And I would wait for her to pay the shopkeeper before walking to her, letting her notice the white powder covering my dark sleeves. She would kneel down beside me, annoyed at her child, as she lightly slapped the dust away, talking all the while about how I never listen, always make trouble. But I don’t remember caring because in that moment she was with me, her mind absorbed with my misdeed, her face distraught at having a child who never listens. And I would smile, my face buried in the folds of her scarf, taking a deep breath of her perfume, the one which still sits on her dressing table, the only part of the house I didn’t have access to, something I could only stare at from a distance. You smile when I tell you the name of the perfume, knowing full well that that’s the only one I wear now. More, you say, leaning your head back and watching the other customers leave the cafe. I comply by clearing my throat and turning the page.
He would have allowed it too, being as he was on the verge of wanting to rid himself of life, his heart skipping a beat as she turned away from him, her face blank, unafraid of the sword hanging around his waist, his grip tightening around the metal. So he watched as she transformed from the beautiful purpose of his existence into something unattainable, out of his reach, beyond his reasons. His eyes glazed over, refusing to accept the reality of truth, intent on deluding himself with the memories of a swollen heart, rouge with desire, softened with love.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of watching Nadeem Aslam from a distance, notice him stutter with nervousness and then smile at his joke, allowing me a glimpse into a dialogue that wasn’t for the masses. A privilege of his presence, his broken words weaved into beautiful poetry just before they fell to the floor, scattering the rhythm of silence. I remained still, intent on catching each of the fallen words, the reminiscing thoughts. How do you get over grief, he asked the audience, amazed at their presence as he turned towards them for the first time. Sometimes I feel I have never gotten over anything in my life, he confessed, surprised by the subdued laughter resonating through the hall. He wasn’t trying to be funny. I wasn’t laughing.
I started reading Maps for Lost Lovers late last night, and stayed awake through the dark. At first, I had to fight the urge to dip my hand into the weeds of words and sweep it from one depth to another, watching as the knots of detailed descriptions and others get pulled through the pages and away from the story I was trying to immerse myself in. I wanted to discard the excess and tut at the author for having fallen for the bait, a fault I am aware of in myself. But it didn’t take me long to realise that what I wanted to first discard, I now wanted to treasure. Precious words, magnificent images. Quintessential. I had mistaken my passionate envy for mild irritation, an obvious denial, every aspiring writer’s worst nightmare.
She is trying to write, crumpled papers lining the corners of her room, her mind miles away, remembering things she had previously sworn to forget. But that’s the thing with love, it never truly leaves you, only disappears momentarily, waiting around the edges of time, waiting for a moment of vulnerability, waiting and watching and calculating each stab, each slap of reality, of life without love. I thought I was stronger, but that was before I fell, and refused to stand back up again. She thought she knew better, but that was before he ran away with the family treasures, on the day of their engagement nonetheless. And I lie back on the floor, having lost to love yet again.
And if words were escaping my desperately plunging grasps, causing my mind to narrow down wisps of alluding air, fogged with mystery and taut with glee at having fooled me yet again, then hope wasn’t far behind either. Imagine walking barefoot through the Arabian desert, each step leaving a glistening red mark on the soles of your feet, the pain of heat so intense that you can no longer feel the skin thinning under your feet, disintregating into blisters first and then unrecognizable fragments. Imagine leaving behind a bit of yourself with every step you take, closer to the lingering hope but losing yourself in the process.
And is it worth it, you ask. The words pushed out through parched lips and burned skin, the colour of your cheeks fading from rouge to rust, the smoothness of your beauty punctuated by patches of death clinging to the ghosts of your existence. You are no longer who you were, the one who started this journey from the suburban house owned by your parents. Parents well-settled in life, selectively indulgent to your whims and bestowed with a sound sense of love and reality. But also those who ask too much from you, blind still to your nature, your fragility. Claiming loudly and proudly of knowing you inside out, but not really.
