The colour green has been maternal to me over the years. Or maybe soothing things are often some shade of green; things that know how to wrap bones in their unconditional affection. I think it probably started feeling that way to me on my second birthday when an aunt bought me a stuffed toy that soon became my best friend: a neon green monkey with floppy limbs and velcro palms that were designed to hold me. I named him Lion, and Lion the monkey still hangs from my curtain rod. As time scurried on, there were other such treasures in moss, sea foam, mint, but the most significant of them all is the forest green lake babbling in the heart of this city. I grew up in the embrace of the lake’s tranquility, often found on its embankments seeking advice from the water. I like to believe there is love between us.
Today though, its glossy skin looks different to me as I sit here with my feet in the water. A sad tune floats to me from beneath the pensive surface. If I listen close enough, I can hear hope and farewell in the refrain.
At the bend of the lake, a little girl is crouched in the dust drawing patterns with a stick, pigtails hanging lopsided behind her ears. She tilts her chin up and her sharp eyes lock with mine. I give her a small wave. Caught off guard, she hesitates for a second before returning the gesture with frantic enthusiasm.
The nickname scrapes against the scene in front of me, tearing into it as if it were a paper poster. I drag my gaze away and to a rigid face. The name, as well as the mouth uttering it appear to be pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with grooves that are all wrong for these spaces. He sits down next to me and takes my hand in his. I never got around to telling him how uncomfortable holding hands makes me. It’s probably too late to mention it.
“Amy, are you okay? We should head back.”
“I was thinking,” I say, “you could call me Amrita from time to time. I get why Amy is more comfortable for some people back in London, but not necessarily for you, right? It is a simple enough name around here.”
“I could,” he agrees, justifiably confused. “I didn’t know it meant that much to you and I thought you fancied being called Amy.”
“I do. Sometimes.”
He contemplates this and says, “I could even call you Ami.”
“No, not that,” I reply quickly.
Ami is what my parents and siblings call me. Again, it is something that conjures a wholly different world than the one he comes from. I cannot explain this in any comprehensible way so I say nothing further. We sit in silence, watching workers prepare the gazebo across the lake for a wedding. The idyllic alcove with its stunning view of the water is held up by four intricately carved stone pillars and is a popular spot for wedding ceremonies. In high school, my girlfriends and I would come to gush over the decorations and if we were lucky to catch a glimpse of it, the bride’s finery. Now that memory is akin to something from a movie I may or may not have watched at some point. I try not to think about it that way, and instead recall the lick of a metal bench on thighs left exposed by a cotton uniform.
“I am so happy we’re getting married here,” he says stiffly, tugging me away from the reminiscence, making me acknowledge that this time I will not arrive in a pinafore to admire the mandap from a safe distance, this time its fire will blaze at my feet.
Almost two years ago, I convinced my parents to send me to London to study art, a feat that still amazes me. Girls in my family do not leave home until marriage. It is simply not ‘a done thing’ as my mother would say, which is why there was a condition to my education abroad. And that condition is here sitting next to me. The right amount of tall and handsome, brought up in England in a wealthy Indian family and with a degree from the London School of Economics to boot. My father had him picked out even before the university orientation.
The year after that galloped along in the fabulous whirl that London is famous for. He met my friends and accompanied me to art shows. The relationship was nice enough; we could laugh together on occasion. Back then, while alone and blissfully painting on the cramped balcony protruding from my kitchen, I often believed the deal had been worth it. I enjoyed being Amy, it was easy on days like those when I could come home to my studio flat and be anyone I wanted to be. And then, all too soon, the morning of my graduation rolled in with an opulent ruby set in gold.
His proposal, and my acceptance, were both formalities dressed in romance. We found a bigger apartment, with marble countertops and a glass dining table. Our front door already has a mosaic sign that says Abhi & Amy. The wedding is tomorrow.
“Amrita?” he draws out cautiously.
“This place is as beautiful as you said.”
“Isn’t it? I grew up here. Once I failed an exam at school and didn’t want to tell my mother so I came here after class and hid in the hollow of that tree over there.”
His laugh is stunted but sweet.
“Were you discovered or did you go home yourself?” he asks.
“My parents called the cops and they found me. But it still worked, they were barely angry about the exam,” I say. This time we both laugh, whole-hearted and easy.
