In late spring, we received word from Mumbai that my grandmother had taken ill. In a flurry of mouse clicks and keyboard clacks, my parents arranged for us to spend the summer with her. It was important, they said, that she be surrounded by loved ones when she passed. My own plan – to throw big parties and attend even bigger ones – was discarded, shuffled back into the deck as life dealt me a different hand.
By the time we arrived in India, my grandmother had been discharged from the hospital and was back in her flat, confined to bedrest. Her maid greeted us and carried our bags to the spare bedroom. As it was already past midnight, my parents climbed into bed and promptly fell off. I couldn’t sleep, due to the combined efforts of my lumpy cot, coarse blanket, jet lag, and the ruckus of Mumbai’s nightlife. For hours, I lay stiffly, listening to the cacophony of rickshaw engines, car horns, and inexplicable bhangra music. When the birds added their voice to the melee at dawn, I rolled off the cot and padded into the living area.
I had only been to my grandmother’s flat once before, at age seven, the year my grandfather died. Even after thirteen years, it had not changed much. My grandmother had kept the hard couches that my grandfather had loved so much, faded red throw pillows tucked tenderly into their arms. Her boxy TV sat on an old black wooden stand. A small collection of books was shelved beside it. I brushed one of the spines only to recoil in disgust; the books were so dusty they felt moss-like.
Above one of the couches was a large window. A rosé was spilling through it, accompanied by the less-pleasant noise of pigeons cawing. Out of curiosity, I peered through the window and gasped.
There must have been a hundred pigeons in the courtyard, if not more. They moved in a swarm, bobbing their heads and cooing. From my height, they looked like bees crawling over a honeycomb. More of the birds lined the balconies and window ledges of the other apartments. Those who were not lucky enough to find a place on the building perched on sagging telephone wires. It was a repulsive sight.
Their presence was soon explained. On the first floor, I watched as an elderly man came to his window and threw a fistful of birdseed out of it. The pigeon horde erupted into a frenzy. Birds swooped from their ledges, dive-bombing each other for a chance to get some of the loot. When the last of the seed had been devoured and the birds had settled, the man threw another fistful. He repeated the process until the sun had cleared the horizon. Then he shut his window, and when the birds were convinced that he was not coming back, they too left to go about their day.
“He does that every morning,” the maid said.
I jumped – I had not realized I was being watched. She was standing at the dining table on the other side of the room, where she had set the table for breakfast.
“Feed the pigeons?” I asked. “Why?”
The maid gave me an odd look and went back to preparing breakfast. Her reaction baffled me. My question was genuine. Why would anyone want to attract so many of those stupid, smelly birds? And so early in the morning, too.
Shortly after, my parents emerged from our room looking far more refreshed than I was. My father’s sparse grey hair was combed back neatly, and my mother smelled strongly of her favourite strawberry body wash. They chattered idly throughout breakfast about how nice it was to finally be back home, as though they had not spent the last twenty-five years living across the Atlantic Ocean. My grandmother slept through breakfast, which the maid said was not unusual. Many of her habits had changed since her health had declined.
My parents listened to the maid tell us about the recent changes in my grandmother’s lifestyle. She tired much faster and took long naps frequently. She could eat solids, but had an unspoken preference for softer foods, like rice mixed with dhal. She was too proud to make the switch to a liquid diet. That last quip took some of the tension out of my mother’s shoulders. If my grandmother still had her pride, then she was not as weak as we’d thought.
After breakfast, my mother insisted I help her with her errands. I balked and griped. The sun outside would be intense, and the mere thought of leaving the air conditioned flat was giving me heatstroke. My protests were ineffective, and soon I was out on the sweltering streets of Mumbai with nothing but my floppy straw hat and large sunglasses to protect me.
Being outside was overwhelming. The heat was withering, and the noise was exponentially worse, but there was a new unexpected player competing with them: the smell. I knew what a smelly city was like; I had been to New York on a school trip. Times Square had reeked of piss and second-hand smoke. But this city was another thing entirely. Exhaust fumes, fried street food, and body odour mingled together in the dusty air, creating a scent that wasn’t quite as pungent as New York, but was no pleasant aroma either.
It came as a great relief to me when, after visiting two different banks, a SIM card vendor, the fruit stall, and a tailor, my mother announced we could return to the flat. Numerous people had stopped to greet my mother on the road, elongating our already ridiculously long trip. All of them were delighted to see that Dr. De Souza’s daughter was back in town and asked my mother a variety of questions about America, her law firm there, and about the health of my grandmother. They were delighted to meet me as well, bombarding me with questions about how I was enjoying my trip and whether or not I remembered them. The heat and the noise and the jetlag and their questions grated on my nerves. Entering the flat felt like returning to a sanctuary.
