Amma,

Amma, I can’t write any more. I want to, I really want to, but nothing is coming to me in the way that it used to, in that sudden crash around my ears and shoulders, and in my teeth. Sometimes I think it will come back to me; that I should just be patient, waiting, sitting, sighing, and then the story will present itself, neatly wrapped in blue gift paper with golden stars, and with that same sudden crash of appearance. But I’ve waited and waited, and it hasn’t. I haven’t written.

Amma, you had hair that felt like rope. It never fell on your shoulders and across your back in the clean, light way that hair falls after a visit to the parlour, but it hit your shoulders in the angry way that eggs crack open into a whipping bowl with onions and chilly powder. Sometimes it was the brown of dark chocolate in the sun, and at home it was the dull black of hair left to itself and our white lights.

Will you sit straight, you’d say to me.

I am.

Stop squirming, you’d say.

I could feel the comb getting caught in the knotted hair at my neck. Amma, you had hair that wouldn’t slip through my fingers.

I’m not moving. I was like a worm in the rain that the boys in school would pick up with sticks.

You can never sit still, you’d say.

Then you’d give up on the knot. You would plait my hair and tuck the knot in somewhere it couldn’t be seen.

I can. Appa’s tickling my feet.

Your hands would move quickly. You would move your left hand first and then right, and then left, and right again, again, and once more, and again. I could see the oil on your hands when you had finished.

Amma, I found your will when you weren’t at home. I was searching for a key in the drawer where you kept your mother’s silver earrings hidden between other keys, but that day I found some documents that looked official in the way that everything printed on white sheets can look important. It must have been a holiday. Appa was with you in the hospital.

I took out your will and read it. I put it back in your drawer before you came home. You left me your mother’s jewellery, and your money went to Appa to keep for my education.

You wrote me letters for after you were gone. I found them by accident. I always found your secrets by accident, really. You told me about your parents. In one, you wrote that you had found my diary that I kept hidden in the red cloth bag with Christmas decorations, and couldn’t help reading the few lines I had written about you. I didn’t have to relook at my diary to remember those lines. I had been worried that you were going to die. You told me that when you were my age, you had stood posting letters at one of the red post boxes near your house, crying, because your father had been paralysed and wouldn’t walk again. You didn’t have to say anything after this. We must have been the same girls, except you learnt to play the violin, and I joined you for music class.

Sometimes I wonder what you were like when you were twenty.

Amma, I want to be alone. I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be without always having to explain myself. I don’t care about some people. I care about others quietly, openly. People are always taking up space, demanding space, drawing and redrawing my lines, and coming too close or going too far. Invariably they’re men.

I want to sit in a coffee shop where everyone has learnt to expect me on this day and this time, with this coffee, and that seat by the window. The window must be large, wooden, and I must be able to look out and sigh into it, and outside the window I will watch the sigh go, carried by the wind, and wonder who’ll catch it like they catch a yawn. Sometimes it’s a happy sigh.

I want to sit in this coffee shop and read. I want to laugh with the words, and run my hand through my hair and think I look beautiful and mysterious, because it’s okay to think that sometimes. Amma, I want to read and be happy, and know that it will change me in a way that no person has ever been able to change me. Sometimes, I want to smile into the sun outside the large wooden window with a book turned to page 132, and decide I will write today. Then I’ll turn on my laptop and open a Word document, change the font to Times New Roman size 11, and touch the keyboard lightly, each key becoming the other key because in my head I see words and a little girl crying.

Amma, when you wrote me stories in the banana fibre notebook we bought at Pondicherry in the little shop that sold handmade paper, did you think of making your characters boys, and then decide that there are enough stories about them anyway? I want to tell stories of girls and it will be more real and more honest, and make me happier, because she is the girl I used to be, the girl I am, the girl and woman I want to be, the woman my aunt makes me be, and my father makes me be and wants me to be, and my memory of you makes me be. I want to write, sitting in the middle of all my space, my room, and the new city that I’m beginning to walk through, crawl through, run through, sit through, and a city that walks, and runs, and sits all around me.

Soon after the second time your cancer came and went, Amma, you had curly hair that was coloured brown, and I could see the grey near the roots. They weren’t the neat curls, like hair that had been tightly wound around a pencil and then left loose, but your hair curled around itself like telephone wires. In school, by the time I grew my hair out and turned fifteen, my friends would ask me if I curled my hair. I had tamer telephone wire curls that they would pull, stretch out, and let go, laughing when they coiled back into themselves. I would think of you.

