2980 words, short story
Everyone was on time, but the sub-son was late.
No one had expected this from the sub-son because he had always been the most responsible, the most thoughtful, and the most present. The sub-son walked with the weight of the family on his shoulders, never hunching, never crumbling. The sub-son had always been there, despite the fact that he wasn’t truly a son, rather the ghost of one.
“She won’t go until he shows his face.”
Shyam spoke, rubbing his thumb against his index finger, looking at his mother Vrinda’s gaunt face, puckered lips, and distant eyes. Her chest was hardly rising and falling. If he looked long enough, he could see a slight movement, a forgotten breath her lung expelled, a twitch of her fingers, yearning to hold her sub-son’s hand.
“Where’s he?” said Sundar, the youngest brother. A flat rage dripped from his words. No highs, no lows in his anger. “ISRO has already been spamming the news channels with their fleet’s arrival for two days. Unless they left him back there.”
“Must have been a long journey, and the Renergizer Pods at the Delhi Airport are broken,” said Vidya, Shyam’s wife. “Nowadays it’s hard to get a sub-coat of his size. So he could really be anywhere.”
“He wouldn’t take help from my company,” said Sundar. “Our new models are especially made for long travels.”
“It’s just pride,” said Shyam, rubbing his temples. “Vishwa was prideful too, and he’s forty-nine-point-three percent Vishwa, if not more.”
Shyam’s words brought silence, which grew fast and filled the empty spaces between them. But soon, it began to expand, threatening to topple their sorry, pre-mourning figures. And, as if sensing it, Vidya spoke, abruptly, her words too eager to dispel the discomfort caused by her husband’s words.
“Vishwa liked the samosas I made.”
“Vishwa was the only one who liked those,” said Shyam, detaching his gaze from his mother and fixing it on his wife. “Overcooked and under-spiced.”
“Much like sub-Vishwa,” said Vidya, managing a weak smile. Everyone agreed.
Much like sub-Vishwa. The sub-son who was the laboratory grown, bioengineered ghost of Vishwa, was too much son and at the same time, not enough, but more son to their dying mother than those present in the room. Yet, today, when it mattered, he was late.
Lunch was served. Potato and brinjal curry along with rotis and salad. Simple food, for people on the periphery of mourning. Shyam ate silently, his eyes affixed on the doorstep. Vidya busied herself with making green coriander chutney. Sundar ate while standing up, like he was at a wedding reception. He ate with the dazed fervor of a man who had a train to catch. Yet, there was nothing to hurry about.
A sub-son shaped absence lingered in the household.
“He never does this,” said Shyam, munching on cucumber. “Tulsi and Radha are already on their way. He must be in communication with them, at least. Why not tell us?”
“It’s painfully obvious, no? He’s thinking of another way to make us all look bad,” said Sundar.
Shyam looked at him as if he’d said the quiet part out loud. And it was true. Shyam had indeed felt incomplete, all his life, in Vishwa’s presence, in his absence, and then his re-presence as the cursed sub-son. Vishwa, the middle son who was just too perfect. The Harvard graduate, the inventor, the engineer, the everything. He was the world, like his name. Vishwa bent and touched the feet of his elders properly. He chewed properly, burped properly, farted properly, never held the hands of his wife Tulsi in front of the elders yet made love to her properly, so she gave birth properly, to a daughter, who was the moon of everyone’s eyes and who, following in her proper father’s footsteps, grew up to be an MIT scholar, properly.
Prim and proper and perfect.
Vishwa had died in a manner consistent with his character—peacefully, in his sleep, not a bother to anyone. But he’d already prepared a masterstroke for that contingency. After Shyam and Sundar had spread his ashes in the river and returned to mourn for thirteen days, they’d found sub-Vishwa waiting for them, smiling, through Vishwa’s perfect teeth.
“I know the moment is not proper,” sub-Vishwa had said. “But I was scheduled for this day.”
Behind sub-Vishwa, Vrinda was standing, grinning through her teeth, like she’d not spent the last three hours wailing over her own son’s corpse. Like she couldn’t tell the difference between a real, living person, and his clone.
