Jasmine lingering

The first we hear of our mother’s affair is from her sister. We are drinking tea and I’m sitting on one of the wooden chairs with uncomfortably straight backs in our aunt’s house, rocking it mechanically to alarm her. She doesn’t like how I tilt the chair back, back, and back a little more, holding her deep blue mug around its rim. I usually do it to watch her watching me, waiting for the chair to fall, and the mug to break. My sister Nina is sitting uncomfortably on another wooden chair next to me with an old copy of Wuthering Heights.

I don’t think my aunt intended to tell us about our mother’s affair. She didn’t even call it an affair. She bit her lip and tried to ask me about my new job soon after she mentioned his name, even though she wishes I had gone to Bombay and lived in her little flat in Chuim village instead.

My aunt had decided I would live in Chuim when I was still in school. She had also decided that I would write a book about living there, with its smell of sea and bombil, and heavy air that made my hair stand in wisps of hawa mithai. I would become best friends with Alister who ran the garage down the road and smelt of paint, and our neighbour, Mrs Deesa, would send her son home every evening, so that I could teach him enough biology to pass his board exams. In the mornings I would take the local train to work in Dadar, standing comfortably in the middle of the crowd of school girls and women in white shirts with gende ke phool in their hair. My aunt even found me a job, but I knew before I heard its details that didn’t really want it. Alister bought her house last week and said he would rent it out to models.

Nina squinted into her phone on our way home. I don’t know how she sits behind me when I’m riding and looks into her phone without feeling like she will fall off. I was thinking of my mother and this patient she was having an affair with — a balding man with a heart problem, and an artist with no money — imagining Mama standing before him in his hospital room on one of her late nights, slowly removing her doctor’s coat and dropping it to the floor.

We are sitting down to have dinner on the day Mama gets her first delivery of jasmine flowers. Papa has made baby potatoes, and there is dal from the night before. Nina is sitting next to him as usual, and I sit opposite her. When the doorbell rings, our mother is tying her hair up into a bun like she does before every dinner.

Nina goes to the door. She brings in jasmine flowers and leaves them on the table next to Mama.

When our father asks who brought them, our mother doesn’t answer. Nina says it was our watchman. He said they’re from the garden, she says.

Mama looks at her, surprised.

Nina and I go out for a walk after dinner. We walk past the small shop selling Ambur biryani that used to be a Burrito King which used to be a Canara Bank, and we sit on the steps to the park we used to play in when I was five and Nina was three. She once pushed a boy because he told me I had boochis in my hair. She tells me that the man who delivered the jasmine flowers was the receptionist at Mama’s hospital. I light a cigarette.

On a night when Mama tells us she isn’t coming home, I ask Nina if she thinks she is in the Artist’s room. Then I ask her to guess how many times she’d kiss him that night. I was thinking of her bending down to kiss him, not swiftly grazing his cheek, but slowly, on his dry lips that taste of hospital and sterilised steel. Then she’d nip at the corner of his lower lip when she let him go.

Our mother always kissed Papa’s cheek. She rarely lingered there.

But Nina says she’s sure that on the nights Mama stays at the hospital, she sits on a chair next to the Artist’s bed and eats hospital food. When the Artist falls asleep to the sound of Mama shuffling Uno cards for their next game, Mama will run her hand through his thinning hair a few times, before going to sleep on the examination bed in her room.

I tell Nina this is too tame.

When we’re on our way to Select to buy new books for ourselves, Nina looks out of the Metro and watches the rest of the train turning. We try to imagine how our mother told her sister about the Artist. Our aunt wouldn’t approve of him, or of the affair she didn’t call an affair. We imagine Mama telling her about the Artist breathlessly, in the way that she gets when she is nervous with happiness. She’d tell her that he was the first man to know how much she loved jasmine flowers, and that at night he would tell her stories until his throat was as dry as his lips. Nina says our aunt would have responded in familiar, easily ignorable grunts of discomfort, and even though she never asked Mama what stories the Artist told her, Mama would tell her anyway.

At this point Nina and I disagree again. I’m certain that the Artist would talk to Mama about poetry, and the precise colour of gulmohar leaves in the sun at two in the afternoon. He would tell her that this is the closest he has come to being in love with a woman — such a strong, beautiful woman — ever since the girl he had loved in college had stopped loving him. Then Mama would tell him that she had met Papa when they were seventeen, and that they had stayed in love, while her friends met new men in new pubs every week. She sounds wistful.

Nina rolls eyes when I say this. She tells me to give our mother more credit — she’d never fall in love with such a dramatic man, she tells me — Mama could only love quiet men who had something thoughtful to say about Doris Lessing, and didn’t talk more than they needed to. Remember what Mama had said when you cried that your old boyfriend wanted to follow you to college, she tells me. Falling in love with Papa had been easy because it hadn’t sucked them into each other. It was an intellectual engagement.

Our mother had once told us that when they were in school, she and Papa would sit at opposite ends of the class — Papa at the first desk in the first row, and Mama at the first desk in the last. He would take notes in every class — Mama only took frantic notes when they were reading Satyajit Ray — and she would pass him chits scribbled on paper torn out of notebooks. Our father never replied. When Nina asked her what she wrote in these chits, Mama refused to tell us. I think they were lines of poetry, and Nina thinks they were sketches of the back of Papa’s head, with different hairstyles. Papa has always hated both poetry and long hair.

And then their seventeen years together had acquired a grit-filled graininess. It had a rasping quality when you tried to put a finger on it, or gather it up in words.

Nina made the Artist sound like the boys that she wishes she has met, because the men she has known are like the man that I imagine the Artist to be. Nina has always fallen out of love quickly — because it’s not really love, she insists, and I’ve always fallen in love too quickly and wasted my time.

Then Nina and I smile when we think of the tip of our aunt’s nose turning red at this conversation with our mother. She would tell Mama that she disliked all artists, especially men who painted women, even if the women were fully clothed. Our aunt would say to herself that her sister was making us all suffer in her selfishness.

