“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 63
“Aiyyo paavam,” Comrade Pillai whispered, and his nipples drooped in mock dismay.
Rahel wondered what he gained by questioning her so closely and then completely
disregarding her answers. Clearly he didn’t expect the truth from her, but why didn’t he
at least bother to pretend otherwise?
“Lenin is in Delhi now,” Comrade Pillai came out with it finally, unable to hide his pride.
“Working with foreign embassies. See!”
He handed Rahel the cellophane sachet. They were mostly photographs of Lenin and
his family. His wife, his child, his new Bajaj scooter. There was one of Lenin shaking
hands with a very well-dressed, very pink man.
“German First Secretary,” Comrade Pillai said.
They looked cheerful in the photographs, Lenin and his wife. As though they had a
new refrigerator in their drawing room, and a down payment on a DDA flat.
Rahel remembered the incident that made Lenin swim into focus as a Real Person for
her and Estha, when they stopped regarding him as just another pleat in his mother’s
sari. She and Estha were five, Lenin perhaps three or four years old. They met in the
clinic of Dr. Verghese Verghese (Kottayam’s leading Pediatrician and Feeler-up of
Mothers). Rahel was with Ammu and Estha (who had insisted that he go along). Lenin
was with his mother, Kalyani. Both Rahel and Lenin had the same complaint—Foreign
Objects Lodged Up Their Noses. It seemed an extraordinary coincidence now, but
somehow hadn’t then. It was curious how politics lurked even in what children chose to
stuff up their noses. She, the granddaughter of an Imperial Entomologist, he the son of a
grassroots Marxist Party worker. So, she a glass bead, and he a green gram.
The waiting room was full.
From behind the doctor’s curtain, sinister voices murmured, interrupted by howls from
savaged children. There was the clink of glass on metal, and the whisper and bubble of
boiling water. A boy played with the wooden Doctor is IN-Doctor is OUT sign on the wall,
sliding the brass panel up and down. A feverish baby hiccupped on its mother’s breast.
The slow ceiling fan sliced the thick, frightened air into an unending spiral that spun
slowly to the floor like the peeled skin of an endless potato.
No one read the magazines.
From below the scanty curtain that was stretched across the doorway that led directly
onto the street came the relentless slipslap of disembodied feet in slippers. The noisy,
carefree world of Those with Nothing Up Their Noses.
Ammu and Kalyani exchanged children. Noses were pushed up, heads bent back, and
turned towards the light to see if one mother could see what the other had missed.
When that didn’t work, Lenin, dressed like a taxi-yellow shirt, black stretchlon shorts—
regained his mother’s nylon lap (and his packet of Chiclets). He sat on sari flowers and
from that unassailable position of strength surveyed the scene impassively. He inserted
his left forefinger deep into his unoccupied nostril and breathed noisily through his
mouth. He had a neat side parting. His hair was slicked down with Ayurvedic oil. The
Chiclets were his to hold before the doctor saw him, and to consume after. All was well
with the world. Perhaps he was a little too young to know that Atmosphere in Waiting
Room, plus Screams from Behind Curtain, ought logically to add up to a Healthy Fear of
Dr. V. V.
A rat with bristly shoulders made several busy journeys between the doctor’s room
and the bottom of the cupboard in the waiting room.
A nurse appeared and disappeared through the tattered curtained doctor’s door. She
wielded strange weapons. A tiny vial. A rectangle of glass with blood smeared on it A
test tube of sparkling, back-lit urine. A stainless-steel tray of boiled needles. The hairs
on her legs were pressed like coiled wires against her translucent white stockings. The
box heels of her scuffed white sandals were worn away on the insides, and caused her
feet to slope in, towards each other. Shiny black hairpins, like straightened snakes,
clamped her starched nurse’s cap to her oily head.
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“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 64
She appeared to have rat-filters on her glasses. She didn’t seem to notice the bristly-
shouldered rat even when it scuttled right past her feet. She called out names in a deep
voice, like a man’s: A. Ninan… S.Kusumolatha… B. V. Roshini… N. Ambady. She
ignored the alarmed, spiraling air.
Estha’s eyes were frightened saucers. He was mesmerized by the Doctor is IN–Doctor
is OUT sign.
