“A Taste of the Silence” by Ajay Kumar Nair

What a Bollywood move, I tell myself, waiting at the gates, watching Rohit melt into the F-block building, his red-checked school uniform floating up its lime green insides, reminding me of the tutti-frutti melting into my pista-almond ice cream at the then newly opened Baskin Robbins on the old highway. Rohit was gone, and I wonder why I remembered that even though it had nothing to do with him. It had been Mumma and Papa, beaming at me when the tutti-frutti melted into the pista-almond ice cream, telling me to eat it before it became soup.

Maybe it’s the weather, the October calm with a drizzle always teasing about. Maybe it’s the sense of that perfection which was now either gone or going away.

As I think about that day, the breeze puffs my skirt to the side and I feel one with the grass being blown the same way. It was just after Papa became the manager at the textiles he had worked most of his life at, a buoyant time with things looking up, when he rushed home one evening, saying, “There’s a new ice-cream parlor I saw on my way, get dressed quickly,” so free of his usual stiffness that Mumma couldn’t get dressed for half an hour, whispering, “Will the sun-god sleep in the east today.”

I stand there gelled to the gateway. Behind me, some distance away, is Gandhi Park, where a giant effigy of the demon Ravana is being propped up. It’s the festival of Dussehra, celebrating the victory of Rama over the ten-headed demon king. The effigy stands tall, unaware of the burning. The breeze twirls each of his ten haystack mustaches. Some tarpaulin tents wave about like blankets drying on an airy terrace, just in case of a drizzle.

I walk towards the D-block building, my own, where the watchman is half asleep, listening to music on his Micromax. His earphones aren’t plugged-in properly and spill Kishore Kumar into the unresisting afternoon.

In the evening a good crowd would gather at the ground for the celebrations, bands playing dhol-tasha would arrive from across the city, and imagining all that crowd and noise churns something in me like the doubtful feeling of having swallowed something squirmy.

I eye the balcony of my home, on the third floor, relieved that no one is there. Not Papa, nor my grandma. She had moved in with us after Grandpa died two months back, right about the time when Papa lost the job at the textiles.

Papa had changed after that. A few days ago I saw him barge into the house, slamming the door into the divan as he entered the kitchen. I heard the murmurs of an argument followed by a crash of what I assumed to be a glass plate. When I heard Mumma scream I pushed my headphones hard into my ears to the point it went numb. Later, over dinner, Mumma told me what I had expected, that Papa had lost the job at the lentil mill as well. An image of waves crashing over rocks popped into my head and suddenly the dinner table was soggy and unbearably salty.

The week before, it was the supermarket, where he got into an argument with a customer over an expired Buy 1 Get 1 Free offer which ended up with him bashing the man over the billing counter with the bar-code scanner. Papa was never the tamest person in the room but I couldn’t believe how wild the situation had made him. If he could do that, then how would he react if he saw me and Rohit together on our way back from school?

That’s why when we reached the gates of the society, I told Rohit, “You go first,” taking a page out of a Bollywood film where the hero and the heroine would depart separately after their tryst in the mustard field to avoid the father’s villainous eyes.

The thought thickens the stillness until I hear a crash upstairs, followed by a scream, and I know. The knowledge pierces me, and in the daze, I forget that the newly inaugurated elevator is closed for repairs again.

The sound diffuses like a spilled secret, waking the watchman up who stops the music on his phone, turning the afternoon silent again. I feel that Rohit is looking at me from his balcony but I tell myself he’s too far away for that.

Avoiding the watchman’s gaze, I climb up the staircase, swallowing two steps at a time as the empty water bottle claps against the empty Tupperware tiffin-box inside my school bag. On the second floor, I hear the bang of the door and scramble up the last flight as if I’m racing against the noise.

The safety gate is swung open. I push inside and once inside quickly shut the door. Tossing the bag on the divan I move towards the kitchen, to do something, what, anything, but before I could do anything Grandma hovers in from her room, The Spray slung across her shoulders. I had seen The Spray this morning and the vague idea I had of what it did filled me with fear. Grandma points the hose at my mother. I move to the kitchen doorway and hear The Spray.

