She Was Not Polite

The short girl just stood there with her hair falling over her eyes. She shifted from foot to foot, and squirmed endlessly as her teacher unloosed shaft after shaft from memory and accumulated grievance. Her classmates stood around, their lunchtime football match featuring a bedraggled butta quite forgotten. One boy picked up the butta and chucked it at her in an experimental sort of way. It bounced off her head, and then hit the teacher in the nose. Miss Ramamani stopped in mid-flow, her mouth now opening and closing wordlessly, and goggled at her and at her by-now shamefaced parents, as if this were all their fault.

It all began three fortnights ago, when Miss Ramamani had stormed into Rani’s sister’s class, and declared, “There is a girl in the fifth standard who has just informed me that I (and here, her palm swooped emotionally to her heart), am STUPID”. The class had gasped and looked at each other excitedly, and Nayana sunk into her seat, for she knew, then, that it had to have been her sister.

You see, Rani was always doing things like that. Nayana remembered how Rani had said to their mother after her very first day of kindergarten, “My teacher didn’t know anything about it, so I had to tell her!” Another time, Rani got into a bad fight with a boy from her class, and when he had said, “But Geeta Ma’am said it”, she had replied, “So what! As if she knows anything!”

Their parents tried talking to her. They tried to explain that sometimes teachers were wrong, and that there are teachers who are wrong and will never admit it. “And when you encounter a teacher like that”, their mother had said, “You must still be polite”. But Rani was not polite. She was opinionated, and loud, and most importantly, she was not in the least afraid of telling people exactly what she thought.

After the Stupid Incident, Miss Ramamani had called Rani to the staffroom, and had said to her, “If this kind of behaviour continues, I don’t know what I am going to do with you”. Unfortunately, Rani smiled when she heard this. It was a delighted smile that had flitted across her mouth, and settled into the corners of her face, and when she tried sucking in her cheeks to look solemn, the effect was rather terrifying, and quite, quite, unsuccessful.

Reports Day had come and gone, and Rani’s teachers all said the same thing to her mother, “She’s an extremely intelligent child…”, and then Rani’s mother would smile hesitantly, because she knew that there was always a ‘but’, and she was right, because then they would add, “But she needs to be more disciplined. We are all having trouble with that”.

If you ask Nayana, she will tell you that they had another conversation with Rani after Reports Day. But Rani had only answered that the teachers were stupid, and the classes were boring, and did you know that they punished one boy by making him stand in the dustbin? They’re all crazy!
If you ask Nayana’s parents, they will tell you that they secretly agreed.

Of course, her parents weren’t actually there to meet Rani’s teachers when the Butta Incident occurred. And for years after they will wish that they hadn’t been there. You see, they were only there to drop off Nayana’s costume for the play, when an exasperated woman had flown out of a nearby classroom.

Then, they heard her announce to the staffroom, “I have had it with Rani! I don’t know what I’m going to do!” Rani’s parents looked at each other, then braved a roomful of wrath, taking a few steps in. There they all were, perched like birds on the edge of their seats. Some were old, blinking owls, others were crows with curious noses, and Rani’s parents nervously introduced themselves.

I know that you’re wondering about what Rani did, but what she did is not important. Some say that she pretended that she didn’t have her English textbook, and said that she would be reading Oliver Twist instead. Others say that she stood in front of the dustbin when Miss Ramamani asked a boy to stand in it. When she was threatened with dustbin time, as well, she is said to have first dropped her English textbook in, then stepped in over it. There are many stories. In some, the butta hits Miss Ramamani in the face, but Rani’s classmates were busy playing football with the butta. Maybe there were two buttas. Maybe there were none.

I hear that Rani became a writer. Maybe she’ll tell you the story one day.

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Flight

In the first dream, Mama is dropping me to the airport, she’s driving a car that doesn’t look like ours, it looks more like the one that Stuart and Lynn drive, like the one they took us to the lake house in, and I looked back to check for surf boards, but there weren’t any, there was only Mia, their dog, who panted warmly over our necks, her drool slipping down the leather seats. Even now, I remember the car with surf boards in the back.

