thought about a life in which I was not awaiting signs. A life in which I was more than the sum of my anticipation. What had I placed my faith in anyway? Not God. Certainly not you. I pinned my hopes on strangeness, the faint throbbing of my left eyelid, half servings of Mysore Pak, a discontinued advertisement on TV.

I told Nila her face was a little marvel and that I wanted to kiss it.

She responded, you can’t only come to me when you miss her.

Later that night, I called Achan because he’d stopped calling me. He still lived in our old house. The one I abandoned at eighteen for a job in the city.

Piranthanal varthukkal, he said.

Thank you, I whispered.

Have you been eating?

Yes. Have you been eating?

I eat lots of fruits and vegetables from the garden.

Okay. Good.

I waited for Achan to hang up. He waited for me to leave. Neither of us did. Instead we waited for a sign. It took forever, the clouds turning purple above us. But then there was a flower—the shape of it etched into the sky like a bruise.

Do you see it? I asked Achan.

There was a pause during which I thought I lost him.

A minute later his voice came, muffled through the speakers.

I see it, he said.

*

I moved back home at thirty-six.

Achan insisted he was fine on his own, but I could tell he liked having me there. In the mornings we harvested fruit and at night I dreamt of you.

You made garlands out of culms and told jokes. You kept having to restart the jokes because you were laughing so hard you could barely get to the punchline. You held on to the sides of your stomach, where your petticoat met your waist. Everything hurts, you said, as if it was my fault you were in pain. Look away.

According to you, I had a face like neelakurinji. Difficult to admire, rarely in bloom. I was a seasonal child. Joy could turn into sadness and sadness into joy. For half a year I was bearable, then abruptly, I was not. Twelve years into the future you saw no end to the flux, so you left. I held this truth to my chest and rocked it, this inconsolable grief; this baby of a thing—small and hard like a seed.

Achan would find me in the morning, shivering in a bed of flowers.

We would clutch each other tight and he would tell me: there is no unhappiness greater than the one we inherit.

(You never liked when he spoke in platitudes.

You never wanted comfort.

So what? Maybe I did.)

About the Author

Vibha Balaji graduated from The New School with an MFA in Fiction. Her short stories are an exploration of South Indian families, mothers and daughters, and the violence of inextricable relationships. She is presently working on a novel in which stuff happens.

About the Artist

Drew Beamer is a photographer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-One
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