Subbu Mami and The Seraphic Sanctuary

by Chandra Sundeep
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Subbu

Subbulakshmi had just accepted the fact that she was dead, but with this strange interrogation her head started reeling and her lifeless form went limp. “I am sorry, Sir. Could you please repeat your question?”

The guard dressed in a crisp pantsuit hissed. “Excuse me!”

“Sir,” Tucking the loose end of her pallu into her waist, she spoke louder. “I was wondering if you could kindly repeat your question.”

“Listen, I get it. You are not-like from recent times, but don’t assume that I like to be addressed as Sir.”

“Oh, I am sorry Madam.” Subbulakshmi offered a heartfelt apology. She was always respectful towards everyone, irrespective of class, gender, or even mental stability.

“Yikes!” the person shuddered. “Just call me Xee, OK?”

“Xee.” Subbulakshmi shook her head and clicked her tongue. Ayoh paavam, how could his parents give him such a name?! “I am sorry. I am a little confused. I always thought after I die, I would go to… but… this…” She drew in a shaky breath. “Could you please tell me where am I?”

Xee waved his arms around. “I will. But first things first. Name please?”

“I am Subbulakshmi, but like everybody you can call me Subbu Mami.”

“Yeah, whatever! What’s your preferred pronoun?”

“Preferred pronoun aa?” Subbulakshmi pulled out her hearing aid, rubbed it on her soft cotton saree, and plugged it in again. “Oh, did he mean tiffin? Such a gentle fellow! “Xee ji, I like everything except for upma. And a cup of strong-filter coffee would be really nice. No sugar. I have not yet had my daily dose of morning coffee.”

Just kill me Maaami., Xee muttered under his breath. “Preferred pronouns! Mine are uyii/ uyiiem. Never mind. To answer your question, we are in,” spreading his arms wide, Xee said, “The Seraphic Sanctuary, the place where life begins again.”

“Um, is this not heaven?”

“Ugh,” Xee rolled his eyes, “we don’t use such terms anymore. Heaven stands cancelled.”

Subbulakshmi grumbled, “Cancelled? How can anyone cancel heaven?”

“We call it The Seraphic Sanctuary. It’s a more inclusive and warmer terminology. And we are here to guide you.”

“Oh, so you’re the dwar-palak?”

“I don’t know what dwar palak means. As per Seraphepedia, paneer palak is a dish. And I can assure you I am nothing like that!”

Subbulakshmi snapped, “Forget any palak. What do you mean heaven is cancelled?”

“Listen, darling, my shift is about to get over. And I have fresh ghosties to deal with. How about you just answer my question and let me handle this.”

“What was your question again?”

Xee snapped, stretching, and dragging each word as if Subbulakshmi were a child and not a septuagenarian. “Have-you-ticked-all-the-items-on-your-bucket-list?”

There it was.

The same word. Bucket list.

“I am sorry, but I don’t understand. What has that got to do with anything?”

The agent sighed, “I get it, you are not up-to-date with stuff. But listen, darling, I really haven’t got time to explain everything to you from the start. You may want to go to counter C and get yourself sorted out.”

Subbulakshmi opened her mouth to say something when the agent peered into a device that looked something like an iPad but nothing like one Subbulakshmi had ever seen and hollered, “Next!”

She still had a lot of questions, but Xee dismissed her with a wave of his hand. Determined to find answers, she veered in the direction Xee had pointed, but not without pausing now and then to admire her surroundings. Floating trees, multi-colored clouds, flying ants, walking snakes, multi-lingual birds.

She blinked hard when a few clouds parted, revealing a towering golden gate studded with rubies, pearls, and emeralds. As if by magic, the gates swung open and a few ghosts flew in. The gate slammed shut when Subbulakshmi neared it, and a bird squawked from somewhere, “Undocumented visitor. Please proceed to Counter C.”

