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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.

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What Nabokov did

In the end, I was ‘she’. ‘She’ and ‘him’ were always together, a pair, ‘they’. And since ‘she’ was I, I was a part of ‘they’.

In ‘Symbols and Signs’, that’s what Nabokov had done—I sat in the subway and saw her husband’s hands, my husband’s hands, “twitching” on the umbrella, with their “swollen veins and brown-spotted skin”. I watched the girl cry on the shoulder of a woman who resembled Rebecca Borisovna.  I looked through my son’s photographs—“As a baby, he looked more surprised than most babies”, I saw a picture of our maid in Germany with her “fat-faced fiance”, and I saw Aunt Rosa.

If this is what Nabokov intended, he had succeeded. As I read the story over and over, the questions that had struck me the first time faded away and they didn’t matter. I was ‘she’, and so there was no need for me to name myself, my husband, my son. But who would know the others? If indeed names created identities, then they had to be named. They were nouns.

When I feel like writing, I look so hard to find something to write about. Sometimes I spend most of my time thinking, worrying that I have nothing to say, and no stories to tell. I look for larger things, and what these things are I do not know; things I consider important, because I feel like I must have something to say. And so I forget to do what Nabokov does—talk about everyday things, things that have become normal and I no longer see as if for the first time. There are sudden, isolated moments when I’m intensely conscious of things around me, when I see for instance that Appa’s beard is more grey than black now. But those moments seem to come only when I have nothing to do, and I have never written then.

Recently, a friend of mine got glasses, and suddenly things around her seemed so much clearer, she said. Reading ‘Symbols and Signs’ was something like this—I noticed “the last dregs of the day were mixed with the street lights”; I heard the “dutiful” beating of hearts on the stopped train, and then the rustling newspapers; images and sounds so normal, that though I don’t like to admit it, seemed as though I had never previously experienced them.

I am convinced that details mean so much more than just words on a paper, that they show, and are a way of seeing and experiencing. But when I write, details seem to support a story, help it stand and be noticed—they aren’t the story. They are real but not real enough; they are present but can be passed unnoticed rather easily; they are mere frills, accompaniments. In ‘Signs and Symbols’ the details are the story, what ‘she’ sees is what we see. The details that Nabokov chooses might seem unnecessary; they don’t answer questions. What is the dark haired girl on the train with “grubby red toenails” crying about? Who is the girl with the “toneless, anxious young voice”? What is the phone call about, who is Charlie? I will never know. Initially, I felt deceived.

“If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not!” writes Nabokov in his description of referential mania. And just as his other descriptions of the mania reminded me of writing, I felt hidden in this construct a questioning of the nature of writing. While I sit and wonder if writing is about creation or representation, writing for Nabokov seemed to be about reminding a person of what they see, hear, smell and feel every day—the most real things that we experience, but hardly remember.

In the end, it was all about writing.

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.