Linea Nigra

I've been waiting
For months now
For my feet to swell up
And go all varicose

Guess, it's not the time yet
We're along the way
Stringing along
Yesterday to tomorrow, with today

Each day, limbs grow
Every night, blood flows
The calendar leaps by bounds
Suddenly then, it lazes down

A protrusion of life has occurred
The Linea Nigra
Should be darker than this
The kicks should be oftener than this, oh

The future feels akin to a dream
A chunk of one, carved out, outside
Life, topsy-turvy
Chaos, perhaps, will be our new currency

And a bit of love too
A little bit, yes
Sure
Why not

January

These are remnants of a very cold winter day. I was studying someplace far from home and getting there took me almost two whole days in train and a longish cab ride afterward. Surprisingly, the thing about traveling alone is that it doesn't tire me. Because I do everything at my own pace and avoid anything that might seem unnecessary. For instance I would get down from my upper berth in the train only twice a day to go pee. And that would be my social interaction for the day.

Anyway, my two day train journey ended on the morning of the third day and when I got out of the railway station, I remember the January cold squeezing me dry. So much so that I remember taking out an extra sweater from the bag to stay warm. Sitting on one of the station benches, I unpacked the third packet of food from home.

I decided I would eat whatever I could for breakfast and throw out the rest before heading out. Mother had packed food, one each for every day of the journey. She of course knew best. But I would agree to take the food only after a prolonged protest. What if it got bad? What if the friends I was traveling with decided to buy food? My bag wasn't getting any lighter, anyway. Deep inside, I tore up seeing the home cooked food so far from home and it just made me rethink the whole purpose of it all. Hence the protests. But couldn't do much about it.

I rolled up the fried potatoes in puris and ate up. Cleaned my hands, drank some water and purposefully dragged my bags out to hail a cab for the long three hour journey ahead, through the mountains and valleys.

The thing about the cab journey was, it was expensive and also rather unsafe to be hiring an entire cab for oneself. Who would trust their lives alone with the driver? So a system was in play. People pooled in to hire a big taxi, like an SUV that could carry seven or eight people. It made it much cheaper and safer as well.

At the station, I found a cab driver vigorously trying to form his own pool of people, and negotiating the fare. I quickly joined them and started asking the fares. After loading my bags and having been seated, I noticed in there a familiar face.

A boy from my class. A quiet one. The break had been for a mere two weeks but suddenly it felt longer. It felt as if we were meeting after a longer interval. We were seated at two ends of the seat so couldn't talk much. But I said Hi and he acknowledged. Speaking took an effort, for some reason. I had been so muted on the train. My thoughts had coagulated inside my head and everything felt choked.

I clung to my seat, chomping from my bag of potato wafers which I offered to share and he politely refused saying he had just eaten. The wafers were to avoid nausea. You see I suffer from road sickness. And the twists and turns of the mountains made it bad . To worsen it, it began drizzling and we had to roll up the windows. I shut my eyes and tried to sleep. But the time I had spent at home kept coming back in glimpses. The prints on the bed sheets. The wall hangings we had purchased in the handicrafts exhibition. The pots in the kitchen. The glare of the TV at midnight. So many things. I felt my chest squeeze.

The boy offered me his coca cola from which I took a sip. The sugar rush helped me regain some control. I dabbed some talcum powder on my handkerchief and snorted it hoping it would help with my vomiting. It did, somewhat. Then in an hour or so, the driver stopped the vehicle for lunch.

It was about half past twelve. I wasn't hungry but everyone ate, so I ordered a plate of aloo parathas for myself. The boy joined me at my table. The trick was to eat very light on these journies because too much food would curdle up and make one puke. I licked the tiny piece of mango pickle that had accompanied the parathas and asked the waiter for some more.

Soon, we were back on the road. This time, I dozed off. The memories had stopped perturbing me. My fears of puking had subsided. I woke up when we had nearly reached. From the cab stand, me and the boy, we split another cab to the hostel.

