Airport

We’re listening to the story of Puchki and Malli here at the Kolkata airport. Papa is so thrilled with the story that he’s laughing loudly and everyone has turned to stare at him. He doesn’t usually laugh for very long or that loudly; it takes a string of half-funny statements to even nudge him out of his thoughts of the papers he has to correct, the food he has to cook, and the milk he has to buy. It’s pouring outside, but Papa is laughing so much that he hasn’t seen the rain.

Can you imagine two researchers fighting because their dogs didn’t like each other, he says, before falling back into his chair still laughing. I mean two researchers.

There’s a man standing at the idli.com outlet waiting for food. He’s tall, in a purple shirt and cream shorts that come up to his knees, and his arms are crossed high on his chest. He looks serious, as though he’s listening to voices that are telling him about stocks crashing, which company to invest in if he doesn’t want to lose all his money, and that his wife has filed for a divorce, all at the same time.

Two little girls with straight hair and sleepy eyes are running around his legs. They’re smiling, laughing loudly, louder – their palms momentarily grab at their father’s shorts to steady themselves – they’re running again – they come close to tripping over each other’s feet – they’re laughing at the hair in their faces, the hair flying—

–their father’s hand comes down across both their cheeks quickly, one after the other. The younger girl looks too angry to cry. When their father’s softer hands pull them to him, the girls pull away and stand straight in front of him.

You remember Puchki? Papa asks me.

Puchki is Papa’s colleague’s beautiful proud dog with large muddy eyes and folded golden ears. She walks as though she is gliding on the very tips of her paws because she doesn’t want them to get dirty. When she sits, she stretches her back legs out slowly as if she is a tadpole, and before she falls asleep, she places her head delicately on her crossed front legs and sighs into her paws. Then she will not open her eyes for anybody until she is well rested and wants biscuits and water.

I imagine Malli as a big black dog with a white patch around his left eye, and a tail thick enough to knock over a row of five full wine glasses. He walks unthinkingly, as though his swaying, staggering stomach is enough to part people and push aside tables, chairs, cups of chai, and everything else in his way. He lives with Nalima who I have always seen dressed in blue at Papa’s university, and she drinks green tea with sugar. Papa says she works on the sociology of law, and has always demanded that every email she receives must also be sent to Malli, or with love to Malli, depending how well the sender knows him, and how much he likes the sender.

There is a family sitting on the row of chairs near Gate 28. Theirs is a large family; here is a woman young enough to be in college, three girls in frocks with sequins near their knees; two boys in denim shorts with their hair slicked back in oil, three men reading the same Hindi newspapers, and two women in flowered kurtas, one red and the other blue—

-Usko kya malum hoga, Kathmandu airport mein? Maasi akeli nahi ja sakti, bas bol diya maine —the man is in a white shirt buttoned at his wrists, and in khaki pants and brown sandals that my aunt calls sensible shoes, with his heels sticking out behind them.

Arre, she’s come with us on flights so many times, unko pata hoga – baccha, usko chips mat khilao, woh potato nahi khati — the woman reaches out to behind the man’s newspaper and gives the chips back to the boy who has sat down on the floor at their feet.

This one time, Malli ate all the chips.

When Nalima went to Shimla on a fellowship to finish her book, Malli went with her. He always went everywhere, but Papa says that everyone in the university knows her as the woman who took her dog to Shimla. I didn’t find it so surprising after all her email expectations, but Papa thinks it’s ridiculous. In Shimla, the small shop that sold chai and garam jalebis had to make space for Malli with a little red cushion inside. He always pushed over the small stools when he walked through, and everyone else would stare at Nalima in her blue kurta, drinking chai with her big black dog. But she would give him so many jalebis as she sipped her chai that the owner of the little shop would let them be. It was good business.

