Boomtown Girl

There was no compound wall around the construction site, no watchman to tell the two girls they could not enter. Holding hands, they scurried behind an idle cement mixer and crouched low. Book bags rustled, tiffin carriers squeaked. Four eyes tracked skyward along the building’s length. Ten stories. A proper high rise, the township’s first. Against the moving clouds the summit glided, black and solid as a ship, and the girls felt themselves gliding with it, borne along, as if the earth itself were carrying them forward.

Inside, the staircase had no bannister. Koo ran to the landing and up the steps, oblivious to the sheer drop alongside. Mal followed. Her feet moved as if through mud. She shied from the naked edge.

They were twelve years old. Classmates. The previous day they’d made a plan, in secret, to come here. Mal had been the one to suggest it. The idea came not to her mind but to her mouth: one moment she and Koo were quarreling over something silly, a charcoal drawing, and the next she was saying, Let’s go on an adventure, in a voice that wasn’t quite her own.

At the top of the first flight a corridor stretched, lined with open doors. Koo flipped a switch in the wall. Fluorescent tubes flickered before unleashing a harsh, white glare. The floor was white marble, the walls white plaster. Here and there in the white expanse wires sprouted like tufts of black grass.

Three floors up, they entered a room that was weeping. The ceiling was a raincloud, the floor a shallow pond. Reflections, giant amoebae, rippled across the walls. Koo splashed her way to a glassless window.

Don’t fall! Mal cried.

Come and look, Koo said.

Mal stepped forward. Her flat-heeled shoes were instantly immersed; cold water seeped into her socks. Far below, rain trees spread like an ocean.

My house is there, Koo said, pointing.

How do you know?

I can see the red tiles.

Where’s my house? Mal gripped the window frame with both hands and leaned out. The cement mixer she and Koo had passed hovered, pebble-sized, by her thumb. She saw the road they had taken, that she walked every day to school. Somewhere in the patchwork beyond, in that sea of dark green with islands of yellow and white and pink, her house lay hidden. From its small terrace she had watched this building grow. It was going to be a megacomplex, her father had told her. Shops and eateries on the lower floors, offices above. One day, he said, you might have an office in a building like that. Your own firm.

It’s getting late, she said now. We’ll be late for assembly. We have to go back.

We have to climb to the top, Koo said. They splashed their way to dry ground. Let’s leave our things here.

What if someone finds them? Mal said.

You only said this construction site is illegal. That the police came and forced the builder to dismiss all the workers.

But somebody could still be here.

Who?

The girls shed their bags and proceeded single-file to the summit. Mal tried to avert her eyes from the drop, but her gaze kept bending to the blackness as, with every step, her feet grew heavier.

Koo’s voice came from somewhere above, ricocheting off the walls. Come on, Mal.

Mal clapped her hands over her ears. The leadenness in her feet was spreading up through her legs. Her head was starting to spin. Koo, I’m going to fall, she cried out before her throat went dry and she could say no more.

#

Earlier that week—a time when they scarcely knew each other—Sister Eliza had announced a new seating arrangement for the class. Top thirty students, she said, will pair up with bottom thirty. Rank one will sit next to rank thirty-one, rank two with rank thirty-two and so on. Then strong students will help weak students, weak students will give strong students opportunity to practice teaching, and everybody will learn from one another.

Murmurs of dissatisfaction rose from the aisles. Sister Eliza placed her hands on her narrow hips, a paper cutout in a starched white habit. Lazy bums you all are. Sitting tight in your own little worlds, with your own little groups of friends. No initiative to mix with others, no interest in helping the less fortunate. Same thing happening in our society. Rich getting richer, poor getting poorer. You think that’s good?

Mal’s friend Sheila hissed in her ear: So unfair. Just because some people are bad at studies, why should it be our problem?

Malayagandhini, Sister Eliza said, reading from a list. You will help Kusumanjali. Kusumanjali, pack your bag and move to Sheila’s seat. Sheila, get up.

Sheila snorted. As if that Koo wants to work up in anything.

Koo slid into Sheila’s vacated chair, lifted the desk lid, swung her canvas bag inside, then withdrew a book, a paperback novel, and began to read. A shy girl, Mal had always thought. Shy and unfriendly. Rude sometimes, like now, the way she wouldn’t even look at her, let alone smile to say hi.

You’re not allowed to read storybooks in class, Mal whispered. Actually, you’re not even supposed to bring them to school.

The bent head swiveled towards Mal. Koo’s eyes were brown and clear, the hue of freshly melted jaggery. I know, she said in her deep voice, the lowest notes of a harmonium.

Around them, the shuffling of places continued. Chairs squeaked, desks banged, bags disgorged their fresh-packed innards. Air shifted, like the reverberations of an approaching cyclone.

