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I Carry My Parents’ Grief In My Gut

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If Kriti closes her eyes, she can see a little girl, barely six, chasing a fluttering butterfly. Tanned hands outstretched, fingers brushing thimble against the wings, within her grasp, almost, but not quite. The next day, she and her brother found the butterfly dead, lying out of place in the green grass. Shashank told her that it’s a different butterfly in the same colour, but they both suspected it to be the one and the same. Years later, when she brought the memory up with him, he said something that became the first lines in her first writing notebook.

Her eyes open; she stares at the woman in the mirror. Seventeen years have passed since that summer, her childish hopes and naiveness long gone. A shaky smile stretches across her dry lips, her fingers trembling, and then she walks out. The room already becomes a memory that she tucks away tightly within her aching heart— she will not be coming back here, this place will only exist in the past, and she, she will move forward.

“Good luck.” Lucy whispers, her eyes already rimmed red as she hugs Kriti tightly like it’ll be the last time they ever see each other. And maybe that’s how this would end, Kriti thinks, as she stays locked in the embrace of her best friend, softly inhaling the familiar scent of lavender and vanilla. She tucks it away into another compartment in her head. Maybe she’ll make candles out of their scents – it’s the only way to keep them alive.

Kriti thinks it first began when she was thirteen. She and her mother got into a yelling match about her quitting Carnatic music classes. She doesn’t remember what she said back then, but it went on for the longest time. When Shashank walked in later than he usually would, thanks to an extra class at school, he found Kriti curled in on herself, sobbing on the floor and their mother, sitting in the bedroom with the door locked, silence settling stiffly in the air. When their father came back from work, he disappeared with their mother into the bedroom. When he came out, he didn’t say anything either. Kriti didn’t dare to look up and see their disappointed expressions. Dinner that night had been a sombre affair, and Kriti could hardly bear to be in the same room as them. Maybe that had been when the linchpin broke, but a voice in her head whispers that it had been a long time coming, that this had been inevitable

Blake’s fingers intertwine with hers as they sit in the backseat of the cab, a pop song playing idly in the background. Kriti is a writer, she fills blanks with words— in pages, in conversations, wherever she goes. But now, her mouth is glued shut, she can’t think of a single word to say, she can’t breathe. As Blake’s fingers gently caresses her hand, she recalls a distant memory, still frozen in her seat.

(“So write me a letter?” Blake stared at her, head tilted, green hues blinking at her underneath stray golden locks. It took all of her to not reach out and touch him.

“What?” she mumbled out. She’s learnt that artists of all sorts can become speechless, that their muses leave them tongue tied. And Blake Hayes, he’s more than just her muse, so the world falls away when she’s with him, with him she’s just Alankrita Manikam. 

He smiled knowingly and her cheeks flushed crimson involuntarily “Write me letters when you think there are things you find hard to say to me. Leave them wherever— on my bed, on my desk, in my hand. I’ll find it, I’ll read it and then I’ll help you find the words to talk about it.”

She stared at him, a mixture of wonder and surprise painted on her face “And that won’t make me a co-coward?”

Blake snorted and then he leaned forward “Kriti,” he began gently, like he was telling her an old secret of the universe “You write because it’s easier to express yourself that way, because you can. And who am I to take that away from you?” The bridge of his nose touched hers as his voice died down into a whisper “Writing isn’t just putting out your thoughts for others to understand, sometimes it’s just for you to understand yourself. Don’t run away from yourself Alankrita.”)

Kriti blinks and she’s in the present, a hand wiping her cheek. She looks up and she and Blake are still in the cab, the honking of cars in the London traffic echoing around them. She’s crying, she belatedly realizes as Blake’s fingers brush away the wetness against her cheek. She looks up to apologize, but it’s his eyes that stop her words now. Their green is warm and soft, but behind their crumbling walls are loss, mourning for a future that will happen, and for the one that will not. So she does what she does best. Kriti reaches into her bag, pulls out a thick envelope addressed to him and pushes it into his hands. She hears the rustling of it as it gets tucked away into his coat pocket and then she buries her face into his chest. They’ve already said they’re goodbyes, and there is nothing left to say anymore.