The day that Malli ate all the chips, there was a party at Nalima’s friend’s house. Everyone was invited except Malli, and now Nalima had very angrily refused to come. There was wine and pineapple, with chips and jalebis from the little shop, and yellow fairy lights that hung from trees. When a few guests got together and coaxed Nalima out of her house, she was asked to just please tie Malli at the door. It’s not a very long story after this—Malli wasn’t tied. He ran into the house, jumped on unsuspecting guests sitting down with wine, overturned the table with food, and then ate all the chips.

 -Chew karo acche se, the youngest woman says to the boy on the floor. She has bent down to pick up his packet of chips; he watches her as though he expects her to take it away, potato khati! he shrieks, and the woman stares at him for a second before she drops the packet back at his feet.

A man is standing at the glass that overlooks the tarmac, taking a selfie with the flights that are waiting just beyond. The man isn’t smiling; he is staring into his phone as though it will tell him which hand to hold it in and where to hold it for the best photograph. He doesn’t look sad, or serious, or comfortable. He looks as though he wants to say to himself that he was there – at the airport in Kolkata on a Friday afternoon – when he lies down on a single mattress in his one bedroom apartment, remembering his night at Hotel Avisha in Kestopur.

-You’re doing a fraud on me you bastard! Two chairs on my right, this man’s nose is slowly turning red and his knees are striking each other in quick knocks of anger.

There is momentary silence. On the muted television there’s a red headline blaring like a siren – Dilli ki kaathil chaachi.

Puchki was terribly angry on the day she met Malli in Shimla and growled at him every time he came too close. Nalima was upset. Papa’s colleague, who was at Shimla for the same fellowship, said that it was perhaps just the journey from Hyderabad that had tired her. It wasn’t. Puchki didn’t like Malli.

It was as though Puchki could smell the stories off Malli, and knew that at every dinner, Malli had to have a space on the table. Papa is certain that Puchki also knew of the time Nalima had demanded that Malli be allowed to attend the screenings of a film club organised by the fellows – he’ll understand more of the films than we ever will, she had said. When nobody agreed, both Malli and Nalima had boycotted the film screenings and watched their own movies at home.

But the day that Puchki was the angriest, was when Malli, like all the other dogs in Shimla, tried to get her pregnant. Papa’s colleague said she had stopped to talk to Nalima outside the library when she had taken Puchki for a walk. She was surprised to see that Malli wasn’t around, but of course she didn’t ask because he was such a touchy topic. Nalima was telling her about Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book, The Laws of Medicine, and Papa’s colleague said she was nodding intently, saying haan, wohi toh, and commenting on the need for interdisciplinary studies, when quickly and suddenly, Puchki pulled at her leash and snarled.

Yes, interdisciplinarity, exactly, Nalima was saying.

Papa’s colleague said it was as though her back snapped and she turned to see Puchki crouched and growling at Malli.

Maasi akeli nahi jaaegi – unka Kathmandu jaana zaroori hai – not alone

Can you take Malli away, Papa’s colleague shouted.

The book is just so brilliant, because doctors otherwise never say they don’t know something, Nalima was saying.

-toh kya tum chhutti leke jaaoge Kathmandu unke saath? a third woman has asked. The man looks up from his newspaper for the first time. The women are watching each other.

-Arre, chew karke khao apne chips.

Nalima, make Malli stop, Papa’s colleague said she shouted again, pulling at Puchki’s leash.

It’s so honest. It’s really refreshing to see honesty in the sciences, Nalima was saying.

Ami eta thika karara—you’re doing a fraud, you bastard! This time nobody stops talking. The red has spread from his nose to his cheeks.

You really need to take your dog out on a leash, Nalima, Papa’s colleague screeched.

Chutti? I can’t take another holiday; you want me to get fired or what? the man is asking slowly.

-Jo karna hai karlo. She needs to go to Kathmandu.

The women get up and walk towards the washroom, the sides of their hands brushing against each other. Perhaps their maasi is like my father’s maasi, with grey hair reaching to the bottom of her blouse, who never travelled anywhere without her husband until suddenly he has died.

