Orange haze

I have been meaning to write about you — get you out of my system, so to speak. But I did not know where to start. So I made mental notes (elaborate ones), cosy in the warmth of the memories I raked up, reassuring myself that the year that we did not speak was an aberration. Surely you were only taking time to fit in with your new surroundings. And, we had always been like this, hadn’t we? Holding grudges, waiting for the other person’s resolve to break… I also knew, of course, that I was deluding myself. You were running away. What from, I do not know. You never did show me your demons.

I have also been meaning to write to you. I have a few questions, you see. But I was afraid that you wouldn’t — couldn’t in fact — answer; more afraid I wouldn’t like the answers I got if I am being honest. So I tried to ponder them myself. I rummaged through the accusations gathering in my mind, set aside the sense of betrayal, put myself in your shoes — or so I told myself — and asked myself why you wouldn’t speak to me. I discarded that question immediately. There was no point making accusations. Why then, when my mind was full of the noise of a shovel scraping dirt into a grave, did you not answer my letter? But that sounded like another allegation. I was determined not to blame you so I put off writing to you as well.

I went back to the note-making; this time, listing down memories in a draft email. I would start at the beginning I decided. Difficult task, though, if you ask me. I am a sub editor now you know, so the items on the list had to have links, flow from one to the other, to borrow the words of my editor. It was only their tenuous connections that kept me from writing really. I changed tack, decided to begin at the end this time. This brought on a fresh round of list-making. This is how that list reads so far: Heat/Ashes; Smell/Charred; Dawn/Endless wait; Harvey two-face; Cold/Slippery; Stench; Wait. But I didn’t like the way this list was progressing either, so I let it gather dust in the drafts folder of my email account.

I immersed myself in work, busied myself with the lives of others until I believed — foolishly as it turns out — that I had well and truly buried you inside my head. But out you popped again. Someone mentioned a pyre and there you were, in my mind’s eye, your face forever altered, your clammy ice-cold skin smelling like the school biology lab, being rolled into a cavernous tunnel that was beginning to glow. And just before the door clanged shut, I watched — fascinated — the fire come alive. Its vivid orange glow took me back to the afternoon we sat mixing paint in our favourite patch of sunlight. And for the first time since that fateful phone call, I could clearly picture your face. The face has disappeared; all that remains is the memory of a deep glowing orange.

I have been meaning to write about you really. But, as of now, all that I want to say remains lost in a deep orange haze.

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A tiny bit of magic

She didn’t like crowds and it was that time of the year when her city almost burst at its seams with people. The roads were packed with traffic, the small, dark by-lanes illuminated by halogens, alleyways where lovers usually met to cop a feel, away from the inquisitive eyes of neighbours and relatives, were suddenly full of light. It was Durga Pujo, a week when the NRIs returned home to sport crisp white dhutis and expensive Dhakai sarees, a week when the band-aid companies make heaps of money as do the fast food vendors. She boarded the bus, headphones plugged in and music blaring in her ears; she wasn’t sure what she was listening to though. Actually, if she was being honest, she wasn’t really listening to it at all. The music was just to drown all the noise outside, to cancel out all the shrill voices planning their next destination and all the excited chatter about tired feet. She had never liked crowds but never before had she found it so hard to get through this week of festivities. Every year she would meet her brother and they would complain about the crowds together and then sneak out into the harsh pelting sun to go pandal hopping, because that was when everyone else was busy eating. This year she was by herself, she stared outside the window and without all the noise she had to admit her city looked beautiful. A tap on the shoulder reminded her that she had finally reached her destination. She got off the bus, braced herself, fixed and adjusted a smile and she was ready, another friend and another couple of hours of smiling and idle chit-chat. She looked across the street and found him waiting and they started walking along the winding alleys flooded with yellow light. She was still lost in her own thoughts as she complained about crowds and social customs, till she stepped out on the terrace. Now she knew why he kept talking about it, the place had a strange sense of calm. No, it wasn’t a terrace with a view; all that you could see was the backs of billboards and the tiled roofs of the slum beside it and new buildings and old buildings. It was beautiful. Faint sounds of a city striving to ride the wave of celebrations besieging it, came floating from a distance and instead of intruding into the shadowy solitude of the terrace it washed over her and for the first time in a long time she was distracted. Later that night she couldn’t really recall what they had spoken about or done for those couple of hours. She remembered that there had been ice-cream and a whole lot of laughter and tiny bit of magic. There on that isolated terrace was the first time this year that she was happy about the chaotic festival outside. Trusting never came easily to her and she always thought it was the most precious thing she could give or receive and in those couple of hours he had made it the easiest thing to share.

