K Vish is from Chennai. He lives in New York, where he works as an editor of nonfiction books. He wrote the Dr. K's Cure for Sanity column for the New Indian Express from 2008-2013. His writing for children has appeared in anthologies like The Moustache Maharishi and This Book Makes No Sense. His writing for grownups has been published in The Pinch, Helter Skelter, and elsewhere. Find him online at fikshvish.wordpress.com.
In a draft of her obituary, I described Maria as a tireless champion of the underprivileged — but that’s not quite true. Maria was often tired. She suffered from a fatal condition that made her prone to wearing out quickly, and when she did, she was more than willing to take a break. Self-care first, she always said. Charity begins with oneself, she always said. She always said, why should I not be charitable with myself, a tireless champion of the underprivileged? So we’d go to Prague for a week and spend most of our time in the hotel, ordering room service and watching Czech TV and making half-hearted attempts at sex. She was always tired before either of us was finished.
Then we’d be back in Delhi and she’d go back to her NGO, organizing field visits to remote tribal villages in Jharkhand to distribute medicines to cure tribalism. Or something like that. I may be misremembering. I’ve always prided myself on being a good listener but I’m starting to wonder if being a good listener is more than just staying silent and nodding a lot.
That may have been something Maria told me.
I never quite grasped the nature of Maria’s work, so I went through her email with the aim of finding out. I hoped to discover that Maria’s life as I knew it was an elaborate sham, a cover for her activities as a spy for some nefarious global organization. That all her field visits to remote tribal villages were in fact recon missions to military bases and secret rendezvouses with Naxalites.
I found nothing of the sort. Maria’s emails were dreary reading: by and large they were exchanges with doctors in hospitals around the world in which she described her symptoms and attached copies of her medical reports and blood tests and scans, and they replied by admitting they were stumped.
Maria had given me the password to her email when she began to seriously decline. “I’m giving you this,” she said, handing me a sealed envelope, “to be used only in case of emergency.”
“Would your imminent death count as an emergency?” I asked. “You do realize you’re dying.”
“I’ve been dying a long time, so no, that’s not an emergency. I mean an emergency leading up to my death. As far as I’m concerned, once I’m gone, you can do whatever you damn well please,” she said. “Read my emails, incite a communal riot, whatever – just keep all your planned philandering to yourself so I can go in the peaceful belief that you’ll never be with another woman.”
This, I learned later, had been a strange, cruel jibe. Nothing in Maria’s emails would have been useful in an emergency, and none of it told me much about her work – but it turned out that she’d known about my philandering all along.
I don’t want to bring it up, Maria said in an email to her best friend Marjoram, I don’t want to ruin the last few days he and I have with each other. Let him go screw other women. I’ll pretend I don’t know.
That email was dated years before she died. She took longer to go than anyone expected.
Marjoram was the one who’d told her about my philandering. I’d have kept quiet about it, she told Maria in an email, if he was only having an affair with me. But when I found out he’d been sleeping with all these other women, I felt compelled to inform you.
It was true, of course, the multiple women—I had, after all, found myself at #4 on litrag.com’s “50 Most Scrumptious Children’s and YA authors (and how you can find and fuck ‘em)” — but Marjoram was special; she’d been my lover for such a long time, I hadn’t expected her to betray me like that. I decided our affair could no longer continue. But I had to end it gently. She’d just lost her best friend—to now lose her lover could be devastating.
So I sent her an email from Maria’s account. Marjoram, I wrote, if you have any respect for the dead, you’ll end this affair at once. Love, your late best friend Maria.
Marjoram emailed me minutes later. It’s over between us, she said. I may have been willing to make a cuckquean of your wife, my best friend, while she was alive and dying. But I will not besmirch the fidelity of a dead marriage.
I had to stop and look up cuckquean: Female equivalent of cuckold.
I called Marjoram straightaway. “What the hell?” I asked.
“It’s the strangest thing,” Marjoram said. “Maria just emailed me from the afterlife.”
I tried to act surprised. “The afterlife? You know, she could have set up her email account to send out some emails after she died.”
“Hmm, yes, or that.”
“What did it say?” I asked. “Her email to you.”
“Oh, just the usual: Marjoram, you are my dearest friend, please die soon so you can join me in heaven. It’s wonderful up here but I’m lonely without you. You know Maria and her sense of humour. Anyway, it just makes me feel really guilty, like she’s watching us from wherever she is. So we have to end it.”
“She didn’t mention me?” I asked.
“She didn’t say she was lonely in heaven without me?” If Marjoram was trying to spare me the knowledge that Maria knew about the affair all along by lying about what the email said, she could have at least mentioned my name.
