Fara

Fara ran the last few metres and dived into the ladies’ compartment, just as the train began to pull out. She was immediately jostled and pushed into the sweaty depths of the compartment, as her co-passengers converged back around the entrance. She sighed, there was so much space inside the compartment… why must they all crowd around the entrance and block all the air circulation to the interior?

She checked her bag to make sure her phone, purse and keys were safe. Yes, her possessions were intact. She reached up to hold the hand-hold as the train made its sluggish way towards Lingampalli terminal, from where she’d take a share-auto to get to Sujit’s place.

As the train trundled on, stopping at stations and from time to time between them, passengers slowly trickled out and Fara was finally able to settle by the entrance. There were several empty seats, but she preferred to stand by the entrance and feel the wind streaming against her face. She leaned comfortably against the partition and undid the veil of her burqa.

She was still getting used to wearing a burqa. At home she’d never had to wear one, and in college she hadn’t bothered to bond particularly with the other Muslims in her batch. In fact a lot of people had never figured out that she was Muslim at all… she herself had never identified with the community until she had started dating Sujit.

She wasn’t sure whether it was a defensive reaction to his rare and unintentional misconceptions about the Muslim community, or whether with age her religion had begun to mean more to her… either way, from the day she had started dating him, two years and six months ago, she had become more and more traditionally ‘Muslim’, whatever that was! She wasn’t sure it was a change she liked, but it had happened, somehow… and it certainly wasn’t a change she disliked. All in all, it was rather confusing.

It was not that Sujit was a devout Hindu. Far from it… in fact she wasn’t entirely sure whether he believed in God at all. On some level the fact that this did not bother her made her feel hypocritical about her growing religious affiliation, but she genuinely believed that all ways to God were equally valid… and couldn’t really make up her mind about people who didn’t make an effort to find God in any way. And Sujit was very understanding about her need to identify with Islam… a fact that made her love him more, as well as resent the implied condescension of it, even though she knew he did not mean it that way.

Her phone vibrated and she fished it out of her bag. It was her mother calling. Fara shook her head and put the phone back in to her bag. She’d call back later. She couldn’t think of a good reason for why she was on the train so late in the evening and the ambient noise was unmistakeable even over the phone, so she couldn’t lie about where she was.

Her poor parents. They would be so upset if they knew how she was living her life. They had been so supportive of everything she wanted out of life, supporting her career choices and even her decision not to get married, not knowing that all the while, she was not only dating a ‘Hindu’, but partially living with him as well. It was all so complicated. If her mother knew she was wearing a burqa these days she would be very troubled… but if she understood how the burqa fit into Fara’s world she would probably not be able to even understand it. It helped Fara both identify with her community as well as granted her anonymity when she needed it, like now… on her way to spend the weekend at her boyfriend’s apartment.

Fara shook her head to slow the teeming of the thoughts in her brain. She was exhausted. She longed for a bath.

She gazed out at the passing landscape. It seemed to be moving as fast as her thoughts. Offices, hospitals, houses, apartments, people… they streamed past her in the opposite direction. Her eyes fixed on nothing in particular and she took it all in, as the rushing tide of lives flowed past her momentary window into their worlds.

For a second her eyes met his… and the smooth flow halted. Then it rushed tumultuously on with renewed vigour as the train bore her swiftly away. It had only been a moment, but it shook her.

He had been standing, leaning against his balcony wall, his elbows resting on it and staring into the middle distance. As the train rushed past, his eyes settled on the blur of windows broken by the occasional door or break between carriages. And for a second, he had met her eyes… seen her face clear and still before the train bore her away forever. Or so, Fara imagined. She had no way of knowing whether the moment had unsettled him or not… whether he’d even noticed her. Yet their eyes had met, and like a woman from a corny Hollywood movie, she’d felt her world change.

She did not know who he was, what he did, whether he’d been standing at his own balcony or at a friends’… she could not tell how old he was. He could have been anything between sixteen and thirty… Was he married? What did he believe in? Did he smoke? Did he like movies? Where was he from? Did he have a girlfriend? Did he like chocolate? Was he gay? What language did he think in?

