Unravelling

I didn’t get an email from Vera last Sunday. I didn’t realise this until Monday afternoon, and if Vera ever writes to me again, I’ll never tell her how long I took to notice her missing email. It’s unacceptable, I’ll say, Mama should have locked you in your room like she locked me in mine, shrieking, Think, Vera, think, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something other than yourself?

Then Vera would ignore me, pretending like nothing had happened and no email had been missed, like the sky this morning was last night’s sky, and I just hadn’t noticed the rain clouds in the dark. She would tell me about last Sunday, and how she’d spent it in Ashok’s house feeling heavy stars at the nape of her neck and at the back of her eyes because he’d brought them some drugs that were just so good. Stop seeing him, I’d tell her, you’re ruining yourself, you’re ruining us, Papa is scared, and you have so much potential.

What potential, Vera would laugh. What do we know of potential, we’re just sisters with a silent father and a mother who died because her lungs were too full of anger.

This was her tactic. I’d spend two weeks fuming silently. I’d sit by the window waiting for it to rain — bring the clothes in the minute it starts, Papa had always told me, it’s your responsibility and nothing should be wet. Sometimes I’d scribble lines about Vera on slips of paper; she was selfish; she was the fog in my brain that never cleared, not while I waited for my next story, and not when I set the rice to cook at eight, exactly an hour before dinnertime. Vera knew this, but what did she care, she hadn’t been locked in her room with Mama screaming in the background, Think Vera, think, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something, other than yourself?

Then we would go back to our weekly emails, me bitter, telling her she was better off away from us, and she high, writing to me in long spiraling sentences. They’re like tunnels, I would tell her, like the apples you peel in one continuous sheet of skin — how am I to know what you’re saying?

Vera’s emails always began the same way. Are you struggling, how is Papa, and your smoking? I haven’t smoked the last week (the weed doesn’t count, no? I don’t think it does) — we’ve fought about this before, haven’t we? I can see your eyes widening and your forehead knotting, now don’t go get upset that I don’t remember our fights. It’s not true, and besides, we’ve always done the remembering between us. You know how you’ll always forget Mama’s second cousin’s sons name — Dinesh, with the fake hair — and I’ll never remember his sister’s name, the tall, grass-like one who likes wearing saris made of gold — what’s her name? Did she really run away from home? You and I should have run away from home together.

After this, Vera would talk about Mama again. Sometimes when you get angry I think you are too much like Mama, she’d write — remember how she would shout when we fought with her and marched into our room, slamming the door behind us? Yes, she would say, make the ceiling fall on our heads; you pay for the paint chipping off from above us if you’re so fond of such dramatic exits, and don’t you dare pull out another cigarette, I forbid it. See, I remember.

But Vera didn’t email, and now it was Wednesday. I’ll drop her a line, I said to myself; I’ll tell her this is unacceptable, that Papa is worried, and that he’s asking to speak to her.

**

Before Vera moved to Bombay — She didn’t move, she left, Mama always snapped — Saturday nights were our nights. We sat on our terrace. Nobody ever knew where we were, but Papa always found us collapsed on our bed on Sunday morning, crisscrossed in a tangle of legs and arms, our slippers still on our feet. Until she died, Mama believed we sat in the middle of KBR Park every Saturday night. The smell of your cigarettes is always curling up in my nostrils when you come home, she’d say. Ungrateful girls, she called us, One day the police will catch you trespassing, and when they call home at two in the morning to tell us they have you at the station, I will slam the phone down and go back to sleep.

The first time I tried to tell Mama that Vera and I sat on the terrace every Saturday, nothing else — I thought it would calm her down — Vera didn’t talk to me for a week. Mama decided I was lying and locked me in my room. Don’t lie to me, she said, how much can you lie, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something, other than yourself?

I didn’t know why Vera was angry. Why would you tell Mama about the terrace, she asked me the next time we were there. We were listening to a song about Regal; we’d visit it one day, we said. We’d sit on the terrace of a hotel close by with no lights on, and the lights in the rooms below us would go off one by one — at nine, at ten, eleven and twelve, while Regal remained lit in perpetual blue.

Then, in her usual imposing way, Vera turned to me and said, Mama doesn’t know how to live without anger in her lungs, it’s connected to her heart; don’t you dare take it away.