You have questions but you choose not to wait for the answers, putting one step over the threshold of your parents’ house and then another, no longer strong enough to withstand your mother’s unpredictable hysteria or your father’s constant disappointment. And the purpose of your life is only to hunt down that elusive hope which you lost along with your innocence. A constant friend, a confidant, a firm shoulder to rest your head on, a feathered pillow to sink your sorrows in. And when you find it, you know you will grab it tight, your long fingers digging into its soft flesh, leaving scars that are superficial compared to the ragged slashes ripping through your misery, for even Bane knew that there can be no true despair without hope. The hope that you learned soon enough to distrust, a teasing mirage it occurs to you, your hands closing in on dry desert air, your fingers entwined, your nails digging into your palm, causing blood to spurt into patterns, like trails of sand on lands abandoned.
You want an ending, a closure of sorts, but there is none. And the meaning of life is that there is no purpose, just a rudimentary cycle that goes on long after you have stopped. You deserve a body in the coffin, something to weigh down that empty casket, but that too has now been taken away from you, lost to the desert, fragments of you blowing back with sand. Back through the journey you could never finish, through the places you once visited and the paths you weaved for yourself, coming to rest on the window ledge of your parents’ house, inches away from your mother’s aged fingers as they grip the wooden frame, her eyes squinting as far as the end of the road, her heart beating through a lifeless soul of a childless mother, her shoulders stooped, her back resting along the window frame and leaning slightly on your father’s legs as he stands close to her, his hand resting on her shoulder, his heart too tired to console, unaware of the tears flowing down his face.
And you watch glimpses of your past, flickering over their glazed eyes, both engulfed in a bubble of guilt. And while you tell yourself that this is how regret looks, you are also glad that it’s too late to make it work.
A secluded spot of wooden structure within a garden peppered with assortment of flowers. Roses mostly. Gulabi, the word whispered to me as I leaned forward to catch the forbidden glimpse, my face wrought with curiosity. But the utterance had my lips curl into a smile, my hands clutching the curved wooden bench on either side of me, my white knuckles trying to hide the nervous tremors. My complete attention focused on him, I watched as he walked slowly in circles, remaining within the wooden foyer hidden under overgrown ivy, protecting our misadventures from the rain. My mind wandered through a movie scene, the hero and heroine stuck in a similar spot, waiting for the rain to stop. He extended his hand towards her, asking to dance in silence. No music, she gestured with her twiddling thumb, wiping her wet hair away from her face. And smiled when he tapped the keys of an imaginary piano, filling the silence with a familiar childhood melody.
My hair had fallen over my face but I was too scared to move, lest he got annoyed and shooed me away like the other kids. Kids whose gleeful voices of having gotten away sounded distant now, smudged by the wind and rain. But my glee was trapped within my pounding heart, at getting to share this space with my first crush, a boy much older and unaware of the effect he was having on a 10-year-old child. Unaware of the closeness as he passed by me to complete each circle, our hands almost brushing, never touching. And the fear of being betrayed by the quickened heartbeat, too loud to my own ears as he came close for the last time, ruffling my hair, asking me to keep his secret for him as he tossed the cigarette butt out of sight.
Gulabi. The word, reconstructed years later, strung to a new melody, sung with the romantic energy of new love. The colour is smeared over the book I am reading, rendered with blue waves and white froth. The title conjurs up images of dark mud, soft after a rain, prodded with a spade, ready to be sowed. And the strong scent of my favourite garden, my bare feet buried in slush, my eyes following his finger as he pointed out different flowers, my face splotched with bits of unaccustomed earth.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. I had the audacity to forget what a gifted storyteller she is, but the book was quick to remind me, allowing me to immerse my orphaned soul in the nuances of intricate grief and breathtaking dignity, pulling the sheets, revealing the characters in their most vulnerable states, yet ornamented with their saving grace. A powerful collection, each one taking the reader deep into the minds of dislocated immigrants struggling and thriving away from home. And there is happiness surging through my body at the sight of the stories still waiting to be read, to be discovered.
