You Don’t Know What It Feels Like

Yesterday, drunk, Ana said again that if, somehow, one day, her memory began to dissolve and she started to ask for her mother, I was not to sit her down and say that I was sorry, so sorry, but her Ma was dead. We were on our fifth drink—of Old Monk, what else—lying by the window in our room past midnight, her head heavy on my shoulder, and Sasha at our feet. Mari and Imtiaz had fallen asleep in the hall, his arm across her stomach, their heads on either ends of Mari’s seal pillow. It had become an immovable idea with Ana that such a day would promptly arrive—a balloon string she held onto even when her fingers cramped and her palms got sweaty—and she insisted she wouldn’t have it.

The first time Ana had said this, she’d just returned from a trip to Hyderabad. She announced it through the bathroom door while I bathed, and when I came outside to talk about it, Ana ignored my questions, saying, instead, that she’d be a little late on her half of the rent because that man Roshan—she was never working with him again; he was a bad editor also—hadn’t paid her for that long feature on the Shivajinagar akhada yet. Later, Ana then said this in the middle of breakfast, while I cut onions for our eggs, and she minded the milk. When I looked up to say something, anything, she’d smiled slightly and begun to plait her hair, as if this was really our usual conversation, and she always plaited her hair; as though she was just normally telling me that she’d chipped her toenail. But yesterday, she’d said slowly, No di, just promise me, ya? Make me a coffee or something, whatever I’m allowed to drink then, and say airily, loosely, that Ma is at home in Hyderabad, busy with this or that, and we’d call her the next day.

When I murmured, Shh, Ana, you’re drunk, she’d looked up at me, slipped my hair behind my ear, and gone on—as though she was doing me a favour (and perhaps she was)—No Ai, really, imagine if I keep forgetting that detail over and over, and you had to talk to me about it again and again; that would be too much. I had wanted to ask Ana what she meant by too much, for whom? Instead, I, also drunk, bit on the edge of my lip and mumbled, What if I’m not around? What do you mean, not around, Ana then wanted to know, and though I hadn’t meant anything by it—I should have let it go—I said, pointedly, scratching around the edges of a swelling bite, Just, you know, what if I’m not around?

Here, Ana stood up, waited, as always, for the momentary grey blurring of her vision to pass, and climbed into bed. I stayed where I was, finishing my cigarette, trying to concentrate on the throbbing at the back of my head, and when Ana sniffed, I put it out and got in next to her. We knotted fingers, I smelt the cigarette-touched mint and cucumber smell of her hair, she cried, and we fell asleep.

Last month, when Ana was visiting Hyderabad, she’d call to say that she was permanently tired, not that she was doing something or anything, just tired. It was always a mid-morning phone call, after her father had left for work and before she bathed, and I could imagine her, lying on the floor of her room with her legs folded into odd angles, her phone lying next to her ear, and my voice on speakerphone. I’m floating, she’d sometimes tell me, like a slowly deflating balloon, really just waiting for a pinprick—Deliberate or unexpected, I’d want to know; Whatever, Ana would say, who cares—and by the time she was ready to hang up and start her day, my coffee (which I was drinking from her mug, it was supposed to be my mug), would be warm, with a layer of cream. I’d blow on it, thinking of Amma who’d pick it off with two fingers, like a loosened tooth, a stray hair in her rice, and then I’d announce unhelpfully to Ana, Just a little while more, ya, you’ll be home soon. Next, I’d hear her rearranging herself, gathering her legs at her knees, setting her buttered palms to the floor, and she’d say, Okay, talk soon, Aida. Still later, I’d send her photos of Sasha—asleep on the centre of our bed, ear bent, head resting on delicately crossed front legs; in the kitchen, waiting expectantly for curd rice; at the open window, standing guard against pigeons—and Ana would reply with a little red pulsing heart.

On other days, Ana would message me from a small rock on a hill of nothing down the road from her father’s house. I remembered it from a visit to Hyderabad some years ago—we were still in college then—and it was unremarkable, barely a hill, just some rocks and dead grass confettied with cigarettes and abandoned plastic, and a narrow, steeped path that smelt of beedis and weed at night. Ana said they all took turns to sit there—she and a couple of men she didn’t know—an assembly line of people waiting for twenty minutes alone every evening. At seven, just as Ana arrived, a man in a deep blue security guard uniform would put out his beedi, and every day she’d hear him say loudly, severely, Homework chesko, okay na, into his phone, as he picked his way down the hill to the main road. Later, just as Ana left, an older man would appear, followed closely by a stray puppy, both staggering through torn newspapers and half-eaten fruit by the light of his phone screen. I thought it was an odd place to sit—Barely private, in everybody’s way, I said—and here Ana clarified, I think it’s just about being alone you know, like for an evening break. Hmm, I’d responded, and sent her an irrelevant fluorescent green snake emoji to blunt the edges off what might have seemed to be a non-answer, to which Ana unexpectedly said, There aren’t any here, I don’t think, but I’m most likely wrong. Ana in Hyderabad was not Ana in Bangalore—she was quieter, more securely suspended by ropes in her head—until she met Aman, and the ropes seemed to snap.

 

A week before she returned to Bangalore, Ana called to say she had jumped the wall around her father’s apartment into the hospital compound next door. It was not very high: when nobody was looking, Ana said she’d climbed onto a large pot with a dying hibiscus, pulling herself up onto their shared wall and easing herself off it, like cake from a baking tray. I’d assumed she’d wanted to eat at the hospital canteen—the one for its students, where they played raucous Antakshari at midnight—but Ana quickly dismissed this, muttering, No, no, and something about a post-lunch walk. Immediately, I was given a tour: Ana wandering around as though she was a medical student, her feet slapping against what she called the precarious surety of medical school; Ana walking through the canteen past students copying notes, overflowing notes; Ana stumbling through a half-demolished archway at the entrance to the oncology block; Ana climbing up an old metal staircase to the top of the oncology building. Did you get caught, is this where the story’s going, I’d wanted to know, and here Ana declared dismissively, What’s there to get caught, Ai, chhach, you can be so smugly virtuous sometimes.

That afternoon, Ana had reached the top of the building breathless. She climbed the last flight of stairs to Karan Johar’s cheerfully needling voice advising a radio caller on how much jealousy was too much jealousy in love—Saying things like, ‘Ishq kameena hota hai, aur uss se bhi kameena hota hai jealousy,’ Ana said laughing—and that’s how she found Aman, a packet of masala Hot Chips in one hand, and a radio in the other. He was listening so intently, Ana giggled, he didn’t even notice I was there; not until I asked if he was having some big love issue, and he jumped. I thought the whole situation sounded painfully awkward—two strangers on a terrace, one striding thoughtlessly into the other’s chosen square of aloneness (even announcing herself with a teasing question, not a polite cough)—but No, no, Ana said, they were friends immediately; friend-like, at least, Aman with his little radio, and Ana with her Gold Flake Lights. The terrace, I was told, had a whole set-up: large dusty sheets had been spread out across the floor; each makeshift bed had a deflating browning air pillow and a thick bedsheet, the kind with animal prints; and one corner of the terrace was reserved for everyday odds and ends: unzipped duffel bags, clothes, tiffin boxes, portable stove cylinders—all enough for what Ana called a temporary life. And yes, Aman did have a love problem, he said later, not that it was Ana’s business or anything, but haan there was a girl he liked, little bit, from school. They used to talk and all, about yeh-woh, homework and movies vagera, but now Aman was here, living on the terrace of a hospital, school attendance bhad mein, and this girl, he’d heard, was now spending all her time with their ilaaka’s biggest loafer. You won’t get any solutions from this KJ, haan, Ana said she’d told him—KJ, I’d laughed, like he’s your best friend—but immediately, Aman had wanted to know woh relationship mein thi kya, and declared that Ana didn’t understand the first thing about love because she wasn’t, and had never been.

