Mr Sundram doesn’t know that Lucia watches him feed the birds every morning. Mostly it’s the sparrows and the mynah birds that crowd his porch, but once in a while there’s a crow or a couple of doves. Lucia can tell Mr Sundram likes the doves best, the way he livens up when he sees them, the way he calls out to them and tries to ensure they get their fair share. Like a traffic policeman he holds one hand up at the other birds; with the other hand he throws rice to the doves, but they hang shyly back like poor relations being treated to a big city hotel buffet. Of course the mynahs and crows have no use for Mr Sundram’s directions. If those doves are too foolish to grab their share, it’s their loss, isn’t it? First come first serve, say the crows and the mynahs, and they’re always first. Their universe operates under one simple law: when fortune spills at your feet, it’s wrong not to snatch it up. Lucia knows that Mr Sundram has taken to sneaking out earlier in the morning, before the sun is properly up, slow-stepping, soft-footed, sliding the glass door a centimetre at a time so that he can stop it exactly at that spot where it sticks in its groove, then squeezing his body out through the small opening. He carries just one small cup of rice at that hour, and on the porch he calls out to the doves in their own language, cooing mournfully deep in his throat. The doves are somewhere close by at that hour — Lucia can hear them too — yet Mr Sundram has had no success so far. Only the other birds flock to the wires outside his gate, hopping and chirping impatiently, get on with it, old man, get on with it. Mr Sundram is smart with his dove rice, though, he’s not going to let one fistful go until the doves are standing before him, which is not yet. Not yet.
Lucia discovered Mr Sundram’s bird feeding schedule by accident. The first time she went out onto the balcony, it was to avoid her mother’s boyfriend, to whom her mother still refers as my colleague Vin. It has occurred to Lucia that she would despise Vin a little less if her mother would stop calling him her colleague, but she doesn’t know how to ask for this small mercy. In the mornings, Vin stumbles around the kitchen wearing only his shorts, opening and closing every cabinet and every drawer in his search for coffee, sugar, mug, and spoon. The things are in the same places every morning, Lucia wants to tell him, we don’t rearrange them behind your back to keep you on your toes. But she doesn’t like talking to him, and to be fair, he doesn’t seem to want conversation at that hour either. Once, after one of his first overnight stays, he stepped out onto the balcony, bleary-eyed, his hair sticking up everywhere but not in a dishevelled romantic hero way. When he saw Lucia, he mumbled a greeting and then went downstairs to smoke on the front porch. He’s since understood that the balcony is Lucia’s territory in the mornings. Every morning, he and Mr Sundram exchange desultory waves from their respective porches. Neither of them looks up at her, but one of them is aware of her presence and the other isn’t.
Your mother’s friend, Mr and Mrs Sundram call Vin. They too have rejected colleague. How are they supposed to ignore the fact that he spends nights at the house when he’s there every morning waving like a clown at Mr Sundram? Apart from this pointed word choice, they are scrupulously discreet. Lucia is fond of both of them, though she has a small secret preference for Mr Sundram because he stood up for her that one time they all went to temple together. Lucia hadn’t wanted to go at all, but her mother had insisted, said it would be hurtful to refuse when it was a death anniversary.
“But I didn’t know the dead person at all,” she’d protested. “I can’t be expected to feel anything when I never even met her. If you ask me, it’s hurtful for strangers to stand there and pretend. It’s turning someone’s death into a show.”
“We know Mr and Mrs Sundram,” her mother had said, “and they would like us to be there. That is how things are done here.”
The dead person was Mr and Mrs Sundram’s oldest daughter, Rajini, who had died in a car accident at the age of twenty-two. Lucia knew only the few details they had shared of her life: that she’d been a gifted dancer and performed her arangetram at the Temple of Fine Arts; that she’d been studying law; that her favourite Deepavali palaharam was chittu urundai. The photographs of her still occupy their places next to photographs of her siblings, and from these Lucia knew also that she had perfect skin and a confident, self-possessed smile. To attend the death anniversary prayers, Lucia put on the only piece of clothing she owned that she thought would be remotely suitable: a grey silk dress, knee length, the material fine but neither clingy nor sheer. But some schoolmarmish family friend of the Sundrams teased, in a fake-jokey tone, “Aiyoyo, is this how Tamil girls dress for the temple nowadays? Sleeveless and low neck and all? You came here to pray or to find a boyfriend, maa? At least a Punjabi suit or something like that would have been okay!”
