Amma,

Amma, I can’t write any more. I want to, I really want to, but nothing is coming to me in the way that it used to, in that sudden crash around my ears and shoulders, and in my teeth. Sometimes I think it will come back to me; that I should just be patient, waiting, sitting, sighing, and then the story will present itself, neatly wrapped in blue gift paper with golden stars, and with that same sudden crash of appearance. But I’ve waited and waited, and it hasn’t. I haven’t written.

Amma, you had hair that felt like rope. It never fell on your shoulders and across your back in the clean, light way that hair falls after a visit to the parlour, but it hit your shoulders in the angry way that eggs crack open into a whipping bowl with onions and chilly powder. Sometimes it was the brown of dark chocolate in the sun, and at home it was the dull black of hair left to itself and our white lights.

Will you sit straight, you’d say to me.

I am.

Stop squirming, you’d say.

I could feel the comb getting caught in the knotted hair at my neck. Amma, you had hair that wouldn’t slip through my fingers.

I’m not moving. I was like a worm in the rain that the boys in school would pick up with sticks.

You can never sit still, you’d say.

Then you’d give up on the knot. You would plait my hair and tuck the knot in somewhere it couldn’t be seen.

I can. Appa’s tickling my feet.

Your hands would move quickly. You would move your left hand first and then right, and then left, and right again, again, and once more, and again. I could see the oil on your hands when you had finished.

Amma, I found your will when you weren’t at home. I was searching for a key in the drawer where you kept your mother’s silver earrings hidden between other keys, but that day I found some documents that looked official in the way that everything printed on white sheets can look important. It must have been a holiday. Appa was with you in the hospital.

I took out your will and read it. I put it back in your drawer before you came home. You left me your mother’s jewellery, and your money went to Appa to keep for my education.

You wrote me letters for after you were gone. I found them by accident. I always found your secrets by accident, really. You told me about your parents. In one, you wrote that you had found my diary that I kept hidden in the red cloth bag with Christmas decorations, and couldn’t help reading the few lines I had written about you. I didn’t have to relook at my diary to remember those lines. I had been worried that you were going to die. You told me that when you were my age, you had stood posting letters at one of the red post boxes near your house, crying, because your father had been paralysed and wouldn’t walk again. You didn’t have to say anything after this. We must have been the same girls, except you learnt to play the violin, and I joined you for music class.

Sometimes I wonder what you were like when you were twenty.

Amma, I want to be alone. I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be without always having to explain myself. I don’t care about some people. I care about others quietly, openly. People are always taking up space, demanding space, drawing and redrawing my lines, and coming too close or going too far. Invariably they’re men.

I want to sit in a coffee shop where everyone has learnt to expect me on this day and this time, with this coffee, and that seat by the window. The window must be large, wooden, and I must be able to look out and sigh into it, and outside the window I will watch the sigh go, carried by the wind, and wonder who’ll catch it like they catch a yawn. Sometimes it’s a happy sigh.

I want to sit in this coffee shop and read. I want to laugh with the words, and run my hand through my hair and think I look beautiful and mysterious, because it’s okay to think that sometimes. Amma, I want to read and be happy, and know that it will change me in a way that no person has ever been able to change me. Sometimes, I want to smile into the sun outside the large wooden window with a book turned to page 132, and decide I will write today. Then I’ll turn on my laptop and open a Word document, change the font to Times New Roman size 11, and touch the keyboard lightly, each key becoming the other key because in my head I see words and a little girl crying.

Amma, when you wrote me stories in the banana fibre notebook we bought at Pondicherry in the little shop that sold handmade paper, did you think of making your characters boys, and then decide that there are enough stories about them anyway? I want to tell stories of girls and it will be more real and more honest, and make me happier, because she is the girl I used to be, the girl I am, the girl and woman I want to be, the woman my aunt makes me be, and my father makes me be and wants me to be, and my memory of you makes me be. I want to write, sitting in the middle of all my space, my room, and the new city that I’m beginning to walk through, crawl through, run through, sit through, and a city that walks, and runs, and sits all around me.

