Sympathetic Strings

~ Winner of the 2019 Wesleyan Fiction Prize ~

When I was eight, Mr. Sarod lived in the apartment above ours. It would be more accurate to say he haunted it; however, as he was still alive at the time, it would also be a little rude.

When he was home, Mr. Sarod would lounge around in a thin white vest that looked too tired to cover his forests adequately. Bear hair stuck out in tufts from frayed armholes, and his arms, when swinging open the front door, caused gusts in the air around him. When he greeted me, his thick beard often shone with stray drops of beer. It was always the same: a low grunt of the sort that, when translated, did not yet make a word. I never dared look at him directly in case he growled.

When I look back on my childhood fears, I find the most fantastic monsters fed off this small decision to look away. The barest outlines were enough. The postman, Mrs. Garewal from 501, Mr. Sarod- they all served as my earliest archetypes of ghostly horror. Mr. Sarod, however, floated high above the rest, because for all my years knocking on his door, I hadn’t once heard him speak. Having lived in Apartment 302 since the day I was born, I found plenty of time to cast him in vivid bathtub stories until the water grew cold, but none of those stories had dialogue. The sea would heave and rumble in pirate scenes, where his only line would be “Arrr!”. He was the Kraken, the silent knight, the deep thrum of God. These stories shared another thing in common: they were often cut short. As we all shared one bathroom, my roommates quickly learned to either wait or drag me out screaming, and they all preferred option two.

My roommates: Mama, who had the ears of a bat, Maasi, the quiet velvet paws of a cat, and Nani, whose paper skin scratched the air when she smiled. Most afternoons after school, we sat on the balcony and watched the squirrels war with crows. Someone made tea, and we settled in for a few hours of the latest stories from around the apartment complex. I sipped my masala chai (extra sugar and Mama’s stern sigh), and one floor up, Mr. Sarod’s silence wove the wildest tales.

My best friend Patru lived with him. The simple answer for this was that she was his daughter, but truth aside, she lived there only because her mother and sister did too. If she could have, Patru would have spent her life outside, eating questionable berries, whistling through the gaps in her teeth, and living off the everywhere that was her home. She yearned for flight, for no reason other than to shout and not be heard.

The reason for this was architectural. In the thin-walled beehive packing of our tenements, it was a given that few private conversations were truly private. We grew to speak away from walls, confine guarded talk to bedrooms. Raised voices were a beacon for the grapevine, whose ears pricked at any sign of a possible story. This heightened awareness, however, was confined to quiet matters. All else was shared freely, and the freest of us all were the Sarod women, particularly its resident matriarch.

Mrs. Sarod blasted bhajans in the early hours, singing along while cooking breakfast for her brood. Patru struggled with the mandolin in the afternoons, simultaneously trying her best and not caring at all. In the evening, her sister Fyra serenaded twilight with the violin. Those hours were marked off in my timetable for homework, but when Mama was out, I sat on our balcony and listened to the dips and swells of Carnatic music. The squirrels nestled in the branches, and for a while, their scampering stopped. It wasn’t long, however, before a familiar voice rang out from either 104 or 501, and so began the daily symphony of shouting. Mrs. Sarod, her hair slowly relinquishing its perfect bun, unleashed herself upon the neighbors, both above and below, as well as the occasional unwitting vegetable salesman who made the mistake of looking for this newly awakened rakshas.

If his wife’s relationship with her demonic nature ignited with a fury of love for their daughter, Mr. Sarod’s better resembled the morning blue of a faraway sun. His eyes, set deep in his skull, offered small fragments of history, and through stolen glimpses I knew that he had once met the devil, shaken its claw firmly, and walked on with barely a nod. Mr. Sarod thus stood firmly in the quietude of his universe, the jar upon Hill 402. When he passed by the grille door of our tenement on his way to work, the ceiling above our home seemed to lose its centrality. I would walk around the house- the hall, the kitchen, Nani’s study- and feel uncomfortable, as though hurled into space without an inkling of gravity.

And then there was Patru.

Even though I was too young to know it (and perhaps young enough to truly understand it), I loved that girl to bits. She was the eternal firework in my life, always cracking jokes and laughing at herself. She could run faster than all the boys in the park and take the swings so high I was perpetually scared she would let go and rocket for the clouds, laughing her manic laugh. The Sarod women all had frizzy hair that refused to stay in any form, so Patru would keep hers short enough to maintain but long enough to get tangled, dirt-caked, woodchipped. Mama would say, “Roo, take care of her,” and I always nodded my head quietly. If it was dark on the walk back, I would reach for her hand and feel safe.