A little after she turned fourteen, barely six months after quitting her singing classes, she became interested in the guitar. She badgered her parents— narrowed eyes, counted money, repeated apologies, ‘I’ll do better’ and they stood in the music store, Kriti’s fingers carefully running over different guitars. She picked a wooden brown one in the end. The instrument sat snugly in her arms and she laughed happily as she pulled at different strings, the odd sounds reverberating in the music shop. After that, she sat in front of the laptop for more hours than she could count, and for that she got into another argument with her mother. 

I’m only practicing ma.”

“And what about your studies?” her mother glared from the kitchen.

“My marks are just fine.” Kriti huffed.

“You’ll be in tenth standard next year, you’ll have to work harder.” her mother responded without missing a beat, hair tied up in a bun, hands moving gracefully over the cutting board.

“But that’s next year.” Kriti muttered, recognizing that her arguments were futile and her mother had already won.

The guitar disappeared from her hands after that, it sat in the corner of her bedroom, lonely and collecting dust. Her notebook with music notes and all her sheet music gets buried underneath a rack on her shelf she’ll never touch. ‘Goodbye’ she whispered like a mother parting with a dying baby, silent tears running down her cheeks which she wipes away quickly and then she turns her back on it and seals the memories away. Many weeks later, when her father walked into the room to talk to her about something, his eyes strayed to the corner and his lips pressed into a thin line.

“I thought we bought it, so you would play it.” her father said, forgetting his original purpose.

Kriti didn’t say a word, she’s learnt that if she stays quiet, it gets over faster. Her father rounded on her and scanned her face, she stared intently at her hands, not meeting his eyes.

“Well,” he let out a long sigh, she could hear his disappointment “If you’re not going to use it, let’s give it to someone who will.”

She nodded numbly, hands shaking ever so lightly as she pretended to smoothen out the fabric of her pants. If she opened her mouth, it’ll be another fight, a fight which she would lose at the cost of straining their relationship further. So, she didn’t say anything, letting the silence be her answer and one day in the future, she’ll wish that she’d stuck with this ideology, no matter what. Her father walked out; they never get to have the conversation he actually came for. A week later, her father’s colleague visited and the guitar disappeared permanently. Shashank laid a hand firmly on her shoulder as she handed the guitar to a man she did not know.

“Thank you, my daughter’s been asking for one for ages.” he smiled, the warmth in her hands fading as his hands wrap around the black casing.

“Please take good care of it.” she smiled back, voice barely a whisper and then she hid away in her room.

Kriti gets out of the cab and walks to the front door, legs trembling and hands numbing, and it has nothing to do with the onsetting winter. Blake pays for the cab and joins her at the porch, hand slipping back against hers. They stand in silence for a few moments, neither one of them moving to ring the bell, Kriti wishes she could run— run away from her parents, from this life, from herself

Blake speaks in a low voice “I’m going to -”

“Just a minute more.” Kriti breathes out, cold air fanning against his face and he simply nods as she tightens her grip on his hand.

She closes her eyes and she sees his lopsided smile from the day they first met, and like a film she plays out every moment they’ve spent until this present second— blond curls swaying in the wind— a field of dandelions, an old English song and he spins her around— blue dress flaring out, his quiet laugh on a rainy day as she tucks herself against him, making a chocolate cake for their best friend’s birthday— they’re both covered in flour, kissing under Tower Bridge, whispering poetry on the Tube, watching sunsets on the train and it rushes past her in a blur and she desperately tries to hold on to it all. Maybe if she never opens her eyes, she can save the future, her future. She wishes she’d recorded every moment, etching it into something tangible, not just a memory, not just a memory, not just a memory—

“Breathe.” she feels his warm breath tingle her ear.

She opens her eyes and his swirling green hues are the first thing she sees. She can’t move her eyes from them, from him and her breath hitches in her lungs.

“Breathe.” he reminds her again as he places her hand against his heart and slowly, she feels her lungs begin to function too. Can I really not live without you? she wonders and she wants to laugh because she already knows the answer to it without even completing the question.

“Ready.” she whispers even though she’s not, neither of them are, and they never will be, but they’ve dragged this on for long enough.

Blake’s hand closes over the bell, the sound chiming through the house— Shashank’s grim face greets them.

She was fifteen when they got into their first real fight— Kriti and her parents, Shashank played the pacifier. This fight she knew had been a long time coming. It was the culmination of five years worth of love for the only piece of art she had never given up on. 