The Lunatic

Lunatic

Once long ago when I was a little girl, I met a lunatic. One summer evening tugging at my newest pair of jeans I boarded a tram. My small palms secure in the grasp of old gnarled ones, I was happy. I sat down, the breeze from the window cooling my neck and I was glad. Glad, about my vacation, my trip to the park, my new t-shirt. A gentle tap on my shoulder brought me out of my happy reverie and I turned to find myself face to face with a pair of gleaming eyes somewhat dulled by the thick black-rimmed glasses covering them. An old man with a fat bristly moustache sat there smiling at me; looking like he had climbed right out from one of Dadu’s black and white movies. He asked me my name and I turned around to look at Dadu for permission, I wasn’t allowed to talk to strangers then. I couldn’t find him in the crowd and my face must have crumpled for the old gentleman tapped me on the shoulder again and offered me a packet of peanuts. Warnings from my parents ringing in my ears I clutched the packet tightly in my palms and promised him that I would eat it later. He asked me if I wanted to see a magic trick and all my fears forgotten I nodded eagerly, magicians couldn’t be bad right? He said he would perform the trick only on one condition; I would have to hear a story after he showed me the trick. He mumbled some words and then just like that, in the middle of a crowded tram, he pulled out a coin from behind my ear. I sat there thoroughly impressed; mouth agape like a goldfish when he began his story.

He told me of a city, a city full of mad men and women. The city was an ancient one; every street corner was dotted with a splendid relic of the past. The residents however wanted more, they made plans, sketched new blueprints and new structures started popping up everywhere. One by one all the relics just disappeared, nobody saw them ever again. No, they hadn’t crumbled, nor had some jealous wizard stolen them. They were there, in plain sight, yet they remained invisible. People rushed past them, lovers found privacy in the wilderness surrounding them, but the relics just stood there, steadfastly invisible. The men and women of the city had forgotten how to laugh; they smiled sometimes, a measured widening of the lips, just the amount their doctor had prescribed. The children had forgotten how to run, their backs bent with the weight of knowledge. The trees had turned grey, choking with fumes; they had forgotten how to breathe. Everyone always used umbrellas for at any given time you could be hit by dead birds falling off of the grey trees. No one wanted to be left behind, everyone wanted to match everyone else so they made identical houses and painted them in the same colour. Pretty soon the once colourful city turned into obedient rows of uniformly painted matchboxes. The men and women spoke of archaeological sites where they had dug up paper boats, apparently children played with such vulgar things once. The prisons of this city were overcrowded, their walls sullied with millions of rebellions painted in smuggled colours. The mental asylums were crowded with people who shouted poetry; one could also find a few comedians in solitary confinement, they were the brave ones, they dared laugh at the mad men and women. One day those who ran the city decided that a city that perfect should only have people with pretty blue eyes. Everyone else had two days to leave the city after which they would kill everyone, much like they had killed the giant trees years back because they wanted petite ornamental bushes. The city still sits there with over growing ornamental bushes and uniform matchbox like houses, taking laboured breaths and waiting for its first blue-eyed resident. The prison walls have faded and the asylum has become silent; overflowing with carcasses. The prison compound has developed a small crack from which has sprung a sprig of green. The two tender bold leaves stand there brave amidst crumbling heaps of grey. That year it rained in the city, the grey dripping slowly off the trees and the sprig of green that was now a small plant sported a tight blue bud on one delicate branch.

