Your Side of the Bed

Yesterday, I watched Ana buying eggs at the chicken shop down the road from our house, and just as I registered the familiar smell of her hair – mint and cucumber, washed thrice a week, always with cold water – I felt her words settle into the bends of my ear canals, and say, exactly as she’d done the first time we met, you know, you can tell a good egg from the bad ones if it sinks in a mug of water; I read about this once. We’d been on a train to Bangalore, and she was sitting in my seat, her feet stowed away neatly under her thighs, an egg sandwich in her lap at dinnertime. It’s a good habit to have, she’d told me, crackling aluminium foil between her fingers while the two women next to us held hands and said a prayer – you know, to drop your egg in a cup of water while you decide how to cook it – Amen – hoping it’ll sink. I don’t remember this, but Ana says I told her about tomatoes in return – that my mother always said to pick the ones that weren’t soft; not just the first ones you see, ya; the thing to do was press them a little, like this – here I held up her ball of foil – with your thumb first, and then your palm; you want to look for the firm ones, but not too firm, more like pear-beginning-to-spoil firm, and less like drying-ball-of-clay firm.

It’s time you left the house, Ai, Ana had whispered into the dip of my neck that morning. We’d been lying in bed, and until then I’d been watching her, her eyes closed, eyelids flickering, feeling the occasional nudge of her toes on my feet – ay, make the coffee no, please. You’ve been in here five days, you need to get some air, she’d told me, blowing slowly between my collarbones, winding the tips of my hair around her fingers – your story will be stillborn otherwise. Since it was Sunday, Venu uncle was at the chicken shop. He was there every weekend even though he ran Friends Tea Stall during the week – no di, he’d say if you asked him about it, when you’re my age, ya, you’ll want some quiet weekends, and it’s better here than at that full beyond capacity place. Not that the chicken shop was ever quiet or didn’t have a train of people waiting – they even took phone orders now – ay Rohan, two kilos boneless, and just put one quarter kilo feet in a separate cover – did you hear me – quarter kilo feet in a separate cover, Venu uncle was shouting when Ana and I had entered.

Ay, Aida, he’d said, when I went to watch him untie some chickens from the front of his cycle, you tell Ana she can check those eggs in water however many times she wants, aan, but I’m not taking them back because she says they didn’t sink or something; for her I have a no-return policy. Ana was still outside doing her checking, so I followed Venu uncle into his shop to see if there were any cold chickens lying on the counter with their skin still on. There weren’t, but I was still nodding, so uncle had continued, holding up two chickens by their feet – for everybody else the smell is enough to tell if the eggs are bad – and then suddenly to Rohan, who’d been sitting on a stool in the corner, blinking into his phone and biting the insides of his cheeks – oy, do I pay you to sit on your phone all day, or to pluck these chickens? Take them quickly, o, get up faster, I can’t stand here all day – and what happened to that two kilos boneless parcel? Then Venu uncle had turned back to me, so I followed him outside – the chickens are here, their eggs are here, their cages are clean, so where is the problem? Look at the front, Aida, he’d said, dusting off the feathers clinging to the bottom of his shirt, everyone is happy – only Ana is not happy.

Ever since Ana had her way, we’d been living in a one-bedroom flat named Sunny – Sunny, short for sunflower – on the second floor of an apartment complex called Daisy, on the way to Kengeri. We’d have to clarify this name, of course, Ana had always said, Sunny, printed on white copier paper in Times New Roman size 72, font colour yellow, paper stuck on the side of a cut-up shoebox, shoebox side stuck just above the keyhole. Not everyone would get the irony, she thought, Sunny, short for sunflower, the uninspiring house with two windows, whose only real light came from our glimmering personalities, and our (her) quiet gibe at this inexplicable new tradition of naming apartments after ordinary flowers. I suppose it wasn’t entirely her fault – she’d grown up with a cat named Bekku, as though this was somehow different from calling him Cat – but had Ana always had strong feelings about names, and so it was usually best to let her come up with something. Even before we’d moved, Ana had decided that Sunny was going to be an open house for anyone who wanted to come through (except my mother, of course), maybe even a foster home for two dogs and a couple of cats, but dogs over cats any day, no question; never mind that the house was the size of ten school girls standing at double arm distance before their hundred-metre race, we’d figure that out. And then about Diya – Ana had also insisted she’d make sure of this – Diya wasn’t allowed to stay over because she really shouldn’t have sent us (me) that postcard of a yawning dog and the caption Bitch, not after all she’d said about me anyway.

