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.

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Waiting

I watch him crouch on his feet in a way that I cannot; I crouch on just my toes, and he on his feet. I see him sitting, a monkey on his shoulder—bandar, he says—and I am sure he has dressed the same way for days, and does not remember. He unties his three monkeys at night, I imagine, unafraid that they will disappear. He is smiling now, holding his drum.

I hear his drum.

At six—that is how old I think he is—Appa would read Monkey’s Drum to me every Sunday. The sound I hear now is the sound he made then, hitting hand on a table in a rhythm I could never copy. But at six, the sound he hears is of people walking away—his drums make no sound, even though his hands are moving. The pointed sound of heels on an uneven road, the drag of rubber chappals that she loves to wear to college, the firm, formal tap of black shoes that need polishing take over.

I am sitting on the sidewalk, watching the waves in Bandra. He is looking towards the ice cream cart that a man is pushing slowly, walking towards the old woman sitting with two children. I wonder if I should buy the boy an ice cream, but I don’t know how to call him to me or what to say, so I let him be. For a moment, I wonder if the monkeys will interfere. As the man comes to stop before them the children ask the old woman for ice cream—orange flavour, they say. I remember the two of us, standing in a shop trying to pick chocolates, picking the same so that we didn’t have to share.

The old woman obliges easily, pulling out from her blouse a little change—she has enough for one, so they will have to share. If they mind it they do not show it, and I decide that next time I call home, I will ask about Dodda. The image I have of her is of the times she is standing before the mirror that I see her through. Her hand is outstretched unsteadily, the tips of her fingers touching those of a version of herself that she does not know she has become. Her hair greys faster than she realises; on days that she does, she calls me to her room and hands me a brush—next to her is black dye in a bowl that she has used for the same purpose all her life. She will insist on standing as I apply it to the back of her hair, complaining of the maid who did not come again, of the food she longs to make, but never of her feet which I know hurt her because of groans that travel through walls of paper at night. I will always nod, say little, but say that I understand, apply the colour, and leave. Next time, I will talk to Dodda.

The child has crouched down again. He is sitting on the ground next to one of those chairs that remind me of the parks back at home—and of the man who left stones on one of them to count the number of rounds he had walked. I wonder about the stories the boy was told, and about the stories he makes—do his monkeys appear in them?—or whether he makes stories at all. I wish I was the woman who walked up to people and talked to them, asking them questions out of curiosity, like a person looking for stories that are not their own.

I remember the man I met at a writing workshop with whom I exchanged a memory and played Bingo. I make his memory my own. He knows his grandfather by the stories he is told, his picture taken from photographs that are in black and white. There is the grey city that he sees in colour, but from inside the house his father is calling, telling him of the pond his grandfather’s genie lived by. He is sitting by the pond and feeding the fish again, there is the story of Aladdin, and there are the stories he now makes.

By the pond he knows his grandfather as the one who saved them. His grandfather’s walks, his favourite fish—later stories are additions to the one he has always known—that they were left alone by that genie his grandfather banished. Now, sitting at a table at 23, he writes fantasy fiction. The pond is outside.

The boy turns to look at the waves, wondering if he can get any closer. But his monkeys do not like the water, so he will sit where he is and stare from the distance. There is a man selling Marathi newspapers but the boy doesn’t look at him. He stands up again, throwing one last glance at the ice cream seller’s cart. His monkeys begin to walk away, and he walks with them.

Outside, inside

I am thinking about writing.

She sits before me, telling me everything feels like a square.

In my head the square has compartments, divisions,

One small square next to another small square within a bigger square.

Corners that held and couldn’t be changed, lines that contained and couldn’t be moved.

She said everything was a square, and she was outside it.

 

One by one I took them out and placed them in a line

An arrangement of four post its that another she had drawn on,

Four separate strips, four different colours, a complete face.

Four different faces that made one face.

Post its stuck together somewhere in a book closed carefully each time so that they wouldn’t get folded.

 

They fit, for a moment the squares in my head fit too,

Like puzzles your five-year-old self completed and left on the floor

And those alphabetically arranged books on your slightly bending shelf, placed neatly—

Until new ones come in, becoming piles you have to reach behind to turn on the light.

