There were some things that Aliyah learned to live with, Neha’s death was one of them. She hadn’t shared it – the dying – with anyone else. She led everyone to believe that her death had been instant and painless. Especially the parents. Some consolation in the tragedy.
She went to the old teak table, a broad affair, which was consumed by stacks of books and sheaves of papers. Aliyah picked up a stack and dropped it to the floor. It made a thud. On a quieter note, it slid to make a puddle of books and papers. Settling in the chair, her chin resting in her palm, Aliyah bent over a sheaf of paper and began to write. The nib scratched the paper, no words appeared. Two stabs in the air and the indigo ink flew out on the paper. She crumpled the paper and threw it aside. She started again. This time words appeared.
Life has a funny way of surprising you, overthrowing you, bringing you down to your knees. We have all been on our knees, one time or the other, even if we don’t always know it. What makes my story special, other than it being one of the few that is being told? I don’t know. I may never know. I am one among the privileged but even that does not come with guarantees. Where life is concerned, and when it is time for life to toss you up in the air, we are all the same.
Leaning back, she squeezed her eyes shut. They hadn’t died instantly. Maybe Sahil had. When Aliyah came to or maybe before she slipped away, she had heard Neha’s agony that had died in a series of whimpers. A hand had stretched out toward her. The nails a glossy midnight. Blueberry Fields.
They had sat in Aliyah’s bedroom just hours before, she and Neha, an open carton of momos, bubble tea, and magazines around them. Aliyah gave Neha her options.
“Raven or Blueberry Fields?”
“Blueberry Fields all the way.”
She painted Neha’s nails. They were heading out with Sahil for a drive in his brand-new sedan, a birthday gift. It was a double celebration – the car and Neha’s movie debut that she’d just signed. She’d be going to Goa in a month when the shooting began.
Aliyah sat next to Sahil pushing the seat back almost until it touched the backseat where Neha sat. Her finger made doodles on Neha’s knee. Sahil turned up the music, something ratty, the lyrics made them roar with laughter. He pulled up at a coffee shop, they lit a smoke. As they hit the highway, she noticed Neha’s sullen face in the side mirror while she and Sahil continued their banter. Aliyah, the center of her universe, didn’t want Neha to feel left out, not that day, not when they were celebrating and she would not see Neha for a long time, the longest they’d been apart.
“Neh, let’s swap seats,” she said. Neha looked surprised, caught off-guard in the middle of a silent tantrum. Aliyah didn’t like sharing attention.
“The queen has spoken, Neh. Who are we mere mortals to argue?”
Sahil pulled over to the side of the highway. The indicators blinked. He sauntered over to the bushes to pee, while Neha and Aliyah made disgusted sounds and catcalls. Aliyah launched into a commentary of the action in the bush. They perched on the hood.
“Sit tight, my beauty. I shall immortalize you,” Sahil said with a flourish as he took his phone out.
As the girls struck poses, pulled pouts and duck faces –
“You do know I was talking to my car, don’t you?”
Squeals and kicks. They hopped back into the car. Neha was in better spirits. Sahil had only one shade of spirit – happy. Laughter attached itself to him like bubbles to champagne. Aliyah sat back and began scrolling through her messages when the car swerved. There was a scream – it wasn’t clear whose. And then it was all metal, tires screeching, a loud bang. Aliyah could never be sure which came first, the swerve or the scream. But did it really matter? It was these inconsequential details that she tried to sift through later.
Her act of kindness was short-lived. But not its reward if you could call it that. Aliyah lived. With a limp and a patch of scars on her hand that made sure she didn’t forget what her kindness had done. Neither did those other hands let her forget. They reached out to her, gleaming tips of night-drenched forget-me-nots: taunting, pleading, questioning.
We think we are invincible. We are not. I realized it when the car crashed. No, it spun first, it screeched. The crash when it came was not final. It continued to crumble around me. Metal settled down like the boards of an old house. And I heard a voice call to me. I was too stunned to move. I was dragged out by rough hands. I felt limp and heavy like a sack of loose sand. As I was dragged out, metal and glass scraped the back of my legs and I wanted to scream. You fool, you are hurting me. Careful! But I couldn’t. The voice was trapped inside. Before more voices crowded over me, the hand reached inside my blouse and squeezed my breasts and groped my body. The fury of helplessness is the worst kind of fury I have known.
Shards of indigo came into sharp focus. Their lovemaking had grown distant, conversations furious. The relationship that was already on shaky ground shattered along with the vase that Aliyah threw at the wall. The once-indigo that swirled and danced in arabesque florals cracked and rained down gracelessly. Inside, Aliyah observed, the vase was plain beige. Beauty unmasked and dispersed.
Mallika slumped. Aliyah floated, a quivering feather.
So soft that it didn’t register for a few seconds. Mallika stood. She walked out. Even her leaving was gentle. The door shut with a click. To Aliyah it sounded like a clap of thunder. She was incinerated.
Minutes passed. Aliyah sat back in the calm after the storm. Sated, she cried.
Mallika had been her physiotherapist after the accident. At first, the physiotherapy had been a much-needed escape from her parents’ attention. It was fun at first, the attention from her parents. Watching Tara talk to her parents. A whimper of ouch or a feigned expression of pain from Aliyah and Tara would be forgotten. Her parents would rush to her. At her beck and call. But that brat of a little sister. She couldn’t get a reaction out of her. She looked unperturbed and then carried on with her life. So that game had to come to an end. It got old too soon, which is when Mallika entered the scene. Sweet, compassionate Mallika. Doe-eyed and long-fingered. The ring finger encircled in a thin band of gold with a diamond sparkling atop it.
