by | Jul 21, 2023

Textile fragment (c. 1700s).
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Sunaina stood in the back room of the house. Painted canvases and framed paintings leaned against each other along the lengths of two walls. A heap of rolled-up watercolor paintings stood in a corner. By her side, the afternoon light flooded in through sliding glass doors. As the mango trees in the backyard swayed in the breeze, the bright sun fell to the earth sparsely through the leaves, casting vast maps of shadows on the earth. With every gust of wind, green mangoes the size of her toenails fell to the ground. On the small patio behind the glass doors, a thin line of ants was dexterously at work in anticipation of winter. Outside, she could hear the voices of Nani, her maternal grandmother, and Amma, her mother, deep in conversation. She didn’t know what they were talking about, but they seemed calm, as if they were sitting in the winter sun. Tuffy was contentedly sunning himself even though it was only August. She saw his head gently nodding even as he panted: he would soon fold. Twelve years was not young for a dog.

She sat down before the stretched sheet of paper on which, two nights back, she had begun painting a detailed, large peony. With the exception of a few idyllic landscapes and a few women in vintage clothing from the 1920s, the room was filled with paintings of flowers. Intricate Chinese paintings. Small flecks of flower petals dangling from frail branches. Calligraphic brush strokes for every feather of the sparrows communicating across a branch. Some were vivid, others gray. Five blooming cherry blossoms on a bare, scraggly tree, the water in the paint graduating the color from deep to shallow, from the center of the flower to the edge of the petal. In one, clumps of flowers held on to the branch while several petals floated away, each edge blurred with water gently dropped on the paper. The blue irises were luxuriant, growing upward from the ground with their tall leaves, large petals drooping heavily, sometimes surrounded by butterflies. They reminded Sunaina of a large, sensual woman, like Velázquez’s or Bouguereau’s Venus.

The peony she was painting seemed isolated but was shadowed by a companion that stood faintly in the distance behind, though it grew on the same branch. There were a few grayish-green leaves, which possessed little color of their own, existing mostly as faint guiding pencil marks. The paper was painted eggshell white, the peony poised at the center of the frame. Sunaina dipped a fine-haired brush into red and began detailing the dark petals of the flower in full bloom. Close observation would reveal its outward petals leaning further outward, unfurling away from the bloom, their edges a little too dark as they precariously held onto the stem, at any moment about to sever from their receptacle.

“So many flowers,” said Freddie.

“It’s only one,” she said.

“Look around you. Is there only one flower in the room? Really? Are you going to fool yourself like that? Isn’t it enough that the world fools you? Like Nani and Amma pretending to be alive, and little Tarun standing here next to you when you know he’s at boarding school, far away from here?”

Surely enough, Tarun was standing next to her watching her paint. He frequently did. He was also sitting in the backyard, under the trees. When he appeared this way, he would never speak to her.

“Flowers, flowers, and more flowers,” Freddie sighed. “Everything blooms while you sit here and wilt away … She was quite a bitch, wasn’t she, Adhir’s ‘Mummy’?”

“Yes, she was. It’s much more peaceful without her around.”

“Don’t you let Adhir hear that. I think he overhears many of our conversations anyway. Bloody Mumma’s boy. He’s wretched now.”

“Hah. Yes, he is,” Sunaina replied, painting the backs of the turning petals.

“If only they hadn’t been so nasty to you, the two of them.”

“Don’t you let Adhir hear that. I think he overhears many of our conversations anyway.”


 “Their old house, the one in which Adhir’s father had died—I used to feel like the taps flowed not with water but with hatred. I was happier then, because I was younger, more beautiful—and Tarun was so small and loving.”

“Small and loving Tarun, who was as big as your palm, inside your womb, when they threw you out of their house the first time.”

“And when I came back, Adhir wanted to sleep with me all the time. They hated me. That was what it was, right, Freddie? They hated me. They did everything to drive me mad.”

“Everything,” Freddie said.

The edges of the petals were red like chiles. Sunaina mixed some black into red on a steel plate to make a maroon.

“I wonder why it all happened,” Freddie said. “Amma and Papa shouldn’t have married you to him. Maybe you shouldn’t have agreed to marry him. Maybe it was all your fault.”

