Ravi is a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Chengdu, China. He is also the managing editor of MaLa – the China Bookworm Literary Journal. When he is not teaching English, travelling, or acting like he understands Chinese, he writes short stories. The Curtain is his first published story.
“Raghu, have you come to see a man die? Are you entertained yet? Because the show is about to end soon,” my father says. He’s lying in bed in the middle of the living room and his eyes are glued to the TV, watching reruns of Knight Rider. Manu, the young, dark housekeeper in an untucked white shirt two sizes too large for him, goes past my father with my duffel bag to a room in the back.
“Don’t think of this as anything. I don’t even want you here. Darn management. Overdramatizing every little problem. I’m fine. Can’t they see?” he says, struggling to speak with his jaw twitching.
My father lives in a retirement community on the outskirts of Coimbatore in South India. He has been living here for eight years. I last saw him two years ago when my mother passed away due to cancer. They had lived together happily then. But from what Mr. Anand, the community manager, tells me, my father had become reclusive, stubborn and bitter. To me, these traits don’t seem abnormal at all. Then again, the residents and management of the community were used to seeing a brighter and amicable Mr. Kumaraswamy.
Two days ago, my father collapsed in the hall while reaching for a prayer book on the shelf. He had a heart attack. Yet somehow, the tough, stubborn old man willed himself to live. His subconscious baffles me. He is 79 years old. He doesn’t have the energy to walk far, and to walk, he needs a cane. He can only eat bland food — that is, on days his body allows him to eat. And he has no one he considers close family or friend. He is just a collection of human bones loosely wrapped in thin, gray skin.
Mr. Anand called me when my father was admitted to a nearby hospital. The management had difficulties in finding the next of kin. No one was listed as an emergency contact. My father received no outside visitors, based on the entry records collected at the community gate. Mr. Anand had come across my contact information on the deed. He updated me on my father’s state, summarizing the last two years of his life in five minutes.
I had spent 28 hours travelling halfway across the world on three flights and a one-hour bus ride to see the old man. My expectations were low.
Once I had hung up the phone, I packed my bag and headed for the airport without hesitation. I still care deeply for my father. Aisha wanted to come for moral support, but I insisted that she shouldn’t.
“I’m happy you didn’t bring that black wife of yours,” he says. Manu has come to his side to wait on my father.
“You still can’t accept the reality, Father,” I say.
“How can I?” he says. “You were the reason my father died, having seen how low the value of our good blood had sunk. He couldn’t bear to see anyone. And I can’t either, for as long as you have my name. The shame you’ve caused…” He shakes his head.
A chair stands next to his bedside. I take a seat.
“No. I don’t want to attend to you right now. Can’t you see I am not well? Just leave me in peace,” he says.
I had spent 28 hours travelling halfway across the world on three flights and a one-hour bus ride to see the old man. My expectations were low: We would talk for 10 minutes and he would at least offer a cup of coffee. But I should have set my expectations even lower.
Down the hallway are two rooms and a bathroom. Manu has set my duffel bag in the smaller, darker room. There is a single bed, a side table, a quaint table lamp with a floral print, glass lampshade and a cedar armoire in the corner. I lie down and fall asleep easily.
The morning sunlight disturbs my sleep. Through my bedroom window, the sky is a soft purple and the sun is nestled between mountains. I can hear the kitchen floor being swept. The industrious Manu is at work. I stumble out of bed. My father is at the dining table reading the newspaper and drinking warm milk.
“The king has finally awoken,” my father says.
“Yes, Father,” I say. “This is what travelling does to the body,” I take a seat next to him. When I look at my phone, I realize that I have slept for fourteen hours. Until today, I have never slept this long in my entire life.
“I didn’t know the news was still printed,” I say, scrolling through my Twitter feed on my phone.
“It’s more of a service for street hawkers to wrap food than for common people to read. The headlines are the same every week: inactive government, economy in control, economy out of control, political publicity stunts, rape and violence.”
I feel I am reading the same news on my phone as he does in the newspaper.
