You were leaning against the pillar when I saw you, looking at me. I felt violated in that first instant, but then it didn’t matter after that. You were something new and different. Something that this city offered me every day, and I refused each time. Contradiction in my soul, I looked at you, and I thought you smiled.
And then, you walked up to me, and looked at the book in my hand, the one I was planning to buy from the vendor under the Grand Arcade. I thought your eyes twinkled, but I can never be sure, because eyes rarely twinkle, people do, and you said, “That is a good book. Do you like reading about places in general, or is it only this particular author?”
I’m not used to being spoken to by strangers, unless they’re beggars or they’re policemen, and so my first instinct was to stare through you. I’m not a people person, despite the fact that I come from the City of Joy. I find people intrusive, I find their questions intrusive, I would rather live in a land where no one cares or no one bothers you. So, I shrug, for all that I find you interesting, and I say, “Excuse me, I have to go somewhere.”
There’s a smile again from you, and I smile back, despite the chill in my voice a moment ago. Is that something you do for everyone, I wonder. “He’s an excellent author. One of my favourites. But if you’re a beginner, I don’t think this is the one for you. Here – “
And you fetched that book I had discarded on the pile a few seconds earlier, before I looked up to see you leaning against the pillar, “ – This is a good one. He writes forcefully, almost tragically. If you’re just starting, you may get overwhelmed, and then you may feel that he’s not really speaking to you, but telling you things you don’t really want to know.”
This time, I could not help myself, so the smile broadened, and I say, “I can tell you’re an expert on him.”
“No, not an expert!” sunny laughter, “Hardly an expert. I’m just… someone who knows what I read.”
It might have ended there. It might have ended with me turning back to the vendor who did not really understand who this third person was, but not really concerned since he was getting two books sold in the place of one, and me walking away. I would have turned to you, thanked you for your help, and I would have walked back into my portal of anonymity and secret pavements.
But then, “You’re not from Calcutta, are you?”
That took me back, and I laughed again, for it was so untrue, and it was so expected. “Actually, I am. I’ve lived in this city for twenty-one years. But now, I live in Delhi. I’m settled there.”
“I should have guessed. Yes, it would either be Delhi, or abroad.”
“Is that a judgement you’re passing?”
“No, no… like I said before, I’m no expert. I pass no judgements. It was just… something that struck me. Something I thought. Delhi is a nice place. I’ve been there a lot of times. I have family there.”
I laughed, and thought about that extended family every Bengali has, huddled together in a single locality in South Delhi, unified by its greens, its tangail
saris, and its sweet shops. “Let me guess – Chittaranjan Park?”
And you laughed as well, rich and deep, from somewhere I could not fathom. “Of course! But I rarely lived with them! I prefer to stay at this small hotel I know of, near Connaught Place. It’s called – “
“- The Bengal Lodge. Yes, I know about it. It’s like another extension of Chittaranjan Park.”
“But without the hassles of having your family there!”
“You don’t want to live with your family in Chittaranjan? I mean, you just struck me as so… so... I mean – “
“Typical?” Quiet smile, and I blushed, despite myself. For what on earth did I care?
“I’m sorry, but yes. I would have assumed you would love to soak in all that ambience in Chittaranjan.”
And that was when your brows furrowed, and you scratched your ear lightly before answering, “You know, of all the words I hate, ‘typical’ is the most profound.”
“Are you a Leo?” Was I flirting? “That would explain it!”
Throaty laughter and you clapped your hands in glee, “No, a Scorpio, actually! What does Linda Goodman say about them?”
“That they’re awful people to cross, and you should be wary of them.”
“But isn’t that the truth for everyone?”
“Not really. There are some people who wouldn’t really mind if you crossed them, who would just take it all, and leave it behind somewhere.”
“And, would you be very shocked if I told you that I was one of them?” A hand up to prevent me from interrupting, when I open my mouth - “That’s again a picture you built up about me, isn’t it? Like the fact that I was a typical
Bengali who would love to stay in Chittaranjan Park and soak up the ‘ambience’, as you put it?”
“Well, wouldn’t you?”
You stopped, and placed your hands behind your back, and now I look at you. Yes, you look typical. Somebody you see on the roads of Calcutta almost every other day. Frizzled hair, sensuous mouth, mirthful eyes that promise so much behind black rimmed glasses Fashion has suddenly brought back ‘in’ again, plaid kurta that crackles when you walk, open-toed sandals worn well and frayed. I wonder how typical you are, though, when you say, “Of course, I would. But I would still not like to stay with my family. Isn’t that something common between the both of us?”