We were seventeen, and I’d never been angry with her before. First she pretended not to notice, and I pretended like my stomach wasn’t snaking up to my throat. Then I left her upstairs and came home early. Papa was awake and watching the news. A woman had been murdered in her Delhi apartment. A politician had been arrested. They’d been lovers, a policeman said, and I thought I could hear his tongue clicking the roof of his mouth.

Where’s your sister? Papa asked.

Busy, I said.

Doing what?

Thinking about how I’m trying to kill Mama.

Are you?

Vera likes to say that this was the day I became our mother. Papa didn’t tell Mama about this conversation, and I didn’t tell Vera. I would have liked to ask her what it meant that Papa’s response to her accusation — I was sure that was what she had implied — was as calm as daybreak, as though he’d been thinking of killing Mama himself, just the other day. But I was angry.

**

Mama died nearly two years after that Saturday night on the terrace with Vera and the conversation with Papa. By then Papa’s question had settled down in my head like a dull throb in my calves that I remembered every time I moved.

It had been three weeks since Vera had gone to Bombay. We were nineteen. Papa was home even though it was a Friday, and I had gone out to go buy a pack of Marlboro Lights — Always buy Lights, Vera had said, they are the only ones that really fill you up. In the story Vera knows, I came home to find Papa sobbing next to Mama. She had been standing on a ladder cleaning the fan with a wet cloth when she fell and then had a heart attack. I often imagine that Mama thought of Vera even as she fell. Or she thought of Vera and then fell.

In her first email soon after she moved, Vera had said she’s always been the sweater that undoes itself. I suspect she was high. I told Mama, who shook her head and said that I was the sweater — Vera was the hand that pulled one string and undid me. Don’t reply, she told me. I didn’t. Mama was happy.

I didn’t leave my room for two weeks. I began emails to Vera and discarded the drafts. I sat at my table and ashed the Lights on the floor. I slept and dreamt of panic attacks. I woke up scared because they seemed as bad as when they were real.

On Saturday, two weeks after Vera left, I sat on the terrace and thought I could hear our song about Regal. I wrote Vera an email about Regal in perpetual blue. I didn’t tell Mama until a day before she died. She locked me in my room and screamed, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something, other than yourself?

When Mama died, Vera didn’t come to her funeral. I had expected her to — I just got here, she wrote, and I don’t have the money. So I didn’t tell her that when I came home, Papa had really been sitting next to Mama on the floor, staring, his nose crinkled like used and discarded origami paper, muttering, thank god for heart attacks, thank god for the ladder, thank god for the fall.

**

I wrote to Vera on Thursday.

First I sat at my table thinking about how it used to be our table. Then I stood up and pushed my chair back — it used to be our chair too — then I walked around the room. I looked into my coffee glass — mine, not ours — there was nothing left. I re-read Vera’s emails. I thought about how much I hated Ashok, from the tips of my hair to my toes.

Should I tell Vera I’d forgotten to put the rice to cook for dinner on Wednesday? I wouldn’t. But it was her fault. Even the clothes had got wet in the rain twice.

Dearest Vera, I’m sorry for what I said, I started to write — I didn’t mean it, but you can’t disappear on us, V. It’s Thursday now, where have you been? Papa is unhappy, and I haven’t told him that you’ve disappeared on us again; I’m hoping you’ll come around and drop me a line, even if it is to just say you’re alright, around, alive.

I deleted the first line. It’s Thursday now, where have you been, I started. You can’t disappear on us Vera, it’s unacceptable. At least send me a line saying you’re alive. I’m telling Papa if you don’t.

I read Vera’s emails again before I hit send.

In her last email, she had told me a story. It was the Sunday before the week of the missed email. It’s about Ashok’s sister, she wrote, but have you stopped groaning every time I mention his name, in that rumble that rushes up your throat and through your teeth? The last time I heard it I thought it was Papa, but he was out to buy milk — you groan just like him, it’s the same rumble that terrified me when I was five, a bit like a train — I heard it and knew you couldn’t leave Mama and Papa even if you wanted to. But I could, and only you would always remember me.

