The afternoon sun came in through the ineffectual white curtains draped over the open balcony door. Stretched across the middle of the room was the tiger skin that had long haunted Seya’s childhood nightmares.
Seya shuddered. She did not want to be there.
In her years of living in that neighborhood, she had only been in Preta aunty’s house once and that was on a dare she had never truly recovered from. She didn't enjoy reminiscing like her friend Emes did.
The tiger stared balefully up at her with one glass eye. The other sagging eye socket was no doubt a haven to the plump cockroaches that seemed to thrive on her youthful disgust and fear.
B-Central Housing Colony inspired the vulnerability of her childhood to resurface and she chaffed at it. She found herself recalling past fears, returning to beaten habits, and remembering old nightmares.
Like that dream about the boars in the Old Quad.
The night they were out much too late after dark and out of bounds. When the parents were, for some unexplored reason, all not home at the same time. The mad coal eyes and cruel white tusks. Of course, the others had managed to climb the old stone stairs to safety, and Seya was left pinned with terror against a wall. The eldest of them, a boy who called himself Raja, somehow saved her and swore them all to secrecy. In celebration, they converted the whole of A-Central into a water park. The parents never returned.
“We’re so glad to be back here—,” Emes was saying, “nothing has really changed since we left.”
Seya chewed destructively on her perfect nails, unable to keep abreast with the conversation, her dream-thoughts moving from plumbing logistics and water sanitation to an elaborate escape plan, should A-Central’s water slides ever suffer an invasion of child-eating piranhas.
“Yes, but all you children have left!” Preta aunty said, smiling shortsightedly at us. Ten years ago, she was mildly terrifying and had all her teeth. Her then prematurely grey hair was no different now. “My son Mahen is visiting; you wait, you can meet him. He was married last year to a lovely girl from Sri Lanka, you know, and I became a grandmother just six months ago! Such a beautiful baby. She has his eyes and her hair…”
Seya frowned at Emes, shaking her head and mouthing “no”, as aunty disappeared into the kitchen. Seya didn't know this son and had had enough awkward, It’s-been-so-long-do-you-remember-me, meetings, that Emes had been putting her through all morning. But the door opened just then. A young man battled a black umbrella. Seya stood up to help and together they tamed it. The face Seya saw was from a half-forgotten dream.
“Thanks! It’s damned hot outside ma, take an umbrella when you go to—,” it was saying. Emes shrieked, rising to her feet and nearly knocking over the tea tray.
“Hello,” he said, looking from Emes to Seya without recognition.
There was a confused silence.
“You’re Tiger aunty's son?” Seya said disbelievingly, hating herself for feeling twelve again.
Preta chortled from the kitchen “That’s what you children called me?”
Mahen smiled and held out his hand to Seya, politely. Emes knocked it out of the way.
“It’s M.S. and Suji, Raja, you fool,” she said, bristling.
Raja took a step back in amazement, “Comrades! Of course! It’s been a while..., a decade or so, hasn’t it?”
“Yes,” said his mother, bustling back in with a plate of crisps and sweets, “Malashree has moved back here with her partner, Rumy, and son, Bali— you didn’t tell me which standard he’s in (“Second,” interposed Emes). Seya is studying in Canada— what do you call it? (“Linguistics,” interspersed Seya) And she’s engaged to be married in September— ” She stopped and grabbed Seya’s hand in horror, “You’ve cut yourself! You’re bleeding child.”
Seya flushed with embarrassment, caught sucking the blood that her broken nail had torn from the tip of her little finger.
“Ma,” said Raja, gently, “We’ll go outside for a walk, ok?”
(“And you, you're still biting your nails?” he added to Seya, in whispered parenthesis.)
“I’d love to join you but I need to pick up Bali from school,” said Emes, fiddling with her phone, “I think I'm already late. But Preta aunty, just tell me one more thing— when Raki went to Laos…”
“So you’re engaged,” said Raja, walking with his hands behind his back like he always did, “that’s great news!”
“Congratulations on becoming a father,” Seya said, formally.
“Seya,” he said.
“You know nobody calls me that—” she protested.
Raja laughed, “That's my daughter’s name.”
They walked on in awkward but amiable small talk, exchanging information on marriage, work, and travel.
