A Celebration

Toby discovers that he loves tic tacs. He first found a small red box in Dina’s purse on his seventh birthday, and it was filled with little white beads that rattled when he shook it. Dina was sitting on the floor in the corner of his living room, crying into a crumpled piece of tissue. Her favourite “male friend” had moved to Afghanistan with a woman named Marie and left her nothing but a used Post-It as a replacement for an explanation. He wants everyone to pay attention to him again. They seem to have forgotten that it’s his birthday. When they smile too widely and show all their teeth, he knows that their forced joy means that they would rather he go and play alone in his room. When they cuddle him and give him kisses and tickle his tummy, he knows that he isn’t an accessory in a stilted conversation, but that he is wanted, even if just for five minutes. 

When he holds the box of tic tacs in his palm, he is surprised by how light it is. The noises that it produces are far louder than its weightage. Mama doesn’t like it when he eats sweets without her permission, so he holds it carefully and tucks it into the pocket of his cargo shorts. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, she’s distracted. She hands Dina a glass of something red, a drink he sneakily tried once but didn’t like. From his bedroom, Toby can hear Dina cry loudly. She seems more comfortable now that he has left the room like she can let the volume of her hurt and anger increase in peace. He tries to feel anger at his birthday being ruined, but if there’s anything his seven short years have taught him, it’s that little children like him are always put second when women like Mama and Dina are in the same room. 

He knows that Mama hates Dina. Whenever she knows that Dina is coming to visit, Mama’s movements are slower. She doesn’t seem to notice anything around her. One time, she tried to cook rice without water but let the tap in the sink run for three hours. When Toby went to the kitchen for a snack later, he quietly shut it off and waited for Mama to come back to herself; she couldn’t until Dina had left later that day. Papa doesn’t seem to care much about how Mama feels. He isn’t around that often anyway. Nowadays he spends time with Toby because he knows he has to and fills the awkward silences between them by hugging him a little too long or trying to get him to play football outside. Things are better when he isn’t at home. Toby has started to hate his father the way Mama hates Dina. Their two-bedroom apartment is filled with an invisible bitterness and unanswered questions, and over time, he has learned better than to ask any. 

Dina visited them a year ago, just before his sixth birthday. When she arrived, Mama was in the bathroom, and she seemed to be taking longer than usual to bathe. Papa and Dina sat close together on the sofa, his arm resting on its back behind hers, her right hand on his left knee. The apartment was filled with laughter; an odd sound, because Toby hardly heard it otherwise. He was playing with the new Legos that Dina gave him that year on the floor of his room when he heard the water in Mama’s bathroom stop running. He ran out into the living room so that they would all be together when Mama came out of her bedroom. Papa didn’t hear his bedroom door creak, and as Toby reached the living room, he saw his father move away from Dina. It looked as though he was smelling her hair, but Toby wasn’t sure; the movements happened so fast. Mama saw him at the same time, but instead of going back inside the bedroom, she walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on the stove. Dina stood up and pulled her white shirt down, ruffled Toby’s hair, and left without a word. 

Mama smiled thinly and served dinner. 

*

He places a tic tac on his tongue and waits for it to dissolve like a sugar cube. He doesn’t recognize the sweetness immediately, but the orange flavour unpeels itself slowly. The odd candy reminds him of the smelly erasers Mama bought him last week when she was upset about Dina’s upcoming visit. It smells like an impersonation, like the person that his mother tries to be when her so-called friend comes to visit. He doesn’t understand why Mama hates Dina in secret but pretends to like her in person. If she didn’t want to be friends, why lie? The tic tac doesn’t dissolve in the way that he hopes it will, so he bites down and it turns into a wet powder. He swallows quickly and eats two more before Mama can come in and discover what he’s doing. 

The conversation outside his bedroom doors sounds as though a blanket is thrown over their voices. The steady murmur of their voices reminds him of the way that Mama used to read to him before bed, stroking his hair with one hand and holding a book with the other. The stories always seemed as though she wrote them. She was no longer Mama, but instead, a weaver of magic. Whenever she read a story, he imagined that she was telling him a secret that no one else knew. He understands that secrets are just stories that are tangled with complexities, but they are ones that should be kept hidden from other people. 

*

Their voices rise occasionally, but their words are tangled with one other and he can’t make sense of what they are talking about. Mama sounds like she is gaining pieces of herself back; Dina no longer dominates the dialogue that is passing between them. Toby is halfway through the box of tic tacs. The air in his room is beginning to smell the same, and he wants to go outside and smell the amalgamation of perfume and chocolate cake, and run in circles around their conversation. 

When they hear his door creak, Mama and Dina stop talking. From the crack in the door, he can see that they are no longer sitting on the floor. Dina is in Mama’s favourite armchair and Mama is sprawled on the double seater. The tension that normally covers Mama like a quilt has been folded and placed in the bedroom cupboard. Her back is straight, there are no knots along her spine. He cannot understand why there isn’t the usual discomfort in the room, the kind that usually makes him wish that he was grown enough to understand it. 

There was a point in time when Dina was just another faceless person that Toby’s parents talked about when the dialogue between his parents wasn’t limited to a stilted interview about how a day had been when they allowed cups of tea to grow cold on the coffee table. They used language instead of mere words to communicate, but eventually, a shared vocabulary that was beginning to limit itself was the least of their concerns. On days when Papa travelled and Mama locked herself in her room, Toby assessed their family life, reveling in the silence that glided through the cabinets and shelves. Love tended to store itself in reused jam jars on the bottom shelf of the pantry, but Mama spring-cleaned when recyclables caused too much clutter. 

Dina stepped in and out of Mama’s life whenever her moods shifted. Toby was used to the impression of her body disappearing from their sofas as quickly as she had arrived. She would put him on her lap each time she came to visit, pull his hair, and tweak his nose until peals of laughter emerged from his body. Her black leather handbag would always be carelessly flung next to the front door on top of her brown pumps, and she would rifle through the layers inside and pull orange wrappers and pink plastic toys out and present them to him with a flourish; he’d thank her and run away. Toby knows that when people travel, their bags usually have multicoloured airline tags haphazardly wound around the straps and handles. Hers always looks brand new, her makeup always clean and spotless. 

Mama would watch them silently each time she played with him. As she leaned against the kitchen door jamb, her face always contained a concoction of feelings that never made complete sense to him when he tried to understand it. Wasn’t Dina just being nice? She always had time for Toby, and Papa too. 

*

A few weeks before his birthday, Toby heard his parents have another big fight. He breathed evenly and lay flat on his back, with his right arm draped across his tummy, faking sleep when his mother peeked into his room to check on him. As soon as he heard her footsteps recede, he slid off his bed and sat on the floor, using the shadows in his room as a blanket that hid him from the hatred outside. He was sleepy and didn’t pay as much attention as he hoped he would. Dina’s name was being tossed around, and eventually; Toby understood that Papa had been talking to her over the phone for a few months. Even though it wasn’t the first time his parents fought about a woman that Papa spoke to regularly, there was something about this fight in particular that made Mama much angrier than normal. “How could you?” she shouted, over and over, her voice trembling, “You told me that you had stopped talking to her, and you promised me that she would never come back into our home.” His father whispered an excuse in response but made no effort to defend himself. 

Lately, Toby was realising that his father talked to Dina more than Mama. He peeped through the keyhole on his door and watched as his father pulled out a chair from the dining table and sat down, his face lined with tiredness. His tie was loosened and his cufflinks were flung in the fruit bowl. In that moment, his father looked as though he wanted to be separate from the life in front of him.