Mal heard her own voice, shrill and childish. But you’re supposed to pay attention in class.

Why?

So you’ll get higher marks. So you’ll—do better.

Koo’s fingers, long, fine, and smudged with black ink, played with the corner of a page. Mal looked at her own hands: square, clean, inelegant. She tucked them beneath her thighs, away from view. What are you reading? she asked.

Koo showed her the cover. You’ve read it?

Mal shook her head no.

I’ll give it to you tomorrow, once I finish.

You’ll finish by tomorrow? Such a fat book?

I’ll finish today only.

If you’re such a great reader, then why can’t you study more?

From the front of the classroom Sister Eliza rapped her desk with a wooden ruler. Open to page two hundred eighty-six. And start solving.

Mal uncapped her pen; Koo slid her novel under the desk. As Mal copied numbers and symbols and calculated answers in her head, her eyes kept flitting to Koo, whose hand was moving vigorously—too vigorously—back and forth over the lines of a notebook. Mal craned her neck to see. Where there should have been equations there was instead a drawing—of what Mal could not tell. At first it looked like a road winding up a mountain. Then the road turned into a python with an enormous triangular head. Koo jerked her pen down and up. Drops of ink rained over the page. She drew her nib through the blots. The python was now trapped in a net. Mal could see it writhing, thrashing. Koo turned the page and started drawing circles freehand, large and small, some intersecting, others concentric, all spreading outwards from the centre of the page like an explosion. Mal watched, entranced by the movements of Koo’s pen. Then she shook herself. You’re supposed to be doing maths, she whispered.

Koo kept drawing. Mal nudged her arm. You’re supposed to be working, she hissed. Not drawing pictures and all. I’ll tell Sister.

Still Koo acted like she hadn’t heard. Mal raised her hand. It was her duty, she told herself. It was her duty to help Koo, to teach her to mend her ways—this was why Koo had been made to sit next to her.

Yes, Mal? Sister Eliza said. You’ve solved it?

Mal looked up at the board. Two equations stared back at her. She lowered her hand but it was too late; Sister Eliza was already beckoning to her to take the chalk. Mal stood. She was accustomed to solving maths problems in front of the class, to writing on the board as if she were the teacher. But today the chalk would not cooperate: as she stood beside Sister Eliza and studied the black surface with its white marks, her mind blanked.

We can eliminate x or y, Sister Eliza said. Which path did you take, Mal?

Mal’s hand moved; the chalk left a trail. She stepped back from the board.

You haven’t finished, Sister Eliza said. What is the solution?

Sister?

You tried to eliminate x. What happened?

Mal looked around. Her eyes met Koo’s two rows away.

I made, Mal said, staring at Koo. I made a mistake, Sister.

Sister Eliza clucked impatiently. Class? What is the solution?

No solution, Sister.

Correct. Where is your head today, Mal? In the clouds?

#

At lunch break Mal went back to her old friends. They trooped down to the playground, formed a ring, and began their clapping games. Koo sat off to the side, under a tamarind tree, with her novel.

That Koo, Mal said between rounds, is a problem child. No interest in studies. Can’t even pay attention in class. Why she even comes to school I don’t know. She was standing with her back to Koo, not caring whether Koo heard or not.

But you keep looking at her, Sheila said.

She’s distracting you, Ruchi said, laughing.

Why don’t you ask her to join us? Sunita said.

No use. She won’t.

The clapping game resumed. Mal slapped her palms hard against her friends’ and shouted the words with all her might. She knew without turning around that Koo was watching her, and the knowledge of it made her shiver despite the sun’s heat.

She’s climbing! Sheila said suddenly. Look!

The girls ran over. Koo’s book lay on the ground; she was shimmying up the tamarind tree, her legs naked under her skirt. Mal gazed at her, open-mouthed.

It’s against the rules to go climbing, Lila said. If she falls and breaks her head, then what?

No shame, Ruchi said, shaking her head. No shame at all.

Koo pulled herself onto a fat branch and dangled her feet. Mal stepped closer until she was directly underneath. How are you going to get down? she asked. The white disc of the sun blinded her as she spoke. The next moment all the air fled her lungs as Koo’s body struck her from above. She lay flat on her back, pinned beneath Koo’s weight. Her face brushed Koo’s. Koo’s cheek was dry, her breath warm and salt-smelling, ticklish against Mal’s skin. Mal began to laugh.

Their classmates pulled the two of them to their feet and slapped the red dust from their uniforms. Mal felt no pain, only a tingling throughout her body. Why are you laughing so much? her friends asked, but she could not answer. Every time she caught Koo’s eye, the giggles overwhelmed her. She grabbed Koo’s hand and together they shook and wept with laughter as the other girls steered them across the playground and up the stairs. On the landing, a prefect drew them both aside. Your uniforms! she shouted. What have you been doing? Rolling in the mud?

