It’s only a moment’s difference between ripe and rot.
That’s what my Amma would always say. “Fruits will blush with a succulent sweetness just before they turn over and die.”
At that time I thought it was, like everything else, a lesson on marriage.
As a child, I’d run from tree to tree in the palace gardens, plucking the figs while they were still green and hiding them under my bed. If they stayed hidden from the heat of the sun, they would never ripen. Their time would never come. Or so I thought, until I woke up one morning to a bloody mess of flesh and juice and the sour tang of broken dreams.
I sense that stench in the air again, thousands of years later, when he walks into the University campus where I teach.
I cancel a lecture, make excuses and take the weekend off. All day, I sit by the window in my apartment, snipping the overgrown pink bougainvillea twined with the grill. I toss the flowers, one by one, into a wide, brass vessel filled with water and wait for the petals to age like prunes. When I find the courage to leave for class on Monday morning, the flowers have still not withered or sunk to the depths. It gives me a sort-of hope. But when I put my books down on the class table and turn, he is there, sitting in the middle row, scribbling in the back of a notebook with a red-and-black-striped Nataraj pencil.
Two young women in the front keep turning to look at him.
I ignore them and dive into teaching.
An hour later, I am close to concluding when his hand flies up in the air. I continue to speak, even though something in my stomach has caught spark and burst into bright, blue flame. “And this is the point Simone de Beauvoir is making. She says every time a woman, a female character, makes a move towards self-assertion, it supposedly takes away from her femininity, her likeability…and her…seductiveness…”
I lose my train of thought as we lock eyes.
He has the courtesy to look down and smile at his notebook for a moment before he says – “This is Western thought in an Indian classroom. In our culture, our stories, women asserted themselves all the time. Draupadi’s hair left untied and dishevelled until washed in the blood of the enemy. Sita, steadfast, even in the face of fire. And who was it that haunted Death himself until he gave her husband back? Ah,” he says, his perfect bow-shaped lips curling into a smile. “Savitri.”
The heat from my stomach jumps up to lick my face.
“Th–the women from our mythologies,” I say, stressing on the last word, “were trapped in the complexity of their own time. And were constantly punished for asserting themselves in their own ways. It’s…er…an entirely different subject from what I’m discussing…”
“But ma’am,” he interrupts, waving the Nataraj pencil rapidly in the air so it looks like a trident…or a pitchfork. “They are brave women. Norm-breakers. And still seen as idols of femininity in this country.”
“If you still want to pursue this debate, you can see me after class,” I say with some force, hoping I sound brusque and dismissive. But the corners of his lips curl again, like it is some sort of an invitation. I rush out of class after the bell and sit in the staff room among the other teachers, pretending to correct papers. No matter how gentle I am, the ticks of my red pen look like slashes.
Later, when I walk out to the terrace to get some fresh air, he is there, sitting among the potted plants. The black-and-white kitten adopted by the staff purrs in his lap. My heart jumps as he turns to look at me, stroking the kitten with absurdly long fingers.
“You don’t need such an elaborate ruse to talk to me,” I say, drawing the pallu of my saree around my other shoulder to shield against the strong breeze.
He beams. His teeth are mostly straight. His eyebrows thick and wormy like twin caterpillars, his dark hair straight and windblown. He looks completely different from the last time we met and yet, it is Death in that white T-shirt and jeans.
“I was just curious,” he says, in a deep voice that could bend the wind into submission. “To see what perspective you would bring to a—what was it—an ‘Introduction to Gender Studies’ class.”
I fold my arms. “Why are you here?”
“As always, puppet. To see you.”
The wind whips around us, fiercer than usual. The sky darkens, its edges orange, as if catching fire. I don’t miss the signs. There are few things Death loves more than spilling blood in the sky.
“Who is going to die?” I clench my jaw.
He rises to his feet and takes a step toward me. Then another, and another, until a hard, warm hand reaches up to touch my cheek. “I had forgotten about your questions, Savitri.”
It’s a trick. To call me by that name is to touch me in many different places at once.
I close my eyes. “I have a different name now.”
“Hmm… But to me you’ll always be the same fifteen-year-old I found on a forest floor, weeping next to her husband’s body, begging for him to be returned. How many centuries has it been? Do your beloved humans even know how to count back to that time? Hmm? Do you remember?”
The stories people tell now, they once heard from their grandparents, who heard it from theirs, who read it in a book, written by a saint, who was told by five other rishis, who say they read it in an ancient text written by an elephant god.
