Mangalore

I don’t like the smell of cars. It is not bright, like the smell of newly washed white sheets with pale blue stripes. It is a smell that walks in like a person you are not fond of, who has been listening to your conversation for a while now. It is not a smell you can get used to and it isn’t a smell you can place—you think it is leather, but it can also be the plastic. Outside the window there are hills, electric wires running between coconut trees and orange and yellow houses.

He is trying to keep up with a car that he cannot see, hoping it is somewhere in front, because otherwise we’re lost. He’s not good with directions, and we’re still 117 kilometers away. Next to me, A is using her new phone to take a picture of the ghats. The window is closed, so the photograph she takes also reflects the book she is reading—Murakami, I think. Outside, a woman in red is walking on the trees. I see her occasionally, but she does not look at me. I like the picture A takes, it is eerie, and does not look photo-shopped. Nouns have become verbs, they now do more than say. She has always taken nice photographs.

The two of us were never close. When we were children, A would comb and pretend to cut my hair. She was at that in between age, and I made sure she was caught there—she was too old to play the games that she did, and I was her excuse. I did not mind. We bathed together once, and my towel fell off—that is all I remember. Now we spend our time going for talks, we sit silently through them and have coffee after. She insists on paying for auto rides, but she doesn’t always win. A has her own secrets and I have mine, and we have never thought it necessary to share them. It is more interesting to talk about movies, and incidents and lectures that we have attended—it helps that we like similar things. At the wedding a few days later we stuck together, talking of uncomfortable saris and fake smiles, and how the happiness we had then came from all the fish we ate.

It is hot, and the smell of the car returns more persistently. My stomach feels strange—like clothes in a washing machine that are clean, but will go on turning till the machine stops. Next time, I will not have an oily dosa for breakfast. There is Japanese music playing in the background and Appa is singing along, making up words that have no meaning. We are laughing. I wonder if he would have done this some years ago—no, and I am sure of this—but what has changed? The woman in red turns to look at us from between the trees.

In the front seat, they hardly speak. Perhaps they no longer have much to say to each other, they have grown too different too quickly. Appa listens to him speak, nodding occasionally. Just check the cricket score—that is all they talk about when they must. He will say that Kohli is their only chance, that India will not win this match, that they must score the next 50 runs quickly, or all is lost. Appa nods slightly, before beginning to sing along with the Japanese song playing. We laugh again. When we go for gudbud the next day, Appa insists that A must try it. The three of us are all A’s, Ajja called us his three Aces. She likes the tall glass, the jelly, and the three scoops of ice cream—one each of vanilla, butterscotch, and strawberry.

I look out of the window again. The washing machine that is the ghats have ended. I pick up Zadie Smith again, and the woman in red smiles.

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