A friend called Tendril,
a truth called Death
The burden of belief unnerved me. The thought of meeting
Tendril in a mental asylum petrified me. But I knew it was
not about me, it was about Tendril and the moment that refused
to thaw. For months she had refused to believe that her
husband was dead….
Tendril. That is what her Bengali
name translated into. I smirked. Tendril? So why didn't they
call her Roots? Or Bark? When I first looked at her she reminded
me of a porcelain urn with bad etchings; her beautiful skin
was blotched with freckles. Frail and shy, her freckles and
her golden brown hair introduced her to the crowd. She was
always silent, but her eyes always conversed.
In the discolored hostel we would often meet in the dining mess, she my junior by a year. I was studying English literature, she philosophy. Over insipid, watery potato curry and burnt chapatis we, Tendril and I, would talk of poets and philosophers. Silence would recede into the crowd and words came in battalions when she talked of Seneca's stoicism or Sartre's existentialism. But it was Nietzsche who always lurked in our conversation. We were always at variance with the great philosopher. Nietzsche's rants did not shatter Tendril's faith in God, she rebutted Nietzsche's argument that God is Dead. For her, God, the benevolent one, was alive, doing well and taking care of all of us. I disagreed with Nietzsche too - I believed there was no God, for me the entire premise was flawed. God was not there, he was never there, dead or alive was superfluous in my context.
Tendril often smiled graciously at my logic and said: "God forgive her for she knows not what she is saying". She kept God breathing in the dining mess and over the months Nietzsche brought us together. We became friends, sharing almost everything that life offered.
Months soon flitted past. I took my final examination, packed my bags and went home. Before leaving I did promise Tendril we would stay in touch, write and share.
We did. But long frequent letters soon turned into intermittent two-line postcards, just tenuous threads that held the friendship together. I started working for a small newspaper in a small town, she as a teacher in her hometown. Unaware of each other, we got too busy rising out of our small brackets, mislaid each other at the sidewalk and moved on. Tendril had gone out of my life and honestly I was not even thinking about it.
The wedding invitation arrived. Tendril was getting married to a man she did not know. The porcelain urn was to move to a small town in the hills of Darjeeling. The postcards had stopped coming, I had risen out of my suffocating parenthesis and I assumed she was happy in the hills.
Then came another postcard. Not from Tendril, but from a common friend. It had been barely three months since she had let the sun into her house near the hills, Tendril's husband was dead.
I made frantic calls to her home, to friends, to anybody I thought would know how she was. There was silence all around. I was stifled by this stillness, but weeks went by and Tendril's memory got blurred. I had moved to a better newspaper, better prospects and life was chugging along at a beautiful pace. Life was pampering me and I loved every moment of it. I hadn't forgotten Tendril, I still read Nietzsche.
But there come in our lives unusual mornings, mornings that have the muscle to completely alter our world. It had been raining raucously since morning. I was sitting in the living room reading Byron when I heard the knock. There stood a young man, completely drenched and looking for familiarity on the threshold of my living room. I felt strange, his look was disconcerting, I wanted to turn away and call my mother when I noticed the freckles. I remembered Tendril and the porcelain urn.
"Are you Preeti?" His question startled me.
He was Tendril's brother. Tendril was in the mental asylum. It had been three months since the death of her husband but time had completely frozen for her. She refused to accept that her husband was dead; she still wore the vermilion in her hair waiting for him to come back.
Perhaps the night was too eerie, Death too unforgiving for her to think with reason. That fateful night when Tendril woke up in the dark, her husband was not in bed. There was nothing unusual about the crumpled white sheets. He must have gone out for a smoke, she thought. But the balcony was empty, minutes whittled and there were no footsteps. Exasperated she sat, her head curled on her knees. It was dark, she was alone and then something brushed against her shoulder. It was the corner of her red sari. But how was it hanging from the ceiling? She had ironed and kept it in the closet. She looked up. Her husband was hanging from the fan, his neck limp and her red sari as the noose. She screamed…
Tendril kept reliving that moment, there were no yesterdays or tomorrows for her now. Her life shrunk to one moment, the moment that shepherded her into a small room in a mental asylum.
It is from there that her brother had come. Tendril had been in the hospital for a few weeks now but nothing seemed to draw her out, no amount of analysis or medication could erase that moment. Her brother said she often mentioned "Preeti" in her monologues; the doctors had heard that name too often in the past few weeks and thought maybe I could help, maybe she would talk to me, maybe I could kill that moment for her. Maybe. They had pinned their hopes on me.
That is why her brother had come to my door. The burden of belief unnerved me. The thought of meeting Tendril in a mental asylum petrified me. But I knew it was not about me, it was about Tendril and the moment that refused to thaw.
I went to see Tendril. She lay there under the white sheet, her head towards the wall, her eyes closed. The vermilion in her hair was the only color I could see, the porcelain skin looked jaded and her eyes puffy with tears. I touched her, she opened her eyes and a tear trickled down the freckles. Tendril had not forgotten me and she wanted to talk… We walked into the tree-lined lanes of the asylum, she told me excitedly how happy she was in the marriage, how blessed and loved she felt and how she waited for her husband to come back from wherever he was.
Our walks went on for days, I would visit her everyday and her talks always revolved around her happiness; I knew the tomorrow that she longed for would never come, it was strangled on that fateful night by Tendril's red saree.
Tendril was getting better, eating well, looked happier but the moment refused to die. Then one day while we sat on the grass with beautiful magenta geraniums around us, Tendril stopped talking. She stared at me, held my hand and asked, "Tell me the truth, I know you won't lie. He will come back, won't he?" My heart missed a beat and I fumbled for truth. I could pull her out of the delusion or I could her let her live in it eternally. I held her tomorrows in my hand and I knew I could not be dishonest.
"No, he won't. He is dead. He died months ago," I said looking straight into her eyes, my hands trembling, my heart aquiver. Tendril looked at me in disbelief, got up and walked away. I sat on the grass for a long time watching her silhouette fade into the setting sun.
A week later, Tendril was gone. I had not seen her since the moment I uttered the Truth "He is dead." My role in the play was over, I had to bow and exit.
Two years later I got another wedding invitation. Tendril was getting married again, this time to a man who knew her and lived in a bustling town.
There was a small note from her father that read: My daughter owes this new life to you. Please come for the wedding.
I did not go. I still don't know why.
I don't know where Tendril is these days. But whenever I read Nietzsche I think of her and pray for her tomorrows. Nietzsche and I stand corrected, maybe God is not dead; maybe there is a God who cares.