Mint box

I don’t know her name, but I’ll call her Ni. Nia, who was always called Ni.

Everyone swallowed her name like it was a pill with a bitter after taste; Ni was tasteless, Nia was a second too long, and bitter. I would see her at the library every evening; Ni had curls that crumpled into themselves on the sides of her face, and hands with short fingers that tightly held the tips of the pages she was reading. She sat cross legged on the floor in the corner with the magazines, and I sat at the small table between the two shelves with old books. I would look up from there when I was tired of reading, and sometimes, Ni would be writing.

The day I began to call her Ni, I saw her slip a piece of paper into a book she had just finished reading. She stood up and dusted the back of her clothes, picked up the black pen she always carried, and left the book on the table next to her. She didn’t stop to think, not when she left the book behind, not when she reached the main door. I picked up her book when she left; Dear Life.

Her sheet was somewhere in the middle. I didn’t know who she was writing for, or if she was writing for anybody.

The woman on the bus who looks at you for a moment longer than others do is called Nia. Everybody calls her Ni. Perhaps she wants to be called Nia.

I took her paper home, and left the book behind. I put it in a small tin box that once had mints.

The next day, I go to the library early. I’m telling myself not to be excited, that maybe she won’t look at the book again. I find Dear Life, make sure nobody is looking, and slip in the paper.

If it isn’t Ni, it’ll be someone else.

I like apples. I like new stationary; new pencils with sharp tips, and erasers wrapped in plastic. I don’t like the idea of being on a ship, but I like small boats that won’t go far. I like libraries, and corners; I don’t like winters. I loved school, I don’t like boys.

I go to my table and start to read. I wonder if Ni has a mint box of her own.

Ni is writing her second note when I look up again. I hadn’t seen her come in. Dear Life is next to her. She is writing slowly, like she cannot decide how much she wants to tell. She slips the note in and leaves the book on the wooden shelf close to her, looking as though she is trying to forget where she left it. Ni doesn’t leave immediately, and I want her to leave.

She leaves later than usual that day. I wonder what she has said at home, or if she lives alone.

The librarian is turning off the lights when I pick up her note. I read it outside, under a streetlight.

My mother would stand on our balcony every morning, staring at the only potted plant we owned. Outside, the park would be filling, and my brother would demand breakfast like he has learnt to do. I don’t want to be her.

At home, I don’t read the note again. I put it in my box of mints. Perhaps it wasn’t for me. But I write my note the next day. I search for something I want to tell her.

The note that I leave in Dear Life that afternoon is long. I fold it in half. My writing is small, and there is space for more.

Come here, you must see this, my aunt had said to me. I’m coming, coming. I cannot find the square of paper I mark my pages with. Come, she said again. Her finger was tracing circles on her knee. I mutter, 87, 87, close my book, and get up. I’m standing next to her. You must know that this is where I’ll keep my will, she says. I don’t respond. Ashish realised how difficult it was without a will when his parents died. So mine will be kept on this shelf, and you will have the keys to this cupboard. I nod. I had made a will when your mother was making hers. But things were very different eight years ago, and I want to change it now, she says. I nod again. There was a sound caught in her throat that didn’t appear. And I don’t think it’ll make sense for us all to leave you houses, she said. I nodded. I think she expected me to say something.

This time, I watch Ni.

She opens Dear Life and slips the note into her pocket. I don’t want to watch her read it, but I can’t look away. Ni doesn’t open it immediately. She sits on the floor with two books whose covers and spines I cannot see. Her hair is slipping out of the rubber band she has tied, and her legs are stretched before her. I hadn’t noticed how long they were. Dear Life is still in the shelf.

When she opens the note and reads, she bites her lip. She doesn’t write back. I stop looking.

My hair is falling on my face, and so I don’t see her walk towards me. Do you have a pen, she asks quietly. I stare at her before I give her the one I’m holding. She stands at the edge of my table and writes on the same paper that I had written on that morning. She is whispering the words to herself, but I am too nervous to hear her. When she looks up at me, she is smiling widely. She leaves the pen on my table and walks towards Dear Life.

Nine, fourteen, thirty

She is sitting on the bean bag next to the encyclopaedias. She does not like them, they are heavy and do not fit in her hands when she wants to lie in bed and read. When she goes to college, she will feel sad for the boy who says he only read encyclopaedias as a child, thinking momentarily of how they remind her that she has forgotten a lot of things. She is sitting uncomfortably on the bean bag, holding Eva Ibbotson in her hand. She is also in near the Amazon river with Maia, hoping simultaneously that Amma will not come and find her reading Journey to the River Sea again. The little boy opposite her has dropped a stack of books. She does not look up but wonders if she should help him.