Lucia doesn’t want a boyfriend. She has no interest in any of that, doesn’t like thinking about bodies and what people do with them. It’s not just Vin’s shirtless body that makes her recoil, with its uniformly thin layer of fat right under the skin. Her friends forward each other photos of shirtless athletes and actors, boys with broad grins and forelocks and sixpacks, and Lucia scrolls down the threads, taking in the other girls’ innuendo and their emojis, feeling nothing. Her heart is a pebble. She knows she ought to pretend, at least, because everyone expects these desires of a girl her age, surely she shouldn’t disappoint them, surely she should play the part for which she’s been chosen, but she never knows what to say. That day in the temple when she realised they believed she’d dressed for some hypothetical audience of boys, she found she didn’t mind. Let them think that if they want to; it’s simpler. What she really wanted to point out was that she was only half Tamil, that she’d never stepped into a temple before, that just because her mother was biologically Tamil that didn’t mean she, Lucia, should be forced to speak the language or be proud of a culture that was alien to her through no fault of her own. Why don’t you ask my mother why she moved to Europe and had babies with an Italian man and never taught us Tamil? she wanted to ask, but she could only give them her usual awkward smile, half defiant, half embarrassed. She’d pegged the person who had spoken as a particular type, and she had enough experience of that type to know that anything she could say would be used as sly ammunition against her: Oho, so you think your father was a vellakaran means you’re a pure vellakari, is it? Tamil girl, but cannot speak Tamil, what a pity. Without our language we are nothing. It was Mr Sundram who had finally spoken. “Is her dress the most important thing?” he’d asked. “She is here, that is enough. Our generation is our generation, their generation is their generation. No need for us to make funny-funny remarks about their clothes.”
They never spoke about the incident afterwards, but it forged a bond between them. It was as though the Sundrams had quietly made known their availability as a safe haven and it was up to Lucia to accept, which she did, by sauntering across the street the very next afternoon and many afternoons thereafter. Her mother tells her to bring fruit or cake or biscuits, or covered dishes of noodles or curries she’s made, offerings of neighbourliness and gratitude. Mr and Mrs Sundram are both retired teachers; it seems natural for them to supervise Lucia while her mother is holed up doing Zoom calls in her home office. “Mr Sundram can help you with your Mathematics,” she says, “and Mrs Sundram with your English.” Lucia doesn’t really need help with either, but sometimes she takes along a recent essay or test to show them. She shares her ideas for the group projects they’re doing in Science and Geography, shows them photos of projects in progress, at which they are unfailingly impressed: “Our time all we never did projects,” Mrs Sundram says, “each one studied alone and it was all exams, exams, exams. Nowadays you all are doing such sophisticated things. Critical thinking. Team work. Projects,” she says carefully, as though these are terms she’s memorised in a language she does not speak.
While Lucia does her homework at their tea table, Mrs Sundram surrounds her with biscuits, cakes, kacang puteh, tea or Milo, what would you like today, Lucia? She tells her husband to cut the mangoes, cut the guavas, cut the papaya too, it’s too big for just the two of us, better let the girl eat instead of wasting it. Mr Sundram peels, seeds, slices, plates; sometimes Lucia thinks he could start his own YouTube channel, Mr Sundram does pineapple, Mr Sundram does watermelon, Mr Sundram does rambutans.
“It’s so nice for them to have your company,” her mother says. “They must be missing their grandchildren terribly.” The Sundrams’ grandchildren are all overseas — three in Singapore, two in Melbourne — and now they can’t come and the Sundrams can’t go, for the same reason Lucia can’t go to Torino to see her father. The Sundrams haven’t seen their children and grandchildren for two years. Occasionally Mrs Sundram says, “We may never see them again. We are already old, and I don’t think this pandemic will end.” Then she smiles sweetly, more matter-of-fact than melancholy. Never seeing someone again: the first time you’re forced to make your harrowing peace with that idea, it crystallises. After that you never lose sight of it. Everyone you love will die: them first or you first, but either way, you will not see them again in this life. The time you would have had together without the pandemic is but a fraction of the eternity for which, one day, no one will ever again see anyone they loved on this earth. This, Lucia thinks, is useful to remember.