In that story, Savitri haunted and followed Death and begged him for her dear husband’s life. She impressed him with her wisdom until her beloved husband was returned to her, whole and alive.
Unfortunately, I am not that Savitri.
Let me tell you a story.
Many centuries ago, I was walking through a forest with the man I had married. I was all of fifteen, no more a child, barely a woman.
But in a time when women did not choose their husbands, I had fought the rules of the world, just to become his companion, his most ardent servant. That was the meaning of marriage in those days. If he wanted a drink of water, I knew to read the slightest movement in his mouth so that a jug would touch his lips before a single syllable had spilled from them.
They said if I was a good wife, if I was truly devoted, I could prove all the prophecies wrong.
But he collapsed one afternoon as we picked nuts and berries in the forest. He clutched his body where his heart should be, slurring words and commands. It had been a long year of prophecies and fire sacrifices. I had learned to make talismans out of salt, lemons, chilies and mustard seeds to protect him, and yet when it came down to it, my husband writhed like an insect.
Then the forest went unnaturally quiet, like it was sucking in a breath. Leaves ceased their rustling. The wind turned mute. Animal calls died in their throats.
The sour smell of puckering fruit was everywhere. I thought of the figs. The gardens. Fingers of the sun reaching for them below my bed.
Heart pounding, I looked up from my husband and stared straight into the eyes of Death.
Contrary to everything I had been taught. The opposite of all that I had read and heard in stories and scriptures, she was a woman, a god, her skin as dark as cinnamon bark, teeth artfully crooked, and eyes that looked like the very heart of dancing fire. A jewel like no other – something celestial – shone from a pin in her nose.
“Please,” I begged. “Please don’t take my husband.”
“It’s too late for that now,” she said, her voice full and melodious, like the sound of a woodwind instrument. “Go home.”
“No, please. He was the only thing that made life worthy of living. Please, give him back.” I started to sob.
She circled us slowly, watching my husband like he was prey. I clutched his body tightly to my own. My tears stained his cheek.
“Please, please, give him back. I love him. Please.”
This seemed to enrage and delight her all at once.
“Love.” She scoffed. “What do you know of love, little puppet? You go where the gods send you. You pick up glass and think it’s a diamond. You slice a finger and think your heart is broken. You see one face of a brilliant, many-faced thing and you think that’s all you want.”
The body between us vanished. Death closed a fist. My hands clutched at air.
“I – will – serve – you,” I stammered in between sobs. “I will go wherever you go, do whatever you want, if you give him his life back.”
She laughed and took a step away, hips swaying seductively, a hand pulling all her long, wavy hair over one shoulder. “It doesn’t work like that.”
I followed her, convinced that if I got close enough to pry open her fist, I would find my husband. But her magic was strange and intoxicating. The forest around us thickened and dissolved into whorls of color— deep purple and the blackest black, fiery flickers of amber and midnight blue. No matter how fast I walked, it seemed like I stayed in the same place: just inside the outline of her shadow. Only the stars remained unmoving above us, looking like a legion of distant gods, twinkling dangerously.
“If you intend to follow me,” she said, stopping after what seemed like many tedious hours, “prepare to walk for a long, long time.”
I looked around. We were in a part of the world I had never seen before.
You have to understand. These words I use now to describe it, to remember it – I did not have this vocabulary then. I did not know, for example, that the huge grey metal monsters before me were called “ships.” Or that the pale-skinned people going about their work, in clothes I did not recognize, were mortal, humans of another race that would descend upon my people and rule them one day.
All this I learned later, from asking.
“You underestimate me,” I said to her then, trying to ignore the new, intimidating surroundings. “I will torment you with questions.”
She stopped in the shadows of a large vessel, turned around and laughed. Her bird-like eyes crinkled in a very human way.
“Why would I be tormented by your questions?”
“My husband…” I wiped fresh tears at that word. “He…he used to say I could irritate the most evolved, the best learned, the most disciplined of saints with my questions.”
Death narrowed her eyes at me. It felt like I was being watched by something larger. The Universe. A dark, turbulent ocean. Some great, big beast with hooves and wings, flanks and feathers.
“All right, puppet,” she sniggered. “Consider it a challenge. If you manage to ask me a question that annoys me, even a little, you can have your husband back.”
My eyes must have widened in something like joy because she sneered, almost immediately. “I should warn you. There is no question you can ask that would irritate me. No number of them.”