She was eleven when she created her first character, four sheets of paper— ink filled pages, an incomplete story. She was twelve when she had an entire folder of stories about the same two characters and she penned down her first ever quote as a writer. Years later, although childish and cliché, she still carries it with her. She was thirteen and she won competitions at school, her parents were proud of her and they boasted to the rest of the family, she felt warm all over and thought ‘so this is what happiness feels like.’ 

She was fourteen and she was still writing, the guitar’s gone and the gaping hole that the instrument left behind couldn’t be fixed, so she buried herself in more writing. When the school year starts as she’s on the cusp of fifteen, her parents nudged her to stop, they told her to think about the future. The summer of next year, they fought.

“Be a little realistic, Kriti.” her mother yelled, dark eyes burning in anger.

They started out by talking, faced across each other at the dining table, but forty minutes later, they had gotten here— screaming at each other while they stood at opposite ends of the living room. Her mother, ready to run into the kitchen to get a spatula to beat some sense into her and she, near her room, ready to bolt into it. Her father sat impassively, watching the both of them and Shashank tried to mediate, treading carefully neutral.

“I don’t want to be an engineer.” Kriti sniffled, it’s pathetic, but she couldn’t stop crying, she didn’t even know when it began. “I want to take the commerce group.”

“Rakesh, will you tell her already.” her mother sighed, and looked towards her father and Kriti’s walls pulled up higher.

“And what job will you get if you end up taking the commerce group?” Rakesh raised an eyebrow.

Kriti stilled. Well, they were already fighting, she might as well lay all the cards on the table. She opened her mouth, but for a split-second Shashank’s eyes caught her own and they flashed in warning. He shook his head ever so subtly so she barely picked up on it. Her mouth closed abruptly and she didn’t know what to say.

“Become a chartered accountant then.” her mother said. “Then there will be meaning in choosing the commerce group.”

“No.” her answer came out immediately, voice flat. She did not want to be an engineer, but she could not even fathom preparing for the accounts entrance exams.

“Then what do you propose we do?” Rakesh stared at her, his chin resting against his hand.

There’s a crushing feeling in her ribcage, like she’s swallowed an ocean. So, this is what defeat feels like. “I’ll do computer science.” Kriti conceded. 

Shashank closed his eyes briefly, turning away from her. It hurts. It hurts so much. She hung her head in shame as salty droplets fell to the floor. She mourned the loss of her dream, perhaps her life. The first of many regrets.

The silence in the living room is deafening as Blake and Kriti stand before her parents. Her father is seated in a chair, his jaw tight as he stares up at them. Her mother stands near the kitchen sink, hands limp at her sides, scrubber with soap lying on the floor. Blake squeezes her hand as if saying ‘you’re not alone’ and she forces herself to breathe. The silence stretches for so long that Kriti thinks she might finish writing an entire book by the time someone says something. Her eyes meet her brother’s, standing in the corner of the room with his fiancé, Anamika. Anamika shoots her a strained smile and Shashank’s expression is one she cannot decipher. The silence slithers up her spine and settles in the hollow of her bones, her shaking hands are gripping onto Blake’s like a lifeline. And then, finally, her father motions for everyone to sit down at the table. 

Her father and mother sit across from Blake and her, Shashank and Anamika take the chairs on each short side. Her mother’s lips tremble ever so lightly and her face twists into something ugly, it makes Kriti shrink in her chair.

“So,” her father says, leaning forward, eyes darkening, voice deadly quiet, “Tell me why you cannot stay away from my daughter, Blake Hayes.”

London was knee deep in snow when the four of them met up on the morning of Christmas Eve. Lucy chose a quiet cafe and they sat in the corner booth; four hot chocolate drinks placed on the table. Kriti watched as her breath fogged the window, flecks of white swirling and dancing in the wind outside. Blake placed a soft kiss on the side of her head and she peered up at him, a rush of fuzziness bursting through her lungs. They sit on the same side of the leather seats now, and Kriti liked it better than sitting next to Lucy. Blake’s calloused fingers interlaced with hers and she sat up with a smile.

She caught Nolan and Lucy watching them across the table with fondness. “Oh, please don’t let us interrupt you love birds.” Nolan gestured for them to carry on, a small smirk on his face.

Lucy wiggled her eyebrows at Kriti in a teasing manner and Kriti mumbled out a ‘shut up’ as she pressed her face into the side of Blake’s shoulder. Blake laughed bashfully— Kriti felt it before she heard it, the rumbling of his chest as he pressed another soft kiss on her head.

