Yesterday, I watched Ana buy eggs at the chicken shop down the road from our house, and just as I registered the familiar smell of her hair – mint and cucumber, washed thrice a week, always with cold water – I felt her words settle into the bends of my ear canals and say, exactly as she’d done the first time we met, You know, you can tell a good egg from the bad ones if it sinks in a mug of water. We’d been on a train to Bangalore, and Ana was sitting in my seat, her feet stowed away neatly under her thighs, an egg sandwich in her lap at dinnertime. It’s a good habit to have, she’d told me, crackling aluminum foil between her fingers while the two women next to us held hands and said a prayer – you know, to drop your egg in a cup of water while you decide how to cook it – Amen – hoping it’ll sink. I don’t remember this, but Ana says I told her about tomatoes in return, that my mother’s advice was to pick the ones that weren’t soft, not just the first ones I saw; the thing to do was press them a little, like this – here I held up her ball of foil – with your thumb first, and then your palm. You want to look for the firm ones, but not too firm, more like pear-beginning-to-spoil firm, and less like drying-ball-of-clay firm.
It’s time you left the house, Ai, Ana had whispered into the dip of my neck that morning. We’d been lying in bed, and until then I’d been watching Ana, her eyes closed, eyelids flickering, feeling the occasional nudge of her toes on my feet – ay, make the coffee no, please. You’ve been in here five days, you need to get some air, she’d told me, blowing slowly between my collarbones, winding the tips of my hair around her fingers – your story will be stale otherwise.
Since it was Sunday, Venu uncle was at the chicken shop. He was there every weekend (he sat at Friends Tea Stall during the week). No di – he’d say if you asked him about it – when you’re my age, ya, you’ll want some quiet weekends, and it’s better here than at that full beyond capacity place. Not that the chicken shop was ever quiet or didn’t have a train of people waiting. They even took phone orders now. Ay Rohan, two kilos boneless parcel, and just put one quarter kilo feet in a separate cover – did you hear me? – quarter kilo feet in a separate cover, Venu uncle was shouting when Ana and I had entered.
Ay, Aida, he’d said while untying some chickens from the front of his cycle, you tell Ana she can check those eggs in water however many times she wants, aan, but I’m not taking them back because she says they didn’t sink or something. For her, I have a no-return policy. Ana was still outside doing her checking, so I followed Venu uncle into his shop to see if there were any cold chickens lying on the counter with their skin still on. There weren’t, but I was still nodding, so uncle had continued, holding up two chickens by their feet – For everybody else the smell is enough to tell if the eggs are bad – and then suddenly to Rohan, who’d been sitting on a stool in the corner, blinking into his phone and biting the insides of his cheeks, Oy, do I pay you to sit on your phone all day, or to pluck these chickens? Take them quickly, o, get up faster, I can’t stand here all day. And what happened to that two kilos boneless parcel? Then I followed Venu uncle outside again. The chickens are here, their eggs are here, their cages are clean, so where is the problem, he wanted to know. Look at the front, Aida, he’d said, dusting off the feathers clinging to the bottom of his shirt, everyone is happy. Only Ana is not happy.
Ever since Ana had her way, we’d been living in a one-bedroom flat named Sunny – Sunny, short for sunflower – on the second floor of an apartment complex called Daisy, on the way to Sarjapur. We’d have to clarify this name, of course, Ana had always said, Sunny, printed on white copier paper in Times New Roman size 72, font colour yellow, paper stuck on the side of a cut-up shoebox, shoebox side stuck just above the keyhole. Not everyone would get the irony, she said: Sunny, short for sunflower, the uninspiring house with two windows, whose only real light came from our glimmering personalities, and our (her) quiet gibe at this inexplicable new tradition of naming apartments after ordinary flowers. I suppose it wasn’t entirely her fault – she’d grown up with a cat named Bekku, as though this was somehow different from calling him Cat – but Ana always had strong feelings about names, and so it was usually best to let her come up with something. Even before we’d moved, Ana had decided that Sunny was going to be an open house for anyone who wanted to come through (except my mother, of course), maybe even a foster home for two dogs and a couple of cats, but dogs over cats any day, no question. Never mind that the house was the size of ten school girls standing at double arm distance before their hundred-meter race, we’d figure that out. And then about Diya – Ana had also insisted she’d make sure of this – Diya wasn’t allowed to stay over because she really shouldn’t have sent us (me) that postcard of a yawning dog and the caption Bitch, not after all she’d said about me anyway.
