If Courage was still my Friend he’d call me Cowardly

This essay won the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2018.

The theme was Friending/Unfriending.

The judge, writer/translator Srinath Perur, had this to say about the essay:

“Archita Raghu’s essay ends with the thought of someday making a quilt from the memories of friends past, and the reader easily imagines that the essay is itself part of that quilt. Archita’s writing sparkles with humour and sharp observation, and even while being wistful never loses its liveliness.”

Amma says my first friend was a Shravanti. We’d babble to each other angrily, pulling at each other’s short hair, our eyes glued to Teletubbies. She also adds that our biggest bonding factor—apart from being two-year-olds —was our hobby of locking our ammas in bathrooms, latching it from the outside and then crying hysterically at their disappearance. Amma threateningly wrings her hand while telling this story and I pretend to know some Shravanti from some Basavanagudi apartment.

But honestly, my first friend was a purple dog who lived in the middle of nowhere. Amma dubbed him ‘Gorathma’ from ‘gorrama’ which means ugly, but to me, Courage was Courage. He walked out of the large box T.V one day and since then, we were friends.

AG loved the colour purple and sometimes I wonder if the reason I became friends with her was to simultaneously remember and forget Courage.

You look like a changeling child, you know. You have red eyes.

What?

My new fourth grade bench partner laughs at my expression. Her name is AG and her checked primary school uniform is neat just like her cursive handwriting. AG shows me the cover of the book she’s reading, it’s a creepy goblin-looking child with red eyes. I don’t remember the story or the book title but somehow at that moment, we decide two things. We are best friends and I have red coloured eyes.

Later, when I scour through Google search, I am certain AG somehow conjured that book from nowhere, written it with that purple ink of hers, drawing small mini circles above the I’s and curling the ends of the j’s.

G has handwriting that Ansama ma’am – our ninth standard math teacher called ‘cockroaches moving on a page.’ At that point the only thing I knew about G was that she liked pomegranates in her curd rice. When I finally begin to like G, I realise, She rides her scooty the way she writes. Spluttering and stuttering, clumsily riding over potholes—apparently it’s more fun that way— a pink helmet flashing before the rumble of her yell.

“Ay, Handi.”

“Handiiiii.”

Finally, G has arrived, late as ever.

*

AG and I laugh at Quentin Blake’s illustrations in ‘The Twits’ and then tear up a little with David Copperfield. We’d exchange the little stories we’d written, her lands had brittle bone trees with candy people while mine simply had black stick figures.

“Okay, okay now put your legs down.”

“Eh now uh?”

“Ya, bro. Okay one, two, three, together now.”

Giggles and snorts are tossed into the wind flying away far, far behind our knotted hair. We have successfully stopped at the signal, making it in time for the red light.

G’ scooty pep is some sixteen years old, has not had brake handles for a long time and requires us to put our legs down at every signal. It requires a certain amount of kick-starting before it sighs slowly and lets out a loud snore-like hum. Inevitably, I find myself pushing the back of the scooty with its empty tank on a long road with uncles in cars beeping and honking and giving us incredulous looks. It’s always a one way road and always somewhere near Majestic with our luck.

The way AG got me into books and fantasy lands. G got me into the need to discover Bangalore.

*

Image Credits: Luna Pic
Image Credits: Luna Pic

Okay, but would you take a bullet for me?

This was thirteen year old me to AG. During the dazed warm afternoons, we would stroll around ST Bed, prancing around, pretending the trees could talk in old English accents. Walks were best done during this time.

I’d just gotten into a phase of watching movies and reading books where soldiers would die in their friend’s arms after taking a bullet for them or some such thing. Friendship to me was the infallible I-will-take-your-place-if-the-mafia-gets-you. But AG knew better, she gave me a confused look, laughed. As always she was a million steps ahead.

I’d come to realise that walks always brought some news or the other. AG mentioned she was moving to America in one of them. In the following ones, G mentioned Ghtless, a creature much like Courage that had not been left behind.

*

Years after AG has left to the ‘sunny land of Cali’ as she called it, the layout of her house keeps coming back to me. A narrow hallway that smelt like church flowers. Sprawled on her bed, always covered with a purple mattress, slurping green jelly from a metal dabba, and drawing over our world map (always a political map, not the physical one) with highlighters extending, re-naming, and slowly deciding where we’d live together when we were old. Nineteen was the agreed upon age. Avonlea was the decided upon place, a small florescent orange amoebic splotch jutting out of Australia into the Indian Ocean. She had a wooden cross right above her bookshelf that I always stared at when I went to her house.

I am nineteen now, kneeling at on a wooden bench at Infant Jesus Church staring at a larger, older, wooden cross. My left thigh itches but I don’t want to make a sound. Behind us, there’s the buzz of people haggling, the smell of meat lingers in the air along with gargle of voices and it’s dark.

After this like the madwoman she is, G will take me to a temple, we’ll ring the bell and I want to tell her that the last time I had gone to a temple was more than a few years ago and back then somebody had stolen my shoes. Instead I busy myself with wondering about how I am left with the taste of tulsi thani that night. She’d then proceed to drive me to a mosque opposite a McDonald’s. We’d kneel on the paan-stained pavement for a second outside the mosque.

At that moment, I wonder if I will remember G’s house, running up to the second floor of the bright pink apartment building. The pause punctuated by pants —203 or 204?—I identify the house with its tiny, clumsy kollam that her mom described as kaka while winking. I always forget to look at the blue numbers painted on their wooden door. But I’ll always remember the chai that G makes, an earthy colour, purposely too milky, a cringe from me that triggered a laugh from her.

