She didn’t want to. She had promised herself she wouldn’t return. But her curiosity got the better of her. Next morning, making an excuse that sounded untrue even to her ears, Urmilla went to the same place, sat at the same spot, in the same position with her feet dipped in the water. She fervently hoped Master Mei Ling, whether figment of her imagination or not, would show up.
“Good morning,” she heard the same voice, coming from behind her.
“You came! I didn’t…I…uh…” Her heart was thundering and her palms were suddenly sweaty. She didn’t have the courage to turn around and look. What if he looked grotesque? Without the haze of her grief, she felt more in control today.
“Of course I did. You called me, didn’t you?”
It almost sounded like an admonishment; which is what made her turn and look. He looked exactly the same as yesterday. Even the suit was the same.
“I don’t know why I am here.” It was a ridiculous thought. But she had been thinking it since the whole drama began and the need for an answer was as urgent as the next breath.
“You miss her?” he asked gently.
“Yes,” she said angrily. “Why I miss her is what I don’t understand. Please don’t say it is because she was my sister. Since we had that fight, we hadn’t even spoken to each other.”
Rather than coming up with a nasty retort like – you should know since you are supposed to be omnipresent – she said, “We may not have cared too much for each other, but there was one thing we cared about more than anything else in the world. It was our mother.”
She paused. Only a few days ago, she hadn’t been able to remember the fight properly. But now it came to her in waves. “It was such a silly fight,” she whispered like she couldn’t believe it herself.
“We were arguing over the best course of treatment for Mom. She had been in the hospital for two months. She was old. The doctors had given up on her. They had given us two choices, take her home or leave her there. We couldn’t decide what to do.”
“Can you believe that? Such a stupid stupid fight it had been; like a competition of who loved her more. And while we were fighting she had a heart attack and she died. Just like that. Her last few moments and instead of being with her, we were fighting.”
“I think I broke her heart that day…I mean I had broken it many times before but that day, I broke it beyond repair. We just stopped after that. Or maybe we stopped trying because the one thing that had glued us together was gone.”
“Did you try to patch up?”
She turned to look at him. “No but then neither did she. And it’s not like I killed our mother! I loved her equally. But Renu was so dramatic,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “It was always about her, her grief, her emotions, and her broken heart. I, I didn’t even exist for her.”
Neither of them said anything for sometime. Urmilla kept turning around from time to time to make sure he was still sitting behind her. Unlike the day before, his presence, like the Ganga, was soothing her frayed nerves.
“Did she even love me?” she finally asked, not to Master Mei Ling but to the air around them. No one could have guessed the kind of courage it took for Urmilla to voice that question. What if he said ‘no’? And if he said ‘yes;’ what would that make her?
“You know the first time I met your sister, she talked with me for hours. Like I was a long lost friend, and she hadn’t spoken to someone in years.”
“There was this need in her to be heard, you know? She told me many things but did you know that was also the time her marriage was on the verge of breaking up?” He didn’t say it like he was accusing her. It was just a question, delivered with equanimity.
Urmilla shook her head in alarm. Renu and Vijay had been on the verge of a breakup? Never! It was simply impossible. She hadn’t seen two people more in love.
“It’s true,” he said shrugging his shoulders. “And do you know the thing she complained about the most during that conversation?”
“She must have complained about me,” she said dispassionately. She could have asked him why Renu and Vijay’s relationship had been on the verge of collapsing. But she had a feeling she won’t get an answer.
Master Mei Ling smiled. “No. Avinash.”
“She said that since Avinash had come into your life, you had ceased to exist for anyone apart from him. You stopped being a sister, a daughter, a friend. You became only Avinash’s wife.”
Before she could say anything in her defence or deny what he was saying, Master Mein Ling said, “And to answer your question – she loved you very much. You were family; you were always family. I think she resented Avinash more than she resented you.”
Urmilla’s head was spinning. He had said so many things, she needed time to process them. She turned around to say that to him when she realized to her chagrin he had disappeared again.
That night, tossing and turning in bed, Urmilla thought of everything she had heard. Master Mei Ling had said that Renu loved her. Was she really surprised by that? No, she wasn’t. But it had been nice to get it confirmed from somebody else.
But why did any of this matter?
The answer came to her when she woke up in the morning.
It matters because she was your sister. It matters because, no matter what, you were always there for each other. It matters because even though you broke each other’s heart numerous times, you still came through. It matters because she was a part of you, as much as you were a part of her, and now she is gone.
“She is gone…and so is my safety net,” thought she, as tears started to roll down her cheeks.
Urmilla was utterly alone in her grief.
Urmilla at long last did what she had come to Haridwar to do. She took out the beautiful red urn from her suitcase that contained her sister’s ashes and went to Har ki Paudi. When Avinash insisted he accompany her, she didn’t say no. She knew she wouldn’t see Master Mei Ling again. There was no reason why he couldn’t accompany her.
She bought flowers from one of the many vendors sitting there and instead of asking a Panditji what to do; she proceeded with the final wish of her sister, relying purely on instinct. Urmilla went thigh-deep into the Ganga, opened the urn and closed her eyes.
“I loved you Renu. Even when I was jealous or hurt, I loved you. Go in peace beloved sister. Maybe in the next lifetime we will be more of sisters than we were here. For now rest.”
Urmilla emptied the contents of the urn into the water and sprinkled the rose petals she had bought. She joined her hands one last time and turned to look at Avi.
She could have sworn she saw Renu sitting on the steps of Har ki Paudi, a little behind Avi, wearing a smile and tears.
Urmilla didn’t want to blink because she knew Renu would disappear as soon as she would blink. After a few moments though, she had to blink.
Renu did disappear but not before Urmilla heard a whispered thank you.