The Notion of Home and Urban Space: Creative Writing

Abstract: A creative writing project that broadly explores the notion of Home. It is an attempt to understand how one forms an idea of home – not perhaps as a geographical space but a mental landscape; images, things, people around whom narratives are woven in order to make them familiar, to make them one’s own. These pieces will pick up on different aspects of the process of searching for and establishing (or not) a Home.

Bio: Currently based in New Delhi, I am a Project Fellow to Professor Makarand at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. I am also doing a French course at Alliance Francaise. I completed my BA English Literature from St Stephens College, Delhi University and an MA in Communications from the University of London. I am also currently appearing for both the GRE Subject & General Test so as to be able to apply for a PhD in English Literature at the end of this year. I am also a freelance editor for Macmillan Higher Education.

email: janicepariat @ gmail.com
blog: Fictions.

riday, July 28, 2006

Night Journeys

He had been working there for almost three…how fast they had flown…years now. It was, if not very well-paying, a secure job. Although sometimes not that steady either. It all depended on how many people needed them at night, how many cars were waiting in line, curling in front of his towards the large well-lit building. Nine p.m to five a.m was his shift. The opposite of most people in the world, who worked the daylight away in an office and then devoured the remaining hours in bed, dreaming of all they would never be, never have time to do, of people they would never meet.

Aseem usually left the radio on during the quiet time, which would be when he was parked under the leafy Ashoka, a canopy of shade and silence except sometimes for a stray bird that had lost its way. He liked it there in April, when blossoms floated softly to the ground, coaxed by the breeze and if he stayed long enough, he could watch the muddy earth transform into a patch of gold. It reminded him of home, or where he used to be before he came to the city to join his elder brother. An Ashoka, much larger than this one, grew in their garden, where his mother would gather the flowers for her morning puja, or his sisters hair. He remembered her sitting under it for hours in the evening, waiting for their father to get back, drunk and demanding. Tearing blades of grass into tinier shreds, she told him that it was a joyful tree, without grief or sorrow. Or at least that’s what its name meant.

Often however, on a busy night, Aseem would have to drive past too quickly for his liking, over the blossoms and leaves, the cars behind him honking impatiently. Up to where the passengers stood waiting, clutching a white piece of paper, on it scrawled a name and destination. Occasionally he would try and guess where the traveller was to be dropped – Safdarjung, Gulmohur Park, Haus Khas – and he never got it right. Close enough only once, South Ex for Defence Colony but never again.

He preferred the lengthy drives, across the river or into the old parts of the city. At those hours there was hardly any traffic and the roads seemed his to own, the traffic lights flashing in welcome, the empty streets holding their share of midnight adventures behind closed doors and shuttered windows. He liked the way the city looked, milder, swathed in shadow under dusty covers of moonlight. His favourite route was past the softly glowing Red Fort, grand and lonely against the night sky, like a page of history held up to the light.

The longer journeys also gave him a chance to talk, to attempt conversation with his passengers. At the beginning when he first started the job, with his brother by his side, he was too nervous to even think of doing such a thing. He could not afford to screw up, Amit had managed to convince his boss that he was good and reliable enough and grudgingly he was allowed an evening shift, accompanied at first by Amit and then a middle-aged man named Gautam, who never showed up again after the second week. By then six months into the profession, Aseem had gained enough confidence to request to go solo and since his boss had grown to quite like the quiet, respectful boy, he was given the more important (and higher paying) night shift.

Working alone was unusual – most paired up as a team, ones that usually lasted for years, until somebody left, ceasing to get along or had bad luck that all the chillies and lemons strung to the rear-view mirror couldn’t keep away. But Aseem preferred the solitude of an empty car, it was his to take wherever he wished, stopping at his fancy by the Lotus Temple or a secret flowered garden that no one but him seemed to know about.

Working in one of the busiest centres in the Capital, he made many acquaintances, fellow drivers who came and went, hassled cops and tired security guards. But he remained fascinated by the crowds that surged through the large doorways that always remained open. How fantastic it seemed to be, carried so effortlessly from one place to the other, to and fro between immense continents, to enter and then emerge from a corridor spanning so many thousands of miles. It was magic. But for him he was stuck at one end of the passage, watching the backs of the disappearing multitude.

And so he timidly attempted to find out however much he could about these different places. Over the months, he discovered that it would never do to ask his passenger straight off where he or she had travelled from; that was too direct, too assuming of shared confidence. More often than not, the person answered with silence and it ended there, the quiet only broken by the purr of the engine or a tune from the radio. So he started instead with an inquiry about the flight, how it had been, short and convenient or long and tiring and usually, apart from the rather difficult and stoic, conversation would begin to flow. Sometimes a detailed family history would follow, of sons and daughters just visited, old friendships renewed, of visiting a new place, all the excitement of seeing people after a long time. But for him where the traveller had just come from was most important, and he always steered the exchange towards its description.

Aseem could also tell the ones that were nervous travelling alone so late at night; they would sit in the corner, at the edge of the seat, not resting their back, clutching their bags as though someone would jump from the shadows and snatch them away. He would try put them at ease, tell them that it would be dawn soon. And how the sun looked rising over the treetops, how the city awoke slowly, rising from slumber like an angry giant, and some would smile gratefully, telling him it was their first time there. Others however, would nod and glance uneasily from the window as though expecting it to happen immediately, the sun thrown into the sky for their convenience. Usually Aseem would then turn the radio up on his favourite channel, and let music fill the emptiness.

Many would excitedly tell him that that were back after ages, and how thrilled they were to be home again, about how nowhere else ever seemed right, or where they belonged.

Leaving his house, although not nearly as far away as he wished, was not too difficult. An inconvenience perhaps, like rain when one didn’t possess an umbrella. He hadn’t much to miss, tired of the walls and the view from his window, the vast expanse of unexcitement that stretched endlessly like the yellow fields, harvested and empty. He left because he longed for elsewhere. What was harder to explain was the sense of having left something behind, so far away it was almost weightless, only coming back as a memory of his mother sitting under the tree, waiting.

But this would only come back to him in his bed, in the one-room place he shared with Amit, deep in the gullies of a crowded, bustling part of the city, a labyrinth he wound his way back to every morning. He hardly saw his brother who now worked as a personal chauffeur for an executive in a big, important sounding company. ‘The office,’ he would proudly say as though he had been allotted space in one of their sacred rooms, ‘it’s made of glass, all glass.’ Keeping daytime hours, he would use the single bed at night when Aseem drove out in the darkness. Amit was the first to have left home, standing impatiently at the doorway as their mother dipped a cup into a bowl of water and made him drink from it. ‘I have washed ashoka flowers in this, now no grief shall come to you.’ Two years later, he followed, leaving early one morning before anyone was up.

He wondered whether Amit thought the same thoughts, lying there staring at an oddly shaped spot on the ceiling, damp that spread deliberately like a tumour, listening to the world that only filtered in through the broken window pane patched by old newspaper. Did he also realise that the longing hadn’t lifted, that it was there wrapping him like a cloak in winter, cooing softly like the pigeons in the rafters.

And so he kept searching, priding himself rather a collector now of names and sketches of places. Aseem stored bits of conversation he had on his night journeys; he knew of the island with its bright lights reflected on the sea, of dragons that chased evil spirits away on New Year. The fireworks that burst over a tower lighting it like the sun, girls with wreaths of flowers in their hair dancing for a midsummer festival. The heat in ancient islands that almost matched his country’s own; a simmering, brutal heat that left everyone wane and pale. And the countries of liquid gold that had fountains of clear water flowing out of sand.

He would never remember their names, these wonderful, far-off places. To him it didn’t matter what they were called. They remained a water-colour landscape filled with brighter, stronger colours and laughing people; where the shades seeped and blended until it was almost impossible to say where the scenery changed, it became one picture, his work of art that he hung in his mind like a prized painting. It was his other place, continually shaped and moulded by stories and memories.