“So hi to raha tha,” she’d said. “Don’t you see, he was just sleeping?”
Denial was such a potent drug.
No one had the heart to tell her that Vishwa was truly gone. Who would tell her in so many words that it was just a trick Vishwa had played on the family, to prove his worth even after his death, when it was not needed, when everyone was already reminded of his shining worth with every breath he’d taken? Thankfully, the guests who’d come to pay their respects were all gone. The family was saved from the embarrassment of telling everyone that Vishwa was insecure even in death.
Sub-Vishwa never breathed. Yet, he was as alive as Vishwa had been. Vrinda clung to sub-Vishwa like a leech. A sane part of a mother had died that day, and it was the quiet insanity of grief that Vrinda showed in her interactions with sub-Vishwa. She’d feed him dal chawal, but sub-Vishwa would spit it out, because his stomach wasn’t yet ripe for the intake of grain.
“It’s still developing,” he’d said with a ghost-smile when asked.
“He always had gas,” Vrinda had smiled and said, ruffling his fake hair, slightly bristly, like the surface of a rug, which was also, in his own words, still developing, pores and roots and all.
Vishwa had fallen from the memory of his daughter and his wife like the shedding of dead skin, in flakes and bursts. When they accepted sub-Vishwa, they accepted him like a warm blanket on a winter night.
Acceptance never came for the two brothers, the men of the house. Because the men had seen what the corpse of their brother looked like atop the pyre. When Shyam had cracked his brother’s skull with a wood log, he’d felt sweat dripping from his trembling palms at that ugliest of funerary actions. Sundar had lit the pyre and wept on Shyam’s shoulders. They’d said their final goodbyes, once and for all, on the riverbank. They had done their duty. They’d held on comfortably to the idea that they could now go their separate ways, to their worlds, their jobs, speaking to each other only on anniversaries and festivals.
Shyam’s first instinct was to slap sub-Vishwa. His presence was an insult to his grief, Sundar’s grief. He’d only restrained himself because of his mother. And so, the only thing Shyam did was to go into his room, pack his bags, and leave. The perfect son was already there, ever present like he’d always been. There was no need for Shyam or Sundar when Vishwa was there, perfection oozing out of every crack in his crackless new body.
Later, Shyam had developed carpal tunnel signing on the dozen sub-Person release forms that had accompanied Sub-Vishwa. His voting rights, his speech rights, his reproductive rights, had to align with Vishwa’s. Even though he was activated on the day of Vishwa’s death, their birthdays had to match. Shyam had applied for sub-Vishwa’s Citizen Card, his passport, his sub-Health Insurance, like he’d done for his dead brother.
He had done so much for Vishwa, yet gotten so little in return.
Shyam finished his lunch, saying nothing, and handed the plate to Vidya, who was already going to the kitchen to put her plate in the sink.
“I think we should start discussing the Ramnagar flat,” said Sundar, after a long pause, during which no one had entertained his previous statement.
“There’s nothing to discuss,” said Shyam.
“Why though? Just because you can’t be man enough to do what we should have done six years ago?”
“The Sub-Personhood Act, you idiot. His name can’t be struck off the will.”
“I know lawyers, Shyam. Powerful ones who’ll find loopholes even in the most ironclad of laws. You just have to say yes. Please for the love of god, step the fuck up.”
“No,” said Shyam decisively.
“Why are you guys talking about Maaji like she’s already gone? And he’s Vishwa, your very own Vishwa. What gives you the right to talk about him like that in his absence?”
Shyam looked at Vidya like she had spoken out of turn. But she was thrumming with a restrained anger and so he didn’t say whatever he was going to say.
Vishwa was like the brother Vidya never had, and sub-Vishwa even more so.