Manu comes to me. “Would you like some coffee, sir?” he asks.
My father interjects. “You don’t work for him, Manu. He can help himself,” he says.
Manu puts his head down and backs away from the dining table.
“What made you get up this morning?” I ask. I anticipated he would be bedridden during my entire week-long visit here.
“God gave me the energy to rise and stand on my own two feet this morning,” he says. “I must find the reason why.”
My father was not a man of faith while I was growing up. As hobbies, I have seen retired people become avid gardeners, golf enthusiasts or take up tai chi. In a similar fashion, I saw my grandparents, uncles and aunts take to religion as they became older. Thus, I place no weight in his words of faith and continue to nod.
“How’s your doodling business going?” my father asks.
The question catches me off-guard, primarily because he asked me a question about my life. He never asks me questions about my life. The manner in which he asked me — with a certain softness and geniality — could not have belonged to the man from yesterday. I want to be curt. But, for once, my father seems like he sincerely cares.
“It’s going well. I have this big deal coming in for a couple of offices in Dusseldorf, and it couldn’t be better,” I say.
“You would’ve made a great engineer,” he says, a line he has said numerous times in the past.
“What’s passed has passed. I design buildings now and it’s great,” I say.
“I never understood what made you become an architect,” he says. “It’s irrational. You draw something. Someone builds it. People say it looks nice when it’s built. A year later, the building is ugly and 10 years later, it’s torn down. You don’t make anything lasting, foundational for the next step or even respected. At least I have patents. People still use parts I invented in cell phones. What do you have to show after all these years?”
“I have a beautiful wife, two smart kids and memories of a life that has been hard at times but good to me. That’s all I need,” I say, thinking my answer was the most diplomatic of all the options.
My father folds the newspaper and laughs. “That’s the problem I had with your generation,” he says. “You were the royal generation. You had all the power in the world and because of that, you didn’t care for it. You wanted everyone to be happy. But you forgot that deep inside each and every person wants to be the happiest. So in the end, you’ll all be left with good shoes — not great, but good — forced to smile and be content with your missed opportunities, for something better will haunt your dreams. Don’t call and tell me I’m right when it happens because I’ll be long gone.”
In my mind, he begs me to pose a larger question and I push myself to ask.
“Are you happy?” I ask.
“What kind of question is that?” he says. “Am I supposed to be? Your mother has died, I’m old, I can’t eat, I can’t drink coffee, I have a heart condition and cars with artificial intelligence don’t exist. This is how life ends.”
Once a cynic, always a cynic. I wonder how Mother lived with this man for most of her life. He must have made her sick.
He slowly rises from his seat and tells me, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will be reading scripture in the other room.”
He hobbles away.
Sitting at the dining table, I have been sketching out a concept for a museum in Portland. I’m on vacation but the idea came along. I had to follow through. The building is simplistic, square — form fits function — and includes green roofs to reduce heating costs, opening up on to a terrace garden…
“Sir,” Manu calls.
“Huh?” I say and lift my pencil.
He stands at the doorway into the kitchen. “Have you seen Master Kumaraswamy?” he asks.
The query takes a moment for me to register.
“No,” I say. “I thought he was in the living room, reading.” I check my phone. The time is 10:02, which means I last talked to him about four hours ago.
“Okay. Sir is probably outside taking a walk. Please let me know when he returns,” Manu says and retreats into the kitchen.
I become worried. My father, outside, taking a walk doesn’t appear to be a safe combination. I fold the sketch, put it in my pocket and walk out the front door.
Early in my marriage, my mother would pick up the phone and berate me, just to hear if I sounded well.
The sun is high and the wind is cool and humid. The bungalows all look the same — pink, square and low to the ground — stuck side by side down the lane. In front of me, there is a central square at the end of the lane that seems to be the most likely place he would be.
