Brown. It kept showing up in his life, like old visiting cards and movie ticket stubs. Be it the backside of his palms, the new shorts his mother bought for him or the compulsory canvas shoes he had to wear to PE class. Brown was there. It smiled back at him every time Mani saw himself in the mirror. He had few friends. When you’re born Manikaran Joseph Thopil there is only so much you can do about it. He lived with his joint family on the outskirts of a major town, in a state of what can only be described as astute luxury. He loved the sound of his own thoughts, the humming of his mind within its cranium. Every morning he would lie under the shade of his favourite Papaya tree, watching the sunlight diffuse through its leaves, filtered to make it bearable, yet warm enough to bask in its glow. He would hold up his tiny palms to the sky, trying to fill the crevices between the leaves with his fingers. When the warm shade of green hit his fingers, they almost seemed to glow as if they were made from thick, molten honey, the same stuff the sun was made of. He remembered repeatedly licking them as a child, hoping it was so, till his mother started to coat them with chili powder just to get him to stop. He could still feel the burn of the raw chilli on his tongue. The rough bark felt almost cool to touch, the brown of his skin upon the trunk matching it perfectly. The stillness of it, in stark contrast to his being, accentuated his own inner motions. He could feel his brain whirring, like CD drives of old computers.
“Ah it is working faster today, good good, I must feed it more almonds then,” he would say aloud to himself, with a grin. Each day Manikaran ensured his mind was still there and working. In those days it was easy to lose one’s mind. Like one of those Pentium computers, it could always heat up and explode. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought. But before he could reflect upon the possibility, he heard his name being called out. His small, measured gait turned toward the house. Mani was one of those boys whose age was impossible to tell. A little shy of 5’5, he was scrawny. His disheveled hair matched his untied laces, creased t-shirts and dirty jeans. Somehow he just couldn’t bring himself to wear all those clean pairs of shorts his mother bought him; his knees never felt manly enough in them. While others wore sparkling white shorts to PE class, Mani would show up in his usual pair of unwashed denims, becoming a source of great amusement to his instructor. “This boy,” he would say, “he thinks he’s extra smart. Okay then, Mr. I-am-too-big-for-shorts, go run two more rounds.” The idea of losing self-respect while being paraded around in tight shorts was as alien a concept to him as a toilet seat was to the Neanderthals; it refused to register itself.
“Mani, Mani, where are your white shorts, go put them on, maasi will soon be home, we must appear decent at least in front of our guests.” His mother was also one of them. Mani’s maasi had come home to visit with her three children. Since then he had known no peace of mind. It was always, “Mani do this, Mani run to the shop, Mani go get the TV remote, Mani go heat up water for me.” He started to hate the sound of his own name. Every time he heard “Mani” now a small vein in his forehead started throbbing, as if a tiny tick were gnawing away at a corner of his brain. His daily prayers now had an additional portion in which he begged the gods in earnest to render her mute. If this went on, he was sure, his brain would one day pack up and leave.
He pushed open the wire door, taking three steps at a time on the old rickety wooden staircase, just so that he could hear one “Mani” less. Maasi’s room was always in a state of tumult but today it was a picture straight out of a Tolstoy novel; so grand was the scale of chaos. She lay there, sprawled on the ground, the bed sheet ripped off the bed, the water pitcher knocked over and her reading glasses broken. The talcum powder and perfume bottle lay smashed at the foot of the dressing table, bathing the entire room in her pungent scent. All of a sudden there were ten maasi’s cornering him in that tiny room. Ten heads glared at him angrily, ten mouths shouted together in unison, “Mani stop staring around and get help, idiot boy.” Ah it still lives, that serpent-like tongue was still unharmed, ye gods, you need to aim better next time, he thought as he ran for help, muted.
Apparently, maasi had twisted her ankle while trying to get a better view of herself in her mirror that morning. It took all of three men and Mani’s entire reserve of strength to hoist her onto the bed. The bed creaked ever so slightly, the mattress groaned and it was as if a maasi-sized crater was made that day. There she lay like a beached whale, unable to swim and useless to the fisherman. He now understood why Melville had to write an entire book about whale hunting; the onerousness of the endeavor surely deserved literary testament.
