Aarav hadn’t liked the art class with the elephant. Suman Ma’am had drawn one out on paper, then cut out its outline and traced it on a bar of soap. Even though Nani had said that the elephant was Ganesha — very strong and lucky for people, Aarav’s drawing had come out all wrong: the body was too thin, the trunk too short, the tail too long. Only its ear had looked good — big, shaped like a heart. Suman Ma’am had used a blunt knife to cut around the outline on the soap, then a paper clip to shave off the extra bits. Hers was a strong soap elephant that Nani would have liked. There hadn’t been enough knives to go around, so Aarav’s elephant had felt weak, more soap than elephant.
He didn’t like soap. It filled him with dread. Ever since his father had died suddenly in a road accident, Mama couldn’t stop washing her hands. He knew all the smells by now — rose, jasmine, neem, sandal — and each filled him with dread. He knew the smell of Lizol too. It was worse than soap, for its smell stayed longer. It was all over the place — on the bathroom floor, on the kitchen tiles, on the fridge, on the microwave. When it appeared on the bathroom door handles and on the plastic curtain rod, he knew Mama would occupy the bathroom more and more and he would have to go down to pee somewhere in the community park, behind a bush. How would Nani hold her pee with Mama locked inside washing, washing? Nani herself stayed so long in the bathroom, muttering all those mantras so loud she could be heard all over the house. She sounded angry in the bathroom, but always soothing with Mama. It’s ok, Premila. It’s ok, beti. You just don’t worry. Everything is clean, nobody will be infected. The gas knob is turned off. The windows are shut. I am here. Go to work. Go to office. Go, dear.
It was only when the class bully, Saurav, had blinked at him and laughed with a roar that Aarav realised he had acquired a nervous blink, quick but deep. Each time, he realised it only after blinking. He knew this was something bad. As it was, he had only Rathin as a friend — Rathin, who stammered so badly nobody waited for him to finish. With the blink, Aarav felt he would be even more lonely. Blink, funny guy. Blink, shove off.
It must have been then that Suman Ma’am’s eyes fell on him in a long glance during art class. He felt the heat rise in the pit of his stomach and suddenly felt what Mama must feel all the time. He didn’t like the heat. It was shame heat — no, not shame heat … fear heat. He knew now and didn’t like it. He didn’t like the fear in Mama either. He suddenly knew she washed her hands to get rid of the fear. She checked on closed windows five times because she was afraid. The same with the gas — if she checked the knob five times, nobody would be gassed to death. The checking didn’t help any. Come to think of it, she did almost everything five times. She even counted five before she switched on the fan. What was it with five?
“Aarav, could you suggest an idea for today’s class?” he heard Suman Ma’am say, “Something we could do with plasticine. We have plenty here.”
“Tree,” Aarav blurted out, feeling it rise from the pit of his stomach.
“A tree?” she said gently, “Alright, a tree then. Rajan, bring out the boxes of browns and greens. Let’s see what we can do with them.”
Suman Ma’am joined two strips of brown plasticine and rolled them out in her palms until they became round, then stumped both ends on the floor till they looked like tall barrels, full. With a blunt knife, she made rough lines in them that twisted here and there like the tree was old. Then she took small brown strips, rolled them out and stuck each one to the stump to make roots. Aarav didn’t feel the need for roots because they didn’t show. But he said nothing, for Suman Ma’am had come close to sit on his right and he wasn’t sure how he would avoid blinking, for it just seemed to come before he knew it. She suggested they try making branches the same way she had made the roots and stuck them on the stump. Many branches got rolled out but many also fell off the trunk.
Suman Ma’am laughed. Aarav saw how her eyes crinkled with fun, her red lipstick making her mouth look wide open like a mask’s. She said: “All those whose branches have stuck, let’s get some leaves on them”. Saurav tried to stick green dots on his branch as it hung, but it fell. When Suman Ma’am asked Aarav if she could use his stuck branch to put some leaves on it, Saurav blinked meanly at him. But Aarav’s heart glowed as he watched Suman Ma’am take off his branch and lay it on the floor. She rolled out a long strip of green plasticine and pinched it at regular points till it looked like a range of hills. She wrapped it around the branch like a snake, and stuck the branch to the tree trunk. The pointy green glowed bright against the brown. She said softly, “Sometimes we have scary thoughts that stick like these branches. The scary thought is just a branch that has got stuck. We can unstick them, like this.” She plucked off the branch and dropped it on the floor. It lay there like a dead thing.