The lack of sign boards and the absence of staff made the seemingly impossible task even more challenging. Finally, after what felt like decades, Subbulakshmi spotted a yellow desk floating in the clouds. A turquoise-green banner hanging from it screamed–Counter C. Under the banner was a gigantic pink balloon and a uniformed employee swaying on it.

“Excuse me, I was told you-” The rest of the words died in Subbulakshmi’s throat when she saw the person’s face. “Xee?”

“Hello, Subbu Mami. We are Xhee. We understand you are facing difficulties checking in.” A wide smile spread on the person’s face. “This place can get a bit overwhelming for new arrivals. But please don’t worry. We are here to assist you.”

“Thank you. I don’t understand why you are not allowing me to go inside. I am a good human.”

“Of course, dear. But rules are rules. Now, we can’t let you go in if you haven’t ticked off the items on your bucket list. Can we?”

Unshed tears swam in her eyes. “I wasn’t aware of this requirement.”

“What have you done with your life then?”

Taken aback, Subbulakshmi squared her shoulders. “What do you mean? I was a good wife, mother, and grandmother. I was taking care of my family.”

“But what about you, dear Subbu Mami? What have you done for yourself? What about your dreams? Done any naughty things?” Xhee paused when tears started trickling down Subbulakshmi’s wrinkled face. “Now, now. Control yourself. We want to help you. Do you have a list at least? We hope you say yes, or else, we are sorry we won’t be able to do much.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, if you don’t even have a list, we will be forced to send you away. The Gloom Pane might not accept you because according to our records, you are a good person. You will end up shuttling between the two worlds forever, banished.”

Subbulakshmi sniffled. “My husband… where is he? He didn’t have a bucket list either?”

“When did he arrive here?”

“No, not here. He should have gone to heaven. He passed away over two decades ago.”

“I don’t have access to historical data, those are part of legacy cases. The bucket list rule was implemented by Enalas who revamped the processes recently. Anyways, coming back to you, where is your list?”

Subbulakshmi gazed into the distance, allowing her memories to take her to the previous day when she had heard the word for the very first time.

 

The Sunday bhajan had just finished and Subbulakshmi was sitting cross-legged on the floor, enjoying the hot prasadam when her friend, Mrs. Das tapped her shoulder and whispered, “Subbu Mami, what have you written on your bucket list?”

“Bucket list? I know only shopping lists,” Subbulakshmi smirked while helping herself to some more prasadam.

“Arey, baba! Not that useless thing. This is different. We have to make a list of things we want to do before we die.”

“Why?”

“My daughter-in-law said only then we will get true happiness. It’s not only good things, haan. We have to do naughty-naughty things too!” She winked and thrust a spiral notepad into Subbulakshmi’s hands. “See, what I’ve on my list.

  1. Eat puchka every day.
  2. Eat roshogulla every day.
  3. Eat sondesh every day.
  4. Eat loochi every day.
  5. Watch a Blue colour film.
  6. Wear a bikini.
  7. Drink wine.

“Mrs. Das, I don’t know about happiness, but you will get sugar, BP, and a heart attack if you complete this bucket list!” Subbulakshmi pressed her flat palm on the floor and got up. “Does your daughter-in-law want your happiness or your diamond set?”

Dismissing her friend’s idea as rubbish, Subbulakshmi bid her farewell.

But later at night, she scrambled through her wardrobe. The streetlight filtering in through the open window was hardly enough, but she didn’t want to switch on the lights. Moist air whooshed out through the gaps in her teeth as she pushed aside her neatly folded sarees, petticoats, and blouses. Moments later, she wobbled to her bed, clutching a diary under her armpit.

Siva, her husband, had gifted her this diary in the ‘70s. She dreamt of writing poems, but life got in her way. From the second drawer on her side table, she picked up a pen. The royal blue ink seeped into the sepia-tinted pages as she wrote in beautiful cursive writing, ‘bucket list.”

Subbulakshmi got thinking and soon started scribbling. A few moments later her eyes started shutting on their own, so she hid the diary in her drawer and slid under the bedsheet, planning to continue the list later.