A tide of panic rose in Rahel. “Ammu, once again let’s try.” Ammu held the back of
Rahel’s head with one hand. With her thumb in her handkerchief she blocked the
beadless nostril. All eyes in the waiting room were on Rahel. It was to be the
performance of her life. Estha’s expression prepared to blow its nose. Furrows gathered
on his forehead and he took a deep breath.
Rahel summoned all her strength. Please God, please make it come out. From the
soles of her feet, from the bottom of her heart, she blew into her mother’s handkerchief.
And in a rush of snot and relief, it emerged. A little mauve bead in a glistening bed of
slime. As proud as a pearl in an oyster. Children gathered around to admire it. The boy
who was playing with the sign was scornful.
“I could easily do that!” he announced.
“Try it and see what a slap you’ll get,” his mother said. “Miss Rahel!” the nurse
shouted and looked around. “It’s Out!” Ammu said to the nurse. “It’s come out.” She held
up her crumpled handkerchief.
The nurse had no idea what she meant.
“It’s all right. We’re leaving,” Ammu said. “The bead’s out.”
“Next,” the nurse said, and closed her eyes behind her rat-filters. (“It takes all kinds,”
she told herself.) “S. V. S. Kurup!”
Rahel and Estha left the clinic triumphantly. Little Lenin remained behind to have his
nostril probed by Dr. Verghese Verghese’s cold steel implements, and his mother
probed by other, softer ones.
That was Lenin then.
Now he had a house and a Bajaj scooter. A wife and an issue.
Rahel handed Comrade Pillai back the sachet of photographs and tried to leave. “One
mint,” Comrade Pillai said. He was like a flasher in a hedge. Enticing people with his
nipples and then forcing pictures of his son on them. He flipped through the pack of
photographs (a pictorial guide to Lenin’s Life-in-a-Minute) to the last one.
It was an old black-and-white picture. One that Chacko took with the Rolleiflex camera
that Margaret Kochamma had brought him as a Christmas present. All four of them were
in it. Lenin, Estha, Sophie Mol and herself, standing in the front verandah of the
Ayemenem House. Behind them Baby Kochamma’s Christmas trimmings hung in loops
from the ceiling. A cardboard star was tied to a bulb. Lenin, Rahel and Estha looked like
frightened animals that had been caught in the headlights of a car. Knees pressed
together, smiles frozen on their faces, arms pinned to their sides, chests swiveled to
face the photographer. As though standing sideways was a sin.
Only Sophie Mol, with First World panache, had prepared for herself, for her biological
father’s photo, a face. She had turned her eyelids inside out so that her eyes looked like
pink-veined flesh petals (gray in a black-and-white photograph). She wore a set of
protruding false teeth cut from the yellow rind of a sweetlime. Her tongue pushed
through the trap of teeth and had Mammachi’s silver thimble fitted on the end of it. (She
had hijacked it the day she arrived, and vowed to spend her holidays drinking only from
a thimble.) She held out a lit candle in each hand. One leg of her denim bell-bottoms
was rolled up to expose a white, bony knee on which a face had been drawn. Minutes
before that picture was taken, she had finished explaining patiently to Estha and Rahel
(arguing away any evidence to the contrary, photographs, memories) how there was a
pretty good chance that they were bastards, and what bastard really meant. This had
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“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 65
entailed an involved, though somewhat inaccurate description of sex. “See what they do
That was only days before she died.
She arrived on the Bombay-Cochin flight. Hatted, bellbottomed and Loved from the
Cochin Airport, Rahel’s new knickers were polka-dotted and still crisp. The rehearsals
had been rehearsed. It was the Day of the Play. The culmination of the What Will
Sophie Mol Think? week.
In the morning at the Hotel Sea Queen, Ammu—who had dreamed at night of dolphins
and a deep blue—helped Rahel to put on her frothy Airport Frock. It was one of those
and a bow on each shoulder. The frilled skirt was underpinned with buckram to make it
flare. Rahel worried that it didn’t really go with her sunglasses.
Ammu held out the crisp matching knickers for her. Rahel, with her hands on Ammu’s
shoulders, climbed into her new knickers (left leg, right leg) and gave Ammu a kiss on
each dimple (left cheek, right cheek). The elastic snapped softly against her stomach.
