Alleviate: verb (with object), make (suffering, deficiency, or a problem) less severe.
There is a house in the town of Udaipur, in Rajashthan, India. A prosperous house, occupied by an elderly couple. They have two sons, the older lived in Tokyo then, and the younger in Mumbai. The couple lived a retired life, and spent most of their days socializing with their neighbors and extended family members, some of whom lived close by.
At about 8 PM that night, my phone rang. The screen flashed "Home," in the background was a picture I had clicked two years ago on my mother's balcony, of an adenium in full bloom. She called me around 8 PM everyday, which was morning in India. I was sitting on the sofa, preparing for my class the next day. The TV was on in the background. I sometimes do that when I'm alone at home, turning the TV on even when I'm working. It becomes too quiet otherwise, and you start to hear all the sounds that old buildings make. Startling sounds. And I don't like being startled.
That night, about a year ago, the elderly couple went about their evening routine as usual, before going to bed. They ate - she probably ate early, because she had a heart condition to manage, and medicines to take. Maybe they watched something on TV. Then they went to sleep. They slept in different rooms, though. Summer was upon them, and in Rajashthan, even in the chill of the desert night, you can feel the heat radiate from the earth. He, sensitive to the heat, shut the door of their bedroom, and slept in the steady din of the airconditioner. She, intolerant of the cold, slept in a separate room, enveloped in the warmth that rose up from the earth.
When I picked up the phone, my eyes were still scanning an article on the representation of memory in Atom Egoyan's Calendar. But the moment I heard my mother's voice, I was overcome with an awful feeling. My heart started to bounce against my chest, and my skin started to feel warm and moist, because I knew something had happened. My mother has many voices. One of them is the voice she uses when someone has died.
The maid who worked at the house of the elderly couple had a key, which she used to get in the next morning. When she entered, she heard the man banging on the door of the room he had slept in the previous night, calling his wife's name. She noticed the door was bolted from outside. She opened it, and he asked her where his wife was. For a brief moment, they assumed she was on her morning walk, but the comfort of that thought did not last long. They walked to the room she had slept in. There, strewn carelessly all over the floor, was the evidence of a break in. The window was open, as was the cupboard in the room. There were things - her things, mostly - scattered on the floor. She was there too. Still in her bed.
I asked my mother what happened, as the several possibilities, none of which I really wanted to think about, wrestled for attention in my head. The aunt with cancer? The uncle with heart problems? The dog? One of the cats? In an accident? She only said two lines. Last night, some robbers broke into Masi's (my mother's younger sister) house, and strangulated her. I'm going to Udaipur. Two lines in the voice she uses when someone has died. A voice that tells me she has been sobbing uncontrollably for hours. Then she hung up.
I put the phone down next to me, and stared at the TV screen. My brain was paralyzed, and unable to process the information it had just been given. I don't know when the crying started, but I think it began with a shriek. I think I may have stood up, shrieking in my empty apartment, unable to hear my own voice.
Her sons - my cousins - arrived as soon as they could. Then came the cops, then the neighbours and relatives. Then the news media. The questions never stopped. Those who came by to offer their condolences wanted to know the smallest details of what had happened, out of fear, concern, or just morbid curiosity. Those who came with a TV camera and a news van asked questions without any concern for the grieving family, because the killing of an elderly woman makes for a really absorbing news story. Her sisters arrived, the younger two calm, the elder one completely overwhelmed by her grief.
For several days after that, every time I spoke to my mother on the phone, she had the same, small, sobbing voice. For several days after that, Masi was all I could think of. I would think of the time when she had made me chocolate at home, late at night, because I had refused to wait until the next morning. I would think of how she had taught me to knit. Of how her teeth overlapped slightly when she smiled, of how I had been working on a story for my fiction writing workshop, based on an incident in her house, several years ago. And then I would start to cry. In the shower, on the way to work, in the kitchen while I was cooking. I could no longer watch any of the sensationalized crime dramas on TV, usually my dinner-time staples. And I checked the doors and windows at least four times before I went to bed at night. It made no sense, of course, that an incident halfway across the world should make me, living in Chicago, check my doors and windows. But you have to understand, that distance was merely geographic.
A few months after the robbery, the woman's younger sister came to visit her niece in Chicago. They talked about her, and the aunt showed the niece a picture taken in late 2010, about six months before the incident. It is a picture of all four sisters, standing in the corner of a beautifully maintained garden. It was taken in Udaipur, just after Masi had moved into this house, the niece was informed, as she looked at the faces of all four women: her mother, the eldest, still so camera shy. The second one, the one they had lost. The one she looked like even more than she looked like her own mother. The third, always cheerful. The youngest, the one visiting her, smiling straight at the camera.
A year has passed by, and I still think of it. I try to make chocolate like she did, but I have lost her recipes. I look in the mirror and I see her, in the shape of my eyes, in the curve of my hairline, in the way you can see my teeth overlap a little when I smile. I realize that the last time I saw her was on a computer screen, when I was visiting her son's family in Tokyo, and spoke with her on Skype. The last I talked to her was when she was visiting my mother in January last year. She had made me promise the next time I was in India, I would come see her in Udaipur.
Her family still grapples with the tragedy, still tries to make sense of it. The police have no leads on who did that to her, and deep in their hearts, the family knows they will never find out. Some of them talk about it. Some of them don't talk about it at all. Some of them still struggle to roll words such as "murder" off their tongues. Some of them think about it and wish they knew what to say, and to whom, and then they try writing about it in third person, hoping that will create some distance, hoping it will make the pain go away.