On their handphones, the Sundrams show Lucia photographs of their grandchildren: two skinny teenage boys and their perpetually grinning sister in Singapore; two pale, serious little girls in Melbourne. Whenever Lucia looks at the Australian sisters, with their half-Tamil skin and features, she wonders if the Sundrams know about Chiara. Surely, if they do, they would either avoid sharing the photos of those sisters, or they would have said something by now? They would have invited her to speak, in their gentle way, and then dropped it if she’d seemed hesitant, but no, neither one has ever said you must miss your sister, or you and your sister must have been close just like them, nothing.
Sometimes it seems to Lucia that her old life was a dream. All that remains of it is her name, which anyway people here mangle: LOO-ssia, they call her if they have to read out her name before they’ve heard her say it, or Loo-sha. If they’d had to read out Chiara’s, they would’ve pronounced it Tchiara or Shiara. But almost no one in Malaysia knows that Chiara ever existed. In the beginning, when Lucia first started school here, she’d answered questions about brothers and sisters by telling people she was an only child. Now a few people know that she once had a sister: the two friends Lucia told herself, and those to whom they passed on the sad revelation. But not, it seems, the Sundrams, and not even her mother’s colleague Vin. The thing is that one has to wait for the right moment, or for the question to come up, but it never does, for in this house into which Lucia and her mother moved a year after Chiara died, there are no photos of her on the walls, no evidence of her life. They speak of her without speaking of her: Who else is going to be there, her mother asks when Lucia is going out with friends, is it just you girls or are there going to be boys, and then Lucia knows that what she’s really saying is, be careful, Lucia, be careful. Remember what happened to your sister. Or, when she sees Lucia on her phone: I hope you’re not simply sharing photos all over the place. Are all your social media accounts private?
Lucia isn’t even on TikTok or SnapChat or Instagram. Mr Sundram has a Facebook account, and sometimes he asks her to help him upload a photo or share a link. She’s taught him how to mute his notifications, how to call a GrabCar, how to order from FoodPanda. She knows they don’t actually like any of the food they order, that it’s all too exotic and overpriced, but they get excited by the idea of doing something special for her. “Our treat!” Mr Sundram announces each time, and she imagines them doing the same for their grandchildren, ordering waffles, sushi, bubble tea, bibimbap, the more foreign to them the better. One evening they coax her to order Italian food: what you used to eat when you were small, Mrs Sundram says, something nice and familiar.
Lucia doesn’t have the heart to tell them that most nights when they were small, her mother would serve up nasi goreng or rice and dhal from the big pot she made every Sunday. She scans the menu of the nearest Italian place, orders antipasti and pasta carbonara for herself and penne all’arrabbiata for the Sundrams. When it comes, they push their food politely around their plates, thanking her for choosing such sophisticated dishes, showering her with their usual awe: nowadays children are so advanced, I tell you, we never even knew how to use a normal telephone until we were already adults, but now small-small children can send messages, can play videos, can order food!
Suddenly a memory surges up from some deep place within her: she feels it in her chest first, moving like a giant underwater creature, drawing itself in, ready to breach, rising, rising, rising, and finally exploding into the waiting hush in her head, Neptune with his colossal dripping shoulders, blocking out everything else. For one breathtaking moment, there is only this memory, and around it, darkness: she and her sister, when they were four and seven, maybe, or even three and six, just barely old enough for Chiara to have learned how to record videos. They’re standing in the kitchen of the house in Torino, alone, their parents nowhere to be seen. On the table, a box of mooncakes from their grandparents, sent by post all the way from Malaysia. Chiara is holding the mobile phone in selfie mode, issuing her instructions:
“We have to take one veeeeery slow bite, and then we have to close your eyes and smile, and lean our heads back like this. No, slower than that, and don’t show your teeth when you smile. And then I’ll say “delizioso, irresistibile, indimenticabile,” and I’ll sigh a long, long sigh. Okay?”
Their mooncake advertisement had made their parents double over in laughter, their father snorting, their mother wiping the tears from her eyes. Afterwards their parents had told the story over and over again, playing the video for all their friends, sending it to the grandparents in Orvieto and Seremban, posting it on Facebook and then reading all the adoring, delighted comments out loud. Now, for the first time, Lucia finds herself thinking: that was where it all began, that was when she and Chiara had understood for the first time what it meant to live like the world was watching, which it was. It was not an understanding they needed to put into words. It was just there, a feeling, sometimes delicious – oh, the glorious warm light of it! — and sometimes disgusting, unbearable as the leering of a dirty old man on the street, you tried to run away from it but it was on your skin, impossible to escape.
