The Blue Notebook
I have a break now. Mamaki Briila is pleased with me and she should be! I have worked hard all morning and now that I tell her I am tired, she smiles at me. "Rest, little Batuk," she says. "Today will be brimming with riches." Actually, I am not tired at all.
My name is Batuk. I am a fifteen-year-old girl nested in the Common Street in Mumbai. I have been here six years and I have been blessed with beauty and a pencil. My beauty comes from within. The pencil came from the ear of Mamaki Briila, who is my boss.
I saw the pencil fall from Mamaki's ear two nights ago. I had just made sweet-cake and she bustled into my nest with an immense smile, leaned over, pinched my cheek, and kissed the top of my head. As she bent over, the giant sacs of her breasts were thrown in my face so that I could actually see the sparkling of sweat between them. She smelled like us, but worse.
She had to hold her back and lurch to get upright again, and as she did her breasts swayed as if they were pets hanging from her neck, dancing. She pulled the pencil from behind her ear and withdrew a palm-sized yellow notebook from an inner fold of her sari (or maybe her skin). As she opened the book, she peered down at me and another smile spread over her red face like water soaking into dry stone. She made a pencil mark in her book with a flourish of her bloated hand. She said sweetly, "Little Batuk, you are my favorite girl. I thought you were going to disappoint me tonight but in just an hour, you have made me love you." I am sure she was about to remind me of her thousand kindnesses to me but she was interrupted by a shriek from Puneet.
Puneet is my best friend and occupies the nest two down from me. Puneet rarely cries, unlike Princess Meera, who cries every time she makes sweet-cake. Puneet only cries when he has to and the shriek he emitted that moment could have split rock. It was a single piercing yell, not of bodily pain, because Puneet feels no pain, but of terror. Mamaki knew this too. Puneet is the most valuable of us all because he is a boy.
Puneet's scream killed the night silence of the street and the smile dropped from Mamaki's face like a coin falling to the ground. She turned her street-wide rear in my face and fled from my nest. I was impressed that an object set on earth as she is can move with such speed, when it has to. As she flew from my nest, the tails of her sari caught the breeze and reminded me of the sheets used to protect the crops from the summer sun. That is when the pencil slipped from behind Mamaki's ear, lubricated by her unique brand of body oil.
In Mamaki's wake, the pencil dropped to the floor of my nest, bounced a couple of times, and then stopped moving. I sprang from my bed and threw myself upon it. The pencil was mine by divine decree.
I lay upon the small object, silent and motionless. My mind went back to when I was a little girl in Dreepah-Jil, my home village. I would perch on a rock in the sun, sometimes for hours, even in the heat of midday, and imagine myself melting into the rock. Eventually from between the rocks or through the grass would scamper a little lizard. With its quick tight movements, it would look around and see nothing moving and feel safe. The lizard would relax and sun itself below my rock or sometimes even on it. I would not move, even if it sat right next to me. I would control my breathing and melt deeper into the rock until I became stone. I used my mind to control the mind of the lizard. I would speak soothingly to the lizard through the upper air. "Relax, little lizard, you will soon be mine."
You can look upward and see a raindrop that is destined to hit you. You see it, you know it is falling ever faster, and you know it will hit you, but you cannot escape it. So it was for the lizard. As I sprang upon the lizard, we might lock eyes for a hair of a moment. Then I would land on it, sometimes with so much force that I would kill it; if so, such was its fate. As I lay on the stone floor of my nest, I had a pencil because that too was fate.
I got off the floor, climbed onto my throne, lay down with the pencil under my belly, and fell asleep. When I awoke in the morning, the pencil was where I had left it but it had become warmed by my dreams. I lay in the first light with my eyes fluttering awake and asleep as I gazed through the entrance to my nest. I knew that there was not enough of this little pencil to write away my life, but there was enough to start.
My break and my faked tiredness are nearly over. In a moment I will replace this writing book inside the rip I made in my mattress. Today as I lie making sweet-cake, I will feel it against my back and know that it is there.
You should have heard Mamaki that night when she ran into Puneet's nest at the speed of gunfire. Her scream was almost as loud as Puneet's had been. His had been an expression of terror whereas hers was meant to generate it. There had been two servants paying homage together to Prince Puneet when the commotion erupted, a practice that is entirely acceptable to Mamaki if the gifts to the prince are correctly apportioned. In this case, the gifts were of less importance as the devotees were two high-ranking police officers. Although they had initially undertaken the acts of baking (I heard Mamaki bless the visitors when they arrived), things got out of hand. Puneet was ripped apart by a police stick.
Mamaki threw the officers into the Common Street with one massive shove. Pah! to the officers. As I watched them from my nest, they got up, brushed the dust off their tan uniforms, laughed like brothers, and ambled away into the night. One of them had his police stick dangling from his wrist. Puneet fell to the ground from it--drip, drip, drip--as if the earth needed to feed on Puneet just as they had done.
Forgive me, please, for I am being dramatic. This is not only because Puneet is my beloved but also because I have a sense of drama. Mother always scolded me for this, perhaps because my playacting delighted Father so. When the family was together I would put on shows. I would mimic Navrang, the village lunatic, or Uncle Vishal ("Uncle V"), who was so fat he fell asleep in his soup. Mother would shake her head in grumbling disapproval whereas Father would laugh until he cried. I have always had a talent for such things.
As a reward for my drama, Father would take me into his arms and, if I begged him, he would tell me the story of the silver-eyed leopard. Every rendition had different embellishments and the story could last for hours, depending on how tired Father was or whether I fell asleep.