But sadly, she never woke up to see the light of the day!

An impatient cough near her ears brought her back from her rumination. “Ahem, do you need to sleep or something? You look pale?”

“I am a ghost! How else am I supposed to look? Blushing like a bride?” Subbulakshmi barked but apologised immediately. “Xhee ji, I just remembered I had made a list last night.”

Xhee rubbed his hands. “Excellent. Now just show me the list and we’ll see what we can do about it.”

“I don’t have it here. It’s in my home.”

“Go on then… Return once you complete it. Don’t forget, to use your special power, Subbulakshmi.”

“Power? What power do I have?”

Xhee tapped his temple with his index finger. “Subbu Mami, this is your superpower. With a blink of an eye, you can be wherever you wish to be. Don’t forget, you must complete the tasks and return before time runs out.”

The next instant, a countdown timer appeared on Subbulakshmi’s wrist.

“Remember, you have to do everything on your own. Humans are of no use in this race against time.” Xhee’s parting words rang in her ears as she closed her eyes.

 

***

 

Subbulakshmi squealed when she found herself in her bedroom. Muted conversations filtered in from the living room. Oh, my cremation. She was in two minds wondering if she should go and tell Mrs. Das she was right about the bucket list or get started with her list. One glance at the display on her wrist, and all her confusion vanished. She started scanning through the drawer as fast as her skeletal fingers would allow.

“Ah, found it! Bucket list.” She flipped the page and whispered, “How difficult can it be?” It didn’t take her long to read her list, but the moment she read her list she slapped her forehead. “Raama! What was I thinking?! Did I go senile in my last moments?” Tears trickled down her eyes as she started laughing. But when the ache in her belly made breathing difficult, she covered her mouth with her hand.

She pinched the bridge of her nose and read her list again. “Thank goodness, I stopped with five items!”

Subbulakshmi cocked her head, listening to the voices outside. Karthik her son, Aparna, her daughter-in-law, Pranavi, her granddaughter, many relatives, friends, and neighbours. Devout, helpful, kind, warm, gentle, cautious, risk-averse… A good mother and grandmother, a wonderful friend, a caring neighbour… An excellent baker. Skilled at sewing.

Her brows furrowed as Subbulakshmi got thinking. “Is Xhee right? Have I lived my life just for others? No, it can’t be. There must be something I did for myself…” Despite thinking for a long time, Subbulakshmi couldn’t recall a single instant from all those years when she had done something for her. Even though she hated cooking and baking, she did it for her family. She sewed and knitted for them, often ignoring the pain in her arthritic joints.

She shut her eyes close.

 

  1. Get a tattoo

Subbulakshmi’s jaw dropped as she ran her fingers over the framed photographs lining the wall. Intricate and exquisite inky patterns on arms, legs, neck, belly, chest, and even backsides.

Karthik wanted to become a tattoo artist when he was a teenager. As expected, both Subbulakshmi and Siva had screamed their heads off. “You want to make tattoos for a living? Why don’t you also open a bar and sell drugs?” And like any good son, he became an Engineer.

But now as she placed her wrinkled hands on the photographs, her veins pulsated. I am sorry, Karthi. You were right, this is art.

There were two other people in the room besides her. The artist and his canvas. Neither of them noticed when Subbulakshmi sat on an empty chair next to them. The artist held a pen-like instrument in his hand and it whirred and buzzed in the silence. When the woman’s lips trembled and tears sparkled across her eyelashes, Subbulakshmi started having second thoughts. Her fears vanished when the woman whispered, “Thank you. Cancer stole everything from me… but this… gives me hope once again” Subbulakshmi peered closer, watching in awe as a big purple heart appeared across the woman’s clean-shaven scalp.

A little later, it was just the artist and Subbulakshmi in the small room.

“Excuse me, sir.”