“Thank you, Ammu,” Rahel said.
“Thank you?” Ammu said.
“For my new frock and knickers,” Rahel said.
“You’re welcome, my sweetheart,” she said, but sadly.
You’re welcome, my sweetheart.
The moth on Rahel’s heart lifted a downy leg. Then put it back. Its little leg was cold. A
little less her mother loved her.
The Sea Queen room smelled of eggs and filter coffee. On the way to the car, Estha
carried the Eagle vacuum flask with the tap water. Rahel carried the Eagle vacuum flask
with the boiled water. Eagle vacuum flasks had Vacuum Eagles on them, with their
wings spread, and a globe in their talons. Vacuum Eagles, the twins believed, watched
the world all day and flew around their flasks all night. As silently as owls they flew, with
the moon on their wings.
Estha was wearing a long-sleeved red shirt with a pointed collar and black drainpipe
trousers. His puff looked crisp and surprised. Like well-whipped egg white.
Estha—with some basis, it must be admitted—said that Rahel looked stupid in her
Airport Frock. Rahel slapped him, and he slapped her back.
They weren’t speaking to each other at the airport
Chacko, who usually wore a mundu, was wearing a funny tight suit and a shining
smile. Ammu straightened his tie, which was odd and sideways. It had had its breakfast
and was satisfied.
Ammu said, “What’s happened suddenly to our Man of the Masses?”
But she said it with her dimples, because Chacko was so burst. So very happy.
Chacko didn’t slap her.
So she didn’t slap him back.
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 66
From the Sea Queen florist Chacko had bought two red roses, which he held carefully.
The airport shop, run by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation, was crammed
with Air India Maharajahs (small medium large), sandalwood elephants (small medium
large) and papier-mâchâ masks of kathakali dancers (small medium large). The smell of
cloying sandalwood and terry-cotton armpits (small medium large) hung in the air.
In the Arrivals Lounge, there were four life-sized cement kangaroos with cement
pouches that said USE ME. In their pouches, instead of cement joeys, they had
cigarette stubs, used matchsticks, bottle caps, peanut shells, crumpled paper cups and
Red betel spitstains spattered their kangaroo stomachs like fresh wounds.
Red-mouthed smiles the Airport Kangaroos had.
And pink-edged ears.
They looked as though if you pressed them they might say Mama in empty battery
When Sophie Mol’s plane appeared in the skyblue Bombay-Cochin sky the crowd
pushed against the iron railing to see more of everything.
The Arrivals Lounge was a press of love and eagerness, because the Bombay-Cochin
flight was the flight that all the Foreign Returnees came home on.
Their families had come to meet them. From all over Kerala. On long bus journeys.
From Ranni, from Kumili, from Vizhinjam, from Uzhavoor. Some of them had camped at
the airport overnight, and had brought their food with them. And tapioca chips and
chakka velaichathu for the way back.
They were all there—the deaf ammoomas, the cantankerous, arthritic appoopans, the
pining wives, scheming uncles, children with the runs. The fiancâes to be reassessed.
The teacher’s husband still waiting for his Saudi visa. The teacher’s husband’s sisters
waiting for their dowries. The wire-bender’s pregnant wife.
“Mostly sweeper class,” Baby Kochamma said grimly, and looked away while a
mother, not wanting to give up her Good Place near the railing, aimed her distracted
baby’s penis into an empty bottle while he smiled and waved at the people around him.
“Sssss...” his mother hissed. First persuasively, then savagely. But her baby thought
he was the pope. He smiled and waved and smiled and waved. With his penis in a
“Don’t forget that you are Ambassadors of India,” Baby Kochamma told Rahel and
Estha. “You’re going to form their First Impression of your country.”
Two-egg Twin Ambassadors. Their Excellencies Ambassador E(lvis). Pelvis, and
Ambassador S(tick). Insect.
In her stiff lace dress and her fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo, Rahel looked like an Airport
Fairy with appalling taste. She was hemmed in by humid hips (as she would be once
again, at a funeral in a yellow church) and grim eagerness. She had her grandfather’s
moth on her heart. She turned away from the screaming steel bird in the skyblue sky
that had her cousin in it, and what she saw was this: redmouthed roos with ruby smiles
moved cemently across the airport floor.
