She and I

I am sitting in my aunt’s house. I have been sitting on the same sofa, the door to the balcony is open behind me, but I am sitting inside. She walks past me occasionally, then she says something from the kitchen about dinner, and for a second I don’t respond. By then she has come to the hall with a plate full of food, to the sofa I am sitting on, and she gives it to me. I hold the plate in my hand—two chapattis, some beans, a little bit of dal. I turn to look at the balcony because something moves behind me; the morning’s newspaper is flying.

The girl sat on the floor of her balcony. They had bothered her, and she was crying. Amma was making herself some tea in the kitchen. Amma knew that she was crying, but she let her cry. It was almost five in the evening; they would all soon go downstairs to play hide-and-seek, or cycle. She had learnt how to cycle, Appa had taught her. Amma could then sit down in the hall, place a pillow in the small of her aching back, and read. The girl cried louder and saw the wire of the iron box trailing away under a small table. She cried tragically, as though nothing could be done, and saw that the iron board that was folded on the floor had green legs with paint chipping off. They rang the bell and asked her to come and play. She didn’t reply, she was crying.

Amma sent them in. Appa had read her Monkey’s Drum again, and she had been scared. She remembered two faces on the page. On the right was the wide-eyed young girl looking at a knife held up by the monkey, her mouth open. The knife was obviously blunt, like some of the knives in their kitchen that have needed sharpening for a while now. She saw that the monkey’s hand was uncannily like her own; in her head she saw it shaking in his obvious distress, his eyes mostly black, looking resentful and sneaky. There were exactly twenty words on the page that she didn’t consider necessary to read. She knew what was going to happen. She was the books she read; she associated people around her with those in the stories she heard every day. They had made her cry, and for a while, they were the monkey.

They walked through her sunny room into the balcony; they crouched on the floor next to her. They asked her what was wrong—she was surprised they did not know. She had learnt the national anthem in school that day and she had been singing it for Amma; they had stood outside her house and imitated her. One girl had probably nudged the other, they were loud and they sang badly. She wasn’t sure why that was so bad, or why she was crying. But she continued to cry because she had started, and at six she wanted to cry for silly things occasionally. Then Amma walked in and said they should go play. So she washed her face with cold water, and they went.

That weekend, she and Amma read nonsense poetry together. Appa was not at home, and they were reading limericks that she understood occasionally—at some point she realised that perhaps they were not meant to be understood. They read about long noses and burning cats, about the man on a hill and the man with a beard that was home to owls, of the abnormally small man who was devoured by a puppy. She saw the pictures and then drew her own, and with each picture she wrote about herself.

There was a young girl of Southside,

Who liked to run away and hide,

Her friends searched high,

Her friends searched low,

But kept missing that young girl of Southside.

They had laughed that day; she with her plait coming loose, Amma, in her weekend clothes. Amma would drift off to do her own work occasionally; there would be phone calls from the office that the girl would sometimes go to, and sit among the piles of handloom fabric. Emails would be sent, there would be writing. The girl now sat in the hall on the divan, next to her was A Book of Nonsense with Lear, and Carroll, and others. In her hand were a notebook and pencil. She always used sharp pencils. She liked how her writing looked when she did—clean, neat, precise—she was not one to keep scratching out words any way.

Appa had got her a book. It was a small notebook with ruled pages that could be removed or added, its cover was brown with little people drawn in a spiral. Their triangular two-part bodies were filled in with black, their hands and legs thin lines that reminded her of spiders she had once been scared of, but now played with. He kept telling her she should write poems, and sometimes, she did. One day she wrote, and he helped her finish. The last line was her favourite, she repeated it over and over, Appa had come up with parts of it, and they had laughed together. She could hear him reading the poem aloud; she heard the happy exclamation at the end of the last sentence.

I met a mosquito and I said hello

But it bit me, and I said owe-e-e

I scratched the bump and I poked the bump

And I asked him why he bit me?

He replied and said, sorry, I was just trying to be friendly.

Friendly? Oh then why did you bite me?

He laughed and said, that’s the way friendly mosquitoes try to be friendly.

It was strange, she very often wrote of small creatures she otherwise disliked or was scared of, mosquitos, turtles. In school the boys in her class would run behind the girls with sticks after it had rained. At the end of these sticks would be long worms, she felt bad for them, but she still ran. On other days there would be centipedes that they would crouch down and touch, just to watch them curl up and lie still before they uncurled and walked again. Their movement reminded her of cats when they were concentrating, when their tails flicked from side to side. And in her poems she liked them, the creatures were not so unusual—they felt things like she did, they rationalised things, they had answers to her questions. She wrote of asking a centipede how it never got tired walking, and for her the centipede replied, “No you silly, you see, I have so many legs.” And there was her answer. It was a perfect world, there were questions, there were doubts, she never asked them, but she answered them anyway.

At some point when she was twelve, all her stories were about Amma. Then she wrote frantically to remember her, her passing was real, and writing about her made it less so. Or perhaps more so, she could not tell. As she wrote, she remembered incidents, small incidents—learning badminton, talking about books, music classes where she’d sometimes fall asleep; oddly enough she never remembered the poetry. She had forgotten about writing poetry as she grew older, she wrote stories because they made her happy.

