Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Out of Print Workshop at Kala Ghoda: K VAISHALI

Floral Patterns

K Vaishali

I was at the mall with my girlfriend Koko, who needed a new hoodie. I held her hand on the escalator, and watched her panic. She avoided my eyes and glanced nervously at everyone around us, in what looked like an attempt to communicate that it wasn’t her idea to hold my hand. I let go. 

I had been dreaming of holding her hand in the mall since I realised I liked her and was waiting for her to realise that she liked me too. We held hands in our hostel room all the time. She had baby-soft hands that I was always aching to hold. Why not at a mall?

Was she uncomfortable with folks thinking we were lovers? She was twenty-five, and it was her first relationship. She probably needed time to adjust. But who would really think we were lovers in Hyderabad? They’d probably think we were sisters, even if we told them we were lovers. Maybe she’d be uncomfortable if I were a boy and held her hand too. I asked her why she was being weird. 

‘I don’t want to have private emotions in public.’      

Koko was a private person. If she could go through life pulling no attention to herself, she would. She was at the university studying Painting and I was studying English. In six months, she had read everything I’ve written, even my novel, but I hadn’t seen any of her paintings. I know artists can shy away from showing a work-in-progress, but she won’t even show me the Madhubani painting she made when she was in high school. Or the portrait of a dancer she made during her bachelor’s degree that she has described to me in great detail. She won’t show me any pictures of herself from before we met. Or pictures of her family or her house in Nepal. When I ask her to see photos from her past, she says, ‘It’s not worth seeing.’

We spent all day and night with each other and to my surprise, even after six months, her company never bored or annoyed me. We loved each other’s company, but we loved our own company too, and we respected that. Sometimes we talked into the night like we were the only two people in the world. Sometimes we stayed in the same room and went hours without talking. And sometimes we stayed in our own room all day, giving each other space to paint and write. It was all the goodness of being alone but with a brilliant woman near me who listened to my feverish ramblings about plot ideas, distracted me with funny videos when I was stressed, and played old music and held me when I felt sad. It was great. 

Before we met, we both had elaborate plans to live as spinsters. Koko thought she was asexual and was considering a life as a Buddhist nun. My ex and I were the only women who love women that I knew. I waited four years for her to tell her family that she liked me, but instead she said she’ll marry a boy. I was convinced that I’d never find love again. I was writing a cookbook that had measurements for single servings of traditional south Indian dishes and pro-tips for spinsters who can’t be bothered. Maybe I won’t need to finish writing it.

Koko adored her parents. She looked cute holding her mobile phone in hand, waiting for their call at ten every night. The rest of the day she didn’t know where her phone was. They talked for hours every night in Nepali, while I listened passively and read or did assignments. I know the Nepali words for rain, early morning, afternoon, dinner, brinjal, potato, meat, plenty, and a few more. Half the words were the same as in Hindi, so it was easy. 

The more I understood Nepali, the more I realised how one-sided their conversations were. Her parents talked about her siblings, their extended family, and their worries. She mostly just talked about the food she ate that day. She didn’t even tell them when she was sick. I felt silly sending a picture of a thermometer flashing 100 degrees Fahrenheit to my mother to get her to call me twice a day and say nice things. 

The moment we kissed, I called all five of my friends and told them that we were together. Two of them had wagered that my love won’t be reciprocated, and I especially enjoyed telling them. I even hinted it to my homophobic mother by saying I was going on a date with her. 

‘Does she know you are going on a date?’       

‘Yeah, Mom, I’m not a creep.’      

When I asked Koko if she was going to tell anyone, she said, ‘There is no one to tell.’     

‘Are you scared that someone will tell the police and we’ll go to jail?’ I asked. ‘I know it’s illegal, but I doubt anyone will report us –’     

‘No, it’s not that, I’m just not that close with anyone,’ she said.

‘Your parents?’

‘You think they’ll be happy about us? Nobody in our village knows about same-sex relationships. If I tell them now, they’ll just panic and ask me to come back home. I’ll tell them when we leave university and get jobs.’

‘That makes sense.’


Koko and I went to the mall again to shop for a hoodie for her, for the eighth time. Hands to ourselves now. It got annoying shopping with her, with all the problems she found in every piece of clothing. 

