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.

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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.

To close

I am sitting in the hall when I realise I have not told this story the way I want to. Amma’s face is caught in a photograph on the table; it is too small for the frame that holds it. She is smiling; it is one of those perfect photographs with light on all the right parts of her face. I am wondering where she is.

Appa is standing up to get himself another beer. A crowd is cheering somewhere; Chris Gayle has hit his second six in a row. Julie would have boned a duck on another channel, it is a movie, so she will do it right. There is a message from him that I do not open. Appa is asking if we should have dinner. Anything, I am saying; I am wondering if I am allergic to blueberries.

She calls me when I am reading and complains about work. The floor I am lying on is no longer cold. She will tell me I am pathetic for not calling; he will say the same to me later in different words. He will pick them in a way that a person plays chess, and I will tell him he does not understand. To her, I will try to explain. I will not say it right.

I want to stand up and sit down. I want to smooth the covers of my bed and throw them for wash, I want to open my book and put it down, but not in that order. I want to throw away some letters that he hoped I would keep; I want to forget they are hidden in the middle of all my paintings because nobody will look there. I want to keep a diary that I will not be honest in, I want to read her story and wish it was mine.

At three in the morning, I am lying in bed. I am cursing the heat and the fan that cannot move any faster; it is telling me that this is all it was meant to do. I am telling myself that these are the holidays I wanted, but there is some unshakeable feeling, like the dirt under my fingernails. When I wake up the next morning, it is the same day again.

**

A six-year-old girl is asking her mother if she is going to die. Her mother stops eating. She is now asking her who will take care of her. Appa, of course, her mother is saying. They are eating again.

When she is twelve, the girl is sitting with her mother on a bed. She is quiet. Outside, a man she cannot see is saving a tender coconut for the man who buys one from him every day. The cells keep growing and they forget to stop, her mother is saying. The girl is nodding at something she thought happened to people she did not know.

A year later the girl is in Bangkok, shopping with her cousins. Do you have a picture of your mother on your table, her aunt is asking. She is shaking her head, turning to look at a blue and white photo frame that she will buy at the last minute.

At home, she is sitting on the floor. She is reading from a notebook that her mother has written letters in. Her knees are knotted into her chest, but the hands from her shoulders are not hers. The hair band around her wrist is too blue; the fingers that turn pages are too long. She is not crying yet.

A sixteen-year-old girl is writing to her mother from boarding school. It is not a letter she will post; it is a page she has written in a book that she closes with a black hair band. The hostel door is opening and closing behind her, she is going to be late. She will write selfishly about herself, rather than her mother’s cancer.

**

When she writes, the woman’s hair falls on her back in waves that do not want to subside. I am first looking in the mirror, and then I am sitting with my laptop. When too much time passes, I start to read. I am reading so quickly that I do not know what I will remember. I am reading in images that are hers, and his, and hers, and mine.

I am writing from my bed. They are tired lines that want to say something new. I am beginning to reread Mourning Diary five minutes after I have finished it once. Barthes has written of the things I cannot remember.

Appa is on his way to Delhi. I am not in her house as I used to be when he travelled; her mother is not bringing us fried rice with corn for dinner, or talking to me in Tamil. When Appa calls at night and asks me if I am lonely, I do not know how to tell him that I am not. I am walking from his room to mine, thinking that there are no sounds other than those that I make.

I am sitting in Appa’s bed with Amma’s photograph. The word count on my laptop says I have written two sixty two words, two, six, two. It has been five days. I realise I do not know what it means to retell a story. I am starting to cry.

**

There is a story I am trying to write. When I want it to be like the story I wrote four years ago, I realise that the story is different now. Appa is in it differently, and I am different, I am not just older, with longer hair and new clothes. Amma is different too, because I do not remember her voice or smell, and this does not bother me.

It is evening, and Appa and I are walking. We are laughing about different things, or similar things that feel different, I don’t know. He is quiet when a year ago he would have talked; he talks, when a month ago he would have stayed quiet. He is walking fast and so am I, my knees and ankles are bending in a way they have never done before.

At home, Appa is asking me if I am talking to myself. He is smiling. No, I am saying. I am telling him I am reading aloud—reading what?, something I have written—and all the time I am thinking—I have never told him this before, I would not have told him this before. But I tell him before I realise I am telling him, and we are both quiet in front of what I have said aloud.

