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.

Circles

Sometimes I sit in my room and pretend that I can’t hear my grandmother talking. From where I sit, I can see she looks worried, but she’s always thinking about the same five things, as though there’s a list in her head with questions she has forgotten to strike out. I can see her sitting at the dining table even as I lie in bed and look into my book. She’s fanning herself with a cardboard sheet, and there’s a thin white towel stretching around to the back of her neck and to her stomach because summer has begun early this year. Sometimes I peer into my books and try to look serious, but she keeps talking.

In the evening, she likes the curtains to be closed. She sees it becoming dark by five-thirty, when I can still see the sun outside my window, and hear the men from the shop downstairs laughing loudly over cigarettes. The house gets dark with the curtains closed.

Hogi curtain haakthiya, she says.

I’ll draw them, haakthini, one minute.

I can’t draw them, she says. Yeno, it always gets stuck nanna kaiyalli.

One nimsha, hogthini.

Our dog is asleep on the floor next to my bed. Banja, Banja, Banja, she calls him. He doesn’t open his eyes. Banja, Banja, she says again.

Malagidane, Dodda.

Three medicines I have to take at night, alva? she asks.

Yes. I’ll give them to you after dinner.

I have three pages before I finish the chapter.

Yella marthogtha idni. Confuse aagathe, maddu jothe.

Naan kodthini, Dodda.

I want to tell her that everyone forgets.

I’ve read her prescription enough times to know which medicines to give her. She has to have Atorva for her cholesterol for three months, Ciplar for her high blood pressure, and Sodamint for her stomach, every night after dinner. She needs to eat less chicken and more rice. She doesn’t take sugar in her tea anymore, and she has stopped eating golibaje because it’s too oily.

Bejaar aagodu, she says.

I look at her and nod.

When my aunt is out of town, my grandmother and I watch Kannada serials together. Usually, my aunt sits with her—Dodda doesn’t like sitting alone—and my aunt watches Desperate Housewives on her laptop with big red headphones. She thinks it’s good for Dodda to sit in the hall and watch serials and be distracted, because otherwise she’ll always be sitting at the dining table worrying that neighbours can look through our windows, or lying down in her room with her hand next to the bell we’ve given her so that she can call us if she needs help.

She points out all the saris that she likes when she watches her serials. There’s a blue one, and a shiny pink one that she talks about again and again, every time the women wearing them appear. I don’t like them. Then she points out women who she thinks look pretty, with the same smile that she has when she talks about Virat Kohli.

We are watching Gowri stand on a metal stool under the fan and tie her mother’s green sari around it. She wants to hang herself because her husband has divorced her for another woman who prays less, speaks English, and wears long dresses. I’m waiting for Dodda to say something. Gowri falls off the stool, the sari tears, and the fan crashes down next to her. She’s alive. Dodda wonders why my aunt hasn’t called.

But now the lights need to be turned on and the curtains need to be drawn.

Are you studying? she asks.

Haan.

Ayyo, odu, odu, she says.

Katthalu ide. The lights need to be turned on. Where’s Suresh? she asks a few minutes later.

Haakthini, one nimsha.

Illa, neenu odu, she tells me, Suresh will close them and turn the lights on.

Haan.

Suresh yelli? He’s never at home. Yeshtu kudithane. Yeshtu thinthane sa, she says. Look at his wife, avara henthina seere nodidhiya?

Haan, Dodda.

My grandmother wears the same five saris with mismatched blouses that have become too loose for her. Sometimes she comes to my room, stands in front of my mirror, and says, thumba bachhidini alva? and I say yes, she has lost weight. I don’t tell her that this is probably better for her knees and varicose veins. She has decided to stop colouring her hair black. I used to help her do this, but now she doesn’t notice that her hair is grey. Today she is wearing the purple sari that I always imagine her in when I think of her.

Banja, Banja, she calls again.

Malagidane.

Ban-ja, Banja. Where is Ananya? she asks.

When I leave for college early and my aunt has gone for her morning walk, Dodda is left alone with Banja. Three years ago, she would wake up and make me bournvita and dosas for breakfast, until one day when she didn’t because she was just too tired. I began to eat cereal or sandwiches and stopped drinking milk.

We got Banja almost two years ago, and Dodda was angry. My aunt and I told her that he was a birthday gift, so we couldn’t possibly give him away. She was angrier when she saw him sleep on our beds, and run around the house with a pillow in his mouth, or tear up newspapers and eat our food. But one day, I left for college early, and my aunt told me that when she came home from her walk, she could hear Dodda talking to Banja through her closed door because he was whining. Yaan ulle atha, she would say to him. After this, she began to say that they are similar, and that all they do is to eat and sleep.

Raathri muru, belige muru maddu, alva? she asks.

Houdu. I’m at home. I’ll give them to you.

It would be good if the curtains were drawn. Everyone can look inside, she says.

Haakthini, one minute. I’ll draw the curtains and turn on the lights, one nimsha.

I’ve almost reached the end of the chapter.

Curtain haakbeku. Everyone from outside can see, she is saying.

Innu belaku ide, yenu kaansalla. There is too much sunlight for anybody to look inside.

Curtain haakidre oledittu, she says again.

I leave the book on my bed and get up. The curtains move easily and the room is now unhappy and dull. She calls me back quickly because she’s sure that Banja will jump up onto the bed and begin to chew my book. He hasn’t done this since he was a puppy. Then she asks me when my father’s going to come to Bangalore, and tells me that sometimes he behaves just like her husband did.

My favourite story about Dodda is of when she was fourteen. She says she would stand with her sisters at the entrance to their house in the village, pretending they couldn’t hear their mother calling them. They would watch people walking by until it was time for their father to come home. He didn’t like to see them standing at the gate—Nimge yenu kelsa untu illi? he would ask. I wonder what he was afraid of. I imagine my grandmother standing at a little gate with her sisters, like the gate that every old movie has—the gate that will be opened slowly before every letter arrives, a son returns home, or there is news that somebody has died. Dodda likes to tell me that she was always heavier than the girls in her class, that she would play throwball in school, and that when they were young, one of her sister’s was particularly beautiful.

Three medicines at night, alva? she asks when I’m in the hall.

Haan.

Neenu kodthiya? she asks, ivaga neene doctor. She smiles.

Haan, I’ll give the medicines to you after dinner.

Yeshtu bislu alva? she says, wiping her neck with the towel.

I turn on the fan above the dining table.

Oduta idiya? she asks again.

Haan.

Naan idre ninege disturb aagathe alva? Maathadtha irthini, she says.

Illa, Dodda. Talk, talk. I’m listening.

At night, when my aunt isn’t in town, Dodda eats early and goes to sleep by eight. These are the only days when she doesn’t say that she’s thinking of my father. I give her the three medicines she has to take—one green, one white, and one that gets stuck in her throat. Then she goes to her room. I do everything that my aunt does—I turn on her two small night lights, and open out her bedsheet. She tells me to stand aside as she raises her legs because she doesn’t want me to see them, and lies down slowly. I pull the bedsheet to cover her swollen feet. Next to her pillow, I see the cardboard she uses to fan herself. Belige muru maddu, ratri muru maddu, she has written in a corner.

Sometimes, when I’m leaving the room, she cries. She says bejaar aagodu, and asks me to turn off the lights and close the door.

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.