Main Burnt Sugar

Burnt Sugar

4.0 / 3.0
How much do you like this book?
What’s the quality of the file?
Download the book for quality assessment
What’s the quality of the downloaded files?

Sharp as a blade and laced with Avni Doshi’s caustic wit, this is a story about love and betrayal. Not between lovers - between mother and daughter.

In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents), and spent years chasing after a dishevelled, homeless ‘artist’ - all with her young child in tow. Now she is forgetting things, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night - and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her.  "I would be lying if I say my mother's misery has never given me pleasure," says Antara, Tara's now-adult daughter.

Burnt Sugar unpicks the slippery, choking cord of memory and myth that binds mother and daughter. In vivid and visceral prose, Avni Doshi tells a story, at once shocking and empathetic, about love and betrayal between a mother and a daughter. A journey into shifting memories, altering identities, and the subjective nature of truth, Burnt Sugar is a stunning and unforgettable debut.

'This utterly compelling read examines a complex and unusual mother-daughter relationship with honest, unflinching realism – sometimes emotionally wrenching but also cathartic, written with poignancy and memorability.’   -  2020 Booker Prize Judges

Avni Doshi was born in New Jersey in 1982 and is currently based in Dubai. She won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and a Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in 2014. Her debut title Girl in White Cotton.

Year:
2021
Publisher:
Harry N. Abrams
Language:
english
Pages:
288
ISBN 10:
1419752928
ISBN 13:
9781419752926
Series:
Booker Prize Shortlist
File:
EPUB, 1.27 MB
Download (epub, 1.27 MB)
Conversion to is in progress
Conversion to is failed

Most frequent terms

 
0 comments
 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

The Paradise Affair

Sprache:
english
Datei:
EPUB, 2.80 MB
0 / 0
2

Extraterrestrial

Jahr:
2021
Sprache:
english
Datei:
EPUB, 6.44 MB
4.5 / 0
This edition first published in hardcover in 2021 by

The Overlook Press, an imprint of ABRAMS

195 Broadway, 9th floor

New York, NY 10007

www.overlookpress.com

Abrams books are available at special discounts when purchased in quantity for premiums and promotions as well as fundraising or educational use. Special editions can also be created to specification. For details, contact specialsales@abramsbooks.com or the address above.

Copyright © 2021 Avni Doshi

Cover © 2021 Abrams

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2020944988

ISBN: 978-1-4197-5292-6

eISBN: 978-1-64700-226-8



ABRAMS The Art of Books

195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007

abramsbooks.com





For Nishi, Naren and Pushpa the Brave





Ma, ami tumar kachchey aamar porisoi diti diti biakul oya dzai

Mother, I’m so tired, tired of introducing myself to you

Rehna Sultana, ‘Mother’





I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.

I suffered at her hands as a child, and any pain she subsequently endured appeared to me to be a kind of redemption – a rebalancing of the universe, where the rational order of cause and effect aligned.

But now, I can’t even the tally between us.

The reason is simple: my mother is forgetting, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is no way to make her remember the things she has done in the past, no way to baste her in guilt. I used to bring up instances of her cruelty, casually, over tea, and watch her face curve into a frown. Now, she mostly can’t recall what I’m talking about; her eyes are distant with perpetual cheer. Anyone witnessing th; is will touch my hand and whisper: Enough now. She doesn’t remember, poor thing.

The sympathy she elicits in others gives rise to something acrid in me.


I suspected something a year ago, when she began wandering around the house at night. Her maid, Kashta, would call me, frightened.

‘Your mother is looking for plastic liners,’ Kashta said on one occasion. ‘In case you wet your bed.’

I held the phone away from my ear and searched the nightstand for my glasses. Beside me, my husband was still asleep and his earplugs glowed neon in the dark.

‘She must be dreaming,’ I said.

Kashta seemed unconvinced. ‘I didn’t know you used to wet your bed.’

I put the phone down and, for the rest of the night, was unable to sleep. Even in her madness, my mother had managed to humiliate me.

One day, the sweeper girl rang the bell at home and Ma didn’t know who she was. There were other incidents – when she forgot how to pay the electricity bill and misplaced her car in the car park below her flat. That was six months ago.

Sometimes I feel I can see the end, when she is nothing more than a rotting vegetable. Forgetting how to speak, how to control her bladder, and eventually forgetting how to breathe. Human degeneration halts and sputters but doesn’t reverse.

Dilip, my husband, suggests her memory may need occasional rehearsal. So I write stories from my mother’s past on little scraps of paper and tuck them into corners around her flat. She finds them from time to time and calls me, laughing.

‘I cannot believe that any child of mine could have such bad handwriting.’


On the day she forgot the name of the road she has lived on for two decades, Ma called me to say she had bought a pack of razors and wouldn’t be afraid to use them if circumstances deteriorated further. Then she started to cry. Through the phone I could hear horns bleating, people shouting. The sounds of Pune’s streets. She began to cough and lost her train of thought. I could practically smell the fumes of the auto-rickshaw she sat in, the dark smoke it pumped out, as though I were standing right next to her. For a moment, I felt bad. It must be the worst kind of suffering – cognizance of one’s own collapse, the penance of watching as things slip away. On the other hand, I knew this was a lie. My mother would never spend so much. A pack of razors, when only one would do the trick? She always did have a penchant for displaying emotion in public. I decided the best way to handle the situation was a compromise of sorts: I told my mother not to be dramatic, but noted down the incident so I could look for any razors and dispose of them at a later date.

I’ve noted down many things about my mother: the hour she falls asleep at night, when her reading glasses slip down the greasy slide of her nose, or the number of Mazorin filos she eats for breakfast – I have been keeping track of these details. I know the skirted responsibilities, and where the surface of story has been buffed smooth.

Sometimes when I visit her, she asks me to phone friends who are long dead.

My mother was a woman who could memorize recipes she had only read once. She could recall variations of tea made in other people’s homes. When she cooked, she reached out for bottles and masalas without glancing up.

Ma remembered the technique the Memon neighbours used to kill goats during Bakra Eid on the terrace above her parents’ old apartment, much to the Jain landlord’s horror, and how the wire-haired Muslim tailor once gave her a rusty basin to collect the blood in. She described the metallic taste for me, and how she had licked her red fingers.

‘My first taste of non-veg,’ she said. We were sitting along the water in Alandi. Pilgrims washed themselves and mourners submerged ashes. The murky river flowed imperceptibly, the colour of gangrene. Ma had wanted to get away from the house, from my grandmother, from talk about my father. It was an in-between time, after we had left the ashram and before they would send me away to boarding school. There was a truce between my mother and me for a moment, when I could still believe the worst was behind us. She didn’t tell me where we were going in the dark, and I couldn’t read the paper sign taped to the front of the bus we boarded. My stomach grunted, full of fear that we would disappear again on another one of my mother’s whims, but we stayed near the river where the bus dropped us off, and as the sun came up, the light made rainbows in the pools of petrol that had collected on the surface of the water. Once the day became hot, we returned home. Nani and Nana were frantic, but Ma said we hadn’t left the grounds of the compound where we lived. They believed her because they wanted to, though her story was unlikely since the compound where their building stood was not large enough to get lost in. Ma smiled as she spoke – she could lie easily.

It impressed me, that she was such a liar. For a time, I wanted to emulate this quality; it seemed like the one useful trait she had. My grandparents questioned the watchman but he could verify nothing – he was often sleeping on the job. And so we paused in this stalemate, as we so often would again, everyone standing by their falsehoods, certain that their own self-interest would prevail. I repeated my mother’s story when I was questioned again later. I had not yet learned what dissent was. I was still docile as a dog.


Sometimes, I refer to Ma in the past tense even though she is still alive. This would hurt her if she could remember it long enough. Dilip is her favourite person at the moment. He is an ideal son-in-law. When they meet, there are no expectations clouding the air around them. He doesn’t remember her as she was – he accepts her as she is, and is happy to reintroduce himself if she forgets his name.

I wish I could be that way, but the mother I remember appears and vanishes in front of me, a battery-operated doll whose mechanism is failing. The doll turns inanimate. The spell is broken. The child does not know what is real or what can be counted on. Maybe she never knew. The child cries.

I wish India allowed for assisted suicide like the Netherlands. Not just for the dignity of the patient, but for everyone involved.

I should be sad instead of angry.

Sometimes I cry when no one else is around – I am grieving, but it’s too early to burn the body.


The clock on the wall of the doctor’s office demands my attention. The hour hand is on one. The minute hand rests between eight and nine. The configuration remains this way for thirty minutes. The clock is a fading remnant of another time, broken down, never replaced.

The most diabolical part is the second hand, which, like a witching wand, is the only part of the clock that moves. Not only forwards but backwards too, back and forth at erratic times.

My stomach growls.

An audible sigh comes from the others waiting when the second hand stops moving altogether, but it is only playing dead for a moment until it starts up again. I resolve not to look at it, but the sound of the ticking echoes through the room.

I look at my mother. She dozes in her chair.

I feel the sound of the clock move through my body, altering my heart rate. It isn’t a tick-tock. A tick-tock is omnipresent, a pulse, a breath, a word. A tick-tock contains biological resonance, something I can internalize and ignore. This is a tick-tick-tick, followed by a length of silence, and a tock-tick-tock.

Ma’s mouth falls open, shapeless like a paper bag.

Through the wavy pane of glass I can see a group of peons gathered around a narrow desk, listening to a Test match commentary. They cheer, basking in the transmission of glory emanating from the speaker. The ticking changes again.

Inside the doctor’s examination room, we face another kind of clock. This is one he draws on white paper, leaving out the numbers.

‘Fill this in, Mrs Lamba,’ he says to my mother.

She takes the mechanical pencil from his hand and starts at one. When she reaches fifteen, he stops her.

‘Can you tell me the date today?’

Ma looks at me and back at the doctor. She lifts her shoulders in response, and one side moves higher than the other, somewhere between a shrug and a twitch. Every sign of her physical degradation feels repulsive. I look at the cream walls. The doctor’s certifications hang lopsided.

‘Or the year?’

My mother nods slowly.

‘Start with the century before the year,’ he says.

She opens her mouth and the ends of her lips point down like a fish. ‘Nineteen . . .’ she begins, and looks into the distance.

The doctor tilts his head. ‘You mean twenty, I think.’

She agrees, and smiles at him as though she is proud of some accomplishment. The doctor and I look at each other for an answer.

He goes on to say that in special cases they take fluid from the spine, but he hasn’t decided if Ma is a special case yet. Instead he does scans, draws blood, checks orifices and glands, and lays the map of her brain against a plate of light. He analyses shades and patterns, and looks for black holes. She has the brain of a young woman, he insists, a brain that does what it’s supposed to do.

