Joan Didion and the Instagram Notebook

Sometimes, I think of Joan Didion when I use Instagram.

I always remember her words from On Keeping a Notebook – ‘it all comes back’ – and I’m often terrified. They’re heavy, the kind that Didion has poured into my feet so quietly, steadily, that it’s difficult to move. It’s easy to imagine her, sitting in a little bar across from a certain Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Wilmington, Delaware (not that I know what it looks like), scribbling into a notebook about ‘that woman Estelle’, while actually watching the woman in the plaid silk dress talking to a cat lying in a patch of sunlight. She writes about a familiar impulse: like the need to type a note on Keep while you walk to university, crossing the road at The Queen’s Head – London pavement flyer, An invitation to see things differently. Winter.

When a little later, Didion describes her notes as ‘bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage’, I can suddenly move again. I’ve also always kept a notebook; an invitation to see things differently – what I really meant was, I saw him yesterday, we sat outside the bar asking each other how much we’d written, we’ll see each other again today; there should be an on-off switch for this business of one-sided love.

My friends have often told me that I was late to the Instagram party. My first post, and I thought about it for a long time, was of my aunt’s dog Banja, and a cup of tea. Like every other morning, we are on the balcony at home in Bangalore. It’s early, and my tea is on a ledge, and you can see Banja looking up at something through the glass of an open window. The photograph is obviously (badly) edited. It’s captioned ‘Windows #1, Morning face’, and has 29 likes and 13 comments – mostly about how I’m finally on Insta – but my favourite, from a close friend: I knew your first post would be Banja or coffee or both.

I replied, and I’m quite sure I was grinning while I typed it, So well you know me. I meant it.

Except, and maybe it really doesn’t matter, I’m drinking tea and not coffee. But everyone knew then that I lived with my aunt, always talked about our (her) dog, and drank too much coffee, so I didn’t correct him – I mean, he knew my first photograph would be of Banja, or coffee, or both.

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about my relationship with Instagram. I’ve always been curious about how my friends use – and curate themselves – on it; I skim through their planned, choreographed photographs; the sudden, spur of the moment ones; their odd photographs of things only they’ve noticed. Then, sometimes, in the slow hour between late morning and lunchtime, I scroll through the photographs I’ve uploaded to Instagram. As of today, there are eighty of them, shifting between Hyderabad (home, where I grew up), Bangalore (home, where I worked and went to college), and London (home? where I went to university). I’ve added them since the end of September 2016 in sputtering starts and stops – the most recent are of Banja staring at me while I eat (caption: Chikki); the smudged view of Bangalore from a train window (caption: Sometimes it makes me so happy to know I’ll always, always come back here); the narrow, dusty reading room at home in Hyderabad that I used to paint in (caption: Renato Rosaldo, The Day of Shelly’s Death, followed too quickly by Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers ) – and I wonder what people see. I’m always wondering what people see.

Then, more and more, I think I’ve got it all wrong.

That in my permanently online condition of seeing and being seen; in the midst of what feels like the pointed sharpness of Twitter, and the expanding shapelessness of Facebook – neither of whose contours I’ve ever fully settled into – it’s my changing relationship with Instagram that’s constantly reminded me of my writing, and of my quiet. Often, I’m also, as Ariel Lewis writes, a ‘virtual wallflower, lurking on the edges of chatter’ – much like offline, where some people insist that I’m too quiet; where, when there’s a lull in conversation, friends from school turn to me, patronising, gracious, teasing, It’s okay, you can say what you’re thinking; in college, suspicious, It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for; in class, my teachers, She writes well, but she won’t speak; in all relationships, frustrated, I need to know what you’re thinking; at home, hurt, Are you always like this, or only with me? I’ve often wondered who I want them to see – these 344 followers, three-fourth of whom I haven’t spoken to in months, and at least half in years – until I tell myself that I should stop, that this is a rabbit hole, and notice that the self-absorbed spiral of this exercise makes me breathe deeply, bite my lips, crack my fingers with my thumbs.

But, quite vainly, I also know the answer, and this is where I come to Didion again – sometimes I want to say, look, here it is, here is a 23-year-old-trying-to-write-person-who-used-to-be-a-reporter-and-doesn’t-know-if-she-can-(or-wants-to)-be-one-again – except, how do you say such a thing aloud? What happened to being quiet, self-effacing, and knowing, as Didion writes, ‘that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves’? Didion, I text my friend V, Didion’s helping me make sense of Instagram.

 

Here is a different scene. One of the many times we fought, and I’m glad we’ve never spoken to each other with the same bitterness since, we were sixteen, and I was home from boarding school for the holidays. My friend D was on the floor of my room, lying on her stomach and flipping through something I’d written in my circular, self-consciously good-girl handwriting for English class – something vaguely about me, my mother, my mother’s mother, and this girl and her mother – until she asked me, her words bristling as though they’d slipped into hot oil, So that’s it? We’re all going to keep being someone in your stories, then?

I remember an elastic silence stretching between us. I registered, for a brief moment, in the way that people tend to do in situations of cementing tension, a group of women singing happy birthday in the hospital canteen outside my window – until D, gesturing at my papers, muttered, the cold of her voice now settling into the bends of my ear canal, This never happened either. Obviously, I said, neither my mother, nor my grandmother were alive, and then, ten minutes later – You can’t make up things about real, living people, she declared, I don’t care if you call it fiction – and left.

D doesn’t remember this fight. But there’s a line in one of my notebooks, perhaps from a few months later, scribbled in the same circular, good-girl handwriting, You were born in a zoo (x2), with lions and tigers and monkeys like you, happy birthday to you – hostel, 2012. I remember the night. It was M’s birthday, and her roommates had made her a cake out of warm milk and crushed Hide-n-Seek biscuits; I was in the next room, there were torchlights, and they were singing this zoo version of happy birthday in hushed voices. Perhaps I wrote it down because it all came back: the cold silence that spread between us before D left – the rapid descent of my stomach to the floor because I thought this was it, our final fight; my confusion; the sharp sting of her words, ‘living people’ – expanding and folding, expanding and folding, and expanding and folding over itself. It happened, I now tell D, I’m sure it happened, but so what if it did, she wants to know.

