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?

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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.

Yellowed

When my father falls ill, the corners of every room seem to become curves, and it is like our house is curling up into itself. From my bed room, I can hear him say that his sheets, which are the purple-red of cut beetroots, are beginning to look yellow, and the white light of his table lamp is the yellow of the lightbulbs in his room. I make him some hot water when he says this. He’ll say he could have made it for himself. If I’m in a good mood, I won’t reply. If I’m irritated, I’ll say that he didn’t, that he just sat on his bed and said everything looked yellow.

Pa doesn’t fall ill very often, but he expects to be taken care of when he does. I’d expect it too, but it’s different with him. He expects someone to turn off his fan in the morning, throw open his curtains and give him tea—in his blue glass with half a spoon of sugar stirred exactly three and a half times, so that some of it will go undissolved—and  to ask him how he’s feeling. Now, I can open the curtains and turn off the fan and all that, but I can’t keep making tea. On some days, I don’t want to wake up before he does. Instead, I ask him how he’s feeling every two hours. That’s about the only thing he’s satisfied with when he’s sick.

On those days, I’m supposed to go and water Pa’s plants. He also wants me to talk to them, because he always thinks the money plant’s leaves are turning yellow, and that it takes caring, calm voices to save them. I think he watches me from the windows, because he always knows when I haven’t asked them how they are, or what their day has been like. My mother used to like our plants too, but I don’t think she talked to them.

They would take turns to water the plants. We had a small red bucket in the bathroom next to the kitchen. They’d fill the bucket up to the brim, carry it across the house to the plants in the corridor outside our apartment, and pour a mug of water into all the big pots, and half a mug in the small ones. Pa wouldn’t fight with Ma like he fought with me, but he’d just tell her—they’ll be happier if you talk to them, he would say. He claims he could see a difference, but Ma and I saw none.

The day we bought the plants was a holiday. It must have been, because I didn’t like to miss school, and I went to the nursery with Ma and Pa. First we went out for lunch to Mainland China because we always go to Mainland China, and sat at the only round table in the middle of the square ones. We ate the same things we always do because Pa says it’s the safest thing to do in all these food places—sweet corn soup, no starters, Hakka noodles because Ma liked the name and I insisted, medium spicy Hunan chicken, and fried rice because Ma and Pa thought adults can’t eat noodles. It was a quiet lunch that day. On our way home, Ma said suddenly, why don’t we buy some plants, and Pa looked at her, looked at me, and looked back at the road. We’re going to go buy plants, Ma said again.

Back then, there was a nursery near our house. In the nursery, I insisted on picking the cacti because they were small and round and I would touch them slowly, in the cautious, fascinated way that every cactus makes you want to touch it, with the tips of your fingers. They came in small plastic pots, and the old man selling them told me they didn’t need too much water. I searched for a yellow cactus but didn’t find one. Ma wanted to buy trees even though we couldn’t possibly grow them anywhere, and Pa was strolling among the plants with broad red leaves and clear veins that I didn’t like, because I didn’t think they looked like plants.

In school, we’d have gardening classes that reminded me of being in the nursery. It’s one of those things that my friend’s today say would only happen in a hippie school like mine, but twenty of us would dig up mud in uneven patches and water the plants. Sometimes we would have to pull out weeds, right from the roots, or they would grow again, like when you cut off the tails of lizards In the first class, we all brought coconut shells, filled them with mud, and planted seeds in them. I took it home and watered it occasionally. It grew slowly; I drew a face on the shell with yellow paint to keep the plant happy. One day, our teacher asked us to bring a plant each for the large square of land around the Banyan tree in school. I took one of those red plants that Pa had liked to stare at in the nursery. It’s still around, in a corner.

The plants became less important to Pa and more important to me, when Ma fell ill. Pa didn’t fall ill during these months either, and that made me suspicious of all the other times he told me he thought he had a cold coming, or that his head hurt. The night Ma died, Pa and I half-sat, half-slept next to each other in the hall, waiting for the next morning. It was the summer, and Ma had died in the only room with the air conditioner. Pa and I couldn’t stay there that night. Ma’s sister didn’t sit with us either. She went into my room, closed the door, and I suppose she cried. She has a yellowing photograph of Ma on her table now, just like I do.