We walked on a while, cold to the bone in gloomy, grey weather, toward a towering bridge in the distance. Rats scurried beneath our feet. Everything reeked of waste and disease. I wondered where we were and what we were doing. She seemed to be in no hurry.
“What if you are annoyed, but you pretend not to be?” I said, after a while. “What if you… Forgive me, but how can I be certain that the emotions you express to me are truly the ones you feel?”
“Very good.” She looked genuinely impressed and a little amused. “Doubting the honesty of gods without an ounce of fear for their wrath? What a rare thing you are! But trust me, duckling. If you ever manage to offend me, you will know.”
She was smiling, but something in her tone made me shiver. I kept my questions to myself – just for the moment – so I could watch her closely, and observe how things as simple as light and air turned at her command.
It was hard to tell how long we had been walking. Hours melted into minutes, and years into centuries into units of time man had not mastered yet. Again and again, we tiptoed across the threshold of time and space, doing a chore here, a job there. The fist opened and closed. And when it opened again, it was always empty. No part of the world was beyond Death’s reach. She ended kings and children in one strike.
Sometimes, we remained unseen and I walked in her shadow, asking, asking, endlessly asking. Sometimes, she shifted shape and took new forms – a man, a woman, something in between, neither.
Perhaps, I thought at one point, she was magicking new forms for me. I was never out of place among mourners.
At first, I could only see the mothers, the wives, the daughters and the sisters, familiar among the hurt and the grieving. What was it to me if they wrung skirts or sarees, hide or trousers? If they broke bracelets, bangles, beads, or bone? Pain was emblazoned on their skin.
Once at a river ghat, they laid a baby to rest under a rough stone. We sat on large, rusting pipes. Death wore a man’s form now, his bearded chin resting on his folded arms, staring into the eyes of the sun as if threatening it with his own fire.
The words staggered in my mouth, but I asked the question.
“Where do people go when they die?”
He smiled. “They go wherever they think they’re going. Dying is wish-fulfilment like no other.”
“So does that mean the baby is happy?”
“I didn’t say that.”
He looked into my eyes, and it struck me, for the first time, how close we were sitting. If I moved my arm, our shoulders would graze. I think he noticed it too, because a few moments later he folded his legs so that our toes touched, our knees pressed head to head, like in prayer. My heart jumped, like it had been jolted awake from deep sleep.
“I think he was annoyed, not because you ask too many questions, but because you ask the difficult ones.”
“Who?” I said, without thinking.
Death grinned, a little surprised. “Your husband?”
My cheeks burned. He turned his gaze back on the sun. But something between our knees buzzed with heat in spite of the cool afternoon. After the sun had plunged into the mountains, we dusted ourselves and walked on, and the frisson that had existed minutes ago flickered and died.
In those days, when we left one place and time for another, it felt a lot like I was being blindfolded and spun in circles. I lost the ability to tell the difference between then and now and then. Like the needle in a compass, I pointed due north every time, waking in Death’s shadow, under the influence of whatever magnetic pull he had. And yet a small part of me continued to quiver, long after the spinning had stopped, as though it believed my north should be something else.
“How can it be that you have the magic to travel the world,” I asked Death once. “And we only go to the places where terrible things have happened?”
We were in a dingy tavern. A man had just collapsed, spilling a whole barrel of wine the color of blood. The people who were trying to run for help slipped in the mess. If I didn’t know the man was already dead, I might’ve found it funny.
Death sat before me, drinking thick, dark mead from a glass he had magicked out of nothing. “Terrible things are happening everywhere, all the time, duckling. Humans have the great privilege to feel grief only for what happens to them.”
“I’ve been wishing I had that privilege for a while now. But each one gets to me worse than the first,” I sulked. “Don’t you ever want to take a break? From the constant dying and the dead?”
“If you had the power, where would you go?”
“Somewhere bright and colorful. A place that feels…alive? And at a time when nobody’s sick or dying.”
He smirked as he rose from his seat and walked out the front door, his fist closed tight. I sighed and followed him out into the wet, cobbled street. Little grains of sand rose out of the gaps in the cobblestones and swirled around us in a breeze that hadn’t been there seconds ago. The wind picked up, eventually enveloping us to become our own, private sandstorm. I grabbed the end of his kurta and followed even as the sand rained pinpricks into my cheeks. When it finally settled, I could smell roasting meats and vegetables. My toes curled into warm sand. I opened my eyes.
We were standing in an enclosure of patchwork tents. Camels, goats and bulls ambled about, wearing strings of little bells in their necks. Sunlight danced off mirrors sewn into women’s skirts. Scarlet and orange turbans coiled like snakes around men’s heads.