Contentment, my state of being. The muffin crumbs brushed to one side of the round table, the tea cup empty and loose sheets of papers waiting to be read, full of instructions on how to master my first job, as Editor for an academic publisher. The book, open and face down and my hands stained with wine red ink as I doodle in my moleskin, waiting to be struck by inspiration, contemplating another time, a different secret, a second muffin.
It feels strangely empowering to find yourself awake before the city has a chance to get it together. A face for the world, another for the family to behold. Caught in the act, a glimpse of nakedness, passing by a fitting room with no doors but curtains. An image you either wish to forget by repeated blinking or one you hope to remember forever, depending. And how often has treated leather been mistaken for a flash of smooth skin, I ask, unaware of the profound retardness of the question. Retardness is not a word, you implore, losing patience already. By now the cold has seeped into my own skin and the shiver tingling down my bones no longer makes me feel smug.
The thing you need to know about my relationship with Capote is that I mistook him for a genius at the wrong time. It’s a story I have never told, the kind that needs to be cajoled. I don’t know if it’s embarrassment, or simply the disappointment in it. Maybe it’s the sheer extent of getting it all wrong. My copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s came with three other stories and my expectations from the book were already sky high. And in my confusion, I read the entire book as a single story. Which means that for me, Holly was the protagonist in every story. Even in the story about the scrawny soldier. The story of Holly that I read, did not end in the city but many many years later, in the suburbs where she was losing her mind and her only friend was a 6-year-old boy. I know, cue to roll them eyes.
The film starts with an obnoxious sounding man blatantly enjoying the attention at a party. His words loud but also soft with self-importance, mumbled but with authority. I listened to the story with an interest I feel it did not deserve and waited impatiently for Truman to make an appearance already. It was only when I was five minutes in did I realise that this was Truman and I did not like his guts. And something inside me churned when he nonchalantly whispered into the phone.. When I think about how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe. The visuals are haunting, lingering long after the film ends and the story pierces to hurt with its authenticity. But it was Perry Smith who made me want to give up on life, lie in bed and shrug away the strains of existing. His words, as he explained what happened that night and the look on Truman’s face.
I am half-way through Narcopolis, an opium induced book that is best read in one sitting. Jeet Thayil does to words what I wish I could. Arranging them in ways I find radical, but also obvious. Making me cringe at the choice of protagonists and then some more. The birds fly away, their music unheard. The sun blazes through the sky, changing day into night. But he stands still, unperturbed, without conscience, the shadows of the bars punctuating his face.
To never have found true love seems to be my tragedy, but to have found it and then feel it slip though the gaps of a desperately tightening grip reads as a pain of incomprehensible intensity. Did she fall into bed and bury her perfectly quaint face into the feather pillow, the lace around the edges of the cover tickling at her long bare neck? Did her hair curl around her distress, framing the pain that remained oblivious to her lover? Did she run through the ballroom and into the Ladies, trying to grab the vicious hand of Olga, as a last ditch attempt to deter her advances?
She might have done none of these, or all of these, I can’t be sure. But I can confirm that she wrote one of the best books of the 20th century and dedicated it to Olga Kosakievicz, walking with her head held high and her hand placed lightly on Satre’s elbow, with the other woman’s dignity decorating the path towards their final destination. Like the rose petals at a wedding, thrown as the bride and groom walk towards the car, and into a life of unknown misery. But why misery, you ask. Why can’t you think of happy things, and mango orchards? Of caramel waffles and breakfast in bed. Of entwined hands and promises kept. Of white shirts and crimson skirts.
