Somewhere, in the wretched heat, Ila waits.
"Where is she?" Her hard consonants wrap around the words, suffocating them. The thought itself is a sticky burden: Yamini, where are you?
St. Sofya is a dying campus outside the leafy orange-blossomed beauty of K- Nagar. It is squirming under an onslaught of conspicuous decay, in which buildings which have been accumulated over different periods of colonization have been able to rot in harmony. The last building was built in 1949, when solid brick structures were the pinnacle of human achievement. Ila, however, prefers the older, richer brownstone classrooms which surround the campus square. Their floors are covered with exquisite, intricate tiling in dark blue, light green and deep red glosses. Slowly, they chip off, unnoticed, until the color will become nonexistent-would anyone notice? At the center of the square is the defunct water fountain, which is an obvious phallic symbol-how ironic, Ila thinks, as she traces the many cracks in the marble basin, that the phallus is the hallmark of a girl's campus.
Her sister has promised to meet her here, and already she is half-an-hour late.
While she waits, Ila takes the metallic tasting Bisleri water to her lips so that she can take a swig, and then another-afterwards, she dumps the rest of the contents on her head, enjoying the plastic crunch the exhausted bottle makes as she flings it into the dirt. She cups her thin head into her breakable arms and leaves it there for a long time. The humidity works its way through her ears, the pores in her skin, and the spaces between her toes until she feels too heavy to stand upright -so she sits. She is wondering what to get for her mother on her way to the hospital; recently, she has been craving tomato rice, spicy and oily. It is dripping in sin-the rice is fried in clarified butter, accented with the pungent notes of bay leaf, cumin, mustard seed and coriander. The tomatoes are rich and saturated with juice, slopped and simmering into a large metal pan boiling in the smell of fatty ghee butter. She will get this at the Kamat Hotel on Charles Street-she will carefully hold Styrofoam packaging coated, copiously, with oil and grease.
A crowd of girls in fluorescent saris dulled and defeated by the incessant wetness leave through the school gate, but her sister is not one of them. Ila remembers that Yamini does not come here anymore. So she watches a group of long-haired girls sit close to her on the steps, braiding each other's oily tresses with capable, careful hands covered in earthy red mehndi patterns. These swell past their hands and intricately up their arms, catching skin in painless vines. Someone at the school has been married recently-though these girls are definitely unrelated, the intricate art is certainly the work of a similar imperfection. Yes. There is a new Srimati, a missus, who will marry a nice, fat man and will massage scented oil onto his hairy back for the rest of her married life.
Yamini Krishnaswamy will become Srimati Yamini Iyer in less than a week, Ila thinks, to her great satisfaction. For a second, she imagines the alchemy of marriage. Her sister-the missus-wears a long braid coiled up in a thick knot at the nape of her neck, wiping the sweat of her own hirsute upper lip as she rubs a hairy back. "It's been a long day at work," says the Sri to his Srimati, the Mister to his Missus, "And the air-conditioning broke down."
"Ayyo." Poor thing. She will mean it-the weather in Chennai is unbearable. To an outsider, the weight of the crushing humidity is almost fatal, inescapable. It does not get easier with time. Hours become excruciating, then minutes. The years spent elsewhere become fleeting seconds, and the subsequent seconds in the present are endless.
Yamini's sticklike fingers penetrate the inexhaustible flesh of the back. Her husband feels next to nothing. She notices that he sniffs, suddenly attracted to the smell of the neighbor's spiced capsicum from the flat across from theirs. Stuffed with flour, the dish is a delicacy, and it seems that the neighbor-or her cook-is nearly finished and is now adding nearly a quart of clarified butter. Abruptly, he asks,
"Did you get the eggplant?"
"And the rice?"
"Have you made dinner?" The bed creaks beneath them in the throes of domestic felicity. Back rubbing.
"No, not yet."
Yamini will purse her lips and sit up, sighing, wishing that she had the glamorous option of reaching into her purse and extracting a Charminar cigarette from its blue foil case, spewing fragrant, noxious smoke into her husband's face. She does not, however, having never taken up the habit-instead, she smooths the tendrils of limp hair from her face and onto her scalp. Instead of looking alluring, she looks less appealing, the moisture making her skin appear gelatinous. She knows her husband knows this, and she moves to get up from the bed, clutching the metal bedpost with the force of her resignation.
There is a sigh, a grunt, and the Sri rolls over onto the elaborately colored Kashmiri covers made grimy from the oiliness of his hair, enclosed in the scent of the routine sexual encounter the night before.
"Still there?" It is his muffled dismissal.
It is time for the missus to get in the kitchen and cook eggplant.
