Mitali (08.22.1992)

Z S
4 min readJun 25, 2023

It’s been six and a half weeks since Hetali’s death, and Maya has talked me into going with her to Lonavala. The Deccan Queen, a train that plies between Bombay and Pune can have me back in under three hours, she reasons, and it seems Hetali’s parents have both stabilized, even though her sister Mitali is still in the ICU. Maya tells me that I don’t have to be here every minute of every day.

“Look at you,” she says. “You need a breather from all this.”

She points out the dark circles under my eyes, and my pale, drawn face. My knuckles, which I have fisted into a wall so many times, my flesh has withered into a knob-shaped callous, as if someone burned it off. She says I have become too jittery— something, for Maya, almost unimaginable. I prefer to see myself as newly tough, a featherweight fighter blasting his way through this terrible season on sheer grit.

Hetali’s parents have established a routine over the past week. At lunchtime, her father is wheeled into her mother’s room, and they eat together, their heads down, trays side by side. They sit in their white cotton pajamas, her mother removing the cellophane from the top of her father’s Paneer tikka platter.

And so I actually manage to convince myself that a trip to Lonavala is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It will not be the first time I’ve been on the train to Pune. I have zigzagged across that corridor multiple times and will do so for years to come although I don’t know it yet — So many times that I will find Indian Railway tickets and Pune Asiad bus receipts buried in back drawers like loose glitter.

The morning we are supposed to leave, I take the local bus out to Cooper Hospital to say goodbye to her parents. It is a Saturday, and the sky is bright, almost incandescent orange — an orange I will remember. I will also remember what I am wearing on this particular morning. I am wearing a yellow shirt that I had just washed some days ago and ironed by pressing it under a mattress. The shirt is tucked into blue denim jeans. I don’t remember my shoes. I assume I was wearing shoes, but this may be assuming too much.

When I arrive at the hospital, I go through the same choice I’ve had to make each day since her death: Do I go to her parent’s floor first? Or the ICU where her sister Mitali is? I have solved this problem — or at least alleviated my guilt about it — by alternating between them. Today is Mitali’s turn, but something makes me press the elevator button for her parent’s floor. I figure I’ll visit them first, then go to see her. Mitali has been doing better and I am heartened by her progress. She whispered actual words to me yesterday and I am hopeful she is finally out of the woods. It will be easier to say goodbye to her since she won’t really notice that I’m leaving.

The door to her mother’s room is closed. There is a glass pane in the door, just like the one we had in the reception room above — only instead of seeing a marble foyer with an old Indian table covered with piles of magazines and a flower pot, I see her mother in the hospital bed, surrounded by strangers.

I push the door open.

“There’s the boy,” someone says. Or am I imagining this? Has this memory been thickened by successive years of memory, each like a coat of paint obscuring the colors beneath?

There’s the boy.

Somebody get a chair.

Is he her brother?

I open my mouth, but no sound comes out. In the instant, before her mother reaches her trembling arms out to me, I already know. These people are social workers and nurses. They are here because something terrible is happening elsewhere, in another room, on another floor of this hospital.

“Come here, son,” her mother cries. I go to her, sifting between the people, trying to get as close as I can without hurting her. I hold her head against my chest.

“It’s okay,” I whisper, stroking her head. I don’t know what that means. My whole body is shaking. I remember one of the doctors telling me that her mother isn’t out of the woods yet; with the mental trauma she has sustained, any kind of shock could literally kill her.

“Ssshhh,” I breathe into her ear. I wrap my arms around her, holding her like a newborn. Our hearts pound together.

I look up at a lady standing by the foot of my mother’s bed, a stranger wearing a red and orange salwar and ethnic jewelry.

“What is happening?” I ask.

“Mitali — they’re working on her,” she says quietly.

“What does that mean?” My own voice sounds as if it’s coming to me from far away, shrill as a crow.

“They’re doing everything they can.”

As I kiss the top of her mother’s head, I am aware that if it were a couple of hours later, I’d be halfway to Lonavala. I’d be drinking coconut water or eating vada pav at Karjat station, watching the ghats of Lonavala come into view.

All I know right now is this: I pressed the elevator button for the fifth floor rather than the third, and for that reason alone I am not standing in the doorway of Mitali’s room watching shock pedals being placed against her chest, watching them cut open her throat and place a tube inside, hearing shouts of urgency and the pounding of rubber-soled feet.

I am not watching her sister die.

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Z S

Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.