Shortlisted in the Himal Short Story Competition 2019.
When we exit the shuttle that evening, we are late. The crowd has already gathered for Evening Address in the hall, and we join them at once. Tardy tributary; we align, wade into our lines.
Two minutes in, I feel my reserves waning. I beg off (Warden, migraine). I look sickly enough to seem legitimate. Already, some have begun to murmur about a possible vacancy on the floor. They think I can’t hear. It’s quite wonderful how often they don’t see me – like a rat, I’ve learned the best place is by the walls, a corner. Or maybe they don’t care. After all, some still have people outside.
I push past the crowd and shut my door tight. Alone, I survey my 50 square foot dominion.
She blinks back at me from the window opposite: lank haired, paper-skinned, grayfaced-graylipped despite the prescribed twice-daily supplements.
Mamma taught me meticulously. Twice a day, clennztone-moyss-churize. Her mirror-eyes would flit to me – making sure I’d registered what she was saying. At ease, she’d sit making concentric circles with her fingertips, pat-pat around the eyes (sensitive area!). That Woman-routine in which time seemed to have come loose. Night meant lotion, no panties, loose nightie and hair like scribbles in a khopa on top of the head.
I could do eyeliner better than her towards the end, there. So vain, she never admitted to needing more than reading glasses. Mamma was the most particular person I knew. I ran out of my stock a few months ago. Funny all the hours of minutes I’ve spent teasing each sparse brow-hair, every plum stroke dreaming of a fuller lip. All of it slowing me down, always caught in a loop of running somewhere, late. I couldn’t go without.
My face feels less real now, like… we’re not on talking terms. Suddenly I feel unsure of its outlines, the shape of my nose. I can’t have spent more than five minutes at the mirror this month – always a line of people, all pleasantly waiting for you to go away.
I lean my back against the door. Trace the arc of an eyebrow. A nose, the straightness I got from Mamma still intact. Bits of the address diffuse through the door. I could have written it myself. “… doing tremendously well… circumstances… proud… required fortitude and faith… reason this nation is great and will endure.”
I clamber up on the bed, turn goldfish against the sheet of glass. Is the moon out?
By the purifier vent, the camera’s red light blinks back at me in slo-mo, the only star in the vicinity. My made-up-migraine is suddenly real. It’s come to claim me – some kind of moralistic sorcery tap-tap-tapping. Hello, it’s me behind your eyeballs.
I lie down. A sourness at the back of my throat – acid reflux. The supplements aren’t working. I screw my eyes shut and breathe in. Slowly it resurrects: branches creep into my room through the grill, the amaltas burning yellow through dust; hidden in green, the kokil calling over and over; a sudden rattle, a monkey’s tail disappearing to the roof; the red that signalled summer with the masses of palash dropping onto the veranda floor with a thud, scaring Pushkin. Pushkin running into my room all big eyes, then stalking the crows outside with her chittering hunting-call.
Don’t go there.
My brain is ever vigilant. I can’t think of Pushkin.
All the crows dropped dead. It began with that. They poured from the sky like rain onto vegetable carts, onto our heads and we needed stitches. I went with Sumit to AIIMS where he joined the long sullen lines holding up a bruised eye, a brother with a concussion. Some of the usual bodies camping outside had stopped breathing. The crows continued to fall. Splat on windshields, ruined Aparna’s surprise-birthday-cake. Like some kind of bird-plague. At first, we thought it was the usual flu-outbreak spread to crows now, but then there came all that followed.
Fuck crows. Am I seriously making a sop out of crows in this fucking cell?
I sit up and immediately bang my head on the ceiling. The door feels like cardboard against my feet. Like I could kick it down. I want to howl. The soles of my feet ache to ache. I could skip dinner and sleep. Since Pushkin died, all sleep has been stained red. It’s a vivid, unreal, Hollywood red. Like some mad cameraman has turned the colour dial in my brain all the way to one side and it’s broken. I swim through it.
I don’t want to sleep. I can’t sit still, sat all day at my desk.
When I finally quit smoking, when the acid-reflux first showed up, I walked round and round the parks in Safdarjung. I learned that it wasn’t the nicotine I needed, it was the exhalation, the pause.
My back has been slowly building up a dull pain to harmonise with the throbbing in my head. I can’t bear it. I set out.
It is well past seven and the crowd in the kitchen has lessened. People are playing Antakshari in the lounge. Every day is like a field trip! They beckon me over. I walk out quick, pretending not to notice and ignore the raised eyebrows of the guards at the gate.
Outside the Assurance Colony gates, it’s quiet. The drone of the purifier is gone. I tighten my mask and fumble with the filter, check the meter twice. My stomach is in knots. The sky is as grey as ever, but I see the moon!