The whole story perches on her tongue, fully formed, ready to share with the Sundrams. Yes, yes, yes, Lucia’s heart cries, now I will tell them! The mere thought of it brings her close to tears. Her hands are shaking, her stomach turns to ice and then fire, she feels herself lean forward, her tongue casting around for the first word, just that first magic word that will unlatch the clasp, after which the story will tell itself –
– but just then Mr Sundram’s phone buzzes, and it is Lucia’s mother, reminding them with a smiley emoji that Lucia’s dinner is waiting at home. Mr Sundram gasps, Mrs Sundram puts her hands to her mouth, already they are calling Lucia’s mother to apologise for their negligence, how could they have forgotten to tell her, please, please forgive us, Mrs Sundram begs, we are getting old and senile, we enjoy Lucia’s company so much that we got distracted, sorry, sorry, sorry.
There’s laughter on both sides, Lucia’s mother’s warm, wine-drenched laughter, the high, relieved laughter of the Sundrams, and before the call is over Lucia has already scraped the plates and put them in the sink. Leave it, leave it, girl, Mrs Sundram is telling her, slowly can wash, but she’s a good girl, Lucia is, and the same mother who failed to teach her Tamil has raised her with what she has always called Asian values: don’t show up empty-handed; set the table, clear the table, leave things as you found them; don’t be the kind of guest who sits around expecting to be waited on.
Asian values. “But all this is just common courtesy,” Lucia’s father used to say, and then he and her mother would argue, she producing examples, he counter-examples: Asian guests who’d left their plates on the table, European guests who’d grabbed a knife and chopping board without being asked, cleaned the stove, picked their own hair out of the shower drain.
Sometimes it seemed to Chiara and Lucia that their mother used Asian as a catch-all adjective for everything she liked. Everything she disliked was white, and in this way she divided the world into two neat halves: the Asian half, where people washed their feet before bed and went out of their way to fix each other’s problems, and the white half, where people coldly minded their own business and packed their shoes among their clothes in their suitcases. But where did this leave Chiara and Lucia?
“If you wanted to be surrounded by Asian values, maybe you should have stayed in Asia,” Lucia’s father snapped on one of the rare occasions when he lost his temper. They had been quarrelling about his refusal to lie to an acquaintance who had asked if she could stay with them for a night when passing through Torino. “Tell her we’re going away that weekend,” Lucia’s mother had said, because she disliked this woman. “Or tell her we’re getting the bathroom renovated, or that your parents are visiting the same week.” But Lucia’s father had refused: “All I have to say is ‘I’m sorry, I’m afraid that won’t be possible,’” he’d insisted.
In the weeks before Chiara died, their mother’s rage against white people was a permanent presence, swirling, seething, steadily eroding the seawall of her self control.
“My father would have marched straight to the school without waiting for a meeting to be arranged,” she said. Her normal voice was gone, and its place was a low rumble, the hard tears already behind it like hail on glass panes. “As soon as he found out he would have gone. He would have demanded to see the headmaster. If that hadn’t worked he would have gone to the Ministry. He would have gone to the police, he would have hired a lawyer, he would’ve stopped at nothing.”
“Well,” their father had said in his usual unflappable way, “that was your father, and this is me. We are two different people, with two different ways of approaching the world. I do not think direct confrontation is the way to solve every conflict.”
“You – you cannot stand up for your own daughter?” she said. “For you, it’s more important to be polite than to defend your family? Where I come from, men will do anything to protect their family, but you white people – ”
“How can that be a good thing?” he said. “To do anything to protect your family – what does that mean? You think we should behave like cavemen, beating each other with clubs to defend our women?”
“Cavemen? Is that how you see us? You think we are primitive, and you are so civilised because you refuse to – to feel anything?”
“Feelings are one thing, but the question of how we should act is another thing. We cannot simply act upon our feelings, can we? We must think about what we want to achieve. Our goals as a society. Surely our goal is not just revenge, not just to punish people. Our goal should be for the boy and other boys like him to learn something.”
