The hall was full of sound. A stir-fry sputtered and released tiny bubbles, in a shiny pan on television. But the sound was a devotional song, a chant of some sort, flanked by violin and other instruments that were loosely described as ‘classical’. And the fans were whirring.
“Ma! Can I switch off the television? Nobody’s watching!”
“What is your problem, haan? Leave in on. I’m watching!”
Her mother was in the kitchen, mashing daal with her back to the door so she couldn’t possibly be watching. But her reply had started with a warning tone to not challenge the words that followed.
“What about the music system? Can I turn that off?”
A loud metallic crash resounded as a utensil was flung into the kitchen sink, empty from the timbre of it. The scrape of rubber chappals on mosaic flooring added to the cacophony. Amaine fled. Luckily she had remembered to put on her shoes before beginning the conversation.
Amaine was the youngest in her family. Most people didn’t see 37 as young. But her mother said, that to those who’ve seen you as an infant, you will always be young. This proclamation was always burdened by layers of nuances. There was disapproval, pre-emptive so it was extra fresh and heavy. Then there was a veneer of traditional thought with the merest whiff of punishment for contradiction. A thick sheet of glass covered this, seamlessly. It was industrial strength and bullet-proof and represented the conventional role that she was expected to play.
At the park down the road, Amaine had halted her stride and plonked herself onto a bench. It wasn’t really a park as much as a grassy patch bordering the neighborhood nalla. The grass showed bald patches in several places, just like her uncle’s head.
Satish uncle, her father’s brother; it was hard to believe he had once been her favorite uncle. Amaine thought glumly of his youth. Clad in jeans and leather boots, he had been a rockstar, contrasted by the foil of a respectable middle-class family. As the family rotted and died, his star quality faded and ran to seed.
Now bitterness issued from his fingers. It wafted around the house and settled on everyone’s mood. It mingled with her grandmother’s crumbling grasp of controls and turned into dark grey fleck. It dissolved in her mother’s chronic depression and dripped into their food and their television broadcasts. Even the music system acted up and spewed tinny cacophony instead of the usual melody. And each day, when the maid played her part in the charade, it collected in corners and silted the walls in piles of resentment.
Amaine imagined her house coated with the colourless, shiny layer that grew from her family. It was constantly being replenished by cast-off emotions, long rotted experiences and too-often recycled platitudes. She felt it clog her breath when she slept and woke up coughing. It got into her hair and sometimes her eyes too, and made them itch. It even made her cheek muscles heavy.
She wondered if it was flammable. It wasn’t washable, that she knew. She had tried, once when the maid was on leave. Scrubbing the corners, the walls and even the pelmet had taken two hours. But it made no difference. Her grandmother accused her of trying to steal her jewelery, her mother cried and said she had tried her best and was this what she was destined to have to listen to? Even the scented phenyl smell didn’t last longer than five minutes. Cheats, thought Amaine. She had spent fifty rupees on it and secretly emptied it into the wash water in the bathroom.
Then she had thought, perhaps it was an organic thing, a living layer. That made sense because emotions came from living people and had a way of multiplying in a manner that was exactly like life. The maid was regular after that (possibly because of the combined shouting by Amaine’s mother, Satish uncle and grandmother). So Amaine, at grave risk, woke up at 2:25 a.m. and washed the floor with water mixed in with rat poison. She couldn’t do the bedrooms where everyone was asleep but she made sure the hall and kitchen were covered completely. But this morning, the layer was still there.
Amaine sat back in her seat and put such thoughts out of her head. It was a pleasant morning, fresh with the ripe smells of a moving city. The stench never bothered her. It tingled inside her senses and woke her up from within. She drew in a deep breath and savored it as a siren rattled on by. She closed her eyes and drifted.
There was a crowd collected in the building compound when Amaine returned. Someone pointed to her and people started to look at her. As she climbed the stairs, she encountered it. It smelt like the layer melting and cooling – hot then cold and now liquefied and flowing out, down the stairs. It flowed past her but it didn’t cling to her clothes the way it did, within the house. And when she reached her door, heavy hands tugged at her and draped themselves around her. Three bodies lay covered with white sheets. Amaine noted how they were perfectly lined up parallel, in the hall. Nothing in this house was ever placed so tidily except in her own room.
The coroner’s report pegged it at food poisoning. Chemicals in the food, usually found in pesticides. Her downstairs neighbor had protested that there were no rodents in their building but that was attributed to crass, personal motives. Everybody knew he had been receiving prospective buyers for his flat throughout the summer. They looked at him with derision and at her with pity, quickly finding their hero and villain in the story.
When Amaine was finally alone a week later, she drew in a deep breath and was pleased with what she discovered. The layer wasn’t there anymore. A new coat called age settled around her shoulders and she nestled comfortably into it. Amaine wasn’t the youngest any more.