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No. 39—Mythili

For as long as I can remember, Mythili has said she was going to leave. Even when we were children, she would tell Kumar and me that she was leaving the next day and we would never see her again. I would shake her hand and wish her all the best in her future endeavours while Kumar would cry, refusing to stop until she promised not to go. This time, Mythili didn’t say anything. She just packed her clothes in a big shopper bag and got Rs. 1200/- from our grandmother, though Kumar thought she had probably stolen it from the servants.

“But where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m leaving,” said Mythili.

“How?” said Kumar.

“I don’t know,” said Mythili. “But I’m leaving.”

The servants smiled at her bag like she was a small child, eager to go to school. What is all this? they said. You just got here. And Mythili would say no, I did not just get here. You tell me how long I have been here. If they asked her what she was going to do over there anyway, she said over where, as if she hoped they might know. But they just smiled and said be here. Be here with your grandmother. After that Mythili started hitting them with her bag when they said anything. She aimed for their faces, saying she would break their teeth, she would break their teeth and then she would see how they smiled.

She carried the money in her bra. Every so often she pulled it out and counted it, to make sure it was all still there. She said she didn’t really care about the bag. As long as she had the money, she could leave.

“But how are you going to do it,” asked Kumar.

“It won’t be easy,” said Mythili and we agreed, it would not be easy. Later, when we were alone, Kumar told me that she would probably just end up in the toilet or the front room a few days later, her mouth stuffed with fish bones and pneumonia. Or maybe she would come back with rabies. Maybe she’d be pregnant with money plants. He was sure something like that was going to happen to her.

When we were young, we would always get lost in the house. Quietly but suddenly, we would find ourselves in rooms or corridors that had not been there before. Unfamiliar clothing hung on chairs or lay neatly folded on beds that we did not recognize. Sometimes there would be a half-empty tumbler of water on a desk, a book or a pile of loose change. Windows looked out on places we did not know. Even the sun and the trees looked strange. When this happened, there was nothing to do but wait until the house shook itself out and we were put back, a few hours later, with no one noticing we were gone.

Kumar told Mythili that this would probably happen to her, though it had not happened to any of us in a while.

“You won’t be able to do shit then,” he whispered. He had taken to whispering whenever he spoke about Mythili leaving because he was scared something might happen to him.

Mythili shrugged. It did not matter. She was leaving. She would run before the house could do anything. She would jump through a fucking window if she had to.

“What if you can’t,” whispered Kumar.

“You don’t even know what place that is,” I said, in a half-whisper, because I was scared too.

Mythili shrugged again and pulled out the wad of bills. She counted them, folded them carefully, and put them back in her bra. They were all still there. They hadn’t disappeared or turned into feathers.

That has to mean something, I thought to myself.

A cyclone brought a steady, ordinary rain that fell on all the houses in the village, not just ours. A large pot of kozhambu was made, brimming with gourds, pumpkin, cumin, and garlic. It was re-heated for every meal, even though Kumar and I gave strict instructions for it to be thrown out because we thought it was disgusting. The radio started giving a slight electric shock from the volume knob. Mythili told us that she had decided to leave on Friday. Kumar said she would probably get raped or there might be a flood. We watched her count her money again. She asked us if we would help her, if something should happen, but we said no.

Someone began saying that there had been blankets, possibly from North India, and that we had always brought them out during the monsoons. Surely we remembered them! Surely we remembered all the laughter, the deep-fried snacks and English novels of those sleepy, sweet monsoons. From there, it was easy to say things like oh, your grandmother might need some extra blankets in this rain, she might get cold. We will have ginger tea and vadai! We will read old Tinkle magazines and play Antakshari! It was strong enough to make Kumar and I set out to find these blankets. Mythili would not come.

Thankfully, it did not last long. After a cursory look in one of the wardrobes which held nothing but two old newspapers, a broken pen, and the husks of dead spiders, we realized what had happened and stopped looking. We are stupid, I said. There were never any fucking blankets. No one is going to make vadai. She’s the last person in the world who needs a fucking blanket, for fuck’s sake!! Why do we keep doing shit like this? Kumar gently blew on the spider husks and watched them dance into the back of the cupboard.

We thought about how Mythili did not come to look for blankets. And then we thought about how once, a long time ago, Mythili used to have a job. She had stayed in Chennai, in a cramped, overpriced PG that gave her a cot and tea and nothing else. She used a computer, took buses, bought herself Maggi noodles and sanitary napkins. When she came to visit, she seemed glossy and indestructible. She said we should both come to Chennai, like that was an easy thing to do. You can get jobs and we can all live in the city together, it’s not that hard, especially if you know English. She had brought us sachets of pizza seasoning and said we should eat it on bread with a little ghee and salt.

And then, she had left. Kumar and I watched her walk through the front door, then the gate, and then she disappeared down the road like everyone else. We did not find her revolving in another room, trying to find the front door. She did not reappear a few hours later in the kitchen or the back room.

Later that evening, we imagined that she had reached her PG and had eaten rice, rasam, and a boiled egg for dinner. We imagined her talking to people in banks, fighting with auto drivers, her lungs gently darkening with the polluted air of the city. We imagined her doing everyday things, extraordinary things, anything we could think of. We imagined her as often as we could. For a while, it was our favourite thing to do.

Mythili sat in the front room, clutching her bag and sobbing. Sometimes she covered her eyes with both hands and sometimes she beat her forehead with clenched, white fists. She had missed Friday. She had been sitting here, checking the calendar and the time, making reminder notes, waiting for Friday, and somehow she had missed it. She was still here. She was so angry that she almost ripped up her money. But she caught herself with a gasp, like she was drowning, and then, very slowly and deliberately, she counted her money and put it away.