And then yesterday our aunt left the house when she saw the jasmine in Mama’s hair.

At dinner, I sat next to Mama, Mama sat opposite Papa, and Nina sat next to him, like always. I was serving myself rice when Papa said he wanted an air gun to shoot the wretched pigeons around our house, and then told our mother about a student who recorded his sociology class and put it on YouTube. He smiled, but he also tried to frown, because these days, he said, people were doing strange things that he didn’t understand.

Our mother laughed loudly, and Papa smiled.

Mama kissed Papa’s cheek before she left for work this morning. Nina and I watched her linger at his neck, and we saw Papa smile.

Mama has just come home. Papa is already asleep Nina and I can smell the jasmine in her hair when she walks past our room with her doctor’s coat on her arm.

Airport

We’re listening to the story of Puchki and Malli here at the Kolkata airport. Papa is so thrilled with the story that he’s laughing loudly and everyone has turned to stare at him. He doesn’t usually laugh for very long or that loudly; it takes a string of half-funny statements to even nudge him out of his thoughts of the papers he has to correct, the food he has to cook, and the milk he has to buy. It’s pouring outside, but Papa is laughing so much that he hasn’t seen the rain.

Can you imagine two researchers fighting because their dogs didn’t like each other, he says, before falling back into his chair still laughing. I mean two researchers.

There’s a man standing at the idli.com outlet waiting for food. He’s tall, in a purple shirt and cream shorts that come up to his knees, and his arms are crossed high on his chest. He looks serious, as though he’s listening to voices that are telling him about stocks crashing, which company to invest in if he doesn’t want to lose all his money, and that his wife has filed for a divorce, all at the same time.

Two little girls with straight hair and sleepy eyes are running around his legs. They’re smiling, laughing loudly, louder – their palms momentarily grab at their father’s shorts to steady themselves – they’re running again – they come close to tripping over each other’s feet – they’re laughing at the hair in their faces, the hair flying—

–their father’s hand comes down across both their cheeks quickly, one after the other. The younger girl looks too angry to cry. When their father’s softer hands pull them to him, the girls pull away and stand straight in front of him.

You remember Puchki? Papa asks me.

Puchki is Papa’s colleague’s beautiful proud dog with large muddy eyes and folded golden ears. She walks as though she is gliding on the very tips of her paws because she doesn’t want them to get dirty. When she sits, she stretches her back legs out slowly as if she is a tadpole, and before she falls asleep, she places her head delicately on her crossed front legs and sighs into her paws. Then she will not open her eyes for anybody until she is well rested and wants biscuits and water.

I imagine Malli as a big black dog with a white patch around his left eye, and a tail thick enough to knock over a row of five full wine glasses. He walks unthinkingly, as though his swaying, staggering stomach is enough to part people and push aside tables, chairs, cups of chai, and everything else in his way. He lives with Nalima who I have always seen dressed in blue at Papa’s university, and she drinks green tea with sugar. Papa says she works on the sociology of law, and has always demanded that every email she receives must also be sent to Malli, or with love to Malli, depending how well the sender knows him, and how much he likes the sender.

There is a family sitting on the row of chairs near Gate 28. Theirs is a large family; here is a woman young enough to be in college, three girls in frocks with sequins near their knees; two boys in denim shorts with their hair slicked back in oil, three men reading the same Hindi newspapers, and two women in flowered kurtas, one red and the other blue—

-Usko kya malum hoga, Kathmandu airport mein? Maasi akeli nahi ja sakti, bas bol diya maine —the man is in a white shirt buttoned at his wrists, and in khaki pants and brown sandals that my aunt calls sensible shoes, with his heels sticking out behind them.

Arre, she’s come with us on flights so many times, unko pata hoga – baccha, usko chips mat khilao, woh potato nahi khati — the woman reaches out to behind the man’s newspaper and gives the chips back to the boy who has sat down on the floor at their feet.

This one time, Malli ate all the chips.

When Nalima went to Shimla on a fellowship to finish her book, Malli went with her. He always went everywhere, but Papa says that everyone in the university knows her as the woman who took her dog to Shimla. I didn’t find it so surprising after all her email expectations, but Papa thinks it’s ridiculous. In Shimla, the small shop that sold chai and garam jalebis had to make space for Malli with a little red cushion inside. He always pushed over the small stools when he walked through, and everyone else would stare at Nalima in her blue kurta, drinking chai with her big black dog. But she would give him so many jalebis as she sipped her chai that the owner of the little shop would let them be. It was good business.

The day that Malli ate all the chips, there was a party at Nalima’s friend’s house. Everyone was invited except Malli, and now Nalima had very angrily refused to come. There was wine and pineapple, with chips and jalebis from the little shop, and yellow fairy lights that hung from trees. When a few guests got together and coaxed Nalima out of her house, she was asked to just please tie Malli at the door. It’s not a very long story after this—Malli wasn’t tied. He ran into the house, jumped on unsuspecting guests sitting down with wine, overturned the table with food, and then ate all the chips.

 -Chew karo acche se, the youngest woman says to the boy on the floor. She has bent down to pick up his packet of chips; he watches her as though he expects her to take it away, potato khati! he shrieks, and the woman stares at him for a second before she drops the packet back at his feet.

A man is standing at the glass that overlooks the tarmac, taking a selfie with the flights that are waiting just beyond. The man isn’t smiling; he is staring into his phone as though it will tell him which hand to hold it in and where to hold it for the best photograph. He doesn’t look sad, or serious, or comfortable. He looks as though he wants to say to himself that he was there – at the airport in Kolkata on a Friday afternoon – when he lies down on a single mattress in his one bedroom apartment, remembering his night at Hotel Avisha in Kestopur.

-You’re doing a fraud on me you bastard! Two chairs on my right, this man’s nose is slowly turning red and his knees are striking each other in quick knocks of anger.

There is momentary silence. On the muted television there’s a red headline blaring like a siren – Dilli ki kaathil chaachi.

