The unravelling

I didn’t get an email from Vera last Sunday. I didn’t realise this until Monday evening, and if Vera ever writes to me again, I’ll never tell her it took me a day 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 velvet sky this morning was last night’s sky, and I just hadn’t noticed the rain clouds in the dark. I spent last Sunday in Ashok’s house, she’d tell me, lying on his bed with an over-read copy of The Days of Abandonment, feeling heavy stars at the nape of my neck and the back of my eyes, because he’d brought us 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. Mama died of a heart attack, I’d want to say, nothing else, but I knew how Vera would write back, as though she was talking about a birthday present — anger, like sadness and shock, often bring heart attacks — and then the conversation would go nowhere.

So, I’d spend two weeks fuming silently. I’d often sit by the window waiting for it to rain — bring the clothes in the minute it starts, Papa would say, it’s your responsibility and nothing should be wet. I won’t be like Vera, I told myself; she’d always arranged our just-washed whites on the rusted wires across our balcony — who knows why she never put them on the stand — before letting them get soaked in the rain she’d forgotten about. Sometimes I’d scribble about Vera on slips of paper while I sat; 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 with a permanent bitterness on the tip of my tongue, and she high, writing to me in long spiralling sentences. They’re like tunnels, I would tell her, like the apples you peel in one continuous sheet of skin — how am I supposed 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) — haven’t we fought about this before? 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 son’s name — Dinesh, with the fake hair — and I’ll never remember his sister’s name, the tall, grass-like one who wore saris made of gold to every wedding in Mangalore — what’s her name? Did she really run away from home? You and I should have run away from home together.

Then 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’d 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. But Mama had a way of dissolving into the walls when she was angry, turning them into a stunning violet and appearing inside our room a few seconds later, a loudspeaker to her lips, calling us ungrateful, demanding from the crumbling ceiling what she had ever done for her to have to deal with us, Papa included, every single day.

Walk out, tell her we’re never coming back, Vera would breathe into my ear. Say, stop it, I’m leaving, and Vera will take care of me. Vera will take care of me, I’d whisper, but Mama, whose teeth were turning violet, kept shrieking — don’t you care about anybody — and didn’t hear me.

I saw Vera at the table in our room when I woke up on Tuesday. She’d always sat at our table more than I did. She would drape one of her string-like legs over the armrest of the wooden chair we used — it was your grandfather’s, Mama had once told me nodding significantly, as though she prayed that this information would change the way I sat at it, no longer imitating Vera, uncaringly arranging my leg over its armrest, and then rocking it back, back, and back a little more.

When I sat up in bed, Vera was untying her bushy hair — she liked to call it a weaver bird’s nest — shaking her head slowly. I’d hardly slept. I could smell smoke on my eyelashes and between my fingers; when I moved, I could smell it in my hair. I’d spent the night sitting at my window and breathing my way through the six cigarettes I’d planned to smoke sparingly over the week. Minds change easily, I told myself, I could start smoking less from next week — just like Vera could wake up one Sunday and say, today I won’t bother writing home, I’d rather score some weed, get high, and go to sleep — what did it matter? But wherever she was or whatever she was doing, Vera had never forgotten to mail on Sunday — I’ll always, always send you something, even if it’s just a line, she’d said. And now she hadn’t. Was it my fault?

Since we were children, Vera had never needed a mirror to comb every strand of her hair back into itself. She always used her fingers. Mama had taken away the mirror in our room when I was twelve, when Vera cut my hair. Papa had been in the British Council Library that afternoon, and Mama was asleep. Vera and I had settled down in front of the wooden mirror — I was sitting on a chair, blindfolded, and Vera stood behind me; I was taller even as a child, like an unsharpened pencil. Stay quiet or Mama will come, she whispered, don’t you trust me, and almost without warning — you’ll look lovely, she grinned — Vera gathered my rough, straight hair in her hands, lifted it above my head, and cut it.

I couldn’t see myself in the mirror when she removed my blindfold; I only saw Vera, who was smiling. When Mama woke up and came to see what I was doing, she found me combing my cut hair. She couldn’t bring herself to touch me. What have you done, she shrieked, and I was sure that everybody, even Papa, who was sitting at a table in the library making notes from a frayed copy of History and the Vernacular, had heard her. Vera, who was sitting on a chair in the corner of our room, her legs crossed over the armrest, didn’t say anything. She’s getting out of hand, Mama told Papa when he came home. I can’t tell if Mama is talking about you or me, Vera said smiling, now standing among the hair she had cut, while I listened at the door.

Where have you been, I asked her as I pulled out my bra from under the pillow and watched her shake her hair, why haven’t you written? I’d always expected the things I’d lost over the week to fall out of Vera’s hair every time she untied it, a blue pen cap, a postcard from my friend, a pair of scissors, my charcoal pencil, newly taken passport photographs, a calendar, an email from Vera, until Vera retied her hair and disappeared into it too.

Papa woke up when I went into the kitchen to make our tea. I made three cups, and Papa, confused, simply poured the third cup into the sink when he went to wash his glass.