Papa’s colleague says Nalima hasn’t spoken to her since.

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In memory

I have not written in a while. I have reached some place where words do not rush out like they used to; falling over themselves like all the times I did at school. They ran fast, those words, rushing forward like people at bus stops who want at that moment, nothing more than one of the three empty seats in the bus that has just arrived. Once there, they would subside into themselves, folding like brightly coloured origami paper along creases she had come to make for herself. Like this woman, those words would sit there—sometimes uncomfortably—momentarily forgotten to those but herself among the more unwieldy ones. But these words came, and now they do not.

When she asks me why I have not written, I don’t know what to say. I mumble something about time, about trying, but in all this while, I haven’t. It is becoming easier to tell myself that I have indeed tried, I have said this so many times that it seems true. This place has only words spoken but they do not do much, they are always too few or too many. The words I want come to me through writing that belongs to others—there has been so much of this lately, but it hasn’t been enough to bring me words of my own. I sit on the corner of my bed, re-reading old blog posts and stories, seeing no more than how much has changed. At seventeen, there was the girl who was nervously discovering words again. At eighteen and nineteen, she was using them because they made her happy.

Now, I remember that woman clearly, but cannot find her. I am sitting on the floor in the balcony this evening with a newly opened document, hoping that some words will come for her, and for me.

Them

She is sitting in the hall. There is a lot she has to write because she does not know when she will have to stop. She has told herself to forget about that day; that when the day comes, there will be no more time to feel. She can hear the crackers they’re bursting downstairs; she does not know why she stayed at home this year. She used to go down every Diwali, listening to fathers laugh at their young sons who did not like the sound, watching the women pass crackers on to their husbands. She always returned upstairs the earliest. It is loud outside, and she does not like that she cannot leave the door open at night. The carefully placed pillow in the small of her back does not seem right anymore; she is sitting on her feet, pressed into the stiff pillow below her. She cannot feel them.

Her copy of On Beauty sits next to her. It is open on the last page; Zadie Smith is unsmiling. She raises her hand to her head, running a finger across the cloth where her hair would have been. Zadie Smith smiles faintly, raising her finger to her own red cloth that covers her hair. She sets down her pen between the thick pages of her banana fibre notebook, and Zadie Smith stops smiling. Her lips are drawn across in a line; her eyes are small and staring.

Zadie Smith sat in a corner when she wrote—she liked the angle made by two walls that felt hard against her shoulders. She would sit on a large pillow, with a blue pillow cover that she did not like, but would not change. She would stretch her legs before her but only her heels would touch the cold floor. They would come to rest within a single square tile; her heels cooled her feet before the rest of her. She would not look up when she wrote. She would pause when she took a sip of her coffee, holding her cup between both hands, noticing each time that her finger tips did not reach each other. She wiped her sweaty palms on the loose cotton pants she wore, before running them through her hair. Realising that her feet were now cold, she pulled them back, pressing them into the pillow she sat on. Then she would write again, her fingers lightly touching keys she did not have to look at. Outside, there would be something happening.

She set down her feet as the bell rang. The pen between the pages of her book had fallen to the floor, one side of the letter she was writing touched the other. Zadie Smith looked up at her, pausing the story in her head that was ready, just like she wrote them. She had stopped mid-sentence. She stood up and went slowly to the door and let them in. Picking up On Beauty and her banana fibre notebook, she went to her room again. Zadie Smith continued.

White.

His hair is more grey than black now,

Wisps of grey cotton candy she dropped from her hand.

Hers would have been

Brown weeds of dark chocolate, 86%.

Five-thirty, he would have come home,

She had bought him his black office bag seven years ago.

Now on year ten, its strap is torn like the bottom of those kurtas he still fits into.

A gas cylinder undelivered, a leaking kitchen tap,

She waits, but his hand has stretched to turn on the television

–Why do you make the pasta so soggy–

She is by now already in their room, reading.