“I’m sure she said something of the sort in her posthumous email to you. Besides, you’re Hindu. You can’t go to heaven.”
“Sure I can,” I said. “Haven’t you heard of swarga?”
“What about all the rebirth stuff?”
“I think that’s optional.”
“Bullshit it’s optional.”
“I think you get to take breaks in heaven between births.”
“Listen, the only place you’ll be taking breaks is hell.”
“Well, in her posthumous email to me, Maria said Marjoram is a piece of shit and I never really liked her.”
“I’m sure she did,” Marjoram said, and sniffed, and for a moment I hoped she was sniffing sadly, but when she sniffed again I heard that it was a supercilious sniff. “Anyway, this was fun while it lasted. Take care.”
Marjoram wasn’t the least bit choked up about breaking up with me. She said she felt guilty but there wasn’t a trace of guilt or regret in her voice. Either Maria’s death was a convenient excuse to do something she’d been intending to do for a long time, or maybe Marjoram was suddenly bored with our relationship now that it was no longer an affair.
I wasn’t going to be broken up with so painlessly. I was an enswooner of women – mothers, especially, who would find themselves getting hot around the collar as they read my books to their toddlers (Marjoram had been a schoolteacher). I was the heartbreaker, not the heartbreakee.
“I’m coming over,” I said. “If you’re going to break up with me, do me the courtesy of doing it in person.”
I turned up at Marjoram’s with tickets to Prague. “We went every year,” I told her. “Maria and I. Now there’s no Maria, but I’ve still got these tickets. Come with me.”
“I don’t have a visa or anything.”
I held up my wife’s passport. “Maria does.”
Marjoram felt like taking a risk. Her best friend had just died. “Let’s go,” she said.
I would be missing Maria’s funeral to go to Prague, but I figured that Prague, with its hotel rooms and Czech television, would prove more fertile ground for writing an obituary for Maria than listening to canned condolences and tired platitudes.
Marjoram may have looked like my dead wife – enough to make it past immigration – but unlike Maria she wasn’t interested in room service or half-hearted attempts at sex.
“Let’s go see the castles,” she said.
“There are castles?”
During the day Marjoram would go sightseeing while I sat in the hotel café and tried to remember things about Maria to write in her obituary; in the evenings Marjoram would return to our hotel room and share a bed with me, under the condition of no hanky panky. She was serious about this, it seemed, despite the fact that she changed into a maddeningly titillating nightgown every evening.
“Please?” I’d whimper, as I reached out to her under the covers. “You remind me so much of her. You look just like she did before she started to die.”
But Marjoram proved to be far more immune to my charms than she had been when her best friend was alive. All I wanted was to be inside her only to find myself unable to finish, overcome with grief over my dead wife. Maria and I used to do this, I would sob, in this very bed, and Marjoram would embrace me tenderly, cooing pity in my ear through the night.
She was having none of it.
Nearly as frustrating was that I was failing to make any progress on my obituary for Maria.
“I need your help with this obituary,” I said, when she returned one evening from a day of sightseeing.
“Beloved wife to you, beloved daughter to her parents, beloved best friend to me. First rate researcher. Lifelong sufferer of fatal condition,” Marjoram said. “Keep it short. You have to pay by the word.”
“I need more than that. Expectations are high. This obituary needs to be a masterpiece.”
“Write about her best qualities,” Marjoram said.
“What do you think was her best quality?”
“She was pretty funny, I think.”
“I can’t just say she was funny, I have to give examples.” I thought about it for a moment. “I can’t remember laughing at anything she said.”
“Why did you marry her then?”
“I thought she was a tragic figure who would be a source of inspiration for my work. That doesn’t seem to be the case, in death at least.”
“Why don’t you read me what you’ve got so far.”
“Maria was always a source of inspiration to me. She was a tireless champion of the underprivileged,” I read. “That’s all I have so far.”
“That’s not quite true, is it?”
“Yes, I know, she was often tired.”
“No, I mean, she wasn’t a champion of the underprivileged.”
“Of course she was. She was always going out to remote villages and interviewing dispossessed tribals and handing out cures for tribalism et cetera.”
“Is that what she told you?”
“I may have misheard.”
“She stopped doing NGO work a long time ago. She was hired to do market research for the tobacco industry. She was handing out cigarettes.”
“She didn’t even smoke!”
I couldn’t think of a way to work that into Maria’s obituary and spin it into a positive. And so, at the end of our two weeks in Prague, Marjoram had managed to see every castle and sculpture in the city and I’d managed to delete one of the two sentences I’d written. We were at Václav Havel airport to catch our flight home when passport control detained Marjoram. I waved goodbye as they took her away for questioning. I proceeded to boarding with melancholy in my heart.