So, they smoked Ana’s cigarettes and talked, while others who lived on the terrace came and went. I instantly disapproved—He must be sixteen or something, Ana, I said, but of course, she didn’t think it mattered—It’s not like I introduced him to them, she muttered, he’s a seasoned smoker, I could tell; until Aman’s brother appeared with a parcel of punugulu, and a flask of tea. Come meet Ammi kal, Zaheer had said to Aman before he noticed Ana, don’t be a chutiya about this, haan; that day she just didn’t recognise you because she had so much pain. First, there was silence. What did you then talk about, I wanted to know—I was curious, Ana spoke so easily to strangers—You know, this and that, she said, school, government hospitals, Aman’s good friend KJ, yeh-woh, as Aman would say, and I imagined them watching the sun turn yellow and orange over Hakeem Baba Dargah, cigarette smoke going up in waves, holding the heat of plastic tea cups in their palms.

 

The first time I heard Ana talk about Hyderabad, we were having dinner at Mari’s house. I’ve written it all down in my notebook—Bangalore, June 2013—Ana had called to insist I go with her, no question. We hadn’t known each other for very long before this, but, We’re not thirteen, it won’t be awkward, Ana had said, and of course, I mumbled, Yes, yes, definitely, yes. Ana, I then told Roy, made my tongue thicken—It’s how she looks at you, I said, as though she knows the inside of your eyelids, that all your socks have holes—and sitting at home in the middle of summer with Amma yelling, Aida, go make tea for your uncle, and my Ajji saying, Aida, curtain haakbeku, curtain haakthiya, curtain haakbeku, at five-thirty every evening, I became inexplicably worried that Ana would disappear if I said I couldn’t make it. That’ll say more about her than you, Roy had said, and I suppose he was right. But he hadn’t met Ana yet, so how would he know—she was like hot oil, and I was a single kaane fish.

The thing is, Ana had said that dinner, long after my Ma died, I thought it would all work out. There might have been a divorce; it would’ve been better than the shouting, the papaya-leaf bitterness at dinnertime—and Ana’s father would visit every fortnight. He’d see her on birthdays, and holidays, she’d said—I thought it sounded like an American TV show—until she was old enough to disappear on them both. And then: I don’t mean disappear out of their lives or anything, Ana clarified, looping her hair around her finger, no, that would be too dramatic—instead, she’d let the time they spent together trickle down to a steady drip, like the tap in her mother’s kitchen. It was the secret to happiness, Ana had insisted; I thought it would be better, you know, for everyone involved (and here Mari nodded seriously)—That we’d be nicer to each other if we were together so rarely, lounging in the warmth of this uncomplicated, vague happiness. Then, Hyderabad, Ana had said, it’s nose-drying heat and overpriced autos, would become about the peacocks in KBR Park, the cool, hidden corner of her mother’s terrace in the rain, the undemanding step of Abids’ book market on Sunday.

Perhaps I looked unconvinced. I was yet to realise how little Ana otherwise said about Hyderabad, or her parents—she never really talked about her mother outside of this story (and I never prodded either)—but conversations about her father dissolved easily too, like salt in water. By the time we moved into Sunny, I’d learnt that if I asked how her father was, Ana would say brightly, Good, busy I think, and sometimes, that would be that. Other times, she appeared to worry—Maybe I should visit him, she’d add; then, I want to, I really do, it just doesn’t happen you know, and always, there would be nowhere to go from here.

Then: Soon, Ana had said that dinner, her mother died—of cancer, and there was no divorce. Instead, she saw her father cry; they cried together; and the kitchen tap kept dripping, the walls began to peel, and Ana filed away this story for a dinnertime conversation with her favourite friends. Here, at this flourish, favourite friends, Ana had looked at me and smiled. And even Mari, who I didn’t know, who was watching me watch Ana from across the table—with my foot-tapping and nail-biting—must have known I was fried.

Some months later, and this is in my little notebook too—Bangalore, September 2013—I watched Ana tell Roy this story. By this time, I’d already begun to write down every detail that Ana mentioned about her parents: their court wedding, her mother’s love for Paula, the ghee rice her father ate every afternoon—and I did this secretly, as though each note would help me string parts of her together, into a tighter, more ordered, understandable story. That night, Ana had just returned from a trip to Hyderabad. We were halfway through a tower of Foster’s at Jimi’s. As always, Roy was rolling us all cigarettes, occasionally looking up to watch Ana do what she called a Mari-pretending-to-love-Star-Trek-for-Imtiaz imitation, while Mari and I laughed noisily. So, how was your trip to Hyderabad, Roy had asked when she had finished. And here, it seemed to me that Ana descended into her story immediately, readily, starting with the way her father had always demanded—his voice the snap of perfectly cold chocolate—to know why she absolutely had to brown the walls of their apartment with her fingers. That night, I watched Mari’s face, like mine, rearrange itself, her eyes gentler, head titled to a side; while again, Ana’s hands lifted into a world of their own, her voice soft like mul; as Roy bent his head, first nodding seriously, then smiling wistfully. Once again, I thought, immediately, of how strange it all was: it seemed to me that we were all caught in the middle of one spontaneous, elaborate, performance.

 

For five days, Ana visited Aman every morning. I couldn’t fully understand this—it seemed to me that until then, Ana had simply been confused in Hyderabad, trying hard to insert herself into rhythms that were either too slow or too fast for her—until now, suddenly, on an officially abandoned hospital terrace, she’d snapped, back straighter, feet firmer, into an easier pace. Ana spent her days sitting with Aman on his corner of the roof, playing him Shah Rukh Khan movies on her phone; in the second floor waiting room, by the water cooler, watching people pray to an overbearing Ganesha (He must have heard so much prayers na, Aman had said); at the visitor’s canteen, listening to families ask if somebody by-chance knew when so-and-so doctor would be on their rounds, their questions the persistent rumble of a sewing machine. Ana insisted that hospital communication was about using keywords or staying silent: to be able to swallow prepositions, grammar, context, and say, quickly, Building-entrance-dead-end-right-dead-end-left, when you were asked for directions to the blood bank; to shake your head when an old woman wanted to know, Discharge today? and mumble a quick, soft, Sorry, when she said, Us too no discharge; to look away when a young man asked the pharmacist again if, Please sir, but maybe did he know, would outside medical store be cheaper for this injection?