When the artist continued scrolling through his phone, ignoring her presence, Subbalakshmi grumbled. “This generation! Always busy with their phones. No regard for elders. Just because I am old and, in a saree, he thinks he can ignore me!” She raised her voice, “Hello?!” once, then twice, but when even after three attempts there was no response from him, she chuckled. “Oh, it’s not his fault. I am invisible!”

She started pacing around the room, cracking her knuckles. Time was running out, and she had yet to tick even one item. She closed her eyes, and said, “I want to have a butterfly tattoo on my arm.”

Giggling with feverish excitement she opened her eyes, but the blank arm sucked out all happiness. “Hmm… so my superpower is just self-driving. Not anything else!”

Not one to give up, she grabbed a pen-like instrument. I am an expert at making kolams. How difficult can this be? She pressed here and there, but the pen refused to cooperate. She grabbed another similar-looking device, with a golden nib. Unfortunately, she had no luck with it either. And just then, a familiar buzzing echoed in the room. Did I do it? Subbalakshmi inspected her arm. It was the same as before. Blank!

But the artist was busy at work, creating another masterpiece for a new client. Subbalakshmi hurtled toward them, armed with her pen. She mimicked his hand movements and pressed the right buttons. The artist was engrossed in his work and failed to notice the tattoo gun floating and buzzing mid-air.

A few moments later, Subbulakshmi’s arm resembled a street splattered with cow dung, but she was swooning with delight. She whispered, “I got a tattoo,” and closed her eyes.

 

  1. Learn to roller skate

“Aiyoh! I am going to die.” Subbulakshmi screamed as a stream of girls, boys, teenagers, and even adults on roller skates came right at her. But when the horde passed through her without causing any harm, she chuckled, “Oh, how can I die again?!”

Decades ago, she used to accompany seven-year-old Karthik to his skating classes. He loved skating and would say, “Amma, come skate with me.”

But Subbulakshmi never learned skating. She was happier watching Karthik learn, at least, that’s what she told him. She sat under a tree, kneading her knees, thinking of the time when she was a young mother in the 80s. Wasting money on such frivolous desires was unheard of and unimaginable.

“How I wish those times were like the present. Like this generation, we too could have done so much. Read books, travelled with girlfriends, joined clubs, ran marathons, or even died our hair in rainbow colours!”

When a few kids skated by in front of her, she stood up in alarm. “Raama! I’ve to hurry up.”

She followed the kids, at first, watching the way they moved their hands and legs and strode on. And then, she placed her feet shoulder-width apart, bent her knees, and squatted. Surprisingly, her body did not scream with pain and it boosted her confidence. “Ah, this is fun,” she exclaimed after she had walked behind the kids at a good pace.

“Now, all I need is a pair of skates!” Time is running out. What can I do? She shuffled across to a group of skaters lazying under a tree. “Children,” she left her sentence incomplete when she remembered they couldn’t hear her.

Beg, borrow, or steal!

Subbulakshmi weighed her options. Begging was beneath her. Borrowing was better, but not feasible. That left her with no other choice.

She got down on all fours and crawled towards a pair of skates a young woman had just taken off. Her fingers tingled as she slid her feet into the skates, put on the knee guards, and strapped the helmet on. After chanting the hanuman chalisa, she stood up. And as luck would have it, she fell flat on her backside. “Hmm… it doesn’t hurt! Now, no one can stop me!”

Subbulakshmi stood up once again and placed her feet shoulder-width apart, as she had done before. But unlike the last time, she didn’t walk behind the kids. She followed them on her skates. Zip, zap, zoom! A soft wind teased her tightly plaited hair as her skates rolled on ahead. She laughed and giggled, clapped, and even jumped. But soon a cacophony of shrill screams rocked the park.

Subbulakshmi too paused to make sense of the commotion.

People were running amok, screaming, “ghost, ghost!”

“Ghost?! Where?” Fearing for her life, Subbulakshmi skated as fast as she could. “Wait for me. Please don’t leave me alone. I am scared of ghosts!” The faster she skated, the faster the people ran. And by the time she neared the park gate, there was not a single soul to be seen. The place was as deserted as a haunted place could be.