“—now with the funding, I can start that project in less than two months. But that’ll mean— ”
“But you never told us Preta aunty was your mother!” burst out Seya, accusingly.
Raja blinked at her. “You would never have double-dared me to sneak into her house then, no?”
Seya playfully cuffed his arm.
“Oh ho, violence?” Raja grabbed her and tickled her till she screamed for mercy. They collapsed in a comfortable heap by the bicycle stand.
The sun filtered in from the skylights three stories up, drawing irregular quadrilaterals of light on short-lived corners of green moss. A scrawny yellow dog squeezed in through the gate grill. It sniffed suspiciously at them before slinking off behind a low row of fresh laundry.
“Gosh, was that Tommy?” said Seya, rolling forward onto her knees, “No wait, of course not, he’d be dead by now.”
“I’m afraid Tommy died in a dog-fight a couple of years after you left.”
Seya thought she felt a lump rising in her throat and the beginnings of tears stinging her eyes.
“But as long as there are rascals like Tommy the Third— who I believe we’ve just encountered— the race of the noble mongrels will not have ended. And you should see this one after dark, he does have the ladies on the run— enough to make his granddad proud.”
Seya smiled self-consciously, shaking herself out of her unexpected grief.
Raja nodded darkly towards the door ahead. “Remember him? That foreigner, Mr. Jonathan Aston Reed who— ”
“—murdered his wife and three children and buried them under the bathroom?” continued Seya, matching his conspiratorial whisper.
“That's just what I said. So you'd all agree to do it. They were actually living in Australia.”
“Oh my god, Raja! Do you know—? You know how much trouble that got me into at home? Amma made me go and apologize for the Holi powder even though it was your idea! And I had to hose his bike down, even though ten other people were also guilty!” Seya rose indignantly. “You were an awful boy, I cannot believe I used to…”
“Used to what?” he said, also standing up, with the jauntiness of a teenager.
They walked on in silence, up the stairs and down the arched corridors of stone as the sun began to set.
“I eventually found a blue quartzite,” said Raja, casting a sideways glance of boyish pride at her, “you still collect don't you?”
Seya smiled. “I used to have that small flat pet rock you gave me. Even though the paint rubbed off, I had it for a long time after I left. I think it got lost when I moved again.” There was a tinge of childlike sadness in her voice. “But no, I think I only collected because you did.”
They looked down at the east pavement. It was once a path of rubble and gravel. When she was seven, and he ten years old (after a geological lesson on metamorphic rock from Raja’s father), Seya and Raja had buried their most precious stones, wrapped in a black polythene bag. They had promised, with Tommy as witness, that when they were older and happily married to each other, and living on a farm with twenty dogs and horses, they would come back to dig up their metamorphosed gemstones.
“They cemented it over soon after you left,” Raja said, wistfully.
Seya smiled, “Then I'm afraid we’re going to have to get jobs like everyone else.”
They watched the red sun, their hands wrapped around the warm railing as the wind began to cool.
“Why did you have to leave, Suji?” said Raja earnestly, his eyes still on the horizon. Seya rested her head gently on his shoulder.
A rotund young man passed by, busily heaving a large sofa down the corridor. He looked up, recognition registering on his face.
“It's Raja and Suji!” He slammed his sweaty frame against theirs. “You haven't changed at all, you know, and apparently you're together now, good for you!”
Seya attempted to correct this misconception but he spoke merrily on. “Bhi often said you would, but I took no notice of Bhi, I mean would I have believed anyone who said I would end up with him?" he jabbed his thumb at the window at a stooping young man immersed in a magazine. "Cockroaches, you know, cockroach infestation in Bhi's favorite sofa. And the poor boy's gone and broken his leg in a moped accident, so I told him to stay put while I put it out in the sun up there and watch them fly out like, well, like cockroaches fleeing fire and now I'm taking it back in as you can see— no no no, it’s fine.”
He steamrolled their condolences and swatted away their attempts at help. “Lovely to see you, drop by for dinner, Bhi would love to catch up too!”
The door slammed on Seya and Raja. their mouths full of unspoken sentences.
Seya cleared her throat, “Nice to see you too Vido.”
“That boy still talks like he’s the only one who can," said Raja.