And amongst the many passengers that he had picked up and dropped off he remembered a few, not necessarily only those he had had a conversation with. There was the young student who fell asleep and snored louder than the engine, a hippie pair on their way to enlightenment and Haridwar, to whom he gave the picture of Shiva he had propped on the dashboard, a middle-aged man sitting stiffly while his wife cried softly into his shoulder. A couple’s young daughter who looked a little like his sister.

Only her eyes perhaps, staring wide and excited out of the window, no trace of sleep on her face, while her parents dropped wearily on the seat. He hesitated a moment before turning the key. Her mother pulled out a flowered band from her handbag, reached over to tie her daughter’s hair back, long and tousled, falling below her shoulders. They drove out of the busy driveway, into the emptied roads. Aseem glanced back to see her pointing at the moon.

And his sister was similar, taking him outdoors, showing him a busy anthill or a humming bee hive, a pond streaming with lotus’ in spring. They weren’t what anyone would call close, she was younger by so many years. More than anything however, she was different, so unlike him. Delighting in where she was, cherishing the weather, the untidy garden and the dust that seemed to envelope every inch of their house. It made him uncomfortable, this steady, well-worn ground that she happily walked on.

Almost as uncomfortable perhaps as the world map. The one that the persistent man in the nearby market, where everything was available, always tried to sell him, pushing it into his face, saying he could have two for ten rupees. The cheap plastic shining in the sunlight, all the world’s oceans an artificial light blue, the land mass mostly a grotesque pink and yellow. He hated how it all looked so flat and uninteresting, the same ugly colours for everywhere, thin black lines delineating one space from the next.

Whereas for his brother nothing but two places existed, the city and his home, two plotted points in the middle of nowhere in particular. And even though they both viewed the latter almost the same way, for Amit the city was a place of opportunities he would have never had. And that, for him, was enough. It was about working hard and up the strange webbed ladder that lay delicate and tense under his feet.

Aseem had tried explaining, on the rare occasions when they sat together to drink tea or eat a meal. Tried sometimes to unearth something in his brother, he was not sure what, perhaps something to suggest that in some way he felt the same. But even to his ears it all sounded vague and untrue, a trifle amidst all the important things that had to be done and achieved. So he stopped and murmured it to the streets he drove on at night, a silent grieving, a quiet confession to the wind.

He was early for his shift that afternoon. He hadn’t been able to sleep after waking up bathed in a stream of sweat. He sat up in bed, tried to smoke a cigarette but the humidity hung heavy in the air, in his room, the table fan swirling a hot breeze into his face. So he drove to work instead, not joining in the queue yet, parking closer to the Ashoka tree, careful to keep out of the way. Aseem kept the radio off, feeling that the air was already too laden to handle anymore weight, that even music would be too loud and harsh. He didn’t watch the crowds that day, walking out into the evening light.

Soon somebody waved in surprise at seeing him there and someone else called him for tea and cards around lopsided wooden tables arranged towards the far corner of the parking lot, but he shook his head, watching only the dust conjured up by passing vehicles. It looked like rain, the heavens lowering gratefully, clouds building in pretty patterns and closing the space between earth and sky.

But he wasn’t prepared for the heavy drops that splattered on the windscreen a little while later, on the ground, dropping so hard that they punctured the dry ground, the smell of wet mud rising. It soon fell in delighted showers, tapping on his window, beckoning him outdoors. He rolled down the glass and held out his hand. It seemed like it would never stop, steady as a heartbeat, washing the dust off the leaves, bringing down the flower blossoms in a drizzle onto his palm. He watched the world around him melt, the colours changing into a watery sheen, bleeding into each other until it resembled his painting.

(c)Janice Pariat2006

posted by janice at 10:41 PM 0 comments

Thursday, June 29, 2006

River Song

River Song

Nihar sat by the window quietly. The glass he rested his forehead on wasn’t very clean but, he noticed, most of the dirt was on the outside. It felt cool, like a palm nursing a fever. His seat was first in the row, nearest to the door through which a sultry breeze blew. The heat whispering down his neck, he was in the hottest place on earth, he was sure. He had never felt this way before, this maddening desire to fling everything off, to tear the heat away and escape it. And then there were the people, so many looking at the back of his head. It made him nervous. But when he had staggered in, dragging his rucksack, a sea of curious faces peered up at him, each blossoming behind a dark-coloured seat. And he had no choice but to hoist his belongings onto the rack now above him, pretending he had intended to sit there all along.

It was quiet in the bus, the sluggish silence broken only by the rustle of wrappers or whispered conversations. Flasks of water opened and guzzled at longingly. He watched the noisy bustle outside. It was quite late already, yet as the streets emptied, the station only seemed to get busier. He hadn’t been too sure about making this trip and walking into the bus terminal fifteen minutes ago did nothing to dispel his doubts. He always liked airports. They made him feel small, and uninvolved. Like there were bigger things happening, more important places to go to and people to meet. He would sit and watch as hundreds made their way across the world. Disappearing into long corridors, down escalators that glinted in the artificial light. It was, despite the large displays recording every minute that would entail an arrival or departure, a place that was timeless.

But the bus terminal was different. Here, the monstrous vehicles intruded into the space of reflection. They made a noise – hooting and revving while some even played music, old and new Hindi movie songs, only snatches of which Nihar could understand. There were dozens of hurrying figures climbing in and out of the buses. Coolie’s stacked luggage in them, on top of them, while some twisted long ropes to hold the oddly shaped pieces together. It made the journey more physical than the longest flight ever taken.

Nihar shifted his gaze from a crowd buying biscuits and fizzy drinks to a counter above which was scrawled ‘Dehradun’, so many other names of places he had never heard of. Hanging from the roof were large blue and white signboards that did not promise anything more than a destination.

There were little make-shift shops, displaying their wares on abandoned counters, rickety tables or even the floor. Cheap magazines, foodstuff, old newspapers and the odd paperback novel. He watched a pretty girl carrying a large knapsack, looking confused, hoping she would walk this way. But he lost her to Dharamshala. From beyond the large column to the left, which once must have been a sparkling white, he spied a couple moving towards the bus, the woman a new bride looking shyly up at her husband. She was still decked in her wedding finery; intricate gold patterns adorned her neck and wrists, tinkling as she walked. The man looked proud to have her on his arm. It was shining on his face, in his every step. He carried a suitcase that he heaved into the bus before helping her in. The only free seats were the first in the row next to Nihar. She settled herself by the window. He sat and used the suitcase as a prop for his feet.

The dust that had settled into the ridge meant for the window left a mark on Nihar’s arm. A neat, white line. As he rubbed it clean, he heard the man ask the conductor standing at the door, ‘How much longer?’ The conductor muttered something that sounded close to ten minutes. He was a small man with a sharp, kindly face. A thin navy blue jacket on despite the swift September heat. A large khaki bag hung from his shoulder. Into it had gone Nihar’s two hundred rupees for a ticket. Nihar had watched him call passengers earlier, efficiently, quickly, not giving them enough time to think about other buses that would perhaps have left before they did.

Soon a large, burly man climbed into the driver’s seat. He yelled to the conductor, whose name was Krishna, that he was not waiting any longer. That otherwise they would get there too late. Krishna banged twice on the door in reply and then drew it shut. The bus rumbled to life, heaved its way out into the empty road, taking a sharp turn to the left and then continuing straight down to the flyover that led to the national highway. The conductor lifted himself onto a small seat that had been folded into the wall. He was directly in front of Nihar, and after he settled his bag, turned and smiled at him. Nihar nodded, hoping he wouldn’t start a conversation.

‘Is this your first time to Rishikesh?’

He nodded again.

‘Why are you going?’