When Ana called me in the evening, she sounded steadier. It’s because I’ve become more tied-balloon than floating, she’d begin—first: Hyderabad unsettles me, she’d say, stories here always carve too close to the bone. Then, laughing: But the city feels lighter with Aman and his film reviews—we watched Kal No Na Ho, did I tell you, bulla, he called it; until later: I’m also writing, something-something, but it’s there. Here, invariably, I’d ask about Aman. He’s fine, Ana would say and immediately, I’d be given the highlights in a growing list of Aman Fast Facts: He played chess; his favourite movie was Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara; his father had disappeared; he liked physics, but his social studies teacher said he should write the Civils, you know, for his family and all. Every time, I’d have to ask Ana for more—nudging her towards what I then thought was the real story—But how’s his mother; has he met her yet; why won’t he meet her, Ana; why don’t you ask him to? and every time she’d tell me to relax, because yaar, it really wasn’t my business. I knew this. But, I’d say again, a short while later, He’ll regret it—Not necessarily, Ana would reply; It’ll drain his stomach when he’s older—You mean when she dies, but how do you know, Ana would demand; until one day, I insisted, Ana, seriously, listen to me, why don’t you ask him to meet her? And then, after a pause: Tell him you know what it feels like, he’ll care.

Again, Ana refused. It seemed to me that she didn’t even consider it—that instead, she saw a pattern of sense in the way that Aman waited for Zaheer’s daily evening updates about their mother: She’d slept all day, she was in pain, doctor said there was nothing new to tell, she’d asked for him also. I didn’t know where my own certainty over the right course of action came from—and I believed there was one; that everything about this situation was a straight line—but perhaps what I really wanted was to tear after Aman and Ana down the hairpin bends they’d laid around themselves. It bothered me that she agreed with him so easily—Ana in Hyderabad was not Ana in Bangalore—I was convinced it said something about her that I didn’t know; that Ana also spoke a language I couldn’t comprehend, her tongue hitting and sliding off the roof of her mouth with an alternating firmness and ease I couldn’t copy.

 

On the last day she spent with Aman, Ana called me up and put me on speakerphone. I wasn’t expecting it, but Aman immediately said he knew all about me; that they’d bought some mirchi bajjis, made some chai, and were now sitting on the hospital terrace, ready for an afternoon chat. He spoke with a melting familiarity—Ana had told him about our house, Sasha, Venu uncle at the chicken shop, Mari, Imtiaz, and Roy, and that like her, I too, wrote stories. First, Ana told us about the woman she’d been writing about—Big Madam, the old woman who ran the gas agency near our house—sitting hunched over gas connection forms, her white hair oiled and pulled back; her decisions the sudden burst of a Lakshmi bomb, refusing to sign any paper until the person approaching her had been sent off to bring one more Important Missing Document. In return, I told them about my father, that Amma had called to say that she’d had enough of his work hours, that maybe there was really nothing left between them except an old house and a grown daughter.

But mostly, I listened to Ana and Aman talk to each other—looking for the sounds of their secret language, the source of the sunny comfort with which they spoke—until suddenly, in the middle of Aman’s story about a fight he’d got into at school, Ana asked him, Accha, wait, so when are you going to see your Ammi again? There was momentary silence. I wondered, immediately, if I should cut our call, but I couldn’t. Instead, I imagined the scene in drawn-out slowness—clothes drying in the sun on the terrace floor next to a woman rolling chapatis for the evening; wisps of grey cigarette smoke; Ana and Aman on his makeshift bed, watching each other warily. Then: That’s not how life works, I heard Aman say quietly, rapidly, Ammi didn’t remember me. Anyway, you don’t know what it feels like; I know exactly what will happen—Zaheer might have some hope, but I don’t. Here, I waited for Ana to tell him about her mother—that he was wrong; she understood everything. Instead, she muttered, Okay then, and Aman too mumbled, Theek hai, and we sat in silence until he decided to tell us his mother’s favourite story: about a little girl who found that the door to the storeroom in her house actually led to another world. It’s like Narnia, I said—Like what? Aman had wanted to know, but he listened to me restlessly, until he insisted that bah, his Ammi’s story was better, no question.

When I considered calling Ana later that night, I remembered another entry in my notebook—from Bangalore, June 2019, the day we moved into Sunny, and Ana stuck two photographs of her mother above her table. They’re still here, on her side of the bed: in the first, her mother, smiling, is holding a camera, trying to get Ana—on her toes in a pale-yellow frock, and perhaps three years old—to stand still for a picture. Their arms are elastic: Ana’s are raised in the air, her left arm covering her face and her laugh (she must have been laughing); and her mother’s arms are stretching down to her, Ana who barely reached her thighs. In the second photograph, her mother is sitting on a bed in a darkening room in their house in Goa—before Ana was born—her elbow bent around the knee she has raised to her chest, her palm on her forehead. There isn’t much to see here; it’s the red of her salwar that catches the light, but here too, Ana’s mother is smiling. That afternoon, I had wanted to say something to Ana as she stuck them on the wall with Blu Tack—it had seemed like the right moment—perhaps that they had the same smile; Ana, twenty-four, and her mother of the photographs.

In the version of events I imagined, Ana would have turned to me and smiled again, her left cheek dipping into a familiar hollow, and said, I know, right? Then we would have sat down on what is now our bed, boxes of books and clothes still unpacked around us, Ana plunging feet first into a story about her mother, before she said softly, You don’t know what it feels like, Aida. Tell me, I would have nudged her, and then, we’d both drown in her stories as though there were rocks tied to our ankles, and we couldn’t, wouldn’t swim. But instead, Ana had simply looked at me and nodded before going back to arranging her table, her books to the right, her laptop to the left. In the end, that night, I sent her another photo of Sasha, and again, Ana replied with her usual, pulsing heart.

London, Honestly

Now that I’ve told everybody,
My father, his sister, her daughter, their friends, my friends,
that London,
was not my favourite,

How do I explain
that I want to go back there,
and walk

Past Northumberland Arms, where I met James
and we sang Billie Jean
as he showed me his wedding ring,
tattooed onto his finger
– they don’t allow rings in prison –

And The Prince Albert café, where a dachshund
appeared suddenly in mid-December
standing so still around the corner,
that every passer-by jumped
– it was a fake dog –

 Outside The Queen’s Head, where I first saw the flyer
the one I didn’t stop to read, although
its title (I can’t forget it) said,
An Invitation to See Things Differently
– I was thinking, fuck being in love

Then, past King of Falafel, where I sat on the footpath at 2 am
wondering, what am I doing here,
and my stomach wrung itself,
before spreading out to dry inside me
– he said go back, we are at boiling point, to her, I will bash your face in

Finally, glancing at Skoob, where I bought Sid’s birthday book
maybe you’ve heard of it,
Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles
a joke (but not really)
– I should have kept it –

Until I reach university, where at security, Ezekiel asked,
first: How are you doing today,
at lunch: How many words have you written?
Then, by 5 pm: You can take a ten-minute break
– (When) will I finish this –

Because now, when I sit down to write, tucking away my feet, I realise,
I can never write an honest London Piece
and it helps to pretend
I can go back there and change this.

