By Kailash Srinivasan
In Karol Bagh, New Delhi, the streets are narrow, crammed with low-rise houses, people and bicycles and the housewives prefer buffalo milk to cows’. You’re Bala, you’re twelve and your hands are soft, your school uniform is white and boring, and your handwriting is right-slanted and cursive. You live with your grandma, who perhaps hasn’t seen a penis other than her husband’s, and now, even he’s gone. The last you heard of him, he was somewhere in Thailand with his lover, a fairly young man, a practitioner of nudism. But his pension still comes to her, and for that she’s grateful.
“Your English is really good, Bala,” says your teacher, Miss Sunder. Her red, full lips move sensually when she speaks, her cocoa skin shimmers. “You should become a journalist or an author, perhaps?”
“I don’t know, Miss,” you say, “I haven’t thought about these things.” The only other people who’ve ever advised you on your career are Mr. D’Costa, who stinks of whisky all day and insists you sit on his lap, his skin twitching and quivering like a camel’s, and Mr. Rao, your art teacher, who once dimmed the lights in his bedroom and tried to unzip your pants.
It’s February, weeks before your grade seven exams. At the end of the maths period, you’re guarding the door while Shankar, the biggest boy in class, is drawing a cartoon of your fat Hindi teacher, Ms. Bharti, who always digs her nose, as if on an excavation mission. The second you see her, you yell, “The Fatso’s here.” Later, during the English period, she prances into your class and squeezes the tips of your ears between her chapped fingers, and drags you by your hair to the principal’s office.
“What words did you use for Ms. Bharti, you rascal?”
The Principal wants you to proffer a sincere apology in the morning assembly the next day, in front of all the other pupils. You’re also made to write, I will not disrespect my teachers, a thousand times on the blackboard, and when you stop to flex your cramping fingers, she raps the duster on your knuckles. Then she suspends you.
The second day of your three-week suspension, grandma slips in the bathroom and fractures her hip. You sprint to the doctor down the street. He eyes you suspiciously as though you’re somehow responsible for your grandma’s misfortune. He ties his long, damp hair into a bun and wraps a blue turban around his head. His house reeks of raw onion, garlic, some kind of cooking oil. That’s because Sikhs eat meat, your grandma told you once.
“It’s going to be okay, Mrs. Iyer. Should I arrange for a nurse?” The doctor asks. He recommends going to the hospital immediately. Then he turns and looks at you. “Until she’s able to walk, you’re not to leave her side,” as though you don’t already know this.
Grandma is back from the hospital. The ends of the broken bone have been pushed together from the fall and the doctor has ruled out surgery but has prescribed medication, bed rest, and physical therapy.
Your friends are outside, making a game of your name. Bala ball la, Bala ball la. Bala bring the ball.
“Coming?” they ask. You shake your head.
“Give us the ball at least.”
You bring her water, tea, help her go to the toilet. When aunties in the neighbourhood bring food, Grandma takes on an apologetic expression; her lips tremble, her nose twitches. “It’s no trouble at all, Mataji,” the food bringers always say.
You dip a soft towel in lukewarm water and wipe her flabby walrus-neck, between her loosely hanging breasts, like two wet sandbags, her jiggling thighs, over her cratered buttocks. Sometimes you pretend you’re on the moon.
Sometimes she tells you stories about your parents. You were young, young enough to not remember their faces. Of course, there are photos of them—celebrating your second birthday; in the park; at the zoo, next to a baby elephant; on the swing. Your father in broad, silver frames, a thin moustache neatly trimmed, and your mother—thin, shy to look at the camera, her lipstick too dark for her face. Sometimes your grandma talks about the car accident that took them away.
“You’re such a good boy, Bala,” your aunt Usha tells you, bobbing her head in admiration when she brings her friends over to visit Grandma and to have them meet you. “You do so much for your Paati.” The women with her stand around like stubborn cows, nodding.
“Sounds like a job for our Jaya,” your aunt says to your grandma. “Jaya is so good at everything.”
