Never Again

If he took a boat and went straight towards the setting sun, he’d reach Yemen. Or Oman, perhaps. Oman was more likely. Definitely not Dubai, Dubai was north-ish. He let out a small smile, almost unnoticeable. He knew his geography better than most of his friends. Considering that he should have been shattered by what she had just said, the smile that escaped was almost blasphemous. But taking the boat to the west wouldn’t be much fun, he’d have to come back to Mumbai – none of these countries had visa-on-arrival. Which also meant he’d need a lot of fuel. And he’d be back where he started, so what was the point?

He knew he was evading dealing with what she had just said.

Never again, she said as she turned and walked away to become another human outline in the crowd. He watched her for a long time. What if everybody in the world wore long flowing white robes of the same material – he would not have been able to identify her in that crowd. I’d call them human tessellations, he thought. Perhaps her hair. Unmistakable, lovely, flowing hair. I’d recognise her by her hair. But what if we wore hooded robes? He was thankful that we didn’t wear long-flowing white hooded robes. She was far away now, and he could still see her; know that it was her in that distance.

What if this setting sun said that – never again?

Never again won’t work. He knew there would be one more time. Actually, he knew there would be many more times. She wasn’t convincing enough when she said never again. If you know that you are never going to meet or speak with a person again, you should say something nice, perhaps something dramatic. It should have impact. So, if you actually never meet or speak again, there’s something interesting and valuable to remember you by.

“It has been a roller-coaster of a life with you, but the car has stopped, the ride’s been paid for and the park is now closing forever.”

He would have said something like that. It’s over at so many levels and it’s quite visual, a picture that you can always carry within your heart, even after the park’s closed and the scare of the vertical loop is dealt with. So much better than never again. But it’s never over. It’s always there. There is no going away for some people. Certainly not for us, he thought. We always come back to the same place in spite of the miles we travel. Maybe it’s not the same physical location, but it’s the same place. No matter how many twists and turns and how many ups and downs, we’ll always come back, if not to the town then in our own head.

She doesn’t realise it. She wants to be with me, but perhaps, not at this time. He remembered how people in Hollywood movies call their loved one’s a minute before they are dying. They say that if they had a chance to do it all over again, they’d do it differently. Some, of course, say that they’d do it exactly the same way. (These people aren’t the one who are dying, though.) It’s all about regret – and both involve going back to where you started. It doesn’t matter if you want to do the same thing again or some thing else.

*

Turn it, twist it, do whatever, it’s always the same. Twelve years; and we are back where we started – nothing has changed. Like a racetrack. Back where we started. The footpath was blurring through the tears, but she commanded them not roll down. She didn’t want to wipe them, walking in the middle of this evening crowd. Well, not exactly like a racetrack; there have been times when, in her heart, she felt that they had left the racing strip onto a reciprocal plane in a different dimension. She could stop the tears, but not the smile, as she remembered the times with him when her entire being swelled with euphoria.

Every time she felt they were growing away from the sameness and crossed over to a newness that was refreshing, they were back to where they started. It had to be him, with his lack of direction, he just moved aimlessly where a path would take them. Even in his choiceless-ness he had an uncanny ability to choose a path that folded on to itself.

She had thought of the various ways that she would tell him that it was over. She’d explain what exactly was wrong, but then she’d be at loss for words. She didn’t want to explain everything – he had to understand for himself. She definitely did not want it to become a conversation, or worse, an argument. More than anything, she was sure she did not want to get pulled into his Escheresque world.

‘Never again,’ she said, with as little leak of emotion as she could manage, and she turned and walked away. There is no other way he will understand. She was a bit surprised with herself; it was clean and sharp, she thought. That should drive the message home. Maybe she should have made that into a sentence, instead of a phrase; complete the context of what it was that will not be repeated.

He would not follow her, she knew of that, he wasn’t given easily to public display of affection, or of any emotion for that matter. There was a part of her that was curious to see if he was suppressing that stupid smile of his, as he always did when things got serious. He always thought of himself as a good actor, however, that was the start and the end of his theatrical popularity. His attempts at being dramatic were humorous by virtue of their banality.