Nihar did not know what to say.

Krishna smiled, ‘Yes, a lot of people go for that reason.’ And he fell silent.

Now with the wind in his face, Nihar realised he had forgotten how much he always enjoyed travelling at night. When he was young he would be bundled along with pillows and blankets into the backseat of the car when his parents decided to make a trip into the country. He would stay awake out of sheer excitement and then fall asleep to the sound of the radio, always the jazz station, or them quietly talking, waking up to find himself in a fresh, new place in the morning. That, for him, was the best part. A gift his parents had wrapped just for him. Drawing the curtains and looking out at scenery he did not recognise. They never visited the same place twice but those trips stopped long before his parents separated.

The bus swallowed the road in great, hungry gulps, the few lonely lights at the side vanishing into its jaws. There was something different about travelling at night. During the day the trees were dusty and tired, the roadside littered, the paths too revealing. But now, the jungle rose mysteriously like a secret, the road was as dark as water and the trails vanished, leaving no way in or out. In places a solitary bonfire burned and shawled figures huddled around its warmth, basking in a strange golden glow. Then for a long while there was only darkness. Nihar turned and his eyes fell on Krishna who was staring straight ahead.

‘How many times have you been to Rishikesh?’

‘Six years. Every second night.’

‘And why do you keep going back?’

Krishna laughed, and did not answer.

The last few reading lights had been turned off and darkness greedily tore into the dusty corners. Nihar was a little tired but not sleepy. Journeys always kept him awake now. He went seventy-two hours without sleep on his way to India. His flight had been delayed at Amman, but he opted to wait at the rather dingy airport instead of being shuttled off to the nearest Holiday Inn.

The last time he was in the country was five years ago, when his parents were still fighting. The battle lines drawn around them, proud and strong. And after a smouldering divorce, all that was left was an open field of emptiness.

His uncle, who he was staying with in Delhi, in a large, leafy bungalow which the sunlight couldn’t penetrate, hadn’t questioned him when he said at dinner that he wanted to make a trip to the mountains. The roti, lying puffed by the side of his plate, was methodically torn into almost same-size pieces before being used to swipe through a small heap of vegetables and dipped in dal. He had replied simply, ‘Of course. You are free to go where you wish.’ So he hadn’t needed to explain to anyone about leaving the following weekend. A booklet he had picked up from a small, crowded bookshop told him that ‘Rishikesh (from Hrishikesh, another name for Lord Vishnu, the Preserver), in the state of Uttaranchal, is a holy city for the Hindus located in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. One of the most ancient cities in the country, it is considered an access point for the cities that form the Char Dham (the four Abodes) – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. The word Hrishikesh has been seen to refer to Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, who refers to Himself as the “Lord of the Senses.”’

They stopped twice during the journey. Once next to a dhaba proclaiming specialisation in Chinese and Indian dishes where Nihar bought half a dozen mineral waters, and gratefully sipped a coffee even though it nearly burnt his tongue. He sat on a platform under a tree, feeling the oppressive heat had lifted somewhat, it was easier to breathe. One hot day, on their second trip to India, his parents had stopped at a small roadside restaurant, almost like this one but not quite so fancy. He kept himself busy outside, throwing pebbles into a small green pond. The splash of the stones rippled in the afternoon heat. He didn’t like being around his parents so much anymore, he didn’t understand why. Around them was a tension, like blowing a balloon, not knowing when it would burst. Finally he dropped the rest of the pebbles into the water and ran inside. To see them sit on the wooden bench in silence.

And then they stopped at Haridwar where most of the passengers got off. The couple near him remained fast asleep and he wondered whether he should wake them up in case they missed their stop. Finally, he decided not to.

It was hard to imagine that it was three in the morning, the row of teashops blazed with chatter and activity, lit by bare bulbs that flickered but never went off. Dusty jars filled with an assortment of biscuits lined the counters, while murky liquid gurgled cheerfully in the open pans sending curls of steam into the night air. The tea-boys, most of them not older than sixteen, scurried around handing out little glasses to the disembarked, some of whom had stalled their rickshaws for refreshment. Nihar watched them in honest curiosity, realising that they probably met more people here than most folks do in a lifetime of travel.

He was debating whether to take a walk and stretch his legs when Krishna passed under his window, stopping to look up, ‘Would you like to have tea?’ Nihar hesitated, then agreed, climbing out of the almost empty bus and following him to a stall down the line; quieter, with fewer people. The sound of a radio came from a corner too dark to see, an old, soft melody blown by a sharp wind, light and frisky on its feet, fresh from the mountains. The owner, sitting on the only chair, watched them silently then nodded at the two fingers Krishna held up. Within seconds the glasses were placed on the wooden table, frothy and milky, cardamom steam rising in delight. It was too hot to hold, he decided gingerly tapping the sides. ‘Where are you from?’ asked the conductor, sipping the tea and offering him a cigarette. In his confusion he took one, nervously twirling it between his fingers. After they separated, he grew up with his father in Manchester and his mother in New York, six months each, neatly divided like cake, folded in foil and distributed.

‘Here and there…’ he attempted and trailed off. ‘But I would like to live in India now.’

Krishna dragged deeply, the cigarette butt burned like coal, bright and alive. ‘India is a big place.’

They sipped their tea in silence, the hustle slowly dying into the night as people made their way into empty roads. Some of the teashops closed, their darkened doorways interrupting the line of flickering lights. ‘Come,’ said Krishna quietly, leaving a five rupee note under his empty glass. Nihar nodded, draining the sweet liquid and putting out his half smoked cigarette.

The bus was almost empty now; only a few passengers still sat patiently in their seats, many of whom had large, woollen shawls drawn around them. The couple was still there, he dozing while she looked out of the window. The driver was at the wheel, leaning out of his window, talking to someone outside. Krishna called for passengers to Rishikesh, allowed a few in and then drew the door shut. Nihar wore a jacket and settled in, suddenly restless, longing to reach. The conversation…and thinking about it had suddenly tired him. He watched pale stars melt into a dark blue sky, drawing them into its light. It was a curious twilight of morning, one he felt he had been in all his life. As he watched the trees taking secret new shapes and the road lightening to a pencil grey, the cool night air lulled him to sleep.

They reached the city an hour later; Krishna shook him awake, saying this was the last stop. Nihar glanced out of the window sleepily, they were moving into a large yard where empty buses lined one side, while a few had passengers embarking for onward journeys. He hadn’t slept long but felt strangely refreshed. With his rucksack on his back, he stepped out into dawn; a few pale streaks of light split the horizon, far away to the East.

An auto driver quickly came up to him, eagerly asking where he could be taken? Hotel? What budget? Very nice place nearby…. Nihar shook his head and told him where he wanted to go. The driver nodded and helped put his rucksack inside the vehicle.

The morning mist hadn’t lifted, houses lay sleeping under its cover and the streets showed little sign of activity. A slight wind blew leaves and paper wrappers, swirling them around in little dancing circles. They wound their way through the town, down small lanes lined with shops that were opening to sell flowers. It was a new day, gift wrapped just for him.

Finally the auto came to a halt. ‘We have reached’ said the driver, ‘I can’t go any further.’

Nihar walked down Triveni Ghat, the red tiles glowing softly in the half-light. Sadhus huddled under a sprawling tree, whispering amongst themselves, some smoking or sleeping. A few old men sat waiting for the sun to warm their backs while they watched nothing in particular.

He could see the river now, rushing over stones as ancient as its waters, laughing at their stillness. Soon the ground gave way to sand, unwarmed and cool to his bare feet, until it was dark and heavy. Balancing his rucksack on a large dry stone, Nihar stepped into the water, its song trickling over his feet; almost as cold as the mountains it came from. As dawn broke and light played over the scenery, moulding it into a shape it loved, he could see a little further. Caught between the rocks was a cluster of leaves woven into a cup, holding delicate petals, the oil-lamp extinguished. He hesitated, looked back and then made his way to it carefully, the current making balance awkward and difficult. He finally reached the flower-filled boat, the river rushed colder and deeper. He lifted it, all remembrance and hope in his hands, and set it afloat.