Puchki was terribly angry on the day she met Malli in Shimla and growled at him every time he came too close. Nalima was upset. Papa’s colleague, who was at Shimla for the same fellowship, said that it was perhaps just the journey from Hyderabad that had tired her. It wasn’t. Puchki didn’t like Malli.

It was as though Puchki could smell the stories off Malli, and knew that at every dinner, Malli had to have a space on the table. Papa is certain that Puchki also knew of the time Nalima had demanded that Malli be allowed to attend the screenings of a film club organised by the fellows – he’ll understand more of the films than we ever will, she had said. When nobody agreed, both Malli and Nalima had boycotted the film screenings and watched their own movies at home.

But the day that Puchki was the angriest, was when Malli, like all the other dogs in Shimla, tried to get her pregnant. Papa’s colleague said she had stopped to talk to Nalima outside the library when she had taken Puchki for a walk. She was surprised to see that Malli wasn’t around, but of course she didn’t ask because he was such a touchy topic. Nalima was telling her about Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book, The Laws of Medicine, and Papa’s colleague said she was nodding intently, saying haan, wohi toh, and commenting on the need for interdisciplinary studies, when quickly and suddenly, Puchki pulled at her leash and snarled.

Yes, interdisciplinarity, exactly, Nalima was saying.

Papa’s colleague said it was as though her back snapped and she turned to see Puchki crouched and growling at Malli.

Maasi akeli nahi jaaegi – unka Kathmandu jaana zaroori hai – not alone

Can you take Malli away, Papa’s colleague shouted.

The book is just so brilliant, because doctors otherwise never say they don’t know something, Nalima was saying.

-toh kya tum chhutti leke jaaoge Kathmandu unke saath? a third woman has asked. The man looks up from his newspaper for the first time. The women are watching each other.

-Arre, chew karke khao apne chips.

Nalima, make Malli stop, Papa’s colleague said she shouted again, pulling at Puchki’s leash.

It’s so honest. It’s really refreshing to see honesty in the sciences, Nalima was saying.

Ami eta thika karara—you’re doing a fraud, you bastard! This time nobody stops talking. The red has spread from his nose to his cheeks.

You really need to take your dog out on a leash, Nalima, Papa’s colleague screeched.

Chutti? I can’t take another holiday; you want me to get fired or what? the man is asking slowly.

-Jo karna hai karlo. She needs to go to Kathmandu.

The women get up and walk towards the washroom, the sides of their hands brushing against each other. Perhaps their maasi is like my father’s maasi, with grey hair reaching to the bottom of her blouse, who never travelled anywhere without her husband until suddenly he has died.

Papa’s colleague says Nalima hasn’t spoken to her since.

Hands

She has palms that feel like butter. I haven’t touched them since we were ten and she lay on the floor outside class and the two of us kneeled next to her, laughing. Come on, we told her. She was shaking. Stop it, get up, come, we said more insistently. The boys guarding the door to our class weren’t watching us. She always said they gave up trying to catch us when we played because we were too smart, and ran too fast, and boys could be such spoil sports sometimes. Every time, I would say. We could run into class and win. Come on, Kannu was saying to her, and I was pulling her by her cold butter hands, stop acting, I said to her.

Now there were people around us – what’s happening – can you see? – who’s on the floor? –why is she shaking, make her stop shaking.

—Please tell me she’s alright.

I was still pulling at her palms, thinking about how she had to wear gloves in craft class when we stitched flowers onto pillow covers because her hands were always sweaty, and she couldn’t pull needles through the cloth.

Everyone leave some space – stand back – she had such sweaty palms – we were both running, hit each other and fell – when did she fall, did you see her fall, Kannu was asking – somebody call her mother – what’s happening here? – she fell? – her mother, call her mother, she’s in the staff room – it was an accident, we didn’t see each other running – come on, get up, I was still saying to her.

Somewhere a woman was shrieking, what’s happened to my daughter?

Let the teachers through – where are they taking her? – ask her friends what happened – running? – who are those two girls crying?

— Everyone go to class, quickly. Go, start walking, a woman was saying firmly. Her blue dupatta had fallen off her shoulder when she stood up to watch them carry Pri away.

Kannu and I went to History class and read about the bronze dancing girl that they found at Mohenjo-daro, with her hand on her waist, and bangles till the top of her arm.

When I first dreamt of Pri, she was terrifying. We were in school and I could see Kannu running through the corridors away from us in a grey dress that billowed out behind her in the way that only dresses can fly at night when someone disappears into the trees, or stands at the top of a mountain in the wind. We were playing and Pri had found me, but she hadn’t caught me yet. I kept stepping back, arching my shoulders forward, and she would move towards me, smiling, stretching her arms and swiping at me with her cold hands. Her nails were as sharp as knives. I woke up. I was never sure if she caught me.

At school the next day, we played the same game before class. Kannu was telling me to run, run, to your left. Pri was trying to catch me and I was moving back. She was smiling, stepping forward, swiping at me in the way that cats try to grab things dangling above them, and I kept thinking about her nails. This time the bell rang and the game ended. When we sat next to each other in class, I could see that her nails were short.

On the day that Pri fell outside class, I realised that she had never had long nails because she always bit them. I spoke to her mother when I got home from school that day. We had just got a wireless phone at home, and I walked up and down our house, from my bed to the plants outside our door, nodding into the phone as though her mother was still talking to me, long after she had hung up. When I finally put the phone down, I went to look up the meaning of ‘mild concussion’, and my palms were warm and sweaty, almost like Pri’s butter hands.

I think we were nine when Pri, Kannu and I had stayed outside class one day after the bell had rung, and everyone was going home quickly because it looked like it was going to rain. We stood there long after everyone had left, and announced to each other that we were best friends. Some older boys were lingering at the staircase and watched us uncertainly, but we looked at each other, held our cold hands, and called ourselves the snorter friends because of the way we snorted when we laughed sometimes, and because it only happened when we laughed together. Then we ignored the boys, who by now were laughing at us as though they had never had best friends, jumped down the stairs, and went home.

