Airport

We’re listening to the story of Puchki and Malli here at the Kolkata airport. Papa is so thrilled with the story that he’s laughing loudly and everyone has turned to stare at him. He doesn’t usually laugh for very long or that loudly; it takes a string of half-funny statements to even nudge him out of his thoughts of the papers he has to correct, the food he has to cook, and the milk he has to buy. It’s pouring outside, but Papa is laughing so much that he hasn’t seen the rain.

Can you imagine two researchers fighting because their dogs didn’t like each other, he says, before falling back into his chair still laughing. I mean two researchers.

There’s a man standing at the idli.com outlet waiting for food. He’s tall, in a purple shirt and cream shorts that come up to his knees, and his arms are crossed high on his chest. He looks serious, as though he’s listening to voices that are telling him about stocks crashing, which company to invest in if he doesn’t want to lose all his money, and that his wife has filed for a divorce, all at the same time.

Two little girls with straight hair and sleepy eyes are running around his legs. They’re smiling, laughing loudly, louder – their palms momentarily grab at their father’s shorts to steady themselves – they’re running again – they come close to tripping over each other’s feet – they’re laughing at the hair in their faces, the hair flying—

–their father’s hand comes down across both their cheeks quickly, one after the other. The younger girl looks too angry to cry. When their father’s softer hands pull them to him, the girls pull away and stand straight in front of him.

You remember Puchki? Papa asks me.

Puchki is Papa’s colleague’s beautiful proud dog with large muddy eyes and folded golden ears. She walks as though she is gliding on the very tips of her paws because she doesn’t want them to get dirty. When she sits, she stretches her back legs out slowly as if she is a tadpole, and before she falls asleep, she places her head delicately on her crossed front legs and sighs into her paws. Then she will not open her eyes for anybody until she is well rested and wants biscuits and water.

I imagine Malli as a big black dog with a white patch around his left eye, and a tail thick enough to knock over a row of five full wine glasses. He walks unthinkingly, as though his swaying, staggering stomach is enough to part people and push aside tables, chairs, cups of chai, and everything else in his way. He lives with Nalima who I have always seen dressed in blue at Papa’s university, and she drinks green tea with sugar. Papa says she works on the sociology of law, and has always demanded that every email she receives must also be sent to Malli, or with love to Malli, depending how well the sender knows him, and how much he likes the sender.

There is a family sitting on the row of chairs near Gate 28. Theirs is a large family; here is a woman young enough to be in college, three girls in frocks with sequins near their knees; two boys in denim shorts with their hair slicked back in oil, three men reading the same Hindi newspapers, and two women in flowered kurtas, one red and the other blue—

-Usko kya malum hoga, Kathmandu airport mein? Maasi akeli nahi ja sakti, bas bol diya maine —the man is in a white shirt buttoned at his wrists, and in khaki pants and brown sandals that my aunt calls sensible shoes, with his heels sticking out behind them.

Arre, she’s come with us on flights so many times, unko pata hoga – baccha, usko chips mat khilao, woh potato nahi khati — the woman reaches out to behind the man’s newspaper and gives the chips back to the boy who has sat down on the floor at their feet.

This one time, Malli ate all the chips.

When Nalima went to Shimla on a fellowship to finish her book, Malli went with her. He always went everywhere, but Papa says that everyone in the university knows her as the woman who took her dog to Shimla. I didn’t find it so surprising after all her email expectations, but Papa thinks it’s ridiculous. In Shimla, the small shop that sold chai and garam jalebis had to make space for Malli with a little red cushion inside. He always pushed over the small stools when he walked through, and everyone else would stare at Nalima in her blue kurta, drinking chai with her big black dog. But she would give him so many jalebis as she sipped her chai that the owner of the little shop would let them be. It was good business.

The day that Malli ate all the chips, there was a party at Nalima’s friend’s house. Everyone was invited except Malli, and now Nalima had very angrily refused to come. There was wine and pineapple, with chips and jalebis from the little shop, and yellow fairy lights that hung from trees. When a few guests got together and coaxed Nalima out of her house, she was asked to just please tie Malli at the door. It’s not a very long story after this—Malli wasn’t tied. He ran into the house, jumped on unsuspecting guests sitting down with wine, overturned the table with food, and then ate all the chips.

 -Chew karo acche se, the youngest woman says to the boy on the floor. She has bent down to pick up his packet of chips; he watches her as though he expects her to take it away, potato khati! he shrieks, and the woman stares at him for a second before she drops the packet back at his feet.

A man is standing at the glass that overlooks the tarmac, taking a selfie with the flights that are waiting just beyond. The man isn’t smiling; he is staring into his phone as though it will tell him which hand to hold it in and where to hold it for the best photograph. He doesn’t look sad, or serious, or comfortable. He looks as though he wants to say to himself that he was there – at the airport in Kolkata on a Friday afternoon – when he lies down on a single mattress in his one bedroom apartment, remembering his night at Hotel Avisha in Kestopur.