But Ma wasn’t like Pa when she fell ill. She would talk less, and we could see her grimace every time she moved to push a pillow into the small of her back. The house seemed to get flushed, like when you inhale steam to clear a blocked nose, and your cheeks turn out red when you emerge from under the towel. Pa would always make sure there was curd in the house, because it was one of the few things Ma still liked to eat. She also still liked eggs, but we could make it only with the whites because the doctor said the yolk was bad for her. The women from Ma’s office would always be at home—they would talk to her and run decisions by her like they used to do. When she was tired, I knew exactly how to help her lie down, lifting her feet off the floor slowly as she lowered herself onto the bed, and everyone else would sit around her.

When Pa and I woke up the night after Ma died, I went to water the plants. The woman from next door came and asked me how Ma was doing. I paused to bend down and pour water into a pot and told her calmly that she had died. She made a strange sound—like she was drawing in air noisily but hiccupped in the middle, and ran into her house. Ma never liked this woman; she had once barged into our house and yelled that Ma had married a horrible, short-tempered man. Inside our house another neighbour was saying to Pa, we didn’t even know she was sick, you should have told us, and I wanted to tell him he must’ve been blind not to notice how thin Ma had become, how her back would bend, and how she’d lost all her hair and wore a cloth around her head.

For weeks after, people would come home. After all the guests had come to say they were sorry and had gone back to where they came from, the Sundays became ours again. I asked Pa if he remembered how when Ma was around, we’d spend occasional Sundays sitting in the plant corridor, loosening the soil in each pot and removing the dry yellow leaves. He didn’t answer. Sometimes we’d shift a plant into another pot because it had grown too much; I’m surprised the few plants we didn’t touch survived their roots pushing at the heavy sides of their original clay pots. On other days, we’d rearrange the pots. My aunt in Bangalore has a gardener who comes and does all this for her. The gardener is scared of dogs, so we have to pull B by his red collar and sit in a room with him as scratches the door.

On the last of those Sundays, I had sat at the door to the house and watched Ma and Pa loosening the soil in a few of the pots. Smell a yellow rose, never; I’d rather walk on mud forever, I said aloud without thinking—Ma turned to me, and Pa paused, and he told me to go on. I wrote a poem that day.

Soon after, Ma had also decided to grow wheatgrass at home, for her platelet count. She would cut some leaves and make the green juice every morning. Then she would go to work, and on days that I didn’t have school, I would go with her. Park lane, the road was called, but it didn’t look as fancy as it sounds—it was a small office, where I would sit on the floor, pull out my paints, and mix new colours on sheets of paper. Ma worked at an NGO for handloom weavers, so there were always stacks of folded material lying everywhere—sometimes she would bring some home, and we would get clothes stitched for ourselves. Our tailor had a small shop on the road near Mainland China, so it was easy to get there. It tickled every time he used the green tape to measure my arms and waist. I now wear the yellow kurta Ma had got stitched for herself. It’s a little loose at the shoulders.

When I turned fourteen, Pa and I began to have fights about the plants, the same way we began to fight about how I failed physics, and talked on the phone too often. I would forget to water the plants—sometimes I would lie and tell him I had watered them earlier, and sometimes he’d take me outside, point to the mud in a pot, and tell me not to lie. I’d stare at the pot, and if I was irritated, I’d look back up at him and tell him I wasn’t lying. We wouldn’t talk for the rest of the evening. I think that’s where I got my habit of lying from; I’m good at making up details and keeping a straight face.

I don’t remember when Pa started to water the plants again. He waters them every morning; it’s part of his schedule before he leaves for work. But something has happened—he can’t remember exactly how much water to put in the pot next to the apartment door, and every day he puts too much—when we step out of the house, we see a large pool of slightly yellow water spreading outwards from the pot. Pa isn’t happy.

 

 

 

Etc.

I saw someone who looked like Avi on the road yesterday. It wasn’t her. She walked past me in a tangerine shirt, with her hair in her eyes.

Sanaa and I would always take things from Avi’s house. We meant to return them until we realised that she didn’t seem to notice they were gone; not the old notebook with pages that slipped like butter, or the small wooden monkey with joints that bent in ways that ours couldn’t. She had small things that Sanaa and I would slip underneath our shirts, arching our shoulders forward to make our clothes seem shapeless. Our hair was always longest in the summer weeks that we spent here; we’d used it to cover the bulge under our clothes when we slipped out of Avi’s door.

Avi was our aunt’s neighbour. My sister and I have spent three weeks of the summer with our aunt since we were five, and our parents realised they didn’t know what to do with us when they went to work. Papa refused to leave us with our neighbours because he said they were too loud, and their son was always eating ice cream, even in the winter. I don’t remember this, but Mama says there was a day when she took Sanaa to her office, and Papa took me to the university he taught at. Sanaa drew on apparently important documents, and I dropped Papa’s piles of alphabetically arranged books. That night, our aunt was called.