There’s enough light to see into darker corners. Feeling reckless, I hurry ahead. In another half hour the tankers will be out carrying tomorrow’s supply. Stupid to attract attention, but my feet say – oh, look, the moon. Twenty minutes past the gate, I realise where they’ve been taking me. It’s the old market.
It’s a shock to see it still there. As ever the woman with the combs is there – shiny hats and tiny idols on display, next to the red bindis – with the red sindoor in her part. Her face is sunken though and covered with her dupatta. There is the maach-wala selling the fish who survived, scales shining in lamplight. The kulfi falooda man is gone, as is Aggarwal Sweets where we ate aloo-tikki and insisted on suji, not aatta in our gol gappa.
Gone too is the man who would crawl around on his hands, roll by on this wheeled contraption. He’d get right in your way screaming, “Oh Behenji, behenji” in desperation. I feel a bit ashamed of the unbidden relief that rises up in me. Of course, the beggars have disappeared. They’ve finally accepted that no one fucking cares.
A little way ahead is a lone figure wrapped in what seems to be a jute bag. He presides over a vegetable cart, for others who wander in the open, still, having given up hope. There’s no one there now and his basket is full – monster carrots, a few well-endowed aubergines, squashy scarlet tomatoes, and greens everywhere. The colour is a knife in my stomach.
In a futile gesture I walk to him. If he’s surprised, he doesn’t show it. Before I know it, I’ve bought enough tomatoes to fill a bucket – enough to make soup for months and give Snorr competition – though they’ve pivoted mostly to purifiers now (guaranteed to make you feel ‘as safe as your mother’s womb’). He asks me no questions, merely fills up a sack with 200 rupees worth of tomatoes. I tell him to keep the change.
I’m attempting to lug the sack across the road when I feel it. Standing on the other side of the road, half in shadow, she’s been watching for a while, I am suddenly certain. Once I feel her gaze on me, I can’t unfeel it.
When I make it across, she makes no pretence of looking elsewhere. She comes right to me and asks. “Why?”
She wears no mask, no regulation-orange protection. Instead a gray sharee — the aanchol wrapped around her like it’s good enough cover. She looks like one of us: educated, fairly well to do, like she’d definitely know who Joni Mitchell is.
How do you even tell these things? Is it something with the face? More obviously something about the way she wears her sharee and asks me again in English, “Why did you buy so many?”
Perhaps she thinks I’m an idiot in need of help. Perhaps I am.
“No one else was,” I say.
She smiles really wide at this. Her eyes light up like it’s a joke, and it’s such a strange thing to do, I almost jump.
“You know they’ll spoil? They almost have.”
Not for these ones staying perfect and ripe for eight weeks, packaged to perfection.
“Maybe I’ll make chutney,” I say, on the defensive.
The instructions are on my tongue at once, ready to be recited like an incantation. (Is this really the paltry inheritance I have from my mother? Her tomato chutney recipe? How stupidly inadequate).
Surely, it’s odd that I miss Pushkin most.
Ten years together, she alone could claim my fidelity and devotion. With everything else transient, weren’t we most committed to the pets we’d taken in? Little creature in my arms, runt of the litter. Little lungs gasping, gasping, gone.
That was the one that made me think I couldn’t go on. I can’t possibly go on.
Ever since, everything has been off. It’s all gray during waking hours – gray skies and orange everything else. And unreal red-stained sleep.
The woman has been saying things and I haven’t been listening. “Chutney sounds nice,” she repeats slowly.
She has her hair in a bun, a silver hairpin glinting like a weapon. She notices me looking and wipes her face absently. Even in these times, these self-conscious human habits.
“Do you come here often?” I ask.
“I live here,” she says. “Behind the market.”
“Where’s your mask?”
“I smoke too much anyway,” She shrugs. “It wouldn’t make a difference.”
Rare to come across a smoker anymore from the upper classes. Rarer still a woman out in the open, outside a colony. My stomach hits me with a wave of pain, and I remember how far I am from home. I breathe in sharply and rub my back. She notices, puts out a hand to steady me and I smell impossibly, champa.
“It’s just my period I think.”
It’s been a while. The spasms are getting worse and I hunch down, letting my tomatoes spill out of the bag. I’m not carrying my pills. “Fuck.”
“Listen, my house is right behind there. Why don’t you come sit down or something till this passes?” she says.
It is an incredible proposition – don’t go with strange beautiful women you meet alone on the road is a maxim of all B-grade horror. I can’t speak. My period is always like this. I always have pills close at hand. She picks up the sack and takes my arm. I don’t resist. In silence we walk, and in two minutes we are in front of a small one-storey house. She undoes the padlock and gestures me in.
