Unravelling

I didn’t get an email from Vera last Sunday. I didn’t realise this until Monday afternoon, and if Vera ever writes to me again, I’ll never tell her how long I took to notice her missing email. It’s unacceptable, I’ll say, Mama should have locked you in your room like she locked me in mine, shrieking, Think, Vera, think, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something other than yourself?

Then Vera would ignore me, pretending like nothing had happened and no email had been missed, like the sky this morning was last night’s sky, and I just hadn’t noticed the rain clouds in the dark. She would tell me about last Sunday, and how she’d spent it in Ashok’s house feeling heavy stars at the nape of her neck and at the back of her eyes because he’d brought them some drugs that were just so good. Stop seeing him, I’d tell her, you’re ruining yourself, you’re ruining us, Papa is scared, and you have so much potential.

What potential, Vera would laugh. What do we know of potential, we’re just sisters with a silent father and a mother who died because her lungs were too full of anger.

This was her tactic. I’d spend two weeks fuming silently. I’d sit by the window waiting for it to rain — bring the clothes in the minute it starts, Papa had always told me, it’s your responsibility and nothing should be wet. Sometimes I’d scribble lines about Vera on slips of paper; she was selfish; she was the fog in my brain that never cleared, not while I waited for my next story, and not when I set the rice to cook at eight, exactly an hour before dinnertime. Vera knew this, but what did she care, she hadn’t been locked in her room with Mama screaming in the background, Think Vera, think, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something, other than yourself?

Then we would go back to our weekly emails, me bitter, telling her she was better off away from us, and she high, writing to me in long spiraling sentences. They’re like tunnels, I would tell her, like the apples you peel in one continuous sheet of skin — how am I to know what you’re saying?

Vera’s emails always began the same way. Are you struggling, how is Papa, and your smoking? I haven’t smoked the last week (the weed doesn’t count, no? I don’t think it does) — we’ve fought about this before, haven’t we? I can see your eyes widening and your forehead knotting, now don’t go get upset that I don’t remember our fights. It’s not true, and besides, we’ve always done the remembering between us. You know how you’ll always forget Mama’s second cousin’s sons name — Dinesh, with the fake hair — and I’ll never remember his sister’s name, the tall, grass-like one who likes wearing saris made of gold — what’s her name? Did she really run away from home? You and I should have run away from home together.

After this, Vera would talk about Mama again. Sometimes when you get angry I think you are too much like Mama, she’d write — remember how she would shout when we fought with her and marched into our room, slamming the door behind us? Yes, she would say, make the ceiling fall on our heads; you pay for the paint chipping off from above us if you’re so fond of such dramatic exits, and don’t you dare pull out another cigarette, I forbid it. See, I remember.

But Vera didn’t email, and now it was Wednesday. I’ll drop her a line, I said to myself; I’ll tell her this is unacceptable, that Papa is worried, and that he’s asking to speak to her.

**

Before Vera moved to Bombay — She didn’t move, she left, Mama always snapped — Saturday nights were our nights. We sat on our terrace. Nobody ever knew where we were, but Papa always found us collapsed on our bed on Sunday morning, crisscrossed in a tangle of legs and arms, our slippers still on our feet. Until she died, Mama believed we sat in the middle of KBR Park every Saturday night. The smell of your cigarettes is always curling up in my nostrils when you come home, she’d say. Ungrateful girls, she called us, One day the police will catch you trespassing, and when they call home at two in the morning to tell us they have you at the station, I will slam the phone down and go back to sleep.

The first time I tried to tell Mama that Vera and I sat on the terrace every Saturday, nothing else — I thought it would calm her down — Vera didn’t talk to me for a week. Mama decided I was lying and locked me in my room. Don’t lie to me, she said, how much can you lie, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something, other than yourself?

I didn’t know why Vera was angry. Why would you tell Mama about the terrace, she asked me the next time we were there. We were listening to a song about Regal; we’d visit it one day, we said. We’d sit on the terrace of a hotel close by with no lights on, and the lights in the rooms below us would go off one by one — at nine, at ten, eleven and twelve, while Regal remained lit in perpetual blue.

Then, in her usual imposing way, Vera turned to me and said, Mama doesn’t know how to live without anger in her lungs, it’s connected to her heart; don’t you dare take it away.

We were seventeen, and I’d never been angry with her before. First she pretended not to notice, and I pretended like my stomach wasn’t snaking up to my throat. Then I left her upstairs and came home early. Papa was awake and watching the news. A woman had been murdered in her Delhi apartment. A politician had been arrested. They’d been lovers, a policeman said, and I thought I could hear his tongue clicking the roof of his mouth.

Where’s your sister? Papa asked.

Busy, I said.

Doing what?

Thinking about how I’m trying to kill Mama.

Are you?

Vera likes to say that this was the day I became our mother. Papa didn’t tell Mama about this conversation, and I didn’t tell Vera. I would have liked to ask her what it meant that Papa’s response to her accusation — I was sure that was what she had implied — was as calm as daybreak, as though he’d been thinking of killing Mama himself, just the other day. But I was angry.

