What Happens to the Atheists?

Samyuktha Iyer

Photo Credit: Li Luna (Public Domain)

When my mother, named after the goddess of abundance, got cancer, the irony of it clung to my skin like a fish hook, or an old hunger churning in an acid belly. Everyday she grew thinner, the way reeds dancing on muddy riverbanks shrivel up when monsoon fails to arrive, or jasmine blossoms close their petals with withered sighs. My mother grew infant-like, small and curved, her bald head speckled with hair like newborn rice in a field, and her tongue wavered when she laughed. One day, her chest collapsed when she coughed, as though someone had reached into her lungs and stolen her breath, and along with it, I collapsed in grief as well. She cradled my head in her arms and ran her bird-bone fingers through my hair with a pained smile, but she no longer had anything to say.

When my mother got cancer, no one had anything to say. Their voices withdrew, an animal attacked, and turned towards the ones who do not need words to know. I could not imagine who they were praying to—even my mother mumbled her way through the rudraksha malai, each of the beads leaving a fine indent on her fingertips. Soon the prayers got desperate—my father’s hair grew white and my grandparents grew translucent with anxiety. Aunts and uncles and cousins poured into the house, as unending as the beads on the rudraksha malai and brought offerings to place before the deities of the hearth. I followed them silently, like a beaten animal or a shadow, and echoed their words, though they sat uncomfortably in my mouth and tried to uproot the other faiths that had already taken bloom there.

As my mother began to fade and blood frothed in her saliva, my hope turned to anger. In silence I cursed those gods that would allow her to suffer this way, and I knew then that never, never would I learn to have faith in their ineffable actions. But the frenzy in the house grew wilder; pati began lighting candles in the dargah and appa draped shawls over the shoulders of Buddha. Chitti kneeled at pews raising incense sticks and begging for her sister’s body back while maama offered prayers five times a day in the direction of the temple. The goddess of the house is dying, they whispered, please, return her to us whole. Their tongues twisted and writhed and the marks of religion receded from their skin and soon, I could not recognise what language they prayed in. Only I sat in silence at my mother’s bedside, where she ebbed away, inch by inch, and I turned my face away from the sun, ate my meals facing north, slept with my legs stretched towards the altar of the household gods. When my family rebuked my blasphemy, I curled into a ball at my mother’s side and let her defend me in weak assurances.

One night, when I awoke, I heard appa at her bedside, holding her shivering hands, chafing them to warmth, while my grandfather fetched her more blankets. I turned over to my side, and pressed my tears into flattened flowers against my pillow. Then, guiltily, I wondered what I was wishing for—when the goddess of the house is dying, do you ask for her to get well, or do you ask for the misery to end? I swallowed these thoughts, more blasphemous than anything I could have said, and they hung heavy at the back of my throat, as though awaiting the right moment to split my lips open and fall out.

Everyone prayed. They moved day and night between her bedside and the hospital rounds and the unending streams of visitors who came with reassurances and fruits for her. And I slowly allowed her to slip away, having no hope to hold on to, leaving tear tracks in my wake. Then suddenly, she was able to sit up. Blood stopped bubbling in her mouth when she coughed and one day she ate a whole meal without throwing up. My grandmother and her sisters bought offerings to every temple they had made promises at, and gave praise with quavering verses of devotional songs.

Nearly a year after the first time she had collapsed, the doctor told us she was getting better. She would beat the cancer.

Everyone rejoiced.

I found, to my horror, that I couldn’t. As though hope, that had been wrested away from me when I needed it the most, faith, that should have sustained me and given me relief now that it had succeeded, which I did not have—as though these things that set me apart from the ones that could believe that God was watching them, was merciful and generous, had also taken away the succeeding deliverance, the sense of liberation that came with it.

I couldn’t recognise my mother any more, while everyone fretted over her. The ghost returning to life was something beyond my knowledge of this world. While the ones who believed in God welcomed her back to life, I receded into disbelief and confusion. The ones who have faith, they can traverse life and death. What then, happens to the atheists?

(terms taken from Tamil)
rudraksha malai — a rosary made of dried rudraksha seeds, used to keep count while chanting; generally used by Hindus
pati — grandmother, older woman
dargah — a shrine built over the grave of a revered religious figure, often a Sufi saint or dervish
appa — father
chitti — mother’s younger sister
maama — uncle, generally the mother’s brother, or the mother’s sister’s husband


Samyuktha Iyer was born and raised in India, and she is currently pursuing her undergraduate studies in English Literature. She writes about the world she sees and the ways of the people she has lived with and of questions she struggles with herself, both in verse and in prose. Email: samyukthaiyer2019[at]gmail.com

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