Leopard in the Champa Tree

When my grandmother died, her house became filled with all the people she had spoken to over the phone. If one of them said, “I looked forward to my weekly conversation with Jean,” six others would appear to claim the six other days of the week. “I would usually ring her on Saturday morning,” one might say, and another would pipe up, “Oh, I must have talked to her right after you did. We always spoke at around noon on Saturdays.”

It was one of the few things that made me smile during that week of her death. It was how I remembered her – sitting in her chair by the spindly table that held our telephone. Sometimes she would flip her soft white hair the same way that Justin Bieber did, and my brother and I would tease her. Other times, she would gesture that we must go to the kitchen, her palm briefly covering the phone’s mouthpiece. “There are cutlets,” she’d say, nodding all the time, then returning to her conversation.

It drove everyone mad. There was no use asking people to call at a particular time, because the line was always busy; I remember multiple occasions when I picked up the phone to call a friend, only to hear a voice on the other end ask, “Jean? Is that you?” Every year on her birthday, my grandfather would suggest that she disconnect the phone for the one hour when the family all sat down to her birthday lunch. And every year she would pretend that she thought he was being sensible, before she ignored the suggestion. On her birthdays, my brother and I began answering the phone with, “One sec, she’s right here.” She had seventy-two birthdays.

Nana’s room was downstairs. It had two purple walls and two almost-white pink ones. I picked out the colours when we first moved into their house, and she never changed them. There are striped curtains against a long window; the walls are covered with art from all the art my aunt collects. Most of the frames hold women’s faces, and I used to think that one of them was the face of my grandmother when she was young. I was convinced that it was her and that no one else had looked at it carefully enough. The woman in the picture had the same straight, thick, jet black hair that she did, and the same expression that she has in the pictures of her and my grandfather on their honeymoon. Like she has found herself in a new place and has already become its beloved.

***

The first phone I ever owned was a Nokia flip phone. It was silver and gold and had a small screen on the outside, where you could check the time. When I received messages, a small, black envelope would appear in the corner, and I’d tell myself to be patient – the message could wait. My grandmother was always telling me to be patient. To not react to things and people, to rise above something or the other, to focus on myself, and not the world. When my phone stopped working, I panicked. There was a picture in it of the two of us on my fifteenth birthday. It was taken in the new flat. I’m sitting on her lap. One of my arms is around her neck. Both of her arms are around my waist. Who took the picture? I don’t know. In it, I am wearing a green and white sleeveless blouse. Did she like the top? I don’t remember. When the phone stopped working, I became convinced that it was the only picture I had of the two of us. It wasn’t, but that didn’t matter.

***

She was the first person to tell me stories. We’d lie next to each other in that downstairs room and she’d look up at the ceiling. I looked at her, my head resting on her right shoulder. This close, I could see the fine white hairs on her chin. Her nose looked different, too, as if the crests and troughs of its bridge had decided to exchange places. I wondered if my nose would also change with time. Then it struck me that noses stay the same, even more than eyes do, but when the rest of your face changes, your nose is rudely made to seem different.

I begged for boarding school stories. So she told me about how a leopard crept into the school grounds one day, and I remember seeing the leopard sitting in the branches of a champa tree in my grandparents’ house. She smoked, she said. They all did. When they once suspected that they had been found out, they bribed a school maid to say that it was she who had been smoking in the bathrooms. What did you bribe her with? A box of imported cigarettes.

When she told me these stories, she also told me not to believe that boarding school was a nice place. There were nuns who made you kneel down, she said, and told me of how she was once humiliated in this way. Did she give me other reasons to hate boarding school? I don’t think so. And I didn’t take her word for it, either. In my mind, I saw how I would avoid all the nuns who would make me kneel down. I saw a great hall where I would sit with other girls of my age and eat breakfast and lunch and dinner. Our uniforms were very pretty and on Sundays we had to attend mass, after which we were allowed to go into the town. Sometimes we had midnight feasts, and lined the door of the common room with pillows, so that neither light nor sound would travel. Only later did we realise that the rabbits in the garden were the same ones we had in our stew. We didn’t really mind, though.

