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February 26, 2014

The Inverter

By Annie Zaidi. Illustration by Salil Sojwal.

Exclusive Fiction: Annie Zaidi pens an unusual tale of a poignant relationship for Verve

It was the house that looked like a three-tiered white cake with yellow icing. At the top of this cake was a little wafer-house – an asbestos roof painted blue, pink walls, a chocolate-coloured door. It seemed light, un-anchored, so that after one of our famous dust-storms in the summer, I would rush to look across the lane, just to check if it was still there.

I was 23 and she lived in that room on the terrace of the house across the lane.

My own room must have looked similar from her perspective. Except this wafer-house wasn’t so pretty. My roof did not slope down like a wrinkled sheet that might have covered a princess. My walls were dirty white.

I had often thought of getting the walls repainted for I worried that when she looked at my terrace, her eyes would find no beauty. But then, it was a rented room and the landlord wouldn’t pay for a fresh coat of paint since I was likely to vacate in a few months. I was in love, but I was not yet stupid.

I must confess that I didn’t look across the lane simply to ogle. At first, I would only look at that little wafer-house-room, wondering how much it would cost to rent. Then one day I saw her climbing up the metal staircase.

She took the washing down from the line, opened the chocolate door and disappeared. When she emerged, she looked like a candy doll, with her chocolate skin and marzipan-pink striped dress. She bolted the door, went down the stairs and disappeared into the first floor of the bungalow.

This ritual was repeated at least twice a day. But sometimes, she would also come up to the terrace to spread out chillies and masalas on an old bedsheet. She would check on a jar of pickling lemons left out in the sun. Some evenings, she would drag a sagging khatiya out from the room and place it on the sunny terrace. Then two old women would waddle up the stairs and sit there gossiping until the sun went down.

All day, I’d hear someone call out, “Mary! Mary!” and she went rushing up or down the stairs. It might be her mother, I figured. The room was probably used as a store for laundry and old furniture. But after just one week, I found myself wishing that she lived in the terrace room. Like me.

For months, I watched her. And at night, my eyes paced the night sky. But she didn’t even glance at me. Still. I wasn’t slighted. Those days, most girls wouldn’t look at you. Besides, balconies and terraces were fraught spaces, where beady-eyed women stood around, ever hungry for gossip. A young girl looking at a young man would be noticed and commented upon at once.

It started in late April, when the electricity department began load-shedding. At eight o’clock, a screeching night would descend on the street. Those who owned inverters would have some light. Those who had no inverters stepped out into the garden or began to stroll in the street, letting the night air soothe them. There were emergency torches and even kerosene lamps on every terrace. After three days of load-shedding, we all settled into this new routine.

Then one night, I noticed a little pool of light going wild on the terrace across. She was carrying it up to the wafer-house. While she struggled with the bolts on the door, the torchlight began to dance, tucked as it was under her armpit. The silence was complete.

What she was doing in the room, in that utter dark, I could not imagine. But it seemed as good a time as ever to get her attention. The next day, I too brought out a battery-operated torch and sat outside, waiting for the yellow splash of light climbing the stairs opposite. As it appeared, I too switched on my torch, pointed it at her and quickly switched it off.

For a minute, nothing. Then a pool of light gathered at the window across, smearing itself untidily against the grimy glass.

I didn’t know what to do after that. I looked at the moon, at the street below, and sucked in the warmth spreading in my blood.

The next night was the same. She let her pool of light shimmy across the lane one more time, and went down the stairs. I too pointed my torch at her, turned off the light, then turned it on again.

We did this every day now. And every day, we upped the number of flashes. I returned her nod of light with light, and every day she upped it a notch. Meanwhile, the moon appeared and disappeared behind red clouds.

Then, one night, the moon didn’t appear. She flashed the light repeatedly, on-off, on-off, and without waiting for my response, she directed the torch at the sky. I understood. She was asking – Where is the moon?

I pointed the torch at her face in reply – There it is!

And so, we learnt to talk without speaking. One clear night, she barely switched on the torch, except to point it once briefly at the sky. The moon was like a roti folded in half. She said – Isn’t the moon charming tonight?

I said – It is only half a moon, which is neither here nor there.

She said – I like incomplete creatures.

In May, we were in love. One night, there were too many mosquitoes outside and she came upstairs rather late. I was in a sullen mood and so I didn’t flash my torch.

Her torch flashed a zigzag path across my lips. Her palm covered the bright yellow sphere. She was asking – Why are you so quiet?

I let my torch roll about between my feet, as if to say I don’t want to talk.

She waited until I looked up at her face. Then she smiled and pointed the torch at herself. She was asking – Did you miss me?

I pointed my torch at her and traced an arc of light between our two terraces, then created a little pool of light beside myself. I was telling her – Yes, come over. Sit beside me.

She switched off her torch and came to stand at the edge of her terrace. It was almost as if she was seriously considering it. She was looking directly at me.