**

Mama died nearly two years after that Saturday night on the terrace with Vera and the conversation with Papa. By then Papa’s question had settled down in my head like a dull throb in my calves that I remembered every time I moved.

It had been three weeks since Vera had gone to Bombay. We were nineteen. Papa was home even though it was a Friday, and I had gone out to go buy a pack of Marlboro Lights — Always buy Lights, Vera had said, they are the only ones that really fill you up. In the story Vera knows, I came home to find Papa sobbing next to Mama. She had been standing on a ladder cleaning the fan with a wet cloth when she fell and then had a heart attack. I often imagine that Mama thought of Vera even as she fell. Or she thought of Vera and then fell.

In her first email soon after she moved, Vera had said she’s always been the sweater that undoes itself. I suspect she was high. I told Mama, who shook her head and said that I was the sweater — Vera was the hand that pulled one string and undid me. Don’t reply, she told me. I didn’t. Mama was happy.

I didn’t leave my room for two weeks. I began emails to Vera and discarded the drafts. I sat at my table and ashed the Lights on the floor. I slept and dreamt of panic attacks. I woke up scared because they seemed as bad as when they were real.

On Saturday, two weeks after Vera left, I sat on the terrace and thought I could hear our song about Regal. I wrote Vera an email about Regal in perpetual blue. I didn’t tell Mama until a day before she died. She locked me in my room and screamed, don’t you care about somebody, anybody, something, other than yourself?

When Mama died, Vera didn’t come to her funeral. I had expected her to — I just got here, she wrote, and I don’t have the money. So I didn’t tell her that when I came home, Papa had really been sitting next to Mama on the floor, staring, his nose crinkled like used and discarded origami paper, muttering, thank god for heart attacks, thank god for the ladder, thank god for the fall.

**

I wrote to Vera on Thursday.

First I sat at my table thinking about how it used to be our table. Then I stood up and pushed my chair back — it used to be our chair too — then I walked around the room. I looked into my coffee glass — mine, not ours — there was nothing left. I re-read Vera’s emails. I thought about how much I hated Ashok, from the tips of my hair to my toes.

Should I tell Vera I’d forgotten to put the rice to cook for dinner on Wednesday? I wouldn’t. But it was her fault. Even the clothes had got wet in the rain twice.

Dearest Vera, I’m sorry for what I said, I started to write — I didn’t mean it, but you can’t disappear on us, V. It’s Thursday now, where have you been? Papa is unhappy, and I haven’t told him that you’ve disappeared on us again; I’m hoping you’ll come around and drop me a line, even if it is to just say you’re alright, around, alive.

I deleted the first line. It’s Thursday now, where have you been, I started. You can’t disappear on us Vera, it’s unacceptable. At least send me a line saying you’re alive. I’m telling Papa if you don’t.

I read Vera’s emails again before I hit send.

In her last email, she had told me a story. It was the Sunday before the week of the missed email. It’s about Ashok’s sister, she wrote, but have you stopped groaning every time I mention his name, in that rumble that rushes up your throat and through your teeth? The last time I heard it I thought it was Papa, but he was out to buy milk — you groan just like him, it’s the same rumble that terrified me when I was five, a bit like a train — I heard it and knew you couldn’t leave Mama and Papa even if you wanted to. But I could, and only you would always remember me.

Then, in her usual flitting way, Vera went back to telling me about Ashok’s sister. Anyway, she was a sweet girl, Vera wrote. She was so sweet (like apples, Ashok said, but he was high), that the moral of the story is to never be like her. This is how they’ve said it to every child born in their family — Don’t be like Ana, and if you must, then don’t return. You’ll fall in love, they say, just like her, and you’ll stop buying milk because you’re trying to save money for marriage. This is the first sign. Everything that follows is a blur — your lover asks you to run away with him, you do, he steals your money (including every last rupee you’ve saved by telling everyone you’ve developed lactose intolerance), and vanishes.

Then you’ll disappear after him (you love him after all) and for four months visitors will come home to tell your father they believe they saw you on the road near Tank Bund, until your brother disappears too, and now people murmur about drugs. If you’re too sweet, they say, like an apple, you will get eaten.

There’s a saying in our family, I wrote back. Don’t ever leave home, or someone will die. Vera, you are the reason Mama died.

**

Vera didn’t reply. She didn’t email next Sunday either.

Papa, I said on Sunday afternoon. He was reading the newspaper. Papa, I need to go to Bombay.

To Bombay?

Vera hasn’t emailed. If I was Mama I would have left for Bombay the night she didn’t email, but I’m not Mama, and I didn’t. It’s been two weeks. She’s always mailed every Sunday morning, even if she’s high and sitting with Ashok feeling stars in her eyes. I went too far this time, Papa, I told Vera she killed Mama.

He watched me. He put his newspaper down. But wait, he said, who is Vera?

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.