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Kuzhali Manickavel
The Dynamics of Windows

When Prasanna looked at the Keerapalayam village road she thought of ants caught in a jar of thick oil. Sometimes she thought of wasps banging against windows but usually she thought of ants. The road neither dipped nor turned; it simply ran past the library as if it had more important things to see and do. Prasanna closed her eyes and whispered, “My name is Prasanna. My name is not Prasanna. In either case I am not here.”
 Last year the library had been the Keerapalayam Tsunami Relief Center and Prasanna had been the Tsunami In-Charge. She had spent her time looking after large cardboard boxes which she liked to think were filled with tsunamis. This year, the boxes had been pushed to the back and two metal bookshelves brought in, filled with Tamil translations of the Bible, water irrigation reports from 1972, and multiple copies of a book called Where Are You Going, Young Man and Woman? Prasanna became the Library In-Charge and her time was now spent sitting beside the window, watching the road absorb footprints.
 Today a pale, ropy man strode briskly between the cattle and roadkill, his cargo pants and sense of purpose marking him as one of the tsunami volunteers from the city who had forgotten to leave. He entered the library and placed a package on her desk.
 “We’re not buying any encyclopedias,” said Prasanna.
 “My name is Kathir,” he said. “My poem has been published in The Macadamia Review and they wanted me to keep these copies in my local library.”
 He began to unwrap the package, his fingers moving as if they were attached to invisible strings.
 “The what review?” asked Prasanna.
 “Macadamia.”
 “Isn’t that a nut?”
 “It’s an Australian magazine. They were so pleased to have a poem from India, would you like to hear it?” He picked up a copy and cleared his throat.

Your lips do not interest me.
Your feet are cracked and dry like the earth.
Your ears flap like an elephant’s
and you never have anything to say.
I am only here because you let me touch you
and your breasts are like
purple mangos in the sun.

 Prasanna noticed that his lower lip was dotted with tiny violet scabs and flecks of pale grey skin.
 “What do you think?” he asked.
 “Well, mangos aren’t purple. Has she been beaten up or something? Is it about domestic abuse?”
 “I’ve seen purple mangos.”
 “Where?”
  “Have you been to Goa?”
 “No.”
 “I’ve seen them in Goa. Anyway, this poem’s been published so it doesn’t matter what you think.”
 “Then why are you asking me?”
 “I’m not.”
 The magazines suddenly snapped and rustled on the desk, as if they were applauding.

 The next day a suspicion took root in Prasanna’s mind, something so aggravating that it made her shift uncomfortably in her plastic chair. What if the road didn’t go anywhere? What if it ended under the horizon, breaking off into a wide, blue space that was filled with empty coconut shells? Or what if it simply came in again at the other side of the village? She frowned at the possibilities. There were far too many of them.
 Kathir was standing in front of the library, staring at the sky as if he was waiting for something to fall on his head. Prasanna propped up a thick, dusty book on Rural Irrigation Techniques and watched him from behind it, remembering the purple scabs on his lips. When Prasanna was younger, her mother had said that bad girls bit their lips; it came with bad-girl territory, like letting your navel show when you wore a sari. This was why Prasanna had done all her lip biting at night, secretly peeling away neat strips of her bottom lip as she heard terrible things move inside her. She could feel monsters growing on her back, flicking their tongues and cursing her waist so that no sari would ever stay put. She knew she was doomed and people would call her Low-Hip Prasanna when she was older.
 “What are you staring at?” Kathir called out.
 “What?”
 “What are you looking at me for?”
 “Can you see me from there?”
 “Of course I can.”
 “What am I doing?
 “You’re staring at me.”
 Prasanna could never remember the dynamics of windows. Night, lights on, people can see you. Daytime, lights on, people can’t see you. Or they could. She sighed and put the book down.

 The next afternoon Kathir’s head appeared at her window like a runaway balloon.
 “What if I changed the purple to green?” he asked.
 “I thought it didn’t matter what I thought.”
 “It doesn’t. But what if it was green instead of purple?”
 “What would that do?”
 “Well, I thought about it and I realized that green mangos are more like breasts. Purple ones, not so much.”
 “Give me your hand.”
 “What?”“Your hand.”
 His fingers were cold and pale, as if they had been kept underwater for too long. Prasanna glanced around to make sure no one was looking. Then she placed his hand on her left breast.
 “Well?” she asked.
 “What do you want me to do?”
 “Are green mangos hard or soft?”
 “Yes. I mean hard.”
 “Does this feel hard to you?”
 “I was thinking more of the shape, really.”
 Kathir looked like a rickshaw driver with his hand ready on the air horn.
 “Maybe you should take your hand away then,” said Prasanna.
 “Of course. Sorry.”
 “I didn’t know you were talking about the shape,” she said. “I wouldn’t have done that if I knew you were talking about the shape.”
 “I understand.”
 “Don’t think that I usually do things like that. Because I don’t.”
 “Of course not. Thank you.”
 Prasanna watched him disappear down the road, his head bobbing up and down like a coconut on a swollen river. Her ears were buzzing with questions that had no answers. Why had he shown up at the window instead of coming inside? Why had he thanked her? Why had she let him touch her breast?
 “Why does anybody do anything?” she said, and the words hung in the air like a cloud of mosquitos.

