The evening had quietly come. She saw it in the way the light changed on the curtains: a plain, harsh white ripened into shades of yellow, orange, then patches of gold and between them, shadows. She liked evenings––dusk made the world mysterious. Once, she had written a poem about dusk.
Shadows grew in the darkening room. She sat still, not sure what to do and not quite sure about the world. This happened sometimes, when things changed, when plain things became shadowed: something numb awoke in her spirit. Slowly, she wrestled herself out of this cement and walked to the window.
The leftover glow of the sun still lingered. How long, she wondered, would this light last? Coming over the sharp squares of buildings, against an opaque orange sky, a flock of white egrets, legs tight together and hands outstretched, shaped the sky in a wavering V, passed above her and disappeared. She heard from the cemented pathways below the harmless ringing of children’s bells and their excited, small cries and then the calls of their mothers who hung out of balconies in their nighties and called them home.
Soon the paths were quiet. She listened and heard the sounds of the evening and the signs of going home: the tired ladies who swept the street and their busy, consistent cackling, that never grew, or dimmed, so independent from the job. She must give Haseeba that bag she wanted for her children, she thought. But it’s torn! So what––she can’t get better. A sharp image of the two dark children walking home from school, skipping carelessly from one side of a gutter to the other flashed in her mind. She felt a great weight of misery suddenly and swayed on her feet. What made it so sad, the simple suffering of these poor children was how they looked down and concentrated on their tyres or on the pebbles that they kicked about, and how happy they were.
She knew it was the last evening. She had known for some time. Letting the curtain fall, she walked back to her desk. The light has to be turned on now, she thought. How sad! Mellow evening outside, and here, these harsh white lights! But she was beginning to not see and the silhouettes of the furniture grew dim in the darkening dusk. Anyway, work was pending. ‘Sacrifices must be made!’ she told herself cheerfully.
When the phone rang, her hands flew to answer it. “Hello?’
"No, sorry. Vidya’s not here yet."
"When will she be back?"
She didn’t know.
"Maybe an hour."
"Who is this?"
"Sarah. I’m her housemate. She’s actually in…"
"Ok. I’ll call back."
She sent a text, rapidly: Vidya a man called for you. She wondered who it was, allowing herself briefly to fantasize about a strong, young jawline and soft eyes. And if not that, at least someone who listens. But it concerned her: how did he have her number? She put the phone down and picked up her pen. The page was blank and she began again to think and her eyes closed.
She thought for long stretches and dreamt in the day but seldom slept well. Her brother once said, “Sarah, you’re finishing all your dreaming during the day! How will you sleep? Dreams are what sleep is made of!” But she didn’t think dreams ran out like ordinary fuels. Dreams were infinite like elastic rainbows, with impossible colours and unhearable sounds, where the dark of space was blue and time a pleasant beige that gurgled like a baby spring. She believed in the power of dreams. No! She believed in the power of dreaming. And once, in the last month of college, when nothing original was appearing on her page, and her large desk was stacked with untouched pens and pencils, clips and boards, Post-It notes, coloured papers, files, folders, punches, compasses, staplers, strings, pins, brushes, paints, crayons and other tools, she told herself firmly that she had to keep dreaming. Her friend agreed. ‘Don’t give up!’ she said, packing up something or the other. Then she stooped and added earnestly, ‘Even when we have nothing, we have our dreams.’
For a period of two years after college, she thought she had found something, and for a brief, wholesome time it seemed her meandering had paid off. She moved out of her parent’s house refusing to involve herself in talk of marriage, and sat at her desk for weeks, working on an idea for a graphic novel. But she found it elusive, and often felt as if she was standing on a windy beach trying to make smoke rings. This became her nightly dream: She stood on a stroke of coarse white sand (leaving no marks), and in front stretching from every corner of the sky a terrifyingly blue ocean like a gaping mouth that spoke no words; a figure so tiny that gradually and in a moment of empty panic, she realized that she couldn’t perceive herself at all and would wake up; a wet, crumpled bundle of sweat and tears, so small, so alone, convinced that it was death that knocked quietly with black gloved hands on the dull wooden door.
But she had no choice. Her mind was restless, ungrounded, feeble and sometimes she felt she had no say in what it did. Her pages remained blank, but no, she told herself every day, towards the end of the day, I just need time to myself. Why can’t everyone leave me alone! And then she would close her eyes once again, fingers on the sides of her forehead, and think.
