A death in the family – a short story

I first met my uncle when I was seven. I was in junior school and enjoying my vacations. He came to our house with a box full of mangoes. He must have been in his mid-twenties then. Well built, with movie star looks, I later found out that he could also sing. The mangoes were from our groves, my Grandfathers groves, to be more precise. Grandfather knew I loved mangoes. The box was his way of showing he remembered.
As the car stopped at our door, it raised a cloud of dust. The street right in front of our house was untarred. We lived in a rented house. That was all father could afford on a school teachers salary.
My father was an idealist, a dreamer. The only son of a poor farmer, he was the first from his family to graduate. He joined the village school as a teacher and was happy with his job. It was at the school that he met my mother.
She was the only daughter of the richest man in the village. She was also the first woman from our village to complete her graduation. Becoming a teacher was her way of asserting her independence. Her father did not like the idea of his only daughter teaching at the village school.
He had a tough time accepting that his daughter chose the son of a farmer as her husband. For almost five years, he refused to talk to his daughter. My birth eased the tensions. Grandfather came over to visit us once a year on my birthday. The relationship between him and my parents remained strained.
“Father said you liked mangoes,” Uncle said as he took out the boxes from the car’s boot.
I was meeting him for the first time and was too shy to reply.
Also, I was concentrating on the mangoes.
Uncle followed the direction of my gaze and laughed.
“You do love mangoes, don’t you?”
He was supposed to return the same day but stayed with us for two weeks.

Our house had two bedrooms. My parents slept in one while I slept in the other. I was too scared to sleep alone! Most of the days, I would end up sleeping in my parent’s room. Uncle got my room for the duration of his stay. I had no complaints about this arrangement.
He kept strange hours. The lights in his room remained on through the night. Early morning he would go to sleep. I found it very funny.
As teachers, my parents had to reach the school every day by eight in the morning. My lunch would be on a table in a tiffin box. Even at seven, I knew how to live alone.
With no school and hardly any friends, I dedicated my entire day to track my uncle’s activities. I noted that there was a pattern to his behaviour. Around four in the evening, he would wake up, brush his teeth and take a bath. Then he would make his way straight to the kitchen and finish off whatever was there. He had a very healthy appetite.
Then he would come over to my room and play with me. He was a good storyteller. The only problem was, all his stories were about ghosts and haunted houses. One of Uncle’s friends was the projectionist at the local movie theatre. From the theatre, he would bring me bits of movie film strips. We spent hours sitting in a darkened room, shining a torch through those reels. The images on the walls were hazy, but Uncle would weave a story around those images. There would be a hero and a heroine in those stories. He even sang songs full of words I did not understand. He told me about the time he spent at school. He laughed at my jokes.
At about six in the evening, my parents would return from school. Uncle would get up, go to his room, put on his street clothes and leave the house. He would return late at night. I never found out what time he came in, as I would be fast asleep by then.
After a couple of days of this routine, mother looked worried.
“I think we need to talk to him?” she said.

The next day was a public holiday, and my parents were at home. That evening when Uncle came out of his room, they cornered him.
“We need to talk!” said father and lead uncle back into his room.
It was a long talk. I was busy eating a mango when my father came out. He looked worried but one look at me, and he found another problem that required his urgent attention.
“Isn’t that the third mango you have had today?”
I did not realize he was keeping count.
“Let the boy eat, said mother, coming out in my defence. She was in the kitchen, “It is not every day that he gets to eat mangoes.”
“They are so costly,” said father.
He went into the kitchen, and I could hear them talk in hushed tones. I was busy finishing off the mango, but words like ‘smoke’, ‘drugs’, ‘bad company’ made it to my ears. I was relieved that they were not talking about the mangoes.
“What is ganja?” I asked my mother later that day.
“Where did you hear that?” she said.
“I heard you and father talking today.”
My mother never hit me. That day, for a brief moment, I got the distinct feeling that she could be on the verge of starting a new trend.
“It is a bad thing. Something that people should never use,” she said and added, “also good boys should never listen in to their parent’s private conversation.”
“I did not know it was a private conversation,” I said, “What is a private conversation?”
“Have you finished the sums that I gave you?”
Mother had the bad habit of spoiling my vacations by starting me on the upcoming year’s study books. She said it gave me a head start. I did not know about the head start, but it certainly gave me a headache. Life was tough as a child growing up in a house where both your parents were school teachers.

Six months passed. One day in class, I was surprised when I saw my parents at the door. They were teachers in my school but for the senior students. I had never seen them come anywhere near the primary school.
Mother whispered something to my class teacher and then came over to my desk.
“Get your book’s we are going home,” she said.
I saw tears in her eyes. The only time I had seen tears in her eyes was when I had burned my hand playing with firecrackers.
“Where are we going?” I said as my father took my bag.
“We are going to your grandfather’s house,” said father.
Father never went to my grandfather’s house. After my birth, my mother took me there a couple of times. The house was huge with lots of rooms, most of which remained locked. Grandfather lived alone. I had never seen my grandmother. She had died a few years after my mother was born. Father never came with us on these trips.
Grandfathers house was a ten-minute walk from the school. As we neared, I saw a large crowd. I had never seen so many of the villagers in one place. Surprisingly for such a large crowd, there was pin-drop silence there. The crowd parted as we came closer.

“Sit here,” said mother and almost shoved me into a huge sofa in the hall as she went in. Father also followed her. My feet dangling a foot above the ground, I spent my time looking at the curios spreads all over the hall. There were large portraits of people wearing funny clothes. I listened to the tick-tock of a clock that was taller than me. The sound echoed in the room. After a long time, mother came out.
“Come with me,” she said.
She led me into another room. There I could see uncle lying on the floor. He was covered in a white sheet and had cotton balls stuffed in his nostrils. I found this funny and was about to laugh when I caught my mothers stern gaze.
“Pay your respects,” said mother in a whisper.
She told me to go up to uncle and touch his feet. Father came over and showed me how to do it. Uncle’s feet felt cold to the touch, and I pulled my hand back.
“Your uncle died early this morning,” said father, whispering as he led me to a corner.
We stayed in Grandfathers house for two weeks. Every day, I performed several rituals as required by custom. I did not understand any of it and wondered if those asking me to do it understood it themselves!

We returned to our house two weeks later. I was happy to come back and get back to my daily routine. Sometimes I thought about my uncle and hoped that he would come back. I am sure there were stories he had not told me the last time around. An empty wooden box now lies in the yard, forgotten and ignored. I also have some memories of the days we spent swapping stories and jokes. He was twenty-seven when he died