A desert fair.
I looked over to where Death should have been and found her wearing the same skin she had worn when we first met. She was dressed in a large maroon patterned kurta. Her dark wavy hair hid beneath a yellow turban. The shape of her legs just showed through the thin, white cloth draped around her waist. This time when she looked into my eyes, my body rose in gooseflesh.
“Where are we?” I said, looking away.
When Death smiled, it was not soft. It was sharp and cutting. “Somewhere bright and colorful.”
A glorious sunset seared the sky. We stopped to hear a Rabari woman sing. A scarlet ghoongat covered her face, so that only the bluish tattoos on her neck were visible, but her voice was high and loud and gruff. A young man played the ravanhattha by her side, his eyes closed in devotion.
The woman’s song boomed across the mela, rising higher and warmer than the newborn campfires, silencing boisterous goatherds, demanding the attention of sleepy camels and weary travellers.
Next to me, Death opened her fist in a small, graceful movement, like an infant’s yawn.
Please, no, not the woman, I thought. How could she silence her now, like that, mid-song?
But Death’s hand waited, open, next to my own. A moment later, I understood. I opened my own fist and took her hand in mine.
“What is she singing?” I asked, leaning so that my head could rest on her shoulder.
“Her song… is a question too.” Her nose turned to bury itself in my hair. Something throbbed in a hidden part of my body.
“She says she has found every god and goddess you can name. Every kind of heaven. Every saint and sinner known.”
“So… What’s the question?” I raised my head to look into her fiery eyes.
She sighed. “Where should I go to find you, my love?”
I put my head back on her shoulder, digging into the warmth of her body.
We walked on the sands long after the fires had become puffs of ash flying on the backs of desert winds. We sat side by side with our backs against somebody’s tent. I watched her skin shine in the moonlight. All this time, so many hours. She had stolen this slice of time for my joy, in a place that was alive in every grain.
I asked questions, so many of them: Could gods remember being born? This job of hers – did she think it a drudgery or a privilege? Did she always work alone? What happened during wars? And famine? And didn’t it confuse her to hop across time like that?
Some questions she answered and some she evaded cleverly, by leaning in, half-laughing and half-sighing, into my clavicle.
Finally, she held a slender finger to a spot in the very middle of my bottom lip.
“No more questions,” she said, pulling away the finger and bringing her lips to mine.
If you asked me what it was like to kiss Death, I would say it is like drinking moonlight while at the bottom of the deepest ocean, without ever stopping for breath. To weave your hands through her hair and hold the nape of her neck is to reach across the horizon and touch the part where the light never reaches.
At some point that night, I fell into a deep, honey-thick sleep, with her head buried in my chest.
When she shook me awake, it felt like a century had passed.
The sun blazed down on the desert. A shriek seemed to be pulling apart the fabric of the sky.
“Come,” she said. “It’s time to go.”
There was no outstretched hand. Her fist was closed again.
I wiped my mouth and looked around.
The cry belonged to the Rabari singer from last night. Men and women tried to hold her back as she slapped their hands away and clung to the fallen body of the young man I had seen playing the ravanhattha last night.
Her son, perhaps?
“Puppet. We should leave.”
I looked up at her, my eyes brimming over. She had done this to our somewhere bright and colorful.
I shook my head. “No.”
She had looked surprised. Or hurt. I remember thinking it was a trick of the light. Moments later, she turned heel and walked away.
And I ran forward to do the only thing I knew. I pushed past the crowd and held the singer’s head to my bosom and listened to her wail against my beating heart.
Death and I take a bus out of the university town. It’s hot and rickety, and every inch of the vehicle squeaks and creaks as we make our way down bumpy roads.
He leans his head against the bars of the window and begins to sing aloud. It’s a sad song from a movie in the local tongue. I look at him in surprise. At first, his singing earns him a frown from the bus conductor and a man trying to nap behind us. But some of the women watch him with shy smiles. Some nod along to the tune.
I go against everything in my being, every lesson I’ve learned, and watch. I watch how his eyes remain closed when he sings. His long lashes. How his hand automatically goes to his chest, just where his heart should be, when he hits the harder notes and the truer words.
When we get off and walk toward the beach, I find the courage to take his hand. He raises a bushy eyebrow at me, but I walk, pulling him into my shadow.