As far as I was concerned, this had been one of Ana’s more terrible ideas. I hadn’t wanted to move all the way to Kengeri, middle of nowhere, and most certainly not to a house whose walls were shedding strips of beige paint like it was a giant, deeply breathing, slowly moulting lizard. Our would-be landlady had promised to fix up the house – within six months, maybe a year, I’m just waiting for some rummy money to come through, she’d said, maybe we could even paint one wall Gelusil pink, your choice, it’ll be my gift for your patience. But Ana, I knew, had an alarmingly thoughtful headshake – reserved for when she’d already made her decision – and this time too, she’d shaken her head slowly, as though she couldn’t quite tell if there was water in her ears, and said to me, ay, what do you mean moulting lizard; what kind of ridiculous comparison is that, the paint’s just chipped in a few places, rather like your Ajja’s molars; besides it wouldn’t shed if we just didn’t touch the walls anyway. I don’t know why Ana knew about my grandfather’s teeth – or what else she’d expected from his molars; he must’ve been more than seventy years old – but, I wanted to ask, but if the walls were so much like his teeth, couldn’t she also see the evidence of their browning, his three root canals, and all those extractions? Then there was the problem of the pigeons perched on the window sill in the living room – it was four pigeons wide; they were sitting there, wing to wing, when we’d entered – and I hated pigeons. They keep pretending to have one leg, I’d told Ana, so you stared at them with fascination and pity, until suddenly they untucked their second leg from some deep hole in their feathers that you couldn’t see, leaving you feeling slightly betrayed and mostly silly – but how could you ever know if the next pigeon that came your way was pretending, or really just had one leg? –

– Well, I think it’s perfect, Ana had announced before I could finish, we’ll have to have fewer plants because there’s not much sunlight, but my table can go into the bedroom, I’ll write from there – you write sitting on the floor anyway, so we won’t need yours – and maybe two bookshelves will be enough, with a couple of mattresses if people come over. Aunty, sir, we really love this house, she’d continued, can you keep it for two weeks and we’ll figure out the deposit by Sunday after next?

This was when I’d noticed the single plug point in what was to be our bedroom, on what would have been Ana’s side of the bed – my final deal breaker, because here was her plug point, and her work table, on her side of the bed, while I sat on with floor, without my table, which I would’ve liked to have had anyway – but I said nothing. If I’d brought this up, Ana’s face, usually arranged in a look of floating disinterest, would have rapidly crumbled into exasperation – extension cord, she’d have said, we’ll buy an extension cord, and an extension cord for the extension cord, just to keep you happy; why are you so against this house anyway, it’s not upmarket enough for your Indiranagar taste? Of course, Ana would’ve been right about the extension cord. I would’ve known this, our would-be landlady would’ve known this, and Mr Rai, who’d found us this house for a big cut of money from would-be landlady would’ve known this. He’d have nodded with Ana – yes, he’d have said, yes, two hundred percent correct, the shop down the road has a sale on all their electrical appliances, two for the price of one, all day every day. Then it would’ve been would-be landlady’s turn to smile and say, oh, Indiranagar? You’ll never find a house for this price in Indiranagar. Now it’s all clubs with reservations and dress codes, and some Italian restaurants selling better wine than Sula – I don’t drink, but I’ve heard from my brother. He lives in Jal Vayu Vihar, you know, near Kammanahalli; oh, you two are just out of college, you must go there for clubbing all the time. No, I’d begin to say, we don’t go clubbing, but Ana would’ve cut me off again – Jal Vayu Vihar, aunty? Your brother was in the air force, or was it the navy? – and I’d wonder how asking people about themselves came to her so easily.