-You’re doing a fraud on me you bastard! Two chairs on my right, this man’s nose is slowly turning red and his knees are striking each other in quick knocks of anger.

There is momentary silence. On the muted television there’s a red headline blaring like a siren – Dilli ki kaathil chaachi.

Puchki was terribly angry on the day she met Malli in Shimla and growled at him every time he came too close. Nalima was upset. Papa’s colleague, who was at Shimla for the same fellowship, said that it was perhaps just the journey from Hyderabad that had tired her. It wasn’t. Puchki didn’t like Malli.

It was as though Puchki could smell the stories off Malli, and knew that at every dinner, Malli had to have a space on the table. Papa is certain that Puchki also knew of the time Nalima had demanded that Malli be allowed to attend the screenings of a film club organised by the fellows – he’ll understand more of the films than we ever will, she had said. When nobody agreed, both Malli and Nalima had boycotted the film screenings and watched their own movies at home.

But the day that Puchki was the angriest, was when Malli, like all the other dogs in Shimla, tried to get her pregnant. Papa’s colleague said she had stopped to talk to Nalima outside the library when she had taken Puchki for a walk. She was surprised to see that Malli wasn’t around, but of course she didn’t ask because he was such a touchy topic. Nalima was telling her about Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book, The Laws of Medicine, and Papa’s colleague said she was nodding intently, saying haan, wohi toh, and commenting on the need for interdisciplinary studies, when quickly and suddenly, Puchki pulled at her leash and snarled.

Yes, interdisciplinarity, exactly, Nalima was saying.

Papa’s colleague said it was as though her back snapped and she turned to see Puchki crouched and growling at Malli.

Maasi akeli nahi jaaegi – unka Kathmandu jaana zaroori hai – not alone

Can you take Malli away, Papa’s colleague shouted.

The book is just so brilliant, because doctors otherwise never say they don’t know something, Nalima was saying.

-toh kya tum chhutti leke jaaoge Kathmandu unke saath? a third woman has asked. The man looks up from his newspaper for the first time. The women are watching each other.

-Arre, chew karke khao apne chips.

Nalima, make Malli stop, Papa’s colleague said she shouted again, pulling at Puchki’s leash.

It’s so honest. It’s really refreshing to see honesty in the sciences, Nalima was saying.

Ami eta thika karara—you’re doing a fraud, you bastard! This time nobody stops talking. The red has spread from his nose to his cheeks.

You really need to take your dog out on a leash, Nalima, Papa’s colleague screeched.

Chutti? I can’t take another holiday; you want me to get fired or what? the man is asking slowly.

-Jo karna hai karlo. She needs to go to Kathmandu.

The women get up and walk towards the washroom, the sides of their hands brushing against each other. Perhaps their maasi is like my father’s maasi, with grey hair reaching to the bottom of her blouse, who never travelled anywhere without her husband until suddenly he has died.

Papa’s colleague says Nalima hasn’t spoken to her since.

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Mangalore

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if you ever saw me writing

Appa would take me to his classes when I was younger since  it turns out I could be easily entertained just like the ease with which I told everybody who asked that my favourite food was “chiten and fish” and so he would pull up a desk to the blackboard that I wasn’t tall enough to reach yet and then before his classes began he’d give me a piece of chalk and let me draw on the board as he taught for another hour and I would sit there rather happily surrounded by faces I didn’t know and words I didn’t understand realising only now that if I had been a distraction Appa’s students never showed it before remembering that I was like the little boy in the auto with me yesterday who sat in front with his father because he had no school

I pause, I cannot remember how the child got there; but I am trying to do what he wants us to do—free association. He said, “College desks”, and I wrote about Appa. For a moment I wonder if I have made up the entire memory, or filled in holes that grew as I got older in something I only half remembered. It was a Friday, I was scribbling into my book hoping he wouldn’t ask me to read out what I had written. Writing and remembering were happening together, I wasn’t writing to keep something alive. Perhaps I was making something available, tangible. But for once I did not stop too long, I dived, and didn’t worry if I couldn’t hold my breath till the next time we were allowed to come for air. It was like realising you’re talking to yourself without feeling the need to stop, or wonder if someone was watching; it was freeing because I wasn’t looking to say something perfect and beautiful.

I wonder about the boy’s mother, and why he couldn’t go home instead of spending the day driving around the city with his father. His father, who took people where they wanted to go, not always in a direction that he could control. I wondered if the number of customers he got that day were fewer than he normally did, or if his son demanded that they stop for lunch, or a break, or made conversation as he drove. I thought of Amma because I missed her; the auto driver and his son were also like Amma and I when we returned home from music classes. It felt strange that she never read these things I wrote. Yes, Appa read them, of course he read them, but it would have been nice if Amma saw them too. I don’t know if Amma ever saw me writing in her head—the last time she saw me I had wanted to go to design school because I liked to draw.

