“Akka! Get me those throat lozenges… I am feeling a cough coming up!”
“Are you really getting a cough or are you saying this because you like the flavor of those tablets?”
“No, no… I really feel like coughing. But I also like them…”
You assured me with all the innocence of youth. I proceeded to buy you the lozenges. And if my memory serves me right, for the first person who wanted them for their taste and not for their medicinal properties. The shopkeeper looked at me with a grin, asking me if you were my kid brother. With your baseball cap and upturned cooling glasses, you were every bit the kid who had just entered India from abroad.
The bond between us grew stronger in a very short time. You were the kid brother I had always wanted and I was the elder sister you looked up to. The short time we had together was one of the best periods of my life and I finally understood what it will be like to have a sibling I could dote on, fight with and play with. There just seemed to be nothing that could separate the both of us.
But fate had other ideas.
It was a morning like any other, I was settling down to read for my examinations, having just had my morning coffee when the disastrous phone call came, altering my life completely.
“My son had an accident… While going to school… He is… He is… Please, come!”
I could hear my uncle’s – your father’s – gasping voice over phone. I watched with a detached sense of disbelief as my father tried to quieten your father, trying to make sense of what he was saying. In my peripheral vision, I saw my mother’s face cloud in fear, her mouth open in that expression of shock. As my father relayed the news to us in a shaking voice, I wanted to wake up from the bad nightmare. Enough of the jokes. It can’t have happened to my brother… No… That was impossible.
But it had happened to me, and my brother.
The next hour was a daze. We started as a family, each of us hurriedly climbing on our vehicles, mom clutching dad desperately as we zoomed through the streets blindly, trying to reach you, to hear the words that you were, indeed, safe. Out of danger.
The city’s streets were still waking up, the morning crowd of office goers honking the horns loudly. Each red light in a traffic signal made my heart pound as I gave the throttle to the vehicle, impatiently willing the others on the road to speed up so I could reach you faster, hold you in my arms and tell you that you’ll be okay. Akka is here. Nothing can touch you now.
Phone calls went unanswered, and the sense of impending doom increased. We rushed from pillar to post, trying to locate what happened to the apple of our eyes, the brown eyed boy who had wanted to see everything in his homeland. The boy who had just arrived to be with his family, his aunts, uncles and cousins who would all be there to play with him. The boy who had finally escaped the solitude of an unknown nation and was being pampered by the whole family.
The boy who had only just begun living his life.
And the horror of horrors happened when I saw the abject sorrow on your mother’s face. Her shock making her mute and immobile. There she sat on the corner of the road, crying silent tears and hair askew. Unable to make any sense of her words, I saw my father falter. My mother’s wail of pain broke through my temporary veil of disbelief and was the first thing that shattered my conviction.
My little brother was NOT alright.
In a daze, I turned to see the road being barricaded, the trails of your blood fresh. Some Samaritan had collected your bags and books and kept them on the corner of the road, beside your wailing mother. As the crowd surrounded us, trying to tell us what happened, I knew where I had to be. What was I doing in the middle of the road when I had to be with you? I remember pulling on my father’s shirt sleeve, trying to tell him that we needed to rush to where you were.
He pulled himself together, and with the information we got, we rushed to the Royapettah Government Hospital, the place where ‘accident cases’ are taken. The helpful peon at the hospital looked at us with an expression of tired pity. He had seen too many such cases in his life for this to have any impact.
“School kid… Accident… From Virugambakkam…” My dad gestured with his hands, quite unable to form words.
The peon just nodded, pointing in the general direction of an outbuilding. “The father is there… please go…”
And as we navigated the crying, wailing crowds, I saw your father sitting on a rock under a tree, staring at the ground like he could not be sure he was living the nightmare. Heart thumping wildly, we approached him. My father bent down to his level and touched him on the shoulder when my eyes scanned the area wildly, looking for some clue as to where you were.
Where is my little brother? What happened to him?
The big, bold white letters on the black background proclaimed in Tamil. ‘Pinavarai’. And that was the first time a cry of disbelief escaped my lips. MORGUE. They were bringing my brother to the morgue, the place where the dead people are rested. They were bringing a boy, all of 13 years old, to a place where even people in their 80s should not go. And as my uncle finally let out a hollow wail, and my eyes met my dad’s dull deadened eyes, I knew it was all over.
You were gone, never to come back.
As the ambulance backed into the waiting area of the morgue, they opened the rear doors and I saw you cast on the floor. I would have believed you were only sleeping. The man then turned you over and I saw your beautiful, young face marred. You’d been dragged many feet on the road, they said. Your school bag was caught in a hook that was protruding from the speeding lorry that carried cement bags. You had fallen facedown, the policeman informed us, and dragged a few feet into the turning before the lorry driver realized he had just killed a child.
The man had fled. He was being searched for.
The policeman assured us. But what difference did it make? As you were loaded onto a gurney and brought out of the ambulance, the forms were signed and you were quickly packed in white gauze from head to toe. Only your face was visible. My hands reached out to touch the unforgiving coldness when I broke down completely. My little brother who would never call me akka again. My little brother whose life was brutally snatched away from him by a negligent, speeding driver.
What happened in the next few days, no one really knows. I saw my father standing tough as a rock as they loaded you onto another ambulance and off to the freezer company where your mortal remains would be stored. So the uncle from the States could come and see your face for the last time. The face he had seen vibrant and alive only about a month before. Your death was quick, they said. You probably died before you realized what was happening. The strap of your school bag had choked you before you were dragged on the road like a stray plastic cover.
What were your thoughts in your last moments, Aravind?
Did you think of your parents, your new school friends? Did you think of the sister who you will never speak to again? Did you think of all the family who were ready to shower you with love? Did you think of the lives you were leaving behind, permanently scarred? Did you think of all the things you had planned to do but would never be able to do again? Did you think of the homework assignment you had finished, hoping to get a star? Did you have the time to think of all that, my boy? Or did the pain overwhelm you into numbness.
I want to think that your death was fast, if not painless.
I wish your death was quick, not too gory and did not draw you out in pain like it still does to our hearts. They told me justice would be served. I did not know if it was, I did not care. No amount of justice was going to bring back my lost brother. And as I visited the same junction again, the vehicles were still speeding, still going zigzag. Only the barricades that were newly placed gave me any inclination that a young life had been brutally lost in that place only a day ago.
In front of my eyes, an eager set of school boys pushed the barricade aside, needing more space to rush to their school – the very school where they would be asked to maintain a silence of 2 minutes condoling your death. How many of those little kids in the morning assembly had lost a friend, a good boy in their midst who only wanted to live?
It has been six years. But the wounds under the scabs are still fresh, still raw. The same pharmacist asked me the question that opened the painful wounds again, making them bleed afresh.
“I have no change. Would you like to have these lozenges instead?”
How will I tell him that I didn’t have the courage to ever touch that particular brand of lozenges ever again? How can I explain the pain of having to live a normal life when a huge part of my heart was still occupied by the pain of your memory? Because some things never fade, some memories never dull. The pain is still there, like my heart was cut open by the serrated edges of a rusty knife. You wouldn’t want me to cry, I know. But the tears that escape my eyes as I type this are not controlled by will. The memory of your laugh is the only thing that helps me wake up from those garish nightmares, where the image of your body lying askew on the floor of the ambulance seems to be burned onto the inside of my eyelids.
In your memory, Aravind. The boy who lives on.