I stand on the steps, watching Achamma draw stick figures in the rain softened, pungent earth. I sit behind you on your motorbike, holding onto you, the wind blowing away my words. I kiss you as we sit alone in the library, grimacing when your stubble scratches me. We are at the lighthouse, holding hands on the red cliffs as the waves crash noisily below; the wind turns colder, now it’s gloomy skies above white cliffs, and you aren’t there anymore. It’s the convocation, you are a blur, my heart races, my legs quiver, I want to sit down, I want to run away.
I wake up.
My nose running, my allergies triggered by the pollution, I stay in bed beside him, my scratchy sniffles mingling with the rhythm of his soft snores, the only sound in the otherwise quiet morning.
When his father finishes praying, I get up to splash away my sleep with winter’s cold water. Downstairs his mother, also up at the break of dawn, waits for me.
“Did he sleep well?”
As I make breakfast, the dosa batter sizzling on the pan, I wish it were an egg – golden yolk, its white encircled in crispy brown, fried in ghee as Achamma used to make for me in another place, in another time.
His parents sit in the verandah drenched in the morning sun: his mother, talking to no one in particular; his father, writing poetry, one every day for his next collection. When he wakes up and comes downstairs, he kisses me good morning in the kitchen before joining his parents with the day’s newspaper.
In the next hour I will wake up my son, feed him and send him off to school, before I set off to work myself.
“Will you be late today?” his parents ask me.
“The boy’s mother should be there for him when he’s back from school.”
I walk on the dirt track lane that once was tarred, till it joins the main road; now covered in dust and fumes, cars, buses and bikes blaring horns in a never-ending race.
I quit that race a while ago.
I take an auto rickshaw to the metro station, climb up the steps to the entrance, put my bag through the X-Ray machine as the bored security guard glances at the screen, and then make my way to the WOMEN box, where another bored security guard – a lady security guard – will pat me over.
Finally, once on the train as it glides over the vehicles sputtering on the roads below, I put on my headphones and slip into my me time.
I am grateful that the train is air conditioned.
The pollution peaks in winter, there is no escaping it in the city – I sniffle, my eyes tear up all day. It wasn’t always like this; not when I first came over here many years ago, not when I first met him. We returned to the city after years in self-imposed exile. It was his idea: he wanted our son to learn Indian values, and there was a new government.
“They are not corrupt like the previous lot. They’ll drain the swamp.”
“They are strong, decisive.”
“Now is a good time to go back. Too many bearded immigrants here.”
Browsing online reviews of schools for our son, getting rid of junk – the detritus of a settled life – as I prepared to uproot myself once again, I taught myself to look forward to returning, as I had once taught myself to look forward to leaving.
Over there, it will be snowing this time of the year. Over there, I didn’t sniffle, my eyes didn’t tear up all day.
Back in the city, I re-learnt what I had un-learnt in those years outside: to be grateful that my commute was only three hours every day; to ignore the hands that felt me up when I made my way through the crowded metro train; to accept the blurred boundaries between work and home, weekday and weekend.
I found the lack of formality jarring: the ease with which old friends dropped in unannounced, or added me to WhatsApp groups without first asking me.
I learnt to ignore the casual misogyny and bigotry that permeated those groups. Spouted by men, who were the boys I knew back in university; the twenty-something new adults I worked with when I first came to the city.
Standing all night in the queues outside schools for my son, I wondered if Amma – my mother – had done the same for me back home. I later realized that getting into a school was probably the easy bit; my son with his firang accent would become the target of bullying even as he struggled to fit in.
And then there’s his parents.
“She’s fair but… she’s not vegetarian.”
“She’s not from here. How will we adjust?”
Staying with them under the same roof, I took to inventing ruses.
“There was an emergency at work,” I told Appa after a night out with friends.
“Don’t tell Ajja and Ajji what you ate today,” to my son after I took him out for the steaks that he loved and which I used to grill over there, but had stopped grilling over here.
“You are not like the others… you aren’t vegetarian,” my colleagues over there used to tell me. I wonder how they will react if they knew that I pretended to be vegetarian in my own house.
“It’s actually my house,” I reminded visiting friends, apropos of nothing. “I bought it when I first came to the city.”
“They stay in my house,” I would add.
I convinced myself that returning to the city that I once loved was a good idea because Amma wasn’t far away. A six-hour drive through the meadows that led to the mountains, across its zig-zag bends, over the hundred-year-old bridge on the border between the two provinces – his and mine, down the other side, until I reached my hometown by the sea.
Where the salty air blew away my allergies; where the sea-bridge, that dilapidated pier that jutted out to sea, stood proud even if old; and where I was a child again, the only place I really thought of as home.
I was eighteen when Achamma passed away, the month before I went to university.
I remember looking at Achamma and wondering if she was smiling in her sleep, as she lay in the ice box, her skin only a shade darker than the white sheets that wrapped her, or the balls of cotton that were stuffed in her nostrils.