Every time he thought back to the numerous conversations his parents used to have about their friends, Dina’s name was always one that popped up only after they assumed that Toby had fallen asleep. She taught him how to eavesdrop, and how to keep secrets. The first time his parents fought in front of him, Dina was getting ready to leave after showing up unannounced. She was about to step into the corridor outside their apartment when their words turned into beasts that knocked over vases and bookshelves, as Toby tried to shut out the fear that drummed in his ears. As the argument reached a crescendo, Dina enveloped his body with her own, shielding him from the bitterness his parents threw at each other. After the fight, but before she left again, she told him to listen carefully to their next argument, to pay close attention to the words that sound funny and use them to make himself laugh, holding them inside him like a secret. Mama taught him what secrets were, Dina taught him how to not let them spill.  

*

Toby stops himself from eating the last four tic tacs. He doesn’t know when Dina will come back to visit again, so he tucks the tiny red box into the gap between his mattress and bed, to save it for later. As he gets off the bed to get ready to cut his cake later that day, Toby realises that Dina is the reason his parents fought so often. He wonders if the bubbling pot of their marriage boils over every time a relationship ends in Dina’s life, and she turns to Papa each time for help. 

He tunes out of the murmur of conversation, only vaguely aware that their voices are beginning to rise and fall more frequently. 

(Mama loves him very much, but she doesn’t seem to love him as much when he cries. He feels guilty for realising that he sometimes loves Dina more than his mother. As he has gotten older, he realises that Papa too smiles more whenever Dina is around.)

He pops a tic tac into his mouth. 

Toby opens his door and steps outside in his new clothes and sneakers. Mama is no longer tense, but she is upset. He knows this because her nostrils are flared. Dina is still sitting on the armchair with folded legs, picking at the chipped nail polish on her left hand. Papa has gotten home from work and is drinking a glass of water in the kitchen. His briefcase is lying on its side next to the front, along with a large suitcase. Toby’s sudden appearance breaks some kind of awkwardness in the room. Most of the lights are switched off, except for the yellow lamp in the same corner that Dina was sitting in when she arrived earlier. In the kitchen, Toby hears the fridge being opened, a grunt as Papa lifts his cake out and a sigh when he places it on the counter. A match strikes, and he knows that seven candles are being lit. His father calls out to no one in particular, asking them to switch off the lamp. He begins singing ‘Happy Birthday’ as he walks into the dark room. Dina joins in, Mama doesn’t. (She ruffles his hair, and stands up.)

Toby grins; he is glad that they remembered he existed after all. He assumes that Mama’s anger will be tended to later, and blows his candles out as the song ends. 

Silence pours into the room. As his eyes adjust to the change in mood and lighting, he notices that the suitcase near the front door is missing. When he turns around, Mama is gone. 

He thinks tears might spring to his eyes, but there is only a lump in his throat. He tries swallowing it; there is only half a tic tac under his tongue from before. 

Happy birthday! 

Her Side of the Bed

When Tara first told me about her affair, I was washing rice in a colander. She was perched on the kitchen counter, supposedly chopping onions and saving the peels to compost later. She crossed her long legs and stared at the floor; the knife silent in her hand. We had planned on making ghee rice for the dinner party we were hosting later that night, with chicken curry and raita made from cucumbers and thin slices of raw onion, but my hands stilled under the running water, and a tightness grew between us.

She was wearing the navy-blue wraparound skirt I got her back in college.

Long before things between us bubbled over like a saucepan of ginger chai, I spent fruitless days waiting for her to suddenly grab my hand in the middle of English class when Ms. Jean would mispronounce the word ‘castle’. Her palms were usually cold, her fingernails short and clipped as though she was afraid of unknowingly inflicting pain. Whenever we stood up to greet the old professors who tottered unsteadily into our dusty classroom each morning, I never failed to notice she was a head taller than me. She would give me a tight hug at the end of each day, the tip of her chin resting comfortably above the beginning of my fringe, while I fought not to smell the vanilla perfume that nestled against her collarbones. In more ways than one, we fit together perfectly, like an avocado seed and the soft flesh that surrounds it. When the years rolled by and my attraction was no longer one-sided, I wondered if she strayed away from me because I surrounded her so wholly with affection, she was completely boxed by what I assumed was love.

In a few hours, our tiny apartment would swell with the sounds of laughter. Sana and Navina would open the bottle of red wine they brought with dessert, and my dark lipstick would begin to crack as I smiled too widely at our guests. Tara would wear the skirt with a fitted black t-shirt, silver kolapuris, and the turquoise ring that was a Christmas gift from her mother, the same outfit she wore on our first date. She would ask me not to wear all black again; “love, you’ll look like you’re in mourning”, and I would reply, “aren’t I?” curtly, opening the can of worms that would crawl all over the dining table before dinner was even served.

There had been much to celebrate that night: Sana had been promoted to junior editor at the magazine she worked for, Navina finally quit her job and started a bookstore that specialised in south Indian literature, Tara and I had been together for five years. I don’t think she intended to tell me about the affair in the kitchen before our guests arrived. She knew I would spend the evening dissecting the words which slipped off her tongue like butter, my nostrils flared and knuckles white from gripping the edge of the dining table. Instead of speaking, I took a knife from the drawer under the counter she sat on and chopped the onions and tomatoes and continued to make dinner by myself. By the time our friends arrived, the chicken was simmering on the stove. I was halfway through washing my hair while she sliced vegetables to make the raita when she ran into the bathroom gasping; she had cut her finger. In another lifetime, I would have handed her the face towel that hung next to the mirror, the one with purple flowers embroidered along the border and ignored the expanding red stain even though it was the last thing my grandmother gave me before she died. I would have held her finger between both my hands until the pressure stopped the blood from trickling down her t-shirt, but this time, I watched the yellowed basin turn crimson and then pink as water and blood swirled down the drain.

We ate dinner two hours later at our tiny dining table, using the china we bought in Goa on our first anniversary, Tara sitting on my left side as usual. The trip had been disastrous, full of heavy rain and endless mosquito bites. We had planned on going for morning walks along the beach and renting bikes to go restaurant hopping in the afternoons. Instead, damp air found its way under our hotel room door and gave us both a fever, and we ended up spending three extra days holed up indoors. On the last day of our trip, we found a nondescript shop selling crockery minutes away from the airport. It was full of beautiful old dishes, the kind you would find on the dining table at your stingy grandaunt’s house for Easter lunch. Tara picked the dishes out. She held onto my pinkie with hers while an elderly gentleman wrapped the serving platters and bowls in bubble wrap, then helped us stuff them into our suitcases. Before getting back into the cab, she enveloped my pudgy hands with her bony fingers and whispered a short prayer, asking God to protect the china that she had just bought. I imagined that God was laughing as she prayed for the first time in decades. As if on cue, lightning streaked across the sky when she said amen. Before getting into the cab, she danced to music that dripped from the clouds. There were songs only she could hear, and at that moment, I knew I loved her. It wasn’t the sort of dizzying attraction I felt back in college when my heart stretched like a balloon every time she glanced in my direction. I felt this love deeply in the pit of my stomach, coursing through my spine. I loved her enough to want to spend several monsoon afternoons buying flatware, smelling the dampness of the outdoors on the surface of her skin. When we sat next to each other at that dinner, I wondered if I had completely stopped loving her whenever she reached for my hand to brush her fingers over my knuckles, or if I would ever be able to stop loving her at all.

 

 

You learn to hear your partner when they aren’t speaking.

Relationships reinvent sentence structures and develop verbs that perform when actions don’t. You kick their shin under the table at a formal dinner right before they can make an inappropriate sex joke, then raise your eyebrows at them from across the room before dessert is served, and they know it is time to leave. As we sat at the dining table, I wanted nothing more than to fling the dishes off the table and watch curry trickle down the wall. I had hoped that our guests would eat and leave quickly, but the food I’d prepared was unusually delectable, and they ending up staying until two in the morning.