Long before the three of us ever spoke, there were other girls. They talked much louder and much more than we ever did—Isha had a voice that was sure of itself no matter what she said, like the voices of doctors when they wore their stiff white coats. We were walking into the school building after lunch break when she slipped her hand into mine, pointed at the boy from our class in front of us and whispered, you know what I heard him say about how babies are made? I looked at her confused, until she said loudly, he’s really an idiot you know, I mean, who hasn’t heard about sex? We giggled, held each other’s hands tighter as her shoulder pushed mine and mine brushed hers, and I nodded, forgetting that I didn’t actually know what sex was.

Everyone liked Isha, except for Pri and the twins. I liked her because she knew everything there ever was to know, as though she was really much older than the seven year old girl we knew her as. I liked the way she would pull her hands out of her pockets when she told the boys to buzz off, as though she was ready to hit them if they wasted her time. When we grew older, the boys liked her because of the way her eyes narrowed when she smiled at them, and her braces seemed to make her mouth softer, but by now we hadn’t spoken for years, and I couldn’t agree with them.

When we were on the bus home from school, the twins would sit on either side of me, with Ria’s hand resting lightly on my shoulder, and I could feel it’s warmth through my shirt long after she had turned away from me. What does she say about us, Sahana would ask me, and Ria wouldn’t believe it when I said she really didn’t talk about them. Sahana’s smile would melt into the window, and her nose seemed to sharpen into a point when she turned away. Behind us the boys would be yelling at the bus driver to please stop at the bakery on the way home – do you have two bucks more, I want an egg puff – fuck, today was such a long day – I can’t believe we lost that football match – do you know what I heard today?

The twins would come home on some evenings if their parents were still at work. I think Amma and Appa preferred it if I spent my time with Isha, but they never said anything; adults just seemed to have a way of emanating disapproval that lingered around our clothes like cigarette smoke.

At home one day, I showed Ria my collection of stones. I picked out a purple one that I had found in school and loved for the way it looked like a sharpened tooth. Then we closed the door to my room and lay in my bed under a thin yellow bedsheet, and whispered to each other. Did you hear about the skeleton in the lab? – what happened? – some seniors saw it moving its fingers in the lunch break – why were they in the lab in the lunch break? – that’s not the point! Her hot hand was in my shirt. Amma was reading in the hall. Appa was fixing a tap in the kitchen. We were now whispering about library class – the boys took out some book without telling anyone – they’ll get caught – you’re such a spoil sport – and then my hand touched her stomach, and her hands seemed to get colder as they moved upwards, and the tips of her fingers felt as though she was holding the stone I had showed her against my skin. Her sister had taken my cycle out even though she seemed too small for it.

When I was putting away the stones that I had shown Ria after the twins left that evening, I realised that the purple stone wasn’t there anymore. They never came home again and changed schools at the end of the year. This was the only thing I never told Isha. But then we stopped talking entirely, and now I can’t remember why.

During lunch break one day, Pri, Kannu and I found some of the boys from our class near the well in school, huddled around a torn sheet of paper. Pri always said they were talking loudly so that we heard them. Who wrote this – they’ve disguised their handwriting well – we should tell the girls about this – we’ll find out who did it, they won’t have to feel scared. When they saw us watching them, they gave us the torn sheet of paper with a list of names of some of the girls in our class – I promise we’ll find out which boys did it, don’t worry you three, they said. We must have looked confused because the boys whispered; it’s a list of the most kissable girls in class. We found our names on the top of the list. I began to laugh before anyone said anything, and Pri grinned as she crumpled the sheet in her sweaty hands and threw it into the well. Kannu stuck her tongue out at the boys and pulled us away saying, stupid plans aren’t going to make us like you, you guys.

Pri moved to Bangalore at the end of that year, just when we turned twelve. We spent a night in her house before she left, and her sister rolled her eyes at us when we turned off the lights to play dark room. At night, we lay under Pri’s blanket in her narrow bed. When we were trying not to cry, she called me lambudin because I was the tallest among the three of us, and Kannu and I whispered ‘footloose’ into her ear for good luck, like we always did when we played kho kho. We held hands again, and this time Pri’s palms were dry, and Kannu’s weren’t as rough as they used to be. I think mine were sweaty.

When Amma died, Pri came back to visit. That was the first time the three of us met after she left, and I don’t think we’ve been together too many times after. We went for a walk around my house, and I told them I didn’t like that people knew what had happened to Amma. Pri said that there was nothing I could do about it, and Kannu held my hand. Then we laughed about the day Pri had a concussion and forgot what she had eaten for breakfast.

Kannu and I stayed together in school, and by the time we were fifteen, I had stayed in her house enough times for her mother to start talking to me in Tamil. When Appa went out of town on work, we would come home together from school and lie on her bed with our legs knotted into each other’s, and at night, I would insist that sleeping on two bean bags was more comfortable than sleeping on her bed. Her mother knew about my then boyfriend but pretended she didn’t, and when she found out about Kannu’s boyfriend later, she shouted at her in a way that people shout only when they’re more hurt than angry, before asking me if I’d like corn fried rice for dinner. She put her hand on my shoulder before she left the room, and I knew then where Kannu got her rough hands from.

When Kannu decided to take up dance and Appa was out of town, I would sit on the wooden floor in her class and watch her. She would tie her dupatta tightly around her waist and bend in aramandi, and I would hear her hitting her feet against the floor purposefully, harder than the girls around her. On our way home she would sometimes repeat the mudras and I would watch her fingers bend more lightly than her legs and feet. It was like we were in art class again, sitting in the narrow room at the back of a house, holding our brushes so tightly that it was hard to paint, erasing so much that our paper tore. We would whisper Gamboge Hue and Prussian Blue to each other, unsure of how to pronounce the names, and fascinated that they were not just called yellow and blue. Sometimes we’d flip through each other’s book and point out the pictures we liked best –the colours are perfectly melted into each other in this one – that lotus looks so symmetrical – I can never draw faces, I always get their noses wrong.