‘Isn’t the colour too bright?’

‘The sleeves are puffy.’

‘It’s too long for my height.’

‘I don’t like the fabric. It’ll get rough after one wash.’

She had a specific vision of what she wanted and never compromised. It amazed me, the precision with which she analysed an outfit. If I found her a hoodie of a sober colour, I’d forget to check if the sleeve was to her liking, or the length, or how big the hood was, or if the zipper was too sharp, or if the cloth was soft or if the cloth would keep her warm enough. Not her. One look at a hoodie and she’d analyse all these fifty parameters and figure out what was wrong with it. In a second. It was amazing to watch, till it got annoying after a hundred hoodies and I’d get distracted looking at t-shirts for myself or complain of heel pain.  

‘I’m surprised you have any clothes,’ I said.

‘My dad bought most of my clothes,’ she said.

‘It figures.’

‘What figures? My dad has the best taste in clothes.’

‘Oh yes, but I was just wondering how you have tops with puffy sleeves, now I know,’ I said.

‘Don’t you say anything bad about my light blue top,’ she said, frowning.  

‘Why would I? You look great in it.’

We went home without buying a hoodie, again. She wore an old hoodie of mine till we could find one that suited her taste. 


I walked into Koko’s room and caught her sketching. Red-handed. I said, ‘Hand me your sketchbook, I have to see it.’

She was sketching a still-life of my Suzuki scooter. We both loved the scooter. On days we didn’t have class, we’d get on the scooter and drive to the old city. At every turn, I’d ask Koko if I should make a left, a right, or go straight, and we navigated that way, stopping only to take photographs of old buildings. Koko would say left six times in a row and we’d be driving in circles on a busy road, wondering why all the buildings looked the same, till we realised it. Her sketch captured the scooter from behind, near a tree, with magnolia flowers on the ground and on the scooter’s seat. 

‘I want to frame this,’ I said.

‘It’s just a sketch, not even a good sketch,’ she said.

‘Are you kidding? The form is perfect, the lighting is perfect, the shadows are perfect, it is almost as exact as a photograph.’

‘Yeah, it is just like an ordinary photograph,’ she said.

‘No, that’s not what I meant. You have captured the form as exactly as a photograph, but your sketch is so much more beautiful,’ I said.

‘It’s okay, I guess.’

‘Send it to your parents and I know they will say it is really good.’

‘No, they won’t say anything,’ she said.

‘How can they not say something about this beautiful sketch? Just send!’

She sent a picture of the sketch to her parents while I browsed through the rest of the sketchbook. She had sketched the park bench we had once sat on and had a long conversation about our childhood. There were sketches of flowers, teacups, a faint sketch of my lips. 

‘You are talented! And I’m honoured to be your muse,’ I said, pointing at the sketch of my lips.

‘You have nice lips.’


It was Koko’s birthday, and she told me not to mention it.  

‘I’m not giving up a legitimate excuse to eat cake, I don’t get that often,’ I said with a butterscotch cake in my hand. 

I was expecting her to get angry, the way she easily did when she was misunderstood. But she smiled, a brief smile, that told me she wanted cake too. And perhaps more. 

The cake came with tiny candles that I lit. I asked her to make a wish. We cut the cake and as we took a bite, she said, ‘This is my first birthday cake.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘My parents never got me cakes,’ she said.

‘Not even when you were little?’

‘I don’t think so. There are pictures of my brother and sister with cakes and birthday caps, but not me.’     

‘Maybe they forgot to click pictures,’ I said.

‘Maybe they forgot my birthday,’ she said. I could see her eyes well up. 

‘I promise, for as long as you live, we will always have cake on your birthday.’     

She smiled.

We had leftover cake and no refrigerator in the hostel to keep it. 

‘If you don’t want to smell a rotting cake, I suggest we distribute it in the hostel,’ I said.

‘But they’ll know it's my birthday!’

‘Yeah, so?’

‘I don’t want anyone else to know,’ she said.

‘Why? Is it a secret? Or is your birthday on a different day, and you lied to eat cake?’ I joked. ‘Show me the birthday on your college ID.’       

‘I just don’t want others to know,’ she said.

‘Should I tell them it is my birthday?’     