I remember wading through the crowd gathered around the body in our home, as I made my way away – because I didn’t want to see Achamma in the ice box.
I remember the Achamma sized hole that punctured my heart.
I was excited about going to university. My English speaking Achamma had been proud of me.
“Mole, you are the first girl in our family to do engineering. You must not stop there, do a Masters after that. And a PhD too.”
“Achamma! I just got in… I have 4 more years to go.”
I left my hometown for the first time – the university an overnight train journey away; in a town where they spoke the same language, probably ate the same food, but was still an overnight train journey away.
My proud English speaking Achamma had also been anxious.
“Mole, you are not a child anymore. Be careful with boys.”
“Mole, stay away from the bearded ones. They will cover you up, make you like them.”
My first semester at university, I threw up after every meal.
I missed Achamma’s Mathi fry – brought in fresh from the sea by the scores of little fishing boats that went out before dawn everyday, fried crisp like a biscuit, glistening in its own fat.
For me, the local beef delicacies of the inland university town, where the sea was unseen and unknown, couldn’t compare.
I missed the sea, the mellow rise and fall of the waves in the distance merging with the drone of my school. I missed the breeze that blew in from the sea, rushing through the corridors, seeding life in its wake.
I missed the rains that arrived on the sea, the waves now roaring angrily, the tall, twisted coconut palms straining as they held onto the earth.
I missed my friends, hanging out with them at the lighthouse in the fort, staring at the sunset, dreaming of the faraway lands that lay beyond, each vowing to one day cross over the infinite sea, seeking the adventures it promised, like the migratory birds that flew high above, belonging nowhere and everywhere.
I discovered the library, seeking refuge among its steel and glass shelves with the SILENCE PLEASE warnings in red pasted on them. Sitting amidst the students there, oblivious of their intertwined legs beneath the desks, I wrote long letters home to Amma, one every month, updating her with the happenings in my world. Each letter ending with an account of my carefully managed expenses.
I wrote longer letters to my friends.
“Edi, people eat only beef over here. And freshwater fish. Who even eats freshwater fish??”
“Edi, our computer prof is cute!”
I wondered why people spit as I gingerly made my way to the bus stand every morning, avoiding the tiny gelatinous puddles of grey sparkling like dew drops on a field.
I didn’t write about that to anyone.
I noticed you for the first time when the semester exam results came and you stood first; the boy who sat quietly in the last row in that class of sixty, stood first. I thought you were a buddhi-jeevi: big brown eyes behind glasses, freckled face, brown hair and pink lips.
I was standing behind you at the canteen when you ordered your lunch: fish curry meals with a side of fried fish, the same everyday. Your voice made me shiver.
I noticed how you dozed away in class in the afternoons, when the heat blanketed all and the old fans in the ceiling above went phir-phir-phir cutting through the sweat laden air.
I noticed how your fingers were long and slender, their tips pink.
You were behind me at the train station booking tickets for the same overnight train home, I was surprised to see you there. You asked me where I would get off; I was glad that you would be on the train with me for at least two hours of that overnight journey.
Those two hours with you, I spoke the most I had ever spoken with anyone. I didn’t want your station to come; when it came, I didn’t want you to get off. The rest of the journey to my hometown, I couldn’t wait to take the train back to university.
I never missed class; always among the first to leave the hostel in the mornings to catch the bus to class, to be there in class when you walked in, to smile and in turn catch your smile. In the evenings after class, we went to the Danish Cool Bar for ice-cream sundaes. On Saturdays, I sat behind you on your motorbike as we rode into town to watch a movie, any movie. Followed by dinner at the KTDC Motel on the highway outside town.
I began to enjoy parotta and beef fry, to not miss my favourite Mathi as much.
You continued standing first in the examinations, I was close behind.
I wondered where this road led to, what would Amma say? I was glad Achamma was no more – you are one of those bearded ones, even if you didn’t actually sport one. I knew the drama that would ensue at home when I announced you to Amma – the emotional blackmail, the threats of suicide. I didn’t know if I could handle any of that.
I was afraid to find out.
In our final year at university, you grew insistent, asking me again and again to introduce you to my family. You had already told your family about me; that wasn’t easy for you either.
But I needed more time.
It was on the day of our convocation – when you stood first and I was close behind – that you broke up with me.
I moved over here, to this city on the other side of the mountains, staying in a PG – its rooms stacked one on the other, like a tower of Lego blocks perched precariously on its tiny plot. Pictures of you – on the bus from the Study Tour, backstage at the Arts Fest – I buried deep inside the old tin trunk at Amma’s house back in my hometown.
“Amma, I am so happy,” I lied every Saturday morning at 8 am, in the PCO down the lane from my PG.
I spent the afternoons in the Cyber-cafe behind the PCO, scanning the Yahoo group messages from our friends: “this company here (or maybe that company there) is calling freshers.”
