All we have left is words #rehash

At half past midnight, the veena sounds.

I try and tune the radio, but we are too far south to hear anything but white noise. I heave and pant and soon enough I’m crying, because the last time I heard those strings it was in the car on the way back home, dusk falling over New Town and the chants from the temple drowning any thoughts I could have. The dusty orange of Aruna Maam’s home and the pungent smell of her filter coffee are ghosts in the hostel rooms of bare white walls.

Do you remember the sky that night?

It was painted a dusty maroon and yellow at the horizon, and the eucalyptus trees were silhouetted inky black like in the Mughal miniatures on your room’s walls. I never believed that an evening could be so surreal, forever born and trapped in paintings from five hundred years ago. Then again, I never believed in many things being real, like the pain in your throat you kept complaining about. You should have seen it, the way the lake shimmered saffron and blue in the dying moments of the day and how the mosque’s lights lit up next to it. The drums from a temple behind the building broke the stillness of the night. There were no winds and no clouds in the sky, except for the gradients of grey rising from above the trees. The crescent moon was perfectly aligned with Venus, gleaming white together in a water-washed background.

Only then did I accept it was all real, because such a sight would have had to have been real to be painted so exquisitely. It was pathetically real, the way you were being swallowed into the depths of your own hell. Suddenly, words written in text messages every evening were hard to read, not without my stomach curling at the thought of yours eating away at the rest of you. It takes so much not to scream and want to shake you back into normalcy because its killing you and I cannot do anything but watch.
I can’t watch.
I was in the car on my way back, listening to the first programme on the government classical music station – a Tyagarajada-kruti again. The town centre was bustling below the many textile stores, sarees draped over mannequins caged in glass, sarees which would look sublime on you regardless of whether you can feel your hip bones or your 53 kgs, but I know its not about your weight or frame, its about something else, something more putrid and like ash. It is something I can’t fix as easily as I turn away from the shops’ blinking lights and clothes of silk.

You are one of the watercolour wonders of the world and more precious than the dusk today. Sometime last December we realised that wanting to die so young was not okay. Maybe this December we’ll believe it.

I heave and cry because only now when the veena sounds do I see that I am made of memories from current-homes and once-homes where my parents argued about how the door got jammed, and how my mother couldn’t lock it. It ended as all arguments end – that one of us wasn’t trying hard enough.

My voice is always loud and nasal, like background noise as people’es eyes roam to more important things, but it is not loud enough when they ask for me to say it again. I can’t see anything through this mask in which my face grows hot and my head pounds, the sound of my breathing and gasping roaring loud against cardboard.

(They said that this place would make me more, instead, I find that I am nothing at all.)

Tonight there are no red lines on my arms. It is too dark for it to seem right, but you tell me to wait till when the light comes in the morning.

It rains a little later.

They tell me not to lose myself, to hold on to what makes me, me. They speak as though I ever was anything at all.

But they don’t know, so I let them make the mistake.

Suddenly, we are all not trying hard enough when it becomes only about the best.

7 is when I don’t feel. 8 is when I feel too much.

My hair is falling. Pulling the strands and coiling them around my finger in the shower, I think that if I wash my hair long enough this afternoon I won’t have any left.

In the rain hitting the earth I couldn’t hear the voice in my head change to the voice screaming – Sanjana is going to Berkley and a ghost of her sits here – here open this flap behind my ear and you will find it.

Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. Yet, today I write the last end-term paper for Torts-I and head north before I can feel like I have. I tell myself that this is the end of term, that people do go home after law school – there – your seniors are in the next car.

It feels too much like running away again.

The city was to treat us the way it had two years ago- with China rose hanging over ladies in the street with jasmine in their hair. The white Indica taxis were supposed to be familiar, but the car smells of something between coffee and cigarettes. So then, I think my memory is failing because the city is the calcium in our bones now and the life throbbing in it is bitter behind the teeth. With the sick cold of pretty mornings, they seem to be all the city is anymore.

It is still raining when I pull into our old neighbourhood. Bangalore has changed as we have. The airport is too far away from law school, so I stop over at your place for the night. None of the old suspects can be found on the streets. You’re driving down for the long weekend tomorrow but really, between morning flights and traffic jams at Mekhri circle, the city doesn’t leave us with much left.