At this point before he could go on, the stern looking conductor jerked him out of his seat. I had been listening in such rapt attention that I had not noticed the excited murmurs in the tram. Everyone was pointing at him and making animated expressions and speeches to their neighbours. The trundling stopped and he was pushed off the tram, his long English umbrella thrown out after him. I sat there palms tightly clasped around the packet of peanuts while the people in the tram jeered “Lunatic! Lunatic!” out of the dusty windows.

Summer

Dear Akash,

 

I dreamt of you last night. It wasn’t the first time if I am being honest, but what took me by surprise was how clearly I saw your face. I had forgotten how potent your cocky smile can be and it hit me yesterday, even in my sleep I think I missed a few beats. I don’t know what you look like now; the face in my dreams has always been the face that haunted me many summers ago. Have you got wisps of grey amidst the waves of your black hair or do you have a shinning bald patch? Do you have a granddaughter who loves running her hands over it? I saw your face last night, close to mine, so close that I could reach out and feel its smoothness if I wanted to. I almost did, wanting to touch the crow’s feet that appear when you smile. Over the years your face had become a blur and though I kept meeting you, secretly, in my dreams from time to time; I never really saw your face. I felt your presence though, walking beside me on dusty roads, holding my hand in a nightmare; sometimes I smelt you there. Remember that summer long ago? The one we spent immersed in each other, spending every spare moment in each others arms. I’ve never spoken about it, guarded those moments jealously, not ready to share it with anybody. Sometimes with my grandson sitting on my lap babbling about faraway things, I think about you. Some months back my doctor asked me to go for walks, so now I go to the park nearby, buy myself an ice cream and wander around for a while. There is boy there, lanky, quiet; he sits on the grass with carelessly untied shoe-laces, always lost in one book or another. One day he lifted his face and looked straight at me; his eyes reminded me of you. Once when my girl was just two or three, she had brought home a stray puppy from somewhere and as I cleaned the shivering little thing all I could think of was you. You always wanted to rescue and adopt pretty much anything that was alive. Much later, one day my husband had come in ranting about something and all I saw was your indignant face and impassioned eyes. Sometimes on solitary afternoons when I have the house to myself I sit and read your letters, sinking my nose in them, trying to catch a whiff of you and all I smell is musty paper. Once I sat by the window writing, and I turned around to see my girl standing there shyly tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. She told me there was someone she wanted me to meet and there in my drawing-room sat a boy who couldn’t take his eyes off of her. His eyes on her animated face reminded of you. I wanted to touch your face yesterday, wanted to feel its cool smoothness again, but I was afraid. What if I reached out and the face went away? I wanted to shift a little closer, feel your breath on my face; I stayed where I was and contented myself watching that lopsided grin. The nurse on duty is here to check on me and she looks disapprovingly at me, I should have been asleep a long time back. I promise her that I will go to sleep shortly and she obliges. Everyone obliges me these days; they are never sure which wish will be my last, so they always give in. I have been rambling for too long and almost forgot why I started writing this letter. I hope your life has been as happy and full of love and magic as mine. I am certain you have woken up every morning happy just to be alive, you’ve always been that optimistic. I only wish to thank you, for that long-lost summer and the memories that you left behind; memories that kept wafting in and out of my life over the years. Thank you for the memories.

 

Love Rai.

 

Sahana folded the letter before her silent tears could blot the neat lines written in ink. She had been clearing the table beside the empty hospital bed when she came across the envelope. She had tucked it into her purse and had forgotten all about it, today while rummaging through her purse for her kajal her hands had brushed against the envelope and she had opened the letter to read it. She slipped the letter back into the envelope and sealed it; posting it the next morning. Somewhere far away a few days later, one summer morning, an old man sat on a recliner running his fingers over a smooth but fraying old yellow ribbon that belonged to a girl he once knew. His grandson brought him out of his reverie and handed him a letter. Wrinkled hands dipped into the envelope and brought out the crisp folded sheet inside, he was hit by draft of familiar smell and his heart skipped a beat and then another. His grandson came back a while later and found his grandfather asleep his mouth twisted into a lopsided grin a folded letter clutched in his hand. He placed a hand on his grandfather’s shoulder and tried to gently shake him awake. 30 seconds later he ran out of the room to call for an ambulance.

Stories

He had done his homework,

read piles of fat books.

