He lay on the cooling sand, unmoving. He pretended to be staring at the purple sky, in the grips of some deep thought. His prone form hinted at inebriation, real or imagined one couldn’t be sure. The stars hadn’t shown up at their haunts yet. A few months ago, in the clutches of pointless nostalgia, he had declared that the stars and the night sky of his homeland were decidedly different and infinitely better than the one he was forced to gaze at in the US. But now, watching the tardy stars light up the sky, he wasn’t sure that was entirely true. Even if it were true, he realized that the difference in the skies and the stars seemed terribly inconsequential. He had more immediate, larger worries to consume him.
The throngs of sunset gazers had found something less stunning to occupy their evening and had left the beach in his sole custody. The dispersing crowd had signaled the end of the duty for the overly cautious beach guards. The guards often wielded their whistle mercilessly, blowing it furiously at anyone daring to step out of line of the approved beach behavior. Right now, no one seemed to care that he lay there, lost in thought or maybe on the verge of a nap.
The famous lighthouse on the beach stood ignored like a still-hanging Christmas ornament in January. The red and white of the lighthouse only made it look more forlorn. He lay there and let himself be assaulted by the fumes of expensive fish cooking on the grill in the many restaurants on the shore. The smell of the fish swimming in the ocean, awaiting a similar fate as the one on dry land only added to the hopelessness of his repose.
He was sure his mother would smell the fish and the ocean on him. She had made him promise earlier in the week, to stay away from bodies of water. She had explained that the family astrologer thought that deep and unbridled sorrow awaited him if he did not stay away from large water bodies. He had nodded in uncomprehending silence and did not bother to argue. He was sure that the astrologers mastered the art of being fastidiously obtuse when they learnt how to match horoscopes for weddings.
The photographs his mother sent, starting early last year had often been fuzzy. It needed him to peer and squint at his laptop screen to discern anything more than the general idea of the girls in them. The backgrounds of these fuzzy photographs were comforting in their monotony. A few were easily identifiable tourist locations in the US. But most of them were shot against the backdrops of clapboard apartment complexes and parking lots. The same generic bushes, trees and foreign made cars became the canvas for the pictures of girls with coy smiles.
He had realized early that his mother favored a certain type of girls as her son’s future wife. They were the ones who wore a wraithlike aura like their ill-fitting clothes. Their faces were often fair and blemish free, arms reedy and thin, and their hair never shorter than shoulder length. He often thought about the heavy, short haired, dark skinned women whose fuzzy photographs and backdrops he would never see. His mother, like the mothers of all his friends expected a decision to be made in the time it takes to order at a drive-thru. All his life his mother assured him that she knew better than him, warning him often about the dangers of bad decisions. Alarmingly, at the threshold of the most important decision in his life, she had said “You know best, you decide!” And he had no choice but to decide on one fuzzy photograph.
The likes and dislikes of the chosen girl were just as indistinct to him as her photographs had been. They had had weeks of first awkward then platonic phone conversations. Her hobbies, his ambitions and their future had been clinically discussed. When an appropriate number of phone conversations had been reached, his mother had decided that it was time. Engagement was to happen the week of his return from the US, the wedding a couple of weeks after that. Jet-lagged and bleary eyed, he had been engaged to the girl the day he met her in person. Now, he lay on the beach wondering what the heck was going on.
He was clear headed enough to know that his situation had very little to do with him. He was helplessly bound by the pursuit for acceptance from a moody society. He could not do anything that would jeopardize the society approved, in-ostracized life where happiness was almost an afterthought. His mother needed him to stay the course. Letting her down would seem akin to murder, his overly dramatic mind solemnly whispered. It would be infinitely easier to go along with what his mother decided, he knew.
It wasn’t that he did not want to be married. He had no other girl on his mind either. But he was worried that he would be getting married just because he had nothing better to do. If that was not ridiculous, he did not know what was. But the alternative was to simply float along and try not to make a ripple. Now that seemed unimaginably stifling. He could almost see himself 5 years from now, doing exactly what he was doing right now, but with an EMI for the house, screaming child and an even-tempered wife for company. Was that what he wanted? Did he really want anything else?
