A death in the family, or the mortality of a parent: in almost every issue, a story around these themes finds its way into our selections. Serving the injunctions of individualism or living the attendant anxieties created by that thing called the nuclear family, most of us lug constant dread about the welfare of our parents. As years pass, the early thrill of living away from them, of discovering the world on our own terms, morphs into a desire to be back home, whatever home is. In Kunjila Mascillamani’s Stupid Language, Esther is living this tension between the home and the world—and the narrative hints that both are things to be constantly negotiated. Esther’s mother, Lisy, has passed away. Now there is the matter of finding a burial ground. Now there is the matter of garbage disposal. Now there is the matter of informing the brother. Through a lightness of tone, Mascillamani avoids crushing us with sadness or excessive sentimentality; but—magically, paradoxically—there is no loss of tenderness here. You’ll feel at home with this one.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
When mother dies, would I have to bury her next to father, Esther wondered. She was on her way to the councillor’s office. The new waste-management system put in place by the town planning committee required all members to choose a garbage disposal system to be set up at their homes. Mother had gone for bins. The biogas thing was too expensive. Nothing that mother couldn’t afford but spending it on garbage didn’t seem appropriate to her parsimonious parent. Esther couldn’t see the point of the bins. It didn’t turn garbage into anything. Garbage would just remain garbage, dead matter. She suspected that the Haritha Karma Sena would stop collecting garbage from homes once these things were set up. They would be left with bins that didn’t turn anything into anything. They would overflow. The plastic would form a mountain and the rest would rot and stink, and then the neighbour with the biogas plant, which by then would be fuelling her crisp doshas, would waste no time in complaining to the residents’ association.
In the cemetery, there is no space to the left or right of father. Her uncles and grandfather hadn’t thought of it when they buried him. Many years later, when grandmother died, the uncles purchased the plot next to her tomb and built a thin cement ridge around it, in anticipation of grandfather’s death. She remembered mother saying she had pitched in for the purchase. Had they expected mother to remarry after father died? That was unlikely. Which respectable woman would remarry after the death of her life partner? Or did they not want her beside him because they didn’t think too much of their marriage? Perhaps they thought that she would never die, Esther concluded.
The councillor’s office remained closed and so she walked back. It was hotter than the previous summer. The gate creaked defiantly when she swung it open. She didn’t remember closing it while leaving. Could mother have gone out when she was away? She hoped she had left the key under the mat. She didn’t want to wait in the verandah in this heat. Walking to the door, she inspected the rose cuttings mother had brought back from her walk the previous week. ‘There was this elderly man watering plants. I simply asked him for cuttings and he readily gave’’, she had said. Of course, he gave ‘readily’. Mother looked pretty even at 62.
One of the cuttings had sprouted new burgundy leaves and the other showed some pista-green dots across the short stem which Esther hoped to be signs of life.
When she heard the TV playing inside she rang the bell, relieved. Seeing no response, Esther cursed and called her mother. She heard the phone ringing inside. She cursed again. Couldn’t she have waited a little longer to take her siesta? She banged on the door and put her phone back in her tote bag. That was when she felt the cold of the house key.
She pulled it out and held it against her face, as though asking it to speak to her. She rubbed it twice with her thumb, a habit that used to soothe her but didn’t at the moment, and put it in the keyhole. She felt her stomach churn.
Esther left her bag on the sofa, went to the bedroom, and lay down beside her mother’s body already turning cold.