Joan Didion and the Instagram Notebook

Sometimes, I think of Joan Didion when I use Instagram.

I always remember her words from On Keeping a Notebook – ‘it all comes back’ – and I’m often terrified. They’re heavy, the kind that Didion has poured into my feet so quietly, steadily, that it’s difficult to move. It’s easy to imagine her, sitting in a little bar across from a certain Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Wilmington, Delaware (not that I know what it looks like), scribbling into a notebook about ‘that woman Estelle’, while actually watching the woman in the plaid silk dress talking to a cat lying in a patch of sunlight. She writes about a familiar impulse: like the need to type a note on Keep while you walk to university, crossing the road at The Queen’s Head – London pavement flyer, An invitation to see things differently. Winter.

When a little later, Didion describes her notes as ‘bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage’, I can suddenly move again. I’ve also always kept a notebook; an invitation to see things differently – what I really meant was, I saw him yesterday, we sat outside the bar asking each other how much we’d written, we’ll see each other again today; there should be an on-off switch for this business of one-sided love.

My friends have often told me that I was late to the Instagram party. My first post, and I thought about it for a long time, was of my aunt’s dog Banja, and a cup of tea. Like every other morning, we are on the balcony at home in Bangalore. It’s early, and my tea is on a ledge, and you can see Banja looking up at something through the glass of an open window. The photograph is obviously (badly) edited. It’s captioned ‘Windows #1, Morning face’, and has 29 likes and 13 comments – mostly about how I’m finally on Insta – but my favourite, from a close friend: I knew your first post would be Banja or coffee or both.

I replied, and I’m quite sure I was grinning while I typed it, So well you know me. I meant it.

Except, and maybe it really doesn’t matter, I’m drinking tea and not coffee. But everyone knew then that I lived with my aunt, always talked about our (her) dog, and drank too much coffee, so I didn’t correct him – I mean, he knew my first photograph would be of Banja, or coffee, or both.

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about my relationship with Instagram. I’ve always been curious about how my friends use – and curate themselves – on it; I skim through their planned, choreographed photographs; the sudden, spur of the moment ones; their odd photographs of things only they’ve noticed. Then, sometimes, in the slow hour between late morning and lunchtime, I scroll through the photographs I’ve uploaded to Instagram. As of today, there are eighty of them, shifting between Hyderabad (home, where I grew up), Bangalore (home, where I worked and went to college), and London (home? where I went to university). I’ve added them since the end of September 2016 in sputtering starts and stops – the most recent are of Banja staring at me while I eat (caption: Chikki); the smudged view of Bangalore from a train window (caption: Sometimes it makes me so happy to know I’ll always, always come back here); the narrow, dusty reading room at home in Hyderabad that I used to paint in (caption: Renato Rosaldo, The Day of Shelly’s Death, followed too quickly by Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers ) – and I wonder what people see. I’m always wondering what people see.

Then, more and more, I think I’ve got it all wrong.

That in my permanently online condition of seeing and being seen; in the midst of what feels like the pointed sharpness of Twitter, and the expanding shapelessness of Facebook – neither of whose contours I’ve ever fully settled into – it’s my changing relationship with Instagram that’s constantly reminded me of my writing, and of my quiet. Often, I’m also, as Ariel Lewis writes, a ‘virtual wallflower, lurking on the edges of chatter’ – much like offline, where some people insist that I’m too quiet; where, when there’s a lull in conversation, friends from school turn to me, patronising, gracious, teasing, It’s okay, you can say what you’re thinking; in college, suspicious, It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for; in class, my teachers, She writes well, but she won’t speak; in all relationships, frustrated, I need to know what you’re thinking; at home, hurt, Are you always like this, or only with me? I’ve often wondered who I want them to see – these 344 followers, three-fourth of whom I haven’t spoken to in months, and at least half in years – until I tell myself that I should stop, that this is a rabbit hole, and notice that the self-absorbed spiral of this exercise makes me breathe deeply, bite my lips, crack my fingers with my thumbs.

But, quite vainly, I also know the answer, and this is where I come to Didion again – sometimes I want to say, look, here it is, here is a 23-year-old-trying-to-write-person-who-used-to-be-a-reporter-and-doesn’t-know-if-she-can-(or-wants-to)-be-one-again – except, how do you say such a thing aloud? What happened to being quiet, self-effacing, and knowing, as Didion writes, ‘that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves’? Didion, I text my friend V, Didion’s helping me make sense of Instagram.

 

Here is a different scene. One of the many times we fought, and I’m glad we’ve never spoken to each other with the same bitterness since, we were sixteen, and I was home from boarding school for the holidays. My friend D was on the floor of my room, lying on her stomach and flipping through something I’d written in my circular, self-consciously good-girl handwriting for English class – something vaguely about me, my mother, my mother’s mother, and this girl and her mother – until she asked me, her words bristling as though they’d slipped into hot oil, So that’s it? We’re all going to keep being someone in your stories, then?

I remember an elastic silence stretching between us. I registered, for a brief moment, in the way that people tend to do in situations of cementing tension, a group of women singing happy birthday in the hospital canteen outside my window – until D, gesturing at my papers, muttered, the cold of her voice now settling into the bends of my ear canal, This never happened either. Obviously, I said, neither my mother, nor my grandmother were alive, and then, ten minutes later – You can’t make up things about real, living people, she declared, I don’t care if you call it fiction – and left.

D doesn’t remember this fight. But there’s a line in one of my notebooks, perhaps from a few months later, scribbled in the same circular, good-girl handwriting, You were born in a zoo (x2), with lions and tigers and monkeys like you, happy birthday to you – hostel, 2012. I remember the night. It was M’s birthday, and her roommates had made her a cake out of warm milk and crushed Hide-n-Seek biscuits; I was in the next room, there were torchlights, and they were singing this zoo version of happy birthday in hushed voices. Perhaps I wrote it down because it all came back: the cold silence that spread between us before D left – the rapid descent of my stomach to the floor because I thought this was it, our final fight; my confusion; the sharp sting of her words, ‘living people’ – expanding and folding, expanding and folding, and expanding and folding over itself. It happened, I now tell D, I’m sure it happened, but so what if it did, she wants to know.

As is often the case with my explanations, I don’t have a coherent answer; I only want to remember the shuffle of papers, the scraping of her slippers on the floor, the heat of her words at boiling point. And Didion writes of this moment precisely – first, ‘instead I tell what some would call lies’, and then, ‘how it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook’ – and I think, how it felt to me, that is getting closer to the truth of our fight that D doesn’t remember, and I will write about; that might or might not have happened, because it’s her memory against mine. Then, from the last month, there’s another note, Get lost, this isn’t your room, get out – three-year-old boy in a Spiderman t-shirt to aunt he doesn’t remember, and something else comes back. We are in Bangalore visiting my father’s cousins, and the point of this entry is really the boy’s father, looking straight at me while I sit quietly in a corner smiling at his son, saying loudly to anybody who will listen, be careful what you say around her, or she’ll write about you. It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for. Suddenly, I’m wondering what he imagines – she’s going to write about this too, she’s locking it away in the well-oiled filing cabinet of her brain in the drawer labelled ‘family’ – and I think of D, who first yelled, So that’s it? We’re all going to keep being someone in your stories, then?