This last year, he had watched with dismay the procession of his friends changing their Facebook statuses and profile pictures, each featuring a slice of their marital bliss. He wasn’t entirely sure that kind of happiness existed out of well-choreographed photo shoots. He knew what was coming next. In a couple of years, the smiling husband and wife in those photographs would morph into balding, thickening men accompanied by women who had sacrificed their former stick thin figures for the sake of a beaming child. He would have to grudgingly “like” those pictures on Facebook as well, a price to pay for keeping the friendships alive.
His friends dismissed his trepidations as cold feet and assured him that this was how it happened for them as well. They hardly knew the women they married and now look at them; they announced not noticing his growing alarm. They flaunted their domestic bliss as proof that this was the best decision they ever made. He wasn’t sure that they made any decisions either, but like they said, what did he know.
So he lay there confused and unmoving, seemingly waiting for a divine intervention. He would have appreciated anything that would take the decision out of his hands. The waves now seemed louder than when he had first gotten to the beach. He did not dare to look up at the water but he suspected that the water might be inching closer. Maybe the waves would close in, take him in and make the decision for him. But his brand of cowardice did not condone suicide, he realized.
That’s exactly what he was, he realized. A coward! If he was anything but, he would have dusted himself off and told his mother that this marriage could not happen. He would have acted like the adult that he was and figured out what it is that HE wanted to do. Not what his mother, the society or anyone else wanted him to do. There would be tears and unamendable rifts and he would have hurt people in the process. But at least his life would finally be his own, and all the tears his own making.
He sighed. He could never work himself up into frenzy with thoughts like these, he was sure. They all sounded like way too much work to him. Wouldn’t he rather continue to play the role of the obedient son than rock the boat? He was so comfortable in the way things were. And existential crises were so inconvenient. He wasn’t worried about being called a coward. Being a coward was what awarded an uncomplicated life anyway. There really were no decisions to be made here, was there? Everything that needed to be decided had already been decided by everyone around him. He simply needed to stay alive to see them realized.
He got up off the now cool sand and dusted himself. He had been saved a lifetime of tribulations and needless anguish by lying on the beach unmoving. An examined life was overrated, he thought as he nodded to himself and walked towards his car. He had been drifting placidly for as long as he could remember; wouldn’t it be foolish to change that now? The dark night seemed to sigh in assent as he drove away with the smell of the ocean in his hair. He felt a sense of relief that, the body of water notwithstanding, some great sorrow had been averted just in time.
The rain was unrelenting; the way monsoon often was in Kerala. The rhythm of rain on the rooftops remained a permanent soundtrack to your day for months. You loved the falling sheet of water from the relatively dry balconies, but the whole monsoon experience was quickly sullied by the logistics of getting to class semi dry or learning to skirt the deceptively deep puddles on the side of the road.
The memory of the damp pants, the never dry socks and the urge to hold up your open palm outside the safety of your umbrella, stayed fresh, long after the rains had disappeared.
Rain often snatched the steps of the college amphitheater and foots of trees from being the stage for lovers’ conversations. The stranded pairs had to make do with the stolen words in crowded corridors or with notes passed noiselessly during class.
For some, the falling rain turned into an excuse to share an umbrella. It was under one such shared umbrella that he first hummed that tune to her. She only half listened, concentrating instead on the heat of their touching forearms. This heat would remain with her the rest of the evening and long into the night. She would toss and turn in the night, remembering that fleeting sensation. The tune that he hummed, did not register until after he had left, after walking her to the hostel. That night, as the shared heat lay forgotten, haunting tune kept her awake.
When she met him after class the next morning, she pressed him about the tune under the umbrella. He feigned ignorance. There was no such tune, he told her amusedly. Her persistence combined with the dramatic and impossible threats of never speaking to him again, had him hum that tune for her again. It had no words yet, but words were perfunctory. At that moment in that silent corner of the corridor, in the presence of that magical tune, she fell irrevocably in love with him.
