“This story is as true as nights spent awake when in love. It is as false as lovers’ vows.”

This was the first entry in her diary. Her writing was beautiful. After this line, a whole page was practically blank. Here and there, she had drawn flowers, leaves and stars. A cottage, a path from the cottage, mountains, the rising sun and, yes, a tree and a bird sitting on it too. Throughout the diary she had written short sayings and verses, some in green and others in blue ink. The diary was tattooed everywhere with the same flowers, leaves and crooked lines. Amongst these images, she had written about her pain in beautiful calligraphy. A pain inflicted on her by one of my own. A pain I could not imagine, yet the one who had inflicted it was quite at ease, oblivious of anything untoward. So far, I had been reading the diary in a haphazard way. Sometimes the first part and then suddenly the last page. Sometimes a part in the middle. Half the time I was looking at her unique but untrained artistry. Then I would remember that I must read the diary. I must share her pain.

Long ago, I had read somewhere that such scattered doodles reveal a person’s state of mind. One does not doodle on page after page like this for nothing. The heart’s turmoil spills on to paper in these colours. Only when one is in a quandary do such pictures emerge. Pradeep once said that some people have the habit of doodling whenever they come across pen and paper. I was trying to understand the drawings in this diary that looked like a schoolchild’s notebook.

Pradeep enjoyed reading the heart’s emotions in such doodles. He often said to me, “A person is fully revealed in doodles, Kusum. If somebody makes five doodles in my presence, I can tell you what is going on in their heart and what their repressed desires are.” I tried to remember how he had interpreted symbols. Stars stand for hope, hopes in one’s life that are hard to fulfil. Yes, she had cherished unlikely hopes in her innocent heart. I began to read.

A piece of grey sky glanced into my balcony and told me it was time for her to arrive. I thought I should settle myself and adorn the room a bit. I could do the opposite too, adorn myself a bit and settle the room, but I have never enjoyed adorning myself, not even when I was the right age to do so. I like standing in front of a mirror. Yet there is something about her that makes me want to settle myself even if I have just returned from office and am exhausted. Even if I would rather relax, I wash my hands and face, make myself look brighter and wait for her to enter the room, chirping, filling the room with her chirruping. At first, I found her company very strange. She talks so much. She can’t be silent for a moment. I’ve been in this room for four years. Never has it been so bright and cheerful. Now someone or other is always popping in to see her. The room always seems full. She drags me into conversation, willy-nilly. Is this how you do things in your family, Sonali? Have you been there, Sonali? Do you like this, Sonali? Whenever she’s in the room, it’s nothing but Sonali, Sonali. Before her, I never knew what a home is and what family love is. She takes care of me. I like it very much.’ Oh, so her name was Sonali. How strange – I’ve heard the names of hundreds of her companions but never this name. Do children hide so much from their parents, even from their mothers? Isn’t a mother a friend? I asked myself. It’s only in books that mothers and children are friends. This friendship is confined to the features pages of newspapers. Perhaps there are some fortunate mothers whose children are their friends. But this is not something that can be shared even with a friend. Can anyone tell a friend that she has . . . that she . . .? I could not think further. Perhaps I could not gather the courage to think further.

I have thought of myself as belonging to a new era. But this newness stuck in my throat. I could neither weep nor speak. This was disloyalty, a crime, exploitation of someone, taking advantage of someone – what was this after all? Even if I were able to figure it out, what difference would it make? There was no court to which this matter could now be appealed. Feeling disturbed, I closed the diary gently and went out on to the balcony. This corner of the balcony was the only space of my own in this unfamiliar metropolis. Wherever I looked, tall buildings were all I could see. Three of us lived in this house, a five-room flat on the third storey. I say “house” because there is a long way to go before it becomes a home.

When I looked out of the balcony, I felt as if cement trees had sprouted all around. I saw small windows in these tall buildings, which were lit up in white or yellow as soon as darkness fell. Some windows remained lighted late into the night, and the lights in these windows often helped me pass the night. If she caught me awake, she would scold me instead of asking affectionately why I could not sleep. “Go to sleep or you’ll fall ill. Then I’ll have to take leave from the office to look after you.” Was it my fault that I couldn’t sleep? I was tired of telling her that. I had long forgotten how to tell her that worrying about her kept me awake. That would have only led to her scolding me more. I knew she would fly into a rage and scream at me. Often, I wanted to search for my lost daughter in her anger and her shouting, but the more I tried to do so, the more I realised my own helplessness. She is right. I am here to help her. If I fall ill, where will she run – to her doctor or to mine?

But this was before I read her diary. After reading the diary, I wanted to shake her and ask what mistake we had made in her upbringing that had led her to behave like this. The fault was hers, but it was I who felt suffocated. Perhaps she does not even realise that she has taken a life. I didn’t want to quarrel with her. With great difficulty, she had become capable of giving life. Her doctor had warned me that the slightest stress could become an obstacle in the path of the new life. She had to be very careful too.

I was happy that this five-room house was going to become a home. After ten years of marriage, her body was finally expanding. This daily expansion awakened new hopes in me. Today, she had gone to the office after several days. As soon as she left, I took that lavender-coloured diary out of the cupboard. There was much more for me to know and try to understand. She had written, “Letters of the alphabet look beautiful in red. But Bela says red is used for enemies. I am writing for a friend. She is more than a friend. I like her. I want to be like her. Just as lively and just as cheerful. How easily she becomes intimate with others. She doesn’t let me write in black ink either. She says writing in black ink brings about more struggles in life, and I already have enough struggles to deal with...”

Excerpted with permission from “Girlfriend-Beloved” by Akanksha Pare, translated from the Hindi by Ruth Vanita in On the Edge: 100 Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire, Penguin India.