(c)Janice Pariat2006

posted by janice at 2:45 PM 0 comments

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Castle

It had been so long since he last visited. Neil was not sure he was walking down the right street but he kept going. There was no one about whom he could ask, it was such a silent summer day, empty as a playground after dusk. Preoccupied, he hadn’t seen her as she stepped up onto the pavement. He had just crossed an empty stretch of road, one that started where he had taken a left and ended far ahead, a dead end, a full-stop after a long, meaningless sentence. The sun was making him hot and it hurt his eyes, he never usually ventured out so early in the afternoon. Although he had started from his front door enjoying the warmth on his back, an affectionate breezy massage, soothing away weeks of being indoors, of hunching over a table, the effort of putting pen to paper. But by the time he was halfway there, the heat had turned into a scourging, panting beast, a basilisk that breathed fire down his neck, with his every step. He was wondering whether basilisks did indeed breathe fire when he bumped into the old lady.

‘Watch where you’re going,’ she snapped and Neil’s question was answered. He hastily apologised, although a few seconds later was annoyed with himself for doing so. It hadn’t been all his fault and even if it was there was no reason to be quite so nasty. So he looked back as he walked away, glaring at the tiny figure that was now climbing up the steps that led to a house as ancient as she was, and immediately felt guilty. So frail as she took them one at a time, catching her breath, adjusting her walking stick. Neil looked away, down at the dry, bleached pavement, kicking a stone that lay cheekily in his path. What if this brittle line of bricks was the only layer between him and the centre of the earth? A crust that would give way if he stepped too hard, or happened to slip. So he walked cautiously and softly all the time, taking care to step over the cracks.

He didn’t remember this neighbourhood too well. It lay hidden under all the other recollections he had of childhood; a rather lonely one being an only child. One full of marvellous inventions. A sailor on the wide branches of a tree that caught the wind, a Red Indian behind the row of rainbow coloured sweet-peas, burying his nose in their fragrance, an explorer in the damp corners of the lawn that were filled with untamed, secret things. The hedge always required a trim, the flowers never grew in any particular order, the grass was always inches too long, but they were his faithful companions.

All he seemed to recall of his visits here was a large red gate, the colour of ripe strawberries. And him running ahead of his father, up the steps cut into rough stone, slippery with moss, past the dark wooden posts of the veranda on which a letter-box hung crookedly, and then finally reaching the door which he nearly always found closed. And if it was, he would turn and wait for the slow, steady footsteps to reach him. Neil didn’t have too many childhood memories that included his father, he was always more of a shadowy figure who sometimes took him for piano lessons or scolded him for failing in mathematics (he was, after all a professor in the subject). Usually he would be found sitting at his table, concentrating on a sheaf of papers that he carried with him everywhere, absent-mindedly leaving his cigarette to turn into a delicate line of ash.

Finally, his father would slip a large, fairy-tale key into the door, and it would open, like magic, into Aladdin’s cave that held a thousand treasures.

Neil hurried, relieved, as soon as he recognised a familiar set of steps. They were built on large slabs of cement that covered a roaring drain running underneath the pavement. Crocodiles. ‘This is our moat,’ his uncle used to tell him as he (down on all fours), peered through the gaps at the dark, rushing water below. ‘We brought them from Africa, and now they prowl down there, feeding on people at night when we set them free to guard the house.’ Neil’s father never understood why his son refused to visit his grandfather after dark. Now, as he paused before climbing, he saw the water reduced to a trickle and the crocodiles, they had all left.

The gate, which was latched, appeared much smaller than he remembered it to be, the colour faded and sad.

The outdoor foyer ended where the stone wall began, a carpet of moss spread over its damp surface, spilling onto the steps, unworn by absent footfall. The flower bed dug on top of it used to hold daffodils, his grandma’s favourite flowers. ‘They will be the first thing that visitors see,’ she used to say, her mud streaked hands planted firmly on her hips. At that very spot, his grandfather on his haunches, had sat Neil on his lap and muttered, ‘Hate these flowers. Don’t tell your grandma.’ And it had been their little secret.

It was an old house, one that had survived an earthquake a hundred years ago, the worst the area had even seen. And although it stood proudly on its higher ground, higher than any of its immediate neighbours, its lines had shifted, its angles were odd, it had adjusted itself to the shifting earth beneath. Its roof swept low, like a hat pulled down to hide a man’s face. It spread itself over a large area, with rooms built awkwardly around it like afterthoughts. The ivy that grew only halfway up the lime walls had bravely inched forward and now only slivers of white showed through their leafy denseness. Neil climbed the uneven steps to the veranda, the bells tied to thick twine tinkled softly as though in welcome. They had been put there because the doorbell hardly ever worked, always a problem with the wiring. Neil now stood in front of the door. It was closed.

He cast a furtive glance around, like a burglar in broad daylight and then felt rather silly; there was obviously no one about. Feeling in his pocket he drew out an old parking ticket, from six months ago; small and thin. A grocery list he had ended up never buying, a note with an unknown telephone number. A strip of medicines, for his headaches. Then he remembered that he had slipped the key into his shirt pocket. It lay heavy against his chest and in his hand. There was a click as he turned it and the door opened. Neil laughed out loud, the sound reverberated in the silence, a bird took flight from the orange tree, startled. Cool air and quiet greeted him as he stepped over the threshold.

It was so dark after the dazzling sunlight. Like a cave. Musty but not stale. Neil blinked, barely making out the room wrapped in all its shadow. He stood still not risking bumping into anything, and as the darkness lightened, he saw that everything was as it used to be. The two sofas with their enormous pile of cushions, how many times he had fallen asleep under their softness. The worn carpet in the centre, the fireplace he had never seen used, the shelf stacked with leather bound books that only his grandfather used to read. Pictures placed on every possible surface; children, cousins, aunts and uncles, old friends, caught in various poses and shy smiles. They looked happily up at him trapped forever behind dusty glass and frames.

He trod further in and there, just as he remembered it, was the piano. The varnished instrument stood quietly in its corner, the air around it heavy with memories of dancing feet and young voices singing like the party would last forever. He ran his fingers over its dusty cover, lifted it back to reveal yellowed keys, tempted to play a scale. He touched middle C and then closed it and turned away.

Through the door that led to the room which wasn’t used for anything in particular, its wooden floor had sunk after the earthquake and so pieces of furniture were arranged along its sides leaving the middle large and open, in anticipation of a gathering that never happened. The shelves were lined with dull football trophies, their glory forgotten yet gleaming proudly underneath the burden of years. One of the doors led outside, to the kitchen, separate from the main house while the other opened into a room that always remained dark no matter what time of day it happened to be. Neil hesitated then headed for the latter. If he ever did enter the room it was only for a game, to see how fast he could run, so fast that all the creatures waiting could not grab him, and he would always appear breathlessly safe into the bedroom on the other side.

The curtain billowed with dust as he pushed it away. The room appeared even darker. The giant fireplace was shielded by an oil painting of a vase of flowers, their red blossoms the only colour in the room. The wooden cupboard remained closed, he had only ever dared to open it once, fearing all sorts of imagined monsters but to his great relief and disappointment it was filled with papers, folders and textbooks, all piled untidily on top of each other. Neil walked over to the old telephone, one with a round dial, numbers showing clearly through the holes, wondering whether he should call his father to inform him that he was there, that he did indeed follow his orders. He picked up the receiver, the line was dead.

