Erasure by Tashan Mehta

When I left home, I came back to find they had erased me. My father had broken down the wall between the hall and my bedroom – like he had always wanted – and turned it into a study, with large regency sofas and a mahogany marble desk. He had no use for a study (he worked in an advertising company, from nine to seven) but he would set his alarm fifteen minutes early so he could wake up and stare at it in the morning light. My mother mentioned that it relaxed him. The expenses did not relax her. The regency sofas alone – built in the time of East India Company – were 3.5 lakhs and dragged them into debt with their antique dealer. Mushtak was a muslim, tall and clean shaven, his perfectly amiable eyes watching, steady upon his mark, as my parents traipsed around the store and bought what they could not afford. When my mother tried to talk to my father about this, when she cried and then pleaded and finally yelled about the money, about the space – for god's sake Cyrus, there is no more space – my father ignored her, then left the room, and finally returned, trembling at the accusations.


'But it's been our dream, Shirin!' he yelled and he showed her how the sunlight glinted off the polish and the mermaid came alive when the wood lit up. My mother stopped yelling then and fell silent. Their heads touched lightly and they stared at the sofas with love. I cleared my throat after ten minutes. After twenty, I coughed. At thirty, I warned them astutely about retirement: there wasn't much in their bank account. I raised my voice to explain need; about these desires that society foists upon us and which we must resist. Finally, I shuffled my feet and stepped closer and asked simply if they were listening to me at all, but I got no reply, not even a look. They went on staring.


So I left them and took the stairs onto the street, breathing in the heat. I could not help feeling that it was unfair of my parents to forget their daughter – especially for furniture – and so I kept walking, across the road and onto the pavement, narrowly avoiding a pile of dog shit in my path, and as I walked, I became determined to not go back until they called me. I would go to Rebecca's house instead – she would sympathise. Her nervous mother suffered from short sightedness, growing mysteriously glass eyed when Rebecca's brother, Zeus, entered the room. Zeus indulged in all the vices Rebecca was punished away from – smoking, porn and poker, all at the tender age of fifteen. But her mother's scruples sneaked out the window (or the door or the drainpipes, depending on the room) when it came to him and his halo – an inky blue – had stained her heart. Rebecca's heart was left cracked, and she cried, alone in her bed, pillow muffling her sobs, or to me. We practiced non-threatening abuse words like 'flower' or 'brinjal' to shout at Zeus when he least expect it, surprising him with our venom. The relief was slight. I increased my pace, dying to hear my words of solace whispered back to me.


But I wasn't looking where I was going, for there was a thump – unheard of in Mumbai, for you learn at the age of five to weave past innumerable people – and a man was on the pavement. I was apologising before I realised it was Pratyush – Pratyush Patel: I haven't seen you for ages! – with spiky hair. He asked me how I was. I looked different to him, he said. Shorter hair, of course. But also a less defensive way of dressing. I was overcome. I gushed about my parents and the furniture and he nodded wisely, even sagely, and said, 'It's a shame such stuff happens.' 'Is it a common thing then,' I asked eagerly. 'Maybe my parents couldn't help it? Was it some sort of epidemic?' He chortled at that (snidely, I would say) and I remembered he did not have a high opinion of my science skills. I wished I had not said it. Now there was a superior tinge in his eyes that reminded me why we weren't friends anymore. I used to run out onto the football field and yell his name, so that he would stop playing and come talk to me.


He assured me it wasn't an epidemic: just odd instances here and there. Natasha couldn't hear her best friend for a week. She could see her lips moving but no sound would come out. They played hockey together as well, and it was tournament season. Then Dave couldn't react to anything Jonathan said for a month. Did you know that Jonathan broke the news to him that he failed and Dave just couldn't care, or be happy or sad or anything. But he cried like a baby when his girlfriend talked to him about it? It's all very odd really, but sporadic incidents, and what is one to do? Move on, probably; one must always move on. And, with that, he patted me on the shoulder and I said goodbye, and he stopped suddenly and asked why we had stopped being friends. He just wanted to know, you know. He stared at me steadily. I felt bad to tell him the truth – that he'd goaded me into it – so I said no reason, just life really, all that moving on. And I left him – two more lanes till Rebecca's house – wondering if my parents would call me, and if the absence would wear off or if I was erased forever.


When I found Rebecca, she didn't see me. I almost didn't see her, with her looser shirt and stylised hair. She was typing on a Blackberry Storm. When she did look up – straight into my eyes, thank god – I asked her why. What happened to the promise to never have a bbm 'number', to never sell our souls? She looked kind as I talked, indulgent, and said that if anything, it would help her keep in better touch with god. It was a joke. It took me a while to place it, and by then it was too late to laugh. So I asked if she wanted to come over and watch High School Musical and laugh at that instead. We could sit in my kitchen – I didn't think my parents would mind. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell her why, but she said, 'I don't mock movies anymore.' and I shut up. She was going to be a career woman, she informed me and there really wasn't any time. So much to – a beep and she was typing, fingers moving faster than I had ever seen. There was a new bunch of friends now. Career oriented. But also quirkier (than me), more girly and make-up savvy. Life was just that touch hectic. I stared at the ground as she talked, then looked at her face, and asked her because I had to. It took me three tries to get the words out loud enough. Had she replaced me? She stopped typing at that and stared at me. No, she assured me, never, because I had never been there to begin with.