– But by then, Mr Rai, much to my relief, had said no – we can only keep the house on hold for a week, we’re getting so many rent offers, you know. Of course, this was a lie, and both and Ana and I knew this. I thought that would’ve meant the end of this, until, much to my distress, Ana replied without any hesitation, as though the words had been fermenting in her throat, yes, of course we understand sir, we’ll figure out the deposit in one week then. Come again to see the house any time, would-be landlady had told us as we left, and at this point, Ana gripped my hand, smiled, and said to her, you’re too kind, aunty.

Then she turned to look at me, her head close to my shoulder, her palm cold, and her hair smelling of mint and cucumber, still smiling, a small speck of red lipstick on her teeth, and suddenly, I mumbled, yes, thank you aunty, you’re too kind.

 

On some days – when Ana wrote well, and we didn’t fight over the pigeons, or my hair in the bathroom sink – Sunny looked exactly as Ana had imagined it. In moments that seemed too tightly knotted to comprehend, I took inventory of our life: in our bedroom, a complaining bed, unmade, not quite large enough for the two of us; but the innards of our razais always warm, so warm that we could leave the window – eight pigeons wide – open every night. Below the window, an overturned cardboard box – one of the sturdier ones – on it, a sheet of cling film, on the cling film, five plants: four different succulents and one creeper, a money plant with leaves that didn’t quite look like coins to either of us. Above our bed, Ana’s rescued print of Still Life with Music and Parrot, it’s edges torn, stuck on with masking tape that undid itself once a month and came off with a layer of powdered, still beige paint. On Ana’s side of the bed, a table – her grandfather’s, hand painted midnight blue when she was nine, three years before her mother died – on it, two roles of unused washi tape, and her journal with a panda, and the words, I Believe I Can Fly. Close to the journal, her books, Love and Marriage in Mumbai, Any Woman’s Blues, Trash, Shanghai Grand, Near to the Wild Heart; behind them, the painting of a chicken she’d made for my twentieth birthday – it’s note, Happy Birthday Aida-pie, love you more than chicken. Next to the canvas, a photo of her parents sitting outside their house in Goa, smiling, arms around their knees; a tube of hardening Primary Red paint, and another of Primary Blue; under them a half-used sheet of lino, all from the night we watched Parzania, and Ana fell asleep so close to me I could feel the heat emerging from her body, her stomach rising and falling with such ease that it scared me. On my side of the bed, a pile of books on the floor, at the top, the commanding orange of Slouching Towards Bethlehem; next to it, another makeshift cardboard-box-table – on this, a feather from my first boyfriend, a sheet of stickers from Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum, a (stolen) red Moleskine writing pad with notes on the books I was reading, and a box of stationery with three stacks of Post-its, lemon, powder blue, and neon pink. Then, in the corner, our bathroom, and here, everything in comfortable two’s – lipsticks, both Colorbar, shade: Mischievous Wine; razors, both Gillette; kajal, both Himalaya; shampoos, both Dove; soap bars, mine Dove, Ana’s Pears; toothbrushes, both sensitive; toothpastes, mine Colgate, and Ana’s Meswak.