Piles that threaten to fall but never do.

My bus arrives and I stand up to leave, telling her that she has made her square,

Wondering if she should try and place the squares like diamonds.

But diamonds still have lines, with their corners that contain,

And instead of new stationary, you think of paint stuck on a palette that you can never remove.

 

As you walk, the squares become stories.

Of the girl who told you she didn’t like to walk alone and so you walked with her.

You do not know her name but you cannot ask her, you think she knows yours, and too much time has passed.

Of the man in the park who leaves a stone on the bench next to you to count the number of rounds he has walked.

Of the times you planned to write for months, but never did because writing was then just one thing, not everything.  

Those separate squares, still within a larger square,

Their stories within yours; for them, your story within theirs.

And a square for your bus journey when she told you about her square and you thought of yours and wrote.

Appearances

In class yesterday, we talked for a little while about photographs. It was a “which picture works, which picture doesn’t” sort of conversation in the context of our Journalism lab journal. While that was important in itself, it slipped for a few minutes into something else; into the idea of taking a photograph that helps one write—a photograph that you can return to time and again, looking for that one detail you first missed, that one detail which could transform your writing in an instant.

I’m at a stage where anything to do with writing intrigues me. I’m also at a stage where I fear that I have nothing to write about, where I feel like I have no story worth telling. I know this isn’t true, I recognise that everything around me has and is a story. But to be told that I can just look at a photograph and write makes me feel strangely elated, not only happy, but excited.

And so I went through some old photographs when I got home. They weren’t technically very well taken pictures, but I looked in them for those details I had forgotten over time, details that my memory could no longer provide. I wish I could provide for you the pictures I looked at, but perhaps I will do so later, when I find a way of doing so. I then looked back at small things I had previously written and added details that the photographs now provided to the experience. I actually wrote.

At six she would kick off her slippers and walk across the cold floor, trailing behind her the small and often empty bag she liked to carry, erasing in a swift movement the marks left by her feet. The lingering smell of paint and varnish, the newly built cupboards, now empty and waiting to be filled, reminded her of times to come. Amidst people she neither knew nor would know, she would climb onto the wooden divan recently built into the wall, tapping at the wood with her hands, her feet, the heavy sound lost in the more persistent pounding  of hammer on nails. She made no sound apart from the heavy tapping, no words uttered; only heard. At six she did not want to know what her room would look like, it did not matter whether the walls were cream or white, or whether the closed balcony in her room would have a glass window. At eighteen, this is what she remembered. But 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.

She was almost sixteen, when she first left home for boarding school. It was the familiarity that she missed, the comforting smell of freshly brewed coffee, the throaty noises of pigeons, and the walls slightly brown with the traces left by her hands over the years. Those known walls, the black and dusty gate with 201 neatly written in blue chalk, now fading, the plants that lined the corridor demanding to be watered, all images that reminded her of days passed.

Four months later, when she returned home for the holidays after her first term in boarding school, she entered her room rather cautiously. She was scared to find something misplaced, the convenient position of her bed by the window changed, or her table cleared. And yet the room remained the same, displaying a constancy that was broken only by vacancy. As she entered, she felt like it had been aired out, expecting to be used again. Her bed was neatly made, the open window next to it creaking, inviting her to nights of loud songs and laughter from the compound next door again. On the other side was her bookshelf, bending under the weight of books she once used to read, shielded by those she now read, or hoped to read.

Her table was as cluttered as she had left it four months ago. Pens that had enough ink to write were lost among those that did not, textbooks she no longer had use for and books she hoped to read hid sheets of paper she had begun to write on before changing her mind. When she was twelve she had sat on the bed in her room, pencil in hand, and written on the wall. Her shaky words read Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasely. She looked over to that point on the wall, the words smudged by time but still clear, and then at her cupboard, where old Harry Potter stickers were now hastily covered with photographs.

 Suddenly I was reminded of what John Berger and Jean Mohr said in their book on photography, ‘Another way of Telling’, on the difference between memory and photographs. “Yet there is a fundamental difference: whereas remembered images are the residue of continuous experience, a photograph isolates the appearances of a disconnected instant.” For me, memory, experience and the photographs seemed to come together. 

Perhaps I’ll give this a try again.