I didn’t do it.

Why would I send Uma’s photo, that was meant only for me, to Rishi and Abhishek and a bunch of other random classmates? It was for me. Why would I want to share it?

I know who sent it, though. I would admire her guts if I didn’t dislike her as much as I do now. Though is it guts or plain insanity? Or some form of perverted vanity? Showing off her own flawless body. The aesthetics of that photo always pleased Uma – the light and shadow and the way her head was turning away from the rest of her, towards the window. Every last feeling, connection, that I had with Uma is now sullied, dirty, meaningless. I feel a blankness that is worse than sorrow or hurt – I need to fill this blankness, it’s driving me mad.

I had no idea what Rishi was talking about at first. He was all distressed and hurt or whatever. He came up to me, first thing in the morning, just before assembly.

“What were you trying to prove, Irfan?” he asked. “If it wasn’t you, if it was anyone but you...I would’ve beaten the crap out of them...”

“What are you talking about, dude?” I seriously had no idea. It was another matter (I realised later) that it couldn’t have been anyone apart from me. If you leave out Uma herself which Rishi, of course, did. The trusting boyfriend that he was. Fair enough. I’d been her fool, too, for long enough.

“That photo...you sent it out...to me, to Abhishek, to Ana and to god knows who else.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Though by the end of the day, he (along with god!) knew who else. Ana told me too. Every boy in the XIIth standard had possibly enjoyed wanking off to Uma’s photo the night before – those who hadn’t received it at first had had it forwarded to them by generous friends. Hallelujah.

Uma hadn’t come to school. Apparently, she was hysterical, suicidal, murderous, etc. “The little actress,” I said when Ana explained to me what had happened. Ana shook her head but didn’t say anything more. I could tell she believed me, though she wouldn’t admit it out loud, with everyone hating me. She didn’t have the guts to do that, but she knew what Uma was capable of. The photograph had apparently been WhatsApped with the caption “goddess of the night”. Which was nicely done. When we were studying Hindu gods and goddesses in SST, the teacher pointed out that Uma was another name for Parvati. I don’t know how many in class would remember that but still!

I avoid talking to anyone in school as much as I can. The term has just started. I just do my classes and get out. People at school, even those boys and girls I hardly know, whisper when I pass and stare at me. I know I’ve changed over the past few months and everyone’s talking about it.

When I came back from school, Appi’s room was open. Ammi gets the room cleaned twice a year or something but, today, finding that door open was different – as if I had slammed into it. If it was possible to slam into an open space and be winded, then that’s how I felt. I had struggled through the day in school, keeping my face as shut as the door of Appi’s room. Now the door was open – the room exposed in all its rawness and vulnerability and I was drawn into it, like a wounded animal retreating into a cave.

Rita Didi was standing at the door, looking in and sighing. She said Ammi had unlocked the door and asked her to clean the room today.

I went in with her. I couldn’t believe the state it was in. Dirty and full of cobwebs. It angered me that Ammi let the room be that way. Even today, she had just unlocked the door and left – she didn’t stay to check what condition it was in or supervise.

The room seemed dark even after Rita Didi switched on the light. Dust motes floating around. Photographs and cards and notes on the pinboard. Obscured by dust but still intact – photos of Appi and her friends. Of us. Even one of Rohit, which surprised me. I thought Ammi and Abba had removed all traces of Rohit from our house.

Rita Didi opened the cupboard and I could see the half- empty musty insides, some clothes still lying on the lower shelf. It hit me like a wave. The sadness of those clothes, the utter despair of that desk at which Appi had worked her academic wonders. I sank down on the bed. A wave of dust arose around me, making Rita Didi cluck in exasperation and cover her mouth. I didn’t care. I had to feel better. I knew I would.

It felt like that day in February, at the edge of the maut ka kuan in Aligarh. My sorrow, my depression, had given way to this strange tingling, a sense of exhilaration, almost. I know Amina Appi was there with me that day in Aligarh – she looked like Appi, she behaved like Appi which is why I had felt Appi was there with me. It was stupid. I had realised that later – it was irrational of me to even feel that way.

In spite of the dirt and mess, being in that room, sitting on Appi’s bed, helped me. I started feeling better.

My Appi is coming home. I felt relief wash over me. It didn’t matter suddenly – Rishi and Uma being awful, the break-up, everything that was happening in school, the leaking of that photograph. It didn’t matter.

Appi will help me fill the blank, gaping hole inside me, she will make me whole again.

Excerpted with permission from The Lies We Tell, Himanjali Sankar, Duckbill.