There’s something about here that feels dead now. I almost laugh when I name it ‘adulthood’.

At times in the mirror I stumble across short, stocky eyelashes projecting from a rim and a soft white ball with brown and black circles in it.
Near it I find a round lump with two smaller casings moulded on either side, and below it soft, thick flaps-
ah.
This must be the face.
I pull on the lower lid of the eye and see red underneath.

It’s been seven years and that little tint of disgust on your mother’s face hasn’t gone.
Just like that I’m twelve again and the sun is beating down on my face while we wait for you in the bus yard.

Maybe its me who smells.

Your house is white and green, decorated like an IKEA catalogue left open.

So I think- ah, this is where you come from.

You have always walked with stars girdled around your waist and eternity crowning your temples, and from my seat in the third row I have only ever clapped you in and clapped you out again. The ink I was meant to scribble down the astronomical equations of my future with slips through my fingers and leaves a trail on the runway behind the clicking of your heels.

The masked glass is splattered with the stardust of the first monsoon showers. The sculptor’s urban hut of blue plastic and brick on the highway is close to collapsing, straw and jute left unmoved at the feet of a clay woman, hands raised in position.
“Food?”
“Raagi dosa, you want?”
“S’okay.”

Your mother hands me a plate of toast and a cup of tea. Looking at the trunk of the almond tree outside your window, she says,” the barbed wire really takes the charm away.”

I lived two storeys above your ground floor flat, and when the robbers came one night in the summer we went up to my balcony to see their footprints on the ledge above your window. Now, the vines of the money plant crawl over the new paint and into your neighbours’ house, neighbours who know nothing of when the white paint was still the first coat on these buildings and when the fences didn’t have barbed wire over them.

I’ve told your mother she doesn’t have to worry herself with tea, that I had lunch at college, but she insists I eat. As always, she has her way.

Sometimes I wonder how far two floors could be, when every two years we throw out our things and fold memories and sobs caught in our throats into cardboard boxes.

Its the small things, like how the floor to ceiling nets don’t fringe and stick out of their frames and how the books run in series along the walls of your house.

There’s a peace in the silence here, and I wonder how many times in that silence you would have heard the shouting from two floors above.

When it rains your mother makes tea and sits me down on the white canvas chair, and hopes I enjoy it.

I’ve never enjoyed the rain before, but I’m willing to try.

All we have is words, and for once, I have the prerogative to choose what they will be. Today, I write words which don’t have to mean anything in this world. In that, I think, we are allowed freedom. In that, I think, we might find something we like.

Somewhere else, the flowers in my grandmother’s balcony bloom, and she can’t contain herself. She limps into the room and reverentially places the three small flowers before the framed pictures of her blue god.

All we have is words, and with these whispers I sing my prayers.

 

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just another silly love song

I miss your voice in the still mornings.

There was a melancholy entwined with our arms and my dry lipstick rubbed off on your discoloured white cardigan.
I miss the way the weak gold of the morning shimmered through the slit in the curtains in the wisps of sandal incense.

Your voice sits in the thick green of the curtain cloth, and as you whispered I kept my eyes on the way nothing could breach it.

I cannot remember what your face looked like.
I remember you from the spots in the house, where the afternoon made the table a sullen brown, and how our feet shuffled noisily in the terrace. We needed jackets and soft blankets with our coffee mugs as we watched the sun slowly rise in the dampness.

I miss the comfort that came in the cold midnight.

There was a blue fog that never went, and I miss it as I miss your bleached hair and freckled skin, the curve of your eyes which my fingers know by heart.

(We made love in front of the gods as if we could and didn’t care for what they thought, they couldn’t be heard as we walked, background noise muffled and muted. Only the green of palm and vines on the buildings seemed alive, and shyly the yellow rose around the block in a happy film.)

We never had a car, but I remember the both of us sat in one. You were singing your heart out and your eyes were pressed when you hit the high note. We went nowhere but wherever you sang us to, the windows hazed and the blue paint silvered. Your hand was in mine but I felt nothing.

(I felt an ecstacy and a joy but even today all of it feels like you were a ghost, and I am holding onto wisps of nothing.)