***

She came to us in our dreams, when she died. Anastasia, the lady who has worked in my grandparents’ house since Nihal was born, said that for an entire week she dreamt that my grandmother was holding counsel in a forest clearing. There were wise old monkeys in the trees, she said, and then she laughed. She was convinced that my grandmother was playing a trick on her. My aunt said that she kept dreaming about, too. Mama said the same. And in their dreams, she was always in new places. In mine, I was convinced that I had imagined her death, and she seemed annoyed with me for believing that she was gone. How could you be so silly, she seemed to be saying, distractedly.

The week that she died played itself out like one of Marquez’ novellas. Four days after her death, my grandfather’s brother passed away. The person who called said that he had had a heart attack in a rickshaw. He’d just gotten back from a conference in Madras, and his suitcase was with him. We were still seated at the dining table in my grandparents’ house when we received the news, and I remember that no one was solemn. We looked at each other amusedly, our heavy eyes blinking with bewilderment. It didn’t seem like news at all, and we reacted to it like it was gossip. Do you remember Mr and Mrs Faria, our upstairs neighbours in Bombay? Their daughter was in today’s newspaper. It seems she has won Miss Earth. One of those beauty pageants, you know.

While Nihal slept, I rummaged through my cupboard at home, picking out appropriately mournful clothes. I chose the things I liked least, because I knew I would never wear them again. On the day of the funeral, as I was making my way down the stairs, Aunty J remarked that my hair looked lovely. Aunty J always wanted to have daughters, but had two sons instead. That’s what happens when you want only boys or only girls, my mother told me. You get just the opposite. So I scrunched up my face and closed my eyes, and said to myself: When I grow up I want to have three sons, three sons, three sons. Little boys with hair all parted from the right to the left. They will wear denim shorts with blue and white and green t-shirts, and they won’t only like the things that boys are meant to like. They will like playing House-House, and will look uninterested when I buy them Hotwheels. They will run around and drive me mad, but I will love them. You see, my grandmother used to say that attention to detail was everything.

That week, other people said other things to me. A lady in a red dress who sat on one of the kitchen stools took my hands in hers and closed her eyes. “Do you know,” she said, “That for new tomatoes to grow, the old ones need to be plucked?” I looked at her. I looked at her red dress that was getting under people’s shoes, and imagined that she had plucked all the tomatoes in the world, and coloured her dress with them. “No,” I said, and then someone rescued me from her. Nihal was still asleep.

I remember being angry. Why was Jack crying, I wanted to know. He didn’t even know her, and now he was weeping. And why was Papa not crying? How could Papa not cry after thirty-seven years? Papa needed to stop greeting people and start crying right now, or I would tell him exactly what I thought. Everyone grieves differently, my mother half-told half-scolded me, but her words made no sense on that day. I found a corner of the kitchen to cry in, and various people found me. Riya’s mother held me against herself, refusing to let go even when I couldn’t breathe. She had known my grandmother. My grandmother had liked her.

In the nights we went back to our own home. My aunt and Anastasia stayed with Papa, who finally cried while the rosary was being said. My hand went automatically to the back of his neck, where my fingers scratched his pepper-and-salt hair. I don’t know why I did that. I had never done it before, and haven’t done it since. I think in that moment he seemed like a child to me, and that is how I remember comforting the three boys I never wanted to have. Papa has become a different person since Nana died, and I’m grateful that I get to know him like this. He has grown into the spaces she spilled into. When I call him from college now, we have whole conversations. Nana isn’t here to do it for him anymore.

***

At home, I play Gounod’s Ave Maria on my piano, over and over and over, till my fingers aren’t mine anymore, and every note is the same note. My mother knocks on my door in the early hours of the morning. She has come to comfort me, although it is her mother who has died, and it is I who should be comforting her. After she leaves, I play again.

Years ago, when I was preparing for a Trinity exam, my piano teacher and I were both convinced that I would fail the scales portion of the test. I hated practicing my scales. I knew that every time I played the piano, I ought to begin with scales, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

A few days before the exam, Nana decided that it was up to her to make sure that I knew them. And after some protestation on my part, we settled down at the piano, me at the bench, she in a chair to my right.

If you can play it five times, without a mistake, you can go on to the next scale, she said. If not, you have to play it ten times, and then five more times without a single mistake.

By the end of that evening I knew my scales. I couldn’t hear the notes anymore. We were having a conversation about something, and my fingers had become independent of me. I could hear only our voices.

Sometimes, when I am playing, I can still hear them.