I too switched off my torch and went to stand opposite, as close to her as possible. In the starlight, her eyes were like stars. If she had held out her arms in that moment, I would have gotten up on the boundary wall and tried to jump across the narrow lane. I could have tried to enter that house. In the dark, it was possible, if only she was willing to smuggle me in.

I gestured as much with my hands, making a bird out of my palms – a bird flapping its wings anxiously. She smiled. Her teeth were very white. She raised her palms too, making a bird of her own. As if to say, she wanted to fly across too.

I gestured again, making the sign of turning a key in a lock. I was asking her to unlock the door that led up to the stairs, which led to her room.

She frowned. I couldn’t tell whether it was concentration or disapproval. She had grown very still, hands still poised in the air. But then the voice called. “Mary! Mary!”

The next evening, she did not step out at all. I was sick with concern. Had she misunderstood? Had I said too much, crossed some line? I paced and paced until load-shedding time. But the terrace across stayed stubbornly dark. And so it was the next night, and the next.

I had finished the last of my MA final exams. If I wanted to, I could have returned to Jaunpur. My family was waiting for me. Mummy had already called to ask why I hadn’t booked my tickets yet.

But I stayed, haunted, lovesick. I began to sit with the window wide open so I could keep an eye on the terrace all day. But no clothes were hung out on the line. No chillies were dried. No lemons pickled. No Mary.

My kurta was soaked by the time the sun set. I waited for load-shedding impatiently. I even thought of paying a neighbourly visit across the lane. But what would I say? That I wanted to meet Mary?

What if Mary didn’t want to meet me? What if her parents beat me up? It was possible. No, it was probable. All parents reacted badly to an interest in young daughters. I didn’t even know if she had brothers, or how many.

The other option was to get into the house unnoticed. I peered at the main gate all day and realised it wasn’t impossible. The door was left open sometimes, especially when the presswallah came to collect clothes for ironing. I could pretend to be a regular visitor and casually walk in, past the gate, then fade into the shadows or run up the stairs, two at a time. I could go all the way to the terrace and hide until dark. Perhaps, she was ill. Maybe she had something like chicken pox and that’s why she didn’t step out at all.

I wondered what her room would be like. I saw myself pausing at the bedroom door. I saw myself standing there, at the foot of her bed. She would know that I was here to see her, bold, uncaring of my reputation or hers. I was willing to risk getting caught by her brothers – however many they were – until she gave me a sign that I should go, that she was not angry, that she would see me again.

But I was losing my head. My family in Jaunpur had some standing. Papa was in and out of the education minister’s bungalow. Mummy’s father had a stranglehold over the sarpanch post in her village. I was expected to sit for the civils. With an IAS-IPS future, it was unthinkable to break into people’s houses. The neighbours might file a police complaint. Even if they didn’t, they would definitely beat me up.

News travels fast in small towns. Kanpur to Jaunpur in three days. Everyone at home would know that I had lost my head over some Christian girl and been humiliated by her family. I thought of my stern Papa, my already sniffling Mummy and I decided against any rash action. All I could do was wait.

For a week, I kept a vigil on the terrace, torch in hand. And then she returned. But she was not carrying a torch. That night, she carried a candle. Shading it with her beautiful fingers, she approached the edge of the terrace. She was dressed in pure white, a long dress with a low neck and a string of pearls around her neck.

I could have sworn, the lane had just shrunk four feet. She looked more beautiful in candlelight. Her eyes black, large, liquid. A bit of baby fat around her chin. She had brown lipstick on, and her hair hung down to her hips. She stood there, letting me look at her. I knew now that she was mine.

I wanted to shout, to say something to her but words were an indistinct blur in my mouth. I could not possibly answer with torchlight. I needed to make an equally romantic gesture. I went to one of the flowerpots balanced on my terrace wall, and plucked a pink flower. I tossed it across the lane. Her hands flew out to catch it but it fell to the ground.

Her face fell. I shrugged apologetically and she smiled again. It was alright. Everything was alright.

All night, I tossed, impatient for the sun to rise. And at dawn, I grew too impatient to wait any longer. I brought out a folding chair and sat on the terrace. I was pretending to study but I was actually waiting to catch a glimpse of Mary.

I was feeling bolder, willing to talk to her in broad daylight. I wanted confirmation from her lips, not just her eyes. Was she really mine?

But all through that day, they called for her. Mary! Mary! Mary! The clothes, the pickle, the bed, the floor, the dishes. Mary had no time for more than a despairing smile before she rushed down and up and down the stairs. There wasn’t a moment of peace.

All through the day, I watched her rushing about, from one chore to the next. All day long, I listened to the tone of the voices that called her. For the first time in six weeks, I paid attention.

By the time the sun had set, a stone seemed to have settled on my chest. I had finally guessed that it was not her mother or brothers who called Mary. It was the voice of authority. It was the voice of masters addressing a slave. Finally, I understood why it was always Mary who came up with the clothes, Mary who set out the chillies, Mary who chased the sunshine with jars of pickle, Mary whose clothes were always washed and hung out separate from the laundry of the rest of the family.

