In Anita Kushwaha's Side by Side (Inanna Publications), Kavita Gupta is facing the unimaginable. When her brother disappears, she drops everything to find him -- but 10 days later, she's told he's never coming home. Already at a difficult time in her life, her loss drives her to a group for the bereaved and into the path of Hawthorn. As she works to discover whether this free-spirited young man is the answer to her pain and loss, her world -- including her health and her marriage -- seems to spiral further out of control.
A devastating portrait of loss and sibling love, Side by Side is packed with arresting imagery and sensory details that bring Kavita and her experiences to life on the page. We are thrilled today to be able to share an exclusive excerpt from Side by Side with you, courtesy of Inanna Publications.
An Excerpt from Anita Kushwaha's Side by Side:
As Kavita slumps beside her husband on the curb outside her parents’ home, where hours earlier an Ottawa police car idled, a mild late-summer breeze, as light and downy as dandelion seeds, grazes across her skin. A bright half-moon hangs in the clear night sky. Crickets and grasshoppers chirp their nocturnal music. The kind of soul-sighing evening that reminds her of countless others she spent with her brother, Sunil, jogging through the quiet streets of their neighbourhood under the buttery glow of streetlights, the beat of their even strides against the pavement, the rhythmic huff of their synchronous breath. As she sweeps away what feel like perennial tears, she knows running through the streets is futile now. The time for searching is over.
Her brother is gone.
The police came on the tenth day after Sunil’s disappearance. A Thursday, the day of the week dedicated to the worship of Lord Vishnu, the peace-loving Deity of the Trimurti. For her mother, a day of fasting, of quietly holding a prayer in her heart, and yellow offerings, such as marigolds, since they are in season and can be plucked from the garden, those blooms that burst with the colour of happiness and peace. A day that would normally end with prayers and halwa by the light of a diya. On this Thursday, however, the Guptas were not graced by the blessings of a gentle God. This Thursday, they felt only the quake of Shiva’s destruction.
“I can’t think straight,” she says, pressing her knuckles into her swollen eyes. Curtains of dark waves hide her face. Despite the mild evening, her bare arms and legs swell with a fine layer of goose bumps like textured leather. Although hindsight has no power over their present fate, she scours her memory of their last days together for clues, the way a detective might link scattered bits of evidence on a cork board with tacks and string, in an effort to uncover relationships, causality, reason — to make sense of chaos.
“Shall we go in?” Nirav asks. He tucks a few strands behind her ear. “You’re knackered, love. Going over it won’t change anything. You’re going to drive yourself mad if you carry on like this.”
“Going over it is all I can do now,” she says, staring at the pavement. He is still dressed in his office clothes. He left work as soon as she called him that afternoon. Rushed to be with her. Yet somehow, she can’t help but feel insulted by his proper appearance, the even tone of his voice, his dry eyes.
“Come, my love. Let’s go inside and I’ll make you some tea.”
“I can’t.” She turns away from him. “I can’t breathe in there.”
Inside the house, her parents have retreated to the solitudes of their grief and separate bedrooms. She fixed each of them a toddy before helping them to bed, where they withered into their mattresses, drained by weeping and over a week of erratic sleep.
Afterwards, she poured the rest of the brandy typically reserved for company down the kitchen sink without letting a drop touch her lips. The contents of her parents’ modest liquor cabinet went the way of the brandy. A diminutive yet self-preserving voice inside her head made a salient point: any substances that might be overconsumed as a remedy against the pain of bereavement had to be removed, immediately. The same voice knew if she started down the path of forgetting — numbing — then she would not stop until she reached oblivion.
While administering the toddies, she detected a similar precarious wish in her parents’ deadened eyes. These ripples of Sunil’s suicide that threatened to overwhelm them all. No matter how much she might crave an end to the hurt, the survivor in her whispered with a meditative calm unique to the shock of trauma, reminding her of her duty to care for her parents, she was their death doula now. You are all they have left, the voice told her.
Nirav rubs circles on her back, a conciliatory gesture. “You can’t stay out here all night.” The warmth of his broad palm soaks through the knit of her tank top. Rolling her shoulders back, she shrugs him off, rejecting his sympathy. She knows she doesn’t deserve any. Resting his forearms over his knees, he sighs.
“I know we have to go in, eventually. But I can’t face it yet.” The reality of entering the house and not finding Sunil. Never again finding Sunil.
Kavita gazes across the street at the flicker of the television reflected in her neighbour’s front window. She pictures them sprawled on the couch, snacking on pretzels, chatting during the commercial breaks, blanketed in the comforts of banality, taking the tranquility for granted, like fortunate people have the good fortune to do, the way she had until not long ago.
She cradles her knees for warmth. “I still can’t believe it.”
“It must be the shock.”
But that wasn’t it. “No, it’s this,” she says. “This is really happening.” But it wasn’t supposed to.
Why, Bear? she thinks to her elder brother, invoking her ancient nickname for him, which she hasn’t used in years but somehow comes back to her now, her version of bhaiya, which had been too knotting for her then-toddler tongue. Bear always felt more befitting of Sunil, and Kavita meant it with no less affection than the Indian endearment. What changed your mind?
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Anita Kushwaha grew up in Aylmer, Quebec. She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Human Geography from Carleton University, and is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at the Humber School for Writers, for which she was awarded the Bluma and Bram Appel Scholarship. She is the author of a novella, The Escape Artist , which was published in 2015. She lives in Ottawa.