Heel and Toe
Heel and Toe
Airport garbage in their baby bins.
The smallest one stretched its neck like people in English films who loosen their ties
after office. The middle one rummaged in her pouch for a long cigarette stub to smoke.
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 67
She found an old cashew nut in a dim plastic bag. She gnawed it with her front teeth like
a rodent. The large one wobbled the standing up sign that said Kerala Tourism
Development Corporation Welcomes You with a kathakali dancer doing a namaste.
Another sign, unwobbled by a kangaroo, said: emocleW ot cbt ecipS tsooC fo aidnI
Urgently, Ambassador Rahel burrowed through the press of people to her brother and
Estha look! Look Estha look!
Ambassador Estha wouldn’t. Didn’t want to. He watched the bumpy landing with his
tap-water Eagle flask slung around him, and a bottomless-bottomful feeling: The
Orangedrink Lemondrink Man knew where to find him. In the factory in Ayemenem. On
the banks of the Meenachal.
Ammu watched with her handbag.
Chacko with his roses.
Baby Kochamma with her sticking-out neckmole.
Then the Bombay-Cochin people came out. From the cool air into the hot air.
Crumpled people uncrumpled on their way to the Arrivals Lounge.
And there they were, the Foreign Returnees, in wash’n’wear suits and rainbow
sunglasses. With an end to grinding poverty in their Aristocrat suitcases. With cement
roofs for their thatched houses, and geysers for their parents’ bathrooms. With sewage
systems and septic tanks. Maxis and high heels. Puff sleeves and lipstick. Mixygrinders
and automatic flashes for their cameras. With keys to count, and cupboards to lock.
With a hunger for kappa and meen vevichathu that they hadn’t eaten for so long. With
love and a lick of shame that their families who had come to meet them were so… so…
gawkish. Look at the way they dressed! Surely they had more suitable airport wear! Why
did Malayalees have such awful teeth?
And the airport itself! More like the local bus depot! The birdshit on the building! Oh
the spitstains on the kangaroos!
Oho! Going to the dogs India is.
When long bus journeys, and overnight stays at the airport, were met by love and a
lick of shame, small cracks appeared, which would grow and grow, and before they
their dreams re-dreamed.
Then, there, among the wash’n’wear suits and shiny suitcases, Sophie Mol.
She walked down the runway, the smell of London in her hair. Yellow bottoms of bells
flapped backwards around her ankles. Long hair floated out from under her straw hat.
One hand in her mother’s. The other swinging like a soldier’s (left left lefrightleft).
Was the delicate colorriv
Margaret Kochamma told her to Stoppit.
So she Stoppited.
Ammu said, “Can you see her, Rahel?”
She turned around to find her crisp-knickered daughter communing with cement
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 68
marsupials. She went and fetched her, scoldingly. Chacko said he couldn’t take Rahel
on his shoulders because he was already carrying something. Two roses red.
When Sophie Mol walked into the Arrivals Lounge, Rahel, overcome by excitement
Chinese Bangle, twisting the skin on her wrist different ways with each of his hands. Her
skin became a welt and hurt. When she licked it, it tasted of salt. The spit on her wrist
was cool and comfortable.
Ammu never noticed.
Across the tall iron railing that separated Meeters from the Met, and Greeters from the
Gret, Chacko, beaming, bursting through his suit and sideways tie, bowed to his new
daughter and ex-wife.
In his mind, Estha said, “Bow.”
“Hello, Ladies,” Chacko said in his Reading Aloud voice (last night’s voice in which he
said, Love. Madness. Hope. Infinnate joy). “And how was your journey?”
And the Air was full Of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the
Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.
“Say Hello and How d’you do?” Margaret Kochamma said to Sophie Mol.
“Hello and How d’you do?” Sophie Mol said through the iron railing, to everyone in
“One for you and one for you,” Chacko said with his roses.
“And Thank you?” Margaret Kochamma said to Sophie Mol.
“And Thank you?” Sophie Mol said to Chacko, mimicking her mother’s question mark.
Margaret Kochamma shook her a little for her impertinence.