Neil made his way to his favourite room in the house, the large bedroom that even two royal size beds did not diminish in size. The ceiling was high, the fireplace had always held a cheerful blaze in the winter, and light and air streamed in from the wide windows that could only be closed with wooden shutters that still let in the breeze. The old sofa, with its hidden corners where Neil always found coins and sweets, squatted comfortably at one end of the room. The beds were made of teak, grand, heavy things that could not be moved. He remembered lying in them and feeling like a king, straining his toes and lifting his arms to touch the ends which he could never reach. He would pretend to be lost in a kingdom of white, or falling through the clouds.

His father told him once that in July, when the chestnut tree growing outside was laden with nuts, they would lie awake waiting, excited and impatient. And when the wind blew, the nuts would rattle down onto the tin roof like heavy rain. And he, along with his brothers and sisters would sneak out of their rooms to eat chestnuts in the moonlight. This was long before Neil and his father drifted apart, before he told him that he wanted to be a writer and his father called him ‘failed’. He supposed he had been away too long and now the years lay folded away, like wrapping paper kept for sentimental reasons.

He kneeled on the sofa and looked out of the window; the back garden was overrun now, the angry, red soil hardly showing under the rampant weeds where once carefully tended vegetables grew. He had climbed up to the corner near the water tank with his grandma, to bury the family dog, who was so old he had lost all his teeth and needed to be handfed. He watched her shovel the earth over him, throwing in feeble handfuls now and then, and when it was all filled she stood back and said, pronouncing judgement, ‘He was a good dog.’

Ten minutes later Neil was standing in the open pathway leading to the kitchen, a stuffy room, with shelves of cutlery and pickles lining every wall. The smell of burnt wood still seemed to hang in the air, sharp and crisp like a tiny forest fire. It permeated everything that cooked there, even the water tasted fresh and woody. The dining table lay wide and empty. A big basket of fruit usually adorned the space next to the glasses, piles of oranges the colour of the sun or apples as red as roses.

Instead of walking further in, Neil turned and strode down the trail that wound its way to the front garden. It ran beside a shed filled with odd, unwanted things, things that were supposedly lost and useless. It was roughly put together with planks of uneven wood, the door now hanging awkwardly open. Neil stopped; he was seven when he had clambered in one hot afternoon, tempted by the sight of a pair of antlers carelessly thrown into a dusty corner. As he rummaged through the pile, the breeze suddenly blew the door shut and in his panic, he could not push it open. Stuck there in the darkness it was as though the world had come to an end, that he would die in the shadows for no one would ever find him, that he would be forgotten. He cried for an hour without making a sound, or banging on the walls. Finally, the door was flung open by his grandfather who lifted him back outside into the warmth and sunlight. Neil held his hand knowing he would never feel safer.

He had reached the garden now, such a place of transformation. How hard he had tried to translate into words the imagination that once ran through it freely, no correct words to convey a meaning. Except for running alongside the drain, swollen with the morning rainfall where white paper boats struggled to survive.

The flower beds hardly showed, until he came upon a row of bottles, all in a slant, stuck into the soil neck-down by his grandmother to hem their edges. They looked odd, growing out of nowhere and when he bent to look closer, through the gold and emerald tinted glass, he could see plants growing in them, each a miniature greenhouse. Thriving on their own, regardless of what went on in all the vastness outside, each its own little universe.

Straightening up, he knew there was no more to see. The silence lay deep, the sunlight falling tired, in dappled layers on the soft, wet earth. The breeze respectfully quietened to a whisper. The trees threw long, protective shadows over the house. He would go back and tell his father that the property was in fine condition. He would pronounce judgement, good enough to be sold to the party who were interested.

Neil reached the gate and pushed it open. It stubbornly refused. He pushed it harder and it succumbed. He sat at the edge of the steps, his feet on the pavement. The road was empty, the air quiet. He knew that there was nothing between him and the centre of the earth. That he was stuck, forgotten in the darkness. And he wept for the crocodiles.

©Janice Pariat2006

posted by janice at 8:56 PM 0 comments

Monday, April 03, 2006

An Aerial View

Natasha always enjoyed her walks along the Embankment. She spent most of her weekends there although it was often the busiest then. Tourists and visitors thronging to see the Globe or the Tate, but there always seemed to be enough space for her to wind her way unnoticed through the crowds. Today however it was a troubled seventy-nine paces to the first flight of steps leading to the river. She usually liked to linger by the railing, next to which a sprawling elm struggled to throw its shadow on the rushing water below. From there she would watch the crowd crossing Westminster bridge as they paused to take photographs or peer over the edge like excited children. Before long she would move on, making her way to where the cobble and sand began. She liked sitting on the fifteenth step, it was lower than the others and thus provided with a backrest. Even if it was occupied she would wait, for no one sat there as long as she did. Sometimes, if the day was particularly beautiful, she would walk all the way to the Millennium bridge; past the skater boys, the second hand book stalls (that still cost too much), the man painted in gold who sat still as a statue. She always stopped to watch the young art student paint a Michelangelo, the ground her canvas, and even when she finally finished two months later, and the brilliant colours faded to a muddy brown, Natasha would pause. It was sacred ground that no one would step on.

If she was hungry and possessed a sandwich, she would sit on one of the wooden benches and share her lunch with the pigeons. It was banned but they still deserved to eat.

Today the fifteenth stair was empty. For a moment a flicker of gladness crossed her face that had all this while remained impassive, like a pale spring moon at dusk. She sat with her knees drawn up close to her, a hint of winter in the air cooling the breeze that blew in from the river. There was hardly anyone around, except for a few children playing and a man who stood and smoked, who hadn’t even seen her. For all the time that she did spend there, she wasn’t particularly fond of the Thames. For a number of reasons, but mainly because it was too small. She had laughed when she first caught sight of it, her arm through Siddharth’s. ‘This is what we wasted our English classes on! All those torturous verses about the Mighty Thames.’ And he had smiled at her and said that the poor English bards weren’t lucky enough to have lived near an Indian river. She groaned and said ‘Can you imagine if they had!’ The Embankment was the first place he brought her to, because he could see that she was homesick, even if she didn’t admit it. And she knew that and was touched. So she pretended to be pleased, silently admitting that nothing could come close to where she had grown up. A tea estate in the furthest corner of India, one that happened to have been planted on the rolling hills just before the mighty mountains of Arunachal Pradesh began. She had spent twelve years there – before her father was transferred and before she was sent to boarding school – growing up amidst a host of pink and white bougainvillea that lined one side of the lawn, the colours so bright they hurt her eyes. While they faded, the spring would wake the guayacan into bloom and the entrance to the bungalow would drown in a sea of yellow blossoms, falling softly like snow that never melted. In the summer, the breeze giddy with the scent of jasmine and gul mohur, would drunkenly rush into her room through the open windows and settle with a sigh on her sheets. The London air was mostly cold and carried no such intoxication.

A roar of laughter behind her made her turn, it was one of the street performers entertaining a small crowd, juggling three glass balls, beautiful green things that caught the light. She had always been terrible at marbles and all the servant’s children would gleefully pocket the ones her father had bought from the nearest town. They weren’t unkind, the rules of the game were clear but at the end she found herself dejectedly walking back home, all the way past the cow shed, behind the large garage, a humble two marbles jingling gloomily in her pocket. She decided to stick to dolls. That, however, was when she chanced upon Sharma mistri. She had always been a trifle scared of him, for no other reason than that he appeared to be so tall to her seven-year-old height. But now she watched fascinated as he sawed a rather imposing plank of wood into two neat halves. When he finished, the saw clattered to the ground as he wiped his face with a checked towel that hung loosely from his shoulder. And he looked at her and smiled.

