And one day, perhaps because we cannot process our grief, we sit down in front of each other in the living room and stare at each other. The birds are returning to their nests, and their kisir-misir sounds are tearing apart the skies. Some wind through the ajar door is making its way inside the house. The long leaves of the house plants in the living room are shaking. I don’t know what they are called because I hadn’t bought them. Ribhu likes to buy house plants. He follows pages such as “plant daddies” on social media.
“Pritom, you know,” he starts, “I think we should sit down and count so that we can move on.”
His words make my heart skip faster. We have been friends and roommates for seven years now. We are both about to graduate in a few months. We live in Atlanta. Far away from our homes in Assam. We are very close. He wouldn’t take a bullet for me, but he would surely beat up someone for me. Our friends call us “the couple that never was”.
“Count?” I mutter, and the thought of it makes me scared. Counting means I must see the pores of my face with a magnifying glass; to confront what we have lost and how much is left to nurture.
Ribhu rarely speaks in a defeatist way. He likes to think positively. We argue about his perennially positive attitude; I have sent him articles on toxic positivity in the past that he has ignored and asked me never to bring up. But it doesn’t mean I support him. It also doesn’t matter if I do. I am his friend. Not his legal guardian, lover, mother, father, brother.
For all these years that I have known him, he has always been practical and positive. He is the kind of person who wouldn’t stop until a new house is built if he suddenly finds out that while he was away at work, his house burnt down. Instead, he would console his friends and family mourning his home, that it is okay, at least we can now build a new house. This is why I have always suspected he listens to Sadhguru and Oprah podcasts.
In Assam, where we were undergrad students, we were barely friends; we were “Hi-Hello Friends”. I knew he slept with my best friend Dinesh, and I had dated his best friend’s current wife before she became His Best Friend’s Current Wife. We don’t talk about those things. If someone mentions these characters from our past, we maintain a dignified silence.
We have been roommates since we moved to Atlanta as doctoral students, and that is also because when Dinesh found out that I was moving to Atlanta, he called me from Mumbai to say that a guy he had once slept with in Assam was also moving to Atlanta. “You should contact him,” he said, and shared Ribhu’s email address (name misspelt as “Ribbu”). I had held on to it for a long time before writing to him. I mean, what could I have written, “Dear Ribhu, Do you remember Dinesh, who you slept with, in 2015, at Kanchenjunga Men’s Hostel? He has shared your email with me because you are going to Atlanta and I am also going to Atlanta, and perhaps we are in the same university as graduate students and can we room together?”
But I did write to him.
We made travel plans together. We hunted for apartments together in Decatur, and now, we are the closest of friends and own a car jointly. Once, I had told him, it is too bad you aren’t a woman, I could have married you. He said, ‘fuck you, you are a loser, too uncool, you aren’t even queer’, and that was the end of my “the couple that never was” joke.
That’s Ribhu: who can die for pork, and who doesn’t speak in a defeated tone.
Now, he is standing in front of me and saying, “We have to sit and count.”
“And how will that help us, Ribhu?” I sound slightly sarcastic, but he knows me well enough not to respond to my sarcasm. My sarcasm always doesn’t mean dismissal. It means I am suspicious, and he has to convince me.
“It will help us move on.” I continue looking at his face. His hair has reached his back since we both haven’t had a cut for the last one and a half years. Before all of this started, I played music, hosted parties, and cooked for friends and colleagues. There was a life full of people and laughter, and now we just meet people outside and scream at the top of our voices while talking because we are six feet apart and get so exhausted that we rush back home soon to rest.
I sit down on the sofa. “Was it early 2020? Before it all began?”
Ribhu knows who I am speaking about, what I am referring to. “Yes, you are right. You had gone to Savannah for some conference.”
“Right. So, at first, it was your father.”
The list is long, and I am already exhausted. His father was sixty-seven years old, his heart still strong because he ate so much garlic and ran every day, not on the treadmill, but on a field covered with dewdrops, just collapsed one day. Ribhu, the only son, couldn’t go because of the lockdown. Ribhu’s mother didn’t know what happened, and the hospital authorities in Guwahati told her that if she wanted to know the cause of death, she would have to come the next day for the postmortem report. No need for postmortem, Ma. I still remember those clear crystal words. He is gone, but I need you alive, and I don’t want you near a hospital when we know nothing about this new virus. For days after that, Ribhu and I sat with our laptops all day, trying to find ways to enter India in vain. Even if we had found a way, after quarantining at his port of entry, and then in Guwahati, he would reach his mother a month late.
The following month, it was my aunt in Dibrugarh. She worked as a nurse all her life, had severe acid reflux and had to be admitted to the hospital, where she caught covid and never returned alive. Sometimes we say she died of covid. Sometimes we say she had severe acidity.
And the following week? My father’s childhood friend in Guwahati, who called me every month to ask me if I was eating well, and when I would get married, had a blood pressure stroke while installing a new tube light in his living room. It wasn’t a major stroke, and he was recovering in the hospital. His daughter, a good friend of mine, much younger than me, said the doctors gave him a small pill that needed to be pricked and placed under his tongue. But the patient next to my father’s best friend had covid. The family of that person had “long hands”. The hospital authorities were forced to admit and treat him without a test. Everyone in that ward caught covid in a few days. Except for one patient from a faraway village, all of them who were admitted for other non-fatal diseases died of covid-brought complications. The patient whose family hid information about his covid status also died. My father’s friend’s family had to bribe someone so that they could see the body one last time for three seconds. And all of it because one “long-handed” family didn’t want to get a covid-test done due to the fear that the doctors wouldn’t treat their patient.