That first summer, Avi wouldn’t speak to us much. Our aunt said she didn’t talk to her much either. I’m certain Avi wouldn’t have spoken to us at all if our aunt hadn’t told her to look out for us every time she went out for lunch with men we never got to meet. Sanaa would wonder why our aunt never invited them inside; we’d only see them from the window in Avi’s hall. It was the only window in her house that wasn’t dusty and let sunlight in.

 

The first time Sanaa and I took something from Avi’s house, we took a handful of unfilled balloons from a packet underneath her bed. She had given us the sandwiches our aunt had left for lunch, and was sitting in a rectangle of sunlight with a book. Sanaa was convinced the balloons were for a birthday Avi had never celebrated, and nobody remembered. She told me that Avi had sat at home in her tangerine shirt, waiting for a chocolate cake she never got.

It didn’t matter that Sanaa couldn’t possibly have known this. That year I told Mama we must have a chocolate cake, like the one I had eaten at the neighbour boy’s birthday party. We must also have three balloons on the door, I said, because neighbour boy had had two. Mama showed the man at the shop three photographs, and asked him to pick the cake he thought he could make best. When he did, she ran her hand through her hair and told him to make the other one, the one that looked like a carrot. She also told him to make it a brightly coloured butterscotch cake.

Sanaa and I took the balloons from underneath Avi’s bed because they came in sad colours—there was the brown of roasted almonds, and the green of mould that appeared on the bottom of kolhapuris that hadn’t been dried after an evening in the rain. We slipped the balloons in our pockets, told Avi we’d go home because the sandwiches had made us sleepy, and ran to our room. She didn’t look up. I don’t think she heard us leave.

I filled the first balloon, and my sister let it go outside our window. They’ll be happier filled, I’m telling you, she said to me. We watched all ten float away from us. I didn’t tell her they made the sky seem sad too.

 

A year later, our aunt married one of the men she would always have lunch with. He was Portuguese–not tall, but with thin legs that made him walk like a spider. He told us to call our aunt tia.

The Portuguese man didn’t seem to like us spending our summers there. On some mornings he would sit in front of the television with his feet on the sofa in the way that our aunt always told him not to. Your tia hasn’t made me lunch again, he would say to us on other days. We’d hear the door close a little while later.

On these days, he wouldn’t be home in the evening. Sanaa and I were sent to Avi’s house when he returned; sometimes our aunt would come to take us back home at night. Her eyes would be red from all the anger. He says he fell asleep at the train station again, she’d say to us. The first time this happened, Sanaa brought home a wooden monkey from the table in Avi’s hall. On these days, Avi would watch us leave.

The monkey was our favourite until Sanaa fell ill. That day I brought back postcards from Avi’s bookshelf. We stared at the postcard with the tall apartment blocks that looked the same. Every open window had yellow curtains, as though everyone had decided to change them on the same day.  Sanaa stared at the postcard of an old woman selling ginger in a street market that nobody could ever stand still in. The woman had hair the colour of ginger, and Sanaa was sure that the toothless man in sunglasses sitting next to the woman was her husband. Avi’s lived in all these places, Sanaa told me. I believed her.

 

Three summers later, Avi wasn’t there. Our aunt said she left without notice. She had found the key under the mat outside her door.

The Portuguese man had disappeared. Our aunt had got married to another man she’d have lunch with often.

On the evening of my aunt’s wedding, Avi had been writing. Papa disapproved of second marriages the way he disapproved of ice cream in the winters, so he didn’t come. Mama came, but left soon after; she said she couldn’t miss work the next day. Sanaa and I stayed at Avi’s house that night. I slipped a little dusty box under my shirt when we went home the next morning.

It was the dark brown colour of Avi’s closed door.

 

Mint box

I don’t know her name, but I’ll call her Ni. Nia, who was always called Ni.

Everyone swallowed her name like it was a pill with a bitter after taste; Ni was tasteless, Nia was a second too long, and bitter. I would see her at the library every evening; Ni had curls that crumpled into themselves on the sides of her face, and hands with short fingers that tightly held the tips of the pages she was reading. She sat cross legged on the floor in the corner with the magazines, and I sat at the small table between the two shelves with old books. I would look up from there when I was tired of reading, and sometimes, Ni would be writing.