She felt stagnated, even though things were moving ahead. The 8:42 slow to Andheri wheezed out of Dadar station. She watched it blur away and open up the view to the opposite platform. A woman, not very unlike herself, was sitting on a bench on the opposite platform. She didn’t seem to be in a hurry and she didn’t seem to be waiting for anyone. She was looking in space, with her head down at that angle, where it seems that looking at that particular angle somehow reflects seeing within yourself. In the midst of stationery platforms and trains moving up and down, she seemed to be at peace with herself. With each passing hour, she thought, my blurred train is returning on the opposite track to become her blurred train.

I should take the next one, he knows I’ll be sitting here. Maybe he’ll not come; maybe he knows I meant it when I said never again. Or, maybe I should sit here to know for sure that he knows I meant it.

*

in between the new distances
lie our footsteps
west and east.

we wait for a full circle, again.

the smug smile of the days gone by
ignored for now
stale after the remix.

i keep looking back
in the hope that
no new diversions
have come into being

*

He got off the 10:16 Borivali slow.

She saw him come towards her. She wasn’t surprised that he came. She was surprised that he didn’t have that stupid suppressed smile. She saw a face she had not seen before – there was no joke being told in his complementary world.

He didn’t say anything. He sat down beside her, quietly.

Time is a definite measure, but it behaves differently at different times. She did not know how long they were sitting like this.

He hasn’t understood what never again means. She was looking down at the platform where nothing was interesting. Suddenly she looked up to him.

Maybe he has understood, after all.

*

‘Where do you want to go?’ he asked, after some time, but she had no idea how much time had passed.

They both got up from the bench without saying a word, crossed over to the opposite platform and boarded the 12:04 Churchgate. From Churchgate, they walked to the south end of Marine Drive.

Markers of the Ceiling

He knew the door to the terrace didn’t creak when opened. He had opened it often. Without a thought, he took a left and then a right along the big water tank and proceeded to find his usual place. The terrace floor, like most of the terraces in the city was a broken tile mosaic; apparently it prevented water leaking into the house, when rain badgered it three months every year.

He had no tape measure but he knew exactly where he could sleep. A shard of a black tile shaped like Italy was north-west; the orange shard that was one half of a handlebar moustache was south-east, and such. Four corners marked his sleeping space. And while an open sky and closed stars dominated that moment before he closed his eyes, that didn’t disorient him. There should have been a ceiling fan whirring against the white ceiling, but it didn’t matter much. The memory of many an event on the other side of that surface were his markers. Each tile, fifteen feet below held a fading emotion. He had been coming to this terrace for years now, but today, he almost didn’t make it. He smiled, as a shudder tickled him in a place he wasn’t bothered to notice.

*

They had changed the security company.

The watchman of the gate was not asleep, completely. His eyes were closed, and a general ennui seemed to hover around him. Yet, something about him was awake, and worse, alert. The small creaking of the gate handle never woke the usual guy. He could not risk waking the new guy. He decided not to use the gate. Perhaps he could wait when a car came in late and tailgate while the sleepy head slowly closes the door. He was not sure how long he could wait for a car; he wasn’t sure if a car would come at all.

Risking the creaky handle was the best option.

It didn’t wake the new watchman. He opened the door in less than a minute, which seemed like more than an hour. As he darted through the parked cars, he realised that the watchman at the lift would be new too. He prayed that he was an old guy working two jobs and that this was his second. He made his way to the entrance of the third wing of the building. A wiry young guy was smoking a beedi at the entrance.

Damn.

Five minutes passed. He lit another beedi. He was bit surprised. Cigarette smokers would usually light up one after the other, beedi smokers seldom did that. Another ten minutes and the crouching made his legs heavy as lead. Why is this excuse for a watchman awake, he wondered; even if he had to prove something no one is watching, but a miscreant like me — and he does not know it! Why does he not sleep like everyone else? He finally spread his legs and rested on the passenger side of the Silver Honda. Twenty minutes passed, and the bundle of wires that was the watchman left his seat to drink water.

All life came back to his tired legs and he stood up sprightly behind the silver Honda. He made a dash for the lift. He knew he could not use the lift, because the lights and the sound of the doors would draw attention, but at least he was in the wing’s entrance. He moved towards the staircase and peeked to see where the watchman was.