You took me by surprise, and I stopped. Was I that obvious? Perhaps, I was. Perhaps it was clear that I was wandering, and wondering about my destination. That had nothing to do with the city I had left or the city I had abandoned. That had nothing to do with the lover I had left and the lover I was seeing. That had something to do with a stranger in a familiar city, meeting another stranger who seems to know every word I speak before I speak it. That seems to be about clichés.
So, you smile in an almost gentle way, and say, “Don’t worry so much about it. It’s something a lot of people go through these days. I’m in that stage myself. I can recognise it so well in the people I meet. Don’t worry so much about it. Would you like a cup of tea?”
We had already reached the Birla Planetorium. I hadn’t thought we had walked that far. I didn’t need to travel that far. I should have turned left much earlier, at the Park Street junction, and I hadn’t. So I shook myself inside, and I smiled, despite my discomfiture, and said, “No, thank you. I have to be going. It was nice meeting you. But I have to go now.”
“Are you sure? You don’t want tea? They make excellent stuff here,” you said, gesturing to the little boy who sat under the huge tree, studiously arranging his faded glass tumblers in a neat column that almost reached up to his knees. I smiled, at the sight. I would have liked to see this in Delhi, I thought.
“No. Thank you. It was nice talking to you. I must leave now.”
“Very well. Goodbye and take care. I hope you enjoy the book.”
I laugh, “I’m sure I will.”
She asked me whether I was having a great time, and I replied I was, weakly. She wasn’t fooled, though, and told me not to worry, things would get better, they had to get better, this was one of the hottest spots in Delhi, and they always got better. I should dance, she suggested, and I looked around.
He was not there.
I felt hands close around my waist, and he pulled me back closer against him, against his caved chest, and I could smell the spice of his cologne. It was intoxicating; I should know, for I had bought it for him. He nuzzled my neck, and I could hear him whisper something in my ears. He’s telling me he loves me, a part of me said, and I thrilled to the thought. He’s telling me he loves me, a part of me said, and I shriveled up a bit.
I love him, too.
“The music is excellent,” Raj said, his words slurring from the charras
, his words strong, and he kissed me below the ear. He bit the lobe, softly. “You look great tonight. Did I tell you that before?”
He hadn’t. I hadn’t blamed him for that. I don’t blame him for a lot of things. I don’t blame him for this, now, for what we are and what we were and what we have become. I wonder whether I should turn around and kiss him now, but I decide to hold back. A part of me is still a prude. I wouldn’t do that, not even here, not even in the most liberal of the city’s nightspots. That’s just the way I am.
And he knows it. So he dares me. And urges me. He turns me around, slowly, and I face his smile. His eyes glitter in the strobe lights, and when he speaks, I hear what I hear more from what I know he says, rather than what he actually does. “Kiss me.” Abrupt and necessary. That’s the way he is. I smile uncertainly, as I always do when confronted by such a situation.
“I love you,” I reply, knowing he won’t be satisfied by the answer. He wants more than that. As I do. We always want more. Love is good, love is kind, but love is simply not enough. Not on a night like this, and not ever.
So he smiles and kisses the corner of my lips. A slight peck. He’s teasing me, because he knows that I trembled when he did that. He knows that I find the idea of being touched in public quite… I don’t know what. I get embarrassed. There’s more than that, of course. It’s something I can’t explain. Most of all, to myself. And he knows it. And he teases me because of that.
So he smiles again, and whispers, his mouth close to me again, and whispers, “Kiss me.”
I’m not sure what love is about. Knowing the limit of your partner’s hesitance? Knowing how far you can turn and whirl that person, till finally – finally – you get your way? Or till that person trips and acquiesces before you? Is knowing the amount of juice that you can squeeze out of your loved one the measure of how much you are in love? That could be it. It could be the reason why people do a lot of unfair things to the person they say they’re in love with. It could be the reason you stick around with a person who goads you and torments you, and loves you forever. Unceasingly. It’s a measure of knowing that that person loves you enough to love you even when you fall.
I slip, as I always do. I acquiesce, as I always do. I kiss him.
Babur’s house, but he’s not here. The man is perennially late. I’m used to that. I look forward to that. Raj doesn’t care. Raj wouldn’t care about anyone at all, as long as he sits there in the center. I walk over to the bathroom, and he holds my hand. I turn back to smile at him, and he kisses my palm. His tongue circles a wet motif that disappears as quickly as it flashed a hot trail on my skin. I laugh, because at some level, I find it all very funny. That’s his way of saying he’s in love with me. That’s my way of saying, I know.