Mama is driving me to the airport, and I can’t stop feeling like something is different, like I am the same, but I am older to her now, she can talk to me like she would talk to a woman her age, not mine, and maybe I actually am older, because I also feel taller, and my legs are bent against the dashboard in a way that long legs bend, and I’m looking out of the window and we’re both in the same place, we’re both occupying in a similar fashion, and all I think is that she has accepted that I am an adult, and it is a relief to feel less like her child, somehow she is easier to be with now, it is nicer to be with her now, she can see me.

I’m telling her that I’m going to miss the flight, that I know I’m going to miss the flight, and I’ve been given this opportunity, Mama, and what is more humiliating and careless than missing the flight that will take you to the opportunity that has been given to you? But we are both also calm, like we are driving to the beach, like there are surf boards in the back, and maybe there actually were.

Then I am with Bhinusha. We’re in an red, Volvo bus, under a flyover, it is not moving, but we are hoping it will, and there are bright green trees all around us, and the bus has nowhere to go, so when three men call out to us from the road that is actually a parking space, we run out, and they point us to a flight of stairs leading into another plane. I am confused, I tell them that we haven’t gone through security yet, that we haven’t checked in our bags, we can’t just get into a plane, but they tell us that it is fine, it is a plane they have organised specially, and we can just walk into it.

But I don’t walk into the plane – I walk into the bus I just got out of, and all the SUSI participants are sitting here, and they look at me, because they’ve already taken the right flight, they weren’t late to the airport, to the flight that would take us back to Seattle, and this bus that we’re all in will take them to the hotel we’re all meant to be staying at, but I’ve missed the flight, and when we’re dropped off at the hotel, they’re there, but I’m still in Bangalore. And Kritika runs down the flight of stairs that leads to the lobby, and when she passes me, she looks at me as if to say, “How could you have missed the flight, and now you can’t be here”.

It is difficult to climb these stairs. My limbs are lead dipped in liquid gold, and I move them slowly over the stairs, but I am not moving, I am stuck, I don’t even know if I can walk down. I have never worn converse shoes, but I am wearing them now, and I know that that’s the only thing Kritika ever wore. I can’t believe that she has made the flight, and I haven’t. I am so careless.

In the second dream, I am with a senior from college, Maitreya, in the airport. Everyone around us is white, so I assume that we are already in the states, but we are also going somewhere in the states, and we’re waiting for our bags to arrive on the belt. He sees his bag, and leans in to pick it up, and I’m waiting for mine, but I also know that another woman has picked it up and taken it, and I can’t believe she has, because it was a small purple bag, and it was so distinct, but as I am thinking this, a line of small, purple bags approach, and I begin to rummage through one that I know is not mine, but one of them has to be, but they can’t be, but I don’t care, what if I didn’t know my bag well enough to begin with, and I am going to check all these small, purple bags. In one there is only a thin, white, satin scarf. There is something wrapped in it, but I don’t care what it is, I don’t go to check, it is insignificant.

Maitreya is leaving now. I am so late, he has already gotten his visa, because we need to get our visas at the airport, and in an elevated room behind the bag belt, I can see that he is having no trouble with the visa officer, and he picks up everything with that posture that is his, that easy, but quiet posture, and he slings a bag around his shoulder, why does it seem like he is always slinging a bag over his shoulder, and now he is walking out, and I’m saying, wait for me, but he is already out the doors, and he is saying that there will be another flight if I miss this one, but I know that that is something you only tell people who miss the first flight, there is never actually another flight, and he knows this, too, because he hasn’t even bothered to say that there will be another one like he believes it.