I am walking up and down between the adult and children’s sections. I am not holding any books. But I am walking slowly, hanging around unfamiliar names because I do not want people to wonder what I am doing. I sit down at an empty table. Next to me, he is writing page numbers on squares of paper and slipping them between the pages of his book that he has already marked with orange post its. Before me, a girl who looks as old as I do is flipping between the glossy pages of NME. I have never read NME. I think of the links he sent me, of 15 Libraries Every Book Lover Must Visit. I do not remember their names or where they are, but I know the pictures—the old libraries with large rooms and high ceilings. Not like this British Council, with its bean bags and computers, but wooden, like the library in school.

I have no books to read. In the children’s section, a girl is reading Journey to the River Sea, and a boy is turning the pages of Puck of Pook’s Hill too quickly. I know that on the shelf above him are the Famous Five’s, and that all thirteen books of A Series of Unfortunate Events are on the second shelf on the girl’s left. The books in this section are suddenly too familiar, not their stories, but their names—some so familiar that I can convince myself I have read them. I go to the adult section again, eight rows of shelves with names I do not recognise. I look up at confusing metal boards that point to more sections-History, Philosophy, Computers-I find Literature, and walk towards it quickly.

She is looking out of the glass doors of the small room that is the children’s section, looking at the man at a computer. At three in the afternoon they are almost never taken, but the man in his tucked white shirt looks like he is working seriously. Amma will be there to pick her up soon; she must find something to read. Then they will go to music class, and she will almost fall asleep. When she joins boarding school at sixteen she will decide to learn Carnatic music again, for this memory with Amma. The boy on the bean bag with Kipling in his hands is sitting in front of the shelf she wants to look at. She hovers around another shelf. She will not go up to him and say excuse me like she has seen others do. She will not walk up to him and force him to move by saying nothing at all either, like those twins in identical skirts had done the last time she was there.

There is a cloth tied around her head that matches the dupatta she is wearing. Her hands are looking for a book that should be in this shelf, the same shelf she found it in last week but did not take it out of. Zadie Smith; Smith, Zadie. Maybe she should check the catalogue. Is that what it is called? When her daughter goes to college, she will hear of On Beauty and think of her mother. It will be in the middle of a conversation she is having in the English Department, and for a moment she will pause, realising that it is the book she remembers her mother reading. The cloth around her head is making her feel warm. The young girl a few shelves down from her stares for a few seconds, but turns away to follow her finger sliding across the books. Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man. No, she wants On Beauty.

I am sliding my finger across the books again, looking for a name that I recognise. It is slow; I can feel my finger moving across the curve of a book, until it falls between the end of one and the beginning of another. The Penguin Book of Women Poets, I read, Doris Lessing, Lorrie Moore, Nabokov. I stop at Nabokov to say the name to myself, but do not know if I am saying it right. I do not pull the book out. I look towards the woman with the cloth around her head to see if she is still running her finger across the books. I think of Lemony Snicket, and how his Violet would tie her hair with a ribbon when she began inventing something, and I would imitate her. Running a finger across the books seemed like the right thing to do here.

Her hand moves up to pull down the cloth around her head a little. Her daughter is going to be acting in a school play tomorrow. She wants her to come. Through the shelves she can see her husband, handing over his carefully marked books to the man who does Xeroxes. He had tried to tell their daughter—if Amma is too tired she might not come to watch you, but I will be there—their daughter had nodded. She reaches out to straighten a book. She will be going tomorrow. On Beauty, maybe next week, she tells herself. Her finger stops at Isabel Allende—Paula, she reads. She reads the crowded words at the back of the book, and think of the roles reversed. She will go home and write that night.

I run my hand back along the same books again. Nabokov, Moore, Lessing. I stop at Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It is hard bound, a loose plastic sheet covering the brown book. I stare at the dog on the cover, on its back and killed with a garden fork. I did not know it was a garden fork, but I liked dogs. I take it to the counter—today I will borrow my first book from the adult section.

She has picked a dark blue book from the last shelf, The Thief Lord. Amma will smile that night when she sees Cornelia Funke and read it first. She will then smile as she gives it back to her. She can see Amma walking towards the children’s section through the glass door. I can’t find Eva Ibbotson, a girl is saying to her older brother who is reading an encyclopaedia. He is not listening. She looks up and points at the shelf with all the Ibbotson’s, and the girl smiles back.

Anagrams

I do not understand. I cannot tell who is real, or who is imagined. I tell myself that it does not matter, but it does. I tell him that the book is strange, but I cannot say why; I tell her I will write to her about it, but I cannot begin. I am restless when the book ends, my right leg is shaking in the way that my aunt hates, and I am chewing on my lower lip because I want to say something, but do not know what.