I watch my mother’s crimson void of a mouth being drained of all its voice. The corner of her lip is still bleeding but no whisper betrays that. As the bleeding stops, she is silenced.

The Spray lingers in the kitchen as a pinkish mist, settling into the cracks of the granite countertop. I close my eyes and find a volume button take root between my breasts.

I open my eyes to Grandma’s quietly resolute face and know hers is a different kind of silence. I look at Papa, still huffing but also relieved, and know it, too, is a different kind of silence.

As soon as I try to say something I feel the perfume slither near me, sewing my throat with a revolting taste. I look at Mumma and then at The Spray throbbing with the red liquid. In silence, I realize that the scent has raced and defeated and bottled in any thought of speaking out.

* * *

The morning was the first time I had seen The Spray with such clarity.

I had turned the alarm off, which was set for 6:30, as early-morning mosquitoes were alarming enough to wake me up. I had chatted late into the night with Rohit because I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t sleep because I was chatting with him. My life philosophy for this week was that everything is cyclical, not karma and rebirth and shit my parents talked about but a feeling that everything flows in a loop, experiences fattening each other at the expense of the experiencer, and therefore it was inevitable that the state of my sleeplessness would form a relationship with Rohit’s wakeful existence and that I had no choice other than letting it happen.

I was annoyed that it was Dussehra but still had school. The lack of sleep only worsened my mood but I wasn’t feeling much sleepy either, so I slugged out of the bed and saw that the door of Grandma’s room was slightly open. Careful of shadows I inched ahead, saw Mumma and Papa asleep in their bedroom facing away from each other, and then peeked into Grandma’s room.

There she was, her stout body sitting upright on the bed, her jasmine-oiled grey hair, her window-like glasses over her cold kohl smeared eyes, her thin lips glued tight, her fine but proud wrinkles, her pale yellow blouse, and her paler yellow saree, all immersed in her quietude, staring at a Styrofoam lotus floating in a water bowl on her bedside cabinet.

Grandma had taken an oath of silence on the day Grandpa died. She was silent when they found him lying unconscious on the bathroom floor. She was silent in the ambulance and she was silent at the funeral. The only thing Grandma brought over when she came to live with us was the silence. Silence and The Spray.

I looked at my grandma on the bed, reaching towards a copper jug near the little cabinet, a flower-print Satara bedsheet by her feet. The image of Mumma and Papa sleeping faced away from each other rushed to my mind and I recalled the fight they had on the day Papa lost the job at the lentil mill, the fight they had when Mumma went for an interview at the local primary school, on the day he lost the job at the supermarket, when she burned the mattress, when he dropped the vase, when she, when he… I forced myself to think of us eating the ice-cream or me sleeping between them and their bodies turning together in the dark to bridge their arms over me. But all that seemed like a distant dream of some musty perfect world no longer real.

I wondered if I became smaller as I grew up, unable anymore to fill the gap between them. And Grandma only further complicated our already fragile equation. Through the gap in the door, I looked at her gulping water from the copper jug, and it was so easy to blame her for everything.

When Grandma turned abruptly I almost fell forward. She put the jug down with a clunk and tapped on the lotus in the bowl. The door of the cabinet swung open and she pulled out The Spray. She pulled the mask towards her and put it on.

A pulsating mist formed on the glassy surface of the mask. Grandma was moving her lips. She was saying something but no sound leaked out. The thin lips moved furiously, like hammers striking hot iron, and I was sure that they were words, that there was meaning. Grandma’s eyes filled up with tears but didn’t blink even once. Something, like bubbles, moved in the tube, away from her masked mouth and into The Spray. I had a vague idea as to what it did, having seen Grandma bring it out whenever Mumma and Papa broke into a quarrel. I did not know how or what or why but it would be completely silent afterward as if all sound was imaginary.

Time, for the moment, was the train of bubbles inside the tube and I was just one among them, aware of the fact that I was hypnotized by the rare sight of Grandma’s suffering.

I sprang up as the alarm tone pierced through from my parents’ bedroom. The Spray was filled with some liquid that seemed to be boiling from a mysterious heat, the nozzle of the hose twitching to throw up every syllable it had taken in. Grandma quickly opened the bedside cabinet and locked it inside.

