Freefall




There is a faded picture that hangs over Alina’s computer, in the perfect position for her to look up and glance at it. The frame is old and dark, the wood flaking away on the bottom, and the glass is cloudy with age despite her best efforts at scrubbing it with the Colin spray bottle that sits on the edge of her table. In the picture, a tiny five-year-old child clings to an older boy, both of them grinning at the camera. Behind them stands an older couple, the soft lines of their features blurred with time. The group stands in front of an empty road lined with trees that are in the middle of shedding their bright orange and brown and yellow leaves. There is a thick blanket of leaves under their feet, but there are no other distinguishing features that Alina can spot. She has spent hours poring over the picture, trying to figure out where it was. All her parents could tell her was that they had gone on a vacation with their grandparents when she and her brother were young, and this photo had been taken on some obscure walk. All they remembered was that they had visited Bangalore that autumn, but among the different parks and gardens and roads that bloomed with stunning colours, how is she to know the right spot? “Alina?” her mother calls, and she startles, torn out of her contemplation of the picture. “Can you come to the hall for a moment?” She puts her laptop to sleep and stands, stretching out her back and feels it crack satisfyingly. Spending hours hunched over a laptop while she works on rendering her designs is not the healthiest lifestyle, but she wouldn’t give it up for the world. “Yeah, Ma?” Her mother is sitting in front of the window, feeling the crisp October air blow over her face. October in Chennai is still balmy and warm, with just the barest hint of rain in the air. But in the mornings, the wind is cool and welcome against their sweaty skin, carrying with it the scent of someone’s cooking from the next apartment. “Your father and I want to go stay with your grandparents next week,” she says without any preamble. “Would you like to come along?” Alina’s first instinct is to decline. She wants to stay at home where everything is familiar, where she can work on things her own way, where she can watch the weather shift in its own predictable way. Bangalore is notorious in autumn, with the rains being unpredictable and the weather oscillating with alarming alacrity. Going to Bangalore in October is asking for a cold to hit. But. She has the faintest memory of bright orange and the crunch of leaves under her shoes. She has the faintest memory of a warm red sweater and laughter and colour. “I’ll come along,” she decides. “But I’ll stay with Akash at his apartment. I’ll come see Thatha and Paati in the day. I have some projects that need to be completed, and he has better Wi-Fi.” Her mother snorts. “The two of you together will completely forget to eat, Nana, so you’d better set alarms and come over for food.” Alina grins. “Then it’s a good thing he lives close by,” she says. “I’m not driving in Bangalore.” They laugh, and the breeze picks up, rustling the yellow-brown leaves of the plants outside their window. ***  When they step out of the car in front of their grandparents’ independent house in some small street in the city, it is late evening, and the biting cold makes Alina’s ears hurt. There are warm lights glowing in the squares of windows all along the street, and her grandmother is waiting with her soft red shawl tucked around her, a wide smile on her face. Alina ditches the bag and runs in for a hug. “You’ve finally come here,” her grandmother laughs, clinging to her hand. “You’ve grown so tall!” “Hi,” she breathes, looking down at her. “It’s been a really long time, huh, Paati?” “Bring the bags in, your Thatha made tea for all of you.” The street is lined with trees that she can’t make out the colours of, but Alina feels a crispness in the air from the showers that no doubt will return later in the night. The slight mist that they had seen driving into the city, that she had attributed to the exhaust of the countless cars creeping along the road, actually lingers, cloaking them all with a soft silence. Alina closes the door on the cold, and takes in the old house. There are beautiful orange leaves pressed into a book on the table, and she can see that they are old, but carefully preserved. They look like they might fall apart in her hands. “Ah, you found them again,” her grandfather says, coming to join her at the small table. He ruffles her hair with a smile, and she ducks away, embarrassed. “Thatha, I’m an adult now!” she whines, and he simply laughs while continuing. “You’ll always be our baby,” he says, “the child who loved to run into those leaves and hide under the trees.” “Has Akash come yet?” she asks, tearing her gaze away from the book. As much as she wants to hear about the places they had been to, she misses her brother. He studies in Bangalore, living in an apartment of his own, and it has been months since he was last able to get away. The stories of the past are not just hers to hold onto – they belong to them both. “Ravi said he’ll be here in a few minutes,” he says, reaching out to trace the leaves with gentle fingers. “It’ll be so long since we’ve had all you kids in the same house. It’ll be nice so sit together.” She leans into the shoulder that is shorter than she remembers, but no less steady. “Yeah, it’ll be nice.” *** Alina wakes up to the steady drizzle of rain against the window, and pushes the curtain by her bed aside to see. It is early dawn, but the rain-bearing clouds have covered the rising sun, which resolutely sends out its rays of light. The whole world is washed in bright yellow and gold, shadows and light contrasting and throwing the leaves of the trees outside her window into sharp relief. “It’s going to be a good day,” Akash tells her when