I got into boarding school, and Kannu was on the waiting list. She joined a girl’s school in Hyderabad instead, and Pri stayed in Bangalore. When Kannu began to straighten her hair and bend her long fingers to put on mascara, Pri and I teased her. We sent each other letters full of exclamation marks and told each other we missed being together, back when things weren’t complicated, and we lived close by. Pri told us about the first time she drank, and Kannu told us she had quit dance class and was secretly studying for the entrance exam to the National Institute of Design, when her father wanted her to do commerce. I kept thinking of how her fingers wouldn’t bend into mudras anymore.

Pri sent me a photo frame for my birthday with a Post It that said it was for a picture of the three of us, but we don’t have pictures together, and it’s still empty.

Now we leave each other texts, and our hands have become quickly moving fingers across a phone screen. The problem with holidays, I say to them when we are in different cities, is that there’s too much time that goes by too slowly, as though it was all being pulled back, and up, and down, and around like puppet strings.

Kannu will say she agrees with me. I can imagine her rubbing cream onto her arms before she types this.

Pri will say, guys, give me advice, and then forget to ask us anything.

You know, maybe summers seem longer because you’re back home, Pri will say to me. I can imagine her flipping through her medicine textbook, and I’ll smile at how she’s going to be a doctor with sweaty palms, and not the archer she used to talk about in school.

I’ll say, no, it’s because this summer is stiller and hotter than other summers.

Neither of them will respond.

Then I’ll say I’d have discovered the city that I was now sitting in the corner of, if it had just been another season. Not the rains, because that would have been inconvenient, and not winter because I didn’t like the cold, but just something in between.

You two just come to meet me, Kannu will say.

Circles

Sometimes I sit in my room and pretend that I can’t hear my grandmother talking. From where I sit, I can see she looks worried, but she’s always thinking about the same five things, as though there’s a list in her head with questions she has forgotten to strike out. I can see her sitting at the dining table even as I lie in bed and look into my book. She’s fanning herself with a cardboard sheet, and there’s a thin white towel stretching around to the back of her neck and to her stomach because summer has begun early this year. Sometimes I peer into my books and try to look serious, but she keeps talking.

In the evening, she likes the curtains to be closed. She sees it becoming dark by five-thirty, when I can still see the sun outside my window, and hear the men from the shop downstairs laughing loudly over cigarettes. The house gets dark with the curtains closed.

Hogi curtain haakthiya, she says.

I’ll draw them, haakthini, one minute.

I can’t draw them, she says. Yeno, it always gets stuck nanna kaiyalli.

One nimsha, hogthini.

Our dog is asleep on the floor next to my bed. Banja, Banja, Banja, she calls him. He doesn’t open his eyes. Banja, Banja, she says again.

Malagidane, Dodda.

Three medicines I have to take at night, alva? she asks.

Yes. I’ll give them to you after dinner.

I have three pages before I finish the chapter.

Yella marthogtha idni. Confuse aagathe, maddu jothe.

Naan kodthini, Dodda.

I want to tell her that everyone forgets.

I’ve read her prescription enough times to know which medicines to give her. She has to have Atorva for her cholesterol for three months, Ciplar for her high blood pressure, and Sodamint for her stomach, every night after dinner. She needs to eat less chicken and more rice. She doesn’t take sugar in her tea anymore, and she has stopped eating golibaje because it’s too oily.

Bejaar aagodu, she says.

I look at her and nod.

When my aunt is out of town, my grandmother and I watch Kannada serials together. Usually, my aunt sits with her—Dodda doesn’t like sitting alone—and my aunt watches Desperate Housewives on her laptop with big red headphones. She thinks it’s good for Dodda to sit in the hall and watch serials and be distracted, because otherwise she’ll always be sitting at the dining table worrying that neighbours can look through our windows, or lying down in her room with her hand next to the bell we’ve given her so that she can call us if she needs help.

She points out all the saris that she likes when she watches her serials. There’s a blue one, and a shiny pink one that she talks about again and again, every time the women wearing them appear. I don’t like them. Then she points out women who she thinks look pretty, with the same smile that she has when she talks about Virat Kohli.

We are watching Gowri stand on a metal stool under the fan and tie her mother’s green sari around it. She wants to hang herself because her husband has divorced her for another woman who prays less, speaks English, and wears long dresses. I’m waiting for Dodda to say something. Gowri falls off the stool, the sari tears, and the fan crashes down next to her. She’s alive. Dodda wonders why my aunt hasn’t called.

But now the lights need to be turned on and the curtains need to be drawn.

Are you studying? she asks.

Haan.

Ayyo, odu, odu, she says.

Katthalu ide. The lights need to be turned on. Where’s Suresh? she asks a few minutes later.

Haakthini, one nimsha.

Illa, neenu odu, she tells me, Suresh will close them and turn the lights on.

Haan.

Suresh yelli? He’s never at home. Yeshtu kudithane. Yeshtu thinthane sa, she says. Look at his wife, avara henthina seere nodidhiya?

Haan, Dodda.

My grandmother wears the same five saris with mismatched blouses that have become too loose for her. Sometimes she comes to my room, stands in front of my mirror, and says, thumba bachhidini alva? and I say yes, she has lost weight. I don’t tell her that this is probably better for her knees and varicose veins. She has decided to stop colouring her hair black. I used to help her do this, but now she doesn’t notice that her hair is grey. Today she is wearing the purple sari that I always imagine her in when I think of her.

Banja, Banja, she calls again.

Malagidane.

Ban-ja, Banja. Where is Ananya? she asks.

When I leave for college early and my aunt has gone for her morning walk, Dodda is left alone with Banja. Three years ago, she would wake up and make me bournvita and dosas for breakfast, until one day when she didn’t because she was just too tired. I began to eat cereal or sandwiches and stopped drinking milk.