At the end of it, I heaved a sigh of relief. But it felt like a ghost house. It seemed we had arrived a day earlier. Everyone was reaching the next day. Having heard this from the security guard, I immediately headed for my room. I don't know where the boy went.

I remember taking a really freezing shower as the damned geyser wouldn't work. My toes nearly froze on the bathroom floor and I got inside the blankets straight out of the bathroom. There was no in between. I had left two gerberas in a glass of water on my table, before leaving for home. Those flowers were still alive, and totally fresh after two weeks. It was as if, absolutely no time had passed. It felt unreal.

I remember taking a long nap and waking up in the evening in want of tea. The hostel kitchen wasn't working yet. I collected myself in jackets and socks and mufflers and headed to the nearest grocery store from where I bought noodles. On the way back, I noticed light in one of the windows in the boy's hostel. I assumed that solitary light was the quiet boy. I wondered what he would eat for dinner.

Back in my room, I heated some water in the electric kettle and soaked the noodles in it till it softened. I slurped it neatly, made sure twice that my door was locked and went back to trying to sleep. Owing to the cold, I must have fallen asleep sometime.

But I woke up again, close to dawn and felt the dozens of empty hostel rooms around me like an incurable vacuum. It wasn't fear. It was just overwhelming solitude. Being in the mountains, in the middle of a pine forest. I imagined the boy sleeping on his bed, hoping to draw some warmth telepathically. Telling myself I wasn't completely alone and there was someone at least, and even if this companion was not immediate, but nevertheless.

Excerpt

..

When Devesh Kumar, at a younger and trimmer age studied masters in political science at the university, he had an ageing professor. The professor was a rather old one and continued to stay on the campus even after retiring. The professor had a daughter who Devesh Kumar had seen on and off, learning to drive her scooter in the varsity campus streets or dry her hair on the terrace by squeezing it out of the towel and hitting it softly as droplets of water from it turned into quiet mist around her. But he was never in love with her. Because of the very same reason that he was not in love with anyone else at that age.

Campus politics had kept him busy and having lost the elections for student body president, two times in row had made him a venerable opposition to whoever the incumbent president was. But despite the chaos and much running about, he had come to know that her name was Ipsa and that she was studying literature somewhere in the city. Ipsa visited her father on the weekends or on fortnights. In their house on campus, the professor who now acted as a visiting one, lived on with a middle aged house maid who had been there his entire life.

Devesh Kumar graduated without any further liaisons with the professor’s nubile daughter and started looking for a job after spending several sobering weeks with his family. After several months of appearing for interviews after encircling job openings from newspapers, he was lucky enough to get an entry level gig at the directorate of industries. With a degree that meant nothing to him behind him and with a job he knew nothing about ahead of him, Devesh Kumar bore the quiet assurance of a twenty three year old man who kept telling himself he would get through it.

And get through he did, more than good, he, with his social skills seamlessly connected to people and charmed them with his words and actions. In two years, he had become the boss’s darling and a go to person in the directorate if you needed anything done. It was also understood that he got some kickbacks and passed on to people their due share without delay. And hence the extra outpouring of love from co-workers.

His parents had also happier with their son’s achievements and that he had been helping out at home by contributing some to his deaf and mute brother’s upkeep. He also had another sister, the youngest one who would soon be marriageable, back then. Amidst all this, Devesh Kumar was invited by his college professor to help a bit in arranging his daughter’s wedding. Devesh Kumar was not astonished with this invite. He was aware the professor didn’t have any relatives to help about and his ex-students were his only family, besides his daughter.

So Devesh had hastily applied for a few days of casual leave and rushed off to his old campus, where a couple of his old friends awaited him. Together they ran about and spoke to caterers and negotiated with tent houses, wholesale flower dealers, travel agents, booked hotel rooms for the bridegroom’s party, the whole deal. Exhausted after long days of work when he lay on the mattress in the hall, sometimes he would catch a glimpse of the bride-to-be, Ipsa, roaming around in her pajamas and loafers, hands died in henna, hair tied in a bun. While erecting bamboo poles to hang tents and setting up shamianas with the bride’s and groom’s names, sometimes he would catch another glimpse of her smoking or talking on the phone. But that was it.

