The visitors had informed prior to their arrival. So there were snacks and tea waiting for them.
The old woman sat by the television which was switched off, her back supported by a pillow. The guests observed her without blinking and watched for any change in her behaviour. The old woman watched them without blinking, her eyes running from one to the other.
She asked each about their families, their children, their sick parents, their dead grandparents, their estranged siblings and their divorced spouses without any apology. She had always had the authority to ask questions. Now she was as old as she was, her authority had become her right. They replied, as carefully and blushingly and mildly as they could, sometimes keeping their eyes away from each other, sometimes trying to change the topic. The old woman made sure her questions were answered. Sometimes she pointed to the biscuits and asked them to eat.
They left after an hour, their duty as relatives done; they could visit now when she died and speak about how lucid and coherent and healthy she had been at their last visit, despite being so old and withered.
“She has no memory problems,” they said.
“I think the daughter had just made it up. She was asking us all about our families, and the people she had known long ago. She has no problems.”
“I suspect foul play.”
“The daughter doesn’t want to take care of her, it’s the same story with all old parents. Pathetic.”
“But what does spreading stories do? She has to take care of her anyway.”
“Yes, but it will make others think she’s doing a sacrifice.”
“What was that she said something about the girl being locked up?”
“I didn’t get that either. That was after the television was turned on for the news. I couldn’t hear.”
“Yes, me neither. But I thought she said, the girl is locked up and she cries at night to be let out.”
“Which girl might that be?”
“Her own grand-daughter. Who else?”
“I didn’t see the girl anywhere.”
“The daughter said she had gone out.”
“Could be a lie for all we know.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Well, I don’t think the old woman is lying. Why should she?”
“Anyway it was a difficult and unpleasant visit, I am glad it is over.”
The daughter switched off the television and gave her mother her dinner.
“Did you hear the screams?” the mother said.
“It was on the television, Amma. It was in the news. It was not screaming, it was people talking. It was something about politics and rallies.”
“She was crying. I heard it. You have locked her up! You don’t even give her any food.”
“No, Amma, she will come now. You can see for yourself.”
The grand-daughter came in.
“Here, look Amma, your grand-daughter. She isn’t locked up or crying.”
“Who is locked up?” asked the girl, opening a packet of potato chips and munching one.
“Your grandmother told some visitors who came today that I have kept you locked up.” Her voice was tired.
“Again?” said the girl, giggling.
“And they went away believing that story, glaring at me in disapproval. I wonder when the police would come to our door and arrest me for starving and imprisoning you.”
“Look, Granny, I am not locked up, I am here. Why do you say all that to those people?”
“Which people?” said the old woman.
“The people who came today.”
“Who came today?”
“Ugh,” said the girl and went to her room.
“Eat your food, Amma.”
She was hospitalised a few days later, when she stopped having any food altogether. Her memory also seemed to have frayed more than normal, at the places where it had been intact. She was in hospital for two weeks, a couple of days of which she was under observation in the ICU. Then the doctors advised them to take her home.
“She would want to be at home,” the elderly doctor said meaningfully and understandingly and knowledgeably.
She was bed-ridden for long, and had to be fed slowly in small spoonfuls. The liquid food trickled at the corner of her mouth. The visitors who did not get to visit her earlier took this chance to. They did not get to hear her voice or her questions or her advices.
Sometimes her eyes fixed on them, but most of the time they didn’t.
The daughter said that sometimes she spoke and said things that were intelligible. But not necessarily relevant or important. She listened and responded when she could. It made no difference. The grand-mother had been journeying towards the door for long now and she had passed through unceremoniously. She was talking to people there. It was merely being overheard by those still left behind. She was the link between the two for a few more seconds before she vanished completely. Like the vanishing darkness at dawn, the fading sunlight at dusk.
One day she asked to be laid down on the floor. She made the request clearly, as though she was back here. The daughter knew, because she had often heard about this. She quickly straightened a mat and carried her down to it, on the floor. She asked for water, the daughter poured a couple of drops to her open mouth. She lay there like that, eyes closed. A drop of water slipped through the side of her mouth and ran down her ear to her hair. But the other drop had been swallowed. The last drop of life. After a while she drew her breath in loudly and she did not let it out.
That last breath of air came out when they were bathing her before the cremation, shocking the life out of the people nearby.
A marriage had to be postponed because of the death. A family on vacation had to be called back home. Working family members returned for a while. The girl who had been locked up, sat near the body of her grand-mother, hugging her own knees.
A man twirled his hand inside a pot and drew out a piece of charcoal. The elders gasped. There could be one more death in the family, but they did not say that aloud. The signs were all important. The time, the position, the responses and impulses.
They were all important for the ones who were still alive. As important as the crow with melancholy eyes that came for the rice ball. The one who was gone was gone beyond the signs and the meanings and the implications. She would return only in memories and in stories. Her best stories would remain in her heart alone, unseen by all, in her heart that had stopped beating. Her dreams, her hopes, her unfinished work.