We got Banja almost two years ago, and Dodda was angry. My aunt and I told her that he was a birthday gift, so we couldn’t possibly give him away. She was angrier when she saw him sleep on our beds, and run around the house with a pillow in his mouth, or tear up newspapers and eat our food. But one day, I left for college early, and my aunt told me that when she came home from her walk, she could hear Dodda talking to Banja through her closed door because he was whining. Yaan ulle atha, she would say to him. After this, she began to say that they are similar, and that all they do is to eat and sleep.

Raathri muru, belige muru maddu, alva? she asks.

Houdu. I’m at home. I’ll give them to you.

It would be good if the curtains were drawn. Everyone can look inside, she says.

Haakthini, one minute. I’ll draw the curtains and turn on the lights, one nimsha.

I’ve almost reached the end of the chapter.

Curtain haakbeku. Everyone from outside can see, she is saying.

Innu belaku ide, yenu kaansalla. There is too much sunlight for anybody to look inside.

Curtain haakidre oledittu, she says again.

I leave the book on my bed and get up. The curtains move easily and the room is now unhappy and dull. She calls me back quickly because she’s sure that Banja will jump up onto the bed and begin to chew my book. He hasn’t done this since he was a puppy. Then she asks me when my father’s going to come to Bangalore, and tells me that sometimes he behaves just like her husband did.

My favourite story about Dodda is of when she was fourteen. She says she would stand with her sisters at the entrance to their house in the village, pretending they couldn’t hear their mother calling them. They would watch people walking by until it was time for their father to come home. He didn’t like to see them standing at the gate—Nimge yenu kelsa untu illi? he would ask. I wonder what he was afraid of. I imagine my grandmother standing at a little gate with her sisters, like the gate that every old movie has—the gate that will be opened slowly before every letter arrives, a son returns home, or there is news that somebody has died. Dodda likes to tell me that she was always heavier than the girls in her class, that she would play throwball in school, and that when they were young, one of her sister’s was particularly beautiful.

Three medicines at night, alva? she asks when I’m in the hall.

Haan.

Neenu kodthiya? she asks, ivaga neene doctor. She smiles.

Haan, I’ll give the medicines to you after dinner.

Yeshtu bislu alva? she says, wiping her neck with the towel.

I turn on the fan above the dining table.

Oduta idiya? she asks again.

Haan.

Naan idre ninege disturb aagathe alva? Maathadtha irthini, she says.

Illa, Dodda. Talk, talk. I’m listening.

At night, when my aunt isn’t in town, Dodda eats early and goes to sleep by eight. These are the only days when she doesn’t say that she’s thinking of my father. I give her the three medicines she has to take—one green, one white, and one that gets stuck in her throat. Then she goes to her room. I do everything that my aunt does—I turn on her two small night lights, and open out her bedsheet. She tells me to stand aside as she raises her legs because she doesn’t want me to see them, and lies down slowly. I pull the bedsheet to cover her swollen feet. Next to her pillow, I see the cardboard she uses to fan herself. Belige muru maddu, ratri muru maddu, she has written in a corner.

Sometimes, when I’m leaving the room, she cries. She says bejaar aagodu, and asks me to turn off the lights and close the door.

Amma,

Amma, I can’t write any more. I want to, I really want to, but nothing is coming to me in the way that it used to, in that sudden crash around my ears and shoulders, and in my teeth. Sometimes I think it will come back to me; that I should just be patient, waiting, sitting, sighing, and then the story will present itself, neatly wrapped in blue gift paper with golden stars, and with that same sudden crash of appearance. But I’ve waited and waited, and it hasn’t. I haven’t written.

Amma, you had hair that felt like rope. It never fell on your shoulders and across your back in the clean, light way that hair falls after a visit to the parlour, but it hit your shoulders in the angry way that eggs crack open into a whipping bowl with onions and chilly powder. Sometimes it was the brown of dark chocolate in the sun, and at home it was the dull black of hair left to itself and our white lights.

Will you sit straight, you’d say to me.

I am.

Stop squirming, you’d say.

I could feel the comb getting caught in the knotted hair at my neck. Amma, you had hair that wouldn’t slip through my fingers.

I’m not moving. I was like a worm in the rain that the boys in school would pick up with sticks.

You can never sit still, you’d say.

Then you’d give up on the knot. You would plait my hair and tuck the knot in somewhere it couldn’t be seen.

I can. Appa’s tickling my feet.

Your hands would move quickly. You would move your left hand first and then right, and then left, and right again, again, and once more, and again. I could see the oil on your hands when you had finished.

Amma, I found your will when you weren’t at home. I was searching for a key in the drawer where you kept your mother’s silver earrings hidden between other keys, but that day I found some documents that looked official in the way that everything printed on white sheets can look important. It must have been a holiday. Appa was with you in the hospital.

I took out your will and read it. I put it back in your drawer before you came home. You left me your mother’s jewellery, and your money went to Appa to keep for my education.

You wrote me letters for after you were gone. I found them by accident. I always found your secrets by accident, really. You told me about your parents. In one, you wrote that you had found my diary that I kept hidden in the red cloth bag with Christmas decorations, and couldn’t help reading the few lines I had written about you. I didn’t have to relook at my diary to remember those lines. I had been worried that you were going to die. You told me that when you were my age, you had stood posting letters at one of the red post boxes near your house, crying, because your father had been paralysed and wouldn’t walk again. You didn’t have to say anything after this. We must have been the same girls, except you learnt to play the violin, and I joined you for music class.

Sometimes I wonder what you were like when you were twenty.

Amma, I want to be alone. I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be without always having to explain myself. I don’t care about some people. I care about others quietly, openly. People are always taking up space, demanding space, drawing and redrawing my lines, and coming too close or going too far. Invariably they’re men.

I want to sit in a coffee shop where everyone has learnt to expect me on this day and this time, with this coffee, and that seat by the window. The window must be large, wooden, and I must be able to look out and sigh into it, and outside the window I will watch the sigh go, carried by the wind, and wonder who’ll catch it like they catch a yawn. Sometimes it’s a happy sigh.