When she was seventeen, she sat one day in the library in school and found a volume of Women’s Writing in India. She was in her favourite chair between two bookshelves; the window overlooking the auditorium was behind her. It was the end of her school year. When the bell rang, she and two of her friends would jump out of the library window for three glasses of hot tea from the staffroom when the teachers weren’t looking. The anna there was nice enough to give it to them, he found them funny. In the book she looked for her grandmother secretly, she didn’t know much about her, but she knew her stories. She found one, on turning to the page she discovered it was translated by Amma. She read it over and over again, she smiled a lot; she wrote her next assignment on it, her story was a continuation of the one her grandmother had written. Something shifted and she began to write about other things, she read more poetry but never wrote it.

I am no longer in my aunt’s house; I have come home now, to Hyderabad. I am sitting in my room; it is again dinner time, and Appa is calling me. I have been writing for a while now and it’s the same piece, I have been reading the same paragraphs over and over, adding lines, removing words. I think—I must turn on the fan, it is getting too hot now; is there more pomegranate in the bowl, I’m hungry; does what I’m trying to say make sense? I remember the notebook Appa had got me; I remember that I kept it in my bookshelf behind all the books I have read, and those I am yet to read. It’s dusty, I open it.

To be a real poet you need imagination.

You must always write a poem down,

So keep a pen and paper ready,

And imagine.

I wrote then because there were more worlds other than my own. Now, more worlds mean more stories, and more stories mean more words.

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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.

That day I stood

You hear them call your name.

In your head their voice is stern, a teacher,

Waiting to pounce on a single, uncertain mistake.

But all they do is call—seeking, more than demanding. An assurance you try to make.

Your shaking impatient foot stops moving, your sweaty palms turn cold.

Eager to complete it all, to finish what you started, to show that you know.

To say loudly, “I’m here.”

And yet you’re afraid to respond. A feeble

“I’m here”, becoming a mere movement of your lips. Soundless.

 

Your teacher once snapped at you, mouth quivering, breaking a chalk in a clenched hand.

“Five times twelve is?”

Her staring eyes recede into a blur; your classmates become a wall of soft sniggers,

Closing into your silence.

Sixty, sixty, the voice in your head insists.

“Fifty-five?” you stutter, questioning. Sixty. The voice in your head trails away,

lost in the unidentifiable images and sounds in your head.

Loud laughter. Eyes darting, heat rising, your colour changes.

When mistakes are not left as mistakes,

When they throw you off balance instead.

All you do is freeze all over, wishing,

For it all to pass, your head bent,

Waiting.

 

They call your name again,

You look up.

You feel a nudge on your side

“Go,” a voice beside you says, close but distant. Forceful.

Apologetically you nod, moving slowly,

Like feet stuck in wet mud.

Up there you fidget, a few expectant eyes feel like a thousand

Waiting for that one mistake, for revelations you would not make otherwise, when the sniggers can come closing in.

Words are not words but paper planes, flying light, with no direction.

You let your hair fall on your face,

They must not see your fear; you set your eyes on the crack on the wall before you.

Swallow, you feel like water,

Not free and flowing, but in a bottle.

“You’re not good enough to be up here,” you think, heat rising in your face. Dismissive, uncertain.

And you begin your first complete slam poem.

 

Return, resume

In my eleventh standard, I had a blue poetry book. It was an anthology of 19th and 20th century verse—Auden, Heaney, Browning, Eliot, they were all there. The book looked rather old when I first received it; the pages smelt of closed rooms left to settle, its cover folded and tearing. It seemed so thoroughly used, as if it had been opened time and again, and I could only guess what it meant to its previous owner.

Every evening I would open the book to a random page, unplanned. And always I felt that familiar uncertainty as I held the book and slipped my finger between its pages, looking at the right hand corner of the right page, to see which author I’d be reading that day. That moment of uncertainty drew me—I knew nothing could go wrong, and I wanted more. Of the words, of the memories, of the stubborn but fragile smell of the book, and to see my own words pencilled in response.

And then one day, two years later, I put the book away.

I had no reason, it was one of those baseless things I felt I needed to do. I’d like to say it was a tough decision, that I had to fight urges to pick up the book again, but there was nothing. I finished Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye that evening, and the next day I picked up something else. I sat in the sunny corner of my room those holidays, coffee in hand, and read.

A few days ago, I began to read Anne Fadiman. I started with the last essay in the thin, borrowed copy of Ex Libris I held in my hand, Secondhand Prose. I was reminded of the narrow passageways of Blossom Book House, its bookshelves stocked with browning old books—torn, written in. Books that had stories other than the lives they held within their pages; books that were multiple stories each time they belonged to someone else.

And then, I remembered the anthology.

Finding it amidst a pile of books arranged neatly on a bending bookshelf, I picked it up, holding once again the tearing, blue book. I slipped a finger between its pages. Right hand corner of the right page, Auden. And I read.