The call of a bansuri rising to her window from the street below awakens Mehr. It is a crooked call; the initial notes, delicate and malleable, make all the right turns inside the hollow of a bamboo reed, but soon miss the swivel that all sounds must make to morph into melodies. The magic that happens between a human mouth and a hollow reed reaches her when she’s still half asleep. A raag paws at the cobwebs of her mind, dyes it in bursts of ochre and green, before a breath at one end of the bansuri attempts a pitch too high; too soon the notes crash against one another, the sound screeches out through the other end of the reed. Mehr jolts awake. Some amateur is fiddling with an instrument down the road. Mehr begins the day with a premonition of missing a turn, an inexplicable sense of possibilities leading to dead walls.
Half a year has taken its turn since the time Mehr first saw Meer. It was a cold morning; fog leaked from the asphalt on the road, rolling onto the tyres of Meer’s motorbike as he tailed Mehr’s college bus. Seasons have changed, it is almost summer now; she sees it in the slow-moving blades of the fan hung from a hook on the ceiling above her single bed, feels it in the sweat beads forming on her forehead. But when her hand runs across her bedsheet, her fingers, in an attempt to stall the day, find pockets of coolness in its creases. She wants to lay her body still, to drink in the coolness her hands have discovered, but the staccato of ladles and pots from the kitchen remind her that she has little say.
Mehr drags herself out of bed, leaving an impression of her body on the limp mattress. She puts on her college uniform, a white Patiala shalwar with a hundred pleats that billow around her knees, inadvertently drawing attention to what it must conceal, a brief kameez barely reaching down to her knees, tapering around her thin waist. Over one shoulder she drapes a blue dupatta, a long, rectangular piece of cloth dried stiff by the starch her mother prepares from boiling rice until it dissolves into a sticky liquid. She looks in the mirror of her vanity, its oval, wrought-iron frame rusty at the edges, and dabs talcum powder on her face before walking away.
She attends a home economics college, one that prides itself on producing the best housewives in the city. All day she will surround herself with the hum of sewing machines working with cotton and silk for her clothes and textiles class, she will pore over textbooks on caring for children and elderly at home, she will handle hot bread with bare hands in her food and nutrition practicals, while her mind turns to snippets of conversations she has had with Meer over the phone. Hushed conversations, midnight dialogues, carried out only when the others at home are deep in their slumber, only when Meer’s mates in the hostel have turned deaf to the world. Meer studies at the only veterinary university in Lahore, its campus large and sprawling on the borders of the inner city. The campus houses animals ranging from cows to horses to rare cranes procured from tribes on the outskirts of the Himalayan Mountains. Mehr thinks about the crane Meer is caring for, wonders if it will survive the day. She has never seen the crane, or his university campus; she hasn’t seen his face in a few days, but at college she types in the name of his university, looks at the still lives archived there as the screen blinks at her to make it her home page. She has memorised the address of Meer’s university.
Mehr crosses her living room where her fourteen-year-old brother lounges in front of the television screen – another day off from school. He is watching a Bollywood actress twerk across the screen, but flips to the news channel when he sees her. The kitchen is without a door; a floral-print curtain is draped across its threshold. From a split in the curtain, she sees her mother’s back hunched over her stove; white fumes rise above her head. Despite being a decade old, the stove smoulders throughout the day. Smoke tendrils have lacquered the wall it rests against, have made the design of a singed lotus whose blackened petals reach up to the ceiling. Her mother’s rotund figure stands in the centre of this burnt logo; rolls of flesh under her cotton shirt jiggle with the movement of hands working between steaming pots. As Mehr parts the polyester curtain, she realises the stove has two additional cauldrons next to the usual chai pots and curry pans. The cauldrons, large and spherical, are steaming away.
The girl goes forward tentatively and kisses the side of her mother’s head, catches a drop of sweat from her mother’s brow on her lips. ‘Come home early from college,’ the mother declares. ‘We are receiving visitors today.’ There is finality in her words. Mehr knows who the visitors are. Any other guests would come unannounced, not needing to send a notice in advance for her mother to prepare the house and a suitable feast.