Six months after Vishwa’s death, Raksha Bandhan had been a quiet affair. In the Saxena household, the air had swelled with the smell of marigold flowers and the stench of hurt egos when Vidya had tied a rakhi around sub-Vishwa’s wrist. The cousin sisters, who’d refused to tie their biggest rakhis around the clone, who’d cast nary a glance at him, who’d instead gone on to tie double rakhis around Shyam and Sundar’s wrists, had looked at their bhabhi with quietly incensed gazes.
And then sub-Vishwa had emulated a tear in his eyes, but instead of tears, gold-silver goo had oozed out of him, and then he’d said that his ducts were still developing. And then he’d showered gifts upon Vidya and the cousin sisters, gifts the kind of which Shyam and Sundar couldn’t afford in two lifetimes.
It had taken sub-Vishwa two years from that moment to mold completely into Vishwa. But for Shyam and Sundar, he’d become Vishwa in that moment.
“What are you getting so worked up about, bhabhi?” Sundar, yet again, said what Shyam wouldn’t. “What’s gonna happen is gonna happen. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then Friday.”
“He’s right, Vidya. It’s a stroke, and she’d not been taking her BP medications for a while now. Her arteries are so narrow the walls are kissing each other and no stent could pull them apart.”
“It gives you so much joy to describe her impending death in so much detail, right?”
“You never spoke so fondly about your own mother? Seriously, what has gotten into you?”
Black words like soot. Bitter words like an artichoke gone bad. Vidya went inside, leaving the two brothers to their own devices.
Later, when he held his mother’s hands by the bed, Shyam tried to sing to her the mukhda from Mukesh’s immortal song, “Main pal do pal ka shayar hun.” I’m a poet of mere moments . . . But of course, Shyam was never the son with the honey-voice. He sang with a helpless ineptitude, a southpaw trying to make a right-hand jab, a flat-footer trying to sprint.
What he lacked in talent, he made up in effort. His mother’s fingers curled around his, and for a split second, her lips moved. A breath came out, and the shape of the name that came with it was all too recognizable.
“Vishwa . . . ?”
“The Sub-Personhood Act is very clear in matters of the will,” said the lawyer. He sounded mildly annoyed, as if it were the fifth time he’d had to read out the act in the day. “As in, it treats a sub-person as a person, and all laws applicable to a person are enforceable upon them.”
“There has to be something, Hashim,” said Sundar. “Do your magic, pull something out bhai!”
“I’m sorry, Sundar, my hands are tied in this case.”
“Well, we tried,” said Shyam, rubbing his chin. He let a sharp breath out with that last syllable, relief coiled in his words like a snake. It was slight, but quite noticeable, and Sundar noticed it first. Shyam had, quite hypocritically, gone behind his own words when he’d agreed to Sundar’s demand of listening to a lawyer. But it seemed now he’d never intended to do that at all. Shyam was still trying to be a good son.
Sundar had given up all pretense long ago.
“What’s in that flat anyway?” said Hashim. “The will is very clear on the divisions and both of you are being left with a hefty chunk.”
Sundar looked at Shyam.
The Ramnagar flat was where Sundar had stopped seeing Vishwa as a brother, once and for all. It was their home before their bigger home, the small pocket-space their father had bought with a pound of his sweat and a drop of his blood. The sweat, of course, because he worked long hours in the construction business. The blood, well, it was a running joke in the family, because he’d tripped during the grih-pravesh, grazing his ankle against a sharp edge of the living room wall. Blood had pooled and made a permanent home in the cracks between two marbles on the floor.
The flat had given them their many firsts, but one of Sundar’s firsts was marred by Vishwa. And Sundar’s memory was forever stained by the unwitting misdeed of his elder brother, who hadn’t thought much of that act later in his life.
Sundar had brought his first pet, a parrot, into the household. Sundar taught it to speak his name, his brothers’ names, his mother and father’s names. The parrot would chatter all names but add the suffix “paagal.” Sundar paagal, Shyam paagal, Vishwa paagal.
Vishwa hadn’t yet grown into the perfection he became in his later years. So, upon listening to his own name distorted like that, he’d raise a hue and cry. Sundar, who was four years younger than Vishwa, wouldn’t know what to make of it and how to stop the parrot. Helplessly, Sundar tried to teach the bird different words, positive words. But the bird wouldn’t budge.
