1. It was a bird, a big one—a vulture?
He knew, the instant he opened his eyes, that Ma was gone. Rina Auntie was in the kitchen and he could tell by the way the dishes clattered in the sink. If Ma had been around she would have been more careful. He could not hear his father mumbling his prayers for the morning puja, nor could he smell the agarbatti sticks that welcomed each morning with their sickly-sweet fumes. Amma, too, was quiet in her room, the way she went quiet when she was perched on the edge of her bed, trying to catch Ma’s voice so she could start calling out to her.
But Adi knew before he could register any of these things. He knew from the shift in the magnetic field of the house, from the way his body seemed tense and restless, sensing that something was wrong, aching like a part of it was gone.
He fished his Casio from under the pillows and clicked a button, and it glowed blue-green, bright as a daydream, making him squint. He thought of the plankton he had seen on Discovery Channel, those ants of the sea that glowed in that same shade of blue. Fluorescent plankton, they were called. Or was it luminous?
Sitting up in bed, he shook his head and forced himself to focus. It was 09:24—way too late for the house to be this quiet, even on a Sunday. He looked around the drawing room trying to find a clue, but nothing seemed to be out of place. The coffee table was wiped spotless, its four wooden coasters arranged in a perfect square, and all his books were stacked neatly on the shelf underneath, just as Ma left them every night, often after he had fallen asleep.
Ever since Amma had shown up one evening, months ago, and taken over his room, he had been sleeping on the divan outside. He had grown to like his half-bed in the drawing room from where he could watch TV while lying down and sleep right in front of the big cooler. Ma insisted, however, that it was a temporary arrangement. She refused to let Adi think that he had lost his room forever. Every night, she battled the mess he created, hiding away the comics and homework notebooks abandoned mid-sentence, clearing out the forgotten glasses of orange squash left on the table, collecting all the remains of his day to restore the drawing room to its pre-Amma status. She had done it last night too, he could see, so maybe he was mistaken, he wondered—maybe she had, for the first time in his life, slept through the morning?
The monsoon-thirsty sky was on fire. Already, the sun was burning white through the thin curtains, and as the morning fog cleared from his mind, he began to remember things from the night before. He had been hoping to speak to Ma after dinner, but something had ignited between his parents and their bedroom door had slammed shut.
With all his years of practice, he had developed a special skill—a superpower, you could call it—to tune into whispers behind walls. In the drawing room, however, with the roar of the big cooler, it was proving harder to hear them. Turning the cooler off would have made them suspicious, so he had decided to give up. Their fights were the same anyway, like action replays of all the ones he had grown up hearing, with his father ranting on about Pakistani spies and ‘national security’, accusing Ma of everything from taking advantage of his ‘good nature’ to plotting to put him in jail. Through it all, Ma never shouted back. At times, when she reached the end of her patience, she calmly reminded him, through clenched teeth, that she could leave any time. His father often laughed at this, but however empty the threat might have been, it usually ended the fight.
With Amma’s arrival, something had cracked open Ma’s quiet, controlled face, and Adi had glimpsed a fury underneath, like a bubbling, popping layer of magma. He had tried to ignore it, hoping that things would calm down on their own, but last night, there had been a new edge to Ma’s voice, a boldness that he had not heard before. It was not a wail, a whine, a call for help. It was a battle cry. This time, when she had screamed her usual threat, it had made him turn to the wall and shut his eyes tight, and he had lain there until he had fallen asleep.
He went to his parents’ room. The door was shut. He did not knock.
‘Where is Ma?’
His father was still in bed, lying flat on his back with and arm crossed over his eyes in a way that made him look dramatically distraught. He had not shaved or bathed, or changed into his saffron kurta—things he did before 06:00, without exception, so he could do his morning puja. He cracked his toes and sighed, his hole-ridden vest stretching thin over his ballooning belly, but he did not answer. The hair on his chest and in his armpits was going grey, unlike the thickly dyed semicircle that cradled the shining dome of his head. Once again Adi was reminded of just how much older his parents were, compared to most others he saw at the Parent-Teacher meetings at school.
‘Where is Ma?’ he repeated, flinching at the sound of his own voice, shrill as a little boy’s whine. He was still waiting for his voice to break and he had been trying his best to help it along, hawking his throat in the bathroom until it was sore, or talking to Ma in low, growling whispers that made her frown and check his forehead. Now, his voice betrayed him, failing to hide the cracks that were spreading beneath the surface, fanning out across his body faster than he could stop them. Ma’s reading glasses by her bedside, her maroon handbag hanging on the door, the soft tinkling of her bangles—they were all missing.
‘Come here,’ said his father, pushing himself upright and patting the mattress.