As far as I was concerned, Sunny had been one of Ana’s more terrible ideas. I hadn’t wanted to move all the way to Sarjapur, middle of nowhere, and most certainly not to a house whose walls were shedding strips of beige paint like it was a giant, deeply breathing, slowly moulting lizard. Our would-be landlady had promised to fix up the house. Within six months, maybe a year, I’m just waiting for some rummy money to come through, she’d said, maybe we could even paint one wall Gelusil pink, your choice, it’ll be my gift for your patience. But Ana, I knew, had an alarmingly thoughtful headshake – reserved for when she’d already made her decision – and this time too, she’d shaken her head slowly, as though she couldn’t quite tell if there was water in her ears. Ay, what do you mean moulting lizard? she asked. What kind of ridiculous comparison is that? The paint is just chipped in a few places, rather like your Ajji’s molars. Besides, it wouldn’t shed if we just didn’t touch the walls anyway. I don’t know why Ana knew about my grandmother’s teeth; or what else she’d expected from her molars, she must’ve been more than eighty years old. But, I wanted to ask, if the walls were so much like her teeth, couldn’t she also see the evidence of their browning, her three root canals, and all those extractions? Then there was the problem of the pigeons perched on the window sill in the living room – it was four pigeons wide; they were sitting there, wing to wing, when we’d entered – and I hated pigeons. They keep pretending to have one leg, I’d told Ana, so you stared at them with fascination and pity, until suddenly they untucked their second leg from some deep hole in their feathers that you couldn’t see, leaving you feeling slightly betrayed and mostly silly – but how could you ever know if the next pigeon that came your way was pretending, or really just had one leg?
Well, I think it’s perfect, Ana had announced before I could finish, we’ll have to have fewer plants because there’s not much sunlight, but my table can go into the bedroom, I’ll write from there – you write sitting on the floor anyway, so we won’t need yours – and maybe two bookshelves will be enough, with a couple of mattresses if people come over. Aunty, sir, we really love this house, she’d continued, can you keep it for two weeks and we’ll figure out the deposit by Sunday after next?
This was when I’d noticed the single plug point in what was to be our bedroom, on what would have been Ana’s side of the bed. It was my final deal-breaker, because here was her plug point, and her work table, on her side of the bed, while I sat on with floor, without my table, which I would’ve liked to have had anyway. But I said nothing. If I’d brought this up, Ana’s face, usually arranged in a look of floating disinterest, would have rapidly crumbled into exasperation. Extension cord, she’d have said, we’ll buy an extension cord, and an extension cord for the extension cord, just to keep you happy; why are you so against this house anyway, it’s not upmarket enough for your Indiranagar taste? Of course, Ana would’ve been right about the extension cord. I would’ve known this, our would-be landlady would’ve known this, and Mr. Rai, who’d found us this house for a big cut of money from would-be landlady would’ve known this. He’d have nodded with Ana. Yes, he’d have said, yes, two hundred percent correct, the shop down the road has a sale on all their electrical appliances, two for the price of one, all day every day. Then it would’ve been would-be landlady’s turn to smile and say, Oh, Indiranagar? You’ll never find a house for this price in Indiranagar. Now it’s all clubs with reservations and dress codes, and some Italian restaurants selling better wine than Sula – I don’t drink, but I’ve heard from my brother. He lives in Jal Vayu Vihar, you know, near Kammanahalli; oh, you two are just out of college, you must go there for clubbing all the time. No, I’d begin to say, we don’t go clubbing, but Ana would’ve cut me off again – Jal Vayu Vihar, aunty? Your brother was in the air force, or was it the navy? – and I’d wonder how asking people about themselves came to her so easily.
But by then, Mr Rai, much to my relief, had said no – We can only keep the house on hold for a week, we’re getting so many rent offers, you know. Of course, this was a lie, and both and Ana and I knew this. I thought that would’ve meant the end of this, until, much to my distress, Ana had replied immediately, as though the words had been fermenting in her throat, Yes, of course, we understand sir, we’ll figure out the deposit in one week then. Come again to see the house any time, would-be landlady had told us as we left, and at this point, Ana gripped my hand, smiled, and said to her, You’re too kind, aunty.
Then she turned to look at me, her head close to my shoulder, her palm cold, and her hair smelling of mint and cucumber, still smiling, a small speck of red lipstick on her teeth, and suddenly, I mumbled, Yes, thank you, aunty, you’re too kind.
On some days – when Ana wrote well, and we didn’t fight over the pigeons, or my hair in the bathroom sink – Sunny looked exactly as Ana had imagined it. In moments that seemed too tightly knotted to comprehend, I took inventory of our life: in our bedroom, a complaining bed, unmade, not quite large enough for the two of us; the innards of our razais always warm, so warm that we could leave the window – eight pigeons wide – open every night. Below the window, an overturned cardboard box, one of the sturdier ones; on it, a sheet of cling film; on the cling film, five plants: four different succulents and one creeper, a money plant with leaves that didn’t quite look like coins to either of us. Above our bed, Ana’s rescued print of Still Life with Music and Parrot, it’s edges torn, stuck on with masking tape that undid itself once a month and came off with a layer of powdered, still-beige paint. On Ana’s side of the bed, a table; her grandfather’s, hand-painted midnight-blue when she was nine, three years before her mother died; on it, two roles of unused washi tape; and her journal with a panda, on it, the words, I Believe I Can Fly. Close to the journal, her books, Love and Marriage in Mumbai, Any Woman’s Blues, Trash, Shanghai Grand, Near to the Wild Heart; behind them, the painting of a chicken she’d made for my twentieth birthday – its note, Happy Birthday Aida-pie, love you more than chicken. Next to the canvas, a photo of her parents sitting outside their house in Goa, smiling, arms around their knees; a tube of hardening Primary Red paint, and another of Primary Blue; under them a half-used sheet of lino, all from the night we watched Parzania and Ana fell asleep so close to me I could feel the heat emerging from her body, her stomach rising and falling with such ease that it scared me. On my side of the bed, a pile of books on the floor, at the top, the commanding orange of Slouching Towards Bethlehem; next to it, another makeshift cardboard-box-table – on this, a feather from my first boyfriend, a sheet of stickers from Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum, a (stolen) red Moleskine writing pad with notes on the books I was reading, and a box of stationery with three stacks of Post-its, lemon, powder blue, and neon pink. Then, in the corner, our bathroom, and here, everything in comfortable two’s – lipsticks, both Colorbar, shade: Mischievous Wine; razors, both Gillette; kajal, both Himalaya; shampoos, both Dove; soap bars, mine Dove, Ana’s Pears; toothbrushes, both sensitive; toothpastes, mine Colgate, and Ana’s Meswak.
On such days, Ana would organise dinners at home. Mattresses, otherwise stacked against the wall, would be spread across the floor in the living room, and Sasha would be brought upstairs and fed a bowl of curd rice. We should’ve bought her the chicken feet, Aida, Ana would tell me. Venu uncle said he gave them to the dogs near his house all the time, it’s good for their teeth. I told you to remind me. Sasha would settle down near the cardboard box labelled Sheets – in it, the red bedsheet with stars for Roy, the indigo kalamkari for Imtiaz, and the black ikkat for Mari, just in case they stayed the night. When was the last time we went out, Ai, just you and me, Ana would then ask, while she peeled an apple in a single sheet of skin, maybe we should go to Cubbon Park this Sunday. We could take Sasha too, I’d nod, feeling my stomach expanding – were we now the two women who lived together with a dog, and took her to parks? – and then, so, how did you write today? Sometimes she would say, I didn’t, but it’s there, you know, like it’s filling the tips of my fingers, so I’m not worried; and on other days, It was five hundred words, but let’s not talk about it yet. You know, she’d sometimes go on, last night I dreamt about you again, and as always, I would stiffen, but before she could tell me what had happened, Diya would arrive, Sasha would jump, and just as all the commotion died down, Diya would announce, you know, when you two said you were moving in together, I thought you’ll be done for, and we’ll never see you again – I mean, this is Kengeri – but look at us now. So, tell all na, what news?
This was the moment I’d look at Ana, leaning against the wall, a bottle of Kingfisher in her hand, and Sasha on her lap, and she’d wink at me. The story was that Ana and Diya were supposed to live together after university – a plan that I hadn’t known of before the Bitch postcard arrived – until one Sunday, when Ana walked into Diya’s room, and said, So, Aida and I are moving in together. We’re going to try to write, you know, hold each other accountable, give each other feedback, that kind of stuff, ya? When the postcard came, Ana told me that Diya had shouted and shouted – like she was turning violet, disappearing and reappearing through the walls, saying something about third-class train friends and first-class college friends – but I didn’t know what to believe, because Diya had always been polite to me, asking me how I was doing, and what I was writing then. But since that day, every time it was just the three of us, it felt as though someone had pumped the air out of the room, and I was walking a tightrope over broken glass.