As is often the case with my explanations, I don’t have a coherent answer; I only want to remember the shuffle of papers, the scraping of her slippers on the floor, the heat of her words at boiling point. And Didion writes of this moment precisely – first, ‘instead I tell what some would call lies’, and then, ‘how it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook’ – and I think, how it felt to me, that is getting closer to the truth of our fight that D doesn’t remember, and I will write about; that might or might not have happened, because it’s her memory against mine. Then, from the last month, there’s another note, Get lost, this isn’t your room, get out – three-year-old boy in a Spiderman t-shirt to aunt he doesn’t remember, and something else comes back. We are in Bangalore visiting my father’s cousins, and the point of this entry is really the boy’s father, looking straight at me while I sit quietly in a corner smiling at his son, saying loudly to anybody who will listen, be careful what you say around her, or she’ll write about you. It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for. Suddenly, I’m wondering what he imagines – she’s going to write about this too, she’s locking it away in the well-oiled filing cabinet of her brain in the drawer labelled ‘family’ – and I think of D, who first yelled, So that’s it? We’re all going to keep being someone in your stories, then?

 

I bought my second, tearing copy of Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 2014, when I lived in Bangalore. I found it at a second-hand bookshop, and only picked it up because its previous owner’s handwriting looked crushingly like my mother’s. They’d pencilled in something across the margins of nearly every page in the book – ‘talks to audience’, ‘a lot of feelings’, ‘typical mother’, ‘things are dying’ – and since I returned often to On Keeping a Notebook, I regularly re-read their terse observations. Where Didion wrote of her notebook, ‘Remember what it is to be me: that is always the point’, the previous owner had underlined and paraphrased, curving their f’s and r’s like my mother would have, ‘The disclosure is made to support the actual idea of the essay: although her notebook consists of random observations of facts and people, it’s actual subject is herself’.

And so, the actual idea of this essay, and perhaps here, Didion would disagree: Writing – my notebook was how I came to writing – trying to loosen the now tenuous link between my Instagram and writing. After all, it all comes back. The story I wrote some months ago – about two young women who move into an apartment together to write – is tinted by the memory of an old notebook entry, ‘They said we would get divorced in a year’ – two writers, still married in 2016 – a line I wrote down because I was 21, and thought I needed to remember what it felt like to want that kind of love. It is also tinted by a memory saved on Instagram: a photograph of my former office balcony on a Saturday, when the three of us sat down for an afternoon break, and they told me about their wedding.

But now, and it’s louder than before, I can hear my quiet. For the longest time, I wasn’t on Instagram. And then suddenly I was, posting nine photographs – of Banja, of another dog called Biscuit, and the dusty, deep green of trees that leaned into my office balcony – in fifteen days. Then there were sixteen posts over the next month, which quickly became seven, then six, and three, until I was skipping the months when I began to feel irretrievably unhappy. Here is an (approximate) inventory: there are four selfies; fourteen animals – eight of Banja, four of other stray dogs, two of skinny kittens I vaguely remember; one scarecrow I’d made in a park with friends; one bunch of helium balloons, the largest shaped like Winnie-the-Pooh; two protests in Bangalore at Town Hall, one of which I reported on; eighteen in London – my favourite seven of places I used to read at, captioned with the titles of books I’d read there; two others of snow, whose seeping, soaking cold I saw and felt for the first time. Then there are five posts of my friends – like the one of S unhappily doing yoga, one at breakfast with Z and S, one of (another) S pretending to fly; three of mornings without the keys to my former office; two from a trip to Silchar where my father and I got lost in the rain; one of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment; six of swirling, sunlit windows, thoughtfully captioned, ‘Windows #1’, ‘Windows #2’, ‘Windows #6’.

And yet, what it doesn’t say: the now-archived photograph of a framed picture of my mother reminds me of the first time I spoke to my father about her death. I had messaged him from a bench outside university in London around the tenth anniversary of her death to say that I was thinking of him, and her, and heard the unexpected gentleness in his voice when he called me. The photograph of the roads outside my student accommodation covered in a layer of snow also brings it all back – an initial giddy happiness, and my father asking me on our weekly Sunday-morning call, What did the snow feel like? They will, I imagine, appear in some story I write many years later.

As of today, my last post is from October 2018, when I returned home from London and began to obsessively read about grief – a word whose weight I’m still hesitant to hold and examine, but record compulsively in my notebook (‘I always send my mother flowers on her birthday’ – London to Germany) – of women who’d lost their mothers, sisters, husbands, and children, and men who’d lost their mothers, fathers, wives. I skulk around on Instagram, watching my friends and acquaintances becoming doctors and architects, getting married, or spiralling and in pain, and like Lewis, I don’t always reach out. Other times, I scroll through friends’ profiles and see, clear as glass, that they are photographers, filmmakers, designers and writers – unmistakeable in how they see and display their worlds. Like with Banja and the coffee, and my unending photographs of perhaps unexceptional spaces, sometimes I still want to say, here is a 23-year-old-trying-to-write-person-who-also-used-to-be-a-reporter-and-doesn’t-know-if-she-can-(or-wants-to)-be-one-again, but, more than ever, my stomach begins crawling up to my throat. I try hard to let go of my quiet – It’s okay, you can say what you’re thinking – as though it’s as simple as untying a docked boat. But I have never untied a docked boat.

And so, I return to Didion, who writes: ‘Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not’. More and more, I turn to scroll through Instagram and flip through my notebook to write, thinking, ‘How it felt to me’, ‘Remember what it is to be me’.

If I was to post a photograph on Instagram today, it would be of my room, and the corner I’ve been sitting in to write this – on the floor, against the wall, next to my table, with a blanket wrapped around my legs. What you wouldn’t see: the cupboard in front of me, taped with photographs of Z, S, and Banja; A’s postcard from Bhutan, and another of a yawning dog that’s captioned Bitch; two stickers from London, one for fair contracts for workers, another announcing ACAB; a lino painting from (another) A for my birthday, with Final Notations by Adrienne Rich written out neatly behind it. The photograph wouldn’t mean much to anybody else – like an older Instagram post of my room in Bangalore, or the statue of a ballerina in London – and, why should it? But as with our many selves in our various notebooks, it would all come back: the unexpected frustration of writing this, the worry that I’d been at it for a month, with nothing to show; the irritation that I’d even drawn a mind map in the hope that it would make writing easier. After all, even the photograph of the ballerina statue brings it back – October 2017, the cold day I met an old friend in a city I was new and lonely in. The statue reminded me of the agony in an opening sentence of a story by Angela Carter, ‘She was like a piano in a country where everyone has had their hands cut off’ – a line I’ve written down in my notebook, that now reminds me of what it felt like to be swallowed whole by a city I wasn’t sure I could grow to like. It’s like finding another entry in my notebook, Sometimes you can only be truthful in fiction – woman in Blossoms bookshop looking for Alice Munro – and thinking of D, who might have been the first to ask me, ‘So, that’s it? We’re all going to keep being someone in your stories, then?