The doctor arrived, pompous and solemn as they always do. “Aap ye umar main thoda dhyaan rakhiye.” (You need to take care of yourself at this age). All doctors in India, Mani thought, must be moral philosophy rejects. They always expounded on what you should or should not be doing at this stage and at that stage in life. Why can’t they just prescribe and leave. The doctor at his sober best hummed and hawed for another ten minutes before finally removing his stethoscope and gently prodding maasi’s upper regions. In India, doctors have to tread a fine line between decency and diagnostics. If only the maker had designed the body better and not left so many organs close to those social hot zones, he mused.
“But doctor saab, she has sprained her foot!” shouted his mother, almost indignant that a foreign man should go anywhere close to maasi’s izzat (honor, used here to signify breasts). The doctor turned a shade of crimson much akin to the patient’s lipstick, and mustering all the quiet dignity he had and replied, “Madam we have to check the heartbeat and pulse, it is mandatory. I cannot prescribe anything without taking her vitals, bhabhiji.” But the science did little to reassure his mother, whose eyes, like lasers, had locked themselves onto the good doctor’s hands. It was not as if this was subtle either, little beads of sweat had broken out onto the good doctor’s forehead under the heat of his mother’s vigilant stare. Mani was breaking into a sweat too but from the strain of trying to keep a straight face. He was certain that if his mother had an inkling of his thoughts, she would rinse his brain in ganga jal without anesthesia.
Mani felt guilty; he had a reputation for being a quiet, nice boy. Growing up, while other parents were worried about broken knees and windows, Mani’s biggest complaint was the cracked spine of a novel. He preferred the company of books to people; this made his parents happy and proud to no end. Mani’s reading collection was the focus of every conversation with every relative who ever came home. Each time a careless relative flipped through his pages with soiled thumbs, or opened the book at an angle greater than 60 degrees, a part of his soul died. But he made peace with it and so did his parents. “It’s good,” they thought, “Books can’t give him heartbreaks, unwanted pregnancies or AIDS. What a good boy he is, he does his schoolwork and then reads some more.”
“Inhe pura bed rest chahiye, teen mahine tak.” (She needs complete bed rest for the next three months.)
Mani could feel the stethoscope becoming a noose around his neck, tightening ever so deliberately. When his mom turned to him and said, “koi baat nahi doctor, humara Mani hai na, pura dhyaan rakhega,” (Don’t worry Doctor, our Mani will take good care of her). He felt as if the chair from under his feet had just been yanked away.
The sun peeked out again from his fingers, as he lay under his beloved Papaya tree, indolently gazing for patterns among the clouds. “Idiot boy,” his maasi had said. That had stung. Mani had always thought himself to be special; he felt he had a unique relationship with his brain. He spoke to it almost all the time, sometimes it answered, sometimes it refused, sometimes he could hear a war waging in there among its many voices. He had looked those symptoms up. He was either a prodigy or a savant or plain crazy. Unfortunately, he could read perfectly well and as much as he tried he could not see patterns anywhere. As he lay under the tree he could feel the roots beneath his fingers gently poking him, it was an awkward embrace, like the last one of an old lover, but it felt strangely good. Much like the sense of calm he felt when he thought.
Mani’s thoughts were interrupted by a torrential outburst of brown, running from the bark in thick rivulets down its roots and into him. Just as the first outburst of rain on dusty ground gives way to auburn streams. Those rivulets seemed to find their way towards him, running between his fingers, he tried to catch them, to hold the brown in the palm of his hand but they seemed to be made of stuff that was not real. He turned to look at the tree – it seemed a shade lighter, like an errant artist had repainted over it with white. The last time he had seen his face the brown had twinkled back, stronger, darker than before.