I ask what a brain is supposed to do. Fire neurons and crackle with electrical currents?

He narrows his eyes and doesn’t answer. The muscles in his jaw give him a square head and a slight overbite.

‘But my mother is forgetting,’ I say.

‘Yes, that’s true,’ he says, and I begin to discern a lisp. The doctor draws a picture on a fresh piece of paper, a fluffy cloud that is supposed to be a brain. He picks his pen up from the page too soon and the curved lines don’t touch at the end, as though the cloud is leaking. ‘We should expect cognitive decline that will manifest in memory loss and personality changes. It won’t be too different to what we’ve already noticed.

‘What you have already noticed,’ he clarifies. ‘It’s unclear how much your mother is noticing.’

With a pencil, he highlights areas where synaptic function is declining, where the neurons are dying. The pristine white cloud begins to look crowded. Now the opening where he didn’t complete the shape seems a blessing, a way to let some air in. The neocortex, the limbic system and the subcortical regions are mapped in messy strokes. I sit on my hands.

The hippocampus is the memory bank and, in this disease, the vaults are being emptied. Long-term memory cannot be formed, short-term memory vanishes into the ether. The present becomes a fragile thing which, moments later, seems to have never happened. As the hippocampus gets weaker, space may appear different, distorted.

‘Has she ever had a major head injury that you know of? Has she ever, to your knowledge, had prolonged exposure to any toxins? Perhaps some heavy metals? Has anyone else in the family had any problem with memory before? And any problems with immunity? I’m sorry, but we have to ask about HIV and AIDS.’

The questions come out of his mouth before I have time to answer, and I realize that what I say matters little in the end. Due diligence will not change what we’ve shared in this office, and Ma’s history will have no bearing on her diagnosis.

Inside the curves of the cloud, he draws an asterisk. Next to it, he writes ‘amyloid plaque’. The plaques are protein formations that usually appear in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

‘Did you see one of these in the scan?’ I ask.

‘No,’ he says. ‘Not yet, at least. But your mother is forgetting.’

I tell him I don’t understand how that can be, and in answer he lists some pharmaceutical drugs on the market. Donepezil is the most popular. He circles it three times.

‘What are the side effects?’

‘High blood pressure, headache, stomach problems, depression.’ He looks up at the ceiling and squints, trying to remember more. In the drawing, the amyloid plaque doesn’t look so bad. It’s almost magical, a lone tangle of yarn. I say this out loud and regret it a moment later.

‘Does she knit?’ he asks.

‘No. She hates anything that seems domestic. Except cooking. She’s a wonderful cook.’

‘Well, that won’t help. Recipes are notoriously difficult to keep straight. Knitting, when it becomes muscle memory, can bypass parts of the brain.’

I shrug. ‘I suppose I could try. She’ll hate the idea.’

‘Nothing about her is certain any more,’ he says. ‘She may be a whole different person tomorrow.’

On the way out, the doctor asks me if we are related to a Dr Vinay Lamba, someone senior in an important hospital in Bombay. I tell him we aren’t, and he looks disappointed, sad for us. I wonder if inventing a relation could have helped.

‘Does your mother live with someone, a husband or a son?’ he says.

‘No,’ I say. ‘She lives alone. Right now.’


‘Don’t bite your nails,’ Ma says on the way home.

I put my right hand back on the steering wheel and try not to clench it, but my left hand moves automatically to my mouth.

‘It isn’t really the nail that I’m biting, it’s the cuticle.’

Ma says she doesn’t care for the difference and thinks it’s a shame my fingers should look this way when I’m always doing so much with my hands. I stay quiet as she speaks for the rest of the journey, listening less to what she says than how she says it, the rhythm and hesitation in her voice when she doesn’t say what she means, misspeaks, inserts a reprimand to cover for her own uncertainty. She apologizes, says I’m to blame for my mistakes, thanks me and sighs, massaging her temples. Her lips cave in where two teeth are missing at the side of her mouth, and she looks like she has eaten something bitter.

I ask my mother who she is speaking to, but she doesn’t answer. I glance at the back seat, just in case.

In her flat, we drink tea with digestive biscuits because they’re Ma’s favourite and it’s been a hard day. I tell Kashta to make a paste of honey and ginger for my tickling throat. My mother is wordless as I give these instructions.

‘Add some fresh turmeric to that,’ she says a moment later. ‘Just a sliver the size of a baby’s foreskin is enough.’

She presses her thumbnail against the tip of her middle finger when she says this, measuring the exact amount. Then she looks down into her teacup, stirring an elliptical in its firmament.

‘Please don’t talk about foreskin,’ I say, breaking the biscuits into halves.

‘What’s there in a little foreskin? Don’t be such a prude.’ She remembers how to insult me well enough.

Her apartment is a quiet mess. I consolidate three shakers of salt into one. A collection of untouched newspapers sits on the four-seater dining table. Ma insists on keeping them, says she will get to them one day.

I turn over a small bag of mung beans from the market into a steel thali and begin separating the pulse from the stone. Kashta tries to pull the plate from me but I push her away. When I’m done, I begin separating the mung by shades – military green, taupe, beige. My mother looks at the discrete piles and shakes her head. I crack my knuckles and continue separating. I know it won’t make a difference once they’re all in the cooker, but I’ve started now and I can’t stop, can’t stop looking for differences, until they are all where they’re meant to be, coded, surrounded by their own families.

Ma naps on the sofa, and for a moment I can imagine what she’ll look like when she dies, when her face slackens and the air abandons her lungs. Around her are objects, papers, photo frames filled with faces she hasn’t seen in years. Among these things her body looks lifeless and alone, and I wonder if performing for the world circulates something vital, if the pressure of an audience is what forces the blood to pump. It’s easy to unravel when no one is watching.

My old room stands apart from the rest of the flat, like a graft of foreign skin. There is an order, a symmetry I have left behind – one she hasn’t been able to undo. On the wall, in identical frames, are black-and-white sketches of faces I have hung five centimetres apart. The bed is made, and I run my hands over the sheets to remove the creases but they have been ironed into the fabric.

*

Since the last elections, Ma shouts at the television every time the new prime minister comes on. He wears his saffron mantle like the attribute of a Hindu deity – with stylized pleats always crumpled in the same place. He is the reason, she says, that she’s never known real love.

I wake up to the darkness. My phone is lit with a dozen missed calls from Dilip. Lights flash from the living room. My mother must be watching muted but moving mouths on TV.

The sky is dark, but the industrial complex fifteen kilometres away gives us pink light as a prelude to the sun. Ma isn’t on the sofa when I come out, and I don’t see her at first, standing behind the sheer curtains with her body pressed against the window. The woven drapes, grey-and-white paisley, shroud her in part, leaving shadows on her body. Through the fabric, I see her dark birthmark, an oblong disc that interrupts her shoulder blade, a bullseye on her back. Her chest is still, as though she isn’t breathing.

She is naked, and steps back to look at her reflection in the glass. She looks at mine, as it appears next to hers, then back and forth, as though she cannot tell the difference. Opposites often resemble each other.

I touch Ma’s elbow and she flinches. Then she points to the TV screen, to the man she has silenced with the remote control.

‘You’re in it together,’ she whispers.

‘Ma.’ I try to calm her, to pull her away from the glass, but she moves back, her eyes feral, and I’m not sure she recognizes my face. She recovers quickly, but that look is enough to take the air out of my lungs. For a moment she did not know who I am and for that moment I am no one.

I coax her back to bed and call the doctor. His voice is gruff. How did I get this number, he wants to know. Our call suddenly feels intimate, as though I have crossed a line. His wife must be beside him, disturbed from her sleep. I imagine what they wear to bed, how their clothes shift through the night. I feel a dampening between my legs.

‘My mother didn’t recognize me for a second,’ I say.

‘That can happen. You should familiarize yourself with how this will progress.’ His tongue sounds large in his mouth, his voice betrays annoyance and I have the sensation of failing an exam.


I spend the day turning ideas over in my mind. Science has never interested me, but I open myself up to the deluge of jargon.

I look up the chemical composition of my mother’s medicine, a series of elegant hexagons, and a molecule of hydrogen chloride hanging off like a tail. I unearth the animal studies, diagrams of rat brains that were opened to chart their activity. The little tablets she has to take inhibit cholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This promotes activity that should improve symptoms of the disease’s progression.

Acetylcholine build-up in the body can be toxic.

Acetylcholine is found in pesticides and in chemical-warfare agents, commonly called nerve gas.

A low dose of something can be a panacea. A high dose can be fatal.

I open another window. Helicobacter pylori causes stomach ulcers and cancer if it multiplies out of control, but when completely absent from the bodies of children, rates of asthma increase.

I wish moderation were a comfortable state.

The list of side effects is longer than the doctor suggested. I want to call him again but I’m afraid. My relationship with him is strained. Can it be called a relationship? I hold myself tightly against thinking too long on this.

There are chat groups dedicated to the demise of Donepezil, citing inefficacy, among other grievances. Krill oil is recommended across the board for brain health. There is something complete in the make-up of this minuscule crustacean, this creature that can move its body with legs that are nothing more than filaments. Krill is better than fish, and a diagram explains why: the brain prefers the phospholipid form krill oil takes.

I copy the structures and chemical formulae of the oil down on a writing pad, but my drawings diverge from the originals, looking more like krill than molecules. The exoskeleton is a delicate ethyl ester, and three fatty acids form its flailing limbs. As I try to continue with purchasing the oil, I receive a warning that the company are not responsible for Indian customs delays.

They remind me that the oil is photosensitive and will spoil at high temperatures.





My husband, Dilip, grew up in America and he breaks his rotis with two hands. I met him a couple of years ago, after he had moved to Pune for work. The move was a demotion, but he didn’t mention that when he started chatting me up at the German Bakery on North Main Road. I wasn’t expecting to see another person there, since it was a Sunday morning and no one goes to the café much since a bomb went off inside in 2010.

I settled in a red plastic chair with my laptop as he slid into the place next to me. He smiled. His teeth were straight white tiles. He asked me if I knew the Wi-Fi password and if he could buy me a coffee. I told him coffee made me jittery, sometimes gassy. He asked me what I was working on, and even though I didn’t want to tell him about my drawings, I reasoned that artists couldn’t be fearful about sharing secrets with strangers.

He inhaled as he listened and leaned forward. The red plastic chair strained under his weight and his knee closed into an acute angle. We stared at each other for a while and he asked me if I wanted to go out for a meal that weekend. I blinked at the word ‘meal’ before realizing he meant dinner. (I have picked up many of his speech patterns since then.)

He asked me if I knew any of the restaurants in the ashram lane.

‘Yes, I spent some of my childhood living in the ashram. I know that area well,’ I said.

