The Crusted Slice

crusted_slice_img.jpgAlways on Dussehra, my sister who is a rung up in the family ladder would remember the older one who lived with us briefly. She was not too old when she fell ill on a winter night that thundered and wept with rain. By the morning she was gone, a few days short of my second birthday, and one of her own too.

Although we were a family where the purse was slender and its strings were tight, it was not uncommon to make exceptions for an industrious ward. So, she would write extra lessons, help mother in kitchen and wash my baby shirts in a blue plastic tub, and her earthen money bank would be choking with coins by the turn of the festival. She was panting with excitement that last year in the fair, dragging around her younger sister for a final heist at the toyshops who would sell their stuff at half the prices before the closing time, once the effigies of Ravana and his kin had gone down roaring with the fireworks. She fondly brought home a clay horse for the brother who had missed all that fun. It was blue in colour, its saddle painted red, and the rider whose head I mistook for a candy was dressed in green; I nearly choked on the solid ball of clay and brought a lot of grief upon her. I am sure our mother boxed her ears in the ensuing hullabaloo. As for father, he forbade her to bring any more stuff for me, ever. Of course, she wouldn’t.

I don’t have the tiniest of memories of her but it was all whispered in my ears by the elder one who would go on to teach me quite a few things in life, like how to blow shiny bubbles off a burst balloon’s rubber, or why the crows cawed in the trees at dusk. Sometimes I asked her what she had looked like and she would say if I looked in her eyes with all my heart, I’d find her peering at me, because many things that she ever knew was taught to her by the lost one who loved to eat the crusted slice. I would be warned too, in suitably dark tones, not to broach the subject of this bubbly sister with anyone, most of all, my parents. To be fair to myself, I remained as faithful to her as a small boy could be, till one day my heart overflowed with love for the long lost sister whom I never knew, and I decided to enlist my father’s help to ensure her return —he was large and powerful, was he not?

Years passed after that and I’d never hear again of the missing sibling from my sister. There were times when on a whim, or for old time’s sake, I did try to invoke the lost one but she would seal her lips instinctively. By the time my sister parted ways with me to go to a girl’s school, it was all forgotten like a vague, flaky dream. Soon she would have loads of girlfriends both in the neighbourhood and school, and she would get busy in her own way.

One day though, she returned from school in pouring rain, drenched to the bones. She was shivering uncontrollably and had to be rushed to the hospital. Father came home briefly to inform she would not come home that night, she was down with pneumonia. Later, in the evening, I upturned her schoolbag to rescue the soggy notebooks and possibly dry them up. That was when a postcard sized black and white photograph of a girl caught my eye, it had fallen on the floor with her stuff. The face in the photograph seemed eerily familiar, she seemed to be looking back directly at me.

I slept fitfully that night and sometimes towards the daybreak I dreamt of a girl standing at our front door with a toy horse in her hands. She seemed dripping with water, her hair was half plastered on her face. She kept asking me to ride away together, to ride away into the sky and die. I kept refusing to talk to her and then she asked for a slice of bread, the crusted one. I am not sure why I woke up crying fitfully, I was a lad grown up enough not to do that. Perhaps I was stung with the pain of the girl who had been hungry out there in the rain for years, the girl from whom our family had pulled away her home and name. I don’t remember telling any of it to my mother who rushed in to hug me tightly. In between my sobs though, I asked her to give the crusted slice of bread to a girl who was perhaps on our door, and she froze. Quickly enough, her cheeks were awash with rivulets of tears and she pressed her face against my chest. Her body heaved with a terrifying whimper that had begun escaping her throat, but it was strangely calming to both of us.


    1. Fingers of fate touch us all sooner or later; there are so many feelings we harbour, intense, forgotten and unknown. Thanks for connecting.

  1. This is deeply moving, Uma. I had to read twice so I could absorb every details until I felt she was so real, as if she was my sister. A clay horse, a crusted slice of bread… all so real. It seems to me, that she is still really there, connecting with you (and your family) from that “dimension” that we live ones don’t recognize.
    A hauntingly beautiful memory. The end is really powerful! Thanks for sharing!

    1. We all have so many stories buried in our bosoms. Some are able to narrate to others the way it happened. Many thanks for the encouraging feedback, Yun.

  2. This was deeply moving, Guess such things were so common in the yester years. Both my father as well as my father-in-law tell me of their lost brothers – uncles who never grew up to be uncles. Children deaths have a different feeling from adult deaths I guess – while adult deaths mark the end of a stream of memories, child ones are a loss of a future, so many unformed possibilities.

    1. True, medical care was rudimentary in lesser places as late as the 1970s, perhaps they still are. And untimely, uncalled for deaths would mean all that you say. Thanks for your kind words, Karthik.

  3. A poignant piece.
    You are right, I guess we’re all connected to a story or two like this, so very can relate. Both my parents have lost siblings when they were young and I’ve always wandered what it would have been like if they were still around. (And I would have also had more cousins, I guess. :))

    Lovely writing as always, USP. I hope you are having a good long weekend.

    1. It is a comfort to learn you could connect with the story somewhere. Many thanks for the compliment, and it’s truly a long, happy weekend! Wish a great weekend to you too.

  4. You are so masterful at capturing not just the mood and feeling of a moment, but also the tactile nature of it. As I read this, I felt wet and hungry enough to sample a bit of candy-colored clay. Wonderful writing, Uma.

  5. So powerful and moving, uma. Ranks high on my list of favorites. Though the fact of death haunts and touches us all, we like to hide from it. Sometimes we can only face it in stories and dreams.

  6. Your encouragement means a lot to me, Marty: I’m lucky to have received those words. It is always hard to face incidents of death; at times it’s harder than can be written or said.

  7. Perhaps this is how my mother feels about the loss of her ten year old brother. It used to be common before the seventies. Vivid and touching. The last para was so poignant.

  8. This one is so pure, so deep and it touched me deep within. Those days when we did not have much in terms of materialistic possessions were so full of love, affections and love. Yes, the presence of the lost one was always felt in some or other way.
    Last lines are like from some other world.I always long for our that time…

    1. Oh, yes! Those were much simpler days and purer, and bonds one had were so much stronger. It is reassuring to have moved you with those few words. Many thanks for the reassurance, and the support, Namita.

  9. What a powerful, touching telling of an amazing story. There are many of us, Uma, I think, who have “almost within reach” memories, but none retold better than yours. The details are simple but vivid and compelling.

  10. So poignant and beautifully written, Umashankar. “She was not too old when she fell ill on a winter night that thundered and wept with rain,” those words are so hauntingly descriptive; I read that line several times. I knew death around me as a child but not as young as you were. Even though you were too young to really remember your older sister (who was so industrious and full of life), it was very loving for your other sister to share some of her memories with you (when she could) so you could carry those memories too. You write lovingly of that sister who taught you many things. Your parents understandably must have felt a pain so great that they never talked about the sister you lost. And then the photograph falling from your other sister’s schoolbag…your dream of the girl holding the clay horse and asking for crusted bread…and your mother’s response when you told her…wow, it gave me chills. Thank you for sharing this time capsule of your life with us. It was very moving.

    1. Madilyn, I’ve had that one on my mind for years; I just didn’t know how to put it, I have never forced myself. As it is with me, the other day I just sat and wrote. I am grateful to to you for those kind words, and the effusive praise.

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