I was in Bombay for a day and had nothing much to do, so she says to us that she would take me to her house, make me a cup of hot chocolate, and then drop me back at the airport in time for my flight. [PV1] My aunt is thankful that now she did not have to worry about getting me to the airport on time; decides that this is what I want, and leaves me on my own, to have hot chocolate with a writer-stranger. I am tired and nervous; I do not know how I will ever sustain any intelligent conversation with a woman whose detective novel I had once read in a single sitting.
Before we even reached the car, she starts asking me what I like to write about. We are walking between men selling phone cases and clothes, books and chappals; I use the confused pavement to pretend that I was walking carefully, and that I would answer her as soon as we reached somewhere quiet. Inside, I was panicking; I was trying to construct coherent sentences about how I have not written recently, how I was worried that I might run out of stories, and that I wrote too much about myself. She kept looking at me for an answer—when I started talking, I stalled, and struggled, and stopped. She waited.
“I’ve been trying to write short stories,” I say.
She is walking almost assertively a little ahead of me and I was nervous that I might lose her. She shakes her head at a man selling shirts that look like the bright red one she was wearing. I do not think she has heard me.
“But I think I write too much about myself and things that have happened to me,” I pause. She is very quiet when I have responded to her questions; it is unnerving, because I cannot tell what she is thinking.
“I know this is a problem,” I say quickly, and mumble about having a blog.
We are turning off the main road into a galli. “Why is it a problem?” she asks.
I cannot explain.
“How do you create your characters?” I ask her instead.
“They’re all there,” she says, and this conversation ends.
At lunch that afternoon, she would occasionally stop eating to whisper about the women sitting at the tables around us. Her whispers seemed routine and sounded like notes to herself—of how the woman next to us was dressed perfectly but wore different coloured socks; the way the man taking our order stood slightly bent forward on one side, and how the women next to us went through the menu systematically to eat a little bit of everything. We were eating Burmese food at a small restaurant called Burma Burma, and she would try and guess each ingredient in the khao suey and the salad-like things we had ordered, in which I could only taste the ginger. I remember being conscious that the characters in her stories were invented, but if I ever saw a character in her book that dressed or stood this way, I’d know where they had come from.
In her car, I am also nervous about the way she drives. She is driving too fast and braking too close to the cars in front of her. She is asking me if I drive; I tell her that I don’t know how to, but I have a license, and then she starts laughing. She tells me about the man who taught her to drive—“Akbar bhai would chew paan and say culutch-brake, culutch-brake for the hour that we spent together.” Then it is like she suddenly realises that she really must brake, and I have closed my eyes, because she really should have, by now.
“I think you should take a year off after college,” she tells me, “Just travel alone.”
I tell her that I really want to, and she tells me that it would help me with my writing. “Start making friends with people in different cities. When you’re there, atleast, you’ll have a place to crash that day,” she continues, and I realise then, how much I really want to do this. I want what neither studying in a boarding school, nor moving to a city I only vaguely knew seemed to give me. I want to be in a new place on my own, and see what that does to me. I also need new stories.
“Trekking in Leh and Ladakh was just amazing. It is all so white, and you feel so small,” she says, when I tell her I haven’t gone trekking for two years now. I smile, knowing that everybody who has been to Leh and Ladakh describes it this way, but it feels different when she says it and I don’t know why. This seems true of everything she talks about—she has a pointed way of beginning and ending conversations that would have unsettled me if it was anybody else. Then she curses—“I’ve been talking so much, I forgot to turn.” We take the longer route home.
She talks to me with a familiarity that I do not expect. I remember that I had met her for the first time some years ago, and I found it fascinating that she was a writer and a surgeon. I was fourteen and quiet, and sat watching the way she sipped her coffee, and talked to my aunt about things that I do not remember now. After six years, I had no memory of what she looked like; when I heard her name, I remembered it as words printed on the red cover of one of her books, and as a “complete character,” as my aunt would say.
“Would you like your chocolate milk cold instead?” she asks, when we are still on our way home.
“What was the last book you read?” she goes on.
“Zadie Smith,” I say.
When she asks me why I like her, I tell her of the women that Smith writes about. I am thinking of the characters of Leah and Natalie in NW, and the paragraphs that I love for their descriptions of them together.
“Do you think it’s restricting? Women writing only about and as women?” she asks me.
I am immediately defensive, and she laughs. “It was just a question. The writing must do something for you; it doesn’t matter if it does nothing to me,” she continues.
Her house is small and old, and filled with bookshelves. She has made spicy banana bread in a cooker that I eat with what she calls injery gingery jam. “Remember, don’t domesticate yourself in the year that you take off,” she says to me from the kitchen, in the middle of our conversation on what makes a comfortable chair. I laugh, say of course, and then we are rushing to the airport.
“Bombay must seem too fast,” she says, when we are in the car again.
“That’s what I like,” I say slowly, “Everyone seems to be doing their own thing.”
We are close to the airport, and suddenly she starts talking about writing again. “Short stories seem like a good place to start,” she says and I nod.
When we are at a signal, she is laughing again. Someone has painted on the wall along the pavement—“Modi sarkar, sabse bekar”—and now we are both laughing.
“As you grow older, things that happen around you begin to bother you more,” she says. “I saw it with my mother, and I remember thinking I would never be so affected by things, but these elections depressed me.”
We are both quiet when she turns onto the road that leads to the airport. I can hear one of her feet tapping at the metallic bottom of her car that had no carpet or floor mat. I am looking outside the window at the taxis in front of us, thinking of how I really must write about her, and our conversations. She pulls up behind a few taxis.
“Don’t worry about writing about yourself,” she says as I get out. I nod, smile, and walk towards the board that reads Departures.