My grandmother had woken up while we were gone. She was still bedridden, so my parents and I had to stand around her bed. Her bedroom had shrunk since my last visit, and I felt claustrophobic crammed in there with them.
I had to admit that my grandmother looked bad. Until recently, she’d always looked younger than her eighty-nine years, but her health had caught up to her. Her wrinkles were deeper, her dark circles darker. Her hair, usually maintained in a neat silver bun or braid, had become a frizzy white halo. Despite the deterioration, her eyes burned with the same sharp intelligence that I remembered, and when she spoke, she sounded as though nothing had happened at all.
“Prarthi, Arjun. Samira. You look well. It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you too, Mummy,” my mother said. “Did you get enough rest?”
My grandmother snorted. “Rest? Of course. I’ve got an abundance of rest. That Pranita, she won’t let me up at all. She says she’s following doctor’s orders. I was a doctor, too, but no one seems to remember that.”
“It’s for your own good,” my mother chided.
While she and my father spoke to my grandmother, I edged closer to the window to look out of it. This window also faced the courtyard, but when I looked out, the old man’s window was closed, and there were only a few birds and a stray dog lying in the cool shadow of the building.
“Samira,” my grandmother said.
I turned, pulled back into the conversation.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Do you remember the friend you made the last time you came here? Rikesh?”
I tried to think back thirteen years. I vaguely remembered running around outside the building with a group of children my age. There had been several boys in the group, but I couldn’t recall which one Rikesh had been. I nodded my head anyways.
“His family still has a flat in this building and I told them you were coming. He offered to take you around if you wanted.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” my mother cut in. “You should go and see some of the local sights. Explore the city.”
I wanted to make a snippy remark that with all the errands she had dragged me on this morning, I had already seen the city, but it upset my grandmother when I argued, and I felt bad to trouble her in her current state.
“Sure,” I said.
“Excellent,” my grandmother said. “I’ll tell him to come by tomorrow.”
After breakfast the next morning, there was a knock on the door. I had gotten a better rest the previous night, but I had still risen at dawn when the birds started cawing. The man downstairs – who I was now mentally calling Pigeon Man – had also been awake, giving the horde of ravenous pigeons their breakfast.
A young man was at the door. He was of middling height, dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt. He wore thin wire-framed glasses that magnified his eyes. His round face was clean-shaven, giving him a juvenile look. He was what the girls at home would have called a mama’s boy.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
“Rikesh, right?” I said, recalling what my grandmother said.
His face lit up. “Call me Ricky,” he said. “We used to play together, remember?”
I said that I did. Ricky took me to several places around town. He didn’t have his own car, so we took rickshaws between stops. The noise was overwhelming, and drowned out much of what he was saying, but as long as I nodded enthusiastically, Ricky smiled.
At some point, he took me to a small indoor café. The barking dogs and roaring engines were muffled by the brick and the glass. Here, Ricky turned the conversation to me.
“How’s life in America?” he asked. “You’re in college now, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Is it very hard?”
“Do you have a lot of friends?” he asked. “You seem like you would have a lot of friends.”
I hesitated. “I guess.”
“You guess?” Ricky looked confused.
I did go out, often, and with a wide variety of people. We’d get drinks or go to parties. We’d wake up in random people’s apartments and go to brunch and laugh over the scraps of memory we still had from the previous night. Yet I wouldn’t go so far as to call them friends. They didn’t know much about my life or my personality outside of my indulgent social lifestyle. When my grandmother had gotten sick, I had no one to tell, no one who would care. It didn’t bother me.
“I consider myself to be independent,” I told Ricky. “I don’t need to rely on others.”
“But what about your friends?” he asked again.
I shrugged. “I have people I hang out with, sure. But my best friend is me, and that’s how I like it.”
“It’s not lonely?” Ricky asked.
“Loneliness is for people who are unsatisfied with themselves,” I said. “I’m happy with myself. I don’t rely on others and I don’t have people who lean on me and hold me back.”
Ricky fidgeted with his napkin. He opened his mouth again. I thought he would try to insist that I must have friends, so I cut him off with a question of my own.
“What do you study?” I asked.
“Commerce,” he said. “I didn’t make the cut-off for medical school twice.”
Despite admitting what I thought was a massive failure, Ricky didn’t seem embarrassed.
“Aren’t you upset about it?” I asked.
“I did my best,” Ricky said. “When I didn’t make it the second time, I realized I was forcing myself somewhere I wasn’t meant to be. I love commerce now, especially sales. I work part-time in that fashion boutique we passed on the way here – I pointed it out to you – and you’d be surprised at how interesting the clients are. I’d love to open a small store of my own one day.”
Ricky’s ambition burrowed in my head like an itch. My own lack of goals or plans for the future had never been more obvious to me. I tucked the thought out of sight firmly. I was only twenty, after all, and I liked living in the moment. I couldn’t afford to get bent out of shape over future events that I had no control over.
