I knew something was wrong when Sreenath wouldn’t come down to see the new car. He said he had a headache, but when I stood outside his room I could hear him talking to someone on the phone. After a few more tries, I let it be.
The car we’d all decided on was a white Honda Civic. It was slicked back for speed and beeped if you didn’t wear a seat belt.
Appa and I had gone to the showroom earlier that morning. He had driven the car home carefully, avoiding potholes, clenching his body every time he touched the brakes. Halfway through, he’d switched on the GPS and turned up the volume. He wanted to hear the car talk. When he parked in front of our house, he looked only at the Assist screen on the dashboard, no mirrors. If there was a way to deploy the airbags without crashing, he would have done that too.
It was sometime between ten thirty and eleven on a Saturday morning in March. One or two neighbours stopped by to congratulate us. Karthika aunty, our neighbour on the left, told us that her husband was planning to get a Civic as well, but a different model. Why a different model? God only knew. But she was always saying things that made us question what we did. In any case, we were accepting comments and compliments with a certain degree of nervousness.
As a financial decision, the car was slightly frivolous. Our previous one, a Maruti Alto, had been doing fine except for the usual problems that came with old age. It would have run for another five years, maybe more with good care.
Amma, especially, had been sad to sell it off. She was a certifiable hoarder.
Still, despite all this nervousness, we tried to be pleasant.
On the windscreen, Appa pasted the sticker mandated by our housing colony, making sure it wasn’t lopsided. We lived in a place called Blue Hills. Blue Hills had around twenty-five houses and I suppose it was situated on a mild incline. The houses looked like the ones you got in Monopoly: seemingly placed there whole.
Each one had a car porch and a garden that could hold six or seven potted plants. There was a small park in the middle of the colony where parties were held and children played. For a while in high school, I was considered the official Blue Hills babysitter. I used to spend a lot of time in that park, walking around and listening to music. Parents would come to me and say, ‘If you’re here anyway, can you do me a favour?’ While they were gone, I had to make sure their kids didn’t eat sand or throw themselves in front of a vehicle. Thankfully, nobody died on my watch and most of the sand is still there even today. Of all the people who lived with us in the colony, I liked those kids the most.
‘Maybe we should have picked silver,’ Appa said.
‘White is good,’ Amma said. ‘It’s clean. It’s tidy.’
After another round of inspection, we went inside for tea and retired to our separate corners.
Sreenath skipped lunch, still claiming a headache, and didn’t come down till later that afternoon. While he did show excitement about the car, I could tell he was faking it.
Had he been truly excited, he would have started an argument with Appa about his decision to leave the seat plastic on, or scolded me for letting Amma put turmeric streaks on the bonnet. He’d have proffered some advice and made a final ruling regarding the efficacy of our purchase.
Instead, he walked around the car thrice, opened the door, and sat inside for a long time – first with Appa, as he recited the specs, and then alone. After that, he went back upstairs to his room and closed the door.
I next saw him at dinner. Weekends were the only time we all ate together. Sreenath sat down halfway through the meal. Once again, he was quiet and distracted.
‘How’s the food?’ Appa asked him. He was the one who’d cooked that day, as he sometimes did on the Saturdays he was free. That night he’d made prawn curry and rice.
‘It’s fine,’ Sreenath said.
‘You don’t like it?’
‘I told you it’s fine. Let me be.’
This had the potential to keep going, so I said something about my internship and switched on the TV. The rest of dinner was uneventful except for the time the landline rang. Sreenath turned around so quickly, he almost knocked down the water jug. He didn’t start eating again until Appa said it was his brother, calling after seeing the car pictures he had sent.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed Sreenath’s reaction. Amma pestered him non-stop, asking him what was wrong until he shovelled down his food and fled upstairs.
Appa was still going on about the car, now annoyed. ‘No no, it’s not the kind of white that attracts dust,’ he was saying. ‘This is Enamel White. Enamel. Enamel. They use this coating on space shuttles and rockets.’ I don’t know where he pulled that last fact from, but he seemed pleased.
Afterwards, I heard Amma telling him that Sreenath looked feverish. This was something she often did. Amma tried to diagnose a fever whenever anyone in the house went through some form of turmoil that was unreachable to her. A fever diagnosis put her in control. She’d take our temperature, offer us paracetamol, and tell us to have a nap.
Sreenath was twenty-two and I was twenty. Growing up, I was always eager to please him, maybe because he made it seem like he’d toured the world shortly before I was born.
He said things like, ‘Honestly, it’s better for everyone if Appa and Amma just went their separate ways. Amma can still get someone else to marry her. Appa can maybe keep birds.’
Or, ‘The blue liquid in those ads, that’s actually blood, you moron.’
Compared to me, he had a lot to say.
The two of us had gone to an all-boys’ school run by Jesuits.
Sreenath was popular. He acted bored and cynical, most of the cynicism lifted from Appa’s tirades about life.
I think he peaked when he ran as a joke candidate for school leader. He even did a speech. Though afterwards, people kept telling him ‘good attempt’, and he had to keep saying, ‘Wait, that wasn’t a real attempt, the whole thing was a stunt. Did you guys not get that?’
Naturally, I benefited from being related to him.
Seniors were nice to me and I was always being greeted by people I didn’t know.
Academically, too, I suspected that Sreenath was a few watts brighter than me. He would only start studying the night before the exams, all the while complaining about a childhood denied to him by never-ending tests. He would still come out doing well. I, on the other hand, needed coffee on tap, almonds, perfect silence and weeks of moping around to get things done. The only subjects I topped or came close to topping were computer science and Malayalam, and, depending on my teacher’s state of affairs with her husband, history. That man cost me a lot of marks. But maybe this sort of description makes Sreenath seem over smart and precocious. All said and done, both of us were simply average, him one or two pegs higher, that’s all.
Excerpted with permission from Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors, Aravind Jayant, Serpent’s Tail.