I had started to use full stops; there was always an urge to add a comma, hoping to make the mass of text in front of me understandable because I needed it to be understood. I didn’t know where this was going or coming from, but I was talking about Amma. She left me some letters—a few years ago I wouldn’t tell anyone this—and in one she reminded me of the time I sat in her room counting how old I would be in 2014. It’s 2014 now, I’m 19 years old, and everything in that room is still the same—the large bed, and the windows almost always open. There is only a new bookshelf that Appa and I bought because there were piles of books in my room that needed to be kept somewhere. Back then 2014 seemed like a year when cars would fly and all the science fiction short stories I read would come true.

I remember this day only vaguely, Amma lying down on her bed, and I sitting on the floor, using my fingers to calculate my age. I still use my fingers to count occasionally, but we’ll keep that to ourselves. Perhaps I should’ve joined one of those mental math and abacus classes that everyone around me was going for. But I was too busy drawing or reading, or just running around and cycling. I was always terrible at math and at 15, I refused to study it anymore. I don’t regret it. But what I wanted to say was that Amma thought she would completely miss out on the age when I was all grown up and a teenager, and wondered if I’d still want to go to design school. She passed away a little while after that day; I was 12, and now I’m 19. I did try to join design school, Amma. But I think I wanted to do literature more, and now here I am, writing.

She wrote well, like her parents. I like reading what she had to say, I wonder why she never thought of writing. I wonder how she chose what she wanted to do, how she decided it was this, and not that which made her happy. But she wrote for me, for Appa, and what she wrote showed me what she felt, things my twelve-year-old self couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. Sometimes I worry that I write for everybody but myself—Appa’s approval, Amma and her parents because they were writers, another like on my blog, because I love the ideas and images associated with being a writer. But then I also write because it makes me happy to see words running across a screen. Just as they land they’ll run faster and then they’ll halt, almost suddenly still.

Untitled

She drew a hasty star. “No extra sheets”, she wrote next to it, leaving the last bit of chalk in her hand to fall to the floor. Starred. Important. Please note, keep in mind. They would not give us extra sheets. And sitting there, I worried. Next to me she had begun to write, her hair falling on her face, hand moving across the white sheet purposefully. She had something to say. So did the others—the boy in front of me wrote, hunched over the paper before him; the boy next to him wrote, covering his sheet with his hand. His story was his to tell.

I wrote. Five lines, more words. My single sheet of paper already quarter filled; a momentary pause, and almost no consideration—lines crossed out. No extra sheets and I was wasting paper. I tried to write, blowing at words towards a chosen direction because the air they hung in would not exhale and carry them there. Because the air had caught its breath and everything had paused, my words had paused; an ensuing silence, not oppressive, just waiting. I was waiting.

But I had just one sheet to tell my story; I couldn’t pretend to be looking at the various packets of chips in the canteen when what I was really trying to do was not see him. There was so much I wanted to say, so many stories I wanted to tell because I needed to process them, feel them; stories that lay like my clothes in a basket asking to be washed and worn again. Writing was dropping a chocolate wrapper from the third floor of a building and watching it get carried away by the wind; clothes going in circles over and over in a washing machine that would stop only when the cycle was completed.

The first side of my sheet, three quarters filled. Outside I see my friends making faces at me, waving, and I laugh. She, waiting to tell me what she has done, knowing that I always want to hear. Him smiling, as though he knows exactly what I am thinking, and what I am going to say.

I write to show myself what I see, to break down what I feel to know what it is I actually mean. I write, rewrite, and now I remember how the backspace key on my laptop is a friend I depend too much on. I used to write in notebooks, I remember how easy I found it to write then. There was just my blue ink pen, a carefully chosen notebook, a fresh page, and a story. No pause, no hesitation. In the end the words would lie there, clear, strong, and I’d be happy.

Back then I always wrote the same story.  I wrote to remember Amma, because at twelve I worried that I would forget her. I wrote to remember little details—the sound of her voice, her smell, her laughter, our rides home from music class in the evenings, her office. I wrote because I worried that her passing did not seem real to me, because reading the letters she had left me when I was twelve made me cry, and at fifteen made me happy. Because that night I had believed that nothing could go so terribly wrong; I clung to something, perhaps to Appa repeating over and over that he could feel a pulse. I wrote because I was strangely calm as I watered the plants next morning and told the neighbours what had happened when they asked me how Amma was, and the woman ran into her house; because I later cried as I had a bath and realised how dramatic the scene was. I looked at photographs and created stories around them because memories with empty spaces are not really considered memories, and in a frantic desire to have anchoring, vivid recollections, the empty spaces are often unconsciously filled, leaving an almost whole fragment.

One-and-a-half sides of my sheet have been filled, and there is now a distance when I write. I tell the same story differently; perhaps I will continue to do so as long as I tell the story. Words are suddenly emerging as easily as before, briefly I wonder if it is because I do not like to see crossed out words on a paper, because I like it when things are neat. I remember all the stories on my laptop, mostly uncompleted, and think of all the stories I have wanted tell. I write because writing is creating, and words can make me realise the normal. Now, I don’t only write to remember.

I have finished my sheet of paper. I look up at the board, the words have been erased. No extra sheets. No longer starred, no longer important. Do not keep in mind. The air had exhaled.