Seeing his father’s eyes, heavy and helpless without their gold-rimmed shields; hearing his tone, low and gentle and surprisingly sad; Adi knew there was no point in pretending, denying what he already knew. A watery haze blurred his vision and he dropped on the bed that still smelled of Ma, and the flood came and swept him away.
When he woke up, he was back on the divan in the drawing room, and Rina Auntie was once again banging bartans in the kitchen. For a moment, he wondered if he had dreamt it all, but the house was still empty, he could feel it in the thick, muggy air. Ma was still missing, and now it was nearly dark.
He tried to remember if he had eaten. He must have, he figured, as he wasn’t hungry at all. Seeing the pristine state of the drawing room, he assumed that his father had not stepped out all day. He wondered if Amma had been fed—it was Ma’s job because Amma refused to let a ‘small-caste’ person like Rina Auntie serve her meals—but he could not bring himself to care, not today.
‘Choté Sahib?’ said Rina Auntie, standing at the edge of the drawing room, her back bent slightly in her perpetual bow.
‘Yes, what is it?’ He hated it when she called him Little Master. Could she not see that he had grown taller than her?
‘All done, Choté Sahib,’ she said, drawing the edge of her sari over her head and smiling her shy, stained-toothed smile. ‘I have made rice and dal and aloo—’
‘Yes-yes, it’s fine,’ he said, and instantly regretted his tone; he sounded just like his father. At least Rina Auntie had been nice enough to not mention Ma’s absence. She must have been the first to notice in the morning that Ma was gone, but she had simply carried on. She must have heard him weeping too, he realised, and he felt his ears grow hot. He was twelve now—in his thirteenth year, as Ma always put it. How could he have let himself behave so shamefully? This was it, he decided, biting his tongue and swearing an oath on Hanuman-ji, his all-time number one favourite god—never again was he going to cry like that, like a bloody child.
Out in the balcony, he moved the skeletal clothes horse aside to make room, and stepped up to the railing crusted with pigeon poop. How he used to love standing behind that railing when he was little, looking out across the trees that stretched all the way to the railway tracks in the distance. He remembered how Ma used to stand out there with him, telling him about how all of East Delhi used to be a jungle full of snakes and leopards, and how people used to go swimming in the Yamuna river before it was turned into a black stream of sewage. More than the stories themselves, it was the way she told them that he missed—her chin pointed up, her voice slow and musical, the edges of her eyes crinkled with a smile.
Now, the trees had all been replaced by apartment blocks just like theirs; an ever-expanding colony of grey five-storey buildings that stopped his gaze from straying too far. All he could really see from the balcony was the street below—a dusty, potholed road lined with broken pavements, littered with pink polythene bags and ice-cream wrappers that blocked the drains and made the sewers overflow every monsoon. The only saving grace was the lone Gulmohar tree that still stood tall by the road. For a few weeks every summer, it lit up the dreary street with its fire-red canopy, showering the pavements with bright petals. When the Gulmohar bloomed, it made people forget the heat and the filth below, just for a moment, and look up in wonder, like wide-eyed children longing to climb up the high branches and reach for the flaming flowers. Gulmohars were called Mayflower trees in English, Ma had told him, because they bloomed in May. Ten months to go, he counted on his fingers, and sighed.
Bio-lumi-nes-cent—the word popped into his head, and he smiled. That was the one thing no one could beat him at: spelling. He didn’t have to memorise the words, didn’t even have to know them sometimes—the letters simply arranged themselves in his head, snap-snap, just like that. It was hard not to call it a superpower, if he were to be honest. His all-time number one favourite book, obviously, was Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus. His father had once called it a waste of time, but what did he know about words? Ma understood. She had studied English Literature in college so she knew almost as many words as him. Way more than his father, hundred per cent, who had once asked her how many l’s there were in ‘application’. He may have been a super-smart scientist working for the government, but to Adi, it made no sense that Ma wasn’t the one going to an office, his father the one supervising Rina Auntie.
He saw it from the corner of his eye, just as he turned to go back inside, and he froze. It was just a shadow, a shape darker than the sky, perched on a roof across the street. It looked like an antique pot, a vase of darkness with a snake twisting out of it; a snake with a silver beak that shone in the dying light. No. It was a bird, a big one—a vulture?—and on its bald head, he could see a single eye gleaming like a lost marble, staring right at him. He had seen vultures before, usually on the highway by the river, but there was something different about this one, the way it stood perfectly still, its head cocked at an angle like a jeweller looking for cracks in a diamond. It felt like there was an invisible wire joining them, crackling with a dark energy, and it sent sparks right down to his toes.
Stepping back into the house, he slid the balcony door shut, turned on all the lights, the cooler and the TV, and sat down on the sofa and closed his eyes.