Deepa Rajagopalan writes creative non-fiction and short stories. Her work has appeared in the Dionne Brand anthology, The Unpublished City II. She’s currently working towards her Creative Writing certificate at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. She was a finalist of the Penguin Random House Award for Fiction in 2018.
Sometimes the hardest letters you will write are to the ones who will never read them. Deepa tried her best, her very best, not to write this. She scrolled through Instagram, watched baby goat videos and reorganized her bookshelf several times (alphabetical by author’s name, ombre-colour-coded, increasing degree of seriousness) instead of writing this. But it eventually came out of her, like a river swelling during a flood.
Beginnings and Ends
The first time we bring you home, you’re two-weeks-old and I’m fourteen. You can’t sit still in the rickshaw ride home. I hold you tight to keep you safe. The Indian sun burns through the soft-top roof, leaving the insides of the rickshaw parched and muggy. I wipe the incessant beads of sweat on my forehead with my sleeve to keep them from falling on you.
Our home is tucked into a cul-de-sac, backing into an abandoned property. I bring you into my room and you nap and eat and pee there for a whole day. I show you off. I bathe and feed you. I love seeing you grow. You love running up the stairs and into people. You’re fast as light. You seem to be in two places at the same time. Your spirits are always high. Life is a song.
A few months later, on a Sunday afternoon, Mom bakes a chocolate cake that leaves the house smelling like sunshine. She lets it cool on the counter. Later, we find the cake on the floor, half eaten, and you beside it with a guilty face. I suddenly remember that chocolate is toxic for you and start screaming. Mom calls the vet who tells us to give you lots of water and keep an eye on you.
My little sister, Shilpa, asks Mom if she could eat the rest of the cake. I glare at her. Her timing is always flawed. I hold you tight, your beautiful black fur glistening under the sun. Shilpa and Mom fuss over you, too. You love the extra attention. You sleep through the night. We don’t. The next morning you are as fresh as a mango in May.
You’re six months old and fully grown. The property behind our home is seething with green after the endless monsoons. Coconut trees, creepers, weeds, moss and more. One sweltering afternoon, Mom hangs damp clothes on the clothesline. I see through the window, a quick slithering flash. I find Mom locked in a gaze with a silver cobra, standing up four feet high. It flares out its hood, in position to release venom. Before I can gather my thoughts, I hear you race to the backyard. With no fanfare, with no racket, you attack. A quick bite on its neck. As it wiggles for its last few breaths, your barks are deafening. You can’t believe the audacity of the creature. I hug Mom and don’t let her go. I wonder what we did to deserve you.
At sixteen, I am groped and attacked by a stranger in an alley. My body heals faster than my soul. I am a different person. I stop loving myself overnight and start looking for people to love me. I spend all my energy trying to cope. I ignore you for boys and exams and insecurities. You just want to play, but I am too busy for you. Mom bathes you and feeds you. I resist your love.
On a monsoon day after I turn eighteen, I forget my umbrella. I come home drenched and cold and realize I forgot my keys, too. I don’t have a cell phone to call Mom. The plants weigh down with the deluge. Where our garden once thrived, the mud water has formed an array of intricate streams, gushing out in search for a lower ground, leaving my legs muddy and cold. I take off my mud-soaked shoes and sit on the porch. I hug my knees into my chest and tears start gushing. I can’t pinpoint one reason for this downpour. You run towards me. You sit on my lap and take in all the cold and make me warm. You keep your paw over my hand and look at me with eyes that tell me, clear like fresh water, “I am here for you. Always.”
One opportunity leads to another, and we move to Toronto. My uncle and aunt agree to care for you back in India. I call my uncle and he says you lay on Dad’s shoes, crying silently, his sock in your mouth for months until all of his smell was gone.
The Canadian winter makes me resentful. All the things I do, I do incorrectly. The way I layer for winter, the way I order a double-double at Timmes, the way I go on the northbound train when I have to go southbound. I don’t get one thing right.
Years pass and I actively avoid thinking of you. On Sundays, I clean a lot. The floors, countertops, stairs, inside drawers and cabinets. One morning, I polish the hardwood floors with floor gloss. Against Dad’s recommendation, I polish the stairs too. In a short few minutes, I fall down the slippery stairs. Dad doesn’t say I told you so and gets me a pain balm.
That evening, I call Uncle and Aunty and they say you got a stomach bug. I have a client presentation, and I am too busy preparing. I don’t think of you. I spend the whole week not thinking of you. That Friday, we receive a call from Uncle.
“She had a surgery yesterday, and it went well.“
He pauses, the silence hanging like tiny shards of glass.
“She ate well and seemed okay.” He sighs. “But she passed away in her sleep.“
I feel like I’m choking. I wail. Years of not thinking bursts out of my consciousness, all at once. I cry so loudly, the neighbours can hear me. Guilt. It runs deep through my veins, the kind that is here to stay.
I can’t believe I left you. I can’t believe I went for months without thinking of you. I can’t believe I did nothing to protect you. I can’t believe I never told you I loved you. I can’t believe that you are gone. I know I hurt you. But I also know that you forgave me and that hurts the most.
Deepa Rajagopalan visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 13, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Andrea Thompson, Mary Rykov, a special surprise guest, and guest speaker Catalina Fellay-Dunbar who will guide us through, “ A Beginners Guide to Toronto Arts Literary Grants.”