‘It Ends with a Kiss’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The first time Kajri kissed a girl, she was so nervous she bit her own tongue.
When they drew apart, the girl saw the tears in her eyes and ran back through the hole in the bushes to the backyard barbecue, where the adults were nursing stale-drink breath and simmering tensions that would turn into spats once the couples got back into their cars—their children sleepy and afraid in their backseats.
It was a drunch. Jojo Auntie liked to throw them from time to time, carefully selecting a deck of people. Some had known each other through their elite schools and colleges, played in bands with names like Flying Ducks in Tights before getting sensible-jacket jobs. Others were seeing someone in the group and brought guitars or expensive wine or owned a gallery somewhere in South Delhi.
Kajri didn’t like seeing the uncles’ eyes dippy from the drunch, aunties smiling wide, the adults singing off-key and laughing too-loud laughs. She’d escape to the bookshelf and read until her parents came to get her. They were always the last to leave after they’d had a one-for-the-road and put away the dishes.
Jojo Auntie didn’t like waking up with a hangover, so she invented Sunday drunches. She had the deepest, most soothing voice of all the aunties, was the tallest person Kajri knew and with the strongest shoulders. Kajri used to sit on them when she was a baby, directing, ‘De-arr! De-arr!’ while Jojo Auntie was a ship and Kajri, her De-arest Pirate Pottypants.
Jojo Auntie didn’t have a family, so she loved her friends extra. Especially Kajri and her parents, who came to every drunch. Jojo Auntie called Kajri her little mint julep because she said you must always have secret names for the people you love most.
If there was anyone who would know what to do after this, it would be her. She was often kissing other aunties and she never got angry. Only once did Kajri remember her furious. Someone had said an ugly word in an ugly way. Someone who had come with someone else to the drunch. Jojo Auntie paused only for a minute, and then she took a sip of her drink. Calmly, she looked at the woman who brought him and said, ‘Aparna, either he needs to leave or you both do. This is my house, and this filth is not welcome here.’ The man hadn’t wanted to go, so Jojo Auntie had taken him by the shoulder and marched him out the gate. She was very strong and had built this house herself. Take no shit from men, Kajri, she said, still upset after everyone had left.
The second time Kajri kissed a girl, it was six years later and she was sixteen. Jojo Auntie had disappeared six months and thirteen days ago.
Nobody kissed anymore. There was a sign instead, and that was just as good. You brought your four fingers to rest on your thumb, like a bird’s beak. You put it on the other person’s cheek and gently tapped. Once for friendship, twice for love, three times to show romance. That was a bird’s beak kiss. It wasn’t safe in outside spaces, and inside there were regulations.
Still the government understood that affection is important for relations and families to keep churning, so they added this to the roster of signs. They understood that people are sneaky, so they added a blinking camera in every room, in every hallway and gender-segregated bathroom. They knew that sexual frustration makes people troublesome, so there was a once-a-month sign-up sheet for married couples under the age of 60. Over the age of 60, ordinary people should turn their minds and bodies over in service of our great nation and God, they said.
Ever since Jojo Auntie disappeared, Mumma stopped finishing her sentences. Dad said it was because since the third grade Jojo Auntie had been completing Mumma’s. Back when they were neighbours and before Dad and Mumma met in college and when Jojo Auntie still had a family.
The girl Kajri kissed lived in Assurance Colony-I and was waiting to find out what the government had decided to do about college. Unlike most people, her family had actually moved to Delhi this year.
In the colonies time went strange. It curdled. Like when you opened a milk carton and it smelt sour and came out in gloops that floated in your glass.
For Mumma especially, time had fallen sick. She was confronted with great mounds of it everywhere. A big lump in the morning when Kajri would watch her draw up the will to meet tasks and people. Mumma never drank coffee before, but now she poured herself a mug every morning before disappearing down the hallway to catch a bath at 7am. She didn’t want to run into their neighbours in the shower stalls.
Before everything, Mumma used to spend the morning with Kajri. They’d make breakfast together and read poetry. The last such breakfast involved bread with its heart knifed out and the space filled with a runny egg and a poem about silver linings and Darwin.
Mumma still woke early. She needed to rest her head against the windowpane before smiling at people in the kitchen and wearing her saree and teaching English all day to grades 8 and 9 in Assurance Colony-II. The students liked Mumma. Kajri used to be jealous, but now watching Mumma go predictably to class with her crisp, pinned saree comforted her. It felt like one known thing.