The date was pleasant. We shared spaghetti, cooked and plated in little nests. Green leaves of basil were tucked into the edges, with roasted red and yellow cherry tomatoes in the centre, situated like unhatched eggs. The tall banyan trees threw shadows around the floodlit courtyard, and the faces of occupants were obscured. We had a table hidden in the corner, one that would have been perfect for a couple having an affair, so perfect they could have sent each other one-character communications – a number to denote the time – because the location could stay the same.

I said this out loud without editing myself and he found it amusing, creative even, and asked me if I liked to make up stories. ‘Communicating as efficiently as possible has always interested me,’ I said. I wanted to ask if we were on a date. I usually slept with men who were friends or whom I met through friends, and we remained something between friends and lovers, but there was never a full plate of food involved or the payment of a bill.

Dilip tells the story differently. Or maybe the story just sounds different in his voice, with its round vowels and chewed words. He describes the feeling he had when he saw me, says I looked like a bohemian artist, and remembers the shirt I was wearing had paint on it. This is a fabrication – I never wear the clothes I work in outside of my studio. And I’m not a painter.

Dilip is prone to exaggeration. He says his sister is beautiful when she is decidedly not. He calls a lot of people nice who don’t deserve it. I assign this to his being both beautiful and nice. Dilip also talks about the millions of friends he has back home, but only four came to Pune for our wedding. Not that I minded. Our wedding lasted only two days, at my insistence, which his mother said was not long enough to travel for. His parents and sister came from the States with half a dozen of their other relatives. My grandmother said Gujaratis from America make a disappointing wedding procession.


In the lead-up, Dilip’s mother gave her astrologer my date and time of birth to ensure my stars aligned with her son’s. The truth is my mother lost my birth certificate years ago, during the time we were homeless, and because looking into the official birth record would have been a hassle, we invented something that seemed like a fair approximation.

‘I know it was dark,’ Ma said.

‘That narrows it down to early in the morning or late at night,’ I replied.

We told Dilip’s mother I was born at 8.23 in the evening, 2023 hours in military time, deciding on the twenty-three because anything that ended in zero or five might seem made up. Four months before the wedding, Dilip’s mother called me at home.

‘The pandit spoke to me,’ she said. ‘He’s very concerned.’

A birth chart had been made for me, a chart to represent the sky at the moment I was born. Mangal, the red planet, was found to be in a dangerous aspect, placed squarely in the house of marriage.

‘You’re a manglik, that’s what they call people like you,’ she said. The line was fuzzy, and I missed the rest of the accusation. She explained that if I married her son, my fiery energies could kill him. I remained silent for a while, wondering if this was their way out: had Dilip asked his mother to call and break our engagement? I could hear her breathing, opening and closing her moist lips close to the receiver. Maybe she expected an apology. I didn’t offer one.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said, when the length of silence had passed into uncomfortable. ‘The pandit has a cure.’

The next day a pandit appeared at our door. He was not my mother-in-law’s priest but a local ambassador chosen to set things right.

‘What is this?’ Ma said as we watched him place a woven mat on the floor of the flat.

‘Too much of the planet Mars,’ the pandit said. ‘It’s bad for her husband.’

‘Superstitious nonsense.’ Ma pulled a stick of incense from his hand and began waving it around his head.

The man continued his work, unperturbed. He arranged fruit in steel trays. Then flowers. Milk. There were saris and embroidered red cloth. He seated himself in front of an earthen pot and lit a fire with ghee, wood chips and newspaper.

The torpor of summer was upon us, and the inside of the flat felt like a pressure cooker. I sneezed and a ball of dark snot landed in my palm, thick and bloody like a tumour. I was sure this was a bad omen and wiped it on the skin under my tunic. The pandit layered red and orange fabrics on top of several wood blocks. He moved his hands quickly, making swastikas out of uncooked grains of rice, placing whole betel nuts here and there to represent the planets in the cosmos, anointing them with some benediction that escaped me.

I sat down in front of four bronze idols. They were no more than ten centimetres tall, swathed and garlanded.

‘Today, this is your husband,’ the pandit said.

I looked at the gods. Their faces were mostly the same, except Ganesh, whose tusk curved in a smile.

‘What? All?’

‘No, only this one. Vishnu.’ The pandit smiled. ‘He will absorb your bad energies by marrying you first, so your next husband doesn’t suffer.’

Vishnu looked delicate, with an aquiline nose and a shortened chin.

‘Do I have to do this?’ I asked the holy man. ‘Can’t we just tell everyone I did it?’

The pandit didn’t answer.

The ceremony was long, longer than my wedding to Dilip would be a few months later, and full of chanting. I circled the fire, holding the small deity in my arms, watching his motionless face. A simple mangalsutra was placed around my neck and a crimson line of sindoor in my parting, to symbolize I was a married woman. After the ceremony, the necklace was ripped off and the red paste smeared across my forehead.

‘Married and divorced,’ the pandit said. I looked in the mirror. There was an imprint that the hook of the necklace had left on my skin. My face was speckled with red. It was a violent business. The priest shook my hand. Then he asked for a donation and a cup of tea.


A month before our wedding, I accompanied Dilip on the four-hour drive to Bombay airport to collect his mother. He hired a driver and a large air-conditioned Innova to accommodate all her luggage. By the time we arrived, she was standing outside with a porter, fanning herself with a brochure and shooing away taxi drivers. She wasn’t a tall woman, but she took up space where she stood, bumping passersby with her elbows and blocking the path with her wide stance. Her woven sunhat, sandals, trousers and T-shirt were all the same shade of pink. I thought I detected a scowl on her face until she laid eyes on her son. The sunhat drooped a little as she waved wildly in our direction.

‘I haven’t been back here in ten years!’ she said in greeting. She was wide awake as we drove over the dramatic Western Ghats, pointing out every pile of garbage along the highway and shaking her head. I told her that the hills were beautiful in the monsoon, misty and wet from the rain, even though the summer sky now was an unimpressive bright sheet of white. Her incredulity skyrocketed at every toll booth, which, she noted, had been built without taking the average height of a vehicle or the length of a human arm into account, and two men were required as go-betweens to hand over money to the toll officer.

‘This country,’ she sighed. ‘I suppose it’s a way to give everyone a job. Hire three where only one is needed.’

When we reached Pune, the wide highway decorated with brightly coloured billboards gave way to narrow lanes with small businesses – motels, restaurants and bike shops dotted the road. As we waited at a traffic light, two young boys came out from a makeshift slum nearby. Both squatted, rubbing their eyes and yawning.

‘Oh God,’ Dilip’s mother said, ‘look at these guys. Can’t they go behind their house? There is a toilet sign right there.’

I imagined the toilets were less than suitable but said nothing, hoping instead that the car in front of us would move. But it didn’t, and the two boys were joined by a third friend who came closer to the kerb.

‘This is crazy,’ she cried.

‘Leave them alone,’ Dilip said, laughing.

‘Shameless,’ she said. Pulling her phone from her bag, she began recording them. I crossed my arms, hoping they wouldn’t notice, but realized they had when all three stood up and faced our car at the same time.

Fortunately, the lights changed. Dilip’s mother laughed as we drove away, and watched the video repeatedly for the rest of the drive. I tried to divert her attention – it was her first time in Pune – by pointing out the large green expanse of the army base, the deep shade that covered us as we passed beneath some ancient banyan trees. Pune was inland and the air was dry, cold in the winter and dusty in the summer, but never wet and putrid like what one experienced in Bombay. I suggested a list of places we could visit – the historical Shaniwar Wada fortress that had been the seat of the local Peshwa dynasty, a small but beautiful Shiva temple, and my favourite sweet shop on Main Street, in case she felt like indulging. We drove past the Pune Club, where our wedding and reception would be held, and I tried to impress upon her how special it was for me to get married there, that my grandparents had been members for over forty years, and even though my mother had never shown interest, Dilip and I would be given membership soon. It was also the first place where Dilip and I had discussed marriage, over a beer, after a late Sunday swim. I didn’t mention some of the other memories I had of the place, of sitting like a beggar beyond those hallowed gates. Some things were better saved for after the wedding.

Dilip’s mother peered in, nodding, and a thin smile appeared on her mouth. ‘The British built some lovely buildings.’

*

The weeks before the wedding were the hottest of the summer. Only the brave ventured outside. Cows, dogs and humans dropped dead in the streets. Cockroaches came to pay their respects. It was a particularly hot day when my mother-in-law and Dilip came to our flat for lunch. I cursed Pune for making a bad impression. I felt responsible for everything abhorrent about it, things I hadn’t noticed before. The heat was not just hot, it was unbearable. The air was not just thick, it was unbreathable. I believed I had become sensitized to the normal faults and dysfunction of our lives through Dilip’s standards and preferences, but it was only with the arrival of his mother that I realized he had become immune to some discomfort over time. I was anxious about every flaw while being hyperconscious that some flaws might add to the city’s charm. How much did I want to misrepresent where I lived – and who I was – and could I even recognize what was a desirable cover-up and what was not?

Dilip and his mother drank coconut water and sour nimbu pani, unaware that I had spent the previous week arranging the wreckage of the home I shared with my mother, repainting the bubbling walls, taking down cracked mirrors and mending torn sofa covers.

My mother-in-law was fond of dressing in unusual colours and, we realized, of hats. Ma covered her smile when they walked in, and I, too, could not ignore the absurdity of the lady’s attire. She was not, I knew, a woman of exceptional taste or perception, and yet her disapproval of Pune wounded me.

After lunch, we sat on our small terrace and discussed the wedding to-do list. It was the time of day when the neighbours crowded on to their balconies, which were designed to look like little boxes stacked on top of each other. They waved their arms to shoo away pigeons and crows, and fingered the laundry they’d hung to dry in the afternoon sun.

Perspiration appeared on our faces. Three storeys below, I could see the top of a head, a woman’s head, with scanty hair at the crown and a thick salt-and-pepper braid that wrapped around itself. I could hear the sound of her broom, made of reeds and tied together, scraping the ground as the leaves and dirt rustled and fell, rustled and fell, into some version of their previous order. Smoke wafted in the air, carrying the smell of fuel and burning garbage, but we didn’t move to go inside. The sounds within the compound were quiet in comparison to the low, billowing horn from the nearby railway tracks whenever a train passed.

I looked at the hazy sky and tried to feel content, content to know that even though I had spent so many years here, at last I would be leaving. I looked at Dilip. He was handsome and tall in a way that let everyone know he’d grown up abroad. Baseball caps, good manners and years of consuming American dairy. He was saving me, even though he didn’t know it. His mouth spread open in a smile at something my mother said, and I could see all of his thirty-two teeth, disciplined from years of adolescent braces.