Walking there, I recall my mother telling me of this retirement community. She had wanted to move home and allow her soul to pass on to the next world from the land she belonged to. She sent me the catalogue and I was impressed by the number of staffers per home and the personal services provided. But the price tag made me recoil. I was sure they couldn’t afford the place. Even if they could, my frugal father wouldn’t part with his money. I imagine his voice explaining the impracticality of the venture and laugh alone in the lane.
She had loved this place for the weather, the people and the vibe. She played carom with friends, went for walks with my father and read romance novels. She wrote stories, something I didn’t think she would ever do even though I pushed her all my life to. I read her idiosyncratic pieces over and over again. I made digital copies of each word from her notebooks, while imagining myself sharing these gems with my grandchildren.
I’m glad and grateful that I never lost touch with her, even though we — she, me, my father, and my parents’ families — were all bitter about my marriage and the disregard of our clan’s rules. Early in my marriage, my mother would pick up the phone and berate me, just to hear if I sounded well. I appreciated her calls, indicating that she was well too. Over time, the heat between us simmered. What I began hearing on the phone with her was a life that had bloomed like a hibernating rose after a wintery night.
The square is lush with flowers of all kinds, trimmed bushes and manicured lawns. People are about, walking, on the ground and on benches. As old as they look with their gray hair and coarse skin, the atmosphere is youthful and has a certain bounce. Couples walk together, holding hands. Some couples are on the lawn, teasing each other. A small crowd is gathered around a bench, watching an interesting chess match. In a corner, I see my father sitting on a bench in the shade, away from the people and watching interactions as intently as he had watched television last night.
“Can I sit here?” I ask, pointing to the open spot of the concrete bench. He nods. I settle in and find the seat painfully firm. “It’s nice, no?” I say.
He grunts. We watch a family — a retired couple, a couple in their early 30s and a little girl about four or five years old — sitting on the lawn with wide smiles. The little girl scampers like a wild chicken, holding a pink plastic ball. She throws it and it skips on the ground, rolling to her grandfather. The old man, rotund and in pressed slacks, kicks the ball and then checks to see if the ends of his pants were scuffed.
“I can’t stand this place,” my father says. His voice isn’t filled with fervent angst or pessimism or sarcasm but rather tinged with apathy. He speaks in defeat. I don’t reply.
“Did you know I grew up not far from this place, in a village?” he says.
“You said you grew up in the city…” I say.
“My family moved to the city when I was fourteen,” he replies, “but before that, I grew up in a village about a kilometer down the main highway, on the bank of the river. You can’t find it anymore. They razed all the buildings for real estate development and a new highway.”
I try to imagine this village with tidy streets and simple concrete houses, but the task is difficult. The father I grew up knowing was a self-made man from a sprawling metropolis who spoke little while making his ascent.
“It was our ancestral home. This community used to be rice paddies when I was growing up,” he says. He turns and points toward the mountains. “A bit down there, the villagers — the lazy, low class — would make and drink local brew, far and away from my family — the rightful leaders. I remember going down there with a schoolmate. His name was… Gopalan, yes. We wanted to know how it made people violent, crazed, addicted, slothful, impotent, stupid and useless. We tried a little bit, and found it vile.” He chuckles. I try to keep a straight face, but these stories are astonishing — especially from an ardent teetotaler who made it a point to never take unnecessary risks.
“And over there,” he continues, pointing southward, “where the village once was, you could see the pinnacle of the temple clearly from where we are. Back then, people came from as far as Kashmir, mainly to see my uncle. He was a well-read man, and he did pujas beautifully.”
“What happened to it?” I ask.
“It’s still there. But now it is a road marker and a small shrine,” he says. An elderly couple walks by, both dressed in westernized clothes, holding hands and talking of Rome. “It depresses me to think that this is what has become of our village,” he says.
I realize that no medication can ever make him better. He is a man who has lost his home and his world.
“Did Mother know about all this?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “A reason why she chose to marry me was because I was bred in the city. And I didn’t tell her when we decided to come here because I didn’t want to bring her down. She was so happy to be here. She felt this was the closest she could be to home,” he says, breathing in loudly through his nose.