It’s raining again, causing narrow streams to flow along the sidewalk by the cafe window. I am buried deep in my favorite armchair and the tea remains untouched, losing its steam. I sit still and in silence, afraid of disrupting the illusion of perfectness that has created a delicate bubble around me. My eyebrows knit, my lips pressed together, my hands holding on to words that won’t ever be mine to possess. I stay put nonetheless, with a sense of misplaced indignation. But my mind remains stubbornly out of my control, meandering through unknown alleys and deep valleys. Through cobbled streets and submerged mustard fields. Through rooms with high ceilings and past balconies without railings, away from hands that try to grab you by the waist, and those that push you off the bridge, playful both.
Olga Kosakievicz. This name conjures up a single image. Of a boy and a girl, standing by the tea stall outside my college in India, waiting to be served. The boy is mesmerised, his eyes seldom leaving her beguiling face. She laughs loudly and often, her head thrown back in mirth. I watch from a distance, a silent observer, smug in the knowledge of a boy who has lost his heart to a fresher. I turn to my right and smile at my friend, nudging her to look in their direction. But the friend is less impressed, and starts to relate a tale which I was unaware of. A tale of how the girl has driven a wedge between the boy and his girlfriend. And how the girlfriend is at this moment planning an elaborate dinner to win her man back. It’s the same tea stall where I almost got killed. Months later and in a moment of heavy maudlin, my mind clouded with thoughts and my heart throbbing with melancholy. The motorcycle took a sharp turn to avoid me, almost flipping over in its speed.
I was unscathed, but shaken. I was alive, but vulnerable. I was intact but my mind burst with images of blood and broken bones, crushed skin and punctured muscles, displaced organs and shattered veins. Oh the unimaginable pain. I look out of the window again, to clear my mind of dark thoughts. And standing outside is a child, enjoying the rain. He tilts the umbrella every time he thinks his mother is looking away, allowing the rain to hit his upturned face. I look up in time to see his mother pull the umbrella over his head. That’s when he turned to look at me and we exchange a knowing smile, both happy on our side of the window.
Women with broken hips, tied to the bed, women in police uniforms, varnishing a once lustrous threat. Women in hollow caves, spreading their legs and women standing dangerously close to the river bank, waiting to be taken away by the strong currents. Women with their heads covered, their bodies shrouded in black, women who raise their eyebrows while lowering their chins. Women with scars on their thighs and bruises on their faces, women crying themselves to sleep and never wanting to wake up. Women holding hands, whispering soothing words, patting each other’s back, preparing for combat. Women standing strong, braving the oncoming storm.
When I finally look up from my book, the woman sitting opposite me is staring blankly at my left shoulder, unaware of my gaze, her mind resolved at controlling the tears which I can see brimming at the edge of her lower lashes. Her partner sits beside her, their shoulders touching, his eyes intent on his laptop screen, his lips mouthing the pop song pulsating through the wide room.
I twist in my armchair, trying to avoid the despair, the black leather molding around my frame like a hug. Comforting, familiar, familial. I am reminded of my grandmother, and me sitting on the stone floor, huddled close to her legs. It is usually raining in that town, a cold breeze intruding even the comforts of the inner rooms of the house. I sit with my back resting against the couch, my face in level with her knees, as she spreads thick homemade guava jam on warm buttered toast. She waits for me to finish the slice in my hand and shoves the next straight into my mouth despite my protests of a full stomach. I have forgotten how the jam tastes, and even the toast. I have forgotten the cold stone floor on my skin, and the feel of monsoon chill on my skin. I have forgotten how the stray cat had to be shooed out of the house, and the taste of peanuts as we ate them together after dinner, sitting in the same room, afar, yet joined together in thoughts and words.
It’s an hour later and I wish I had raised an objection when this volatile couple had politely asked if I would mind their presence opposite me. I keep my eyes painfully averted from the distressed woman, blinded with tears and hurt beyond words. And an upset man, guilt etched into his somber face, his forehead creased and his eyes red. He seems on the verge of agreeing to anything she might ask but it seems like she wants nothing from him. Not anymore at least. She was still staring at my left shoulder, when he turned absently towards her, only to be jolted by her expression. It warmed my heart to see how quickly he shut his laptop and stuffed it into his backpack, his face distraught. And when her friend turned up, she left with a fake smile and a quick hug, promising to see him later. He sat still for a while, and stared at my left shoulder before getting up and walking blindly through the maze of tables and into the crowd outside.