I had just settled into my seat with a business class mimosa in hand when my phone began to ring.
“Maria’s funeral was a tremendous event. We wish you could have been there. Such inspiring tributes to Maria’s life and work. Dozens of smokers who had been lifted out of tribalism thanks to Maria’s efforts attended the service. They sang a beautiful dirge, hoarsely. There’s a video of it in my email to you, along with all the other photos.”
I’d seen an email from my father-in-law in my inbox but hadn’t opened it. I didn’t want distractions while writing.
“I wish I could have been there too,” I said, “but I had to take the regular trip to Prague. Maria would have wanted me to.”
“Of course. You’ve been a wonderful son-in-law to us,” my father-in-law said. “So supportive.” I hadn’t had a conversation with Maria’s parents in years, but I’d been paying their rent for even longer.
“Sir, I have to ask you to switch off your phone,” a flight attendant said to me.
“Anyhow we are very much looking forward to your obituary for her. Expectations are running high.”
It was true. My publisher had paid me a large advance for it and I was behind schedule. “Death memoirs are big right now,” she’d said.
“But I’m a children’s book writer.”
“It’ll be the publishing story of the decade. Worldwide sensation author of bestselling children’s books Chilli Gobi for Chhotu and Kafka Goes to Hauz Khas writes a heartfelt, tragic memoir on the death of his wife.”
“My wife’s not dead yet,” I’d said.
“She’s dying, isn’t she?”
“Yes, but none of us knows how long it’ll be.”
“Listen, when she kicks the can, you’ll write an obituary for her. It’ll be great. Let us turn it into a book.”
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable—”
“Your American publisher is very interested in this idea. They’re prepared to pay you a sizable advance. Just think, you can use it to pay for your wife’s treatment.”
What my publisher didn’t know was that my wife’s condition was fairly inexpensive.
“No effective treatment for this condition exists,” her doctor told us. “If there were one, trust me, it would be very costly, but for now you’ll have to rely on these cheap medications to control your symptoms until you die. Consider it a blessing in disguise.”
Still, I took the deal. I signed the contract, committing me to submit Maria’s obituary to the publisher no later than thirty (30) days following the tragic demise of author’s spouse (author’s current spouse as of this contract date).
Twenty-five (25) days had elapsed since Maria’s death and I still had nothing.
“Yes, I am working on the obituary,” I told my father-in-law, or rather, former father-in-law. “It is coming along nicely.”
“Sir, we’re about to take off,” the flight attendant said. “Please switch off your phone.”
“We’re sorry she died on you at such a young age, we had hoped her health problems wouldn’t persist the way they did. In her matrimonial advertisement we should have perhaps been more candid. We wanted to, in fact: ‘Plagued by chronically fatal illnesses,’ we thought of saying in the ad, but Maria wouldn’t let us. ‘No one will marry me if you say that in the ad,’ she said, and she was right. We dropped that line, then she found you, the world-famous author. Only now perhaps you feel like you’d been conned.”
“Nothing of the sort,” I said. “The few years I spent with Maria were wonderful. I wrote some of my best work. I knew about Maria’s condition, in fact I married her for it. I guess I always imagined that when she succumbed to her condition, it would be in my arms, not in a remote village in Madhya Pradesh.”
“Oh, didn’t you read my email? Although Maria’s condition may have been killing her slowly,” her father said, “what killed her all at once was a mob.”
“She was killed by a mob? For distributing cigarettes to tribals?”
“No, for converting them. They were Bajrang Dal goons who thought she was a missionary.”
“She wasn’t even religious!”
“Sir, I’m not going to ask you again.”
“Fine, I’m switching off the damn phone! I have to go, Baba.”
“Beta, we will always consider you our son-in-law. I hope you will continue to—”
I spent the twelve-hour flight torn between trying to write Maria’s obituary—the tragic death of a woman whose gradual, inevitable death was cut short by a saffron gang who thought she was converting tribals when really she was just getting them hooked on cigarettes—and watching Dangal and Sultan on the in-flight entertainment. But slowly the words came; I pulled them out of me one at a time until I’d written an obituary long enough to fill sixteen spreads of an illustrated children’s book. An Incurable Inconvenience, I called it, a moving account of how I’d lost the love of my life – not to a disease, but to the evils of capitalism and religion.
As the plane touched down in Delhi, I turned on my phone and received a notification: I had a new email. From Maria.
You’re a piece of shit, it said, and I never really liked you.