**

A woman who is almost twenty is trying on her mother’s clothes. She remembers her in flashes when she is buying milk or paying her aunt’s phone bills; her mother is always wearing shades of red with black that looks more like deep brown. The clothes she is trying on smell of naphthalene and damp, falling off her shoulders and touching her back only where it is broadest. She chooses three.

In a bookshop, the woman is opening a book that is too small for her hands. Inside there is more pencil than ink, underlined sentences and handwriting that looks like her mother’s. She is smiling to herself, to the book and to its paper. She is buying the book; she is reading it as she walks on the road.

At home, she is lying in bed. She is wondering what it means to make literature out of life, and decides she will never know. She is beginning to pack, and remembers that her mother packed well; the inside of her bag looked like a box of new stationary, and the puzzles her daughter would make on the floor.

**

We are walking among the books on the pavement in Abids on Sunday. Appa is wandering ahead of me and I am lingering at stalls because nobody is looking at me, and asking me what I want. A man is writing titles on white sheets he has stuck on books as their covers. I am on my knees and searching for familiar names. I have forgotten the sun, and that I am in a new place.

My cupboard smells of wood and rain. The clothes I am wearing smell of home and the sun that I have forgotten how to step out into. She and I are walking down a road saying the same things, about writing, about college, about us. I am wondering if we have always said the same things; we must have always said the same things. My cupboard smells of wood and rain, and not rain and earth. It is not the same.

When I see her after five years, I will realise we do not have much to say. She will become a doctor, like she had decided before I knew her, and I knew her a long time ago. With her I am talking slower, my voice is higher and my laugh louder, as though this will give us more things to say.

I am sitting at my table. I am unsure of what comes next, now that I have written something.

Nine, fourteen, thirty

She is sitting on the bean bag next to the encyclopaedias. She does not like them, they are heavy and do not fit in her hands when she wants to lie in bed and read. When she goes to college, she will feel sad for the boy who says he only read encyclopaedias as a child, thinking momentarily of how they remind her that she has forgotten a lot of things. She is sitting uncomfortably on the bean bag, holding Eva Ibbotson in her hand. She is also in near the Amazon river with Maia, hoping simultaneously that Amma will not come and find her reading Journey to the River Sea again. The little boy opposite her has dropped a stack of books. She does not look up but wonders if she should help him.

I am walking up and down between the adult and children’s sections. I am not holding any books. But I am walking slowly, hanging around unfamiliar names because I do not want people to wonder what I am doing. I sit down at an empty table. Next to me, he is writing page numbers on squares of paper and slipping them between the pages of his book that he has already marked with orange post its. Before me, a girl who looks as old as I do is flipping between the glossy pages of NME. I have never read NME. I think of the links he sent me, of 15 Libraries Every Book Lover Must Visit. I do not remember their names or where they are, but I know the pictures—the old libraries with large rooms and high ceilings. Not like this British Council, with its bean bags and computers, but wooden, like the library in school.

I have no books to read. In the children’s section, a girl is reading Journey to the River Sea, and a boy is turning the pages of Puck of Pook’s Hill too quickly. I know that on the shelf above him are the Famous Five’s, and that all thirteen books of A Series of Unfortunate Events are on the second shelf on the girl’s left. The books in this section are suddenly too familiar, not their stories, but their names—some so familiar that I can convince myself I have read them. I go to the adult section again, eight rows of shelves with names I do not recognise. I look up at confusing metal boards that point to more sections-History, Philosophy, Computers-I find Literature, and walk towards it quickly.

She is looking out of the glass doors of the small room that is the children’s section, looking at the man at a computer. At three in the afternoon they are almost never taken, but the man in his tucked white shirt looks like he is working seriously. Amma will be there to pick her up soon; she must find something to read. Then they will go to music class, and she will almost fall asleep. When she joins boarding school at sixteen she will decide to learn Carnatic music again, for this memory with Amma. The boy on the bean bag with Kipling in his hands is sitting in front of the shelf she wants to look at. She hovers around another shelf. She will not go up to him and say excuse me like she has seen others do. She will not walk up to him and force him to move by saying nothing at all either, like those twins in identical skirts had done the last time she was there.

