What the waves do

Her feet on the cooling sand, she sat staring at the vast, rapidly darkening sea in front of her. The sound of a thousand voices eddied around her before getting lost amidst the roar of the sea, and a solitary stray brown dog lay curled on the sand a little to her right. Every time someone passed by them, it raised its head sniffing the air and wagging its thin tail, only to be disappointed by their absolute obliviousness towards his happiness. She sat there distractedly stroking the dog’s ear and staring at the giant waves of foam breaking on the smoothly packed wet sand. She didn’t know what time it was or how long she had been sitting here; she had conveniently forgotten to put on her watch when she left the hotel. What good would a watch be at a place like this anyway?

The sea-shore always gave her a feeling of being stuck in a time loop; one wave looked just like another as did the groups of merrymakers. She knew she would have to leave soon, she had an article to write, a deadline to meet. Yet the anonymity that the sea gave her, the insignificance it rendered her to, was too precious to give up just yet. She was nobody here; no one cast a second glance at the solitary figure in a hooded tee sitting beside a stray dog.

She lived by a sea just like this one and every morning when she was not away chasing some story in some faraway land, she ran. Music blasting in her ears, heart thumping in her chest, for that one hour her mind was free. Free from the constant burden of memories. She smiled an absentminded smile at the waves, at their need to keep coming back. Every time they tried to move forward the sea ruthlessly pulled them back and they tried desperately to hold on to the shore. She kind of understood their dilemma, their need to keep returning. She did it herself at times: in her power suit, at a party beneath the glittering lights; standing in front of magnificent edifices, her mind kept going back, revisiting the people and the memories she had left behind. Sometimes she called them; sometimes she let herself wallow in the obscure sorrow that the memories brought. It was a feeling she liked, it assured her and comforted her, made her conscious, of still having ties.

She spent most of her adult life walking backwards into the future, facing the past, casting wistful glances as the past became more and more distant. Looking at the memories as they got clouded by the fog of time till only blurry patches of grey remained. Waiting for the rogue ray of sunlight that managed to sneak in through the fog every once in a while and illuminate the grey patches. Then she could see them clearly, as clearly as she saw her calloused palms. The sea always made her forget, she spent hours staring hypnotized at the waves rolling in and being dragged back, her mind empty of the constant ebb and flow of memories. A shrill stray peal of laughter broke her trance and the tide of memories came rushing back, flooding her mind. She picked p the book that she had laid on the sand beside her earlier, and started reading from where she had left off. “Because Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life…


Winters and warm socks

My feet are always cold and I don’t just mean metaphorically. I have always maintained that I dislike winters, seems strange I know for someone who lives just some kilometers to the south of the Tropic of Cancer. The temperature rarely if ever drops below 11oC and I still throw tantrums about how cold it is. The sudden end of my student life this year (at least the kind of student life that involves examinations) means I have a lot of free time to wonder and wander, albeit from one room to another. I woke up this morning with cold feet, which led to a hunt for a pair of socks and suddenly a pair of bright orange socks in hand I realized that it was winter, and I was happy. Armed with a cup of coffee and a book, feet cozily clad in socks, I headed to the terrace to wonder about my new-found happiness and stare at the cat next door. Sitting atop the water tank and staring at a crow that stared right back at me with its head cocked to one side, I could not find a single reason to be unhappy. I sat there listing all the wonderful things about winter in my mind, warm food, lots of soup, colourful socks and bright quilts. Morning walks with grandpa in gardens with wet grass, staring at the flowers that braved the cold and shone bright amidst the mostly bare trees and steaming hot tea while walking back home. I wonder what went wrong; when and why had I started disliking winters?

Somewhere while growing up these wonderful things got left behind, bits and pieces of me scattered all over the city and their memories gathering dust in a forgotten corner of my mind. Winters had been about Christmas carol practice, and our school music teacher trying tirelessly to get an entire class to sing in tune, needless to say that she never succeeded. Five or six people actually remembered the lyrics on the final day and the rest of us tried to share scraps of paper with the lyrics scrawled on them. Now the only time I get to hear carols are in stores while shopping for mundane things. There amidst a crowd of people least interested in the carols, I am hit by a wave of nostalgia and a yearning to visit school.

Winters had been about the reading list that my English teacher handed out, about the smell of those new books and spending hours lost in them. I fell in love sometime in winter, with reading, with books, with the people in them. Winters had been about eating oranges in the warm afternoon Sun with my siblings. I grew up, got busy, became lazy, turned judgmental and the meaning of winter changed for me. Christmas became more about the crowds than the decorations adorning Park Street. I wonder when I started noticing shiny clothes more than the tinsel decked New Market.