 

I bought my second, tearing copy of Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 2014, when I lived in Bangalore. I found it at a second-hand bookshop, and only picked it up because its previous owner’s handwriting looked crushingly like my mother’s. They’d pencilled in something across the margins of nearly every page in the book – ‘talks to audience’, ‘a lot of feelings’, ‘typical mother’, ‘things are dying’ – and since I returned often to On Keeping a Notebook, I regularly re-read their terse observations. Where Didion wrote of her notebook, ‘Remember what it is to be me: that is always the point’, the previous owner had underlined and paraphrased, curving their f’s and r’s like my mother would have, ‘The disclosure is made to support the actual idea of the essay: although her notebook consists of random observations of facts and people, it’s actual subject is herself’.

And so, the actual idea of this essay, and perhaps here, Didion would disagree: Writing – my notebook was how I came to writing – trying to loosen the now tenuous link between my Instagram and writing. After all, it all comes back. The story I wrote some months ago – about two young women who move into an apartment together to write – is tinted by the memory of an old notebook entry, ‘They said we would get divorced in a year’ – two writers, still married in 2016 – a line I wrote down because I was 21, and thought I needed to remember what it felt like to want that kind of love. It is also tinted by a memory saved on Instagram: a photograph of my former office balcony on a Saturday, when the three of us sat down for an afternoon break, and they told me about their wedding.

But now, and it’s louder than before, I can hear my quiet. For the longest time, I wasn’t on Instagram. And then suddenly I was, posting nine photographs – of Banja, of another dog called Biscuit, and the dusty, deep green of trees that leaned into my office balcony – in fifteen days. Then there were sixteen posts over the next month, which quickly became seven, then six, and three, until I was skipping the months when I began to feel irretrievably unhappy. Here is an (approximate) inventory: there are four selfies; fourteen animals – eight of Banja, four of other stray dogs, two of skinny kittens I vaguely remember; one scarecrow I’d made in a park with friends; one bunch of helium balloons, the largest shaped like Winnie-the-Pooh; two protests in Bangalore at Town Hall, one of which I reported on; eighteen in London – my favourite seven of places I used to read at, captioned with the titles of books I’d read there; two others of snow, whose seeping, soaking cold I saw and felt for the first time. Then there are five posts of my friends – like the one of S unhappily doing yoga, one at breakfast with Z and S, one of (another) S pretending to fly; three of mornings without the keys to my former office; two from a trip to Silchar where my father and I got lost in the rain; one of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment; six of swirling, sunlit windows, thoughtfully captioned, ‘Windows #1’, ‘Windows #2’, ‘Windows #6’.

And yet, what it doesn’t say: the now-archived photograph of a framed picture of my mother reminds me of the first time I spoke to my father about her death. I had messaged him from a bench outside university in London around the tenth anniversary of her death to say that I was thinking of him, and her, and heard the unexpected gentleness in his voice when he called me. The photograph of the roads outside my student accommodation covered in a layer of snow also brings it all back – an initial giddy happiness, and my father asking me on our weekly Sunday-morning call, What did the snow feel like? They will, I imagine, appear in some story I write many years later.

As of today, my last post is from October 2018, when I returned home from London and began to obsessively read about grief – a word whose weight I’m still hesitant to hold and examine, but record compulsively in my notebook (‘I always send my mother flowers on her birthday’ – London to Germany) – of women who’d lost their mothers, sisters, husbands, and children, and men who’d lost their mothers, fathers, wives. I skulk around on Instagram, watching my friends and acquaintances becoming doctors and architects, getting married, or spiralling and in pain, and like Lewis, I don’t always reach out. Other times, I scroll through friends’ profiles and see, clear as glass, that they are photographers, filmmakers, designers and writers – unmistakeable in how they see and display their worlds. Like with Banja and the coffee, and my unending photographs of perhaps unexceptional spaces, sometimes I still want to say, here is a 23-year-old-trying-to-write-person-who-also-used-to-be-a-reporter-and-doesn’t-know-if-she-can-(or-wants-to)-be-one-again, but, more than ever, my stomach begins crawling up to my throat. I try hard to let go of my quiet – It’s okay, you can say what you’re thinking – as though it’s as simple as untying a docked boat. But I have never untied a docked boat.

And so, I return to Didion, who writes: ‘Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not’. More and more, I turn to scroll through Instagram and flip through my notebook to write, thinking, ‘How it felt to me’, ‘Remember what it is to be me’.

If I was to post a photograph on Instagram today, it would be of my room, and the corner I’ve been sitting in to write this – on the floor, against the wall, next to my table, with a blanket wrapped around my legs. What you wouldn’t see: the cupboard in front of me, taped with photographs of Z, S, and Banja; A’s postcard from Bhutan, and another of a yawning dog that’s captioned Bitch; two stickers from London, one for fair contracts for workers, another announcing ACAB; a lino painting from (another) A for my birthday, with Final Notations by Adrienne Rich written out neatly behind it. The photograph wouldn’t mean much to anybody else – like an older Instagram post of my room in Bangalore, or the statue of a ballerina in London – and, why should it? But as with our many selves in our various notebooks, it would all come back: the unexpected frustration of writing this, the worry that I’d been at it for a month, with nothing to show; the irritation that I’d even drawn a mind map in the hope that it would make writing easier. After all, even the photograph of the ballerina statue brings it back – October 2017, the cold day I met an old friend in a city I was new and lonely in. The statue reminded me of the agony in an opening sentence of a story by Angela Carter, ‘She was like a piano in a country where everyone has had their hands cut off’ – a line I’ve written down in my notebook, that now reminds me of what it felt like to be swallowed whole by a city I wasn’t sure I could grow to like. It’s like finding another entry in my notebook, Sometimes you can only be truthful in fiction – woman in Blossoms bookshop looking for Alice Munro – and thinking of D, who might have been the first to ask me, ‘So, that’s it? We’re all going to keep being someone in your stories, then?

Tesco Medium Free Range Eggs

For Appa’s birthday,
I meant to send him a postcard
(hand-drawn),
showing him my room,
Warm,
in all its sunlit glory. 

Behind it, I scribbled
the only line I’ve typed out in a Word document
for the London Piece I’m trying
(waiting)
to write

I moved to London last September. I walked into my room with three suitcases, a litre of milk, one loaf of bread, and a box of six broken eggs.

It’s a nice room, nice-ish at least (?)
but the postcard,
drawn on hot-pressed watercolour paper
with a 0.1 Derwent Graphik Line Maker
is black and white,
and slightly
grey

London, like the cracked eggs,
and my excitement
the soggy cardboard box
sitting in a pool of egg whites

I didn’t notice until morning.

27.05.2018

Today, in Hyde Park,
I stopped to sit at a bench dedicated
(in loving memory)
to a woman whose name I don’t remember.

The placard said she had liked to sit
precisely at that
– spot –
close enough to the Serpentine’s ducks
stoically waiting
for bread (often stolen)
by otherwise well-behaved dogs
temporarily forgotten by their sunbathing owners.

