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.

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The things she drew

The short girl just stood there, with her hair falling over her eyes. She shifted from foot to foot, and squirmed endlessly as her teacher unloosed shaft after shaft from memory and accumulated grievance. Her classmates stood around, their lunchtime football match featuring a bedraggled butta quite forgotten. One boy picked up the butta and chucked it at her in an experimental sort of way. It bounced off her head, and then hit the teacher in the nose. Miss Ramamani stopped in mid-flow, her mouth now opening and closing wordlessly, and goggled at her and at her by-now shamefaced parents, as if this were all their fault.*

“Draw your house,” Miss Ramamani had told them in class that day. It was the hour before lunch, and they were drawing for an exhibition in school. The notice boards were all to be filled, neat lines of perfect houses in the same colours—cream walls and brown doors were to be painted. The roofs would be triangles—more than one, because one would look too simple. The houses were big and belonged to someone rich; there would be a long driveway, and green trees.

Shorty had taken coloured pens, pencils, and paints to the table next to the wall in the last row. She set down her paper, drawing a room with large windows that overlooked the rest of the small house. She dipped her fingers in green paint, leaving behind impressions of the tips of her fingers as leaves, a dark green over a lighter green. Then she painted the bark in a solid block of brown colour, before running her pencil along the wet paint, and scratching out lines. It would have been rough to touch. The walls of the room were a light blue; just under the window was a potted plant with small leaves. It was the nicest house he had ever seen.

Miss Ramamani walked by. She squinted at the paper from over Shorty’s shoulder as though making a decision, but he could tell that her decision had already been made. She snatched it, waved it around for the class to see, crumpling its edges.

“Call your parents, I’ve had enough,” she snapped.

At ten, Shorty was quiet. There were occasional moments when she would remember something and feel the need to say it—she would get along fine with people, but never spoke in class. When she did, things around her seemed to catch their breath; the sound of her voice remained for longer than the words she said. He had always noticed this about her—not the oversized clothes she wore, or her large eyes that she seemed to try so hard to hide—it was the sound she made, and the things she drew.

“Today you must all draw your favourite class,” Miss Ramamani had said last week. Everybody knew she expected her class to be drawn, her face round but not as round, and her sari plain, but not as plain. The math sums on the black board had to be drawn clearly; she was after all, teaching them so much.  But Shorty drew the pottery class. There was one wheel with a pot on top, and he was sitting at the wheel. It had to be him because nobody else used the wheel; the others sat on low wooden stools at the long stone tables, their clay on breaking rectangular boards before them. She was making a girl reading a book; the boy next to her was making an elephant. The classroom was in a shed, and the banyan tree was just outside. The pale green leaves, and the roots they used to hang on—they were all in the drawing. She had picked up wet clay and rubbed it on the paper, colouring the stools in an uneven brown she would never have been able to create otherwise. Everywhere else she used colour pencils, occasionally using water to blur the lines.

“I asked you to draw a class,” Miss Ramamani said.

Shorty did not reply.

“This is not a class,” she continued. “Do you understand nothing?”

But the butta had been thrown, and he could not take it back.

“You, come here!” Miss Ramamani barked a moment later.

School for Miss Ramamani had been a succession of quick, well-placed knuckle raps; the sound clear, like branches that snapped underfoot in a single, clean break. He shuffled over, passing through a group of laughing friends, saying “Shhh” softly as he passed them.

“Have you no shame?” Miss Ramamani demanded.

He did not understand what shame had to do with any of it.

“I spend night and day trying to help you all. Is this how you treat your teachers?” Miss Ramamani shouted.

So easily she forgot that she got hit by a rebound. He had been aiming at Shorty.

Shorty’s parents slipped away from behind him, as though no loud, accusatory conversation had ever happened with Miss Ramamani. He wondered what they were like—if they cared, or if they thought like her, if they constantly interfered, or just let her be. He wondered if Shorty ever needed rescuing at home like he did, when his parents did not let him read the books he picked. Their footsteps died away. Shorty was still standing in the corner.

“Do you have nothing to say for yourself?” Miss Ramamani asked.

“Yes, miss. Sorry, miss,” he said, looking down at his feet. That’s what he had seen Shorty do when she tried to look guilty. This was only his first time.

“Go sit on the floor in class and face the wall,” Miss Ramamani said.

If only they could still give quick raps, they’d all be set right. He was sure that this was what she was thinking. He bent his head further, till his chin touched the bottom of his neck.  Lunch break was over.

By the time they turned fifteen, he and Shorty did not talk much. She would draw on the margins of his book with her blue ink pen, and he would sit and read. Occasionally, she would let him fill in some colours, if he promised not to ask questions about which colour went where. He generally agreed.

*This story was written for a children’s fiction contest. The first paragraph was given to us; it is not mine, and I do not know where it is from, or who has written it.

She and I

I am sitting in my aunt’s house. I have been sitting on the same sofa, the door to the balcony is open behind me, but I am sitting inside. She walks past me occasionally, then she says something from the kitchen about dinner, and for a second I don’t respond. By then she has come to the hall with a plate full of food, to the sofa I am sitting on, and she gives it to me. I hold the plate in my hand—two chapattis, some beans, a little bit of dal. I turn to look at the balcony because something moves behind me; the morning’s newspaper is flying.

The girl sat on the floor of her balcony. They had bothered her, and she was crying. Amma was making herself some tea in the kitchen. Amma knew that she was crying, but she let her cry. It was almost five in the evening; they would all soon go downstairs to play hide-and-seek, or cycle. She had learnt how to cycle, Appa had taught her. Amma could then sit down in the hall, place a pillow in the small of her aching back, and read. The girl cried louder and saw the wire of the iron box trailing away under a small table. She cried tragically, as though nothing could be done, and saw that the iron board that was folded on the floor had green legs with paint chipping off. They rang the bell and asked her to come and play. She didn’t reply, she was crying.

