Amma,

Amma, I can’t write any more. I want to, I really want to, but nothing is coming to me in the way that it used to, in that sudden crash around my ears and shoulders, and in my teeth. Sometimes I think it will come back to me; that I should just be patient, waiting, sitting, sighing, and then the story will present itself, neatly wrapped in blue gift paper with golden stars, and with that same sudden crash of appearance. But I’ve waited and waited, and it hasn’t. I haven’t written.

Amma, you had hair that felt like rope. It never fell on your shoulders and across your back in the clean, light way that hair falls after a visit to the parlour, but it hit your shoulders in the angry way that eggs crack open into a whipping bowl with onions and chilly powder. Sometimes it was the brown of dark chocolate in the sun, and at home it was the dull black of hair left to itself and our white lights.

Will you sit straight, you’d say to me.

I am.

Stop squirming, you’d say.

I could feel the comb getting caught in the knotted hair at my neck. Amma, you had hair that wouldn’t slip through my fingers.

I’m not moving. I was like a worm in the rain that the boys in school would pick up with sticks.

You can never sit still, you’d say.

Then you’d give up on the knot. You would plait my hair and tuck the knot in somewhere it couldn’t be seen.

I can. Appa’s tickling my feet.

Your hands would move quickly. You would move your left hand first and then right, and then left, and right again, again, and once more, and again. I could see the oil on your hands when you had finished.

Amma, I found your will when you weren’t at home. I was searching for a key in the drawer where you kept your mother’s silver earrings hidden between other keys, but that day I found some documents that looked official in the way that everything printed on white sheets can look important. It must have been a holiday. Appa was with you in the hospital.

I took out your will and read it. I put it back in your drawer before you came home. You left me your mother’s jewellery, and your money went to Appa to keep for my education.

You wrote me letters for after you were gone. I found them by accident. I always found your secrets by accident, really. You told me about your parents. In one, you wrote that you had found my diary that I kept hidden in the red cloth bag with Christmas decorations, and couldn’t help reading the few lines I had written about you. I didn’t have to relook at my diary to remember those lines. I had been worried that you were going to die. You told me that when you were my age, you had stood posting letters at one of the red post boxes near your house, crying, because your father had been paralysed and wouldn’t walk again. You didn’t have to say anything after this. We must have been the same girls, except you learnt to play the violin, and I joined you for music class.

Sometimes I wonder what you were like when you were twenty.

Amma, I want to be alone. I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be without always having to explain myself. I don’t care about some people. I care about others quietly, openly. People are always taking up space, demanding space, drawing and redrawing my lines, and coming too close or going too far. Invariably they’re men.

I want to sit in a coffee shop where everyone has learnt to expect me on this day and this time, with this coffee, and that seat by the window. The window must be large, wooden, and I must be able to look out and sigh into it, and outside the window I will watch the sigh go, carried by the wind, and wonder who’ll catch it like they catch a yawn. Sometimes it’s a happy sigh.

I want to sit in this coffee shop and read. I want to laugh with the words, and run my hand through my hair and think I look beautiful and mysterious, because it’s okay to think that sometimes. Amma, I want to read and be happy, and know that it will change me in a way that no person has ever been able to change me. Sometimes, I want to smile into the sun outside the large wooden window with a book turned to page 132, and decide I will write today. Then I’ll turn on my laptop and open a Word document, change the font to Times New Roman size 11, and touch the keyboard lightly, each key becoming the other key because in my head I see words and a little girl crying.

Amma, when you wrote me stories in the banana fibre notebook we bought at Pondicherry in the little shop that sold handmade paper, did you think of making your characters boys, and then decide that there are enough stories about them anyway? I want to tell stories of girls and it will be more real and more honest, and make me happier, because she is the girl I used to be, the girl I am, the girl and woman I want to be, the woman my aunt makes me be, and my father makes me be and wants me to be, and my memory of you makes me be. I want to write, sitting in the middle of all my space, my room, and the new city that I’m beginning to walk through, crawl through, run through, sit through, and a city that walks, and runs, and sits all around me.

Soon after the second time your cancer came and went, Amma, you had curly hair that was coloured brown, and I could see the grey near the roots. They weren’t the neat curls, like hair that had been tightly wound around a pencil and then left loose, but your hair curled around itself like telephone wires. In school, by the time I grew my hair out and turned fifteen, my friends would ask me if I curled my hair. I had tamer telephone wire curls that they would pull, stretch out, and let go, laughing when they coiled back into themselves. I would think of you.

That second time with the cancer, I hadn’t known what was happening, and I was embarrassed that you wore a cloth around your head, because nobody else’s mother did this. I didn’t know the cancer and chemotherapy as cancer and chemotherapy; I knew them as days in the month that I spent in the hospital waiting room with Appa after school, until you came out tired in the late evening and hugged me lightly. In the car, I would do most of the talking on the way home.

When I was home last summer, I was looking through your clothes to find something of yours that would fit right on my shoulders. I lifted out piles of clothes that perhaps we should have given away like other people do when someone has died, but we didn’t. Some of your friends stayed home on the morning of your cremation, and they tried to get me to stay home too. That morning I had my first ride in a vehicle with a siren. I wondered why they had turned on the siren, because there was no emergency, and there was nothing to be done quickly. When we came home, the house was still full of people, but the curtains and sheets, and pillow covers had all been changed. Your room now had pale pink curtains, and the hall had white ones. Your sheets were blue.

I don’t remember why we didn’t give your clothes away. Perhaps I told Appa that I’d wear your clothes one day, or maybe Appa couldn’t do it himself, or he didn’t know who to give them to. I remember you in each of these clothes every time I look through them; I remember which kurtas you wore with your green salwar, and which shirt you took on our trip to Uttaranchal. If we had given them away, it would have to have been to strangers.

But this summer, I found myself pulling out a cloth that had been folded in half. I can’t remember its colour. I opened it out, and saw your thick, rough hair from when it was wavy and only black. It looked like a wig. I wondered which time this was from, the first cancer, or the two times that it followed.

Amma, I have cut my hair in a way that has made my telephone wire curls disappear.

 

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.

 

 

 

After the cremation

He has left his glasses on the table.

There are two photographs—
One from a trip to Bannerghatta that I say I remember.
I don’t.
We are watching monkeys.
In another
he is watching me come down a yellow slide.

He was old even fifteen years ago.

Amma said I was never stung by a bee.
But I’m telling you, it stung me
Ask him—
Drink coffee, take, Suma is saying.
His cupboard is full of books
Where are his clothes?
Remember when? Suma is asking me.
—We still haven’t given away Amma’s clothes either—

Do yoga.
But what about physical exercise?
He shakes his thumb at my answer:
Touch your toes and show me.
Drink coffee, Suma is saying.
I stand on my toes—
Uddha, he says,
surprised.
That day I stood on my toes
to look over the wall with the binoculars he brought me,
and see Golconda fort from my bedroom window.

Can I have these travel books of his?
More coffee? Suma is asking me.
There is a book about frogs on his cupboard.

—don’t worry, I’m fine, Rukmini aunty insists.

 

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.

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.

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.