By: Kailash Srinivasan
You’re ten, Grandma’s moving around the kitchen, limping, unable to put weight on the once-fractured leg that should’ve healed; the hiss of potatoes in the wok, burning, screaming, weeping tears into the oil, the cumin pops, you watch from the pint-sized window that connects the bedroom to the kitchen; your mum’s getting ready to leave for work, her long black hair touching the back of her knee; she pierces the lobe of her ear with imitation jewellery and the flesh swallows; she tears a piece of her roti, gathering the potatoes and mango pickle in one sweep, fingers disappear into her mouth, exit empty, careful not to smudge her maroon lipstick; she presses her soft powdered cheeks against yours, her sweet perfume: honey, rose; Bye kanna, see you in the evening, and she’s off; your grandma waves to her; you notice the click-clack of her heels, the pendulum-like swing of her plaited hair, the bounce of her brown handbag.
Inside, your aunt wails, has soiled herself again, you smell the air: undigested food, bacteria, mucus, and dead cells. She needs a change of clothes. Hello? your grandma yells, after stuffing your aunt’s dead legs into a fresh, cotton skirt. Just hello, and your grandpa who’s reading his Times of India newspaper, thick dark glasses on the edge of his pepper-nose, glances at a headline one last time, drops the paper—abandoned, limp on the coffee table—picks up the dirty yellow skirt and heads to the bathroom. First he soaks the cloth into a bucket of water, where it drinks and drinks and grows heavy; he disposes the liquid and refills the blue bucket, the tap shoots like a machine-gun. He holds the skirt by its neck, and waits. He dunks it again, then lifts the fabric high above his head and brings it down, thwack-thwack on the face of the flat black stone sitting in the corner, left there for this purpose; a thousand droplets hang in the air, yellow dots under the yellow bulb; his veshti is folded at the knees, calves strained. He squats on his haunches, and with a detergent cake that looks like an unfinished block of wood and a bristle brush, goes to work—soaping in circles, running the brush in straight lines. He dips the cloth again in clean water, wrings it with sinewy arms, veins braiding this way, that; you tell him about the light; Granpa, see, the droplets look like sneeze, but grandpa doesn’t bother with the unnecessary, he fills his mind with geography, weather, cricket, maps, numbers; maybe that’s why he’ll live till he’s ninety-three.
Grandma’s feeding paruppu-nai-saadam—dal and ghee mixed with rice—to your aunt. She wipes the drool off her glistening chin with a hand-towel. Your aunt’s face is miles from symmetry, a face that when people look at, they shake their heads in sympathy, or place a hand over their cheek. She’s a part-formed mind, memories ice-cold, frozen at age six from the convulsions that rattled her bones; she remembers you somehow, she calls you by your name, your face a smile on her lips; sometimes at night, you think of that train journey your grandma tells you about often—they were on their way to a wedding: she, Grandpa, your mother, Aunt, when at night your aunt’s body burned from fever. She frothed at the mouth, her body jerking like a puppet on strings and before the train stopped, before they could get help, her limbs, her mind had given up. Your aunt opens her mouth so that Grandma can pour water from a tumbler, bit by bit. Sometimes she pours too much, which then comes out of your aunt’s nose. She screams her displeasure. Now she hums a Tamil movie song from her childhood; always the first two lines; you’re next to her, listening to her mumble to herself; something about your father getting her new dolls to play with; your father who works in another city, your father you haven’t seen in a year. Mum says promotions at work mean demotions in life. Your aunt scratches her pale belly and her cotton shirt rides up, half a breast on display, deep ridges on her areola. You pull it back down; she’s gone quiet, snoring, holding her red-doll with its bird-beak nose tightly in her right hand, her good hand.
It’s only noon, Grandma’s on her bed, next to the wall with the window that overlooks the courtyard; there are angry voices, father-son fighting over something. We’re listening to them argue, a silent joy swelling in both our hearts that forbidden things bring; you’re standing behind her, the smell of her half-dry sari in the closed room, al dente dreams, parts you can’t chew; slightly-parted curtain, your grandma’s white teeth, her diamond nose-ring catches light; you sleep with your head on her chest.
It’s almost evening; your mum must be on the bus back. You get ready to go to the Sabzi Mandi: scooters, buses, tuk-tuks, bee-beep-peep, vendors: Want this? Want that?, their hoarse voices shriek; sweet-potato with chaat masala, incense stick—sandalwood, jasmine, patchouli— handcarts selling sesame candies, balloons pink and red, toy guns, paper windmills, sun melting black tar on the narrow streets; Indian squash, cauliflowers, red carrots, ladies’ fingers; Why no mans’ fingers? You ask Grandma and she laughs with amused wet eyes, looks away from the road and bam! A cycle rickshaw slams into her right arm, her little finger bends like a wilted plant…a flower that will never lift its head to breathe sun.
Weekends are eggs. Mum makes them because paati doesn’t like to touch them and grandpa can’t stand the way they stink up the house, so he waits by the stairs outside while you finish your breakfast. All day he walks with his nose screwed up, a frown oldifying his already old face. Weekends are fifty paise an hour. You rent the bicycle from the Sikh mechanic: always the red one, dark-purple seat. You ride up and down Naiwala Gali. Street of Butter. A small factory in your lane makes ghee, simmering butter in hot woks summer winter rain.
Be careful, be careful, be careful, your mum chants as she sits in the sun and peels peanut shells.
You ride past your house again, head turned toward her, happy to have her not leave you alone. Then her eyes fill with horror, her voice leaves her throat and explodes out of her mouth. You’re flying, soaring, floating before—like the cloth in Grandpa’s hand—your head thwacks against your neighbour’s stairs. The man on the scooter sobs. You think it’s your dad and you stretch your arms. He lifts you, and you drip something dark, something sticky on his green office shirt, and you mumble that Grandpa can clean it for him.
At the hospital, on a white bed, a nurse in a white uniform talks to you; her hands move behind you.
How old are you?
When’s your birthday?
What’s your favourite subject in school?
This is how it feels when angry ants bite you, she says as she stabs your scalp with her needle—in-out, in-out.
You still remember the dawdling old lady who delivered squat, fat bottles of milk to your doorstep; the gaunt man at the bakery stomping dough with his dark feet that you thought was a filthy thing to do—remember your grandma telling you that’s how bread is made; for a while it troubled you, then you forgot. Remember those orange, headless, marinated chickens suspended at the dhaba on the corner of the Ajmal Khan market, a steel rod inserted through their bodies, and the discomfort you felt. Then there was your black-lipped uncle in the back seat of his white ambassador that smelled like mothballs. He stuck the moist tip of his cigarette into your mouth. You inhaled, you coughed, he laughed. There’s more you remember, but you’re tired. You could put these memories up on Craigslist, but what’s the point? You’d end up buying them yourself.
Kailash Srinivasan is a fiction writer living in Vancouver, currently
working on his first novel. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Xray
Lit Mag, Oyster River Pages, Bad Nudes, Lunch Ticket, OxMag, Santa Ana
River Review, Going Down Swinging, Regime, Tincture, Bluslate, Them
Pretentious Basterds, and others.