White-rum, Plum-juice, Christian-guilt and a generous dose of righteous-harassment

The thing that bothered me the most, even more than the rough hands on my breasts and the stinging pain of the slap across my buttocks, was the scorn in their eyes, as they looked back at me, triumphantly. Even today, I wonder at it, my mind heavy with the plum juice and white rum that has become our staple Friday-evening drink.

Kamala is already five drinks down and has begun to curse men in general and Sabiha’s boss in particular, as she is wont to, these days. Sabiha is gently trying to steer the conversation away from her boss, and his repeated casual lingering hands that linger just too long to be casual.

Lapdiang and Arun are arguing about whether the event we had helped organize on our university campus, in solidarity with the ‘Kiss of Love’ protest against moral policing in Kerala, was an elitist event or not.

With all this talk about sexual harassment and moral policing, my mind sloshes its way back down familiar paths to the memory and I wonder, again, at how they – those three barely pubescent boys, zooming away on their motor bike, which had probably been loaned to them by an indulgent uncle – had not showed the least shame or remorse. They had looked so satisfied. So self- righteous… for teaching me a lesson. And even today, with all the university-bred theories of gender equality, patriarchy and feminism buzzing vaguely in my head and in the conversation around me, the scene remains etched into my memory, burning with shame, guilt and regret.

It had been summer. In Chennai. The scorching heat had dried out all the vegetation on the campus. Madras Christian College was swathed in shades of brown and the brittleness of dried out twigs and dead leaves. The afternoon air was heavy with sweat and lazy with flies. In the post-lunch somnolence, when all the other day-stream students had retired to the relative coolness of their hostel rooms, one could almost smell the hormones rushing through our blood and making our heads spin, hearts accelerate and stomachs churn.The guards could certainly sense it. They kept a watchful eye on us, making sure we didn’t sneak into the ‘forest’ – as the thick vegetation on our campus was often referred to.

Karan and I had been ‘dating’ for four weeks now. Karan had already declared that he ‘loved’ me and I had demurred that I might also, eventually, feel that way. In truth, I was scared to use that word, because to me it held the weight of life-long commitment and was not to be thrown around blithely. I felt guilt at the starved-puppy look in his eyes when I replied so uncertainly about ‘love’ and compromised by lacing my fingers tightly between his, though his fingers were large and cut off the blood circulation to my finger-tips, making them tingle with pins-and-needles.

I could feel the beads of sweat forming and dripping down my back as well as the soft cotton of my top soaking in the sweat around my armpits. Our palms were glued together with the stickiness of sweat, but we continued to hold hands as we exited our college campus (much to all the guards’ relief) and crossed the road towards Tambaram station.

Right opposite the main gate of our college, a short path led to the platforms of the local train station. A few steps down the path, another little path branched off in-between two parallel rows of houses, quite a few of which were abandoned. In our hormone-drunk state, we walked quickly past the first few houses, fingers still laced tightly together, and into the nearest abandoned house – it was just a few steps away from the ‘shit – pot’, an old abandoned Indian-style toilet which was no longer enclosed by walls and therefore useless as a toilet, except to exceptionally drunk men and male students of MCC . The ‘shit-pot’ was, however, surrounded by thick enough vegetation to afford eager couples a modicum of privacy, and was by this token, famous among the young couples of MCC as a ‘make-out-spot’.

The building we had ducked into was in total disrepair. It was only the barest skeleton that was still left standing. Chunks of concrete and plaster that had fallen out from the walls and support pillars revealing iron rods, making it look like the skeleton of the building was showing through. The floor was strewn with broken bricks and crumbled cement. Here and there were pools of human excreta, where passers-by had made use of the relative privacy of the crumbling walls to take a quick shit. It seemed like most of them suffered from chronic diahorrea. We held our breath and picked our way through the dried shit and the flies buzzing around the more recent piles. There was a room beyond the large one we had entered into from the path, which was almost free of shit, except for one old dried pile in the corner. We headed quietly, our hearts thudding to the wall opposite this. Karan checked to make sure he could see all the entrances to the room – the one through which we had entered as well as another which lead into what had been the backyard for the abandoned house – so that we would know if anyone stumbled upon on our little hidey-hole.

And then, finally, we kissed. We had kissed before, and it had been nervous and sweet and wreathed in all kinds of niceties about love and commitment. The niceties were still there, but this time we were more urgent, our hearts thudding, our faces wetly pressed together at the mouths and hands ever-so nervousley straying below each-other’s necks. It was hot and sweaty, and new to both of us.

He paused to ask me whether I minded if he touched me under my shirt. I dutifully said I did, though even in white-rum-heavy hindsight, I know that it was obvious that I did not mean it, and also that I wanted more than anything, at that moment, for his hands to touch me under my shirt. After a few more over-the-shirt breast squeezes while we kissed, he obliged by slowly slipping one hand under my shirt. We continued to kiss and he began to push my shirt up.

When he finally pulled it off over my head, despite my excitement and inability to breathe, a small detached part of my brain wished I had worn a prettier bra. He didn’t seem to notice the bra though, and fumbled with the hook as he looked deeply into my eyes, trying to reassure me with romance, before pulling me close and bending to take my exposed nipple into his mouth. In hindsight, I was as excited, and did not really need that reassurance. At the time, though, it did help suppress my Christian-guilt.

I felt short-changed. Was that all there was to it? It felt as straightforward as it was. Someone’s lips were around my nipple. It didn’t do anything to my heartbeat, didn’t transport me to the bliss I had been lead to expect. Was there something wrong with me? When he looked up from my breast to check on my reaction, I did a fair imitation of the heavy-lidded, blissful faces of women in Hollywood movies. Satisfied, he turned his eyes back to my chest, and left me to wonder why this particular forbidden action failed to stoke the rising excitement in me. Perhaps it was because we weren’t married? Perhaps I could not enjoy anything besides kissing until our sinful union was consecrated in a church?

