It is Diwali night. As the last of the sun’s rays disappears on the western horizon, a bottle rocket lit by a young boy in his 6 x 5 feet concrete yard with its four mandatory potted plants – wilting plumeria, money plant, bougainvillea, and an undersized traveller palm – falls short, swerves and lands on the balcony of the apartment upstairs.
It fortunately does not explode in fluorescent colours, unlike what the box it came in had claimed it would do, but the meagre sparks (still colourful) spewing out of its mangled remains set the pile of debris gathered there – dust, dry leaves, pieces of flying paper, twigs, the indeterminate particulates of smoggy urban living – on fire. The boy’s mother sends him hurrying up to inform the residents of the house about the mishap.
He rings the bell and knocks on the faded green door that is only partially visible in the glow of the row of tiny lotus-shaped bulbs strung by his father on the landing downstairs, for much longer than he normally would have because he does not want to return home and face his mother’s wrath. He taps tunes on the door, he draws very light, impermanent graffiti with his fingertips blackened by charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre, and on an impulse, he picks up an empty mango wood packaging crate lying forgotten on one side of the landing, places it against the door and climbing on it, peeks into the house through the small hole that functions as an old-fashioned peephole.
For a few moments, he sees nothing in the dark. But just as he is about to jump off the crate, the room lights up by the glow of another firecracker – the long burning, multi-coloured kind – that paints it pink and green and blue and yellow before turning it a deeper black than it had been before. And the boy stumbles back, nearly falling off the crate.
In the room, he has seen two women. One tall and thin, moving or sitting close to the door, and another far behind her, lying so still and straight and dark and shrivelled that she could be the Egyptian mummy from the encyclopaedia that he pores over often. And despite being only seven years old, the boy is sure that the woman is dead.
That isn’t a knock, is it? It is probably just another firecracker. A new concoction of sounds cooked up by the evil cock brand firecracker manufacturing, child labour employing, blood sucking capitalists of Sivakasi. I like saying blood-sucking capitalist. Blood-sucking capitalist as opposed to the blood-sucked, perpetually gobsmacked working class.
I know my twin sister, my clone, Layla, lying on the couch behind me, will like my acknowledging that people are pre-slotted according to their class, caste, wealth, gender, sexual orientation; all the ways devised to divide and discriminate that turn the wheels of the world. The pitching of “us” against “them”. Any opportune “us” against any opportune “them”.
Yet the universality of cleaning of the butt after pooping. The method of cleaning may be different, some may use paper, others water, others just grass or leaves or even sand but everybody does it. Keep that thought in mind when somebody tries to bully you, picture them cleaning their butt after taking a dump and you will never be intimidated by anybody.
This is one more irreverent, albeit Invaluable Layla Lesson (or ILL, as she likes calling them), among a series of life lessons that Layla had been prone to dispensing. I say it again. Blood-sucking capitalists of Sivakasi. Because Layla will like hearing it, because I like the sound of it. But mostly because I like how familiar, how much like her, I sound when I say it.
Although she has not really sounded like anything much for some time now, has she? For a long time now. I am not sure how long. There it is again. That sound. This one was definitely a knock and it came from our door. Or not. It could as easily have come from inside my head because why would anybody knock at our door?
When was the last time someone had knocked – three months ago, four months ago? Probably since Layla and I have had almost nothing to eat. And we have not drunk any water for at least two or three...or more days.
Time, time, time. Who knows how much time? It must have been a long time though because I am exhausted. All I can do is sit on this floor and look at this little grey-brown cockroach nymph wriggling in and out, in and out on its six spiny legs, of the low hole in the blue and green paisley-patterned wallpaper. But it is beginning to grow dark now and although there are flashes of light coming in from the fireworks outside, I am having trouble keeping track of the cockroach.
Fortunately, all it has done for as long as I have been watching is go in and out as if not sure whether it can afford to leave the safety of its hole shaped sanctuary. An intrusion of cockroaches, I remember. It does not need a group, though, does it? Even one cockroach is enough of an intrusion. But this cockroach nymph is no intrusion. It is a welcome guest – somebody whom I would have ushered in had I had the strength – Namaste, Namaste, I would have said, putting my hands together and bowing my head low – because it is the only movement in our still, movementless house.
And now there are knocks, which should mean that there is somebody outside our door wanting to come in.
But these knocks don’t sound like that. They sound like a mistake. They are incessant enough and prolonged, but they feel unfocused. Ambiguous. As if whoever is knocking is looking away from the door, or as if they are knocking at the wrong door or are thinking of other things as they knock. Thak thaka thak, thak thaka thak. The knocks are melodic now, in tune.
See, what did I tell you? Unfocused and ambiguous. The knocker seems to be using both hands and I know the tune. He is tapping Bourrée in D Minor on our door. I know the tunes. When memories start to leak out from the inside of your head, the last thing that goes are the songs and the tunes. Not that my memory is leaking. I remember everything. And I also know who it could be at the door playing Bourrée in D Minor. What is he doing here? And what does it even matter? I can easily ignore it.
The knocking is a new sound and it is soft. Soft. I can hear it only because it is so near, but it is not like I am not used to sounds. In Delhi, sounds are present everywhere, at all times of the day and night. On and on and on. Some sound, any sound. And the dirty air. And the unwarranted unmitigated rudeness on the road. I have not been on a road for a long time and nobody has been rude or polite to me. Or said anything to me really. But the dirty air diffuses easily into our space, and the sounds have only grown bigger, more persistent.
A long time ago, I had read that starvation makes hearing more acute.
I don’t remember why that happens, but in our lives, sounds have taken over as if to fill the void of our existence. Striding in pompously like a conquering army – bang bang bang – because there can be no vacuum in nature. No, not even two identical twenty- five or twenty-six-year-old blanks with two identical empty stomachs. Empty and festering.
Earlier, we could move, and we would see things too. Not just hear them. You remember that, Layla, don’t you? When we would look out of our window. We would sometimes even talk about the people we saw – people with familiar faces, gestures and the oh so unmistakably familiar mindsets. Of course, we had hated all of them. Each one of them. You, you. And you.
Excerpted with permission from So All Is Peace, Vandana Singh-Lal, Penguin Random House India.