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Jasmine lingering

The first we hear of our mother’s affair is from her sister. We are drinking tea and I’m sitting on one of the wooden chairs with uncomfortably straight backs in our aunt’s house, rocking it mechanically to alarm her. She doesn’t like how I tilt the chair back, back, and back a little more, holding her deep blue mug around its rim. I usually do it to watch her watching me, waiting for the chair to fall, and the mug to break. My sister Nina is sitting uncomfortably on another wooden chair next to me with an old copy of Wuthering Heights.

I don’t think my aunt intended to tell us about our mother’s affair. She didn’t even call it an affair. She bit her lip and tried to ask me about my new job soon after she mentioned his name, even though she wishes I had gone to Bombay and lived in her little flat in Chuim village instead.

My aunt had decided I would live in Chuim when I was still in school. She had also decided that I would write a book about living there, with its smell of sea and bombil, and heavy air that made my hair stand in wisps of hawa mithai. I would become best friends with Alister who ran the garage down the road and smelt of paint, and our neighbour, Mrs Deesa, would send her son home every evening, so that I could teach him enough biology to pass his board exams. In the mornings I would take the local train to work in Dadar, standing comfortably in the middle of the crowd of school girls and women in white shirts with gende ke phool in their hair. My aunt even found me a job, but I knew before I heard its details that didn’t really want it. Alister bought her house last week and said he would rent it out to models.

Nina squinted into her phone on our way home. I don’t know how she sits behind me when I’m riding and looks into her phone without feeling like she will fall off. I was thinking of my mother and this patient she was having an affair with — a balding man with a heart problem, and an artist with no money — imagining Mama standing before him in his hospital room on one of her late nights, slowly removing her doctor’s coat and dropping it to the floor.

We are sitting down to have dinner on the day Mama gets her first delivery of jasmine flowers. Papa has made baby potatoes, and there is dal from the night before. Nina is sitting next to him as usual, and I sit opposite her. When the doorbell rings, our mother is tying her hair up into a bun like she does before every dinner.

Nina goes to the door. She brings in jasmine flowers and leaves them on the table next to Mama.

When our father asks who brought them, our mother doesn’t answer. Nina says it was our watchman. He said they’re from the garden, she says.

Mama looks at her, surprised.

Nina and I go out for a walk after dinner. We walk past the small shop selling Ambur biryani that used to be a Burrito King which used to be a Canara Bank, and we sit on the steps to the park we used to play in when I was five and Nina was three. She once pushed a boy because he told me I had boochis in my hair. She tells me that the man who delivered the jasmine flowers was the receptionist at Mama’s hospital. I light a cigarette.

On a night when Mama tells us she isn’t coming home, I ask Nina if she thinks she is in the Artist’s room. Then I ask her to guess how many times she’d kiss him that night. I was thinking of her bending down to kiss him, not swiftly grazing his cheek, but slowly, on his dry lips that taste of hospital and sterilised steel. Then she’d nip at the corner of his lower lip when she let him go.

Our mother always kissed Papa’s cheek. She rarely lingered there.

But Nina says she’s sure that on the nights Mama stays at the hospital, she sits on a chair next to the Artist’s bed and eats hospital food. When the Artist falls asleep to the sound of Mama shuffling Uno cards for their next game, Mama will run her hand through his thinning hair a few times, before going to sleep on the examination bed in her room.

I tell Nina this is too tame.

When we’re on our way to Select to buy new books for ourselves, Nina looks out of the Metro and watches the rest of the train turning. We try to imagine how our mother told her sister about the Artist. Our aunt wouldn’t approve of him, or of the affair she didn’t call an affair. We imagine Mama telling her about the Artist breathlessly, in the way that she gets when she is nervous with happiness. She’d tell her that he was the first man to know how much she loved jasmine flowers, and that at night he would tell her stories until his throat was as dry as his lips. Nina says our aunt would have responded in familiar, easily ignorable grunts of discomfort, and even though she never asked Mama what stories the Artist told her, Mama would tell her anyway.

At this point Nina and I disagree again. I’m certain that the Artist would talk to Mama about poetry, and the precise colour of gulmohar leaves in the sun at two in the afternoon. He would tell her that this is the closest he has come to being in love with a woman — such a strong, beautiful woman — ever since the girl he had loved in college had stopped loving him. Then Mama would tell him that she had met Papa when they were seventeen, and that they had stayed in love, while her friends met new men in new pubs every week. She sounds wistful.

Nina rolls eyes when I say this. She tells me to give our mother more credit — she’d never fall in love with such a dramatic man, she tells me — Mama could only love quiet men who had something thoughtful to say about Doris Lessing, and didn’t talk more than they needed to. Remember what Mama had said when you cried that your old boyfriend wanted to follow you to college, she tells me. Falling in love with Papa had been easy because it hadn’t sucked them into each other. It was an intellectual engagement.

Our mother had once told us that when they were in school, she and Papa would sit at opposite ends of the class — Papa at the first desk in the first row, and Mama at the first desk in the last. He would take notes in every class — Mama only took frantic notes when they were reading Satyajit Ray — and she would pass him chits scribbled on paper torn out of notebooks. Our father never replied. When Nina asked her what she wrote in these chits, Mama refused to tell us. I think they were lines of poetry, and Nina thinks they were sketches of the back of Papa’s head, with different hairstyles. Papa has always hated both poetry and long hair.

And then their seventeen years together had acquired a grit-filled graininess. It had a rasping quality when you tried to put a finger on it, or gather it up in words.

Nina made the Artist sound like the boys that she wishes she has met, because the men she has known are like the man that I imagine the Artist to be. Nina has always fallen out of love quickly — because it’s not really love, she insists, and I’ve always fallen in love too quickly and wasted my time.

Then Nina and I smile when we think of the tip of our aunt’s nose turning red at this conversation with our mother. She would tell Mama that she disliked all artists, especially men who painted women, even if the women were fully clothed. Our aunt would say to herself that her sister was making us all suffer in her selfishness.

And then yesterday our aunt left the house when she saw the jasmine in Mama’s hair.

At dinner, I sat next to Mama, Mama sat opposite Papa, and Nina sat next to him, like always. I was serving myself rice when Papa said he wanted an air gun to shoot the wretched pigeons around our house, and then told our mother about a student who recorded his sociology class and put it on YouTube. He smiled, but he also tried to frown, because these days, he said, people were doing strange things that he didn’t understand.