“Are you sure?” asks Grandma. “I don’t want to impose.”
“Of course, she’ll be more than happy.”
Usha is your grandma’s first cousin, and Jaya is her daughter. Usha loves going to temples. She says she should’ve married a temple; then she would’ve had little temple babies and won’t need to go anywhere else. She wears thick glasses for her poor eyesight, can’t walk or stand for too long because of her busted knees. Grandma says her unfortunate husband, who works like a dog in Dubai, sends most of his salary to her. She’s obsessed with getting Jaya married to someone rich, like a doctor or an engineer, but who must agree to being a live-in son-in-law.
Grandma tells you so far Usha has rejected more than two dozen grooms. Grandma also tells you that Usha has more conditions: the boy should be vegetarian, non-smoker, non-drinker, religious—he needs to smear the holy ash every day; someone who can take Jaya to at least one foreign holiday every year.
Later in the week, Grandma’s watching a Hindi TV show in the living room. You finish reading The Wizard of the Oz for the second time and are curled on the bed when Jaya steps out of the shower, her skin still wet. She has a towel around her chest, and her face is fresh and clean. She pretend coughs and when you look up, says she doesn’t feel well. “Can you check if I have a fever?” You touch the back of your hand on her forehead. “No, touch my neck, silly.” When you reach for her neck, she drops her towel and guides your hand to her breasts. Her nipples are erect. Your ears are hot. You’ll never tell your grandma about this. Jaya knows. After dinner, Jaya says, “Have you ever seen any nice English movies?” You say you haven’t. “They show everything. Everything.” She grins.
Months pass and Grandma is not better. Has sores on her back, the colour of spoilt berries. You prepare strong coffee for her: one sugar, serve it in a steel tumbler with froth; “Where’s the froth?” she’s always asking. You write letters to her distant relatives on her behalf. They live in far-off villages. Half the time she doesn’t know the proper address but hopes that the postman will. “Just write, To Dear Kuppuswami, Atchirupakkam, Vaigundaperumal Koil Street, Tamil Nadu,” she’d say.
You learn to make lentils, rice, and potato curry, and while you cook, Grandma is giving you life advice: “Learning to cook, swim, and sew will keep you alive.” Jaya paints her nails every week and applies special oil on her face for fairer skin that she orders from an Ayurvedic shop in Varanasi. Because Paati pees in a bedpan, Jaya complains the house smells of urine all the time.
You’re good friends with Sethu, whose father is in the Army. He goes to the barber to get the same crew cut like his father, although he doesn’t like it. “Men in the army are so serious,” he says. “And they have to wake up at five every morning and do chores.”
You spend your evenings doing homework in your neat handwriting in ruled notebooks. Sometimes Jaya helps you with sums and her hand lingers on your thighs long after she has slapped the mosquito—the one you never see—to death.
Usha visits occasionally, but never talks about her husband, only about the money he’s supposed to send. Grandma is better now, but still prefers to use her crutches. You try to walk with them, but they are too tall for you. Your arms hurt.
Grandma tells you that at one time Usha wanted to become a nun, and so to dissuade her from committing blasphemy, her parents hurriedly married her off to the first boy who showed the slightest interest in her. She says Usha is doing the exact thing to Jaya now: rushing. Grandma wonders why did Usha suddenly send Jaya to live with us.
Mani, a man fifteen years older than Jaya, shows an interest in her. Usha is nervous. She wants the meeting to happen in grandma’s house, not hers. Her house is a mess she says, because she’s remodelling the kitchen for the second time. Mani comes over on a Monday afternoon while Paati is reading the latest edition of Ananda Vikadan, her favourite Tamil magazine. He’s friendly, although he isn’t respectful towards Grandma. Doesn’t say, “Namaskaram, Maami.” He comes in a taxi, brings a box of imported chocolates. He’s from Oklahoma. When she first heard about him, Grandma, said, “Why? Not enough brides in America?”