Later, over a bowl of sweet and milky rabri, my mother-in-law turned to Ma. ‘Tara-ji,’ she said, ‘the pandit wanted to discuss the wedding ceremony. He asked if you have any relatives, maybe a couple, who can sit inside the mandap and give the bride away in your place.’

‘I don’t,’ Ma said. ‘Cousins, maybe. But I can do it well enough myself.’

Dilip’s mother opened and closed her mouth, sucking in and expelling air several times, before she spoke again. This was a tic of hers, as though the words needed resuscitation before she could send them out. ‘Usually when the mother is a widow, some other relatives perform that part of the ceremony.’

‘But I’m not a widow,’ Ma said.

Dilip’s mother put down her spoon. Her mouth opened and closed again. Then she began blowing in and out loudly, as though something in front of her was on fire. We all looked at Dilip, who was helping himself to more dessert, leaving a trail of cream on the table.

‘It was less controversial,’ he said later, when we were alone. ‘Indians in America are conservative sometimes. I didn’t want to tell them your parents are divorced.’


From the balcony of Ma’s flat, I used to watch the stray dogs when I came home from school. They were usually idle, with mangled paws and chewed ears, sprawled out with their packs, only moving to dodge cars and auto-rickshaws or to mount their mothers and sisters. I suppose that was the second time I saw sex, sitting in my navy-blue uniform, watching the scene below, but it was hard to differentiate between dogs fighting and fornicating. Sometimes there were battles when other pariah dogs entered their territory. A high-frequency snarl or a branch breaking underfoot would set them off and, late at night, when I was supposed to be asleep under my mosquito net, I would hear them and their war cries. I remember, one morning on the way to school I saw a puppy sitting near the gate, her stomach trembling with worms and fleas marching across the bridge of her nose. In place of her tail was a bloody hole.

After I married Dilip, I inherited his family, his furniture and a new set of stray animals. The dogs near his house are calmer, overfed and neutered by a group of Pune housewives. They sniff the air and their tongues hang over their canines. Occasionally, they nip at each other’s genitals and mewl for food.

I moved into Dilip’s apartment in June, during the wait for the monsoon. The rains were late. A bad sign. This would be a bad year. The papers reported that the farmers blamed the priests for not inspiring the gods, and the priests blamed the farmers for lacking in piety. In the city there was less of this sort of talk, more about climate change. The river that flows nearby rises and falls with some regularity, but the monsoon brings down a flood of roaring brown water.


When Dilip goes down on me, he sweeps his nose against my labia and inhales.

‘It smells like nothing,’ he says. He is proud of this quality, says it’s unusual and might be one of the reasons he could imagine us being together. His life is filled with intense smells now, at the office and even taking a lift, and it’s a relief to him that I’m odourless after a workout and in high-stress situations. He grew up in Milwaukee, where his ears knew only soft Q-tips and suburban stillness. Pune, he says, is really loud, really pungent, but his senses can manage the onslaught as long as our home brings him back to neutral. He tells everyone there were no jarring changes when I moved into his flat, that my life merged with his seamlessly.

Sensible of his fear of upheaval, I made changes cautiously, first removing any bed sheet or towel that could have been used by other women. Then books or items of clothing that they might have gifted him. The books usually took the form of lovelorn poetry and could be detected by a note written on the first page. I slowly purged any remnant of their existence: old photographs, letters, mugs, pens collected from hotel rooms, T-shirts with the names of cities they’d travelled to together, magnets in the shape of monuments, leaves preserved in paper, collections of pale shells in jars from beach holidays. These measures were extreme, but I wanted a home and marriage free of grey, fuzzy edges.





My mother sets an eggplant alight on the stove, and we watch the flames feed on its purple skin. The beige flesh inside is smoking. She separates the seeds and throws them in the bin. It’s a marvel her fingers don’t burn. On a white plastic board, she chops chillies and young green onions. The board is stained with turmeric, and there is still a little earth stuck in the rounds of onion stalk, but she tells me not to nitpick about small things. She fries cumin seeds in oil and pours them on top of the steaming eggplant, followed by torn leaves of coriander. Oil splatters on the side of the stove. I cough while mixing the contents of the bowl. My maid, Ila, straightens her sari and sighs. She begins the work of cleaning our mess while we bring out the dishes to where Dilip sits at the dining table.

Ma doesn’t come to our house often. She says the main hall disturbs her, especially the mirrors that cover each wall, reflecting everything in multiple directions. For Dilip, the mirrors were a selling point when he was house hunting, a sign that he’d made it, and the culmination of every fantasy he had about mirrors and pornographic films. For my mother, the room is too alive, with each object and body replicated four times, with each replication repeated further in reflection. She sits down at the table and her feet jump nervously, climbing on one another like mice escaping the midday heat. For myself, I’ve got used to the mirrors, have even started relying on them when Dilip and I fight because seeing a reflection shout is similar to watching television.

‘So, Mom,’ Dilip says, ‘how are you feeling?’

He calls my mother Mom like he calls his own. I struggled in the beginning, but it was easy for him, calling two women Mom and calling two places home.

My mother tries to speak in an American accent when Dilip is around. She thinks he won’t understand her otherwise, and if he tries to speak in Hindi, she replies in English. Ma attempts his Midwestern vowels and confident pauses which assume the rest of the world will wait for him to finish a sentence.

‘Honestly, beta, when the doctor gave me the news, I started to fear the worst. I even started making plans to take my own life – you can ask her, isn’t it true? Sorry, I’m not trying to upset your meal, eat first, eat first, we will talk later. How is the aamti? Not too spicy, I hope? Yes, to answer your question, I was scared at first but now I don’t think I’m really sick. I feel very fine.’

Dilip nods and looks into the mirror ahead of him. ‘I’m so happy to hear that.’

‘Ma, the doctor says you’re forgetting.’

‘My scans were normal.’

‘Yes, scans can be normal even though –’

‘Why are you going on insisting I’m ill?’ She is holding a slice of raw onion in her hand. It drops back to her plate as she speaks.

‘You’re forgetting things. You’re forgetting how to do things, basic things, like using your mobile phone and paying the electricity bill.’

‘Oh, I never really knew how to pay the bill. These online things are too confusing.’

I put my hands down. She hadn’t said this to the doctor.

‘And what about calling Kali Mata? You asked me to dial the number of a person who’s been dead for ten years.’

‘Seven years,’ Ma says, and turns to Dilip. ‘See how she lies?’

Dilip looks between us. When he frowns, a scar from an old lacrosse injury glimmers on his temple.

‘I’m not lying.’

‘You are. That’s what you do. You’re a professional liar.’

We drop Ma home after dinner and Dilip hums to himself quietly. I can’t make out the tune, so I interrupt him.

‘Can you believe what she was saying?’

He pauses and then answers. ‘Maybe she doesn’t believe she’s sick.’

‘She has to believe it.’

‘You aren’t an authority.’

It stings that my lack is so visible. ‘I didn’t say I was an authority. The doctor said she’s sick.’

‘I thought the doctor said she has the brain of a young woman.’

‘But she’s forgetting things – important things.’

‘Important to whom? She may want to forget – maybe she doesn’t want to remember her friend is dead.’

‘Either way, she’s forgetting.’ I hear my tone has turned shrill.

‘Voluntarily forgetting is not the same as dementia, Antara.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why would she want to forget me?’

Dilip takes a breath and shakes his head. ‘You’re the artist, be open to possibilities.’

‘She called me a liar.’

‘Well, isn’t that what you make art about? About how people can’t be trusted?’

His face has dropped. He looks disappointed. I try to match his look but don’t feel it, so I bite the nail on my middle finger or, more accurately, the cuticle area. Dilip reaches out his hand and brings my arm down.


My art is not about lying. It’s about collecting data, information, finding irregularities. My art is about looking at where patterns cease to exist.

Before I got married, my grandmother let me use a room in her house as a studio. It was cosy, dark and bright in good proportion, a place where my interest in collecting had begun as a child, among the objects left behind by the deceased inhabitants of the bungalow Nana and Nani lived in. Tungsten bulbs, batteries, cords, pens, stamps, coins. I began by looking up the dates and designs of these objects, losing myself in encyclopaedias of energy and patents in the library, always ending up far from the place where I began. To avoid these tangents, I started to draw the objects myself, mapping them out as I saw them, copying as closely as I could. My handwriting may be bad, too mechanical, lacking in flourish, but my hand is steady and precise. I started to collect dead insects, which are surprisingly difficult to find whole and uncorrupted. One of my prized possessions is a number of moths fossilized in wax that I keep in a glass jar.

Museums collect milestone objects – the first cellular phone, the first computer – presumably to display one day to the future (presuming that museums will have a place in the future). I grew up in a time of landlines and Swatch watches and have my own collections stored away: glass bottles that read Thums Up and Gold Spot for when these brands no longer exist, but also antique tongue-cleaners and pastel autograph books that I asked strangers on the street to sign when I was a child.

Dilip says if volcanoes all over the planet started erupting, covering the Earth’s crust in miles of debris, and our flat was the only thing ever dug up in the future, archaeologists would wonder at the strange preoccupations of their ancestors. I tell him Americans invented hoarding and have made an art form of it.

Dilip once told me that, in America, no one uses tongue-cleaners because they use their toothbrushes to clean away the white scum. He says that I should try it, that it’s easier to have one tool for your mouth rather than two. The idea doesn’t sit well with me and I ask him about cross-contamination. He shrugs. The mouth is one hole, one room, one city. Something that’s happening on one side is going to appear on the other. I tell him if that is the case, he won’t mind my emptying the contents of my glass of water on his lap.


When I moved in, Dilip said I should use the guest room as a studio. He rarely had guests anyway. ‘Besides, I like the idea of you being at home all day,’ he said.

The room is spare, sunny, not what one would expect from a place where art is made. The cupboard has been transformed into my cabinet of curiosities, where my objects are stored and locked away, some in boxes, some in sterile plastic containers. Images fill binders, divided by subject, category and date of collection. The room itself contains a wooden desk and a chair that Dilip brought home from his office. On the wall is a calendar where I mark off the day’s work once it has been completed.

I have been working on a project for the past three years, and I have no idea how long it will go on. It began by accident, after I drew the face of a man from a picture I found, but the next day, when I went to compare my work to the original, the picture was nowhere to be seen. I searched all day without any luck. By the evening, I had given up. I took another piece of paper – the only paper I work on, nothing fancy, made in China, but it holds graphite well – and drew the face from my own drawing, copying my own work as faithfully as I could, the careful shading, the exact thickness of line. This has become a daily practice. I take the drawing from the day before and copy it to the best of my ability, date it, return both to the drawer and cross a square off on the calendar. There are days it takes me an hour, and there are days it takes me several.

