After the cremation

He has left his glasses on the table.

There are two photographs—
One from a trip to Bannerghatta that I say I remember.
I don’t.
We are watching monkeys.
In another
he is watching me come down a yellow slide.

He was old even fifteen years ago.

Amma said I was never stung by a bee.
But I’m telling you, it stung me
Ask him—
Drink coffee, take, Suma is saying.
His cupboard is full of books
Where are his clothes?
Remember when? Suma is asking me.
—We still haven’t given away Amma’s clothes either—

Do yoga.
But what about physical exercise?
He shakes his thumb at my answer:
Touch your toes and show me.
Drink coffee, Suma is saying.
I stand on my toes—
Uddha, he says,
surprised.
That day I stood on my toes
to look over the wall with the binoculars he brought me,
and see Golconda fort from my bedroom window.

Can I have these travel books of his?
More coffee? Suma is asking me.
There is a book about frogs on his cupboard.

—don’t worry, I’m fine, Rukmini aunty insists.

 

To close

I am sitting in the hall when I realise I have not told this story the way I want to. Amma’s face is caught in a photograph on the table; it is too small for the frame that holds it. She is smiling; it is one of those perfect photographs with light on all the right parts of her face. I am wondering where she is.

Appa is standing up to get himself another beer. A crowd is cheering somewhere; Chris Gayle has hit his second six in a row. Julie would have boned a duck on another channel, it is a movie, so she will do it right. There is a message from him that I do not open. Appa is asking if we should have dinner. Anything, I am saying; I am wondering if I am allergic to blueberries.

She calls me when I am reading and complains about work. The floor I am lying on is no longer cold. She will tell me I am pathetic for not calling; he will say the same to me later in different words. He will pick them in a way that a person plays chess, and I will tell him he does not understand. To her, I will try to explain. I will not say it right.

I want to stand up and sit down. I want to smooth the covers of my bed and throw them for wash, I want to open my book and put it down, but not in that order. I want to throw away some letters that he hoped I would keep; I want to forget they are hidden in the middle of all my paintings because nobody will look there. I want to keep a diary that I will not be honest in, I want to read her story and wish it was mine.

At three in the morning, I am lying in bed. I am cursing the heat and the fan that cannot move any faster; it is telling me that this is all it was meant to do. I am telling myself that these are the holidays I wanted, but there is some unshakeable feeling, like the dirt under my fingernails. When I wake up the next morning, it is the same day again.

**

A six-year-old girl is asking her mother if she is going to die. Her mother stops eating. She is now asking her who will take care of her. Appa, of course, her mother is saying. They are eating again.

When she is twelve, the girl is sitting with her mother on a bed. She is quiet. Outside, a man she cannot see is saving a tender coconut for the man who buys one from him every day. The cells keep growing and they forget to stop, her mother is saying. The girl is nodding at something she thought happened to people she did not know.

A year later the girl is in Bangkok, shopping with her cousins. Do you have a picture of your mother on your table, her aunt is asking. She is shaking her head, turning to look at a blue and white photo frame that she will buy at the last minute.

At home, she is sitting on the floor. She is reading from a notebook that her mother has written letters in. Her knees are knotted into her chest, but the hands from her shoulders are not hers. The hair band around her wrist is too blue; the fingers that turn pages are too long. She is not crying yet.

A sixteen-year-old girl is writing to her mother from boarding school. It is not a letter she will post; it is a page she has written in a book that she closes with a black hair band. The hostel door is opening and closing behind her, she is going to be late. She will write selfishly about herself, rather than her mother’s cancer.

**

When she writes, the woman’s hair falls on her back in waves that do not want to subside. I am first looking in the mirror, and then I am sitting with my laptop. When too much time passes, I start to read. I am reading so quickly that I do not know what I will remember. I am reading in images that are hers, and his, and hers, and mine.

I am writing from my bed. They are tired lines that want to say something new. I am beginning to reread Mourning Diary five minutes after I have finished it once. Barthes has written of the things I cannot remember.

Appa is on his way to Delhi. I am not in her house as I used to be when he travelled; her mother is not bringing us fried rice with corn for dinner, or talking to me in Tamil. When Appa calls at night and asks me if I am lonely, I do not know how to tell him that I am not. I am walking from his room to mine, thinking that there are no sounds other than those that I make.