“I wasn’t thinking straight at that time. I felt sick to my bones. But Adhir said he loved me and that he really, really wanted to marry me.”

“He was a bastard then, and he’s a wheezing bastard now.”

“Don’t swear at my husband, Freddie,” she said. A moment later they both burst into peals of laughter. Sunaina was delighted at this inside joke.

“It would have started even earlier,” Freddie said. “You did something as a child.”

“I did nothing as a child!” she said, dismayed.

Textile fragment (c. 1700s).
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

“Or even further back …” Freddie disappeared into thought for a while. Sunaina waited for the best explanation, absentmindedly swirling the dark red paint on the steel plate. She sat slumped on a wooden stool. Her free hand rested with the palm facing upwards, and she observed the veins on her hand, her wrist, her arm, the lace of a leaf eaten through by a beetle. The tip of the paintbrush traced each vein, beginning at the heel of her palm, down all the way to the soft inside of her elbow. The thick wet paint dripped out of line, making imaginary veins in places where there were none.

“Back to your past life … or to your lives before that …” Freddie returned. It seemed plausible to Sunaina. “Or,” Freddie paused, “God hates you. He made you, but he hates you. I’m the only one, you know, who loves you.”

“Tuffy loves me. Tuffy always sat with me when I was unwell, after Tarun had been sent away to boarding school, and Adhir left for the office and ‘Mummy’ didn’t give a shit. Tuffy would sit at my bedside and cry with me when I was sick with vomiting.”

“Tuffy can do nothing. He’s just a dog. And an old, feeble one at that,” Freddie said spitefully. Sunaina felt hurt for Tuffy. “And I’m the only one on this planet,” Freddie said, “in the whole universe, in the mouth of Krishna, in all of past present and future that loves you, and speaks to you. Give me, food, Freddie.”

Freddie had to be fed, again. Freddie’s appetite for food was like Adhir’s for sex, and it was her job to feed them both. She got up from the stool and tied her hair into a bun. The paint dripped onto her shirtsleeve and stained her clothes.

Awakened by the sound of her footsteps, Tuffy walked to the garden, urinated, and came back to pick lazily at his food.

With paint-smudged fingers, Sunaina searched the refrigerator and found a bucket of cold KFC chicken and two buns, which she smeared with butter.

“Look at your hands.” Freddie laughed. “You look like you killed someone.”

“At least that would be doing something, Freddie.”

“It would be.”

She sat at the dining table and ate. Nani and Amma were quiet now. In the upstairs hallway, from where you could see hills in the distance, the disembodied voice of Sunaina’s niece floated around, just as it had sounded on the phone a few weeks back. “I fear too much,” she had said then. How strange, Sunaina thought, for her to have run away from home if she feared too much. “One can only run away like you when one has not known loss!” Sunaina shouted out to the voice upstairs.

“There’s always a way out,” her niece said again. “The world is good.”

“The world is hateful!” Freddie shouted out loud.

“The world is good,” said her niece from across the dining table.

Sunaina fell asleep, slumped across the dining table.

Adhir entered the hall, threw his keys on the sofa, and lit a cigarette. At 56, his hair was completely gray, and his knees, unable to carry his weight, complained incessantly when he walked. The asthma too was a good excuse to avoid walking, though it didn’t keep him from smoking. He now found it hard to stand for more than a minute without imagining his bones turning to rubble.

Sitting down on the sofa, he rubbed his eyes. These days, he avoided looking at Sunaina. There was something grotesque about her. Though she rarely left the house, hours each morning were spent applying make-up that she never took off, not even at night. In the mornings, he left without glancing at her, but on weekends, he was forced to look at her darkened face, the layers of eyeliner and collyrium having run every which way in the night, as if a nightmare were at flight from her eyes. He was forced to watch her ghost of a person walk around attempting to put together what she thought was a meal: burnt and over-salted eggs, blackened bread, halwa with not a grain of sugar in it.

