You and I first met on a narrow hospital bed, lying side by side, astounded by the world as well as by each other. Our parents were not friends, just friendly next-door neighbors who were excited at us being born a few days apart in the same hospital. I have often wondered if they switched one baby girl for another in their excitement, if we are living each other’s lives. In our photographs from the maternity ward, we are cocooned in soft blue fabrics with a disinfected white bedsheet behind us, looking like two neelkanth birds against a cloudy afternoon sky, or, as you once put it, fake fuckin’ menstrual blood on TV.
We went to the same Catholic missionary school where we got giddy on the merry-go-round and tugged at each other’s pinafores to not fall off. While your mother packed aloo parathas in your tiffin box every day, mine went for egg chow mein, chicken manchurian, and sometimes biryani. Your parents were pure vegetarians. Even the cakes on your birthdays were eggless. They had only ever lived in Ranchi where there were no traffic lights, only traffic policemen. Your mother wore starched cotton sarees. Your father was a teetotaler. On Tuesday evenings, your parents took you to the Hanuman temple and you returned with an orange tika on your forehead. They picked your name from the list of 108 names of goddess Durga: Niranjana. But my parents named me Ela because foreigners won’t mispronounce it if I went abroad. Ela means ‘elaichi tree’. I would never name my child ‘elaichi tree’. My parents had traveled all over the country before arriving in Ranchi and I never saw them praying unless it was Diwali. My father fixed himself a peg of Jack Daniel’s every night. My mother wore jeans and sleeveless tops. It took her at least three hours to wrap a saree whenever she decided to wear one. The newspaper boy threw a roll of the Times of India in our balcony, that of Prabhat Khabar in yours, and only rarely, by mistake, the other way around. When our parents had conversations, yours spoke in Hindi and mine stuck to English, understanding each other perfectly while refusing to code switch.
One of the only things they had in common was the 6-story apartment they lived in.
Although your mother gave you strict instructions to not eat from my tiffin box, you turned to me in the school bus every other day and said, “Ela, you eat my lunch and I’ll eat yours, theek hai?” I loved your mother’s aloo parathas for the exact reason that you hated them: they always tasted the same.
This one time we lay on our stomachs on your parent’s diwan, our buttocks exposed. We peered into each other’s eyes as we got vaccinated against unpronounceable diseases. Your father was a pediatrician and had arranged for the compounder to come to your place with the required injections. The needle stung but at least we were together in our suffering. Sometimes, though, we suffered alone. Like during the drawing competition in Class 2 when we had to draw elephants. Your elephant had a curled trunk and sad eyes but no ears. My elephant was eating grass. It’s back was covered with an intricately embroidered cloth. I got the first prize, an entire Barbie stationery set. When the principal gave you the Winnie-the-Pooh pencil, the participation prize, you sent it flying to the other end of the room before taking away my Barbie stationery set.
“Niranjana, that’s mine,” I said.
“No!” you shouted, tearing open the package and smelling the scented eraser, “it’s mine”. Your fascination for strong smells was the reason why, in the parking lot of our apartment, we regularly went around unscrewing the lids on the fuel tanks of motorbikes. We took turns sticking our noses into the sweet-smelling holes.
You threw a tantrum, screaming, “I want the first prize!” after the teachers made you return my prize.
“It’s okay, take it,” I said when I was handed back my prize but no one heard me and I started crying.
Till date, I worry about not having loved the Barbie stationery as much as you did.
For many days after the incident, I did not offer you my tiffin box and you did not ask. A couple of boys in our class helped me polish off my lunch. You glumly watched from your desk while that happened. One of the boys, confused by the sudden rift between us, once offered you the last manchurian dumpling in my tiffin box but you refused. This filled me up with something fuzzy and enormous. It wasn’t the manchurian that you missed.
My body was turning into a buxom thing that I carried around like it wasn’t mine. Yours seemed to be following a clear-cut design even as it grew. I started wearing bras almost a year before you did. Around this time, your mother slathered a goop of chickpea flour, crushed gulab petals, honey, and lemon juice all over your arms and face every Sunday. You sat cross-legged in the balcony until the pale-yellow paste began to crack, after which you took a shower and examined yourself in the mirror only to find that the color of your skin was exactly like before. Your mother wanted you to have a lighter skin tone. “Dekho how beautiful Ela is,” she told you, “because she doesn’t play in the sun.” You were almost two shades darker than me. My parents, on the other hand, wanted me to be the star student that you were. The only time I secured more than 80, a whopping 83/100 in Chemistry, my father said, “Good, very good! Niranjana got 100/100, I heard?”