Mumma had done nothing very wrong, nothing that would arouse comment outside or involve a trip to the doctor or a surprise knock on their door (polite smile, Just a small matter, Mrs. ___. We won’t take much of your time.), but she didn’t want to talk anymore. Back in their suite, she curled up after school and skipped lunch. She went to sleep beside the window, right on the floor.
After the first few times Dad had found her there and they had fought, he had stopped saying anything. He let her sleep there and brought dinner to the room for her and told Kajri, like she couldn’t ask any questions, Mumma just needs our support right now. And so Kajri didn’t ask anything. And Mumma didn’t explain.
The skylight room was where she met the girl. It was on the top floor, cordoned off from a side of the dome-top terrace where the adults had their high teas and celebrations. On Diwali last month, arrangements had been made—crackers had been burst by masked men in special suits outside, and everyone had gathered under the dome to watch. From here you could see the people on top of Assurance-I as well. They waved to each other, like old times when people still scowled at you for bursting crackers, and the street dogs ran away and hid under cars. You would sometimes find the body of a pigeon dead from shock on the road the day after Diwali. Now the birds were gone, and the people who would scowl at you had to show team spirit instead. ‘I can’t believe they’re still doing this bullshit,’ Mumma had said furiously to Dad and disappeared to their suite leaving him to think of an excuse on her behalf.
The morning after Diwali last month, Kajri had gone up to the skylight room. The day after a celebration was usually sleepy. Parents would sleep in until 3pm like all rules had been suspended, and it made Kajri feel nervous. The children could get their food in the community kitchen after all. Food was always taken care of. The rules were never suspended for the staff.
That day it was 12 in the afternoon, after she had eaten a late breakfast of cold kebabs and a cold drink gone flat, pilfered from their eighth floor refrigerator. The aluminium foil was labelled Kapoors, but the Kapoors would never know, and she didn’t care. Greasy fingered, carrying the photo album Mumma had left beside the window, she walked up and up the 32 flights of stairs to the skylight room.
On some floors, sounds filtered through the stairwell. Someone on the 15th floor was thwacking a ball down the corridor. The 27th floor was noisy with children screaming ‘Taabish! Taabish! Come back, you lousy skunk!’ and someone running very fast. On the 30th floor a couple was having sex loudly—a few relaxations were permitted after special occasions. The woman’s voice moaned the way Kajri had learned to identify as ‘doing it’ from TV. She imagined a mangalsutra jiggling up and down. She didn’t want to imagine the other thing. They would still get Stern Looks later on, but if married, childless and they shut the door to their suite, it was no crime against the nation. Men will toh enjoy, Raina Auntie would report giggling to Mumma, and Mumma would show her teeth later that evening over dinner time. Mumma had to come out for dinner time; she had no choice, and she had to keep smiling; she had no choice, but that was later. Right now, Kajri had reached the top and was sitting on the 40th floor landing catching her breath. She pushed open the door to the skylight room—the only place where light pooled in from a single point above, like you were hiding in a balcony or under a tree—and froze. There was someone else in there already. It was the girl.
She was dark and long-limbed, lying on her stomach, reading something, propped up on her elbows. When she heard the door open, she rearranged her limbs like a spider and righted herself. Then she looked at Kajri through big square brown glasses. ‘Who are you?’ she said.
Her eyes were big, round and black, her cheekbones were apples above a pointed chin, and her small mouth was suspicious. She was wearing shorts, and long brown thighs extended out of them into knobby knees, thin calves and feet with extremely long toes. Her head was shaved, and little brown fuzz grew over it down to her neck.
‘Your name?’ she demanded when Kajri stared and said nothing. Kajri’s heart thudded loudly in her ears; she didn’t know why, and she stuttered her name. There was something in the air immediately, and neither of them had put it there. It just was. When you know, you know, darling, Jojo Auntie would have said, blowing a stream of smoke out her nose. But she wasn’t here.
Instead, there was the girl, and her name was Tara and her parents worked with the government, and she wouldn’t say doing what and why, but she could move more freely than most, and she hated everyone in Assurance-I as much as she hated her parents, so she was here in the skylight room in Assurance-II.
Tara should have been in college, but it was still unclear what was happening with college, so she was doing nothing these days, and suddenly she was doing nothing in Kajri’s space beside her. Tara set up shop in Kajri’s imagination immediately and pushed out a bit of her lingering unease about Mumma. If it was mutual, Tara didn’t show it.
