I am seventeen in 2020 and I wake, daily, to news. A pandemic is raging around the world; we’ve been locked in for months. Black people are being murdered by the state. China and India are on the cusp of starting a war after the biggest confrontation in five decades. On our TV, Papa watches politicians scream at each other. How twenty Indian brave-hearts were martyred. Murdered. How our country would mourn them forever. How they would never be forgotten by the true nationalists. There’s a lot of talk about that these days—who’s the “true” nationalist, who’s the anti-nationalist, who’s the enemy of the country, a traitor. The words filter in slowly in my sleep. First as raw sounds, jumbled together and distant like the noise of a far-off crowd. Then louder, like a stampede moving slowly towards you. The sounds become larger and larger until they split from the jumble and become single words, gain shape and meaning. How dare they. The bastards. We’ll show them, won’t we? I wake and sleep and eat to news—the petty news that feels too monstrous to be called petty; the bigger news that doesn’t hit the way it’s supposed to. Eight million confirmed cases of the virus, five hundred thousand deaths, only rising.
On Instagram, people are posting selfies of themselves with cat noses. It’s cute in a stupid kind of way. The ones who aren’t posting are looking down on the people who are. This is white privilege, they say on their stories. Do you see it now? Do you see it? One day, there are pictures of nail-studded rods everywhere, apparently used by the Chinese on the Indian army. The weapon looks like a torture device out of Game of Thrones—all rusted iron and complex machinery with sharp edges. Later we find out it’s fake. But no one would’ve been surprised if it was true. No one is surprised it’s fake either—it’s that kind of a year in that kind of a world.
It’s 2020 and I wake at 3 a.m. and Papa and my mother are fighting for the first time in months. Of course, they’ve had smaller fights. The tiny ones that ended in minutes, with my mother spewing incoherent syllables, screaming them out as Papa slammed the door and tried to work in his room. She’d always apologise later, saying again and again, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what happened. He’d resist for a few seconds before giving in. No one talks of these fights later. No one talks of anything when my mother is around, and no one talks of her when she isn’t.
Sometimes we whisper small things in smaller groups—my brother and I, or Papa and I. But never more than that. Never enough to acknowledge how deep our problems run. Fractures that are held together only by our willingness to delude ourselves into a complete family. Harder to keep up those delusions today, at 3 a.m. when they are fighting and I wake up to their fighting. The sound filters in the same way as news. It takes me several minutes to figure out that this is personal, this is the war within the family, this is mine. My door is closed, but the walls are thin, so I make out bits and pieces. I spend half an hour lying there. Listening and not listening. Thinking, mostly, whether I should go get my brother, who must be stuck between them. My friends tell me stories of heroism—of intervening, making sure things didn’t get out of hand, sorting their parents’ problems out. I understood, very young, that this was not the kind of dynamic I had with my parents. There was an implicit understanding that we stayed out, we closed our ears and looked away and never brought it up again. At seventeen, I’m not sure whether the rules still apply—besides, my brother is only eleven, so his safety takes priority over mine, doesn’t it? The voices rise and fall again. I sense the first strands of incoherence in her speech, the breaking down of language. I brace myself, then open the door.
Papa is sitting there, on the mattress we spread on the floor to sleep. My brother is lying down beside them. Two silhouettes in the dark, illuminated every so often by the light of the TV screen, which shines purple and blue and yellow on them. The Prime Minister is wearing an olive-green hooded parka and a baseball cap that sits uneasily on his head. The weak cannot initiate peace, he is saying. Papa is screaming, just apologise, will you? Just apologise and get out of here, you know it was your fault. And then he sees me and says, now look what you’ve done. The girl’s out—just what we need, someone to start sobbing. Look what you’ve done. My mother is saying, I told you I was ill, why won’t you listen, I told you I was ill. She says this again and again. She is sitting on the table and cutting vegetables. It is 3 a.m. and I want to cry. I ignore all of them and call to my brother—come inside, I say, come sleep with me, you shouldn’t be out here. He resists for a few seconds before seeing the glint in my eyes, the look that says, not now. not this time. and so he takes his blanket with him and curls up in my single-bed. Neither of us sleep.
It takes me several minutes to realise it’s silent out. It’s been quiet out for who knows how long. Immediately, I regret bringing my brother in for nothing. Immediately, I hate myself for that thought. Tomorrow, I’ll wake up at 9:00 after maybe four hours of sleep and Papa will have shaved his head. Why did you do it, I’ll ask, running my hand over the smooth top, the impossibly large forehead. I’m so ugly, he’ll say, laughing. So ugly.
I hold my brother in my arms and listen to his uneven, laborious breaths. We should have called Papa here too, he says after some time. Amma’s been doing kitchen work since 2 a.m. and she’s turning all the lights on and making noise. He couldn’t sleep so he got angry. He could have slept here with us.
There’s no space for him here, I say.
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