So I pick on lines, and metaphors, on Lorrie Moore’s sentences that throw images at me before leaving them there and carrying on, unconcerned. They are hanging and unconnected to the larger story that should be more important, but it really isn’t. I have grown accustomed to the importance of this larger story, to focus on all that happens, and how people there react; I have grown accustomed, and forgotten to look beyond.

I both am and am not the Benna that Moore creates; it is easy for me to forget that her daughter, Georgianne, exists only in her head, that she is just differently real. I think of all the people I have made up, none with so much detail or feeling, I do not know what they look like, or sound like, or what they are wearing. In our conversations, I am saying the smart, witty, sensible things I would not have said otherwise, and these people disappear when our conversations grow old. But for Benna, her daughter is real—she hugs her, shows her the wisdom tooth she has had removed, finds her a baby sitter, and takes care of her when she is ill. “I made up a real daughter,” “I don’t go around making up imaginary daughters,” she tells Gerard. There is Benna’s real, my real, and the reals we have created.

There is a moment when Benna sees Georgianne standing at the top of a staircase. In that moment I wondered what she saw, but it is only a moment for me; Benna does not stop to think that her daughter is not really there, and her story moves on. I wonder what Benna is actually doing when she is with daughter—sitting, standing, teaching, or in a café—like the times she meets her friend Eleanor, who is as real as Georgianne. They meet at cafés and over dinner and talk about everything—poetry, Middlemarch, men—important things that matter, even if you do not want them to.  Eleanor and Georgianne are like the characters you want to create when you write, the characters that grow beyond your control, and take your stories where they want to go.

“Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters,” Benna says, as she talks about language and words. It is this reshuffling that she is always doing—in her metaphors, in the people in her life-both real and differently real, in the images that she creates, and the stories that she tells and retells. Benna’s story is a pack of cards shuffled perfectly for a game; hers is also more than one story. Then what is meaning?

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.

What Nabokov did

In the end, I was ‘she’. ‘She’ and ‘him’ were always together, a pair, ‘they’. And since ‘she’ was I, I was a part of ‘they’.

In ‘Symbols and Signs’, that’s what Nabokov had done—I sat in the subway and saw her husband’s hands, my husband’s hands, “twitching” on the umbrella, with their “swollen veins and brown-spotted skin”. I watched the girl cry on the shoulder of a woman who resembled Rebecca Borisovna.  I looked through my son’s photographs—“As a baby, he looked more surprised than most babies”, I saw a picture of our maid in Germany with her “fat-faced fiance”, and I saw Aunt Rosa.

If this is what Nabokov intended, he had succeeded. As I read the story over and over, the questions that had struck me the first time faded away and they didn’t matter. I was ‘she’, and so there was no need for me to name myself, my husband, my son. But who would know the others? If indeed names created identities, then they had to be named. They were nouns.

When I feel like writing, I look so hard to find something to write about. Sometimes I spend most of my time thinking, worrying that I have nothing to say, and no stories to tell. I look for larger things, and what these things are I do not know; things I consider important, because I feel like I must have something to say. And so I forget to do what Nabokov does—talk about everyday things, things that have become normal and I no longer see as if for the first time. There are sudden, isolated moments when I’m intensely conscious of things around me, when I see for instance that Appa’s beard is more grey than black now. But those moments seem to come only when I have nothing to do, and I have never written then.

Recently, a friend of mine got glasses, and suddenly things around her seemed so much clearer, she said. Reading ‘Symbols and Signs’ was something like this—I noticed “the last dregs of the day were mixed with the street lights”; I heard the “dutiful” beating of hearts on the stopped train, and then the rustling newspapers; images and sounds so normal, that though I don’t like to admit it, seemed as though I had never previously experienced them.

I am convinced that details mean so much more than just words on a paper, that they show, and are a way of seeing and experiencing. But when I write, details seem to support a story, help it stand and be noticed—they aren’t the story. They are real but not real enough; they are present but can be passed unnoticed rather easily; they are mere frills, accompaniments. In ‘Signs and Symbols’ the details are the story, what ‘she’ sees is what we see. The details that Nabokov chooses might seem unnecessary; they don’t answer questions. What is the dark haired girl on the train with “grubby red toenails” crying about? Who is the girl with the “toneless, anxious young voice”? What is the phone call about, who is Charlie? I will never know. Initially, I felt deceived.

“If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not!” writes Nabokov in his description of referential mania. And just as his other descriptions of the mania reminded me of writing, I felt hidden in this construct a questioning of the nature of writing. While I sit and wonder if writing is about creation or representation, writing for Nabokov seemed to be about reminding a person of what they see, hear, smell and feel every day—the most real things that we experience, but hardly remember.

In the end, it was all about writing.

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.