Audio Guide: Stories of Almost Everyone
Audio guide written and narrated by Kanishk Tharoor for the exhibition Stories of Almost Everyone.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of the short story collection Swimmer Among the Stars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) and the presenter and writer of the BBC radio series Museum of Lost Objects. He lives in New York City.
In the late summer afternoons, after her child settles into his nap, she opens the curtains and lets light flood into the living room. The space is marked by absence: the ghosts of photographs that once hung on the wall, circular wine stains on the coffee table, dark recesses where books have been removed from the shelves. She finds a kind of comfort in maintaining that emptiness, those traces of a vanishing. In any case, her son is too young to notice the gaps as gaps, to be troubled by the room’s incompleteness; he has the blessing of not knowing that absence is anything but presence.
She opens the window and leans out into the day to have a cigarette. The sun lacks all subtlety in its rule over her city. Very gently, her fingers begin to sizzle. There, down the street and beyond the rusting lines of the harbor, is the sea. There, a grocer sprays his melons with water and mops his forehead. There, stacks of unsold newspapers flutter in the breeze. There, garbage overflows from a blue bin covered in graffiti. There, a man hammers another advertisement into the wood of a utility pole already crowded with signs and papers. She imagines the advertisements all encrusted, their various strata of desire and promise moldering in the heat.
After her cigarette burns out, she holds the butt between her knuckles and watches the city unspool into the dusk. She pours herself a glass of wine. Men and women call across the street, wishing each other a good evening on their way home. Helplessly, because twilight is the time of return, she looks for familiar faces. She doesn’t miss him, she doesn’t long to be with him. But as the city ebbs into the night, she realizes that she wouldn’t mind seeing him from a distance, to watch him slouch under the day’s load, to scour the stubble on his chin for a sign of grey. That would be enough, just a glimpse, enough to give her proof that he exists in time just as she exists in time.
The lamps begin to turn on. She feels the arrival of the light almost like noise, like a roar pulsing through the city. It begins in the harbor, where the masts and hulls now gleam white. Then it rushes towards her, the streetlamps in a cascade, and then light sparking in the windows of her neighbors, where she now can see men sitting in their undergarments beneath fans, listening to their radios while women throw chopped eggplants into buckets of water. Her home remains mute and unlit. She soaks in the evening’s isolation.
A flick of the switch, and the overhead light blazes on. She turns away from the window. Her son is standing in the room, groggily rubbing his eyes. Ma, he asks, why are you in the dark?
In their city, it is perfectly normal for mothers and fathers to let their boys out, even at a young age. The girls, of course, are another matter, and for that reason she is grateful she has a son. To him, she can allow the freedom of the alley and the courtyard, where he can idle the weekends with his friends and learn from the brusque parenting of the street.
She can’t be accused of indifference. When the shouting downstairs grows particularly shrill, she sticks her head out the window to make sure her boy is alright. It’s reassuring for a mother to see her child as neither victim nor abuser, neither meek nor bullying, to see his mop of dark hair bob about the crowd without ever taking center stage. That is a skill, she thinks, to be blameless and unblamed but still to be. He usually returns with a few scrapes and scratches, but no bruises.
Sometimes, she finds pleasure in watching their play from the window. They chase after a football, tripping over the curb, and kick it hard against a wall. They move as a restless clump. If there is an order to the game, it cannot be delineated in teams or strategy or tactics. Everyone strains for the ball, and so the boys careen about the alley as an ungainly juggernaut, upsetting washing basins and scattering passersby. Her son struggles to claim the ball, to reach past the boys who are bigger than him and faster than him. He perseveres, part of their frenzied solidarity.
One day, a group of older boys—they must be nine or ten, she guesses—moves into the alley. They take the ball from her son and his friends, who try to stand up to their elders but are pushed back. Go home, go home and play with your sisters. They cuff the little ones around the ears. One of the young boys begins to cry. Despite herself, she feels the heat coursing down her arm toward the broom leaning against the kitchen wall, and she imagines stomping downstairs like a crazy aunt, bringing thunder down on the ruffians.
But she doesn’t have to. There is her son, her unassuming, equitable son, with one of his shoes in hand. He hurls it as hard as he can and hits an aggressor flush in the nose. The older boy staggers backwards, surprised. His friends shrink from their posturing. Before they can regroup, a volley of tiny shoes flies at them—shoes of all kinds: sandals, slippers, sneakers, new shoes, and threadbare shoes. The invaders retreat, and the shapeless mob of little ones yells after them, exultant.
Later, when her son troops upstairs barefoot, she doesn’t scold him for his sudden violence, nor does she even ask him about his missing shoes. She places a basin of water in front of him, and holds his chin. Never walk inside your house with dirty feet, she says.