Huffing and puffing, she leaned against the security guard’s cabin, only to burst out laughing when she saw her reflection in the glass. “Oh! People did not see a ghost. They just saw skates rolling on their own, and a helmet and kneepads floating in the air!”

Tears of laughter rolled down her face as she shut her eyes.

 

  1. Write a poem and read it out loud in front of people.

Subbulakshmi’s eyes twinkled brighter than her diamond-studded nose pin when she found herself in a theatre. Poetry Slam, the banner on the stage read. Sinking into a velvety sofa, she sneaked a glance around at the people around her. “Not a single person my age. Lazy fools. Might be sleeping or praying for moksha!”

A man went up on stage and spoke into the mike. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am Abhay, your host for the evening. Welcome to our first-ever Poetry Slam.”

Subbulakshmi clapped and cheered as one after the other participants came and read out their poems.

“We are almost at the end of our inaugural session. Any more participants?” the host asked. Subbulakshmi didn’t need to be asked twice. Adjusting the pleats of her pallu, she whispered into the mike. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am Subbulakshmi and this is my first time here.” Hmm… no applause… “I always wanted to write poems but never found the time. so, here I am with my first-ever creation.

I am a spectral delight,
Living in a realm where time takes flight
No more aching joints, or acidity in my stride
Dear friends, don’t fear death. It’s a fantastic joyride!

 

The theatre boomed with loud claps and tears of joy ran down Subbulakshmi’s cheeks.

“Thank you, Vaahini. That was a splendid narration.” said the host.

“Vahini? No-no, my name-,” Subbulakshmi’s shoulders slumped when she saw a young poet walk down the dais, right through her.

“So, what if they didn’t hear me? I read it out in front of people.” Subbulakshmi’s lips curled up just as she closed her eyes.

 

  1. Meet M.F.Hussain and commission him to paint me the way he painted Bharat Maata.

“Bhagwan is not going to forgive me!” Subbulakshmi muttered when she found herself seated on a Victorian-style sofa in a dimly lit room. Huge works of art adorned three walls of the room. Even the sole bare wall looked artistic.

“Why?”

Subbulakshmi jumped when she heard another voice. “How did you hear me?”

WE can hear each other.” A bearded guy, sitting on the opposite sofa, poured filter coffee into an expensive porcelain cup. Swirls of steam filled the room with a pleasant aroma. “Sugar?”

“No, thank you. I have diabetes. Sir, if I am not mistaken… are you the great Hussain ji?”

“That depends. What do you want? And why did you say God will punish you?”

“Sir, actually, I died yesterday.”

“So?”

“Are you not scared? I am a ghost.”

“What do you think I am?”

The cup rattled in Subbulakshmi’s hands, “Aiyoh! I did not know you were dead.”

“Doesn’t matter. Just tell me what you want. I am getting late for my horse-flying class.”

“Oh, I am sorry… I wanted you to paint me.”

“I don’t paint anymore.”

“Why?”

“Are you a reporter? Please leave.”

“No, sir. I am just an old woman. I have to go to heaven,” she held up her arm, displaying the ticking clock, “Or else…” She bunched up an edge of her saree and wiped her tears.

“You will end up nowhere, is that right?”

“Yes, sir. Please help me.”

“Hmm… but why did you say God won’t forgive you?”

Subbulakshmi leaned across the marble coffee table and whispered. “I want to be like your Bharat Mata painting.”

“Interesting!” The artist scanned her with his eyes. “And you think God is going to punish you because of this? God is swamped with work to worry about these petty things. Anyway, as I said, I don’t paint anymore. Please leave”

But Subbulakshmi didn’t want to leave without giving her best shot. With quivering lips, she pleaded, “Sir, you’ve lived in exile. Would you want this old helpless woman to go through that?”