Our mother laughed loudly, and Papa smiled.

Mama kissed Papa’s cheek before she left for work this morning. Nina and I watched her linger at his neck, and we saw Papa smile.

Mama has just come home. Papa is already asleep Nina and I can smell the jasmine in her hair when she walks past our room with her doctor’s coat on her arm.

Hands

She has palms that feel like butter. I haven’t touched them since we were ten and she lay on the floor outside class and the two of us kneeled next to her, laughing. Come on, we told her. She was shaking. Stop it, get up, come, we said more insistently. The boys guarding the door to our class weren’t watching us. She always said they gave up trying to catch us when we played because we were too smart, and ran too fast, and boys could be such spoil sports sometimes. Every time, I would say. We could run into class and win. Come on, Kannu was saying to her, and I was pulling her by her cold butter hands, stop acting, I said to her.

Now there were people around us – what’s happening – can you see? – who’s on the floor? –why is she shaking, make her stop shaking.

—Please tell me she’s alright.

I was still pulling at her palms, thinking about how she had to wear gloves in craft class when we stitched flowers onto pillow covers because her hands were always sweaty, and she couldn’t pull needles through the cloth.

Everyone leave some space – stand back – she had such sweaty palms – we were both running, hit each other and fell – when did she fall, did you see her fall, Kannu was asking – somebody call her mother – what’s happening here? – she fell? – her mother, call her mother, she’s in the staff room – it was an accident, we didn’t see each other running – come on, get up, I was still saying to her.

Somewhere a woman was shrieking, what’s happened to my daughter?

Let the teachers through – where are they taking her? – ask her friends what happened – running? – who are those two girls crying?

— Everyone go to class, quickly. Go, start walking, a woman was saying firmly. Her blue dupatta had fallen off her shoulder when she stood up to watch them carry Pri away.

Kannu and I went to History class and read about the bronze dancing girl that they found at Mohenjo-daro, with her hand on her waist, and bangles till the top of her arm.

When I first dreamt of Pri, she was terrifying. We were in school and I could see Kannu running through the corridors away from us in a grey dress that billowed out behind her in the way that only dresses can fly at night when someone disappears into the trees, or stands at the top of a mountain in the wind. We were playing and Pri had found me, but she hadn’t caught me yet. I kept stepping back, arching my shoulders forward, and she would move towards me, smiling, stretching her arms and swiping at me with her cold hands. Her nails were as sharp as knives. I woke up. I was never sure if she caught me.

At school the next day, we played the same game before class. Kannu was telling me to run, run, to your left. Pri was trying to catch me and I was moving back. She was smiling, stepping forward, swiping at me in the way that cats try to grab things dangling above them, and I kept thinking about her nails. This time the bell rang and the game ended. When we sat next to each other in class, I could see that her nails were short.

On the day that Pri fell outside class, I realised that she had never had long nails because she always bit them. I spoke to her mother when I got home from school that day. We had just got a wireless phone at home, and I walked up and down our house, from my bed to the plants outside our door, nodding into the phone as though her mother was still talking to me, long after she had hung up. When I finally put the phone down, I went to look up the meaning of ‘mild concussion’, and my palms were warm and sweaty, almost like Pri’s butter hands.

I think we were nine when Pri, Kannu and I had stayed outside class one day after the bell had rung, and everyone was going home quickly because it looked like it was going to rain. We stood there long after everyone had left, and announced to each other that we were best friends. Some older boys were lingering at the staircase and watched us uncertainly, but we looked at each other, held our cold hands, and called ourselves the snorter friends because of the way we snorted when we laughed sometimes, and because it only happened when we laughed together. Then we ignored the boys, who by now were laughing at us as though they had never had best friends, jumped down the stairs, and went home.

Long before the three of us ever spoke, there were other girls. They talked much louder and much more than we ever did—Isha had a voice that was sure of itself no matter what she said, like the voices of doctors when they wore their stiff white coats. We were walking into the school building after lunch break when she slipped her hand into mine, pointed at the boy from our class in front of us and whispered, you know what I heard him say about how babies are made? I looked at her confused, until she said loudly, he’s really an idiot you know, I mean, who hasn’t heard about sex? We giggled, held each other’s hands tighter as her shoulder pushed mine and mine brushed hers, and I nodded, forgetting that I didn’t actually know what sex was.

Everyone liked Isha, except for Pri and the twins. I liked her because she knew everything there ever was to know, as though she was really much older than the seven year old girl we knew her as. I liked the way she would pull her hands out of her pockets when she told the boys to buzz off, as though she was ready to hit them if they wasted her time. When we grew older, the boys liked her because of the way her eyes narrowed when she smiled at them, and her braces seemed to make her mouth softer, but by now we hadn’t spoken for years, and I couldn’t agree with them.

When we were on the bus home from school, the twins would sit on either side of me, with Ria’s hand resting lightly on my shoulder, and I could feel it’s warmth through my shirt long after she had turned away from me. What does she say about us, Sahana would ask me, and Ria wouldn’t believe it when I said she really didn’t talk about them. Sahana’s smile would melt into the window, and her nose seemed to sharpen into a point when she turned away. Behind us the boys would be yelling at the bus driver to please stop at the bakery on the way home – do you have two bucks more, I want an egg puff – fuck, today was such a long day – I can’t believe we lost that football match – do you know what I heard today?

The twins would come home on some evenings if their parents were still at work. I think Amma and Appa preferred it if I spent my time with Isha, but they never said anything; adults just seemed to have a way of emanating disapproval that lingered around our clothes like cigarette smoke.

At home one day, I showed Ria my collection of stones. I picked out a purple one that I had found in school and loved for the way it looked like a sharpened tooth. Then we closed the door to my room and lay in my bed under a thin yellow bedsheet, and whispered to each other. Did you hear about the skeleton in the lab? – what happened? – some seniors saw it moving its fingers in the lunch break – why were they in the lab in the lunch break? – that’s not the point! Her hot hand was in my shirt. Amma was reading in the hall. Appa was fixing a tap in the kitchen. We were now whispering about library class – the boys took out some book without telling anyone – they’ll get caught – you’re such a spoil sport – and then my hand touched her stomach, and her hands seemed to get colder as they moved upwards, and the tips of her fingers felt as though she was holding the stone I had showed her against my skin. Her sister had taken my cycle out even though she seemed too small for it.