I am sitting in Appa’s bed with Amma’s photograph. The word count on my laptop says I have written two sixty two words, two, six, two. It has been five days. I realise I do not know what it means to retell a story. I am starting to cry.

**

There is a story I am trying to write. When I want it to be like the story I wrote four years ago, I realise that the story is different now. Appa is in it differently, and I am different, I am not just older, with longer hair and new clothes. Amma is different too, because I do not remember her voice or smell, and this does not bother me.

It is evening, and Appa and I are walking. We are laughing about different things, or similar things that feel different, I don’t know. He is quiet when a year ago he would have talked; he talks, when a month ago he would have stayed quiet. He is walking fast and so am I, my knees and ankles are bending in a way they have never done before.

At home, Appa is asking me if I am talking to myself. He is smiling. No, I am saying. I am telling him I am reading aloud—reading what?, something I have written—and all the time I am thinking—I have never told him this before, I would not have told him this before. But I tell him before I realise I am telling him, and we are both quiet in front of what I have said aloud.

**

A woman who is almost twenty is trying on her mother’s clothes. She remembers her in flashes when she is buying milk or paying her aunt’s phone bills; her mother is always wearing shades of red with black that looks more like deep brown. The clothes she is trying on smell of naphthalene and damp, falling off her shoulders and touching her back only where it is broadest. She chooses three.

In a bookshop, the woman is opening a book that is too small for her hands. Inside there is more pencil than ink, underlined sentences and handwriting that looks like her mother’s. She is smiling to herself, to the book and to its paper. She is buying the book; she is reading it as she walks on the road.

At home, she is lying in bed. She is wondering what it means to make literature out of life, and decides she will never know. She is beginning to pack, and remembers that her mother packed well; the inside of her bag looked like a box of new stationary, and the puzzles her daughter would make on the floor.

**

We are walking among the books on the pavement in Abids on Sunday. Appa is wandering ahead of me and I am lingering at stalls because nobody is looking at me, and asking me what I want. A man is writing titles on white sheets he has stuck on books as their covers. I am on my knees and searching for familiar names. I have forgotten the sun, and that I am in a new place.

My cupboard smells of wood and rain. The clothes I am wearing smell of home and the sun that I have forgotten how to step out into. She and I are walking down a road saying the same things, about writing, about college, about us. I am wondering if we have always said the same things; we must have always said the same things. My cupboard smells of wood and rain, and not rain and earth. It is not the same.

When I see her after five years, I will realise we do not have much to say. She will become a doctor, like she had decided before I knew her, and I knew her a long time ago. With her I am talking slower, my voice is higher and my laugh louder, as though this will give us more things to say.

I am sitting at my table. I am unsure of what comes next, now that I have written something.

Two

We,

Sat across,

He straight, on the edge of his chair,

I, staring curiously.

He didn’t look at me; there was that old face,

Years had changed enough, and I couldn’t recognise him anymore.

I sat,

Waiting for him to speak,

Thinking recognition would come then.

Picking up speed,

A train pulled out of the station.

He spoke,

Quicker, longer, faster,

Shooting finished sentences

Bullet points in his head he had to complete

Like he had been taught to do when he debated,

To show that he knew.

A girl in red, drew on the hand of a boy in green,

Butterflies with a red sketch pen.

Somebody’s birthday or wedding,

I cannot remember now.

But the boy in green had played Uno with them,

And he had let her draw butterflies on his hand,

So she was happy.

The train moved quickly, purposefully,

He talked, of the places he had seen, the people he had met,

The pubs he had been to,

but he did not drink.

Clipped words, and straighter back.

He said he taught sixteen-year-olds now, but they weren’t interesting,

They thought of different things,

Not like he had done then.

“The education system has to change”, he said.

The boy in green dropped juice on himself,

But he was talking about football, and did not notice.

Now, he sat up straight,

Uttering words so perfectly rounded,

That they conveyed almost nothing,

And who he was,

I could not tell.

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.

Over coffee

Today we sat

On uncomfortable chairs

And made conversation.

In my head I made a list

Bullet points

Of the things I had not done.

He looked the same,

Sounded the same,

A year-and-a-half later

I was bad at keeping in touch, but he said he understood.

We talked,

an hour passed,

He caught up with my life,

And I his.