As I pulled my knees up to my chest,
I thought, quite warmly –

Perhaps I would have liked her, perhaps she preferred to feed the squirrels, maybe she wished she had studied art, and drank her way through four pints of beer after her first day as a teacher in an evening school for working women. Perhaps she didn’t (couldn’t?) fall in love – there was no time for this anyway – but maybe she would have paused, for a second too long, at a flyer on the footpath that announced, An Invitation to See Things Differently. Perhaps she sat here like me, with her mother’s letters, watching Wellington the German Shepherd bounding at Mute Swans and Gadwalls, wishing that today, ten years later, they might also say something.

In a London library, wondering if I will ever keep up

Yesterday, M set down three candles at my feet
And as she turned on her camera
Slick black against her dark black clothes and dusty black boots
(she is my favourite aesthetic),
I felt her zoom
into my fingers
– stubby fingers
as she said,
I guess, what I want to know is, What does solidarity mean to you?

I think she meant Solidarity
– you know, with the capital s
But I mumbled something about infinite differences,
And listening – you know, really listening,
Before I remembered,
My candlelit hands are going to be in a film about this Space
and froze.

I freeze often here,
M has noticed – she’s seen me nod vigorously when
R reminds us that this Space,
our political project,
is – and let’s not beat around the goddamn bush –
segregated,
even though we made these walls announce
– loudly
that we are powerful and dangerous.

Then I think I should tell her I really really dislike –
Don’t like,
(Hate?)
This city, that has made me anxious
Withdraw, retreat, recoil, recede,
into myself
Because words don’t roll off my tongue like they do for her,
– M with the perfect aesthetic,
and I am still thinking about whether this thing about solidarity
is new (smart?) enough to say,

But now they are discussing the problematic, hallowed halls of academia
and decolonising everything.

Consequences

No, I have to tell him today, you say.
Maybe he won’t care. Or else
There will be pin
Drop
Silence (as school teachers would say)
Maybe he will yell, Do what
you want, like
always.
Will
That mean you
Must remove it (you won’t).
Then there won’t be anything left to
say
about it again.
You’ll tell him about your tattoo
(Four inches long) tomorrow morning.

The unravelling

I didn’t get an email from Vera last Sunday. I didn’t realise this until Monday evening, and if Vera ever writes to me again, I’ll never tell her it took me a day to notice her missing email. It’s unacceptable, I’ll say, Mama should have locked you in your room like she locked me in mine, shrieking, think, Vera, think, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something other than yourself?

Then Vera would ignore me, pretending like nothing had happened and no email had been missed, like the velvet sky this morning was last night’s sky, and I just hadn’t noticed the rain clouds in the dark. I spent last Sunday in Ashok’s house, she’d tell me, lying on his bed with an over-read copy of The Days of Abandonment, feeling heavy stars at the nape of my neck and the back of my eyes, because he’d brought us some drugs that were just so good. Stop seeing him, I’d tell her, you’re ruining yourself, you’re ruining us, Papa is scared, and you have so much potential.

What potential, Vera would laugh. What do we know of potential, we’re just sisters with a silent father and a mother who died because her lungs were too full of anger.

This was her tactic. Mama died of a heart attack, I’d want to say, nothing else, but I knew how Vera would write back, as though she was talking about a birthday present — anger, like sadness and shock, often bring heart attacks — and then the conversation would go nowhere.

So, I’d spend two weeks fuming silently. I’d often sit by the window waiting for it to rain — bring the clothes in the minute it starts, Papa would say, it’s your responsibility and nothing should be wet. I won’t be like Vera, I told myself; she’d always arranged our just-washed whites on the rusted wires across our balcony — who knows why she never put them on the stand — before letting them get soaked in the rain she’d forgotten about. Sometimes I’d scribble about Vera on slips of paper while I sat; she was selfish; she was the fog in my brain that never cleared, not while I waited for my next story, and not when I set the rice to cook at eight, exactly an hour before dinnertime. Vera knew this, but what did she care, she hadn’t been locked in her room with Mama screaming in the background, think Vera, think, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something other than yourself?

Then we would go back to our weekly emails, me with a permanent bitterness on the tip of my tongue, and she high, writing to me in long spiralling sentences. They’re like tunnels, I would tell her, like the apples you peel in one continuous sheet of skin — how am I supposed to know what you’re saying?

Vera’s emails always began the same way. Are you struggling, how is Papa, and your smoking? I haven’t smoked the last week (the weed doesn’t count, no? I don’t think it does) — haven’t we fought about this before? I can see your eyes widening and your forehead knotting; now don’t go get upset that I don’t remember our fights. It’s not true, and besides, we’ve always done the remembering between us. You know how you’ll always forget Mama’s second cousin’s son’s name — Dinesh, with the fake hair — and I’ll never remember his sister’s name, the tall, grass-like one who wore saris made of gold to every wedding in Mangalore — what’s her name? Did she really run away from home? You and I should have run away from home together.

Then Vera would talk about Mama again. Sometimes when you get angry I think you are too much like Mama, she’d write — remember how she’d shout when we fought with her and marched into our room, slamming the door behind us? Yes, she would say, make the ceiling fall on our heads; you pay for the paint chipping off from above us if you’re so fond of such dramatic exits, and don’t you dare pull out another cigarette, I forbid it. But Mama had a way of dissolving into the walls when she was angry, turning them into a stunning violet and appearing inside our room a few seconds later, a loudspeaker to her lips, calling us ungrateful, demanding from the crumbling ceiling what she had ever done for her to have to deal with us, Papa included, every single day.

Walk out, tell her we’re never coming back, Vera would breathe into my ear. Say, stop it, I’m leaving, and Vera will take care of me. Vera will take care of me, I’d whisper, but Mama, whose teeth were turning violet, kept shrieking — don’t you care about anybody — and didn’t hear me.

I saw Vera at the table in our room when I woke up on Tuesday. She’d always sat at our table more than I did. She would drape one of her string-like legs over the armrest of the wooden chair we used — it was your grandfather’s, Mama had once told me nodding significantly, as though she prayed that this information would change the way I sat at it, no longer imitating Vera, uncaringly arranging my leg over its armrest, and then rocking it back, back, and back a little more.

When I sat up in bed, Vera was untying her bushy hair — she liked to call it a weaver bird’s nest — shaking her head slowly. I’d hardly slept. I could smell smoke on my eyelashes and between my fingers; when I moved, I could smell it in my hair. I’d spent the night sitting at my window and breathing my way through the six cigarettes I’d planned to smoke sparingly over the week. Minds change easily, I told myself, I could start smoking less from next week — just like Vera could wake up one Sunday and say, today I won’t bother writing home, I’d rather score some weed, get high, and go to sleep — what did it matter? But wherever she was or whatever she was doing, Vera had never forgotten to mail on Sunday — I’ll always, always send you something, even if it’s just a line, she’d said. And now she hadn’t. Was it my fault?