Breaking bread together as friends felt unusually adult, as though we were attempting to impersonate the more sophisticated versions of who we wanted to be.  My friends could tell something was amiss between Tara and I, but they knew better than to ask unnecessary questions when I was in a terrible mood. Sana, Navina, and I had been a tiny family until I started dating Tara. I let my newfound happiness erase the old parts of me until I no longer recognised myself through her eyes, and the years eventually spread us apart like dandelion seeds. When I reconnected with them years later, I realised that I needed more than just a single relationship to sustain me as I stumbled through life. They accepted me as if things never changed; they were loyal friends, and always had been.

An hour later, I spooned curry and rice onto the heavy dinner plates we used only on special occasions, poured wine into the glasses, and sat down. The air felt slightly thick, as though it was heavy with the weight of the expectation that I would have an outburst and ruin the rest of the evening. Everyone trod carefully around the conversation, sticking to safe topics like work and the weather. My friends attempted to exchange glances with me over the water glasses, but I returned nothing in exchange, not wanting to give anything away until I yelled at her.

She appeared to sense my discomfort, filling the stilted silences between the four of us with mindless chitchat about how her day at work had been. I crossed and uncrossed my legs several times, kicking Sana in the ankle each time I did. The words of apology that followed each bruise on her ankle were the only ones that escaped my pursed lips all night, even when Tara spilled red wine down the front of my favourite black kurta.

It was one of the few things I had inherited from my mother’s college days. Amma often told me stories of how she happened to be wearing this kurta every time a significant incident took place in her life. She almost ripped it on the day she met Appa for the first time and knew that he was the person she was going to marry, she found out that her Ph.D. had been approved on the same day she discovered that she was pregnant with my sister after being told that she couldn’t have any more children. This garment was woven with bits of our family history, and now, the faded cotton was stained with the memory of something I would never be able to edit out of my life.

The dark red liquid spread quickly, staining the embroidered white flowers on the front. They became a lurid shade of Gelusil pink, almost as though my clothing knew that I had been feeling sick to my stomach since the afternoon. My inner thighs began to absorb what the kurta couldn’t, and I imagined my period had arrived. I wanted to bleed into the wooden dining chair, then drop like a ragdoll onto the floor while the others panicked about what to do with my lifeless body. I faced my partner and smiled, my palms dry and nostrils flared. Tara did not meet my eyes but apologised under her breath. She was nervous; I could tell by the way she fiddled with the ring on her left hand. She tapped her right foot when she was excited and cracked her knuckles when she was bored. When she felt uncomfortable, she slid her fingers in between one another, as though she would be able to use her hands to repair what words could not.

I could feel the stickiness of the wine on my stomach as I stood up and opened my mouth, still facing Tara. I inhaled deeply and the atmosphere in the room changed; my friends sensed that I was choosing my words carefully. I felt my sentences measure themselves out with teaspoons, then sit in the dessert bowls on the sideboard so I could wield them when I felt the arsenal of language in my chest empty. Instead, I sighed, words failing me for the first time. I could feel their weight underneath my tongue as I silently poured the rest of the wine into Tara’s glass. She seemed surprised; I think we all were. I began to clear the table with Navina, while Sana served dessert. The richness of the salted caramel brownies appeared to balance out the awkwardness of the evening that lay sadly at the bottom of her wine glass. She drank it in a single gulp, then lifted her legs onto the chair so she could rest her chin in the valley formed by her knees. Her kolapuris left scratches all over the dark wood; she knew how much I hated it when she sat on furniture with shoes on. As if she could sense the irritation that bubbled beneath my skin, she dug her heels into the wood repeatedly as she tried to find a comfortable position to finish eating the rest of her dessert. For the second time that evening, I was verbally constipated. I felt the urge to admonish her, but as I opened and shut my mouth the way fish do, I saw the two of us through a stranger’s eyes for the first time and realised that we had unravelled long before the word attached itself to our secret vocabulary.

 

“It wasn’t a woman.”

Her words slipped out like snakes, coiling themselves around my ankles. I was lying on my left side with my back to her, the pillowcase still smelling faintly of the Cetaphil moisturizer that I rubbed into my skin before bed. Our friends had left a while ago, leaving us alone with a stack of dirty dishes piled high with sentences we did not want to say out loud. After they were gone, she washed the crockery while I tidied the living room, dealt with the ruined kurta, and got ready for bed. On most nights, we usually jostled for space at the washbasin as we got ready together. I would strip down to my underwear and throw on the biggest t-shirt I could find, while Tara loved to sleep in the loose, ugly nighties that aunties wore when they dropped their kids off to school, and we’d drape our clothes on the uncomfortable cane chair her mother gave us.

I tried to take stock of the life we’d shared for five years, but before I was able to go through my mental checklist, she spoke again. “It isn’t anyone you know. Before you ask, yes, I regret it. It happened with a man I’ve known for several years.” I sighed.

“He wants a relationship, and I don’t know what to do about this.” She said this under her breath, as though I was a friend that she sought advice from after bedtime, over the phone. As she continued to speak, I tuned her words out and listened to the cadence of her voice, my back still facing her. She drifted further away from me with each passing sentence, and I stopped paying attention altogether until she asked, “don’t you want to say something?”

“Are you sorry you did it?”

My spine was met with silence.

I had watched this scene play out on every dramatic television show and movie there was. The disgraced woman would toss her hair back, throw files and desk chairs across the room, scream “how could you?”, then storm out while her lover would sit on the floor, head in his hands as he bore the weight of his regret. The scene would cut to the woman weeping in the bed they once shared, and the screen would fade to black so that viewers could fill the space given to them with their assumptions.

The reality of my situation was made up of stillness. We drifted off eventually. The last five years appeared in my dreams as I slept fitfully, the memories presenting themselves with exaggerated happiness. My subconscious took inventory for me – the tiny, complaining apartment that we moved into too quickly when our relationship was a weed that grew in a garden with no room for extra life. Wooden and cane furniture that gave us splinters; they were injuries that healed without medicine or much care, and an oakwood wardrobe full of clothing. We dressed ourselves in each other’s garments to imply that we knew how to create personalities that were separate from the ones that we shared with each other. Before I fell asleep, I saw her blue skirt slung over the back of the chair, and felt Tara’s warm breath in my ear.

When I woke up later in the middle of the night, the bed had long since grown cold.

Her blue skirt was missing.

(“I wanted out.”)

A Love Letter to Kammanahalli, to Bangalore

 

 

Each day begins and ends with these red walls. At 6:00 am, any bright colour that yells too loudly with its presence feels like an assault on one’s senses.

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This is my neighbour’s house. They live across the street from me; their red walls and shrill voices serve as handy landmarks on a street that lacks colour and character otherwise. We’ve never been formally introduced, but as the years have gone by, their secrets have revealed themselves in moments when their names haven’t. They eat fish curry every Sunday, and their father is recovering from hernia surgery. Their three sons litter outside their own home but blame the domestic helpers that work in the house next door. The matriarch smiles thinly at visitors whenever they bang on her gate and makes passive-aggressive comments in Tamil loudly when there is neighbourly disorder that makes her uncomfortable. She seems deeply unhappy with suburban life; I think she ties her saris too tightly. There appears to be love in that home, but I think it sits on a shelf in a glass jar that is opened only once a week.
When the air inside my bedroom becomes too thick to breathe, I creepily watch this family and wonder why their closed windows remain shut. Are they afraid of me learning more useless information?

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3rd H Main used to be called the 6th cross in Ramaiah Layout. It was on this narrow road that I began to tell people’s stories without their permission, observing everyone that walked by from the confines of my home and writing about them, simply because I could.