Usha oohs and aahs, serves him coffee, snacks. “All Jaya made, everything,” she says. “How are things in Yameriga?’
Grandma is observing Mani’s brown face with its tightly packed features—the balding head, clumps of wiry, oily hair. You smile at Mani, mostly because what else is there to do? His arms are thin, like yours, expressions like that of a bharathanatyam dancer: exaggerated.
Friday afternoon, because Grandma has a doctor’s appointment and won’t be back until late, Mani drops by. Jaya and Mani close the bedroom room. Later, he half-jokingly warns you not to tell about this to anyone, or else.
Just before your grade eight you get braces. Grandma tells you one is never too old to fix their crooked teeth. She also tells you they suit you. “You’re a good kid,” she says. She shakes her head. “You’re a great kid.” She pauses, clears her throat. “Have you thought about high school and college, Bala?” she asks. “You should go to college and as far away from here as possible.” And when you say, “What about you? Won’t you come?” She pinches your cheek playfully, “We’ll see.” Before you can ask any more questions, she hooks up her nebuliser and inhales deeply. The smoke billows with a hissing noise, like an angry whisper.
Jaya says she liked your teeth better without the braces. You’re at the cinema to watch a movie for your birthday and notice Mani’s hands, first around Jaya’s neck and then deep inside her kurta. Mani gives you a gift-wrapped box. You hear him snicker as you tear it open.
It’s a walking stick.
“It’s because you’re old now, get it?” Mani says.
“Yeah,” you say. “It’s so funny.”
You’re Bala Iyer and you attend school every day and laugh and joke with Sethu as though you have the most perfect life in the world. By seventeen, your chin sprouts tiny hair and your teeth are even. There’s a girl you like in your class, Smita, and each time you see her, you have trouble breathing.
Jaya comes and goes. Sometimes she’s at her mother’s, mostly she stays at yours. She’s still dating Mani, and when Usha asks for an update, she says, “We’re still getting to know each other better, Amma. You won’t understand.” One evening, Grandma, who walks with a slight limp now, is at a friend’s home to recite Vishnu Sahasranamam, a list of a thousand names of Lord Vishnu. Jaya brings a bottle of whiskey and insists you try some. “It’ll change your life,” she says, and you reluctantly acquiesce. But you get a headache after a few sips and end up blurting out about liking this girl in school, that you don’t know what to do about it. She finishes two large pegs and tells you she can be your teacher. “You need to learn how to give her a massage. That’s the first thing.” At some point, she removes her bra and convinces you that you have the best hands in the entire world. She lies down on her back, her hands behind her head. You try not to look, but there they are—boobs, girl boobs—and will later do your reputation a solid when you tell Sethu about it. She’s sad, she tells you, she’s hurting. Things between Mani and her aren’t so well. He’s very aloof, she tells you. You wonder when she’s going to talk about your situation, when suddenly she pulls you towards her and covers your mouth with hers.
You tell Sethu about the kiss and the breasts, and his mouth is so wide, you can stuff two ladoos in there. A few days later you’re back from school and grandma’s snoring in the bedroom. She’s been sleeping a lot lately. You kick off your shoes and join Jaya on the couch in the living room. She’s watching a movie. There’s a knock. Jaya says she knows it’s Mani even before you open it. Mani hardly looks her in the eyes, then she whispers something to him and they start kissing right there, like birds fighting for food, and there’s a strange ache in your chest you can’t explain. You wish for grandma to wake up and put an end to this. Jaya offers to make him coffee that he refuses. He instead asks her if they can talk. You keep your eyes glued to the screen. He says it’s been great, really great, but this can’t go on. It’s not her, he says. Not him, either. It’s just life coming in the way.
Jaya draws a sharp breath. His practice in Oklahoma is tanking. People are getting healthier, he says, eating better, eating organic. He wants to be with her, always intended to, but now, financially, he’s unstable, and then there’s the thing about his father being chronically sick. And, “Well,” he says, “I must see to it he’s taken care of.”