A year into the project, I was invited to show the works at a small gallery in Bombay. The curator, who is also a friend, compared the dynamics of time and duration in my work to On Kawara, and said that this was the diary of an artist, a phrase she used for the title. I thought the connection to On Kawara was erroneous. His work is mechanical, without any implication of the human hand. My work celebrates human fallibility. If On Kawara is about counting, I am about losing count. The curator didn’t want to go into this – the essay for the catalogue had already been spellchecked, and she said complicating the issue wouldn’t help me sell in this climate. A collector showed interest before the show opened – this sort of slowly built work was so important right now, he said.

The series didn’t sell.

I blame the title. A diary. What does that even mean? A diary sounds so trifling, so ridiculously childlike. Who wants to spend money on a diary, really? I never even saw the work as a diary. I confess I was only thinking about how impossible it is for the human hand and eye to maintain any sort of objectivity. But isn’t that how it always is? Intention and reception almost never find each other.

I dressed carefully for the opening, tried to look alluring without showing any skin, and felt completely unprepared while knowing this was the most important day of my adult life. I didn’t tell anyone about the show, but Ma found out. She came to the opening, walked through every room and stood in front of all 365 faces. The first and the last picture met each other at the front of the gallery, hanging on either side of the entrance, creating a dialogue of difference. They could have been the images of two different men, two different faces, done by the hands of different artists. My project to copy perfectly had been a failure, and because it was – had to be – a failure, the local art scene deemed it a tremendous success. A few newspapers carried short reviews, calling my work exciting and compulsive, remarking that it was as disturbing as it was fascinating, wondering how long I could go on.

Ma called it my game of Chinese Whispers.

When I got back to Pune almost a week later, Ma cried and came at me with a rolling pin. Weeping, she said I was a traitor and a liar. She wanted to know why I would do a show like this.

Holding the rolling pin I had forcefully prised away from her, I perched myself at the edge of the dining table, trying to catch my breath. What was the problem, I asked her. Why couldn’t I make the kind of art I wanted?

She told me to move out of her house that day, and did not see me again until I came one afternoon with Dilip by my side to tell her I was engaged.





I decide to see my father, to tell him about Ma’s diagnosis. Trees and pesky chipmunks surround his bungalow in Aundh, on the other side of Pune, and the sound of air-force drills overhead rattle the windows. In the sitting room, a large grandfather clock spits out a bird and a German nursery rhyme on the hour.

My father’s eyebrows are stitched in thick dark thread across his forehead. ‘I called five or six times yesterday.’

I nod. It is the sort of reprimand I am accustomed to from him, and five or six is an approximation for any number. I don’t listen carefully to the details of what he says. I am used to compartmentalizing him to these brief visits, and relegating his face to a corner of my psyche.

No question is explicitly asked. I answer the reproach in his voice: ‘I was at the doctor’s with Ma.’

The sofas in the hall are arranged like a railway waiting room, and we sit across from each other. He taps his hands together, waiting for me to say more, and I lean forward and hand him the doctor’s report. He opens it slowly, taking an unnecessarily long time with the outer plastic file, carefully separating the glued sides of the envelope. When the envelope tears slightly, he gasps as though he’s cut himself and examines the tear with some pain. Then he reads the pages inside, holding the paper away from himself and mouthing the words.

‘Sad, very sad,’ he says when he’s finished. ‘You must let me know what I can do, or if there are any calls I can make.’

He tosses the papers on to the table by his side and asks if I will have some more tea. I shake my head and break the caramel-coloured skin forming in my cup with a spoon.

‘It’s a shame,’ he continues. ‘I would like to be involved. But none of this was my idea.’

This is usual, and always accompanies a reproach from him – he divests himself of responsibility or choice in all past, current or future situations at the beginning of any conversation we might have. He means to head off any blame I might be ready with. He doesn’t know I always empty my pockets of that stuff before I pass the threshold of his house, that even once I am inside, I know a different kind of door remains closed in front of me.

I wonder if he truly believes in his state of choicelessness, if there is a decision in his life for which he will accept accountability. The one-sided narrative has always been painful and interesting for me, the singularity of the voice that he speaks to me with. I wonder which voice speaks in his head.

My father’s wife comes into the room at this moment, and he stops talking. She hugs me and pats my back. Their son also joins us, sitting down across from me.

The woman’s arms hang by her sides like pins. The boy is no longer the baby I always think of him as, but a teenager of an age where it’s difficult to be sure of how old he is. We don’t resemble each other, except perhaps in our colouring. I’ve always thought my father and his new wife look alike, thin and woolly like finely woven sweaters. I smile at the three interchangeable faces.

I ask my brother about college, and as he answers I notice that he is sprouting hair on his chin. I rarely consider him, mostly focus on my father. And the wife. I can barely see her eyes through her thick bifocals.

As I leave, my father bemoans the sad problem of my mother one more time and tells me to see him more often. He says this every time we part, though inevitably six months pass before our next meeting.


On the way home, I stop at Boat Club Road. The doorbell sounds like birds chirping and I can hear old Chanda bai’s Bata shoes squawking like rubber ducks as she comes to the door. She smiles with a trembling lower jaw and lays her hand against my cheek.

‘You’re looking very tired,’ she says.

I go to the bathroom and wash my face in the sink. It’s slanted, attached to an errant pipe – a small porcelain afterthought. The tap splatters on full and wets my feet. The backsplash of floral tile is now faded, scummy and damp. Grey water circles the drain.

Nani is seated cross-legged on a charpai, with three cordless phones in front of her. She sees me and raises her hand in greeting. We look alike, the three of us, my mother, my grandmother and me, besides the differences etched by time. Other variations are subtle: my grandmother has heavy ankles, and her hair is slicked down to her head, the parting glistening like an oily tributary. My mother has fair skin with ingrown hairs as black as mustard seeds populating the backs of her calves. I am the dark one, with curls that loosen only when they’re wet.

When I sit down, Nani complains about the lane outside being dug up to introduce an electric line. She says it’s a municipal corporation scam. When I ask her to explain what kind of corruption the local government is guilty of, she shakes her head and looks away.

‘I grew up breathing Gandhian air,’ she says. ‘I cannot imagine the minds of goondas.’ Her English is wobbly, the kind learned from television rather than books.

I follow her eyes out the window. The lane is full of tatty double-storey bungalows and flowering gulmohar trees. The sun shines in, like it does most days, drinking colour from the blue ceramic floor.

She and my grandfather purchased this house twenty years ago from an aged Parsi spinster with marshmallow arms. The spinster had not wanted to sell to Hindus, but there were no other offers. My grandparents arrived with their old furniture: my grandmother’s chairs made from sheesham wood, and large Godrej cupboards as secure as tombs (she still hangs the keys from a rope at her waist).

Nana and Nani were eager to move; their old flat was still inhabited by apparitions of my grandfather’s affairs and Nani’s many stillborn children, and load-shedding was a daily occurrence. Ironically, they moved into a house that felt haunted by the last owner’s dead ancestors – my mother said they were trading their bad memories for a stranger’s.

On the day they took possession of the house, I watched as lace tablecloths were balled and packed by the movers – a group of some dozen men who came with a Tempo Traveller to transport the boxes. Open closets revealed the contents of many generations: old light bulbs no longer useable, unpolished silver ornaments, porcelain tea sets in their original boxes. Glass chandeliers were covered in a mist of cobwebs. The men lifted a chintz settee with sagging cushions that reminded me of the grey calico undershirt I wore beneath my school uniform. They left the smell of their bodies behind as they wrapped furniture in old blankets, and the forgotten Parsi owner sat in her wheelchair by the window, waiting for her nurse.

That was many years ago, but the house feels the same, with the stench of unfamiliar musk and a coating of dust.

‘I need to talk to you about Ma,’ I say.

‘What about her?’ Nani asks.

‘We went to the doctor. She’s forgetting things.’

‘It’s because she isn’t married. Women forget things when they aren’t married.’ Then she adds, ‘Anyway, forgetfulness runs in the family. Her father was forgetful.’

I shrug without agreeing, though I remember my grandfather would, on occasion, absent-mindedly offer Nani his newspaper, forgetting she could not read, and in response she, always imagining he was mocking her, would whack his hand away and stalk out of the room.

‘This is different,’ I say. ‘The other day she forgot who I was.’ She nods and I nod in return, and together we seem to imply that something has been understood, though I am not sure what. Miscommunications emerge from mislaid certainty. I consider whether I have told the whole truth or given something a meaning that never existed – whether I have, with a couple of words and the movement of my head, made my mother sicker than she truly is. Maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Maybe we all need to be careful, alert.

I consider whether to share what happened at the doctor’s office, whether to draw the picture of the cloud and the amyloid plaque.

Nani places her hand on her cheek. ‘She’s become so fat, your mother. Her knuckles are swollen to double what they were. How will we pry the jewellery off her hands when she dies?’





Morning is the time for deep breaths, and discovering ourselves anew in our bodies.

I read this in a magazine while Ma covers her greys at the parlour. I have started accompanying her everywhere I can. I double-check bills before she pays them and make sure she puts on her seatbelt. Sometimes, when others are within hearing distance, she shouts that I am torturing her, that she wants to be left alone.

For some couples, a sound sleep can erase discord from the night before, the magazine continues. Does it follow that marital bliss must evade insomniacs or those with irregular circadian patterns?

In the morning, I stretch and feel my arms and legs pulling in opposite directions, and my torso is the interstice between my heavy limbs. The hole in the middle of me is gnawing. I always wake up hungry and my mouth takes up my entire face, dry and warm, a dark, sandy pit. Dilip is beside me and the sheets below his body are damp and cool. He suffers from night sweats but never remembers the contents of his dreams.

I wash the sheets every day after he leaves for work and dry them in the outer corridor of the building where the midday sun shines in. The neighbours have told Ila they don’t approve of seeing our bedding while they wait for the lift. The plaque outside their door, made of dark-blue-and-white painted tile, reads ‘The Governors’. They’re both retired, an ex-school teacher, an ex-navy man, and when she goes to visit her sister in Bombay, Dilip and I have seen Mr Governor sitting on their balcony, smoking cigarettes and crying.

‘He must miss her,’ Dilip says.

‘Maybe she doesn’t really visit her sister on these trips. Maybe he knows it.’

Dilip looks at me, surprised, as if he never would have thought of it, and then intently, as though it means something that I did. There was a time when this might have amused him.

‘I don’t think you’re being generous or compassionate,’ I say. The magazine at the parlour mentioned these traits as vital to any thriving relationship. He looks into the distance as I talk, mesmerized by whatever it is he sees, as though by looking away he can understand me more fully.

‘I didn’t say anything,’ he replies.