Being a stalker isn’t particularly difficult, and honing observational skills turned out to be less demanding than expected. According to Wikipedia, Kammanahalli has, in recent years, become a “cosmopolitan hub”. The main roads have seen expatriates from all over the world pounding the uneven pavements, and international clothing brands now cover the bodies of people who back in the day were just as happy going to work and school completely decked out in Bata shoes and Favourite Shop kurtas.

As “Kammanahattan” (as it is popularly known in some corners of the internet) began to expand and make room for all the changes that took place and influenced life in the streets where people lived, the suburban stories that are always so easy to tell became more interesting too. From only hearing the occasional car horn once every few hours, to being able to mentally create a timetable based on when the neighbours left for work and returned home later and later each day, my narrations of daily life began to be influenced by how both the city and I grew, moving further away from where I started to grow up.

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The coronavirus has begun to take the world by storm, but not in the way that Beyoncé does every time she releases a new album. As bodily temperatures rise with fevers and global warming, taking public transport feels risky. The number of people who have contracted various diseases (many of which seem to be making a comeback these days) is only rising, and in exchange for slightly better health, Rapido (a bike taxi app) has become my best friend.

College life has taken me into the heart of the city, and life as a pillion rider allows me to peek into autos and cars. An Activa is perfect for urban stalking; the seat is broad enough to not cause the thighs to cramp and prevents distraction from watching people interact with the city, and Bangalore traffic. Lately, I’ve been trying to see Bangalore through everyone else’s eyes but my own. Why do people choose to stand, instead of sitting at a darshini when hurriedly drinking filter coffee and eating dosas? Do foreigners come here on vacation because of how good the bisi bele bath is, or because they want to experience how frustrating the average daily commuter’s life is in traffic?

We interact with cities because structures are sometimes easier to communicate with people. They sit on the sides of roads, and we pay attention to them without having to worry about whether or not they would reply to us. As I have gotten older, I have developed a newfound appreciation for my connection with Bangalore. In my early teenage years, it was a place that passed by me as I went to school. The rickety yellow van was a veil between me and a city that I was separate from, but eventually, Bangalore and I developed a close, and personal relationship.

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As a self-proclaimed introvert, solo travel on any kind of public transport is something that I look forward to every day. Bangalore may have the worst traffic and may be the most populous city in the world, but the crowdedness of it provides a sense of peace that no other place possibly could. From my perch at the rear end of a stranger’s motorbike, the insides of autos serve as places where miniature worlds are created for the short extent of a single journey. The backs of autos advertise fairness creams and shady companies that promise to find fair young people soulmates in a fortnight, failing which, the unsuspecting customers will get their money back. Inside, wives mentally plan an entire week’s menu in ten minutes, and young college students spend the remaining contents of their wallets on the minimum fare that it takes them to get somewhere, only to regret these decisions when the scents of street food permeate the air and there isn’t any money to be found in their bags or pockets.

I assume that I enjoy my daily commute more than most people from this city.

Traveling anywhere in Bangalore provides some sort of joy that nothing else in my life really can. There are always new roads to find stories in and characters that never fail to bring those characters to life. My Bangalore used to be a city that was defined by the spaces I visited often, such as the bookstores on Church Street and Komala’s (a place that I will always believe sold the best puri-palya ever), my former high school and the route my van uncle took every day. Eventually, the city stopped being somewhere on a map, a collection of buildings and roads that merely passed me by as I moved through it.

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I’ve begun moving through cities with confidence. Is it because the people that I live associate home life with breathing? They inhale comfort and exhale gratitude for the fact that they are retired and are no longer in need of wrestling with a life outside of their place of dwelling.

My grandfather loved Bangalore, and he loved Kammanahalli. The cheesy saying of “all roads lead home” described him perfectly. It was on 6th cross in Ramaiah Layout that I first became aware of how tall my grandfather was. His back was straight but his shoulders drooped slightly with age, and his perpetually dry palms were rough, like tree bark. Grandpa always towered over the rusty front gate, and at 4 years old, I was convinced that he would have been able to jump over the boundary wall, if not for the fact that his hip was constantly in pain. One day, when going for a walk early in the morning to the top of the road, he taught me how to keep my first secret. On one end, 6th cross began with a general store and ended with a 3-storey apartment building whose tenants sold milk illegally from their garage. He bought me a chocolate at 7AM, and whispered in my ear not to tell Ma, even though the road was empty and the air was still. The year after he died, Mai refused to leave the house, because the outside world reminded her too much of the man that she had lost. It was on this narrow road that she fell off his bike when they were rushing to get to church, and it was on this road that she discovered just how much she disliked her neighbours, ALL of them.

When Grandpa died, the tree across the street that grew yellow flowers failed to produce any new ones. After he was buried, the potholes that sprung up like weeds were filled in and Mai went outside. My height never really came close to what my grandfather’s was, but he left behind a liking for sweets early in the morning.

As the years began to slip by and 6th cross was renamed, technology caught up with her and with Kammanahalli. She installed a CCTV because of burglary rumours, and just like me, she was able to watch the neighbours and tell their stories without their permission.

 

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As each day draws to a close and I make my way back to my beloved Kammanahalli, I am always excited by the knowledge that there will be a good story waiting to greet me at the front door. Before entering the house and wiping my feet on the doormat, I kiss each story goodnight and bit it farewell, allowing it to sleep peacefully before it develops into a novel the next day.

 

 

 

 

Things to Come – A Review

Over the past few months, my obsession with women has reached new heights. I read their writing obsessively and inhale their movements in films as if there is a microscope placed over the screen of my laptop. When Isabelle Huppert comes on screen as Nathalie Chazeaux, it’s hard not to be transfixed. For one, she’s a woman.

Things to Come opens with a shot of her hands; she is gripping a pen between her thumb and index fingers and is writing feverishly on a sheet of paper that is crammed with tiny sentences. A tap on the glass window next to her pulls her out of her reverie, and just like that, time starts to flow differently for the remainder of the film.

When Huppert acts as Nathalie, she uses her muscles and expressions in the same way that I imagine Joan Didion exercising her mind when she writes. As a middle-aged philosophy professor, Nathalie is constantly teaching her students to think for themselves while challenging mediocre ideologies that the world throws as them. She hasn’t figured everything out, but several years of teaching have dropped her at midlife with equal and comfortable amounts of wisdom and intellect.

Nathalie’s solid foundation crumbles as the film progresses and my mind wanders to random book and film titles that seem apt for each situation that arises. Things Fall Apart when her 25-year-old marriage dissolves into a puddle of nothingness; her philosopher husband Heinz (played by Andre Marcon) leaves her and moves out. Her aging mother (played by Edith Scob), is unable to let go of the beautiful model that she once was and lies in bed all day, riddled with anxiety and fear. Her children seem disconnected from her, and amidst all of the subtle confusions in her life, Nathalie’s apartment always remains clean. There are never any blue cushions on the floor, or dirty coffee cups lining her sink.

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image source: http://www.simbasible.com/

It is at this time when I realize that I have stopped paying close attention to the overall storyline, and I am focusing on her clothing instead. Blue is the warmest colour (an excellent film, by the way) in every scene. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice by the costume designers, but Nathalie’s outfits ranged from pastel shades that dot the peripheries of wedding photographs, to darker indigos and navy blues. Her interaction with the colour is akin to her conversations with the people around her: she appears interested but gazes at them all unseeingly.

When her favourite student Fabian is introduced, I am almost annoyed but thankfully, he doesn’t take up any unnecessary room. Their intriguing friendship teeters on the brink of a will-they-won’t-they sort of relationship; I spend long stretches of time simply hoping. Is she even attracted to him, or does he represent the freedom that she is suddenly left holding singlehandedly and doesn’t know what to do with?

