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.

Them

She is sitting in the hall. There is a lot she has to write because she does not know when she will have to stop. She has told herself to forget about that day; that when the day comes, there will be no more time to feel. She can hear the crackers they’re bursting downstairs; she does not know why she stayed at home this year. She used to go down every Diwali, listening to fathers laugh at their young sons who did not like the sound, watching the women pass crackers on to their husbands. She always returned upstairs the earliest. It is loud outside, and she does not like that she cannot leave the door open at night. The carefully placed pillow in the small of her back does not seem right anymore; she is sitting on her feet, pressed into the stiff pillow below her. She cannot feel them.

Her copy of On Beauty sits next to her. It is open on the last page; Zadie Smith is unsmiling. She raises her hand to her head, running a finger across the cloth where her hair would have been. Zadie Smith smiles faintly, raising her finger to her own red cloth that covers her hair. She sets down her pen between the thick pages of her banana fibre notebook, and Zadie Smith stops smiling. Her lips are drawn across in a line; her eyes are small and staring.

Zadie Smith sat in a corner when she wrote—she liked the angle made by two walls that felt hard against her shoulders. She would sit on a large pillow, with a blue pillow cover that she did not like, but would not change. She would stretch her legs before her but only her heels would touch the cold floor. They would come to rest within a single square tile; her heels cooled her feet before the rest of her. She would not look up when she wrote. She would pause when she took a sip of her coffee, holding her cup between both hands, noticing each time that her finger tips did not reach each other. She wiped her sweaty palms on the loose cotton pants she wore, before running them through her hair. Realising that her feet were now cold, she pulled them back, pressing them into the pillow she sat on. Then she would write again, her fingers lightly touching keys she did not have to look at. Outside, there would be something happening.

She set down her feet as the bell rang. The pen between the pages of her book had fallen to the floor, one side of the letter she was writing touched the other. Zadie Smith looked up at her, pausing the story in her head that was ready, just like she wrote them. She had stopped mid-sentence. She stood up and went slowly to the door and let them in. Picking up On Beauty and her banana fibre notebook, she went to her room again. Zadie Smith continued.

I thought they were the same

I was supposed to be home by five.

We were sitting on some abandoned slabs of stone that

looked like they wanted to be sat on. He was standing, she was talking,

I was listening but not responding. It was a quiet street;

some old houses, an older man, a slowly moving car.

I was picturing a staircase.

I was scaring her, she said, but I didn’t mean to. I was just picturing a staircase.

An upward-moving escalator that I got on but walked up anyway, just like Appa did.

What’s the point of an escalator then, she had once said, standing as I walked up.

I was walking up the black and white moving staircase when he spoke.

We’ll read your blog tonight, they said; those words would talk to them.

Even then I knew I wouldn’t write that night; the black and white constantly moving staircase

looked like it had been drawn.

I got home; it was around six, the figure at the dining table rose to go inside.

In my room, I opened her drawer to find something to draw with; there were oil pastels I hadn’t used for years.

I turned off my phone,

Coloured a large blue square leaving no white spaces. Satisfied, I covered

the blue with a purple, and then the purple with a darker blue, there was an urgency that I couldn’t place.

Five times I coloured.

An hour later I scratched out a staircase in the coloured square, what colour the square was, I cannot tell.

I wanted it to be like the one in my head,

but it was another.