Koo grunted like a pig, and Mal doubled over, clutching her stomach.

They were marched to the principal’s office. Mother Cecilia was not there, but her secretary eyed them sternly. Malayagandhini! Of all people!

Mal wiped her eyes.

Don’t cry now, the secretary said, mistaking the tears for remorse. Go clean up, both of you. Let this be the last time I see you like this.

Geography period had begun. Miss D’Souza waved them to their seats with an order to take out their blank maps. Mal, her face still damp, tried to trace the Ganga and Brahmaputra, but her hand would not cooperate. The rivers went off course, deviating south from the Northern Fertile Plains into the Deccan Plateau. She glanced over at Koo’s map. Come to my house in the evening? Koo had scribbled the words in the Bay of Bengal and across the Andaman Islands. Mal reached over with her pencil. Yes, she wrote in the Indian Ocean.

#

Riding her bicycle, Mal stood high on the pedals as she swerved between potholes and vehicles. The wind caught her braids; rain trees flung their shadows across her path. Everything that used to be one way had been spun around. Koo, the girl she could never have imagined being friends with, was now the girl she most wanted to be with. The words coming out of her mouth today were nothing like the words she used to speak. I’m going to Koo’s house, she had told her mother upon returning home from school, her socks still stamped with red dust from the playground. No asking permission, no saying please. Amma had been so surprised she hadn’t protested, hadn’t asked how long she would be away, or where exactly Koo lived. Be back before dark, was all she had said.

The bougainvillea one, Koo had called her house, and Mal soon spotted it: a weathered bungalow with a red-tiled roof and a low compound wall that brimmed with papery flowers. She dismounted at the gate and wiped her sweating face on her sleeve. A flagstone path led through a small garden to a green door, above which two windows peered like eyes over a mouth. She lifted the latch. Immediately the green door opened, as if connected to the gate by an invisible string. Out stepped Koo. Mal ran to her. Koo seized her hand in a great rush and pulled her through the door.

Inside, Mal’s eyes darted around, unable to focus on one thing. So many books, so many pictures and pieces of sculpture, all arranged unevenly on surfaces of cloth, wood, and brass, interspersed with potted plants and illuminated by a variety of lamps that cast soft yellow beams through carved shades of clay. Her own home contained no more than one dusty bookcase, filled with textbooks, plastic flowers, and a single glazed conch shell.

An old woman in a mustard silk sari walked in. Hello, Mal, she said slowly, in English. I’m glad you have come.

Hello, Aunty, Mal said. She had seen Koo’s grandmother before, several times, around the marketplace and in her father’s shop.

We’re going to go play now, Ajji, Koo said.

Won’t you girls have something to eat first?

Later, Koo said.

Mal might be hungry, no?

No, Aunty, Mal said as her stomach let out a rumble. Koo’s grandmother led them to the adjoining room, where a small feast had been laid out on a table. Mung sprouts and fried paneer, samosas drizzled with green chutney, homemade chocolate cake: Mal took a bite, then another and another. Koo’s grandmother filled her plate again. How is your father, Mal? I haven’t seen him for a while.

Mal’s reply was muffled by the food in her mouth. She was in the grip of a craving: the more she ate, the more she wanted.

We get all our pens and pencils and paints from your father. Don’t we, Koo?

Koo gave an impatient sigh. Eat fast, she whispered to Mal. Then we can play.

Mal hurried with her third samosa. The old woman patted her arm. I’m happy you’ve come, Mal. I’m happy that Koo has you for a friend. And with a swish of silk she began to clear the dishes from the table. Mal wanted to help her. But Koo was beckoning from the bottom of the staircase, so she turned and followed.

#

In contrast to the living room downstairs, Koo’s room was quite bare, with a bed under one window and a desk and chair against the opposite wall. On the floor amid a litter of colored pencils lay an open sketchbook. Mal stared down at the drawing: swathes of greens, blues, and browns overlaid with curling strokes of charcoal. She was about to ask what it all meant when the picture snapped into focus: a banyan tree, gnarled and sprawling, with prop roots dividing up a blue sky.

You’re going to drawing classes? she asked Koo, who was sitting on the bed.

I just draw, Koo said.

Your coloring is so untidy.

Koo shrugged and said nothing. Mal cleared her throat. But it’s nice, she added, pointing at the sketchbook. Untidy but nice. Very colorful.

Koo’s mouth twitched. She looked at Mal and started to laugh. Mal laughed too, nervously.

Come sit, Koo said, patting the bedspread beside her.