I walk into a tiny living room, damp bubbling through the white paint and cracks in the ceiling. There’s a mattress to one side and a yellow cobwebbed lamp. She’s beside me with a bottle of water and a pill. “Here,” she says. Gratefully, I take them and now the pain is blinding, everything is red and I sink down.
When I wake, I smell sambhar before I see the light in the kitchen, hear her humming a song. For a minute I am ten again, waiting for Mamma to lay dinner after homework is done. I go into the kitchen hesitantly – a little woozy from the meds and hold on to the counter.
“Better?” she asks without turning from the induction cooker.
I nod. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” she says. “You know, if you’re feeling up to it, you can make the chutney you were talking about. I’ve put on some rice and there’s sambhar.”
It is a surreal scene, standing in this strange kitchen speaking of making chutney.
She turns to look at me. “You do have an absurd number of tomatoes.”
It’s true. I can’t possibly carry them all back. What would I even do with them?
She points out the mustard oil, ginger, salt and sugar and I fish out bowls. We work beside each other in silence. She doesn’t have paanch-phoron, the staple in all Bengali kitchens. She is Tamil, she says. I stir the slowly thickening red goop, watch the tomatoes melt out of shape, the red bubble over and burst the skins.
“You’ll have enough for at least a week” I tell her. “I hope you have a fridge.” She does.
We eat on the floor in the living-room. She tells me that she used to be a vet.
“Oh.” I make a face.
“Yeah. Not so much now,” she says, mixing the rice with her fingers.
“There are still strays every once in a while, you know. It’s litter season right now in fact. I had a puppy here not two weeks ago”.
She smiles again, a non-smile, shakes her head slowly at the excitement in my face. “It didn’t make it. Obviously. They won’t. But I keep taking them in, when I see them.”
“How can you stand it? Over and over to watch them die?”
“What else is there to do? The longest I’ve kept one alive is two weeks. I almost got hopeful with that one.” She shrugs.
I shudder involuntarily. “It’s Sisyphean,” I say, “why put yourself through that?”
“Well. Maybe I like putting in work without a hope of pay-off. Maybe I’m a psychopath. I don’t know. What else is there to do?”
“Maybe you are a psychopath,” I say.
She smiles again, a slow lovely smile and looks me straight in the eyes. “Shouldn’t have come home with me then, huh?”
My stomach twinges again, and I look away. We clear up, and I tell her about the non-profit I work with. “We work on literacy.”
She snorts in disbelief. “For whom?”
“Well…we have funds to spend. We sponsor the books and distribute them to the agencies still working with the children out on the streets.”
“Yes, but they’re fucking dying,” she says, enunciating each syllable like I’m an idiot.
It’s my turn to look her straight in the face.
“Yes. And we still have targets to fulfil.”
There are stairs leading out of the room. She sees me looking. “It’s the terrace.”
“What use is a terrace without trees to look at?” It slips out before I have a chance to think, and I’m sorry I said it like that.
“There’s still the moon,” she says.
“Does no one come here? Notice you on your own?”
“No. It used to be me and Amma. This is her house. Worthless obviously, but I have a space. Missed the bus when she was still alive, had to – her bipolar was acting up then. They kept upping the stupid dose and not listening to anything she told them. The neighbours never liked her anyway. She’d get angry, so angry – and she wouldn’t keep her criticism in closed living rooms. Obviously, no one was going to let her in.”
No one likes an angry woman.
“So I stayed.” She smiles again.
It is a lot in very few words and I don’t know what to say. I think of Pushkin again and feel tears suddenly threatening to rise up in my voice. I say nothing.
I don’t know if she notices, but she scoots closer, leans her face next to mine and says kindly, as if reassuring me: “It’s alright. They would have kicked me out of the towers anyway. Wouldn’t have been able to take it for long. I have a purifier – it’s not that bad.”
She takes my plate and disappears into the kitchen, pops her head back in to add: “Besides, I have my treeless terrace.”
My cramps are back and I think of Mamma again. When I first got my period, I would pray every night for God to turn me into a boy – the pain was unbearable and I was only eleven. Mamma would heat up mustard oil in a saucepan, some kalo jeere and then slowly rub it into my back and legs till I fell asleep, tired out from crying.
When she comes back I tell her about this. “Ridiculous,” I am careful to add. “It seems all I long for these days is to be ten again.”
“Wait.” When she reappears, it is with warm oil. “Lie down,” she says and I obey.
She slips her hand under my shirt and begins to rub in the oil, with the softest hands. I want to weep. How long has it been, how long since I have felt skin on mine? Half mother, half whom? I am eager and ashamed and grateful all at once.
I am bloated with missing tonight.
I tell her I love trees more than anything, that the impossible I long for is for a forest to appear in the middle of my workday. A portal in my computer-screen that will suck me in and swallow me whole. She lets her fingers roam down my back and tells me about a forest in Japan, so thick with trees that even the wind can’t sneak in.