Some of her memories wantonly slipped into oblivion through the leaky walls of the box where they lived, never to be seen again. But other memories, they lay quietly in a quiet corner of that box refusing to leave; sometimes needing only the slightest nudge to bring them back to life. The memory of their walks, sharing an umbrella and so much more, was the kind that had refused to leave the leaky walled box.
She heard that tune once again, years later, on a summer night when her husband sat working on the sofa. She was in the kitchen, minding the stove that held the boiling results of a dinner thoughtlessly put together. The TV, the soundtrack of their marriage, stood forgotten watching the sofa. When she heard the tune play on the tv, she gazed instinctively out the kitchen window, expecting rain to blur the sights outside.
She walked out of the kitchen, remembering first to save the dinner from the flames that were plotting a ruin. The tv continued to sing the tune which brought with it a flood of memories and a hot rush of tears that threatened to spill everything. She sat on the sofa quietly, scheming to protect her unknowing husband from the aftermath of her cowardice.
The lady on the tv gushed about the movie, soon to be at your nearest cinemas, that had the most wonderful songs. The songs she promised, composed by this new music director, added color to the faded and overused stories that passed for screenplays these days. Her inane monologue thankfully changed to yet another verse of that tune.
He had chosen the words to her tune well. The tune sang about love, one that had blossomed when fed by the rains. The singer sang the words with the bewilderment of one who could not believe the beauty of the romance that had chanced on him. The song ended with the joy of reciprocated love and the hope of a life together. There was no mention of what came next.
The song had ended but it continued to ring in her ears, exactly like the first time she had heard it, under that umbrella. The tune that had been a monument to the love she had been sure she could not survive without, mocked her now. That tune had revealed a love that had been all consuming. But it had chosen to hide so many things from her. That tune had failed to prepare her for the harsh reality that followed the beautiful start of love. It chose to stay quiet about the pain of saying goodbye to him when the gates of the college closed behind them one last time. The tune had masked the hurt and disappointment in her father’s eyes when she explained why she could not marry the man he had chosen for her.
She flinched now, remembering the betrayal shining in eyes of the man she wanted to call her own, when she told that her family mattered more than his love and his tunes.
So she became the wife of another man and excelled at it without a complaint. She endured the seasons of the year, slowly erasing the taste of regret that every monsoon brought with it. Every year she pushed yet another memory out of her consciousness and another conversation with him ceased to exist for her. She now made new memories to fill that box with leaky walls. She learnt to live, noiselessly chafing at the chains her life had wrapped around her. But now, this memory that bubbled up to the surface shook her. She remembered the heat of his skin and shivered. Her husband, working and lost to the faceless clients on the other side of the world, knew nothing of her soundless turmoil.
Next morning, the rain was a blessing from the heat. She woke her husband, shocking him with an ask so foreign that he could not deny her. A tune flitted out of a parked car as they walked. She chose not to hear it. She listened instead to the lilt in the voice of her husband as he talked about nothing at all. She listened to the splash of the puddles as they decided to test their depth. She squirrelled away the music of her daughter’s laughter as she ran ahead, holding up her little palm up to the sky.
Today, she would choose to let an old tune and its memory disappear through the leaky walls. Today, she would walk with her family, not caring about a destination; sharing everything and an umbrella making a new memory that would last a lifetime.
I am in a restaurant, with French in its name, accompanied by my hapless parents. I am often faintly irritated by restaurants that serve only wholesome keralite food while calling themselves something completely foolish like “Le Bistro”. But that’s a discussion for another day.
I assure you that I am usually level headed, unless you get to enjoy my company when I am starving. If I am deprived of food, then all bets on good behavior are off. Close friends and family will vouch with worried looks that hunger indeed transforms me into, what seems to them, a twin headed monster with swords for words. My parents, resigned to having a daughter who can be happy only when her tummy is full, suggest I hit the buffet line, like right now!
I don’t see or hear anything until a few minutes have passed and a couple of idlis have found their way down my throat! My parents breathe a sigh of relief, another crisis seems to have been averted just in time.
It’s only then, after my one track mind had been mollified, that I pay attention to the sound flitting through the speakers of the restaurant. I realize that I am listening to Savage Garden wanting to love me truly, madly and more importantly, deeply. I am filled with intense self loathing as the song changes and I catch myself soundlessly and perfectly mouthing the words of another Savage Garden song, puke-inducingly called “I want you”.