But a few months later, across all the local newspapers are pictures of his wedding to a local politician’s daughter, a dull-faced monkey-eared, jewellery-laden girl. Mani’s wearing a sherwani made with gold thread work on the collar and sleeves. The blurb below the photo mentions that the outfits have been custom made by a celebrity designer for the occasion.
Usha becomes a permanent fixture for a while, talks about taking Jaya to the Uppiliyappan temple. She says the deity there has special powers to eliminate impediments for unmarried girls. She calls home a dozen priests for a havan to appease lord Shiva, and makes Jaya, who is now twenty-six, fast on Mondays.
You and Sethu make the school cricket team. There’s an inter-school competition and your team wins. You hold hands with Smita for the first time, her powerful hands. She’s beautiful, captain of the soccer team, and very fit, fitter than you, some say. She tackles opponents on the field and never apologises for anything. She doesn’t talk much, doesn’t return your calls, and Sethu says she has biceps bigger than you and could secretly be a boy.
One day she gets super emotional and writes you a love letter with her own blood. You don’t take to it too well and vomit your lunch. You tell her you need some time to think about this. She punches you in the groin and you end up rubbing it for hours, spending the rest of the day in the sick bay. Your exams are approaching and you can’t afford to be distracted.
You suck at physics and sit with your books in your lap without understanding a thing: Transverse Pulses, Geometrical Optics. You stay up late listening to music on the radio. Grandma isn’t keeping well; she hardly eats and is now half her size. Often you find her in bed, restless, mumbling incoherently, spacing out. Sometimes she recognizes you, mostly she doesn’t.
She’s at the hospital complaining of breathlessness and chest pains. You stay with her most nights in the bleak hospital room that smells like sickness and fear. She’s shrinking. “Too bland,” grandma says about the food there.
One early morning you hear her uneven breathing. She says the room is too cold and you can see her shuddering under the two thick quilts covering her. You rush to get the nurse, the doctor, and they hook her up to a machine that calms her down. But within hours there are complications, something about her liver, her heart. She looks up at your face and her eyes close. The doctor lays a limp, consolatory hand on your arm.
You’re Bala Iyer, now twenty-five and, according to Ms. Minaxi, your boss, are destined for great things. Jaya married an obese man who can’t get up from a sitting position without help. Sethu gets into Duke to study law on a full scholarship. You wear your best shirt to the party he’s throwing for his family and close friends. When people are busy eating, Sethu’s father moves his chair closer to you and tells you he’s sure you too will figure out your life soon.
At the advertising agency, you spend your time doing undistinguished work, getting nowhere, accomplishing nothing, on the phone all day with small-time retailers explaining what you mean by words like demure and truculent and modicum in your copy. “If we don’t get it, our customers won’t get it,” they say. You could leave the agency. Ms. Minaxi will understand. If you’re meant for greater things in life, being here is certainly not fulfilling that prophecy. Yet you can’t quite envisage where else you could go. You could go to Bombay and land a similar job with better pay—only it will mean longer hours; will mean catching a crowded train every morning and evening, with armpits and crotches of strangers against you—then going back to a cramped flat and eating a banana for dinner, maybe cereal, jerking off to porn, and going to bed. So you stay where you are. You still have the house your grandma has left you in her will.
Ms. Minaxi asks you out for a drink when you’re working late one evening. You don’t blame her for seeking comfort in company. You snub her, make up something, tell her you’ve got some stuff to take care of. You hope she doesn’t consider your lack of interest in her as a reflection of her own shortcomings, but she’s not your everyday woman. She doesn’t accept your excuse. She presses you to say yes and prods consent out of you.
She takes you to Paradiso, where the music is cranked up so high your ears ring. There are sweaty people dancing around you, like there’s nothing else to life. The green, yellow, pink lights bounce off the walls, and the music like wartime explosions gives you a head rush. Ms. Minaxi, in a tight dress with red stilettos, holds you close, grinds against you. Her wanting you makes you want her. You drink that night, drink a lot, so much the club is floating before you.