she stumbles out of her room, yawning and pulling her sweater tighter around her. “It might stop by afternoon.” They sit together in the balcony, cradling steaming mugs of coffee and revelling in the silence. Alina realizes that this is the first time she’s not with her parents on an overnight trip to a different place. This is the first time she has chosen to step out by herself. She’s not sure how she feels about this change in herself. “Hey,” Akash says, turning to look at her, tucking a leg up on his chair. “What’s the real reason you wanted to come stay with me?” Alina ignores him, choosing to focus on the steady stream of water droplets dripping off the balcony railing, the chinks of sunlight breaking through the clouds and setting them aflame in gold. “Oi.” “Can’t I want to spend time with my lovely brother?” she asks, tracing her finger along the rim of her mug. “I don’t get to see you all that much, you know.” “Nana, you’re a horrible liar,” he says bluntly. “What’s bothering you?” The picture that hangs over her computer flashes in her mind. “It’s not…bothering me, but -” Akash sits in silence, letting her pick and choose her words patiently. This is why she loves her brother so much. He always knows. “I feel like I’m on the cusp of a change,” she admits. “A – a shift, of sorts.” “Yeah, that’s what growing up is called.” She reaches over to punch his shoulder. “I know! But it’s hard!” His eyes are more understanding than she expected. “I know, Alina. But it’s a decision and a choice you have to make for yourself. We’re here to support you, but you need to make the first step yourself.” “Remember the laminated leaves in Thatha’s house? The ones he uses as bookmarks?” she asks. “Where did we get those?” He scrunches up his nose. “Why are you worried about those?” Alina pulls out her phone and swipes through her gallery to find the photo. “I found this when I was cleaning out my old cupboard. It’s us, and Thatha and Paati, but Ma and Pa couldn’t figure out where this was taken.” Akash squints at the screen with a frown. “It looks like it could be literally anywhere.” “I want to find this place again.” He looks up, confused. “Why?” Alina sighs, leaning back in her chair. The rain has stopped, and a gentle sunlight has flooded the area. The sky is a faint blue, the clouds scudding across it with the cool wind that tousles their hair. “I don’t know.” “Think about it and figure it out, Alina. If there’s something you want to do, I won’t stop you. But you need to know why you want to do it.” *** Colouring in a part of her design on her laptop, Alina wonders what that itch in her mind is. Does she want to simply know what happened then that she couldn’t remember? Does she want to feel that happiness her younger self is shining with once more? What will looking at that past bring back to her? She blinks, and then realizes she has been picking the same colour palette as the leaves on those trees. The reds and oranges and yellows shine at her from her design. When they walk the five minutes to her grandparents’ house, she looks at the trees it was too dark to look at last night. In the light of the day, they look a little less mysterious, and their leaves look dry and curled. They don’t have the vibrancy of the “autumn” that people like to talk about in her books, but there’s a silent beauty to the leaves that snap off a branch and spiral down, carried by the gentle breeze to join a growing pile on the edge of the road, muddy and dirty from the rainy water splashed up by cars. They are welcomed by a pile of photo albums that lie haphazardly across the entire living room floor, with her mother and her father nearly hidden by a stack of thick albums. Paati rises to greet her with a smile before hobbling off to make tea, waving her away when she offers to help. Instead, Alina sits down with her grandfather, who wordlessly pushes an old album towards her. It is of her and Akash as kids, an album filled with random vacation pictures. “Ravi told me you were looking for this picture,” he says, and Alina throws her father a look of surprise. She hadn’t realized that he had noticed enough of her preoccupation with the photo beyond the distracted answer he had given her way back in the beginning of her search. But then she looks, and she sees that the photos looking up at her are an explosion of red and orange and brown and yellow. Slowly, carefully, Alina flips the pages, the plastic crinkling under her fingers. The faded pictures are a riot of colour. And in each of them, she is smiling. In one, she sits under a tree with a fading flower in her hand, looking supremely excited as she tries to tuck it into her grandmother’s hair. In another, she tosses a handful of dry leaves into the air, and Akash is grimacing at the leaf in his mouth, but he’s laughing too. And when she flips the page once more, her breath catches. It’s the setup of the photo that hangs above her table. In this one, they’re not arranged all orderly yet. Thatha and Paati are laughing at the way Alina pouts as she sits on the ground, Akash crumbling a leaf and sprinkling the dust into her hair. Her mother is just entering the shot, her eyes creased in laughter as she reaches for Alina. “Where was this?” she asks Thatha, looking up with wide eyes. “I’ve – I’ve been looking, and – I want to go back.” “To the place, or to the time?” he asks, his voice quiet. His words remind her of Akash’s question. Why do you want to do it? “Both,” she realizes. “I want to go back to then, but I also want to be there again. See if I can find myself in there.” Thatha reaches out to ruffle her hair, and she lets him, this time. “Then go,” he says, giving her a quick smile. “See what you find.” *** Armed with directions and a camera from Akash, Alina finds herself hailing a bus to Cubbon Park. The roads are congested and the sound of honking fills her ears, but Alina is too