It’s an instant flashback to 15 years ago, to that fat emo teenager who spent hours listening to the brand new Australian group who were surely going to change the face of pop music. I even remember shelling out the necessary 150 rupees to buy the Savage Garden cassette tape. When you know that this was a girl who was notorious in school and college for being supremely tight fisted, you begin to understand the import of this decision.
I shudder, thanking the Universe for my seemingly better taste in music these days. I suspect that re-watching High Fidelity last night seems to have made my already healthy contempt for bad music, worse.
I grudgingly realize, silently singing along to Savage Garden, who now wants to crash and burn, that nothing can be done about the bad songs that have already sneaked into my brain, left their mark and have refused to leave.
Some days, an image of a woman in a little black dress and a man with slicked back black hair in a suit, floats into my consciousness. In the dark bar, lit only by muted lamps, Dean Martin sings, as the cello helps. They sit, enjoying their drinks. They seem to be in no hurry to get anywhere, probably because there is nowhere they would rather be. They listen to Martin confirm their suspicions. They hold hands, they have love and so they aren’t “nobody” s anymore.
Its images like these that have caused me to be accused of wandering blissfully with my head in the clouds and of being a hopeless romantic. I believe that those accusations are not completely baseless. When the romantic sensibilities were handed out, I might have gone back for seconds.
I would be lying if I did not say that my wonderfully blasé existence is often perked with the thought of these candy floss-ish images. The unattainability of that romantic perfection is probably what keeps me hooked and drives me away at the same time. No matter how perfect the real life is, it really couldn’t match up to the sun, surf and guitar combination of Jack Johnson songs, could it? I don’t think so!
The people around us are tarnished by real life. The charm of Joe Fox or Kathleen Kelly is missing when you spot scenes from “You’ve Got Mail” happening to you. The carefree repartee is often spoiled by awkward pauses in real life and the unpredictability of a happy ending keeps the movie scenes from playing out the way they should.
When compromise, comfort and dependability rule our 30’s, I can’t help but wonder where the dreams of a drama that belongs in the life of Carrie Bradshaw would fit. Carrie had gushed to my muddled mind of my 20’s that she was looking for ridiculous, inconvenient love. That seemed to have stuck with me, with no sign of letting go. But my real life married friends tell me, with authority, that ridiculous and inconvenient love is just that. It’s not the kind of love that lasts a life time, they warn me. But what do they know; they haven’t seen it all play out in my head.
The complete lack of interest in having a life ruled by kitchen dramas, kids’ class schedules and unbreakable routines sometimes leads me to re-examine the boon of my romantic proclivities. The inevitability of these decidedly humdrum destinations dampens my enthusiasm in any budding real life romances. The images in my mind, free of unmet expectations beckon instead.
The struggle is exhausting, between what will be and what can be. When it gets to be too much, and realization that I may never find what I seek sets in, I don’t waste any time. I promptly lock my door, pull down the shades, light a candle, pour a glass of wine and let The Beatles hold my hand. I chose the image of the perfect love over the blemished real life one, any day.
P.S. References for the uninitiated -
Dean Martin- http://youtu.be/tdGU0NaSZ54
Jack Johnson - http://youtu.be/5U7rDh8x-Lw
You’ve got Mail- conversation awesomeness http://youtu.be/yRPwDJWhqis
An over dramatic Carrie Bradshaw -
Scene - Someone asked me, “If all your books were taken away from you and locked up for a month, what would you do?” I decided such a dramatic question warranted an equally dramatic answer.
A childhood memory swells up in me. My grandmother is pointing out how a few sparrows had made themselves home in the quiet corner of the outhouse of our family home. I remember her sing-song tone as I stared at the sparrows mesmerized, opening my mouth distractedly, as she fed me while spinning her yarn. She regaled me with stories of what the sparrows were up to in their little twig filled home.