All of a sudden, I became aware of the watching eyes. I turned quickly, covering my chest with my discarded shirt. Karan, momentarily disoriented, registered the pair of eyes watching us, greedily, from a hole in ceiling of the room we had not noticed. A pair of eyes peering down from the floor above, absorbing the scene in vicarious titillation. Karan shielded me from view as I quickly pulled on my shirt and fastened my bra under it, with shaking hands. It took me four tries to hook it.

The watcher sauntered down the stairs into the adjoining room and walked from there into ours. Another one, whom I had not noticed, came in through the back entrance. Effectively cutting off our quick exit, they converged on us.

My eyes were blurry with the shame. And the guilt that I had held at bay for dating this completely unsuitable boy came crashing down on me. If only I had said yes to the good Christian boy, who would have asked me out if it hadn’t been for Karan, I would certainly not have been in this situation. Not in a million years. Why, he probably would have only got around to asking me out in a month or two. I could have been studying last Saturday, instead of having my first kiss. I could have done well in today’s test. I could have…

The two cock-sure watchers were talking to Karan. A small modicum of relief that they were younger than us, and were therefore not holders of some authority who would report us to the college authorities, who would in turn probably pass this information on to my parents, registered its presence; but the shame and the guilt of such young boys having witnessed my bliss-face and having seen my breasts quickly obliterated it.

Karan appeared to be reasoning with them. And for the first time, my haze of guilt was pierced by a shard of anger. Who were these titchy boys to sit in judgement over us, as we explored our true love? Why were we on the defensive, when it was they who had been watching us, an activity which, it began to dawn on me, was extremely creepy.

I did not catch the words of the exchange, my shame being too acute to let me look up at these barely-pubescent boys, who had watched the most private moments of my life till date without my consent.

The greedy fascination in the eyes I had seen, was now transformed to a sanctimonious moralizing tone as they lectured Karan about propriety in Tamil, and he responded in wheedling-broken Malayalam and English that we had not hurt anyone, so could they let this pass, this time?

Finally, they agreed and walked away. I stared after the retreating backs, which radiated a certain respectability and the straight-backed smugness of having intervened in immoral activities and having resolved matters in such a way as to bring credit to their (and my) homeland.

Karan and I left the building as soon as those two had vanished from sight. I was still shaking in fear and horror. I felt exposed. I felt as though everyone around me knew I was cheap and easy – at the time, words like ‘whore’ did not enter easily into my mental space, but the sense that the words which did come tried to capture, was much the same. As we walked back down the path slowly, not holding hands and with none of our earlier buoyance which the excitement and promise our walk there had held, Karan tried to calm me down with assurances that none of the people around us knew what had happened.

A bike revved behind us, and we stepped out of its way to let it pass on the narrow path. The bike swerved around us, and the two boys behind the rider – the same two watchers we had encountered- grabbed me. The middle-one grasped my right breast, and pinched painfully, and the one at the back, slapped me across my bum. They looked back at me as they rode away, without a shadow of remorse. The look in those eyes was full of scorn and impunity. They looked triumphant and righteous. The wholesome pride they felt at teaching me a lesson radiated from their eyes.

The guilt and shame I had been holding at bay swamped me, and I held on to Karan’s hand so that he didn’t run after them, as he wanted to, because I knew I could not stand there in that spot, alone.

I could barely walk for the next few days. My butt still stung from the slap, and my breast hurt all of that evening. I plied Karan with guilt for a week after that, presenting him with tortured poems filled with laboured metaphors of shame and guilt. He had his own feelings of impotence, from being unable to retaliate at the time and not having been able to protect me from that experience, to deal with. We split up a few weeks later.

And the ideas of sex and sexual pleasure were underwritten in my mind with a deep and abiding shame and guilt, far beyond any that my Christian upbringing could ever have hoped to have achieved alone.

I shake my heavy head as if to dislodge the memory and take another sip of my drink.

I had of course, been harassed before. And several times, after. This was hardly the most violent, or shocking of the incidents. But it was this memory that made me feel the most violated. And though I do not remember their faces, I do remember the eyes, watching greedily in vicarious titillation.

I close my eyes again and open them slowly, bringing myself back to the present. I emerge from the space behind my eyes and look around at my friends. Kamala’s cursing has decreased to a grumbling mutter delivered from Sabiha’s lap, while Sabi plays with her partner’s hair affectionately. Lapdiang and Arun have taken their discussion off to the balcony, and in some corner of my rum-soaked brain it registers that their heated political debate was probably some strange form of foreplay. Rahul is on the phone with his long-distance-love. And I sit here, alone, contemplating my last failed relationship, in honour of which we are sharing these bottles of white-rum in Kamala and Sabiha’s flat.

I know that it was probably my fault. How was Ranjani to ever understand my debilitating deep-seated guilt about sex, if I couldn’t talk about it? And she certainly couldn’t be expected to wait until I resolved the thing I couldn’t articulate to her, for us to have the sex we both wanted to have.

I sigh as I down the rest of my drink and head to the kitchen to pour myself another. It is so hard to untangle the strands of guilt from the idea of sex in my mind. All the university theories of gender that I’m absorbing as part of my PhD haven’t helped much to dislodge this very personal guilt.

And all it had taken to put that guilt in place was a sweaty summer afternoon, three pre-pubescent boys with self-righteous hands ready to deliver Tamil morality, one borrowed motorcycle, a crumbling abandoned building with mouldering piles of shit… and a pair of eyes watching my tentative bliss-face in vicarious titillation.

** Originally written for Out of Print magazine’s issue on Sexual Violence. Unfortunately my story didn’t make it into the magazine. Here is a link to the issue: http://www.outofprintmagazine.co.in/index.html

The Adulteress’ Tale

John 8:1 – 11 (King James Version)

1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. 2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

The Adulteress’ Tale

I remember that morning. The heat and the dust. And how they pushed me and jostled with each other as they dragged me to the temple. Some of their hands found their way to parts of my body that did not need to be grasped to lead me to my death. Sometimes, I wonder at the perversity of men.