There is a cloth tied around her head that matches the dupatta she is wearing. Her hands are looking for a book that should be in this shelf, the same shelf she found it in last week but did not take it out of. Zadie Smith; Smith, Zadie. Maybe she should check the catalogue. Is that what it is called? When her daughter goes to college, she will hear of On Beauty and think of her mother. It will be in the middle of a conversation she is having in the English Department, and for a moment she will pause, realising that it is the book she remembers her mother reading. The cloth around her head is making her feel warm. The young girl a few shelves down from her stares for a few seconds, but turns away to follow her finger sliding across the books. Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man. No, she wants On Beauty.

I am sliding my finger across the books again, looking for a name that I recognise. It is slow; I can feel my finger moving across the curve of a book, until it falls between the end of one and the beginning of another. The Penguin Book of Women Poets, I read, Doris Lessing, Lorrie Moore, Nabokov. I stop at Nabokov to say the name to myself, but do not know if I am saying it right. I do not pull the book out. I look towards the woman with the cloth around her head to see if she is still running her finger across the books. I think of Lemony Snicket, and how his Violet would tie her hair with a ribbon when she began inventing something, and I would imitate her. Running a finger across the books seemed like the right thing to do here.

Her hand moves up to pull down the cloth around her head a little. Her daughter is going to be acting in a school play tomorrow. She wants her to come. Through the shelves she can see her husband, handing over his carefully marked books to the man who does Xeroxes. He had tried to tell their daughter—if Amma is too tired she might not come to watch you, but I will be there—their daughter had nodded. She reaches out to straighten a book. She will be going tomorrow. On Beauty, maybe next week, she tells herself. Her finger stops at Isabel Allende—Paula, she reads. She reads the crowded words at the back of the book, and think of the roles reversed. She will go home and write that night.

I run my hand back along the same books again. Nabokov, Moore, Lessing. I stop at Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It is hard bound, a loose plastic sheet covering the brown book. I stare at the dog on the cover, on its back and killed with a garden fork. I did not know it was a garden fork, but I liked dogs. I take it to the counter—today I will borrow my first book from the adult section.

She has picked a dark blue book from the last shelf, The Thief Lord. Amma will smile that night when she sees Cornelia Funke and read it first. She will then smile as she gives it back to her. She can see Amma walking towards the children’s section through the glass door. I can’t find Eva Ibbotson, a girl is saying to her older brother who is reading an encyclopaedia. He is not listening. She looks up and points at the shelf with all the Ibbotson’s, and the girl smiles back.

Anagrams

I do not understand. I cannot tell who is real, or who is imagined. I tell myself that it does not matter, but it does. I tell him that the book is strange, but I cannot say why; I tell her I will write to her about it, but I cannot begin. I am restless when the book ends, my right leg is shaking in the way that my aunt hates, and I am chewing on my lower lip because I want to say something, but do not know what.

So I pick on lines, and metaphors, on Lorrie Moore’s sentences that throw images at me before leaving them there and carrying on, unconcerned. They are hanging and unconnected to the larger story that should be more important, but it really isn’t. I have grown accustomed to the importance of this larger story, to focus on all that happens, and how people there react; I have grown accustomed, and forgotten to look beyond.

I both am and am not the Benna that Moore creates; it is easy for me to forget that her daughter, Georgianne, exists only in her head, that she is just differently real. I think of all the people I have made up, none with so much detail or feeling, I do not know what they look like, or sound like, or what they are wearing. In our conversations, I am saying the smart, witty, sensible things I would not have said otherwise, and these people disappear when our conversations grow old. But for Benna, her daughter is real—she hugs her, shows her the wisdom tooth she has had removed, finds her a baby sitter, and takes care of her when she is ill. “I made up a real daughter,” “I don’t go around making up imaginary daughters,” she tells Gerard. There is Benna’s real, my real, and the reals we have created.

There is a moment when Benna sees Georgianne standing at the top of a staircase. In that moment I wondered what she saw, but it is only a moment for me; Benna does not stop to think that her daughter is not really there, and her story moves on. I wonder what Benna is actually doing when she is with daughter—sitting, standing, teaching, or in a café—like the times she meets her friend Eleanor, who is as real as Georgianne. They meet at cafés and over dinner and talk about everything—poetry, Middlemarch, men—important things that matter, even if you do not want them to.  Eleanor and Georgianne are like the characters you want to create when you write, the characters that grow beyond your control, and take your stories where they want to go.

“Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters,” Benna says, as she talks about language and words. It is this reshuffling that she is always doing—in her metaphors, in the people in her life-both real and differently real, in the images that she creates, and the stories that she tells and retells. Benna’s story is a pack of cards shuffled perfectly for a game; hers is also more than one story. Then what is meaning?

In memory

I have not written in a while. I have reached some place where words do not rush out like they used to; falling over themselves like all the times I did at school. They ran fast, those words, rushing forward like people at bus stops who want at that moment, nothing more than one of the three empty seats in the bus that has just arrived. Once there, they would subside into themselves, folding like brightly coloured origami paper along creases she had come to make for herself. Like this woman, those words would sit there—sometimes uncomfortably—momentarily forgotten to those but herself among the more unwieldy ones. But these words came, and now they do not.

When she asks me why I have not written, I don’t know what to say. I mumble something about time, about trying, but in all this while, I haven’t. It is becoming easier to tell myself that I have indeed tried, I have said this so many times that it seems true. This place has only words spoken but they do not do much, they are always too few or too many. The words I want come to me through writing that belongs to others—there has been so much of this lately, but it hasn’t been enough to bring me words of my own. I sit on the corner of my bed, re-reading old blog posts and stories, seeing no more than how much has changed. At seventeen, there was the girl who was nervously discovering words again. At eighteen and nineteen, she was using them because they made her happy.

Now, I remember that woman clearly, but cannot find her. I am sitting on the floor in the balcony this evening with a newly opened document, hoping that some words will come for her, and for me.

Waiting

I watch him crouch on his feet in a way that I cannot; I crouch on just my toes, and he on his feet. I see him sitting, a monkey on his shoulder—bandar, he says—and I am sure he has dressed the same way for days, and does not remember. He unties his three monkeys at night, I imagine, unafraid that they will disappear. He is smiling now, holding his drum.

I hear his drum.

At six—that is how old I think he is—Appa would read Monkey’s Drum to me every Sunday. The sound I hear now is the sound he made then, hitting hand on a table in a rhythm I could never copy. But at six, the sound he hears is of people walking away—his drums make no sound, even though his hands are moving. The pointed sound of heels on an uneven road, the drag of rubber chappals that she loves to wear to college, the firm, formal tap of black shoes that need polishing take over.

I am sitting on the sidewalk, watching the waves in Bandra. He is looking towards the ice cream cart that a man is pushing slowly, walking towards the old woman sitting with two children. I wonder if I should buy the boy an ice cream, but I don’t know how to call him to me or what to say, so I let him be. For a moment, I wonder if the monkeys will interfere. As the man comes to stop before them the children ask the old woman for ice cream—orange flavour, they say. I remember the two of us, standing in a shop trying to pick chocolates, picking the same so that we didn’t have to share.

The old woman obliges easily, pulling out from her blouse a little change—she has enough for one, so they will have to share. If they mind it they do not show it, and I decide that next time I call home, I will ask about Dodda. The image I have of her is of the times she is standing before the mirror that I see her through. Her hand is outstretched unsteadily, the tips of her fingers touching those of a version of herself that she does not know she has become. Her hair greys faster than she realises; on days that she does, she calls me to her room and hands me a brush—next to her is black dye in a bowl that she has used for the same purpose all her life. She will insist on standing as I apply it to the back of her hair, complaining of the maid who did not come again, of the food she longs to make, but never of her feet which I know hurt her because of groans that travel through walls of paper at night. I will always nod, say little, but say that I understand, apply the colour, and leave. Next time, I will talk to Dodda.

The child has crouched down again. He is sitting on the ground next to one of those chairs that remind me of the parks back at home—and of the man who left stones on one of them to count the number of rounds he had walked. I wonder about the stories the boy was told, and about the stories he makes—do his monkeys appear in them?—or whether he makes stories at all. I wish I was the woman who walked up to people and talked to them, asking them questions out of curiosity, like a person looking for stories that are not their own.

I remember the man I met at a writing workshop with whom I exchanged a memory and played Bingo. I make his memory my own. He knows his grandfather by the stories he is told, his picture taken from photographs that are in black and white. There is the grey city that he sees in colour, but from inside the house his father is calling, telling him of the pond his grandfather’s genie lived by. He is sitting by the pond and feeding the fish again, there is the story of Aladdin, and there are the stories he now makes.