One day, Vishwa rescued a stray cat and brought it inside the house. The next day, the house didn’t hear any names or any suffixes. It only heard the silent sobs of Sundar, and the mewls of the still-hungry feline, as a green feather rested near its paws.
Sub-Vishwa had broken down the Ramnagar flat and remade it into part-research facility and part-cat café. And it was like he’d taken a needle and poked into Sundar’s childhood wound. Sub-Vishwa, like a creeper vine, had taken over the Saxena household more potently than Vishwa ever could. Sub-Vishwa never breathed because his coppery skin didn’t inflate along with his biomechanical lungs. Sub-Vishwa never showed a pulse and the veins on his hands were there just to maintain appearances. But for all his physical faults, sub-Vishwa loved the Saxena household. He showered his mother, his wife, his bhabhi, and his daughter with endless gifts. He completed Vishwa’s research on subatomic particles, published numerous papers, won a grant, and got featured in Forbes. He was the part of a special human spaceflight crew to Lars-24, the only planet that resembled Earth in its axial tilt, its atmosphere, and its core.
He loved both Shyam and Sundar. But he was forty-nine-point-three percent Vishwa. And forty-nine-point-three was enough for Shyam and Sundar to not like him.
Sub-Vishwa had left five years ago for the mission. His return had coincided with his mother’s stroke. Yet, miraculously, he wasn’t there.
Vrinda died in her sleep, four days after her stroke. Sub-Vishwa wasn’t there.
The doctors announced it, fifteen minutes later. Sub-Vishwa wasn’t there.
They cleaned her body, made it presentable for viewing, for mourning. Sub-Vishwa wasn’t there.
Not many tears were shed. The family was ready for this. They’d been ready for a long time. Shyam and Sundar lifted the bier and carried their mother out of the house. Sub-Vishwa wasn’t there to offer a shoulder to the bier. He was late.
Shyam and Sundar set fire to their mother’s pyre. They said their prayers, silently. After the deed was done, Sundar called Hashim to meet him back at home. Hashim, too, was running late, as he had another client meeting. Well, there was no hurry now, was it? Sub-Vishwa hadn’t come, and their mother had left without saying her goodbyes to her favorite son.
In a way, it was poetic.
Shyam and Sundar returned. Outside their home, along with the slippers and sandals and shoes of the mourners, there were two more pairs of footwear. A pair of black shoes, and a pair of short heels, the kind Vrinda liked.
A numbness coursed along Shyam’s body, icy tentacles of a past. Sundar couldn’t manage to lift his gaze from his mother’s heels. He knew and couldn’t face it. Inside the Saxena household, there was quiet rejoicing. Of the familiar, bitter kind.
Sub-Vishwa stood behind his mother, his chin resting affectionately on her shoulders. Sub-Vrinda caressed his cheek like a loving mother, a grin plastered on her face, as she spoke to Vidya, to Tanvi, to her granddaughter Radha, and to the other mourners, who had come to accept this sudden resurgence of hope.
Sub-Vishwa then broke into a song, and everyone sang along with him, abjectly forgetting that they were here to mourn the demise of a living being. Sub-Vidya joined him, but her voice was broken, radio static. Her vocal cords were not yet developed, but she tried.
“Main pal do pal ka shayar hu . . . ”
She tried, she sang, and clapped, and turned to face her two other sons who’d just told their goodbyes to her. She smiled a Vidya smile. Sub-Vishwa turned too, to face his brothers, who’d waited for him for four days. He smiled a Vishwa smile.
“I know the moment is not proper,” said sub-Vishwa. “But she was scheduled for this day.”
Amal Singh is a screenwriter, author, and a cat dad from Mumbai, India. While his cat silently judges him, he can be seen drafting a novel, or trying to bake brownies in a cooker. His short fiction has appeared in venues like Apex Magazine, Clarkesworld, F&SF, and Fantasy Magazine, among others.