In the evening, we go to the gym in the building. He wears a sleeveless shirt made of polyester that has to be washed twice after every workout. He lifts free weights a metre from the mirror and exhales swiftly with every count. I find his noisy breath embarrassing, like the passing of gas or the exposure of innards. I’ve never liked the idea of someone hearing me snore.

I use the stair-climber and tune my headphones into one of the music channels playing on the televisions overhead. Post-work is busy and I have to sometimes wait for a machine. I never worked out when I was younger, but since turning thirty, my body has started resembling an overripe pear.

Dilip says the workouts are making a difference, but I can’t see it and tell him I don’t like working out with him.

He doesn’t understand why I am offended, why I feel insecure when he compliments me, and why I never believe him anyway. I wonder, sometimes, at the pathways in his mind, at the way his thoughts move, so disciplined and linear. His world is contained, finite. He understands what I say literally – a word has a meaning and a meaning has a word. But I imagine other possibilities and see the heaviness of speech. If I draw a line from point X to all its other connections, I find myself at the centre of something I cannot plot my way out of. There is so much to misinterpret.

Dilip believes a single thought mirrors an entire landscape of the mind. He says it must be tiring to be me.


‘Your mother is upside-down up here,’ Nani says, knocking on the side of her head. She sits cross-legged on her charpai as I look at old pictures. Occasionally, she checks for a dial tone on her cordless phones.

There are photographs of Ma as a young girl with long, difficult hair. She spent hours straightening it every week, lying across an ironing board with her hair between pages of newspaper. Rumours persist of what she was like at fourteen and fifteen, disappearing from school every afternoon to a roadside restaurant off the old Bombay–Pune highway. The dhaba bore a sign that read ‘Punjabi Rasoi’. There, she would order a large beer and drink straight from the bottle. From her school bag, she would dig out a pack of Gold Flake cigarettes and smoke one after the other. Travellers would break at the restaurant, arriving in taxis and scooters, stopping to take a piss or have a meal – foreigners especially, carrying little luggage and almost no money, on their way to the ashram. Ma would introduce herself, get to know them, sometimes catch a ride back into town. Nani believes these unchaperoned days piqued my mother’s interest in the ashram, but I wonder if her self-destructiveness was just another symptom of something there all along.

It was around then that my mother started wearing white. All white, all the time, like the followers of the ashram. Always cotton. Thin, almost transparent, though the texture of the fabric is hard to tell in these faded photos.

‘Strange, she wanted to wear white when she never knew a single person who had died,’ Nani says. ‘Other girls wore miniskirts, bellbottoms. Not Tara. She looked like an old-fashioned aunty. Only, she never wore a dupatta.’

Among the pile are some pictures of Nani from her wedding day, where she looks wide-eyed and small, no more than fifteen years old. She is a red bride, or so I must assume from the black-and-white picture, and her sari has a single line of embroidery. So bare, it wouldn’t even do for a wedding guest nowadays. Her nose ring glints for the camera. Behind her is her father, his stomach straining through his bush-shirt. Around her are other relatives, some semblance of people I know, her sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews.

‘What does a dupatta matter anyway?’ I say. Dupattas always seemed useless to me, an extra length of fabric, neither top nor bottom, serving no purpose except to recover what was already covered.

‘A dupatta is your honour,’ Nani says. She pulls the picture out of my hand, and I try to imagine the kind of honour that is so easily left at home.

There are other pictures that Nani doesn’t keep with these, ones that have been hidden away, where Ma is about eighteen. Her hair is shorter, manageable, and she wears blue eyeshadow and pink lipstick. Her blouse is silk, printed with some hybrid tropical bird and tucked into high-waisted jeans. Shoulder pads come up to her earlobes. Her mouth is open, and I cannot tell if she is smiling or shouting.

I never knew her like this, but this is who she was when she fell in love with my father.


It was a golden age, a time when all the wrongs of the past were righted and the future was full of promise – that’s how Nani describes the time when Ma met my father.

The match was arranged after my father and his mother were invited to Nani’s for afternoon tea, and Ma walked in late, sweating, with brown nipples showing through her chemise.

He was thin, gangly, still learning the way around his new body. A dusting of dark powder seemed to coat his upper lip and his eyebrows scampered about before meeting in the middle. Even his joints inched towards each other as if by some magnetic attraction, elbow to elbow, knee to knee, his torso closing in on itself. His mother had to give him an occasional knock to straighten him up. He looked at the ground while Ma talked loudly, her weight on her feet as she spoke.

For a while it seemed that Ma had shifted in what she desired, that her teenage rebellion had been quelled and she would fall in line with what her parents called a good future.

She cut her hair, bought colourful clothes and started spending time at the Club. She professed a desire to study further, and even announced that she would take up hotel management or catering while my father finished his engineering degree.

A year after the wedding, I was born.

Five years after that, my father filed a petition for divorce. My mother was not present for this.

A little while later, he was on his way to America with a new wife.

‘What are you going to do with all of these?’ Nani asks as I stuff the photographs into an envelope.

‘Show them to Ma,’ I say. ‘We have to make her remember.’


‘Why don’t we spend more time with him?’ Dilip says.

He is talking about my father. I don’t look up at him.

We are at the Club, waiting for our friends to join us. He is having a beer and I am drinking Old Monk with Diet Coke. We order dosas and chilli cheese toast.

Dilip never understood how important a Club membership was until he moved to India. Up until that point, he always came for short visits, stayed with friends and family and was escorted around in air-conditioned cars. But for many of us who grew up here, our lives have always revolved around the Club. Where else could you find such a sprawling green space in the centre of the city? The building is a landmark, something every taxi driver knows the way to. My grandfather always joked that he didn’t consider the railways to be the only worthwhile thing the British left behind – it was the clubs, where we came to play sports after school, where our parents and grandparents would socialize, where we learned to swim. For many of us, it was where we had our first kisses behind the wild bougainvilleas that grow along the boundary walls, where we attended our first concerts, or New Year’s parties.

I lost interest in the Club for many years, preferring to go to the new bars, cafés and restaurants that were sprouting up all over the city. It felt stodgy and old-fashioned. Something my grandparents did. But in the past few years, I’ve returned to it, finding comfort in greeting the same people year after year, in seeing the same broken steps, the same cracks in the walls that never quite get repaired. For me, it has been a constant when life was otherwise. Dilip has come to like it too.

He likes to joke that the Club membership was the dowry for marrying me.

On the tables are bells to ring for service. The alcohol is the cheapest in town. On Thursday nights, families gather on the lawn to play tambola, and there are eight tables in the card room just for rummy.

‘We can even invite your dad here,’ Dilip says. ‘To meet at the Club. So everyone is comfortable.’

‘I’m scared,’ I simplify for my husband. Dilip can understand only some of the repercussions which keep falling, to this day, like a line of dominoes – like when his mother insisted we keep up the charade of my father being dead for our wedding because an explanation of the truth might be complicated. And then, of course, Dilip likes to fix things. He believes every problem has a solution. He will search, dig, scratch until he finds it.

‘You don’t have to be scared,’ he says.

I realize he is trying to be kind to me, so I am kind back. I smile and nod at these words and Dilip smiles in return with the belief that he has done his work, but I am only trying to move on, change the subject, settle on some other pasture before our friends arrive, because for thirty-six years this peace of mind has eluded me, and a few caring gestures on this clement night can’t ease a sickness that pre-dates us both and has no remedy.





1981


My father grew up as an army brat, moving schools every year, and had to resort to bribery to turn classmates into friends. The most common gift was imported liquor from his parents’ stock. His father was a lieutenant general, and their homes changed with the seasons, but they were always filled with beautiful objects from foreign lands. Wooden shoes, knitted tapestries, and crystal so expensive his mother would oversee the washing of it herself. She didn’t like to enter the kitchen, and once proudly told my nani that she had never cooked an entire meal with her own hands. She could trace her lineage to some royal Marwar blood, which she brought up often. She knew the right people, and married her two daughters into what she considered good families, but received a blow when her husband died without warning one afternoon while travelling on official business to Delhi.

In his wedding pictures, my father is a young groom mounted on a bedecked horse. A little boy sits in front of him, a nephew, looking terrified as the horse lurches forward with each blast from the horns. The boy and the groom are dressed alike, too, with matching safas wrapped around their heads and stiff collars edged in gold thread. The band that leads the procession wears red-and-green sherwanis and can pass off as wedding guests.

The men make a circle around the musicians, cheering and whistling with the beat of the dholak. Women dance a little behind, managing their saris and waving one arm in the air, watching the young men but not joining in their play. There is a picture of the party halting outside a gate, presumably a wedding hall, where my mother and her family wait to receive the wedding guests. Others from the street in regular clothes appear now and again. They have joined in the spectacle, creating enclosures of laughter and outstretched hands. A spotlight falls on the groom, a stark yellow beam held up by the photographer’s assistant. The bright light floods the young man’s eyes. He blinks away perspiration in every frame. When his eyes are open, his gaze is on the horse.

Photos, too, from inside the banquet hall. Barricaded in by furniture and distant relatives, the wedding party ready themselves for the real work, the export of dowry and daughter.

The women flank the bride, congregating in a fear only they can understand. The men dawdle with downturned mouths.

What did she look like in person, without lights blowing out the colour of her skin? How did she react to the unfamiliar faces of her new family? The groom, my father, looks bewildered, too young to comprehend the sanctioned kidnapping he must now commit.

By morning, the girl will be transformed. A new husband, a new life. And when she finds herself alone, perhaps she’ll still cry, thinking of the past, mourning an end that did not culminate in death.


Nani says she always worried about how Ma would manage in her new surroundings. ‘Your mother was a strange girl. No one knew what she wanted out of life. I guess nothing has changed. But your father’s mother was also very strange. No good came of them living in the same house.’

My mother recounted the strangeness of her early married life to me on several occasions. Her mother-in-law ate pickled Kashmiri garlic every day since her husband’s cardiac incident. The house had the particular smell of digested allium.

On the first day in her new home, her mother-in-law gave her a coarse bar of white soap and a hand towel to use for her baths. She also passed on a stack of old saris that had belonged to her mother-in-law. Ma was to wear them from then on. Ma smelled the fabric, inhaled the years of dust and mothballs. She shuddered.

On the second day, when she saw Ma moving around the house, my father’s mother called her new daughter-in-law to the hall, where the radio was blaring, to ask her what she was doing. ‘Nothing,’ my mother answered. It was true. There was nothing to do.

‘Sit with me, listen to some music.’

My mother sat on the sofa until she grew bored of the classical voices. She preferred The Doors, or Freddie Mercury. But when Ma tried to stand, her mother-in-law held her arm. ‘Stay here. I like the company.’