They spent a while talking, catching up on what happened during Christmas break. Kriti leaned contentedly against Blake as her frame fit snugly, like he was made for her. Nolan and Lucy held hands over the table and Kriti didn’t miss the way Nolan stared at Lucy as her eyes crinkled with laughter. When their cups finally became empty, they pulled out the presents.

Blake’s present to her was reserved as the last one and it made butterflies flutter in Kriti’s stomach, a mixture of nervousness and excitement. He handed her a letter, a card and a box. She raised an eyebrow at him to which he simply shrugged. “Read the letter later, card now.”

She flipped the Christmas card open carefully and was greeted with his messy scrawl.

You are my butterfly in the hurricane of life Alankrita Manikam. You walked into my life and everything changed. There’s no life worth living if you’re not with me in it, so here’s to our forever and always. To all the memories we’ve made, and to so many more.

Love,

B

“Butterfly?” she asked shakily as she looked up at him, trying very hard not to cry.

“You said all the normal names— baby, darling, love— they’re all clichéd and cringy. So I came up with one which best describes you.” he smiled brightly, pride in his eyes as he placed the now open box in her hands. “My butterfly.” he whispered lovingly, thumb brushing the corner of her lips as her eyes traced over a beautiful butterfly pendant necklace lying in the box. 

Her breath hitched and the tears fell freely now. She threw herself against him, burying her face in the crook of his neck, faintly she could hear Lucy and Nolan laughing in the background.

“I love you.” she said, her voice low, but loud enough for him to hear.

“Forever and always.” he hummed.

“More than you’ll ever know.” They finished together and Kriti listened to Blake’s steady heartbeat under her as his arm wrapped around her waist. This was the moment she wanted to live in forever.

Kriti is drowning. Her lungs are filled with bitter salt water and the howling of the wind whips at her ear. She feels the ocean tear off her limb and frantically tries to breathe, to grasp onto something, anything. Because the waves rise before her, higher and higher and they crash. She drowns again. 

And then she realizes – oh, oh, she’s the one screaming. Tears are running down her cheeks, her nose is clogged. Blake’s hand is no longer in hers and though blurry, she sees her mother pushing him towards the door and that’s all it takes for her to run towards him, pleas falling from her lips like leaves during autumn. She hears repeated apologies, so much yelling and noise and she’s not sure who’s saying what anymore— it’s chaos

A hand pulls her back, firmly holding her in place and she looks up in terror as her father’s iron grip crushes her. His face is impassive, tired even, but his eyes are unforgiving and she’s begging him “Nana please nana please. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please.” He doesn’t respond and instead pushes her into the chair nearby. She stumbles, but sits as her back hits the chair with a resounding thud. Shashank and Anamika watch quietly from the corner of the room, not daring to make a sound. She sees her father raise his hand and then pain implodes against her cheek “How dare you bring a Christian boy home and ask our permission for marriage. Do you have any sense Alankrita?” her father seethes, he looks absolutely furious and Kriti is scared, she’s so scared that she’s frozen. Will I be killed for falling in love?

When she meets Shashank’s eyes, mirroring her own horror, she remembers what he’d said back then, the first lines in her first writing notebook — “Even butterflies cannot withstand the hurricanes they create.”

All the fight leaves her and she slumps against the chair in defeat, her father pulls away and she quietly sobs, cradling her cheek. It’s the last time she sees Blake Hayes, but his emerald hues haunt her dreams.

Kriti lied awake in her bed, the thin walls of their house allow the yelling in the living room to bleed through. She heard Shashank’s enraged voice and sank deeper under the blanket. She couldn’t remember a single time that Shashank had raised his voice against their parents, yet here he was, fighting for her.

“It’s Oxford! Not everyone just walks into that university, she worked for it.”

For an English degree? And you, what right did you have to approve of that decision, to help her find a way to take the entrance?”

What right did I have? I practically raised her with Avva, all you did as parents was to put her down, constantly.”

Kriti sighed as she tried to muffle out the arguing, it’s a miracle that the neighbours hadn’t come to see what all the fuss was about. At a certain point she started crying, quiet sobs as she pressed fists full of fabric into her mouth and she wondered why she was born anyway. In this house, there was only pain and hurt and it couldn’t be fixed with the slap of a band-aid or no matter how many beautiful tragedies she wrote. She had ruined her relationship with her parents and now she was the cause for ruining Shashank’s relationship with them too. The weight that settled like an anchor in her gut, she realized bitterly, was the grief of her parents that she’ll carry until the day she dies.