I want to sit in this coffee shop and read. I want to laugh with the words, and run my hand through my hair and think I look beautiful and mysterious, because it’s okay to think that sometimes. Amma, I want to read and be happy, and know that it will change me in a way that no person has ever been able to change me. Sometimes, I want to smile into the sun outside the large wooden window with a book turned to page 132, and decide I will write today. Then I’ll turn on my laptop and open a Word document, change the font to Times New Roman size 11, and touch the keyboard lightly, each key becoming the other key because in my head I see words and a little girl crying.

Amma, when you wrote me stories in the banana fibre notebook we bought at Pondicherry in the little shop that sold handmade paper, did you think of making your characters boys, and then decide that there are enough stories about them anyway? I want to tell stories of girls and it will be more real and more honest, and make me happier, because she is the girl I used to be, the girl I am, the girl and woman I want to be, the woman my aunt makes me be, and my father makes me be and wants me to be, and my memory of you makes me be. I want to write, sitting in the middle of all my space, my room, and the new city that I’m beginning to walk through, crawl through, run through, sit through, and a city that walks, and runs, and sits all around me.

Soon after the second time your cancer came and went, Amma, you had curly hair that was coloured brown, and I could see the grey near the roots. They weren’t the neat curls, like hair that had been tightly wound around a pencil and then left loose, but your hair curled around itself like telephone wires. In school, by the time I grew my hair out and turned fifteen, my friends would ask me if I curled my hair. I had tamer telephone wire curls that they would pull, stretch out, and let go, laughing when they coiled back into themselves. I would think of you.

That second time with the cancer, I hadn’t known what was happening, and I was embarrassed that you wore a cloth around your head, because nobody else’s mother did this. I didn’t know the cancer and chemotherapy as cancer and chemotherapy; I knew them as days in the month that I spent in the hospital waiting room with Appa after school, until you came out tired in the late evening and hugged me lightly. In the car, I would do most of the talking on the way home.

When I was home last summer, I was looking through your clothes to find something of yours that would fit right on my shoulders. I lifted out piles of clothes that perhaps we should have given away like other people do when someone has died, but we didn’t. Some of your friends stayed home on the morning of your cremation, and they tried to get me to stay home too. That morning I had my first ride in a vehicle with a siren. I wondered why they had turned on the siren, because there was no emergency, and there was nothing to be done quickly. When we came home, the house was still full of people, but the curtains and sheets, and pillow covers had all been changed. Your room now had pale pink curtains, and the hall had white ones. Your sheets were blue.

I don’t remember why we didn’t give your clothes away. Perhaps I told Appa that I’d wear your clothes one day, or maybe Appa couldn’t do it himself, or he didn’t know who to give them to. I remember you in each of these clothes every time I look through them; I remember which kurtas you wore with your green salwar, and which shirt you took on our trip to Uttaranchal. If we had given them away, it would have to have been to strangers.

But this summer, I found myself pulling out a cloth that had been folded in half. I can’t remember its colour. I opened it out, and saw your thick, rough hair from when it was wavy and only black. It looked like a wig. I wondered which time this was from, the first cancer, or the two times that it followed.

Amma, I have cut my hair in a way that has made my telephone wire curls disappear.

 

Yellowed

When my father falls ill, the corners of every room seem to become curves, and it is like our house is curling up into itself. From my bed room, I can hear him say that his sheets, which are the purple-red of cut beetroots, are beginning to look yellow, and the white light of his table lamp is the yellow of the lightbulbs in his room. I make him some hot water when he says this. He’ll say he could have made it for himself. If I’m in a good mood, I won’t reply. If I’m irritated, I’ll say that he didn’t, that he just sat on his bed and said everything looked yellow.

Pa doesn’t fall ill very often, but he expects to be taken care of when he does. I’d expect it too, but it’s different with him. He expects someone to turn off his fan in the morning, throw open his curtains and give him tea—in his blue glass with half a spoon of sugar stirred exactly three and a half times, so that some of it will go undissolved—and  to ask him how he’s feeling. Now, I can open the curtains and turn off the fan and all that, but I can’t keep making tea. On some days, I don’t want to wake up before he does. Instead, I ask him how he’s feeling every two hours. That’s about the only thing he’s satisfied with when he’s sick.

On those days, I’m supposed to go and water Pa’s plants. He also wants me to talk to them, because he always thinks the money plant’s leaves are turning yellow, and that it takes caring, calm voices to save them. I think he watches me from the windows, because he always knows when I haven’t asked them how they are, or what their day has been like. My mother used to like our plants too, but I don’t think she talked to them.

They would take turns to water the plants. We had a small red bucket in the bathroom next to the kitchen. They’d fill the bucket up to the brim, carry it across the house to the plants in the corridor outside our apartment, and pour a mug of water into all the big pots, and half a mug in the small ones. Pa wouldn’t fight with Ma like he fought with me, but he’d just tell her—they’ll be happier if you talk to them, he would say. He claims he could see a difference, but Ma and I saw none.

The day we bought the plants was a holiday. It must have been, because I didn’t like to miss school, and I went to the nursery with Ma and Pa. First we went out for lunch to Mainland China because we always go to Mainland China, and sat at the only round table in the middle of the square ones. We ate the same things we always do because Pa says it’s the safest thing to do in all these food places—sweet corn soup, no starters, Hakka noodles because Ma liked the name and I insisted, medium spicy Hunan chicken, and fried rice because Ma and Pa thought adults can’t eat noodles. It was a quiet lunch that day. On our way home, Ma said suddenly, why don’t we buy some plants, and Pa looked at her, looked at me, and looked back at the road. We’re going to go buy plants, Ma said again.

Back then, there was a nursery near our house. In the nursery, I insisted on picking the cacti because they were small and round and I would touch them slowly, in the cautious, fascinated way that every cactus makes you want to touch it, with the tips of your fingers. They came in small plastic pots, and the old man selling them told me they didn’t need too much water. I searched for a yellow cactus but didn’t find one. Ma wanted to buy trees even though we couldn’t possibly grow them anywhere, and Pa was strolling among the plants with broad red leaves and clear veins that I didn’t like, because I didn’t think they looked like plants.