Still at the tap.

Seventeen floors. The terrace is the eighteenth floor. That’s 468 steps.

A man does much to get back home. Once he travelled a lot to go to work and come back. Today it is only 468 steps. If he took two seconds to conquer one step, it would take him approximately fifteen minutes. But that’s uniform motion. LOng ago he had been taught the fallacy of uniform motion; it didn’t exist – it was only a concept for the laboratory. Come ninth floor and he would take more than two seconds for every step.

Time is all I have and I can spend it at will, he thought to himself, as he started up the staircase. Because he didn’t have a watch, he did not know how long it took him to reach the terrace. It seemed to him that he took as much time as always, in spite of his heavy legs. When he saw the door to the terrace, all pain seemed to vanish.

*

He closed his eyes, imagining the ceiling fan. He tossed and turned between Italy and the handlebar moustache. A few years ago, it was different. Perhaps he imagined it all; perhaps it was real. It didn’t matter however, because he felt at home. He had struggled to get home, so this was as real as it could be.  

The Stain

Perfect love stories live on borrowed endings. Readers re-borrow these and hope to make them their own. And time stops when you are in love. A moment becomes a lifetime. He could write about the moment; how would he write of a lifetime? On paper white as milk, he scribbled a story. Like the moon; only, rectangular. Should I cut corners, the storyteller wondered? The ink would be the stain on the moon. The stain that has given birth to many a description of beauty.

My staining ink has more value than the pure white  of the paper; the author smiled as he started writing his story. 

 

Goodbye, Ramzan Ali

“The usual,” I said, as a slid comfortably into the second seat

“It’s been a while, right – almost six weeks.”

“Six weeks? No, it has been the usual – three weeks at the most.”

“Nope. At least five weeks. I know better,” he said with an air of finality.

He must be about fifteen years younger than I am, but that kind of authority amused me into silence. I thought I’d argue a bit more, try and at least insert a doubt in his calculations, if not convince him.

“I’ve been doing this long enough and I’ve known your hair for more than six years now,” he said, almost reading my mind and putting to death any devilish desire I had of furthering the argument. It struck me after a while that he expressed his good acquaintance not with me but my hair. He didn’t say, ‘I’ve known you for six years’.

IMG_20090327_2651v10009.jpg

Barbers probably know your hair more than they know you. The typical barber probably knows you equally better – with his constant chatter, but Ramzan Ali is not your typical barber. He doesn’t talk a lot as he goes about shedding the load off your head, but he seems to notice and remember his customer’s preferences. Once, during the IPL matches, the salon was empty, he asked his colleague to switch the channel and put on some music instead of the match. He changes razor blades in plain sight where I can see them; reminds me of scenes from Ocean’s Thirteen, when the dealer is changing that white ball at roulette.

Ramzan is from a village called Durgwalia, which doesn’t exist on Google maps. It is close to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. There, in Durgwalia he has a large family – he is the youngest of a few brothers, married with a kid.

“Don’t you miss your wife?” I asked, regretting instantly my choice of words – maybe I should have used family, instead of wife.

“Life’s like that – I can provide better, working here.”

I didn’t want to ask any more questions, but he went on about the porous Nepal border and how he and his friends often cross into and out of Nepal in a single day. He spoke about his uncles and the varied professions that his family was involved in. Every time, with every haircut, there was a story or another.

I called the shop the other day to confirm he was available for a haircut.

Saudia ka plan bana liya usne,” came a stranger’s voice. (He has made plans to go to Saudi Arabia)

I didn’t go for a haircut for another week, wondering what I will do. Missing Ramzan, but wishing him well. I am now in the process of training another person at another place, but I often remember his sweet smile and his animated stories.

Goodbye, Ramzan Ali, you will be missed. Fare well.

 

 

Missing Dave

It would have been so nice if he was here today, now in fact. He would have been able to get the attention of that distracted taxi driver. Dave, may he be in peace wherever he is, had a way with his voice. And his arms. He just commanded attention.

It has been, what, eleven years now?