By the pond he knows his grandfather as the one who saved them. His grandfather’s walks, his favourite fish—later stories are additions to the one he has always known—that they were left alone by that genie his grandfather banished. Now, sitting at a table at 23, he writes fantasy fiction. The pond is outside.

The boy turns to look at the waves, wondering if he can get any closer. But his monkeys do not like the water, so he will sit where he is and stare from the distance. There is a man selling Marathi newspapers but the boy doesn’t look at him. He stands up again, throwing one last glance at the ice cream seller’s cart. His monkeys begin to walk away, and he walks with them.

Parisian Café

The café is at the corner where three roads meet. It appears where you do not expect it because there are only houses, and too much silence. People passing by in vehicles look confused, looking for places they must be in, because they saw themselves there earlier that morning. A woman looks down from her balcony; her bright pink blouse disappears as she bends until only her head is seen. When will he come home? I must tell him to buy sugar. She is sweeping away leaves from trees whose tops she can almost see. Her hair is oiled and neatly tied, not because it is too hot—I must watch last night’s CID episode—but because she has always worn her hair this way. She rushes inside a moment later as though remembering that she has left the milk to boil.

Outside this house—is it hers?—is a man ironing clothes, a spot carefully chosen years ago when he first arrived there. The iron box looks heavy but he does not realise it, I do not remember the time when it did—he spreads a t-shirt, runs the iron along it twice, folding it on the same creases that he had made the last time. There are more clothes to be ironed, he is always bringing more in when I think I can rest. “Ivatte beku”, he says—everybody always wants it today. The white bed sheet I am ironing is too large for my cart; I will fold it in two and begin ironing it again. Fold left sleeve first, right sleeve second, bottom upwards, and he turns it over, adding it to the pile that he began making this morning. The bottle of water that is always next to me is not there. The woman with bright red lipstick sitting in the shop opposite has just bought water; she is opening it slowly as though the cold is too much for the hand she holds it in. A man joins him, spreading out a pair of formal grey pants that he assumes its owner had worn for her last meeting. He sprinkles water from a little bowl—where is the boy who sells tea? I cannot find my water, I need something to drink. There is a woman looking at me curiously, unashamedly, for long enough to make me wonder what she is doing—I have never seen her here.

The houses on these roads have balconies made to be looked out of, standing closest to railings that for an instant you wish were not there. Look down and there are the tops of trees that you are so used to seeing from below; you do not see the trunk, but the leaves that are not yet browning in the sun. If I know you, you will wonder how. There is the man pacing before the house opposite, from the watchman’s room with the Jesus calendar, to the fancy bike that you think is ugly. Will she come out? She must come out; should I call her? At least listen to me, na? He is always there, waiting—how long will I have to wait?—and when he leaves there is the drawing open of a curtain; like the secrets you know you must keep, but you know you will tell. The watchman is looking at him walk away—I must ask somebody why he is always here—as he sets right his stool in the sight of Jesus’ March face; I have to water the plants, this is the problem with having plants. But it smells of rain, maybe I should wait. The boy selling tea will call for customers in a tone you can never copy. Look towards your right, there is a woman sitting under a tree looking like she belongs there, legs crossed, cigarette in hand, fitting the image that you have always had in your head, of the woman who is growing happy with being herself. I will have cream of mushroom soup today. It is always nice to write.

There is a woman walking quickly up the road. Her loose black pants are flying behind her, looking like the cloaks from fantasy books that you have always imagined wearing. I’m late. I hate being late. It’s all Amma’s fault, I told her to wake me up. She says she did, but I didn’t hear her—that’s her fault only, no?—if I didn’t hear, how will I wake up? For an instant you hope she is there to be alone; the four women at two tables are writing. She stops and lights a cigarette, holding it in her left hand more steadily than anyone you have ever seen. I don’t like looking like I’m in a hurry; my hair goes all over the place. When I told Neha that, she said “Don’t be such a ladki ya,”—but I am a ladki, so what is she saying? Everybody is staring—they haven’t seen someone run on the road, kya? Kameena, that man must be the late type all the time. She sits down at the third table; dropping her bag on the chair opposite. She stands up. She sits down again—I’ll order a brownie? I wouldn’t mind some coffee. From inside the café the man who takes orders peeps outside—all these people, only sit without buying anything—before sitting on the table near the cashier resignedly. The four women at two tables are still writing, why is she looking at me like that? A man in a blue shirt walks up to the waiting woman at table three and smiles.