For many small boys, the world is still an enchanted, inexplicable place. Few moments in that world spark his curiosity more than his mother in the midst of changing. When she thinks he is sleeping, he watches her wiping away the day in front of her vanity’s many mirrors. He marvels at the arsenal of objects around her, the boxes and compacts, the various lengths of brushes, and how her hands move like a wizard’s over the components of a spell. Yet there is a disorder, a fatigue in it all that even he, at his young age, finds palpable. The lipsticks lie in disarray over the table, a scattering of bullets. His mother takes a towel to one eye and rubs in a slow circle. When she pulls it away, he is always startled to see it smudged black, as if his mother were a creature of soot.
Other times, he studies the same process in reverse. Sneaking around a corner, he watches her layer the foundation on her cheeks, then apply blush. She makes impossible shapes with her mouth when she puts on the lipstick, and he wonders what those lips have become, if they are not just hers. She turns to her eyes last, and then he stands on his tiptoes, half a breath muffled in his chest, entranced by the supernatural curve of his mother’s eyelashes. They are the lightest aspect of her face. All its other features now seem fixed, painted stiff. Nothing turns to stone more readily than humans.
She puts on this face on the few mornings she has shifts at the restaurant. There are evenings, too, when she gets made up and goes out into the night. Often, his mother makes sure that there is a neighbor or a relative to watch over him, to feed him his soup and make sure he doesn’t try to climb out the window or put things in the toilet or—as has happened—squeeze himself inside the garbage can and get stuck. But there are times when a neighbor cannot be found, when a relative doesn’t come in time, and then his mother wrings her hands and looks at him imploringly. Before leaving, she promises she will be back soon, that she loves him, that nobody can be as loved as he is. She closes the door after her with an unbearable softness, so softly that he is not always convinced the door has actually shut, and he must go over and push it hard against the frame.
He knows how to divert himself; he doesn’t suffer from that odd luxury of boredom like so many people do. There are animals to draw, heroes to inhabit, faces to make in the mirror, worlds of jungle temples and castles and giant snakes and pirate lords with foaming eyebrows, all of which he can conjure on the sofa, the coffee table, the shelves, the crib, in the pots and pans, in the ragged scamper of a cockroach. His mother will come home later and find her son sprawled asleep among the pillows, dreaming in mid-adventure.
But sometimes, the emptiness of the apartment is too acute. The only shape that makes sense to him is the door, the door that took his mother away from him. He sits in front of it, willing with every inch of his little self for the key to turn in the lock, for the latch to clear, the knob to turn, the door to push into the house, and the light to flood over the dark living room floor from the outside hallway. In those eternal moments, it seems impossible to him that his mother will ever come back. He tries giving shape to that time, giving her ten seconds, and when the door doesn’t budge, another ten seconds. If he could count any higher, he might be able to distract himself with variation, but he is still quite young, and he can only count to ten.
He is still awake, sitting in front of the door, when his mother returns. His body is so tightly clenched that she feels her boy as a knot of quivering muscle. She squeezes him in her arms. If she cries then, the tears bleed black over his cheeks.
His mother grew up by the sea, but she was always more interested in the earth. Staring at the crests of angry waves, she would imagine the snow-capped peaks of mountains. A distant green squall over the bay would summon the image of a sandstorm. On a sparkling day, when the breeze licked light from the waves, she’d think of the wind blowing over fields of wheat and millet.
A few times in her childhood, the ocean summoned from its depths a whale that would run aground on the beach, its mossy tongue hanging loose. While her friends scampered around the carcass, she would watch from a distance, shivering at the thought of the sea and its endless vault of horrors. She sank her toes into the sand. There was a kind of safety in land, its steady accumulation of strata, its repository of all life and its debris. The earth was like a clock, an archive built by the force of time. The sea is timeless. Water can never be a tomb.
She wanted to be a geologist. At school, she thrilled at the thought of the molten core of the earth, churning and pumping, the volcanic heart of all things. She laughed at the pretension of diamonds, that highly pressurized dinosaur ooze. She pitied the world’s miners for having to sacrifice their bodies for mankind’s love of "precious metals." Their preciousness, she knew, was entirely arbitrary. A ball of silver only had the random value we gave it, not a value determined by its true physical properties. A silver necklace was still just a mineral chain.
For herself, she dreamed of a studious and industrious future of digging. No rock would escape her judgment, no sediment would be beneath her interest. The whole world would become sensible to her, all its components, down to its very grain.
But then came tectonic human upheaval. Protest. Riots. And, as ever, cuts. The geology department in the university closed, and she was stranded at home. Then the gates of the university were bolted shut. She looked in other places for fulfilment, if not always employment. At one of these, a bar by the harbor, she met the man who would become the father of her child.
He was a creature of the sea, with salty lips and foaming eyebrows. In the mornings, wrapped around her, he would tell her that he was driftwood, that she had found him, salvaged him from the indifferent surf. She smiled at that idea, but she always felt that it wasn’t right, that he had found her. They spent an unending summer together, which stretched into unending years, until it finally did end, and she was left with few traces of his passage.