I wondered if wanting a job wasn’t reason enough when the interviewer asked me, “Why do you want to work for us?”
Two months after I arrived, I got a job.
“Amma, I have to join next month. I am so happy,” I did not lie, that Saturday morning at 8 am, in the PCO.
I learnt the city’s language, watched its movies, explored it with my new friends. I spent hours in my favourite bookshop, peering at the overflowing shelves before making my way – a pile of books in hand – to my favourite cafe. Sitting by the huge window, beneath the vintage photographs that hung on its walls, I fell in love with the throbbing city on the other side.
Alone and frightened when it burst into riots after its famous actor was kidnapped, I wondered if the city’s charms were deceptive, a veneer beneath which lay something else, somebody else.
I was still angry, the jagged edges of the void that you left behind still hurt. I nodded as my colleagues derided the bearded ones.
“They are troublemakers, up to no good.”
“They are waging holy war against our women.”
I wondered if I was a victim of holy war, of any war. I laughed at the thought.
I wondered why I was the only one who explored the NON-VEGETARIAN section of the buffet table when my team went out to lunch.
I went abroad to the foreign land across the seas where I saw snow for the first time. I didn’t think the lighthouse on those white cliffs was as beautiful as the one in the fort back in my hometown.
“Amma, strangers say luv to you in the shops,” I informed my mother using phone cards at 8 am on Saturday mornings.
“Edi, they don’t spit on the roads over here,” I emailed my friends from university.
I saw him when I returned to the city. He was sitting in the cubicle near the exit door on my floor: grey eyes, a wispy brown moustache and no glasses. His fingers were long and slender, their tips pink. I saw his thread underneath his collar.
He said hello in the lift.
We went to the cinemas and the pubs, we went trekking in the hills outside the city, even spent hours at my favourite cafe. He was fascinated that I had learnt his language – often mentioning it to his friends. He read too, but while I worshipped Hannah Arendt, he preferred Ayn Rand.
I told him about Correa’s contribution to Brutalism after I made love to him in the hotel near Correa’s only high rise in the city, the two of us admiring its unfinished concrete surface and its periscopic tops through the window of our room.
We married two years after we first met in the lift. His parents didn’t approve – I didn’t belong, I wasn’t vegetarian. He put his foot down – it was me or nobody else.
We went abroad soon after. It was his idea – “I want to get away from here,” he said. “I want to make some money.”
Sitting in the foreign land across the seas, I watched as he scanned the internet for news from back home and raged against those who stole his river’s water, every time the city we left behind exploded into riots.
As the unbound river hops over lines on a map on its way to meet the sea, I wonder if it cares who drank its water.
Today the city is no longer the place I remember it to be.
The hotel where I brunched with him, is a shopping mall – steel and glass replacing the ancient halls surrounded by trees; the cinema where we watched movies straight from work, is a car showroom; the road in whose afternoon desolation we hung out with beer and oily potato chips, has traffic jams at 10 pm; the pub where he and I both fell in love with Jimmy Hendrix, now plays bhangra.
My colleagues who once ridiculed the bearded others discreetly, almost politely, now wear their spite openly. Our friends from university who once posted job openings on Yahoo groups, have now turned into WhatsApp uncles ranting about us and them.
I am not sure if they changed or I did.
My favourite book shop and cafe remain unchanged, anchoring the city of my memory under dark clouds.
The wayward river still upsets him, now abusing drivers with number plates that don’t belong. When my friends drop by, he interrogates them, ignoring them if they can’t speak his language. He seeks out people like him – Facebook groups of those who belong, among whom he derides those who don’t.
I adjust into my new routine – cooking the vegetarian food of his parents before leaving for work, taking my son out every weekend for a treat of sausages and steak with fried eggs on the side, even joining Appa’s prayers once every week – not telling anyone that the last time I prayed was at my school assembly.
I wonder if this is what Achamma was worried about, I tell myself that at least I am not covered up.
I call up Amma every morning during my commute, speaking to her in the language of my childhood. “Amma, we are all fine here,” I am economical with the truth every morning at 8 am inside the metro train.
I fished out your pictures from Amma’s old tin trunk and digitized them.
I wonder if I’m a migratory bird.
Minal V M is a writer from Bangalore, India. Or at least he thinks he is. He considers himself a late bloomer – having actually started writing fiction only in his 40s after his father passed away. He thinks it’s a coping mechanism, but if it helps why knock it. When he is not writing, he reads. A hell of a lot. While he would love to be published in all the great journals, until now it’s been mostly Twitter (@PPuzhu) and Medium (https://vmminal.medium.com/) and an archival site (https://www.bankernivas.org/) that he wishes he spent more time on.He would also like you to know that he’s on the spectrum. Ever since he was late diagnosed – in his 40s, after his father passed away – he loves to drop that tidbit on his unsuspecting audience. That kind of explains a lot though, if you think about it.