I CARRY EVERYTHING THAT BELONGS TO HER
It’s another curfew night and Ma is frying bay leaves and cloves in a tin-coated kadai. Raja sits cross-legged on the floor, bent over his math notebook. My hands are inside a small mound of flour, kneading and feeling the air pockets.
“Roll the rotis smaller this time, we have only so much attaa left in the canister,” Ma instructs and I nod my head. There is some attaa sprinkled on the pleats of my frock. I wash it before Ma can see it.
A siren goes off and a man speaks over the loudspeaker, instructing everyone to get inside their homes. Today seven people have been killed in the city during a demonstration by the Morcha Dal, a group of rebels from the opposition party. Baba has not returned, he’ll have to sleep in his office again. I lean in closer and mash my face in the folds of Ma’s sari to distract her. Without Baba, it’s another sleepless night for her. She runs her fingers through my boy-cut hair, picks me up. My weight lingers in the air. She puts me down and smiles. I grab her fingers between mine. She has fair skin and dark, thick hair with henna streaks, parted to the left, thinned at the edge of her hips. I want to have to have her complexion, the jasmine flowers in her hair, anything she’s ready to part with, air, slippers, earrings. Until I carry everything that belongs to her.
Outside an army jeep comes to a halt. I can hear the soldiers laughing. They own the streets until dawn. Baba said he rode his bicycle once during a curfew. It felt as if he was all alone in the world and he could do anything. Afterwards, he asserted several times he was lucky no one saw him that night.
It’s Chitrahaar on TV, a weekly program of new Bollywood songs. Raja leaves his notebook and sits on the sunken arm of the sofa. Ma walks to the front door, her hand curled around the knob making sure it’s locked. I know she won’t eat dinner. I roll out rotis, catch a glimpse of the singing couple on the TV. The man has a bowl haircut, a nice smile and a cape. I like the way he has his arm around the woman’s waist. I have an urge to grow up faster, to learn how to love, to do something unexpected.
After dinner I go into my room and play with my doll. I twirl her blonde hair and change her clothes. From the window, I see a soldier walking to his jeep. He looks up and I crouch behind my study table. I wonder: if the Morcha Dal guys set our house on fire right now, will he rescue us and fly us away? But he doesn’t have a cape. He’s just another man with a moustache and a gun. A light mist gathers in the air. The wind curls, moves the branches of an old banyan in our verandah. I tiptoe outside my room. The light in Raja’s room is on; he’s probably reading a comic hidden inside his textbook. The door to my parent’s bedroom is slightly open. I can see Ma on an easy chair, her eyes closed, listening to the radio, her body gone soft. She’s waiting for the eleven p.m. news to get an update on the curfew. She’s thinking about Baba asleep on the office floor, his hand tucked under his cheek, a rolled-up shawl under his head. She knows how to wait and be still, she has been through too many curfew nights. She says there’s grace in silence and in the end it’s all about accepting shunyata, nothingness. I want to hug her close. Instead I stay outside. Still. An old song escapes through the opening between the door and the walls of her room, settles in my head.
We’re in the checkout line when we see the snow shrouding the roads and the rooftops. The electricity in the grocery store blinks and it’s dark. The flashlights of the phones are turned on and we’re a swarm of fireflies, clicking with anxiety. Outside, the wind spirals the snow and the plastic bags flap like fish. A world spinning cotton. Our second-hand pick-up is parked in front of the yellow sign: Do not leave your valuables in view | Lock your vehicles. Inside the truck, you rub your bare hands and I find a crumpled parking stub on the floor mat. Plaza level, Oxford Mall, where your ex-girlfriend works. Why didn’t I see it before?
The roads are icy. Your wide-open eyes fill your face, massive moons. I watch the way your fingers curl around the steering― your wrists firm as if holding a shivering body. I crush the ticket; push it inside one of the pockets of my oversized jacket. The heater inside the truck hasn’t kicked in, but I’m feeling hot behind my ears, dry inside my mouth, needles of suspicion poking my skin. I look at the window. I want to roll the glass down, feel the chill and calm my nerves. I wish to feel uncontested and safe again.
At home, we unload the groceries and light the fireplace. While watching the tube, we take turns to eat ice cream from the same box, something we do each time it snows. I touch you lightly on the arm. But the light is too dim to read your eyes. “I’ve started working as a valet in the mall,” you say and lick the spoon, pass it to me. My blood stops wandering for a moment, your statement coming in unexpectedly. “Oh,” is all I manage to say. There’s absolute stillness between us until I remove my hand and you hold it back― run your calloused finger like a razor on my arm. A reassuring tremor crawls down my neck and spine. Then you give me a loving little shake, which means we’re done talking about the subject. The TV continues to forecast ice showers and from the spaces between the blinds, I check the snow, its sharp flakes like teeth―the space in between them dark as a bruise. And despite the stubborn crust at the top, the core seems to soften each time I dig the spoon into the ice cream.