“You’re welcome,” Chacko said. “Now let me introduce everybody.” Then, more for the
benefit of onlookers and eavesdroppers, because Margaret Kochamma needed no
introduction really: “My wife– Margaret”
Margaret Kochamma smiled and wagged her rose at him. “Ex-wife, Chacko!” Her lips
formed the words, though her voice never spoke them.
Anybody could see that Chacko was a proud and happy man to have had a wife like
Margaret. White. In a flowered, printed frock with legs underneath. And brown back-
freckles on her back. And arm-freckles on her arms.
But around her, the Air was sad, somehow. And behind the smile in her eyes, the was
a fresh, shining blue. Because of a calamitous car crash. Because of a Joe-shaped Hole
in the Universe.
“Hello, all,” she said. “I feel I’ve known you for years.”
“My daughter, Sophie,” Chacko said, and laughed a small, nervous laugh that was
worried, in case Margaret Kochamma said “exdaughter.” But she didn’t. It was an easy-
to-understand laugh. Not like the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s laugh that Estha
“`ho,” Sophie. Mol said.
She was taller than Estha. And bigger. Her eyes were bluegrayblue. Her pale skin was
the color of beach sand. But her hatted hair was beautiful, deep red-brown. And yes (oh
yes!) she had Pappachi’s nose waiting inside hers. An Imperial Entomologist’s nose-
within-a-nose. A moth-lover’s nose. She carried her Made-in-England go-go bag that
“Ammu, my sister,” Chacko said.
Ammu said a grown-up’s Hello to Margaret Kochamma and a children’s Hell-oh to
Sophie Mol. Rahel watched hawk-eyed to try and gauge how much Ammu loved Sophie
Mol, but couldn’t.
Laughter rambled through the Arrivals Lounge like a sudden breeze. Adoor Basi, the
most popular, best-loved comedian in Malayalam cinema, had just arrived (Bombay-
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 69
Cochin). Burdened with a number of small unmanageable packages and unabashed
public adulation, he felt obliged to perform. He kept dropping his packages and saying,
“Ende Deivoinay! Lee sadhanangal! ”
Estha laughed a high, delighted laugh.
“Ammu look! Adoor Basi’s dropping his things!” Estha said. “He can’t even carry his
“He’s doing it deliberately,” Baby Kochamma said in a strange new British accent.
“Just ignore him.”
“He’s a filmactor,” she explained to Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol, making
Adoor Basi sound like a Mactor who did occasionally Fil.
“Just trying to attract attention,” Baby Kochamma said and resolutely refused to have
her attention attracted.
But Baby Kochamma was wrong. Adoor Basi wasn’t trying to attract attention. He was
only trying to deserve the attention that he had already attracted.
“My aunt, Baby,” Chacko said.
Sophie Mol was puzzled. She regarded Baby Kochamma with a beady-eyed interest.
She knew of cow babies and dog babies. Bear babies-yes. (She would soon point out to
Rahel a bat baby.) But aunt babies confounded her.
Baby Kochamma said, “Hello, Margaret,” and “Hello, Sophie Mol.” She said Sophie
Mol was so beautiful that she reminded her of a wood-sprite. Of Ariel.
“D’you know who Ariel was?” Baby Kochamma asked Sophie Mol. “Ariel in The
Sophie Mol said she didn’t.
“Where the bee sucks there suck I’?” Baby Kochamma said. Sophie Mol said she
“In a cowslip’s bell I lie’?’ Sophie Mol said she didn’t.
“Shakespeare’s The Tempest?” Baby Kochamma persisted.
All this was of course primarily to announce her credentials to Margaret Kochamma.
To set herself apart from the Sweeper Class.
“She’s trying to boast;” Ambassador E. Pelvis whispered in Ambassador S. Insect’s
ear. Ambassador Rahel’s giggle escaped in a bluegreen bubble (the color of a jackfruit
fly) and burst in the hot airport air. Pffot! was the sound it made.
Baby Kochamma saw it, and knew that it was Estha who had started it.
“And now for the VIPs,” Chacko said (still using his Reading Aloud voice).
“My nephew, Esthappen.”