For both of us, 6 o’clock was the absolute deadline to be home. A minute later, and I knew to walk into the house sheepishly, head bowed, hoping that no-one was in sight of the beeline from the front door to my room. Patru told me she would crawl across the floor, but the two times I tried that I was trapped under the bell jar of Mama’s gaze and whacked on the bum with a ladle.

Sometimes we would sit on the swings without moving, milking our last few drops of time. At the stroke of the hour, we were off. In those few seconds before feet hit ground, dusk ballooned with the texture of crickets. Everything that should have been ominous charged with color, and I watched Patru’s teeth curve along her smile as she counted. I loved the way she did it without her little finger, beginning with the peace sign in place of an open palm. Vee, Four, Three, Two, Shwwip! Her whistle lingered as we ran.

The lack of privacy rarely bothered our beehive when it came to the big things, and so when birthdays came around, the whole building would try and cram themselves into one tenement. Despite their daily music, noise, and shouting, the Sarods took no part in these revelries. I often found myself at parties, missing Patru’s presence and not knowing why she was home. The reason, I now realize, was beside the point. There was a larger story at play, one that involved the lives of every resident and even those beyond our gates. This story was most visible in the pomp and ceremony of our celebrations, and how they so closely resembled the joy of a country achieving freedom.

With the benefit of distance (both geographical and visceral), I can better visualize that time, deep in our hive mind, where our individual histories and ancestral hometowns converged at one point seventy-two years ago— 1947, the year our national sense of place was rewritten into independence. The stories grandparents had given their children had made their way down to us- Roo and Patru, inheritors of a country too young to have understood the collective weight of the past few hundred years of colonial rule, while modernizing too quickly to be able to. Our elders grabbed what they could from the days before then and held on with quiet ferocity. Our customs, languages, food, clothes; these kept us, us. At weddings, we danced as though the decades had never passed, or perhaps, had passed too quickly. Our festivals were when everyone could drink bhaang, take to the swings and touch the sky- the same stars of those hundreds of years ago. Even the youngest of us understood this reaching for lightness.

Modernization, like the architecture of our apartments, brought with a heightened awareness of certain problems. In school, I learned of how the glass on kite strings caused the death of thousands of birds on Makar Sankranti, our yearly kite festival. How the red color we threw with such wild abandon on Holi (and which faded off our fingers for many nostalgic days) could cause irreversible effects on our skin. Eavesdropping on two businessmen at the bus stop, I learned that our country was going to the dogs and that the government clamping down on the sale and use of such things was only the beginning of a sinister plot to Westernize the world. As I got off the bus a few minutes from home, I knew I had grown up in some way, as though this weight was what it meant to understand my country’s place in history and my role in shaping its future. I felt the wash of quietude, as though the ground had finally steadied. The earth could have tilted and spun on its axis like a marble, and I would have stayed just where I was, watching oceans slosh around their continents. In this invisible kinship with gravity, I basked in a strange enlightenment: the low grunts of Mr. Sarod now translated by the voice of time.

When I reached the gate to our complex, Maasi was waiting for me by the watchman’s cabin. Her face was a kaleidoscope of grins, and she lifted me into the air with a happiness reserved for a baby’s first steps. “We’re having a Diwali party, Roo!” Gravity shifted; the oceans returned to their basins. When she put me down, we skipped back to our apartment to the sound of scampering and cawing.

On the day of, diyas dotted our balcony around a rangoli Mama and Maasi had spent most of the day making, and there were large bottles of Pepsi and Sprite in the kitchen. Nani had insisted on cleaning the house herself, leaving me in an awkward position when Mama told me to help her tired mother and Nani told me to run off and play. Our tenement bustled like a scene from a Miyazaki movie, and I had the rare luxury of sitting back and watching it all unfold. Mama and Maasi got into a particularly heated argument: No, sister, that isn’t how you fold a napkin. Yes it is! No, it isn’t! You blind bat, did mother teach you nothing? One grabbed the napkin from the other and started tugging, and I couldn’t help it, I burst out in laughter, and we were soon in peals on the ground. Nani walked in, wiping sweat from her forehead. Expecting us to notice her disapproval, she stood by with an arched eyebrow, then lifted her broom and whacked all of us in a huff. It didn’t work- once such laughter begins, it only stops when all involved run out of breath. She sighed sternly and went about cleaning.