She wasn’t even entirely sure how he looked. She only knew he was clean shaven and that his eyes had seemed to reach into her soul and see her innermost thoughts and that for once she hadn’t felt lacking in who she was, despite her many confusions and contradictions.

Fara shook her head again, to clear it. She was being ridiculous. It was just her whole dilemma over identity playing up and tormenting her overworked brain. She tried to think of Sujit and everything he meant to her. How nervous he’d been in the beginning… how sensitive he was… his curly hair… his warm eyes… his infectious laughter… the way he looked at her… his foolish grin when she smiled because of something he’d said… his ridiculous impractical plans and promises… Sujit. She took a deep breath, and smiled at the thought of the man she loved.

But somewhere in the recesses of her mind an image of a figure on a balcony with momentarily piercing eyes flickered and a lone voice asked What was his name?

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White Chocolate Muse

I’m sorry, I’ve seen you before, but I can’t seem to place you. Who are you?” Her eyes were large and wide, and a slight curious frown furrowed her too-large forehead. Her half-smile wrinkled her left cheek, leaving her right cheek smooth. Her pale fingers were cool white chocolate against his arm, where she’d placed them a moment ago, to stop him as he turned away.

Time stopped. Or rather, he stopped and time rushed on, like a thudding motor-bike, racing past him. The heat of the chai spread through the paper cup he held, burning his insensible fingers.

Who was he?

He didn’t remember having been born… but then, who did? General consensus was that he had been born, at some point. Officially that point was January 16th, 1974. But that had just been to make it easier for him to get admission in a ‘good school’.

Colours had always fascinated him. From before he could remember. The way they changed as the light did. He’d always felt a strange kinship with colours.

He was told he had been born Abdul Akshay Khadar. But that had not gone very well for him… and he did not remember being called by that name, except during his mother’s ‘episodes’. When his father died and his mother returned to her family, his grandfather had insisted on him being renamed Abhishek Krishnan… but sometimes his mother would forget and call him ‘Abdul’, and then burst into uncontrollable tears before having imaginary conversations with his father. At first he hadn’t known what to do, and had run to get his grandfather to help. But after watching his mother be held down and sedated, twice, he started trying to hide these bouts from his grandfather, and keep his mother as quiet as possible.

Shapes were another realm he enjoyed exploring. The way everything he saw could be reduced to a few basic shapes. Sometimes, as he looked around he didn’t see trees or cars or people, but circles, rectangles and triangles. Triangles were his least favourite shape. Too many triangles and he would have to close his eyes to rid himself of his shape-vision and see people, trees and cars again.

As a child, he’d been afraid of butterflies, with their feathery segmented bodies and flaky triangular wings. His grandfather had been angry that such an intelligent boy would have such an irrational fear. He had been locked up in a room with twenty segmented-eyed butterflies and moths that his grandfather had managed to catch. All night he’d heard his mother sob and plead outside, for the key. His grandfather had ignored her.

Music played him, sometimes. He did not know how to use an instrument to make music, but sometimes all he could hear was music. Rhythmic chirping of crickets, the beat of water dripping from a tap,  the thunderous drumbeats of his grandfather’s voice, the sharp blasts of vehicle horns in traffic, the soothing harmony of the wind…

Once, he wrote a poem in class instead of listening to the physics lesson. His teacher had caught him. But instead of punishing him, she’d pushed him to write more. She had even mentioned this talent to his grandfather. His grandfather had beaten him, and had got the school to dismiss the teacher for not doing her ‘duty’. After that he’d never written a poem, till his grandfather died. He kept them in his head.