I reach the visa officer, and I am telling him to please hurry up, please, I am going to miss the plane, please, and I can see in my head the place I’m supposed to be at, and I know then that this flight is taking me to the MFA program I have gotten into, and there are people there waiting for me, and we’re all going for a walk, and there is marshy land around us, and I turn to a woman who is my professor, and she says that I can stay with her, everything is arranged, everything will be fine, but why am I not there? And I am thinking, how could I have not known that everything would be fine, that everything would be easy, if I had, I might’ve not done whatever careless thing I did that is going to make me miss my flight now.

The visa officer is pointing to a place on the form where I have written an incomplete sentence, and he’s smiling in that terribly condescending, helpless manner, like he is saying, “What am I to do if you haven’t even filled in the form properly?”, and he’s pointing to the incomplete sentence, I can see three commas in it, but the sentence is so small, and I know I have written something self-deprecating, and I am trying to tell him, “But I was thirteen when I wrote that, I was only in the seventh standard”, and he just keeps looking like he’s the man with the kindest heart whose hands are tied.

I don’t know what happens at the end of this one. I think I miss this flight.

A Christmas Story

When there are too many women in your family – not in number, but it seems that way, doesn’t it? – you learn to become a little like each of them. One day, you are waiting for the airport bus with your boyfriend, and he tells you that you are stubborn. You protest, because over the years you have come to think of ‘stubborn’ as a synonym for ‘my mother’, and you tell your boyfriend how she is inherently incapable of apology; how even when you both know that she is in the wrong, you are always the first one to attempt reconciliation. You watch as a ridiculous smile dances across his face, because you are also the first to make peace when the two of you fight. When you want to kiss his shameless grin away, hold back. You are at a bus stop. Spend the bus journey holding three fingers of your left hand in your right. This is the number of times your mother has apologised. Frown to yourself when you realise that if you had to pick, those wouldn’t have been the three times you’d have used them.

You are around words a lot these days. In class the other day, you suddenly discovered that you have always associated certain words with particular moments. You can’t remember which word inspired this discovery, but the image is still fresh in your mind – a young girl has walked into a roomful of people that she has never met, who know each other. This is one word. You still can’t remember what it was. ‘Apology’ is your mother’s palm on the handle of your bedroom door, her feet venturing in slowly. She never leans in, although her kurti does. Her hand doesn’t leave the handle through the apology. You know that she has sighed outside the door, because she is biting her lower lip in a tired fashion. She is very tall when she apologises. The kurti is always the red one. In the plane, think about how you will tell her about the weird man who looked at you pointedly when his hat fell near your feet. You picked it up. You hate him. You hate him.

It is Christmas time. You have gone back home for the holidays, promising everyone that you will bring back the Christmas cake that gave your classroom a wonderfully festive feel last year, when you opened the box and the whiskey shot its way up everyone’s noses. You are sitting at the dining table in your grandfather’s house now. Your grandmother died three and a half years ago, and you’re beginning to remember even the not so nice things. Like the time you and your brother had a fight with her, and loudly wondered whether all her aches and pains were not sometimes a little put on. You’re a horrible person. When you realised that she had been coming down the stairs and overheard you, you were not even sorry. She used to say that she loved you the most in the world, and sometimes you think that you felt the same way about her. You were in the tenth standard the year she died, and the last conversation she had with you was about how much you were studying. When you got upset, she asked you to play the piano for her, and you refused. The next night, you play Ave Maria on the electric piano in your room, and cry, and cry, and cry. For weeks, you play it till your fingers become numb and forget the notes.

There have been many storytellers in your life. Your mother made you a book when you were five or six-years-old. She painted a butterfly on the cover, and tied the pages together with ribbon. What was the story called? Something and the Butterfly? You don’t know. She reads you Narnia, your brother and yourself curled towards her on one of her shoulders each, your small hands holding the big book open on her stomach. When she is reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she makes you guess what the soft, cold, white thing in the wardrobe is. You guess ‘bird’ twice, and you’re completely in awe of her when she finally tells you that it is snow. This is the safest you have ever felt in your life. This is the safest you will ever feel. The yellow curtains in the room tickle the headboard of the bed. When you move houses, you take the curtains with you, and they go into your mother’s room. And when you came home yesterday, you saw that she had changed all the curtains in the house. She asked whether you weren’t glad that she’d gotten rid of the old ones that were always collecting dust. You are not glad. You must ask her where she kept the yellow ones, but you’re already afraid that they’ve already changed.