I believed in Santa Claus, still do if I am being honest. My Santa is a suave gentleman, a clean-shaven oncologist with waves of white hair – my grandpa who used to take me to New Market and let me select a tree for myself. Then he would wait for me to fall asleep at night before tying chocolates to the tinsel branches and slipping a huge bar of Cadbury under my pillow. Winter became more about cold feet and less about the warm body of my dog when she slips beneath my quilt each morning and tries to snuggle into me.

I will probably never love winters the way most people do, will probably never go for long walks on cold and quiet winter nights (sounds kind of tempting though) but one pair of orange socks and a cup of hot coffee later I am determined to look at winter differently.

Of pickles and grandmothers

He liked sitting next to his grandmother watching the rhythmic movements of her hands as she rolled the sweetened shreds of coconut into tiny round balls of goodness. He always tried to sit very still, concentrating on the way the gold bangles on her hands bumped into each other every time she formed a sweet. He liked the noise that the bangles made every time they came in contact, for him that was always the most soothing sound that he had heard. It was the sound that he heard when she shook him awake every morning and the last sound he heard every night before falling asleep as she stroked his hair off his face.

He missed her every time his nose caught a whiff of pickle, sunny summer afternoons spent on the terrace with great big bowls of unripe fruit and giant jars of spices had eternally linked in his mind, his grandmother with the scent of pickles. Stealing sour, spice coated fruits from the jars before they were ready to be eaten had once been no short of an expedition. He could still picture the three jars he had had to leave with airport security years back; he would rather have left everything else in his possession than those three precious jars that had been especially prepared for him.

He missed her every year on festive days, when no one forced him to put on starched clothes, comb his hair and go places with her. When he grew up a little he rebelled, purposely put on his scruffiest clothes and paraded his unkempt self all around the house turning a deaf year to her platitudes and threats. This was inevitably followed by her sulking for the rest of the day till he took her out for vanilla ice – cream in the evening. It had been their special ritual for the festival days.

He missed her every evening around seven o’clock, which was when he got to mooch the delicious offerings that were a part of her evening prayers. It was a battle, especially when his kid sister was around, that required skill. One had to grab as much as possible in the first fistful for there were no second chances, then it was time to compare the loot. Nothing could come close to the joy of rushing to the terrace and devouring the sweets clasped in their sticky palms.

He missed her when he looked around his room, at the clothes and junk strewn all over it and found no one trying to bribe him into cleaning it. He missed her every year on his birthday when no one served him sticky rice porridge for breakfast, when no one coaxed him to eat fish telling him stories about how it made people stronger. He missed her when he smelt fresh cucumbers that had been his customary evening snack at first after he woke up from his nap as a kid and later when he came home from college. He missed her when he saw someone with big round kohl rimmed eyes, missed how she widened her eyes when she was really caught up in the story she was narrating. He missed her when he spoke to her over the phone and she spoke extra loudly because he lived far away from her. He missed her when she told him the things she had done all day, he missed her when she tried to sound all brave about her health.

He always missed her most just before he fell asleep, sitting in his darkened room at the end of each day, groggy with sleep, as he tried to recall the stories she used to tell him each night.

The Last Letter

It was well past midnight in my part of the world when the phone rang. The red suitcase sat gaping on the bed with clothes spilled all around it; you would probably frown at me; you hated how I always left my packing until the very last minute. I began tossing the scattered clothes with an absent minded smile, searching for my phone. The shrill ringing stopped before I could locate it and I couldn’t help smiling a little wider, you were always complaining about how I never answered calls on time. I couldn’t help it; I always keep forgetting to bring the damn thing out of silent mode. I was about to go back to folding everything in sight and stuffing the case with it for I never could decide what I wanted to take along, when the shrill ring of the phone disturbed the muted silence of my room again. This time I managed to locate and answer the call, another few seconds and I probably would have missed the call. A curt voice trying very hard to sound sympathetic wanted to know if I knew you; I must have made some noise or agreed in some way, though I have no memory of it, for in the very next instance my world became a blur. I put the phone away, on the dresser this time, for I knew I would need to call people and there would be more calls I would have to answer. I really needed to sit down for a while; regroup, take stock, think, breathe. All I could think of was the silly joke you had cracked when we had spoken a while back; the plans you had made for us when I visited would have to be cancelled. I tried to recall if you had mentioned anything about any bookings, didn’t really matter, I didn’t know who to call in order to cancel them; you had wanted to surprise me, well you managed to do that just fine. I went back to packing, neatly folding the clothes into the red suitcase, laying them flat the way you had taught me to. I knew I needed to call people, make arrangements, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud just yet. I just needed to lie down for a while; just till my hands stopped shaking so badly, just to see if the cold hard floor was still really there. I lay there on the cold floor the fan rhythmically cutting through the air above me; I could still clearly see the road that we had been walking along about six years back, in fact I can now recall every tiny detail from the half torn posters on the wall next to me, to the taxi that whizzed past us. I hadn’t really been able to see your face clearly that day, funny how our memory works for now I can see your face clearly, along with that frown that you get when you are talking to yourself. When I kept asking you the reason you had been so uptight all evening you said, barely audibly, that you were trying really hard not to kiss me and I gathered up all my courage and asked you not to try so hard. We went back to being friends after that evening, running away to the comfort of our well known parameters rather than risking giving in to the newfound awkwardness. Much later, days after I moved in you realised the magnanimity of what we had done and you panicked, picked up a fight, worked more hours than necessary, visited all the friends we ever had. A day or two later I had found an apology in my mail; I think I still have the printed copy somewhere. I remember wearing a pair of orange socks the day you had received your transfer letter, you thought they made my feet look like a goose’s feet. Your going away remains a blur, I am sure I remember the details somewhere they are just too hard to recall. The dull throbbing in my head has turned into a sharp pain clawing at my temples and pounding at the back of my head, my throat hurts from the lump I keep trying to swallow unsuccessfully. I know I should get up and start making those calls but I just need a while longer, the cold floor seems somewhat comforting. I need more, something to ease the nausea churning up my stomach. I get up search for my laptop and start it up; I sign into my email account and start reading our letters, hoping to get that rush of finding something unexpected, maybe there was a letter I had not read yet. Two years worth of letters later I still wasn’t ready to say it out loud. I don’t know when or why I started writing this letter but I really need to go finish my packing now. Auf Wiedersehen.