I went back to my room before my parents woke up, checked my phone, 5: 46 AM, and thought that maybe I had just woken up, and that all I’d seen was a dream. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d have dreamt of Grandma suffering. But somehow it all made sense. It sounded silly but I was sure that Grandma was not just being silent; she was sacrificing her voice to silence others, silence my mumma, silence me.

* * *

It’s nearly 5 in the evening and I’m lying on my bed, waiting for the oppressive scent in my head to wash off, when the image of Mumma and Papa turned away from each other slices in through the fading numbness.

It used to be perfect, their arms joined over me, their eyes beaming, and I wonder when and how it all fell apart. Unable to pinpoint anything, I wonder, was it ever perfect in the first place? I recall the image of Mumma’s bleeding lip while Papa just hovered over her and remember the time, all those years back, when he had stayed up all night nursing her sprained ankle.

The notification of Rohit’s message flashes on the phone screen. Don’t open it right away, I tell myself. I wait for the screen to dim, fade to black, and then look at my face reflected on it. I lick my lips and feel no taste. When and how?

I suddenly recall an evening, some years ago, when Mumma was oiling my hair and I found her ring finger to be swollen blue. She told me that it got jammed in the doorway. Later, I had helped her remove the ring on the finger with some soap water. What if wasn’t the door? Maybe I’m overthinking. I ask myself, was Papa changed, and if yes what changed him and what did he change into and whatever that was did it justify anything he did and what could I do about it except let it all happen?

The door thumps open and I look at it expecting an answer. It’s Papa but I barely recognize him. He tells me to take a bath, get ready for the Dussehra celebrations. I can already hear faint traces of the bands gathering at Gandhi Park. “I don’t feel like coming,” I tell him.

“But everyone would be there. What would they think if we went without you?” he says.

“I don’t feel like coming,” I repeat, calmly. A wave of annoyed anger comes over him but I remain cool. I see that my calmness is irritating him and I enjoy that. I never enjoyed that but I do now. “I don’t feel like coming.”

But when I see the form of my grandma standing behind Papa I lose myself and yell, “No! No! No!” I throw at her all the voice I can gather, my throat turns hot, I swallow and continue howling until they give up and go away. The slam of the door echoes on.

I take a deep breath. I catch myself smiling. I unlock my phone and open Rohit’s message: mom forcing me to go to the thing. ill come if u come.

The whole deal, all the people and all the noise, somehow feels less repulsive if I imagine being with him, bitching about how pointless these social gatherings are. My life philosophy for next week could be the hypocrisy of everything. I send him, yeah same here. done👍 but I don’t tell Papa that I’ve changed my mind. I’ll wait for Papa to ask again and then I’ll reluctantly agree, not mentioning anything about Rohit.

The last time Papa saw us together, at the foundation day ceremony of the society, he pulled me away from Rohit, and we had to leave early. Last year, he stopped me from going to Rohit’s birthday party even without knowing that, in truth, there was no party; it would have been just me, him, and his mom. But now I wanted to go even more and be with him. By defying Papa, by resisting his hold on me, I’ll show him where I stand.

I hear someone at the door and ready myself. But no one comes in. “Karthika,” my mumma’s voice. She enters and I anticipate that she’ll repeat what Papa said but she says nothing, instead, taking my hand, she walks me through the hall, turning right into the kitchen, where the countertop has been wiped to a shine, and then into the balcony, where she sets down two stools, a small plastic one and a taller wooden one. She sits me on the smaller one and says, “Wait.”

From here, I can see Rohit’s balcony straight ahead in the distance. It was empty except for a few clothes hanging on the line. I wait and Mumma returns, carrying with her the scent of jasmine oil which erases all the traces of that bitter perfume of silence.

Positioning me between her legs, she starts untangling my hair and I surrender myself. She parts my hair along the scalp, throwing the right end over my right shoulder, the left over the left, and gently kneads a palmful of the oil onto my head. My head feels like a crystal ball, a womb between her legs, some dew-studded forbidden fruit.

She repeats the step a few times before combing my hair down with her fingers. “How was your day at school?” she asks.