The afternoon they first met, Tara asked to see the photo album in her hands, and together they pored over the photographs: baby Kajri in the grass with a floppy hat, eyes screwed up at the sun; Dad carrying Mumma with his hands around her waist, her feet kicked up a few inches above the ground, her face thrown back and hidden over his shoulder, just a wide-open laugh. A picture from drunch: Jojo Auntie in most of the frame raising her glass to something, her curly hair all gathered to a side of her neck, the tip of her nose shiny with sweat and her cheeks red from laughing. White teeth.
And then, the very last picture, the oldest, that Kajri knew would be tucked in at the end: Mumma and Jojo Auntie, in school uniforms, Jojo Auntie’s arm slung across Mumma’s lanky shoulders, and Mumma’s arms clasped around her waist, pulled in close and safe. In the picture Jojo Auntie has a scruffy beard, and her long curly hair, the way Kajri had always seen it, is cut severely short. But her eyes are the same—laughing and about to say something sharp.
The first time Kajri saw the photograph, she was eight and she had started to cry. Jojo Auntie didn’t look like herself, she howled. Mumma had rushed to pick her up. That was before, Mumma had explained. Before we knew Jojo Auntie was really a girl.
It was the only picture from that time Jojo Auntie would allow to be kept. Soon after it was taken, she had told Mumma, and they had broken up after two years together. They hadn’t talked for a month. Until now it was the only time in their lives they hadn’t talked every day.
And now Jojo Auntie was gone, and Mumma didn’t seem to see much point in sticking around either. When Kajri came back from the skylight room, Dad was sitting on the floor next to Mumma. She was gathered into him like she had been gathered into Jojo Auntie in the photograph.
Jojo Auntie was the first person Mumma had ever kissed. ‘You don’t understand,’ Mumma said, sniffling. ‘She was my oldest, closest, best.’
‘I know,’ Dad said, rubbing her back. ‘I know, Mithu, I know.’
‘I begged her; I begged her to stay,’ she wept.
‘You know she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t have been okay here. Maybe she’s really alright; maybe there is a place.’
Time got weirder. The time Kajri spent with Tara made up the whole day.
One time, Tara said, she had given a blow job to some guy she met at some party the first time she got very drunk. It was in the bathroom, and his penis was the size of her forefinger and thick and fat and smelled damp—like mushrooms, she said. She had never been able to eat mushrooms after that.
Kajri shuddered at the description. She herself had never given a blow job, and the thought of a penis—worm-like, she imagined, and boneless like one of the slugs she’d accidentally stepped on—made her squirm. Once Arjun had pulled his one out in the sixth grade. They had been best friends, and he said, Look. So she looked and made a face. Then she pulled up her skirt quickly, after checking that no one was around behind the big tree during recess, and he had stuck his head down and then gone Ewww, it’s all hairy! And she had laughed and said, Yes, Mumma says you’ll grow it too, soon. And they had run off to find the others and never asked to look under each other’s clothes again.
Tara laughed when she said this. Then she laughed more when Kajri said that she had never seen another vagina besides her own, and the thought of one in her mouth made her squirm too.
Everyone feels that way at first, Tara said, smushing Kajri’s face with both her hands and shaking it violently. That was the thing about Tara—even though she was only a year older than Kajri, she acted like she knew more, and she could only show her growing affection through increasingly frequent small acts of violence.
In the second week of knowing each other she had pushed Kajri away, not very hard, when she had come to the skylight room and found Kajri combing her still-wet waist-length hair.
Kajri liked her long hair. They only cut it twice a year at the L’Oreal Salon in the golf club. Madhuri, Mumma’s favoured girl, would give her a two-hour Oxy facial, and Kajri would get a trim, forsaking four inches on the floor. Once Madhuri had called Mumma for help. She had needed an abortion, and Mumma had gone with her one afternoon. Afterwards Madhuri had come home for a week and stayed mostly in the guest room. Mumma would go in after she returned from school, coaxing Madhuri to eat or to come out into the front room and sit with them and watch some TV. She’d come out sometimes, grey-faced without her customer-ready smile, rest her head on her fist and watch dully.
After she left, Mumma sat Kajri down and gave her a talk about the importance of using protection, if and when she chose to do it. Kajri had run away from her, going from room to room shouting Ew Mumma, STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS, and Mumma had become angry. ‘This is important!’ she had said. ‘Stop acting stupid.’ Kajri was in the tenth grade then, and she had only just furtively kissed Sanjoy D’Mello under the stairs after math tuition. They had been dating a week, and he had slipped his tongue into her mouth and run his hand down her chest, and she had pushed him away and said, ‘What the fuck, D’Mello! You don’t have to go for gold at once’ and run down to find Dad waiting in the car, wondering why she was always five minutes late, and Sanjoy D’Mello had told everyone at school she was ‘frigid’, but no one paid much attention. Kajri didn’t care that much; he was hot but stupid, and she could do better. And then she hadn’t felt anything for anyone, and then everything had changed, quickly. Her new life—an unchanging every day, secure under Assurance-II’s massive dome with the persistent hum of the oxygen tanks.