The boy was Matteo, who had been Chiara’s boyfriend for two months before he’d shared nude pictures of her on the internet and told his friends about it. By the end of the day on which he’d told his friends, the whole upper secondary school had seen the pictures; by the end of the second day, Lucia herself, still in lower secondary at the time, had seen them. But it was not Lucia who’d told their parents about it. For three horrible days she’d watched Chiara come home, her face bright red and shiny as a boil, and go up to her room without a word. By dinnertime, Chiara subsided into a cool silence. She came downstairs, she served herself dinner, she ate in front of the TV, her hair still wet from the shower. They did not speak. Their parents, both busy at work that week, were not at home for the meal. Lucia waited, her stomach eating itself alive. She thought of going up to Chiara, pressing up close against her on the sofa and laying her head on Chiara’s shoulder, saying nothing, relying on silent comfort as they used to when they were small. She thought of the years when they’d shared a big bed, of how she’d distract Chiara from her woes by chattering of everything and nothing, and each night she told herself: tonight I will creep into her bed and talk nonsense. She thought, too of just saying it: I know what happened, Chiara, I saw the pictures. But she did none of these things. She’d never liked Matteo, but now her old resentment of him seemed so childish: “All you think about now is Matteo, Matteo, Matteo,” she’d whined, “forever messaging Matteo, forever glued to your phone, well, let’s see how long that lasts. He’s gross, that boy, he’s a creep, he gives me bad vibes.” She’d spun it all out of nothing but her jealousy; how could she say anything to console Chiara now that she had turned out to be randomly, sickeningly right?
In the end it was another mother who’d called their mother and told her, I don’t think they should be saying these things about your daughter. Slut, prostitute, sex maniac, just because she agreed to send a few pictures to her boyfriend, doesn’t meant these things are true. After that call, their mother had walked straight into Chiara’s room, where she’d found her in her bed, staring at the ceiling. She’d pulled Chiara out of bed by her arms, tried to hold her, but it was as though the spell had been broken by their mother’s finding out, and this spell was the reverse of what happened in all the fairy tales: Chiara was no longer a real girl, but only the wishful creation of the wizard, the magician, the toymaker, made now of wood – her limbs stiff, unbending, as her mother tried to hold her – and now of mere water, slipping through her mother’s arms, unable to hold her form, spreading in a bitter, salty puddle on the dusty floor of her room. You couldn’t gather the puddle up, now that it had spilled; you couldn’t collect it all in a glass before it seeped into the wood, or reverse time to make it flow upwards, let alone recover its old form, the form of a girl whose very name told you what she had been: bright, clear.
“These things happen,” the headmaster said, when their parents demanded a meeting. “Kids nowadays, you know. They experiment with all this. It is nothing. If we leave them alone, it will blow over. We must not make a big fuss of it, we must not give them attention, because that is what they want. The girls, the boys, they all want attention, they look for it in different ways. The girls will be girls, the boys will be boys. No?”
Lucia knows the headmaster’s exact words because their mother was to repeat them many times over the coming days, word for word like a Shakespearean monologue, only she didn’t need stage lights, she was incandescent herself, lit up like a pillar of lightning, blazing through their house, burning everything she touched.
“Go and see the boy’s parents,” she told their father. “If you don’t, I will, but don’t expect me to follow your rules of politeness.”
Their father shook his head, ran his hands up and down his face, fell asleep every night wherever he was sitting. I will go, he assured her, I am going, but I just want to talk to them on the phone first. He called them, e-mailed them, made feverish lists of the things he would say when he finally spoke to them.
But what their mother did not know was that no confrontation or conversation would satisfy her; nothing could give her what she wanted, which was to have the old Chiara back, bright and clear, brisk and confident; the Chiara who loved her school and did all her homework as soon as she got home; the Chiara who, on her way out the door, always treated herself to a glance in the hallway mirror, the glance and the half smile of a girl who is pleased with her great good luck in life. For Chiara was lucky and she had always known it: she was beautiful, fresh and perfect in a summer dress, neat in a narrow wool skirt; she was popular; things came easily to her. Lucia had never needed to look far to know how to dress or behave, because the simplest, safest option had been, for so long, to follow in Chiara’s footsteps.