Before Vera moved to Bombay — she didn’t move, she left, Mama liked to tell me — Saturday nights were our nights. We always sat next to the solar panels on our terrace with the lift shaft behind us. 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. I’d found the panels when I was three; I sat under them every afternoon while Vera was still at school, until Papa found me there one Monday and twisted my ear. Can’t you see that sign, he snapped, his voice was a razor blade against skin, pointing to the sticker of a skull on the lift door — Always run when you see it. Until she died, Mama believed that Vera and I sat in the middle of KBR Park every Saturday night, on top of the stone tower that looked like a rook taken off a chess board and planted in the middle of all the neem trees. The smell of your cigarettes always curls up in my nostrils when you come home, she’d say. Thankless 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 night, nothing else — I had thought it would calm her down — Vera didn’t talk to me for a week. She wasn’t angry, she only seemed to watch me from a distance as if through the binoculars we’d been gifted as children, always sitting opposite me, at the dinner table, the other end of our bed, the other side of our hall. Mama decided I was lying and locked me in my room. Don’t you lie to me, she said, how much can you lie, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something, other than yourself?

Why did you tell Mama about the terrace, Vera had asked me the next time we were there. We’d been listening to a song about Regal cinema — 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, we imagined, remained lit in perpetual blue.

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

We were seventeen, and I’d never been angry with Vera before this. At first, she pretended not to notice, and I pretended like my stomach wasn’t snaking up to my violet throat. Then I left her upstairs and came home early. Papa was still 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 long tongue — I wanted to hold its tip between two fingers and pull — 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 liked to say that this was the day I became our mother, and began turning the walls into my own shade of violet. 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’m still sure that that’s what she had implied — was as calm as daybreak, as though he’d been thinking about killing Mama himself, just the other day. But I was angry, and Papa’s question settled in my head like a dull throb in my calves that I remembered every time I moved.

Papa didn’t eat on Tuesday night. I’d fallen asleep and he didn’t wake me up. He didn’t set the rice to cook for himself either; perhaps he didn’t know how to.

In her first email to me after she moved, Vera said she’d 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 said, Vera left you. Vera moved for work, I mumbled, but Mama struck the table hard with her hand, her fingers spread so wide that they seemed webbed, and hissed, she left you, and now she’s in an apartment somewhere in the middle of Dadar getting high on drugs that she can’t pay for.

At first, I didn’t reply to Vera even though I tried hard to write to her — I could feel Mama’s happiness burning into my clothes — but she still wrote to me. She had met Ashok on a local train. Her room didn’t have a window. It made her house smell of cigarettes and weed. Sometimes it smelt of vodka. Her Gujarati neighbour had brought her dhoklas for breakfast on her first day. She would look for a job, perhaps as a cashier at a Health and Glow, just for now. How angry was Mama? She was sorry she couldn’t go on living here. I’d know what she meant if I left home too. It would be nice if I visited.

I didn’t tell Mama that I was beginning emails to Vera and discarding the drafts, but I couldn’t resist — Vera was still writing to me after all. Perhaps she would grow tired of Bombay and come back home. Perhaps I would begin to want to run away too.

I wrote that Mama often asked Papa how his writing was going. Papa, distracted, never responded; instead, he always frowned into his book at the dinner table, and only said, why is the dal so salty? I began to tell her about how he’d forgotten to pay the cable bill and Mama had missed watching the television premiere of Anarkali of Arrah — she’d been talking about it for weeks. I feel like I’m fading in this house, Mama had said to him that evening, and Papa only looked up from his laptop for a moment to ask, can’t you do anything by yourself? I’d heard them from the door. Later, I wrote to Vera again when I dreamt of panic attacks. I’d woken up confused because I was less scared of them when they were real — I wanted to ask Vera if that was possible. When I finished the emails, I sat at my table and ashed Marlboro Lights on the floor. Always buy Lights, Vera had told me, they’re the only ones that really fill you up. Then I deleted the unsent emails.

But on Friday, four weeks after Vera left, I finally sat on the terrace and wrote to her, only asking if Regal was lit in blue. She replied on Sunday. She didn’t bring up how long it had been. I believe Regal is lit in blue, she wrote, our kaali peeli drove past it last week. Although I was a little high, and Ashok said it was yellow, I’m quite sure it was blue; the same blue as the cover of that Jerry Pinto book you bought for Mama, not the piercing fairy light blue I’d always imagined it would be. I must say I was disappointed, and you would be too.

I woke up early on Wednesday morning. It was five, and I thought I could hear mosquitoes, deep in my ear. When I sat up, I saw that Mama was sitting on the floor at the foot of my bed, drying my wet clothes with a soundless hairdryer. She was whispering about Avni, the cousin who ran away — that one was a bad egg, she was. That one didn’t care.

On Thursday, I read the email I sent to Vera the week before she didn’t write to me.

