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A thousand paper cranes

In Janice Pariat's second novel, nine characters recall their relationships with the same young woman, whom either they have loved or who has loved them. An excerpt

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

You are twelve, and you loathe me.

In my class, you refuse to paint, because you think your pictures are ugly. And I try and tell you, like every good teacher must, regardless of whether I believe it or not, that you’ll improve with practice. You disagree. It infuriates you that there’s something you can’t immediately do, like a maths sum, or a science experiment. This is art, I tell you, but I can see you’re a scientific artist. If there is such a thing.

The other children huddle around tables, painting and sketching in wild abandon. A few are truly accomplished. You are not one of them. Their hands move instinctively across canvas and paper, guided by some unseen spirit. Although I have a sorrowful feeling that this is the only time in their lives they will ‘do’ art. And that they will grow up and plunge into vocations that do not call for beauty.

Almost a year ago, on my first day here, in this small school, in this small town in the east of the country, I assigned the class to paint a tree.

‘What kind of tree?’ you asked.

‘Any kind,’ I replied.

‘But there are so many kinds of trees…’

‘I’m happy with any.’

That did not please you. And while you sat there undecided, the others dipped and dabbed, and I could tell that when you eventually tried, you were ashamed, even a little humiliated, that your tree looked like a green Popsicle on a stick. I made the mistake of coming round to your side of the table, and praising the girl to your right.

‘Look… how she’s allowed some sky to filter through the branches… That’s how it is, isn’t it? A tree is patchy. There are gaps between the leaves…’

You stared at me with something close to hatred.

It’s a look I grew accustomed to those first few months. Everything I said, whether to you or another student, seemed incendiary. You didn’t commit any overt misdemeanours, nothing I could throw you out of class or send you marching off to the headmaster for, which perhaps would have made it easier. Instead, it was a simmering, furtive mutiny. You did the barest minimum of work. Spending most of class time staring listlessly, excusing yourself to use the loo and not returning until just before the bell. You wouldn’t care to participate or answer questions, and anything I asked directly was met with a moody ‘I don’t know’.

In this way, we ploughed on through the year.

And even today, I get the same look of loathing. We’re painting a snowy landscape in class, and I glance at the picture you’ve made, and say sharply, ‘Have you ever seen pure white in nature?’

You frown. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean… snow is not white white, is it? There are shades of blue, and grey, and pink and yellow and purple even... the white wouldn’t show if it were only white.’

And then I make the biggest mistake of all. I touch up your painting. I dip the paintbrush in a bit of blue, black, and water, and spread it over your landscape.

A touch here, a stroke there. I have improved the picture but lost you.

From now on, you refuse to pick up a brush. Even on threat of punishment and failure.

You are the most stubborn child I know, and make me long for the days of corporal punishment.

Later, when I ask the class to hand in their assignments for grades, you submit a blank page.

‘What is this?’ I ask crossly.

‘White birds flying through white clouds.’

I give you an F. Then change it to a C. Rather than you failing, I have a feeling I’ve failed you.

We move on to other things, but you’re spectacularly unskilled at each. Your still life sketches are weak, your charcoals messy. I cannot allow you to touch oils because they’re expensive and I’ve been instructed to save them for the ‘best’ students in class. You’re mystified by acrylics, using them like watercolours, but they dry too fast and leave hard blotches of colour in the wrong places.

Maybe later, when I’ve been teaching for years, I’ll know how to deal with students like you. For now, I’m clueless.

I feel I’ve tried it all: threat, coercion, indifference, patience. I’ve spoken to your other teachers, and they can’t understand it either. You’re quiet and good in all their classes. Slightly scornful of chemistry, fond of literature, biology and history, and you’re intuitively skilled at maths. But about that I’m not surprised.

I really do feel I’ve lost you, until one day I ask if you’d like to play with paper.

‘And do what?’ You sound scornful of this too.

‘Well, we can make shapes for starters…’

You seem thoroughly unimpressed.

‘Have you heard of origami?’

Tentatively, you shake your head.

How much you must hate admitting not knowing something. I’m almost gleeful.