After what seems like hours, the door opened with a click and the bed dipped next to her. Shashank pressed a tender kiss to her forehead and whispered “You’re going home Kriti. You’re going to study English in London.” and she burst into loud sobs, choking as she thanked him over and over again. He held her tight in his arms and she felt safe. In his arms, the grief in her gut felt lighter.

“You look beautiful.” her mother smiles from behind her and she smiles automatically as she stares at her reflection in the mirror. She’s dressed in a traditional pink and silver silk saree, decked in gold jewellery from head to toe. She feels heavy and she can’t tell whether it’s the weight of her appearance or something else entirely coiled tightly in her gut.

There’s a knock at the door and her father walks in, he momentarily stops as he sees her, stunned. And then he smiles, tender and proud and she swallows hard, lifting her lips higher and higher, until it hurts. He bends down to meet her eyes, her face cradled in her father’s large hands “You’ve grown so much.” he smiles and she laughs, one that she’s perfected over time that it comes so naturally it could very well be real.

There’s another knock and Shashank peeks in “It’s time.” he says, hiding behind his brilliant smile, is the swirling sadness in his eyes. Kriti turns back to her reflection.

If she closes her eyes, Kriti could still see the apartment she shared with Lucy. Nolan and Lucy would argue about what to cook for dinner and she and Blake would sit on the sofa, side by side, watching in amusement.

Anamika stands on one side holding her shoulder and her mother on the other. The rest of the women in her family are grouped behind the three of them and they walk from the dressing room, making their way to the stage. She keeps her head bowed, to others it would look like shyness, only she knew it was fear. I’m not ready.

“And what movie are we choosing this time?” Blake would turn away from the kitchen, amusement still dancing in eyes as he arched an eyebrow at Kriti. And she would smile, mischief dancing in her own eyes. 

The four of them would end up on the sofa, an hour later, lasagna on their plates and a rom-com movie playing on the television, throughout which Nolan would complain and Blake would poke fun at Kriti.

Her mother and Anamika let go once they reach the center and she sits down, slowly, gracefully, like a woman as she had been taught to. She can feel the heat of the ritual fire in front of her, smoke rising, it’s a haze. Her shoulders bump with the person next to her and she lifts up her head to peer at him.

He smiles at her, tilting his head lightly towards her — ‘You look beautiful’ he means to say and Kriti flushes lightly. It goes unnoticed as she joins in with him in chanting the prayers in the ritual.

“Kriti, you have to stop choosing romantic movies.” Nolan would groan as the movie finally ended and Lucy would slap him playfully on the shoulder. “I liked this one Kriti, it was perfect.”

Kriti would beam at her best friend and then Blake would tackle her to the floor, her laughter echoing around the room as he tickled her.

“You can choose next time.” Kriti would breathe out as her stomach ached. And Blake would shoot her a toothy grin as he helped her sit up and she’d lean against his chest, trying to catch her breath.

Nolan would cough inappropriately and Lucy would hit him on the shoulder again. “We’re not like the both of you.” Kriti would stick her tongue out and the four of them would burst out laughing. The four of them was all she ever needed anyway.

When her eyes open, reality crashes on her and her soon-to-be husband stands before her, the traditional thaali in his hand. As the drums start playing in the background and the women slowly ease into a wedding hymn, he ties the knot around her neck.

If she closes her eyes, she could see Blake’s messy scrawl peeking out of the last card he’d ever written to her. She has it memorized well enough to recite it even in her sleep. “From a hopeless man in love, to his one and only. You’ll find a longer letter in your bag, but if you’re reading this, then it’s all over. So I’ll say this, I’m letting you go, Butterfly, so that the world can see your talent and beauty. Fly away now and set us free.” 

Friends and family crowd around the both of them and she smiles automatically, lips tugging up higher and higher until it hurts. She stands up as Alankrita Sreegiri, the wife of Roushil Sreegiri.

If she closes her eyes, she can see a little girl, barely six, chasing a fluttering butterfly. Tanned hands outstretched, fingers brushing thimble against the wings, within her grasp, almost,

but not quite. 

Goodbye” she whispers, letting every memory fall away as she steps into her new life.

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