What’s with the taxis, where have they all gone – you’d think they would be out here on a Saturday evening – with all these young kids wanting to go to parties and all. Perhaps they prefer the longer routes. Bless Dave, at least I can still afford a taxi – if I get one, that is. There, another one goes without noticing me. I wish I had half the strength of Dave’s voice. Maybe the taxi driver would hear me then. This feeble arm in this pastel sleeve hardly stands out in this riot of a colour that this town has become.

Seems it is going to be a while, I’d rather let the bags down. Ahh – it has begun to pain, this left arm of mine. I hope it’s just the bags. I doubt if I can afford any more medicines for a new ailment now. It’s getting late already, I still need to cook, I think I will sleep early today. Jane is coming tomorrow – it would be lovely to see the kids tomorrow.

Hey!

They don’t notice me any more. No one does, really, why single out the taxis? I am fading into the past, I suppose. Look at all these busybodies – going fast and forward. Ah, well, I guess I’d rather take the bus after all. I’ll save the money, maybe get a few apples and bake a pie. Dave used to call me the apple of his pie. How, I miss you, dear. You are long gone, but you still bring a smile to my face.

This young man doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Looking at him, reminds me of our summer evenings. Just sitting there in the sun.

He is a writer perhaps. Does he write about old people, I wonder?

*

4th August 2007, Ground Burger, Chiswick High Street, London, United Kingdom

The Floor-to-Ceiling Mirror

It was a few minutes after noon. I was about to turn left into Guilford Street from Lansdowne Terrace.

The iPod was playing a tune in my ears that would otherwise seem to young for a person of my age. I smiled to myself, thankful that most people couldn’t make out what I was listening to.

Just as I approached the corner to turn on to Guilford Street, I saw him, an unlit cigarette in hand, iPod plugged in his ears. He gestured for a light. I took the cigarette to my left hand – he thought I was offering the cigarette to him to light up his. There was slight confusion, our iPods still plugged intact. I put my right hand in my jacket pocket and lit his cigarette with my Zippo. He thanked me with a short nod of his head; I acknowledged back, with the same quick nod and smile, and turned left onto Guilford Street.

I wondered what music he was listening to.

*

It was a few minutes after noon. I was about to turn right into Lansdowne Terrace from Guilford Street.

The iPod was playing a tune in my ears that would otherwise seem to old for a person of my age. I smiled to myself, thankful that most people couldn’t make out what I was listening to.

Just as I approached the corner to turn on to Lansdowne Terrace, I saw him, a lit cigarette in hand, iPod plugged in his ears. I gestured for a light. He took the cigarette to his left hand – I thought he was offering the cigarette to me to light up mine. There was slight confusion, our iPods still plugged intact. He put his right hand in his jacket pocket and lit my cigarette with his Zippo. I thanked him with a short nod of my head; he acknowledged back, with the same quick nod and smile, and turned right onto Lansdowne Terrace.

I wondered what music he was listening to.

Story-writing

The clackity-clack of his keyboard continued unabated. The clacking seemed to bounce off the hard walls and echo back in what he wrote. The distant dying laughter of the last party animal didn’t quite bother him, though he sensed the mood of a party unwilling to die. Not much made sense around him – the darkness was enveloping him, shrouding everything that he saw, in nothingness, even though the two sixty-watt bulbs stoically stood their ground. He wasn’t looking at the words, they hardly meant anything – he knew that already – no reason to use the backspace key – no reason to use better words – no reason to make anything sound poetic. He realised he wasn’t sitting very comfortably in his chair, yet not one of the alive muscle in his body made the slightest attempt to correct what they would have to suffer in a few minutes. He wondered if his mind or his soul or his spirit had left his body and there remained only an obedient machine, as if run by inertia, powered by burning itself, feeding the power back, continuing a cycle. Where was that moment when some action would change the course of what was going on? What was the trigger that this incessant typing would stop and wonder how to make meaning? Why was there no reason anymore in any action that occurred? The author, the subject and the environment seemed all to be twirling into a single mass of bone, flesh and entrails. There was nothing to be differentiated, nothing left to identify any element, to know its purpose.

He paused now, looked up at the screen. He looked for long at what he had written.

He saw his face in the mirror-like screen; in between the twirling digital rainbow, he stared hard and finally moved his mouse to get rid off the screen saver.