“Do you want to count Dhunia and Lahori, your dogs?”
We add them to the list.
“Then? I think we already have five deaths between the two of us?”
“Well, how about my best friend? He was only thirty. And how about my student, should we count her? She was just married. Only twenty-six, no no, only twenty-five,” Ribhu adds as if he has forgotten an item from a grocery list.
“Then we have to add my mother’s friend’s daughter, too. I am close to her husband. Happened in Delhi. So many we know died in Delhi.”
Ribhu rattles out names: six names, I count, and now, we have a total of fourteen between the two of us. Not only relatives: teachers, former students, close friends, parents of colleagues, parents of close and “Hi-Hello” friends.
We also count the people who were on life support for weeks after they tested negative. People who didn’t even know they had covid but died due to post-covid complications. And the post-mortem revealed that they were survivors of covid because their lungs bore that imprint.
Ribhu is making a list on his phone. It is dark outside. The birds are quiet. I start to sweat. It is not hot. It is, in fact, late fall, so it is a bit cold out. I begin to sweat and feel nervous.
“Do we need to keep going?” I fold my hands and stand up, “I won’t be able to sleep today.”
But Ribhu continues, “And you have forgotten your father’s classmate’s son, your friend, who died in Delhi? Remember, you were tweeting about him.”
Breathing fast, I walk away, stand next to the door and repeat, “I feel so warm. I don’t think I will be able to sleep today. All these memories make me feel terrible.”
Ribhu ignores me. He mentions a former mentor, a professor, who died after testing negative. I had tried to arrange an oxygen cylinder for him. When I had found one donated by volunteers from a political party whose disgusting politics my former mentor rightfully detested, I had mentioned that to his father, who’d wanted to let him make it out of the woods first.
Ribhu ignores me. He continues to add to the list. “This new world is so lonelier.” Ribhu continues to ignore me, and soon I am upset and angry and not because he wants to take stock of things, remember the ones who didn’t make it, but mainly because he has so easily called this world lonely. Finding it hard to agree and to stop myself from screaming at him, I storm out on to the porch. Thousands of bright, shiny red seeds hang like micro-chandeliers from the holly tree across the patio. The wooden porch is covered with yellow leaves and scattered pine cones. I feel Ribhu’s presence behind me.
“Why are you angry with me? You don’t want to confront our worst memories? This is how we are going to face our loneliness. We are more connected than ever before, and we always meet each other, but as just digital projections of ourselves. When will you be going home, Pritom? Don’t you miss the smell of your bedroom in Assam?”
I turn around to say something, but I cannot decide. It is true; we are still reeling under what has happened in the last two years. We will continue to feel its aftershocks in our trillions of cells. We will never be able to stop thinking about it, and if we forcefully stop thinking about it, we will have dreams about it, so making a list so that we remember everyone, not missing even one name that lived, is not a bad idea. That’s not my problem. That’s not why I stormed out on to the porch in anger. Ribhu is doing the right thing. To move on, we have to think about what happened, what is happening: there are still travel bans. I still haven’t met my parents; only talk to them on video. During the lockdown, my mother had to have heart surgery, and I couldn’t be there, and my father couldn’t be with her due to his old age, so a cousin took care of things. I still wake up weeping with guilt. The surgery was several hours long, in Assam, in another time zone. I stayed awake for most of the night, praying. I had never believed in prayer so deeply before that. I had never prayed that hard ever before. I had never prayed like that all night. I didn’t have to. No one should have to. I prayed because that was the only thing I could do. I prayed for my father and my close friends and Hi-Hello friends, their sisters, their parents, their teachers, for people I knew and didn’t. I had a list. As in, the people in my contact list had a list. We circulated them on WhatsApp. Every day, I sat and prayed for many people I didn’t even know: I just had their names because someone desperately made a plea in the family WhatsApp group or college WhatsApp group: “please pray for my father who is in such and such hospital.”
And I did, without asking who that person was. And I did that because somewhere, my mother’s name had made it into a list, and someone somewhere who didn’t know me was praying for her or my friends who were gasping for oxygen.
We all prayed. In our own ways, we prayed for people we loved, and people we would have loved if we had met them because our friends, our friends’ friends, loved them. Some died, some survived. I hope those who didn’t make it found love when they breathed their last. I wish them happiness if, at all, death is another dimension. Still, I can’t forget this network of prayer and people who prayed for each other in utter helplessness or helped each other back home in whatever way possible.
But I don’t remind Ribhu of any of that. He has a right to mourn the way he wants to. But I just tell him, “I am not escaping from reality but I just don’t agree that this world is lonely. I don’t have to do the same thing. If at all, the only brief periods of happiness in this global emergency have been the conversations and prayers of people that have kept me going.”
Ribhu nods in agreement. “Alright, I will try not to forget that. I will try to be more optimistic, too. Usually, I am, janone?”
We remain on the porch for a long time in silent darkness. I know what he is thinking about because I am also thinking about the same thing: when will this end, when will we be able to go home, will things be back to normal.
Aruni Kashyap is the author of the short story collection His Father’s Disease (2019). His first Assamese novel, Noikhon Etia Duroit also came out the same year.