They grew there, the poems. Some grew stronger, and preyed upon the ones that didn’t. Others withered away of their own accord. Some tried to mediate an uneasy peace. Others grew sly, and hid in the recesses of his mind. Some sucked the music out of his life, leaving him at times breathless, pale and sickly grey. The doctors called this acute asthma. But he knew the truth. Still others absorbed the panorama of the colours he could see, feasted on them and exploded, freeing a riot of colour that seeped haphazardly into yet others. Some entwined themselves together and became one. Others spawned little versions of themselves…

Every report card-day, his grandfather bought him a bar of chocolate for doing well. If he’d scored high in maths and science, he’d get two bars of chocolate- a Dairy Milk and a Milky-Bar. Because his grandfather had thought it such a treat, he didn’t dare tell him that he preferred the Dairy Milk, till he was in Class VIII. His grandfather had been quite hurt that he hadn’t told him before, and after that only bought him Dairy Milks.

His father had been a poet. And his mother had believed in him. She’d run away from home and married him. They’d been happy for the most part. She worked and provided for them, while his father wrote poetry, painted and looked after their infant son.

When his grandfather finally died, his mother had wept uncontrollably. It was far worse than any of her ‘episodes’ he had seen so far. But after that, she began to smile again. And he had started to write poems. She told him that his father had hated butterflies too.

At first he’d been shy. And a few people had laughed good naturedly at his uncertain poems. Later, they would boast of having known him from the start.

His mother played the flute in the evenings. She used to play, she said, when she was young. Her father had loved listening to her play. When she got married, she’d had to work, and there’d been no time for her music. She hadn’t really minded, but she enjoyed playing again.

The first time he’d seen her, she had been reading a red book, her short, curly cloud of hair spilling around her head, obscuring her face. She had been leaning forward onto her elbows, holding her book and balancing the plastic chair precariously on one leg, as she shifted the balance, moving her legs. She’d been wearing a faded grey T-shirt, and deep blue jeans. She shook the hair out of her face and looked up for a second, biting her lower lip on the left. Her eyes had been far away, lost in the world of the book in her hands. He had been sorely tempted to accidently kick her chair as he walked past, but he’d refrained. She’d lost balance anyway, as he passed her, making him feel guilty. A few people in the shop had looked up and laughed. A slick sun-glassed boy with headphones in his ears had run to help her up. And he’d walked out of the shop without looking back at her.

She made him think of white-chocolate, which he’d always hated. He developed a taste for white chocolate. And wrote intense white poems.

His mother wanted him to study abroad. She felt his talents would never be discovered here, and he would die unrecognised, like his father. She showed him a few of his father’s poetry and one painting. The rest, his grandfather had hidden or destroyed. His mother had never been able to find them.

He saw her again, at a bus stop, her curly hair drenched in the rain. She fished out a yellow umbrella and opened it, smiling to herself and pushing her wet hair off her face, revealing her too-large forehead.  He’d taken a bar of white chocolate out of his pocket, and broken off a square. He’d carefully wrapped the rest of it back in the silver foil and watched her play with the ripples in the puddles under her yellow umbrella, as he tasted the square of white chocolate.

That night, the music rose in his head, and he wrote till dawn. The poem was white and strong and beautiful.

When his mother died, he couldn’t afford white-chocolate anymore. The music died in his head. He tried to write new poems, but they were colourless shadows on paper that he crumpled and threw away.

He cancelled his plane ticket to pay for her funeral. After that he had started looking for a job.

He began to give tuitions in English to school children. That was where he met Mira. She was the beautiful elder sister of a little boy who had trouble with tense and the neutral gender. She read a few of his early uncertain poems and was impressed by his potential. They talked and laughed about the ways of the world. She told him his white poems were too beautiful. Too monochromatic. They lacked something important that his early poetry had had. She was studying to be a lawyer. She believed in him.

His grandfather had explained refraction to him, with a piece of broken glass. He remembered the magic of seeing light split into so many colours, on the sheet of white paper they’d used as a screen.

They were married a year later. She supported him, so he no longer had to struggle with little children who could not understand tense and neutral gender.

Mira was kind and funny. Their home was filled with light and laughter. He could afford it now, but he never ate white chocolate.