I slept the nights with my grandmother on soft cotton mattresses those days, with an old sari of hers as a bedspread. She would lay next to me, stroke my hair and whisper stories of far-away kingdoms, till i slept. I don’t remember those wonderful stories, but I remember how I felt when I listened to them. Those magical stories were my first escape from whatever life crises’ over dramatic 5 year olds experience. My grandfather probably noticed the glazed look on my face as I listened to my grandmothers stories and realized what he had there. He handed me my first set of Amar Chitra Kathas and the rest, as they say in that totally clichéd usage, is history.
I discovered nooks and crannies in my childhood home and embarked on the journeys between those pages. I was a terrible playmate, often dropping off in the middle of the game to return to the lands that existed only in the shared imagination of the author of those books and me. It has been a love affair that has changed me in ways that I couldn’t even begin to take stock of.
If I had to live without my books for a month, I would pine like the broken hearted drama queens of the pages I love. I would miss the faraway lands and their stories, I would miss the people who are real to only the few like me who read them.
When I was done mourning, I would find people who shared my heartache and have long conversations about the pages that had changed us. I would write a few not so great stories to escape the locked in existence. I would dance long and often, so that I don’t miss the crinkle of the turning pages as I lay down in bed, waiting for sleep to take me. I would wait out the 30 days of exile, counting down to that wonderful day when the locks would open and I would be free to dream again.
The first time I met her, she was a sweet young thing of 16. She was not, what you would call, breathtakingly beautiful, but she exuded a sense of wounded vulnerability that was perfect for my needs. Her nose was a little too small and her eyes set a little too wide apart. Her saving grace was her gorgeous straight golden hair that ended half way down her back. It was a bright day full of promises, the first day I met her. She was in the parking lot outside her school, in the car of a boy 2 years older than her. The boy in the car was himself embarking on the journey of a doomed life. His life would soon be peppered with arrests. He would be dead before he was 30 in a knife fight outside a biker bar somewhere in Ohio.
She had taken the joint from the boy and breathed it in deep. She had enjoyed the first strange tingling in her fingers and toes. She had felt a giggle rise up in her throat. She had squelched it with another deep hit. I tried out the space on her back and it seemed comfortable enough. I settled down for the ride of a lifetime. The smoke filled the car as she got the hang of smoking the joint. Her head had grown foggy with pleasure.
The fog of marijuana had cleared and she had reached for the poisons of the stronger kind. She was no longer the hesitantly beautiful child woman. The bags under her eyes and the short unruly mop of hair had aged her beyond her 20 years. Her mother had noticed that her nails had been bitten to the quick but had said nothing. Her father had averted his eyes and had refused to take in her stick thin scarred arms. Her parents’ denial had worked in my favor. We lived blissfully, from score to score.
Her back was now my permanent home. The pain of not scoring was easily forgotten every time we felt the golden pleasure of poison through our veins. An inopportune purchase had ended with us in trouble with the law. The handcuffs and the night in the jail had scared her. The judge, a snickering old man on a pedestal, had used a patronizing tone as he warned her against me. A 30 day rehab was ordered to fix her. We had been whisked off to that place where the broken souls were sent to be redeemed.
The rehab had been chaotic to say the least. They were many like me in there, fighting hard to stick with their reluctant rides. She and I had started to fight every day. She had listened closely to the quack that ran the group sessions. The quack had first-hand knowledge of my kind’s tricks and he taught her how to ignore my whispers. He had taught her how to be strong and not to give in to my lies and cajoling. The irony of her parents’ twice a week visit strengthening her resolve seemed to be lost on everyone but me. I worried that my hold on her was slipping.
Some days, when she was especially vulnerable, I would sweet talk her into reliving the pleasure of the syringe. Those days she would be convinced that what she needed was to bust out of that stupid rehab. But before she could act on it, it would be again time for one of the group sessions. My hold on her had became positively shaky.
Our relationship was never the same again after that stay in the rehab. She listened patiently to my pleas to score some poison, to take one tiny hit, to go on one little ride. But she never gave in to my incessant whispers. She started frequenting church basements for meetings. She talked about me with anonymous strangers; her tone loving sometimes, but other times filled with barely concealed loathing. Lately, when I whispered, she fingered a chip in her purse. She had been awarded that chip for by those anonymous strangers for resisting me for many months.
