by Jahnavi Misra “Does this spark joy?” Nita kept asking herself.
She went around the room, tripping on random items, picking up one thing after another – a figurine, a coaster, a vinyl – and repeating the same question again and again. Sometimes out loud and other times quietly to herself.
“Decide already,” her sister, slouching in one corner of the room, warned her, more firmly than gently.
There had been a pattern to that living room once. A design that had appealed to those who called themselves ‘maximalists’. Nita did not have friends, but every once in a while a rare visitor would say, “I like how you have done up your house. Some people might think it’s too much, but I am a maximalist.”
Gradually, all those carefully and not so carefully curated items started to take over the space and her lush green plants started to take on a brown tinge. She watered them more, then she tried to dry them out . . . but nothing helped. The plants started to disappear in the crayon box that was her home, and slowly lost all their colour – drooping and withering as she alternating watered them and dried them in desperation. But now that they were completely brittle, she loved them more. They were her responsibility and she had let them down. How could she ever throw them out? They had to remain there, dead and sad, reminding her everyday of their lost loveliness. That was her punishment. She refused to get rid of them, and did not know how to explain her reasons to those who would never understand. She had felt pain when they died and she wanted to hold on to that pain; it was precious to her. Just like the large green ceramic frog that she constantly tripped on. She freely admitted that it was not the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, but her heart had broken into a million pieces when her boyfriend – now an ex-boyfriend of twenty years – had given it to her as a token to remember him by, just before breaking up with her. It had been a profound, delicious pain when he had turned his back on her, becoming smaller and smaller, vanishing from her line of vision forever. She might as well be a dead, stony thing without that ache that started in her heart and radiated out to her entire body, leaving her bed-ridden for months.
“Does this spark joy?” Nita asked herself again.
“It is the only way,” her sister was telling her. “You absolutely need to sort this shit out before it consumes you.”
Nita knew this to be true, her therapist had told her many times to throw away everything that did not spark an instant feeling of joy. She tried to steel herself. But then she looked down again at the vinyl that she had been clutching, wondering hard whether it made her feel joyous, and remembered again how idiotically young she had been when she bought it. It was a boyband that she grew to hate almost immediately afterwards. They were utterly “uncool” her peers had told her. And they really were – they had an irritatingly nasal sound that she could not bear to listen to any more. To think that she was ever so young and foolish to have thought them interesting. How could she let that go? She replaced the vinyl slowly, very conscious of her sister’s deepening frown at the other end of the room.
“I promise to do better tomorrow,” she said.
“At least I got you to give this up,” her sister said holding up a tattered t-shirt, smiling.
Nita had spent countless days and nights wandering around her apartment in that dependable, comfortable shirt after their mother’s passing a few years ago. Her sister and the few other people who still turned up to see her then would insist that she take off the shirt and get under a shower. But she couldn’t, because the t-shirt made her feel like a kid, and it made her feel that her mother might rise from the dead if she kept it on long enough. When her sister finally managed to pry it off her body, it felt like peeling skin. Her eyes stung to see it being held by her sister like that between the thumb and the index finger.
But instead of lunging at her, knocking her down and retrieving the shirt, she said, “let me get some coffee.” No one could say that she was not making an effort.
“Not yet. Let’s look through a few more things.”
The little dress that Nita had worn for a school play was the next cause for debate. It was a little pink dress with red and gold, glittering flowers sewn all over it. It was garish, cheap, and exactly what most little girls lust after. Nita remembered so well how the dress had made her feel – like she was all the beautiful, flawless girls in movies, television and magazines rolled into one. She had felt like the ultimate beauty queen in that dress. Her sister was also given one. They were made to play twins in that school play because they used to look almost identical then.
“I threw it out a long time ago. Why do you still have it?”
“But we were so pretty in that play.”
Her sister felt a pang of that deep tenderness again, which, so far, had kept her from abandoning Nita to a social worker and continued to bring her back to that godforsaken apartment. “You can’t do this, Nita. You can’t get stuck like that. You need to move with the ebb and flow of life. Constantly changing.”
“It’s not like I want to wear that dress again. I can only bear to wear kaftans now.”
Her sister threw up her arms in the air, exasperated.
Nita hated to see those arms go up like that, it indicated that her sister was giving up on her; that she might not return. “Okay I will give you this,” she said panicking, and picked up an old Barbie doll lying carelessly on the floor. Its hair had been cut with blunt scissors by two little girls trying to give it a trendy hairstyle, and its face was marked with sketch-pens and markers to emphasise its otherwise insipid features.
“This is fine for now. But we need to be braver.”