He had learnt patience,

and earned degrees.

He knew exactly what needed to be done.

He sat in front of the laptop screen,

fingers poised over the keyboard,

and waited.

He was sure it would come,

come flowing out in an eloquent flurry.

He waited, his confidence wavering, staring at the screen.

The blinking cursor in the blank Word page

testing the patience he had carefully learnt.

Minutes slowly turned to an hour,

the page however, remained,

a steady dull white.

Of course! It struck him at last,

he needed pen and paper.

Laptop pushed aside,

fresh sheet of paper in front,

he sat armed with a pen.

The minutes still ticked by,

the crisp white sheet lay there,

mocking his impotence.

Forehead beaded with perspiration,

palms damp with sweat,

he sat staring at the lamp illuminated sheet.

He had always been sure,

known right since his childhood,

that he wanted to tell stories.

The room seeming smaller,

the blank sheet of paper

screaming out his incompetence;

he left his seat and pushed open the window.

The breeze cooling his damp skin,

he travelled back;

to the sun soaked afternoons,

when spinning stories was all that he had.

The lonely kid, in an abandoned attic

drawing on the sooty walls;

winning wars against imaginary armies,

the stories, his only companions.

Stray rays of sunshine,

spotting the floor, he had spent his teenage there,

reading books; the stories,

his only escape.

Shards of recollections piercing his heart,

he sat back down,

and bled.

The white sheets now dripping red,

he smiled. His stories, his only gift.

The Abandoned Swing Set

He was finally done for the day, his eyes hurt from all the proof-reading that he had been made to do and he could hardly straighten his back. As an intern his life was all about running errands and lifting equipment and working and trying to impress his seniors, he sank into his chair and the rusty old thing let out a sharp creak. He leaned back a little in order to hear that creak again, it reminded him of something. Suddenly, his head was filled with a quiet and musical voice, “She just can’t resist your innocent face, that’s all”, Piya sounded miffed. Nandu instantly expressed his whole-hearted agreement saying, “Yes, she always falls for those grey eyes and that blank face.”

Asad bent down trying to blow the sand and dust from the slightly tilted seat of the swing, he sat down and started swinging, counting the rhythmic creaks in his head. He stared at the stained plate in his sweaty palms and at the double helping of Halwa on it, trying to decide whether he should tell them. He decided against it and continued swinging quietly, letting Piya’s voice wash over him. All the other kids in the orphanage bullied him for being the matron’s favourite, Piya and Nandu were different; they were the only ones he spoke to. Every night as they lay huddled on one hard damp mattress, he spoke his heart out and they always listened. Some nights the matron took him to sleep with her, in her quarters where she lived with her husband. Those nights were his secret; he never shared anything about them with anybody, not even Piya.

It had started a year back when he turned eleven; the matron told him that as special treat on his birthday he could sleep with her for the night. He remembered being slightly taken aback and reluctant to take up her offer, he didn’t like her much and she scared him. She took him with her and put him to bed next to her sleeping husband, then asked him to go to sleep while she went to check up on the other kids. He lay there in the dark staring at the thin sliver of light coming in from the barely open window when suddenly he felt a cold hand creep up his shirt. He scrambled off the bed in fright, but the man was too big and he was too little. That night he learnt what pain was as he lay still, hours after the ordeal was over, involuntary and silent tears slipping down his cheekbones and pooling in his ears. Next morning the matron served him an extra chappati and a meaningful look during breakfast. A couple of days later, one evening a slightly older kid, accidentally pushed him to the ground, while another evening one accidentally tore his shirt. A few such accidents later he started maintaining his distance from them. The abandoned swing set was his favourite spot, it was close to the outer walls and more often than not sounds of life outside the orphanage could be heard. He sat there for hours, spinning stories in his head about the people who lived beyond that wall.