I curled my toes into the sand as I stumbled along, and felt the edges of the stones as I walked. I tried to imagine how it would feel to have these stones thrown at me, hitting me, cutting me, until I died. It didn’t work. I couldn’t feel scared. It all seemed so strange.

They knew me. Every one of them. And they knew what I did for a living. Some of them had even visited me secretly. And suddenly, that morning, they had dragged me out of my house, yelling that I was a sinner and should die for my sins.

When they brought me before him and challenged him to pass judgement on me, it began to make sense. They were using me. Using me as an example for their pointless debates. It made me angry.

He sat there. So calmly. Writing in the dust. Ignoring their demanding voices.

They told him that I had been caught in adultery – a lie. I am much too careful for that sort of thing.

And they challenged him to defy the old scriptures, saying that Moses had said women like me should be stoned to death. It sounds like something I have heard them say of Moses.

Moses, who was saved from death at his birth by the midwives who risked their lives to disobey Pharoah. Moses, raised by Pharoah’s daughter who adopted him as her own on the urging of Miriam, his sister. Moses, saved from God’s wrath by Zipporah, his wife. So many men have no gratitude.

Then he looked up at me. For a moment our eyes met. And I knew I could be adulterous again, if I survived this. With him.

There was such energy in his eyes, I wondered how it would feel to be with a man like that.

He told them that the scriptures did indeed say that sinners like me should be stoned. He paused, and let them savour their moment of triumph. My heart beat faster. Was that it? From our glance he had not seemed to me a man to give up so easily. Was I to be disappointed again, by a man, just before I was killed – for loving all these men who disappointed me?

Then, he raised his voice slightly and challenged them back. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” There was a silence. A long silence. I could feel their excitement and victory dissipate leaving behind confusion. Their grips on my arms and shoulders slackened.

And then, they left, one by one. Like dogs with their tails between their legs.

He had outwitted them. And for a moment I was grateful to him.

He had saved my life from those vultures, who would use me as fodder for their arguments. Perhaps some of them even felt guilt for their wandering hands!

He looked up at me. His eyes had that same intensity.

And then, I realised that he too had used me. He had used me to show off his wisdom and compassion. To win a battle of wits with the other Teachers. To impress them. To prove to the onlookers that he understood God better than they.

I remembered that terrifying and disappointing pause. He had timed his words well for the best dramatic effect.

I was angry, but grateful. And I wanted him, with his burning eyes and his long fingers casually writing in the sand. I wanted to smell him. Taste him. Drive him mad with pleasure, like I did with all the others.

I looked down, demurely. They usually liked that.

“Go now, and sin no more,” he said to me, kindly. Patronisingly.

“What is sin?” I asked him softly. My tone was of a little lost girl. But my eyes were both angry and hungry for him.

He had no answer, and he stared at me. It seemed to me that he was suddenly seeing me as a person and not a point to be made. I walked away.

Later, alone in my room, I wondered if he was the one everyone spoke of. They said he could be the messiah. He had the energy and the intensity to be one. He could lead us.

They say he’s descended from Abraham and David.

Abraham, who abandoned Hagar and their son in the desert. And David who abandoned Michal after she saved his life by deceiving her father. David who then reclaimed her, against her will, when she had married another and did not wish to part with him. David who spied on Bathsheba as she bathed. David who had Bathsheba’s husband murdered so that he could lie with her again.

Both greedy men, who acquired land and power and spread their seed without much thought for their women.

I can never understand why they speak of David and Abraham as his forefathers with such pride. But I’ve heard tell that he speaks only of a kingdom in heaven. Perhaps he does not want to be king. Perhaps he will not seek power on earth. There may be hope, yet.

They only speak of the men in his line, after all. The truth of it can only be known by the women.

Perhaps he has more potential than they credit him with. Perhaps he is descended from Anna and and Judith and Deborah and Yael.

Perhaps he could make a good messiah.

And if he is the one, I hope they remember him as a man. Of flesh and blood. Made to smell and taste and feel. I hope they don’t reduce him to a voice from the scriptures telling people what to do and what not to do. However revolutionary his ideas.

But that is too much to hope for.

And clashing with the Pharisees and Saducees, will only get him killed. Maybe even crucified, if the Romans notice him.

I wonder if I should seek him out, again. If he is to be the messiah, my presence could be dangerous for him. I hope he remembers me.

I can leave if he does not want me with him. But from what they say of him, he keeps worse company than prostitutes like me. They say he eats with tax-collectors and lepers. Perhaps he could be a great teacher. Both wise and compassionate.

And his eyes…

How should I go to him? Should I take my perfume and wash his feet and cry and promise never to go back to my sinful ways. It’s hard to tell from a single look whether he will appreciate repentance or not. Some men do. They like to think that they have cured a woman of her wandering ways and made her faithful. It makes them feel good about their skills in the night, and righteous about having brought her back to the lord. And he is to be the messiah, after all.

They never wonder what kind of Lord creates pleasure so intense and then insists that we, who feel it, tame ourselves and restrict our pleasure.

I wonder if his love is worth repentance?

Perhaps he will be different.

But then, how should I go to him?

I wonder if he will see me as a person. As a woman of skin and hair and smell and touch and thought. Or as a symbol, for him to reform. He is to be a messiah, after all. Such men are dangerous.

I know I will seek him out, for he fascinates me. The only question is, how?

Notes:

1. This piece began as a monologue about Mary Magdalene, and many of the ideas here come from discussions with friends. This is another version which came out of the discussion. Take a look at her blog as well. It’s beautiful. https://nathawahlang.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/the-forgiving-and-forgiven-whores-1-mary-magadalene/?preview_id=84

2. The bible I consulted, mentions that this story is not found in the ‘earliest and most reliable’ versions of the Gospel.

3. This is one of my favourite stories from the Bible – the idea that we are all flawed and have no right to judge other people is one I hold very dear. Nevertheless, I think the story bears retelling from this perspective. I also think we can learn a lot from this kind of a perspective, about how we can be insensitive to people who experience different subjectivities from ourselves.