What did she want to say? This was the question she asked herself. Mostly, it was the dangerous electric restlessness of insecurity, and at times she felt safe: but between these two alternating states, when she actually tried to work, this was the question that would arise in her mind. And she never had an answer. But did anyone? Her theories began: art comes out of questions, not answers, and never from something as crude as having something to say! It’s much deeper, much more mysterious. Then she would summon galaxies, the noiseless stance of stars in their speckled formations, a dust-spangled marble that glowed a deep blue against the light, that she had found one summer evening on the path that led to her building (dropped and forgotten by a reckless kid), the hard angry faces of the ones she loved, softened by her love for them, the ones who had died without ever having said anything, and the ones who were alive who never listened. She felt the ache of forgotten history, the failure of music, the crumbling of the great cities, and the wails of bad circumstance and together with this, these images of whimpering civilization, these conceited cries of man, she suddenly perceived in her depth, cradled in a cocoon in the darkness of her mind, the faint light of her possible future: the smiling, gurgling face of a baby boy. This was repeated, day after day, as the sun whipped around, and evenings quietly came and the rain skipped a season, and the flowers wilted; all her spirit, and all her heart, despite her desires and despite everything, there was nothing she could do; and it would rise like a phantom in the rain, like a fist from a grave, the face of a future she had nothing to do with, from the darkness of her impossible past.
She opened her eyes as darkness fell around her. Maybe the lights were out, maybe the bulb was broken. She turned in her chair towards the window and saw the neighbour’s dark balcony. Light has abandoned us, she thought, and walked to the door. The corridor was silent. She stepped out and stood still listening. Will she still live in a building like this ten years from now? From Mrs. Murali’s house, she heard the clinking of cutlery and the wet whistle of a cooker and then shouts and frantic voices, that were just murmurs, as the thick walls sucked up all urgency and reality. She felt a paralysis again: the numbing fatality of this domestic compromise. This was a myth, a story told in blocks of ten, to keep the children quiet and studious, where the garbage-men were happy-go-lucky and the maids poor but kindly, and the tired guards who opened the gates, noble and strong and providing gladly for their families whom they saw once a year when strikes closed down the city and when they had to go home out of fear. She had to escape and she thought to herself: this doesn’t mean anything. One day even here will be silent.
The television showed little sense: a show about the end of the world. "The world ends every day for so many people," she said out loud and was briefly embarrassed. After a while, she wasn’t even watching but still she felt the hollow anger of injustice. The lights were back on now and she could see the blue glow of televisions through matchbox windows. She tried to think away from nuclear holocaust, to distract her mind from unpleasant things. What was her family doing? Appa certainly was the one who had the remote and Amma brought him hot milk. Vijay was on his phone, but looked up occasionally at the TV. She couldn’t hear them clearly. She knew Amma was asking Vijay to do one thing, and he grew annoyed and finally went inside, flopping belly down on the bed, still wearing his shoes and his eyes never having left the phone. Amma felt bad because she didn’t want him to leave. He spends so little time with us these days, she says and Appa says to leave him alone. And nobody speaks about her, but Amma shows with her eyes, that every time Vijay is mentioned, something goes unsaid and there is brief pain. Appa was the only one who cried. Amma said it was necessary. Without marriage how can you be in the family? What will people think? Mother was always thinking of the neighbours; much more than the neighbours thought about her.
Her little drawings saved her life. As a young girl, a teacher violently disciplined her and by the time her parents found out, it had happened too many times. She sat in her room and drew things listening to the mad cries of her parents who couldn’t believe what had happened to their little girl. ‘Ayyo Raama, Narayana,’ her mother kept wailing, numbly. But she shut out all the noise and made her pictures: a young cucumber telling its father that he wasn’t fresh anymore, a featherless bird complaining about the weather, a single shoe looking in a specific section of the matrimonial (and a subtitle explaining that he was very particular). It had been clear, long before she knew, that she had talent and her parents had grown worried. Talent meant she would do what she wanted her father had said. And her mother agreed. They had foreseen this.
It was seven thirty and she got up from her desk for the last time. She had one thing left to do. She had planned it all day. The kitchen counter was grimy from a night’s havoc and surrender, and the far corner forested with empty bottles of various height and girth. A wail from the mosque rose in the air: maybe it’s a sign she thought as she passed the window where it was clearest. Then she stood by the kitchen door watching the lights that lined the cement path, coming on in batches of five and the security guard who sat on the bench everyday in his blue shirt from exactly seven thirty to nine. She looked forward to seeing him: it was a comforting sight and reminded her of scrupulousness. One day, a few months back, he hadn’t turned up and the bench was empty. She went out onto her balcony: maybe he had been reassigned to the other bench to watch the kids; maybe he was supervising the gardener. But he was nowhere and she felt an unspeakable terror that made the evening collapse. But he was back again the next day and nothing had changed. Mrs. Tandon hadn’t noticed. ‘Which guard yaar?’ she said barring the children with her large leg, one shoulder on the phone. Nobody had noticed.
She watched him for a minute and then began to clean with strong, long sweeps of her hand on the sparkly granite kitchen top. When the surface glinted, she moved the bottles to their place by the sink and stood up to examine her work. She was glad she had cleaned it well and hoped that once they came back, they would notice.