When I was putting away the stones that I had shown Ria after the twins left that evening, I realised that the purple stone wasn’t there anymore. They never came home again and changed schools at the end of the year. This was the only thing I never told Isha. But then we stopped talking entirely, and now I can’t remember why.

During lunch break one day, Pri, Kannu and I found some of the boys from our class near the well in school, huddled around a torn sheet of paper. Pri always said they were talking loudly so that we heard them. Who wrote this – they’ve disguised their handwriting well – we should tell the girls about this – we’ll find out who did it, they won’t have to feel scared. When they saw us watching them, they gave us the torn sheet of paper with a list of names of some of the girls in our class – I promise we’ll find out which boys did it, don’t worry you three, they said. We must have looked confused because the boys whispered; it’s a list of the most kissable girls in class. We found our names on the top of the list. I began to laugh before anyone said anything, and Pri grinned as she crumpled the sheet in her sweaty hands and threw it into the well. Kannu stuck her tongue out at the boys and pulled us away saying, stupid plans aren’t going to make us like you, you guys.

Pri moved to Bangalore at the end of that year, just when we turned twelve. We spent a night in her house before she left, and her sister rolled her eyes at us when we turned off the lights to play dark room. At night, we lay under Pri’s blanket in her narrow bed. When we were trying not to cry, she called me lambudin because I was the tallest among the three of us, and Kannu and I whispered ‘footloose’ into her ear for good luck, like we always did when we played kho kho. We held hands again, and this time Pri’s palms were dry, and Kannu’s weren’t as rough as they used to be. I think mine were sweaty.

When Amma died, Pri came back to visit. That was the first time the three of us met after she left, and I don’t think we’ve been together too many times after. We went for a walk around my house, and I told them I didn’t like that people knew what had happened to Amma. Pri said that there was nothing I could do about it, and Kannu held my hand. Then we laughed about the day Pri had a concussion and forgot what she had eaten for breakfast.

Kannu and I stayed together in school, and by the time we were fifteen, I had stayed in her house enough times for her mother to start talking to me in Tamil. When Appa went out of town on work, we would come home together from school and lie on her bed with our legs knotted into each other’s, and at night, I would insist that sleeping on two bean bags was more comfortable than sleeping on her bed. Her mother knew about my then boyfriend but pretended she didn’t, and when she found out about Kannu’s boyfriend later, she shouted at her in a way that people shout only when they’re more hurt than angry, before asking me if I’d like corn fried rice for dinner. She put her hand on my shoulder before she left the room, and I knew then where Kannu got her rough hands from.

When Kannu decided to take up dance and Appa was out of town, I would sit on the wooden floor in her class and watch her. She would tie her dupatta tightly around her waist and bend in aramandi, and I would hear her hitting her feet against the floor purposefully, harder than the girls around her. On our way home she would sometimes repeat the mudras and I would watch her fingers bend more lightly than her legs and feet. It was like we were in art class again, sitting in the narrow room at the back of a house, holding our brushes so tightly that it was hard to paint, erasing so much that our paper tore. We would whisper Gamboge Hue and Prussian Blue to each other, unsure of how to pronounce the names, and fascinated that they were not just called yellow and blue. Sometimes we’d flip through each other’s book and point out the pictures we liked best –the colours are perfectly melted into each other in this one – that lotus looks so symmetrical – I can never draw faces, I always get their noses wrong.

I got into boarding school, and Kannu was on the waiting list. She joined a girl’s school in Hyderabad instead, and Pri stayed in Bangalore. When Kannu began to straighten her hair and bend her long fingers to put on mascara, Pri and I teased her. We sent each other letters full of exclamation marks and told each other we missed being together, back when things weren’t complicated, and we lived close by. Pri told us about the first time she drank, and Kannu told us she had quit dance class and was secretly studying for the entrance exam to the National Institute of Design, when her father wanted her to do commerce. I kept thinking of how her fingers wouldn’t bend into mudras anymore.

Pri sent me a photo frame for my birthday with a Post It that said it was for a picture of the three of us, but we don’t have pictures together, and it’s still empty.

Now we leave each other texts, and our hands have become quickly moving fingers across a phone screen. The problem with holidays, I say to them when we are in different cities, is that there’s too much time that goes by too slowly, as though it was all being pulled back, and up, and down, and around like puppet strings.

Kannu will say she agrees with me. I can imagine her rubbing cream onto her arms before she types this.

Pri will say, guys, give me advice, and then forget to ask us anything.

You know, maybe summers seem longer because you’re back home, Pri will say to me. I can imagine her flipping through her medicine textbook, and I’ll smile at how she’s going to be a doctor with sweaty palms, and not the archer she used to talk about in school.

I’ll say, no, it’s because this summer is stiller and hotter than other summers.

Neither of them will respond.

Then I’ll say I’d have discovered the city that I was now sitting in the corner of, if it had just been another season. Not the rains, because that would have been inconvenient, and not winter because I didn’t like the cold, but just something in between.

You two just come to meet me, Kannu will say.

Yellowed

When my father falls ill, the corners of every room seem to become curves, and it is like our house is curling up into itself. From my bed room, I can hear him say that his sheets, which are the purple-red of cut beetroots, are beginning to look yellow, and the white light of his table lamp is the yellow of the lightbulbs in his room. I make him some hot water when he says this. He’ll say he could have made it for himself. If I’m in a good mood, I won’t reply. If I’m irritated, I’ll say that he didn’t, that he just sat on his bed and said everything looked yellow.

Pa doesn’t fall ill very often, but he expects to be taken care of when he does. I’d expect it too, but it’s different with him. He expects someone to turn off his fan in the morning, throw open his curtains and give him tea—in his blue glass with half a spoon of sugar stirred exactly three and a half times, so that some of it will go undissolved—and  to ask him how he’s feeling. Now, I can open the curtains and turn off the fan and all that, but I can’t keep making tea. On some days, I don’t want to wake up before he does. Instead, I ask him how he’s feeling every two hours. That’s about the only thing he’s satisfied with when he’s sick.

On those days, I’m supposed to go and water Pa’s plants. He also wants me to talk to them, because he always thinks the money plant’s leaves are turning yellow, and that it takes caring, calm voices to save them. I think he watches me from the windows, because he always knows when I haven’t asked them how they are, or what their day has been like. My mother used to like our plants too, but I don’t think she talked to them.

They would take turns to water the plants. We had a small red bucket in the bathroom next to the kitchen. They’d fill the bucket up to the brim, carry it across the house to the plants in the corridor outside our apartment, and pour a mug of water into all the big pots, and half a mug in the small ones. Pa wouldn’t fight with Ma like he fought with me, but he’d just tell her—they’ll be happier if you talk to them, he would say. He claims he could see a difference, but Ma and I saw none.