It has been two decades (and half a lifetime) since that desert fair. I was found, taken in, paid for, violated, then saved. I was taught language like they teach apes and babies. I was fed and re-fleshed. I built a simple life out of learning and teaching. His arrival has made ripples in that life. But I still enjoy the warmth of that hand in mine.
We buy spiced peanuts in newspaper cones. I eat hungrily. He plays football with kids in the sand.
We find a small coffee shop in a narrow lane. We lean against the whitewashed brick wall. He pauses to close his eyes and inhale the smell of the coffee in his steel tumbler before drinking from it.
“Why did you choose to come here?” he asks.
“I wanted to be near the sea,” I say.
What I don’t say is this: The people here have the same dark, coconutty skin you did when we first met. They have quaint superstitions about you; they think if they sleep with their heads toward the south, you will arrive. They say tentative things like “I’ll be back” instead of final things like “Goodbye.” They rarely wear black. They paint red-faced demons on their doors to chase you away.
“Why did you choose to come here?” I ask him.
I want him to say it was me. I want some muscle in his human face to betray whatever affection brings him back to me, time and again. I want to see his hand fly to his heart like it did when he sang that song.
But there’s a moment’s hesitation, and it gives him away.
“Who is it? Who’s going to die? Not one of my students?”
“There was a girl in your class today… This is not some kind of personal vendetta against you, you know.”
I put my tumbler of coffee down by the shop door and tuck fifty rupees underneath. I don’t wait for change.
He catches up with me in the next lane.
Before he can stop it, I push him up against a wall. I can see in his eyes that he isn’t surprised by the force of it, but the closeness bothers him. I lean in to let my nose nuzzle against his neck, trace the hard line of his jaw.
“Take me,” I whisper. “Spare whoever it is and let me die.”
He pulls his head back and smirks. “I told you ages ago, puppet. It doesn’t work like that.” He brings up a fingernail to scoop the tears streaking my face.
“You’ve grown so much. I thought you would see enough faces of the diamond to stop being blinded. But look at you. Still bedazzled. Still thinking your life is worthy in exchange of some…human’s.”
I pull away, shaking my head in disbelief. “Why do you, of all people, look down on love?”
“Love, attachments – they’re mortal weaknesses. Haven’t you noticed how much humans suffer on their account? Haven’t you suffered?”
It cannot be. The person standing before me can’t be the same person who sang a song of separation and longing on a bus three hours ago. He cannot have known the real meaning of the Rabari woman’s song in the desert.
“So you have no attachments, then?”
“None,” he says, lip curling.
My voice is a whisper, but the words come out sharp as a winter wind. “Why are you here, then? Why do you return to me? Why am I, a mere mortal, allowed to see you, speak to you… Touch you?”
For a second, he nods lightly. And then like a slap it strikes him across the face. Fear and fury flare his nostrils and in the flutter of a second, I realize what is about to happen.
At last I have found the question that disturbs him more than the deaths of children.
The last thing I see is his fist uncurl.
And then I travel. For the longest time, the ground is torn from beneath my feet. Through dancing storms and raging sunshine, I swim backward and blackward until –
I know where I am before I can open my eyes. I smell wet leaves, the soggy barks of trees, and sweat clinging to human flesh. I feel the weight of a head in my lap, heavy like a melon.
Dying is wish-fulfilment like no other.
When I open my eyes, I am there. Back on the forest floor, holding my husband’s body limply to my chest.
He awakens, clutching his chest, not quite like a man enjoying a song, and he looks at me, his eyes shining with something like reverence.
I sit there, numb. I am numb when he speaks to me. Numb when we return home. Numb when I gaze at my reflection in a pond and find a fifteen-year-old’s face frown back at me.
It’s as if my compass spins endlessly now, and north is lost or torn to pieces and scattered everywhere like ash and bone.
As the days pass, our village is rife with rumor. Nobody asks what I saw or where I went. Nobody understands the price of infuriating a god.
“Savitri haunted Death until he gave back her husband,” they say. “She must have impressed the god with her sharp mind. She must have pleased Him with her devotion.”
I am not that Savitri. No.
I am a little girl, cold in the summer sun, holding on to a basket of sickeningly sweet fruit.
Nikita Deshpande is the author of the novel It Must’ve Been Something He Wrote (Hachette), has short stories in the anthologies Magical Women (Hachette) and Grandpa Tales (Scholastic) and a poem in The World That Belongs to Us (Harper Collins). Her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Grazia, Scroll, Buzzfeed, and Firstpost, among others. She was awarded a Vermont Studio Center fellowship to work on her fiction.