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.