4. This story, though often assumed to refer to Mary Magdalene, is probably not about her. For more information on her please read this excellent article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/?fb_locale=fr_FR&page=1

5. The conflation of the offence of ‘adultery’ with ‘prostitution’ is definitely part of the rewriting of (in this case, Biblical) history through male eyes, and the conflation of Mary Magdalene – possibly one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples – with the reformed prostitute we see her as today. Please do read the article linked above, for more on this. Despite this, and perhaps because of it, I think this kind of retelling of the tale can be very powerful for bringing another voice into this much beloved tale.

6. The line ‘What is Sin?’ emerged from a discussion with friends. One of them mentioned that a recent Malayalam poem ends this story with Mary looking up into Jesus’ eyes and asking him ‘What is Sin?’ I found the imagery very powerful – especially with the story ending there. I attempted to find a translation of the poem or the author’s name, so as to acknowledge the source, but have so far been unable to track either down. I will edit this as soon as I can acknowledge that source properly.

7. I am also probably, strongly influenced by the musical, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics: Tim Rice) and the song, ‘I don’t know how to love him’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS2nX4fuzqc

A life well-lived

Story vaguely prompted by: https://thefuzzyinbetween.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/dsc_0163.jpg

When the old lady looked back on her life, things didn’t seem so bad. It seemed a life well-lived.

She had enjoyed her school-years, though not necessarily her school; worked for a while and lived alone; fallen in love; studied society and given it up to study nature which had at first seemed more predictable but had then betrayed her with it’s uncertainties.

She had married the man she was expected to and had never regretted it but always nursed a secret curiosity about life with the one she had fallen in love with. She had had a child, refused to leave her job to care for it, and had had another.

She had buried her headstrong daughter after a freak accident claimed her life in adolescence, and had proceeded to protect her son till he resented her for it. She had lived with her son and his family long after her husband had died and watched her granddaughters grow up. She had managed to maintain a relationship of minimal friction with her daughter-in-law.

She had believed fervently in the God of her religion, lost faith and then later, had unexpectedly stumbled upon it still within her.

She had been a revolutionary in her own little way, though not many would remember her rebellion and had eventually become a fractious part of the establishment as was expected of her. She still treasured the memory of her rebellion, and every time she held it up to the light of her own experience, she was reassured by the rightness of it in her world-view.

She had experimented with the fashions of her age, rejected some and adopted others as her own. She had enjoyed alcohol and flirted with marijuana but had not taken to either very strongly. She had dressed in severe minimalist black and then in explosions of colour and eventually had ceased to think so hard about her clothing. Her hair had grown to great lengths, been shaved off, coloured outrageous colours and had now slowly turned white.

She had acted in plays, written poetry, painted canvases and had refused to ‘judge’ the work of others because she did not believe that art could be judged until she was no longer taken seriously in those circles, though she continued to paint and write sporadically.

She had loved passionately and without reason and it had never faded though the object of her love had ceased to reciprocate. She had loved very differently along channels of respectability, and this love was not hampered by the other, nor was it in any way less.

She had risked her reputation on an idea that quickly went out of fashion and had carefully built it up again according to the rules of the world, though she never lost faith in her idea.

She had had her spells of being unreasonable, and had contributed her share of scandal to the world though both were quickly forgotten against the respectability of the life she had lived.

She had carved a life out in a world that was at times hostile to her, and then had become such a part of it that she had to guard against being hostile to those younger or more invested and intractable in their idealism than her.

It had been a full life. She had lived vigorously all the roles available to her at the time. Dutiful daughter; rebellious student; hard worker; loyal friend; passionate lover; daring daughter-in-law; loving wife; responsible, grief-striken and finally possessive mother; interesting colleague; doting and then forgotten grandmother… she had lived them all to the hilt.

And now, her days had fallen into a rhythm of basic needs. Food, sleep, exercise and the occasional conversation with a dwindling number of contemporaries. The conversations sometimes dwelt on the eventuality and inevitability of death though more often they distracted themselves from it with reminiscence, faint sorrow and laughter.

From time to time when they visited, she would remind her granddaughters that she too had been young once, and they would respond with wide-eyed interest, respect, mild amusement or embarrassment varying with their age and mood at the time of the conversation.

The old lady smiled vaguely as she tried to collect her increasingly scattered thoughts. Her pale veined hands shook slightly as she ran the wide-toothed comb through her white hair. She glanced again at the mirror on the colourful wall opposite, which her artist granddaughter had finger-painted for her, last summer.

She had never really thought of herself as an old lady, even though her hair had grown thin and turned completely white. Was that what made one old, she mused, or was it the smile-wrinkles around the eyes and the frown wrinkles on the forehead? Was it perhaps the slowly increasing folds that hung between one’s neck and one’s chin? Was it the veins that showed blue-green and the gradual fading of colour from the skin? Or was it the tendency to live more and more in one’s head, dwelling on memory and forgetting to see the every-day?

She often thought of her contemporaries as old, but herself… why she did not feel much older than nineteen. Perhaps that was vanity. She was much slower, now; her mind wandered more and she had many aches and pains that one simply did not have at nineteen. Perhaps age had more to do with a state of mind, than of body? She smiled to herself at her wishful thinking and watched her hand shake as she ran the comb slowly through her hair. Why should she wish to be something that she was not? She was eighty-seven, and proud of it.

She tied her scant hair into a bun and crouched down to a squat in the gateway, dressed in her comfortable faded white nightie. Her daughter-in-law often complained that she dressed this way and sat at the gate in a way calculated to embarrass the family. Sometimes her granddaughters agreed with their mother, so she would go back inside, change into newer clothing and bring a chair out. But sometimes she forgot and sat there, gazing down the road.

Perhaps one of her granddaughters would visit today.

When the old lady looked back on her life, things didn’t seem so bad. It seemed a life well-lived.