Soon after the second time your cancer came and went, Amma, you had curly hair that was coloured brown, and I could see the grey near the roots. They weren’t the neat curls, like hair that had been tightly wound around a pencil and then left loose, but your hair curled around itself like telephone wires. In school, by the time I grew my hair out and turned fifteen, my friends would ask me if I curled my hair. I had tamer telephone wire curls that they would pull, stretch out, and let go, laughing when they coiled back into themselves. I would think of you.

That second time with the cancer, I hadn’t known what was happening, and I was embarrassed that you wore a cloth around your head, because nobody else’s mother did this. I didn’t know the cancer and chemotherapy as cancer and chemotherapy; I knew them as days in the month that I spent in the hospital waiting room with Appa after school, until you came out tired in the late evening and hugged me lightly. In the car, I would do most of the talking on the way home.

When I was home last summer, I was looking through your clothes to find something of yours that would fit right on my shoulders. I lifted out piles of clothes that perhaps we should have given away like other people do when someone has died, but we didn’t. Some of your friends stayed home on the morning of your cremation, and they tried to get me to stay home too. That morning I had my first ride in a vehicle with a siren. I wondered why they had turned on the siren, because there was no emergency, and there was nothing to be done quickly. When we came home, the house was still full of people, but the curtains and sheets, and pillow covers had all been changed. Your room now had pale pink curtains, and the hall had white ones. Your sheets were blue.

I don’t remember why we didn’t give your clothes away. Perhaps I told Appa that I’d wear your clothes one day, or maybe Appa couldn’t do it himself, or he didn’t know who to give them to. I remember you in each of these clothes every time I look through them; I remember which kurtas you wore with your green salwar, and which shirt you took on our trip to Uttaranchal. If we had given them away, it would have to have been to strangers.

But this summer, I found myself pulling out a cloth that had been folded in half. I can’t remember its colour. I opened it out, and saw your thick, rough hair from when it was wavy and only black. It looked like a wig. I wondered which time this was from, the first cancer, or the two times that it followed.

Amma, I have cut my hair in a way that has made my telephone wire curls disappear.

 

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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.

After five

When I was younger, I tried to keep a diary. That boy in my class I haven’t spoken to since I moved to Bangalore; the girl who always got double stars in class tests when I got just one; Amma, when she was younger—they all had diaries. In them they would write about anything really—their day, what bothered them, what made them happy, what they thought. I believed that everyone needed to have a diary; everyone had a lot of things to say, even if they never said them aloud. I had to have a diary.

So I began the search for the perfect notebook. It had to be medium sized, preferably ruled, with paper that wasn’t thin enough to show ink on the next page; the story on one was not the story on the next, only continuations. It also had to be unused, and I was willing to wait patiently for this—I couldn’t write in the little notepads that Appa had only partially used in his various conferences. When I finally found the book I wanted to use, it felt right—like I had known what I wanted without actually knowing it. It was larger than my school notebooks, smaller than an A4 sheet, its binding on top, rather than the side. On the cover I stuck paper, and my twelve year old self wrote a warning: “Beware, do not touch. Explosive content.” And of course, I drew a skull next to it, one bone longer than the other.

Inside, I had to write my name. Even then, writing my name in new stationary gave me an odd sense of contentment. I’d begin by hoping that the ink wouldn’t stop flowing as I wrote, with just the right amount of space between well-formed letters, slowly, purposefully almost. It was a strange happiness, much like the feeling when you open old books that smell of closed rooms left to settle, knowing that you’d find in them something.

When I finally sat on the cold floor of my room to write, to say all that I wanted to say, to reveal myself in the book before me, I couldn’t. I wrote, but I was more terrified than I have ever been, so conscious that I constantly pulled myself back and refused to say what I intended to. There was none of that disarming honesty that I had expected, no chance for a revelation, just a fear of making permanent what I was yet to process. It seemed too soon to be writing about something, a reactionary rant, and once done I simply felt exhausted and strangely full—as though I had eaten too much, and now couldn’t move. Five times I tried; five times I ate too much.

Appa always tells me to write. He says I must find some time for myself—alone time—to think, to write; when being alone only means the absence of other people, and doesn’t bother me. And now I do, I feel the need to tell stories that are often my own, but I still need the time. A new kind of diary, open.