That second time with the cancer, I hadn’t known what was happening, and I was embarrassed that you wore a cloth around your head, because nobody else’s mother did this. I didn’t know the cancer and chemotherapy as cancer and chemotherapy; I knew them as days in the month that I spent in the hospital waiting room with Appa after school, until you came out tired in the late evening and hugged me lightly. In the car, I would do most of the talking on the way home.

When I was home last summer, I was looking through your clothes to find something of yours that would fit right on my shoulders. I lifted out piles of clothes that perhaps we should have given away like other people do when someone has died, but we didn’t. Some of your friends stayed home on the morning of your cremation, and they tried to get me to stay home too. That morning I had my first ride in a vehicle with a siren. I wondered why they had turned on the siren, because there was no emergency, and there was nothing to be done quickly. When we came home, the house was still full of people, but the curtains and sheets, and pillow covers had all been changed. Your room now had pale pink curtains, and the hall had white ones. Your sheets were blue.

I don’t remember why we didn’t give your clothes away. Perhaps I told Appa that I’d wear your clothes one day, or maybe Appa couldn’t do it himself, or he didn’t know who to give them to. I remember you in each of these clothes every time I look through them; I remember which kurtas you wore with your green salwar, and which shirt you took on our trip to Uttaranchal. If we had given them away, it would have to have been to strangers.

But this summer, I found myself pulling out a cloth that had been folded in half. I can’t remember its colour. I opened it out, and saw your thick, rough hair from when it was wavy and only black. It looked like a wig. I wondered which time this was from, the first cancer, or the two times that it followed.

Amma, I have cut my hair in a way that has made my telephone wire curls disappear.

 

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Mint box

I don’t know her name, but I’ll call her Ni. Nia, who was always called Ni.

Everyone swallowed her name like it was a pill with a bitter after taste; Ni was tasteless, Nia was a second too long, and bitter. I would see her at the library every evening; Ni had curls that crumpled into themselves on the sides of her face, and hands with short fingers that tightly held the tips of the pages she was reading. She sat cross legged on the floor in the corner with the magazines, and I sat at the small table between the two shelves with old books. I would look up from there when I was tired of reading, and sometimes, Ni would be writing.

The day I began to call her Ni, I saw her slip a piece of paper into a book she had just finished reading. She stood up and dusted the back of her clothes, picked up the black pen she always carried, and left the book on the table next to her. She didn’t stop to think, not when she left the book behind, not when she reached the main door. I picked up her book when she left; Dear Life.

Her sheet was somewhere in the middle. I didn’t know who she was writing for, or if she was writing for anybody.

The woman on the bus who looks at you for a moment longer than others do is called Nia. Everybody calls her Ni. Perhaps she wants to be called Nia.

I took her paper home, and left the book behind. I put it in a small tin box that once had mints.

The next day, I go to the library early. I’m telling myself not to be excited, that maybe she won’t look at the book again. I find Dear Life, make sure nobody is looking, and slip in the paper.

If it isn’t Ni, it’ll be someone else.

I like apples. I like new stationary; new pencils with sharp tips, and erasers wrapped in plastic. I don’t like the idea of being on a ship, but I like small boats that won’t go far. I like libraries, and corners; I don’t like winters. I loved school, I don’t like boys.

I go to my table and start to read. I wonder if Ni has a mint box of her own.

Ni is writing her second note when I look up again. I hadn’t seen her come in. Dear Life is next to her. She is writing slowly, like she cannot decide how much she wants to tell. She slips the note in and leaves the book on the wooden shelf close to her, looking as though she is trying to forget where she left it. Ni doesn’t leave immediately, and I want her to leave.

She leaves later than usual that day. I wonder what she has said at home, or if she lives alone.

The librarian is turning off the lights when I pick up her note. I read it outside, under a streetlight.

My mother would stand on our balcony every morning, staring at the only potted plant we owned. Outside, the park would be filling, and my brother would demand breakfast like he has learnt to do. I don’t want to be her.

At home, I don’t read the note again. I put it in my box of mints. Perhaps it wasn’t for me. But I write my note the next day. I search for something I want to tell her.

The note that I leave in Dear Life that afternoon is long. I fold it in half. My writing is small, and there is space for more.