The rain adds to the leisure of lying in bed, and I watch as my movements create shadows in space. Happiness isn’t real until shared, he said, before proceeding to paraphrase Thoreau. Because it isn’t what you look at that matters, but what you see. This prompts me to look away from his presence, and try to imagine a world without him. Is the sun brighter, the air lighter? I can’t tell, I can’t confess to blither. Vicious. The word was used out of context, and unnecessarily. Vicious in the sense of silence, braving the storm of truth. Vicious, unlike the force of fist against skin, but equally painful. And the blood that trickles from his mouth distracts one from the crime being committed by his hands. There is a crunch of bones crushing into muscle, puncturing through the skin, but you can’t see when you aren’t even looking.
The rain has wiped his sins away, washed the blood from his face. So we sit up straighter, and wipe out faces with the back of our hands. He is trying to erase the memory of crimson while I try to wipe away my tears. There are no smiles, and our winking days are through. He asked a question which I couldn’t hear, and we waited for the thunder storm to clear. Fallen soldiers are not defeated, broken soldiers are not dead. Stray leaves get caught in our clothes and I see a thin trail of red reappearing over my right calf, annoyed at having been washed away. I look at him and then away. The blood I shed, is the blood that he would have ripped out anyway. And The Samples insist that the only time they feel good falling is when they are falling hard for you.
Base your world in something more solid, stop floating with the clouds of your whim. The sentence is barely legible, scribbled on the first page of my notebook. I want to move away from the garden, from the washed away blood and fading bruises, from his piercing gaze and unanswered questions, but I can’t allow myself the luxury of drifting. Create your characters, allow us a glimpse of what you see. But this isn’t a sight to behold, torn clothes and a shared sin. And I think it was Sartre who said that he has no need for good souls, an accomplice is what he wanted. And an accomplice is what I am. The diamond catches the light, glinting in the mellowed darkness, hinting at hurried transactions, a forced negotiation. And sometimes love is not enough and I hope you have chosen your last words. Because I may have created him, but I am not ready to share his story yet. And there I go again, ending a sentence with a preposition.
The label on the pot says fresh rose, lemongrass, ylang ylang and jasmine. The scent reminds me of flowers that women in coastal Karnataka wear in their hair. A string of yellow and white, weaved into a braid. Women dressed in starched saris, on their way to work. Women walking their children to school, their hair still wet from a hurried shower. Women holding fort at the fish market by the port. The scent of the flowers mingling into oblivion, but not completely lost to the stink of fish.
I remember concentrating on the muck under my feet, allowing a grimace to settle on my face every time grey mud splattered over my bare legs. One hand locked into my father’s, as he pulled me through the crowd, and the other, pinching my nose to block the smell of death. I can’t remember how old I was then, maybe five, maybe eight. But I remember a lady leaning over her basket of dead fish and handing me a string of flowers, gesturing me to wear it in my hair. I remember the vivid green of her sari, her set of crooked teeth and stained lips.
I don’t know what she is singing, but I sing along. My lips moving in imitation, making up words as I whisper them to myself. Like her, I am on the floor, surrounded by books, a collection of black ink pens, the trusted moleskin open on a blank page, waiting to be filled with words. And when I am not devouring words, I am looking out of the window, catching glimpses of the moonlight bleeding through the clouds. From where I sit, the view is surreal, the reading lamp lighting up a portion of my bed, causing it to reflect on the clear glass of my window pane, merging with the trees glowing under the dim street light and the hovering moonlight. Three elements, separated by the darkness.