Since we were children, Vera had never needed a mirror to comb every strand of her hair back into itself. She always used her fingers. Mama had taken away the mirror in our room when I was twelve, when Vera cut my hair. Papa had been in the British Council Library that afternoon, and Mama was asleep. Vera and I had settled down in front of the wooden mirror — I was sitting on a chair, blindfolded, and Vera stood behind me; I was taller even as a child, like an unsharpened pencil. Stay quiet or Mama will come, she whispered, don’t you trust me, and almost without warning — you’ll look lovely, she grinned — Vera gathered my rough, straight hair in her hands, lifted it above my head, and cut it.

I couldn’t see myself in the mirror when she removed my blindfold; I only saw Vera, who was smiling. When Mama woke up and came to see what I was doing, she found me combing my cut hair. She couldn’t bring herself to touch me. What have you done, she shrieked, and I was sure that everybody, even Papa, who was sitting at a table in the library making notes from a frayed copy of History and the Vernacular, had heard her. Vera, who was sitting on a chair in the corner of our room, her legs crossed over the armrest, didn’t say anything. She’s getting out of hand, Mama told Papa when he came home. I can’t tell if Mama is talking about you or me, Vera said smiling, now standing among the hair she had cut, while I listened at the door.

Where have you been, I asked her as I pulled out my bra from under the pillow and watched her shake her hair, why haven’t you written? I’d always expected the things I’d lost over the week to fall out of Vera’s hair every time she untied it, a blue pen cap, a postcard from my friend, a pair of scissors, my charcoal pencil, newly taken passport photographs, a calendar, an email from Vera, until Vera retied her hair and disappeared into it too.

Papa woke up when I went into the kitchen to make our tea. I made three cups, and Papa, confused, simply poured the third cup into the sink when he went to wash his glass.

Before Vera moved to Bombay — she didn’t move, she left, Mama liked to tell me — Saturday nights were our nights. We always sat next to the solar panels on our terrace with the lift shaft behind us. Nobody ever knew where we were, but Papa always found us collapsed on our bed on Sunday morning, crisscrossed in a tangle of legs and arms, our slippers still on our feet. I’d found the panels when I was three; I sat under them every afternoon while Vera was still at school, until Papa found me there one Monday and twisted my ear. Can’t you see that sign, he snapped, his voice was a razor blade against skin, pointing to the sticker of a skull on the lift door — Always run when you see it. Until she died, Mama believed that Vera and I sat in the middle of KBR Park every Saturday night, on top of the stone tower that looked like a rook taken off a chess board and planted in the middle of all the neem trees. The smell of your cigarettes always curls up in my nostrils when you come home, she’d say. Thankless girls, she called us, one day the police will catch you trespassing, and when they call home at two in the morning to tell us they have you at the station, I will slam the phone down and go back to sleep.

The first time I tried to tell Mama that Vera and I sat on the terrace every Saturday night, nothing else — I had thought it would calm her down — Vera didn’t talk to me for a week. She wasn’t angry, she only seemed to watch me from a distance as if through the binoculars we’d been gifted as children, always sitting opposite me, at the dinner table, the other end of our bed, the other side of our hall. Mama decided I was lying and locked me in my room. Don’t you lie to me, she said, how much can you lie, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something, other than yourself?

Why did you tell Mama about the terrace, Vera had asked me the next time we were there. We’d been listening to a song about Regal cinema — we’d visit it one day, we said. We’d sit on the terrace of a hotel close by with no lights on, and the lights in the rooms below us would go off one by one — at nine, at ten, eleven and twelve, while Regal, we imagined, remained lit in perpetual blue.

Then, in her usual imposing way, Vera had turned to me and said, Mama doesn’t know how to live without anger in her lungs, it’s connected to her heart, you’ll kill her if you take it away.

We were seventeen, and I’d never been angry with Vera before this. At first, she pretended not to notice, and I pretended like my stomach wasn’t snaking up to my violet throat. Then I left her upstairs and came home early. Papa was still awake and watching the news. A woman had been murdered in her Delhi apartment. A politician had been arrested. They’d been lovers, a policeman said, and I thought I could hear his long tongue — I wanted to hold its tip between two fingers and pull — clicking the roof of his mouth.

Where’s your sister? Papa asked.

Busy, I said.

Doing what?

Thinking about how I’m trying to kill Mama.

Are you?

Vera liked to say that this was the day I became our mother, and began turning the walls into my own shade of violet. Papa didn’t tell Mama about this conversation, and I didn’t tell Vera. I would have liked to ask her what it meant that Papa’s response to her accusation — I’m still sure that that’s what she had implied — was as calm as daybreak, as though he’d been thinking about killing Mama himself, just the other day. But I was angry, and Papa’s question settled in my head like a dull throb in my calves that I remembered every time I moved.

Papa didn’t eat on Tuesday night. I’d fallen asleep and he didn’t wake me up. He didn’t set the rice to cook for himself either; perhaps he didn’t know how to.

In her first email to me after she moved, Vera said she’d always been the sweater that undoes itself. I suspect she was high. I told Mama, who shook her head and said that I was the sweater — Vera was the hand that pulled one string and undid me. Don’t reply, she said, Vera left you. Vera moved for work, I mumbled, but Mama struck the table hard with her hand, her fingers spread so wide that they seemed webbed, and hissed, she left you, and now she’s in an apartment somewhere in the middle of Dadar getting high on drugs that she can’t pay for.

At first, I didn’t reply to Vera even though I tried hard to write to her — I could feel Mama’s happiness burning into my clothes — but she still wrote to me. She had met Ashok on a local train. Her room didn’t have a window. It made her house smell of cigarettes and weed. Sometimes it smelt of vodka. Her Gujarati neighbour had brought her dhoklas for breakfast on her first day. She would look for a job, perhaps as a cashier at a Health and Glow, just for now. How angry was Mama? She was sorry she couldn’t go on living here. I’d know what she meant if I left home too. It would be nice if I visited.

I didn’t tell Mama that I was beginning emails to Vera and discarding the drafts, but I couldn’t resist — Vera was still writing to me after all. Perhaps she would grow tired of Bombay and come back home. Perhaps I would begin to want to run away too.

I wrote that Mama often asked Papa how his writing was going. Papa, distracted, never responded; instead, he always frowned into his book at the dinner table, and only said, why is the dal so salty? I began to tell her about how he’d forgotten to pay the cable bill and Mama had missed watching the television premiere of Anarkali of Arrah — she’d been talking about it for weeks. I feel like I’m fading in this house, Mama had said to him that evening, and Papa only looked up from his laptop for a moment to ask, can’t you do anything by yourself? I’d heard them from the door. Later, I wrote to Vera again when I dreamt of panic attacks. I’d woken up confused because I was less scared of them when they were real — I wanted to ask Vera if that was possible. When I finished the emails, I sat at my table and ashed Marlboro Lights on the floor. Always buy Lights, Vera had told me, they’re the only ones that really fill you up. Then I deleted the unsent emails.

But on Friday, four weeks after Vera left, I finally sat on the terrace and wrote to her, only asking if Regal was lit in blue. She replied on Sunday. She didn’t bring up how long it had been. I believe Regal is lit in blue, she wrote, our kaali peeli drove past it last week. Although I was a little high, and Ashok said it was yellow, I’m quite sure it was blue; the same blue as the cover of that Jerry Pinto book you bought for Mama, not the piercing fairy light blue I’d always imagined it would be. I must say I was disappointed, and you would be too.