Siddharth’s smile was startlingly the same, that was the first thing she noticed, a wide, happy smile that didn’t quite leave his eyes. Not when he asked her to marry him or when he asked for a divorce. They had given it a good enough shot though, no one could say eight years was not a respectable effort. Natasha was moving out of their flat, his now; quietly folding up their lives into cardboard boxes, neatly marked ‘clothes’, ‘books’, and ‘stuff’. Common presents, like the exquisite miniature pieta, she shoved into the bottom drawer of the sideboard in the living room. How were they to divide the fragile carving, done in pure white marble? She emptied her closet, delicate muslin tangled violently with khadi and wool, she cleared it for Lily, Siddharth’s girlfriend whom she hated upon sight. The books they had collected were now divided on the basis of who had bought them and she only kept the leather bound copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry that he had found in a little bookshop in Hampstead Heath. She would often sit with it at the bay window sometime during the day when the quiet was unbearable. That was what was so strange, that everything around her, the walls she had named home seemed so distant, as though all the memories had unravelled, fallen to the floor and been vacuumed away every morning. Siddharth had spent the last few weeks at Lily’s apartment, saying that he didn’t want to be in the way while she packed. So now she manoeuvred herself around cartons and bin liners, often falling asleep from exhaustion on the sofa (the nice leather one they had picked from Cotswold).

The man scraped his shoe on the step, stubbing out the cigarette butt, Natasha watched him turn and climb back to the walkway. He didn’t glance at her as he walked by. The sun was out now and shards of light splintered on the water. She could see a tour boat packed with people making its way towards Tower Bridge, white foam curtsying around its sides. Their bungalow lawn had ended where the river began, the gentle slope that tripped into the sandy bank gradually eroded every July, when the tributary gushed during the monsoons. The main river remained a distance away, a vast, smooth slab of watery glass. During the day, the light sharpened the landscape, the water a silver blue, the hills nearby darkened by rich forests, the feathery rushes gently bowing to the breeze, a picture so clear almost every stone on the bank, every ripple could be seen. The evenings however, were her favourite, when she waited for her father to get home, standing at the fence or sitting on the wrought iron bench her mother had the gardeners install. The river would change to liquid gold and so would the world around it. All the lines blurred and softened, the river seemingly pouring into the sky. Silhouetted fishermen would row their way across to the line of little huts close by the waters edge, the ones that looked like fallen stars at night. Once her father had come up behind her and though being a man of not many words had said, ‘It looks like the world has just begun.’

A little girl of no more than five screamed with laughter, her brother who was older had flung a large stone into the water and the splash wet her dress. She followed suit, but the pebble failed to live up to expectations. Natasha smiled and stood up, deciding to walk on. She eventually did get better at marbles, only with Sharma mistri patiently showing her how to place the glass ball under a crooked finger and take aim, not at the marble but to its side, but before long the lessons stopped and instead she would watch him magically put together shelves, sideboards and peg tables for her mother to place strategically indoors. He was the estate carpenter, there to tend to the timbered needs of the various bungalows and the factory. She would wait for him to come strolling in through the back gate (the one the servants used), his long legs taking wide, easy strides to the garage which was his workplace, unused for automobile purposes, filled with sawdust, shavings and odd pieces of wood. It smelt of a forest, after it had rained. There were no windows, dirt smeared openings near the ceiling ushered in dusty sunlight, his carpentry tools lay waiting patiently in the corner. One sultry afternoon, too hot for even the hens to come pecking at Natasha’s feet, Sharma mistri sat on a three-legged stool sipping water from a steel container while she drew patterns in the sawdust with her finger. ‘What would you like me to make for you? Tables and chairs for your dolls? Or a little bed? I can make them.’ Natasha looked up, excited, and asked him to wait a while and ran inside the cool, dark interior of the bungalow, almost bumping into Angad, the old bearer who was on tea duty. ‘Help me, Angad bearer!’ she cried breathlessly, out of excitement and effort. He went with her to the Children’s Room, one that was filled with toys, a rocking horse (that broke when she was ten), a white cot for her dolls, a stack of board games with most of the essential pieces missing and in the corner – what she was looking for.

They dragged it across the back garden, the hens squawking in protest at being disturbed, and into the garage. ‘Can you make me this Sharma mistri?’ she asked eagerly, pointing to an odd heap lying at her feet. It was an old dolls house, one that had belonged to her mother, made of tough cardboard that had withstood many childhoods but was on the verge of giving up. Its bright brick-red exterior was now a dull pink, the roof that could be lifted off had torn in one corner so the rooms below were in danger from the elements, the chimney was rather lopsided but hung proudly on. Sharma mistri silently walked around it, inspected its doors and windows, the little flight of stairs. ‘Sometimes I wish I could fit in there,’ said Natasha, ‘it’s no fun moving everything from the top.’

She hadn’t ever thought anything was drastically wrong with their marriage, she and Siddharth didn’t disagree much, but perhaps that was because they didn’t have much to talk about, especially in the last few years. It wasn’t as though they fought and tore each other to shreds, it was more a gradual disintegration, like ash that crumbled into dust. They both loved books but, by the end, not each other. The middle-sized apartment they had bought in Putney seemed a burden, a suffocating place where things were collected rather than shared. The furniture they had chosen, the paintings painstakingly looked for in odd markets, the giant rain stick they had lugged all the way from Camden seemed to fall apart along with them.

She hadn’t met anyone else, but he did, ‘someone fun’ he had said as though he was leaving her because he was bored. He probably was. Perhaps she had been too, but hadn’t ever seen it as a reason to leave.

Natasha stepped into a puddle, wetting the edge of her jeans and soaking her shoes. ‘Careful,’ said a man who had put his hand out as though to help. It was the same man who had been smoking a few steps below her a little while ago. She nodded, grateful, he had nice eyes, green as the glass balls the juggler was throwing into the air.

At first she was torn between staying on in the city and leaving to go back. But she had realised with a start that there was nowhere she could go. Her parents who had passed away one year after the other had left her a house, a lovely cottage nestled in the woods of a hill-station, but it was given away on rent. She also didn’t know if she wanted to return, it lay shrouded with too many memories, like the early morning mist that descended and never seemed to leave. So she decided to stay with a friend who had not hesitated to offer her the little spare room in her house in Southall. Natasha accepted, knowing that it was not possible to return to the only place she did want to go back to.

She was nearly at the Tate gallery now, a large signboard before she turned the corner displayed information on an exhibition on Whistler’s Nocturnes, a series of paintings done in London and Venice at night. She stumbled past, he was one of Siddharth’s favourite artists. In some other time she would have told him about it and they would have quarrelled about the timings, called, and finally booked tickets and strode into the building, her arm through his, him laughing into her hair. And then perhaps wine at Gordon’s, sitting in dark corners lit only by candles stuck into old bottles, the light shining softly on their faces.

She hadn’t seen Sharma mistri after that afternoon until her birthday. She waited by the silver gate everyday, walked endlessly around the garage, even including the chicken coop and the cow shed in her explorations but he hadn’t appeared. Now, after blowing out eight pink candles on a cake shaped like a butterfly, she caught sight of him standing nervously next to the lichee tree at the far right end of the lawn, a path that led to the back trailed by it, littered with dry leaves. She hastily cut the cake and handed the knife (around which a large red ribbon was tied) to her mother, ran down the dark green veranda steps, the multitude of guests too busy talking or eating to notice. Her white patent leather shoes crunched the gravel, the dress’ satin sash fluttering behind her. When she reached him, he bent down and smiled at her, and before she could ask why he had vanished for so long, he asked her to follow him. Down the path that swerved gently to the left, past the heap of sand and abandoned gunny sacks till the garage came into view. He made her wait by the door, peered inside as though looking for a secret and then flung it open.

