Mama said

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.

Almost

Ekphrasis

There is half a cello on the almost chessboard floor. Its thin strings are a darker grey than the grey on the floor that is almost white. The instrument on the top of the table can almost be seen; the painting on the right that you can almost make out through its darkness has a man with two women. You cannot like the man. There is some hope in the sky in the painting on the left, above the blackness of trees you cannot discern. The blue cloth that lies out of place on the table has thick folds—it is heavy, like velvet that is at once too soft, and too artificial.

The painting on the instrument that she is playing is a continuous rolling landscape that you move with slowly. Beyond it there will be some more of the same—hills and rocks and trees against a blurred blue sky—here, the only wonder left is at the ordinary. The bows in her hair match the yellow of her dress, an intentional choice that her face does not betray. She watches her thin hands intently, only you cannot see their movement. The man sitting at the orange chair who does not face you is the man in the painting above him—he has to be. He does not watch his hands moving across the instrument he holds; there is some thought of after, when the movement and sound is momentarily ceased. She stands with one hand raised and a paper in the other, singing. The earrings and necklace she wears are the same as her friend in yellow. Like the women in the painting above her who are wearing similar clothes.

There is almost too much darkness, the room needs light. They do not look at each other now, their looks will be saved for the conversation after—the song has almost ended.

A window on the third floor

There is nothing that I can say about it. There are no people, no women talking, no horses, no faces, and no trees—there is nothing in this painting that I can see in the others lying next to it. I would like to tell you about the day it was made because this is the only story of it that I know, but perhaps I shouldn’t; to me the painting is only colours. So I will not tell you about how she turned a large calendar from Goethe Institute over, and stuck it on the wall. I will not tell you that she was fourteen years old, or of how she pushed a table to that wall and sat on the four large pillows she put on it. She can tell you that it was uncomfortable, but she is not here, so she won’t. She can also tell you that there was nothing on her mind when she painted that day, but she will not be able to tell you that either.

It is the corner of the right side that I like the most. The colours there are dark, moving from one to the next in no exact shape that has a name. There is, for instance, a red bean. It is a colour that doesn’t yet have a name, an odd mixture of crimson lake and Prussian blue. I can tell you that she first used crimson lake because of the way the Prussian blue looks on it—like circular waves, like ripples when you drop a stone in water when you are at a lake and feeling sad. Below the nameless colour is a green—not viridian hue—but at the moment, I cannot remember the name. It is muddy and dark, like the paste you made of Neem leaves when you were younger, to use in the cooking games she wanted you to play. The two of you no longer talk now. Around this is Prussian blue that has been scratched at in straight lines that criss-cross each other, looking like the mosquito mesh on your window. In some places the Prussian becomes cobalt blue because it was rubbed at with cloth—I see the advantage of using oil paints on glossy paper, it is so easy to make sure that nothing remains.

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There is more happening on the left; I like it less because it is so crowded. They are colours that move quickly and they are less similar—here it is more about the lines, than the blocks of colour. The paint is thinner and there are no layers, the colours scratched out by the backs of paintbrushes and toothpicks seem more hasty—like she ran out of songs to sing, and couldn’t wait to finish painting. It is not a bad thing. The burnt sienna close to the corner was mixed with too much linseed oil, I can see where it dripped down, and she did not notice. It has made a track of its own; it looks like a pathway cleared in the snow, though I have never seen snow. But the track is surrounded by almost haphazardly drawn lines that do not allow for dark colour, like new snow that falls and covers tracks. Somewhere above it the green looks like fire. She was always scared of fire; at six she hated matchsticks and she still cannot light one.

It is odd to touch. You think you can feel the lines but they are actually too close together; there is only more roughness than anything else. Involuntarily you look at your finger and expect paint, but there is nothing there.

Paper boats

It’s raining outside. I’m in my room, I can hear the rain, but the blinds are drawn across my windows, and so I cannot see it. My room is only dimly lit; I’m sitting on my bed, wondering when I’ll begin to write. I know that outside the roads will be packed, signal lights will turn a blinking green, but nothing will move. There will be wet roads, the light from street lamps flickering off; people will enter Madurai Idly to stay dry, but the rain and crowd will make them feel wet anyway.

She said she was travelling alone these holidays. She was excited and I was too, for her, and in some odd way, for myself. She would travel alone, and it would be all that travelling alone could be. There would be new people to meet, new conversations, roads that seemed different when you walked alone, and there would be writing. I was excited because I knew she would write, and what she wrote, I hoped to read. She would be alone—I didn’t know if I could be alone, but I needed to try. He said I wasn’t her and I wouldn’t manage, but she said I wasn’t to listen to him.

At home in Hyderabad, there is a small room attached to mine. It has a large glass window that I keep open during the day; you can see the Golconda Fort from there. Appa had visited the fort with a friend once, and he had stood on top and waved. I used my binoculars and looked from this window; I had seen something move, it had to be him.

But that room is my favourite. I have stuck large papers on its walls and painted them. There is a small table there, on it are large pillows that I have covered with pieces of cloth Amma would sometimes use, and I would play with. On these pillows are more paintings, sketches—of Shimla, of people, of just colours that my palette made for me. Next to it is my easel, it is dusty now. There’s a small stool that I have left my paints on, the tubes used, the turpentine now green and half-finished, some paint brushes too hard to be used again.

On the pillows I have kept all my postcards too. They are mostly from Appa’s student, not all of them say much, but they have photographs of places I have never been to. I don’t know why, but he would send them to Appa to give to me, and I have kept them. They were signed, “Best, Sam”, and when I was younger, I couldn’t remember him. Not his voice, his face, Sam to me was the sender of postcards of places I wanted to see. Crowded beaches, empty roads, large, old buildings, all places I now want to visit alone. Because travelling alone feels like completing a book that has taken forever to read—not because it’s bad, but because it has so much to say. Sometimes you’ll finish, other times you won’t. Sometimes you tell yourself you’ll return to it later, but when you do finish, you’ll feel like a paper boat.

I’m scared he’s going to be right, though. I’m not going to be a paper boat. She, her words, they might be my paper boat.

Crimson

Hand over an expectant canvas,

Blank,

Waiting.

A once white cloth,

Waiting to be used again.

A clean brush,

Naked without colour,

An empty palette,

Stained, dry.

Waiting.

A mug of water,

Still, clear, reflecting.

 

A dot of crimson lake.

A piercing white canvas,

With a dot of crimson lake.

 

The saturated brush,

In a mug of water.

Still, clear, reflecting,

Now disturbed,

Crimson spreading,

Deep,

Light,

Now no longer reflecting.