Pleated Skirts and Amens

When she asked me whether I would go to art school, I said “No” too fast. There is something about a girl sitting in class, drawing, that is different from a girl sitting in class, reading, or a girl sitting in class, talking. When you are a girl, it is okay to draw in Math class, and to go to art school. So I said, “No”. I handed over the book to her, and told her that there was a drawing of a crucifix on one of its pages.

We are walking into the quadrangle after basketball practice. Classes are over; the quiet makes me feel like we’re in an altogether different place. I know this place by its sounds; here, I learn to become loud. We walk along the line of bricks that separates the veranda from the gutter and the plant pots. It is the first week, and they’re curious about the boys I’ve “dated”. Some of them tell me that x and y have been with their boyfriends forever, and that they’re sure they’ll end up married.

There is an assembly every day, with its Our Fathers and Hail Marys and loud or soft thuds depending on how far from the fainting girl you are standing. In the balcony – in a fashion that seems unconsciously and obviously papal in retrospect – our nun principal bats an eyelash, and continues. We sing the national anthem. There will always be the one girl with the stained skirt who happens to be standing at the front of a line.

We threw our seniors a pre-farewell party. They smeared paint on each other and on us and on the teachers they weren’t afraid of. We made a large banner out of sheets of chart paper, but I don’t think they saw it. One of the girls got onto a chair and rolled her skirt up. Another performed a scene from a Konkani play she was in. One girl ran to a balcony and pulled out the colourful, twisted streamers. Later, she put them in her hair.

I read while I went to school there. I read, and I wrote, and I drew, and all for myself. Only F knew that I wrote, because she wrote, too. One day, she said that we should both bring a poem to class. During the lunch break the next day, we sat on the stair at the classroom door, and they sat around us, listening. It was nice. At some point, someone said, “That’s so true”.

They used to be the enemy team; I knew them as ‘the one with the blue headband’ or ‘number five’ or ‘the short one who runs really fast’. My first day there, they came to see me in the morning break. I sat in the second-last row with an old friend from my previous school. One by one, they fell into the class, said, “So you’re playing for the team, right?”, and left. I wouldn’t learn their names till the next day.

They told me all the stories I needed to know. I think they were excited to tell these stories, and excited to have someone new to tell them to. You had to be loud, or louder than everyone else, to be heard. N was usually the loudest voice, but she became quiet when this story was told. I’m smiling now as I remember it. One day, we were standing at the entrance to a junior classroom when they pointed to a cracked pot in the garden. S saw a spider and jumped into D’s lap, screaming. Terrified, N ran out of the class; tripping on the stair at the doorway, she fell headfirst into the garden, and cracked the pot with her head. “She was fine, though”, they said.

Lunch

‘Lunch’

The fish is frying from the bus stop
To wave at the palms in the rear window we get off

Brother kicks a stone from his sandal
Tar to tar so long it falls

Before we are to reach the table
We must brush aside the bougainvillea branch

Our palms hold the damp door frame
To scrub soles on a poky green mat

Nana calls from her chair near the phone
A private conversation in the middle of the house

The table is set with the grandfather and the crossword
Letters cut open and understood

Mother descends by the staircase
Her hand never really touching the banister

City, Through a Cafe Window

‘City, Through a Café Window’

So many cafés, all look out to shop windows
I want to tell him, “That is not the city”, but then, what is

I have travelled in rickshaws and the buses
They only take you from point A to point B, one line at a time

I am wondering now if I am writing nonsense
But I shan’t bother myself this wonderment

It is only the sound that comes from the mouth of an old-ish man in a top hat
When his back is bent condescendingly towards a curious child

There is no wonderment in the child’s eyes
Although all the stories will tell you that there is

I want to tell the child, “Everyone will talk rubbish someday”
“Just don’t worry that you aren’t talking enough of it when they do”

Now I am twenty and officially in my twenties
But I’m not wearing the right pants and I don’t have a daily planner

My walk is far from brusque and I am far from looking like an important person
To the people who never move from where they stand on MG Road

Like vertical almond shells they spin and rotate in my overstated passing by
Sometimes I want to tell them, “I can’t picture the places you must come from”

We all come from the rickshaws

Old and New

We met in the third standard. We were seven or eight, and she had just moved to Goa from Bombay. She always brought really good tiffin for recess, and everyone in class would run to her when the bell rang. Standing at her desk, she’d hold court – handing out sandwiches, telling so-and-so to share this much or that much with someone else. This didn’t change over the years. I could cut her out of our third standard classroom; one hand on the desk, the other instructing our classmates to do something or the other, her whole self, assertive; and put her into our sixth or eighth standard classroom, and it is the same picture.