By the time quadratic equations entered our lives, in Class 9, it was clear that you were to become an engineer and I would pick History or Literature. Except I didn’t think it was a bad thing, as most people meant it, because those were my favorite subjects. You offered to work on my Physics project if I helped you with your Hindi project. I wrote an essay on my favorite doha by Kabir for you: pothi padh padh jag mua, pandit bhaya na koi?/ dhai aakhar prem ke, jo padhe so pandit hoye. You made an astronomical telescope for me. My father had driven you to the market for the required lenses and mirrors. One day he suggested the three of us go to Tagore Hill with the telescope. I climbed rock after rock before adjusting the focusing knob to look at a tree, bird, Venus (or was that Mars?) in the dusk sky, sometimes at my father and you, sitting on a faraway rock, waiting for me to get done. Our teachers never found out that we had cheated because I’d briefed you about the essay, about love, and you’d given me a crash course on light, which the telescope collects in order to make distant objects appear nearer.
By Class 10, we needed tuition classes for Math. We walked to Miss Mazumdar’s house every Monday and Wednesday. There was a sea of footwear outside her house between 5 and 7 PM because she was the most popular tuition teacher for mathematics in town. She was slimmer than Malaika Arora and wore chunky spectacles. After tuition, we went to ‘the garden’ not far from our apartment complex. The gate was always locked since it was the property of Shiv Shukla, as per the nameplate, who didn’t seem to live in town. So we jumped the low boundary wall. Mr. Shiv was probably planning to build a house there at some point but now it was ten thousand square feet of wasteland speckled with guava trees and a pond replete with wild lotuses. Referring to it as ‘the garden’ made us feel less like vagabonds and more like wives of men who played golf. We munched on ripe and unripe guavas as we chatted away. Now and then a man with a handlebar mustache saw us from the street, through the grilled iron gate. “You are not supposed to be in there, girls! And certainly not supposed to be eating those fruits!” he yelled. If he was Mr. Shiv’s caretaker then he wasn’t taking good care. We’d apologize and leave before returning the next day. We were like the immoral man and woman from the Moral Science classes in our missionary school that were indirect lessons in Christian morality. We were like Adam and Eve in the garden of Mr. Shiv. Like Eve and Eve.
“Yaar, Mazzy’s husband died or left her?” I asked you one evening as I climbed a guava tree in the garden.
“There is no husband,” you said, your back against the tree. You added that one too many times you had overheard your parents pitying her, calling her a poor woman, or saying that her negative attitude was responsible for her miserable life.
I sat on a fat branch, legs dangling on both sides, and bit into a guava. It was bright pink inside. I plucked two ripe guavas and threw them to you, one by one. We reasoned that Miss Mazumdar did have a temper but she had to single-handedly manage a class of 30 students in her living room. You climbed the adjacent tree and sat on a branch facing me. Then you cracked one of your lame Elephant-Ant jokes: “The elephant and the ant were in love. They were getting married in a temple without telling their mothers. But suddenly, the elephant’s mother walked in. Guess what the ant said to the elephant — ‘Hide behind me!’” Our laughter reverberated through the garden. Just then Mr. Shiv’s maybe-caretaker showed up, this time inside the gate. We hid behind the leafy screens of our respective trees, stifling our giggles as he hollered, looking around cluelessly, “I know you two are here!” I could see you and you could see me but he couldn’t see either of us. You gave him the middle finger. I stuck my tongue out at him. “What pleasure do you derive from playing in this dump?” he said, still not able to spot us, before giving up and leaving.
The boys who called me pretended to have trouble with Quit India or World War II but talked about everything except that. I soon learned how to turn the anticipation in their voices into ordinary conversations about lessons, movies, the Chelsea versus ManU matches that they cared about and assumed that I did too. But you progressively got involved with the boys you liked, who almost always liked you back, and you locked us both in my room to talk to them because your parents did not let you talk to boys on the phone. My parents thought we were studying. If they picked up the phone from their room, they thought it was me and not you who was wasting time on the phone.
Miss Mazumdar distributed a question paper before our 12th board examinations. You had your period and were absent so she handed me a copy for you. I hid it under my bed and nodded in the negative when you asked me if anything worthwhile happened at tuition. The exam month was stressful. On the prep days, while I studied all night long and slept until noon, you went to bed at 8:30 PM, waking up at 3 in the morning to revise. Every time you helped me out with a question, I felt something plummeting in my stomach. When the results were out, you’d secured 100/100 in Math and an overall 97.2%, becoming the Ranchi topper. I had 85.6% which was okay but nothing that would put my face on the front page of newspapers, which is how the local media celebrated your success. The day our mothers cooked a feast in your parents’ house to congratulate us for finishing high school, as our fathers sat on the couch arguing over a cricket match, you took me into your room and rolled up your sleeve.