A list completed,

It only took an hour,

And I liked that I didn’t remember not knowing.

I said I wrote, he said nothing.

In my head I said I wrote,

Again. And again.

Still, he said nothing;

Of all the things I needed him to know,

This was the most important.

He said I seemed happy,

He needed to know it was because I was writing.

Aloud, I made a list again.

Of the things I wanted to do,

the places I wanted to go.

Of books I needed to read,

and old books I needed to re-read,

Of music.

In my head I left the list

of stories I wanted to write.

I whispered, I write.

He did not hear,

and we talked about school.

Then

I remember the green. There was only a little bit of it there in the centre and everything else was white. A bright white, a clean white, a colour once noticed but now fading. I remember the green in the midst of all the white, the long corridor, and then the trees.

At the end of the corridor was the chemistry laboratory, I could smell it from where I was sitting, in my room in another city. I could hear the test tube break; see the flame on the burner light up in an instant. But in the next moment there was none of this, no laboratory, no smell, just the green trees. Their leaves were an artificial green, too bright, a darker green, deep, a yellowing green, a muddy green. A green that looked cleaner in all the whiteness, leaves after the rain and leaves just grown. There was the corridor, the white corridor, there were the arches, but there were no doors. The laboratory wasn’t in the photograph; I just knew it was there, a physical room. Just like the people who always filled that corridor, but weren’t in the picture. The picture that she took without me.

The arches were huge, on one side they looked down on those plants in the ground floor next to the piece of wood that looked like a peacock. The arches on my right looked down on the terrace below; when I was there we called it the one-and-a-half floor. Mezzanine was too big a word for us. We’d play football there, we’d run. We’d hide behind pillars; we’d look down at the basketball court on every morning we arrived early.

And from those arches, we’d jump. I remember no worry, no fear of falling, no thinking. We’d be running, somebody would be chasing us, we’d climb through the arches, and we’d jump. Our hands would be above us; we’d stretch, hit the floor, and run again. I see the photograph, and I see us jumping. I see us rushing on in every direction, scattering, running away from each other, running towards each other. Like ants, when you drop something amongst them by mistake.

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I worry that I cannot remember the green. I wasn’t with her when she took the picture; I was in another city when she walked through the corridor again that day. I haven’t walked through there for a while now and I must remember the green in the midst of all that white.

There’s that book I kept, with all our photographs. Of that excursion to Kaigal, when he showed us snakes, and when he jumped off a rock somewhere so far above us into the water below. The same he, who kept in touch with me for years until something shifted. Those pictures of our last day, those pictures of us taking pictures, photographs we insisted on taking because something had ended, and something else would soon begin. That book, with pictures we didn’t know had been taken of us—on the rocks above the stage, the three of us hiding behind a tree,  that puppet show in which I was a goat, our class photographs we all claimed we didn’t dress up for when we actually did.

I looked, I remembered, but I couldn’t find the green.

It’s been a while since I last spoke to her. We haven’t seen each other for three years now; I know she looks the same because I’ve seen photographs. I don’t know the people around her; sometimes I don’t think I remember what she sounds like. We don’t write, we don’t talk, and everything is suddenly so unlike the days we jumped off those arches together. She would call every evening—she’d talk, and I’d listen. And then there would be silence—I’d continue to do what I was doing—reading, writing, studying, and she’d stay silent. I never knew what she did in those moments, but she must have done something. When we meet again, I don’t know what we’ll talk about.

But she took the photograph, and she knows the exact green. I wish for a moment that I had been with her, that I had seen what she had seen, and I had taken the picture she had taken. I cannot ask her, too much time has passed; but she was there, and I wasn’t.

For a moment I decide. I need to know the green, and I will ask her. She will not describe it; she will not tell me what it felt like, she will not say that she remembers our conversations. In a moment of complete calmness I decide on a simple “Hey, it’s been a while”, message. I know I must not expect too much, I’m thinking of myself, but I need to know the green. For those times I jumped, those times I sat in class, those exams I wrote, the teachers who knew me and urged me to write.

I see her profile picture. I see my green. The message goes unsent; I will wait till the next time we meet. The white is more grey here, the green stands out less. I notice the squares on the grey floor, the grey shadows on the walls I knew as white. The green leaves are too blurred to notice.

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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.