I splash water on my face in the washroom. It’s not very cool. This is March, in Delhi, and the city is warm. There’s a strange current in the night air. An uncertainty of a sudden hailstorm that would break the otherwise muggy spell the city finds herself in. I imagine it would sound like the angry hiss of the water from the tap. A sudden onrush of water and flood too great for anyone to imagine. An angry retort to the lazy haze that shimmers and keeps everyone in a stupor. The water’s not cool, but it’s enough.
Even over the hiss, I can hear Raj sniff in the bedroom, and his slow, soft sigh of release.
The apartment is a rooftop one. Babur got it cheap. It’s up here in Khirki Extension, in the heart of South Delhi, closed in on all sides by residential buildings, and you can see the green trees lining the main road outside only from up here, the roof of the house. There are two rooms here – a larger one that is the bedroom, and a smaller one with a single divan spread with a leather parchment thrown over it. Babur is not a very good housekeeper, and there are bottles of Absolut
strewn all over the place, bottles of Bacardi
, but I don’t give them a second look anymore, as I once did, when Raj first brought me here.
There is a huge stone circle in the center of the roof, with a cupola on top, and stone seats below, and a running waterfall by the side. The waterfall needs three buckets of water to feed on, before you can hear the rustling of water. It’s dry now, as I walk over and sit underneath the cupola. I look at the waterfall, silent and glowering, parched and hungry, and I wonder how regularly Babur fills it, and whether he ever dunks the thing with vodka. Judging by the number of bottles lying about, it is entirely possible.
“Hey, love,” Raj says, in the silken soft tone that I know so well. The smoke from his charras
lifts skywards in a fragile wisp, and disappears somewhere behind the moon. I smile at him, because I am so used to him.
Hey, I whisper back, and give him my hand. He comes, and stands behind me. He takes another whiff of the weed, and his hands close around my bare shoulders. He kneads the muscles slowly, the way I like it, even without my telling him. He is prescient, I think, and sigh, as I feel his fingers pushing, probing, pulling my tired skin and muscles. “You’re tense,” he says, almost to himself, and I sigh almost to myself.
“Did you have a hard day today?”
I smile and shake my head, and then he laughs, and says mischievously, “Did I tire you out just now?”
It’s funny, I think. To think that so much pleasure could tire me out. To think that he would stop and knead and pleasure me, and stop and start all over again just like this. I’m sitting on an open roof, naked, with a naked man touching my shoulder blades. That should be exciting. That should be stimulating. I should turn around and look at him with tremulous glee in my face and want him to make love to me right now, right here. Yet, all of it seems like a sad déjà vu redone so many times. The roof, the charras, the words, the nudity, the sex that is about to come, all of it.
Yet, I turn towards him, as I know I must. His eyes are closed, glazed underneath, I know. His lips are trembling, the cigarette packed with charras
is shivering in his fingers, and I lick his fingers, one by one. A substitute for fellatio. A substitute for the kind of intimacy that I know we both crave. Finally, when I can sense that he is close to the edge, I rise from the stone seat and press my self against him, and kiss his lips. It is a strong kiss, nothing tender about it, urgent and seeking, angry and vengeful, that both of us know must be there. It is an accusation that I utter in that kiss, and he succumbs to my hurt, even while conceding that there is nothing he can do to wash away the sins I charge him with.
He clasps me to him, and we kiss hungrily on the roof, at night, in Babur’s apartment. Babur’s next-door neighbour is watching from her roof, I know, but that doesn’t stop either one of us, as stoned as we are.
The rickshaw stops below a clump of trees by the side of the road. Up ahead, the flyover looms ahead to carry speeding cars and other rickshaws speeding towards Connaught Place. The Nehru Place Park Hotel twinkles grandly to the right. I was there last night, walking out of a late dinner with an old friend, and then wishing him goodnight with a full kiss on his lips. That seems ages ago now, however. Raj is sitting distraught to my left, in the rickshaw. His fingers are folding and unfolding themselves, in a tight vice. The rickshaw driver sits with his legs crossed, unfazed by the little drama being played out behind him: he’s seen this happen a million times already, and will see another ten million such episodes, so he smokes his beedi
“What the fuck is taking Babur so long?” Raj mutters through clenched teeth. I look at him, and note the sharp intake of breath. He looks in my direction and sees me watching him, so he loosens himself and smiles, or tries to, and laughs a bit – “Hey, don’t worry, love. There won’t be any problem at all. There’s no danger here – no cops or anything, ok? So, chill!”
And then, with a dash of bravado, he taps the silently smoking rickshaw driver on his shoulder and asks him in Punjabi, “What do you say, brother? No cops around here, am I right?”