“What…is that?!” Your upper arm was covered in a maze of cut marks, bulging, glossy masses of flesh.
“I did this to myself,” you said, eyes welling up. “I need to tell you something.”
I put my hands on my mouth, then hugged you.
“You know, Ela…,” you continued.
“I hid the question paper,” I blurted before I could change my mind about confessing the crime.
I explained myself and apologized. You looked dazed. Outside, Sachin had hit a sixer. Our fathers were cheering on the Indian cricket team.
When I returned to the topic of your scars, stating that exams can be stressful, you said, “it’s not exams.” Your voice was more contained now. Your tears were gone. “It’s Mummy. We’ve been fighting again.”
I knew that your mother had been discouraging you from wearing skirts, shorts, and anything that revealed your slender legs. She refused to take you to a beauty parlor and get your legs waxed. So you shaved them with your father’s razor. My mother didn’t impose such restrictions, but I wasn’t fond of dressing up. You painstakingly filed your nails before painting them and I barely remembered to clip mine.
You let me dab Dettol on your scars and I felt an almost physical ache if I examined a cut mark. I wished your mother knew that you were self-harming because of her. But you made me promise not to tell anyone.
“When you’re driving a Mercedes in the Silicon Valley,” I said, wanting to cheer you up, “I’ll happily be the housekeeper of your mansion!”
You smiled a little, pained smile.
You were accepted to IIT Bombay and I enrolled for Medieval History at Delhi University. You gave me the homemade face pack and the gaudily dressed figurines of gods and goddesses that your mother wanted you to take to Bombay, but kept the jar of clove-spiced thekuas that she made for you. My mother took us shopping for Converse shoes, scrunchies, cute printed underwear. You bought a glow-in-dark bed sheet only because she got excited about them and I showed zero interest. Our fathers arranged for a handheld scale from the man who delivered cooking gas cylinders in his autorickshaw. As we included or excluded items, they weighed our suitcases over and over again, ensuring our luggage was not overweight. I wished there were decent colleges in Ranchi so I didn’t have to go so far from home, but you seemed eager to leave. At the airport, the only people who cried were your mother and I. She hugged you, not letting go. My father patted my back as I wept into my mother’s lap. You and I said quick, awkward goodbyes to each other, as if wanting to get it over with.
I spent entire days in the college library, drinking chai, pondering over the rise and fall of the Mughal Empire. It was hard to make friends, though. My classmates were mostly Delhiites who looked amazed when I spoke proper angrezi English. “You guys listen to Queen in Ranchi?” one of them asked me when I wore my Freddy Mercury t-shirt. However, you seemed to be loving Bombay. You didn’t return home for the summer vacation and took up an internship instead. I liked all your Facebook pictures, leaving comments with purple hearts. One day, some guy called Zayaan left a message on your wall: “Cool name, Niranjana. So you’re the goddess who has 10 arms and rides the lion and stabs the bad guy to death?”, to which you replied, “I am the goddess who wants out and go get some pizza. Join me.” Before long, you were going on bike trips to Goa with Zayaan. You made shaky videos of streets lined with coconut trees that I watched over and over. It had been a year and eight months since we last met when I texted you a goofy selfie.
“I dnt knw u were such a neat freak, Ela!” you replied, referring to my hostel room in the background.
I didn’t point out that my room was always neat in Ranchi.
“Wanna attnd my college fest? Zayaan’s bnd is plsying!” you added, and before I could say anything, “Zayaan’s my bpyfriend! I wamt you two to meet!”
That was how you wrote it: plsying, bpyfriend, wamt.
The moment I caught your kajal-rimmed eyes at the Bombay airport, I was reminded of your mother. No, I told myself, we had not been switched at the hospital. Only our souls, maybe. For the band night, you wore brown lipstick and your scar was hidden under the shimmery sleeve of your sequinned top. You pointed to a boy on the stage, holding a bass guitar, with dimpled cheeks and hair like he was in a Pantene advertisement. He winked at us. I smiled before turning to look at you. It was you who I wanted to meet, not Zayaan.
The crowd adored the band and so did you, headbanging, neck glistening with sweat. When I asked you if the program would end anytime soon, my voice was drowned by the jarring music. It turned out that there was an after party. I lied about not feeling well and returned to your room around 2 AM without meeting your boyfriend. After tossing and turning in your bed for a while, I switched on the light and stared at your clothes that were everywhere, on the table, chair, floor, even on the bookshelf and shoe rack. I found the laundry soap and plastic brush under your bed. After lugging your clothes into one of the narrow hostel bathrooms, I began to wash them slowly, warily, using lots of soap, scrubbing until my arms hurt. By the time I hung them to dry on the clothesline, a delirious orange sun was up in the sky.
