This is the image in my head when I talk about my grandfather: he is sitting in the balcony of my grandparents’ house with the Heraldo in his arms, right leg crossed over left, bright pink bougainvillea framing his silhouette. He likes to sit here after his afternoon nap and listen to the koels and the bulbuls in the garden. Every so often he’ll look up and say, “We need to get a bigger bird bath,” but he doesn’t mean it, he’s rather fond of the clay one that hangs from the champa tree, chipped from that time the twine snapped in a June storm.
When I was growing up Pa would look over his newspaper and ask me which section I wanted. I always asked for the bit with the comic strips but he inquired each time, perhaps in the hope that a day would arrive when I’d ask for a more respectable section like City or International Affairs. There we’d sit in silence, a box of khara biscuits wordlessly traveling across the table. Pa always drank his tea faster than I did, much to my annoyance. I could cross my legs, hold the newspaper at an arm’s distance, look ponderously from a sentence to the cashew tree just the way he did – but when he reached for his cup and sipped the tea, I always found that mine was still too hot and was forced to return it to the table. Then Pa would look over his newspaper and ask, “What’s Dennis up to today?” and I’d show him.
Sometimes we’d spot a bird we didn’t recognise and he’d say, “We should look it up in the bird book.” I’d respond, “Yes, we should,” and we’d return to our reading as though the conversation hadn’t occurred.
I have yet to discover another person with whom I can sit in silence so comfortably.
It is 2013 and I have moved to Bangalore for college. The autowalas here have a sixth sense for telling when someone is new to the city, and in those first months I am constantly asked where I’m from. One day a scrawny sort of chap who looks like he could still be in school strikes up a conversation. When I answer that I’m from Goa, he says, “I went there with my friends once. Goa is not part of India, right? Do you need a visa to go there? I want to go again.”
After this indignity I begin to say that I’m from Bombay. What I don’t anticipate is that lying demands a certain consistency that I am not vigilant enough to pull off. I realise that the same autowalas park near my hostel every morning and that every autowala knows every other autowala. And now, because I have lied to one, I must lie to them all – including one particularly talkative man who tells me stories about his doctor-daughter and rascal-son with such warmth and openness that I mentally kick myself for lying. I want to tell stories in return but I cannot.
One day he asks about Bombay tea and I hear my voice tell a tale my mother once told me about her college days in Bombay. This voice describes the annual monsoon floods and the exact, pure joy that only a combination of rain and masala chai can produce. Autouncle is delighted. After this I tell many stories about Bombay. Some are blatantly plagiarised from my mother, others are peppered with my own memories of the city, still others are pulled entirely from my imagination. One morning I take great pains to accurately describe Regal Cinema’s butter popcorn. When we reach college, autouncle says he is hungry and is contemplating a second breakfast. “Shayad open dosa,” he says, as he drives off.
In the evenings I stand by my hostel window with a cup of chai and watch the people on the tree-lined road below. The autowalas are done for the day and are gathered around the smoke shop, their lit cigarettes a family of fireflies. On days that I tell Bombay stories, I come home with a renewed desire to write other stories. I sit at my desk and open my laptop.
My dorm room in Germany is one of five rooms that shares a kitchen. The kitchen is large with a striped blue floor and green cabinets. During my first week there I am unnerved every time I step into it, but cannot articulate why. Then an Iranian girl comes to visit a friend and cooks an elaborate stew of meat and French fries. As she tells us about her dissertation, I imagine delicious cartoon spirals sprouting from the broth. This is the first time the kitchen smells of food. After the German students cook, eat, and clean up, it is as though none of it ever happened. There is no hint of karipatta, no murmur of onion, no cloud of flavour that lounges in a corner rubbing its belly contentedly.
Luca is a linguistics student. He lives on the floor below us. Sometimes their oven decides not to work so he comes up to use ours. He is always carrying a loaf of bread when he does. I notice that Luca’s sentences drop at the end, as though he is terribly sad about the subject at hand. It doesn’t matter what he is saying, at the end I am left wanting to console him about a good grade or that time he got lost in Barcelona and had the adventure of a lifetime. “Lift, lift your sentences!” I want to yell. Then I wonder what my own sound like.
One night I am poring over an archive of Victorian propaganda when I sense that the world has gone quieter, as though someone has dropped a stolen blanket over it. Through the balcony’s glass door I see that the snow is coming down in sheets of white – a car parked at the other end of the quadrangle has already lost its wheels to a steadily rising sea of sparkle. Suddenly there is frantic knocking at my door. It is Luca. “Have you seen it? The first snow. Have you seen it!” It is funny how in our excitement we are reduced to the most basic stereotypes about ourselves. I say ‘just’ a lot when my words are trying to catch up with the impatience of my thoughts. Luca’s hands are having a conversation of their own.
I take the Red Label tea from the box containing tea, Haldirams, Maggi, and Nando’s cafreal masala that my mother has sent. We open the balcony in the hallway and sit down. It is so cold that I cannot feel my nose, but Luca is insistent that the best thing about snow is its smell. I cannot describe it even if I tried. “I knew it was going to snow tonight,” Luca says – “I sniff it in the air early on.” For a moment he looks so displaced, so small. Like the snow is the only thing in this place familiar to him.
I wonder when it will rain and sip my tea.
The apartment is on the second floor of a building whose floors look like each was an isolated, careful contemplation. There is speckled tile on the first floor but ours is a clear, cold beige. On most days Janani is home before I am, but on days she’s late I wander from my bedroom to hers to the kitchen. I have always wanted my own apartment, time that is mine alone, a space in which I am accountable to no one. Now that I have it I am not sure what to do with it.
Around the corner of our place is a spice shop. Every evening on my walk home from the gym I slow down as I pass by it. I am itching to step in to take a closer look but I am unfamiliar with spice terminology. What if I am drawn to a particularly haunting bucket of cinnamon? What do I ask for? A handful? A cup? One evening I tell myself not to be silly and walk in. “Josephite?” the owner asks. “Ha,” I say, looking intently at a basket of Kashmiri chillies. “Many times you walk, never come,” he observes, “Here, take, best raisins.” I leave with an assortment of goodies, all samples. “Next time you pay,” the man says, “This time try. Best quality. Try and see.”
Later I head to our terrace with my cinnamon tea. I take a sweatshirt for a pillow. Somewhere in the distance a woman is telling her daughter to stop fidgeting. Janani is in Koramangala teaching children. Mama phones. “Call your grandfather,” she says, “He wants me to order some book for you but I wasn’t sure if you’d read it. Talk to him and let me know.”
Downstairs, the city scribbles itself into being. A man in the street bellows drunkenly at what is probably empty space. The boys from the third floor are roaring with laughter, but it is far, far away. A lone coconut tree sways in the distance. The sky is never a clear blue. It is a Bangalore blue. Little shadows swim across the surface of my cup.