Awe and Ankh

Blearily, I surveyed the photocopied articles lying strewn across my desk. Crumpled pieces of ruled paper with my sloping handwriting scuttling across them, punctuated by pencil shavings peopled the spaces between the articles and my laptop. The laptop’s screen glowed the familiar shade of meaningless procrastination. A cup of erstwhile cinnamon coffee, now a watery brownish liquid with a struggling insect drowning in it stood proudly in the midst of the verbose carnage. The insect’s desperate pointless struggle rippled the steady reflection of the tube light.

I dipped my plastic spoon into the ex-coffee carefully, so as not to splash the insect. I waited, till it struggled onto the spoon, and then shook the insect off on to the windowsill next to my desk. I half-hoped and half said a self-conscious-skeptical prayer to the higher powers I wasn’t sure I believed in that when it’s wings dried out, they wouldn’t stick to the grainy cement of the sill.

Insect rescue complete, I rubbed my eyes, forcing myself to read again the words on the paper and comprehend them. My unobliging mind reeled across landscapes of words, reality, colour and emotion, desperately seeking the ever-dwindling hope of sleep. Finally, I gave up, switched off the laptop’s eerie glow and climbed into bed.

The darkness washed over me as gentle as a moth settling on my eyelashes. I sank slowly and heavily through layers of consciousness dusted with memory. Down and down, I sank, through so many gradual rewritings of my soul.

 

Little flecks of colour, strands of music, rainbow bubbles of joy, the heavy-evening scent of loneliness, shards of pain, earthy coffee brown of love, warmth of moments as precious a firefly’s light… I sank down through it all, until I saw her.

Tentatively eager and naïve as I still am, she gazed at me in awe. The same awe she served out with unabashed awkwardness to so many, and for so many reasons, eyes shining with a desire to measure up. Measure up to a skill with words, or numbers, a versatility in ideas, use of colour or lines, a sense of music, a kindness, an honesty, a confidence, a thoughtfulness, a gesture… a deep desire to be part of a world peopled by those in whom she saw reflected, the endless possibilities of excellence. And she looked at me, as though I was one of them.

Hi,” I said, a little at a loss. Around us, the looming Teak and Eucalyptus trees swayed in the heavy breeze, exquisitely silhouetted against a pinky-blue sunset sky. The air was thick with the scent of evening, washing over us in heavy waves of that pinky-blue wash of colour. It was like inhaling the colours of a painting, fluid and magic in their mixing.

Dressed in her customary black T-shirt and tentatively new purple harem pants, she looked surprised and inordinately pleased that I had spoken to her.

Hi!” she replied.

The occasional bat flapped across our little patch of clear sky as it stretched wider and wider. The faster it stretched, the more it seemed that we were hurtling upwards into the vast expanse of endless sky. The clouds did not grow any closer, though. So I knew we weren’t actually falling into the sky.

That’s so clever! I wish I could make connections like that and figure things out.” she said, gazing into my eyes. And I wondered how she knew what I had thought. Had I spoken aloud?

You can,” I told her, enigmatically, “Just don’t think too much about how to do it, and you’ll find yourself doing it.”

Lightning lit up the thick layers of clouds, revealing for a moment, the complex shapes they formed. Each time the lightning flashed, it lit up a different part, and cut through a new angle of the dense clouds. Colour, light and shadow danced an exquisite dance in each moment of illumination.

What’s that?” she asked curiously, pointing to my neck.

I reached automatically to hold what she was pointing at. I did not remember having worn a necklace. As I felt the cold metal of the Ankh, though, I remembered how it had come to be there. It had floated down to me on the mingled strains of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat and Joan Baez’s Love Song to a Stranger, and become hard and metallic when the lightness of that rewriting of my soul touched the steady flow of who I had been until then. It glimmered sharply with the light of the sigil of Death of the Endless.

It’s an Egyptian Ankh,” I replied.

Wow.” she said, “Have you been to Egypt?” I could both hear her speak as a distinct and separate entity and feel the words she would speak forming, like colours mixing in a distant part of my consciousness as it stretched across the temporal space between us.

No,” I replied smiling, “And I haven’t been to Harappa, either.”

“How did you know…?”

That that would be your next question?” I smiled at her, looking into her eyes, searching past the awe and wonder that my reflected image was endowed with.

It felt like falling. Falling through the darkness of her eyes, accelerating past the moments that stretched between her and me. Time sucked me in, like gravity and I felt the flakes of my soul that I had shared with so many, gathering and congealing back around me. Some had been torn off like shards of glass, others given away carefully, wrapped up as precious gifts or woven into the threads of my dreamcatchers, still others had floated away without my realising it. So many pieces of myself that I had left behind came hurtling back to me with sudden force, making my soul heavier, so that I felt I would drown in myself as I fell. Faster and faster, I fell, as the rejoining flakes obliterated the slowly emerging contours of my marginally more experienced soul. As they clung to the spaces from where they had been gently chiselled or violently ripped out, they dislodged the little fragments of other souls and the hues of moments that I had absorbed and collected over the years to colour the shadows and add depth to the still nebulous shape that my soul was beginning to take.

Abruptly, I jerked to a halt just above the ground, as one does in dreams. Instead of waking, though, I looked out at myself through her eyes. My heart felt emptier for all that re-agglomeration of myself that had taken place as I fell. Emptier, smaller, more unformed and surer about life in general, I stumbled backwards and broke eye contact with myself.

When I regained my balance, a few seconds later, I looked at the older girl with the Ankh around her neck and the fondly amused expression in her eyes as she held out a hand to me. She looked casually self-possessed in her harem pants and cotton shirt tied at the waist. Her eyes were dark and I wondered at her daring, somehow knowing of things she had done with such ease, the very thought of which made me deeply uncomfortable.

I did not quite understand, but I knew that something had passed between us. A nameless, shapeless understanding had pierced from her eyes into mine. And I could feel echoes of so many paradigms that she had traversed resonating within me. The more I tried to understand what had passed, the murkier and more confusing it all became, so I stopped and felt it come to a sharper focus in the back of my head.