Pooling squares of sunlight

A splash of red, a dash of green

a dab of blue.

An afternoon filled with gentle brushstrokes;

and evening full of heartbreak and shredded strips of paper.

Sitting amidst the ripped scraps,

drying tears of frustration on her cheeks, she gives in,

gives in to the memories that come flooding.

Memories of afternoons,

spent sitting in a pool of sunlight, dipping her fingers.

The joy of cool squishy paint,

feeling the smooth base of the glass bottle.

Haphazard finger-prints on a crisp white sheet,

the pride of creating something unique.

Then she grew up,

they taught her art, dictated her brushstrokes,

chained her flamboyance.

Now she was never satisfied, that warm glow of pride

was an alien memory, perhaps even a dream.

She amazed the critics, she had flawless technique,

her canvases smelled of perfection.

In one corner of her pristine, cold, temperature controlled studio

half hidden from view

was a canvas bright,

with a window and pooling squares of sunlight.

A few hours

These last couple of hours always seemed the longest; she smiled to herself thinking how clichéd she sounded even to her own ears. Well, there was work still left to be done, dinner to be prepared, next morning’s clothes to be ironed, presentation for next morning’s meeting to be completed… the sound of the front door opening brought her back to reality. She stood there, paring knife in hand, and looked at him while he put away the groceries in the fridge. It’s not like time had done him any special favours, he had put on weight and the tan that had once given her hot flushes was now darker and her everyday reality. She loved him still, the passion and intensity still the same, she always wondered why people said that passion and love cooled, turned tame with time. No their lovemaking was not like a surprise shower in winter, it still overtook them regularly like the tide, agreed it was not like the initial days when just an accidental brush of hands or shoulders turned into a mad rush for a room, sometimes the nearest table. Nowadays it was leisurely, deliberate, and full of memories and shared moments, in a word, more precious. She realised she was wool – gathering while he stood looking at her face, asking a silent question or searching for an answer perhaps. She smiled and shook her head and he kissed her neck to make squeal. They ate their dinner while they watched the city, glittering in the rain wet night, from their balcony, talking about their day, feet tangling; strains of jazz wafting in from the living room. Like every other day he insisted on doing the dishes, knowing that she hated it and would do them all over again once he was out of the kitchen. Chores done, presentation completed, she climbed into bed beside him, she knew he was asleep, but that could always be remedied. A torrid hour or so later, she knew from his breathing that he was asleep again. She lay staring at the ceiling, illuminated by the light from the television they hadn’t remembered to turn off; she twisted slightly enjoying the weight of his hand across her stomach for a while. Her wait was almost over, when she was sure she wouldn’t wake him up, she slipped out of bed. She slipped the ratty t-shirt over her still warm skin and stepped of their room into the small balcony that faced the sparse studio in the apartment next door. She settled herself down on the couch, the wind cooling her heated skin, and waited. The darkness of the night and her solitude was broken when the light in the studio came on. She settled down on the couch, made herself comfortable and sat there hitched breath, cooling skin, bathed in pale yellow light while he set up his canvas, parted the drapes, glanced back to check if she was there and started dabbing colour on the canvas. She waited all day, every day, for these couple of hours; she never spoke about it, didn’t really want to share this with anyone else. She liked how he used only bold and dark colours unaware that those colours represented her aura to him. He liked spending time in his darkened studio, watching her walk in and out during the day stealing glances towards his apartment, unaware of his gaze. He liked the way the spiky ends of her short hair brushed her neck and the thin silver chain that hugged her collar bone, he wondered if she wore any perfume. She had watched him for over a month now and during that time he had produced more paintings than ever before. He needed to paint just so that she could watch him, not steal glances towards his apartment but actually watch him; he needed to know she was on that couch despite the rain, despite the chill in the air, despite the man sleeping on her bed. She watched and he painted, he aware of her gaze on his back and his bold strokes and she aware of his awareness, while in the bedroom lit by the television screen, he waited for her to come back to bed.