The day we bought the plants was a holiday. It must have been, because I didn’t like to miss school, and I went to the nursery with Ma and Pa. First we went out for lunch to Mainland China because we always go to Mainland China, and sat at the only round table in the middle of the square ones. We ate the same things we always do because Pa says it’s the safest thing to do in all these food places—sweet corn soup, no starters, Hakka noodles because Ma liked the name and I insisted, medium spicy Hunan chicken, and fried rice because Ma and Pa thought adults can’t eat noodles. It was a quiet lunch that day. On our way home, Ma said suddenly, why don’t we buy some plants, and Pa looked at her, looked at me, and looked back at the road. We’re going to go buy plants, Ma said again.

Back then, there was a nursery near our house. In the nursery, I insisted on picking the cacti because they were small and round and I would touch them slowly, in the cautious, fascinated way that every cactus makes you want to touch it, with the tips of your fingers. They came in small plastic pots, and the old man selling them told me they didn’t need too much water. I searched for a yellow cactus but didn’t find one. Ma wanted to buy trees even though we couldn’t possibly grow them anywhere, and Pa was strolling among the plants with broad red leaves and clear veins that I didn’t like, because I didn’t think they looked like plants.

In school, we’d have gardening classes that reminded me of being in the nursery. It’s one of those things that my friend’s today say would only happen in a hippie school like mine, but twenty of us would dig up mud in uneven patches and water the plants. Sometimes we would have to pull out weeds, right from the roots, or they would grow again, like when you cut off the tails of lizards In the first class, we all brought coconut shells, filled them with mud, and planted seeds in them. I took it home and watered it occasionally. It grew slowly; I drew a face on the shell with yellow paint to keep the plant happy. One day, our teacher asked us to bring a plant each for the large square of land around the Banyan tree in school. I took one of those red plants that Pa had liked to stare at in the nursery. It’s still around, in a corner.

The plants became less important to Pa and more important to me, when Ma fell ill. Pa didn’t fall ill during these months either, and that made me suspicious of all the other times he told me he thought he had a cold coming, or that his head hurt. The night Ma died, Pa and I half-sat, half-slept next to each other in the hall, waiting for the next morning. It was the summer, and Ma had died in the only room with the air conditioner. Pa and I couldn’t stay there that night. Ma’s sister didn’t sit with us either. She went into my room, closed the door, and I suppose she cried. She has a yellowing photograph of Ma on her table now, just like I do.

But Ma wasn’t like Pa when she fell ill. She would talk less, and we could see her grimace every time she moved to push a pillow into the small of her back. The house seemed to get flushed, like when you inhale steam to clear a blocked nose, and your cheeks turn out red when you emerge from under the towel. Pa would always make sure there was curd in the house, because it was one of the few things Ma still liked to eat. She also still liked eggs, but we could make it only with the whites because the doctor said the yolk was bad for her. The women from Ma’s office would always be at home—they would talk to her and run decisions by her like they used to do. When she was tired, I knew exactly how to help her lie down, lifting her feet off the floor slowly as she lowered herself onto the bed, and everyone else would sit around her.

When Pa and I woke up the night after Ma died, I went to water the plants. The woman from next door came and asked me how Ma was doing. I paused to bend down and pour water into a pot and told her calmly that she had died. She made a strange sound—like she was drawing in air noisily but hiccupped in the middle, and ran into her house. Ma never liked this woman; she had once barged into our house and yelled that Ma had married a horrible, short-tempered man. Inside our house another neighbour was saying to Pa, we didn’t even know she was sick, you should have told us, and I wanted to tell him he must’ve been blind not to notice how thin Ma had become, how her back would bend, and how she’d lost all her hair and wore a cloth around her head.

For weeks after, people would come home. After all the guests had come to say they were sorry and had gone back to where they came from, the Sundays became ours again. I asked Pa if he remembered how when Ma was around, we’d spend occasional Sundays sitting in the plant corridor, loosening the soil in each pot and removing the dry yellow leaves. He didn’t answer. Sometimes we’d shift a plant into another pot because it had grown too much; I’m surprised the few plants we didn’t touch survived their roots pushing at the heavy sides of their original clay pots. On other days, we’d rearrange the pots. My aunt in Bangalore has a gardener who comes and does all this for her. The gardener is scared of dogs, so we have to pull B by his red collar and sit in a room with him as scratches the door.

On the last of those Sundays, I had sat at the door to the house and watched Ma and Pa loosening the soil in a few of the pots. Smell a yellow rose, never; I’d rather walk on mud forever, I said aloud without thinking—Ma turned to me, and Pa paused, and he told me to go on. I wrote a poem that day.

Soon after, Ma had also decided to grow wheatgrass at home, for her platelet count. She would cut some leaves and make the green juice every morning. Then she would go to work, and on days that I didn’t have school, I would go with her. Park lane, the road was called, but it didn’t look as fancy as it sounds—it was a small office, where I would sit on the floor, pull out my paints, and mix new colours on sheets of paper. Ma worked at an NGO for handloom weavers, so there were always stacks of folded material lying everywhere—sometimes she would bring some home, and we would get clothes stitched for ourselves. Our tailor had a small shop on the road near Mainland China, so it was easy to get there. It tickled every time he used the green tape to measure my arms and waist. I now wear the yellow kurta Ma had got stitched for herself. It’s a little loose at the shoulders.

When I turned fourteen, Pa and I began to have fights about the plants, the same way we began to fight about how I failed physics, and talked on the phone too often. I would forget to water the plants—sometimes I would lie and tell him I had watered them earlier, and sometimes he’d take me outside, point to the mud in a pot, and tell me not to lie. I’d stare at the pot, and if I was irritated, I’d look back up at him and tell him I wasn’t lying. We wouldn’t talk for the rest of the evening. I think that’s where I got my habit of lying from; I’m good at making up details and keeping a straight face.

I don’t remember when Pa started to water the plants again. He waters them every morning; it’s part of his schedule before he leaves for work. But something has happened—he can’t remember exactly how much water to put in the pot next to the apartment door, and every day he puts too much—when we step out of the house, we see a large pool of slightly yellow water spreading outwards from the pot. Pa isn’t happy.

 

 

 

Midnight blue

I remember painting the table blue.