“I am engaged,” she had told Aliyah and her mother.
“He is a lucky man,” Aliyah’s idiotic mother had said.
It took three sessions with Aliyah for that engagement to break. Uncomfortably long gazes, a well-timed sob for the loss of her friends, touches that gathered into caresses. And Mallika was hers to love, to fuck, to break.
After Mallika, she went through a flurry of women. Even with a limp and a scarred hand, Aliyah was a force, a beautiful and devastating force. Though a force is not how her victims would describe her as, at least not within hearing shot. She’d have appreciated a glimpse of more spine, yes, Aliyah would.
My family’s love held me together. Oh, crap. Who am I kidding? It suffocated me. It was love nonetheless. It refused to allow me to wallow in loathing. Instead of soothing me, all that love made me feel like a wild animal, trapped. Even as I write about it, I am flexing my hand, the talons unfurl, a deformed flower opens into petals of blade.
She got more than a glimpse of that spine with Carol, her publisher. It was of steel. She made Aliyah’s roar sound like a purr. Thunderstorm eyes that could sustain Aliyah’s gaze. Before she knew it, Aliyah had agreed to write a book for Carol’s publishing house. Anything to get into the older woman’s life and boudoir.
She sat across Carol. A vast stretch of walnut wood between them, a chaos of manuscripts. Carol looked at her through brown rings of glasses, a gold lotus nose pin pressed her skin, reddening it. A bumpy mole on her left cheek that would be lifted up by the lift of a smile. She wasn’t smiling. The mole stayed put. A pen rapped against Aliyah’s manuscript.
“This is not it,” Carol said.
“This is all there is.”
“I signed you up for an honest story, a bold one. So far it lacks on both counts.”
“I didn’t want to write it.”
“I asked. I didn’t insist, Aliyah. So why are you doing it?”
“What do you want?”
“What you are refusing to say. The truth beneath the bravado. The sinkholes that you are skirting.”
“You want me to go down a sinkhole? And well, sink?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
“And what do I get in return?”
She raised her eyebrows, blatantly eyeing Carol.
“Just you. Or isn’t that enough?”
“No, it isn’t enough. I was thinking maybe a little of you. Actually, a lot of you.”
“I don’t play with little girls. Someone real? Maybe.”
Aliyah pushed her chair back. She glared at Carol, who looked back, her gaze cool and a tad bored.
“Throwing tantrums now, Aliyah? Leave. And if I were you, I would get this all down on paper. All that anger and what’s at its core.”
Aliyah blazed home, a wildfire screaming and scorching nothing but her own heart, in her every breath a smoke-choked murmur of bitch, bitch, bitch. Home was empty. Silent for once. Her mother, the altruist, doing good for the people. Her father taking a swing, a swig, or both at the golf club. Her sister mooning about a bedraggled bohemian.
The comments in response to reports of our accident emanated vitriol. An industrialist’s son and a soon-to-be-actress dead. Rich kids. Brats. Must’ve been high on alcohol, maybe drugs. Well, we weren’t. If we were high, it was on life, our futures. Not a crime, was it? It made me angry. These baseless judgments, where did they come from? From the roots of Anonymous’ discontent, envy? It made me want to hold my life high over my head like a trophy, to live larger, give them, give life, the grand fuck-you-all. I wasn’t made to skulk. Anonymous: I am anything but.
Aliyah looked for a matchbook to torch her stupid manuscript. She tossed around the invites lying on the kitchen table. One caught her eye. Her parents’ friend Sia had an art show. The paintings did it – there was an unapologetic anger in them. In fact, her mother had suggested Aliyah get Sia to do the book cover. How her mother could be friends with someone as raw as Sia escaped Aliyah. But she didn’t disapprove. Every light must have its darkness.
She called Sia. A moment of silence before Sia said they could meet. They met at Sia’s studio.
“It is your art,” Aliyah told her. “They speak in a way that I can’t but need to. I need a book but all I have is a storm that I can’t tame into focus. Where do I even begin?”
“Etiquette would say let’s begin with some small talk. I don’t know you from Adam. How are Ana and Vicky? Do they know you’re here?”
“They are good. Being parents and model citizens giving back to society and all. They don’t know I’m here. It was an impulsive thing. I saw the art show invite. The way you paint, it is what I’m going for but I’m nowhere close to getting there. And yeah, mum has been after me to get in touch with you for the book cover, so she’ll be thrilled. Basically, I am at a dead end. So dead, that it is the end.”
“Dead ends are good places to be. Forces you to confront, not turn away.”
Aliyah settled down on a divan covered with patchwork quilt and dry smears of paint. Sia rolled a joint, took a drag, passed it to her. There was a complete lack of pity or encouragement in Sia’s eyes. These eyes, Aliyah could talk to.
“She was my first kiss, you know. First fuck too. My first everything.”
She took the joint back. She took a long drag. She handed it back to Sia.
“I painted her nails blueberries, the day I lost her. And since then I’ve lived in the shadow of those fucking blueberries.”
She banged her head back against the wall. Light flickered at the tip of the joint. A stream of ash drifted down. Sia’s pen began to move on a patch of construction paper. It was later when Aliyah got ready to leave that she gave her the recorder.
“You recorded me? Scruples, any?”
“Well. You were on a roll.”
“A pun! You surprise me.”
“Not as surprised as you’ll be when you listen to it, stone sober.”
And it happened that Aliyah walked through those dreaded blueberry fields, all the way.
Image – Google images