Etc.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

Two

We,

Sat across,

He straight, on the edge of his chair,

I, staring curiously.

He didn’t look at me; there was that old face,

Years had changed enough, and I couldn’t recognise him anymore.

I sat,

Waiting for him to speak,

Thinking recognition would come then.

Picking up speed,

A train pulled out of the station.

He spoke,

Quicker, longer, faster,

Shooting finished sentences

Bullet points in his head he had to complete

Like he had been taught to do when he debated,

To show that he knew.

A girl in red, drew on the hand of a boy in green,

Butterflies with a red sketch pen.

Somebody’s birthday or wedding,

I cannot remember now.

But the boy in green had played Uno with them,

And he had let her draw butterflies on his hand,

So she was happy.

The train moved quickly, purposefully,

He talked, of the places he had seen, the people he had met,

The pubs he had been to,

but he did not drink.

Clipped words, and straighter back.

He said he taught sixteen-year-olds now, but they weren’t interesting,

They thought of different things,

Not like he had done then.

“The education system has to change”, he said.

The boy in green dropped juice on himself,

But he was talking about football, and did not notice.

Now, he sat up straight,

Uttering words so perfectly rounded,

That they conveyed almost nothing,

And who he was,

I could not tell.

Over coffee

Today we sat

On uncomfortable chairs

And made conversation.

In my head I made a list

Bullet points

Of the things I had not done.

He looked the same,

Sounded the same,

A year-and-a-half later

I was bad at keeping in touch, but he said he understood.

We talked,

an hour passed,

He caught up with my life,

And I his.

A list completed,

It only took an hour,

And I liked that I didn’t remember not knowing.

I said I wrote, he said nothing.

In my head I said I wrote,

Again. And again.

Still, he said nothing;

Of all the things I needed him to know,

This was the most important.

He said I seemed happy,

He needed to know it was because I was writing.

Aloud, I made a list again.

Of the things I wanted to do,

the places I wanted to go.

Of books I needed to read,

and old books I needed to re-read,

Of music.

In my head I left the list

of stories I wanted to write.

I whispered, I write.

He did not hear,

and we talked about school.

Then

I remember the green. There was only a little bit of it there in the centre and everything else was white. A bright white, a clean white, a colour once noticed but now fading. I remember the green in the midst of all the white, the long corridor, and then the trees.

At the end of the corridor was the chemistry laboratory, I could smell it from where I was sitting, in my room in another city. I could hear the test tube break; see the flame on the burner light up in an instant. But in the next moment there was none of this, no laboratory, no smell, just the green trees. Their leaves were an artificial green, too bright, a darker green, deep, a yellowing green, a muddy green. A green that looked cleaner in all the whiteness, leaves after the rain and leaves just grown. There was the corridor, the white corridor, there were the arches, but there were no doors. The laboratory wasn’t in the photograph; I just knew it was there, a physical room. Just like the people who always filled that corridor, but weren’t in the picture. The picture that she took without me.

The arches were huge, on one side they looked down on those plants in the ground floor next to the piece of wood that looked like a peacock. The arches on my right looked down on the terrace below; when I was there we called it the one-and-a-half floor. Mezzanine was too big a word for us. We’d play football there, we’d run. We’d hide behind pillars; we’d look down at the basketball court on every morning we arrived early.

And from those arches, we’d jump. I remember no worry, no fear of falling, no thinking. We’d be running, somebody would be chasing us, we’d climb through the arches, and we’d jump. Our hands would be above us; we’d stretch, hit the floor, and run again. I see the photograph, and I see us jumping. I see us rushing on in every direction, scattering, running away from each other, running towards each other. Like ants, when you drop something amongst them by mistake.

Snigdha_20140815_222443[1]

I worry that I cannot remember the green. I wasn’t with her when she took the picture; I was in another city when she walked through the corridor again that day. I haven’t walked through there for a while now and I must remember the green in the midst of all that white.

There’s that book I kept, with all our photographs. Of that excursion to Kaigal, when he showed us snakes, and when he jumped off a rock somewhere so far above us into the water below. The same he, who kept in touch with me for years until something shifted. Those pictures of our last day, those pictures of us taking pictures, photographs we insisted on taking because something had ended, and something else would soon begin. That book, with pictures we didn’t know had been taken of us—on the rocks above the stage, the three of us hiding behind a tree,  that puppet show in which I was a goat, our class photographs we all claimed we didn’t dress up for when we actually did.

I looked, I remembered, but I couldn’t find the green.

It’s been a while since I last spoke to her. We haven’t seen each other for three years now; I know she looks the same because I’ve seen photographs. I don’t know the people around her; sometimes I don’t think I remember what she sounds like. We don’t write, we don’t talk, and everything is suddenly so unlike the days we jumped off those arches together. She would call every evening—she’d talk, and I’d listen. And then there would be silence—I’d continue to do what I was doing—reading, writing, studying, and she’d stay silent. I never knew what she did in those moments, but she must have done something. When we meet again, I don’t know what we’ll talk about.

But she took the photograph, and she knows the exact green. I wish for a moment that I had been with her, that I had seen what she had seen, and I had taken the picture she had taken. I cannot ask her, too much time has passed; but she was there, and I wasn’t.

For a moment I decide. I need to know the green, and I will ask her. She will not describe it; she will not tell me what it felt like, she will not say that she remembers our conversations. In a moment of complete calmness I decide on a simple “Hey, it’s been a while”, message. I know I must not expect too much, I’m thinking of myself, but I need to know the green. For those times I jumped, those times I sat in class, those exams I wrote, the teachers who knew me and urged me to write.

I see her profile picture. I see my green. The message goes unsent; I will wait till the next time we meet. The white is more grey here, the green stands out less. I notice the squares on the grey floor, the grey shadows on the walls I knew as white. The green leaves are too blurred to notice.

Turn Right

He said he took a bus to Pondicherry. He woke up one morning and decided he wanted to travel, and with a change of clothes, he left. There was no packing, no finding a place to stay, just an unplanned decision that he never thought through. He didn’t feel the need to.

I sat on the floor of my room as I read his messages. I looked at my table, books arranged haphazardly, half-finished or still waiting to be read. I looked at my bed, its blue cover thrown on hastily, and my bag lying abandoned in a corner. It was all too familiar—the same wooden table I never sat at, the same large bed I slept on comfortably each day. Outside, the same dining table the three of us sat at for dinner, the curtains closed on a perpetually open window.

Sitting there, I didn’t want to know them. Not the bed, not the table, not the same flying curtains. I wanted to wake up in a different place, to step outside a door and not know what I saw before me. Perhaps the same cars rushed across the roads, perhaps the shops sold similar supplies. But they were not those that I saw every day. I would get lost walking; I would turn onto the wrong roads. I believed I would meet new people and find that I’m not so bad at making conversation. There would be uncertainty, and I would manage. But perhaps it’s the idea that I’m in love with, of travelling on my own and expecting that it’ll change me.

He spent all his money and hitchhiked back home, he said he gave the truck driver half a bottle of whiskey. I don’t know if it changed him, but I’d like to believe it did.

I stood up, stretched, and left.