A visit to the primitive house where Fabian lives with other young philosophers is the first time I notice her smile. By now, half the film is over. Nathalie wears red for the first time. Is she genuinely happy? It’s hard to say because her smile never reaches her eyes. She runs through the stunning French countryside gingerly, as if treading with vigour with somehow ruin the disruption of nature.

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image source: listal.com

 

At some point during her vacation, she lies in bed, crying tears of sadness and acceptance. That same night, she stands outside and the hills that surround her are tinged with cobalt blue. She goes home the next day wearing navy and grey.

Her solitude is sometimes deafening because in those moments of sudden quiet, I find myself weighed down by my own weird expectation from the moment. Huppert exudes power even in moments when she isn’t really doing anything, like drinking coffee or half-listening when people talk to her in meetings. A few days after returning home from her trip, she begins crying on the bus. Her stoic and analytical self disappears momentarily. Until that moment, she doesn’t indulge in self-pity. “I thought you’d love me forever. What an idiot.” She says ruefully, when Heinz tells her that their marriage is over. As she breaks down, I realise that there is a certain privateness that comes with breaking down in public. Interestingly, she wears a sleeveless red dress in a scene that is otherwise tinged with an intense sadness.

As the film gradually draws to a close, she becomes a grandmother and spends more time with Fabian. The overweight cat that is bequeathed to her from her deceased mother seems reluctant to spend too much time with her, and she eventually gives Pandora away. Have I been watching the film through Pandora’s eyes this whole time? While I am in awe of Huppert’s ability to make me feel so deeply about a woman who is, in short, going through a variety of changes, I am also uncomfortable with my reactions to her acting. Huppert’s portrayal of a woman who is experiencing change and accepting a newfound freedom uses silence as both a tool and a mirror that we must all use sometimes to examine where we are in our own lives, when changes come our way.

Things to Come ends with Nathalie cradling her fussy grandchild, while Fleetwood Mac’s rendition of Unchained Melody lingers softly in the background. As the credits roll, a warm orange light bathes the room. There are no shades of blue to be found.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#101

(This essay was also published on The Open Dosa!)

 

This is the image that remains stored in my memory.

The apartment smells lived in and comfortable even before we move in and unpack our furniture. The floors and walls are often hard to tell apart; they are an unsettling shade of white that makes me want to be freshly showered at all times. It is the perfect size for the three of us. The building is placed on a street that looks as though an adult played with a Lego set: each house has been set down exactly where it should be, and the trees are tucked in between symmetrically.

I decide that I will become a writer in this apartment. But first, I become a fashion designer and an artist, collecting scraps of paper in a bag that hangs on the side of my bed. I start scrapbooking and spend too much time poring over the characters inside Roald Dahl’s stories. His words are always having fun even after the story is over, and I am afraid that my own writing will remain stagnant even when the book is closed. For a while, I stop reading because it scares me.

Mai gives me two flowering plants after the cardboard boxes are finally emptied. In the weeks that follow, I forget to water them, and they die. The soil is disposed of, the pot recycled. When odd things happen after their unfortunate death, I start to wonder whether it was my negligence of nature that caused them.

There are three bedrooms. They sit cross legged next to each other.

*

Sometimes, I sit in the study and listen to my father typing. The click-clack sound of the faded black keys on his laptop always cause me to tear my eyes away from The Famous Five and try and read the endless rows of text on the screen in from of him. His oily skin glistens in the lights cast on his face from the laptop, his fingers fly across the keyboard.

Someday, I will learn to type with both hands, without looking at the letters below them.

Papa’s mind is an oddly shaped object. It reminds me of the strange figures printed in math textbooks, the ones that are placed innocently on thin pages to confuse you and make you fear numbers. I do not fear him, but rather, the thoughts that swim below an overly polished exterior. He looks up at me and smiles, but he is a million miles away.

The study was decorated with artificial care. Green leather armchairs face the rosewood TV stand and in between them is a desk that has nine drawers, stuffed with stacks of paper I am not allowed to touch.

When I become a writer, my desk will be just like this one, with a leather swivel chair and gold fountain pens in a turquoise pen stand. The surface won’t have any dust or old bills littering the corners, but instead, the moleskin journals I carry every time I go to a coffee shop to observe people. Bookcases will line each wall, and in the corner, a single armchair the colour of a broken pomegranate will sit solidly, like a buoy in a sea of wood.

For now, I settle for a blond table in the corner of my bedroom that has a wonky drawer and a cupboard with a broken shelf.

*

The master bedroom is much more exciting than my own. The walls are the colour of olive oil and Tuscany, and the bed is always made. Ma hates the Aboriginal snake painting on the wall; she thinks it is bad luck. Someday, I will write an essay about a python who is sad because he can’t ride a bicycle, but goes on to become the director of Tour de France.

From my vantage point on Ma’s balcony, I watch Manjula with fascination each day. She is the elderly lady that lives in the building next door. Our apartment is on the first floor and hers is on the second, and I watch her watch TV every day. Her right arm cushions her head when she stares unblinkingly at the screen in front of her. She gets up periodically to drink water and eat a banana, then drops the peel into the car park below. Her saris are always neatly tied, like she is expecting company at any moment. From the looks of it, she lives alone.

I am 11 years old, and my preteen mind finds her loneliness amusing.

Every morning, she stands on her balcony and sings to the crows. Her voice is high pitched, the kind that can cut right through suburban silence. When she peers into our kitchen, we learn how to stop staring back. Her family rarely visits, and five years later I realise that we were probably the closest substitute for the one that no longer cares about her.

When watching her quickly becomes dull, I use an old notebook and start to write down all the mediocre stories that are in my head. I promise myself that Manjula will become a supporting character, the carpet in the bedroom of my mind. Years later, when the apartment becomes someone else’s, I find that there are new houses full of people to observe. Those families shriek at each other at 6:00am, and I forget what her silence looked like. I continue to write on Ma’s bed; it remains tidy and dust free, and I learn to listen for the sounds of characters coming to greet me.

Later, when I turn 20, I will come to regret making fun of her loneliness, for it was probably all she had left behind.

*

Shanthi Akka comes home every day to clean. The steel dishes are scrubbed with vigour, like she is fighting a war against herself in the sink. I barely make contact with the kitchen while she moves around in it, because I am afraid of yanking apart the silence that she creates.

Her eyes always have shadows under them. She teaches me how to let Kannada syllables roll off my tongue with ease, and every time she holds my textbook, she stands a foot away from me, her voice never louder than a whisper. I am failing third grade Kannada in the 6th grade, but I push myself and memorize a poem about sunrises and chickens, and end up coming first in a recitation contest at school. Grace ma’am smiles smugly to herself, as though she is congratulating her teaching skill. I have Akka to thank.

When I watch Viola Davis bring Aibileen to life in ‘The Help’, I want to look at my world through her eyes. What do the spaces inside our apartment look like to her? Does she tell her daughters stories about the time Ma caught me talking to my toys, and I fell off the bed in embarrassment? Are our curries bland and unappetising? Does she ignore the weird silences between my parents when they refuse to speak to each other, or is the apartment always too quiet to realise the absence of noise?

She is asked to dust the bookcases every alternate day. The shelves are dotted with finickily placed knick-knacks and framed photographs, the wood is the colour of a naked tree. Each time she coaxes dust out from underneath the bed, I can’t help but feel a sense of shame, and guilt. If life had dealt me an entirely different sets of cards, might be the one going home and telling stories about the eccentric family whose home I worked in every day.

When I catch her wearing my scrunchies and clips, and pocketing my junk jewellery, I am furious. Several years later, I come to make peace with the fact that even though taking what is not yours is wrong, it might be all you have left.