Now there were no footsteps to follow. Chiara stopped going to school, and though their parents had permission to homeschool her, she did not keep up with her lessons or turn in any homework. Chiara stopped taking her friends’ calls or replying to their messages. Eventually, Chiara stopped showering and coming downstairs to eat on the sofa. They brought food up to her in her room, and she ate half an apple, a slice of cheese, a handful of peanuts, leaving the rest on the tray. The therapist to whom their mother dragged her weekly didn’t think she was in danger, though, because Chiara was measured, Chiara was lucid, Chiara was able to articulate her emotions, all the way up until the morning when, four weeks after Matteo had shared those photographs, Chiara hanged herself in her closet with her favourite leather belt.
For days after their Italian dinner, Lucia rehearses her confession. There’s something we’ve never told you, she will tell the Sundrams, when they’re all watching TV together. Or when Mrs Sundram is setting her mug of tea on the table: Auntie, can I tell you something? Or maybe she will bring the conversation round to Rajini, the Sundram’s own dead daughter, and then say, I wish my mother could tell you this herself, but….
“Lucia,” her mother says one morning, “is something wrong? You’re hardly here anymore. I’m happy you feel at home with Mr and Mrs Sundram – how lucky we are to have them, it’s so nice for me to know you’re always in safe hands – but I’m only wondering….”
And Lucia knows that what her mother wants to ask is: is it Vin? Are you angry, are you upset because you think I’ve replaced Papà, are you shocked that it all happened so fast, are you offended that he walks around shirtless?
She isn’t really angry, or upset, or shocked – although it did happen fast, within months of their moving back to Malaysia, in fact; no sooner had they settled into their new house and Lucia’s mother into her new job than this colleague had materialised to occupy what Lucia hadn’t realised was a vacancy in their lives. She isn’t even offended, which is a strong word for the mild distaste she feels when she has to interact with shirtless Vin in the kitchen. What she is is curious, for she has questions too: does Vin exemplify Asian values, she wonders, and would he rush to the defence of his womenfolk without groaning and sighing and making lists? It’s true that Vin happily does all the things her father felt should not be left to men alone: putting out the dustbin, taking Lucia’s mother’s car in to the mechanic for servicing, carrying in all the bags of groceries. Vin tries to read Lucia’s mother’s mind instead of asking her what she wants; he does not divide the household repairs and maintentance evenly between them. He never explicitly says any of this is a man’s job, but Lucia sees that he thinks so, that the pleasure he takes in keeping their den safe and comfortable is indeed a primeval one, the caveman instinct her father once mocked. She sees, too, that it is a secret satisfaction, not unlike Chiara’s pleasure in the sight of herself in the mirror.
“No,” Lucia tells her mother with a reassuring smile, “there’s nothing wrong, don’t worry. I’ve been teaching the Sundrams how to use their phones, and helping Mr Sundram with stuff on his laptop. It takes time.”
There is no lie in this, for in nudging their conversations towards the subject of children and grandchildren, Lucia seems to have offered herself up as assistant for tasks the Sundrams have been putting off: printing out recent photos of their grandchildren, installing Zoom on the laptop for family calls, converting the old VHS tape of Rajini’s arangetram to a format they can share on Facebook. Next year it will be fifteen years since Rajini died: with their other children, they are hoping to put together a virtual memorial. But Mrs Sundram doesn’t want to wrestle with the laptop. “Lucia girl,” she says, “the handphone is already enough for me! I’ve barely learnt what I need to use that. No no, the laptop is Uncle’s domain, but he doesn’t know all this, uploading-downloading-sideloading photos, editing videos and whatnot. You must help us.”
Sitting at Mr Sundram’s laptop, scrolling through photos and messages and videos, Lucia feels like she has been let into their family. Though none of their children have met her, she knows them: she knows the shapes and surfaces of their lives, the colours of their sofas and curtains, their weekly schedules, the coats and jumpers they wear most often. She knows their voices, which instruments the children play, their favourite foods. And she knows, perhaps most intimately of all, Rajini, the beam of whose kohl-lined concentration pierces right through her. So many photos of Rajini has Lucia studied that if she were a painter, she would be able to paint the evolution of Rajini’s face from tiny newborn to young woman in her twenties, and then her paintings could be strung into a time lapse sequence.
