The Rectification Still by Rheea Mukherjee

It’s almost science. Five, six and seven in, I am too numb, even for you. But after three, when the heavy of the rum illuminates my insides, the buzz is thick enough to recreate you. It is at twelve minutes after the third that I am certain I would have liked to go the way you did. One minute sitting on the wall of your terrace with your friends laughing, the next free falling into a square of concrete. Smashed. They said your head was in such an unnatural position that the woman who was sweeping the apartment garden fainted, then refused to speak for six days.


Rum was my morning coffee even before, everyone knows that. Even you, with your love for gin, refused to drink in my presence. But my morning drink had more purpose after you went. Grief is my mixer, and truth be told we weren’t that close by the time you fell. Now, isn’t it funny, how grief can heighten memories, condense them into a more intimate relationship, render it precious, irreplaceable?


By the second, and from up there I know time cannot exist but your earthly record will have me down at 9:37 am, I am with you in September. In a plaza in Rome, drinking Whiskey Sours and buying cherry flavoured cigars from a Bangladeshi with thick hair. You are looking at the girl across from us telling me she is French not Italian. I had agreed with confidence, not knowing the difference anyway. She had a red clip in her hair and she had smiled at you, waved her hand in the air, called you out. You were the non-threatening types, the type women wanted at bars. Safe enough to flirt with. Now I can tell you the difference between French, Italian and even Spanish. Because when I am sloshed enough, I find rhythm watching YouTube clips in in those languages, I alternate between them like a DJ, until the curves and heights of each tongue is an effortless but distinct tone.


By the third, I am with you back at home in Bangalore, under your shaded veranda in J P Nagar, sipping tea so milky it makes my gut spin. You are telling me I need to lay off the drinks. I wasn’t even drinking in the afternoons then. Just at night, every night, heavily, with only the occasional subconscious prick that I was growing too old for this. Twelve minutes after this memory, I sit on my veranda, thinking, I am certain I must go. And I must go like you.


It’s true, during those brief sober moments, the cracks between late night and dawn, I feel silly for grieving you so much. We had ten worthy memories, tops. A friend who I met at most three times a month. A friend who hadn’t truly been part of any life victory, except finding me my first job, which I lost the very next year. A friend who had saved with me to go to Italy, France and Luxemburg for one month. A friend who was the sixth in a series of twenty-five to tell me I was slowly decomposing, wasting, rotting in the sun, shrivelled.


Nowadays they talk about self-worth. Everybody knows about it, kids, teenagers, and quiet adults who never expressed themselves. This is the decade to make self-esteem a priority. We never had that when we were kids, did we? We were hideous underachievers, plain stupid, incorrigibly shy, or academic superstars. It was your best friend, Ravi, who told me about his son, how he was shy until his school counsellor told him how to value his personality, worship his shyness, love himself. Until others could see it too. I told Ravi I went to a counsellor too, after you died. Ravi had a hard time losing you and all, but he is a family man, and a domestic set-up is perched on a set of wheels that cannot stop. You have to move on – shy kid, young wife, a new project to lead at work, and a maid who needs a raise. Me, I saw a counsellor. She told me about self-worth. How I wasn’t respecting myself, my body, my family, and my dead friend whom I cared about so much. Shit, I think I made you out to be like a brother or something. Seemed easier to tell her I had started drinking in the mornings. I told her, I had come to see her because I was convinced I had no more value than the goopy crud that forms on my bathroom drain. I had found myself lying next to it the day before I saw the counsellor, after drinking a bottle of Bacardi rum. I watched a baby cockroach crawl towards it, I felt so lonely I stuck my finger out at it, trying to pet it. I tried to pet a motherfucking baby cockroach.


That was the low you had warned me about. The one you knew was inevitable. You had called it when you said my taste in music was dangerous. Too much classic rock. It made no sense to you, still, we were friends. And what we had in common was our love for an evening drink and that we had found each other at a bar. But you never went past thrice a week, and then your friends changed, as did your job, as did your girlfriend. Maybe it was your concern, or at least the pressure to be concerned about a friend who loved his liquor. You were a decent man, from a business-minded Gujarati household; your only rebellion was your individuality. You were the only fucker I knew, who had conversations with his grandmother on why drinking needn’t be taboo, and how you were going to marry a girl who could be French, Punjabi, or Chinese. I thought you were cool, renegade. I had parents who loved me enough. They loved enough to cry, threaten, beg. Ultimately they loved me enough to let me go. Know to give up on a bad apple. Loved me enough to set my suffering unfurl on my own terms.


Fifteen days after you died, I went sober. To prove to you I could do it, my friend who had voiced his concern, a dead friend that could have lived to what society might have termed as your full potential. Fathered children, paid EMI’s, bought vacation packages to Europe, and bought your parents a house.