Mal stepped around the sketchbook and sat. On the floor before them, her shadow and Koo’s merged into a two-headed creature. Mal raised her left hand, Koo her right. The two-headed creature waved up at them.

What’s that? Koo pointed at Mal’s elbow.

A birthmark, Mal said.

It’s like one I have here. Koo lifted the hem of her frock, revealing a similar mole on her thigh. Let’s see if we have any others like that. She ran to the door and slid the bolt into place. Then she pulled her frock over her head and threw it aside. Mal, not to be outdone, unbuttoned her pants. Soon she and Koo were naked and facing each other. There on Koo’s stomach was a mark the shape of a butterfly. Mal reached out and touched it with her finger. Koo’s skin was warm and damp, like a boiled egg freshly peeled.

Turn around, Koo said.

Mal obeyed. Koo’s fingers stroked her shoulder blade. You have one here. You know what this means?

What does it mean?

It means we should do many things together.

Yes, Mal said.

Koo settled herself on the floor, leaned back against the bed, and propped up her sketchbook on her thighs.

You’re going to draw me like this? Mal said.

Let your hair loose, Koo said.

My mother will scold me.

Just do it.

Mal reached for the blue bows at the ends of her braids. It was Amma who formed the braids every morning, Amma who untied them at night before checking for lice with a fine-toothed comb. Mal was forbidden to fiddle with her own hair. She tugged at the ribbons. Her scalp ached pleasantly from the release.

Keep standing, Koo said.

Mal stood. Koo’s gaze rose and fell over the rim of her sketchbook as the charcoal whispered against the page.

For you, Koo said at last and ripped the paper from its spiral binding.

Mal took the sketch with both hands. A grotesque creature stared back at her: eyes large as a cow’s, hair wild and curling, mouth dark, full, and misshapen. Her face occupied half the page; the rest of her had been squeezed into the remaining space, limbs shortened, ribs drawn in bold parallel strokes like the gills of a fish.

It—it doesn’t look like me, Mal said. My face is not so ugly. She threw the page from her. It slid across the floor with a sigh and came to rest near Koo’s foot.

I made it for you, Koo said quietly. As a gift.

I don’t want it. Mal winced as Koo tore the sketch in half. I’m sorry, Mal whispered.

Why are you sorry?

I didn’t know you were making it for me.

Who else would I be making it for? Koo strode past her, took her frock, and pulled it on. Mal scrambled for her own clothes. Halfway through buttoning up she gave a sharp cry. Her hands flew to her hair. I have to plait it, she said. Otherwise, my mother will get angry.

She tried parting the thick masses, but they slipped through her fingers like water. Shall we cut it off? Amma would say, pulling a strand until it hurt. If you can’t keep it tied up, shall we cut it all off?

Koo returned to the bed and sat down. Come, she said, gesturing to the floor between her feet. I’ll fix your hair. Koo’s fingers worked deftly, and soon Mal’s braids were again hanging to her shoulders, neatly tied and ribboned.

I’m sorry. Mal twisted around to face Koo. I’m sorry I said bad things about your drawing.

It’s okay.

Koo, Mal said after a pause. Let’s—let’s go on an adventure!

Koo gazed at Mal. What kind of adventure?

Mal waited for more words to come to her mouth, but none did. In a moment Koo would start to laugh at her. You want to be adventurous, she would say, but you can’t even come up with a proper adventure. Ha!

I don’t know, Mal muttered. Let’s just. Plan. Something.

Koo bent low until her head was touching Mal’s. Where do you want to go?

#

From the bungalow Mal rode to her father’s shop. Buses and autorickshaws showered her with exhaust. Warm, salty fumes mingled with smells from the market: guavas sprinkled with chili powder, fresh jasmine, groundnuts roasting in their shells. At the shop she found her father seated by the glass display case, a stack of graph paper in his lap. His right thumbnail, long as a claw, fanned the corners of the sheets as he counted them under his breath.

You’ve come to help me? he said, looking up. You want to fill the pens?

She gathered the handful of fountain pens he kept available for customers to test and lowered a dropper into a fresh bottle. Bubbles bloomed and broke as the ink rose into the glass tube, where it hovered, held by air, until she pressed the rubber bulb and released it into the barrel of a waiting pen. Responsible and diligent, Sister Eliza had written in her progress report. Good role model for others.

Appa, she said, pushing her bicycle as she walked home beside him, what if I am naughty? Will you still love me?

Depends how naughty you are.

If I am very naughty?

I’ll love you.

Very, very naughty?

I’ll still love you.

Very, very, very–.

Then we’ll kick you out of the house. You’ll have to live in the shop and help me all the time.