So, I would stay quiet and, again, begin to take inventory – here, our cluttered living room, my workspace. On the walls, a painting of three women on a swing, one woman’s hand in the other’s hair; and five unused postcards of book covers – The Days of Abandonment, Possession, Little Birds, The Secret History, Lives of Girls and Women. On the main door, three hooks, never used; also on it, a lemon Post-it of Important Numbers in alphabetical order – Aida, Ana, Diya, Imtiaz, Lakshmi aunty (landlady), Mari, Renuka (Aida’s ma), Roy, and Venu uncle – next to the door, a black shoe rack that Ana and I found at Soul Santé (this too, never used). In one corner, two small bookshelves, slightly sagging; on it, books arranged according to the age at which we’d read them; on its side, two rows of abandoned powder blue Post-its of Books to Read Next, one Ana’s, and the other, mine. On Ana’s list, Paula, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Gulabi Talkies; on mine, Frantumaglia, Second-Hand Time, Anagrams, Normal People. In the same corner – where I wrote – two cushions, stacked, one bright yellow with a rafflesia embroidered in cross-stitch; the other a deep crimson, asymmetrically ridged. Then, our kitchen, separated from the living room with a white curtain – curtain rod fixed without Lakshmi aunty’s permission – on the counter, a steel stove, a large coffee filter, two mugs, mine yellow, Ana’s pink; a packet of garlic; and two old plastic bottles cut in half to make two holders, one for ladles, and the other for knives. On the shelf, three non-stick vessels, seven plates, two of them ours, the rest gifted by my mother; ten spoons, two ours, the rest brought by Roy; six steel glasses, all brought by Mari, and used for alcohol. In the refrigerator, two packets of Heritage Milk, a dozen eggs, a tetra pack of Real Orange Juice, one glass bottle of tomato pickle, and vegetables bought in pairs – beans and mushrooms, ridge gourd and pumpkin, cauliflower and cabbage.
Then, Mari, Imtiaz, and Roy would arrive, and the air would exhale. So, I met this chick in college, Roy would begin, making the room infinitely lighter. Woman, Ana would say, you mean you met a woman, and I’d nod. Fine, woman, Roy would continue, can you listen now? It’s just that she makes me so unsettled, you know, like my words are jumping themselves, and it’s wonderful. Ana, leaning against the wall, a bottle of Kingfisher in her hand, and Sasha on her lap, would smile.
Yesterday, two days before our deadline – our first applications to a writing residency just outside Bangalore – and before I’d watched Ana buying eggs at the chicken shop down the road from our house, we sat down to read each other’s stories. I’d watched Ana reading mine from our living room – Ana, sitting on her side of the bed, her coffee on the edge of her table, arms around her knees, a pencil in one hand, already making notes on sentence one. Then, Ana, approaching (my) stories with a determination that seemed too severe; Ana crossing out words and circling others; Ana drawing long lines next to entire paragraphs, scribbling two words, meh, chop; Ana, on page three, inhaling deeply, biting her bottom lip; Ana, on page seven, frowning. On page eight, Ana looked up to see me watching her, and smiled – are you reading, she asked me from our bedroom, are you almost done – and I nodded.
In her story, there was a girl, eleven, waiting at school for her mother, who was late to pick her up. This was followed by the girl and her mother on their way to music class; the girl and her mother reading; the mother, frustrated, frowning, asking the girl about the boys in her class. Then, the mother, whose hair once felt like rope, lying in a hospital that smelt like all hospitals – of sterilised steel – but the mother, now with a cloth around her head, still late to pick up the girl from school. Soon, the girl, writing about her mother in her diary, clearly, with no spiralling sentences or dependent clauses, I think she is going to die. The mother, alone, reading the girl’s diary – unintentionally, of course – I think she is going to die. Then again, the girl and her mother; the girl, now twelve, lifting her mother’s legs onto her bed when she slept; the girl, standing over her mother at night; her father, asleep; her mother, groaning; the girl, whispering, Mama? The girl, now taller than her mother. The girl, asking her father, what is morphine? Suddenly, the girl and her aunt; the girl, getting an ultrasound; the doctor, saying, you can call your mother in now; the girl, angry, her voice rising like a cake with too much baking flour, she is not my mother. Then, one evening, the girl, her mother, and her father; but her mother does not remember her.