On these days, Ana would organise dinners at home. Mattresses, otherwise stacked against the wall, would be spread across the floor in the living room, and Sasha would be brought upstairs and fed a bowl of curd rice. We should’ve bought her chicken feet, Aida, Ana would tell me, Venu uncle said he gave them to the dogs near his house all the time, it’s good for their teeth; I told you to remind me. Then Sasha would settle down near the cardboard box labelled Sheets – in it, the red bedsheet with stars for Roy, the indigo kalamkari for Imtiaz, and the black ikkat for Mari, just in case they stayed the night. When was the last time we went out, Ai, just you and me, Ana would then ask, while she peeled an apple in a single sheet of skin, maybe we should go to Cubbon Park this Sunday. We should take Sasha too, I’d nod, feeling my stomach expanding – were we now the two women who lived together with a dog, and took her to parks? – and then, so, how did you write today? Sometimes she would say, I didn’t, but it’s there, you know, like it’s filling the tips of my fingers, so I’m not worried; and on other days, it was, five hundred words, but let’s not talk about it yet. You know, she’d sometimes go on, last night I dreamt about you again, and as always, I would stiffen, but before she could tell me what had happened, Diya would arrive, Sasha would jump, and just as all the commotion died down, Diya would announce, you know, when you two said you were moving in together, I thought you’ll be done for, and we’ll never see you again – I mean, this is Kengeri – but look at us now. So, tell all na, what news?

This was the moment I’d look at Ana, leaning against the wall, a bottle of Kingfisher in her hand, and Sasha on her lap, and she’d wink at me. The story went that Ana and Diya were supposed to live together after college – a plan that I hadn’t known of before the Bitch postcard arrived – until one Sunday, when Ana walked into Diya’s room, and said, so, Aida and I are moving in together. We’re going to try to write, you know, hold each other accountable, give each other feedback, that kind of stuff, ya? When the postcard came, Ana told me that Diya had shouted and shouted – like she was turning violet, disappearing and reappearing through the walls, saying something about third-class train friends and first-class college friends, Ana said – but I didn’t know what to believe, because Diya had always been polite to me, asking me how I was doing, and what I was writing then. But since that day, every time it was just the three of us, it felt as though someone had pumped the air out of the room, and I was walking a tightrope over sheets of broken glass.

So, I would stay quiet, and again, begin to take inventory – here, our living room, cluttered, my workspace. On the walls, a painting of three women on a swing, one woman’s hand in the other’s hair; and five unused postcards of book covers – The Days of Abandonment, Possession, Little Birds, The Secret History, Lives of Girls and Women. On the main door, three hooks, never used; also on it, a lemon Post-it of Important Numbers in alphabetical order – Aida, Ana, Diya, Imtiaz, Lakshmi aunty (landlady), Mari, Renuka (Aida’s ma), Roy, and Venu uncle – next to the door, a black shoe rack that Ana and I found at Soul Santé, this too, never used. In one corner, two small bookshelves, slightly sagging; on it, books arranged according to the age at which we’d read them; on its side, two rows of abandoned powder blue Post-its of Books to Read Next, one Ana’s, and the other, mine. On Ana’s list, Paula, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Gulabi Talkies; on mine, Frantumaglia, Second-Hand Time, Anagrams, Normal People. In the same corner – where I wrote – two cushions, stacked, one bright yellow with a rafflesia embroidered in cross-stitch; the other a deep crimson, asymmetrically ridged. Then, our kitchen, separated from the living room with a white curtain – curtain rod fixed by Ana without Lakshmi aunty’s permission – on the counter, a steel stove, one large coffee filter; two mugs, mine yellow, Ana’s pink; a packet of garlic; and two old plastic bottles cut in half to make two holders, one for ladles, and the other for knives. On the shelf, three non-stick vessels; seven plates, two of them ours, the rest gifted by my mother; ten spoons, two ours, the rest brought by Roy; six steel glasses, all brought by Mari, and used for alcohol. In the refrigerator, two packets of Heritage Milk, a dozen eggs, a tetra pack of Real Orange Juice, one glass bottle of tomato pickle, and vegetables bought in pairs – beans and mushrooms, ridge gourd and pumpkin, cauliflower and cabbage.