She squealed, hopped on her bicycle, and began to ride in circles around him. When they reached home, she sprinted up the outdoor staircase, past the landlord’s flat, and through the front door. What happened? Amma said, looking up from her students’ notebooks. Why are you so happy?

Mal kicked off her sandals and skipped away to her room. There she sat at her desk and jiggled her knees. She had homework to do, chapters to study. A diagram of the human digestive system stared at her from a page. Her lips shaped themselves around strange-sounding words: esophagus, duodenum, islets of Langherhans. It was getting dark outside. Silhouettes of birds jittered along the electric wires. Above her desk, in a corner of the ceiling, a familiar damp patch spread. If she focused on it in the right way, it became the face of God looking down at her. She often folded her hands and prayed to him to help her do well on her exams. Today she asked the face to keep her and Koo safe on their adventure.

Mal? Amma’s voice made her start. Don’t you want something to eat? Uppama? Jam sandwich?

Not hungry.

What did you eat at Koo’s house?

Can’t remember.

What did you play?

Hide and seek.

You’re acting very strange.

At bedtime, Mal lay on her back with her arms behind her head. A cyclone from the Arabian Sea was making its way inland. Rain drummed from the parapet overhanging her window. She could no longer see God’s face, but she prayed to him to keep it raining, so heavily that the streets would turn into rivers and she and Koo would not be able to leave home. She muttered these prayers, her eyes wide open in the dark. If she willed herself to stay awake, God would give her an answer.

#

In the stairwell, Koo’s voice came from somewhere overhead. Come on, Mal.

I’m going to fall, Mal cried out. Cramp was spreading through her legs as she crouched by the wall. If I move, she thought, I will fall. I will fall and fall and fall forever.

Footsteps pattered above her. A drizzle of grit landed in her hair. Give me your hand, Koo said. I’ll pull you up.

Mal sobbed as warm hands encircled her wrists. In their grasp she uncurled, softened, and rose. I got scared, she said as she and Koo slumped by the landing. The stairs had ended; they were on the top floor. Mal squinted in the brightness.

Koo took her hand. I saved you, she said.

No, you didn’t.

Of course, I did.

Pillars rose around them like dead trees. Mal stood up briskly. We should go back, she said. Otherwise, we’ll be late for assembly.

Wind buffeted their skirts and faces. Far below, amid the colorful patchwork of terraces, the rain trees squatted.

We just reached here, Koo said. And you want to go back already?

It’s getting late.

I don’t care. Let’s explore, let’s at least do a dance.

A dance?

Koo skipped around her, twirling. Mal waited for her to get dizzy and stop but Koo continued to spin, meandering between pillars, her arms thrashing like the branches of a tree in the wind. For a moment she seemed be dancing on the horizon itself, against the vertical curtain of grey clouds. Mal shrieked and covered her face with her hands for it seemed that Koo was about to go careening off the unbounded edge. When she opened her eyes, she saw Koo skipping toward her.

Let’s go, Mal said. Please.

Let’s explore some more, Koo said, painting. Then we can go home. To my place. We can tell Ajji our shoes got soaked and we didn’t want to spend the day with wet feet. She won’t mind. She’ll let you stay.

Mal pictured it all: she and Koo together at the bungalow, playing hide-and-seek among the artefacts in the living room until noon, when Koo’s grandmother would serve them a hot meal. Later on, she, Mal, could walk home as if it had been a regular school day. But Amma would hear of her absence from class and demand an explanation.

No, Mal said. We have to go. If we’re late for assembly, we’ll be punished.

What’s the point of having an adventure if you don’t even want to be adventurous.

We climbed up all the way, no?

I had to drag you.

Only for a few steps.

I saved your life.

I never asked you to be my savior.

Liar. Koo spat the word. Such a liar. You’re not adventurous. You’re a coward. Class topper. Teacher’s pet. Miss Goody Two Shoes. So boring. So cowardly.

As the wind whipped at Mal’s skirt, she searched for something clever and cutting to say. I’m going, she muttered at last. If you want to come with me, come. If you don’t want to come, don’t.

Koo’s face was bright, her eyes glittering from rage and the wind. Get lost, she said.

Mal waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimness of the staircase. Then she started to go down. Anger dispelled fear as she descended, her gaze focused firmly on her feet as her palms pressed into the grainy concrete wall. Miss Goody Two Shoes, Koo had called her. A liar. A coward. Names friends don’t call one another. One flight of steps and then another, twenty in all, until she was back outside, on the unyielding ground, having paused only once along the way, on the third floor, to retrieve her lunch basket and book bag.

#

Kusumanjali, Sister Eliza said, looking up from the attendance register. She’s absent today, eh? One day after sitting next to Mal. What, Mal, you scared her off?