The day I began to call her Ni, I saw her slip a piece of paper into a book she had just finished reading. She stood up and dusted the back of her clothes, picked up the black pen she always carried, and left the book on the table next to her. She didn’t stop to think, not when she left the book behind, not when she reached the main door. I picked up her book when she left; Dear Life.

Her sheet was somewhere in the middle. I didn’t know who she was writing for, or if she was writing for anybody.

The woman on the bus who looks at you for a moment longer than others do is called Nia. Everybody calls her Ni. Perhaps she wants to be called Nia.

I took her paper home, and left the book behind. I put it in a small tin box that once had mints.

The next day, I go to the library early. I’m telling myself not to be excited, that maybe she won’t look at the book again. I find Dear Life, make sure nobody is looking, and slip in the paper.

If it isn’t Ni, it’ll be someone else.

I like apples. I like new stationary; new pencils with sharp tips, and erasers wrapped in plastic. I don’t like the idea of being on a ship, but I like small boats that won’t go far. I like libraries, and corners; I don’t like winters. I loved school, I don’t like boys.

I go to my table and start to read. I wonder if Ni has a mint box of her own.

Ni is writing her second note when I look up again. I hadn’t seen her come in. Dear Life is next to her. She is writing slowly, like she cannot decide how much she wants to tell. She slips the note in and leaves the book on the wooden shelf close to her, looking as though she is trying to forget where she left it. Ni doesn’t leave immediately, and I want her to leave.

She leaves later than usual that day. I wonder what she has said at home, or if she lives alone.

The librarian is turning off the lights when I pick up her note. I read it outside, under a streetlight.

My mother would stand on our balcony every morning, staring at the only potted plant we owned. Outside, the park would be filling, and my brother would demand breakfast like he has learnt to do. I don’t want to be her.

At home, I don’t read the note again. I put it in my box of mints. Perhaps it wasn’t for me. But I write my note the next day. I search for something I want to tell her.

The note that I leave in Dear Life that afternoon is long. I fold it in half. My writing is small, and there is space for more.

Come here, you must see this, my aunt had said to me. I’m coming, coming. I cannot find the square of paper I mark my pages with. Come, she said again. Her finger was tracing circles on her knee. I mutter, 87, 87, close my book, and get up. I’m standing next to her. You must know that this is where I’ll keep my will, she says. I don’t respond. Ashish realised how difficult it was without a will when his parents died. So mine will be kept on this shelf, and you will have the keys to this cupboard. I nod. I had made a will when your mother was making hers. But things were very different eight years ago, and I want to change it now, she says. I nod again. There was a sound caught in her throat that didn’t appear. And I don’t think it’ll make sense for us all to leave you houses, she said. I nodded. I think she expected me to say something.

This time, I watch Ni.

She opens Dear Life and slips the note into her pocket. I don’t want to watch her read it, but I can’t look away. Ni doesn’t open it immediately. She sits on the floor with two books whose covers and spines I cannot see. Her hair is slipping out of the rubber band she has tied, and her legs are stretched before her. I hadn’t noticed how long they were. Dear Life is still in the shelf.

When she opens the note and reads, she bites her lip. She doesn’t write back. I stop looking.

My hair is falling on my face, and so I don’t see her walk towards me. Do you have a pen, she asks quietly. I stare at her before I give her the one I’m holding. She stands at the edge of my table and writes on the same paper that I had written on that morning. She is whispering the words to herself, but I am too nervous to hear her. When she looks up at me, she is smiling widely. She leaves the pen on my table and walks towards Dear Life.

Mama said

Mama always said that my sister would ask for a box of new colour pencils in the same way that she asked for an older brother.

It is Mama’s favourite story to tell. Before Papa left, he would say that he had heard it change more times than is good for any story, but I don’t think there is such a thing. Mama tells this story loudly—she always told stories loudly, even the scary bits, and laughed before she reached the funny parts—and everyone had to wait for her. But this was her favourite story, especially at big dinners. I don’t think she ever told other stories as loudly.

We are in the car, and I am sitting in the back with my sister’s bag. Mama is saying she was leaving for work when the teacher called. The first time I heard the story, she said she was reading a book at home. The next time she was at the doctor’s, and once she was at work. Your daughter just doesn’t listen, the teacher was saying. Mama says she was nodding, saying hm in all the right places, because this wasn’t the first time she had been called. I’ve had enough of her, the teacher said. I’ve had enough of you, Mama says she thought. So she drove to school, wondering what her daughter had done.