I have many stories that I would like to share with him while we are here and I can still find the words for them. Stories about this lake, these criss-crossing streets, the brightly coloured houses; they hold all the hopes I once had and the few I still have. There are so many stories he needs to know.
“We should go. There’s a lot to get done and then the family dinner later. Mum tells me she has a present she wants to give you for tonight.” He stands up and offers his hand to me. Concealing my disappointment, I let him pull me to my feet and turn around to see the girl artist from before standing right in front of me.
“Your mehendi is good,” she says to me in Kannada, pointing her stick at the intricate henna patterns covering my arms. She is wearing a frock, shabby from probably being in the heat and dust too many days in a row. Her curly hair is restrained with a yellow ribbon.
“Thank you. Where are your shoes?” I ask her.
She peers down at her bare feet and shrugs as if she couldn’t be bothered to keep track of the immaterial things. There are more important matters to discuss.
“Aunty,” she begins, wounding my ego, “do you want to play a game?”
From the corner of my eye, I catch him impatiently shifting his weight from one foot to the other, his neon sneakers looking strange against this terrain.
“Not today. I have to go home,” I explain gently.
“I had to go home one hour ago,” she says, surprising me with her blatant mischief.
“What does she want?” he asks. I realize he doesn’t understand the language.
I translate and his lips fall into a flat line. “Did you tell her we have to go?”
“Then let’s go.” He doesn’t waste a second, promptly striding away in the direction of our car and driver. I hurriedly root around in my purse for a chocolate bar and hand it to my new pal.
She examines the foreign branding, mouth ajar in wonder, and snatches it from me.
“Thank you, Aunty,” she says, giving me a grin.
I search for Abhinav, locate him as he turns off at the end of the path. It’s unclear if he is aware I am not in tow.
“You don’t have school today?” I ask, deciding to indulge her a little longer.
Her face falls and she shakes her head.
I mentally kick myself for the question, guilt splashing in my veins.
“What game are you playing today?” The attempt to distract is weak, but she perks up.
“Drawing a house,” she replies. “What game do you like?”
I have to think about that; games have been a thing of the past for a while.
“I like swings,” I say, hoping it qualifies as a game.
Her fingers curl around imaginary ropes and she moves them back and forth.
“Yes,” I confirm, laughing, “but there are no swings here.”
“I can show you. Do you want to go, Aunty?”
“Maybe next time.”
“It’s close by and there are two swings. We can both play.”
“I can’t come now. They’re waiting for me,” I insist, but she has already taken off to the lake’s wired fence, holding a sliced bit of it open.
“Shortcut,” she calls out in English, brimming with pride. When I don’t budge, her fingers drop the rusted metal, shuttering the secret gateway. Dejected, she gazes down at grubby toes and waits for me to leave.
“Shall we go in the car?” I blurt out, the idea recklessly somersaulting into my mind. “I’d like to see your swings. But only for ten minutes.”
The impish grin reappears and she rushes to take my hand in hers.
“Amy!” The two of us turn to the sound of my name. Abinav is back in sight at the top of the path, upturned palms seeking explanation, eyebrows furrowed and seething.
I can’t remember if he’s ever looked like this before.
“Is that your husband?” she asks. And something hasty and compelling comes over me.
“Run,” I tell my companion and she does not stop to wonder. She kicks up dust as we dash to the fence and squeeze through the gap in the fence. On the other side, there is a patch of stone and mud that tapers into a narrow lane. It leads to the village behind the lake, integrated into the city many years ago but still unapologetically itself.
Together we hurtle into its maze, my heeled sandals rattling behind the thump of her soles. Shopkeepers stretch their necks out of shutters to watch us go by. We race past a lady with a vegetable cart, a series of run-down hardware stores, a cobbler sitting on the edge of his boxy metal workspace who, as soon as he registers the odd sight of us whizzing by him, jumps up and shouts, “Chaitra!”
“That’s my father!” she yells over her shoulder, but doesn’t slow down. We keep running, around corners, up alleyways, past two modest temples and a church; running, running, running. Finally, she stops at a dead end. The ragged tar slides into dirt, the road has transformed into a sort of playground with two tire swings hanging from stout trees and a rickety see-saw. The place is deserted except for an elderly man selling ice gola from a cart.