The class tittered. Mal coughed. Her feet, in their damp socks and shoes, felt cold. Koo would by now be on her way home. Soon she’d be eating her grandmother’s delicious food, in dry clothes, before lounging in her room with her sketchbook. All day long Mal coughed and sniffed. By the time the last bell rang, she was feverish but determined to see Koo. I’m not a liar, she had to tell her. I’m not a coward.

She found Koo’s grandmother waiting at the bungalow gate. Seeing Mal, the old woman frowned. What happened, Mal? Where’s Koo?

Aunty? Mal said.

Why are you here without Koo?

Mal looked towards the bungalow. The green door was open. I thought Koo was here.

The old woman’s hand rose to her throat. Are you telling me you didn’t see Koo today?

I thought Koo was here.

Are you telling me you don’t know where she is?

Mal backed away, turned, and ran. She ran past the market and the temple, past the upholsterers’ shops housed in the low brick structures that were once the maharaja’s stables, past the Ganesha temple and its five-hundred-year-old banyan tree, up Twelfth Main, to the construction site. By the cement mixer she paused, wheezing. The place was as deserted as it had been in the morning. No workers, only a pair of beggar children playing in a sand pile. The pillars were rooted deep in the ground—blood-red, iron-rich soil that once had been liquid rock, flowing, then cooling, as she’d learned in geography class, to form the Deccan Plateau. The top of the building stood unmoving on a cloudless sky. A dizzy spell made her sink to her knees. From an upper floor a ragged piece of tarpaulin twisted in the breeze. She stared at the entrance for a long time, willing herself to move towards it. Eventually, when the white sun had ripened to yellow, she got to her feet and staggered home.

#

At night she lay in a stupor, coughing and shivering, her head heavy as stone. Visions of Koo floated in and out: Koo beckoning, saying, Mal, come on! before running from her and disappearing over a cliff; Koo striding towards her, naked and shrunken, head grizzled, mouth sneering. Miss Goody Two-Shoes, she spat. Teacher’s Pet. Coward. Mal recoiled. She was looking at herself—Koo’s hideous sketch of her come to life. A thin arm darted towards her. Fingers wrapped around her shoulder. Mal screamed and writhed in the dark. The grip on her shoulder tightened. Amma’s voice. Your teachers have come, Mal. Can you sit up?

A rustling sound and a rush of chill air as the blanket was pulled from her. Sister Eliza and Mother Cecilia emerged, their faces tilted towards each other and looking down as if from a great height. A damp, heavy hand, Mother Cecilia’s, clamped itself over her forehead. You are a good girl, Mal. Tell us the truth now. Then you can rest.

Trapped beneath Mother Cecilia’s sweaty palm, Mal felt like she was being pressed into the bed, down to the Earth’s surface and further, through the crust and the hot, liquid mantle, where she would dissolve into a million particles. If I keep still, she told herself, if I don’t move, not even a centimeter, Koo will be alive.

You were with Koo this morning, yes? You went together to that construction site. That abandoned building.

Koo is alive, Mal thought. Koo told them everything. That means she is okay.

Why did you go there? Whose idea was it?

They want to test me now, Mal thought, to see if I’ll admit it was my idea.

Must be it was Kusumanjali’s idea, Sister Eliza said. I cannot imagine Mal being so irresponsible.

But then she should have stopped her, no? Mother’s voice grew stern. Instead she went along. The two of them, in their school uniforms, wandering around inside that deserted building. All the way to the top. And then, Mal, your mother says you just left her there. Is that true?

She tried to make her come down, Sister, Amma said shakily. She tried to tell her it was time to go. But Koo did not listen.

Sister Eliza: Such a stubborn child, that Koo. Stubborn and strange.

Mother Cecilia: Mal, why didn’t you tell Sister Eliza where Koo was? You just sat in your chair the whole time.

Amma: She thought Koo had gone home. Mother: Koo told her she was going home.

But she never went home.

Mal clenched her body so tight her muscles began to shudder. I won’t move, she repeated to herself. I won’t move, and Koo will be okay.

Mother’s heavy hand lifted suddenly from her forehead. Mal felt as if she were about to float up off the bed and clutched at the sheets to anchor herself. The girl could have fallen, Mother was saying, her arms now crossed grimly over her chest. Fallen or been kidnapped. Someone could have been hiding there, watching the two of you. It was a dangerous, foolhardy thing you did. And look what it led to. We now have a missing child.

The words sent a bolt through Mal. Her limbs snapped. She felt herself falling, hurtling, into a void.

The police are searching for her now, Mal. Are you sure you have no idea where she might have gone? Are you sure you saw nothing else before you left her?