You’re back from lunch now. They’re sitting around you, making nankhatais. You asked your mother what she did with the yellow curtains and she said that she gave them to the girl who works in your house, who wakes you up on Sunday mornings, cleaning your room with an aggressive enthusiasm. Your brother heard the exchange, and told you, “Mama’s joking”, and you turned to her hopefully. You watch as she looks from one of you to the other, and says, more aware now, “But the seams were coming out, and they’re so old, and”. Her voice becomes light when she realises something too late. You are upset. You say, “But we’ve had them for years”. She never asks. Your grandmother was the same way. Your grandfather used to buy fancy linen on his trips to Europe. When he’d ask your grandmother about it years later, he would learn that she had gifted it to someone on their wedding day. They went for all those weddings together.

Something has changed. You used to be terrified of traditions dying out. You got very emotional about setting up the tree, and making all the Christmas sweets, in the pork-smelling house. You wanted everyone to sit at the table together, and listen to Christmas carols. Today, you unplugged the music system, and plugged in your laptop. You didn’t wonder why your aunt is shut up in a bedroom, and didn’t protest when your grandfather went up to take his afternoon nap. When he asks later, you won’t promise to go for midnight mass.

You think about when you’re older, and when you’ll have a family of your own. You’ll have the most beautiful children, who want to sit around the dining table and make Christmas sweets, while you cut pork in the kitchen – that reminds you: you must talk to your mother about how she makes it. You must at least glimpse the recipe. You must make sure that things can be the same one day.

The Husband Stitch – Responding to Machado

It is difficult not to channel Carmen Maria Machado after reading her.

For a while I have not written. Before the Diwali break I decided not to write for the twenty days, and not to feel guilty about it. I do not regret this decision, but getting back into the habit of writing is difficult. I let myself read and watch Game of Thrones, and sleep too late and wake up too late, and loved every bit of it. But then college started and I missed this thing I love to do, and Carmen Maria Machado held my hand understandingly and said, “Here, write like this”, and I channelled her calmly and wrote.

You must read The Husband Stitch quietly, in your head, mumbling half the words to yourself, and then you must read it out loud, to a roommate or an entire class, or a beautiful imagined person who sits cross-legged and alternates his glance between your mouth and his wrist. And now you have two stories, not one.

Maybe it is because I am woman (and how scary that word is, because I should be taller and my back straighter and my bust larger, and my hair, darker than black), but I did get what she was saying. And maybe there is a male equivalent to ribbons, but no one has written of whatever that would be, and so we shan’t talk about it yet.

I get it.

I understand her when she says, “It is not a secret; it is just mine”. I cannot explain this, and it needn’t be explained.

But one tries to explain it, the first time. After it ended, I remember just holding my phone to my face, feeling like I had read something that reminded me of nothing, and yet it was so familiar, so ordinary – it is like a smell that you remember as a child, that will suddenly accost you, years later, mid-sentence, when you find yourself surrounded by it.

And then we talked about the piece in class, and I said something without really thinking about what I was trying to say, and it suddenly all made sense. This material of mystery that the story (or stories) seem to be so intricately woven from, are unwound gently when you open your mouth to talk about it.

In the time I spent happily channelling Machado, I was also aware of what I was writing about, not just how I was writing. When you read The Husband Stitch, you acknowledge the fact that the stories are in the past, but you also can’t help feeling like it wouldn’t have made a difference if she had been telling them in the present. The style, the rhythms, the comfort with which she writes, allow for certain types of stories – the kind that one often wants to write about, but is scared that the story is too every-day, and yet you know, somewhere, that you want to write about it nevertheless, for some reason. Maybe everything is just about telling stories.

