silence is the fraying of a red string
Art by Marisa Sparacio
Nani was never one for conversation. She spoke through the slight pursing of her lips, through creases in her eyes, through the rhythmic clicking of her weathered hands grasping knitting needles. I, on the other hand, speak near incessantly. I chatter as I wave hello to her, asking about her flight from Delhi to Budapest, where I moved with my parents a year ago. Already, I have forgotten what India is like—the humdrum, the cacophony of smells and sights and noise, have all been replaced by questioning looks and starkly quiet streets.
I speak as I walk home from preschool with my mother, my tiny hand clasped securely in hers as I marvel at the sun-drenched trees lining the path to our sixth floor flat on the Buda side of the river. I babble on, amazed by the way brushstrokes of orange and golden light beam through the verdant leaves, like we are walking directly into the embrace of the sun.
I burst through the door, throwing off my backpack in one fluid motion, leaping as only children can do, into the waiting arms of my grandmother, my nani. She has come to help, to watch over me, comforting in a wordless sort of way as my parents adjust to being parents.
“Nani, let’s go to the roof! I have hazelnuts!” I squeal, and she smiles tenderly at me.
“Okay, baccha. Chalo,” she says, her voice so quiet I don’t even notice she has spoken until she nods at me. Taking her hand into mine, I feel the wrinkles in her skin. I feel the decades of existence, the weight of raising three children and travelling to a country where she knows nearly no one and speaks none of the language. Still, the comforting squeeze of her hand transcends words.
I run and grab the patthar we found together, feeling the weight of the porous stone in my tiny hand. Beena nani rushes up, right behind me, her voice soft but unyielding in its firmness as she tells me to be careful, to slow down.
I smile slyly as I take the hazelnuts out of my jacket pocket, letting them scatter onto the ground, raining the dusty cement in a flood of brown. I surreptitiously collected the nuts from a large tree in my school’s playground, bursting with glee too joyous to contain at the thought of nani and I cracking them together.
We laugh as I struggle to hold the rock above my head. She chides me, telling me to be careful as I swing my arms around with reckless abandon. Our conversation flows as smoothly as the Danube that runs through the heart of the city, me chattering on, her responding to my childish complaints with unyielding tenderness. Giggling, we crouch down, gathering up the remnants among the broken nuts, talking about their buttery taste and the heat of the sun and anything and everything. In this moment, at this place, it is just the two of us—me and nani, with our hazelnuts and our conversation. Our words are like needles, knitting the yarn that tethers us to each other in a universe that is vast and easy to get lost in. Our conversation is our secret. Our world. Just us.
My second memorable conversation with nani is thousands of kilometers away. I am older now. Well worn. I speak less—but still more than her.
She sits on the plush couch in my living room in Glen Rock, New Jersey. It’s her first time in America. I smile, touching her feet, asking for aashirvad—blessings.
“Sab kuch theekh tha?” Was everything okay?
“Haan, beta. Bahut achha tha.” Yes, dear. Everything was good, as expected.
We sit at opposite ends of the couch, and I feel the tension thread around my spine as I gaze at her.
I struggle to make small talk. Already, Alzheimer’s has stolen large parts of her brain. She smiles vacantly, her voice trailing away mid-sentence, words becoming softer as she grows uncertain of names, of places, of everything she once knew and loved. I know my mother can’t bear to see it because she has locked herself away, left me to deal with nani, unable to cope with watching her own mother slowly waste away into oblivion.
I notice the way nani gazes out the windows into our backyard, the dark green evergreen tree billowing in the wind, framed by the slotted aperture of our white blinds. Everything in this house is as foreign to her as she is to America. She scans the rebelliously teal couch, the electric fireplace, the sterile kitchen. She hunches her back, shrinks into herself.
Occasionally, she’ll remember a relative’s name, or I’ll talk about the food she used to cook, the sweaters she carefully crafted with me in mind, and her face will brighten, wisened knuckles whitening as she smiles in relief, in recognition. She’s fighting. In her own quiet, indomitable way, she is fighting.
We talk there for a long time, our conversation strained but somehow able to claw its way into existence.
“Do you remember how we used to break hazelnuts in Hungary?” I ask her, my voice wavering. Her brow furrows, and I feel my hands clench. There is a pregnant pause hanging in the air; it threatens to crush us into a dense ball of pain and nothingness.
“Haan, baccha.” Yes, child. She laughs, her eyes crinkling into crescents just like mine do as we giggle, and suddenly everything is okay, and it’s just us again, crouching on that rooftop stuffing our faces with nuts.
My third—and last—memorable conversation with nani is in India. At my aunt’s house. It’s not really a conversation at all.
My cousins have already whispered to me not to engage.
“Koshish bhi mat kar. Sirf dard karta hai.” Don’t even try. It just hurts.
But how can I not try? With nani? The other end of my thread in this gargantuan universe?
“Hello Beena nani!” I seize an empty moment. She gazes blankly at me. Her hair, once jet black, has withered away into a thin white braid. She whimpers.
I blink away the rapidly forming tears.
“Do you remember me? Mallika?” I whisper. I inch closer to her on the already sunken sofa. She is wearing a cotton sari, dark green. Her fingers are too weak to hold her knitting needles—or even a cup of chai.
Her eyes, once vivid and filled with joy, look like glass as they stare blankly at me. I feel anger well up inside. How could she not remember our conversation on the roof, our laughter on the couch? How could she?
“Nani, please… Don’t you remember?” I plead, a last-ditch attempt made by a girl who already knows the answer to this futile question. There is no nani to converse with anymore. There is only Beena, the frail patient. I reach out and grasp her hand, and she cries out, recoiling.
My nani is an empty shell.
We sit there for a long time, me and her. Silence’s fingers creep their way up my spine and draw tears out of me in muted, wrenching sobs that rack my body. Still, she says nothing. Our conversation has ended.
I wish I could erase the bitter feeling in my mouth. These conversations were scary, but silence is an even more bitter pill to swallow.
I cry. And I remember her. I remember her and remember for her. Nani may be gone, but our days on the roof eating hazelnuts and talking endlessly about nothing are immortalized in my brain. They are still a secret just the two of us have. It transcends words or even the mortal plane. A conversation is a red string of fate linking two people forever, and it is only our will that makes it so.