The sawdust had been cleared to the corners, the planks and tools remained out of sight, even the light seemed clearer. In the middle of the old, cracked cement floor stood a doll’s house. The wood, still smelling freshly cut, had been varnished to a deep, dark treacle, the windows remained open, their frames neatly divided like bars of chocolate, the chimney decked one corner of the sloping roof. She walked around it in silence, peering in she could see the little flight of stairs that led up to four miniature rooms, on the ground inside there was sufficient space for her to move and stand or sit. She reached the door, it was tall enough for her to enter. She stepped in and closed it behind her.

(c)Janice Pariat2006

posted by janice at 3:27 AM 2 comments

Friday, February 24, 2006

Ring Road

Ring Road

Anita first saw him three weeks after she moved. At the side of the Ring Road. The biggest…no that can’t be right…the longest road in Delhi, someone had told her. But it’s a ring road, she pointed out, it never ends. Precisely, was the reply.

And she kept quiet because she didn’t know what to say and because she did not like to argue.

Delhi scared her still, even though that couldn’t be qualified as she had hardly been there two months. She felt as though she would never get used to its size. The large roads like a gigantic network of veins, the city’s circulatory system perpetually pulsating with traffic. Loud, aggressive traffic where the lowly rickshaw made way for the irate honda who in turn humbled themselves before the speeding, lurching DTC buses. The sheer number of people who looked like they had lived there forever; so comfortable with, such a jubilant part of the chaos. While she hesitated to even cross the road not knowing whether to avoid the ambling cow or the scooty hooting mightily at her.

That was why he had caught her eye. The first time she saw him, he was holding an old rolled-up newspaper. He waved mostly that, else it was a bunch of flowers or a bright vermillion scarf. Sometimes he brandished nothing at all. He also caught her eye because he was standing on a platform that suddenly blossomed in the pavement along the side of the road, as though it were created for him. A mini Speakers Corner in the middle of nowhere. Striped all along its sides, black and white, black and white. Unlike the city. For the city revelled in colour. Like the rows of open gunny sacks that lined the market she passed on the way to work, little mountain ranges of saffron, vermillion and burnt red. Or the wooded park along the Ridge, in the evening, as the sun set, a filigree of green and gold.

All this so unlike where she had spent all her life – Rainham. A village thirty-two miles southeast of London. A quiet, nondescript town she never could quite think of as home. Her father worked at Medway Hospital for twenty years, leaving the house at seven-thirty every morning until the day he died. Her mother was a housewife, addicted to The Archers. Every evening four o’clock, the radio turned on so loud that despite locking her room, it could still be heard. That annoyingly cheerful tune preceding the programme.

Anita didn’t know why exactly her parents had come to England. Perhaps it was the lure of the sterling, she couldn’t imagine them being tempted by anything else. She was barely two when they packed their bags in their hole-in-the-wall flat. ‘So tiny you had to make place for mosquitoes and believe me, there were many.’ Her Dad’s favourite line, after which he would chuckle and look satisfied. How far he had come.

They hadn’t left any immediate family behind, both being the only children of parents who had died a long time ago. Grandparents Anita never missed. Probably why she could not bring herself to grudge her father’s obvious pride in his self-made wealth.

Not too much anyway.

Her mother was a quiet, dutiful woman who Anita had seen flare up only once (when she turned off the radio as she passed it one afternoon at four). Her often repeated compliant was that the turmeric from the local Indian shop was never as strong as the real stuff which could only be found in her village in Kerala. ‘Chi, so pale and no fragrance. See!’ she would say, thrusting a handful of powder into her daughter’s face. ‘Mum! I don’t like the smell,’ Anita would complain, the tip of her nose bright yellow, ‘Let’s go back to India and buy some then.’ At which her mother would fall silent, emptying the groceries out of the brown paper bags, militantly assigning the vegetables, milk and bread their place in the fridge or on the shelf. Once she thought she heard her mutter, ‘That’ll never happen. Not while your father is still alive.’

Anita spent most of her childhood in a big, brick-coloured building called Rainham Grammar School. Each year a blur of new yellow pencils and grey uniforms, every report card, all eleven of them now stacked in the loft, claimed she was average. ‘Good’ once in Geography that made her quite happy. What she remembered most vividly was that every twelfth of October it rained. This wouldn’t have been special in any way except that it was her birthday.

Her friend, her only friend, Martha, left for New Zealand with her family after they finished their A Levels. ‘It’s very beautiful there,’ she told her, ‘Daddy has bought a big house by the sea.’ Anita often thought about her as she made her way to Sainsbury’s where she worked for two years at the till. She received one letter, a hurried scrawl which said ‘its quite nice here in Drury’. Anita looked it up in her Time’s Pocket Atlas before writing back and didn’t mention it’s distance from the beach.

While life went on as usual for her even after her father collapsed in the bus on Route 130 (the only thing missing was the doorbell ringing at nine every evening) her mother went berserk. Every penny Mr Kumar had stringently watched was as quickly spent as her tears. It started with an unusually large number of ready-meals that made their savoury appearance at the dining table. Top of the range ‘Taste the Difference’, Bengal Prawns with Rice, Bombay Potato and even the occasional Chicken Tikka Masala Kashmiri Palau. Anita watched in amazement as her mother drove (she usually left hold of the wheel if there was more than one car on the road) weekly to Blue Waters, the county’s largest shopping mall, coming home with what her late father would have called the most frivolous of things. Lavender and juniper bath salts, Ultra-Soft Luxury Toilet Tissue, vanilla and rose candles. But most of all, cheese.

Anita remembered the time when her father made his wife put back a packet of Camembert. Her face flushed, she quietly made her way through the queue of watching people to the cheese section at the back of the store. Now there was enough Danish Blue, Feta, Edam and Brie in their kitchen to last until Judgement Day.

Four months and ninety-seven shopping trips later Anita decided to leave. She was sitting in her room watching the rain, it was two weeks to her birthday. She watched a drop making its way down the window pane, it joined a few others, also scurrying along in the imaginary race and fell to the sill with a splash. She could hear the radio being turned on before strains of a familiar tune drifted through the door. She reached up to the shelf for her pocket atlas.

Tajikistan.

Perhaps the best of three.

Egypt.

Pakistan. In it, squiggly names she had never heard of. The Thar Desert and then India.

‘Mum, I’m going to Delhi. For good,’ she announced a minute later. Her mother looked up from a plate of cheese and crackers and The Archers.

After a long silence, ‘What are you saying Nita? You have thought about this?’

‘Yes. For sometime now.’

‘Going for holiday you mean?’

‘No Mum.’

‘Why? You cannot just leave Nita…this is our home.’

‘I have to Mum,’ she said and continued gently, ‘Don’t you want to go too?’

At that point all Anita could see was the fear in her mother’s eyes. Not for her leaving but that she would make her go along.

Now she worked as secretary to Sandeep Arya, owner of a small publishing house in Old Delhi, publisher of New Age Self-Help books. She sat at a desk outside his office in a larger room that was mostly empty except for one corner which the marketing people used. In front of her was a large glass window overlooking a narrow, noisy road. It had three shelves lined with their latest titles facing outside. She never saw anybody stop to look. Most of the day, when she wasn’t taking Mr Arya’s calls, she stared at the back cover of Lazy Ways to Enlightenment. It was a busy little office and Anita was usually left alone. She preferred it that way. Although the editors, Sangeeta and Aditi, whispered about her amongst themselves. An eccentric heiress from the UK come to India to find herself? Why wasn’t she in Rishikesh or Haridwar then? They never asked.

In the evening Anita made her way back to the room she was renting in a four-storied house near the University area. She never looked for him then, he was on the platform only in the mornings. The Red Fort replaced him in the evenings. The large, turretted monument, sandstone smouldering in the setting sun, the world’s most beautiful evensong. She had read that in it was the Diwan-i-am, its heart of pure white marble. Inscribed on its once jewelled walls was a Persian couplet, If on Earth be an Eden of bliss, it is this, it is this, none but this.

