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