‘You’re such a pretty little shit,’ Tara said, after she pushed Kajri and her hair so it swished a little, filling the room with the smell of coldness and synthetic lime. But the way she had said ‘shit’ viciously, looking away and shaking her own head with its close-cropped hair, gave Kajri a pleasurable tingle in her stomach.
Now she was spending so much time with Tara, Mumma curling into herself bothered Kajri less. It was pleasurable, this tuning out. And although she wasn’t exactly grateful to be trapped inside or untroubled by the knowledge that many people died in the air outside every day and were turned away by the Assurance-II security guards in full suits at the limit of their self-sufficient colony—she thought of Tara before she went to sleep every night. And she felt something she hadn’t felt in a long time. The thrill of not-knowing. The feeling that something could happen.
Tara had nice hands. They were big, with long fingers. Kajri, who was small and soft and had been called pudgy more than once by Sonal Kapadia and co. in class, liked to look at her hands and imagine what it would feel like to have those hands hold her face, softly.
She would have asked Jojo Auntie about being lesbian, but Jojo Auntie wasn’t here. She imagined it. Sitting on Jojo Auntie’s couch, eating cheeseballs from their crinkly plastic wrapper. ‘Do you think I’m a lesbian?’ she would have asked. ‘I don’t know, my mint julep,’ Jojo Auntie would have said, smoking her clove cigarette. She would have smiled and tilted her head at Kajri and given her a book to take home and said not to worry too much about it. Jojo Auntie would have said. ‘Words are just things we use to make sense of this tangly mess of Stuff.’
‘Seriously, darling,’ Jojo Auntie of her imagination was saying now. ‘You’ll figure it out.’ She was squeezing Kajri’s hand in hers. ‘Just remember to be safe and not do anything with anyone who makes you feel bad.’
But Jojo Auntie wasn’t here.
If she died tomorrow, Kajri thought, she would want her ears ringing with the sound of Tara laughing. Until that Sunday she had never seen her relax. Sure, Tara was sure of herself and she made Kajri nervous. She had seen Tara smirk and smile and tease and roll her eyes and yawn and grin and scowl and grimace and sulk. But the first time Kajri saw her soften was when she made her laugh for the first time. It was like watching Tara unfurl and open into her.
There would always be a sliver of time where Tara was laughing and Kajri was there to see it.
Kajri was named for a species of fish her mother craved throughout her pregnancy. Kajri maach had soft skeletons. You ate them in a single slurp. They couldn’t hurt you.
The night Jojo Auntie left for wherever it was that she had gone was terrible. Mumma had been screaming at her in the living room for an hour, but she was unmoved. She didn’t shout back. Kajri hid behind the curtain to the living room and watched.
‘You can assimilate,’ Mumma was shouting. ‘They won’t be able to tell! You’re just being difficult Jo!’
‘I don’t want to!’ Jojo Auntie shouted back finally. ‘You know I’m right, Mithu. The drones have picked up my face from the last several months. You know they have. They took Ruth away yesterday. She was getting ready to leave. Her suitcases were packed and everything. It’s just a matter of time.’
‘Look.’ she said more quietly. ‘Honestly, I just came to say goodbye to you. Because I don’t know when I’ll see you next.’
‘Why do you always have to make life difficult for yourself?’ Mumma was still screaming. Her voice was a horrible shrill sound, and now it cracked, and she was coughing from all the screaming, and Dad was passing her the water.
‘I can get you a job, you know,’ he said flatly, going through the motions. ‘That’s not an issue; you know that, right? Like a management position, easy. You’d be an asset to the, to the…digital team.’
Jojo Auntie said nothing, just looked at him. ‘Look, it’s cute that everyone’s packing up for the ultimate gated colony and all, and I’m not judging you; I’m really not. You have Kajri to think about. But it’s not my scene. You know it’s not. I’m not going to smile at Mrs. Malhotra when she stares at me too long, and I’m not going to entertain after-hours enquiries from her mister about how friendly I am. I’m not going to sign bloody petitions and donate my 1000 rupees and wait and wait and wait while our communities beg and suffocate and die.’