Their time together on the sofa by the radio would last up to six hours. Meals and tea were brought by the servants. My father’s mother kept a pair of tweezers in her hand. She would feel for the hard bristles on her chin and yank at them. She did this without the assistance of a mirror and, to Ma’s horror, would often tear into her own skin. Her jawline was edged with a chain of scabs and bristles.

‘You know what would be nice?’ the older lady said. ‘If you wait by the door when it’s time for my son to come home. I used to do it for my husband when we were newly-weds.’

She pointed at a large photograph of a man hanging on the wall. His eyebrows formed a dark line across his forehead, and he looked off to the side with a scowl. The portrait was garlanded with dried flowers.

‘Is that something you want to do?’ her mother-in-law asked.


Ma stared at the thick gap at the bottom of the front door, where an unobstructed ray of light curved in. Watching, waiting for something to break the line in half. A pair of feet. The shadow of a body approaching.

She wished she’d said no and found a way to avoid this chore. They were backwards, the people in this new family. Ma had preferred sitting in the living room.

Why don’t you try it? You might like it.

Like what, exactly? What was there to like about standing by the door like a dog?

At five minutes to six, she took her post by the door, swaying from side to side for up to thirty minutes, depending on traffic and how long it took her husband to come home.

The mother-in-law kept the door to the living room ajar so she could glance through and make sure Ma was at attention. Four days in, the older lady acknowledged that the act of standing for so long was tedious, and an elaborate plan was hatched for a servant to stand by the window in the kitchen and holler when he saw the young sahib approaching. At that moment, the mother-in-law would flutter her arms with excitement and motion for Ma to bound towards the door.

It came to pass that at five minutes to six, even though the arrival time was on average closer to six-thirty, the mother-in-law would turn off the music and shout for the servant to look out. Ma liked the silence, but was not allowed to put her head back or close her eyes without being tapped by her husband’s mother.

‘I don’t want to do this any more,’ Ma said one day.

The mother-in-law said nothing as Ma stood up and went to her room. The voice of Kishore Kumar seemed to forever hang in the air.


The room was a cage, but it was the only place Ma felt relief. Sometimes she would bang her body against the wall and scream silently to herself. Other times, she would lie on the bed, close her eyes and travel, knocking her arm against the pale, ginger-coloured side tables. The mattress was thinner than what she was used to. The bedcover was made of grey synthetic cloth, and she wondered how the servants managed to wash it. The floor was a burning red marble that in some lights looked like an endless abyss to fall into. On the dressing table was a cup that held her hairbrush and comb. She would tip it over and pick it up again, listening to the quiet crash. She would pull out all the hairs the brush had taken from her head and wrap the long strands between the comb’s teeth. Sometimes she wrapped the dark wire around her fingers, watching it cut into her skin. When this bored her, she put her feet up against the headboard, watching her thin ankles, drifting in and out of daydreams about her husband, imagining what he would be doing at that particular hour, before her mind would wander to the bed she was on, and other men she knew or had experienced only in fleeting interactions but who had imprinted themselves on her with an intensity she continued to long for. My mother knew marriages were generally unhappy, but she was young and had not fully metabolized the idea that this would be her reality. She still believed she was special, exceptional and had thoughts that no one else did.

She watched the hands on the small Seiko alarm clock move, waiting for the day to end, listening for voices outside the door, for steps passing in the corridor.

In time, Ma worked up the courage to pull open my father’s closet. There was so much there she had never seen him wear, items of clothing that probably no longer fitted him. She mentally marked what had to be given away without removing a single garment from its place. Ma touched the sleeves of each shirt. She inspected the way the soles of his shoes were worn, and the places in his undershirts that were thinning. There was something she loved about looking with leisure, something she didn’t let herself do when the man himself was present. Sometimes she wasn’t sure she knew what he looked like at all.


When he came home from his day of studies, my father greeted his mother before going to wash and read his books. After dinner, he often joined his mother in the living room and put his head in her lap. She would press her hands against his forehead, stroking the short baby hairs, willing them to grow in the opposite direction. From his mother’s lap, my father would watch my mother. His mother watched them both. Over months, lines were drawn.

Days would pass when husband and wife said little to each other. Ma thought he was strange, moody and distant. His mother was determined that he should excel in his studies, and he was keen to make her happy. The prize for his efforts would be America, where he could earn a master’s degree in the snow, eat burgers every day and buy acid-washed jeans. Ma learned to long for that dream too. For a while she wanted my father to be proud of her, to wear her on his arm at the Club, so she chopped her long hair off and dressed in floral silks when they went for lunch on Sundays. She planned and plotted, imagining a time when they would be in America, together and in love, and he would show his romantic side, the one that was not full of mathematics and mother.

Ma found out she was pregnant around the time she learned her mother-in-law planned to join them when they went abroad. ‘I will have to come,’ the older lady said, lifting her tweezers. ‘You will never be able to look after the house alone.’

The depth of Ma’s gloom and her alienation from her own family – Nani refused to hear any complaints – made her lonely, and desperate. Or perhaps it was me, the surge of prenatal hormones, and a fear of the new life that awaited her, but she began to turn back into her former self.

She let her hair grow, stopped wearing make-up and shoulder pads.

She disposed of all her mother-in-law’s hand-me-down saris, and blamed an aged servant for stealing them.

She smoked in secret, though she knew it could be dangerous for her foetus.

Ma went back to her old cotton comforts, forgoing the bras she had enthusiastically purchased, and announced that she wanted to start attending a guru’s satsang, to hear him speak.

It was an odd request from a girl who had never shown any interest in religion, and her mother-in-law tried to stop her, but Ma was determined. She was on her way to no longer caring what everyone thought. Even after I was born, she would disappear every day, dripping with milk, leaving me unfed.

‘Take her with you,’ my Dadi-ma said when I was old enough. The relationship between my grandmother and Ma had soured, and my father’s mother had no great love for me, another girl, another nuisance.

And so I went with my mother, leaving in the morning and coming back late in the evening. She returned to the house every day smelling of sweat and joy – and one day they realized she had not come home at all.


The history of my mother’s life is not to be found in old photo albums. It is kept in a dusty metal cupboard in her flat. She never locks the door – maybe because she doesn’t value anything inside, or maybe because she hopes one day the contents will vanish. Still, the cupboard is hard to prise open. Pune isn’t wet enough for rust, but the hinges are almost solid and brown, and a light fuzz of rot covers the inside of the door. A cupboard that looks as though it was rescued from the bottom of the sea.

Inside is a pile of saris, metres of fabric carefully folded with paper between the creases, the cloth of another time – Banarasis woven with shimmering thread. There is one that is particularly beautiful, particularly heavy – the one my mother wore for her wedding, where it was draped in crisp, well-defined pleats. The fabric is stiff, almost crunchy, and smells of mothballs and iodine, but the gold never darkens or dulls, a sign that it is real, precious, a small fortune spent by my grandparents on their only child. The red makes it richer, almost oppressive, a true bridal red. Below this, the rest of her bridal trousseau – carefully selected saris and fabrics in colourful silks and ornate brocades – clothes to carry her into her new life as a married woman, the most important role she will have, enough fabric to last her an entire year so that her husband would not feel the burden of his new wife, at least not immediately. There are tussar silks in jewel tones, an embroidered dupatta covered in French knots, pastel Kanjivarams, even a parrot-green Patola peeks through the piles of material.

And then, one shelf below, are the other clothes. These are more familiar to me. There are a few faded block-prints on worn cotton, but mostly everything is white. If I hold them to my face, I can still smell her body, as though she wore them just yesterday. I can smell the neglect, the damp, the misery that grows in the absence of sunlight. These cottons are coarse, the kind worn for work. The whites are still bright, some glaring and some almost blue, the white of widows, of mourners and renunciants, holy men and women, monks and nuns, the white of those who no longer belong in the world, who have already put one foot on another plane. The white of the guru and his followers. Maybe Ma saw this white cotton as the means to her truth, a blank slate where she could remake herself and find the path to freedom. For me it was something different, a shroud that covered us like the living dead, a white too stark to ever be acceptable in polite society. A white that marked us as outsiders. To my mother this was the colour of her community, but I knew better: the white clothes were the ones that separated us from our family, our friends and everyone else, that made my life in them a kind of prison.





I can walk from my flat to Ma’s in about forty-five minutes if I take the shorter route and run across the main road while the light is still green. On the way, I pass three shopping malls that are situated in a triangle. One has a multiplex, and the circular road outside gets jammed on opening weekends of big films.

A two-lane bridge crosses the narrow river, which floods in the monsoon and dries up in the summer. Sometimes the smells from the stagnant puddles reach Ma’s flat. Buildings are coming up on the banks, a combination of luxury condominiums and five-star hotels that boast water views on their websites. Giant hoardings for Hindi soap operas and fairness creams are dividers between the construction sites.

The morning traffic collects at every corner, and Pune feels like one long bottleneck. Each eruption of horns is a torrent of bullets, and before long I am riddled. It will be winter soon and the temperature drops suddenly. Human beings need to be eased in slowly. Sudden movements lead to schizophrenia and sore throats.

Turning into Ma’s lane, I pass Hina, the fruit lady who once had a small cart but now owns a proper store. Dilip says she’s a modern Indian success story and should be written about. I wave at her but she doesn’t see me due to a detached retina that she refuses to get operated. Beside her is a salon called Munira’s Hair Garden. Dilip once pointed out that the placement of their logo, a pair of scissors, makes the word ‘Hair’ look like ‘Hairy’. And then there is a pharmacy that sells electrical products and, across the street, an electrical shop that illegally sells medicine.

At the gate, the doorman salutes me. I wait for the lift and say hello to Mrs Rao, who frowns at me while her Pomeranian defecates next to a flowerpot. The dirt lodged between the tiles at the entrance is a permanent fixture. Rot and years of disrepair have loosened the flooring. This building has been defeated, like so many others. I let myself into Ma’s apartment with the key I have copied.

Seven sticks of incense burn by the door. I cough and my mother pops her head out of the kitchen. I can smell that she is frying peanuts with cumin seeds in oil. I slip my feet out of my sneakers, which have stretched at the mouth because they’re never unlaced. The floor is cold and smells like lemongrass milk. Light pours in through the east-facing window in the kitchen, and Ma is a silhouette. She dumps a bowl of bloated tapioca balls into the pot and covers it to steam.

‘Have you had breakfast?’ she asks, and I say I haven’t even though I have.

I set the table like we used to, with glasses for water and buttermilk, and no spoon for Ma because she likes to eat with her hands. She brings out chillies, red and powdered, green and chopped. The pot is placed directly on the table, and when she lifts the lid, the cloud that conceals the meal inside evaporates.