You sleep with Ms. Minaxi. She’s easily forty, wears too much makeup. When she takes off her clothes, you look at her abs; her calves that are tight, as though carved by a knife. Her breasts are perfectly round, nipples frozen peas. She asks you to touch her ass. She plays you all her favourite Prince songs. You should know better than to ascribe any meaning to this evening, still, in your mind it amounts to something, and you’re buoyed.
“You’re so pretty, Bala,” she tells you after. For a moment you’re not lonely and don’t miss grandma, don’t think about your parents, don’t think about Jaya.
She makes a big deal of your birthday, coerces you to spend the day with her—
breakfast, movie, massage, dinner. At night, in bed, she hands you a small, red envelope and says, “Open it,” and you think it’s going to be a funny card on growing old or a donation in your name to some charity. You find two business-class tickets to Paris.
“You’re welcome,” she says casually, sliding your boxers off.
Soon you’re promoted to head of copy and everyone at work just shakes their heads when they bump into you or see you by the coffee machine. Some days Ms. Minaxi calls you in to her office, shuts the door and asks you to strip; some afternoons she takes you out for lunch, gets drunk and then wants to do it in the restaurant’s bathroom. Once she stood outside your door at three in the morning, wearing nothing but underwear.
Being with her makes you feel bulletproof: maybe it’s the money, maybe it’s the attention, or maybe it’s just the sex. After a while you stop caring about what anyone thinks or says about you; just being near her, around her, keeps you sane.
Then she starts losing interest and you hear something crack inside you.
A man comes around often with boxes of sweets to talk you into giving up the house. He tells you he’ll put you up in a fancy new building, on any floor of your choice, in the poshest, nicest, richest neighbourhood of Delhi. “What’s left here?” he says. He gestures towards a brochure of the building he’s trying to sell you, like he can’t believe you don’t see the life he’s envisioning for you. “This locality is shit now, pollution, noise, dirt. In your new home, there’s a pool, a gymnasium, a park, a cinema hall, what more do you want?” he says. “And it’s all free; all you have to do is give up this old house that’s starting to crumble.”
Whenever he comes, you hear your grandma’s voice saying, “Cheater, liar, thief.” You know the man’s looking to expand his business in the area. He wears a thick gold chain around his neck, drives a Mercedes, and has a lot of ideas for the community. You cannot bring yourself to look at the brochure he’s holding. You’re never leaving this house. You can still smell your grandma when you open her Godrej almirah, where she kept her saris, jewelry, her black-and-white photo albums. Some nights she shows up in your dreams and you wake up with tears in your eyes.
He smiles openly at you, says he’ll take care of everything. “Everyone else has moved out of here. They are enjoying their new, comfortable, three-bedroom flats.” You tell him nicely that you’re happy here, that this house is the only reminder of your grandma, and so he should forget about it. He shakes your hand. “Sure, sure, no problem. Take your time to think it over. I’ll visit again,” he says. “And oh, I almost forgot, here I bought you some oranges.” He puts his nose to the fruit and inhales deeply. “Nothing says summer like oranges, no?”
You’re thirty-two and Ms. Minaxi has moved on and that old, forgotten ache returns. She’s seeing a French model/actor she met during a commercial shoot. Nothing much has changed for you at work; you’re still the head of copy and have a dozen people reporting to you, except people are friendly again.
The American law firm Sethu works for files for bankruptcy. He’s back now and talks with a heavy accent, squeezing and rolling words together. He recounts to you every weekend, when you meet for coffee, about his life in the U.S. You explain to him that the more he talks about it, the sadder he’s going to feel about the whole thing, but he doesn’t get it. Sethu only drinks black coffee, without milk, without sugar. The small cafe you used to frequent as a teenager is now two-stories high and the prices have surged and the owner is different, the waiters have changed. No more samosas and bun maskas. They serve sandwiches and croissants. You order a latte. Sethu says it’s time for you to start your own agency. “You need to get off your ass and be more aggressive, man,” he says.