After the bill was paid, Ricky walked me back to my grandmother’s apartment. He bought two sickeningly sweet orange snow cones from a vendor along the way. We didn’t discuss friendship again.
In the weeks that came, Ricky continued to drop by the apartment with treats of sweets and neighbourhood gossip for me. When he visited, he would say hello to my grandmother, which would cause her face to split into a wide grin. Despite what the doctors had said about her health declining, she had been recovering at an exponential rate. Her hollow cheeks filled; her eye bags lightened.
One morning, I rose early to watch the pigeons have breakfast. I made tea and walked to the large window above the couch to look into the courtyard. The pigeons had already begun to assemble, although Pigeon Man’s window remained shut. They chattered amongst themselves in anticipation, shuffling their wings as they milled about. I sipped my tea and waited for the frenzy to begin.
Soon the sky had turned from pink to orange, and still Pigeon Man had not come out. Some birds flew away impatiently to find scraps elsewhere. The sun cleared the horizon, but Pigeon Man was still nowhere to be seen. The pigeons left reluctantly in disappointed groups, until the courtyard was empty once more. I finished my tea and didn’t think of the morning again until my grandmother called for me.
“Bring me my walker,” she said.
I wheeled it to her. Her doctors had recently given her permission to start walking again, albeit only for ten minutes at a time.
“How were the pigeons this morning?” she asked me. To my chagrin, it was common knowledge in the household that I had a fascination with the pigeon tornado that descended upon the courtyard every morning.
“They went hungry,” I sighed dramatically. “Pigeon Man slept in.”
My grandmother looked at me. “He hasn’t done that once, not since he first moved in.”
“First time for everything,” I said, but my grandmother disagreed.
“Pranita!” she shouted.
The maid came in a hurry. My grandmother instructed her to go check on Pigeon Man’s flat immediately. When the she came back, her face was ashen.
The ambulance came that afternoon, but there wasn’t much the paramedics could do for Pigeon Man. He’d been dead since the previous morning. They’d found him under his window, an empty bag of pigeon feed clutched in one hand. I thought about how he must have collapsed to his knees, grunting in pain as his heart clenched. How he must have laid there, wheezing, calling for help in an empty flat until his eyes clouded over and he became as still and cold as the marble floor he lay on.
I watched them carry his body out on a stretcher. They had not covered him with a sheet. From my lookout in my grandmother’s flat, he looked waxy, like a figure lifted from Madam Tussaud’s. His unseeing eyes were open, his hands full of air. Two pigeons sat on top of the ambulance and observed as he was loaded in. When the paramedics slammed the doors shut, they took off, screeching as they went into the sunset. The ambulance soon left, but I stayed at the window long after it was swallowed by the Mumbai traffic.
Afterwards, Ricky told me that the man’s name had been Umraj Shankar. The building superintendent had been unable to find surviving family and had asked the other residents to help pitch in for his last rites. I leaned against the wall to look out at Pigeon Man’s window, still shuttered tight.
“Who’s going to feed the pigeons?” I asked Ricky.
He gave me an odd look. His reaction baffled me. Pigeon Man had cared for over two hundred birds in the city. Who would look after them now? Would they come back and sit outside his window, waiting with empty stomachs for a man who would never come back?
The answer, I found out, was that they wouldn’t.
When dawn touched the courtyard the next morning, there was not a single bird in sight. The swarm was absent, the cobblestones bare. Not a single pigeon lined the balconies or the window ledges. The telephone wires bounced in the breeze. Pigeon Man’s window stayed shut. For the first time since my arrival, there was nothing but silence.
The rest of my trip went by quietly. My grandmother made a full recovery, and so my parents booked tickets for us to return home in late August. On the last day, I hugged my grandmother goodbye. Her cheeks were fuller, and her braid was immaculate. I added my number as a contact on her WhatsApp and promised to keep in touch.
When we landed, I had fourteen unread text messages. I skimmed them as we waited for a taxi. Most of them were invites to parties that had passed a long time ago, but there was one message that stood out. It was from Emily, a girl whose beach house we partied at often.
Hey, it read, haven’t heard from you. Everything okay?
A rude caw caught my attention. I looked up from my phone to see two pigeons fighting over a piece of trash near the doors. My keyboard clicked as I typed a response.
Thanks for checking in! I said. Grandmother wasn’t doing great so we went to stay with her.
A response came instantaneously.
Oh no! Is she okay?
Yeah, I wrote back. She’s much better now.
Rhea Basu is a writer and marketing major based in Toronto, Canada. In her spare time, she can be found baking, hiking, or daydreaming. You can keep up with her on her twitter, @rheaswriting.