Then, Mari, Imtiaz, and Roy would arrive, and suddenly, the air would exhale. So, I met this chick in college, Roy would begin, making the room infinitely lighter – woman, Ana would say, you mean you met a woman, and I’d nod – fine, woman, Roy would continue, can you listen now? It’s just that she makes me so unsettled, you know, like my words are jumping themselves, and it’s wonderful. Ana, leaning against the wall, a bottle of Kingfisher in her hand, and Sasha on her lap, would smile.

Yesterday, two days before our deadline – our first applications to a writing residency just outside Bangalore – and before I’d watched Ana buying eggs at the chicken shop down the road from our house, we sat down to read each other’s stories. I’d watched Ana reading mine from our living room – Ana, sitting on her side of the bed, her coffee on the edge of her table, arms around her knees, a pencil in one hand, already making notes on sentence one. Then, Ana, approaching (my) stories with a determination that seemed too severe; Ana crossing out words and circling others; Ana drawing long lines next to entire paragraphs, scribbling two words, meh, chop – Ana, on page three, inhaling deeply, biting her bottom lip; Ana, on page seven, frowning. At page eight, Ana looked up to see me watching her, and smiled – are you reading, she’d asked me from our bedroom, are you almost done – and I’d nodded.

In her story, there’s a girl, eleven, waiting at school for her mother; her mother, late to pick her up. This is followed by the girl and her mother on their way to music class; the girl and her mother reading; the mother, frustrated, frowning, asking girl about the boys in her class. Then, the mother, whose hair once felt like rope, lying in a hospital that smelt like all hospitals – of sterilised steel; but the mother, now with a cloth around her head, still late to pick up the girl from school. Soon, the girl, writing about her mother in her diary, clearly, with no spiralling sentences or dependent clauses, I think she is going to die. The mother, alone, reading the girl’s diary – unintentionally, of course – I think she is going to die. Then again, the girl and her mother, the girl, now twelve, lifting her mother’s legs onto her bed when she slept – the girl, standing over her mother at night; her father, asleep, her mother, groaning, the girl, whispering, Mama? The girl, now taller than her mother. The girl, asking her father, what is morphine? Suddenly, the girl and her aunt, the girl, getting an ultrasound; the doctor, saying, you can call your mother in now – the girl, angry, her voice rising like a cake with too much baking flour, she is not my mother. Then, one evening, the girl, her mother, and her father, but her mother does not remember her.

As I read Ana’s story, I remembered one Tuesday in October, when Ana’s phone had lit up – Congratulations on the short story longlist! Coming over now, Diya had written – and Ana, who was at her table, had said softly, Aida, are you asleep? I’d been in bed because it was one of those days when I hadn’t written, and Ana’s voice was so low that I pretended to be asleep. I took inventory: the beige paint, peeling in patches, starting to show grey cement; Ana’s plug point, always taken, no extension cord; our clothes, on the floor at the foot of our bed, unwashed for two weeks; the floor, struck by a rare moment of sunlight, dusty. Something’s happened, Aida, Ana had said again, and this time she sounded nervous – from the ceiling, a steady drip of water, on the floor, a wet patch. What? I’d said, as Ana climbed into bed next to me – Ai, she told me, Ai, I made the longlist. I haven’t seen it yet, but Diya messaged. There was tightness in my stomach – our plants, unwatered; the cling film, tearing – I smiled – you did it! and gripped her knee; I’m so happy for you – and I’d meant it. Ana was on her phone – so, how should we celebrate, should we order some food? Should we get ice cream? Is Diya coming over? I’d asked – in the bathroom, the dripping shower – and suddenly, Ana had crashed into me, her hair on my face, her lips on my neck, and she breathed, we both made it. But yesterday, Ana had looked different, her expression sculpted, confident. When I’d looked up at her again, she was taller than me, her shoulders straighter, her hair less controllable.