“Did you take your medicines?” he asked her as he watched his cigarette burn close to his fingers. Tuffy barked sharply. Adhir was confused at Tuffy’s unusual alertness. As his eyes traveled to the table, he noticed the empty plate, and next to it, Sunaina, slumped like an invalid. She didn’t react to the sound of his voice, but he was used to her sleeping this way. He was too spent even for anger. Between taking Sunaina to the psychiatrist and paying Tarun’s college fees, working five days a week and walking Tuffy, arranging meals and paying the rent, there was no time even to fit in his long, labored breaths, let alone anger. Sunaina was little help anymore; in fact, she never had been any help in the first place. Sometimes, it seemed as if the world would come to an end and begin all over again, and she would remain asleep. Not dead, but only asleep, breathing, as if her eyelids had been stuck together and her mind imploded into a black hole while her body continued to exist. He stared at this immobile body for a while. Slowly, his bloodshot eyes began to follow the trails of red dripping on her hands, her arms, and her shirt. Tuffy panted hard. Another bark. As Adhir’s fingers burned from a neglected cigarette, he cried out in pain and horror and rushed to Sunaina. “Wake up, get up, what the hell is this?!” he yelled as he shook her wildly, to no avail. Sunaina was inanimate.

Sometimes, it seemed
as if the world would
come to an end and
begin all over again,
and she would remain

Adhir lost all sense of what to do. This was greater trouble than anything he had ever imagined from Sunaina. He paced the dining room in a frenzy, close to tears with anxiety, his breath squeezing his own life out of him. It did not occur to him to see if she was dead or alive, or to check how much blood she may have lost, or what sharp object she may have used on herself. Hands shaking and nauseous with fear, he finally decided to call for an ambulance.

Sitting down on the sofa, Adhir began sobbing and rubbing his palms with his thumbs. He had done everything he could have over the past few years. He had handled and disciplined Tarun by himself. With his mother a useless fixture in the household, the child had no interest in his studies anymore. He had shown Sunaina to every doctor, but their advice and medications had failed to settle her behavior to normalcy. All she did was eat, blabber to herself, or curse him and his mother, even though they were the ones who had given her a home. Her, who otherwise would have been living in a bloody asylum, the mad woman. The least she could do was think about Tarun, but she was too selfish, immersed in her own troubles. And now she had gone and done something more selfish than he had ever expected. What would people think if she died? What if they thought that … But he noticed that Sunaina was stirring. For a moment he stopped breathing, froze into stillness to ensure that his mind, stretched to its breaking point, was not playing games with him. But it wasn’t. Slowly, Sunaina dragged her body away from the table, the stained arm leaving streaks of color on the dirty white tablecloth. Adhir sat stupefied, watching her torturously slow movements. Her eyes were still half-shut, her mouth a passive grimace unrecovered from her stupor.

Adhir got up slowly and walked to her. Dumbfounded, he fumbled around in his head for what would be the right question to ask: why did you do it or what happened or what is this? His eyes were wide open with a mixture of fear and incomprehension. Sunaina was sitting slumped on her chair, barely having come to terms with his presence. “What is this, Sunaina?” Adhir said, pointing to her arm, his voice rising. Sunaina looked at him, confused. He had now caught hold of her arm and shook it, shouting, “What the hell did you do?! Have you actually, finally gone mad?!”

Sunaina looked to the arm that he had been violently shaking, as if it were an alien object. She searched in the corners of her mind to understand what was happening. “You look like you killed someone …” Freddie said again, and then continued, the excitement rising, “I know … you look as if … as if …” Sunaina knew what was coming, and looking at Adhir’s distorted face tickled her even more. “As if, Freddie, you killed yourself!” At this, Sunaina burst into laughter. Adhir was staring at her with his mouth open, his face contorted with anxiety, confusion. The more she looked at him, the louder she laughed.

Textile fragment (c. 1700s).
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

“He thought you died!” Freddie said, “he thought you committed suicide!”

“Doesn’t he wish that, the wretched bastard!” Sunaina exclaimed. She laughed uncontrollably, infused by Freddie’s sadistic joy. Rising from the chair, she walked about the room, laughing so hard her belly shook, leaning for support on whatever she could find. Her high-pitched laughter filled the house as Adhir stood watching, dumbstruck, and Tuffy’s barking, now constant, bounced off the walls. As if he were laughing with her at a joke that had been played on Adhir, Tuffy shifted his weight between his legs, panting excitedly and wagging his tail.