I took her hand shyly, and we stepped off our little rock and into the waters of the lake that surged whisperingly around us. For a moment I wondered how we had arrived at the rock, but then I remembered the bats in the sky and it all made sense.

The water was cool and fresh on our skin as we swam side by side. We could feel the different currents washing over us, some gentle, some strong. Sometimes the waves were fierce, and so sharply cold they cut our skin, but another wave would follow, warm and soothing. Then some would scald us with paralysing fear, and buffet us so that we would struggle to hold on to each other, until the healing chill of the next wave took over and we could swim together in peace.

We passed a submerged White Maruti Car, with beady headlight-eyes and a radiator moustache. It reached out to grab one of me, but we swerved to avoid it’s grasping arms. And the other me flashed her Ankh at it as it dwindled into the distance of experience and we sped away in a nervously exciting underwater auto.

The Walrus arrived with strains of music entangled in his long whiskers. I played with him for a while, until his Egg Man arrived with Julius Caesar’s singing mushrooms and we found ourselves on the pavement by the beach. The me with the Ankh found this incredibly funny, and I knew that if I searched the back of my head, I would understand why, but the little turtles distracted me and sobered her down.

When we walked up to the clearing, she took a long drag and passed it to me. I stared, confused, and she smiled a kindly smile, with drum beats reverberating in her long hair. The ants scuttled away from us as the first droplets of rain began to fall, and I opened my enormous multi-coloured umbrella for us. The local train pulled up with announcements in three languages and we climbed in to the ‘ladies’ compartment, to watch an embarrassed girl sing her songs for us.

Why are we here,” I asked finally, though I was happy to be there with her.

She smiled, a little sadly, “We’re catching glimpses of the pieces of your soul that I left behind. Not all of them. Not even the most important ones. That’s not how it works.”

How does it work?” I asked, as a sack-cloth coloured striped cat rubbed itself against my legs. I crouched down to scratch it’s neck and a dragonfly-lie hovered by my ear buzzing annoyingly.

Strangely”, she said with a little laugh. I looked up to see her in the arms of an older balder man than the one I believed myself to be in love with. The focus in the back of my head suddenly became clear, and a shard of fear pierced something within me, as I saw the Ankh with them. But he smiled reassuringly. Both of them seemed to know about the Ankh, and her eyes were sadder.

We walked on a bit, after he dissolved into the darkness around us. There seemed to be a peace between us, that I did not want to disturb. Eventually though, I asked, “What happens?”

She walked alongside me for a while, in silence. The darkness stretched forever on either side. “Life,” she said, finally. And there was a sigh around us, like the breath of mingled regret and hope.

It began to rain again. A rain that washed away layers of what I tried to portray as myself. And she smiled at me, as though there was something special about my naked self. I looked at her in the rain, and saw that we were alike in many ways. There were many things different about her. Deep scars and fragile beauty that I was yet to know… but there were strains of who she would be, present in who I was. As I thought on it, my head felt heavy in the glow of the buzzing dragonfly-lies that hung around our heads, unaffected by the rain.

She took both my hands, and looked into my eyes again. And a feeling of racing through infinity at warp speed caught me like a hook at my chest and pulled the rest of me along. When the hook set me down, I was myself again, staring at the younger girl.

I gave her a hug, as bemused by what we had experienced as she was… but I knew that she saw me again as a coming together of all the things I had done, rather than a paring away of a soul as she experienced life. And as she stumbled away from our little bubble outside time in the Dream, still gazing at me in her awestruck way, I felt profoundly alone.

Abruptly, the feeling of being two people simultaneously came to an end. The sudden severed connection left me feeling raw and bereft. I took a deep breath to collect my senses into one person. I peered out of our fast-shrinking bubble, and saw her drift away from our timelessness to her sleeping present. She waved to me, her forehead wrinkling as she tried to remember who I was and what had happened… but dream-logic is like water in your hands. The harder you try to hold on to it, the faster it seeps away.

 

As I pre-emptively snoozed my phone’s alarm a second before it went off, I wondered what I had been thinking of when I drifted off to sleep. There had been a walrus. And a rainbow. Water. And an Ankh. I wondered whether there is a place in the dream world where you can go to remember dreams.

I squinted my eyes open and wondered why there had been a walrus in my dream. And who I had dreamt of, for I distinctly remembered that there had been another person. Hunger gnawed at my insides, so I forced my eyes all the way open and headed to the wash room with my toothbrush. I hoped I had some biscuits left in my cupboard, or I would have to wait until lunch time.

Picking Scabs

Radha looked at the new scab, through the green-tinted glass of the half-empty beer bottle. It looked, she decided, a little like an island. Or maybe a smallish continent. A pear-shaped continent on her arm, where the rock had scraped as she scrambled back up, after her fall. She smiled at the thought.

She had always liked to pick at scabs. Right from the time she was a little girl. She loved to pick at them, slowly, patiently… until she drew blood. Then she’d press the scab back quickly, wincing at the pain that replaced the itching sensation of healing flesh.

She would first examine each new scab. Carefully run her fingers over it, to understand its texture, thickness and weak points. Once she found the most likely border, she would gently edge her nail between the scab and her skin. Ever so slowly, she would begin to peel. She’d stop every time it seemed like it was going to hurt, and then keep going cautiously. It was an achievement if she could pull off the scab, without drawing blood. There was, however, a familiar pleasure even to the sharp indrawn breath and sting of fresh drawn blood.

She had been out on a walk. Exploring a new path she hadn’t seen before. It turned out to be a shortcut to the lake. It lead over the large rocks, that the main path circled around. She’d lost her footing, hopping from one rock to the other, underestimating the distance between them. And she’d slipped into the crevice between them. It wasn’t deep, so she’d scrambled up quite easily, but she’d scraped her arm rather hard against the edge of one of the rocks, and earned herself a new scab to pick in the process.