I miss the old peach and white bed-cover we used to have, and how your mother hated it.

 

 

We were sad, but we were happy enough to put up with it, and now in this loneliness in the summer with all the sun for our skin to soak, you are not here, only the cold.

 

This summer is insipid.

 

You never left- you faded away as winter turned to spring and the mornings grew so bright it blinded me and I could not see you any further. You faded as the sun came and only the stars can speak of what we were.

 

 

The synthesizer hums behind us, somewhere in the calendar when we first met. You’re gone but the keys still play at the small of my back, a place that is still safe.
I miss December, but I know now that every December  will be our December with every new calendar I buy.

So for you I write love songs, but my voice breaks and the words die in the wetness on my cheeks-

 

 

I decide to pause the recording because it is half past midnight and this grief for tonight has been appeased enough.

(Tonight the moon will rise again.)

B O D Y

i.
There’s only so much of yourself you can hide around here; there is only so much of your skin you can keep to yourself.

There is a limit in our words to the flesh-to-see freedoms of our female bodies, but there is the full length of your arms you need to flaunt, shoulders down, from the sleeves of kurtis and sarees and lehenga blouses.
You lift your underarms to the heavily-powdered faces of the ladies who wax them at the salon.
(Sometimes, when they don’t care for your ears, they even tell you how much of it they have to do-oh, my! You really do have hair everywhere, don’t you?)

There are collarbones and smooth chest that you don’t dare taint- because who knows how low or wide the tailor will cut the u-neck?
Maybe my breasts are my own, seen only by my eyes till now. So, perhaps I should think more of them. I wish I did, and not this general disinterest with which I consider them in the shower.
Is this how girls should think of their breasts? – as if I am not one of them. At moments like these I wonder if I’m more comfortable thinking of myself as not-female, but we don’t talk about things like that around here.

I would love, and do love my hips and waist, the way the hipbones rise and fall gently like dunes, and the pastel stretch of even brown that is covered by black hair. I would take more time to love them, if they were not so shared with my mother in her surveys and analyses as we tie a makeshift saree neither of us knows how to wear.

For a conservative culture that hides too much of the woman, there’s only so little of me that I can call private, my own.

 

 

 
There’s no rule against marks, but there are no rules against questions either.
ii.
Women are goddesses. They line their eyes with kohl and paint their lips lush.
I see those same eyes and those same lips, but mother never told me that eyes are to be carved out of skin with black and that maroon on my lips fits the shape of my jaw, not red.

Her mother never told her how the pleats of a saree should be tucked to fall, but she is long gone.

Then, there are some things my mother could not have possibly told me, for she never knew her it herself – how girls could have stark dark hair over torsos or a sheen of it on their face.
She didn’t inherit some things from her mother, and I don’t inherit others from mine, so she leaves me to explore this for myself-

 
Why? It didn’t come from her, did it?

 

 

 

iii.
At seventeen, today I stand with my classmates at high school graduation, but I find myself wanting.
(imnotthereyetimnotreadyyetimnotdeservingyet) 

The boys wear black suits, the sarees of the girls are blue this year.
Naomi has a nose ring on. Her undercut on one side shoes off her long neck curving down to square shoulders, collarbones rising magnificently.
Aditi- Aditi is as she is. Her hair falling long and straight to her shoulders, spindly thin arms and long fingers clasped over her clutch, smiling in her trademark Head-Girl way, one groomed since we all began here in these grounds, at the Chairman of the Board approaching her.

iv.
Women are goddesses. They line their eyes with kohl and paint their lips lush.
There is a power in their eyes and in the words from their mouths that makes the sky rumble as night falls and the earth smell sweet in the first rains of the summer.

I stand among the divine, stripped to nothing but this skin pulled over me, not knowing that no single woman can wear all six colours in the little used palette my mother has, which I am now to share; not knowing that my eyes are not hers, so the eyeliner folds into the large gap to my eyebrows, bottom lid naked and bare.

We spread out in the manicured school gardens, which the hundred and sixty five of us have once seen as barren soil toiled by gardeners when there was still only one building and a warmth that held us close. There’s a general understanding that one looks better at graduation than in regular uniform, but I’m careful not to catch myself in the reflections from and in cameras of this endless sea of phones- because I don’t.