The tapestry of our family life was woven with threads that are wearing thin. She is in the background. It just isn’t one that hung out anymore.

*

The branches outside my bedroom window prevent me from temporary blindness when I wake up each morning, and instead, the sunlight casts strange shadows onto my bedroom floor. (Ma tells me I spend far too much time in my room, reminding me that my pink cycle is parked downstairs. Underneath a fire extinguisher is a two-wheeler that is supposed to be the defining object of my childhood, but there is no one to go cycling with. Inside my head, my legs are toned, my hair is sun bleached and I am the brown version of Nancy Drew, traveling around Fraser Town, solving crimes on a bicycle without trainer wheels. It is stolen when school reopens, and I give up trying to have fun outdoors.)

My father travels extensively on work, and there are long stretches of time when I don’t see him for several weeks. The apartment becomes messy without him around: we leave piles of clean laundry in the living room and adjust to the comfort of untidiness. In his absence, we find ourselves speaking louder, almost as though we forget to miss him.  But every time I look up at a cloudless sky, I imagine that he is looking at the same one, believing that nature is tying us together with worm-eaten leaves and pieces of wind that disappear as quickly as they arrive.

Seven years later, I will start to travel to places alone. My head attempts to rest against the bus windows, constantly hoping that once I am able to look past the men spitting paan onto sidewalks, I will see a sky so perfect, that he will be looking at it too.

Unfortunately, the sun only makes me squint.

*

Before we move in, the apartment smells comfortably lived in, like a bedsheet used by every generation in a family. On the day we move out, I realise that there was too much furniture in it for the three of us. When the packers and movers take a break for lunch, I whisper a goodbye to each room. The walls are stained with the outlines of our family stories. Manjula is asleep when I shut the front door behind me. Papa is still traveling. Ma’s smile is tired and there is packing tape stuck to the seat of my sweatpants.

I decided that I would become a writer in that apartment. My publishing deal hasn’t come through yet.

Lillies

Ma has never failed to remind me to place white flowers on her grave every time we pass a florist’s shop. The first time she told me to do so, the words seemed to have slipped out of her mouth by mistake, her eyes weren’t focused on me. I was ten years old, and my childish self did not fully understand what she was trying to tell me.

How am I supposed to find the exact shade of light to fill the darkness that she will eventually leave behind? Do I write my eulogy on the petals of the carnations that I will place above her head?

People wear white at weddings, funerals, baptisms. In the seventh grade, my art teacher taught us about color. She made sure that we understood that white is not a color, but that it contains all wavelengths of visible light.

How do you miss someone that is still with you?

Will color look the same?

Ma,

Ma, I am trying to write an essay about the kitchen and you are making rava dosas as I type these words out; you are distracted because the tava is too hot. The questions I would like to ask you lie underneath my scalp; they are angry butterflies being chased by young boys on a summer afternoon. They are long and drawn out, but I need you to remember.

I want to ask you about the time you first met Ammachi and Appacha. Did the dining table groan with the weight of their nervousness, or was it just the Kerala food that told you they were excited and apprehensive about your future with Papa? The chicken curry was more like a fry, and you found it strange that no glasses of water appeared on the table until the end of the meal. When he slid a gold wedding band onto your finger, you promised yourself that you would teach him how to appreciate drowning his rice in gravy. Ammachi teases me about my love for ‘pouring curry’, and I don’t know how to tell her that sometimes I forget that I am not hungry, I am only trying to drown my teenage self-loathing in pots of sambhar that remind me of a home I haven’t lived in.

Do you remember when you started telling me that I am quarter Kannadiga, quarter Tamilian and half Malayalee? My mind drew a pie chart, filling each section with soppu saaru, keere kuzambhu and pazham pori. I felt like I could draw those flavours with fluid lines, but the first time Sonia shared her lunch with me, I knew I was barely south Indian. Her lunchbox tasted like the unrelenting Kannada syllables of grade 4, the ones that glued themselves like chilli seeds to the roof of my mouth and refused to let me communicate with my roots fluently.

How did you manage to replicate the feeling of home each time we moved house? Our days in Delhi were littered with carrot halwa and strong north Indian accents that never settled comfortably in your ears each time you heard them. You tell me that our rented apartment was too large for the three of us, but you brewed batches of tea and drank them pensively, hoping that Bangalore’s sweetness would not dissolve completely from your memory. Meera didi’s Hindi left her mouth with a fluency that makes me jealous today, and she taught you how to transform your chapatis from Frisbees to soft pillowcases. Were those long days of extreme weather lonely?

Did Papa’s affinity towards Bengali chicken curry develop in Chennai? The Manasarovar kitchen was full of light, and you had a clear view of Gomathy auntie’s kitchen from ours. Could you feel her judgemental stare as you packed sausage sandwiches instead of idli and chutney for my lunch? Did you ever feel the urge to enter into those Brahmin homes with a piece of steak in your handbag? My love for thairu saadam developed in those days, but I don’t remember why everyone started calling me Vijaylakshmi.

I felt your sense of relief when we moved back to Bangalore. The air was not punctuated with salt anymore, and the comfortable knowledge that family was tucked into corners of the city made the sandwiches tastier, the milk easier to drink.

Did I tell you about the time I caught Francine stealing my chocolate biscuits? I was in Ammachi’s kitchen, ravenous and poking around in the clear plastic dabba on that counter that was always full of murukus. I don’t know why, but I hid in the pantry when I heard her footsteps approaching. She opened the dabba guiltily and threw a handful of biscuits in her mouth. The smells of that afternoon’s lunch lingered on the stove, its stainless steel covered with faint yellow marks and spots of dried curry. Even though those thin biscuits lacked the satisfying crunch that most others have, she chomped down on them anyway, like a crocodile ready to have lunch. She was barefoot in the one room we all made sure to wear chappals in; the floor’s grease constantly managed to defeat Lizol. The last few rays of Monday evening sunlight poured weakly through the window, and there was enough light for me to spy on her. As time went by, I assumed that she would stop stealing food from kitchens. She is now 28, and nothing has changed.

It is a few years later, and your left hand looks bare when you chop vegetables. Papa decided that our family recipes do not sit well with his palate. He is an ocean away, and his kitchen is filled with new Asian flavours that never slid down my throat easily. I never told either of you this: I secretly hated his trifle. The dessert was too sweet, yet somehow found itself tacked on to every Christmas and Easter feast, and everyone loved it. The soggy sponge cake always absorbed the amalgamated liquid that trickled down into the bottom of the crystal bowl, the whipped cream felt like melted ice cream that was attempting to apologise. I never realised this until he was gone, but conversation flowed effortlessly between us only when there were marble countertops in front of us. As I helped him assemble each layer of the trifle, I never failed to be amazed at how normal he could be when he didn’t have a tie knotted around his neck. You would stand in the doorway and watch us, and your smile contained a concoction of feeling that I could never decipher, no matter how hard I tried. He left me a paunch that rests too comfortably on cutting boards, a sharp tongue and the ability to leave words that matter out of conversation.

You click your tongue and mutter under your breath. The dosas are not forming properly.

When did you begin to really taste your own food? Was it the time you successfully made a curry without any calls home to ask for help? I want to travel back in time and watch you navigate your way through the spice jar, unsure about the ratio of teaspoon to pinch to cupful. Were you nervous about giving me free rein of the kitchen the first time I baked?