The man shifts slightly in his shift, and puffs out a cloud of smoke that smells even worse than the charras
that Raj is addicted to, and watches the two of us in the backseat. He chews his invisible cud, and replies in Hindi, “Yes, the police come by, often. But they come to get their own supplies. Don’t worry, everyone knows me here. They might look in the window, but then when they see me, they’ll be okay. Everyone knows me. The cops come here for their own supplies.”
Raj laughs nervously: I don’t think he’s very reassured by the man’s answer, yet that is what I find strangely cement in this cloud of surrealism. The rickshaw driver goes back to smoking his beedi
silently, and spits some liquid out through the vehicle, and Raj laughs again nervously.
To the left, behind the clump of trees, a tiny path leads down into a makeshift hamlet of temporary hutments and stalls. They are lined up, progressing far away into the dark, from the glare of the streetlamps. Babur disappeared down that lane a few minutes ago, with Raj’s money, and we’re waiting for him here.
It is eerie and dark. I can see the outlines of a couple of people who stand there in the lane, coming out of the hutments, scratching their belly, looking idly out towards the road and the lone rickshaw parked there, with two pairs of eyes scanning them. They are used to this scrutiny, something tells me, even as I am used to it myself. Babur is somewhere in one of those huts, watching the charras
being ground, the dark powder being parceled into tiny paper packets, and he is smelling the fumes that incinerate the little dreamy hamlet that has sprung up by the wayside.
I see his six foot three frame emerge then, through one of the huts, and he starts walking out, climbing up the hilly lane, and his movements are drowsy, slumbered, slow and hazy. I can also see the red flash of a police jeep some way behind us on the highway, pulling over.
“Damn,” Raj hisses, angrily, “Damn the ass! He’s smoked some of the stuff and he’s so bloody wasted, he can’t move!” His eyes darted back towards the rear view mirror of the rickshaw and he cursed something or somebody in words I could not decipher, and banged the steel bars that separated us from the driver’s seat. That man had finished his beedi
, and calmly pulled on the starter of his little machine. The rickshaw hummed to life, but we stood there, waiting for the slumbering giant to clamber out of his lane before the red light stopped behind us.
“Damn, damn, damn” Raj hissed, “That ass is going to get us fucked! He’s going to get us in fucking jail!”
He was panicking, and so was I. I touched the rickshaw driver, and urged him, in Hindi, “Brother, start off now. Let’s go. Let’s go now.”
“No,” Raj yelled practically in my ear, and grappled with my hands, “We can’t leave the fuck here! Do you now how much that damn thing costs? We’re not going without that fucking thing!” And to the rickshaw driver, he barked out in Hindi, “Stay where you are, dammit! Start as soon as he comes in, but stay where you are for now!”
He needed to stay, as much as I needed to run. That was when time stood still, a cliché if ever I heard of one. Is that what love is about? To know the limit of endurance? I thought it was. He thought it was, too. This was his call, and I had to stay because I was in love. He needed to stay because he was addicted to something. Not me. Something, not me. How did that explain a lot of things? I don’t know. That didn’t. That didn’t explain why I stayed put, watching the lumbering figure of Babur climb out through the lane and beneath the trees. That didn’t explain why I didn’t cower when the police jeep flashing the red lights stopped behind the rickshaw. That didn’t explain why I clutched Raj with all my heart and soul, when the rickshaw burst into life and shot forward, even as both Raj and the rickshaw driver pulled stoned, happy Babur inside the vehicle.
I expected that to be the end. I expected the khaki-clad policeman to jump out of the jeep and command us to stop. I expected the jeep to lurch forward and give us chase, over the flyover, and across it, and overtake us. I expected to be marched to a jail cell, booked for smoking weed, and the love of my life exposed as a babbling eccentric with idiosyncrasies too marked for anyone to ignore or forgive. None of that happened, however.
The jeep remained where it was, its red light flashing. The rickshaw climbed the flyover and coursed down it. Babur remained stoned out of his wits, resting in the back. Raj lit himself a cigarette packed with the stuff and sighed, before passing the lit joint over to the rickshaw driver. The two of them burst out laughing, and chatted in Hindi together.
“My god! I almost thought we were done for! Those bastards nearly caught us!” Raj giggled, slapping the rickshaw driver on his back.
He responded with his own native bravado, “You didn’t believe me when I told you, sir! Those fuckers, they come all the time – but only for their own commission! They won’t trouble you when I’m with you, sir! Everyone knows me around here, I’m telling you!”
