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The wood apple tree stood tall and sturdy outside her building, its leaves dusty and flecked with white paint from the construction work in her flat. Its top had always reminded her of old people with white hair. The tree was well-cared for except for its dusty tops, which no one could reach to sprinkle with water. And she had never cared much about gardening. She hadn’t even thought about the tree’s existence till that afternoon before her exam. The only time she had been aware of it was in the summers when the man on the ground floor, who watered the tree, offered her ripe green wood apples from it. She used to like their taste – sweet and succulent – like the mangoes she loved so much.

Karan had always avoided this part of the city because of the people living here. The indifferent looks on their faces and the general air of unfriendliness around them repelled him because he had been accustomed to overfriendly neighbors in his town. Every time he entered or left his home, the woman next door, Guddy Aunty, asked him about his day, prying out the smallest and the most insignificant details with admirable rhetoric. She knew about his failed tests, the times he had drunk himself to the point of vomiting and about the time he had stolen money from his father’s wallet in ninth grade to buy a cigarette for himself. But she did not know about her. She could never know about her because she was hidden carefully in the deepest recess of his heart. He smiled when he thought about how early he had to wake up to come here to her place so that Guddy Aunty could not see him. 

Meghna thought about her recent visit to the city hospital. The doctor had such a calm and cold expression even when he was announcing the death of her friend. She had been driving drunk on her little trip to the nearby beach town. In the dead of night, on the national highway, she had rammed the car into a truck. Her head suffered a concussion bad enough to not pull through. Meghna thought about the conversation about Karan they had on the phone as she washed her tabby cat in the new porcelain basin that had been fitted recently in the bathroom. That phone call was the night before her friend had decided to take that trip. Meghna was careful not to leave cat-hair sticking to the sides of the basin. Her mother had blown up a racket for it the last time because it was expensive. Her mother always got hysterical about trifles. She wondered what she would have done if Meghna had been in her friend’s position. Actually, how would she be in that situation, Meghna corrected herself inside her head, when her friend would never have done to Meghna what she did to her– letting her drink and drive? Wrapping her cat with an old dish towel and turning off the tap, Meghna glanced up at the clock in the dining hall, visible from the bathroom. It was getting late.

Karan had tried calling everybody related to her for the past three days. He understood why she would not pick up the phone but Meghna was not the type to ignore calls if she was mad. It struck him quite a few times to drive to her house, park the car behind the bush beside the wood apple tree, and sneak up to surprise her, but he was not sure if she was back from the trip yet. The last thing he wanted was her parents to grill him with questions regarding ‘the relationship’ they shared. It irritated him so much. He did not even know if it was at all a relationship since she seemed to be so evasive of him. It would not have probably made much difference to her if he had just been absorbed into the tree; she even talked to him while staring at her phone screen, never sparing a moment to gaze into his eyes. What confused him even more was he would still make those early morning trips to meet her under that tree everyday and she would wait for him too. 

Meghna opened her wardrobe to sort through her clothes with an exhausted cynical smile on her lips. What would be the best colour to wear to your best friend’s funeral, really? It’s funny how they never teach you how to deal with situations as big as this and actually in the larger perspective of life in general, as common as these. Just like they do not teach you how to deal with failures. Everything in this world is set up for those who make it, who are happy, who have money, who have people they love living with them. Meghna at last pulled out the dull white kurti and black leggings that she had bought on a shopping trip with her friend a long time ago. “If spirits can see colours, maybe she will know I am thinking of her and I want her back,” she thought. 

She had been lying on the cold tiled floor for an hour, shrouded in white. Her face was the only part of her body open to people’s gaze and it was hard as stone. Flies sat on it and traced its texture with no discomfort because not a muscle moved. Time itself had frozen on that face, it seemed. The room was foggy with the smoke from the incense sticks, stuck in little silver stands in clusters. They barricaded the framed photograph of her that had turned out hazy on enlargement. Yet her smile was distinct but lifeless, almost as if she had always existed as a photograph. People sat around her body with their unfocused gaze fixed on the ground as if looking up at her would disgrace her. Her mother in a faded brown sari placed a plate on the floor among the paraphernalia of fruits, sweetmeats and flowers the floor was chock-a-block with. It was a Bengali Hindu custom to put all the food that had been the dead person’s favorites in front of her on her death day. So, the plate was full of sliced wood apples, cut in thin, equal shapes. 

A large van with peeling paint and ‘Sarkar Funeral Services’ etched in shocking pink polish arrived in front of the building. Meghna and her friend’s father carried the hearse down as her mother began screaming through her tears, incoherent words, some addressed to the people around who were taking her daughter away and some to Fate who had taken her daughter away. As they hit the last step of the building’s staircase, Meghna could see Karan standing there, waiting for the hearse to pass so he could probably go up to meet her. She did not know how to tell him that there was no need. It had taken a lot to get up in the morning and show up anyway. She was certainly not up for dealing with somebody else’s feelings; her own had frozen up anyway. 

“Meghna, why are you crying? Did you and her have a fight?” Karan asked as soon as Meghna drew near to pass by. She smiled this time and gestured to him to come with the crowd. He stared at her for a few seconds, confused, and then suddenly his eyes dilated wide and wider to take in the realization. When it was all inside him, he turned away slowly and started walking away from the building after that, tottering a little. She wanted to run after him and call out. Maybe sitting with him and trying to deal with this together would help. Maybe they would figure out a way to mourn without fearing to fall over the edge themselves. 

“Are you coming on the matador or not? We do not have time. Another body to pick up after we deliver this,” the driver of the van hollered out to Meghna. She broke out of her thoughts and quickly jumped onto the matador. There was no time to mourn. Grief was only a series of jobs to do– the cremation, the holy bath, and then getting back to contact the invitation card shops at College Street. She would ask her Dad to help her friend’s family with that. She had to go back to the office tomorrow. Maybe she would text or give a call to Karan to check on him. What else? “Even aunty would be in the kitchen an hour later to make tea for all the people who would return from the crematorium,” she thought.    

Pujarinee Mitra is a PhD scholar and Graduate Instructor at the Department of English, Texas A&M University. Having spent an excessive amount of time in grad school, she has been locked up with research paper writing for too long and desperately craves for a change. Apart from writing, she enjoys most other creative ventures (like painting, singing, dancing, etc.) even though she might not be very good at them. She suffers from a case of serious obsession with Harry Potter and Bollywood films (especially those with Shahrukh Khan in it). When she is not otherwise occupied with a good book and a large mug of coffee, she experiments with cooking all kinds of South Asian cuisine at home.
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