The question hangs on an invisible hook, a coat temporarily unused,

Unanswered, and staying.

Sunday morning, the mixed smell of coffee and payasam,

They sat together, him talking,

“But,” she would say softly, and he would stop to listen.

Him, quieter now, they would discuss her writing.

There is something of their old scooter rides around Bangalore,

Days now seen mistily in black and white,

Like that slowly smudging photograph of their backs, sharing lunch on a hill in Goa.

And there are still yellow rubber gloves in her full cupboard,

Stained brown from the last mixed dye.

But his hair is no longer black,

And now he cooks for the two of us.

Two

We,

Sat across,

He straight, on the edge of his chair,

I, staring curiously.

He didn’t look at me; there was that old face,

Years had changed enough, and I couldn’t recognise him anymore.

I sat,

Waiting for him to speak,

Thinking recognition would come then.

Picking up speed,

A train pulled out of the station.

He spoke,

Quicker, longer, faster,

Shooting finished sentences

Bullet points in his head he had to complete

Like he had been taught to do when he debated,

To show that he knew.

A girl in red, drew on the hand of a boy in green,

Butterflies with a red sketch pen.

Somebody’s birthday or wedding,

I cannot remember now.

But the boy in green had played Uno with them,

And he had let her draw butterflies on his hand,

So she was happy.

The train moved quickly, purposefully,

He talked, of the places he had seen, the people he had met,

The pubs he had been to,

but he did not drink.

Clipped words, and straighter back.

He said he taught sixteen-year-olds now, but they weren’t interesting,

They thought of different things,

Not like he had done then.

“The education system has to change”, he said.

The boy in green dropped juice on himself,

But he was talking about football, and did not notice.

Now, he sat up straight,

Uttering words so perfectly rounded,

That they conveyed almost nothing,

And who he was,

I could not tell.

Past twelve

Lie there.

It’s comfortable, you’re still, there’s a pillow next to you,

and another under your head.

Above, the fan turns, slow, slowly,

You make it fast, faster,

Slowly, slower. Slow.

There is no light, just that thin strip from under your door,

Lights don’t matter to you when you sleep—just tonight, they do,

because they do for others, and you’re another.

Thin strip of light, not enough to see; the fan isn’t three blades,

it’s a sound.

Louder, faster. Quieter, slower.

Your eyes are open,

On your right are mirrors you cannot see,

She stands in front of them when she comes, moves back and forth on her feet, stretches what she wears,

and says, she’s beautiful.

On your left, a window with blinds drawn.

She makes you draw them every night,

people could be watching. Who people, what people?

There is just the empty road somewhere below.

A man yells after too many drinks, his friend laughs and says shh,

You think he’s standing, and the louder he is sitting on steps.

But she sits at the dining table outside your door, at her feet, a dog asleep

and she will tell you to draw the blinds.

You’re writing, reading, but you will pause, and draw them.

Above, before you the small book case,

But you want more, bigger, like those you have at home,

and the one you’ve imagined because you want another.

These too you do not see, you only know because you have seen.

Your watch is in the drawer, you thought it was on your hand.

It’s working, hands move,

but you haven’t seen its scratched dial in a while.

Of him, of her, of them, you have drawings,

Sketches pinned among photographs that hang from a nail.

The light goes out from under the door.

I wonder if you ever saw me writing

Appa would take me to his classes when I was younger since  it turns out I could be easily entertained just like the ease with which I told everybody who asked that my favourite food was “chiten and fish” and so he would pull up a desk to the blackboard that I wasn’t tall enough to reach yet and then before his classes began he’d give me a piece of chalk and let me draw on the board as he taught for another hour and I would sit there rather happily surrounded by faces I didn’t know and words I didn’t understand realising only now that if I had been a distraction Appa’s students never showed it before remembering that I was like the little boy in the auto with me yesterday who sat in front with his father because he had no school

