You are secretly in love with your cousin. Every vacation, in your grandmother’s house, you watch him grow a few more inches, and of late display a few more sprouts of hair. You marvel at how his voice is better than that of any boy you have heard. You also marvel at how he can sing English songs you have never heard before. Every time he touches your palm, in an attempt to teach you the right way to strike on the carrom board, you struggle to control your smile, and struggle to control the spreading of a warm, fuzzy feeling that honestly leaves you baffled.
When your vacations end, and you are back in the confines of your home, you think of him, and eagerly wait for the next vacation, wanting nothing more than a life that would be a series of vacations, accompanied by a silent acknowledgment of all the manners and mechanisms your body deploys in asserting its control over your own self. For you change too, right from the thickening of your breasts, to the fine strands of hair erupting under your armpits, you notice that you are no longer the person you were a month back. You find comfort in the realization that somehow, somewhere, your cousin and you have the same kind of experiences, even if they are possibly recognized in different circumstances and in different ways.
When girls in your class spend their recess breaks talking about young actors they find charming, you stay aloof, sharing not an iota of their enthusiasm and interest. How foolish is it in any case that these girls spend so much thought over a person they will never even get to see in their lifetimes. You allow yourself a narcissistic chuckle everytime the girls ask you who your favorite actor is, or if you find David Beckham cute. “You girls are so silly,” is all you say.
Your mother buys your first brassiere and hands it to you. You think of your cousin for some unknown reason. As you clasp its hooks around your back, you wonder if your cousin would notice its addition on your body. But, when you touch your breasts, now covered in three layers of cotton, you feel like a different person, very unlike the person you think you are. You wonder if your cousin would notice this different person. And, when you aren’t sure what he would do, you feel angry.
On your next vacation, your cousin is almost unrecognizable. His short hair has given way to an unruly ponytail. His lips seem to be of a much darker color than you can remember. His mannerisms and ways, you notice with much grief, are so much like those of all the adults around you. And yet, you cannot deny to yourself. You are drawn to him in ways you have never been drawn to any person before.
On the day of your annual riverside picnic, you are habitually excited, but your cousin is indifferent. You have grown up with the yearly ritual, and have gone past the stage where you could try and think of the picnic as anything like a, “a forced family gathering” the way your cousin calls it, whilst arguing with his mother. You are strangely conflicted for the very first time in your life, as you watch his moving mouth from the corner sofa where you are seated, impatient and annoyed at his tone and arrogance. You are not used to finding faults with what your parents do. You feel sorry for your aunt’s petite frame, as she takes a deep breath, and walks back into the room she shares with you and your mother. You look down at your toes, as if it is you who has been hurt. But, the hurt seems horribly out of place. So, you look up, and that is when you notice that your cousin is still standing where he had been, and his eyes are set on your face, almost pitying you, but also questioning. You feel your heartbeat rise in steady rhythms. You gulp, as if trying to buy some time for breathing, when your cousin shakes his head, as if in disappointment, and walks away.
You look down at your toes yet again, suddenly wanting to be left alone, not wanting to be a part of that picnic. You no longer look to eating slices of soft white bread dipped in spicy chicken curry, and sing all the new songs you have learned since your last visit. You are almost convinced that all the cheers and applause that you will receive for your singing is practically pointless. You hold onto your stomach, and run to your mother. You have taken ill, and want to stay back home and rest. Your mother is understandably concerned for your health, but she has waited too long for this quiet evening with her siblings. You have no trouble convincing her.
It is only a few minutes after they have left, that you get off your bed, and set off to look for your cousin. You spot him atop the tallest guava tree in the garden. He doesn’t turn to look at you, but you know he has seen you, and he has been expecting to see you. You have climbed that guava tree many times before, and you have always been dressed in the same kind of frocks that you are wearing now, but this time, you hesitate, unsure of how high its hem will be pushed up against your thighs. Your cousin looks at you just then, this time clearly smirking. You feel a slow burn of anger rise through the pits of your stomach, as you brave the frock’s hem and make your way past the tree.
For a few minutes, none of you says anything. Your cousin is busy staring into the space, and you spend your seconds looking at the wedge of bark between your knee and his hand. You try to think of things your cousin would find interesting. But, just then he turns his head to look at you, and then in a surprising motion bends towards you. You are taken aback, till you realize, he is only bending to pick something out of his pocket. You look at his palms with a childlike curiosity, and then gasp. It is a pack of cigarettes, with a small pack of matchsticks. Your cousin laughs for the first time, since your visit. And despite yourself, you begin to laugh too. At least for that one moment of mystery, you are back to being the children you had once been.