The questions swirled around her. When she awoke, she was still in her room on her back, Amma asleep beside her and gently snoring. The night was quiet; a trickle of orange light from the streetlamp illuminated the face in the ceiling. The old man’s eyebrows were thick and bristling. Where’s Koo? Mal asked silently. Where did she go?

Under the ferocious brow, the old man’s stare was blank, as if he were seeing past, or through, her, as if she simply wasn’t there.

#

Two weeks later, Mal returned to school, arriving late in the morning, during maths. Sister Eliza beckoned to her from the doorway. You have become very thin, Mal. Come take your seat.

Mal went to her old chair. Beside it, where Koo used to sit, there was another girl, Bharathi, plump and smiling. I’ll help you, she whispered to Mal. I’ll help you catch up on everything you missed.

Mal opened her notebook. Her pen moved over the lines, replicating the equations on the board. Then she began to doodle. She tried to draw a snake the way Koo had. Soon the margin was filled with a lifeless row of coils. Bharathi patted her arm. It’s easy, she said. I’ll explain it to you after class.

When the bell rang, Mal’s friends gathered around her desk.

Is it true you went with her to that construction site? Lila said. Why? Why didn’t you tell us anything? What happened, Mal?

We came to see you, Sheila said. We came to your house so many times last week. Your mother said you didn’t want to see us.

Tell us what happened, Mal, Ruchi said. Come on.

Bharathi wound her sweaty arm across Mal’s shoulders. Can’t you be quiet, people? Sister Eliza said not to talk to her about Koo.

At lunch break, Mal sat in the shade of the tamarind tree. Her legs were too weak to stand; her eyes watered from the playground dust.

You’re ignoring us, someone shouted. You’re thinking only about Koo. As if she was your best friend or something.

Above her hung the fat branch Koo had jumped from as against the bright sky the tamarind pods swayed and twisted. There was no sign Koo had sat there, no sign she had ever existed.

#

In the newspaper Mal found wedged between the edge of the display case and the wall in her father’s shop, Koo’s face looked blurry, more a smudged charcoal sketch than a photograph. Mal unfolded the paper slowly so her father, in the backroom, wouldn’t hear the rustle. The report was brief, a follow up to the story a month earlier about the girl whose body was found in the basement of a construction site. The developer who had acquired the abandoned building and was planning a demolition complained that the authorities were simply dragging their feet with the permitting process, that given the number of uninhabited, decaying structures in the city, it was only a matter of time before another such tragedy occurred.

I told you to fill the pens, Mal.

Appa’s voice, unusually sharp, made her turn with a cry. He was standing behind her with a box of rulers tucked under one arm. With his free hand, he beckoned for the newspaper, which she refolded with trembling fingers before relinquishing. His jaw worked as he studied her, and she hung her head in anticipation of a blow, despite the fact that it was Amma who spanked and never he.

You cannot keep going in circles, Mal, he said at last. You have to move forward.

#

From the gate, some months later, the bungalow looked suddenly small—an old toy house with a dusty red roof. Mal waited with her hand on the latch. She would count to twenty, she told herself. After that, if the green door remained closed, she would turn around and go home and tell her parents she’d tried.

A hoarse voice called her name—Koo’s grandmother approaching from across the street. Like the bungalow, she too seemed to have shrunk, a bent twig wrapped voluminously in mustard silk.

Come in, Mal, and have a cup of tea.

The living room had been stripped of its clutter. Not a single painting or lamp remained, only two metal folding chairs facing each other in the middle of the floor. Koo’s grandmother returned with a laden tray, her gaunt hands shaking as she carried it. Put it on the ground, she said, and Mal took the burden from her. A pair of steaming cups rattled against a plate of butter biscuits. As she sipped the cardamom-scented tea, Mal’s eyes wandered to the ceiling, where a crack meandered like a river. Above it lay Koo’s room: the little bed, the desk and chair, the mess of drawing materials. Mal swallowed. The biscuit stuck in her throat.

Your father is worried about you, Mal. He told me you’re not sleeping properly, not eating. It’s affecting your studies, he said.

Mal nodded.

What are your future plans? What do you want to become?

An engineer, Aunty. Or a lawyer.

Such a practical child you are.

Mal held the cooling teacup in her lap. Fragments of her prepared speech drifted through her mind: I should have stopped Koo from climbing… I don’t know why we climbed. Koo’s grandmother wants to see you, her parents had said the previous evening when she got home from tuitions. She came all the way. It’s only right that you should go visit her.