Every Christmas, I find myself wondering who will inherit Mai’s measuring cup, the one that resurrects her “counting face” and steady hands. She measures ingredients with a furrowed brow, her face lined with an expression of precision. Your mother is one of the most hygienic people I know, but she also sifts flour onto newspapers that absorb cold December dirt from the street outside the house. The kalkals and rose cookies contain similar ingredients in different proportions, and the rest of us file in and out of the dining room accordingly – we work in shifts. My friends tell me that they hate plum cake, but I want to tell them that Mai’s holds a lifetime of stained aprons and burnt caramel in a single slice. There is art in the way that the smell of rum and brandy rises from the dekshi filled with minced fruit. We roll dough onto forks, mix cake batter until the scent of vanilla falls asleep in the crevices of our palms and line the storage tins with uneven pieces of baking paper every year. Last year, she asked me whether I’d carry on the tradition of making sweets by the bucketload when I have children. I don’t know how to tell her that my limited cooking skills involve shortcuts and substitutions, and an inability to replicate the sweetness that dictated the ends of each year gone by.

When we move into her home, it is the seventh time in 12 years that we must attempt to find familiarity under a new roof. On the day we moved in, the spice powders are mixed with hers and our dabbas are placed in storage. I learn to eat curries that contain the heaviness of ground coconut in the gravy, and my love for ‘pouring curry’ slowly dries up. You bring two plates, two glasses and an army of cutlery so that I am able to remember what the past tasted like. Our Corelle plates throw Mai’s kitchen out of balance; they are white sharks swimming in a sea that is the colour of slate, their teeth do not cause any damage. There is steel everywhere, and even though you said goodbye to your life in this house many years ago, you are suddenly a stranger again. When did you start to get tired of the constant packing and repacking of boxes?

As time passes and the kitchen is renovated, you start to fill my lunchboxes with pieces of the supermarket that remained unexplored by us, and new knives are bought. Your cooking becomes more experimental, and I begin to fear turning on the stove less. Remember that time I broke the knob because I thought that everyone was watching me heat up the rasam? I felt a part of myself grow up each time I moved seamlessly from fridge to stove to table, no longer feeling like an outsider living in the shadows of the cabinets. Your food is now bolder, textured with flavours that no longer resemble the past, while my cooking skills are limited (think: scrambled eggs and Maggi), and seem to be indicative of my culinary future.

We haven’t moved since 2010, but life seems to be pulling me towards places whose sour and sweet I must discover on my own.

What does home taste like?

Do you think that it would ever be possible to write down a list of instructions to create a dish called family? Would you write it neatly in the 1999 journal that also doubles as your cookbook? Our nomadic family life has taken us across the country, and thousands of meals have been cooked in kitchens that never fully belonged to us. Is possible to pack 20 years of memory into a single spice jar, or are we constantly reworking the recipe, measuring, dicing, chewing?

Ma, there are several questions I want to ask you, but the dosas are finally forming properly, and you are calling me downstairs for dinner.

Beyond

It is our first year of college, and Arul Sir walks into class. One of the first words out of his mouth is ‘Meta’, said with a mysterious smile. He does not offer much of an explanation, but continues with his lesson, and the word is temporarily forgotten.

Meta, the brainchild of the professors of the English department is the annual literature festival hosted by the department of St Joseph’s College. It started in 2013, and the word ‘meta’ is Greek, referring to the word ‘beyond’. Our professors often tell us stories about the days when the festival first began. The projectors in various halls were jaundiced and failing, and heated discussions about Shakespeare took place.

It is almost like an inside joke that is shared between our professors from the department and us literature students, as the air surrounding our classes buzz with excitement in the months that come before it. This particular festival involves endless cups of ginger and elaichi chai, interesting and insightful conversation, contests and finally, books vouchers when prizes are distributed!

To curb our appetites for all things literary, this year’s theme is Fire in The Tongue, and is a shout out to the diversity of India’s culinary traditions and the acts of bravery that flourish in times of dissenting opinion. Over the course of the next two weeks, several contests, workshops, and performances will be held in various parts of the campus. Writers like Perumal Murugan and Rohini Mohan will also be in attendance, as well as Paromita Vohra, curator of the website Agents of Ishq.

When Meta season hits, professors can expect every EJPian to submit work several days after the given deadline, and sometimes not at all. For starters, the competitions are lively and engaging. They are divided into different categories, such as speaking, writing, art, and performance. Under writing, the participants are invited to create stories for children, review films and live out their best Wattpad fantasy with Fandom Menace, a fanfiction writing contest. There is also a fest-within-a-fest, called Blue Pencil, which is made up of journalism-related events.

Last year, I was a first-year student that found talking to other people awkward, even after six months of the year had gone by until Meta came along and all of that weirdness was thrown out of the window. I took part in the spelling bee and entered the essay contest held in memory of a teacher who loved reading the works of her students. For the first time all year, I felt as though I had actually accomplished something worthwhile. To an outsider, a literature festival may sound rather pretentious, like it is the kind of thing that only lovers of books and writing can be involved in, but Meta is anything but that. The competitions are more for everyone’s enjoyment, not just winning. Everything that happens takes place because we love looking at language differently, not because we want to show off and exclude people who may as though as they are outsiders.

Over the past two days, the MA students have hosted Podium as a part of Meta. They worked tirelessly, screening documentaries and acting in short plays (think: Indianized Shakespeare) while adding to the excitement. Rallies were also held across campus, with people from all over joining in on the madness.

Meta leaves you feeling like you need another cup of ginger chai. Your belly is lined with warmth, but you want to keep coming back for more.

Grandmother

Ammachi’s clothes always smell like a strange combination of mothballs and summer. They make me think of rickety old almirahs and wooden chairs with stiff backs, and hugging her reminds me of long road trips to small town Tamil Nadu.

 

_

 

She was born into a large family of loud siblings, and very little room in the house for her thoughts. Her closest companions were the ones she read about in books; she was always left to her own devices having grown up surrounded by remote tea plantations. At twelve years old, she was struck by small pox, and spent months in quarantine, cut off from the outside world and her beloved novels. Her most prized possession, her glossy black hair was shaved, and life was never really the same for a while after that. She told me that she was filled with a bitterness that was uncharacteristic of her, and ordinary life was no longer as interesting as it was before. Her “Maths Miss” was a woman that guided her towards self-acceptance, and she eventually became a teacher herself.

Ammachi shared her passion for literature with her students for over 40 years and nurtured each individual with a firm hand and a sense of humour that I like to imagine has been handed down to me; it has held me in good stead so far.

 

_

 

Her kaftans trail on the ground when she walks. On a chain around her neck hang her glasses, always stained with fingerprints that she can’t be bothered to clean. She was so involved in my childhood, and the memories I have of the two of us are haphazardly stacked together in a mental photo album. There we are, curled up on the sofa singing old ‘Sound of Music’ songs out of tune. There we are, Ammachi making my rasam and rice into balls and feeding me, her palms stained yellow with dried turmeric. We sat there at a glass topped dining table, her trying to teach me how to read Hindi and us laughing hysterically; her Malayalee tinged accent has never been able to fit those sounds correctly in her mouth.

She was my first storyteller. Her brown eyes would light up and the small hands that I inherited from her would move so fast, I was almost distracted, but her stories were more like songs, catchy and soothing, full of music and syllables that gave life to each character. Each reading of Patch the Puppy turned into a theatrical extravaganza, and by the time I was three years old, I was word perfect. I knew each gesture, each expression. She enunciated the words with a careful precision, and by doing so, taught me the importance of measuring my words before I speak them. As time went by, I began to tell my own stories, ones that were coloured with childish imagination, and she would sit beside me, an old notebook on her lap, and write. Each nonsensical sentence that came out of my mouth was carefully recorded and preserved in her memory, bound with ropes and locked tightly away.