“You are ugly,” your cousin says, after taking two long puffs.
You are stunned, and because he is right. You are ugly, and you know you will always be. Your face contorts, and the next instant you are crying. Your cousin rubs his cigarette against the bark and puts it back into the pack, all along his eyes stuck on your face. And then, much to your surprise, he wipes your tears.
“You don’t have to feel bad about it. I am ugly too, and so are 95% of the people around us.”
“And do you smoke to feel better about your ugliness,” you say even as you are aware of how bitter and even more uglier all the scorn in your voice must be making you.
Your cousin smiles, and you feel a frisson of pleasure at the realization that you have managed to impress him. You feel important, and intelligent.
“I don’t smoke to feel anything. The truth is I don’t feel anything at all. Sometimes my mind is a big blank, and I can barely even realize that I am alive.”
You are only 12, and despite all your good intentions, you are unable to understand your cousin’s words. You are even terrified of them in some strange way. And yet they fascinate you, just like he does. You stare, waiting for something more indecipherable to come out of those dark lips. But, he says nothing. You begin to feel restless. Your feet have begun to hurt too. You want to get back inside the house, or still better get back to where the rest of your family is, right next to the river, listening to your mother and your aunts speak about the time when they were your age.
“Do you hate us all,” you say suddenly, not quite looking at your cousin’s face, your curiosity now beginning to be shadowed by a more mundane emotion like incomprehension.
“And would you hate me if I did?”
You feel a warmth rise up your cheeks at how those words sound to you. No, I would never hate you. Never. You want to say that, but you only look down at your fingernails, bashful, and confused, and almost foolish.
You can feel your cousin’s eyes on your face, and the next instant you are certain, he will pull you close and hug you, or probably like the more adventurous movie heroes, plant a kiss on your cheek. But, your cousin only stares at you, even as you build a city of tiny, harmless dreams where your cousin and you can do more than just look at each other.
“Go back home. I want to be alone,” he says, after what seems to be an eternity. You stay where you are, still not willing to step out of your city of dreams.
“No, I won’t. And you don’t want to be alone,” you shoot back with a smile on your face, a smile that would have been utterly harmless, had it not somehow managed to betray the intensity of your thoughts.
Your cousin says nothing in response, and just when you are certain you have won the battle at least for that instant, he pulls you closer by your waist, and pushes you against the branch you are seated on. You let out a small scream, almost certain of your fall, but your cousin is still holding onto your waist with his other hand, such that you have ample time to find support against another branch.
Humiliated and in tears, you find your way back to your bed. I wish you die. I wish you die. You mumble to yourself, without really knowing why you want your cousin to die. That night when your mother returns, you refuse to get out of your bed, refuse to talk to her, or just refuse to “basically have anything to do with her”. Your mother, never the tenacious one, leaves you to your own devices after trying hard to understand what is bothering you. I am going to take you back home tomorrow morning. Enough humiliation for this year. You hear her say quietly under her breath, and hate her instantly. You know she would take you back, before you would be able to build enough memories to last till the next vacation. I hate you. You shoot back from under your blanket, promising to let this hatred not remain an affair for a single night.
Your mother stays true to her threats, and the next morning you are packed off into her Premier Padmini alongside the bag of sweets and coconuts your grandmother packs. Just before, you drive off, your aunt and mother, standing near the car door, complain about “how the children are getting out of hand and the only solution now is to think of a boarding school where they would have no option but to get disciplined”.
You look past them as if they are nothing more than the random person you encounter on the street. Your cousin is standing near the door, with his back towards you. You struggle to study his posture, as if it might give away an hint of something. But, he does not turn back. And as the rest of your extended family waves out to you, you look away, barely able to suppress your anger at them, at yourselves. Your cousin’s back still stands there.
That is the last time you see any part of him. Exactly three months later, you come to know he has gone missing. He left for school like everyday and never returned. His parents, your mother tells you, “are trying very hard to find him”, and that, “they are hopeful they will.” You cry that night, but you also feel nothing. You cry because you think you should, and because it always makes you feel like a better person.
They never find your cousin, and soon, he is relegated to the status of an urban legend in your clan. Some say, he killed himself. Some say he ran off to some far off town in the north. Your oldest cousin says, he was kidnapped by a bunch of beggars, and with his eyes gorged off their sockets, left to beg on the streets of Mumbai. You listen to them all with the same scorn and disinterest. Of course, they have never understood him, will never understand him. It is in these moments that you think of him the most and cry. I understand you. You quietly say in your head, and hope that he will hear you.