Their first baby looked like her, chocolate brown with sparkling eyes and straight black hair. She had his nose, though, and a mole on her right knee, just like him. They called her Kalpana. Mira couldn’t work for a while, after Kalpana was born, so he’d had to find work.

Their second baby was small and sickly. Like the poems he wrote, alongside his boring desk job. They named him Abdul, after the name he’d been given originally. Mira was much weaker after Abdul was born. She was often tired and irritable, particularly when he retired to his world of shapes, colours and music.

When little Abdul died, the poems dried up altogether. Mira couldn’t bring herself to even try to live again. He had to look after Kalpana.

The music came back, one morning, when he saw her again on his way to work. She was cycling past, her hair pulled back with a purple hairband. She leaned back easily and rested the palms of her hand on the handle-bar, guiding the blue cycle past his black car, deftly. Her hair was slightly longer, and her eyes were outlined with kajol.

He wrote a few more white poems and approached a few publishers. When at last, a publisher accepted his work, Mira was still critical of his work. She felt he could do better. He bought himself a bar of white chocolate, to celebrate when his book of white poems was published.

Mira began to smile again. Kalpana joined the basketball team in her school.

He never saw her again. Till the day time froze for him.

It unfroze in a rush of scalded fingers. And he dropped his cup of chai. It splashed in a beautiful circle, around the paper cup, which landed upright on the pavement. It drenched his toes, in his sandals, and a few drops splattered on her lemon yellow churidar.

I’m so sorry!” she said, quickly, bending down to pick up the cup and throw it into the bin. “It’s my fault!” A strand of curly hair escaped her black hairband and fell across her eyes. She pushed it away with the back of her hand as she straightened up and smiled at him. “Can I buy you another chai?”

Thanks,” he said, the word escaping his mouth, unbidden.

She bought him another cup of chai and handed it to him. “I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

The music rose to a crescendo in his head. Colours seethed.

She smiled at him expectantly, her triangular earrings glinting in the sunlight.

Suddenly, he felt a deep revulsion for the sickly alabaster sweetness of white chocolate. “Have you?” he asked, “I can’t remember having seen you before.”

Who was he? What was wrong with him?

She grinned, “I’m sorry… I seem to do this a lot. Kishore says I live in a permanent state of déjà-vu!” she gestured the handsome young man beside her, engrossed in a conversation with someone else.

It’s perfectly alright,” he replied with a smile he didn’t feel. “Thanks for the chai!” He turned to walk away.

It seemed to him that the revulsion for white chocolate had been there all along, suppressed in some part of his psyche along with his fear of butterflies.

Wait!” he heard her say, “Are you Abhishek Krishnan?”

Yes,” he replied, turning around.

Kishore!” she gasped, tugging at the man’s arm, “Look who I’ve just met! It’s Abhishek Krishnan! We love your poetry,” she added by way of explanation to him.

He smiled, as he shook hands with Kishore and replied politely as they gushed over his patently ridiculous white poems. Her name was Maya. He introduced Mira and Kalpana to the two of them.

That night, he bought a box of dark chocolate for Mira. They laughed and talked till she fell asleep.

He wrote a new poem, filled with life and love, joy, colour and music. There was sadness and death as well, shades and hues of life. It wasn’t as pristine and unnaturally beautiful as any of his white poems… but it was far more real. Bitterness offsetting sweetness in a pleasantly palatable way. It was beautiful, and he knew that this was what Mira had believed him capable of.

He brushed a strand of hair off Mira’s sleeping face, and settled into the bed next to her. She smiled in her sleep.

Comfort

She didn’t turn as he settled down beside her, on the rock.

What took you so long?”

I ran into Arnab, Gayathri and that gang on the way here. Major party, they’re having. Brought you something.” He held out a beer bottle to her.

She took the bottle, without turning and took a swig. He smelt of Old Monk and too much deodorant.

He followed her eyes. The moon shimmered silently back up at them from the lake. An almost perfect reflection, rippled by the occasional wave.

