by Srividhya Suresh
I have always wondered about the last seven minutes of a person’s life. It is believed that their entire life’s memories dance before their eyes in transient glimpses. All memories from their childhood until their final breath. Every breath of human life seems like a tiny, insignificant blip in the Universe’s time. That is what I thought too until I saw my grandfather battling for the same, insignificant breath as his lungs were befriending the Oxygen cylinders which were also sinking with every second. I held his hand and watched him struggle when I realized that those were the last seven minutes of his life. In an attempt to immortalize his Eighty-Five years of life in seven minutes, I wrote “A few moments before Death”. It’s a brief account of his complete life in transitory moments, from age to age and from memories to memories. Writing even a word about his life is akin to tampering with the freshest of my wounds but his existence stays eternalized through these very words.
It was 1952. I was 14 years old. My classroom had a long wooden bench for the mathematics teacher to keep his briefcase on while my friends and I sat down, gaping at the blackboard. I was exceptionally good at Mathematics. Halfway through looking at an equation, I would solve it in my head and raise my hand to answer the question. My teacher’s name was Devarajan; he wore a loose beige cotton shirt with a dhoti to class and he adored me so much that he used to wait for me to solve all problems in class alongside him. I often heard my family say I was their Einstein. My friends, Ranga and Anand, were bailed out of answering questions because of my spontaneity. After school, we would take out time to go around our town’s biggest park where stray dogs were always looming around in crowds. Ranga’s father soon transferred to Madras and he left. But, I heard Ranga died of old age 4 years ago. I’m as old as him, in fact, I’m four years older than him now. I guess it’s just the way it is. Ranga’s father was directly involved in many events pre-independence. I had barely seen him six times since he was always working in Bombay. Ranga would have stories about how his father had seen Mahatma Gandhi render his speeches to warm hundreds of people’s lives with purpose.
I was only 9 years old when India got independence but my father recalled that he took me to a public speech in Kakinada on his bullock cart when I was 5. Naturally, I had seen Gandhi but I don’t remember it. When I told you for the first time that I had seen Gandhi when I was your age, you were baffled. As you grew up, you told me you were reading about him in your history classes and that it shocked you that I met a man so old that he was being taught to you about.
On bright days full of various delicacies and relatives jamming into the house, I would lay gently on my mother’s lap. Even if her leg hurt, she would caress my hair, graze her calloused fingers from the heat through my hair. It felt like the safest place to be on Earth, when she would slowly rub my ear lobe with her index and thumb, I was induced into the softest sleep. She slowly moved my head from her lap to a pile of her sarees near the steel cupboard. When I woke up, I would find her outside the house blowing into a pipe to heat the sticky brass cooking pot. Pattamal, Amma.
It feels like my life is an ocean now; with every wave, there’s a new memory but it disappears before I can live through it. Some waves are so big, some so small. Every wave takes me to a different age and to different people.
The year is 1968. My wife, Saranya, is the most beautiful woman on the planet for me. People tend to never know if their partners truly love them, but my wife, she loved me. She loved me more than anything or anybody she had ever laid eyes on. I would come home late at night, sometimes drunk and she would sit me down, not to feed me her food that our neighbors swooned over but to pour buckets of the coldest water straight from the borewell onto my head. I loved her, sometimes out of fear, but I truly loved her. She would wait for me to return home at night, however late it took. On certain days, she would fight with me and not cook or eat for a day and a half in a row. Those days meant she needed me to stay with her, talk to her, give her the attention that she deserved. What more of a connection could two people share? She’s loved me now for fifty years and not once has she eaten without me by her. She could die right in my arms and I know she would be happy.
Back when I was 35 years old, I wasn’t a happy man, I had terrible debts that I could never clear and two children to fend for by now. I brought two girls unto the face of the earth while I had meager money to raise them at all and very meager money to raise them happily. There were small-time loan sharks by the end of the streets and I borrowed money from all of them. It would feel as though bitterness flowed through my veins every time I borrowed money, tripling the amount I had to repay.