Babur kept on smiling, and I smiled too, though my head was still whirling with things I kept on expecting to happen. Maybe there is another dimension, I thought, where all this really happens, maybe there is another time and place where the police stopped us, and caught us, and then thee was nothing else to do, but give in…
Raj’s arms snaked around me, and he pulled me closer to him, and kissed me below my ear. “See, babe? I told you it was fine. No sweat. I love you.”
Writing letters is never easy. I can’t stop thinking that perhaps you won’t get this one, or perhaps you’ll forget where you kept it, and you’ll never hear the words I had to say. The words that I’ve thought of, softly for you, chosen for you. These are the words that I would whisper to you at night, if I could, and you would fall asleep to my voice. I would be tender, I would promise. I would push your strands of hair behind your ear, and softly whisper, touch by touch, and my tongue would lull you to sleep.
I love you. Is there anything ever as insipid as that?
I adore you. Is there anything ever as desperate as that?
But that is not here for me, any more, and so I write. I put pen to paper, thought to word, intent to action, and I hope that you read me. I hope that you hear me, and I hope that you understand me. There is, after all, only one thing that I have to say.
I love you.
I am well.
Do not worry.
I have had to move fast, so that I have not had the time yet, nor the opportunity, to read the letter that you have sent. But I know what you must have written about, and so I can answer even now, without having torn the envelope. I love you.
I wept that day, when they brought me word of you. I held that tiny scrap of paper to my heart and tears rolled down from my eyes. I am silly, I know. I should not behave like this. You are still here, in my heart of hearts. You are still here, where I cherish you the most.
Do you hear my words then? I trust that you do. I touched the pillow tonight, and the crisp cotton cooled my fevered hand. It was your touch, I knew, that soothed me. You were there with me, even while you’re not here.
I go on and on and on and on.
Why would you want to listen to me prattle like this?
Save for, I love you.
Yes, I hear your voice. Your whispers against my ear. I can almost feel your fingers touch my hair, stroke it softly, soothe me to sleep.
Stay well, my love, for I shall soon be back. I shall soon be back.
I am moving again. I think I know some place where I can get the job done. It should not take me too long. Wish me luck. Wish me... love.
But I already have that from you, don’t I?
I am distressed, for I have had no word from you.
I am in love with you, and yet, when I quell my heart to listen for signs of you from the rustling wind, I hear nothing stir. Save fear.
Where are you? Are you safe?
Will this reach you? Will it find you safe?
I love you. I always will.
There is nothing to fear. I got sidetracked for a while. But there is nothing to worry. I have made a new friend. He can help me, he says. We shall soon have what we have always longed for, you and I. The end is near.
Do not worry. There will no purpose served. There is nothing wrong. I got your last two letters but did not have the time to –
Do not worry.
Understand that great things take time.
I remain, as always, yours.
I should be calmed by what you have said, yet I find I am not.
There is something amiss, I know that, but cannot tell what.
I sound like a dolt. I sound like a mocking soldier. A mad hatter. A soothsayer who can tell evil from the stars. And yet, I feel that I’m not completely mistaken.
I touched your pillow last night. It gave me no comfort. I write in the hope that my fears are wrong, ill founded, silly, maudlin, sly. I will not be betrayed by my fears. They will not change me. Or the way I feel about you.
They must not do this. They must be controlled.
For what else could I do, save love you?
There is, still, no word.
I am beside myself with worry. The mountains are covered with mist.
Is it a sign?
I believe in you, come what may. I believe in you.
Things are almost at an end.
I tell myself what you said. Things are almost at an end.
You will come back. I am sure of that.
So I went out today. I stood in front of the store windows, and imagined what you would bring home for me. Would that be something for me to wear? Something around my neck? Something glittering for my ears? Something in leather? Would you bring something for the table? I crumble at your touch.
All I need from you is your touch. That is all. A smile can devastate me and prop me up for eons. I am sure you will come back soon. Things are almost at an end.
You said that.
So I touched the pillow, and stared at it last night. Imagined you lying next to me, and I loved you again. I would touch you, the ridge of your back, the slight tremble in your ears, the silk of your dark hair, and I would love you. I held you in my arms tight last night, and told you again and again, for as long as I could –
I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.
*******************It is done.
You will hear from me soon.
Yes, it is done.
I am happy beyond words!
They were whispering to me last night. They were asking me why it has taken so long. You should be here by now. You should be walking up the road, smiling, holding your arm out for me. They are small, and petty, and… things I cannot bring myself to say. They should not have asked me that about you. They should not have asked me.
I am sure you will come soon.
I love you, as always.