“Just the usual,” I say.

It was supposed to be a holiday and nobody wanted to come, not even the teachers. The primary classes were off so the corridors held a joyless hush. During the lunch break, while washing hands, some senior brushed up against me and I said nothing. I zoned out during the lectures, as usual. I didn’t want to come back home, as usual, and decided to just around the grounds. Then I saw Rohit serving detention, as usual. He was tasked to mark out the lanes with chalk-powder for practice sessions of the annual sports meet that was coming up. While drawing them he mentioned the Lakshman Rekha, the line of magical protection that Sita crossed, leading to her being abducted by the demon king Ravana. He said people only keep the stories they’re comfortable with, and lines are so easy to explain; it’s here or there, you either cross them or you don’t.

After that, he had to carry a bag filled with cricket equipment back to the sports department. I peeked in, a kookaburra leather ball, some other cheap ones, two bats, one SG, another GM, two sets of stumps, a pair of keepers’ gloves, and realized I hadn’t played cricket since I was twelve, since my first period. No one told me not to but for some reason I didn’t go and for some reason no one questioned that. I looked at my arms, flabby and grasping at nothing. Rohit struggled to carry the bag, already holding the chalk-powder sack in one hand. I took the bag from him, it was heavy, but a power surged in me and I hoisted it up on my shoulders.

He laughed and said burdens must be shared not passed on to someone else. We laughed again and took the bag back together, one strap him one strap me. Afterward, catching the 3:05 bus, we returned home, and, at the gates, I told him, “You go first,” taking the page out of a Bollywood film.

I tell nothing of this to Mumma as she massages the scalp and the temples. Instead, I repeat, “Just the usual.” She finally mentions Gandhi Park and I nod. I feel her hands on the back of my head, falling down the nape, climbing around the ears, and resting on my shoulders. Out of nowhere, I ask her, “Why?” but she says nothing.

“Karthika-ma,” someone shouts. Mumma and I look out the balcony grill and see Rohit and his mother standing in theirs, taking down the clothes. Rohit is almost buried beneath the blankets heaped in his arms. His mom and my mumma casually talk across the distance, about the time of the celebration, the dress they’ll be wearing, the gloomy weather, and I realize how penetrating their voices are. I wonder how Rohit’s balcony must smell, how shiny would the countertops of their kitchen be.

But it’s only him and his mother with the father gone off to Muscat, never heard from again, and I think, for the first time, I understand a little of what he must’ve felt most of his life. I take out my dress, go to the bathroom and stand under the shower longer than usual, watching the water wash the jasmine fragrance away.

* * *

A drizzle, as always, is teasing the night sky, but it seems like nobody cares. The floodlights of the Park have dark patches. The hoarding is peeling from a corner with moths pressed against it.

Mumma is wearing an orange silk saree with golden peacocks embroidered on the pallu. Grandma is also in a saree, a white one with blood-red borders. Papa is wearing an old sherwani. We’re watching the Garba performance. The dancers, indifferent about the hundreds of people watching them, have a carefree smile on their faces, weaving tapestries through each other.

There’s something strange about the way the mirrors on their costumes throw light at our faces but we do not blink. I enjoy it, even though the sound system reverbs like a sore throat and shrieks whenever some silly boy walks in front of it with a turned-on mic. On the edge of the crowd, some have started dancing in their little circles, completely out of sync with each other. But they’re enjoying themselves. We’re watching the Garba performance with stern faces, as if it’s a chore, a social obligation, a proof that our family is just fine, like everyone else.

I pour my attention into the dance, perhaps to distract myself from other thoughts. First, the men stay on their spots and the women float from one to the other. Then, the women settle in with their hands on their hip and the men buzz around them. A welcome waft of a cool breeze runs through. It’s getting dewy, I think, feeling dampness at the hem of my skirt. The beat of the music rises and I fall back in.

Rohit nudges my shoulder and I nod at him, smile at his mother. “Going to rain,” he says. I stare at his plain pink shirt and nod. The dancers launch into their final flurry, moving in and out in pairs, intertwining and untangling, expanding and collapsing and expanding and collapsing until they gather in the center for the final pose. Everyone applauds. Rohit tries to whistle but can’t. I whistle. His mom laughs.