“It’s your table, you pick the colour,” Amma had said, but the metal table had been her father’s. Of course, I couldn’t decide, and it seemed like big decision for me to take at seven. I would always sit at the table—when I completed my Hindi homework remembering to put a purnaviraam instead of the full stops I was so used to, when I wrote a poem about a centipede that enjoyed walks, or when I painted a picture of my pottery class with no sense of depth—these are the big things I imagined doing there. Now I do not always sit here anymore, I slouch on my bed with its orange cover, or lie on the cold floor when I write. It is easy to write with a laptop, tapping at keys whose places I now know—Amma had once said she had gone for typing classes, and I could never understand why. But she could tell me which key was next to which, and I cannot.

The blue table was supposed to be brown, a dark, overused colour that at seven, I felt I would like even ten years later. Ten years is a long time, and it has come and gone, like the train that brought my aunt to Hyderabad on holiday, and then took her away. But brown paint was unavailable, and red would be too bright, so I picked blue. It is Prussian blue; I remember its name because of my table; when I got my first set of oil paints, it was the first colour I used. Amma called it “midnight blue”, and I did not understand this—I woke up late one night to look at the colour of the sky, and it was black.

We bought the blue paint from a small store that I remember for its strong smelling glue—I was warned not to touch anything, or my fingers would stick together. It must have been a Sunday because Appa was home too, and he helped me move the table to our balcony. It is a small balcony that now has overgrown trees from the neighbouring Apollo Hospital canteen reaching in. Back then, everybody could see what we were doing there—at thirteen, I remember a man whistling at me as I put out the clothes to dry. I had been uncomfortable, but I told nobody. We spread out old newspapers; I took them from the pile under Appa’s table—that is still where we keep them until there is no space. Amma joined us in turning the table over; its large rectangular surface was now on the floor, like bugs on their backs that I always stopped to turn over. Appa now uses the brush we used to paint the table to clear dust from his laptop, “It’s good for narrow spaces,” he says.

I liked the blue table when we finished.

We rearranged my room that day. The table went near the windows because I wanted to look outside when I worked—it was the image I had of a girl who thought a lot, and I wanted to be that girl. It had been months since I had slept there, first I had been too scared, and then summer came. Only Amma and Appa’s room had an AC, so I would take large pillows there, making a bed for myself on the floor. I’d look at their beds; the one on the left had Seemanthini Niranjana painted on it. Amma did not explain when I asked her why, just that her sister’s had her name on it, and I would look at this name and fall asleep. After the night I returned to my bed room with its blue table, I found a note under my pillow—“Welcome back! Love, RF and TF,” it said. Appa had a perfect explanation, RF was Room Fairy and TF was Tooth Fairy. It must have been his doing, but after that day I always slept there.

The blue table has three drawers on the right, and underneath there is a rod for me to keep my feet. I have always needed this rod, school tables without them made me uncomfortable. Amma used two of the three drawers to keep her files. I think they are still there; I have not checked, but at nine, this is where I found her leather bound diary. “Amma, is this yours?” I asked her incredulously, as though the thought of her being young could only be in theory. She was sitting in the hall, a pillow in the small of her aching back, reading Isabel Allende’s Paula. Even then I knew that I would read the same book later, that it was important for me to do so. They say I am a lot like her now but I cannot tell, so I only smile. Amma took the book from me slowly. She opened it and waved me away, I never saw it again and never asked either.

At sixteen, my blue table was always cluttered. I did not write there any more—the table had been moved under the small yellow light—I wanted only yellow lights in my room, but this was not allowed. My bed is now by the same windows that I wanted to look out of and think; the image in my head has now turned into the girl who reads by her window on a rainy day with cup of hot coffee in slowly darkening room. Pens that had no ink were lost among those that did. Appa would often find his pens there, and we’d argue—“You have so many on your table,” I’d snap. Textbooks I no longer have use for sit between books I have already read or hope to read; they sit precariously but do not fall. Sheets of paper with stories begun and left with nowhere to go lie between these books, letters I had begun to write to somebody were crumpled and hidden, just in case I wanted to send them some day.

At nineteen, the table is still blue—now it is the only table I sit at if I want to write.

She and I

I am sitting in my aunt’s house. I have been sitting on the same sofa, the door to the balcony is open behind me, but I am sitting inside. She walks past me occasionally, then she says something from the kitchen about dinner, and for a second I don’t respond. By then she has come to the hall with a plate full of food, to the sofa I am sitting on, and she gives it to me. I hold the plate in my hand—two chapattis, some beans, a little bit of dal. I turn to look at the balcony because something moves behind me; the morning’s newspaper is flying.

The girl sat on the floor of her balcony. They had bothered her, and she was crying. Amma was making herself some tea in the kitchen. Amma knew that she was crying, but she let her cry. It was almost five in the evening; they would all soon go downstairs to play hide-and-seek, or cycle. She had learnt how to cycle, Appa had taught her. Amma could then sit down in the hall, place a pillow in the small of her aching back, and read. The girl cried louder and saw the wire of the iron box trailing away under a small table. She cried tragically, as though nothing could be done, and saw that the iron board that was folded on the floor had green legs with paint chipping off. They rang the bell and asked her to come and play. She didn’t reply, she was crying.

Amma sent them in. Appa had read her Monkey’s Drum again, and she had been scared. She remembered two faces on the page. On the right was the wide-eyed young girl looking at a knife held up by the monkey, her mouth open. The knife was obviously blunt, like some of the knives in their kitchen that have needed sharpening for a while now. She saw that the monkey’s hand was uncannily like her own; in her head she saw it shaking in his obvious distress, his eyes mostly black, looking resentful and sneaky. There were exactly twenty words on the page that she didn’t consider necessary to read. She knew what was going to happen. She was the books she read; she associated people around her with those in the stories she heard every day. They had made her cry, and for a while, they were the monkey.

They walked through her sunny room into the balcony; they crouched on the floor next to her. They asked her what was wrong—she was surprised they did not know. She had learnt the national anthem in school that day and she had been singing it for Amma; they had stood outside her house and imitated her. One girl had probably nudged the other, they were loud and they sang badly. She wasn’t sure why that was so bad, or why she was crying. But she continued to cry because she had started, and at six she wanted to cry for silly things occasionally. Then Amma walked in and said they should go play. So she washed her face with cold water, and they went.

That weekend, she and Amma read nonsense poetry together. Appa was not at home, and they were reading limericks that she understood occasionally—at some point she realised that perhaps they were not meant to be understood. They read about long noses and burning cats, about the man on a hill and the man with a beard that was home to owls, of the abnormally small man who was devoured by a puppy. She saw the pictures and then drew her own, and with each picture she wrote about herself.

