Waiting

I watch him crouch on his feet in a way that I cannot; I crouch on just my toes, and he on his feet. I see him sitting, a monkey on his shoulder—bandar, he says—and I am sure he has dressed the same way for days, and does not remember. He unties his three monkeys at night, I imagine, unafraid that they will disappear. He is smiling now, holding his drum.

I hear his drum.

At six—that is how old I think he is—Appa would read Monkey’s Drum to me every Sunday. The sound I hear now is the sound he made then, hitting hand on a table in a rhythm I could never copy. But at six, the sound he hears is of people walking away—his drums make no sound, even though his hands are moving. The pointed sound of heels on an uneven road, the drag of rubber chappals that she loves to wear to college, the firm, formal tap of black shoes that need polishing take over.

I am sitting on the sidewalk, watching the waves in Bandra. He is looking towards the ice cream cart that a man is pushing slowly, walking towards the old woman sitting with two children. I wonder if I should buy the boy an ice cream, but I don’t know how to call him to me or what to say, so I let him be. For a moment, I wonder if the monkeys will interfere. As the man comes to stop before them the children ask the old woman for ice cream—orange flavour, they say. I remember the two of us, standing in a shop trying to pick chocolates, picking the same so that we didn’t have to share.

The old woman obliges easily, pulling out from her blouse a little change—she has enough for one, so they will have to share. If they mind it they do not show it, and I decide that next time I call home, I will ask about Dodda. The image I have of her is of the times she is standing before the mirror that I see her through. Her hand is outstretched unsteadily, the tips of her fingers touching those of a version of herself that she does not know she has become. Her hair greys faster than she realises; on days that she does, she calls me to her room and hands me a brush—next to her is black dye in a bowl that she has used for the same purpose all her life. She will insist on standing as I apply it to the back of her hair, complaining of the maid who did not come again, of the food she longs to make, but never of her feet which I know hurt her because of groans that travel through walls of paper at night. I will always nod, say little, but say that I understand, apply the colour, and leave. Next time, I will talk to Dodda.

The child has crouched down again. He is sitting on the ground next to one of those chairs that remind me of the parks back at home—and of the man who left stones on one of them to count the number of rounds he had walked. I wonder about the stories the boy was told, and about the stories he makes—do his monkeys appear in them?—or whether he makes stories at all. I wish I was the woman who walked up to people and talked to them, asking them questions out of curiosity, like a person looking for stories that are not their own.

I remember the man I met at a writing workshop with whom I exchanged a memory and played Bingo. I make his memory my own. He knows his grandfather by the stories he is told, his picture taken from photographs that are in black and white. There is the grey city that he sees in colour, but from inside the house his father is calling, telling him of the pond his grandfather’s genie lived by. He is sitting by the pond and feeding the fish again, there is the story of Aladdin, and there are the stories he now makes.

By the pond he knows his grandfather as the one who saved them. His grandfather’s walks, his favourite fish—later stories are additions to the one he has always known—that they were left alone by that genie his grandfather banished. Now, sitting at a table at 23, he writes fantasy fiction. The pond is outside.

The boy turns to look at the waves, wondering if he can get any closer. But his monkeys do not like the water, so he will sit where he is and stare from the distance. There is a man selling Marathi newspapers but the boy doesn’t look at him. He stands up again, throwing one last glance at the ice cream seller’s cart. His monkeys begin to walk away, and he walks with them.

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Parisian Café

The café is at the corner where three roads meet. It appears where you do not expect it because there are only houses, and too much silence. People passing by in vehicles look confused, looking for places they must be in, because they saw themselves there earlier that morning. A woman looks down from her balcony; her bright pink blouse disappears as she bends until only her head is seen. When will he come home? I must tell him to buy sugar. She is sweeping away leaves from trees whose tops she can almost see. Her hair is oiled and neatly tied, not because it is too hot—I must watch last night’s CID episode—but because she has always worn her hair this way. She rushes inside a moment later as though remembering that she has left the milk to boil.

Outside this house—is it hers?—is a man ironing clothes, a spot carefully chosen years ago when he first arrived there. The iron box looks heavy but he does not realise it, I do not remember the time when it did—he spreads a t-shirt, runs the iron along it twice, folding it on the same creases that he had made the last time. There are more clothes to be ironed, he is always bringing more in when I think I can rest. “Ivatte beku”, he says—everybody always wants it today. The white bed sheet I am ironing is too large for my cart; I will fold it in two and begin ironing it again. Fold left sleeve first, right sleeve second, bottom upwards, and he turns it over, adding it to the pile that he began making this morning. The bottle of water that is always next to me is not there. The woman with bright red lipstick sitting in the shop opposite has just bought water; she is opening it slowly as though the cold is too much for the hand she holds it in. A man joins him, spreading out a pair of formal grey pants that he assumes its owner had worn for her last meeting. He sprinkles water from a little bowl—where is the boy who sells tea? I cannot find my water, I need something to drink. There is a woman looking at me curiously, unashamedly, for long enough to make me wonder what she is doing—I have never seen her here.

The houses on these roads have balconies made to be looked out of, standing closest to railings that for an instant you wish were not there. Look down and there are the tops of trees that you are so used to seeing from below; you do not see the trunk, but the leaves that are not yet browning in the sun. If I know you, you will wonder how. There is the man pacing before the house opposite, from the watchman’s room with the Jesus calendar, to the fancy bike that you think is ugly. Will she come out? She must come out; should I call her? At least listen to me, na? He is always there, waiting—how long will I have to wait?—and when he leaves there is the drawing open of a curtain; like the secrets you know you must keep, but you know you will tell. The watchman is looking at him walk away—I must ask somebody why he is always here—as he sets right his stool in the sight of Jesus’ March face; I have to water the plants, this is the problem with having plants. But it smells of rain, maybe I should wait. The boy selling tea will call for customers in a tone you can never copy. Look towards your right, there is a woman sitting under a tree looking like she belongs there, legs crossed, cigarette in hand, fitting the image that you have always had in your head, of the woman who is growing happy with being herself. I will have cream of mushroom soup today. It is always nice to write.

There is a woman walking quickly up the road. Her loose black pants are flying behind her, looking like the cloaks from fantasy books that you have always imagined wearing. I’m late. I hate being late. It’s all Amma’s fault, I told her to wake me up. She says she did, but I didn’t hear her—that’s her fault only, no?—if I didn’t hear, how will I wake up? For an instant you hope she is there to be alone; the four women at two tables are writing. She stops and lights a cigarette, holding it in her left hand more steadily than anyone you have ever seen. I don’t like looking like I’m in a hurry; my hair goes all over the place. When I told Neha that, she said “Don’t be such a ladki ya,”—but I am a ladki, so what is she saying? Everybody is staring—they haven’t seen someone run on the road, kya? Kameena, that man must be the late type all the time. She sits down at the third table; dropping her bag on the chair opposite. She stands up. She sits down again—I’ll order a brownie? I wouldn’t mind some coffee. From inside the café the man who takes orders peeps outside—all these people, only sit without buying anything—before sitting on the table near the cashier resignedly. The four women at two tables are still writing, why is she looking at me like that? A man in a blue shirt walks up to the waiting woman at table three and smiles.