Riding back in the dark and clutching the chipped back of G’s scooty, I think about how AG was the smooth sly English, carefully peppered with commas, silky semi-colons and ahem-ahems. G was the rough, informal whack-on-the-back North Kannada.

 

*

When I talk to AG again, she is an atheist, has six-pack abs, short sonpapadi type brown hair, an interest in men and women alike and no longer has a favourite colour -it’s a very reductive non-liberal thing to have a favourite colour, she rasps in a voice I don’t recognize. I stalk her twitter and find her large brown eyes have turned into a dazed green, ones that are red rimmed. Contacts.

She drinks red wine now and no longer goes by AG anymore. It’s AF, she laughs- the same dorky laugh- god I remember those days, when people called me by my old name. Thank fuck that doesn’t happen anymore.

I ask AG if she’s ever coming back to Bangalore. She swiftly sends an email back. Says she’d never consider it, much less after the Bangalore New Year’s molestation and the Nirbhaya case. She sketches out this Bangalore. Small dusty gullies paved with shards out glass, drenched with cow shit and large hairy men waiting to rape you. It’s not a Bangalore either of us knows or remembers, but one that she’s certain about. Her Bangalore is odd, especially when painted with her new taut slow accent.

G and I are at Neelsandra, it’s eight in the night, and we are munching on masala puri and sipping on a too sweet one by two watermelon juice. Amma would lose her shit if she knew I was here. To her Neelsandra-Vannarpet-Eijipura-Austin Town was one giant misshapen mass of Diwali marandam, black, sticky, and best left alone.

When we ride to these places, the sun is an orange semolina vada sinking behind what G called stainless steel houses.

Neelsandra is the sound of little boys from a nameless school calling us ‘akka’ while stealing sooka puris from our plates. Vannarpet is where we’d perch next to a bakery, the taste of the cream buns on our tongues just by smelling them. Eijipura is the face of an uncle behind the counter of Mumtaz Fresh mildly disgusted when we asked for vegetarian frozen food.

It is on one of these trips, G proposes a project fuelled by scientific curiosity. She needed to know what the most popular drink in Neelsandra’s wine shops was. So, we stop at a place that was either called Adarsha wines or Ashwini wines. There’s the buzz of mosquitoes as we manoeuvre past ajjis with keys in their pallus and uncles clutching cigarettes. Manning the bar, is an uncle who begins telling us stories of working as a mechanic in Tamil Nadu.

Silver Cup whiskey in a grey-blue flimsy packet is the most popular drink in this area. Sometimes, when we pass this area I still wave at this uncle.

I want to tell AG that the Bangalore she remembers is gone and I want to show her the one that I know now. The one filled with rattling buses, husky conductor whistles coupled with distinctive sounding ‘rights’, the taste of too many watery peas from street side chaat and heavy friendly wisps of Gold flakes. The one that G and I have discovered.

*

Featured Image Credits -Luna Pic
Featured Image Credits -Luna Pic

G has wild plans. My phone buzzes and nine missed calls later, G says she’s outside college. I rush outside and sit at the pink stone benches which makes my bus stop. She rides in with a broad smile and claims that we’re going to a private island. I get on and she swipes my phone.

“Tell me the directions. Lagu lagu**

Three hours later, we are watching a throw ball match between high school girls in some sandy ground in Ramnagar. Hot steam from strong chai warms my nose and we decide to imitate halli commentators.

“The girl throwed the ball through net.”

“Ay it’s garlls okay. Not girls.”

I think about how one day, I’ll write about G’s dusty private island, the only island without water on all sides. Avonlea is at the back of my mind, a florescent blob, one I’ll never get to see. But I figure when I grab the words, I’ll write about AG’s Avonlea.

*

Paati often used to tell me about a friend she had in school called Tara. It’s one of the very few memories she remembers distinctly from her childhood. Her narration is full of colours, of nuns and school songs, and a girl called Tara with long hair and stitched much better than Paati did.

Something happens to Paati when she talks about Tara. She narrates a story of how their Hindu parents back then would not let their children leave the house till they squeezed bangles up their wrists and stuck a red bindi on their forehead.

However, the nuns at their school would glare and demand they stand for the rest of the day if they left the bangles and bindi on. A throaty laugh would come from Paati as she remembered their stone faces as they walked up to the convent gates. Tara and Paati would hastily stick the bindis on their arms and wrench off the bangles and shove it into their bags before anyone saw.

Years later, Paati tells me how termites had gulped away at all of the letters she had from Tara. The few to begin with were now bitten scraps with scrawled Hindi words mingled with Bengali that didn’t make sense alone. I think about this as I scroll through AG’s emails on nights I imagine a Tara with AG’s face on it. Several Gmail grey threads later, I think of Tara.

I think if Courage was still my friend he’d call me cowardly for still hanging on to memories. But I’d tell him, I’m going to learn to stitch a quilt. I’ll make one of memories of people I know but no longer exist. Ani who loved kissing walls and pepper rasam, Vai who loved chopping hair off and heck, I’ll make two patches just for AG and the newer AF. I’ll add the Courage who played along with my make-believe games, Shravanti that I left behind in the first paragraph and G in all her haywire wildness. I’ll make a quilt someday for these squares that float around in my head.

** Lagu Lagu is the Dharwad Kannada rendition of bega-bega or fast-fast.

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Archita Raghu

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