There was a traffic jam on the main road, a pollution cloud drifting ominously above it, cars sitting bumper to bumper, just waiting. My mother used to talk about the stress, the road rage and the fatigue that sat in her eyes. My mother. I moved past a steaming pile of garbage, not really seeing where I was going, feet treading the uneven bumps in the pavement through instinct. It was like Rebecca to forget me. She loved me and I, her but our friendship had always been based upon her need: her need for solace, her need for advice. And the need had faded. It was bound to disappear one day of course. I crossed the road to avoid the leers of thick Tamil taxi drivers, staring at me from within their cabs – I had never been looked at like that before, like a novelty. I glanced at myself and realised my skin was two shades lighter. I looked almost foreign now. I hunched my shoulders and walked faster. But Pratyush was wrong, I thought. It wasn’t random events. It was a choice, to forget or not see or not hear. Nothing random about it at all. Rebecca chose. My parents.... I swerved to the left, ducking down under the canopy of trees towards the garden. I never really liked Rebecca. I remember the first time we sat down in class together and she asked me about 90210 and I asked myself if I wanted to be friends with a ditsy. I grew to love the jokes, but time does that to you, the trickster. Spend enough time with anybody and you’ll love them. It’s what all modern relationships today are based upon, really. By now I was striding, nearly bumping into people, no purpose or place in mind, just striding. I thought of going back to my parents and asking them if they would just try to remember me. I spotted the channa-walla across the road and nearly melted with the relief of having a purpose. I had bought channa, from him since I was ten, old enough (and ergo, responsible enough) to have money in my pocket. He was an old man with a life-weathered face but soft eyes, eyes that reminded me of my hunched and faded grandfather. He had given me my first loan; a packet of channa wrapped carefully, corners tucked in to not spill anything. I had promised to pay him back the next day and he had smiled, a two dimpled, generous smile and said, he did not for a second doubt it. He knew me. He trusted me.


He was wrapping up a packet now when I approached him. His fingers had grown thinner, knuckles now like knobs, but there was the same dexterity that I remembered. ‘Hello uncle,’ I said softly in Hindi. He smiled at me, the same smile he always smiled. I stared at the ground, ‘One packet, please,’ and then sneaked a glance up to watch him make it. The channa first, black and boiled. Then tomatoes, chopped fine. Onions – he was always generous with those – and coriander that he seemed to dislike, for it was always only a sprinkling. His fingers moved swiftly to the pots on the side, and he gave me a fist-full of chilli powder (like I liked it), and a smattering of lemon. No raw chillies this time. And then he wrapped: sides folding in, fingers tucking, the movement appearing almost instinctive. I must have existed if I can remember this, I thought. He was my proof of being.


He handed it over gently, and said, in that same mellow voice, ‘Thirty rupees, madam.’


I was thrown into confusion. ‘Sorry?’


‘Thirty rupees.’


‘But…,’ I shook my head. ‘Isn’t it ten? You charged her…,’ and I tried to keep the accusation out of my voice, ‘ten.’

He smiled the two-dimple smile. ‘No, madam. It has always been thirty.’


And I knew he had never called me ‘madam’ before, so I looked closer at the eyes I saw as my grandfather’s and there they were, like I remembered from my childhood, but with stubbornness in them, no dancing, no recognition, only business. He had looked at my skin and thought I was foreigner and that I would pay triple the price if asked, because how did I know any better, poor soul?


I knew there was one more place to go and I feared it, but I went anyway, because it was the only place left.


When I found his door, I knocked before I could change my mind. He opened it – and it was him, not his grandmother or maid – he looked into my pupils and I stopped being worried or frightened. His soul anchored me. And I knew he had not forgotten me, could not and would not.


I must have been more nervous than I thought, for I said nothing for a while. But he called me in, and exclaimed and hunted out all the chocolate he could find. I asked him, smiling, if I was some pet to be kept satiated with chocolate and he said that he couldn’t help it if I was addicted – sort that shit out, girl – and I laughed and ate what he put in front of me. He looked different in a superficial way, the kind of change that alters your appearance but leaves your heart in place. He was Vikrant, like I knew, and soon I could not remember why I had been scared at all. We talked about plays and acting, and being, and he made the same jokes he always made and I shoved him at the inappropriate teasing. It felt nice to be able to. As we talked, I remembered when I had sent him a text message about my crushing loneliness, years back, and how he had forgotten. How when he next met me, he didn’t bring it up until, finally, I did, and then, he looked surprised at it. I had cried then, for an afternoon, and told myself I never wanted to be friends with him again. With someone who couldn’t care enough to remember. I could not remember how or when I changed my mind, but now all I could feel was relief that I did.


After an hour he stood up and said he had to go now, he had arranged to meet friends, but would I come around later? I asked him if it was rehearsal and he said no, just a couple of friends getting high. He knew I wasn’t into that kind of thing. I asked since when he was into that kind of thing and he looked surprised. ‘A year now, probably. I smoke as well.’ I blinked. I asked him why he didn’t tell me and he asked me, simply, as he pulled his jacket on, why I didn’t ask. So I looked at the ground, then looked at him and my voice was stronger now when I asked, ‘Have you erased me?’ He paused at that, jacket on, keys in his hand. He was looking to my face, straight on, into my eyes and my pumping heart. He did not look surprised. He looked sad.


‘No,’ he said. ‘Of course not. But you’re doing that fine just by yourself.’


When I left the house, there were white marks all over me, sharp, clear slabs that sliced through my torso, and I was nearly in tears. I had been rubbing hard.



Tashan Mehta is a student at the University of Warwick, studying for a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She says, I write as part of my degree, and when I can find a spare moment, and I hope to write for the rest of my life.