She keeps that part of me that has been content to live by the stories we read; isolated moments that silence the flurry of growing up, because we’d read about moments just like those in Mallory Towers, or The Naughtiest Girl in School, or Sweet Valley. I can see us running up and down the staircase in middle school, out of breath, chasing a couple of boys from our class who had pulled our hair, or stolen our tiffin, or said that they liked one of us. If we caught them, we’d hit them and laugh. Later, we talked about how one of them really did like one of us, because one of them had really told the other one of us that he did; the next time, the chase would end with knowing smiles.

In the sixth standard, we found ourselves in the same class again; thrown into it with hooligan classmates we unhappily recognised, we sat together and began talking about our colour pencils; I’d just gotten a set that had different colours at either end; she showed me the ones from the last year that she had sharpened, thrown in with the new ones she had bought. It is the first day of the year after the summer, and there is an excitement in the air that smells of the rain, damp desks, and bright green leaves. In wet sandals, we push ourselves up in our chairs every so often, in anticipation of a new class teacher; the hall outside is dark with the shadows of the monsoon that take the day too early. The day is new, and we’re glad that we got to school early, because that means that we also got the best places to sit.

Depending on how I look at a major portion of my life, she is as much protagonist, or completely absent. There are days when she hasn’t existed, and there are people we didn’t mutually know, or like, and whole chunks of time when she hasn’t defined – or even been a part of – something that has been important to me. But it is difficult to tell a story without mentioning her; I am surprised sometimes, at how often she comes up; there are parallel shades of my life that she never wandered into, parallel shades of myself that, both, scoffed at the things we held important, and needed them.

I don’t know her whole story. There are parts of both our stories that Enid Blyton never wrote justly, and the times they’ve emerged in conversation, they’ve always been frozen by awkward silences which extended the same palms that would meet denim soon after, sweaty. But I have come to trust these silences. After twelve years, they have become an important part of us, and are even reassuring now. They have grown to acknowledge the things that are difficult to say; now, the awkwardness says more than it doesn’t say; it is like it is repeating, “Take your time, I won’t ask”.

Today, I wish I was back home; I wish I was looking at my phone, cursing at how little time I have to bathe and get ready; I wish I was putting on my very short denim shorts, all the while thinking about where we’d go for lunch, and what we’d eat. Today, I wish I could depend simply on how long I’ve known her.

Because there’s a lot I need to tell her. There’s a lot I need to say in one sentence; there are people I need her to good-humouredly ridicule in passing, and things I need her to be fascinated by for not more than a minute. I need us to just enjoy our lunch.

On the way back, I’ll bring him up. I’ll tell her about how he reminds me too much of another boy we both knew, who managed to break up our group. I’ll tell her about how he is too perceptive, too present; I’ll tell her about how he is getting invited to the same things he once invited himself to, just like the other boy we knew. I want to tell her that I don’t trust him, because there are moments when I do. I watch him with them, and I am afraid that I am seeing something that they don’t seem to be seeing, and how could we have been so stupid? His words are too loud or too soft; too proper, or too harsh. I want to tell her that I’m scared that I’ve seen this happen before.

Like the other boy we knew, he wears a shadow of darkness that he will expel for only one of us. The rest of us, we will watch as she understands him, as he cloaks her slowly when we’re sleeping, and says he’s keeping her warm when she begins to look at us from within its folds. I want her to tell me that I’m not being paranoid; I want her to remind me of how many times we ended up saying, “We should have said something earlier”. I want to tell her that I’m saying something this time, even if they don’t hear it right away; even if I’m wrong.

She’ll look at me, then, and we’ll both sigh. She’ll ask about college.

Dirt

Mama tells me that I used to hate sand. When someone tried putting me feet-first onto the beach, I would kick my legs up and throw a tantrum.

The little girl is walking hand-in-hand with her mother. I think she is wearing a red cotton hat, and she is already tired from the walk towards the water. Every so often, she becomes determined about chasing the few crows that seem to move with them as they walk. One of the crows has had enough, and pecks the girl on the head. Maybe she wasn’t wearing a red cotton hat.

I like to think that I protected my brother in school. He is younger than I am, and was more introverted, and I desperately wanted us to have the kind of relationship where I was the protective older sister who scared all the bullies away.

The girl is standing at the side of a tall slide in the playground, carefully watching another child climb its ladder. She makes her way to the ladder, and begins to climb it, too. When she is at the top, she watches as the boy pushes the other children down the slide, laughing evilly; suddenly she looks afraid, and says nothing. As she slides down, the boy, who is now standing at the foot of the slide, decides to make his way back up. She smiles at the hunched, approaching figure in passing and decides not to tell her brother about it.