Her son helped give meaning to her time. She takes him to the beach, where he plays in the waves and digs in the sand. Whenever the tide surges in and wipes away his humped castles, he doesn’t get distressed. She marvels at how he laughs and then sets his mouth, how he returns to his bucket and spade and digs again.
At bedtime, he asks his mother for stories of elsewhere. She obliges with snippets from her travels. In the jungles of the Yucatan is a great stone city dedicated to the snake god. If you stand in front of the main temple at the right time, the sun conjures a serpent along the steps of the building, writhing from sky to earth. In parts of India, there are old temples where snakes are revered not just in shadow, but in the flesh, offered flowers, milk, and fruit as they slither around the idols. There is nothing strange about this, it is great wisdom. In the ancient calculus of the world, serpents are signs of fertility, the harbingers of floods. It is a shame, she tells her son, that our people have demonized the snake, that we associate the snake only with evil.
Her son closes his eyes and burrows deeper into his pillow. You’ve been so many places, he says quietly. There are so many places to go, she replies. Will you take me one day? he wonders. She smiles and offers him the faintest dip of her chin, the suggestion of a nod without actually nodding. They have very little money to pay for oil, for salt, for bread and sugar, let alone for travel. The truth is that she is a proud woman, too proud to let her son know of their dire straits and too proud to tell him that she herself has never travelled, that she only knows the rest of the world through her reading, through postcards, through the stories of others.
She is grateful that her son is a deep sleeper, that he has the comfort of his dreams, because now she can leave the house and set about the task of making some money. It must be done. Out she goes in a light coat, in her pocket one of the few baubles his father ever gave her.
The pawnshop is piled high with the debris of other lives. A globe, an obsolete grey computer, piles of unused notebooks, Christmas ornaments, a stack of old magazines, a mantelpiece clock, white-and-blue tracksuits, long rods of pure copper, a piano. These are hard times, when people must liquidate their particular worlds into universal capital. She places in front of the owner the ring given to her after the birth of her son—a silver ring set with a rough-cut diamond. It was offered to her as a gift, not as a proposal.
As she watches the owner inspect the ring, lift it in and out of the light, frown at the diamond, she feels a sudden vertigo. She tries to steady herself, to remind herself that she never wears this ring, that she has little use for it, that her grandmother is dead, that her mother is dead, that anybody who would want a life of rings for her is gone, that nobody beyond her cares about the fate of this ring, that we give objects meaning, not the other way around. But the room tilts and the pawnshop owner squints; she sees her hand reaching out and snatching back the ring, and then the clutter of the shop falling away, the glass door with its metal frame slamming behind her, and the brisk air of the street filling her throat.
Her son doesn’t wake up when she reaches home. He perceives the sounds and shifts of her return only as a wrinkle in his dream, in which a giant red snake coils about his bed, opens its mouth, and blinks.
When his father left them, he was barely a toddler. But he saw—even if he doesn’t remember—the suitcase slam open on the bed, the arms of his father whirling, heaving clothes from drawers and hangers, books hurling from the shelves, the black suitcase shut with a hideous snap, then the final slam of the door and the jagged silence that followed. He doesn’t remember any of this, but these moments remain within him, like blood and tissue, like cells.
He doesn’t remember the months that followed, he doesn’t remember the loneliness of his mother. People from the neighborhood came to console them, with platters of pastries and flasks of tea. But really they came to sample the taste of loss that lingered in the home. Letters arrived from relatives and acquaintances far away. They sat in an untended pile in the corner. She didn’t have the strength to read messages of pity, nor did she have the pity for herself to read messages telling her to be strong.
Then, as the season changed, the men came knocking, with bottles of wine and bouquets of flowers. He doesn’t remember the flowers, but once, on her birthday, she received a dozen bouquets. They took up every surface in the living room and cluttered the kitchen. His mother was too inert to put them in vases, and too charmed to throw them away. So, they wilted en masse, and that smell of sweet decay crept into him, even as it escaped his memory.
In those early days, his mother allowed herself to bring a man home. Her son was awake through it all, peeking between the bars of his crib, watching the drunken fumbling as a kind of dance, an act, the affection of this stranger for his mother a gift. They slumped from the sofa to the floor, and he watched the widening angle of his mother’s knee, the man kicking his shoes off so that they flew one after the other against the door, his mother’s eyes closing. The man wore bright red socks, and though he doesn’t remember the sight of the man’s writhing feet, her son has maintained a distaste for colored socks ever since. He doesn’t remember that he waited for the man to leave, then climbed out of the crib on his own. He doesn’t remember waddling over to his mother, as she slept on the floor, very gently placing a yellow pillow from the sofa under her head, and very gently—so as not to wake her—lying down in the crook of her naked arm.