She sighed. And took another swig in the silence.

Reminds me of that old poem we learnt in school. ‘Silver’.”

She smiled. “Yes. It does, doesn’t it?”

He took the bottle from her hand and took a swig.

Hey! I thought that was for me!”

Sharing is caring.” he replied, handing it back to her.

I don’t care. And I can smell the Rum you didn’t share.”

He grinned and pulled a small Coke bottle out from his backpack. “Rum and Coke?” he offered.

She grimaced, “Maybe not right away. Don’t want to pass out.”

Suit yourself,” he took a swig from the coke bottle.Then he leaned back on his elbows and gazed up at the sky.

Infinity, eh?” she asked, leaning back as well, and tossing her head to dislodge a few stray wisps of hair from around her eyes.

Yeah. Infinity.” And then after a companiable pause, “Have you seen that Calvin and Hobbes strip? About the stars and infinity?”

Yup. Love Bill Waterson.” She sat up and gulped down a mouthful of beer.

Pure genius, that man.” he lay back further, hands supporting his head using his backpack as a pillow.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist. I loved that show, ‘Caroline in the City’.”

He laughed, “I bet you had a crush on that struggling artist character. He’s your type.”

Richard! Yes, I loved him. I dreamt about him. Still do.” she took another swig of beer and held it in her mouth, allowing the fizz to wrinkle her nose.

And now you have your very own struggling artist. How does it feel?”

Don’t say that.”

Don’t say what?”

She took a deep breath, “We broke up.”

He sat up. The silence stretched between them, like the rippling waters of the lake. He couldn’t see her expression. Her profile was silhouetted against the moonlit night sky.

I’m sorry.” he said, finally.

You are?”

Well, I never liked him. You know that. But I know you cared about him.”

I don’t know. I wonder if I ever cared about anything or anyone other than myself.”

Right…” he drawled, rolling his eyes.

No, I’m serious, Sahil. I feel like I’ve never cared about anyone or anything. All I’ve been doing all my life is acting. Playing a part. Whenever anything happens in my life, I go over the possible responses in my head, and play out the appropriate one in my life.” her eyes glistened.

In a sense, I suppose we all do that…”

No. Not so much. Some people feel. I know he did. He does. That’s how he gets inspiration for his art.”

Amu, I think you might be overthinking this.”

She ignored him. “That’s what life is to him. Inspiration for art. Very Gaimanesque. Everything he thinks and feels fuels a painting or a sculpture. That’s what he’s doing right now, I’m sure. Pouring his pain into a work of art. And it’s all so genuine, no one else ever completely understands what he’s created. I certainly couldn’t.”

The silence slowly surged back around them.

What happened?”

Nothing momentous. We realized we’re different people. We want different things out of life. I want more involvement. Excitement. Adventure. He wants to observe the world and document his reactions to it.”

That’s it?”

What do you mean, ‘that’s it?’” she snapped, turning to him. Her eyes glittered in the darkness.

I mean, that doesn’t sound too serious. It sounds like any one of your tiffs. You always knew you wanted different things.”

It’s not a tiff.” she snapped.

Look, i’m not suggesting you get back together. Personally I think this is good for you. Pardon me for saying so, but you deserve better than him.”

He deserves better than me,” her voice shook.

Hmmm… let’s stick to: you’re different people. Makes more sense.”

He gazed at her, without quite turning towards her.

A little tremor shook her frame, and he moved closer, putting an arm around her. She leaned against him and cried silent beery tears on to his shoulder. He patted her head awkwardly. After a few moments, she grew still, and wiped her cheeks with the palm of her hand.

Sahil?” she said, softly, looking up at his face, her head still resting on his shoulder.

Hmmm?”

She lifted her head off his shoulder, and looked into his eyes. Their faces were inches apart. Her eyes searched his desperately.

He looked away, awkwardly. His one armed hug around her shoulder grew strangely slack.

Amrita, I thought you knew. I’m gay.”