Then, in her usual flitting way, Vera went back to telling me about Ashok’s sister. Anyway, she was a sweet girl, Vera wrote. She was so sweet (like apples, Ashok said, but he was high), that the moral of the story is to never be like her. This is how they’ve said it to every child born in their family — Don’t be like Ana, and if you must, then don’t return. You’ll fall in love, they say, just like her, and you’ll stop buying milk because you’re trying to save money for marriage. This is the first sign. Everything that follows is a blur — your lover asks you to run away with him, you do, he steals your money (including every last rupee you’ve saved by telling everyone you’ve developed lactose intolerance), and vanishes.

Then you’ll disappear after him (you love him after all) and for four months visitors will come home to tell your father they believe they saw you on the road near Tank Bund, until your brother disappears too, and now people murmur about drugs. If you’re too sweet, they say, like an apple, you will get eaten.

There’s a saying in our family, I wrote back. Don’t ever leave home, or someone will die. Vera, you are the reason Mama died.

**

Vera didn’t reply. She didn’t email next Sunday either.

Papa, I said on Sunday afternoon. He was reading the newspaper. Papa, I need to go to Bombay.

To Bombay?

Vera hasn’t emailed. If I was Mama I would have left for Bombay the night she didn’t email, but I’m not Mama, and I didn’t. It’s been two weeks. She’s always mailed every Sunday morning, even if she’s high and sitting with Ashok feeling stars in her eyes. I went too far this time, Papa, I told Vera she killed Mama.

He watched me. He put his newspaper down. But wait, he said, who is Vera?

After the cremation

He has left his glasses on the table.

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

He was old even fifteen years ago.

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

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

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

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

 

To close

I am sitting in the hall when I realise I have not told this story the way I want to. Amma’s face is caught in a photograph on the table; it is too small for the frame that holds it. She is smiling; it is one of those perfect photographs with light on all the right parts of her face. I am wondering where she is.

Appa is standing up to get himself another beer. A crowd is cheering somewhere; Chris Gayle has hit his second six in a row. Julie would have boned a duck on another channel, it is a movie, so she will do it right. There is a message from him that I do not open. Appa is asking if we should have dinner. Anything, I am saying; I am wondering if I am allergic to blueberries.

She calls me when I am reading and complains about work. The floor I am lying on is no longer cold. She will tell me I am pathetic for not calling; he will say the same to me later in different words. He will pick them in a way that a person plays chess, and I will tell him he does not understand. To her, I will try to explain. I will not say it right.

I want to stand up and sit down. I want to smooth the covers of my bed and throw them for wash, I want to open my book and put it down, but not in that order. I want to throw away some letters that he hoped I would keep; I want to forget they are hidden in the middle of all my paintings because nobody will look there. I want to keep a diary that I will not be honest in, I want to read her story and wish it was mine.

At three in the morning, I am lying in bed. I am cursing the heat and the fan that cannot move any faster; it is telling me that this is all it was meant to do. I am telling myself that these are the holidays I wanted, but there is some unshakeable feeling, like the dirt under my fingernails. When I wake up the next morning, it is the same day again.

**

A six-year-old girl is asking her mother if she is going to die. Her mother stops eating. She is now asking her who will take care of her. Appa, of course, her mother is saying. They are eating again.

When she is twelve, the girl is sitting with her mother on a bed. She is quiet. Outside, a man she cannot see is saving a tender coconut for the man who buys one from him every day. The cells keep growing and they forget to stop, her mother is saying. The girl is nodding at something she thought happened to people she did not know.

A year later the girl is in Bangkok, shopping with her cousins. Do you have a picture of your mother on your table, her aunt is asking. She is shaking her head, turning to look at a blue and white photo frame that she will buy at the last minute.

At home, she is sitting on the floor. She is reading from a notebook that her mother has written letters in. Her knees are knotted into her chest, but the hands from her shoulders are not hers. The hair band around her wrist is too blue; the fingers that turn pages are too long. She is not crying yet.

A sixteen-year-old girl is writing to her mother from boarding school. It is not a letter she will post; it is a page she has written in a book that she closes with a black hair band. The hostel door is opening and closing behind her, she is going to be late. She will write selfishly about herself, rather than her mother’s cancer.