His visits to the matron’s house settled into a regular pattern, two nights a week he would lie quietly in the dark while a pair of cold clammy hands ran all over him, he always received the extra helpings at breakfast the next day. He was constantly bullied for being the matron’s favourite, he wished he wasn’t. One rainy day they were all woken up earlier than usual and asked to get dressed, make themselves proper. They knew what was coming; by the end of the day, if they were lucky, one of them would be leaving this place, to go live a different life. It was one of those rare occasions when some couple wanted to adopt a relatively older kid and they had to take a proper bath and put on clean clothes. The rest of the day still remains a blur for him, except for the five minutes when the matron had threatened him with dire consequences like returning to the orphanage if he ever spoke up. He still remembers those five minutes of horror pretty clearly. The other thing he could never forget was that he hadn’t been able to say goodbye to Piya or Nandu, he hadn’t been able to go to meet them by the broken swing set like he had promised. He remembers the alien feeling the next morning of waking up in a soft bed, in a room that was completely his. He had loved his new parents solely for rescuing him from the hell-hole; trust however had come much later.

Now, sitting on a creaky chair in a deserted office, he wondered what had happened to Piya and Nandu. He sat there thinking about going back, finding out more about them when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Ananya the other intern who had joined the office a couple of days ago, she wanted to know if he could drop her home as it was pretty late. Piya’s soothing voice and his aching back forgotten, Asad rushed to open the office door before Ananya could get to it.

Covered Nostalgia

Things once new become a part of our lives and we stop noticing them. Tiny pieces of our former selves hanging on the walls, gathering dust on shelves or simply stuck on the cupboard door. The lyrics that once stirred our hearts, the quotes that struck a chord inscribed on walls fading away a little with each sunrise. Brightly covered books that we once coveted get pushed to the furthest corner of our bookshelves. I woke up one morning to find a thin sliver of winter sunlight falling on Calvin’s outraged face in a fading poster demanding euphoria because happiness simply wasn’t good enough. Burrowing deeper into my blanket, staring at the face of George Harrison winking at me from the poster I wondered.

 

I wondered about the little girl who loved going to school. There was a time when every time I passed my school gates on my way to somewhere I was hit by nostalgia. I tried every time to peep in and catch a glance of the building and its familiar windows with a foolish grin on my face. Now I barely even notice that I am passing my school, but in the off-chance that I do I still find my lips spreading into that hopeless grin. Memories scattered all around that building; the memory of my endless wait for my mother one rainy day still sits under the giant portico arches swinging her legs. My memories of staring at the gulmohur tree when I should have been learning compound interest still stand and look at the smooth basketball court where the tree once was.

 

Nose deep in nostalgia I dug out CDs with old photographs, old albums that my mother meticulously filled with fleeting moments from my childhood, older albums that held stories of the generations before me. I have always been a person who takes a lot of photographs, trying to capture the silly little things that make me happy. Sitting on the patch of sunlight that falls on my bed from the adjacent window, surrounded by some fading and mouldy photographs and a CD that my laptop keeps rejecting I am gripped by a sudden panic. What would I do if I lost the photographs? What if they repainted my room? What would happen when the mango tree occupying the other corner of my school field met the same fate as the gulmohur tree? My memories razed to the ground, my childhood buried under a fresh coat of paint.

 

Looking around the room I try desperately to commit every inch of the room to memory. The small corner beside my books closet where I sit and cry so that no one finds me, the fading scribbles on my walls from my sister’s particularly artistic phase at the age of two, all the things that makes that space mine. I spot the rectangular patch on the backside of the door, where there used to be a poster of my favourite cricketer, and suddenly my panic disappears. The image of the poster is still fresh in my mind and if I close my eyes I can almost imagine it still up on the door. I remember the fight with my brother when he had ripped the poster off, the endless hours of tears and pain that had followed, also the innumerable days of guilt tripping him that came after it. There had been other such patches in my room, some of them now covered with new posters, some with paint that I splashed and some with snapshots of newer memories.

 

These splashes will get covered too, the posters will fade and wear, the snapshots will be replaced, and the old will make way for the new as I change. Yet every once in a while I will sit in a patch of sunlight, close my eyes and see my room as it used to be, remember the girl I once was and smile at the memories. The older, hopefully wiser me, will catch a glimpse of my school building as I pass by it and if I close my eyes and imagine the corner of the field, I will always see a gulmohur tree standing on a carpet of red.