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.

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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.

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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.