I heard you calling my name. Your face was still caked with makeup when I opened my eyes. “What time is it?” I asked.
I hurriedly began to gather my things but you said there was still enough time for my flight.
“Hey, who washed my clothes? The laundry lady couldn’t have showed up at night,” you asked after I’d booked an Uber.
“Oh,” you said, wrinkling your perfect penciled eyebrows, “that’s…weird”.
I deactivated social media. I didn’t want to think of you. Every Sunday, I took the metro train to Daryaganj and bought books for Rs. 99 per kg. There were heaps of books on both sides of the cramped lane, from Chughtai to Chekov, Ngugi to Dinkar, and I went through them as if picking tomatoes or onions in a mandi. I returned to my hostel room staggering under the weight of books judged mostly by their covers. Soon, I had so many books that I started making ottomans out of them.
During the final year of college, my classmates and I trekked near Shimla. I was struck by the vastness of the Himalayan ranges as we moved through a forest of pine trees. Sunlight bounced off the snow-covered peaks. The path we left behind was like a snake that coiled up more with each step we took. Everyone thought that the view was gorgeous, but it was also frightening, the sheer scale of it. After three hours, we hit a cave where I wished to spend some time. However, the group kept moving forward and I moved with them until I found an opportunity to break away and headed back to the cave. I sat in a corner, watching tourists admire the sharp formations sticking out of the cave’s low ceiling. A woman who was holding a baby and trying to dodge some particularly huge stalactites asked for my help. The baby began wailing when it was handed over to me. It was quiet as soon as it was back in the woman’s arms. Soon after I texted my classmates that I won’t be continuing on the trek.
You kept finding excuses to not come to Ranchi during vacations, so your parents started going to Bombay to see you. I was home for Holi when my father told me that yours are looking to arrange your marriage. “And only with Kanyakubj Brahmins from Jharkhand, Bihar, or Uttar Pradesh,” my mother laughed. You and I had exchanged texts on each other’s birthdays but I had no idea what was really up at your end. I reactivated social media and scrolled through your pictures documenting your travels to Kerala, Meghalaya, Rajasthan, and a campsite in the Himalayas where you had cooked Maggi noodles under the stars.
You had come to the hills, you had come so close to me, but left without paying me a visit. Zayaan was not in any of the pictures. I wondered if you’d broken up with him.
I went through random people’s profiles on your friend list and their friend lists and their friend lists before arriving at the profile of some Rohith Ravinchandran who was cuddling with a golden striped cat in his display photo. Rohith’s first few pages were full of RIP messages referring to his infectious smile, his unparalleled talent as a Java Developer. The last post by him was: “All I need is decent filter coffee.”
Then Rohith had died.
I felt so sad for Rohith, for the decent filter coffee he would no longer be able to have, for the golden striped cat he couldn’t cuddle with anymore, that I buried my face in a pillow and sobbed until I was gasping for breath. I thought about the cave that I had retreated into during my trip to the hills. I thought about the wailing baby that needed its mother urgently, completely. It occurred to me that I did not wish to keep moving forward. I wished to sit and stare. And I needed someone who needed me. I gave myself a week to think about the idea that had sprung in my head. To my relief, my parents sounded calm, even understanding, when I finally asked them to arrange my marriage, although that was the last thing they wanted. They would’ve been thrilled if I married some blue-eyed firangi and relocated to Maine or Queensland. But they listened to me patiently as I explained that it would be best if the guy lived in Ranchi. I needed a life that didn’t change too much too often. I needed something that would stay the same.
“To whom?!” you asked as soon as I picked up the phone, less than five minutes after I had texted you that I was getting married in December.
“His name is Saurabh,” I said. “He is an engineer, like you.”
“And where did you two meet?”
“Our parents had common friends.”
You were silent for a while, then said, “Ela, are you kidding me right now?”
The uncontained nature of your emotions had always made me feel frivolous. I took a deep breath and stared at the dozen or so gold necklace sets lying on my bed that I was supposed to choose from.
“Listen, yaar,” you said, “if you can’t say no to your parents, I’ll talk to them.”
“It was my idea.”
“It was your idea to marry a stranger?”
I would not have put it that way but I had a bad feeling about where that was going so I just said, “Yes”.
“Right. Okay. Wow. I think…uh…we should talk later.”
“So, you will come to my wedding?”
“My parents are after my life to marry some asshole investment banker who practically lives in the gym. Why do something that so obviously makes me look bad? No one asked you to have an arranged marriage, goddammit!”
