Warm days streaked brown and gold, tied with twigs and pebbles and collected in pockets, and carried and proffered to Mother, hunched over scribbled notes, hands behind my back, a beginning toothless grin. “Let’s see what you’ve got here,” she says.
I sit atop our car’s bonnet and pray to the sky, spread and crinkled with late afternoon light. I pray the aeroplane spots me in my brightest magenta. I pray Enid Blyton writes more. I pray Father stays with us a little longer than usual. I cannot tell Mother what I want and what I fear, I live in the unsayable. Sometimes, I invent. When my head hurts and I think it’ll split open like a halved coconut, I shout, “They’ll scythe my head” and when I am overwhelmed, I say, “An accordion plays in my chest”. Some nights, out of words, I writhe, palms on forehead and Mother lays close to me, runs her fingers through my hair, strokes my cheek. “Sleep, you’ll wake up better,” she says. Even as I imagine a crack branching along my skull, she is here, beside me, and I do not worry.
When I turn seven, I overhear Mother talking to Father. “She’s lonely,” she says. “We don’t want more kids right now.” A pause. Late evening sun sediments.“She’s insisted on getting a dog for nearly a year now.” Mother sighs. Father nods, plucking fibres off sliced mango.
He arrives a week later. Tiny, perched in a scooter’s front basket. He’s all mine. Or so I think, with absolutely no idea how, when and what to feed him and in what words to tell him I love him on nights Mother doesn’t let him on the bed. I long to curl up next to him, his soft, shiny, black coat. I don’t admit so to Mother.
When we introduce him to my upstairs neighbours, a girl my age and her elder brother, she squeals, delighted. A summer ago, I slept at her house. As the light flickered on her face, shattered and broke, darkness crept in. I missed Mother’s smell, homely, safe, like a thousand petals resting on her shoulder, but I was old, six. I didn’t call home but ended up wetting the bed. As he runs between her legs, rubbing his wet nose behind her knees, she says, “Let’s call him Snowy.” Her brother, reproachfully, says, “He’s black!” We call him Bagheera from The Jungle Book.
Every Wednesday we receive provisions. Eggs, milk, lentils, sometimes even a tin of cheese. It is pried open with three knives: Mother and our house help tug at and pierce the tin top from each side, Bagheera and I bobbing to catch the first glimpse of the smooth cream surface. Bagheera does not eat the eggs we get. He turns up his nose and saunters out of the kitchen whenever Mother as much as knocks the eggs against his bowl. We eat the funny-tasting eggs while Bagheera’s intransigence earns him yet another packet of Pedigree.
Mother puts on her favourite brown heeled sandals. As she traces her lips with brown, slowly filling in colour, I watch. I dream of growing old, tying my hair in a high ponytail, errant strands of hair framing my face, long earrings jangling. I want to be a woman and to be a woman is to be beautiful. When Mother takes her afternoon nap, I drape her dupatta along my body, stick my small and grubby feet in her sandals, dab my cheeks and lips with pink lipstick, fasten long, beaded earrings on my gold hoops. On occasion when I dress up at my grandmother’s, she tells me, “Beauty can confine you in your own body.”
We throw a dinner party at the weekend. Mother’s vodka and lime drink is untouched, she hops across the drawing room, verandah and garden, offering men and women, shining and laughing, appetisers. Pineapple and cheese on a stick is my favourite, I shove two in my mouth at once before I get caught, and trot behind Mother. She shuts the bedroom’s door behind us, she wants to use the bathroom and I am here because she is here. I lay back, looking up at the ceiling, a wispy cobweb quivering in a corner. Mother comes out, wipes her hands on the towel, straightens her dress, each bend of her fingers supple, measured. She hasn’t said a word. Cautiously I ask her, “Are you angry with me?” She doesn’t look at me. I ask her again. “If you keep asking me I will be.” I feel her coldness in my stomach. And once more, when I need to make her understand that even though I don’t know her hurt I feel it too, I am out of words.
This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's June 2020 Issue. Read the full issue here: https://issuu.com/beetlemag/docs/june2020
Illustration by Dhanashree Pimputkar