In those several moments, it wasn’t that their eyes never met. Ipsa caught his eyes in hers and remembered that this was the boy who she had seen ambling in her father’s chambers years ago, this was the boy who lost all these elections that her father had mentioned, and this was the boy whose eyebrows were thick enough to make it seem that they had a separate identity altogether. But that was it. She never took it any further. She was excited and happy that she won’t have to deal with her old life anymore because her brand new settled in Germany aerospace engineer husband was going to get her a brand new life of shiny expensive things in Western Europe.

Things ambled their way to the wedding night when Ipsa sat in all her wedding finery and took gift envelopes from guests and Devesh Kumar guided them to and away from her to the dining hall. Then he saw her again and wondered what it will be like for her old father with his only child thousands of miles away and looked away in pity.

After the bridge-groom arrived he heard some disagreements going on between the professor and the groom’s mother. Something about a four-wheeler or a patch of land in the city that he had promised them. The cheque for the four-wheeler had bounced because the fixed deposits the professor had pre-closed to pay for it hadn’t been closed on time. The groom’s mother felt betrayed and also wasn’t very amenable to wait for the title of the land to be changed after the wedding. After that cheque had bounced, how could she ever trust him again?

The professor called Devesh Kumar in and asked him to fetch the bank manager from his residence at that very moment. After all, this should get sorted before the garlands are exchanged. Devesh Kumar returned empty handed as the bank manager seemed to be out of town. Hapless and too old to prove his point, the professor sat down on the floor clutching his chest and sighing loudly. This scared young Devesh Kumar a bit and he quickly ran to the bride after giving him a glass of water.

He knocked on the door of the bride’s room and she opened draped midway in a simple yellow sari, hair untucked and a jasmine string hanging from it. This was the first time they spoke after having observed each other from respectable distances and having formed one-sided shy opinions. The bride then hid in Devesh Kumar’s shadow and ran to be at her father’s side.

The professor in sobs said he didn’t know what to do. The groom and his family were all set to return and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. Ipsa ran her hands on her father’s forehead and told him that it was going to be okay and that he needed to be strong and healthy. He would leave this campus and move to her rented place in the city where she worked. She could still cancel her resignation and get back the job she had quit for the marriage. Everyone would understand dowry harassment.

Seeing the two of them huddled that way in mutual consolation, something very hard struck Devesh Kumar’s heart. He walked up to the bed and held the professor’s hand and offered to marry his daughter. Ipsa was too vulnerable to speak, let alone refuse. The names were taken off from the shamiana and Devesh Kumar married Ipsa that very night. Instead of a thousand miles to Germany, she was headed a few dozen kilometers to Devesh Kumar’s parents’ house in the city.

It was such a shocking surprise for his family, they could barely speak. Except for murmurs in the kitchen and whispers in the living room. Only the deaf and mute younger brother sat by his sister in law and gave comfort with his timely smiles.

..

A considerate excerpt from a rather longish short story. Because you wouldn't read the whole of it, anyway. Because it never mattered enough that I wrote it. Because it wouldn't matter either if I hadn't written it. At least, I have an amateur litterateur's inconsequence. What-have-you 

Memories from the Eucalyptus

The first memory of you I have is from kindergarten. Both of us were about four, I guess. It wasn't a formal school is all I remember. And more than the school, I have a lucid memory of returning from school. And of being neighbors. In that uncomplicated phase of childhood. You didn't live next door. Our houses were not adjacent of course, like apartments these days. You lived with your maternal grandparents for the summer, or probably the whole year. Your house was three storied, hidden aptly behind the ample foliage of coconut and mango trees. My house was a little further. We had our trees in the backyard, and our house was pretty much exposed, except for a sole eucalyptus near our front door.