All eyes turn to the effigy of Ravana now. He doesn’t look as proud as he was in the afternoon. The wind has knocked down most of his cardboard jewelry, some of his ten heads have fallen off, and someone has splashed kerosene on his body to make him burn better. “It looks like he pissed himself,” Rohit whispers, and I break out into laughter. I see Papa say something to Mumma, eyeing me, but I continue laughing. “It’s funny,” I say. “How people make demons by themselves and then burn them by themselves and then cry victory by themselves.”

We hear a few chants as the symbolic flaming arrow is nocked. Jai Shri Ram, but the arrow falls short. Some men touch the feet of the demon with blazing torches and it erupts into flames. There’s a cheer and then a flash of lightning in the sky. People start scrambling in anticipation of rain. Ravana looks like he’s wearing shoes of fire. The flames lick up the kerosene streaks and his mustached face glows in almost-pity. I see Papa tug at the elbow of my mumma. The sky thunders. She tries to shake him off.

I look at Rohit look at me and I want to go up in flames like the demon or hide behind the floodlights or stick my face into the banner and never look back like the moths but the look on his face is not of surprise or embarrassment of having stepped on a fragile secret; he looks like he understands, like he knows. I wonder, did his father never return, or did they never want him back?

Lightning bolts across the sky, Mumma storms off, and Papa chases after her, the people make way and stare at them, the thunder catches up. I look at Rohit and he says nothing, but I reflect in his mirror-blank face. I see Grandma slowly making her way back and I know I have to do something, what, anything. The memory of the bitter stench wells up in my throat and I swallow it back before sprinting towards my home.

I race past Grandma near the gates that have been swung open. The watchman shoots a concerned look. The closer I get to my home the faster I run. I hear the clangs from the kitchen, followed by the screams. I barge in and try to separate them but Papa pushes me off. In the gap, Mumma staggers towards the door, but he pulls her back by the hair. She tries to say something but he puts his hand over her mouth and glances at the door in anticipation. I guess he’s looking for Grandma to do her magic again. I run past them, kick open Grandma’s room, dart towards the cabinet by her bed but find it locked.

I try to shake it, punch it, kick it, the bowl with the lotus falls over, shattering into pieces, but the door doesn’t open. Power surges in me and I hoist it up on my shoulders. I carry it, unmindful of the pieces of glass strewn over the floor, and stagger to the balcony. I look down, it’s empty, and with all the power I can muster up I toss it out. For a moment, it feels like a feather gliding down, but the gravity of what I’ve done rushes to me when I hear it smash into the ground.

The panels and doors explode and The Spray inside shatters.

I don’t know if it’s the tinkling of the broken glass or the patter of the first raindrops but the sound is comforting. I hear Grandma rush into her room but I don’t care anymore. I lean over the balcony and see Mumma walk out, her orange-saree shape floating past the spill. She looks up at me, only for a moment, but that moment is all I want. Papa chases after her but she’s too far away for him to reach. They’re merely two dots on the tapestry. Papa is yelling but the spilled perfume has worked its magic on him too.

I feel Grandma’s shadow bore into my back. I look at her and say nothing, understanding the power of silence. I don’t know what I’ve done. Maybe Mumma will tell someone, maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll return, maybe she is gone. But at least Papa has a taste of the silence.

I look across to Rohit’s balcony and imagine him emerging out of the hanging clothes like a Bollywood hero entering the scene but I know he must still be at the park, huddled up beneath one of those tarpaulin tents because the drizzle is intensifying. I guess the rain must have put down the fire on the demon because I see streaks of smoke slink in the air. It rains even harder and I watch the pink of the perfume being washed away, glittering pieces of the cabinet floating towards the gutter, reminding me of the tutti-frutti melting into my pista-almond ice cream but I know we will never have ice-cream like that ever again. Maybe, if I wait, Mumma will return, carrying with her the scent of jasmine oil, erasing all the traces of that bitter perfume of silence. Maybe not.

Ajay Kumar Nair lives in Chennai, India, where he’s pursuing his BA in English Language and Literature.


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