Amma sent them in. Appa had read her Monkey’s Drum again, and she had been scared. She remembered two faces on the page. On the right was the wide-eyed young girl looking at a knife held up by the monkey, her mouth open. The knife was obviously blunt, like some of the knives in their kitchen that have needed sharpening for a while now. She saw that the monkey’s hand was uncannily like her own; in her head she saw it shaking in his obvious distress, his eyes mostly black, looking resentful and sneaky. There were exactly twenty words on the page that she didn’t consider necessary to read. She knew what was going to happen. She was the books she read; she associated people around her with those in the stories she heard every day. They had made her cry, and for a while, they were the monkey.

They walked through her sunny room into the balcony; they crouched on the floor next to her. They asked her what was wrong—she was surprised they did not know. She had learnt the national anthem in school that day and she had been singing it for Amma; they had stood outside her house and imitated her. One girl had probably nudged the other, they were loud and they sang badly. She wasn’t sure why that was so bad, or why she was crying. But she continued to cry because she had started, and at six she wanted to cry for silly things occasionally. Then Amma walked in and said they should go play. So she washed her face with cold water, and they went.

That weekend, she and Amma read nonsense poetry together. Appa was not at home, and they were reading limericks that she understood occasionally—at some point she realised that perhaps they were not meant to be understood. They read about long noses and burning cats, about the man on a hill and the man with a beard that was home to owls, of the abnormally small man who was devoured by a puppy. She saw the pictures and then drew her own, and with each picture she wrote about herself.

There was a young girl of Southside,

Who liked to run away and hide,

Her friends searched high,

Her friends searched low,

But kept missing that young girl of Southside.

They had laughed that day; she with her plait coming loose, Amma, in her weekend clothes. Amma would drift off to do her own work occasionally; there would be phone calls from the office that the girl would sometimes go to, and sit among the piles of handloom fabric. Emails would be sent, there would be writing. The girl now sat in the hall on the divan, next to her was A Book of Nonsense with Lear, and Carroll, and others. In her hand were a notebook and pencil. She always used sharp pencils. She liked how her writing looked when she did—clean, neat, precise—she was not one to keep scratching out words any way.

Appa had got her a book. It was a small notebook with ruled pages that could be removed or added, its cover was brown with little people drawn in a spiral. Their triangular two-part bodies were filled in with black, their hands and legs thin lines that reminded her of spiders she had once been scared of, but now played with. He kept telling her she should write poems, and sometimes, she did. One day she wrote, and he helped her finish. The last line was her favourite, she repeated it over and over, Appa had come up with parts of it, and they had laughed together. She could hear him reading the poem aloud; she heard the happy exclamation at the end of the last sentence.

I met a mosquito and I said hello

But it bit me, and I said owe-e-e

I scratched the bump and I poked the bump

And I asked him why he bit me?

He replied and said, sorry, I was just trying to be friendly.

Friendly? Oh then why did you bite me?

He laughed and said, that’s the way friendly mosquitoes try to be friendly.

It was strange, she very often wrote of small creatures she otherwise disliked or was scared of, mosquitos, turtles. In school the boys in her class would run behind the girls with sticks after it had rained. At the end of these sticks would be long worms, she felt bad for them, but she still ran. On other days there would be centipedes that they would crouch down and touch, just to watch them curl up and lie still before they uncurled and walked again. Their movement reminded her of cats when they were concentrating, when their tails flicked from side to side. And in her poems she liked them, the creatures were not so unusual—they felt things like she did, they rationalised things, they had answers to her questions. She wrote of asking a centipede how it never got tired walking, and for her the centipede replied, “No you silly, you see, I have so many legs.” And there was her answer. It was a perfect world, there were questions, there were doubts, she never asked them, but she answered them anyway.

At some point when she was twelve, all her stories were about Amma. Then she wrote frantically to remember her, her passing was real, and writing about her made it less so. Or perhaps more so, she could not tell. As she wrote, she remembered incidents, small incidents—learning badminton, talking about books, music classes where she’d sometimes fall asleep; oddly enough she never remembered the poetry. She had forgotten about writing poetry as she grew older, she wrote stories because they made her happy.

When she was seventeen, she sat one day in the library in school and found a volume of Women’s Writing in India. She was in her favourite chair between two bookshelves; the window overlooking the auditorium was behind her. It was the end of her school year. When the bell rang, she and two of her friends would jump out of the library window for three glasses of hot tea from the staffroom when the teachers weren’t looking. The anna there was nice enough to give it to them, he found them funny. In the book she looked for her grandmother secretly, she didn’t know much about her, but she knew her stories. She found one, on turning to the page she discovered it was translated by Amma. She read it over and over again, she smiled a lot; she wrote her next assignment on it, her story was a continuation of the one her grandmother had written. Something shifted and she began to write about other things, she read more poetry but never wrote it.

I am no longer in my aunt’s house; I have come home now, to Hyderabad. I am sitting in my room; it is again dinner time, and Appa is calling me. I have been writing for a while now and it’s the same piece, I have been reading the same paragraphs over and over, adding lines, removing words. I think—I must turn on the fan, it is getting too hot now; is there more pomegranate in the bowl, I’m hungry; does what I’m trying to say make sense? I remember the notebook Appa had got me; I remember that I kept it in my bookshelf behind all the books I have read, and those I am yet to read. It’s dusty, I open it.

To be a real poet you need imagination.

You must always write a poem down,

So keep a pen and paper ready,

And imagine.

I wrote then because there were more worlds other than my own. Now, more worlds mean more stories, and more stories mean more words.