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.

Paper boats

It’s raining outside. I’m in my room, I can hear the rain, but the blinds are drawn across my windows, and so I cannot see it. My room is only dimly lit; I’m sitting on my bed, wondering when I’ll begin to write. I know that outside the roads will be packed, signal lights will turn a blinking green, but nothing will move. There will be wet roads, the light from street lamps flickering off; people will enter Madurai Idly to stay dry, but the rain and crowd will make them feel wet anyway.

She said she was travelling alone these holidays. She was excited and I was too, for her, and in some odd way, for myself. She would travel alone, and it would be all that travelling alone could be. There would be new people to meet, new conversations, roads that seemed different when you walked alone, and there would be writing. I was excited because I knew she would write, and what she wrote, I hoped to read. She would be alone—I didn’t know if I could be alone, but I needed to try. He said I wasn’t her and I wouldn’t manage, but she said I wasn’t to listen to him.

At home in Hyderabad, there is a small room attached to mine. It has a large glass window that I keep open during the day; you can see the Golconda Fort from there. Appa had visited the fort with a friend once, and he had stood on top and waved. I used my binoculars and looked from this window; I had seen something move, it had to be him.

But that room is my favourite. I have stuck large papers on its walls and painted them. There is a small table there, on it are large pillows that I have covered with pieces of cloth Amma would sometimes use, and I would play with. On these pillows are more paintings, sketches—of Shimla, of people, of just colours that my palette made for me. Next to it is my easel, it is dusty now. There’s a small stool that I have left my paints on, the tubes used, the turpentine now green and half-finished, some paint brushes too hard to be used again.

On the pillows I have kept all my postcards too. They are mostly from Appa’s student, not all of them say much, but they have photographs of places I have never been to. I don’t know why, but he would send them to Appa to give to me, and I have kept them. They were signed, “Best, Sam”, and when I was younger, I couldn’t remember him. Not his voice, his face, Sam to me was the sender of postcards of places I wanted to see. Crowded beaches, empty roads, large, old buildings, all places I now want to visit alone. Because travelling alone feels like completing a book that has taken forever to read—not because it’s bad, but because it has so much to say. Sometimes you’ll finish, other times you won’t. Sometimes you tell yourself you’ll return to it later, but when you do finish, you’ll feel like a paper boat.

I’m scared he’s going to be right, though. I’m not going to be a paper boat. She, her words, they might be my paper boat.

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.

Turn Right

He said he took a bus to Pondicherry. He woke up one morning and decided he wanted to travel, and with a change of clothes, he left. There was no packing, no finding a place to stay, just an unplanned decision that he never thought through. He didn’t feel the need to.

I sat on the floor of my room as I read his messages. I looked at my table, books arranged haphazardly, half-finished or still waiting to be read. I looked at my bed, its blue cover thrown on hastily, and my bag lying abandoned in a corner. It was all too familiar—the same wooden table I never sat at, the same large bed I slept on comfortably each day. Outside, the same dining table the three of us sat at for dinner, the curtains closed on a perpetually open window.

Sitting there, I didn’t want to know them. Not the bed, not the table, not the same flying curtains. I wanted to wake up in a different place, to step outside a door and not know what I saw before me. Perhaps the same cars rushed across the roads, perhaps the shops sold similar supplies. But they were not those that I saw every day. I would get lost walking; I would turn onto the wrong roads. I believed I would meet new people and find that I’m not so bad at making conversation. There would be uncertainty, and I would manage. But perhaps it’s the idea that I’m in love with, of travelling on my own and expecting that it’ll change me.

He spent all his money and hitchhiked back home, he said he gave the truck driver half a bottle of whiskey. I don’t know if it changed him, but I’d like to believe it did.

I stood up, stretched, and left.