14. Agatha Uncle
Agatha Uncle was not our uncle. He was a knot of plastic bags, empty powder tins, torn sari blouses, pieces of someone’s thesis on the garden lizard and one bent fork. Mythili had found him in the attic, during that summer when she kept saying she was going to run away but always ended up spending the day in a cupboard or under a broken bed. Kumar and I were not allowed to see Agatha Uncle. Mythili said that if we did, something terrible would happen to us, not just once, but over and over again until we died. We could not imagine what this terrible thing could be—Kumar thought it might be religious persecution or diarrhoea.
Mythili would spend the whole day in the attic while Kumar and I sat at the base of the attic stairs, making obstacle courses for the small, black ants, tracing the patterns in the worn terracotta floor, waiting for her to come down. Sometimes we would hear shuffling noises or Mythili laughing. Kumar would squirm, saying that someone might be hurting her and I would say that she wouldn’t be laughing if someone was hurting her.
Things were different now. Now, Kumar was a man, with upper body strength, facial hair and a history of casual violence. He was in better shape than I was, so he was more confident about walking up the attic stairs. He climbed easily, laughing at the way Mythili used to say ‘uh-GAH-THAH’ and said that the idea of being cursed with never-ending diarrhoea was pretty funny. Agatha Uncle was in a corner, surrounded by bat droppings and drawings of stick figures walking down a dirt path that seemed to descend from the sky. Somewhere below us, Mythili was sitting with our grandmother, probably holding her soft wrinkled thumb, singing old Tamil songs or making up stories of a life where Mythili was successful and well-liked by attractive people.
“This must have been your mom’s thesis,” said Kumar. He was squatting in front of Agatha Uncle, prodding the plastic bags, running his finger along the edge of the rusted fork. He handed me a few scraps of paper and I let them fall through my fingers—I could see the word ‘calotes’ printed on one of them.
“uh-GAH-THAH,” said Kumar. He was standing up, unfolding himself slowly while clumps of soft, grey dust fell from his knees and hands. I remembered that Mythili had been reading Agatha Christie at the time and while she could never understand the stories, she loved the way the ‘a’s came one after another in ‘Agatha’. It was like ‘banana’, but much more exotic and dignified. She had told me this in a low whisper that I almost didn’t hear, which made me think it was a secret.
“How long have I been here?” asked Kumar.
“81 years,” I said, picking up one of the drawings. It was not very good. The path was badly coloured and the faces of the stick figures seemed to be sliding down the paper.
“81 years,” said Kumar. “81 years.”
We tried to bring Agatha Uncle downstairs but he fell to pieces when we touched him and then, for some reason, we couldn’t find him again. The plastic bags, powder tins, everything seemed to have crumbled into dust and disappeared. We couldn’t even find the fork.
7. Selvi from Canada
Selvi from Canada is here right now, at least that’s what everyone says. She has been very helpful in organizing food and has agreed to sit with our grandmother in the mornings, when our grandmother is more sulky and magical than usual. Selvi has also replaced a number of broken tubelights in the house. She is kind, mindful of the needs of elders, and has a great love for India, even though she doesn’t live here. She is making everything better, but Mythili, Kumar and I can’t see her, not even when people say she has just passed by or was just sitting right there. We see evidence of her—a comb filled with knotted grey hair, a folded book, the neat remains of a simple, vegetarian meal on a small, steel plate. A couple of times, we have caught the scent of her shampoo, which is very floral and sweet. There is a paper bag of melted Hershey’s kisses which she brought for us because she didn’t know what else to get and she felt she had to get us something. The servants show us the cheap watches she has bought them—one of their kids, the ugly one we don’t like, got a tablet and now the ugly kid walks in and out of rooms, holding it like it is an important file.
Kumar thinks we can’t see her because when we were younger, we were a bunch of little fucks. We had made her eat a lizard’s egg, saying it was a special kind of Indian mint. We had told her no one was coming for her, that she had to live in India for the rest of her life and sleep in the bathroom with the eastern toilet. Mythili and I think that’s just two things and they are not that bad, not really. Kumar thinks we probably did other things too and we just can’t remember them.
We can hear Selvi. There is a murmur, like a cooking program playing on a distant radio, whenever she talks to our grandmother. We don’t know for sure if our grandmother likes her more than us, but she probably does. Kumar says this is what happens to little fucks that grow up to be big fucks, without even trying to be something better or different.
Kumar is the only one who feels bad about the things we did. He has written Selvi a note, saying he is sorry for everything and hopes nothing bad happened to her after eating the lizard’s egg. We don’t think she has read it yet.
26. The Spiders
We find them curled up in the corners of the drawers and in our pockets, covered in thick, grey fur, their eyes clouded over like smoky marbles. They move slowly, tentatively tracing the lines on our palms when we hold them. They eat sugar and if you listen closely, it sounds like very small buildings being demolished. Everything, even the houseflies, tries to kill them. We find many of them maimed, half dead, sometimes abandoned on the floor, sometimes casually hanging from the mouth of a lizard or small bird that seems to have forgotten about it. Every morning, we go to Selvi’s room, open her suitcase and collect all the spiders that have settled inside the rolls and folds of her soft, sweet clothes. We have not gone through her stuff yet. We want to, but we haven’t.
We don’t think the spiders are pets, not because they are spiders, but because we know there is something wrong with them and they are going to die very soon. We pamper them and name them after Anglo-Indian boys we used to know. When they die, we bury them under the coconut tree in the back and immediately forget about them.
We only set fire to them once. Kumar showered them with kerosene and then Mythili dropped a match on them. We did not expect them to roll but they did, straight out the open door, disappearing into the small, dead field in the backyard. They wailed, but it was not very startling and afterwards, the room and the backyard smelled like caramel.
I thought it would be diarrhoea. Not just because of the curse of seeing Agatha Uncle, but because Kumar was just eating bananas, masala peanuts and nothing else. He wasn’t even drinking water, because he said he wasn’t thirsty and anyway, he was a man now and he could do whatever he wanted.
It doesn’t happen inside the house. When Kumar is inside, he is what we expect him to be. He is charming but physically violent with the servants. He finds old romance novels and reads out the sex scenes to us. He sings. He makes custard. He fights with us and cries to our grandmother, begging her to do something to us, something that will really hurt. He is filled with possibilities. He can do anything.
But when we are outside, it happens. Kumar and I will be sitting on the porch or walking through the small, dead field in the back and he will turn to me and ask how long he has been there, not like he is preparing to say something cutting and clever about his life, but like he honestly doesn’t know. He is suddenly very small and unsure about everything. The sunlight makes him look unhealthy, as if he is carrying undetected diseases in his gut and lower back. He is startlingly soft, old, and ill-equipped for life. And then I will realize that I don’t know how long he has been here either. We can’t remember where he came from or what life he temporarily left behind to be here with our grandmother while she died. Kumar feels he must be some sort of self-made man with a talent that helps him make money easily. He can’t think what that talent might be, but he believes it involves computers and wearing fashionable reading glasses. If we are outside too long, he becomes convinced that he has always been here and stares at the ground, trying not to cry.
We have made a plan. Once everything is over, Kumar and I will go back together—he will stay at my place for a few days and then head home. Whenever he asks where his home is, I say I know exactly where his home is and he smiles, like there is something to look forward to.
We have tried looking for the pieces of Agatha Uncle but we still can’t find anything. Even if we could, I don’t think we could put him back together again.
© Kuzhali Manickavel
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley]