- Tent Cinema
Paati lived at the edge of a minor fishing village, in a small gray house darkened by caliginous algae stains that streamed down its outer walls and along the edges of its clay roof tiles. She was their mother's mother, a stern woman, darker than their mother, with a nose curved and knowing like the beak of a hawk. She welcomed Katran and Selvi as she had every few years, whenever her daughter fell pregnant again. In other families, more traditional families, she might have gone to stay with her daughter's family in Nagapattinam to help with the new baby, change its nappies and rock him to sleep, but she'd come to town only when Katran was a baby, and again when her other daughter married, evidently deciding at some point that she could no longer tolerate staying at her son-in-law's house. Perhaps because of the son-in-law's drinking and shouting, which had a way of shattering the peace, turning the household upside down, solely because he felt like it.
Paati especially prided herself on her British china. She stored the set in a cabinet just adjacent to the kitchen, and into two of the white teacups painted with pink rosettes, she poured a strong black tea full of ginger and cloves and buffalo's milk. "How are your marks? Are you liking your teachers?"
"No," Katran answered honestly. Selvi nodded yes, and Katran scowled. She was always showing him up.
Paati eyed Katran with a severe expression. "Of course you like your teachers. You should always respect your teachers." And Katran wondered why she'd asked, if she already had in mind an answer. This surefooted approach reminded him a little of his mother. There were so few links between Amma and Paati that he reviewed each one carefully in his memory, hoping through closer examination to discern what chain of similarity made up a family, what made each family member just a little bit immortal. What true things over time might endure, even repeat? A few common notes shared by his grandmother and his mother: the way each one's smile turned up just so, a tendency to interrupt when exasperated, an irritating tic of asking repetitive [End Page 746] questions to which certain answers were expected, not out of curiosity, but simply to make conversation. Or perhaps to arrest him, having caught him in some tiny impropriety, so a scolding could be commenced. He sometimes stared at Selvi in the same searching way, hoping to catch a glimpse of his mother in her visage, but she was their father's daughter with naturally thin eyebrows and delicate features that betrayed her, exposing emotions she, by temperament, wanted to keep hidden and under control. But the deep, husky, infrequent laugh—this precious trait she shared with their mother. She was a year younger than him, and his first distinct memories were not of their parents, but of her, of her toddling behind him, wanting to do everything he did, even though he'd never felt he fit into his family.
All those summer nights at Paati's house, Katran fell asleep with a soft blue roar in his ear—his ear pressed against the dirt floor, as if he were eavesdropping on the earth and ocean in conversation. Every dawn, he and Selvi woke itchy with mosquito bites welted over their legs and arms, an angry red armor. Cross-legged on the floor, they drank watery buttermilk and ate the soft idlis and chutney Paati had made in the wan morning light, and afterward, they hiked half a kilo-meter to the beach to play. Hours, days, months passed on those vast sands, sprinting across slick black-green coils of kelp and falling into the Bay of Bengal, collecting dreamy green and white sea glass and longing for, but unable to afford, the luscious, glistening pink water-melon sold in a faded wooden cart on the side of the road.
One morning in July, as they strolled down the road to the beach, they saw five white men working outside on an uncultivated patch of...