This eucalyptus tree was the cynosure of my life back then. I would sight it from a distance from the wooden lorry that drove us home from school and feel happy. I got down at the eucalyptus tree. Sometimes you got down with me. Your grandparents lived alone and didn't talk much to anyone, let alone my family. Only somehow we had procured their landline number to call and tell them you were with me. And we would play house. Probably we were too young to play anything else.

The wind blew seeds and hid them in the crevices of the eucalyptus tree. In the rain, these seeds would shoot into saplings and burst out into small plants. With leaves very different from that of the eucalyptus, their host. Some saplings lived to grow tall and strong. All this made the tree appear very composite. Several trees within itself, like a thriving plural phantom from my dreams.

But they chopped down that tree one day. It was so sudden and immediate that I just found the tree gone when I got back from school. My landmark, my cynosure was no more. I mourned in my own quiet way but you found out and shared my loss. Then onward till the end, we played at your house. Until, I switched schools to a proper one and you left your grandparents alone for good. 

Agoraphobia

The tiny room near the stairs had been rented by a teacher. She lived in it with her eight year old son. The kid was bed ridden. Had been born that way, it seemed. The teacher's husband had abandoned them and taken a new wife. The teacher's school was nearby. She left her son lying on a mattress in the corridor near the stairs for the day, she came home during lunch break and whenever she could make time between her classes; to check on him. To make sure he was fed and watered and cleaned.

It felt apathetic to cross the boy lying that way on the floor every time any one took the stairs. The landlord had talked to the teacher about this. But she couldn't leave the boy in the room where there was nothing to see. From the corridor the boy could at least look at the betel nut trees sway in the backyard. Or listen to the landlord's TV in the other room.

The landlord and his wife occupied the rest of the house downstairs. They had two rooms, each slept in one. There was another small room where they kept the idols of their deities, in which the wife worshipped incessantly for hours every morning and evening. Then there was a corridor like living room which had a shelf. That shelf, in its several racks housed prizes, medals and cups the landlord's children had won over the years. Debate competitions and annual sporting events and dance competitions. The landlord had a son, but before that his wife had birthed three daughters. Not one, not two.

The son, studious from the crib, worked as a professor in some far off university. The daughters who had started off as librarians and stenographers had eventually had children and stayed home. They visited their parents very rarely. The house began to feel too big and too empty to the ageing couple and they started renting out chunks of it, after setting aside for themselves only what they absolutely needed.

The house now had two such chunks which were locked and waiting for tenants. The teacher rented the room downstairs in the summer. Then I took the room upstairs with the balcony, in the last month of monsoon. I didn't have a kitchen and cooked on a hot plate, which I shoved under the single bed once done with. I had very few utensils, not many clothes. The room was enough for me. Whenever I felt like I sat in the balcony. If I leaned well, I could see the temple at the end of the street. Sometimes people walking down the street stared up at me, particularly the boys playing or girls returning from school. But mostly they leave me be.

I had an arrangement with the landlord's servant who came in once a day. She got me a few groceries whenever I ran out. I also walked up to the book shelf in the living room of the landlord and borrowed a book now and then. But that was that. I never stepped out.

Hiding

I am living in hiding.
Pretending;
That everything's fine,
With my many untruths and half truths

My axis, although is twisted
I am always losing balance
Because my chest is heavy with weight
And my legs are light with fear

This lying business
Is anything but easy
My nights are comatose
But if I wake up, can't ever get back to sleep

Dawn brings in an unwanted reminder
Of all my lies
And the cracks in my life
Face dug in a pillow, wanna sleep forever

My unsolvable problems
Which are because of no fault of mine
I am guileless, please listen
Just can't anymore, I can't

Hiraeth

Summers are harsh. Sometimes, unbearably so.  Hence, a plan was duly chalked out. Nayana's parents' were woefully concerned about her education. Particularly, her father. So when Nayana told him that she couldn't stand the summer heat during the intervals between her multiple tuition sessions during the day, her father had to immediately put on his problem solver pants and get down to action.