“No one had asked you to be the class topper, Niranjana. But what’s difficult for one person can be the easiest thing for another, maybe even the only thing they can do right.”
I decided upon an emerald studded necklace from the mass of jewellery on my bed. It had a leaf-shaped pendant with matching leaf-shaped earrings. I held the earrings to my ears like I was wearing them, except I wasn’t wearing them, and looked into the mirror.
This is how lives are lived, I thought.
I had met Saurabh a few times while finalizing things but we started meeting often during the weeks before the wedding. He was a sweet guy who liked listening to old Hindi songs, cooking Mughlai food, going for walks, and sleeping in on the weekends. Over kesar-pista ice creams at Firayalal, we decided to buy distressed furniture for our house. Every time we held hands, he looked into my eyes and said, “My heart just skipped a beat.” I smiled without letting him know that my heart was beating just fine. A couple of days before my wedding, I received an email from you, four sentences long:
“Remember the time we went to Tagore Hill with your father? At some point when your telescope was not pointing towards us, he grabbed my breasts and forcibly kissed me. He did similar things a few more times until we left for college. This is strictly between us.”
When I finished reading, there was a sudden, radio silence around me. I could no longer hear the florists talking about how to frame the windows with marigold garlands, or my mother arguing with the caterer about the consistency of the kheer, or my little cousin who wanted me to see her bangles, or the television anchor who looked thrilled about the stock market. I stared at my mehendi covered hands. The woman who did my mehendi had shown me Saurabh’s name hidden amidst the swirly orange patterns. But I could not find his name on my hands anymore.
That is why you had self-harmed and were eager to leave for college and didn’t come to Ranchi often, I realized, as I stared at my phone for an eternity before calling you. That is why you wouldn’t attend my wedding.
“Hey,” I said when you picked up, unsure if I could say any more. “I am so…sorry.”
“Not your fault,” you said, “and I remind myself every day that it’s not my fault either.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” I asked.
“I feared that it would get in the way of our relationship.”
“It anyway did.”
In my wedding pictures, I looked frightened, as if I was back in the Himalayan mountains. When my mother gave me my copy of the album, I cut my father out of every single picture that he was in.
As a little girl, each time I missed the school bus, my father zigzagged his motorbike through the traffic to make sure I wasn’t late. I put my arms around him like a baby Koala clinging to its mother. He always offered me his pocket comb when we stopped outside the school gate. This man, I would think as I brushed my windblown hair, is the world’s best man.
I was 19 weeks pregnant when you called to invite us to your farewell party in Hyderabad. You were taking up a new job in Bangalore. “Please bring your husband along,” you said.
You wore a saree for the party. Your strappy blouse shimmered in the dark and your scar was exposed. You congratulated Saurabh on the wedding. When we hugged, you smelled a bit like elaichi, a bit like the earth. Although I thought that my baby bump looked like I had eaten too much rajma, I’d worn a loose-fitting kurti, just so you wouldn’t notice. My eyes followed you as you introduced people to each other and offered them drinks. I heard you tell someone that you’d stopped flushing toilets after peeing to save water. “Like 8.5 liters each time,” you bragged. Then a woman arrived, wearing a halter neck jumpsuit, and you grabbed her by the waist before kissing her matte pink lips.
It was absurd, I thought, that I’d flown down from Ranchi to Hyderabad so I could see you off to Bangalore. Will I never stop looking at you through a telescope as you went from one faraway place to another?
By the time we had a conversation, you were on your umpteenth beer while I was still on my first virgin mojito. Saurabh and the woman in the jumpsuit had their backs towards us. They were laughing uproariously with a large group of people playing dumb charades at the other end of the terrace. The person at the center of the crowd was doing a really bad job of pretending to be whoever they were pretending to be.
“They are turning the garden into an apartment with a rooftop pool,” I said.
I’d started growing lotuses in a plastic tub because I missed the ones in the garden.
“Damn,” you said.
“Everything is changing. Nothing is the same,” I said, wondering if that was true because, after all those years of meeting in the maternity ward, we were still astounded by the world, still astounded by each other.
“Yes. I suddenly feel like I don’t know you. You never prepared me for this,” you pointed to Saurabh.
I wanted to say that you didn’t either, that maybe nobody knew the things they thought they knew. Instead, as you downed your beer, I stared at you like I was looking at you for the first time, or the last, or both.
“So,” you said, suddenly looking me in the eyes, “you are pregnant.”
“Saurabh told you?” I asked.
“It’s evident, Ela.”
“Well, yes. Yes, I am.”
You hugged me tight and your terracotta pendant dug into my collarbone.