There was no denying it. Nani was officially off her rocker. No, not the literal wicker chair she sat on from morning to late evening, be it rain or shine. She was still very much on it, swaying back and forth with little shifts of her weight. She was off her metaphorical rocker. Nani was officially losing her mind.
It started with inconsequential one-off incidents no one thought too much about. She would leave her thick-framed spectacles on one of the numerous shelves of the refrigerator and spend the next good hour or so looking for them. She would forget to put on her trademark bindi despite how important the little red dot was to her. She would order double the milk she usually called for. She would walk to the department store, chat with the shopkeeper for 20 minutes and return home with an empty basket and an unticked grocery list.
These slight moments of thoughtlessness were brushed aside easily. At 75, Nani was still sharp as a whip and ready with long lectures on everything, from ethics to science. The occasional mishap was a symptom of age, even for Nani. Pratima Chanda, or Nani, as I called her, had always been my role model. At 25, Nani had completed an MA in philosophy, and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Bombay University, making her the most highly educated member of the family. Nani lived through her prime in the changing tides of the 70s. These were the times when women were usually married off in their early teens and barely moved past the kitchen. And while the first was true for her too, Nani believed in “new-age feminism” and let not even God block her path. Marriage, kids, and household responsibilities came second to her career, and everyone loved her for it.
She was highly motivated, worked hard hours, and dealt with the bratty antics of her college students with a firm hand. Her go-getter attitude inspired many and angered even more. A woman asserting herself in the classroom? How dare she! Nani didn’t care for any of it. The neighbors shamed her profession and made sharp innuendos about her late hours. She simply smiled at them and sent kheer every other weekend. “Kill them with sugar, honey,” she told me when I expressed my frustration.
So when Nani began to slip from the fabric of reality, the realization sank in too late. With mirth in our eyes, we watched her look for the watch already fastened on her wrist. “She’s too preoccupied with thoughts of Kant and Descartes to pay any mind to the realm of the ordinary”, we laughed. It’s Nani! She’ll bounce back.
But slowly, Nani got worse. She’d forget to grade assignments and address students by the wrong names. She’d easily lose her train of thought mid lecture. She’d ramble on and on about one school of thought, pause for a moment, pat our imaginary creases in her perfectly pleated sari, stare blankly at the wall in a trance and then switch to a completely different chapter. At home, she would address all of us with different names and forget that she had even called us in the first place.
The day I realised something was truly wrong however, was 5 months into Nani’s sudden forgetfulness. I had had a particularly long day at work, and things only got worse when it begun to rain mid-way. I entered the house drenched to the bone and shivering, and could hear Nani clattering in the kitchen. I dropped my ruined bag at the door, slid off my shoes and called out to Nani for a cup of tea. Nani didn’t respond, but I assumed she’d heard me and headed to my room to change out of my soaking clothes. Usually, Nani welcomed me with a warm meal and millions of questions about my day. When I entered the kitchen, now in a fresh pair of sweatpants and a comfortable sweater, Nani was no longer there.
The dining table was bare. Desperate for the promised cup of tea, I returned to the wicker chair in quest of Nani. She sat there with a book in her hand, rocking back and forth incessantly. I called out to her twice, to no avail. So, I tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention. Big mistake.
Nani jumped at least 10 meters into the air, almost cartoonish. Her eyes grew round at the corners, a sudden fear overtaking them. Promptly, she whacked me on the head with her hardbound leather book. She sprang up from her chair, and ran to the door, surprisingly fast for a 75-year-old. “Theif! Thief! Help me!”, she cried out.
“It’s only me Nani, your granddaughter. Calm down!”
“I may be old young lady, but I am no one’s Nani! Get out of my house before I call the neighbourhood to chase you away. Don’t you underestimate me!”
“Nani! I’m in no mood for jokes. I’ve had a terrible day at work. Give it a break!” I was incredulous.
Nani grew enraged. She wound up her sari around her, picked up the umbrella near the door and advanced towards me. Confused, I tried to wrestle the makeshift weapon out of her hands, trying my best to be gentle. She would not budge. It was a battle that only one of us were fighting.
“Shrikant! Come here! This innocent looking girl is trying to rob us!”, she cried out to my grandfather, who had since been dead for over a decade.
Nani had somehow been transported to eons ago, before I was even born, before my mother was even married. Nani thought she was only 50 and still lived with her husband, 2 sons and a young daughter. She had forgotten everything that had occurred in the last 25 years, and I did not know how.
With tears in my eyes, I thought it best to leave the house until my mother arrived on the scene. I waited in the veranda as the rain merged with my already wet face. It hurt seeing Nani this bad. She was the last person who I’d think would lose their grip on sanity. This was Nani, the badass feminist philosopher who remembered everything! I didn’t know what to do. When Mother had arrived, she had forcefully reminded Nani of the last 25 years. My grandfather’s accident. My mother’s divorce. Nani’s job. She had fallen into a stupor and cried floods of tears when she remembered it all. Nani shut down.
Nani stopped going to work. In fact, she stopped doing anything at all. The wicker chair had found a permanent occupant. It rocked back and forth and back and forth all day long, the creak of it a constant reminder of that fateful day. She slept in that old thing, ate her food there, cried for her lost life there, all the while creaking back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back anf forth.
Back and forth.
Nani shifted from the present to the past, back and forth, as the chair creaked back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
It’s been 7 years since then.
The house feels empty. The refrigerator stores only the right amount of milk and groceries. No spectacles to be found on the shelves. The wicker chair has stopped creaking, forever.
This story was originally published by Mysticeti Magazine.