While I read Ana’s story, I remembered one Tuesday in October, when Ana’s phone had lit up. Congratulations on the short story longlist! Coming over now, Diya had written. And Ana, who was at her table, said softly, Aida, are you asleep? I’d been in bed because it was one of those days when I hadn’t written, and Ana’s voice was so low that I pretended to be asleep. I took inventory: the beige paint, peeling in patches, starting to show grey cement; Ana’s plug point, always taken, no extension cord; our clothes, on the floor at the foot of our bed, unwashed for two weeks; the floor, struck by a rare moment of sunlight, dusty. Something’s happened, Aida, Ana had said again, and this time she sounded nervous – from the ceiling, a steady drip of water, on the floor, a wet patch. What? I’d said, as Ana climbed into bed next to me. Ai, she told me, Ai, I made the longlist. I haven’t seen it yet, but Diya messaged. There was tightness in my stomach. Our plants, unwatered; the cling film, tearing. I smiled – you did it! – and gripped her knee. I’m so happy for you. And I’d meant it. Ana was on her phone. So, how should we celebrate, should we order some food? Should we get ice cream? Is Diya coming over? I’d asked – in the bathroom, the dripping shower – and suddenly, Ana had crashed into me, her hair on my face, her lips on my neck, and she breathed, we both made it.
But yesterday, Ana had looked different, her expression sculpted, confident. When I’d looked up at her again, she was taller than me, her shoulders straighter, her hair less controllable.
Then, I’d read again, and I saw Ana, twelve, with her mother and her mother’s doctor; her mother, dead. Ana’s father saying come here; Ana, crawling into his lap, saying, this is so unfair. Then, Ana, hugging her mother’s doctor, thank you for being so good. Ana, the next morning, watering their plants until a neighbour asked her, how is your mother? She died last night, I heard Ana say, and the neighbour, stunned by this girl, twelve, watering their plants with her mother dead, rushed to tell her husband. Then again, Ana, without her mother, telling her best friend, also twelve, her heart beating faster, my mother died – Ana, again, without her mother, telling her other best friend, her heart still beating fast one week later, my mother died. Then Ana, with her two best friends, walking down a road near her house, saying, I don’t think I want anyone in school to know just yet. But they do. On the first day of school after summer break, Ana, without her mother, walking to class, excited about school, until a girl runs up to her and says, I’m so sorry, and Ana realises she is not hugging her because they’re back from their summer break, and she wants to say hi. Ana, without her mother, sitting in Hindi class next to a boy who used to be her friend, passing a paper with messages to each other – I’m going out of town – Why? – My mother passed away, so there’s the whole ashes thing – and he only stared at her. And then at last, Ana’s friend, dropping her home from school, on time, not late.
When I’d finished reading, I was thankful we didn’t sit in the same room while we read each other’s stories, because my eyes felt warm, and my legs unsteady. Ana was not looking at me from the bedroom, and I wondered why, how, after writing this, after writing this transparently, she hadn’t felt the compulsion to watch me reading her story. That week, Ana had written continuously. Ana, who otherwise waited for every chink of a story to fill itself at her fingertips before she sat down to write; Ana, who lay in bed with me under the darkness of our razais when the wrong words came; Ana, who wrote with a crash at her shoulders and in her teeth, had written this week with a strength that neither of us understood. By six in the evening, she would come and sit next to me, her head on my shoulder, and say, softly, Keep writing, don’t let me disturb you. She would listen to me type, and all I could think about was her smell of mint and cucumber, and the muffled sound of the tip of my middle finger on the backspace key that had engraved itself on my eardrum. Ana would not say anything, but when I wrote about Nina’s hair, and the day she sat on her cracked roof and cut it with a rusted nail, Ana closed her eyes, as though she had felt too much that day.
Then, yesterday, before we left for the chicken shop, I thought of our first fight in Sunny: me, willing Ana to come at our (my) stories slower, even softer, until her voice, now low, echoing in the living room, But they’re not that fragile, Aida, they’re stories because they’re not fragile. It’s perfect, I’d told her, it’s the best piece you’ve written.
But when I watched Ana buying eggs at the chicken shop down the road from our house, running her fingers over them as though she expected them to be cracked and leaking blood; when I heard Venu uncle talking about his eggs – everyone is happy, only Ana is not happy – I suddenly only saw Ana, and smelt her mint and cucumber hair. I thought about the night when, both drunk, we sat opposite each other, me as tense as I always was around her, until for the first time, she looked at me, and said, So, we’re both tied, right? We’ve both been on the same number of writing shortlists – and suddenly, I thought, please, please don’t win the residency.