The artist fiddled with the beaded necklaces strung around his wrinkled throat. A sparkle of excitement crackled inside Subbulakshmi as he stood behind his canvas and said, “Well, what are you waiting for then?”

Seconds later, there were no bare walls in the room.

Subbulakshmi bowed with folded hands, “You are the world’s greatest painter! Thank you, Sir,” and closed her eyes.

 

  1. Use a vibrator.

But when she opened them, she was not surprised to find herself in her bedroom once again. She sat on her bed, with her knees pulled tight to her chest. “I cannot do this,” she sighed and wiped her tears. “I am destined to suffer in my afterlife.”

Her mouth twisted in a bitter smile when a memory from over ten years ago played in front of her eyes. It was her sixtieth birthday, and Karthik had gifted her a beautiful pattu saree. But when Subbulakshmi retired to her room, she was surprised to find another gift on her bed. ‘For you, Amma,’ said the note from Aparna.

“This girl is too cheeky,” she smiled when she tore the wrapping open. The idea of using a vibrator both amused and exasperated her. Though she thanked and hugged Aparna later for the gift, she could never use it. It felt wrong

I am not just an old woman, but a widow too…

Yet, she had mentioned it on her bucket list. She inhaled deeply, “Did I not think of it as wrong anymore?” She remained on her bed until the mellow evening sun gave way to a moonlit sky. And then all of a sudden, she snapped, “Anyway, it’s either that or something even more dreadful. Let’s do it!”

Her toe rings clanked against the cold tiles when she veered to a distant corner of her bedroom. Bending down, she lifted the lid of a huge steel trunk, the one she had brought her dowry in, and rifled through the contents. “Here you are!”

A pink-coloured cardboard box sat smugly at the bottom. Subbulakshmi smiled from ear to ear as she held the tiny device in her hand. It came with a set of batteries and neatly typed instructions.

Her cheeks were streaked with tears, but her pale skin was glowing when she emerged from the bathroom quite many moments later.

“Thank you, Aparna.” A warm smile spread on Subbulakshmi’s face as she bid a silent farewell to her loved ones and closed her eyes.

 

***

Xhee’s eyes gleamed when he saw Subbu Mami at his desk. “Welcome back. I hope you had success with your Bucket list.”

When a beaming Subbulakshmi nodded, Xhee clapped and cheered. “Sheesh! Great work, Subbu Mami.” Scanning her list into the system, he said, “Just one last question… Any regrets?”

Subbulakshmi’s eyes welled up as she said, “None at all!”

“Well, we are all done here. Welcome to The Seraphic Sanctuary. Hope you have a lovely time.”

With a last glimpse at the world she was leaving behind, Subbulakshmi entered the golden gates, eager to create a new bucket list.

***

I wrote this short story for a writing contest hosted by Penmancy that was based on the prompt ‘bucketlist.’ This story recieved a special mention. 

 

This post is part of the Bookish League blog hop hosted by Bohemian Bibliophile

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4 comments

Preeti February 11, 2024 - 12:57 pm

Dear Chandra, Subbu Mami and her adventures in the Seraphic Sanctuary left me in peals of merry laughter. This was a very witty way of teaching us to live life not just for others but also for ourselves.

Reply
Jaideep February 15, 2024 - 1:27 pm

The interaction between Subbulakshmi and Xee is both humorous and intriguing. Subbulakshmi’s initial confusion and disorientation upon realizing she’s dead, followed by her polite yet persistent questioning, adds depth to her character.

Reply
Suchita February 15, 2024 - 2:27 pm

So so beautiful with a very important message. Loved how Subbu mami got her wishes and was eager to create more.

Reply
Manali February 16, 2024 - 10:08 pm

Haha. This was such a lovely read. Both humorous and thought-provoking at the same time. You’ve made the afterlife and what might’ve become of it over the past few years, quite believable. No wonder it received a special mention at Penmancy. It’s a great story and I wish and hope more and more people learn to prioritize themselves over others.

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