In school, we’d have gardening classes that reminded me of being in the nursery. It’s one of those things that my friend’s today say would only happen in a hippie school like mine, but twenty of us would dig up mud in uneven patches and water the plants. Sometimes we would have to pull out weeds, right from the roots, or they would grow again, like when you cut off the tails of lizards In the first class, we all brought coconut shells, filled them with mud, and planted seeds in them. I took it home and watered it occasionally. It grew slowly; I drew a face on the shell with yellow paint to keep the plant happy. One day, our teacher asked us to bring a plant each for the large square of land around the Banyan tree in school. I took one of those red plants that Pa had liked to stare at in the nursery. It’s still around, in a corner.

The plants became less important to Pa and more important to me, when Ma fell ill. Pa didn’t fall ill during these months either, and that made me suspicious of all the other times he told me he thought he had a cold coming, or that his head hurt. The night Ma died, Pa and I half-sat, half-slept next to each other in the hall, waiting for the next morning. It was the summer, and Ma had died in the only room with the air conditioner. Pa and I couldn’t stay there that night. Ma’s sister didn’t sit with us either. She went into my room, closed the door, and I suppose she cried. She has a yellowing photograph of Ma on her table now, just like I do.

But Ma wasn’t like Pa when she fell ill. She would talk less, and we could see her grimace every time she moved to push a pillow into the small of her back. The house seemed to get flushed, like when you inhale steam to clear a blocked nose, and your cheeks turn out red when you emerge from under the towel. Pa would always make sure there was curd in the house, because it was one of the few things Ma still liked to eat. She also still liked eggs, but we could make it only with the whites because the doctor said the yolk was bad for her. The women from Ma’s office would always be at home—they would talk to her and run decisions by her like they used to do. When she was tired, I knew exactly how to help her lie down, lifting her feet off the floor slowly as she lowered herself onto the bed, and everyone else would sit around her.

When Pa and I woke up the night after Ma died, I went to water the plants. The woman from next door came and asked me how Ma was doing. I paused to bend down and pour water into a pot and told her calmly that she had died. She made a strange sound—like she was drawing in air noisily but hiccupped in the middle, and ran into her house. Ma never liked this woman; she had once barged into our house and yelled that Ma had married a horrible, short-tempered man. Inside our house another neighbour was saying to Pa, we didn’t even know she was sick, you should have told us, and I wanted to tell him he must’ve been blind not to notice how thin Ma had become, how her back would bend, and how she’d lost all her hair and wore a cloth around her head.

For weeks after, people would come home. After all the guests had come to say they were sorry and had gone back to where they came from, the Sundays became ours again. I asked Pa if he remembered how when Ma was around, we’d spend occasional Sundays sitting in the plant corridor, loosening the soil in each pot and removing the dry yellow leaves. He didn’t answer. Sometimes we’d shift a plant into another pot because it had grown too much; I’m surprised the few plants we didn’t touch survived their roots pushing at the heavy sides of their original clay pots. On other days, we’d rearrange the pots. My aunt in Bangalore has a gardener who comes and does all this for her. The gardener is scared of dogs, so we have to pull B by his red collar and sit in a room with him as scratches the door.

On the last of those Sundays, I had sat at the door to the house and watched Ma and Pa loosening the soil in a few of the pots. Smell a yellow rose, never; I’d rather walk on mud forever, I said aloud without thinking—Ma turned to me, and Pa paused, and he told me to go on. I wrote a poem that day.

Soon after, Ma had also decided to grow wheatgrass at home, for her platelet count. She would cut some leaves and make the green juice every morning. Then she would go to work, and on days that I didn’t have school, I would go with her. Park lane, the road was called, but it didn’t look as fancy as it sounds—it was a small office, where I would sit on the floor, pull out my paints, and mix new colours on sheets of paper. Ma worked at an NGO for handloom weavers, so there were always stacks of folded material lying everywhere—sometimes she would bring some home, and we would get clothes stitched for ourselves. Our tailor had a small shop on the road near Mainland China, so it was easy to get there. It tickled every time he used the green tape to measure my arms and waist. I now wear the yellow kurta Ma had got stitched for herself. It’s a little loose at the shoulders.

When I turned fourteen, Pa and I began to have fights about the plants, the same way we began to fight about how I failed physics, and talked on the phone too often. I would forget to water the plants—sometimes I would lie and tell him I had watered them earlier, and sometimes he’d take me outside, point to the mud in a pot, and tell me not to lie. I’d stare at the pot, and if I was irritated, I’d look back up at him and tell him I wasn’t lying. We wouldn’t talk for the rest of the evening. I think that’s where I got my habit of lying from; I’m good at making up details and keeping a straight face.

I don’t remember when Pa started to water the plants again. He waters them every morning; it’s part of his schedule before he leaves for work. But something has happened—he can’t remember exactly how much water to put in the pot next to the apartment door, and every day he puts too much—when we step out of the house, we see a large pool of slightly yellow water spreading outwards from the pot. Pa isn’t happy.

 

 

 

After the cremation

He has left his glasses on the table.

There are two photographs—
One from a trip to Bannerghatta that I say I remember.
I don’t.
We are watching monkeys.
In another
he is watching me come down a yellow slide.

He was old even fifteen years ago.

Amma said I was never stung by a bee.
But I’m telling you, it stung me
Ask him—
Drink coffee, take, Suma is saying.
His cupboard is full of books
Where are his clothes?
Remember when? Suma is asking me.
—We still haven’t given away Amma’s clothes either—

Do yoga.
But what about physical exercise?
He shakes his thumb at my answer:
Touch your toes and show me.
Drink coffee, Suma is saying.
I stand on my toes—
Uddha, he says,
surprised.
That day I stood on my toes
to look over the wall with the binoculars he brought me,
and see Golconda fort from my bedroom window.

Can I have these travel books of his?
More coffee? Suma is asking me.
There is a book about frogs on his cupboard.

—don’t worry, I’m fine, Rukmini aunty insists.