 

 

Midnight blue

I remember painting the table blue.

“It’s your table, you pick the colour,” Amma had said, but the metal table had been her father’s. Of course, I couldn’t decide, and it seemed like big decision for me to take at seven. I would always sit at the table—when I completed my Hindi homework remembering to put a purnaviraam instead of the full stops I was so used to, when I wrote a poem about a centipede that enjoyed walks, or when I painted a picture of my pottery class with no sense of depth—these are the big things I imagined doing there. Now I do not always sit here anymore, I slouch on my bed with its orange cover, or lie on the cold floor when I write. It is easy to write with a laptop, tapping at keys whose places I now know—Amma had once said she had gone for typing classes, and I could never understand why. But she could tell me which key was next to which, and I cannot.

The blue table was supposed to be brown, a dark, overused colour that at seven, I felt I would like even ten years later. Ten years is a long time, and it has come and gone, like the train that brought my aunt to Hyderabad on holiday, and then took her away. But brown paint was unavailable, and red would be too bright, so I picked blue. It is Prussian blue; I remember its name because of my table; when I got my first set of oil paints, it was the first colour I used. Amma called it “midnight blue”, and I did not understand this—I woke up late one night to look at the colour of the sky, and it was black.

We bought the blue paint from a small store that I remember for its strong smelling glue—I was warned not to touch anything, or my fingers would stick together. It must have been a Sunday because Appa was home too, and he helped me move the table to our balcony. It is a small balcony that now has overgrown trees from the neighbouring Apollo Hospital canteen reaching in. Back then, everybody could see what we were doing there—at thirteen, I remember a man whistling at me as I put out the clothes to dry. I had been uncomfortable, but I told nobody. We spread out old newspapers; I took them from the pile under Appa’s table—that is still where we keep them until there is no space. Amma joined us in turning the table over; its large rectangular surface was now on the floor, like bugs on their backs that I always stopped to turn over. Appa now uses the brush we used to paint the table to clear dust from his laptop, “It’s good for narrow spaces,” he says.

I liked the blue table when we finished.

We rearranged my room that day. The table went near the windows because I wanted to look outside when I worked—it was the image I had of a girl who thought a lot, and I wanted to be that girl. It had been months since I had slept there, first I had been too scared, and then summer came. Only Amma and Appa’s room had an AC, so I would take large pillows there, making a bed for myself on the floor. I’d look at their beds; the one on the left had Seemanthini Niranjana painted on it. Amma did not explain when I asked her why, just that her sister’s had her name on it, and I would look at this name and fall asleep. After the night I returned to my bed room with its blue table, I found a note under my pillow—“Welcome back! Love, RF and TF,” it said. Appa had a perfect explanation, RF was Room Fairy and TF was Tooth Fairy. It must have been his doing, but after that day I always slept there.

The blue table has three drawers on the right, and underneath there is a rod for me to keep my feet. I have always needed this rod, school tables without them made me uncomfortable. Amma used two of the three drawers to keep her files. I think they are still there; I have not checked, but at nine, this is where I found her leather bound diary. “Amma, is this yours?” I asked her incredulously, as though the thought of her being young could only be in theory. She was sitting in the hall, a pillow in the small of her aching back, reading Isabel Allende’s Paula. Even then I knew that I would read the same book later, that it was important for me to do so. They say I am a lot like her now but I cannot tell, so I only smile. Amma took the book from me slowly. She opened it and waved me away, I never saw it again and never asked either.

At sixteen, my blue table was always cluttered. I did not write there any more—the table had been moved under the small yellow light—I wanted only yellow lights in my room, but this was not allowed. My bed is now by the same windows that I wanted to look out of and think; the image in my head has now turned into the girl who reads by her window on a rainy day with cup of hot coffee in slowly darkening room. Pens that had no ink were lost among those that did. Appa would often find his pens there, and we’d argue—“You have so many on your table,” I’d snap. Textbooks I no longer have use for sit between books I have already read or hope to read; they sit precariously but do not fall. Sheets of paper with stories begun and left with nowhere to go lie between these books, letters I had begun to write to somebody were crumpled and hidden, just in case I wanted to send them some day.

At nineteen, the table is still blue—now it is the only table I sit at if I want to write.