My sister stretches her legs out in the car. Mama is laughing. She says she found my sister sitting on the last bench in class, drawing. Draw your house, they had been told that day. My sister had drawn a room with large windows that overlooked the rest of a small house. She had dipped her fingers in green paint and had left impressions of their tips as leaves; she had painted a solid block of brown for the trunk and had run her pencil along the wet paint. Mama says it was rough to touch. The walls of the room were a light blue, with wooden bookshelves and yellow lights. Papa used to say it was the nicest house he had ever seen. Mama says she was glad her daughter hadn’t drawn a big house with cream walls and brown doors, and a triangle roof. She took my sister away and put her in another school.

We are on our way to the station. Mama is telling us that my sister would ask for a box of new colour pencils in the same way that she asked for an older brother. She never told my sister why it wasn’t possible for her to have an older brother. She says she thought it would give my sister a funny story to tell one day, but I don’t think my sister ever told the story. When he was around, Papa would add that my sister shrugged when they told her about me. Mama does not say this.

My sister was going to Bombay. Mama and I watch her board the train, but we do not cry. I thought Mama would, but my sister had said she wanted to paint in Bombay, and not be asked any questions. I have never seen her say something that seriously. And Mama had always bought her colour pencils when she had wanted them, just like she bought me pretty notebooks to write in. It was the same thing, only this time she bought her a ticket.

We never knew where my sister lived. I didn’t, until she started sending me paintings on small squares of paper. She would call Mama thrice a week, then twice, and then not at all—she made me promise I wouldn’t show her the paintings she sent me. I promised. This is what it means to be sisters, I thought.

I wrote to her occasionally. I told her about school and the books I was reading, that Mama had quit her job at the University, and that she wouldn’t cook any more. I would write to her on single sheets of paper that I tore from the notebooks Mama had bought me. I made sure she didn’t become my diary; they are unreliable things with too many secrets.

My sister wrote to Mama occasionally, and we would sit in my room and read her letters. She never said anything about where she was living, or what she was doing—she’d say she had bought a coffee filter and new paint brushes. I was surprised that Mama never insisted on knowing anything about her. She just said she knew Bombay and decided my sister would be alright. She’s a considerate girl, Mama would say to me. My sister once sent her a striped hair band that she began to wear around her wrist, when it wasn’t in her hair. She was wearing it on the day she found my sister’s paintings in the small tin box I kept them in.

When the neighbours would ask Mama about my sister, she would smile widely. She’s very happy living alone, she would say to them. What is she doing, they would ask. Painting, Mama would reply. Then she’d tell them about how my sister would ask for a box of colour pencils in the same way that she asked for an older brother.

The paintings that my sister sent me were of the places she had been to. The first was a grey one of her room, with a steel stool that reminded me of hospitals, and a low bed that she had always wanted, but Mama never let her have. There was one of Marine Drive that Mama and Papa had once taken us to, where Mama had decided that she would teach again, and this had made Papa angry. There was a brown painting of Hill Road and of shops selling kolhapuris; one was of the rains and umbrellas and leaking roofs, and another was of Church Gate Station. The one that I saw in Mama’s hands on the day she found my sister’s paintings was of the crowded trains that she always said she had loved.

Mama and Papa had met in Bombay, on Marine Drive. Mama told my sister that she liked to sit there and read because her house was too noisy. Papa would come there every time he had his heart broken. They took the train back home together one evening. Mama told him he was too self-indulgent, and he made her tell him why. She got off at Church Gate station, and said that this time, her stop came too soon.

It was raining when they met on Hill Road a few months later, and Papa told Mama she had been too harsh on him. When I asked Mama about them, she only told me that they were too young. A week later, Papa left us and didn’t come back.

I came home late from college on the day that Mama found my sister’s paintings in a small tin box. She was sitting on my bed with an unopened letter next to her, and the box was in one hand and the painting was in the other. She was not angry. She’s living with your father, Mama told me. She never told me how she knew. I was angry, and never asked. Your sister would ask for a box of new colour pencils in the same way that she asked for an older brother.

Storied

They are laughing and breathless when they run onto the bus. I see them laughing and turn away because the woman next to me is shouting at her daughter and telling her she has to go to school in plaits. You will know the woman if you can remember your mother’s face when she picked you up from school after work. If you are like me, you will know her daughter when she comes home that evening, with her hair knotted and loosely tied. Her mother will sigh and refuse to comb her hair—neene madko, you do it—when her father does, he will find that it is muddy. Behind me, I can only hear them laughing.