I was fascinated by the many bonsai plants that Suzette had in her kitchen. A miniature coconut tree, in particular. One day, she gave my brother and I two bonsai plants. I got a cactus, but I can’t remember what Nihal got. We put them on the window sill next to the inevitable mung-bean class project.

She is watering the plants. Her mother has put one at every edge of the flat, it seems. The plants hug a mossy structure in the middle, and like this, they grow. She remembers which plants she has watered by the colour of their leaves; downstairs, two plants have dark green and black leaves, and two have bright green leaves. She always begins with the plant with the dark green and black leaves, and takes longer to water them; it is like the colour absorbed the water better.

The first time Ilu and Suri heard that I had never eaten mud as a child, they assumed that I was joking. “But you never just picked up a handful of mud and put it in your mouth?” “Uh, what?” Their surprise doesn’t diminish with the growing number of people who say that they didn’t do this, either. “You were all just strange kids”.

They are returning from the beach. In the lift, the girl is arguing with her brother about who gets to bathe first once they reach the front door. After kicking their shoes off, and brushing the mat with their feet, they run towards the bathroom. Her brother is complaining outside, about how long she takes to bathe; somewhere from the dining room she can hear her mother saying that next time her brother will go first. When she is done bathing, and rinsing her swimsuit, she fills mugs of water to throw against the sandy floor; she watches as the sand collects and separates, and breathes, and finally reaches the reluctant drain.

I think it was the first time I did something to be able to say that I had done it. That, and for the brilliant picture I was sure it would make. I was twelve or thirteen, and we were at “Boot Camp”, which is just a fancy term for the weekend we spent trekking, and climbing fake hillsides and sailing. Basically, it was perfect, and on the last evening someone suggested that we have a boys versus girls mud fight in the disgusting mangrove mud that was full of twigs and god only knows what else.

The boys ran to the well and rinsed the mud from their short hair and uncomplicated bodies. The three girls spent two hours prying the drying cake from their tresses. The turtles in the well looked up and rolled their eyes.

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Turns out, someone did take a picture.

Room

So easily they define themselves by their words;
I saw a piano in a neat living-room and stacks of warm laundry;
Cold sunlight through a shiny window and the sound of silence,
When only the white curtains move.

My hand lifted to wave goodbye to the faceless man and our faceless children;
So many times I have seen their backs through the closing door.
I like standing like this, here.

There is a secret desk in a secret room upstairs,
Where the books on the shelves are alphabetised and dust-free,
And the pen does not want to be picked up.
This is a perfect moment.

Them

I asked Mama if they were happy together. She smiled at me, as if she knew that knowing that they were happy was important to me.
We were getting out of the car, and she shut the door and she said, “I think marriage meant something different to them”.

I don’t remember them happy together, but they always looked as happy as the next couple. The early pictures are the most confusing because they look happiest there.

My grandmother’s hair is thick and straight and beautiful in the way that hair is beautiful when it falls casually around a woman’s face, open; it curves a little at her arms, as if imitating her shoulders. She’s smiling. She’s smiling broadly with an ease that she has acquired by distancing herself from herself. In later pictures she always looks aware of the camera, of the person taking the picture; there is a sharpness in this picture that she doesn’t yet know she will acquire.

The skirt-suit she is wearing is the same rusty red as the landscape behind them. I keep going back to her smile. I don’t know it. I have never seen it before. It is different; it makes her look like someone we might have both found in the pages of the album, and been equally confused by. I didn’t know that she was ever young. I still think about her as someone who had been wise before she had grown old, and the woman in the picture is a wonderful, light-hearted imposter.

They look stunning together. My grandfather’s dark blazer is the same intelligent blue that I have come to associate with him, now. He looks like he knows that one day he will look back at these pictures with his grandchildren. He is wearing the smile of a man who has discovered not only that man is capable of discovery, but that he himself is young, and my God, isn’t that a beautiful prospect?

I don’t remember whether his arm is around her, or whether he is casually leaning against the brick wall that reaches their…waists? But it could be. It might be around her shoulders, or around her waist, but if it is, it was placed there correctly.
He knows that she will look gorgeous in the developed picture.

There is something right about them. I am almost afraid to write about it, because when I write I often stumble upon things I don’t want to know. The process of discovery is also one of elimination and I am not ready for any part of this picture to be deconstructed.

It is a beautiful day in Malta, and my grandparents are on their honeymoon. They look happy together.