I hand you sheets of paper and a beginner’s How-To manual. I have a feeling you’d prefer this to taking instructions from me. You examine the pages, pick a pattern, lost in concentration. It’s remarkable. You’re marvellous at it. From your fingertips spring cranes and boxes, frogs and butterflies, crabs and flowers. Neat and intricate, the lines pressed and folded with industrious care and precision. They are exercises in exactitude. Each the same size and shape as the other. You sit in the corner of the classroom, patiently creasing, folding and lining them all up when they’re done. I want to tell you they’re beautiful, but I worry this might dissuade you instead, so I watch and do not offer praise.

After this, there’s a sea change.

You are the first to enter class, and the last to leave.

Your eyes follow me around, while I’m moving from one cluster of students to another and when someone walks up to my desk for help. You linger at the end, showing me all you’ve made that day, eager, if I’m not mistaken, for my approval.

At first, I’m not quite sure how to respond. Do I appear pleased? Do I ignore you now, in return? I think in my confusion, I do a bit of both, but this doesn’t deter you. If anything, it seems to make you even more determined. You catch me in corridors, and in the library, sometimes on the lawn, and initiate the most sweetly mundane conversation. We talk of the weather, and lunch, and whether I like cats or dogs.

‘Dogs,’ I say.

‘Cats,’ you say.

And everything I answer is followed by ‘why?’

Why do I prefer peas to potatoes? Why would I like to own a bicycle rather than a car? Why dogs? Why am I vegetarian? Why do I like dark chocolate? Why do I read poetry? When I turn the questions back at you, I find you pleasingly impulsive. You don’t take your time. You like beetroot for its colour. Cats for their eyes. White chocolate because it’s not quite chocolate. Poetry befuddles you. You reply from your gut. Everything, at this age, is instinct.

You show me test papers and essays, work you’ve been merited on. I praise you like I think a parent would. You aren’t that fond of sports, you tell me. Even though you’re made to run and throw and participate. You’re fond of music, but have no inclination to play an instrument. ‘I like to sing,’ you tell me shyly.

‘Sing me something.’

‘Just like that?’

‘Just like that.’

We’re outside, walking down a path in the school grounds.

‘What would you like me to sing?’


You take a moment to choose, and start singing. So softly, I must lean in to listen. It’s an old song from the ’70s. I wonder how you know it. Maybe your parents play it at home, and you’ve grown up listening to it. It’s a song about a man making a phone call to somebody he loved, and who left him. It’s sweet and silly, and incongruous, coming from you, but you sing it to the end, and I applaud.

Once, you hand me a flower, a full, heavy magnolia blossom. It had fallen to the ground in the rain, and now lay in my hand, wetly glistening. Creamy pink, deepening in colour at the centre, palest at its waxy petal edges. I slip it into a bottle filled with water, and carry it home with me at the end of the day. I am thrilled by your attention, and also disconcerted. It is intense, like walking out into noonday sunlight. I’ve never been at the receiving end of something like this. And then I tell myself you are a child, that you cannot know better. Your feelings will turn this way and that, flitting from thing to thing, person to person. Soon enough you will tire of this, and someone else will fascinate you. But it doesn’t seem to wane, your affection, anytime soon.

I think perhaps it is better to push you away slightly, to be a little distant, less accessible. After all, we don’t want you doing something wayward. So I’m polite but more reserved. I duck into rooms if I see you coming down the corridor. I tell you I’m busy when you chance upon me in the library. I walk out of school with my other colleagues. I sit on the lawn with a book, preoccupied. You seem puzzled, though undeterred. But the more you clamour for my attention, the less I give you any. It’s a terrible dance, and I feel sick, but I don’t know what else to do.

On some days, I find paper cranes on my table, sometimes, a dragonfly.

At first I would collect them, placing them on a shelf like a disorderly, inanimate zoo. Now I try telling you that you could take them home to your parents to surprise and please them instead, but you look at me in silence. When I persist, eventually you say you can’t, and you walk away.

The Nine-Chambered Heart: By Janice Pariat, HarperCollins, 204 pages, Rs399.
The Nine-Chambered Heart: By Janice Pariat, HarperCollins, 204 pages, Rs399.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.

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