When Esther was 13 and her mother 43, she scored 85 on 100 on a math test in school. On her way back home with her classmate Neenu she decided to end her life and informed Neenu of her decision. Neenu, who had scored 30, begged Esther to let her in on the scheme. She suggested throwing themselves under a bus while Esther was in favour of cutting wrists. Esther said it was better to have the face and body intact when their families found them. They bought a pack of razor blades. Esther asked for Wilkinson Sword when the shopkeeper slid her 7 O’ Clock. It was grandfather’s favourite brand and she loved him more than she did her mother who was going to beat her for the poor score. On the bridge across the dried canal ahead of the haunted house, Esther told Neenu that they had to do it there at the count of three with their eyes shut. The bridge was only a tree trunk laid across the banks and the slitting action would make them fall, ensuring a speedy death, Esther theorised confidently, though the tree trunk was only a couple of feet above the dried bed of the canal. She didn’t fall after she cut her wrist. Neenu didn’t either, because she did nothing with her blade. She had her eyes wide open and laughed out loud, looking at Esther. Esther examined her wound and grew anxious when she saw that her blood was not spurting in jets, but was only oozing out idly. She wiped it on her pinafore and followed Neenu who had started walking, still laughing.
Mother’s beatings were not as hard as the ones she received when she went to bed in the same dress she wore to church. The new frock had a yoke piece full of silver spangles that would be ruined by the blanket grazing on it. It had cost more than what they usually spent on clothes. The scooter ride back after the midnight mass on Christmas had been colder than she could endure, and left her shivering and needy for grandfather’s mink blanket. Her fingertips were still icy when mother beat her.
Mother’s skin was icier than her fingers had been then, Esther thought as she carefully picked a strand of hair on mother’s forehead and tucked it behind her left ear. It was in the previous seven years that she had greyed the most. There was hardly any grey strand till she was 55.
I should probably call brother now, she thought for the second time that day. The first time was after she checked the pulse on her mother’s wrist in the early hours of the morning. She took her phone and Googled ‘what happens to the body after death.’ She got results about the afterlife. She modified the search to ‘what happens to a human body medically after death’ and now she was informed that the body would stiffen. She poked it. True, it wasn’t the soft mass she knew. She used to cup her mother’s flabby fat under the arms repeatedly, clucking and biting her tongue whenever she felt a sudden surge of love. When mother was alive, that is.
Lisy almost had a fall when she was pregnant with Esther. She was eight months pregnant and at work, going to ask the assistant engineer if he had seen her report on the complaint by a retired High Court judge. The former judge complained that his place and surrounding areas were experiencing power outages for a month at three a.m. every night. She wondered why the man hadn’t settled in Ernakulam after retiring, like all High Court judges, and why he was up at that hour every day. She had miscalculated the elevation of the step and had keeled over. Her head was hardly two feet from the floor when her arm found the railing and managed to defy gravity a little. Maybe I’ll name her Veena , she thought, smiling to herself. Her husband didn’t share her sense of humor and Esther became Esther.
The fall and her acrobatic feat from that day came to Lisy’s mind when she clicked a picture of her daughter that night in March.
“You look so much like me in this picture, no?” Lisy asked Esther
They were lying on the bed, listening to Esther’s Spotify playlist. Ads followed most numbers and Lisy didn’t know her daughter couldn’t afford an ad-free premium account.
At first, Esther felt relieved her mother was not tech-savvy and then quickly felt ashamed. She didn’t think she looked anything like her mother in the photograph.
“Yes,” she said and smelled mother’s face. Lisy asked for a kiss on the cheek. Esther planted an awkward one under the black mole on her cheekbone. The bone itself wasn’t traceable, unlike Esther’s. Esther hoped one more month of starving would sharpen hers.
“Ummah!” Lisy said, kissing her back, raising the second syllable to a crescendo.
Himanshu had once asked Esther if all Malayalees kissed and announced it while doing it. “Yeah, we kiss and tell,” she had said, but Himanshu didn’t know the English phrase, so he didn’t get the joke. “Why don’t you date another mallu and find out?” she said, attempting another one. He laughed, but never found out.
“Are you crying because you are thinking of Himanshu?” Lisy asked her.
“No, I just wish I had tried to get a government job when I could,” Esther said.
“You still can, you know. You can take the PSC exam till the age of 35. I can pay for your coaching classes.”