She had a family now. Her husband’s voice now seemed louder than my relentless pleadings. Her parents were always around now. They had the persistently nauseating look of things having worked out. The way she hugged them, it seemed like she had forgiven the perceived injustices of her childhood.
One thing she and I knew for sure, she would never rid of me. I would always ride her back, whispering, pushing and fighting. Never mind the years, the many visits to church basements or quacks telling her differently. Someday, when the time was right, when she was wounded and vulnerable enough, she would listen to me and try that poison again. Till then, she would just have to fight me, one day at a time.
The boy wore a blue t shirt and a pair of too-long red shorts. He walked into the alley hesitantly, as if prodded from behind. He was small for his age, I thought, though I did not know what that age was. The night had turned darker as I stood with my back to the wall, waiting for him. I stood deep in the alley, my skirt blowing in the wind. The rustle of the fabric noiseless, I melted into the shadows. The cigarette, like regret, had left my mouth tasting sour. I was too caught up in his approaching feet to hunt for the pack of gum in my purse. He would never smell me anyway, I knew.
The lone lamp in the alley lit up the few feet in front of where he hesitated. He gathered up the courage to step in to the light just as the sirens rang out. I jerked in the direction from where they seemed to come, these loud sirens. The tell-tale red-blue lights did not color the walls or the night, but their approaching wails continued to wake the world. Confused, I turned back to the boy, to see if he had come into the light yet. The alley was empty. A piece of paper lay where he would have stood, awash in the orange street lamp. I moved towards that paper. That paper would tell me everything I needed to know, I was sure. I picked it up expectantly.
The paper was blank.
Before I could be disappointed, I heard someone call my name. It was a voice filled with love; the voice that belonged to the one I loved. I closed my eyes, listened and leaned back, calm now. My head touched the stone of the wall but the wall felt ridiculously soft. I felt the heat of the sun on my face. When had the sun come out? I wondered. I should open my eyes, I told myself. I needed to find that boy. I missed that boy with every fiber in my body.
If I had read what was in the paper sooner I could have saved him. I could have kept him back in the alley, safe from the world, if only I had known. If I had watched him more closely, if I had protected him enough, if I had screamed his name louder, he would not be lost now. I cried out in frustration. Tears rolling down my cheek, I screamed soundlessly. That cigarette, its smell fresh and ugly stung my throat. I stifled a cough. I needed water.
I was beginning to feel crowded in the alley now. The eyes seemed to be everywhere, staring at me and probing me. It was starting to be too much. I saw a light up ahead. Maybe he was waiting for me to come find him. I would surely know his name, if I walked out of here. I heard someone repeating my name, over and over, as if a mantra. I walked faster but the alley kept getting longer and darker. I heard my name once again and I knew I would find him out there, outside this alley.
I opened my eyes.
The guy in the scrubs, facing me, had shock written all over his face. He held a torch the way a plumber holds one as he looks for a leak under the sink. It was pointed right at my squinting eyes. I sensed him rather than heard him; I turned slowly to look for the face I knew I would find there. David stood there and he looked like hell. I wanted to tell him that, but my lips were too dry and they wouldn’t come unstuck.
Later, David held my hand as I sat up on the hospital bed and sipped some water. As soon as I could talk, I asked about the boy. “Honey, is he ok?” Tears spilled from his green eyes as he shook his head. I touched my belly refusing to believe what David was telling me. I felt the stiches, in places where there had been none, tell me the truth. That place where a spirit had nestled was lost together with my boy. My boy was gone.
It had been a warm summer night some weeks ago when I insisted that we walk home after dinner. The dinner at Zantigo’s, spicy and delicious, had been just what I was craving all day. The boy had kicked repeatedly during dinner, needing to remind me that my family was not just David anymore. I sipped my water and stroked my belly, calming my happy boy down.
We walked side by side, enjoying the quiet streets punctuated by the occasional car. David talked about a friend who vacationed at St Thomas last month. He talked to me about the blue of the water and the feel of the beach. Our next family vacation would be at St Thomas with the boy for company, David announced. I felt the boy kick, siding with his daddy. I patted him quiet and continued walking.