Ila feels lightheaded-dizzy-the intensity of the scenario forcing her up onto precarious feet, leading her out of St. Sofya's courtyard and into the streets of K-Nagar. The city makes sense here-it is vibrant, chaotic, and full of filthy, overpriced rickshaws that can take her anywhere in an instant. She likes that. Ila enjoys the clean feeling of getting away.
At the Kamat hotel, she finds a phone booth and a long line of impatient, mustached men. All she can see of the caller is his sweat-soaked armpits and a cheap collared shirt-the rest of him is obscured by the crowd. Moving closer to the open booth, Ila can hear him talking about his bridge stratagem-soon, there will a tournament in Mylapore lasting eight, sweaty unbearable hours. Can anyone in the office come with him? he asks. The man is obviously disappointed by the answer. Ila is sure that the air-conditioning in the office trumps the prospect of a whole day of bridge-would he hurry up, please? The wetness of Ila's back coats the dirty granite walls. She is holding the sticky Styrofoam container, and watches the line dissipate. The men are impatient, and there have been rumors of a new phone booth upstairs where they serve the pungent cauliflower Manchurian balls, deep fried and marinated in a sticky garlic sauce.
How do people suffer this smell? Ila thinks, plunging her nose into her top to stem the unbearable stench. Almost-not quite-she loses her grip on the packet of rice.
Finally, after the rumors have been confirmed, the entire line moves upstairs, where there are not one, but two phones.
After a couple of minutes, the bridge player finishes his phone call-he rubs his hands together in disappointment and digs heavily into one nostril as he leaves the booth. "Stupid fellows," he mutters, crashing heavily into the door on his way out.
Ila digs her slender fingers into the numbers as she wrenches her home phone number from the rotating dial. The phone rings-sharp, staccato, nothing like the lush, languid ringing of the telephones in American movies she watches on the Oneida television.
It's Yamini's thin voice. It's nearly inaudible over the background of the Victrola they still keep. It is a relic from her grandfather from his colleague and fellow tax collector, Mr. William Hartwick, an English eccentric with an untamed mustache. He would eventually make it a point to learn the rudimentary basics of many Indian languages-the result of this process was that he often replaced his deficiencies in one language with words from another. His infamous amalgam of the Telugu and Tamil languages was repeated faithfully, by Ila's grandfather, to the sound of thundering laughter from the whole family.
Ila remembers this taking place during visits to her ancestral house in Nellore, hours away by train.
She can almost smell the orchards upon orchards of fragrant mangoes past an open Ambassador car window. The house itself is a stoic whitewashed rectangle around which a solitary, mango tree grows in the center. Already, it is heavy with large fruit, dangling tantalizingly out of reach. Ila feels she has shrunk, her hands are no longer slender, but short and stubby, unable to reach even the lowest branch-
But more than that, she aches to sit underneath the tree. As she runs toward the house, she finds that Yamini is so far behind, having not even left the Ambassador-she was always the slower sister-
Ila sees Pati, her grandmother, in a magenta pattu silk sari, startlingly fluorescent, and grasps her wrinkled hand upon arrival. Her Pati's thick bangles bruise Ila's hand as she guides her up the treacherous stone steps into the house-
"Yamini!" Ila calls out, but there is no Yamini behind her, only a cook from the Kamat hotel. He is scratching the stubble on his overstretched face while staring at her in the phone booth-his eyes following the small curves of her flat, rigid body. Ila feels claustrophobic from his lengthy examination.
"What?" Yamini again. "Who is this?" She knows who it is, obviously. Ila grits her teeth.
"It's me." Ila says. "Listen, are you coming to see Amma?"
"What were you going to do?"
"I wanted to go to Srinivas Silks. I got the cheaper sari. I want to go pick it up before the wedding."
Ila leans her head against the crushed glass of the booth. "You haven't seen her once this week."
"I'll go, I'll go."
Ila pauses. "Anything else?"
She hangs up the phone and leaves for the hospital.
Ila is wearing skintight jeans and the increasing need to scratch the inside of her thighs is excruciating. The denim conforms to her slender legs and forces them to last deep onto the hospital linoleum, where they end, neatly, growing into her russet leather sandals. Her head is intense with humid hair, which is inappropriately let loose-it gets tangled in thick ropes of pearls hung from delicate ears. She notices that her arms are lingering across the armrest because she doesn't have the effort to keep them upright. The air is heavier than she seems to be, and her translucent skin is humming with the activity of bones-veins-nerves.