Come here, you must see this, my aunt had said to me. I’m coming, coming. I cannot find the square of paper I mark my pages with. Come, she said again. Her finger was tracing circles on her knee. I mutter, 87, 87, close my book, and get up. I’m standing next to her. You must know that this is where I’ll keep my will, she says. I don’t respond. Ashish realised how difficult it was without a will when his parents died. So mine will be kept on this shelf, and you will have the keys to this cupboard. I nod. I had made a will when your mother was making hers. But things were very different eight years ago, and I want to change it now, she says. I nod again. There was a sound caught in her throat that didn’t appear. And I don’t think it’ll make sense for us all to leave you houses, she said. I nodded. I think she expected me to say something.

This time, I watch Ni.

She opens Dear Life and slips the note into her pocket. I don’t want to watch her read it, but I can’t look away. Ni doesn’t open it immediately. She sits on the floor with two books whose covers and spines I cannot see. Her hair is slipping out of the rubber band she has tied, and her legs are stretched before her. I hadn’t noticed how long they were. Dear Life is still in the shelf.

When she opens the note and reads, she bites her lip. She doesn’t write back. I stop looking.

My hair is falling on my face, and so I don’t see her walk towards me. Do you have a pen, she asks quietly. I stare at her before I give her the one I’m holding. She stands at the edge of my table and writes on the same paper that I had written on that morning. She is whispering the words to herself, but I am too nervous to hear her. When she looks up at me, she is smiling widely. She leaves the pen on my table and walks towards Dear Life.

To anyone reading

I must go now.

She was sitting on her bed, her night clothes in a ball at her feet. They were just away from the edge so that he would not bite them—he was still too small to jump up. This was her first letter, and she was excited. He was asleep in the corner, and she wanted to wake him up.

I have kept you long enough—she wrote—and there will be more to come anyway.

She set aside the letter; she would read it again later before she sent it. For a minute she remembered a story and smiled, of the girl who wrote letters and left them on the road for someone to read. They would have disappeared the next morning and she liked to think they had been picked up by someone, anyone; they couldn’t have been swept away.

Perhaps I’ll return with another story soon, there are so many I want to tell, she added.

She stood up, leaving her pen uncapped on the bed. Next to it was an orange stain made by a highlighter once left open. Later, she’d rub the blue ink stain with her finger wondering how it could look wet but not feel that way, and hope that nobody would notice. Her grandmother was calling her for lunch. She glanced at the letter again and left the room. It was on the middle of the bed, he would not be able to reach it.

Yesterday I tried to write again, it has almost been a week since my last attempt. I have not been able to write—what I say is not what I mean, and nothing said seems worth it. Appa says I should imagine stories, write about those other than my own, but how to do so, I cannot tell. The stories seem to arrive half-baked, the oven is not hot enough, and it seems like it’ll always fall short of that perfect, exact temperature. She sighed. This was supposed to make her happy.

But yesterday I sat anyway, and when no words came, I listened to the sound they made—I heard them being typed. I sat on my bed on the side closest to the window, hoping that the still air outside would move, blowing a story my way as it exhaled. It didn’t, but I heard the words being tried on and discarded, left hanging on a hook in the trial room, a word document saved in the hope that I would return to it someday.

Perhaps I noticed the sound because of the conversation we had had in the Department that day, she said writers were writers in movies because of the sound of typing—they were usually heard before they were seen. In my head there is an image of a writer, with space, with words, where being alone doesn’t mean loneliness. The writer in my head keeps her stories in notebooks; piles of notebooks written in with blue and black ink. She writes in the night under yellow lights, the pages look a murky yellow and orange; the words written do not look obviously black or blue but like something in between. She sat up straighter, going back to the top of the letter and reading it again. “To anyone reading, I am writing this letter because I cannot seem to be able to write anything else. It feels open, freer, almost, and perhaps this is what I’m looking for at the moment,” she whispered.

But I say that for the writer who types, this sound of the words is a part of the writer’s image. It is an impatient man’s nails hitting the glass table before him in quick succession, one bent finger after the next; the space bar is a sharp breaking of a piece of chalk as it hits the floor and becomes more pieces. I think of a machine but the word gives me too pointed an image. It is like a square, too defined and too sharp, when what I’m looking for is something like a circle re-drawn with a blunt corner. The back space key is longer, like what I imagine the spreading of a crack on a car’s windshield to sound like.

So I look for a lighter image, like a leaves falling from a tree, but it is too light—like a balloon left by a nineteen year old as two others look on, watching it float upwards lazily, happily. Here I cannot feel enough purpose, like in the image of the girl waiting at a signal light, her fingers tapping the steering wheel confidently on her second day at driving class. Later she said she had done it consciously, and now I don’t think I can do it unconsciously even if I wanted to. Whether I am now talking about the sound or the action, I can no longer tell. Then I remember a nightmare where I was a dot and things were falling on me, one heavy cube over another heavy cube, until I felt like I could not breathe, even though nothing else was happening. I took too long to wake up, and each key pressed was like creating a letter that was the heavy cube. This image, I did not like. She did not like remembering the dream. She looked at her watch and heard its hand move. It was a similar sound, but it didn’t fit her image.