Now I can see the amiable mask he put on for the years before my mother died. All he wanted was for her to live with ease even though he couldn’t stomach living so close to the ransacked world of his past.
And yet, this isn’t home: the flowers, the rich, westernized retirees, the clean streets, Manu. The place is a plastic fortress between two worlds, separated by a leap from the filth, fumes and traffic of the claustrophobic and cold urban landscape, and the warm, cosmic limbo between birth and death.
“After all these years, the only thing I want is to die alone, not even in the presence of God,” he says. “Do you think that’s possible?”
“You know what she said in the end?” he says.
I shake my head. My father and I didn’t say a word to each other when I came two years ago for her burial rites. When we found ourselves alone in one room after the cremation, we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk. We stared at the ground, biting our tongues.
“I’m grateful to have lived and loved,” he says. The words are primal and transcendent. Love is basic. Innate. Throughout life, we accept love in as many forms as we give love to others. Life begins with love. When we are born, strangers full of life unveil a shroud over our barely beating hearts and provide love through an embrace. Life ends with love. When we die, strangers give love in the form of sincere tears, and cover our listless bodies with a shroud. “What a sentimental woman she was. The trite words,” he says.
I remain quiet. The wind grows colder. The couples stand closer. People cover their chests.
“Raghu, I’m close to the end,” he says.
“Don’t say that,” I say from my American-bred stock sympathy, reacting to the petrifying concept of death I am accustomed to. I know the end is near for my father.
“I can smell it,” he says. “I have smelled it every morning for the last ten years, and it is revolting. I wish I knew if Bhavani smelled the same thing. It makes me wonder if she smelled something sweeter as a kindhearted person, or if my life has become rancid after all these years and I never knew.”
I wonder how death will smell for me.
“Maybe God has a reason,” I say, pushing his hopes. I don’t mean to be flippant by talking of faith as a faithless man. I want to give hope to my father, who has endured throughout his life.
He snickers and repeats what I said, shaking his head. “I’m still figuring out the reason why He took away everything in my life,” he says. “As understanding as He can be, He is also irrational and merciless.”
My legs begin to shiver. People leave the park. Some stoop their heads, responding to the whiteness of the fluid clouds expanding in the sky and expecting rain.
My father looks up at the sky. His face is blank. The wind combs what little hair he has left. “After all these years, the only thing I want is to die alone, not even in the presence of God,” he says. “Do you think that’s possible?”
My mind is blank. I don’t know what to say in response to his question. I look up at the sky. The clouds rapidly expand into rounded puffed shapes.
“Go home, son. Go back to your world and please, don’t ever come back,” he says.
Six months later, I receive a call from Mr. Anand. He tells me my father is dead. He had pneumonia. Manu had found him in the kitchen in the morning with a plastic bag over his head. Putting one and two together, I assume my father was tired of an insufferable life and took his situation into his own hands. He had no witnesses and no divine hand to save his life again. This was the closest he would get to his last wish.
“We can arrange family funeral services, unless you have something else prepared,” Mr. Anand says.
“I think it would be best for you to dispose of the body somehow,” I say. “Cremate it if you can.”
“But you’re his son,” he says. “You must conduct a funeral.”
“He wouldn’t want that. Just get rid of the body,” I say.
“What kind of monster are you?” he says. He seems to be deeply affected by my decision. I am not sure if his response is real or a façade.
“Trust me when I say that this is what he would have wanted.”
“Is there anyone else who will claim the body and give the man a respectable funeral?”
“No. Just do as you’re told,” I say.
“Should I do the same with this letter addressed to you?” he asks.
“He was holding a paper and pen at the scene, and your name was written on it. Should we send it to you?”
“Yes, please send it,” I tell Mr. Anand.
Some days later, I receive a letter in the mail. I dump the contents on the desk in my study. Mr. Anand has sent the bronze-tipped fountain pen oozing with ink in a plastic bag and the unfolded sheet of white paper. It reads:
I think I understand now.