Pictures are taken, but in the days that follow I don’t find any of myself among the many thousands that flood the screens of teenagers in the city on instagram.

 

 

It hurts. There’s no point in pretending it doesn’t.

v.
You forget that your shoes are not heels, that they cover your ankles and toes in thick black leather, bought in a hurry for some forgettable formal event. You try not to notice how much taller the other girls are in three-inch heels, but its not the first time you’ve felt small among them. The teachers mock the high heels and say you did well not to follow, but it is small consolation when you feel like you could drown right there in rolling tides of make-up and camera phones yet again, and no one would notice.

Your saree is falling and your shoes are loose. Your hair is rough and unruly and you’re seconds away from losing it entirely, barely able to keep the pressure building in your eyes from bursting and your lips from trembling and turning down.
The ceremony is on and you’re seated in the middle of the third row, so you have no option but to hold on tight to the comfort that in two hours you’ll be in your bathroom, and then there will be no light nor voices nor eyes to watch you breaking.

vi.
For all the ways in which I am different from her, I am my mother’s daughter in the detachment we share of our bodies from our identities. But, it seems she has learnt that white pearls suit the shape of her neck and cradle of her shoulders.
At times in the mirror I stumble across short, stocky eyelashes projecting from a rim and a soft white ball with brown and black circles in it.
Near it I find a round lump with two smaller casings moulded on either side, and below it soft, thick flaps-
ah.
This must be the face.
I pull on the lower lid of the eye and see red underneath.

 

I play around with it a few more times before I return to calculus.

Sonic

I wish I could tell a story, one about anything, one with a narrative and flow to take you from the first word to the last. I don’t tell stories, I serve them chopped, diced and stir fried – it doesn’t taste very good because it’s a confused mess of everything that I don’t want you to understand but of everything I want you to know.
The first airplane thunders over our heads-no. It is sonic over our heads and in our ears but the planes shimmer and vanish in the pink dirt fog.

You smell of moringa, the kind that comes from 800 bucks in a tube.
You worship a goddess with an undercut and a nose ring in place, and half lidded eyes under spectacles with a new black frame. I worship a god whose blouse has a zip on the back and whose hair is let down to fall straight by the shoulders which move in sync when she turns to greet board members.
To be a god must be to have eyes which seem unable to crinkle while smiling forcibly at you and giving the same words in answer, same words in the same tone to the congratulations of everyone else. You envy this divinity, because you have those eyes and answers anyway.
You thought it was just you but it seems like crying while leaving the house is regular for a lot of people you find yourself among. You thought it was just you, but its just as hard for everyone else sit in their own skin on green grass and in blue sarees.
It wouldn’t hurt this much if the gods didn’t find you so hard to talk to and if you stripped them of the pedestal you want them on. In this land, gods come in blue and with ears jeweled and eyes outlined with kohl, the men somewhere else with shades and tuxedos.

Tight skin around your sisters eyes in the morning is cruel reminder that last night is not forgotten. Arrange your face in the only way you know how. What could not be forgotten in a night spent in four familiar walls is lost in the three minutes it takes to reach the bus.
There’s a skirt over your skin and bag hanging from your shoulders. It’s cold. That guy at the other end of the seat catches your eye. Nod and smirk. Settle yourself down on your throne in the corner of the back seat. You are someone else entirely.

The planes shimmer and the windows rattle. There’s sonic over our heads and roaring in our ears in the afternoon on the terrace. The talking over the phone is the screeching of the wind through plastic partitions is the crunch of plastic and cellophane in the vegetable box of the refrigerator is noise and fuck, make it stop.

Of stars.

Its January and you can’t believe it yet.

If we are born under the stars, then some stars have died and the moon shines too bright trying to crack open the concrete of the night at 9.

You walk with stars girdled around your waist and eternity crowning your temples, and from my seat in the third row I can only clap you in and clap you out again. The ink I was meant to scribble down the astronomical equations of my future with slips through my fingers and leaves a trail on the runway behind the clicking of your heels.