I woke up early on Wednesday morning. It was five, and I thought I could hear mosquitoes, deep in my ear. When I sat up, I saw that Mama was sitting on the floor at the foot of my bed, drying my wet clothes with a soundless hairdryer. She was whispering about Avni, the cousin who ran away — that one was a bad egg, she was. That one didn’t care.

On Thursday, I read the email I sent to Vera the week before she didn’t write to me.

Vera had just told me a story. It’s about Ashok’s sister, she’d written — I thought about how much I hated Ashok, from the tips of my hair to my toes — but have you stopped groaning every time I mention his name, in that rumble that rushes up your throat and through your teeth? The last time I heard it I thought it was Papa, but he was out to buy milk — you groan just like him, it’s the same rumble that terrified me when I was five, a bit like a train. Mama had just told you she hated her marriage — Papa had so much potential until he woke up one day without it, she had said, you can’t imagine what such a life is like. I could hear you both talking from the other room, softly, as if you were friends, and when I heard you groan, both Mama and I knew you wouldn’t leave them — Mama alone with a man she hated, and Papa with a woman who despised him — even if you wanted to.

Then, in her usual flitting way, Vera went back to telling me about Ashok’s sister. Anyway, she was a sweet girl, Vera wrote. She was so sweet (like apples, Ashok said, but he was high), that the moral of the story is to never be like her. This is exactly how they’ve told the story to every girl born in their family — Don’t be like Ana, and if you must, then don’t return. You’ll fall in love if you make grand plans to live alone, they say, just like Ana did. That’s where it begins. You’ll meet a man in the park you visit occasionally, perhaps to sit at a bench under the Gulmohar tree and read; he’ll be tall, charming, the kind of man who listens (unlike every other man in your family), someone who tucks two cigarettes behind his ear and produces one when you ask for it, like a magic trick.

This is when you start visiting the park more. Then you’ll stop buying milk and bread, and you’ll walk to work, because you’re trying to save money to run away with him — this is the first sign — he’s told you he wants to, soon, before his parents arrive to say you can’t be together, you’re from another state. Everything that follows is a blur — you run away with your lover, and when you do, he steals your money (including every last rupee you’ve saved by telling everyone you’ve developed lactose intolerance), and vanishes. Of course, then you’ll disappear behind him (you love him after all, and you were meant to marry), and for four months visitors will come home to tell your father they believe they saw you on the road near Tank Bund, until your brother disappears too, and now people murmur about drugs. If you’re too sweet, they say, like an apple, you will get eaten.

There’s a saying in our family, I had written back to Vera. Don’t ever leave home, or someone will die.

Mama died five weeks after Vera moved to Bombay — Vera simply took off with Papa’s wallet, although she did remember to leave his driver’s license behind. I was nineteen. It had been two days since I told Mama that I had written to Vera, and she had locked me in my room and screamed, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something other than yourself?

Papa was at home the day Mama died — he’d missed his doctor’s appointment because Mama and I were arguing about who was supposed to drive him there — and I had gone out to buy my pack of Lights. In the story that Vera knows, I came home to find Papa sobbing next to Mama. She’d been standing on a ladder cleaning the fan with a wet cloth when she fell and had a heart attack. I often imagine that Mama thought of Vera even as she fell. Or she thought of Vera and then fell.

Vera didn’t come to Mama’s funeral. I’d expected her to — I just got here, she wrote, and I don’t have the money. So, I didn’t tell her that when I came home, Papa had really been sitting next to Mama on the floor, staring, his nose crinkled like used origami paper, muttering, thank god for heart attacks, thank god for the ladder, thank god for the fall.

The second time I saw Vera that week, she was on my bed. It was lunch time. I didn’t try to talk to her — she was lying next to Mama, tracing her thick eyebrow with one finger. You should have gone to the parlour, Vera whispered, wouldn’t you have liked that? Mama was lying very still, her eyes were closed; I was sure she couldn’t even feel Vera’s finger — they would have scrubbed your feet and painted your toes, Vera was telling her; you could have curled your hair and waxed your arms.

Then Vera stayed quiet for the next five minutes. Mama still hadn’t moved. Suddenly, Vera said softly, you mustn’t shave your arms. I have a friend who slit her wrists while she shaved. Her parents said it was a mistake, but how will we ever know?

Vera still hadn’t emailed on Friday morning. I’ll write to her today, I told myself, soon after Papa finishes his breakfast and takes his medicines — two orange tablets that he sometimes describes as being bright like marigolds — and disappears into his room to work his way through the new paper he said he was writing for the Economic and Political Weekly. I’ll tell her this is unacceptable, that Papa is worried, and he’s asking to speak to her.

I took three hours to finish Vera’s email. First, I sat at my table and thought about how it used to be our table. Then I stood up and pushed my chair back — it used to be our chair too — and then I walked around the room. I looked into my coffee glass — mine, not ours, Vera had stolen it for me when we were fifteen — there was nothing left. Vera had stolen Mama’s earrings soon after, and Mama had found them in the drawer of my dressing table. How can you do this, we give you everything you want, she shouted, her hair violet, taking back her earrings and dragging my dressing table to her room, its stub-like legs wailing against the floor, while Vera rolled her eyes and whispered, she must know that won’t make any difference.

When I sat down again, I wondered if I should I tell Vera I’d forgotten to put the rice to cook for dinner on Tuesday. I wouldn’t. But it was her fault. The clothes had got wet in the rain twice, and even Papa, who always disappeared into his head and only emerged in time for food, seemed to notice my carelessness. I wanted Vera to know that he had asked me if something was bothering me — it didn’t matter that he wouldn’t have known what to say if I had said yes, something has happened; I’m scared it’s my fault and I don’t know what to do — Papa never asked any of us this, not even Mama when she was alive and waiting for him to say something.

Dearest Vera, I’m sorry for what I said, I start to write — I didn’t mean it, but you can’t disappear on us, V. It’s Friday now, where have you been? Papa is unhappy, something about a paper he hasn’t finished and how he’s lost his copy of Dialectic of Nihilism, and so I haven’t told him that you’ve disappeared. I’m hoping you’ll come around and drop me a line, even if it is just to say you’re alright, around, alive.

I deleted the first line before I hit send. It’s Friday now, where have you been, I start, you can’t disappear on us Vera, it’s unacceptable. At least send me a line saying you’re alive. I’m telling Papa if you don’t.

Vera didn’t reply. She didn’t email next Sunday either.

Papa, I said on Sunday afternoon. He was reading the newspaper. Papa, I need to go to Bombay.

To Bombay?

Vera hasn’t emailed. If I was Mama I would have left for Bombay the night she didn’t email, but I’m not Mama, and I didn’t. It’s been two weeks. She’s always mailed every Sunday morning, even if she’s high and sitting with Ashok feeling stars in her eyes. I went too far this time, Papa, I told Vera she killed Mama.

He watched me. He put his newspaper down. But wait, he said, who is Vera?

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.