6:03 pm; the Mehtas from 102 were the first to arrive. A table had been set to the side to pile gifts, and theirs was wrapped so beautifully I placed it squarely in the center like a prize. Soon, there were enough people for the door to be left open. Everyone we knew strutted about in their most expensive saris and kurtas. Fireworks flowered the sky every few minutes, and old Bollywood music played over small stereo speakers. The perfect host, I walked around asking everyone if they wanted Pepsi or Sprite.

As I gave Ms. Gupta from 305 her cup, I noticed a familiar band of white coiling into a tight bun.

Patru and Fyra had reluctantly let their mother fit them into sequined ankle-length skirts and occupy their arms with a glittering of bangles. While Fyra had put effort into her God-given frizz, Patru’s hair was a stubborn disaster. Mrs. Sarod, a woman I had never seen out of her nightgown, wore a simple blue sari. She looked like a butterfly, subdued, out of place. I glanced at the ceiling- Mr. Sarod was still home. Mama and Nani fluttered around the Sarod women, delighted, surprised. I added their gift to the top of the pile like a prize.

Since it was her first Diwali, Patru and I spent the next hour looking for fireworks that Mama had hidden too well. She told me how the evening had been a complete surprise, and how her Mama had pulled down her old saris from the loft and spent hours choosing the right one. Fyra had been particularly excited, borrowing her mother’s curling iron and spending those same hours in the bathroom. The bangles were too much, the sisters insisted, but they soon gave in, not knowing if this would ever happen again. Why did you never come for the other parties, I finally asked. I don’t know, she replied. Some things they never tell me. Suddenly, she smiled. “Did we check the kitchen?”

The world buzzed; hours passed. Food was brought out, finished, brought out again. The fireworks, music, voices, and laughter fused into homeostatic babble. Lying on a couch with my head resting on Maasi’s lap, I felt drowsy. Our neighbors from 303 were talking to the accountant from 305, and 104 was complaining about something familiar to 501. The lights sparkled softly. Mama came over and stroked my hair, telling me I could go to bed. The bell rang.

The sound splashed me awake; dazed, I ran to open the door. For a moment, I lost my bearings in the crowd. Zipping through a variety of colorful torsos, I finally found it. The lock clicked as I pulled at the handle, and I got a glimpse of a large animal outside. I slammed the door shut. “Mama!” She was far away. “Maasi!” 312 looked at me quizzically, smiling, holding a cup that contained neither Pepsi nor Sprite. Taking a deep breath, I cracked open the door. It was Mr. Sarod.

After years of knowing a character in precisely one tantalizing roll of silent film, it is hard to imagine them outside their roles, speaking with a voice, wearing different clothes. I opened the door, shocked. The only hair I could see on the Mr. Sarod was on his head and face. The long sleeves of his black kurta covered his thick arms, his beard was dry and combed. He opened his mouth to growl.

“Hello,” he nodded gravely. He really did sound like a bear. His paw proffered a beautiful red box of sweets.

“H-Hi,” I stammered sheepishly. Without thinking, I stood aside to let him in, head bowed. As he walked past me, my head pounded in embarrassment. I looked up.

My eyes widened and rooted to the spot where he had been, and I let go of the handle. I did not dare turn to look again, but I was sure of what I had seen: Mr. Sarod had three fingers. Three fingers and a thumb.

They weren’t the kind you see on a person who once had that missing finger; there was no sudden absence. His hands were hairy, veined, fully formed. Patru and I watched our fair share of the Cartoon Network, and they looked like they could reach toward the light and smack down on something with suckers. The dark claw unfurled from the sleeve of his kurta to shake hands with Nani. Why had I not noticed it before? The front door slammed shut behind me as I made a beeline for my room.

Patru was sitting on the floor, playing cards with the twins from 104. She didn’t notice me; I stood there with words stuck to the tip of my tongue. Should I say something? What am I trying to do? I thought of the devil shaking hands with Mr. Sarod and walking on, afraid.

“Patruyourdadhasfourfingers,” I blurted out. I could hear my mother at the back of my mind, saying, “Roo, take care of her.” The sky rumbled outside my window as showers of fire fell from the night. I imagined Patru flying, arms reaching for berries and clouds.

“Yeah, I know,” she giggled. “Did you just notice?”

“No, I knew.”

“You want to play with us?”

She held out her hand as the world tilted, spun. I smiled and laughed; one of the twins was staring distrustfully at her hair. Somewhere in our park, crickets bloomed, and two still swings were lit with bursts of light. Those seconds made sense now. I was about to reply when Mrs. Sarod walked into the room.

“Patru, Papa is here. Come.”

“Can I come in fiiive minutes, mama?” She scrunched up her eyes as she said five, holding up two fingers.

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