 A few days later Kathir entered the library carrying a small plastic bottle. Inside it was something that looked like a piece of dried, orange parchment.
 “I wanted you to see this,” he said. “Sometimes a mother will conceive a set of twins but one will get flattened during pregnancy. It’s called a vanishing twin. This is mine.”
 “This is your twin?”
 “Yes.”
 “Are you serious?”
 “Yes, it’s my brother. That black dot would have been his eye. I wanted you to see him because he’s the only family I have.”
 “What about your parents?”
 “They’re dead.”
 Prasanna wondered if he had flattened them and stored them in bigger bottles at home. She wondered if he would bring these tomorrow.
 “Anyway, I’m going to Chennai for a few days,” he said. “Will you keep him while I’m away?”
 “No.”
 “I thought you would say yes.”
 “Why would you think that?”
  He turned and headed for the door, leaving the bottle on her desk. His head reappeared a few seconds later at the window.
 “I was wondering if I could touch your—”
 “No.”
 “How about when I get back?”
  Prasanna thought she saw the twin wink at her from inside the bottle.
 “We’ll see,” she said.

 That night she dreamed she was sitting alone in the library. The twin had sprouted arms and legs and was sticking its tongue out at her.
 “Do that again and I’ll rip you up into tiny pieces,” she said. The twin began to cry, rubbing its tiny leathery fingers into its black eye.
 “How does he even know you were a boy?” said Prasanna. “What if you were a girl?”
 The twin looked up and blinked, as if it was waiting to hear the rest of the story.
 “If you were a girl they would have named you Kavitha. You would have married a software engineer from California. You would have had two sons with American accents so thick they couldn’t pronounce their own names.”
 The twin giggled.
 “If you were a boy, they would have named you Senthil. You would have loved cricket and been a state player. You would have neglected your studies in college and fallen in love with a prostitute. She would have died of AIDS and you would have grown a beard and thrown yourself in front of an express train.”
 The twin began to bawl again, piercing the air with a wail that reminded Prasanna of old ladies in mourning.

 The next day was orange and heavy with the scent of lightning. Dogs howled for no reason and ants relocated in panic, carrying sprays of white eggs from one crack in the floor to another. Prasanna decided not to think about the road. Instead, she pictured herself dying in the Keerapalayam library, her mutinous soul slipping out of her ear while she took her afternoon nap. Her skin would fuse to her plastic chair and her body would be so furious it would refuse to burn on the funeral pyre. Nobody would cry, nobody would come except maybe Kathir to save a patch of her elbow in an old perfume bottle.
 The twin was lying face down in the bottle as if these premonitions were too overwhelming to bear. Prasanna began to feel a little sorry for it.
 “It’s not so bad,” she said, but the twin was unmoved. It stared at the floor as if it was contemplating something serious and permanent.
 “You should get some fresh air, might do you good,” said Prasanna. She went outside and tipped the twin onto the road. It skittered to the side and lay perfectly still, as if it was considering its options. Then it began to tumble forward, picking up speed as if it had decided on something. Soon it was shrinking into the horizon like a discarded plastic bag.
 “The vanishing twin,” said Prasanna and she smiled because she liked it when things fit that way. It was like hearing something click.

 Kathir arrived at the library window two afternoons later, unshaven and smelling like the unreserved compartment of the Day Express.
 “I just got in,” he said. “Wanted to pick up my brother before going home.”
 Prasanna had seriously contemplated making a duplicate twin but she couldn’t find any orange paper and the store keeper would not sell her an orange crayon separately from the box. She later realized she didn’t have any scissors either and decided that the matter was very much out of her hands.
 “You want him right now?” she asked.
 “I’d feel weird going home if he wasn’t there.”
 She placed the empty bottle on the window sill and watched as his brow slowly furrowed. Before he could say anything she grabbed his hand and crushed it against her breast.
 “Where is he? What are you doing?” said Kathir, trying to pull his hand free.
 “I lost your twin,” she said.
 “You what?”
 “He fell.”
 “Fell how?”
 “He slipped out.”
 “What do you mean he-fell-he-slipped-out? Let go of my hand!”
 “I’m really sorry.”
 “Let go!”
 He pulled back and collided with the coconut tree behind him.
 “Are you angry at me?” she asked.
 “How can you lose someone’s brother? Are you stupid?”
 “How do you know it was your brother? What if it was your sister?”
 “What the hell is wrong with you? How would you feel if I lost your brother?”
 “I know, but I wouldn’t keep my brother in a bottle like that. Or my sister. Also I don’t have any brothers or sisters so—”
 “You’re crazy, you know that? How would you feel if I lost a library book?”
 “I understand. It wouldn’t really be my book because I just work here but I understand what you’re saying.”
 Kathir was shaking out his hand like he didn’t want it anymore. Prasanna got the feeling that something loud was about to happen and she curled her toes in apprehension.
 “Where did you lose him?” he asked.
 Prasanna pointed to the road.
 “Which way?”
 “Either way.”
 “Which way?
 “Or you could try that way if you are very particular.”
 Prasanna watched him go and figured that if the road ended at the horizon, he would fall off and there was a good chance she would never see him again. If the road came in at the other side of the village he would return; in fact, he would have to pass the library. It could happen either way, she thought. Anything could happen.

[Read an interview with Kuzhali Manickavel.]

 

 
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