excited to be annoyed by it this time. She clutches her bag closer to herself, and watches the trees pass by. She knows that people like to talk the most about the spring flowers in Bangalore, about how they bloom and shower the roads in bright pink petals straight out of a fairytale. She knows that people find that to be the best time to visit, the best weather to enjoy. But Alina has always liked the month of October. She has always loved the moment when everything comes to a standstill, when the rain splatters down on brown leaves, when the cold is crisp and biting. She has loved the feeling of waking up to a warm house with tea boiling merrily on the stove, the scent of elaichi and ginger wafting through the air. And she has always loved the laminated leaves of red and orange that mark her spot in her books. There aren’t a lot of people at Cubbon Park, but Alina sees families with picnic baskets, little children wrapped up in sweaters and scarves, running excitedly through the gate to jump up at low hanging leaves. She watches them with a small smile, and raises her camera to take a picture of an old tree hidden towards the back, whose branches are dry and empty, but arch over them and create a beautiful map across the sky. She takes her time, breathing in the sharp air, pulling the warm red sweater closer around her, as she walks down the path, simply following the crowd. She lets their flow carry her along, and she lets herself stop worrying about where she’s going and where she’s going to end up. Alina spots a couple that look very similar to her parents, and then freezes, for a moment. I’m doing everything by myself this time. The feeling that she had tried to explain to Akash solidifies a little more in her chest. She can’t put a name to it yet, but it is there. A little bud, sprouting. She takes a deep breath and then moves ahead. This time, she turns away from the crowds. She doesn’t follow them. She sees a small path branching off, one that no one seems to have noticed, one that is empty and inviting. The leaves crunch under her shoes, and she ducks under an old twisted branch, narrowly missing her hair getting caught in it. The path looks like it has been made solely by the feet that have walked on it. From the looming trees that surround her, Alina feels like she is entering into a whole new world. Suddenly, she remembers the story of the desire paths that she read once. Desire paths are small trails that emerge slowly as people take them to avoid an obstruction, or simply to find the shortest route. Alina feels a little like she’s finding her own desire path, walking along an empty road that seems to have been well-loved at one point. For someone who is a little lost about where she wants to go, an out-of-the-way path and a little adventure feels like the best choice. When she breaks through the end of the path, her breath catches in her throat. She found it. All around her stand old, tall trees, their foliage a brilliant orange. Tinges of red and brown peep out amidst it, and the path beneath her feet is covered in the fallen leaves. Slowly, as if in a dream, Alina walks to the centre of the path and turns to look. The road extends on, never-ending, unblocked. A soft breeze rustles through the area, and a few leaves drop onto her head, swirling in the currents that form. She catches one, and it crumbles in her hand, leaving just the brilliant network of veins behind. Alina feels a weight lift off her shoulders. I did it. I’m here again. But… What then? First, she sets up her camera on a low-hanging branch and steps back in time for the shutter to click. The photo is blurred, her panicked expression alone visible as she rushes to get in position. Chuckling, she sets a longer timer and then steps back, taking a breath and smiling. The shutter clicks, and she breathes out, her shoulders slumping. Alina had hoped that coming here would tell her something. Whether it was some secret to finding that innocent happiness she had felt as a child, or some secret about the world she was stepping into as a working adult. But there was no eureka moment, no bright bulb going off above her head. She sits cross-legged, ignoring the prickly leaves that make their way through the material of her jeans to poke her skin, and looks around her. In the distance, she can hear the laughter and the chattering of the other people in the park. But this little corner? It seems like it’s all hers. Even though she doesn’t have the answers, even though she’s all by herself, she feels at peace. Carefully, she pulls out her phone and calls Akash. The phone rings once, twice, and then he answers. “Nana, what’s up?” “I found the spot,” she says with a sigh, leaning back on her free hand. “And it’s beautiful, Akash.” He is silent for a moment. “And your…reason?” “I don’t know.” It feels like both an admission of weakness and an act of great strength to admit it. “I’m not sure, but you know what?” He hums on the other end, listening. “I did it by myself. I found a bus, I took it, I talked to people, and I found the spot. I did it by myself.” Akash understands what it means to her to step out of her comfort zone and do something new. She can almost hear his smile in his voice when he tells her exactly that, and she grins back. “About the world I’m stepping into?” Alina looks up at the orange ceiling above her, and the carpet of brown she’s sitting on, and then at the open road that is waiting for her. “I’m not sure where I’m going, but I’ll go anyway. Maybe there’ll be something really beautiful at the end of it.” She cuts the call and rises to her feet, dusting off her pants. Her camera safely ensconced in her bag, the strap tight over her shoulder, she smiles. Alina takes her first step onto a road bathed in the golden gleam of the setting sun that filters through the leaves. Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!