 

_

 

I grew up accustomed to her presence. Ammachi was always there, silently grinning when Ma would try and coax me to finish a reheated glass of milk, and protesting when I refused, promising me that she would tell an extra story that night at bedtime; I always fell asleep after the first few sentences. I found myself listening with an avid fascination whenever she spoke to relatives on the phone. She always seemed like an entirely different woman whenever she spoke in Tamil, her voice ringing with a confidence that was completely different to when she spoke English. Her spine would straighten ever so slightly, and her sentences were peppered with phrases that never made complete sense when she translated them for me.

As time went by, I started to place the stories she told me on a shelf in my mind, and replaced them with bestselling authors and silly daydreams. There were far too many boys to crush on from afar, too many knees to scrape and too much of the outside world to see. Our long conversations were reduced to one-word answers to carefully thought out questions, my hurried pre-pubescent self constantly seeking new projects and new things to do.  My diet consisted of frivolous friendships and awkward new discoveries about my body; she just remained patient.

 

_

 

I started to grow taller than her. The roles were reversed, and she began to reach for my hand when crossing the street, her tiny fingers gripping mine with a superhuman strength I never noticed before. I had never paid much attention to her hands, as a child. They were thin, her veins poking out, the fingers artistically slim, the nails always long and ragged, unpolished. I watched her drape saris with fascination. Her hands were used to tying six yards of fabric around her dainty frame. They knew just how much to leave for the pallu, how many pleats to fold and which body parts to conceal. Years and years of practise meant she had it down to a science. They would move like lightening, and before I knew it, the job was done.

The first time she saw me in a sari, her expression seemed almost betrayed, as though I grew up too quickly without her permission. My body had womanly curves that she had never noticed until I stood in front of the mirror next to her, my teenage physique towering over her petite body. She smiled with a sadness that I have only seen on my mother’s face, but masked it quickly with excitement, and promised that she would give me some of her favourites when she saw me next. I fell in love with every sari she passed on to me, each one with a story behind it. When growing up, I never felt strongly connected to my Indian roots or heritage, but the simple act of giving me pieces of cotton and chiffon helped bind me to a culture that has always felt foreign despite living in the land of my birth, throughout my whole life.

 

_

 

Watching her and Appacha cross roads is fascinating. He holds her arm just above the wrist as tightly as he can, sheltering her body with his to protect her from oncoming traffic, but flings it away as soon as they reach the other side. There is a fondness between them that is rare in the world we live in, and is something I haven’t ever come across before.

I walked behind them once, when they dragged me out of bed to go for an early morning stroll. They are so much older than I realized, a little weaker, their clothes hanging off their bodies. They walked in front of me, never touching, but always absorbed in the presence of one another. I envied their relationship. Most conversations are about nothing, really, but contain a familiar intimacy that is hard to find in the world we live in today.

 

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I am her first and only grandchild. The years have spread us like dandelion seeds. I live the life of a city girl, always on the move and perpetually flustered. She now spends her time in small town Tamil Nadu, living a life that is unhurried and calm. Her days are filled with rocking chairs and porch swings, Appacha at her side, cracked blue coffee mug in hand. We are bound together by our shared love for fictional characters through the internet. We ask each other too many questions, but there is never enough time to answer each one of them. Some days, I remain blissfully ignorant, and forget to remember to tell her the story of my adventures when taking the bus every morning. She saves bookmarks and anecdotes for the next time she sees me, placing them in a suitcase of memory, always hoping that time will be kind to us.

 

 

 

The Objects of My Affection

Mai’s house has always smelled faintly of acacia and honey scented Ponds talcum powder. It is a fragrance we return to when we need comfort, when everyday life is too confusing to deal with.

It was in her house that the beginnings of our lives were marked with a lemon-yellow baby cot.

To the outside world, it may have seemed unremarkable, with wonky legs and a layer of chipped bile colored paint that was starting to show the unpolished wood underneath. The women in my family have all placed their newborn infants on bedding printed with dancing bears, their bodies exhausted from labor.

We have all slept in it, aunts and cousins and nieces transferred swiftly from womb to cot. A few years ago, the house we associated with puli gravy was renovated. Construction workers move seamlessly between rooms, leaving behind clouds of dust that refused to settle. The carpenter arrives one day when I am at school and hacks into the black and white image I have in my head of generations of Imams and Davids lying in the cot. Apparently, it was starting to come apart, and the downstairs loft needed new doors.

The cot would have turned 57 this year, had it still been alive.

I assume that when my kids are born, I’ll order furniture online.

 

*

Ma still has the misshapen clay pot I made when I was three.

It was one of Chennai’s hotter days, the kind where heat rises off the pavements and shimmers in the air, and mirages appear every time there is a dip in the road. The air never seemed clear; it smelled like sweat hadn’t dried quickly enough. I was sticky-fingered and irritable, but Dakshin Chitra took my breath away.

The day was filled with puppet shows and wooden dolls. As it drew to a close, I clamored to visit the pottery shop. A kind old man whose hands have shaped memories over several decades guided my pudgy fingers over wet clay. Together, we molded the small chunk of earth. He smoothened it, and with a toothless grin handed it over to Ma, insisting that she keep it safe. I painted it clumsily two days later and forgot that it existed.

We left Tamil Nadu six months later, and the moving company was instructed to pack it carefully with extra layers of bubble wrap. As I grew older and created more art, I never understood why she has kept it so safely.

“It’s because you made it. Like you, it is irreplaceable.”

 

*

The year before he leaves, I ask him for an mp3 player, but he tells me that I am too young to have one of my own.

A year later, I turn 12, and his absence is still ever present in my life. One evening, when digging through an old grey suitcase full of memories I am trying to forget, I unearth the fattest iPod I have ever seen. It is ancient, buried under designer watches and ties and still smells faintly of his aftershave. The battery is still alive, and its pearly white exterior is now coated with grime and fingerprints.

The iPod is loaded with music that sounds like a Sunday afternoon. The pristine white earphones are wound around it; they remind me of the meticulous way he would iron his work clothes and polish his shoes every night. It fits perfectly in my palm, but its weight and density only make me remember everything I have lost.

That evening, I erase all the songs that provide him with comfort, sync it to my computer, and name it after myself.

 

*

Her brow is always furrowed in concentration when she measures ingredients out; we call it her “counting face”.

When Mai first got married, she received a set of floral cups and saucers as a late wedding gift. As the years passed by and her children grew up, most of the pieces in the set broke, except for one stubborn cup.

It has a crack that runs down a faded pink flower, all the way to its base. No one is allowed to touch or wash it, except Mai.  Perhaps it is the power of Christmas and the smell of vanilla and sugar that has held it together for over 50 years. When I was finally old enough to help make sweets one December, Ma warned me not distract my grandmother as she counted eggs or sifted flour, lest I get banned from her kitchen for the rest of the day.

My baking skills involve shortcuts and substitutions, and a set of blue measuring cups that are kept on top of the fridge. One day, she asks me whether I will pass on the tradition of making sweets by the bucketload to my children, whether I will prepare everything the same way.

Probably. They just won’t taste as good.

 

*

Papa brings it home after traveling to Africa on work. I want to tell him that I think it is one of the ugliest things I have ever seen, but his uncontrollable excitement keeps me quiet.

From the front, the statue looks like an obscure artist’s impression of a face. It does not have a nose but instead, a gaping hole where cheeks and an upper lip should be. Many years later, I will discover that it is actually a statue of a mother bending down to pick up her child whose outstretched arms are reaching towards heaven. For the longest time, the two heads confused me. I used to assume that they were the forehead and chin, and that the artist got sick of sculpting a face, so he let it remain incomplete.

Our nomadic family life has unpacked the dark brown statue several times from worn cardboard boxes, and the years have placed us in homes that are oceans apart. Every time I look at it, I like to imagine that we have been reaching towards one another, holding onto objects that are textured like home.