One day it’s here and the next day it isn’t. Somehow it’s spring still. Tabebuias flower, pink and yellow on blue. Today Lily woke to the news that a girl in Uttar Pradesh was raped and set on fire. She tries to make herself feel something, to imagine something, to imagine that.
By noon, the messages begin to hit.
One says: Commiserations. Are you cut up about what’s happening?
Thanks, Lily writes. *Thanks, I think we’re okay for now. *
She feels her heart get louder.
Then the signs begin to appear. On the third day the metro station near home begins to crumble, seemingly of its own accord. Ceiling paint flakes, settles on commuters. Rust appears on beams, then concrete hail falls. It’s concrete cancer, they say. It’s like it decides it’s done being up, Lily texts Mahima. Is the city actually made of mud, as that yogi fucker claims?
By evening the city darkens. Lily stands in her balcony at 4.30pm, trying to remember the last time she saw a sunset. They’ve had to save power to make up for the years of theft, or so they’re telling us. Her laptop goes quiet. No streetlights are left. In the distance the grating of a chainsaw.
Mahima calls. She should be on her way to a show in the centre of town. She never calls. There’s a fire at the Square. They’re burning everything they can find.
‘The vigilantes got my guitar,’ she says. She’s gentle; she knows how Lily gets with bad news.
‘It’s in the fire?’ All Lily’s breath, punched from her body.
A quiet hmm on the other end. ‘Yes.’
Mahima and Lily met at an outdoors concert on the steps of the metro station one evening, just before rain. Twenty people in the audience, friends of performers mostly. Lily had forced herself outside, had forgotten the smell of outdoors. Now she paused to stare. Mahima was to play guitar and sing, was setting up for soundcheck. Her hair was in a scarf. She wore rings on her fingers, lips, ears, left index-toe. This presented challenges for handholding but made kissing and fucking newly pleasurable. Steel against cheeks, stomach, wall.
In bed Lily still hums for Mahima the few ragas she knows: Jogkauns, Madhuvanti, Bairagi Bhairav. Lovestruck songs of anguish.
‘Where do you get all this anguish from?’ Mahima teases her. She has always been amused by what she calls Lily’s more mainstream impulses.
But they both love the register, the songs about lovers separated by rain, distance, cruel mothers-in-law.
Once, Mahima deep inside her, Lily, melting, eyes brimming, asked her: ‘Will you marry me?’
Mahima was so tickled by the idea that her giggles became contagious: ‘You want to marry me? We’ll settle in a 3BHK by the sea? You’ll be my tour wife?’
And so on.
Between giggles: ‘You could never marry anyone, my love.’
These days Lily settles into bed every night and feels her heart beat harder until she can’t remember anything. The single Kurl-on mattress has caved inward in its centre; her back keeps expecting to reach the ground but never finds it. It’s 25 degrees Celsius but the fan is on full blast so she can feel tucked in by the heavy blanket.
In dreams, boars emerge from an attic to attack her. They rush forward at her, rip her skin with their tusks, then discard her, losing interest while she lies, still breathing. She hears nothing but the thud of her breath, surely loud enough to draw them to her again. When she wakes up she’s lying on the attic floor, waiting for the boars. In another dream her family flees floods that have finally reached them. Lily, Nina, Appa, and Ma have located a thatched-hut relief camp, an old school. Her mother is always alive in these dreams. A mariachi band plays. There isn’t enough fuel or utensils. They’re pooling toy kitchen sets from the supermarkets. Lily scoops a quarter-teaspoon of dal from a tiny pressure cooker and looks at it, already used to this.
Then she begins to dream about one of the people stabbing Nina while she—the older sister—has to watch. In these dreams they’re usually together on their way back from a metro station or the grocery store. In the most recent dream Lily is in a mall. She locks eyes with her father. He’s carrying bags of shopping that she knows are undoubtedly for Rachna, the woman he cheated on Ma with. She sneaks into the long passageway that leads to the loos, so they can pretend they haven’t seen each other. She squints to tell the difference between the rooms. All three are marked with the same stylish, pencil-skirt-wearing stick figure. Inside, rows of mirrors drive her dizzy. The floor smells of pulao.
The river has become oily. By day eight, no clean water. Lily goes down to the store and fishes out a wrinkled ten-rupee note. It’s gone banana-soft from sitting in her wallet for too long, but she’s sure Vijay will take it.
‘Two litres?’ Vijay says.
‘Two-litre bottle of water: hundred rupees.’
Vijay watches her eyes widen.
‘No cash,’ she says. Red rushes to her cheeks. ‘Can I come later?’
‘No later,’ he says. But he hands her the bottle, an old, dusty thing, green mould growing in the bottom.
As she leaves the store, there’s screaming right outside, near the ATM. A woman has defaulted on a loan and five men have surrounded her, landing occasional blows.
Watching them, Lily wonders what she should do. What she can do. Then a woman in a brown sari comes up to her and slaps her.
‘Why are you standing alone here?’ she says.
Lily returns to her flat, wheezing as she carries the two-litre bottle up three flights of stairs.
By the ninth day, her heart has broken out in a sweat. Please don’t go out, *Nina texts, *they’re everywhere. Shruti wore a skirt while she walked to the medical store and word is that two men grabbed her and raped her. There’s no lighting in that lane, what was she doing? As if she should know.
By day sixteen, no music is allowed at all. Every instrument they could find has been burned. It’s Mahima’s birthday, and, before all this started, Lily had planned to take her to the lake. Now Lily sings* Jiyara mora pyaara*, Jogkauns, and stops when she cannot remember the words of the second line.
Mahima is home early.
The moment Lily looks at her she knows that Mahima has a song.
Mahima is hushed, fearful, her eyes slightly wider than usual.
‘I wrote this,’ she says, pulling chord sheets from her bag.
‘What the hell have you done? Get it out of sight before anyone sees.’
‘The fuck are you doing? You know we’re not supposed to be singing. Let alone singing about’—Lily looks at scribbled lyrics—‘My mons pubis.’
‘But I wrote it after last night.’
Lily looks at her. Brown eyes steady. She feels her breath rest at Mahima’s clavicle. Last night after dinner they walked and held hands. The bougainvillea from a house spilled on to the walls. Jasmine flowers fell from a tree. They found someone’s parked bike to sit on and spoke and sat in silence. Then they came home and fucked, for hours. Quietly, because they expected them to knock any time now.
Lily is alone in the kitchen. She picks over the dal, forms a small black mound of insects. Mahima is in the other room, singing a Brandi Carlile song about a wife: ‘Today I sang the same damn tune as you.’
Someone rings the bell, three times before Lily gets to the door, and they are already ringing again; it has to be a man; the ringing bell reminds Lily of her father.
She’s wrong. It’s a woman. Her sari is brown.
‘Come in,’ Lily says, and suddenly they’re inside.