Our apartment, with its empty nursery, stood waiting for us patiently a few blocks to the north. We had crossed at the light, heeding the walking green man on the pole. David had walked ahead of me talking excitedly of the glorious beaches of St Thomas as I listened and waddled. The Mexican food had made me slower than usual.
David and I heard the car at the same instant. He jerked around, called my name and reached out. But the car got to me first.
The men in scrubs had pronounced me well enough to go home today. David had needed to take care of the hospital paperwork. I just needed to slip away. I wanted to be back in that alley again. I needed to find that boy with the blue t-shirt before I lost him again. I lay alone in the hospital bed and closed my eyes.
This time, there was no alley waiting for me. There was no paper on the ground or a boy with a blue t-shirt waiting for a name. There was only a green man on the pole, blinking. There was a pregnant lady in a flowing skirt, waddling. There was a white car swerving to miss a man and hitting the woman instead. There was a man, smelling of bourbon and cigarette, stumbling out of the white car. There was nothing to do but to wait for the sirens. There was only a man holding a pregnant woman, screaming her name, over and over again. The sirens accompanied, screaming even louder.
I lay in the bed, wishing for a different dream. Just maybe, when I wake up, this terrible dream would vanish without a trace. Maybe, this broken family would wordlessly disappear without having to bear witness to one inebriated man’s inability to give up his car keys. Maybe reality would see a little boy in a blue t-shirt, wandering too close to the blue water of the ocean, but never too far away from the watchful eyes of his mother and his father.
Do you have days when you seem so incredibly transparent that any word out of you might shock the world into realizing that you really exist?
Do you have those days when you wake up and miss someone who you are not sure really exists?
Do you have moments when the motion sickness of this ride called life leaves you wanting to stand absolutely still, letting the world rush on past?
Do you have days when words refuse to dislodge and spill but instead feel like a frisky eyelash that has wandered into your wide open eyes?
Because, I do!
She could smell the roses now. She was back in front of that college hostel. She was holding the makeshift bouquet of roses he had brought her. They were wild button roses, not white but not quite pink either. The kind of buds that, she knew, grew all over the college grounds. They were tied together with the string that grocers used to tie packages with. He handed her the flowers with a flourish.
A girl never forgets the first man who brings her flowers. Naren had been that man.
Naren had been making up for an argument that had seemed terribly serious just a moment ago, when he had handed her the flowers. Just before the roses appeared, she was sure that she never wanted to see him again. Those flowers had magically fixed everything.
She constantly wondered, with the rest of the college, what he saw in her. He had oozed energy and had lit up the room he walked into. She glided through the halls, unseen and unnoticed. He had sauntered down corridors shaking hands, making jokes and pasting smiles on faces. Her plain face unappreciated, her dark eyes never leaving the floor, she had barely caused ripples. She was a wallflower while he dazzled every space he graced. She would have stayed transparent and faded out of everyone else’s lives if she had not been a permanent fixture at Naren’s side that final year in college.
She could not remember now how she and Naren had morphed from indifferent strangers into inseparable spirits. She had been a moth to his flame. She had been a mystery that needed unraveling and he seemed to have her all figured out. He talked a mile a minute, while she nodded and spoke her mind hesitantly. Theirs had been a dance that was choreographed to the tune of their unlikely companionship.
Then college ended and everything was at the cusp of never being the same again. She was sure Naren was going to say good bye when the time was right. Anyone in their right mind could see that, she reasoned. She preempted the heartbreak by taking the first job that had come her way, and promptly moving to the other side of the country. She took pride in her decision to spare him the awkward goodbyes and the sight of her red rimmed eyes imploring him to change his mind, begging him to not leave her. She decided to fix everything by vanishing out of Naren’s life without the decency of a notice.
She thought of the boy who gave her flowers, now, as she watched her granddaughter dig for gold on the beach. Her eyes welled up and spilled over. She had made sure that her last days would not be spent in a hospice with nurses for company but with her family in a place she loved and treasured. Her time would come any day now; she knew it in her bones. Her husband of 30 years had died 3 years ago, last month. She had barely survived a broken heart, when her cancer came back after 5 years in hiding, almost as a blessing. And she had been ready for this day ever since then.