The masked glass is splattered with the stardust of the first monsoon showers. Humidity builds up in the metal bus with rattling loose parts on the way back home. The sculptor’s urban hut of blue plastic and brick on the highway is close to collapsing, straw and jute left unmoved at the feet of a clay woman, hands raised in position.
“Food?”
“Raagi dosa, you want?”
“S’okay.”
This world was made from simple words and I shall sip the drink of the gods.

Its too sunny to be this cold, but there is no warmth that come from the orange afternoon in the yard. Its getting harder to feel great again and easier to sleep. I really don’t know where this is going.

You can’t make me smile anymore and I stopped being enough. Don’t know when that happened.
“Wassup?”
“I don’t know, you tell me. Water?”
The gods are dead.

I’m afraid I’ll never go beyond the numbers in score cards and words on a blog, that you’ll forever be the face of a younger lover shackled to yellow buses and green sweaters in the winter and crying in pale light.

 

But the cherry trees have blossomed early and cherry perfume smells of nothing but desperation in cold weather. Lavender comes with the new year and a dead man’s things to call your own.

Thoughts from Last Thursday

I had lipstick in my hands and coloured the flaps maroon, the dirty maroon every bengali woman has left rolling around at the bottom of the drawer, which is, indeed, where I found it. I kept it on long enough in front of the mirror wearing  another persons clothes for me to forget where I was and who I was and what I was supposed to be doing.

*

I can’t talk to people the way you can, the way there are hundreds of people in your contact list and each name means something different and special to you, or so your tbh on instagram says. I can’t take pictures for instagram and I don’t take them for filling in leaves of photo albums, for some grandchild to find with silverfish holes through the pages. I take pictures for now, for this momentary satisfaction of having recorded you standing here in front of me, of us having ever been here under today’s sun because i’ll only forget by tomorrow.

*

My face is ready to cry. December is for songs with melancholy flooding their melodies and you wailing in a language I don’t really understand. Then, I forget I ever loved you and come back two weeks later, six records of another muse hidden in my pocket and away from your eyes, but you welcome me all the same.
Thank god you’re just a voice in an ipod and not something real.

*

The screams are the worst. They’re no longer the loud deep ones -they’re high pitched, worn out, throaty shrieks which break. There were screams last Thursday and screams from two days ago when Aleppo started burning.

I find that I can only watch.

Alamgir

The sun was low in the sky when we pulled up outside the mosque. The shops lining the square hung the everyday needs of domestic India from its hooks and shelves. Heavy-eyed goats moved through the thinning crowds, the village young boys running after them. The sound of evening gossip filled the air as we trespassed the ordinary lives of these men and women in rural Maharashtra.

“Ha, ha, andar ja sakte hai, ladki!”

Ellora caves had left my mother and sister tired from a day in the heat, so my father and I ventured forth into mosque. The lazy breeze in the large courtyard reassured me, my anxiety of breaking unspoken rules quietening down with the sound of the local village elderlies guffawing under a tree, enjoying the last few minutes of daylight. We were pointed to a metal-and-paper banner, hanging precariously from two smaller minarets.

“That’s what you’re looking for!”

We entered the smaller courtyard, shepherded gently into the white marble enclosure on our right. The three simple white screens of marble, carved with the ‘jali’ work of the Deccan barely accommodated the twelve of us, shoulders pressed against each other and backs stuck to the stone. Before us, was a mound, covered with a white cloth and held down by make-shift paper weights of discarded marble. There were a few flowers, withered, and a cluster of a cluster of twigs, bound by thread at the head of the mound.

‘The tomb of the mogul emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir’

That is all four hundred years has left of a man who ruled an empire at its epoch. It is all that has been spared by the mutiny against every thirty-one million seconds of each of those four hundred years. Mere skin and fingers of his body mean nothing without the cities he built, without his name dotted in books and on signboards pointing to streets in a world that didn’t care to wait.

The mahgrib moans from speakers.

In a mosque tucked away in an unnamed town, lost in the ridges of the Sahyadris, maybe he knew that there’s an inevitability we fight while the rotting of our bones reduces us to the sparsity of this his dying wish for anonymity. The cawing of crows and endless violet dusk in the sky above are the only witnesses of our feet walking the earth.

We climbed back into the car and drove out, Pune waiting beyond the hills.