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The Imagination's Tongue

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Surya assigns a color to everyone he passes, sometimes idly, sometimes with more purpose, and sometimes with no thought at all. She is an irritant. Strange and wafting along at odd intervals in his life like a stray whiff of perfume. He would paint her in yellow. It's too bad, then, that he's currently in the midst of what he half-heartedly calls his Blue Period, even if it's lasted for most of his life and shows no sign of ending.

More and more, he wonders if she would understand, or if she, too, would leap upon the course to fix him. He supposes there's a great deal wrong with him: he sleeps little, splatters paint all over his clothes, and finds people difficult. But it takes little to inspire him. A flower catching the light, bathed in dew. The innards of a melon, broken by a careless child. The whorls and waves and eddies of a tarp, thoughtlessly thrown over goods no one wants. The untrammeled creature she becomes when she is not staring after him—wrestling with the newest avant-garde pissoir the first years have erected, or examining her teeth in a mirror.

He can help painting no more than he can help breathing. Sometimes, he toys with the idea of a life lived in the pursuit of profit like a child would with a jagged bit of glass—a job abroad, or expanding the factory, like his mother wants. A suit for every day, a regular amount of cash every month, a wife who would otherwise object to sharing him with poverty and paint and a happy mother. Pity the every thought is enough to slow the pounding of his heart. He is a selfish bastard, it seems, but at least this way, his life will not end with his eating a gun. He could tell his mother this, but words, like people, have always been difficult for him. It's why he talks and talks with the language of color and composition and form, and there's always the chance he'd be dismissed as a melodramatic artist. He hopes Amma understands anyway.

That sort of understanding he doesn't need from his peers. They all think he's a drug addict, an alcoholic, or both. That he'd caused his father's death with unrelenting barbarism. He snorts. Please. As though he was capable of causing the sort of arterial clots that had claimed his father's life. He began spending his nights in the factory so he could soothe the ache in his soul that Appa's passing had left, because Appa was the factory: there were shadows of him everywhere, in those days, in the walls, the kernels of luban, the sandal paste, the small mountains of dyes. Now, his nights belong to the factory, not because of Appa, but because of the workers who need the reassurance that all is well, that the work will continue, and that nothing is amiss. Surya has had very little use for God in his life nowadays, but he hopes that wherever Appa is, he appreciates Surya's efforts, if not his utter lack of entrepreneurial ambition. Fuck the idiots at college. I owe them nothing.

He thinks little of debts. He hasn't got many. To his mother, surely, she who rails at him day and night and still washes his clothes, feeds him, and never throws out his work, no matter how disturbing or abstract. Her wants are simple. For him, a job, a wife, and stability; for her, grandchildren and peace. But selfish bastardy is in his bones: he will never stop painting.

In the beginning of their not-quite-relationship, he'd hoped she'd come forward with her feelings, so he could tell her to get lost already. What does she know about him? That he's a scoundrel, a drunkard, a user with a penchant for painting while high as the sky. If she came to him, bearing all that in mind, well—perhaps he'd worry for her. But she squeezes into his life is more insidious ways. She peers at him around corners. She finds him in the market. She learns Tamil and declares her love for dark skin. One memorable afternoon, he wakes to find her mere centimeters away from his face, eyes wide, nostrils flared, and her mouth set in a quivering, reverent bow. He ought to be blistering from her lack of regard for his privacy, ought to be lodging complaints, ought to roaring his displeasure—he, who owes no one any explanations and who lets his paintings speak for themselves. He does not. Instead, he sneaks looks at her. He borrows more books from the library than he needs. And he has no explanation for the shock of searing rage at her, at the utterly unobjectionable man asking her to a six o'clock show.

His painting, that night, is so dark it's nearly black on black. A cubist's masterpiece. There, that's right: abstract your anger, examine its facets, and realize that you've never even spoken to her. She has made no claim on you—and you, you idiot, couldn't even man up enough to talk to her. How simple would it have been? Join me for a cup of chai? I'm not an alcoholic? My mother would adore you? Please, don't give up on me? So small, the questions that could build a life, and how difficult he found them.

It's no surprise she finds herself in Appa's factory; she has, after all, been following him all day like a lost puppy. A not-so-deeply buried streak of maliciousness makes him want to give her a swift shove. You found your man. Go to him. Leave me be. She even has the nerve to faint, the idiot. As he picks her up, the absurd urge to feed her fills him—idli, dosa, vada, all the things she would like, so she'd never collapse in strange places ever again.

The exact moment his world shifts: breeze from a fan blows hair across her lips. Water, meant to be splashed cruelly across her face, drips to the ground, useless. Her eyelashes are silk fans. She's here. Here. Here, when she could be safely ensconced in a life of comfort with the portly, kind-looking man from the library. The thought sears his skin. He spins away and sends a runner for chai.

When she wakes, for once, she's as tongue-tied as he. There are no good explanations for her behavior, he supposes, even if he would like one, very badly. She turns to leave and walks into the darkness.

No. He's made up his mind. Her name feels like the sun on his lips. "Meenakshi."

She comes running back. His heart melts into a puddle of something vaguely gelatinous and oozes down to his knees. He forces the words out, and they come more and more easily. It's ridiculous. He's sure she knows exactly what he's doing—the knowledge is there, sparkling in her absurdly pretty eyes. Here are my circumstances. Here is why I hope to make you a good spouse. Please say yes. Good God, he even tells her his scores, and feels punch-drunk from her laughter, from way she comes running to him, from the warm weight of her behind him, and her sweet scent.

He will spend the rest of his life saying her name, over and over.