Etc.

I saw someone who looked like Avi on the road yesterday. It wasn’t her. She walked past me in a tangerine shirt, with her hair in her eyes.

Sanaa and I would always take things from Avi’s house. We meant to return them until we realised that she didn’t seem to notice they were gone; not the old notebook with pages that slipped like butter, or the small wooden monkey with joints that bent in ways that ours couldn’t. She had small things that Sanaa and I would slip underneath our shirts, arching our shoulders forward to make our clothes seem shapeless. Our hair was always longest in the summer weeks that we spent here; we’d used it to cover the bulge under our clothes when we slipped out of Avi’s door.

Avi was our aunt’s neighbour. My sister and I have spent three weeks of the summer with our aunt since we were five, and our parents realised they didn’t know what to do with us when they went to work. Papa refused to leave us with our neighbours because he said they were too loud, and their son was always eating ice cream, even in the winter. I don’t remember this, but Mama says there was a day when she took Sanaa to her office, and Papa took me to the university he taught at. Sanaa drew on apparently important documents, and I dropped Papa’s piles of alphabetically arranged books. That night, our aunt was called.

That first summer, Avi wouldn’t speak to us much. Our aunt said she didn’t talk to her much either. I’m certain Avi wouldn’t have spoken to us at all if our aunt hadn’t told her to look out for us every time she went out for lunch with men we never got to meet. Sanaa would wonder why our aunt never invited them inside; we’d only see them from the window in Avi’s hall. It was the only window in her house that wasn’t dusty and let sunlight in.

 

The first time Sanaa and I took something from Avi’s house, we took a handful of unfilled balloons from a packet underneath her bed. She had given us the sandwiches our aunt had left for lunch, and was sitting in a rectangle of sunlight with a book. Sanaa was convinced the balloons were for a birthday Avi had never celebrated, and nobody remembered. She told me that Avi had sat at home in her tangerine shirt, waiting for a chocolate cake she never got.

It didn’t matter that Sanaa couldn’t possibly have known this. That year I told Mama we must have a chocolate cake, like the one I had eaten at the neighbour boy’s birthday party. We must also have three balloons on the door, I said, because neighbour boy had had two. Mama showed the man at the shop three photographs, and asked him to pick the cake he thought he could make best. When he did, she ran her hand through her hair and told him to make the other one, the one that looked like a carrot. She also told him to make it a brightly coloured butterscotch cake.

Sanaa and I took the balloons from underneath Avi’s bed because they came in sad colours—there was the brown of roasted almonds, and the green of mould that appeared on the bottom of kolhapuris that hadn’t been dried after an evening in the rain. We slipped the balloons in our pockets, told Avi we’d go home because the sandwiches had made us sleepy, and ran to our room. She didn’t look up. I don’t think she heard us leave.

I filled the first balloon, and my sister let it go outside our window. They’ll be happier filled, I’m telling you, she said to me. We watched all ten float away from us. I didn’t tell her they made the sky seem sad too.

 

A year later, our aunt married one of the men she would always have lunch with. He was Portuguese–not tall, but with thin legs that made him walk like a spider. He told us to call our aunt tia.

The Portuguese man didn’t seem to like us spending our summers there. On some mornings he would sit in front of the television with his feet on the sofa in the way that our aunt always told him not to. Your tia hasn’t made me lunch again, he would say to us on other days. We’d hear the door close a little while later.

On these days, he wouldn’t be home in the evening. Sanaa and I were sent to Avi’s house when he returned; sometimes our aunt would come to take us back home at night. Her eyes would be red from all the anger. He says he fell asleep at the train station again, she’d say to us. The first time this happened, Sanaa brought home a wooden monkey from the table in Avi’s hall. On these days, Avi would watch us leave.

The monkey was our favourite until Sanaa fell ill. That day I brought back postcards from Avi’s bookshelf. We stared at the postcard with the tall apartment blocks that looked the same. Every open window had yellow curtains, as though everyone had decided to change them on the same day.  Sanaa stared at the postcard of an old woman selling ginger in a street market that nobody could ever stand still in. The woman had hair the colour of ginger, and Sanaa was sure that the toothless man in sunglasses sitting next to the woman was her husband. Avi’s lived in all these places, Sanaa told me. I believed her.

 

Three summers later, Avi wasn’t there. Our aunt said she left without notice. She had found the key under the mat outside her door.

The Portuguese man had disappeared. Our aunt had got married to another man she’d have lunch with often.

On the evening of my aunt’s wedding, Avi had been writing. Papa disapproved of second marriages the way he disapproved of ice cream in the winters, so he didn’t come. Mama came, but left soon after; she said she couldn’t miss work the next day. Sanaa and I stayed at Avi’s house that night. I slipped a little dusty box under my shirt when we went home the next morning.

It was the dark brown colour of Avi’s closed door.

 

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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.