She stayed in a large residential colony through which she anonymously wound her way on her walks after dinner. She wondered whether she would find him anywhere else, perhaps stumble upon him like she had almost a month ago. A tall, thin bearded man wearing cotton pyjamas and an oversized shirt, both threadbare yet impeccably clean. He had on his head a turban the colour of deep red wine and near his feet there always lay a bulky cloth bag and a book. She could never hear what he was saying, though his lips moved non-stop, as she whizzed by in an auto. But she had a feeling that he spoke very softly, to himself and to the world. What had struck her most was that nobody found it strange; the rickshaw driver lazing under the shade of a tree, the man selling a stack of cheap helmets on the roadside, the young college couple walking hand in hand, or everyone else nearby. While he didn’t seem to mind that nobody stopped to listen.

The only reason Anita had settled down, or rather found a job and a place to stay, as quickly as she did was because of Mr Roy. ‘He was your father’s friend,’ her mother had told her nervously, thrusting a scrap of paper into her hand before she left. ‘They knew each other in medical college.’ Anita had resolved not to contact him. Within half an hour of landing at The Indira Gandhi International Airport however, standing in the midst of a surging crowd, all looking like they knew exactly where they wanted to go, she dug the number out. He sounded confused over the phone as she slowly repeated several times who she was, ‘Amit Kumar’s daughter…you studied with him.’ But he welcomed her warmly enough as she walked through his door later that evening, awkward and hesitant. ‘Yes, yes we were quite good friends. Your father was a hard-working student. Very fond of jalebis, you know. Funny how I remember that now.’ Mr Roy was a greying, soft-spoken man with an oddly boyish smile. Like it had forgotten to grow old with the rest of him. He sipped his tea and gestured to a plate on the table filled with an assortment of Indian sweets, various geometric shapes wrapped in delicate silver foil. She refused, waves of panic making her feel like throwing up and laughing out loud alternately. If he could sense her unease he didn’t show it, instead he placed his cup back carefully on its saucer and asked if she needed anything, something to do, someone to show her around, a place to stay.

After dinner that night they sat on the verandah where he rocked on his chair and smoked his pipe. Anita sat beside him watching the fireflies at the far end of the garden. She had never seen anything like it. Much prettier than the stars. ‘So what do you know about this city?’ Mr Roy suddenly asked, as though continuing a conversation he had already begun in his head. Her moment’s hesitation was enough for him to continue. ‘You see, Delhi was not one city. It has been built and destroyed seven times. Some would say eight or even nine, repeatedly rising from the ashes like a phoenix. Beginning in 900 BC, it is one of the oldest cities in the world,’ he explained. So strategic its position that emperors through the ages fought to sustain a lasting hold of its ground. He chuckled, blew out a long stream of smoke and concluded, ‘It is said that whoever tries to build a new city here will lose his kingdom. Comes true every time.’

The morning fog started sometime end-October. It wasn’t the type that lifted as the sun rose higher. The light remained muted and through the day everything in the distance seemed to recede into a dream. Anita would watch carefully as the sputtering auto took the wide turn at the traffic lights. Sometimes the light was red and they would have to wait a few endless minutes. Caught uncomfortably in impatient silence, like an elevator full of strangers. Then the relieved rush of movement as the glow changed to green.

He would be there, shifting his balance from one foot to the other, impatient to move on but going nowhere. Today it was bougainvillea. A fine spray of confused blossoms waved about in the air. A cherished colour, deep tropical pink. Anita couldn’t stifle a smile. It made her happy to see him every morning even though it had started as dull curiosity. What on earth was he doing? And progressed to ‘I wonder if he will be there tomorrow?’ And sure enough he was. With that established, Anita was free to wonder about everything else; where he was from, why he was there and what he was saying. Slowly even those questions, except the last, faded. They seemed unimportant as he stood there, not staking a claim in the world. Like her, he didn’t look in the slightest as though he belonged, but he was there.

‘Good work, Anita,’ her boss told her one late November morning. She had tracked down an important, potential client (on her own initiative). Giving her a distracted smile, Sandeep vanished into his office, the phone on his desk shrilly demanding immediate attention. Anita slipped the file back into the drawer; it was neatly arranged alphabetically unlike the mess she had found it in. She looked up from the sandwich she had pulled out, a little misshapen from being wrapped in cling-film, the mayonnaise messy and sulky on the sides, to see Aditi walk out of the Editorial room. After a moment’s hesitation, she smiled. A few lunches later she was invited to join them.

The only contact Anita had had with her one-floor-down neighbour was the passage light she diligently switched off every morning on her way to work. It was a sorry looking contraption in the corner and during the day it looked even more feeble. So she put it out of its misery, more because she was used to being told to do so by her father (‘Burning up money,’ he would say). As she hurried down the stairs, she knew she was running late, the cold making it harder to throw off the covers. Passing the row of switches she stopped, they were all off. The door opened hesitantly and a young man peered out from behind a pair of thick glasses. ‘Hello,’ he offered hopefully. Anita stared. ‘Do you put off my passage light every morning?’ She nodded. He smiled. He was shorter than her and had a serious yet pleasant face. ‘Thank you, it’s really very thoughtful of you. I’m Ashok,’ he said, letting go of the door and extending his hand. ‘Hi’ replied Anita, ‘I’m really late.’

She met him again a few evenings later, walking back from the market that ran parallel to the road she lived on. She had to pass a temple along the way and she usually stopped outside to watch people pray. She had never been a religious person, but she could feel the reverence of those coming and going, the sanctity with which they held the idols they bowed to, even the flowers, bright glittery marigolds, seemed proud to be part of such a timeless ritual. It intrigued her, this faith that she had never had. Standing next to a generously shady tree, Ashok came up to her, asking why she didn’t go in. In her confusion Anita answered that she wasn’t a Hindu. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he had said simply, ‘nobody inside would ask you if you were.’

Anita often encountered him on her walks around the colony or when shopping for groceries. She started looking forward to strolling back to their flats together, him doing most of the talking. He was a young lawyer, fond of recalling the people and cases that he had come across in his brief career. He made her laugh but not too much. She could tell he was curious about rather than interested in her but when he attempted any questions she would steer the conversation mostly to their common neighbour; the fat, ground-floor lady who watched with bulging eyes as they made their way up the stairs together.

But most of all she looked forward to seeing him on the platform. There was a camaraderie there, a brave bid for kinship. His book a worthy companion, the flowers his litany and his faith the open road.

Anita climbed into the auto having made up her mind. Today she was going to stop. Close enough to hear. The crisp, winter air nipped at her face, grudging the warm shawl that covered the rest of her. They cleared the first red light but were halted at the second. A little boy with an empty bowl peered in, tapping gently on her knee, imploring sympathy. She pressed a five rupee coin into his hand and he scampered away happily, giving her a wide smile. Finally they were on their way: past the tiny row of shops with their curtain of red and green crisp packets, the sudden sweep of grand Vidhan Sabha buildings and then the Ring Road; wider, more accommodating. They finally took the turn and the platform came into sight. He wasn’t there. The auto spluttered on, past the vast view of the Jamuna, under the yawning arches of the Red Fort.

The next day it was occupied by a man lying on his back, his head propped on a bundle of clothes, playing the flute. The day after it was empty. A few dry leaves danced on the cement surface. It remained vacant through the winter. Anita hoped that with the return of spring, he would reappear. Perhaps the cold had driven him away. But apart from a man who supported himself on the edge of the platform while lighting a bidi, even summer did not herald his return. She was left with the Red Fort and an emptiness even larger. An evensong without a morning prayer.

She packed her bags and left one afternoon, before the gnashing monsoons set in. Before that Anita asked an auto-driver to circle the Ring Road. ‘Madam, do you know it is the longest road in Delhi,’ he asked conversationally. ‘It’s a ring road,’ she pointed out. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s why.’

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