“I will try to crack it without coaching.”
The Spotify ad filled the silence. The youthful female voice said something about listening to music on a flight with what she called ‘reckless abandon’.
“You don’t have to do all that, you know. I can support you when you look for modelling gigs,” Lisy said, over the commercial.
“It has been more than a year since I got a call from any agency. I am sure everyone has forgotten my face. I am past the prime age too, I suppose,” Esther said, hoping mother wouldn’t say that she was really pretty.
“But you are so pretty!” Lisy said, wiping Esther’s tears from her left cheek. “Can you help me set up my phone? I don’t know how to get the contacts from the old phone to this one. Then there is this fingerprint thing. How do you-”
“Later,” Esther said, turning on her side to face the wall.
I should have trained the children to call me Amma, and not Mummy, Lisy thought, clicking another picture of Esther, and trying to figure out how to stop the camera from making the clicking sound.
During the 80s, when she had Ezra, her firstborn, having children call their parents ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ was quite fashionable among Christians. By the late 90s, it was generally accepted by Keralites that women who had their children call them ‘mummy’ were either uppity lower middle-class housewives or middle-class women who wore sleeveless blouses with their sarees and had tea parties with their female friends, and whose husbands were in the central or state administrative services. Lisy didn’t have female
friends or sleeveless blouses. Her husband worked for a courier agency and when he died in a bizarre household accident a few years after she had Esther (he fell while trying to fix a Christmas star on top of a Chavok tree) Lisy felt angry with him for not naming Esther Veena, and not for climbing a wobbly ladder with only a four-year-old to stand guard.
Lisy lay awake for a long time listening to her daughter’s favourite songs, trying to sing along the ones she knew. She looked for more photos of Esther on her phone. She saw one of Ezra with his wife Sakshi, and smiled seeing how he looked like her husband around the lips.
“Mummy, please don’t sing,” Esther grunted, still facing the wall.
Lisy dropped her voice but didn’t stop. She was trying to remember the name of the film Megham poothu thudangi  was from, when her heart stopped beating.
Esther combed her hair with her hand, collected the loose strands that stuck to her fingers, wound them around the index finger together and pressed them flat between her index finger and thumb. She opened a window and threw them out. There was a loose ball of hair on the sill, comprising blacks and greys. Esther wondered if she should keep it. She opened the window again and threw it out. She saw it settle lazily on the ixora plant. It had no flowers.
She sat next to Ezra on the hideous second-hand sofa mother had bought on OLX when she had felt the urge to revamp the house. She turned the TV on. Ezra turned it off.
“Why didn’t you call for an ambulance?” he asked.
“We have been through this so many times.”
“I still don’t get it. Tell me again.”
“She was dead.”
“How do you know?”
“She wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse.”
“She could still have been saved? Haven’t you watched all these medical shows? You think you are a doctor because you once enrolled in some crappy entrance coaching centre?”
Esther left her brother in the living room and went to the bedroom. She found Sakshi on the bed and saw that the sheets had been changed. Changed from the day she was lying next to mother and thinking of calling Ezra. She didn’t know how long ago that was.
“Why did you wait till evening to call me? What were you doing till then?” Ezra called out from behind her.
“I set up mummy’s new phone,” she said, returning to the sofa.
“I set up the fingerprint lock, imported all her contacts from her old phone, and set my number as her emergency contact,” she said.
“You set a fingerprint lock? How are we supposed to unlock her phone now?”
“There is a number lock as well. I will text you the password.”
“You used mummy’s finger after she was dead to do stuff on her phone? I think you need help, Esther,” he said.
Esther turned the TV on and held on to the remote when Ezra made a move for it.
“I think you should come with us to Bangalore,” he said authoritatively, walking over to the plug point, and switching off the set-top box and display at the same time.