Usha’s husband is gunned down by a pimp in Dubai—twenty-one bullets—for not paying his dues on time. He was sleeping with one of the pimp’s girls, a well-endowed Nigerian woman. In shock, Usha wanders out of her house naked one afternoon. Jaya, sniffling, tells you over the phone that her father had stopped sending them money for the past few years. She tells you her marriage is a mistake, begs you to save her; says she won’t even mind cooking and cleaning for you the rest of her life, she just needs a tiny space to live. She thinks she can stay with you. Towards the end of your grandma’s life, Jaya did nothing but complain about the discomfort grandma was causing her. You tell Jaya you’re thinking of selling the place and moving out.
Years roll by. You are now the national creative head at the agency, which has grown from a single branch to having a presence in ten cities across the country. Ms. Minaxi is still single and you share a bed sometimes. You tell her it upsets you to see her with other men. You ask her about marriage, having a child, about wanting her companionship.
“That life isn’t for me,” she says.
You’re forty, with some savings of your own. You quit the agency and get rid of everything that reminds you of Ms. Minaxi: the first photo of you together, books she bought you, the movie ticket stubs, the T-shirt with her lipstick stain. She texts you once in a while, sends you pictures of herself, and sometimes says she misses you. You feel a little something those days, but you never reply.
You shower, shave, put on a nice shirt, get your hair cut the way you like it—shorter on the sides, medium at the top. You go to a photo studio, upload your new pictures on a matrimonial website, write a little bio, do your best to compress your life into a single paragraph. You don’t mention you’re out of a job; you say you’re an entrepreneur. To the question about your income, you choose the Prefer not to disclose option. If Grandma were here, she’d say, “You deserve a girl who will make you happy, but don’t be too picky.” You mention your interests in books, writing, travelling.
You get occasional attention, emails written by the to-be-bride’s father, sister or brother, asking for details, telling you they find you to be “suitable” for their girl, who’s the nicest, sweetest, prettiest person. “Are there any more pictures you can send?” You scrounge around for photos that showcase your strong jaw line, the dimple Ms. Minaxi thinks is sexy. You meet a few women at their homes, in the presence of all their relatives. They ask about your family, and when you tell them you have no one, they pout, look for ways to circumvent the subject, and distract you with pakodas and barfis.
The loan you applied for comes through, and with your savings you start your own firm. You want to position it as a full-service marketing agency. You throw a small party at a nearby hotel and invite a few people. Sethu comes. Minaxi comes, even Jaya. Some others. You talk, mingle, fret over their empty glasses, play the host. Minaxi promises to pass on some of her clients to you; Sethu wants you to be more proactive, reach out to clients, and if need be, camp out in their lobbies until they get tired and give you their business. Jaya comes over to talk. She seems resigned and once again asks to move in with you.
Then everyone leaves, and there are dirty plates and used glasses and no food left for you. You’re settling the accounts and realize you’ve gone way over budget. The men from Kapoor and Sons Caterers and Decorators standing beside you will have none of the excuses. They want their money, please. They lay threatening hands on your shoulders.
There’s a ping on your phone. Perhaps another email expressing interest in your profile. The room is suddenly duller, smaller, and what’s obvious is the stench of sweat coming off of these men. You feel small, scared. You feel weighed down by Jaya, Sethu, Minaxi, this new venture, these men, expectations, opinions, suggestions; you feel exhausted, lost; you want to be somewhere else, be someone else; you want to do something; you just don’t know what that something is yet.
Kailash Srinivasan is a writer currently living and working in Vancouver. Most recently, his short story “Bikhari” was shortlisted for the Into the Void Fiction Prize. His short stories “Faraway” and “Your Turn” were longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and the Bristol Short Story Prize, respectively. He has been published widely in magazines such as The Selkie, antilang, Oyster River Pages, sidereal magazine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Bad Nudes, Lunch Ticket, OxMag, Going Down Swinging, Regime Magazine, Tincture Journal, and others. He is currently at work on his first novel.