Essay: The Cowshed from the Archives By Sudha Subramanian

In this personal essay, Sudha Subramanian takes a walk down the memory lane, triggered by the death of a loved one.

Photo by Dominika Roseclay on

I never knew I had so many memories tucked in the deep recesses of my brain, because I didn’t know some of them existed.  The news that glowed on my screen probably triggered the whole volcano.  My over the top life that galloped in breakneck speed took a short pause – a moment that should have lasted a few seconds.  But that moment stretched out with unbelievable elasticity and forced many snippets of my life to the forefront.  They appeared in hazy frames at first.  I narrowed my brows in an attempt to focus.  When the fog around those frames cleared,  I felt like an old record player churning out scratchy music dusted with static.  Who knew, there were so many hidden under those layers! 

I settled on my dining table clutching a cup of tea. My jittery nerves were having an unusual effect on my fingers.  The weather was warm and bright that Sunday morning, yet, my whole self shivered.  I closed my hands around the cup to stop my tea from spilling. I took a deep and a long slurp to wet my throat when I realized that the whiff of steam from my cup had long disappeared and the liquid had become pale and dull.  I stared hard at my tea but I couldn’t shake away the face that appeared in my mind.  My memories with the person played in my head like an old movie trailer in sepia tone.    We were never close – him and I.  I hadn’t spoken  to him in over eight years till I met him eight months ago in a family reunion.  We exchanged pleasantries, a nod, a smile and we left our separate ways.  We didn’t sit down for a meal or laugh at silly jokes.  He seemed lost in his thoughts and I was too busy in my world.  But the news of his death gnawed at me slowly.  I stumbled, I paused, and there was an inexplicable knot in my stomach.  My lungs were tight and the world was still.  “I didn’t know him well”, my lips curled up to one side.  But the thoughts knocked inside with a dull mechanical rhythm.  His form from our recent meeting came up.  He seemed unusually old or was it just me?  His gait was overly cautious or maybe I was making a fast judgement now that he was gone.  “Stop overanalyzing and get through the chores”, I told myself.  Life hands us routines that help us get over hardships and I was determined to immerse myself in that.  

I had groceries to unpack, laundry to fold and iron, dinner to make and most of all, the deadline that had been staring at me all weekend had to be met.  By evening, I had had enough.  My heart panted for breath and I had to acknowledge the heaviness in my chest.  My legs felt weak and my body simply yearned for some rest.  I curled up on the couch and I rested my head for a bit.  Strangest memories cropped up.    There was a screen shot, and another, and another and then whole days, they unfurled into a long screenplay.  I woke up with a start.  It was true.  I was pained by his passing because I  had spent considerable time with him and his family – except I was a little girl.

I am not sure how old I was.  All that I remember were the days my sister and I ran around in that house.  And then, there was an image of a small cowshed at a distance.  Suddenly, I could see and smell many more things.  The unmistakable smell of manure.  I could hear the cows moo and the hustle-bustle of the caretakers all day.   Flies thronged on the backs of the cows while fresh dung and urine stained the floor from time to time. Fresh memories cropped up.  This time, my sister and I spent whole afternoons as we watched  the animals swat the flies with their tail or chew on the grass with amazing patience.  I don’t remember words being said.  Only, figures, smells, sounds.  The rest is a blur.  “Huhhh”, I sat still chuckling at the oddity because, while I was happy to reencounter my lost life, these moments did not include my uncle.  Yet, that evening, I replayed this tiny piece of memory over and over again.  This tiny part of my life with its folds of cow smell felt blotched.  While I couldn’t recall how many decades old this memory was, I realized it was all I had to hold on to that part of my life that entwined with his.   And, now that he was gone, there was an eerie silence and an uneasy void.   I realized with sudden clarity that the reason for the tug in my heart was because I was mourning the loss of my part of life which I had mostly forgotten.  

As I struggled to cope with a host of new found memories over phone calls with my mother, I learnt how his family was grappling with the new reality.  “They are looking for pictures to put together a collage”, my mum informed me on the phone.    I took a deep breath.  The first thing that came to my mind was, “piecing his life together – one frame at a time”.  “That shouldn’t be hard”, I reckoned because, these days, with a phone, most of us have a host of pictures tucked somewhere.  I didn’t volunteer to search or to contribute because, I was certain, I wouldn’t have any!  So, I didn’t look.  Well, almost.  Human instincts can be frighteningly accurate.  My fingers tapped away on the haloed screen and before long, I had my nose buried deep on a multitude of pictures.  I was scouring for that one elusive face somewhere, anywhere in the reunion album.  

I didn’t have to search for long.  He was sprinkled all over the album like mustard seeds, adding flavor to the curry yet not about the seasoning itself.  He stared blankly in the corner of one frame or he was in deep slumber at the backdrop of another setting.  He sat next to someone who posed gleefully for a photograph or he walked with a group of others and a host of other pictures with just his back or tucked behind someone else.  It was disheartening because I wished I could find at least one snap about him.  

After nearly an hour, just as I was about to give up, something caught my eye.  A group photo – with us, another one where he resolutely stared at the ground, one more where he evidently looked tired.  My heart sank. For all the time, I had thought I never spent time with him or didn’t know him enough, I had stood next to him in one fleeting moment posing for the camera to capture the moment not realizing that I was living it, standing next to a person who would not see the end of the next year ever, as our shoulders brushed with minimal human contact.  My lips trembled. Suddenly, an enormous weight lifted off my chest and I felt the warmth in the corner of my eyes.   

Yes.  As the pendulum sways and the hour hand moves round the dial, I meet new people and make new memories.  Sometimes, I preserve those moments in my phone more than I save them in my head.  But, in all of this, every once in a while, this humdrum of my life is interrupted and I mourn the loss of many pieces of myself that have invariably become entwined with those who disappear leaving their fairy dust in pixelated screens.    

Death is a strange thing.  It puts all of us in a place where we face the inevitable reality.  We are all walking there, minute by minute, day after day, towards that very end.  We see it.  We feel it.  While we mourn the loss of the person, we always see a bit of ourselves in them. 

As tears drenched my cheeks, I could see the grainy form of a young man – a far cry from the droopy shoulders that had stood next to me in that picture.  The young man was handsome as his silhouetted figure flashed in the cowshed.  I imagined him wearing a fine pair of trousers over a perfectly ironed checked shirt with his curly hair combed neatly behind.  And, out of nowhere, I recalled a voice in my head – a deep baritone when  he cracked a silly joke and laughed heartily as his belly jingled in joy.  The laugh lingered on for a whole minute and a small chuckle escaped my throat. 

A little bird chirped happily while the first rays of the evening sun lit up the sky.   At a distance, I could see the whole orange sun – mild, beautiful, majestic.  I cannot name the place he has left us for and I will never know what is like on the other side till it is my turn.  However, I do know what I can do here, now with so many blurred images scattered around me.  I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.  Life is not about loss at all – is it?  Life is about living each day.  And, what more, in spite of everything, here I am, thousands of miles away, thinking about a man standing in a cowshed, that existed many years ago.

Author Bio

Sudha Subramanian is an independent freelance writer who lives in Dubai, UAE.  She contributes lifestyle articles and features to various magazines and newspapers in India and abroad.   She has been writing a regular column in Gulf News, a leading newspaper in UAE for over a decade.  

Apart from newspaper articles, Sudha also dabbles in writing fiction.  

When Sudha is not tapping her fingers on the keyboard, she is busy tending to her plants or looking for new birds in her garden.

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