We sat in class, debating, and raising our voices about what the end meant, and what could have happened, and maybe she re-attached her head after she closes the story, and maybe she knew, or maybe she didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. The way I see it, the story is about telling stories, about how storytelling and the lives we live within our stories are the only real ones.

And when the ribbon is untied and her head falls off, it seemed to me the most eloquent bow that was ever taken after a performance.

Read the piece here — http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/The-Husband-Stitch

Nightmares

The bat is eating my brother in the attic of our house. I’m begging myself to wake up, but I cannot. Soon, my brother is only a mass of flesh, held to a corner of the ceiling by flapping wings. I am standing at the door, tears falling down my face, completely helpless. The bat and I know that he’s dead, but it won’t stop chewing at him, and I start to scream.

The street outside my father’s house has been turned into an open-air parking lot, and it is filled with black SUVs. I am crouched behind one of the cars, terrified but thrilled, because I feel exactly like I have always imagined I would feel, if I were a cop on a dangerous assignment. Suddenly, I notice that there is a pack of Dobermans in the parking lot, and that they’re looking for me.

I’m in the Hunger Games. We’re at a little beach, in the final phase of the games. I recognise a competitor as a nerdy boy from school. We both seem to be swimming to the same wall, to escape each other, and suddenly I realise that one of us doesn’t have legs, but I can’t tell which one of us it is. Then I am in the forest on the beach, and I realise that there are only two of us left, a senior of mine that I never liked, and I. The trees are tall and lanky, like the boy, and I find that if I push down on my knees, I can jump till the canopy. I know that I’m going to have to kill him, but I feel no fear. I tear him apart, limb by limb. I don’t feel guilty, only proud.

We’re standing on a thin strip of land in the middle of the ocean. There’s no way to escape, only time. Suddenly, there’s bright green grass all around me. I’m running from the waves, but they’re too powerful. I know that I’m going to drown. I have never felt like terror like this before. I am safe, but only till the waves crash over me.

It is only a second. I am walking down the corridor in my grandparents’ house, and a banshee flies out of the last room as I am going to pass by it. Her movement isn’t smooth. It is like her feet drag the floor with them as they move, and she scratches her way out. But it is so fast. I am facing her now, and her screeches so assertively, that for a minute I am aware that all the people who are downstairs, who would protect me from her, are probably also terrified.

I’m dying. I am in my grandparents’ neighbourhood, near the park we used to play in, lying slumped on the street. I feel my soul leave my body, but I’m not ready to die. I’m going higher and higher, and I turn to an orange speck in the sky and beg it to let me live. It says okay, but we both know that we’re only fooling ourselves.

We’re all on an island. There are swimming pools everywhere, with huge water-slides. There are too many people in the pool, and the slides are all vertical. I’m clinging to the side of one. People are throwing water balloons at each other from either ends of the slide. Everyone’s dying, people are falling onto each other. Suddenly, there’s no water at the bottom in the pool. I can see the cement floor.

I’m in a canoe, in an underground passageway. There are familiar strangers in the boat with me. Everything is a rusty red, including ourselves. When we reach the place the boat must dock, they all get up, and have somewhere to go. I don’t know what I’m doing there, so I begin to walk around. There are rooms everywhere, connected by strings of wood. As I walk by the rooms, I can see people sitting on the floor, talking, people having sex, people looking at a lamp, and the long hair of a woman, as it falls down her back. Then I’m back in the canoe, and it’s full of marbles, and again it’s moving toward the place with hanging rooms, that I have just left. The water level in the passage is rising, and I’m scared we’re going to drown, because the canal is too narrow, and my head’s almost touching the roof. I jump out of the canoe, and swim towards the ledge where I got off the first time. I know then that everyone else has drowned.

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