“Elvis Presley,” Baby Kochamma said for revenge. “I’m afraid we’re a little behind the
times here.” Everyone looked at Estha and laughed.
From the soles of Ambassador Estha’s beige and pointy shoes an angry feeling rose
and stopped around his heart
“How d’you do, Esthappen?” Margaret Kochamma said.
“Finethankyou,” Estha’s voice was sullen.
“Estha,” Ammu said affectionately, “when someone says How d’you do? You’re
supposed to say How d’you do? back. Not `Fine, thank you.’ Come on, say How do
Ambassador Estha looked at Ammu.
“Go on,” Ammu said to Estha. “How do YOU do?”
Estha’s sleepy eyes were stubborn.
In Malayalam Ammu said, `Did you hear what I said?”
Ambassador Estha felt bluegrayblue eyes on him, and an Imperial Entomologist’s
nose. He didn’t have a How do YOU do? in him.
“Esthappen!” Ammu said. And an angry feeling rose in her and stopped around her
heart A Far More Angry Than Necessary feeling. She felt somehow humiliated by this
public revolt in her area of jurisdiction. She had wanted a smooth performance. A prize
for her children in the Indo-British Behavior Competition.
Chacko said to Ammu in Malayalam, “Please. Later. Not now.”
“The God of Small Things” By Arundhati Roy 70
And Ammu’s angry eyes on Estha said: All right. Later.
And Later became a horrible, menacing, goose-bumpy word.
Like a deep-sounding bell in a mossy well. Shivery, and furred. Like moth’s feet.
The Play had gone bad. Like pickle in the monsoon.
“And my niece,” Chacko said. `Where’s Rahel?” He looked around and couldn’t find
her. Ambassador Rahel, unable to cope with seesawing changes in her life, had raveled
herself like a sausage into the dirty airport curtain, and wouldn’t unravel. A sausage with
“Just ignore her,” Ammu said. “She’s just trying to attract attention.”
Ammu too was wrong. Rahel was trying to not attract the attention that she deserved.
“Hello, Rahel,” Margaret Kochamma said to the dirty airport curtain.
“How do YOU do?” The dirty curtain replied in a mumble.
“Aren’t you going to come out and say Hello?” Margaret Kochamma said in a kind-
schoolteacher voice. (Like Miss Mitten’s before she saw Satan in their eyes.)
Ambassador Rahel wouldn’t come out of the curtain because she couldn’t She
couldn’t because she couldn’t Because Everything was wrong. And soon there would be
a Lay Ter for both her and Estha.
Full of furred moths and icy butterflies. And deep-sounding bells. And moss.
And a Nowl.
The dirty airport curtain was a great comfort and a darkness and a shield.
“Just ignore her,” Ammu said and smiled tightly.
Rahel’s mind was full of millstones with bluegrayblue eyes.
“Here comes the baggage” Chacko said brightly. Glad to get away. “Come,
Sophiekins, let’s get your bags.”
Estha watched as they walked along the railing, pulling through the crowds that moved
aside, intimidated by Chacko’s suit and sideways tie and his generally bursty demeanor.
Because of the size of his stomach, Chacko carried himself in a way that made him
appear to be walking uphill all the time. Negotiating optimistically the steep, slippery
slopes of life. He walked on this side of the railing, Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol
The Sitting Man with the cap and epaulettes, also intimidated by Chacko’s suit and
sideways tie, allowed him into the baggage claim section.
When there was no railing left between them, Chacko kissed Margaret Kochamma,
and then picked Sophie Mol up.
“The last time I did this I got a wet shirt for my pains,” Chacko said and laughed. He
hugged her and hugged her and hugged her. He kissed her bluegrayblue eyes, her
Entomologist’s nose, her hatted redbrown hair.
Then Sophie Mol said to Chacko, “Ummm… excuse me? D’you think you could put
me down now? I’m ummm… not really used to being carried.”
So Chacko put her down.
Ambassador Estha saw (with stubborn eyes) that Chacko’s suit was suddenly looser,
And while Chacko got the bags, at the dirty-curtained window LayTer became Now.
delicious anticipation. Der-Dboom, Der-Dboom. It changed color like a chameleon. Der-
green, der-blueblack, dermustardyellow.
Twins for tea
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