Nita was finally allowed to make her way to the kitchen, wading through piles and piles of everything, to get coffee. She loved to see her sister drinking it; it was bought with her money anyway. Coffee time was for simple chatter, it signalled the end of the intervention, until next week.
Her sister was always impressed by the kitchen. It might not have any space to walk, but there were never any dirty dishes to be seen. It gave her hope for Nita.
“Why do you still keep the old one?” she asked her standing outside the kitchen door, pointing at the old coffee machine in the corner.
“It is from the time when I was better. When you used to like coming here. You even used to bring your boy and girl here sometimes.” Nita touched it lovingly. “This definitely sparks joy!” she said, confidently.
“Why do you do it, Nita? Why can’t you embrace the fact that life is flippant? We all have to do it. Nobody can carry the weight of every passing moment.”
Nita giggled nervously. “Otherwise it would be like nothing ever happened. Like I never happened.” She could sense her sister’s discomfort. She always got like that when Nita started answering back. “But you’re right, of course,” Nita said quickly. “Both you and the therapist. I do cling on to useless things . . . but I’m trying to get better, promise!” she said, adding sugar to the coffees.
They sat down once Nita had made some space on the tiny sofa by throwing tattered stuffed-toys and smelly old throws on the floor.
“I will try and take you outside one day soon; after we have made some headway with all this junk. You’ve locked yourself in here for far too long,” her sister said, sipping her coffee contentedly.
“Why should I go out when I have everything here?”
“Don’t you want to make more memories? New memories?” her sister asked gently.
“Where will I put all those memories then? You call the house cluttered now, imagine what would happen if I brought in more stuff.”
“But sometimes it’s best to keep your memories in your head instead of your house. That’s what your therapist and I have been trying to tell you. Maybe going out again will give you a chance to practice that.”
“You think you can just store things in your head and think of them whenever you want?” Nita asked. Her sister’s condescending tone was getting on her nerves. She got up, opened a drawer on the television stand and brought out a tiny slip. She waved it in her sister’s face and asked, “do you remember what this is?”
Her sister grabbed the chit and read out loud, “‘Get well soon, mum!’ I don’t know. What is it?” she asked.
“I stuck it to the sandwich I made for mum when she was sick with jaundice. I kept the sandwich on the kitchen counter before we left for school. When we returned that evening, mum held me and cried for ten minutes straight.”
Nita’s sister had no recollection of the event. She handed the chit back to her and took another sip of her coffee.
But Nita was not done yet. She opened another mysterious drawer and brought out a cheap looking ballpoint pen. “Do you remember what this is?”
“No, Nita. I don’t.”
“I’m sorry for that. Because it is the pen you gave me after English class in the sixth-grade. The teacher called out my name for the best essay and you gave me your pen saying, ‘I want you to never stop writing.’ Those were your exact words.”
Nita’s sister felt defensive for not having any memory of the incident and said, “But you did stop writing. You got so overwhelmed with all this that you stopped writing.”
Nita paid no attention to the comment and brought out a childishly hand drawn card instead. It had pink and purple flowers on the outside and inside it said, ‘I love you.’
“What is this now?”
“I am truly sorry you don’t remember this one. I think we were five years old, in pre-school. You really liked a boy in class. And one day a miracle happened, he came up to you and handed you this. We giggled so much that day.”
Nita’s sister stood up. “Alright. I can tell that you have had enough for today. You should rest now.”
“Will I see you on Saturday?” Nita asked in a tiny voice.
“Of course you will. I will call you as soon as I get home.”
Nita smiled up at her. Surrounded by bitter sweet memories. Full to bursting, if not necessarily joyful.
Her sister hurried out of her apartment. “Thank god I don’t have so much weighing me down,” she said aloud to herself. She descended the stairs quickly, feeling light. Maybe a little too light – like a gust of wind might pick her up and deposit her on the moon. She decided to buy some cream cones for her kids on the way home, just as a small treat. They loved the ones from that bakery. She crumpled the receipt, ready to throw it in the bin on the way out. But then she stopped and stuffed it in her handbag. “I’ll throw it later,” she told herself. About the Author:Jahnavi Misra is a writer, researcher and filmmaker living in London. She has a PhD in English literature from Durham University, UK, and is exploring new and exciting directions in which to take her research work. Her interests in filmmaking lie mostly in animation, and her first stop motion film ‘The Sweetmeat Boy’ was shown in multiple film festivals around the world. She is currently working on her second animation film based on the death penalty in India. Her first commissioned book of short stories – also based on the death penalty – is forthcoming, and she is in the process of wrapping up her novel.