It’s while she’s scrutinising one such photo, professionally taken to commemorate Rajini’s university convocation, that the message pops up: Hello sayang, I am ready for you anytime. Lucia freezes. She understands at once that such a message can’t be from a child or grandchild. She shouldn’t click on it, she knows. It’s none of her business. There are times when minding other people’s business is Asian values and times when it is simply minding other people’s business. But the messages keep coming, and she cannot look away. She doesn’t want these filthy words flashing before her eyes, each one edging closer to the sealed vault of Chiara’s last weeks, and when finally she clicks on one of the messages, it is – or so she will tell herself later – because she wants to prove to herself that they have nothing to do with Mr Sundram, that they are from some random stranger trying her luck. She wants, surely, to exonerate him, and then never have to have to think about these messages again. Instead, the first click unspools the whole thread before her eyes, Mr Sundram’s sleazy all-caps wheedling, peppered with slips of the thumb, HELLO BABY, HELO DARLNG, G0GEOUS, WHEN CAN I C UR PUSSY, WHEN CAN WE FUVK, and the woman’s coquettish replies, Hi handsome, I am waiting, followed by not only descriptions of every act she is ready to perform in this parallel universe, but photos, photos such as Lucia, in all her teenage wisdom, has actually never seen in her life, photos next to which the ones of Chiara seem as tasteful and restrained as Renaissance nudes, and not just photos but videos too. Of course Lucia cannot stop there; the first thread has unlatched the clasp, just as the first word of her tale would have done. There are other threads, other women, and beyond these, of course, Mr Sundram’s entire browser history, which, of course, he does not know he can erase. Breathless, Lucia closes the history window, clicks on Rajini’s photo to return it to the foreground, closes the laptop, and rushes from the house. Mrs Sundram is hanging up a load of freshly washed tea towels in the outer kitchen; Mr Sundram is nowhere to be seen.
Lucia hasn’t gone to the Sundrams’ for three days.
At first, she was sure she would tell her mother at the first opportunity. She would summarise the messages, describe what she’d seen minus the graphic details. But confronted with the flesh-and-blood reality of her mother that evening – of course, yes, this was what her mother looked like, the shape of her nose, the set of her mouth, the width of her hips, this person who was not, after all, the abstraction in the scenario she had imagined – Lucia found that the words she’d prepared evaporated instantly. This mother was the mother who had flung herself against the walls of their house in Torino, her face perpetually wet, her throat perpetually hoarse. This mother had, just as Lucia did, a vault containing the terrifying memory of Chiara’s final weeks; how, then, could she speak of naked girls to this mother? To do that would be to open the vault, force her mother’s head into it, hold it in place: no, you cannot look away, you cannot escape. Lucia looked at her mother as she was now – a woman finally able to breathe and sleep, a woman who laughed at Vin’s jokes, ate pizza on the sofa, read novels – and knew she could not resurrect her sleeping demons.
Then perhaps she should tell Mrs Sundram: but how? What words would she use? When it came to this subject, it would have been hard enough to find the words to tell her mother; with Mrs Sundram, it would be as though they had no language in common. The language of a sixteen-year-old girl in the social media age and the language of a eighty-year-old Convent-school-educated lady: there were times when one could not pretend these were the same language. And what would she achieve, anyway, by telling Mrs Sundram? What could Mrs Sundram do about it? To whom would she turn, at this time when she could see her children only on a screen?
So, in the end, Lucia has told no one, not even her friends, because she can’t see them and this isn’t a tale she can bring herself to type out.
“Did something happen?” her mother asks, when she hasn’t been to see the Sundrams for two days. Lucia sees she’s struggling to keep her voice light and steady.
“Of course not!” she says. “I’m terribly behind on all my school work, that’s all.”
Her mother doesn’t push for answers, though Lucia can see worry eddying under the surface of her face, her jaw tightening, her lashes fluttering as though to protect her eyes from a foreign object. On the phone, she tells Mrs Sundram, “Just busy with school work lah,” and then, reaching for her Asian values, she spins her merciful lies: “She’s had a bit of a tummy ache, I’m sure it’s nothing serious, just needs some proper rest, you know, these teenagers, up until all hours on their handphones….”