Vera had just told me a story. It’s about Ashok’s sister, she’d written — I thought about how much I hated Ashok, from the tips of my hair to my toes — 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. Mama had just told you she hated her marriage — Papa had so much potential until he woke up one day without it, she had said, you can’t imagine what such a life is like. I could hear you both talking from the other room, softly, as if you were friends, and when I heard you groan, both Mama and I knew you wouldn’t leave them — Mama alone with a man she hated, and Papa with a woman who despised him — even if you wanted to.

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 exactly how they’ve told the story to every girl born in their family — Don’t be like Ana, and if you must, then don’t return. You’ll fall in love if you make grand plans to live alone, they say, just like Ana did. That’s where it begins. You’ll meet a man in the park you visit occasionally, perhaps to sit at a bench under the Gulmohar tree and read; he’ll be tall, charming, the kind of man who listens (unlike every other man in your family), someone who tucks two cigarettes behind his ear and produces one when you ask for it, like a magic trick.

This is when you start visiting the park more. Then you’ll stop buying milk and bread, and you’ll walk to work, because you’re trying to save money to run away with him — this is the first sign — he’s told you he wants to, soon, before his parents arrive to say you can’t be together, you’re from another state. Everything that follows is a blur — you run away with your lover, and when you do, he steals your money (including every last rupee you’ve saved by telling everyone you’ve developed lactose intolerance), and vanishes. Of course, then you’ll disappear behind him (you love him after all, and you were meant to marry), 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 had written back to Vera. Don’t ever leave home, or someone will die.

Mama died five weeks after Vera moved to Bombay — Vera simply took off with Papa’s wallet, although she did remember to leave his driver’s license behind. I was nineteen. It had been two days since I told Mama that I had written to Vera, and she had locked me in my room and screamed, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something other than yourself?

Papa was at home the day Mama died — he’d missed his doctor’s appointment because Mama and I were arguing about who was supposed to drive him there — and I had gone out to buy my pack of Lights. In the story that Vera knows, I came home to find Papa sobbing next to Mama. She’d been standing on a ladder cleaning the fan with a wet cloth when she fell and had a heart attack. I often imagine that Mama thought of Vera even as she fell. Or she thought of Vera and then fell.

Vera didn’t come to Mama’s funeral. I’d 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 origami paper, muttering, thank god for heart attacks, thank god for the ladder, thank god for the fall.

The second time I saw Vera that week, she was on my bed. It was lunch time. I didn’t try to talk to her — she was lying next to Mama, tracing her thick eyebrow with one finger. You should have gone to the parlour, Vera whispered, wouldn’t you have liked that? Mama was lying very still, her eyes were closed; I was sure she couldn’t even feel Vera’s finger — they would have scrubbed your feet and painted your toes, Vera was telling her; you could have curled your hair and waxed your arms.

Then Vera stayed quiet for the next five minutes. Mama still hadn’t moved. Suddenly, Vera said softly, you mustn’t shave your arms. I have a friend who slit her wrists while she shaved. Her parents said it was a mistake, but how will we ever know?

Vera still hadn’t emailed on Friday morning. I’ll write to her today, I told myself, soon after Papa finishes his breakfast and takes his medicines — two orange tablets that he sometimes describes as being bright like marigolds — and disappears into his room to work his way through the new paper he said he was writing for the Economic and Political Weekly. I’ll tell her this is unacceptable, that Papa is worried, and he’s asking to speak to her.

I took three hours to finish Vera’s email. First, I sat at my table and thought about how it used to be our table. Then I stood up and pushed my chair back — it used to be our chair too — and then I walked around the room. I looked into my coffee glass — mine, not ours, Vera had stolen it for me when we were fifteen — there was nothing left. Vera had stolen Mama’s earrings soon after, and Mama had found them in the drawer of my dressing table. How can you do this, we give you everything you want, she shouted, her hair violet, taking back her earrings and dragging my dressing table to her room, its stub-like legs wailing against the floor, while Vera rolled her eyes and whispered, she must know that won’t make any difference.

When I sat down again, I wondered if I should I tell Vera I’d forgotten to put the rice to cook for dinner on Tuesday. I wouldn’t. But it was her fault. The clothes had got wet in the rain twice, and even Papa, who always disappeared into his head and only emerged in time for food, seemed to notice my carelessness. I wanted Vera to know that he had asked me if something was bothering me — it didn’t matter that he wouldn’t have known what to say if I had said yes, something has happened; I’m scared it’s my fault and I don’t know what to do — Papa never asked any of us this, not even Mama when she was alive and waiting for him to say something.

Dearest Vera, I’m sorry for what I said, I start to write — I didn’t mean it, but you can’t disappear on us, V. It’s Friday now, where have you been? Papa is unhappy, something about a paper he hasn’t finished and how he’s lost his copy of Dialectic of Nihilism, and so I haven’t told him that you’ve disappeared. I’m hoping you’ll come around and drop me a line, even if it is just to say you’re alright, around, alive.

I deleted the first line before I hit send. It’s Friday now, where have you been, I start, 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.

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?

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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.