Radha took another swig from the bottle. She wondered if there was a streak of masochism in her. She could see it as clearly as if she had witnessed it, herself. Every detail that Nafisa had related with shame, at Radha’s insistence, played out with vivid detail to her dispassionate mind’s eye. The worst part was that she couldn’t even blame her partner.

A droplet of beer slid slowly down the side of the bottle. Radha watched it trace its way down the smooth greenness. Like a tear. Or a bead of sweat. Someone else’s sweat. Sliding its way over Nafisa’s elegant collar bone. Someone else’s sweat, marking her with someone else’s smell. She smiled, through blurring eyes at how territorial and animal that thought had sounded.

Radha caught the droplet, just before it fell to the ground. She held the partially peeled bruise right under it. She winced slightly as the alcohol stung the raw area, where she’d worried the scab off the pink healing flesh.

Every time she closed her eyes, she saw them. Images Radha had conjured for herself, from Nafisa’s flat descriptions. Karan’s smooth dark skin and lightly muscled body, sliding against Nafisa. His deep black eyes enticing and mysterious, as Radha’s all too familiar ones could never be. Nafisa’s slim graceful form arching sensually against Karan’s. Her long wavy tresses, that Radha loved to run her fingers through, thrown back… for Karan. The magic of skin against skin made that much more magical with the newness of discovery, a novelty hard to compete with.

Strangely these images did not evoke any feelings in Radha. She watched them as dispassionately as she fingered her scab. If her eyes blurred, it was more because she felt she had to react, than from any spontaneous feeling. She longed to feel, again. And so she played it over in her head.

Fingers sliding over skin. Lips meeting, melding with a slight ‘pop’ of wet suction. A warmth and wetness that had always been hers and Nafisa’s alone… until now. The gasping, panting and wet slapping of naked skins. A part of Nafisa she could never share.

She’d asked Radha for permission. Nafisa had asked, in the certainity of shared convictions that came from challenging norms together all their lives. And Radha had given her permission readily, in the greed of reciprocity.

Reciprocity and the reluctance to set boundaries on another that came with pretensions of intellectualism. A middle-class idealism about a love that transcended all boundaries and challenged all structures. A love that was patient and kind, that knew no limits, set no boundaries and was not fed by jealousy. Radha didn’t know what kind of love that was. The love she knew was savage, greedy and possessive.

The worst part was, to be completely honest, if she’d had the opportunity, she’d have done the same.

She’d thought she could handle it, and to be fair, she had handled it. It just hadn’t been the way she would have liked to. She wondered now, how she had imagined it would feel. Certainly it hadn’t been so bleak and emotionless. She’d only seen the logic of it. And the excitement of novelty, the furtive meeting of eyes, the uncertainty, the strange new chemistry, the glamour of the leap into the unknown… a new path to explore.

But something in Radha had made her stumble as she took the new path. She hadn’t been able to make the leap from one rock to another. The crevice was small, but she’d fallen and scraped herself. She’d clambered back up, but she couldn’t try the leap again. Not now that she knew how it felt on the other side. At least she hoped she couldn’t.

It was one thing to make the leap unknowingly, as Nafisa had done. It was quite another to knowingly make her feel the bleakness and impassivity that Radha had herself felt. Perhaps that was the scariest thing. Not knowing whether, with the hindsight of experience she would still be selfish enough to take the leap, should the opportunity arise. Not knowing whether she was capable of that or not.

The fleeting brush she’d had with opportunity had backfired because of other consequences. Shobhana was a good friend of Nafisa’s, and she hadn’t wanted to endanger that. But was that all that had stopped her?

And something in her rebelled at being the wronged one. She did not want to play that part. Nor did she want the part of being in the wrong.

As destiny diced in her head, the scenes played themselves out over and over in a never ending loop in her mind’s eye.

Her fingers worried the alcohol-moist scab, peeling it easily off the bruise, exposing the raw pink flesh.

And somewhere inarticulable, there was a pain and an emptiness. A pain and an emptiness that Radha hoped she would never cause.

Radha took another swig of beer and considered the dramatic import of her thought. She grinned at the bottle through blurry eyes, and wondered who she could be. She could be kind and forgiving and faithful, and keep the moral high ground forever. Or she could equalize the score and take revenge in one sweep.

She watched her reflection sway slightly as she stood up from her corner of the floor, leaning against the head of the bed. She walked to the mirror. Her eyes narrowed critically, taking in her slight frame with its little protruding belly. She was short. And her hair was thick and straight. On the whole, she reflected, hating herself as she did so, for being clichéd enough to consider her looks as a factor in the equation, she didn’t look that bad. If you took away the dark circles, which admittedly had been less pronounced before their little experiment with bisexuality and open relationships, and sucked in the protruding belly, she looked quite attractive in a cute school-girl way. Thankfully her dark skin lent a tinge of adultness to her image. On the other hand, Karan… Oh, Karan was exquisitely handsome. Tall and muscled with dark eyes and skin the colour and smoothness of chocolate. Radha sighed. She knew that it wasn’t a competition. She knew that there had never been any comparison between them as far as Nafisa was concerned. She knew she should not feel threatened. She knew that monogamy was just a social construct… but perhaps she was too well socialized into monogamy. Or perhaps having broken so many boundaries in her inter-religious lesbian relationship, this was one step too far for her.

In the background, her mind re-played the scene where Nafisa rode Karan. Something in her tightened. That was her place, with Nafisa. Her territory.

She waited for the anger to come. For the wave to build up. This was it. She was finally reacting.

It was like a failed masturbation. Nothing happened. All she felt, was tired.

Radha held the cold beer bottle to her forehead and took a deep breath. Sometimes you keep picking at the same scab till it bleeds. Then you let it scab over, and start again.

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?

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.”

The First Time

Don’t get me wrong!” she said, cheerfully blowing the smoke at him, “There are a lot of positives to nomadism- variety, constant stimulation, you’re never tied down to one place- no clear cultural loyalties, new people, new things, new food…”

He nodded, wide-eyed, rapt.

