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.