The book was also a reminder of lost times, a healing ache to what was once a throbbing wound. Of fine sand forming beautiful patterns around my feet with each wave. And forlorn starfishes, half-alive, half-buried. If you aren’t the woman I think you are, then this isn’t the world I thought it was. There was pain in your voice, but I continued staring at the space where the vivid blue of the ocean met the subdued blue of the tired sky. The rain added character to the scene, causing slight shivers to scurry through my body. I spoke up, to drown the silence, borrowing words from my favourite book. I told you about the temple, where there is a poem called “Loss” carved into the stone. It has three words, but the poet has scratched them out. Because you cannot read loss, only feel it.
I am you, lying there in bed late at night, thinking of all the possibilities, of falling in love with me. I am a child, waiting to be served my supper, sitting on the edge of my chair, trying to drown the angry voices with an out of tune humming. I am you again, sitting up in bed, drowning in the silence of my absence. And I am feeling happy, but in a sad way.
I was eight, when my sister was born, when I first felt the surging sense of responsibility as I stood beside my brother, on tiptoe both, trying to peep into the hospital crib. I am nineteen and I remember your face, when I stood by the double doors and watched as doctors hurried around you, wrapping you up in pristine white plasters, your face bruised, abused. It was a strange mix of formidable guilt and staggering relief, your eyes crying a plea as your lips curved into a faint smile. You tried to sit up, I gestured you to stay put. You beckoned me forward, your hand stretched towards me, your palm flat on the bed. But I couldn’t move. And in that moment of hesitation, you lost face and I lost love. And when our palms touched, we were already strangers, you and I, holding the crumbling fort sewn together by heinous lies, shared secrets and long journeys with no destinations.
I am thirty-two and I am scared. Mounting responsibilities and a marriage that is simply refusing to stand strong, to brave the oncoming storm. Two children, a disappointed wife and a decade strewn with mistakes. The money isn’t trickling in as it used to and the mistress no longer wears rouge and eau de toilette. I don’t look at myself in the mirror anymore, every new line on my face a reminder of every blunder I ever committed. My wedding ring pushing into my skin, as I grab hold of the sink at work, having splashed cold water on my face, watching as it stains the white collar and shirt. It’s 6PM but I am not ready to go home yet. To the constant crying, the gibberish talk and the hurtful taunts.
I am twenty-two again, sitting in a cafe, a mere observer of life, peering into my cup of tea, hoping for some leftover dregs. My back hurts, my legs crossed at my knee, an ankle resting against the leg of a chair and the other dangling just above the ground, swaying to the music of unheard songs. And then I am a mother of two, wanting to rest my feet, rest my aching back and watching as my three year old tries to comfort my distressed newborn. The tattoo on the nape of my neck glistens against the yellow lighting, the red rose hidden partially by the strap that holds my baby close to my chest. I lower my head and take in the smell of talc and baby skin, the movement revealing the rose and the name underneath. Julian, in cursive. Black etched into beautifully taut brown.
I am twenty-six and I am crying, my dress heavy and red, slowing me down. My make-up smudged around my eyes, my hands stained with henna, my forehead smeared with red and a thin gold chain of black beads snaking around my neck, signifying the much awaited and monumental event of my life. I am crying because I can’t believe we have made it, through the thick and the very thin. That we didn’t bolt when we could, and now we stand by the car, waving goodbye to a life we once knew, people who helped us through. And the wedding dress hides the ugly scars that we both will now try to heal together.
And when I look up from my book, I am in the cafe again, comfortable in my skin, my eyes no longer searching for you. You, who is still a stranger to me, a mystic being, a fragment of a distant future, an epitome of ultimate happiness, a reason to burst with joy. I taste lukewarm tea, gulping it down in one long sip, ready to make a move. But I can’t because I am still, painted into a moment in time, a hint of a smile brushed gently around my mouth, red curls carefully teased around my face, a book balancing on my thigh, almost hidden among the folds of my corset dress. My eyes reflect the vast ocean and the dress blows in the wind. I am ageless, above the constraints of time and space. Out of your reach, atop an orphaned rock at an unknown beach.