But after a time,” she continued, gracefully tapping the joint so that the ash fell neatly into the broken coffee-cup she used for an ash tray, “It’s those very same attractions that grow old, if you know what I mean…”

Kala laughed at his earnest nod, and passed him the joint. “I suppose it all depends on your mood…” she said philosophically, and shrugged, “I love and hate the same things about my life!”

So… ummm… how did you get into this lifestyle?” Rashid mumbled inarticulately, fumbling with the joint.

She narrowed her eyes at him for a second, then sighed. “I’ve been asked that so many times, in so many ways… It gets tiring.” She tugged absently at one of her plaits, “Though it seems strange to you, it’s the most normal thing in the world for me… the permanence and geographical grounded-ness that you see as natural… it scares the shit out of me!”

He grinned nervously, “I didn’t mean to offend…”

She smiled at his obvious discomfort, “I know. I can tell, when people want to offend.”

Kala watched as he finally took the joint to his mouth and took a small drag. For a moment his eyes bulged. Then he coughed and spluttered violently.

She leaned forward and patted his back, till he subsided and looked mutely up at her through smoke-induced tears.

Why didn’t you tell me you’d never smoked before?” she asked, amusedly.

No no…” he protested wheezily, “It’s not my first time. I have smoked before… but it was some time ago…”

She hid a small smile, “Maybe this joint was a bit strong…?” she offered.

He nodded, earnestly. “Why do you keep calling it a joint?”

Because that’s what it is… what do you call it?” she asked indulgently.

Beedi… cigarette… sutta,” he suggested, tentatively.

Oh!” she sat up worriedly, “You do know this isn’t just tobacco, right? It’s weed as well…”

Rashid’s eyes widened in inadvertent shock. “Ganja?” he whispered.

Yes,” she said patiently, “I thought you knew… I’m so sorry. I should have checked specifically…”

That’s alright…”

Don’t worry, though. You’ve barely inhaled any.”

He nodded, looking down at the floor “It’s okay… I just didn’t realise. So, I was surprised. That’s all.”

He glanced up at her, “I have a cousin who smokes ganja. He doesn’t have a job…  keeps moving around… is that why you…?” he looked concerned. Scared to cause offence and worried for her.

Why I…?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

No… not like that…” he mumbled miserably, “I didn’t mean to cause offence…!”

She smiled, feeling faintly maternal. “Here,” she said, handing him the joint, “lean back, relax and smoke this slowly.”

He stared uncertainly at it for a moment, then glanced at her. The scene seemed benign enough. He did not know how to refuse. Besides, she was so beautiful. So beautiful and so strange, and if he refused an invisible barrier would come between them. She would still be polite of course, but… Rashid nodded and took the joint from her.

The smoke rose up lazily before his eyes, curling in on itself like a serpent. Rashid smiled, as it grinned at him.

He breathed slowly, and tried not to cough, though it was harsh on his throat and the smell grated on his olfactory senses. He liked the word ‘olfactory’. It sounded clumsy and awkward. Like a tortoise with wings. He giggled with the serpent and the cobwebbed beetle on the ceiling, and considered seriously the political posturing of pimples as a means of protest against unhealthy living. Or something.

He tried to tell her that he was fine. It wasn’t an effect of the substance. He was just seeing things very clearly, and everything was connected in beautiful ways. Like the colours on her loose spaghetti top… merging into each other in concentric rings of resonance, clashing slightly at times with the sober browns and greens of the dried-seed chains that hung around her neck in a strangely fitting harmony. He wasn’t sure he was too coherent, but he felt she understood.

Kala smiled down at his wide-eyed, amused form, lying prone on her mattress, discovering the wonders of his own head. His pale blue shirt was comfortably rumpled as he twisted to find a comfortable position. His eyes were far away as they stared at the ceiling through his neatly black-rimmed glasses. He finally settled lying on his back, with his head on his hands, elbows sticking out, so that they formed the shape of a large eye with his head as the pupil.

She rolled herself another joint. It was always fun to watch new initiates.

Rashid watched Kala as she deftly rolled another joint. She crushed the weed and picked out the seeds efficiently with her long dark fingers, glancing at him from time to time to see if he was alright. He tried to reassure her with a bright smile each time, but it may have been too bright a couple of times. And once he may have giggled rather foolishly.

After a few minutes, Kala asked Rashid and set some music to play on her laptop. The familiar strains of Beatles music tickled Rashid’s brain with images of a Blackbird on a Magical Mystery Tour, as Kala patiently and concentratedly rolled the mixture of weed and tobacco – from half a cigarette – into a thin long joint. She smiled at Rashid as she lit it, and leaned her head back inhaling the smoke in an almost reverential ritual manner. Her numerous little plaits moved like awkward baby snakes which hadn’t yet teethed, as she moved her head. Rashid wondered idly if snakes teethed or whether they were born with teeth.

Kala’s eyes opened slowly and she let that familiar far away feeling show. Her mouth smiled slightly of its own accord, and she leant back in the chair letting the waves of music crash around her, like the Fool on the hill, and buoy her up as she floated on peacock-blue oceans of thought.

Rashid watched Kala, lifting his head slightly and craning his neck to see her from his position on her mattress. She shook her crimson Patiala-clad legs in time to I am the walrus. The light from her dusty tube-light cast shadows on her face, under her eyebrows and nose. Rashid let his head fall back and watched the stories in the spider-webs play themselves out before his eyes. Everything seemed both infinitely beautiful and infinitely futile.

He glanced up at her once more, before losing himself in his own head. She was smiling slightly with her eyes closed. And for a second he felt terribly alone. The terrible loneliness of existence brushed his soul, ever so lightly, and he thought of how no one ever actually left their own heads… how reality itself was composed of infinite facets and no one could see through more than their own, no matter how hard they tried… how no one but he would see through his, no one else would experience life quite this way, think these thoughts in the way he’d thought them………. and the world spun madly on with it’s billions of inhabitants each trapped in their own heads.

Then, as his head fell back onto the mattress, and the laptop crooned Let it be, he laughed at the audacity and self-centredness of his thought.