I said she could always try again, though I didn’t really think she could. Kumar told her that it was probably just as well. It was raining, and people didn’t go out when it rained.

For a while now, Kumar, Mythili, and I had our very own city. It was in a small room that was originally used to store extra mangoes or coconuts. It almost filled the room, floating a few feet off the ground, dripping smoke, dirty water, and delicate trails of dirt. It had its own thunderstorms, big buildings, diseases, national festivals, and patriotism. It smelled like corn and unwashed hair.

Our city had grown near a damp patch on the ceiling. For a long time it didn’t look like anything, so we thought it was mould or cracks in the ceiling. Then it began to hum with the sound of progress, revolutions, and capitalism. It was only when the city floated down to eye-level that we saw the garbage, the civic unrest, and the art. We watched people have sex and drive cars. We watched as children let go of balloons and neighbourhoods fell into decline. We tried to touch things, put them where we thought they should be, but our hands moved through everything like mist. Nobody in the city could hear or see us. But whenever the boredom got to be too much and there was no one to fight with, we would come and watch our city.

I began spending my afternoons doing this while Mythili tried to leave. She usually just ended up in another part of the house, though a couple of times, Kumar had found her standing by the front door, convinced that she had already left. Kumar kept following her, calling her a stupid bitch. He said she was going to give herself a headache or something weird was going to happen to her period if she kept doing this. Once she threw her bag at him and he wouldn’t give it back.

I stood beside the city, looking down at the velvety streets, watching clouds gather then dissipate over expanses of industry and parkland. I could not picture myself living in a city. I was sure that large buildings would fall on me or someone would ask me to leave.

Mythili appeared at the door. She was muttering the word “fuck” and somewhere in the house, I could hear Kumar calling her name, calling her Stupid Bitch Mythili. She came and stood beside me, ran her hand through the thickest cluster of buildings as she always did. Mythili believed that this was some city in North America, where life was full of over-sized meat and dairy products and racism. She thought that if life had gone differently for us, we could have lived in a place like this. We wouldn’t have been happy, but we would have been okay.

I could hear Kumar’s voice, closer now. He was trying to force some of the younger servants to say “stupid bitch” along with him. Mythili turned abruptly and left. I ran my hand through a cluster of industrial towers and along a highway. On the outskirts of the city, it was starting to rain.

It happened after lunch. We were still sitting at the table, not letting the servants clear up when Kumar tipped his plate of untouched kozhambu into Mythili’s lap. She grabbed him by the throat and then they were both standing, grappling with each other. She began pushing him out of the dining room while the servants said what’s all this, but made no effort to intervene. Kumar’s face had turned red and he was shaking with rage. Flecks of spit and ragged, unintelligible words shot from Mythili’s mouth. I followed them, curious to see who would win. And then I knew it had happened again. We were in a room that hadn’t been there a few minutes ago.

It was small and smelled like damp earth. Through the window, I could see a sharp, dry sun beating down on a yard filled with bales of rice paddy and people I didn’t recognize. Kumar was threatening to break Mythili’s face, her teeth, her neck and she was yanking out bloody handfuls of his hair. I opened the door and saw a shaft of sunlight falling into a quiet front room. There were newspapers strewn on chairs, someone’s leg casually stretched into a ray of sunshine. The front door was slightly ajar, revealing a thick slice of a bright, unfamiliar world.

I don’t know when Mythili saw it too. But at some point, she stopped fighting. Then Kumar stopped, panting hard, and for a second, the three of us stood there, looking at the room, the leg in the sun, and the piece of that bright, bright place spilling through the open door. And then we watched Mythili run. She seemed to be moving very slowly, not making a sound. She kept colliding with things and propelling herself forward with her arms. We could hear her gasping for breath. She crashed into the floor and we heard the soft crunch of something, probably her teeth. We saw the leg, still extended into the sunshine, the flutter of the newspapers, and then her dark, bent figure slipping through the door. She dissolved into a thin smudge in that sharp, dry sunlight. We watched her until we couldn’t see anything except the gash of the bright world that had swallowed her.

And that was it. She was gone.

I came back first. It was a few hours later and I was sitting on my cot. I had bruises on my palms and my shoulder was sore, but apart from that I was okay. I found Kumar in the evening. He was in the front sitting room, his head covered in bloody patches. He said he was fine, except for a pain in his stomach which felt like gas but it wasn’t too bad.

Not much else happened. I visited our city in the afternoons and ran my hands through the thickest clusters of buildings and roads, watching people pass through me like I didn’t exist. I read an old copy of Lolita that I found in a cupboard. I listened to agricultural reports on the radio. Kumar dumped the kozhambu in the yard. He sat with our grandmother in the mornings and flirted with the younger servants in the evenings, taking off his shirt as if it was very hot.

We didn’t look for her. Kumar kept her sachets of Clinic Plus and I took her extra Hamam soaps. We found a half-eaten roll of Poppins under her pillow, which we split. When we found her bag, we gave it to one of the servants.

Sometimes, we talked about her. We imagined her on a bus, buying single Crocin tablets in a pharmacy, walking barefoot on dusty roads, developing cracks in her heels. We imagined the shape of us, this house, and this life blurring into something harmless that happened to someone else. We imagined her drinking tea in a cool, quiet place, breathing deeply, forgetting about us.

For a while, it was our favourite thing to do.

Kuzhali Manickavel's collections Things We Found During the Autopsy, Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings, and chapbooks The Lucy Temerlin Institute for Broken Shapeshifters Guide to Starving Boys and Eating Sugar, Telling Lies are available from Blaft Publications, Chennai. Her work has also appeared in Granta, Strange Horizons, Agni, Subtropics, Michigan Quarterly Review, and DIAGRAM. She used to blog at She's now at
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