It was the summer of 2008. Avi and I were fighting again. Those days, we spent most of our time fighting. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. She was under the impression that I’d lost her silver earrings.
It was true. I did lose them.
The earrings belonged to my late grandmother. She had been old and wrinkly. Sometimes when I was around her I would make the mistake of standing too close, and my head would feel light from the overwhelmingly sharp smell of her Medimix soap.
When she died I don’t think I was sad.
Avi was a year older and, by extension, a year wiser. She warned me that it was wrong to feel nothing. I believed her, of course. So, I conjured images of myself sitting in Patti’s lap, listening to her stories about stones and crows. I pictured her frying onions by the stove in Madurai, her waistline indented from where she tied her sari every day. Once I felt sufficiently nostalgic, I turned to Avi and told her I was sad.
I was not. That was a lie.
We’d recently picked up an interest in gardening. Or at least Avi had. I had just followed suit. We managed to procure a set of rusty tools from the neighbours, along with a pair of oven mitts our mother had forked over after much deliberation. When we raced past the doorway and into the tiny square yard behind our house, we were greeted by the sight of half-broken pots and my grandmother’s discarded earbuds. The soil looked ominously dull; I could see the cracks in it from above, thousands of little black ants crawling out of the crevices. Amma said this was because the clay was too dry.
April in Madras was astonishingly humid. The heat would bounce off the streets and cause the illusion of wavering images. Avi and I spent the rest of the evening splashing the ground with a hose, watching the parched dirt soak up the water. As we worked, I could feel the sweat make its way down to the back of my knees, pooling there until I rubbed it off with the heel of my hand. If our grandmother were alive, she’d have told us to make better use of our time. It was a good thing, I thought to myself, that she was dead.
I didn’t dare say this out loud. Avi might’ve cried just hearing it.
The morning after the seed-planting, we ran out to the backyard, half-expecting there to be a tree. Even Avi, who’d spent the weeks prior to our gardening endeavour reading up on plants, looked a little crestfallen at the sight of empty land.
It was hard work––gardening. Avi didn’t seem to mind the long hours and dirty nail beds as much as I did, so I let her take over my side of the garden. My interest in horticulture, although spirited, more or less fizzled out after that. It wasn’t long before I abandoned the project altogether and returned to my books.
Avi, however, continued to religiously water the cracked patch of land every day.
A few days into September, Avi announced she was bequeathing her earrings and books to me. She was leaving forever, she said. I was peeling a banana at the table when she said it. Amma was making me eat it as punishment for trying to throw it away. I detested the taste of banana, I tried telling her, but she wasn’t having it. Avi stood in front of us, looking slightly out of place with her suitcase and jacket. Amma didn’t seem too fussed by her departure—possibly because Avi barely made it to the front door before turning back.
An hour later, Avi emerged from her room, eyes puffy from crying. She looked tired and angry, so I decided to ask her about the earrings and books some other time. We sat there in silence, eating curd rice and trying to get along. After a minute or two, I turned sideways and asked her why she wanted to leave.
The plant won’t grow, she muttered, looking away.
I didn’t say anything. But I knew the seeds Avi had sown would never sprout.
It was sometime last Wednesday. I was playing cricket outside on the street with Mary’s son. We were about halfway through the game when I overheard Amma talking to Mary. They spoke in hushed voices. I didn’t understand some of the things they were saying, so I leaned in closer, trying to catch snippets of the conversation.
Amma was talking about Avi’s plant.
The soil is too hard…she still waters it every day...she’s very patient...it won’t grow, I’m afraid…
I didn’t want to believe it at first. Every morning, when Avi diligently left to water the backyard, I would feel a stab of guilt for not telling her what I knew. I think Amma sometimes confused my sister’s hope for patience. I didn’t blame her––Avi would never admit she wanted something to happen until it didn’t.
Two days after the suitcase incident, Avi and I were back to fighting. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. She was rather irritable to be around these days. Amma told me this was because she was growing up and needed space. At the time, it seemed like all of Alwarpet wouldn’t be enough space for my sister.
Patti used to say this was because Madras was home. When you were away for too long you got homesick, and when you were there too long you grew sick of it.
Unlike my sister, our backyard predictably stayed the same. The neighbours took back their tools, and our mother, her grimy mitts. Maybe this was because the soil was made that way from the start––flawed and dry, with cracks wide enough to fall through.
When Mary came to do the dishes that evening, I asked her about the clay. I asked her what I could do to fix it. I asked her if it was the same for everyone.
The following night, I snuck into our backyard. I could feel the sweat trickle down my back, making its way towards my bottom. My fingernails were dirty from digging up the spot where Avi had planted her seeds. Reaching into my lunch bag, I pulled out the sapling I’d stolen from Tanu aunty’s front gate.
As I fixed it in clumsily, trying to cover up the cracks in the soil, I thought about Patti and what she might have said if she was alive. She’d probably have told me that I won’t be able to change the nature of the soil to suit my needs.
And I would’ve hated to admit it, but she’d probably have been right.