“So still, there is no sound. Phones don’t even work there,” she says, rubbing the oil into the arch of my feet now.
“Äokigahara it’s called. The floor is volcanic rock and the hardened lava absorbs all the sound. Inside the forest, without sound you feel like you are completely alone.”
What wild joy to be alone, I think.
And as if she sees the thought form, she adds “People go there in droves to die.”
“Hmm. It’s the most popular site to kill yourself in Japan, second in the world,
Prevention patrol roams the trail at the edge of the forest, urging people to leave if they see them. It’s full of signboards with helpline numbers, and asking people to think of their family.”
“What if their family is the problem?”
“Exactly! Apparently during famines and such, family members who had grown old or disabled, were carried up to the forest and abandoned there to die.”
“Why do you know this?”
“Oh I don’t know,” she shrugs, suddenly seeming very young. “The internet? I remember reading a few years ago about this huge crisis and how young Japanese men were just killing themselves. I looked it up”.
I remember it too, vaguely. Several big-name newspapers had covered the phenomenon. How these young men were increasingly isolated and depressed without any outlet of expression, how they had no interest in sex. A line comes floating out to me from some BBC report: They have forgotten how to touch a person.
The pain is subsiding slowly. “Thank you.”
She smiles at me again, saying nothing. I want to stare at her face forever. I don’t even know her name.
“You haven’t told me your name,” I say now.
“Neither have you.”
There is a pause.
It is unwise to commit transgressions and tell the truth.
She sees my thoughts and smiles.
“Koi nai,” she says. “Tesu is as red whether I call it tesu or palash.”
“My favourite colours were red and green,” I offer wanting to give something of myself.
“Mine is white,” she says.
“How wonderful. All blotted out by orange now,” I observe.
Grief without end. She strokes my hair and there are no comforting words to say.
Her hands are near my face, the softest thing I’ve felt in a while and, as if by force of habit, I lean my face into the palm of her hand and close my eyes.
It doesn’t matter whether it is palash or tesu or whether she takes in puppies every month.
They are not coming back.
I want to stay here like this forever – sleep and sleep and never get up again. I open my eyes and see in the lines around her mouth the same boundless grief.
Now she takes my face in her hands and kisses the top of my forehead. Kisses my eyelids shut, the tip of my wet nose where a tear has made its way without me noticing.
Is the universe being kind to me tonight – or is this in my head, is it the meds? It used to be difficult to know whom to go to – let alone now.
“Do you want to see my terrace?” she asks and I nod wordlessly.
She carries her smokes with her, and the roof is a clear flat space where there is nothing except sky above. We dangle our legs on the treeless terrace and smoke the cigarettes side by side. They are long and thin, and one must suck in very hard, turn one’s cheeks into hollows to get anything at all.
“These cigarettes are pointless,” I say.
“Haan,” she laughs. “They are. The point is being able to smoke. It’s too difficult to actually breathe in a Classic. I stockpiled these ones before.”
“How is the pain?” she asks me.
“I’d forgotten it,” I say honestly.
Now she slowly leans over, looking at me and kisses the side of my face. She kisses the spot behind my ear, the back of my neck and I breathe in.
When she puts her hands on me, I want to weep with something like gratitude.
I kiss her back with a ferocity that would have the world return everything to me.
I can’t remember the last time I was held.
When we kiss, she bites my lip and I wince.
“Bad?” she draws back in concern.
I shake my head. I can’t speak. I draw her hands towards me. I close my eyes and put my fingers in her hair, undoing it as she kisses my neck.
“Here,” she gestures and I kiss the back of her shoulder with all the gentleness I forgot I carried inside.
She moans as I bite the top of her ear.
Have we forgotten how to play, even? Everything must be purposeful.
“Touch me,” I gasp and she lets her fingers trace their way ever downwards.
I close my eyes and breathe in.
I almost can’t feel the strain under the gray sky.
I haven’t breathed in this deep, in how long.
When she slips her fingers in one by one, my voice escapes me. I hear myself hit the high notes for the first time since we stopped being able to get by without masks.
When it is ended and I open my eyes, the first thing I see is the moon, unobscured. My face is wet and so is hers. I don’t know why the tears came and what they have to say.
I go to lace her fingers in mine, they are wet – and in the moonlight I see it. Real this time, a deep crimson.
It has stained her fingers and the floor, finally a vivid real red. We lie very still, hand in hand. I am weightless and floating somewhere high above this city without a sea, without trees, without the kokil or the tesu I call palash, without Pushkin and people wearing funny clothes, naming their houses and painting them atrocious varied, detergent colours.
I breathe in over and over. I swallow all the air the city has left to offer.
Read our editorial reflections on the 2019 short story competition.