Outside, a broken window opens over a vast lawn of nearly fluorescent green. It is the only part of this building which seems alive to her while she is a witness to the shallow breathing of the terminally ill. Ila notices that her mother's skin has been eaten, slowly, by bedbugs and mosquitoes who find her blood sweet, succulent, ripe with death. While she waits, Ila clutches a newspaper devastated with wrinkles: Indira Gandhi Orders Attack on Harmandir Sahib, it reads, the headline barely discernable from sweat and smudging. Every now and then she still stares at it-though she has memorized the entire article-knowing that the only other thing to look at is a fat metal needle which rises and falls in her mother's arm, to the pulsing of her veins. This alone reminds Ila of the entirety of her bodily construct, something that makes her shiver involuntarily in the heat, wishing that she was lying on a bed in a dark room, a cloth over her head.
"Ila?" the voice is weak, unused. The air caught in her chords must be stale.
"Amma?" Ila turns the newspaper and gives a half-smile behind the advertisement with the actress Pooja's grin-her teeth are fluorescent, courtesy of a new Colgate Palmolive toothpaste formula. Ila finds the actress' heart-shaped, voluptuous standard to be irritating. She prefers the sparseness of her own clean-lined body.
"Where is Yamini?" Her mother turns her head towards Ila, her hairs very slightly discernable from the pillow, which is a universal white-purple approximation of white. Spit forms from her lips in an obvious effort to speak, and it is uncomfortable. Ila, however, watches, and slowly rises to take the washcloth hanging from the bed's metal railing. When she wipes her mother's mouth, she is slightly rough-in response to that consciousness, she drags a plastic chair behind her to sit closer, watching, all the while, her mother's intense urgency.
Sujatha Venkatswamy watches her daughter observe her, and marvels at how similar their eyes are-huge for their face, almond- shaped. They are the quintessence of Indian beauty. Ila has taken her own rough features and hued them to perfection in her own face-Yamini's face, by comparison, is duller and coarser. In appearance, the difference between the two sisters is astonishing-but in her consciousness they blur, become one. She reminds herself that it is Ila sitting in the chair next to her, not Yamini. Ila is wiping the spit from her face and is reading the newspaper, watching over her mother's sleep.
"Where is Yamini?" she asks again.
"She's at Srinivas Silks-she's buying the red."
"Aha." Sujatha remembers Yamini's wedding-it will take place in another two months. She herself has been given a hopeful prognosis. Would she be able to sit, cross-legged, on a velvet carpet drenched with rice and jasmine petals as her daughter and her soon-to-be-husband throw their luck into the open fire? She wishes she could have features to put to this happy scenario. Sujatha has nearly forgotten her other daughter's face. "Will she come after that?"
"Would you like me to say yes?" Ila asks, "Maybe you'll feel better. But she's probably not coming."
Sujatha sighs, and her breath is caught with the effort to speak.
As if realizing this, Ila says, "You already know the answer."
Her mother slips back into oblivion. The next time she stirs, Ila will attempt to coax the delicious, fatty rice into her mouth. She watches the blades of grass in the lawn-they disintegrate into dirt, to a time when the land was not civilized by grass, and to when she scraped her knees on the plain ground and played outside her ancestral home. It really was the two of them, then. Ila and Yamini-Ila and Yamini...
The weather in Nellore is dry and unbearable- Ila almost prefers the sultry weather of Chennai to this dry wasteland that is her grandfather's-and possibly his father's village. They are isolated enough that Ila cannot easily see the thatched roofs of the village huts from here.
Yamini sits back in the wooden swing outside the house and Ila pushes as hard as she can, but her weak arms cannot support the sweet-smelling old wood of the seat as it bruises her delicate hands each time it makes contact. Her braid is thick, and it smacks her back, painfully. The wet human hair- Ila's mother's thickness-whips, scars, and scratches itself in her skin. What should have been a pale, fragile complexion is freckled, marinated and browned in the oven of the severe weather.
Ila's bare feet are caught in the sand, her toenails unkempt in the face of the dry, sandy soil. It is a fertile ground for worms-they are stealthy attackers. Many times, they have left her on the cold stone floor, scratching her buttocks until-more than once-she bled through her thin cotton panties, themselves saturated in their own sweeter scent. Her throat would grow hoarse from all the screaming until the scratchy-beard house doctor stinking of lush, slightly musky sweat ran through the doorway laughing, as if this was somehow very slightly hilarious. Then, there was the poking and prodding until Ila could feel the momentary discomfort of a particularly cold finger over the irritation, a silent investigation of the itchy carnage, flesh torn with the desperate need to scratch away the burning. Minutes seemed like agonizing eons as the Bendex pills took effect. They tasted like sweet orange candy and were roughly textured- Ila found them mildly pleasurable in the face of pain. Now, Ila often raids her mother's drawer of sari blouses and discovers, between the verdant green silks and shocking saffrons, a shiny aluminum packet of thick Bendex tablets, which she tears apart and swallows one by one, imagining the blissful relief of an unbearable sensation that is slowly ebbing away.