I pause, I cannot remember how the child got there; but I am trying to do what he wants us to do—free association. He said, “College desks”, and I wrote about Appa. For a moment I wonder if I have made up the entire memory, or filled in holes that grew as I got older in something I only half remembered. It was a Friday, I was scribbling into my book hoping he wouldn’t ask me to read out what I had written. Writing and remembering were happening together, I wasn’t writing to keep something alive. Perhaps I was making something available, tangible. But for once I did not stop too long, I dived, and didn’t worry if I couldn’t hold my breath till the next time we were allowed to come for air. It was like realising you’re talking to yourself without feeling the need to stop, or wonder if someone was watching; it was freeing because I wasn’t looking to say something perfect and beautiful.

I wonder about the boy’s mother, and why he couldn’t go home instead of spending the day driving around the city with his father. His father, who took people where they wanted to go, not always in a direction that he could control. I wondered if the number of customers he got that day were fewer than he normally did, or if his son demanded that they stop for lunch, or a break, or made conversation as he drove. I thought of Amma because I missed her; the auto driver and his son were also like Amma and I when we returned home from music classes. It felt strange that she never read these things I wrote. Yes, Appa read them, of course he read them, but it would have been nice if Amma saw them too. I don’t know if Amma ever saw me writing in her head—the last time she saw me I had wanted to go to design school because I liked to draw.

I had started to use full stops; there was always an urge to add a comma, hoping to make the mass of text in front of me understandable because I needed it to be understood. I didn’t know where this was going or coming from, but I was talking about Amma. She left me some letters—a few years ago I wouldn’t tell anyone this—and in one she reminded me of the time I sat in her room counting how old I would be in 2014. It’s 2014 now, I’m 19 years old, and everything in that room is still the same—the large bed, and the windows almost always open. There is only a new bookshelf that Appa and I bought because there were piles of books in my room that needed to be kept somewhere. Back then 2014 seemed like a year when cars would fly and all the science fiction short stories I read would come true.

I remember this day only vaguely, Amma lying down on her bed, and I sitting on the floor, using my fingers to calculate my age. I still use my fingers to count occasionally, but we’ll keep that to ourselves. Perhaps I should’ve joined one of those mental math and abacus classes that everyone around me was going for. But I was too busy drawing or reading, or just running around and cycling. I was always terrible at math and at 15, I refused to study it anymore. I don’t regret it. But what I wanted to say was that Amma thought she would completely miss out on the age when I was all grown up and a teenager, and wondered if I’d still want to go to design school. She passed away a little while after that day; I was 12, and now I’m 19. I did try to join design school, Amma. But I think I wanted to do literature more, and now here I am, writing.

She wrote well, like her parents. I like reading what she had to say, I wonder why she never thought of writing. I wonder how she chose what she wanted to do, how she decided it was this, and not that which made her happy. But she wrote for me, for Appa, and what she wrote showed me what she felt, things my twelve-year-old self couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. Sometimes I worry that I write for everybody but myself—Appa’s approval, Amma and her parents because they were writers, another like on my blog, because I love the ideas and images associated with being a writer. But then I also write because it makes me happy to see words running across a screen. Just as they land they’ll run faster and then they’ll halt, almost suddenly still.

Over coffee

Today we sat

On uncomfortable chairs

And made conversation.

In my head I made a list

Bullet points

Of the things I had not done.

He looked the same,

Sounded the same,

A year-and-a-half later

I was bad at keeping in touch, but he said he understood.

We talked,

an hour passed,

He caught up with my life,

And I his.

A list completed,

It only took an hour,

And I liked that I didn’t remember not knowing.

I said I wrote, he said nothing.

In my head I said I wrote,

Again. And again.

Still, he said nothing;

Of all the things I needed him to know,

This was the most important.

He said I seemed happy,

He needed to know it was because I was writing.

Aloud, I made a list again.

Of the things I wanted to do,

the places I wanted to go.