I help myself to a large spoonful. The tapioca balls bounce on my plate, leaving a glistening trail behind them.

My mouth fills with a first bite. ‘Something is missing.’

‘What?’

‘Salt. Potato. Lemon.’

She takes a bite and sits back in her chair, chewing slowly. I wait for her anger, but she gets up and goes into the kitchen. I hear the suction of the refrigerator door separating and meeting, the clanging of utensils. She comes out with a small tray and places it on the table. There is lemon juice and a shaker of salt.

‘What about the potato?’

‘Sabudana khichdi doesn’t have potato.’

‘You always make it with potato.’

She pauses. ‘No potato this time.’

I push the food on my plate around and look at her.

‘Don’t keep looking at me like that.’

‘You’re not taking this seriously.’

She throws her head back and laughs, and I can see creamy tapioca clinging to the dark fillings at the back of her mouth. ‘Taking what seriously?’

‘Why did you tell Dilip I’m a liar?’

‘I never said that.’

It seems to me now that this forgetting is convenient, that she doesn’t want to remember the things she has said and done. It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I’m brimming with it all the time. I fill papers, drawers, entire rooms with records, notes, thoughts, while she grows foggier with each passing day.

She takes another bite. ‘They say when the memory starts to go, other faculties become more powerful.’

‘What kind of faculties?’

‘There are women who can see past lives, who can talk to angels. Some women become clairvoyant.’

‘You’re mad.’ Reaching into my satchel, I pull out my sketchbook. I turn to the last page and add today’s date to a list that contains some forty entries. Next to the date, I write the word ‘potato’.

Ma squints at the book and shakes her head. ‘How does your husband tolerate you?’

‘You’re not even married, how would you know?’

Her mouth is open as I speak, and for a moment I think she is mouthing my words as I say them. Have we said these exact sentences to each other before? I wait for a reply but the moments pulse by. My armpits are damp and I feel something inside of me rearing up.

She smiles. Her teeth look sharp in the sunlight, and I wonder if she enjoys these moments, has grown to expect them. My heart is beating faster and my breath is shallow. I welcome this too.

She taps my hand and points to the notebook. ‘You should worry about your own madness instead of mine.’

I look down at the list, at the careful lines that form each column, before shutting the book soundlessly. On my plate, the tapioca begins to harden. The temperature between us cools. Within minutes, we forget that harsh words have been exchanged.

We mix a few drops of lemon juice in cups of hot water and go out on to the balcony. Ma has hung a dozen hand-washed bras along a clothing line. Some have been patched and mended.

‘You need new ones.’ I finger the murky lace of one battered specimen.

‘Why? Who’s looking at them?’

Below us, in the building grounds, a baby is crying in her ayah’s arms. The woman rocks her maniacally while talking to the watchman. The cries are like that of an animal in pain. We sit silently, waiting for the baby to tire, for her vocal cords to give way, but the screams continue without intermission. The ayah keeps rocking, panting, in panic, perhaps hoping her employers in the building above don’t hear.

‘I don’t understand why you won’t buy new bras,’ I say. I wasn’t planning on returning to this, but somehow I have. The baby is still crying. I wonder what the child could possibly want, and why it seems like the only thing that matters.

‘I have to be an example.’

‘An example for what?’

‘For you. You don’t have to care what others say all the time. Not everything is a show for the world. Sometimes we do things just because we want to.’

If our conversations were itineraries, they would show us always returning to this vacant cul-de-sac, one we cannot escape from.

I start by taking the bait: ‘What have I done that I don’t want to do?’

She feigns benevolent dismissal: ‘Anyway, let’s not get into all of that.’

The refusal to let things go: ‘Then why did you bring it up?’

More dismissal and rejection: ‘Leave it, it doesn’t matter.’

The outright anger: ‘It matters to me.’

The rest unfolds predictably. She asks why I am always after her, behind her, chasing after her like a rabid dog with my fangs out. Don’t I have anything better to do, she asks, than bully my own mother?

I do not hesitate for a moment when I tell her she only knows how to think about herself. Her expression moves towards injury but turns back, and she says, ‘There’s nothing wrong with thinking about oneself.’

I halt at the usual impasse. Where do we go from here?

I want to tell her all the things that are wrong with it, but can never find the words. I want to ask her what’s so terrible about doing what other people want, with making another person happy. Ma always ran from anything that felt like oppression. Marriage, diets, medical diagnoses. And while she did that, she lost what she refers to as excess fat. She has no interest in being lean of body – but she doesn’t need repressed know-nothings around her, she says. The feeling has become mutual. Certain contemporaries at the Club refuse to acknowledge Ma. The elder relatives, who might have had a soft spot for the child they remembered, are infirm or dead. Yes, Ma has people around her, people who love her, but to me they seem few. To me, we have always been alone.

There are repercussions for living the life she’s chosen. I wonder if the loss is worth it, and if she believes it’s worth it. I wonder what she feels after I leave to go back to Dilip and she looks around her house. Maybe this isn’t her choice at all, but another path she has mapped over and over, one she cannot unlearn. I want to ask her if, in all the years she has run away, any part of her screams come after me? Does she want to be caught, brought back and convinced that she is important, that she is necessary?

But these questions dissolve when I see her leaning back in her chair, eyes closed, humming to the soundtrack of the crying baby and sipping her sour water.





Dilip wants to become a vegetarian because a lion killed a lioness in America yesterday.

The lions grew up in the same zoo, in captivity all their lives. They mated many times, produced cubs that were taken from them at a young age. One busy weekend afternoon, they were sitting in their cage as usual, and a bunch of children were running about, pointing at the animals, asking their parents if the lions were real, like the ones they had seen in the National Geographic programmes on television. The newspaper added that last bit, as though the lions had heard, turned to each other and said, Those kids want to know if we’re real. Should we show them how real we are?

And then the male bit the female’s head off.

Not exactly like that, but he swallowed her face and held her, incapacitated, while she suffocated inside his mouth, in front of all the screaming humans.

The article left the reader with a series of questions: Were the lions depressed? Is this part of a larger cover-up, like SeaWorld? Are they trying to hide a common occurrence by suggesting the incident is isolated? Can captivity ever be a normal thing – and should it be such a big part of our culture or something that we encourage as a childhood amusement? Doesn’t the public have a right to know the truth?

Dilip says he hated going to the zoo, even as a child. There was nothing that could be worse than looking at a creature in a cage. He had the same feeling as when he studied colonial history and his textbook had a full-page picture of the Hottentot Venus, chained up at the neck and smoking. The entry described how, after her death, she was dissected and her organs put on display. He tells me that, when he was a teenager, he avoided going to Juhu beach on family trips to Bombay because a cousin told him the camels there were suffocating in the damp air, their giant lungs sodden like wet pillowcases.

Some things move my husband, but I can never predict what. He ate kale before it was fashionable and once tried to make his own soap. He leaves bowls of water out on the window ledge in case birds get thirsty on summer days. Racism, sexism and animal cruelty come from the same source, in his estimation, and he speaks about them interchangeably.

I tell his mother about the lions when she calls that evening – and she laughs at her son, says she doesn’t know where these ideas have come from, except maybe that one summer he went to Surat to stay with her in-laws, because she knows they’re a veggie-preaching lot. She wonders why she didn’t hear about the lion incident in Milwaukee, and why the papers in India have nothing better to do than report on American zoos.

I tell him what his mother said, and he shrugs. ‘Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.’

He smiles without showing his teeth, and I have a sudden desire to confess something. ‘I loved killing slugs as a child.’ I realize I am sweating, as though a poison has been released from within me. ‘At the ashram.’

He looks at me, but his face is unreadable. ‘Okay.’

‘I poured salt on them, and they would shrivel and scream. Kali Mata taught me.’

He looks in the mirror as he answers. ‘I don’t think they scream.’

‘They do. I remember there were screams.’

‘It’s not a big deal. You were just a kid.’

‘Today I fought with Ma.’

‘About what?’

‘Our usual fight.’

‘You know how to push each other’s buttons.’

He eats dal and two vegetables that night at dinner and says he already feels better, lighter, after just three meals.


Two days later, over quinoa and spinach soup, he tells me that his mother was actually right, that something did happen when he went to Surat in Gujarat all those summers ago. He heard a story about his aunt, his father’s aunt actually, named Kamala. She was born in 1923 and her father was the first man in the town of Bhavnagar to buy an automobile. He was also the first to educate his daughters as well as his sons. But when it was Kamala’s turn to attend university, she begged her father to let her become a Jain nun, to live near the temples in the small city of Palitana, and climb the thousands of steps with the other pilgrims and devotees to the top of the Shatrunjaya hills every day. She told him of a recurring dream she’d been having, of the face of the Jain deity Adinath from a statue of him that sits in a temple in Palitana. But as she drew closer, the face would disappear into darkness.

I know enough about Jainism to know that Jains are some of the most extreme vegetarians around, forgoing not only meat and eggs but also plants that must be uprooted for consumption. Jain food was commonly made without onions and garlic. I run through all the recipes I will have to change if he decides to take this further. The nuns often tie white cloth over their mouths and sweep the ground before they take a step so that they neither inhale nor step on any living being, even by accident. However, the Jains I knew still wore leather and didn’t seem to notice what industrial dairy farming meant for cows all over India.

I feel betrayed, as though some dark secret has been revealed. ‘You never told me you were a Jain.’

‘Only a quarter. On my dad’s side.’

‘How did Kamala know which temple it was?’

Dilip taps the table. ‘I don’t know. Maybe she had been there.’

I nod, and he continues, but I detect less enthusiasm than he started with.

Kamala’s request was refused, and she was beaten and locked in her room. For seven days after that, her mother knocked at the door with a plate of food but not a single morsel was consumed. On the eighth day, Kamala’s father opened the door and saw his child was already wearing the thin white cloth of the Jain nuns. In anger, he pulled at the white cotton covering her head. What he saw stopped his hand. Her hair was all but gone. Her scalp was red and inflamed.

When he asked her what she had done, she told him Paryushan, the Jain holy days of introspection and abstinence, had begun, and it was a time when Jain nuns plucked every hair from their heads as penance.

‘How many hairs are on the average head?’ I interrupt. He shrugs.

‘How many thousands of steps is it to the top of Palitana?’ I ask.

‘I don’t know exactly,’ Dilip says. ‘A lot.’

‘Most of this story has been exaggerated.’

‘We don’t know that.’

‘Yes, we do. In a generation, she’ll have walked on water.’

‘I’m just saying, the people in my family, they have the calling.’

‘The calling for what?’

‘For a life of radical non-violence.’

‘But they also have a calling for the opposite,’ I say. I bring up his mother’s love for American holidays with big birds on the dinner table, and the fur she wears to shield herself from the Midweste