She is looking away a moment and towards the small house, the red kumkum powder that dots the doors is fading, slowly, in the scorching heat. She can almost catch the sunrays, made just that tangible by touch, and she inches her feet over the shallow threshold and onto the stone floor, where her dirty sole leaves a slight imprint. Already, the bottoms of her feet are rough, nothing like Yamini's, who swings with her feet now, her legs pumping weakly. Ila knows that Yamini is frustrated with the effort of having to swing herself. Let her, she whispers out loud, slightly, a small fly disturbed by her speech. Mildly irritated it wanders into the house, and follows the smell of fried puri bread, fluffy and oily, soaking shamelessly onto a heavy metal plate.
Suddenly there is a quick, heavy jerk of the legs and the swing shoots up, smashing the back of Ila's head into the entrance of the house. It is a matter of seconds, but Ila's nose is mangled across the threshold, which seems to be leaking blood itself as the starkly red kumkum is scattered across both sides of the doorway-and she can still, audibly, discern the steady, unwavering creak of the swing. Yamini has not stopped to examine the damage in her wake. Ila knows this, but quietly, and fades out of consciousness almost soundlessly. It is this-and not the exquisite white-hot pain-which prevents her from screaming without restraint into the house.
She is preempted.
A dirt-faced nurse comes in an hour later, wiping filthy hands on an off-white uniform made that way by repeated washings in hard water. The metal tray of rice is moving-possibly with maggots. Ants, more likely.
"What is that?" Ila asks her in slow, deliberate English.
"Rice, Madam." It sounds like mai-dum. Dum-dum. Just like this idiot woman, Ila thinks.
"Rice with what? An anthill?"
"It is rice, madam." The nurse repeats, insistently. Her dark skin is shining with the outside humidity, and her deep maroon lipstick is staining her teeth.
Shaking with something-anger-outrage-sadness- Ila walks up to the nurse and smashes the tray in her face. The rice falls to the floor and the ants crawl from it, scattering on the linoleum in a greedy takeover of the room. "Get her something she can eat," she says, abandoning English for a natural stream of heated Tamil consonants.
Whimpering, the nurse runs backwards, into the door behind her, which she has bolted shut after coming in with the food. "Would you like me to open that for you?" Ila spits after her as the nurse unbolts the door and runs onto the putrid linoleum floor, "or can't you handle something that's not covered in ants?"
Ila comes home shaking-still. She enjoys being angry. Slamming open the gate, kicking stones into the lawn, it gives her an outlet for her energy. Occasionally, she will see wrestling matches on the Oneida, broadcasted from America. There is a staged anger-colorful, blaring costumes-a chance to make the opponent a member of painful history. She enjoys the thrill of watching. Sometimes she wishes she can bruise Yamini's delicate ribs, send her careening over the ropes and into the audience, pelt her with chairs.
The red curtains with the mirrored embroidery are still drawn when she returns to the house, and the whitewashed walls are illuminated by the fluorescent green mosquito lamps which are placed in every available socket. But of what consequence? Ila still gets eaten to bits by mosquitoes hungry for her hardy blood. The house is too large to be helped, she realizes. It is balcony atop balcony atop balcony, and the polished doors lead to many hallways and to rooms-each one increasingly damp, screaming arthritically from its joints, and the bathrooms are never cleansed of the smell of excrement-it pervades, very slightly, the rest of the house.
She settles herself on the heirloom wicker furniture and reaches for the remote, flipping the channels. She recognizes Pooja yet again-the actress-her fleshy arms are flung helplessly around a tree as she witnesses a fight scene with the exquisite pretense of horror. Ila takes little notice of her-instead, she watches the fight. She relishes the way the film hero's meaty fists sink into flesh, smash bones, rearranging the tangible order of the face.
It is Yamini. Engrossed in the movie, Ila misses the timid steps of her sister's entrance. Her sister's shrill voice causes Ila to wince, and she hears the rustle of a stiff plastic bag-the result of a wasted day, Ila thinks, savagely-as Yamini throws it onto the sofa next to Ila's chair.
Ila refuses to look back at her sister.
"Change and catch a rickshaw to the hospital." Ila says, definitively. "And make Amma some rice before you go."
"And if it's got a single ant in it," Ila continues, flatly, staring into R Kapoor's carefully mustached face as he emerges the victor of that carnage-ridden five-man fight, "I'll kill you."