“Mani, mani, beta, maasi is calling you, go.” Within the time span of three more “manis” he was in front of his maasi. “Mani, oh you useless boy, where have you been? Go get my bedpan, I need to go urgently.” As the water dripped onto the metal container, Mani turned his head away, his hands still holding it in place. The chamber pot became the ocean and his hands strangely enough went numb. A drowning man, they say, before he gives in, tries his utmost to survive. His body tenses, he fights through the burning sensation in his lungs, his heart pounding faster than ever before, his eyes wide open. What follows is a rare moment of absolute clarity. Knowing that it is over.
The tinkling sound was over, he could almost sense the heat of maasi’s stare but he could not move his hands, it was if someone had cut off the very nerve that communicates to his muscles his intention of doing so. Beyond her paralyzed cot and her vain mirror, he could see the shadow of the papaya tree growing ever so longer, its shade of brown slowly losing its hue.
In the days that followed, the shadow grew longer and longer and Mani’s morning rituals grew shorter and shorter. Every morning as he tried to advance towards it, his maasi would call for another emergency. The number of times she told them that she could see the gods coming for her was perhaps more than all the Indian gods put together, which the last time he checked were around 33 million. Every weekend her body gave up on her – it broke down more times than their old Fiat, or so she claimed. “Haayeram,” she cried every morning when she saw Mani, “Why have you not taken me away? Why leave me in this agonizing condition?” In old western movies they would shoot a horse with a broken leg. It wasn’t done out of pity, but out of necessity. Unfortunately those rules did not apply to humans. Why though, Mani mused.
Time is a funny creature; when it knows it is no longer being waited for, it gallops like a beast in heat. Three whole months had almost passed and maasi had but fully recovered. It was the end of autumn and Mani had almost forgotten what the sun felt like. “Here Mani have some jam, it is your favorite Papaya,” said his mother. It felt almost sacrilegious to even touch it.
As he stepped outside he could see the gardeners raking the leaves. If only, like Krishna, he could cloak their bare branches, he thought. Thick columns of dark smoke arose from little heaps of leaves; they had now shed their purpose. So was it with people too, relationships were like leaves relegated to the fire when their purpose was done, Mani thought. But solitude was permanent. It was a fire that was self-cleansing from all that was unnecessary.
The dark smoke columns turned into the billow of a noon train that chugged slower than usual onto a nondescript platform. Mani hauled maasi’s numerous suitcases onto the coach, each lighter than the previous one, the spring in his step slowly returning. With a lot of forbearance he hugged each child and when it came to maasi, he did not even mind the lingering saliva stained mark she left on either cheek. He heard his maasi tell his mother, “haanji, hum jaroor wapas aayenge, bahut jald, haan haan, mani ko bhejna humare paas, haan shayad jaroorat pade, naye ghar main, bahut kaam hota hai,” (we will surely visit again, send Mani to us, we might need his help in the new house, there’s lots of work to be done) words, like small bits of grit that got into his chappals, too trivial to bend down and dispose of.
As Mani lifted the latch onto the little wooden door, within three heartbeats his fingers reached out for the rough sinewy bark of his papaya tree, but it felt alien to him. Was this the same tree he wondered, surely it had not felt this way before. He tried hard to concentrate and reached out again, trying to remember familiar sensory pathways, tracing its cracks and crevices, but the more he touched, the greater was his aversion towards it.
He turned to look at his own hands, callouses had sprung out. Smooth skin had given way to the harshness of adulthood. It could no longer feel the same. As he turned, he saw the evening sun; the shadow of the tree and his own, merged as one. He had finally outgrown his shadow. In the distance he could hear the faint sounds of his name, “Mani, Mani beta, come in you’ll catch a cold.” A faint smile eked its way out of the corners of his mouth; it was cold already.
In the uppermost recesses of Mani’s room, sandwiched between his old comic books and clay castles, lies a bottle of unopened papaya jam, turned brown with age, quietly languishing in the dust, waiting for solitude to reclaim it.
Percy is a Young India Fellow, and has been writing since he discovered he couldn’t draw. He has another short story coming out in an upcoming anthology. He has a full time job in advertising and hopes to keep it that way. He has been previously published in eFiction and eFiction India, Asia Lit and Reading Hour.