I loved my story. On some nights, I would pretend to be asleep when Mother walked through the bedroom filled with my brothers, sisters, and cousins. If I was still awake when Father returned from the fields and from the woman with the lavender scent, I would rush to him, fold myself in his lap, and beg him to tell me my story. "Not tonight, Batuk," he would often say as I cuddled into him and felt the vibration in his chest as he spoke. Twenty minutes or so later, as he brushed the last rice off his mouth, he would invariably give in and start telling me the story to my whoops of delight. You see, I was always Father's silver-eyed leopard.
Puneet has been ill but Mamaki says he is recovering. Between baking classes, I call to him two nests down and he calls back. Initially, Hippopotamus (this is how we secretly refer to Mamaki) forbade our volleys of chatter during work hours, but soon she realized that it lifts Puneet's spirits and now allows it.
Puneet is not yet ready to bake with us. If Puneet is so injured that he cannot work with us, or if he dies, then who will be there for me? I suppose that is a selfish way of thinking, but such is the whim of the dramatic soul.
There is a short break. Mr. Floppy Ears baked only the smallest sweet-cake with me. I can hardly claim to be tired.
I write in pencil. So how do I sharpen it, you ask? I smile at you. Not my "come and adore me" smile but a sly smile. I sharpen my pencil with the quickness of my wits.
Two streets down from my nest is the Street of Thieves. Here you can buy everything from an airplane to a cloak that makes you invisible--or that's what they say. One of the barrow boys who carts goods to and from the Street of Thieves I call Bandu. Bandu the barrow boy passes in front of my nest at least twice a day. I know when he is coming because the barrow's wheel is steel and it makes a terrible racket, which I can hear from streets away. In the early morning, when he passes by, his barrow brims over with bits and pieces, and in the evening when he returns, the wooden box is almost empty. There are occasions too when he makes extra trips, presumably for special deliveries.
Bandu is about my age and fine to look at. Even over the last year he has become more masculine and taller. He has large oval eyes that stare at me every day and, without fail, stare away whenever I catch his gaze. I think he sleeps with me in his mind from time to time.
As my pencil became blunt I, the sly girl that I am, started smiling more avidly at him. I would tilt my head and show my lips. As I ensnared him to my will--like the lizard--his stare would linger and sometimes he would hold my gaze for a full second. On occasion, his eyes flicked, like the lizard's tongue, to my thighs or my small breasts. I sat in my nest as I had sat on my rock many years earlier, waiting for the barrow boy to sun himself under my shadow. He began to slow down as he approached my nest, and a few days later he grunted at me in that primal way shy men do.
After three days of grunting and my feigned embarrassment, I beckoned him to me. My gate's lock does not drop until after Hippo's first morning tea and cake, but I lowered my head below his, looked at him through my locked gate, and said, "My name is Batuk. I desperately need your help." I paused and smiled. "You could get me a sharpener for my pencil."
I was a little annoyed that he took a full two days to bring the sharpener to me. But when he did return, late, after Hippo's third tea, with it clasped in his street-worn hand, I smiled as if he had brought me a ruby. I then kissed him. There was no gate between us. I had intended to peck him on the cheek because I felt that was all he deserved, but instead I kissed him straight on the mouth. I searched my tongue for his and felt his tongue flee to the back of his mouth like a cowering dog about to be beaten. He started to push his tongue forward to meet mine, but I thrust him away with both my arms. This whole exchange of thanks took less than a few seconds but I knew that my taste would linger in his mouth all day. His want of me would soak his mind for far longer than that.
I do not know why I behaved in such a disgraceful manner, but I have my pencil sharpener and I never spoke to or acknowledged Bandu the barrow boy again.
The doctor came again yesterday to see Puneet and left after only ten minutes. This is probably because of the stench of Mamaki at close quarters and because Mamaki only pays a quarter of the doctor's fee. This doctor comes here frequently, though, Princess Meera being his first choice when it comes to topping off his bill.
The news from the doctor was good. It is only four days after Puneet's visit from the policemen and he is free from danger. I knew that I was being overdramatic! On a break, I leaned out of the entrance of my nest and called to Puneet, as I have been doing constantly, knowing that he is not working. He called back to say that he feels his strength returning. He did not want to say that he feels good because I know he fears the ears of Hippopotamus and wants to stretch out his recovery as long as possible.
Puneet will soon mature to manhood and I can see this in his body. His shoulders are becoming defined and his muscles more obvious. His thighs are bulging more and there are a few hairs on his shiny chest. His voice occasionally crackles. Although we have laughed about this we both know what it means. Soon a decision will need to be made about Puneet and he will not be the one to make it.
If Puneet is to lose his bhunnas they will need to do it soon (I thought that while the doctor was here, they would go right ahead and do it). If he is allowed to enter manhood, they will need to train his bhunnas and give him a new style. It is possible that as a man he may become more beautiful but there is also a chance he would become ugly and in that case he would need to be discarded. My vote would be to remove his bhunnas now. He will then always be as beautiful as he is today and he will always be there for me. There is no one who can make me laugh as hard as Puneet.
Regardless of what transpires, Puneet's eyes will be constant. I have looked into his eyes and there I see his laughter and his mockery of the nest, Hippopotamus, and the Common Street. As I stare deeper into him, I watch his disdain for those who adore him and a red splash of evil. Deeper still, I see a bottomless well of cool water that is love.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine. Copyright © 2009 by James Levine, MD. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.