It wasn’t till Mama had started washing her hands seven times instead of five that Aarav thought of making a tree at home — with sticky thoughts that got stuck but could also get unstuck. It would be time for the morning school bus but Mama would be stuck in the bathroom, washing her hands.
“Aarav,” she’d say, “Please shut the windows today. We are running late, beta. We don’t want anyone cutting the mesh and entering the house, do we?” Mama would still be in her nightie, her hair uncombed, her smell jasmine. He hated jasmine the most. “Okay,” he’d say and begin sliding shut the glass, his school satchel feeling heavy on his back. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven glass windows.
It was when he had to shut the glass every morning, and his bile rose every time on the bus, that he thought of building the tree. Though he shared the room with Nani, she did not notice him build it, nor the tree when it was done — a tree without leaves. She was too busy running around Mama. Aarav hid it in his cupboard shelf anyway. He didn’t want Nani to see him at his semi-open cupboard, sticking and unsticking bad thoughts. Hate the sight of Mama bent over wash basin staring at foamy hands: stick branch. Stuck. Now unstick and let fall. Let thief enter through window and steal all Mama’s soaps: stick branch. Now unstick. The branch fell, rolled a little, stopped.
Aarav used the same tree trunk again and again but rolled out new branches. It made him calm.
One morning, Mama looked sicker than usual and his bile rose at the second glass window. His satchel strap hurt. He walked to the bathroom and said in a voice that quivered: “I won’t close the windows anymore. I forget things I have to put in my bag because of this. I am sure Nani opens them all after you leave. She likes fresh air.” Mama looked as if she had been slapped. Nani reached the bathroom in a bound. She looked at Aarav first, then at Mama, then said: “It’s alright, Premila. It’s alright. I will close the windows myself. I don’t need fresh air.” Aarav’s shoulders slumped. He turned away, but not before he saw the confusion in Mama’s eyes as she looked at him with both anger and appeal.
Nani was a storyteller but she had stopped telling stories for some time now. Aarav especially liked stories of Mama as a girl and how she and Raju Mama would swim in the summers in an open tank, chasing the freshly plucked mangoes Nani threw into the water to cool. They were not to be eaten, but they were eaten anyway and the peels aimed and flung into the farthest trees. Aarav tried to imagine Mama in water without soap, but no image came. Nani now muttered mantras in bed. The night Aarav refused to shut the windows, she muttered nothing, just crouched in bed. She had put out the lights but he could see her tossing about in the dark like a small hill that moved.
“Nani … Nani,” Aarav pleaded. “Do you open the windows after Mama leaves for work?” There was no answer.
When he next used the tree, he didn’t bother to keep the cupboard door half shut. He knew nobody cared what he did. He rolled out a branch with angry force and pushed it hard onto the tree. Nani is bad, he muttered. Also old. She doesn’t know anything. It’s all about Mama. All about Mama. Nobody comes to our house. Nobody. We don’t go anywhere. Aarav watched the branch stick and hold. He made no move to unstick it. He stared at it, unseeing.
He froze when he heard Nani scream just behind him. “What are you doing, Aarav? What are you … is this … is this black magic?” she gasped. Aarav turned around to face her, his face wet with tears.
Mama was in the room in a flash. “What is it? What is it, Ma? Did you leave the gas on? I knew it. I knew there would be a fire. I told you we need to check. Not once but one two three four …”
Nani stared at Mama, her face so sad and tired she looked ready to cry.
She hesitated, then said calmly: “I have not left the gas on. I have checked it once. That’s enough. I will not check it seven times. Neither will you. I will also not be shutting the windows for you before you leave. I open them in any case. Suresh died, yes. But we are alive, all three of us. We need air, do you hear? We need air. Both Aarav and I do. Badly.”
Aarav turned away from Mama’s stricken face to look at his tree. He saw that its trunk was not barrel-shaped like Suman Ma’am’s but tall and straight. And all the branches had fallen to the shelf’s floor.
Neera Kashyap has worked on health, social and environmental communications. As an author, she has published a book of stories for young adults titled, ‘Daring to dream’ (Rupa & Co.,2003) and contributed to five prize-winning anthologies for children from Children’s Book Trust. As a literary writer of short fiction, poetry, essays and book/short story/theatre reviews, her work has appeared/is forthcoming in international journals (Setumag & Virtual Verse from USA; Clarendon Publishing House and The Poet from U.K.); in South Asian journals (Kitaab, Mad in Asia Pacific & Papercuts) and in several Indian journals including Usawa literary journal, Out of Print and Narrow Road. She lives in Delhi.