Paper boats

It’s raining outside. I’m in my room, I can hear the rain, but the blinds are drawn across my windows, and so I cannot see it. My room is only dimly lit; I’m sitting on my bed, wondering when I’ll begin to write. I know that outside the roads will be packed, signal lights will turn a blinking green, but nothing will move. There will be wet roads, the light from street lamps flickering off; people will enter Madurai Idly to stay dry, but the rain and crowd will make them feel wet anyway.

She said she was travelling alone these holidays. She was excited and I was too, for her, and in some odd way, for myself. She would travel alone, and it would be all that travelling alone could be. There would be new people to meet, new conversations, roads that seemed different when you walked alone, and there would be writing. I was excited because I knew she would write, and what she wrote, I hoped to read. She would be alone—I didn’t know if I could be alone, but I needed to try. He said I wasn’t her and I wouldn’t manage, but she said I wasn’t to listen to him.

At home in Hyderabad, there is a small room attached to mine. It has a large glass window that I keep open during the day; you can see the Golconda Fort from there. Appa had visited the fort with a friend once, and he had stood on top and waved. I used my binoculars and looked from this window; I had seen something move, it had to be him.

But that room is my favourite. I have stuck large papers on its walls and painted them. There is a small table there, on it are large pillows that I have covered with pieces of cloth Amma would sometimes use, and I would play with. On these pillows are more paintings, sketches—of Shimla, of people, of just colours that my palette made for me. Next to it is my easel, it is dusty now. There’s a small stool that I have left my paints on, the tubes used, the turpentine now green and half-finished, some paint brushes too hard to be used again.

On the pillows I have kept all my postcards too. They are mostly from Appa’s student, not all of them say much, but they have photographs of places I have never been to. I don’t know why, but he would send them to Appa to give to me, and I have kept them. They were signed, “Best, Sam”, and when I was younger, I couldn’t remember him. Not his voice, his face, Sam to me was the sender of postcards of places I wanted to see. Crowded beaches, empty roads, large, old buildings, all places I now want to visit alone. Because travelling alone feels like completing a book that has taken forever to read—not because it’s bad, but because it has so much to say. Sometimes you’ll finish, other times you won’t. Sometimes you tell yourself you’ll return to it later, but when you do finish, you’ll feel like a paper boat.

I’m scared he’s going to be right, though. I’m not going to be a paper boat. She, her words, they might be my paper boat.

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Past twelve

Lie there.

It’s comfortable, you’re still, there’s a pillow next to you,

and another under your head.

Above, the fan turns, slow, slowly,

You make it fast, faster,

Slowly, slower. Slow.

There is no light, just that thin strip from under your door,

Lights don’t matter to you when you sleep—just tonight, they do,

because they do for others, and you’re another.

Thin strip of light, not enough to see; the fan isn’t three blades,

it’s a sound.

Louder, faster. Quieter, slower.

Your eyes are open,

On your right are mirrors you cannot see,

She stands in front of them when she comes, moves back and forth on her feet, stretches what she wears,

and says, she’s beautiful.

On your left, a window with blinds drawn.

She makes you draw them every night,

people could be watching. Who people, what people?

There is just the empty road somewhere below.

A man yells after too many drinks, his friend laughs and says shh,

You think he’s standing, and the louder he is sitting on steps.

But she sits at the dining table outside your door, at her feet, a dog asleep

and she will tell you to draw the blinds.

You’re writing, reading, but you will pause, and draw them.

Above, before you the small book case,

But you want more, bigger, like those you have at home,

and the one you’ve imagined because you want another.

These too you do not see, you only know because you have seen.

Your watch is in the drawer, you thought it was on your hand.

It’s working, hands move,

but you haven’t seen its scratched dial in a while.

Of him, of her, of them, you have drawings,

Sketches pinned among photographs that hang from a nail.

The light goes out from under the door.

I wonder if you ever saw me writing

Appa would take me to his classes when I was younger since  it turns out I could be easily entertained just like the ease with which I told everybody who asked that my favourite food was “chiten and fish” and so he would pull up a desk to the blackboard that I wasn’t tall enough to reach yet and then before his classes began he’d give me a piece of chalk and let me draw on the board as he taught for another hour and I would sit there rather happily surrounded by faces I didn’t know and words I didn’t understand realising only now that if I had been a distraction Appa’s students never showed it before remembering that I was like the little boy in the auto with me yesterday who sat in front with his father because he had no school

I pause, I cannot remember how the child got there; but I am trying to do what he wants us to do—free association. He said, “College desks”, and I wrote about Appa. For a moment I wonder if I have made up the entire memory, or filled in holes that grew as I got older in something I only half remembered. It was a Friday, I was scribbling into my book hoping he wouldn’t ask me to read out what I had written. Writing and remembering were happening together, I wasn’t writing to keep something alive. Perhaps I was making something available, tangible. But for once I did not stop too long, I dived, and didn’t worry if I couldn’t hold my breath till the next time we were allowed to come for air. It was like realising you’re talking to yourself without feeling the need to stop, or wonder if someone was watching; it was freeing because I wasn’t looking to say something perfect and beautiful.

I wonder about the boy’s mother, and why he couldn’t go home instead of spending the day driving around the city with his father. His father, who took people where they wanted to go, not always in a direction that he could control. I wondered if the number of customers he got that day were fewer than he normally did, or if his son demanded that they stop for lunch, or a break, or made conversation as he drove. I thought of Amma because I missed her; the auto driver and his son were also like Amma and I when we returned home from music classes. It felt strange that she never read these things I wrote. Yes, Appa read them, of course he read them, but it would have been nice if Amma saw them too. I don’t know if Amma ever saw me writing in her head—the last time she saw me I had wanted to go to design school because I liked to draw.

I had started to use full stops; there was always an urge to add a comma, hoping to make the mass of text in front of me understandable because I needed it to be understood. I didn’t know where this was going or coming from, but I was talking about Amma. She left me some letters—a few years ago I wouldn’t tell anyone this—and in one she reminded me of the time I sat in her room counting how old I would be in 2014. It’s 2014 now, I’m 19 years old, and everything in that room is still the same—the large bed, and the windows almost always open. There is only a new bookshelf that Appa and I bought because there were piles of books in my room that needed to be kept somewhere. Back then 2014 seemed like a year when cars would fly and all the science fiction short stories I read would come true.

I remember this day only vaguely, Amma lying down on her bed, and I sitting on the floor, using my fingers to calculate my age. I still use my fingers to count occasionally, but we’ll keep that to ourselves. Perhaps I should’ve joined one of those mental math and abacus classes that everyone around me was going for. But I was too busy drawing or reading, or just running around and cycling. I was always terrible at math and at 15, I refused to study it anymore. I don’t regret it. But what I wanted to say was that Amma thought she would completely miss out on the age when I was all grown up and a teenager, and wondered if I’d still want to go to design school. She passed away a little while after that day; I was 12, and now I’m 19. I did try to join design school, Amma. But I think I wanted to do literature more, and now here I am, writing.

She wrote well, like her parents. I like reading what she had to say, I wonder why she never thought of writing. I wonder how she chose what she wanted to do, how she decided it was this, and not that which made her happy. But she wrote for me, for Appa, and what she wrote showed me what she felt, things my twelve-year-old self couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. Sometimes I worry that I write for everybody but myself—Appa’s approval, Amma and her parents because they were writers, another like on my blog, because I love the ideas and images associated with being a writer. But then I also write because it makes me happy to see words running across a screen. Just as they land they’ll run faster and then they’ll halt, almost suddenly still.

Over coffee

Today we sat

On uncomfortable chairs

And made conversation.

In my head I made a list

Bullet points

Of the things I had not done.

He looked the same,

Sounded the same,

A year-and-a-half later

I was bad at keeping in touch, but he said he understood.

We talked,

an hour passed,

He caught up with my life,

And I his.

A list completed,

It only took an hour,

And I liked that I didn’t remember not knowing.

I said I wrote, he said nothing.

In my head I said I wrote,

Again. And again.

Still, he said nothing;

Of all the things I needed him to know,

This was the most important.

He said I seemed happy,

He needed to know it was because I was writing.

Aloud, I made a list again.

Of the things I wanted to do,

the places I wanted to go.

Of books I needed to read,

and old books I needed to re-read,

Of music.

In my head I left the list

of stories I wanted to write.

I whispered, I write.

He did not hear,

and we talked about school.

Then

I remember the green. There was only a little bit of it there in the centre and everything else was white. A bright white, a clean white, a colour once noticed but now fading. I remember the green in the midst of all the white, the long corridor, and then the trees.

At the end of the corridor was the chemistry laboratory, I could smell it from where I was sitting, in my room in another city. I could hear the test tube break; see the flame on the burner light up in an instant. But in the next moment there was none of this, no laboratory, no smell, just the green trees. Their leaves were an artificial green, too bright, a darker green, deep, a yellowing green, a muddy green. A green that looked cleaner in all the whiteness, leaves after the rain and leaves just grown. There was the corridor, the white corridor, there were the arches, but there were no doors. The laboratory wasn’t in the photograph; I just knew it was there, a physical room. Just like the people who always filled that corridor, but weren’t in the picture. The picture that she took without me.

The arches were huge, on one side they looked down on those plants in the ground floor next to the piece of wood that looked like a peacock. The arches on my right looked down on the terrace below; when I was there we called it the one-and-a-half floor. Mezzanine was too big a word for us. We’d play football there, we’d run. We’d hide behind pillars; we’d look down at the basketball court on every morning we arrived early.