By the time they began load-shedding that night, I was in a rage. Why had she not told me that she was a servant? Perhaps, the charade of torchlight was conducted because she knew that her voice or accent would give her away. You can always tell class from the way people talk – where they stand, how they sit. No wonder she didn’t want me to come over. Her game would have been up in a minute.

I paced, all of me clenched into a fist. But Mary had not shown up yet. When I could bear it no longer, I picked up the flower pot from which I had taken the pink flower last night, and hurled it across the lane with all my strength. It hit the edge of the terrace where she stood, and shattered.

There was a shout from inside the house and a moment later, a middle-aged woman stepped into a balcony, peering into night. I ducked out of sight.

Later, when Mary showed up, she flashed her torch towards my terrace. I stepped out but did not take my torch. She swept a long arc of light down, pointing towards the house below. She was saying – It has been such a long day for me.

I stared at her for a long minute, then deliberately turned around and went into my room.

If she waited there in the dark, I do not know. I lay in the heat and darkness, stewing and the next day, I got an inverter installed in my room.

I never saw Mary again. But if I ever stepped out of my room during load-shedding, I would see a candle burning on the low terrace wall across. This went on for two weeks, until I packed my bags and left for Jaunpur.

The family was as it always had been. Papa was still introducing me to people as if I had already become an IAS officer. He still made me touch ministersaab’s feet. Mummy still tried to feed me endlessly, still sniffling whenever I snapped, still barking orders at the servants.

Among the small crowd of servants flitting around, there was a new face. A ten-year-old girl called Bitiya who swept and swabbed our sprawling eight-room house all by herself. She too had dark skin, beautiful, busy hands, large black eyes. She looked like an elf of the night.

It was like seeing Mary’s childhood unfold. I watched Bitiya for hours, and one day, I found her hiding under the stairwell, eating a mango my mother had given her. I asked why she was hiding and she answered with a sideways air jab of her head. I understood what she was saying. She didn’t want to share it with her own mother.

A string of cheap imitation pearls around her neck and mango juice staining an old frock, she looked so pleased with herself that tears sprang to my eyes.

Suddenly I decided to return to Kanpur. I told my parents that I needed to join a coaching class to crack the Civils but once I returned, I decided to look for a job instead. It was a relief, coming back. Nothing seemed to have changed. The same room on the terrace of the same house on the same street was still vacant and I rented it back for another year. The load-shedding was still happening on schedule.

I hadn’t told anyone about my rooftop romance, of course. I had even learnt to laugh at myself. But I still felt a pang when I thought of how easily we had communicated through torchlight, how much we understood each other, how hard it was to be angry about the whole thing.

Two days after my return, the inverter failed to work. I had to pick up a torch to go to the bathroom, which was outside my room. On my way back, I hesitated. The torch was in my hand after several weeks. A strong breeze messed up my hair, soothed my skin. The air smelt like rain. I waited.

After an hour, I heard a sound. Someone was climbing the stairs leading up to the room on the opposite terrace. I saw the beam of a torch and the hem of a skirt. One by one, she pulled the clothes off the clothesline.

I don’t know whether she had noticed me or not. I don’t know why I wanted her to notice me. I knew nothing was possible. I knew I would never tell her that I had once fallen in love with her. And yet, I wanted to talk to her. Perhaps I just wanted to tell her that I wasn’t angry with her. Perhaps I wanted to tell her about Bitiya. God knows what made me do it, but I flashed my torch at her.

An arm went up in front of her face. I thought I heard an expletive. I turned off my torch and waited. But there was no answering beam of light.

From downstairs, I heard voices. They needed her again. Yet another chore. She finished pulling the clothes off the line and drew back the bolt on the chocolate door. After she stepped into the room, I flashed the torch on the grimy window pane. I wanted to tell her that I wanted to tell her something. But there was no response.

I stood in the dark for a long time. She stayed in that room a long time. All the time, a voice kept calling out. ‘Mary! Mary! Where is the girl?’

The electricity came back and I went back inside my room. She too must have gone downstairs because they stopped calling out for her.

Over the next few days, I hardly saw her. She didn’t turn over the chillies or hang out the clothes. I would listen all day for the grating sound of a rusty bolt being drawn back, a creak or thump on the stairs. But the silence was absolute.

Then one afternoon, I thought I heard something. I quickly stepped out and peered across the lane. I could guess at a wispy figure moving about inside the wafer room. Perhaps she was folding clothes.

I was about to call out to her. But just then, a voice from downstairs called out. ‘Mary!’ A second later, the voice corrected itself. ‘Rajjo! Rajjo! Where’s the girl gone off to now?’ From the terrace room, a new voice called back. ‘I’m up here!’

The electricity did not go off for the rest of that season.

Annie Zaidi is the author of Love Stories # 1 to 14. Her first collection of essays, Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, was shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword book awards (2011). She is the co-author of The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl, and a book of illustrated poems Crush. Her work has also appeared in various anthologies including Mumbai Noir; Dharavi: The City Within; Women Changing India; India Shining, India Changing.

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