March had only just ended and already the sun beat down relentlessly. Colleges and schools had closed down for a generous three month summer vacation. But the tuition classes decided this was an opportunity to finish half the syllabus and increased the frequency of classes. Nayana lived far from the city and took the bus, to and fro. In the intervals between, say tuition classes of Physics and Biology, she didn't have a roof to be under.

Nayana did not have many friends. It was right about that age that she had stopped making friends. The ones in school had gone to separate colleges and had lost touch. The new class mates remained just acquaintances, laboratory partners, bench-mates but were never promoted to friends, probably because of the lack of prolonged one-to-one exposure.

Problem solving pants wearer father, in the meantime found out an old relative in the city, bang at the median point of all of Nayana's tuition locations. It was an old lady, a cousin or an aunt, once or twice removed. She lived alone in a duplex house with a garden and a backyard. Such opulence, Nayana thought when they visited her for the first time to make acquaintance and ask for shelter from the summer. The aunt was delighted. Nayana and her father were relieved.

The old lady didn't have much of immediate family to boast of. Her son was married to a white woman and settled abroad, probably divorced, with three children. Her daughter was also married off, to someone in the merchant navy. The aunt's husband had died long ago. She basically spent entire days tending to gardens, going to temples and cooking a small meal for herself.

Nayana didn't strike a friendship right away, she never does. But with time, there grew a quiet camaraderie between them, they had over half a century between themselves in age, notwithstanding. Nayana would arrive dutifully at about half past ten in the morning, when her classes began as early as eight. Then both of them would savor a lunch together on the aunt's mosaic-top dining table, which would usually be adorned with an ornate vase of fresh flowers from the garden. As the aunt went back to her siesta, or to flip through a magazine, Nayana would leave at around one and be back at three. Nayana took to the aunt's habit of tea and salted biscuits in the afternoon, sitting with her in her netted garden chair and be off for a final class at five from where should would directly head home.

Nayana would be treated by the aunt with glasses of lime juice or lassi to ward off dehydration. Sometimes, Nayana's mother would send packets of sweets through Nayana to thank the aunt. But soon they realized that the aunt was a diabetic and all the sweets were getting back to Nayana's lunch plate.

Some days, the classes would get cancelled, or Nayana would just bunk them saying it was too hot to go out. Together they would lay on the bed, in the moist air of the air cooler and flip through magazines, or watch matinee TV before drifting off to sleep. Though it surprised her parents, on some nights Nayana would just call home to say she would spend the night at the aunt's and go home the next day. Dinners would be special with some fish or prawns. Nayana would read the aunt's Woman's Era magazines till late in the night. Some of them had fiction. Stories about women, young and old, their problems, lives, solutions, joys and sorrows.

Nayana juxtaposed her future with the lives of those characters. At that time and age, nothing was definite, nothing was decided about the future. It never is. But back then, she felt this certain amount of control or say she had and felt that she could mold her life the way she wanted. Her life was definitely not going to be like this aunt's, married off at eighteen, twice a mother at twenty three. But the aunt's life suddenly didn't seem bad at all, with oodles of leisure, magazines and a garden.

Nayana sometimes stayed an entire Sunday or two and helped tend to the garden, loosen the soil in the potted plants, add manure, water them. She plucked drumsticks and papaya, by just standing on the roof. There were bananas too, but those took too long to ripen. There was a once a big jackfruit that ripened and it was too big to eat for just two people. So both of them walked from neighbor to neighbor distributing jackfruit as a gesture of goodwill. Nayana was surprised everyone knew the aunt, despite the fact that she didn't venture out much.

The three months of summer were over in a whoosh. Once college reopened, Nayana couldn't once go back to visit her aunt. Something mysterious stopped her. Probably, she didn't know what she would say now that their time together was a choice and not a compulsion. Probably, she wanted to keep those months of summer untarnished in her memory without any interventions from any other time in the future. That summer, a bounded stretch of lapsed time, she could travel back to from time to time and gape at with glorious wonder.