And from those arches, we’d jump. I remember no worry, no fear of falling, no thinking. We’d be running, somebody would be chasing us, we’d climb through the arches, and we’d jump. Our hands would be above us; we’d stretch, hit the floor, and run again. I see the photograph, and I see us jumping. I see us rushing on in every direction, scattering, running away from each other, running towards each other. Like ants, when you drop something amongst them by mistake.

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I worry that I cannot remember the green. I wasn’t with her when she took the picture; I was in another city when she walked through the corridor again that day. I haven’t walked through there for a while now and I must remember the green in the midst of all that white.

There’s that book I kept, with all our photographs. Of that excursion to Kaigal, when he showed us snakes, and when he jumped off a rock somewhere so far above us into the water below. The same he, who kept in touch with me for years until something shifted. Those pictures of our last day, those pictures of us taking pictures, photographs we insisted on taking because something had ended, and something else would soon begin. That book, with pictures we didn’t know had been taken of us—on the rocks above the stage, the three of us hiding behind a tree,  that puppet show in which I was a goat, our class photographs we all claimed we didn’t dress up for when we actually did.

I looked, I remembered, but I couldn’t find the green.

It’s been a while since I last spoke to her. We haven’t seen each other for three years now; I know she looks the same because I’ve seen photographs. I don’t know the people around her; sometimes I don’t think I remember what she sounds like. We don’t write, we don’t talk, and everything is suddenly so unlike the days we jumped off those arches together. She would call every evening—she’d talk, and I’d listen. And then there would be silence—I’d continue to do what I was doing—reading, writing, studying, and she’d stay silent. I never knew what she did in those moments, but she must have done something. When we meet again, I don’t know what we’ll talk about.

But she took the photograph, and she knows the exact green. I wish for a moment that I had been with her, that I had seen what she had seen, and I had taken the picture she had taken. I cannot ask her, too much time has passed; but she was there, and I wasn’t.

For a moment I decide. I need to know the green, and I will ask her. She will not describe it; she will not tell me what it felt like, she will not say that she remembers our conversations. In a moment of complete calmness I decide on a simple “Hey, it’s been a while”, message. I know I must not expect too much, I’m thinking of myself, but I need to know the green. For those times I jumped, those times I sat in class, those exams I wrote, the teachers who knew me and urged me to write.

I see her profile picture. I see my green. The message goes unsent; I will wait till the next time we meet. The white is more grey here, the green stands out less. I notice the squares on the grey floor, the grey shadows on the walls I knew as white. The green leaves are too blurred to notice.

Outside, inside

I am thinking about writing.

She sits before me, telling me everything feels like a square.

In my head the square has compartments, divisions,

One small square next to another small square within a bigger square.

Corners that held and couldn’t be changed, lines that contained and couldn’t be moved.

She said everything was a square, and she was outside it.

 

One by one I took them out and placed them in a line

An arrangement of four post its that another she had drawn on,

Four separate strips, four different colours, a complete face.

Four different faces that made one face.

Post its stuck together somewhere in a book closed carefully each time so that they wouldn’t get folded.

 

They fit, for a moment the squares in my head fit too,

Like puzzles your five-year-old self completed and left on the floor

And those alphabetically arranged books on your slightly bending shelf, placed neatly—

Until new ones come in, becoming piles you have to reach behind to turn on the light.

Piles that threaten to fall but never do.

My bus arrives and I stand up to leave, telling her that she has made her square,

Wondering if she should try and place the squares like diamonds.

But diamonds still have lines, with their corners that contain,

And instead of new stationary, you think of paint stuck on a palette that you can never remove.

 

As you walk, the squares become stories.

Of the girl who told you she didn’t like to walk alone and so you walked with her.

You do not know her name but you cannot ask her, you think she knows yours, and too much time has passed.

Of the man in the park who leaves a stone on the bench next to you to count the number of rounds he has walked.

Of the times you planned to write for months, but never did because writing was then just one thing, not everything.  

Those separate squares, still within a larger square,

Their stories within yours; for them, your story within theirs.

And a square for your bus journey when she told you about her square and you thought of yours and wrote.

Crimson

Hand over an expectant canvas,

Blank,

Waiting.

A once white cloth,

Waiting to be used again.

A clean brush,

Naked without colour,

An empty palette,

Stained, dry.

Waiting.

A mug of water,

Still, clear, reflecting.

 

A dot of crimson lake.

A piercing white canvas,

With a dot of crimson lake.

 

The saturated brush,

In a mug of water.

Still, clear, reflecting,

Now disturbed,

Crimson spreading,

Deep,

Light,

Now no longer reflecting.