After my son Adhiraj is born, the people at the hospital give me the box containing the blank numbered papers, as is the practice. Each year on his birthday, a photo of him will appear below the corresponding number. I go home and count the papers. There are eighty, one for each year he will be alive. Eighty is a ripe old age to die, I think. I myself have only sixty with me.
You’ll have a long life, Adhi, I tell him, holding him close to me, his baby smell expanding my heart with even more love for him. And I will make sure it is a happy one.
The money I have isn’t enough to buy the protection safes that keep the photograph boxes disaster-proof, but I know I’ll protect his with all I have.
I met his father when we were both twenty-one, fresh out of college and starting the first jobs of our lives. He had only twenty-four photograph papers in his box, but that hadn’t stopped me from loving him. We’d been married at twenty-two, but he never got to hold his son. Four miscarriages later, when I finally brought Adhiraj into the world, he had already died.
“Look, Ma. I made it all by myself. I watched on YouTube and learnt how to make it.” Adhiraj holds up the red kite in front of me, beaming. He is ten now, and growing into an exact replica of his father in looks. Yesterday, on his birthday, we took out the paper marked “10” from his box. It was no longer blank but was filled with his laughing face. We went and buried it in the photo graveyard lying in the outskirts of our city. This is something that we must do to live. Many people die every year, because they cannot reach the graveyard on time, maybe because of traffic or illness or so many other things. I don’t want that for my son.
I smile at him now. “Do you want to fly it together?”
We go up to the terrace together, talking and laughing. Later, he holds the kite and runs with it, while I unspool the manjha. He leaps up and lets it free into the sky. We both watch the wind carry it high up.
“One day, when I become a pilot, I’ll fly even higher.” He says.
His room is filled with his dreams. There are books and magazines about planes and cuttings of inspirational stories about pilots who braved the odds. He scribbles in his diary and reads books at other times, his feet barely touching the ground as he sits on his chair.
He is a few months away from turning eleven when he first asks about his father.
“I know who he was.” He says. “Tell me what he was really like.”
We sit down on the verandah that night, cups of chai in our hand, and I talk and talk, my voice catching in places but never stopping, as I tell my son about the first man I had loved in my life.
There are two things that are a must when disaster strikes.
One: You get the person out, and Two: You retrieve the person’s photograph box.
Then you start looking for other things that might be rescued.
When an earthquake destroys our home three nights before Adhiraj turns eleven, the rescuers successfully follow rules one and two in my case. For Adhiraj, they can complete rule one, but all they can do about rule two is rescue one photograph paper of him—the blank one marked “80”.
And because no boy can turn from ten to eighty, all of us know what is going to happen.
We stay at a relief camp as they continue rescue operations, and I stare down at my photograph box, not moving, not knowing what to do. Adhiraj’s 80th paper is crumpled in the pocket of my jeans. I can’t bear to look at it.
They have rescued other things from the debris—and the present I planned to give him for his birthday seems to mock me now from the pile.
They call it the most powerful earthquake in seven decades, so devastating that even protection boxes have been destroyed because of it. None of those details comfort me. All I can think of is that I failed in my promise to protect my son.
Adhiraj enters the tent and curls up against me, his warmth almost painful.
“It’s okay, Ma. Please don’t worry. It’s okay.”
But it’s not. It’s not. It’s not.
Why him? Why not me? All he wanted was to grow up, become a pilot—
I slowly pull the gift-wrapped box toward me. It is dented at the edges now, and the green wrapper is grubby with dirt.
“Open it.” I say, handing it to him.
He looks at me, then at the box, and then at me again.
“I was going to give it to you on your birthday.”
He takes the box and unwraps it, his eyes widening as he sees what’s inside. I imagine his face glowing in the light of his birthday candles, inside a home that’s still standing, inside a future where he is still alive.
“Ma, you got me that plane I wanted.”
“The batteries are already in the remote.” I say, my voice choking.
A smile is on his face now as he takes everything out. Soon, he is flying the toy plane, guiding it around with the remote, his face scrunched in concentration.
“Look, Ma. I’m a pilot.”
I watch him, and his joyful face breaks my heart.
Soon, I will cremate him with my own hands. He will be nothing but ashes and memory, but now, as the world is buried in dust and rain, he is living his dream.
And for this moment, that is enough.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tamoha Sengupta lives in India. She is a cyber security analyst by day and a speculative fiction writer at all other times. Her fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Daily Science Fiction, The Colored Lens and elsewhere. She sometimes tweets @sengupta_tamoha.