A few hateful nights, these men from whom I borrowed hundreds would walk fiercely towards our house demanding a return. When we spotted them from across the street through our small broken window, we switched our lights off and pretended like nobody was home. I couldn’t repay the baleful debt that I had plundered myself into when I had no money for next month’s survival. But even on these nights, Saranya never complained. We would just occasionally laugh at how we named our second daughter after our favorite character from a soap back in the day. Those felt like the days of my lives, the days I had some purpose to live for. What purpose do I have now? Your parents take care of me, they feed me medicines every morning, afternoon, and night and spend extensive amounts of money to keep me sound. My mind is in complete turmoil now; I’m budged around so many different parts of my life and although I never stay in the memory long enough to relish it completely, it feels peaceful.
I wasn’t rich enough to provide for my family, I wasn’t capable of giving them the best of their lives but the days I felt I hit rock-bottom were also the happiest days of my life. Do you remember how I said I worked at the theatre? As a manager. Devi Theatre. A simpleton like me, from a small town, fled all the way to Madras and led a life as a manager at the most pristine cinemas of the day then. I had immense pride and was respected by everyone. I worked there for so many years, it was always bustling with an excited crowd, regardless of day or night. I’ve seen all of your favorite actors there; they would stop by on the first day of their releases and sign tissues and t-shirts of men cheering.
I turned 45 even before I knew it. I realized as a 38-year-old man with threatening debts that if I could survive a week without losing anything, I could survive the next week too. I grew old taking one week at a time like that, never realizing I had lost so many years of my life. I lived the same day for almost ten years. I paid for your mom’s and aunt’s school and college. Sometimes, one of them would want to watch a film with their friends and it would make me the happiest man on Earth to be able to book seats for as many ever and give them everything they needed for those three hours inside the cinema. Before I saw it, they had to get married and they did. You know the rest. Your mom has kept me with her all her life.
Half of my life seemed to be over at the sight of your mom and aunt growing up. When your children grow up, you’re so engrossed with their compelling adulting and growing that you overlook how old you’re turning yourself. Nights were harder to stay up and you started to feel the strain your body was undertaking to get you through a few days.
I know this is all a dream, fragments of my imagination weaving a story out of my life. I can hear you outside these dreams, calling me out loud but I don’t seem to be able to move. I’m really trying to. I want to see your faces pat you on the head once more but I cannot move. I always thought dying would be painful, but this feels comfortable.
When I’ve been with your mom, I don’t think I ever had to work for myself. That’s why I always jokingly said I was going to help you get ready for school so I could pay your mom back for everything she’s done for me.
I turned 60 and then I turned 70 and then I turned 80. I lived all my years loving only your brothers and you. I lived all these years wanting to wrap your school notebooks with brown sheets, make you cereal when you returned from school, walk you to your music classes, and occasionally buy you a packet of chips secretly. Sometimes, I would forget my purpose too, but then you would come in the room and ask me what 753 subtracted from 1921 is. That was my purpose; coffees, brown sheets, and stories. Sometimes, a little mathematics.
I have been standing at the shore of the sea all my life, watching my life and its reminiscences roll over in waves to gently moisten my legs ephemerally. I’m inside the vast, blue Sea now; I’m not drowning, I’m not suffocating but I’m living under the waters of my own life – my own memories.
What awaits me after these few moments is not non-existence but a sea that is calm; a sea that is astoundingly still.
Author: Srividhya Suresh (she/her) is a young writer based out of Chennai. As of 2021, she is pursuing her Bachelors in English Literature and Communications from Stella Maris College. Her passion has always been abundant in Fiction, Films, and music. She grew up in a household always filled with people and an overwhelming number of memories to save. Although her taste and proficiency have improved with time, she believes she is still more of a reader than a writer. Srividhya is especially attached to simplistic stories that reveal the every day unnoticed rather than unfold different dimensions. She had a blog for herself as an early teenager and desisted from writing there as she stepped into adolescence for reasons she thinks are obvious. She doesn’t have her entire life mapped yet, but she is wholly sure that it will always revolve around books, writing, and literature. Also, maybe dogs.