‘So you’re going to die on the street with them? You’re not—you’re not the only one you know.’ Mumma was crying now. ‘There are other people. Maybe in a few months once it’s settled …we’ll take care of you…you’re not…some great saviour!’
‘Why are you doing this to me?’ she moaned softly, her face in her hands. She knew she wasn’t making sense anymore.
Jojo Auntie crouched down beside her and pulled her into a hug. ‘No one needs saviours,’ she said. ‘These are my people.’
Don’t worry, she said over her shoulder as she gathered her purse and hugged Kajri along with the curtain, I don’t have a death wish; we have gas masks and cylinders and supplies. I’m not stupid. There’s always people fighting back. And then she left and Mumma said, But why does it have to be her to Dad, who didn’t have an answer, so he handed her the tissue-box and held her hand instead.
I want to kiss you, Tara said. Because they were both girls, no one seemed to notice how much time they were spending together up in the skylight room. Even if they nestled close, it only looked like they were doing what girls do: hold hands, lie in each other’s laps, run fingers through each other’s hair. It’s not that it wasn’t allowed. It was just that everyone seemed, you know, ‘normal,’ as Mr. Santosh, the chairman of Assurance-II’s board would have put it.
Tara was lying with her head in Kajri’s lap when she said this. Kajri started, and then she made the bird’s beak kiss. Tapped her fingers gently on Tara’s face. Tara closed her hand over Kajri’s and brought it to her own face. ‘No,’ she said looking up at her. ‘I mean really kiss you.’
The red light of the camera blinked away above the door, a betrayal even in Kajri’s one safe place. No one knew who was watching, but after the last six months, no one was going to risk it.
Tara took Kajri’s hand now, drew it down to her neck and stopped at her clavicle. ‘Don’t you?’ she asked.
Kajri nodded. ‘Yes,’ she whispered, her throat dry. ‘Yes, more than anything.’
Tara sat up, her lips just inches away from Kajri’s. ‘I knew it,’ she said and smiled, breaking the moment. ‘I fucking knew it!’ She was jumping around the room.
Kajri couldn’t help it; she started laughing. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Wasn’t it obvious?’
‘It really, really was,’ Tara said.
‘No take-backs,’ Kajri said quickly.
‘What are you, seven?’ Tara scoffed. Then she pulled a face. ‘But we can’t. Not here.’
‘Not anywhere,’ Kajri said.
Jojo Auntie had told Kajri that back in her time they would kiss in public parks. When you were young and broke and didn’t have a place of your own, you would take intimacy anywhere when it came to you. Of course, you still had to hide. It was dangerous to be affectionate in public.
Inside the colonies, the rooms watched you. The people watched you. You watched you.
There was only the outside.
What makes a really good kiss?
A really small flint of fear.
At 5am the outside was dark. Kajri felt on her arms the cold feeling of cleanness you only got from the early-morning breeze. There was absolute silence. She heard only her heartbeat thrum in her ears.
They had agreed on a spot they could both identify. By the green plastic bush, behind the lamp post whose light didn’t work. Kajri pulled her mask tight, paranoid, and hurried. No guards materialised as she turned the corner. She passed the body of a small creature crumpled on the ground as she walked by as fast as she could. It could have been a cat. It could have been a baby.
Tara was waiting for her. Her frame towered over Kajri, and she took her hands and squeezed them hard, as soon as she saw her. ‘Thirty seconds, K,’ she said through her mask.
They had rehearsed this in the skylight room, mimicking the motions: Undo the buckle. Hold your breath. Pull the mask down. One fluid motion; don’t waste any time. As soon as you feel your shoulders and stomach start to resist, pull it back on.
Her fingers trembling, Kajri undid the buckles, her breaths already shallow. Tara looked straight into her eyes, mirroring her movements. Then she nodded and down came their masks.
Tara’s mouth was hard on hers, and her fingers held Kajri’s face just the way she had imagined it. Kajri held onto Tara’s elbows, steadying herself. There was Tara’s nose, the smooth skin of her face, her warm breath in Kajri’s mouth and the hesitant tip of her tongue on Kajri’s.
It must have been more than 30 seconds because Kajri was feeling lightheaded. When she opened her eyes, she was on her knees. Tara was fastening her mask for her with shaking fingers, and there were two figures approaching them from the distance, but all Kajri really noticed was the morning light spreading through the blue sky outside the dome, breaching the barrier and spilling into her.
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