She folds herself into one of the swings, panting and sniggering at the same time. I do not have the oxygen required to laugh but I want to.
“So this is the place,” I say after a few minutes of holding my knees.
“Is it nice? Different swings,” she states.
“It’s very nice,” I assure her. “Thank you for bringing me.”
Her sunken cheeks flush. Conscious, she spins her tire swing away with great skill.
“Do you want gola?” I ask her arched spine. This piques her interest and the tire slowly rotates back. I buy the colourful crushed ice in plastic cups. She holds both as I climb through the gap in the second tire. It isn’t too much of a struggle for me and I am rewarded with an impressed bob of the head.
“Your name is Amy?” she asks as we sit there slurping at the dripping flavour. She pronounces it carefully, balancing the peculiar sound of it on her tongue, offering special scrutiny to its extended tail.
“Amrita,” I tell her. She brightens at this. “And you’re Chaitra?”
“Chaitra,” she confirms. “But my mother calls me Cha.”
“You know, when I was younger, we used to stand on these. Can you do that, Cha?”
She smirks. “That’s easy. Can you still do it?”
The challenge hangs between us. We discard our cups and hasten to uncurl ourselves from the swing, regarding the other warily in a moment of childish competition. To my surprise, I find I want victory. I fling my shoes off my feet before first balancing them in the cavity and then gingerly on the top curve, digging my toes into the ribbed exterior. Looking up, I come face to face with a wobbly Chaitra and chuckle. She beams back, swaying a little.
“You don’t have to hold on so tight,” she says with unmistakable authority.
I loosen my grip, easing my body away from the rope. My feet get reacquainted with the ring underneath them and I giggle in delight at the ground shifting below. For the moment, this could very well be the top of The London Eye.
Chaitra pushes herself toward me and grabs my dupatta as her swing starts to slip back. It goes with her, leaving my neck naked. Without a second thought, she sends the cherry chiffon gliding through the air and onto a family of flat pebbles. The sun brushes against my collarbones. I have resolved myself to not checking my phone, so it is the only indication I have of time, everything else here seems to be unaffected by the minutes scurrying along. We stay where we are until the sun starts to dip, bundled in broken conversation.
After we’ve polished off another gola each, she peeks at me with a satisfied smile and asks, “Why do you like this game?”
“It feels like flying and that makes me happy.”
She places her leg on the frame and pushes off, launching her tire into the air.
“Flying,” she calls out. “Happy.”
I think of happiness and the glass around us cracks.
“I should go. I’m getting married tomorrow.”
She slows down to stare at me, expressionless.
“And then I have to go back to England.”
Features remain passive, but she asks, “When will you come back?”
“I don’t know,” I say quite truthfully, my mind wandering to semi-packed suitcases patiently lying open in my childhood bedroom.
The heavy silence between us presses against me.
“When you do, will you come to see me? Our house is behind my father’s shop.”
She registers this with a blink of long eyelashes.
“And I’ll bring you more chocolate.”
“All the way from there.”
Later that night I stand in front of the dressing table tying a gold saree around me when my mother knocks on my bedroom door with a velvet box in hand.
“Abhinav’s parents sent this for you,” she informs me.
Inside lies a set of diamond drops hanging from a thick chain.
“I hope your last minute shopping trip today wasn’t for a neck piece,” she says with an edge to her tone. Her eyes avoid meeting mine.
“I told Abhi he shouldn’t have let you go off by yourself but he said you insisted.”
I offer nothing in explanation, busying myself with lifting the jewels out of the box to place around my neck. She comes up behind me to fasten the clasp, her poker face studying mine in the mirror. I am struck by how alike we look tonight.
“Well, you’re here now,” she says, content.
The next day, I unhook Lion from his manmade branch and wrestle him into my luggage before marrying Abhinav in the gazebo on the lake, with lavish decorations, glittering finery and a sun setting over the last traces of green.
Minal Sukumar is a writer, poet, and storyteller from Bangalore, India. She holds an MA in writing from the National University of Ireland Galway and currently works as a content writer in her hometown. Minal was eleven when she decided to get into the business of writing stories, a ‘phase’ some are still waiting for her to outgrow. In 2017, she co-founded the literary collective Mouth of Word to give more performing writers a stage. Her own work is often a portrayal of the exquisite and resilient journeys of women in India.