Mama always said that my sister would ask for a box of new colour pencils in the same way that she asked for an older brother.
It is Mama’s favourite story to tell. Before Papa left, he would say that he had heard it change more times than is good for any story, but I don’t think there is such a thing. Mama tells this story loudly—she always told stories loudly, even the scary bits, and laughed before she reached the funny parts—and everyone had to wait for her. But this was her favourite story, especially at big dinners. I don’t think she ever told other stories as loudly.
We are in the car, and I am sitting in the back with my sister’s bag. Mama is saying she was leaving for work when the teacher called. The first time I heard the story, she said she was reading a book at home. The next time she was at the doctor’s, and once she was at work. Your daughter just doesn’t listen, the teacher was saying. Mama says she was nodding, saying hm in all the right places, because this wasn’t the first time she had been called. I’ve had enough of her, the teacher said. I’ve had enough of you, Mama says she thought. So she drove to school, wondering what her daughter had done.
My sister stretches her legs out in the car. Mama is laughing. She says she found my sister sitting on the last bench in class, drawing. Draw your house, they had been told that day. My sister had drawn a room with large windows that overlooked the rest of a small house. She had dipped her fingers in green paint and had left impressions of their tips as leaves; she had painted a solid block of brown for the trunk and had run her pencil along the wet paint. Mama says it was rough to touch. The walls of the room were a light blue, with wooden bookshelves and yellow lights. Papa used to say it was the nicest house he had ever seen. Mama says she was glad her daughter hadn’t drawn a big house with cream walls and brown doors, and a triangle roof. She took my sister away and put her in another school.
We are on our way to the station. Mama is telling us that my sister would ask for a box of new colour pencils in the same way that she asked for an older brother. She never told my sister why it wasn’t possible for her to have an older brother. She says she thought it would give my sister a funny story to tell one day, but I don’t think my sister ever told the story. When he was around, Papa would add that my sister shrugged when they told her about me. Mama does not say this.
My sister was going to Bombay. Mama and I watch her board the train, but we do not cry. I thought Mama would, but my sister had said she wanted to paint in Bombay, and not be asked any questions. I have never seen her say something that seriously. And Mama had always bought her colour pencils when she had wanted them, just like she bought me pretty notebooks to write in. It was the same thing, only this time she bought her a ticket.
We never knew where my sister lived. I didn’t, until she started sending me paintings on small squares of paper. She would call Mama thrice a week, then twice, and then not at all—she made me promise I wouldn’t show her the paintings she sent me. I promised. This is what it means to be sisters, I thought.
I wrote to her occasionally. I told her about school and the books I was reading, that Mama had quit her job at the University, and that she wouldn’t cook any more. I would write to her on single sheets of paper that I tore from the notebooks Mama had bought me. I made sure she didn’t become my diary; they are unreliable things with too many secrets.
My sister wrote to Mama occasionally, and we would sit in my room and read her letters. She never said anything about where she was living, or what she was doing—she’d say she had bought a coffee filter and new paint brushes. I was surprised that Mama never insisted on knowing anything about her. She just said she knew Bombay and decided my sister would be alright. She’s a considerate girl, Mama would say to me. My sister once sent her a striped hair band that she began to wear around her wrist, when it wasn’t in her hair. She was wearing it on the day she found my sister’s paintings in the small tin box I kept them in.
When the neighbours would ask Mama about my sister, she would smile widely. She’s very happy living alone, she would say to them. What is she doing, they would ask. Painting, Mama would reply. Then she’d tell them about how my sister would ask for a box of colour pencils in the same way that she asked for an older brother.
The paintings that my sister sent me were of the places she had been to. The first was a grey one of her room, with a steel stool that reminded me of hospitals, and a low bed that she had always wanted, but Mama never let her have. There was one of Marine Drive that Mama and Papa had once taken us to, where Mama had decided that she would teach again, and this had made Papa angry. There was a brown painting of Hill Road and of shops selling kolhapuris; one was of the rains and umbrellas and leaking roofs, and another was of Church Gate Station. The one that I saw in Mama’s hands on the day she found my sister’s paintings was of the crowded trains that she always said she had loved.
Mama and Papa had met in Bombay, on Marine Drive. Mama told my sister that she liked to sit there and read because her house was too noisy. Papa would come there every time he had his heart broken. They took the train back home together one evening. Mama told him he was too self-indulgent, and he made her tell him why. She got off at Church Gate station, and said that this time, her stop came too soon.
It was raining when they met on Hill Road a few months later, and Papa told Mama she had been too harsh on him. When I asked Mama about them, she only told me that they were too young. A week later, Papa left us and didn’t come back.
I came home late from college on the day that Mama found my sister’s paintings in a small tin box. She was sitting on my bed with an unopened letter next to her, and the box was in one hand and the painting was in the other. She was not angry. She’s living with your father, Mama told me. She never told me how she knew. I was angry, and never asked. Your sister would ask for a box of new colour pencils in the same way that she asked for an older brother.