Most knew I had none of those capabilities. So to disprove them, and you, I stopped drinking. The first week wasn’t that bad. Except for the fact that acute sobriety doesn’t make me feel particularly clever. I felt stupid, hopeless and hungry. I ate a lot. Four plates of idlis and two dosas in one sitting, or heaps of rice and chicken curry at Ali’s Café. And dinner was pizza, chicken sausage and extra cheese. Twenty-eight days later, I decided I ought to see your family. I hadn’t seen them since you were cremated. Your mother was wearing a pearl necklace you had given her from Hyderabad years ago. She’s worn it every day since you died, that’s what she told me as I drank tea and held your younger brother’s hands, his eyes still welled up swollen violet like he had just heard of your death. I watched the pearl necklace on your mother’s neck sink to the hollow of her collarbone. That necklace was your mark on this world. Worn on your mother’s chest, proclaiming, you were here, you were here, you were here. You loved and you left a necklace for your mother. She didn’t say anything about me being sober, and your dad didn’t either, which irritated me because he was someone who had verbally told me to help myself out. But here I was holding hands, crying with them, sober as fuck and they don’t notice it. That night, by ten o'clock, back at home, my hands trembled and I started sweating like a mad cow, and by three am my body was nothing more than a large mass of flesh that cramped, convulsed, bled saline, curled and stank like dried fish. And all I could think about was your mother and why she couldn’t see that I was stone sober. Why couldn’t she say, 'you’re not drunk, that’s incredible'. Why couldn’t Ravi, who I bumped into that day, after he gave his whole counsellor and son story,  say once 'you aren’t drunk, that’s great.' Couldn’t they see that I was hopping on a tightrope on fire?


It made me angry. So angry that I had to drink the next morning. I had to go to your house, drunk. I went up to your mother, paused for a good few seconds staring at the pearl necklace that seemed tighter on her neck then it did the day before. I went up to her and pulled the necklace off your mother’s neck. Incredible, what she couldn’t see the other day became, strangely, the only thing your mother was able to discern.


'You’re drunk, beta, drunk, don’t do this.'


And she tried to pick up all the Hyderabadi pearls that scattered on the floor like insects on honey. And Gopal, your fucking gardener, he lead me to the gate, called me a reluctant auto rickshaw, and pushed me in after telling me to go home and drink water. Man, people are sharp when it comes to telling you that you’re drunk. Sober, well that’s just the expected state of being, isn’t it?


You were sober when you told me about your crazy aunt. The one that massaged you with coconut oil as a child, and used a good deal of time massaging your penis. You said it matter of factly, then talked about our upcoming trip to Rome. You needed to get it out. You needed to acknowledge that blip on your perfect upper-middle class upbringing. You weren’t that perfect, you were scarred too. But you didn’t end up with the drinking problem did you? I never told anyone about it, and I have no idea if I am the only one who knows about it or if you’ve told every motherfucker you’ve known. But I know I saw your eyes lost for those seconds. I know you had your own ways of erasing it. To erase my lack of motivation for the world: the hugs that were offered, the pointing-up arrow-careers, the fancy education programs, the women who brushed my shoulders on the way to the loo in crowded bars, the quiet moments with a book and a crunchy edible, the unimaginably beautiful locations left on the globe to trot – to erase my empathy for living, I drank. To erase yours, well, you lived. And now I am caught with you and your living. Everyone is looking for resolution. Well, did you have any? Isn’t death in itself a resolution? But I feel the pressure of the world to find mine. There are more stakes in it after you’ve left. Look at all the ambition you’ve left, and all that potential. The curse of dying young. I know you are up there still asking. So here it is. Here is my resolution: I am going to take the night bus to Hyderabad. I am going to go buy the same pearl necklace I broke off your mother’s chest. I am going to come back and go back to your house. I am going to put in on her neck. She is going to feel awkward as I do it, she might even protest. Maybe nothing will replace the original one, but I have a feeling she might let me. I am going to hold her hand and apologise for my stupid-ass behaviour and tell her that I loved you like a brother. Then I am going to walk out, go back home. Now the only memory everyone will have are your things collecting dust and your picture in their living room. And I’ll sit drinking milky coffee in my room, trying to convince myself it was concern, it was genuine fucking concern you had for me, and ultimately left for me.



Rheea Mukherjee received her MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her work has been published in Ultra Violet, Southern Humanities Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Magazine, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, The Bombay Literary Magazine, A Gathering of Tribes, Everyday Fiction, Bengal Lights and Out Of Print. She co-founded the Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012, and presently co-runs Write Leela Write – A Creative Laboratory in Bangalore.