Then I went to the tailor this morning. If I typed fast enough, typing was like the sound of the tailor’s sewing machine, I placed this sound with the loud beating of a weaving loom and the whizzing of a shuttle between its threads, and my writer’s image appeared complete. I added darkness, a yellow light, and this circle seemed to have a corner.

I must go now. I have kept you long enough, and there will be more to come anyway.

I wonder if you ever saw me writing

Appa would take me to his classes when I was younger since  it turns out I could be easily entertained just like the ease with which I told everybody who asked that my favourite food was “chiten and fish” and so he would pull up a desk to the blackboard that I wasn’t tall enough to reach yet and then before his classes began he’d give me a piece of chalk and let me draw on the board as he taught for another hour and I would sit there rather happily surrounded by faces I didn’t know and words I didn’t understand realising only now that if I had been a distraction Appa’s students never showed it before remembering that I was like the little boy in the auto with me yesterday who sat in front with his father because he had no school

I pause, I cannot remember how the child got there; but I am trying to do what he wants us to do—free association. He said, “College desks”, and I wrote about Appa. For a moment I wonder if I have made up the entire memory, or filled in holes that grew as I got older in something I only half remembered. It was a Friday, I was scribbling into my book hoping he wouldn’t ask me to read out what I had written. Writing and remembering were happening together, I wasn’t writing to keep something alive. Perhaps I was making something available, tangible. But for once I did not stop too long, I dived, and didn’t worry if I couldn’t hold my breath till the next time we were allowed to come for air. It was like realising you’re talking to yourself without feeling the need to stop, or wonder if someone was watching; it was freeing because I wasn’t looking to say something perfect and beautiful.

I wonder about the boy’s mother, and why he couldn’t go home instead of spending the day driving around the city with his father. His father, who took people where they wanted to go, not always in a direction that he could control. I wondered if the number of customers he got that day were fewer than he normally did, or if his son demanded that they stop for lunch, or a break, or made conversation as he drove. I thought of Amma because I missed her; the auto driver and his son were also like Amma and I when we returned home from music classes. It felt strange that she never read these things I wrote. Yes, Appa read them, of course he read them, but it would have been nice if Amma saw them too. I don’t know if Amma ever saw me writing in her head—the last time she saw me I had wanted to go to design school because I liked to draw.

I had started to use full stops; there was always an urge to add a comma, hoping to make the mass of text in front of me understandable because I needed it to be understood. I didn’t know where this was going or coming from, but I was talking about Amma. She left me some letters—a few years ago I wouldn’t tell anyone this—and in one she reminded me of the time I sat in her room counting how old I would be in 2014. It’s 2014 now, I’m 19 years old, and everything in that room is still the same—the large bed, and the windows almost always open. There is only a new bookshelf that Appa and I bought because there were piles of books in my room that needed to be kept somewhere. Back then 2014 seemed like a year when cars would fly and all the science fiction short stories I read would come true.

I remember this day only vaguely, Amma lying down on her bed, and I sitting on the floor, using my fingers to calculate my age. I still use my fingers to count occasionally, but we’ll keep that to ourselves. Perhaps I should’ve joined one of those mental math and abacus classes that everyone around me was going for. But I was too busy drawing or reading, or just running around and cycling. I was always terrible at math and at 15, I refused to study it anymore. I don’t regret it. But what I wanted to say was that Amma thought she would completely miss out on the age when I was all grown up and a teenager, and wondered if I’d still want to go to design school. She passed away a little while after that day; I was 12, and now I’m 19. I did try to join design school, Amma. But I think I wanted to do literature more, and now here I am, writing.

She wrote well, like her parents. I like reading what she had to say, I wonder why she never thought of writing. I wonder how she chose what she wanted to do, how she decided it was this, and not that which made her happy. But she wrote for me, for Appa, and what she wrote showed me what she felt, things my twelve-year-old self couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. Sometimes I worry that I write for everybody but myself—Appa’s approval, Amma and her parents because they were writers, another like on my blog, because I love the ideas and images associated with being a writer. But then I also write because it makes me happy to see words running across a screen. Just as they land they’ll run faster and then they’ll halt, almost suddenly still.