She thought about the day Naren had sauntered into her life again. It had seemed almost a lifetime after college. In fact it had been 7 years since graduation and she had been busy, in a book store.
“Don’t tell me you are going to make me pay for it” he had joked, holding out the book with her name on its cover, for an autograph. The 7 years apart, her abrupt departure, his heartbreak all seemed to have been fixed by his smile and the light in her dark eyes. They had talked for hours at a coffee shop that day, then at dinner and then for 30 beautiful years after that. They were married before her next book came out.
Their friends had always thought that they had met in that bookstore, that day. Not too many people knew of the Naren and the quiet girl who followed him around in the college corridors. They had kept the story of the roses to themselves, a private sepia colored memory to be brushed anew on days that needed an extra helping of romance.
She sat down on the beach chair and closed her eyes. She listened to the beach, not quite hearing her daughter calling out to her child. The smell of roses in the air was overpowering now. She felt his breath on her hair, heard him call her name and she sighed. Her time had finally come.
The last time I had lived this close to cows, the year was 1998 in Trichur, Kerala. The last place I had expected to have cows as my neighbors again was in the USA in 2010. But the Universe apparently had other plans. It was September in Arkansas and I had found myself moving there from Hartford. My town in North-West Arkoansas was full of surprises, the least of which were my neighbors who mooed. A lot.
The last time I lived this close to cows, I was sulking my way through 11th standard in a school that was as close to personal hell as possible. The stuff at home had been, how do I put this, complicated. Coaching classes for the engineering entrance exam had forced me into exile at my grandparents’ house, away from my parents’ in Muscat. I am sure my grandparents were excited about the lazy, moody teenager slouching around the house.
I masterfully evaded being assigned chores by simply being hard to find around the house. My grandmother’s arthritis assured me that I could safely spend hours locked up in the second floor of her house, practicing the art of doing nothing. But that plan failed spectacularly because I was never too far away from her booming voice. The good manners she drilled into me as a child assured her that her “Anu, Inga vaaa”(“Anu, come here”) would be promptly answered with “Ippo varen, Savithri ammai” (“Be right there, Savithri ammai”).
I would half-heartedly tear myself away from a book or a song on my cassette player, on weekend afternoons and find her, and be assigned the afternoon chore. She would hand me the stainless steel “thooku” and send me off to Ambi mama’s cowshed down the street. I rarely drank milk then, even when my grandmother assured that it was what growing girls needed. An overweight 16 year old does not need any more growing to happen, I would retort haughtily. I hated the cows with all my heart as I shuffled those few hundred feet, in the noon heat, to buy the fresh milk for evening coffee.
On a good day, I can day dream my way into that cowshed again. The smell of manure and animals took a life of its own there. The animals’ stalls were spotless, the dung cleaned away as soon as it hit the floor. The smell of hay tickled my nose, as I tried to avoid looking into the eye of a particularly curious cow edging towards me. The huge vat of frothy bubbling warm milk lay expectantly near the kitchen of Ambi mama’s house, adjoining the cowshed. One of the men, who worked the cows, would pick up a huge aluminum mug and pour the half liter of milk it into the vessel I held ready.
I would then ready myself for the tight rope walk back home. The heat would quicken my feet, but incurring the wrath of my Savithri ammai over the spilt milk was the stuff my nightmares were made of, so I would slow down. Thatha stood ready in the outer hall to collect the vessel from my unsteady hands. He peered into the vessel, and always exclaimed that Ambi mama was selling more water than milk. I always took the comment on the quality of milk personally and stalked off to the refuge of my book or my songs.
11 years later, when I would walk into the bright North West Arkansas mornings, a whole world away from that little cowshed in Thrissur, the moos of the unseen cows said hello. On warm nights when I would come home ravenous, the smell of the manure and fresh cut grass would make me crave a glass of milk. But the microwaved 2% never looks as appetizing to me as the thought of that vat of warm bubbling milk in that shed back in Thrissur.