When I turn around, her hands are moving in response to his. They are moving more quickly than words can be said aloud; her fingers are bending in a way that I have never thought of bending them. Her thumb is touching her little finger, her little finger is straightening itself out, her middle finger is running down her right palm. Then she is holding the fingers of his right hand together; her left thumb is touching his right wrist. He jerks it away from her, and then he is pointing at the blue kolhapuris on her feet. It is raining outside, and his shoes are muddy. She bends down to dust the bottom of her jeans, and he is smiling.

I have decided that when they first meet in school, she is playing with mud. There is nobody around her because there is still half an hour until lunch time, and he is sitting on the top of a small slide and looking at her. She is pouring water on a mountain of mud. He is watching her quietly, thinking he likes the feeling of dry mud under his feet, and wet mud in his hands. Barefoot, she will step on the wet mud. I have decided that when they first talk, this is what he tells her of himself. But you will know them as another story. You will remember her as the girl who drew faces on the margins of her books, and him as the boy who made origami cranes out of ruled paper and forgot where he had left them.

There is too much traffic and rain. We have stopped at a signal. Majestic hogi bisi-bisi tea kudiyana, the conductor is saying to the driver—when they reach Majestic they will each drink hot half-teas from plastic cups whose rims bend between their fingers. I look back at the phone in my hand and think of the story I have been reading. I can hear it unfurling out of itself like an old cassette.

I remember a time when I am four, and aware of a story. Elizabeth is talking. It is Elizabeth’s last day in school because she is going back home, and five of us are sitting with her on the muddy steps outside class, long after school has ended. I only vaguely know what is being said, but I know I must call it a story—Elizabeth’s eyes are big, her eyebrows are raised, and her hands are moving back and forth through bottled air. Srishti is tapping her leg on the steps, and the rest of us are sitting very straight and very still. Tanya is biting her lip. Tanya never bites her lip.

I am sitting next to Elizabeth and looking at her hands. I am wishing that my hands were darker because I want my palms to look like hers, like a different colour from the rest of me. Elizabeth is talking about a lion she had once faced at home. First her sentences are walking, suddenly they are running, and then they are diving. I was terrified, she is whispering, I wanted to run, I wanted to do something, but I just stood still.

I do not know how Elizabeth’s story ended, and this time it does not bother me that I do not remember. You might think she stretched out her hand and touched the lion’s mane, you might decide she fought him with a stick she found under a tree whose top she could not see. I will only remember that it did not matter if I believed her, and I will remember her voice.

The bus is getting noisier. “Mundina niladana, Lido Theatre,” a man’s voice is saying from somewhere above. “The next stop is Lido Theatre,” a woman’s voice is repeating. The story I have been reading has finished unfurling into my hand, and is sitting like dry mud between my fingers. I am thinking of all the people who have told me that there will be a time when not telling a story feels worse than telling it badly, and I want this to be true. I must get off on the third stop from this one; it is one of those days when I will be early to college even if I walk there.

When I turn around again, her left hand is in a tight fist, and her middle finger touches the nail on her left thumb twice. Her fist is opening, her elbow is lifting; his right thumb and little finger are coming together, and another is running down the back of his hand until a point between his elbow and wrist. He rests his hand on her knee and she smiles.

I think that when they first tell each other stories, she tells him of how she had been stranded at sea that night. When he does not look surprised, I think she will widen her eyes and tell him that she had then flown a helicopter to school that morning. She will move her right index finger in a circle, and the fingers of her left hand will move quickly, like those of the impatient man I had seen at the airport. And then he would have smiled, telling her of the tunnel he had dug from his house to school when she had been at sea. She would raise her eyebrows and bite her lip in the way that he had not. He would then raise his hands to show her the mud under his fingernails.

When I am almost at my bus stop, I feel like I am in a room with white curtains and white walls. I am thinking of mud because there cannot be any in this room, not even from the dust under my shoes. The floor is a grey that looks like it can be white; these tiles are like stories that are yours but feel like theirs.

If you have ever been on the phone with a girl who can neither speak nor hear you, remember the urgency with which you said yes, yes, even though she would not know this. Recall the awkwardness with which her mother first called to say that her daughter had something to say to you, and then think of your own non-response because you will never know what it was. If you know this, you will also know that watching them talk behind you with their hands does not leave you with the same feeling as that afternoon.

Then, I am getting off the bus and thinking of the weekend.