There was a young girl of Southside,

Who liked to run away and hide,

Her friends searched high,

Her friends searched low,

But kept missing that young girl of Southside.

They had laughed that day; she with her plait coming loose, Amma, in her weekend clothes. Amma would drift off to do her own work occasionally; there would be phone calls from the office that the girl would sometimes go to, and sit among the piles of handloom fabric. Emails would be sent, there would be writing. The girl now sat in the hall on the divan, next to her was A Book of Nonsense with Lear, and Carroll, and others. In her hand were a notebook and pencil. She always used sharp pencils. She liked how her writing looked when she did—clean, neat, precise—she was not one to keep scratching out words any way.

Appa had got her a book. It was a small notebook with ruled pages that could be removed or added, its cover was brown with little people drawn in a spiral. Their triangular two-part bodies were filled in with black, their hands and legs thin lines that reminded her of spiders she had once been scared of, but now played with. He kept telling her she should write poems, and sometimes, she did. One day she wrote, and he helped her finish. The last line was her favourite, she repeated it over and over, Appa had come up with parts of it, and they had laughed together. She could hear him reading the poem aloud; she heard the happy exclamation at the end of the last sentence.

I met a mosquito and I said hello

But it bit me, and I said owe-e-e

I scratched the bump and I poked the bump

And I asked him why he bit me?

He replied and said, sorry, I was just trying to be friendly.

Friendly? Oh then why did you bite me?

He laughed and said, that’s the way friendly mosquitoes try to be friendly.

It was strange, she very often wrote of small creatures she otherwise disliked or was scared of, mosquitos, turtles. In school the boys in her class would run behind the girls with sticks after it had rained. At the end of these sticks would be long worms, she felt bad for them, but she still ran. On other days there would be centipedes that they would crouch down and touch, just to watch them curl up and lie still before they uncurled and walked again. Their movement reminded her of cats when they were concentrating, when their tails flicked from side to side. And in her poems she liked them, the creatures were not so unusual—they felt things like she did, they rationalised things, they had answers to her questions. She wrote of asking a centipede how it never got tired walking, and for her the centipede replied, “No you silly, you see, I have so many legs.” And there was her answer. It was a perfect world, there were questions, there were doubts, she never asked them, but she answered them anyway.

At some point when she was twelve, all her stories were about Amma. Then she wrote frantically to remember her, her passing was real, and writing about her made it less so. Or perhaps more so, she could not tell. As she wrote, she remembered incidents, small incidents—learning badminton, talking about books, music classes where she’d sometimes fall asleep; oddly enough she never remembered the poetry. She had forgotten about writing poetry as she grew older, she wrote stories because they made her happy.

When she was seventeen, she sat one day in the library in school and found a volume of Women’s Writing in India. She was in her favourite chair between two bookshelves; the window overlooking the auditorium was behind her. It was the end of her school year. When the bell rang, she and two of her friends would jump out of the library window for three glasses of hot tea from the staffroom when the teachers weren’t looking. The anna there was nice enough to give it to them, he found them funny. In the book she looked for her grandmother secretly, she didn’t know much about her, but she knew her stories. She found one, on turning to the page she discovered it was translated by Amma. She read it over and over again, she smiled a lot; she wrote her next assignment on it, her story was a continuation of the one her grandmother had written. Something shifted and she began to write about other things, she read more poetry but never wrote it.

I am no longer in my aunt’s house; I have come home now, to Hyderabad. I am sitting in my room; it is again dinner time, and Appa is calling me. I have been writing for a while now and it’s the same piece, I have been reading the same paragraphs over and over, adding lines, removing words. I think—I must turn on the fan, it is getting too hot now; is there more pomegranate in the bowl, I’m hungry; does what I’m trying to say make sense? I remember the notebook Appa had got me; I remember that I kept it in my bookshelf behind all the books I have read, and those I am yet to read. It’s dusty, I open it.

To be a real poet you need imagination.

You must always write a poem down,

So keep a pen and paper ready,

And imagine.

I wrote then because there were more worlds other than my own. Now, more worlds mean more stories, and more stories mean more words.

Paper boats

It’s raining outside. I’m in my room, I can hear the rain, but the blinds are drawn across my windows, and so I cannot see it. My room is only dimly lit; I’m sitting on my bed, wondering when I’ll begin to write. I know that outside the roads will be packed, signal lights will turn a blinking green, but nothing will move. There will be wet roads, the light from street lamps flickering off; people will enter Madurai Idly to stay dry, but the rain and crowd will make them feel wet anyway.

She said she was travelling alone these holidays. She was excited and I was too, for her, and in some odd way, for myself. She would travel alone, and it would be all that travelling alone could be. There would be new people to meet, new conversations, roads that seemed different when you walked alone, and there would be writing. I was excited because I knew she would write, and what she wrote, I hoped to read. She would be alone—I didn’t know if I could be alone, but I needed to try. He said I wasn’t her and I wouldn’t manage, but she said I wasn’t to listen to him.

At home in Hyderabad, there is a small room attached to mine. It has a large glass window that I keep open during the day; you can see the Golconda Fort from there. Appa had visited the fort with a friend once, and he had stood on top and waved. I used my binoculars and looked from this window; I had seen something move, it had to be him.

But that room is my favourite. I have stuck large papers on its walls and painted them. There is a small table there, on it are large pillows that I have covered with pieces of cloth Amma would sometimes use, and I would play with. On these pillows are more paintings, sketches—of Shimla, of people, of just colours that my palette made for me. Next to it is my easel, it is dusty now. There’s a small stool that I have left my paints on, the tubes used, the turpentine now green and half-finished, some paint brushes too hard to be used again.

On the pillows I have kept all my postcards too. They are mostly from Appa’s student, not all of them say much, but they have photographs of places I have never been to. I don’t know why, but he would send them to Appa to give to me, and I have kept them. They were signed, “Best, Sam”, and when I was younger, I couldn’t remember him. Not his voice, his face, Sam to me was the sender of postcards of places I wanted to see. Crowded beaches, empty roads, large, old buildings, all places I now want to visit alone. Because travelling alone feels like completing a book that has taken forever to read—not because it’s bad, but because it has so much to say. Sometimes you’ll finish, other times you won’t. Sometimes you tell yourself you’ll return to it later, but when you do finish, you’ll feel like a paper boat.

I’m scared he’s going to be right, though. I’m not going to be a paper boat. She, her words, they might be my paper boat.

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.

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.