Mr Sundram, Lucia knows, won’t have detected the evidence that she has stumbled upon his dirty secret. That the messages were read before he read them, that someone went through his brower history, he will not have noticed any of this. She tries to tell herself she’s safe in that way at least, but this doesn’t make her feel better. A feeling of precariousness slinks along beside her wherever she goes, breathing on her cheek when she sleeps, nosing at her hands, a faint dread, as though she might be about to lose everything she has left, everything she has ever known except for Chiara, whom she has already lost. She wants to go to sleep in her mother’s bed, but she can’t, because Vin is in it, taking up what would have been her place. She wants to go home, but there isn’t a home anymore; the longing has no destination, no object.
On the morning of the fourth day, she steps out onto the balcony for the first time since her last visit to the Sundrams. Dawn is only just breaking: the light is still milky, the sky lilac. The street lights haven’t been switched off yet. Soon the sun will burn off all the morning’s soft edges, but for now a faint mist hangs in the air, muffling the first birdsong. The air smells fresh and wet. At the very moment Lucia’s eyes fall upon the Sundrams’ house, Mr Sundram appears behind the glass door. One centimetre at a time, he slides it open. Stops it at the spot where it sticks. Squeezes his cat-stubborn body through the opening. In one hand he holds his small cup of rice. Lucia wonders if perhaps Mrs Sundram is sitting at the breakfast table, watching her husband. Maybe, after all, she knows all her husband’s weaknesses, has memorised his cracks and chinks. Or maybe she doesn’t. Lucia thinks of him typing out those messages on his phone with his bony thumbs, or leaning in close to his laptop screen to peer at it from behind his bifocals. Her neck and shoulders stiffen; her bare toes curl on the cement of the balcony.
But now he is calling out to the doves, cooing, murmuring Come, come, this round is just for you. Last week he managed to lure them closer for the first time. Lucia can see he’s happy about this progress: his face is proud and hopeful, his manner fussy, like that of a first-time grandmother taken with her new role. When he waves at Vin, who has come out for his morning smoke on the porch, he bounces slightly on the balls of his bony feet. It is enough for him that the doves are getting their share of the rice; he has set his sights no higher. Once he told her: “If you sit perfectly still for long enough, the birds will come and perch right on your head, your shoulders, your arms. They will eat out of your hands.”
“But I’m not sure it’s fair to them,” he’d said then. “They are wild animals, after all. If we train them to trust us, someone else down the road may betray that trust. Wouldn’t you feel terrible, knowing you’d misled an innocent creature?”
Lucia doesn’t think of herself as an innocent creature; nor would she honestly say that Mr Sundram has misled her. Not more than all humans mislead each other, anyway, if misleading it is: the way Mr Sundram is both an old lech paying young women for nude pictures and a broken heart missing a daughter-shaped piece; the way we are all sometimes one thing, sometimes its mirror image, sometimes its negative image. A person is many truths, none of which has been crafted purely to mislead. Perhaps one day, when they have a moment alone, she will tell Mrs Sundram about her own missing piece, leaving it to her to decide when to share it with Mr Sundram, or indeed whether to share it at all. When Lucia closes her eyes, she can still see all those photos he’s received, all those women who have been broken down into body parts like supermarket chickens. But when she opens her eyes she sees him standing on his porch, his eyes sad and tired despite his success with the doves, his old-man shoulders sloping in the purple-grey dawn. This is what we all need to do, she thinks, for ourselves and for everyone else: close our eyes, open our eyes, remember, remember.
Interview with Preeta Samarasan
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Preeta Samarasan: Rather than being prescriptive about what subjects writers should cover in their fiction, I would say that political reality always influences fiction, whether or not the writer intends it. In fact, it’s the responsibility of readers to detect and talk about the politics even in — especially in! — apparently “apoltical” work.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Preeta Samarasan: This is such a hard question! There are many, but one that comes to mind is “Sea Oak” by George Saunders. I am still moved to tears every single time I reread it.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Preeta Samarasan: I think the minute we start talking about obligatory elements we’re doing a disservice to the mystery and magic of the creative act. A great short story surprises by breaking some rule somewhere, whether it’s a rule of fiction or an assumption about human psychology (or both!). And while surprising us, it has to move us, it has to make us feel that people, despite all their flaws, are worth saving; that this fragile world we’ve built is worth saving.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Preeta Samarasan: Nuance. The truth is always somewhere in between, and it’s also just beyond our words, just out of sight.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Preeta Samarasan: I’m working on a third novel, about two elderly sisters bound by biology, sibling jealousy, and loss. I’m also in the very early stages of putting together a short story collection.