Koo wasn’t practical at all, the old woman was saying. Koo was a dreamer. Always in her own world, drawing, painting, reading. My friends told me I was being too lenient with her. She has to learn to study, they kept saying. Otherwise, how will she get into a good college? How will she go on to support herself? Youngsters her age are going to tuitions every day before school, studying four, five hours every evening, and your granddaughter is busy drawing pictures? How is she going to compete? I tried to tell her, many times, Koo, you have to put away your sketchbook. Koo, exams are coming, you have to study. But she would never listen. So, I just let her be. Whatever makes her happy, I thought, let her do—the child has lost her parents, after all. When Koo told me about you, Mal, I thought, finally my grandchild has a role model, someone who will be a good influence on her. That afternoon, when the two of you played here—after you went home, Koo was so excited. Smiling the whole time, refusing to sit still. I had never seen her so happy.

Koo’s grandmother raised the back of her trembling hand to her mouth. Behind her, through the dirty window, Mal saw scaffolding—a new multistoried building rising from the rubble of the neighboring bungalow. She looked away and tried to recall her speech.

Tell me something, Mal. Why did you want to be friends with Koo?

Aunty?

Why were you drawn to a dreamer like Koo?

I like—liked—her, Aunty. I want to be like her.

You want to be a dreamer? Really?

Mal considered this. Yes, Aunty, she said.

I have something for you. Wait.

The old woman shuffled into the neighboring room and returned with a large envelope. Inside were the two halves of the portrait: Mal’s head and her naked body, rendered in Koo’s wild, black strokes. With fingers that shook, Mal pushed them back into the envelope and closed it.

I’m packing up the house and going away, Mal, to live with my son. In Australia. He’s worried about my being here alone.

Mal nodded slowly and clutched the envelope tight.

Will you please tell your father goodbye from me?

You’re not coming back, Aunty?

Traveling is difficult at my age, Mal. When I moved here forty years ago, all this area was still mostly forest. I saw snakes, peacocks, langurs. Now it’s a boomtown. I don’t recognize it any more.

I’m—I’m sorry, Aunty.

Sorry for what, Mal?

Mal shook her head.

Koo’s grandmother came closer, and when she spoke her voice was a husky whisper. Not all of us can afford to be dreamers, Mal. You are an only child—it will be up to you to support your parents in their old age, yes?

Yes, Aunty.

Go then. The old woman rested a gnarled hand on Mal’s head. Go, and do well.

#

A wall, an edifice of bright orange, rose before the girls. It enclosed a building painted in a similar shade, with windows, fifteen staggered rows of them, bordered in green. To Mal they appeared to be descending endlessly, the bottom row about to drop out of sight. She stood at the gate with her friends, beside an empty watchman’s kiosk.

It’s unlocked, Sheila whispered as she pushed the gate open. Final exams had concluded that afternoon. At the sound of the last bell, the girls had sprinted from the classroom like caged animals set free. Mal and her friends headed to the market, to a new café, sprouted from the remains of a cobbler’s shack, serving crispy chicken burgers and fountain Pepsi. The girls pooled their money and crowded around a single table. Let’s go somewhere, someone said excitedly. Let’s go exploring somewhere. That new apartment complex—luxury style, swimming pool and all—near Wodeyar Lake. We can go by bus.

Swimming pool? someone said. We have so many water shortages. How will they fill a swimming pool?

Mal, you’ll come? Is it okay?

It might be too much for her.

I’ll come, Mal said. She’d done well that morning, she knew, on her history exam, which she’d concluded with a two-page essay crammed with facts and dates about the fall of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the East India Trading Company. I’ll come. Let’s go.

The girls trooped down a broad concrete path to a lobby paved in orange and red tiles. So posh, Ruchi murmured. Like a hotel.

They climbed. There was no smell of wet cement, only of fresh paint. Mal led the way. She could have been chasing Koo—Koo with her light run, her hand resting now and then on the brass rail, her head bobbing in and out of view as she turned corners. Slow down! her friends called. Wait for us! At the top, she stumbled onto the terrace and bent over to catch her breath. The others joined her, and together they surveyed the world around them, their skirts billowing about their legs. A water tower hovered above a cluster of houses like an alien spaceship come to land. A line of high rises marked the end of a patch of rice fields; elsewhere, bare red land was giving rise to pillars: iron rods rooted in concrete and swaying in the wind. Mal moved away from her friends and started to spin. She stopped after a few turns, stared at her feet, and waited for the world to right itself. Then she tried again, arms spread wide. The world sped past. She heard her friends calling her name and felt something rising within her, both laugher and scream.

A male voice made the girls start. They turned to see a man in khaki carrying a baton. Residents only, the watchman barked in Kannada. Get out now.

We’ll go, Mal told him, catching her breath. Just a minute.

The watchman glowered. The girls took their time observing the view from different angles. Then Mal led them away, sauntering as if she owned the place, down the stairs, through the lobby, and out into the brilliant heat.

 

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