**

When she writes, the woman’s hair falls on her back in waves that do not want to subside. I am first looking in the mirror, and then I am sitting with my laptop. When too much time passes, I start to read. I am reading so quickly that I do not know what I will remember. I am reading in images that are hers, and his, and hers, and mine.

I am writing from my bed. They are tired lines that want to say something new. I am beginning to reread Mourning Diary five minutes after I have finished it once. Barthes has written of the things I cannot remember.

Appa is on his way to Delhi. I am not in her house as I used to be when he travelled; her mother is not bringing us fried rice with corn for dinner, or talking to me in Tamil. When Appa calls at night and asks me if I am lonely, I do not know how to tell him that I am not. I am walking from his room to mine, thinking that there are no sounds other than those that I make.

I am sitting in Appa’s bed with Amma’s photograph. The word count on my laptop says I have written two sixty two words, two, six, two. It has been five days. I realise I do not know what it means to retell a story. I am starting to cry.

**

There is a story I am trying to write. When I want it to be like the story I wrote four years ago, I realise that the story is different now. Appa is in it differently, and I am different, I am not just older, with longer hair and new clothes. Amma is different too, because I do not remember her voice or smell, and this does not bother me.

It is evening, and Appa and I are walking. We are laughing about different things, or similar things that feel different, I don’t know. He is quiet when a year ago he would have talked; he talks, when a month ago he would have stayed quiet. He is walking fast and so am I, my knees and ankles are bending in a way they have never done before.

At home, Appa is asking me if I am talking to myself. He is smiling. No, I am saying. I am telling him I am reading aloud—reading what?, something I have written—and all the time I am thinking—I have never told him this before, I would not have told him this before. But I tell him before I realise I am telling him, and we are both quiet in front of what I have said aloud.

**

A woman who is almost twenty is trying on her mother’s clothes. She remembers her in flashes when she is buying milk or paying her aunt’s phone bills; her mother is always wearing shades of red with black that looks more like deep brown. The clothes she is trying on smell of naphthalene and damp, falling off her shoulders and touching her back only where it is broadest. She chooses three.

In a bookshop, the woman is opening a book that is too small for her hands. Inside there is more pencil than ink, underlined sentences and handwriting that looks like her mother’s. She is smiling to herself, to the book and to its paper. She is buying the book; she is reading it as she walks on the road.

At home, she is lying in bed. She is wondering what it means to make literature out of life, and decides she will never know. She is beginning to pack, and remembers that her mother packed well; the inside of her bag looked like a box of new stationary, and the puzzles her daughter would make on the floor.

**

We are walking among the books on the pavement in Abids on Sunday. Appa is wandering ahead of me and I am lingering at stalls because nobody is looking at me, and asking me what I want. A man is writing titles on white sheets he has stuck on books as their covers. I am on my knees and searching for familiar names. I have forgotten the sun, and that I am in a new place.

My cupboard smells of wood and rain. The clothes I am wearing smell of home and the sun that I have forgotten how to step out into. She and I are walking down a road saying the same things, about writing, about college, about us. I am wondering if we have always said the same things; we must have always said the same things. My cupboard smells of wood and rain, and not rain and earth. It is not the same.

When I see her after five years, I will realise we do not have much to say. She will become a doctor, like she had decided before I knew her, and I knew her a long time ago. With her I am talking slower, my voice is higher and my laugh louder, as though this will give us more things to say.

I am sitting at my table. I am unsure of what comes next, now that I have written something.

Green gates

The bell rings at nine o’clock.

In the rectangular room, only our

Sock-covered feet would feel

the cold,

Until we sat and it

Spread itself, slowly on the back of our thighs

Like water

they poured down

your back,

When you did not expect it.

She was the initial silence in that rectangular room,

Opening conversation—

What shall we talk about today,

Before sitting back to wait for responses

That only occasionally came,

Like surprising lone flower pots

On a rainy Diwali night.

Your parents are academics,

She knew them,

And so she knew you

From when you were that little.

You feel old when she says that because

she is old;

Talking of education, and fear, and music—

They were only words that she tried to

Make real for you, every week,

In that rectangular room.

You write this because she was the first

To talk to you about writing.

This Monday, the bell did not ring.

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.