Freddie laughed as hard as Sunaina, his words barely understandable. “He thought they’d think,” Freddie said gasping for breath, “they’d think he killed you!”

“Look at his face, Freddie!” Sunaina squealed. “He’s so pale, it looks like he’s the one who’s going to die!”

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” Adhir screamed, terrified.

“This …” Sunaina said, squeezing words between her laughter, “it’s …” It was hard for her to speak when his face looked so ridiculous. “It’s … it’s paint!” she exclaimed joyously, and burst into laughter again.

Adhir went to her and caught her arm, rubbing the red color with his fingers. It came off on his hands. Her skin was unbroken. Outside, the wail of a siren was coming closer. Tuffy continued barking. The laughter gushed through Sunaina’s head and her ears. Adhir stood holding her wrist in one hand and stared at her. The anger rose in him fast, as if it was what he had always been made of. When he hit her, she finally stopped laughing because she was no longer conscious.

In her dream, Tuffy is close to her, sniffing her, licking her hands and the paint, pawing her hair. Then he begins to bark. Constantly, loudly. “What is the matter with him?” Sunaina wonders. He’s growling now, and baring his teeth. His lips are curled back, and all his teeth are on display, just like “Mummy’s” China in the corner glass cupboard. Why is he looking at her like that? Maybe he’s hurt. She extends her hand to pet him and calm him down. But he snaps at her! Sunaina shrieks and pulls her hand back, as Tuffy glowers at her, threateningly. Frightened, she gets up slowly, avoiding any sudden movements. He’s upset and she doesn’t want to anger him more. Suddenly, he lurches for the edge of her skirt and Sunaina cries out, “Tuffy, no, get down!”


Arrows of pain shoot up from her bare feet. She hears herself banging on the doors of her dream, asking to be let out, but to no avail.


The moment he lets go, Sunaina begins to run. Out the gate and down the street, as Tuffy chases her, barking and snarling. Her sweet Tuffy might get run over, but she can’t think anymore, she must run, must save herself. Over Tuffy’s barking, on the street, crossing roads, in the middle of a hundred vehicles honking, a million people cursing and selling and buying in the markets, making love and crying and fighting and laughing like maniacs, she hears Freddie shouting, “Give me food!” Her bare feet hurt, but Sunaina continues to run. She is tired and thirsty, her mouth is dry and coated with dust, she is gasping for breath, but she continues to run, because if she stops, she will lose herself. She wants to wake up. Arrows of pain shoot up from her bare feet. She hears herself banging on the doors of her dream, asking to be let out, but to no avail. She is crying because she can’t run on the street anymore, so she runs where there is grass. But now her head spins, and there is no life in her limbs. Her vision is hazy. Soon she feels her knees give way. Her body slows down, and she collapses. The door has been opened. In that haze, she recalls her niece’s words: “There’s always a way out.”

Sunaina could see the light through her eyelids, and it reminded her of the palette on which she mixed colors, the blue mixing into the orange, which mixed into the black, which mixed into yellow. The first color she saw when she opened her eyes was the green of grass, rising from her left to her right. Moving to the right, the deep, bright blue of twilight. Then a long pole connecting the earth on her left to the sky on her right, ending in a light which made her squint. She rose slowly. She saw that the red on her wrist had reached her feet. But her bleeding feet hurt in a way that her arms did not. The hills she would watch from the rooftop were rising close by, dark silhouettes in the twilight. She could hear a cricket chirping.

“There’s always a way out,” her niece had said. “The world is good.” There were two situations in which people ran away, she realized: one, when they had never known loss, and two, when they had nothing left to lose. Rubbing her eyes, Sunaina thought to herself, “I’m hungry.”

Radhika Prasad

Radhika Prasad

Publab Fellow 2023

Radhika Prasad is a PhD candidate in the literature department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she researches and writes on the mid-20th-century modernist Hindi novel. She is deeply interested in questions of language politics and translation and loves to explore how they play out in literature and in day-to-day life. During 2022–23, she received a public fellowship to work with the Center for the Art of Translation and Two Lines Press. In her free time, Radhika is a Hindustani classical vocalist, a translator, and a writer of short stories and prose poetry.