When grandmother died, and the uncles were done purchasing the burial spot for grandfather, mother proposed an idea. Esther could go to Bangalore with grandfather and Christy uncle. It would help grandfather. It was the summer vacation before her seventh grade.
To everyone’s surprise and especially mother’s, Esther started bawling. Nobody understood why she, who among his grandchildren or perhaps even children, loved grandfather the most, would object.
Mother took her to the bedroom.
“What is it? Why are you crying”
“I don’t want to leave.” Esther was inconsolable.
“It’s only for a month. Till your school reopens.”
“I don’t want to leave home…please.”
“You will really like it there. Bangalore is cold. I’ll pack you a sweater…”
“It’s not home…mummy… please mummy…”
She did go, eventually, and even liked it in Bangalore, but she knew that mother had seen the unfamiliar sadness in her eyes, and that it had scared her. It was unusual for her to cry, unless she had been beaten. Esther herself was unable to explain why she dreaded leaving home when she had done it many times in the past, even to visit grandfather in Bangalore.
“I can come visit you during weekends”, mother said, and that was when she realized, she had never been away from home without mother.
Mother made long-distance calls to her every day. Even though Esther sounded happy and her usual chirpy self while narrating the games she played with grandfather every day, she knew mother could sense the presence of the strange wire of grief that had formed a loose noose around her from that incident on. That was the year she tried suicide while Neenu watched.
Even though she felt the noose tighten around her, Esther didn’t cry when she left home after graduation to look for modelling gigs first in Kochi and then in Bombay. When mother visited her and Himanshu’s flat on Yari Road, Esther told her that it was the best city she had lived in.
Mother bought them a cooking stove and a kitchen rack. When the shopkeeper asked ‘gaav kithar hai?’ she said she was not from a village, and that she was from a city called Calicut in Kerala. “Mummy, in Hindi, ‘gaav kithar hai’ only means where are you from originally”, Esther imparted.
“What a stupid language!” mother said indignantly.
Esther showed mother the hoarding in Goregaon with her on it. She was one among the three girls laughing with shopping bags in both hands. She had bent one of her legs sideways and up, to express joy, as the photographer had suggested.
“You look the prettiest,” mother said, “and you’re the only one lifting your leg, so you stand out.” She beamed. Someone rang the bell. Ezra opened the door.
“Hi, sorry to trouble you. We know you are still in shock,” Esther heard Stephy aunty’s unctuous voice outside. “But it’s been two months, you know, and your bins are really stinking. I was wondering if you could…”
Esther combed through her hair again. This time, only one strand of hair came loose. It was white at the root.
“Look! I got my first grey hair!” she exclaimed to her brother, who stood with his back to her, still talking to Stephy aunty from behind the half open door. “I am not leaving home,” she said, placing it in the Bible on the shelf behind the sofa.
 ‘Veena’ is a popular name for girls in Kerala while also being the name of a musical instrument. In Malayalam, it means ‘that which has fallen.’ The most famous usage of the word is perhaps in Mahakavi Kumaran Asan’s ‘Veena Poovu’ (The Fallen Flower). [return]
 Megham poothu thudangi’ is a famous song from P. Padmarajan’s film ‘Thoovaanathumbikal’. Sung by K. J. Yesudas. It is a sensual song about desire, longing, and pain. [return]
Cover image courtesy the artist (and philosopher) Maya Brodsky. In a moving essay on her process, Portrait of an Empty Room, Brodsky remarks: “When the figures began to exit my paintings, I experienced a major crisis of confidence. I have always prayed for “painting breakthroughs,” for a great idea to descend upon me and completely transform my work, but growth in my painting has always been gradual and accompanied by much doubt.”. It seemed to us that the protagonist of this story is also faced with a similar existential crisis, and the painting and the prose were not just in consilience but could also serve, perhaps, as gestures of consolation.
Kunjila Mascillamani (author)
Kunjila Mascillamani is a writer-director from Calicut, Kerala. She is always waiting for the other shoe to drop.