Bottled Memories

A sudden glimmer broke into her numb solitude, the stars had disappeared and the sky she had unseeingly stared at all night was now a shade of grey with a pale tinge of blue. Slanting amber rays seeped in from the open window, falling on the cold empty bed and lighting up the dark corners of the room. A fleeting glimmer caught her eye again, she was just about to dismiss it as the tricks of a sleepless mind but, there it was again, this time it stayed, a pale glimmer of jade shimmering on the bed amidst the amber.

Intrigued she looked around the room her tired eyes searching for the source of the jade glimmer, she found nothing. She looked towards the bed again and the glimmer was still there, only now it was azure. She left the windowsill and walked towards the bed, her eyes never straying from the glimmer, she stretched out her hand and at the touch of her finger it turned iris. It reminded her of all those sunny afternoons spent daubing paint on the walls and, although she was unaware of it, a smile touched her lips. She touched it again hoping it would change colour, but it only shimmered brighter as if the azure had been set alight.

She looked around her room again and this time she spotted a glint coming from her bookshelf. She recognised it at once; it was that empty, corked glass bottle, the one they had used to pass messages to each other as kids. Hadn’t they lost it? Had he kept it hidden away from her all these years? Why then did he choose to leave it behind, had he forgotten to take it?

She carefully brought out the bottle, the smooth glass surface surprisingly warm against her palm, and held it against the amber pouring in from the window. It didn’t seem to be empty anymore; it was filled with a pulsating shade of emerald, it was a colour she would know anywhere. The attic where they spent their summer holidays — where they had decided to have their own secret code, where they had poked around dusty corners till they discovered this bottle — had doors that exact shade of emerald.

The emerald was gone; the bottle was filled with what looked like liquid indigo now, exactly like the ink from his first fountain pen. She still remembered how much she had wanted that pen, she had still had a couple of years to go before she could use a pen and had felt herself go every shade green when he showed her his new acquisition. One evening when he was out with his friends she sneaked the pen away to the attic, she only wanted to write her name with it once, he would never know. Her heart still missed a beat when she remembered the horror that ensued; she had pressed too hard and broken the nib. She remembered the misery, the nauseous surety at the pit of her stomach that he would never speak to her again while she watched his father scolding him for breaking a new pen. She could never forget the knock on her head she got from him later or the punishment of having to give him her share of ice cream for a week.

She placed the now periwinkle bottle on the windowsill and sat down to think of all those autumn afternoons that they spent fighting, telling each other stories, secrets, stealing treats from the refrigerator. She remembered how he let her tag along to all his football and cricket matches, even let her be on his team though her hand-eye coordination was zero and how she sat at the edge of the park watching the periwinkle sky while he played with his friends.

The eddying glimmer inside the bottle had turned moss green like the frog they had sneaked into the house one monsoon and decided to keep as a pet. She thought of all those hours he spent consoling her when the frog had been taken away while his friends watched the World Cup without him. She remembered the summer he was supposed to go away for an excursion but had had to spend locked up at home instead because she had given him chicken pox. That was probably the best summer of her life, they had made a tent on the terrace and he had told her ghost stories all night.

She turned the bottle and it glowed with the exact shade of purple that his face had been when she had first caught him with a girl in his room. Her ears still felt warm from the box she had received for finding her horrid. She had been jealous and scared, it was the first time he had given another girl so much attention. The taste of the three scoops of black currant ice cream he had treated her to, when he realised this, was still fresh in her mouth. The bottle turned plum as did her face when she thought back to the day he caught her with his friend, he had laughed till fat tears of embarrassment had rolled down her cheeks and then he had apologized when she threatened never to save him from cockroaches again.

She looked at the bottle and the swirling shades of blue in it, remembering his face at the airport as he waved goodbye, the forced smile and his sad eyes. She held up the glimmering bottle against the light one last time, smiling at the spiralling hues of blue, green and purple in it, wiping the tears off her cheeks, she opened the cork.