“Remember that time, after your voice broke you crouched beside me outside his window and swore at him while I mouthed the words?” said Seya. “That was so much fun!”
“Oh yes! I'd forgotten—”
“—dumbfounded him into silence!”
“—didn’t Bhi put us up to it?”
“Yes! He wanted to get back at him for something.”
“Good old Bhi!”
They were laughing, bent over and clutching each other for support.
“But even then it was always Vido and Bhi wasn't it?” Seya said, wiping away tears of mirth.
“Hmm. Like it was always Raja and Suji!”
They sauntered on, their arms draped easily around each other. As they climbed the last flight of steps to the terrace they recalled this and remembered that. They were as unaware of the world and uncaring of the passing time as they had been as children.
Seya looked over the parapet wall at the ground, three stories down. The terrace was smaller than she remembered— the wall was shorter and the ground not so dizzyingly far away. But under the darkening sky, when she rested her head on her hands, braced her elbows on the parapet and softened her knees, she was almost, almost, there. She chewed a fingernail comfortably, completely alive to the present moment, but living, perhaps, some ways behind.
“Do you remember that night?” came Raja's voice behind her.
“When we bunked Sanskrit tuition and spent our bus money on mango lassi —?”
“—and got lost walking back and almost had to face the utter disgrace of calling the parents…”
“And then met that old man, what was his name…”
“Giri was his name, no?”
“—he helped us get home.”
“Suji, is it my imagination or did he carry an ax?”
“Yes! No, wait, I think it was a piece of wood, like a chair leg or something.”
“But with a knife tied to it! I think.”
“I think it was only like eight but it felt much later.”
“I was terrified but you kept chatting with him—”
“He said he was undercover police, ok Raja? I trusted him.”
“How did we get over the compound wall without watchman uncle catching us?”
“Didn’t we climb up the gooseberry tree there — where is it?”
“They cut it down, Suji! For some stupid reason after you left; because there were too many monkeys in the neighborhood upturning the garbage or something.”
“What? No, that’s horrible! Poor Rani paati.”
“Well, she was gone by then too, but if she’s looking down from wherever she went, she’s happy we can’t steal her berries anymore!”
Seya looked up at Venus making a faint entrance and imagined that the good paati tended a heavenly gooseberry tree somewhere in that patch of sky.
The sun began to set and long-winged insects gathered noisily around a flickering streetlamp nearby. Their wings would soon fall off and they would crawl around to mate before they died, having lived only for a day.
“But you didn’t mean that night, did you, Raja?”
“No. There was no moon and the sky was so clear we could see an entire arm of the galaxy.” He swept his hand contemplatively across the sky.
“You were showing me Haley’s comet weren’t you?” remembered Seya suddenly, glancing up.
He laughed, “I'm not so sure that was Haley’s comet, in fact, I’m certain it wasn’t, but that was just the only one I knew about and I wanted to impress you.”
“Well, you certainly did. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”
“I would have kissed you then,” he said softly, his eyes shyly finding hers.
Seya frowned. “Really! Well? What stopped you? Huh?”
Raja raised his laughing eyes to the adjacent tenement.
“Oh god yes, I’ve completely forgotten. Riti akka tried to kill herself by jumping off her second-floor balcony!”
“You sang her some ridiculous song till someone came and pulled her back. You left the next day. Moved away with your family, and never came back,” he said, as they held hands.
Orange streetlights burned over the blue roads below. The stars grew white in the charcoal above. From the windows around them came the comforting smells of dinner on the stove and the hushed sounds of people gathered after a long day.
“Do you love this woman, your fiancée?” said Raja, suddenly. His face was shadowed, but his eyes were bright.
“Yes,” Seya smiled, turning towards him, “or I will when I turn twenty-four. And do you love your wife?”
“Very much so— when I am no longer seventeen.”
They kissed. Under the buzzing insects that sparkled like the stars around a streetlamp moon. A kiss, which ten years ago might have begun a romance rather than end one, as it did now.
However, if there is indeed an infinite array of possible universes, then they are happy lovers in at least a few.
(South-Indian words that may be unfamiliar to some readers:
Amma, Ma - mother
Paati - grandmother/ respectfully addressing an old lady
Akka - older sister/ respectfully addressing older female friend)