Then, I’d read again. This time I saw Ana, twelve, with her mother and her mother’s doctor; her mother, dead. Ana’s father saying come here; Ana, crawling into his lap, saying, this is so unfair. Then, Ana, hugging her mother’s doctor, thank you for being so good. Ana, the next morning, watering their plants until a neighbour asked her, how is your mother? She died last night, I heard Ana say, and the neighbour, stunned by this girl, twelve, watering their plants with her mother dead, ran to tell her husband. Then again, Ana, without her mother, telling her best friend, also twelve, her heart beating faster, my mother died – Ana, again, without her mother, telling her other best friend, her heart still beating fast one week later, my mother died. Then Ana, with her two best friends, walking down a road near her house, saying, I don’t think I want anyone in school to know just yet. But they do. On the first day of school after summer break, Ana, without her mother, walking to class, excited about school, until a girl runs up to her and says, I’m so sorry, and Ana realises she is not hugging her because they’re back from their summer break, and she wants to say hi. Ana, without her mother, sitting in Hindi class next to a boy who used to be her friend, passing a paper with messages to each other – I’m going out of town – Why? – My mother passed away, so there’s the whole ashes thing – and he stared at her. And then at last, Ana’s friend, dropping her home from school, on time, not late.

When I’d finished reading, I was thankful we didn’t sit in the same room while we read each other’s stories, because my eyes felt wet, and my legs unsteady. Ana was not looking at me from the bedroom, and I wondered why, how, after writing this, after writing this transparently, she hadn’t felt the compulsion to watch me reading her story. That week, Ana had written continuously. Ana, who otherwise waited for every chink of a story to fill itself at her fingertips before she sat down to write, Ana, who lay in bed with me under the darkness of our razais when the wrong words came, Ana, who wrote with a crash at her shoulders and in her teeth, had written this week with a strength that neither of us understood. By six in the evening, she would come and sit next to me, her head on my shoulder, and say, softly, keep writing, don’t let me disturb you. She would listen to me type, and all I could think about was her smell of mint and cucumber, and the muffled sound of the tip of my middle finger on the backspace key that had engraved itself on my eardrum. Ana would not say anything, but when I wrote about Nina’s hair, and the day she sat on her cracked roof and cut it with a rusted nail, Ana closed her eyes, as though she had felt too much that day.

Then, yesterday, before we left for the chicken shop, I thought of our first fight in Sunny – me, willing her to come at our (my) stories slower, even softer, until her voice, now low, echoed in the living room – but they’re not that fragile, Aida, they’re stories because they’re not fragile. It’s perfect, I’d told her, it’s the best piece you’ve ever written.

 

But when I watched Ana buying eggs at the chicken shop down the road from our house, running her fingers over them as though she expected them to be cracked and leaking blood; when I heard Venu uncle talking about his eggs – everyone is happy, only Ana is not happy – I suddenly only saw Ana, smelt her mint and cucumber hair, and thought about the night when, both of us drunk, we sat opposite each other, me as tense as I always was around Ana, until for the first time, she had looked at me, and said, so, we’re both tied, right? We’ve both won and equal number of prizes – and suddenly, I thought, please, please don’t win the residency.

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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.

Hands

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

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

—Please tell me she’s alright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither of them will respond.

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

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

Circles

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

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

Hogi curtain haakthiya, she says.

I’ll draw them, haakthini, one minute.

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

One nimsha, hogthini.

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

Malagidane, Dodda.

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

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

I have three pages before I finish the chapter.

Yella marthogtha idni. Confuse aagathe, maddu jothe.

Naan kodthini, Dodda.

I want to tell her that everyone forgets.

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

Bejaar aagodu, she says.

I look at her and nod.

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

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

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

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

Are you studying? she asks.

Haan.

Ayyo, odu, odu, she says.

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

Haakthini, one nimsha.

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

Haan.

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

Haan, Dodda.

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

Banja, Banja, she calls again.

Malagidane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve almost reached the end of the chapter.

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

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

Curtain haakidre oledittu, she says again.

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

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

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

Haan.

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

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

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

I turn on the fan above the dining table.

Oduta idiya? she asks again.

Haan.

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

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

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

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