‘Can’t we just give them cake without an explanation?’

‘What if they ask who’s birthday it is? Should I lie?’ I asked. 

‘If they ask, you can tell them it's mine.’

We placed a slice of cake on a piece of paper and took it to our neighbour's room. They asked us whose birthday it was.

‘Hers!’ I exclaimed, pointing at Koko. 

‘Happy birthday!’     

‘I told her not to get a cake,’ Koko said, ‘What’s the need for cake and celebrating a birthday at this age –’     

‘You don’t need to apologise for getting some attention on your birthday,’ I said when we were alone.  

‘I am just not comfortable with them thinking I made this fuss for a birthday,’ she said. 

‘Aren’t you going to send a picture of the cake to your parents?’ I asked.

‘No, they won’t care.’

‘Did they say anything about the scooter sketch?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I told you they won’t care. It wasn’t a good sketch, I shouldn’t have sent it.’     

‘Do they ever say anything nice about your paintings?’     

‘Not really,’ she said, her eyes welled up again.


We rode on the scooter to a different mall, hoping to find the hoodie Koko wanted.  

‘I don’t want to pressure you or anything,’ I said, browsing through H&M for hoodies. ‘But, I still think you should tell someone about me. You know – in case something happens –’

‘In case what happens, exactly?’ she asked.

‘Like maybe something happens to you and everyone suspects me. And I can’t prove we are lovers in court so they lock me up,’ I said, thinking on my feet, wishing I had thought of a better scenario.

‘Why? Lovers never hurt each other?’ 

‘Okay, that was a terrible scenario,’ I said. ‘Let’s say you become this famous painter and die, and I want to use your fame to become a famous writer, but no one would corroborate the fact that we were lovers, except my friends who you never talk to, so they think I am lying too, and I die unfamous. Or everybody thinks I am mad for making up the story and I become famous for the wrong reasons!’

‘You lost me at the part where I became a famous painter.’

‘I’m just saying,’ I said, thinking hard. ‘Okay, let’s say you leave me and in sadness I drop my phone and I lose your contact number and our messages. You are too good to be true, and I already doubt all this is part of my imagination, so I’ll doubt you ever existed. Imagine how stark raving mad I would go! But if you were to tell a friend, I could ask them if we were really together. And they’d say yes, and I’d know it was real.’           

‘Why don’t you take a few days to think of a sensible scenario?’

‘Okay. Did you like any hoodies?’


‘Great,’ I sighed, ‘Let’s get out of here! I want to buy underwear.’

We went to a Jockey showroom. At the underwear counter, I told the salesperson my size and asked them to show me hipster-styled, plain underwear. 

The salesperson rummaged through boxes in the glass cabinet and laid out a few underwear. I picked out dark colours and asked them for a bill. I already had the same colours and liked how easy it was to rub blood stains out of dark colours. 

‘Wait! There is no way I am letting you buy the same colours you already have,’ Koko said. ‘I am sick of seeing you in these! Why don’t you wear colourful underwear with floral patterns?’

The salesperson stopped short. She widened her eyes and exchanged glances with the other salesperson.  

‘Show us underwear with floral patterns, please,’ Koko said. ‘And no grey or black underwear, thank you!’

The salesperson rummaged through the boxes in the glass cabinet again and laid out floral-patterned underwear. She picked three she liked. I nodded at the salesperson to pack the underwear, paid for it, and got out of there. 

‘Did you like the underwear I picked out?’ she asked. 

‘You know you just came out to that salesperson, right?’     


‘You literally said you prefer to see me in floral-patterned underwear.’

‘Shit!’ She facepalmed. 

‘Can’t believe I’d have to drag an underwear salesperson to court if I ever have to prove our relationship,’ I said, laughing out.

‘I am so embarrassed! Shit!’ she said, going red. 

‘Are you okay? Are you feeling shame or something?’

‘No, no,’ she said. ‘Just awkward.’

‘Awkward is okay,’ I smiled.


K Vaishali has a masters in communication from the University of Hyderabad. Her publications include a novella by Leadstart Publishing and short stories by Sahitya Akademi's Indian Journal, and Asian Extracts. Her day job involves writing user guides about cloud computing for Salesforce.


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