Of books I needed to read,

and old books I needed to re-read,

Of music.

In my head I left the list

of stories I wanted to write.

I whispered, I write.

He did not hear,

and we talked about school.

Then

I remember the green. There was only a little bit of it there in the centre and everything else was white. A bright white, a clean white, a colour once noticed but now fading. I remember the green in the midst of all the white, the long corridor, and then the trees.

At the end of the corridor was the chemistry laboratory, I could smell it from where I was sitting, in my room in another city. I could hear the test tube break; see the flame on the burner light up in an instant. But in the next moment there was none of this, no laboratory, no smell, just the green trees. Their leaves were an artificial green, too bright, a darker green, deep, a yellowing green, a muddy green. A green that looked cleaner in all the whiteness, leaves after the rain and leaves just grown. There was the corridor, the white corridor, there were the arches, but there were no doors. The laboratory wasn’t in the photograph; I just knew it was there, a physical room. Just like the people who always filled that corridor, but weren’t in the picture. The picture that she took without me.

The arches were huge, on one side they looked down on those plants in the ground floor next to the piece of wood that looked like a peacock. The arches on my right looked down on the terrace below; when I was there we called it the one-and-a-half floor. Mezzanine was too big a word for us. We’d play football there, we’d run. We’d hide behind pillars; we’d look down at the basketball court on every morning we arrived early.

And from those arches, we’d jump. I remember no worry, no fear of falling, no thinking. We’d be running, somebody would be chasing us, we’d climb through the arches, and we’d jump. Our hands would be above us; we’d stretch, hit the floor, and run again. I see the photograph, and I see us jumping. I see us rushing on in every direction, scattering, running away from each other, running towards each other. Like ants, when you drop something amongst them by mistake.

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I worry that I cannot remember the green. I wasn’t with her when she took the picture; I was in another city when she walked through the corridor again that day. I haven’t walked through there for a while now and I must remember the green in the midst of all that white.

There’s that book I kept, with all our photographs. Of that excursion to Kaigal, when he showed us snakes, and when he jumped off a rock somewhere so far above us into the water below. The same he, who kept in touch with me for years until something shifted. Those pictures of our last day, those pictures of us taking pictures, photographs we insisted on taking because something had ended, and something else would soon begin. That book, with pictures we didn’t know had been taken of us—on the rocks above the stage, the three of us hiding behind a tree,  that puppet show in which I was a goat, our class photographs we all claimed we didn’t dress up for when we actually did.

I looked, I remembered, but I couldn’t find the green.

It’s been a while since I last spoke to her. We haven’t seen each other for three years now; I know she looks the same because I’ve seen photographs. I don’t know the people around her; sometimes I don’t think I remember what she sounds like. We don’t write, we don’t talk, and everything is suddenly so unlike the days we jumped off those arches together. She would call every evening—she’d talk, and I’d listen. And then there would be silence—I’d continue to do what I was doing—reading, writing, studying, and she’d stay silent. I never knew what she did in those moments, but she must have done something. When we meet again, I don’t know what we’ll talk about.

But she took the photograph, and she knows the exact green. I wish for a moment that I had been with her, that I had seen what she had seen, and I had taken the picture she had taken. I cannot ask her, too much time has passed; but she was there, and I wasn’t.

For a moment I decide. I need to know the green, and I will ask her. She will not describe it; she will not tell me what it felt like, she will not say that she remembers our conversations. In a moment of complete calmness I decide on a simple “Hey, it’s been a while”, message. I know I must not expect too much, I’m thinking of myself, but I need to know the green. For those times I jumped, those times I sat in class, those exams I wrote, the teachers who knew me and urged me to write.

I see her profile picture. I see my green. The message goes unsent; I will wait till the next time we meet. The white is more grey here, the green stands out less. I notice the squares on the grey floor, the grey shadows on the walls I knew as white. The green leaves are too blurred to notice.

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.