Saturday, October 24, 2009

Winter has arrived unheralded as a familiar guest should. Inconspicuous, as it has attempted to be, I cannot miss the rows of stalls, all hoarse with the cries of “Three for six hundred”, their originators curtained by woollen blankets being unfolded for the inspection of those passers by that might spare a sideways glance away from the irreproachably straight road ahead.

Clotheslines of jerkins swing between adjacent stalls, zipped up and strung up by their dubious familiarity of their labels. They stare at you warily as you walk past, you can almost see those invisible faces from within those upturned collars, and feel their disconsolate pleas for attention on your stubbornly unsold, uncovered back.

There is only one other place where I have acknowledged winter’s faltering albeit unmistakeable entrance.

A chetak scooter had trundled passed me, a six year old standing in front of his father, his feet between his father’s feet, straying within reach of the pedals of the scooter, perched as precariously as I once was in front of my father. Except that instead of facing the road and offering it his bundled chest to the chills of thirty kmph wind, he had his back to the road and his head against his father’s chest, sleeping like a fugitive prince being whisked away on a horse.

And this picture, incomplete as it may be, will always be winter for me.

I write of winter because it has lived incognito among us in Madras for sixteen years. I write of winter because four winters’ memories can make wearing a ragged gray sweatshirt seem as snug as carrying a pot of live coals, merely by a talismanic logo emblazoned on it atop my heart.
I write of winter because, like me, it can never have the last word in a bargain, can’t count its centigrade change twice before folding it carefully in its wallet, unlike the rest of the world that walks smugly in the sun without having been short-changed.
I write of winter because I still haven’t switched off the fan or even reined it back below that soothing speed four that sweeps away overhead noise.
I write of winter because it always leaves just when you wish it away, when you claim every day will be colder than the next and that one day it just won’t be there anymore.
I write of winter because I could do with a change of season and that there can never be songs enough for the seasons.

I pause at the last stall in line, aware that I will one day join this growing minority that is already clad in warmer clothes.

“Single blanket?” I begin.

He unwraps a blue blanket, darkening to indigo in the dusk, to its fullest extent, his arms taut and fingers tense with the effort and says, “Seven feet. Pure wool.”

It slips between the questioning tips of my fingers, softer than the lint-spangled exterior promises and yet I ask doubtfully, “Isn’t there anything thicker?” I point him out to blankets that lie snugly zipped away from the dust and smoke of the road within their plastic carry cases.

He unpacks it obligingly enough but adds in the tone of a remark intended to pass as irrelevant , “Three four people can sleep comfortably. Families buy this.”

Thrice as thick and thrice as large, it would obviously cost thrice as much. But why would I buy this, I who have never known the insides a double quilt and it represents, I who have slept and lived solitarily throughout? Mistaking my silence for a wavering will, he slips from nine hundred to six hundred. “If you want, come with your mother. I’ll remember, for you alone it will be six hundred.” The loud spiel of his vendor voice sinks to a confidential whisper.

I nod, “Yes, I’ll return with my mother.” “Remember me, Inamdar. I won’t go back on my word” he completes, a little heroically.

A lone bulb twinkles above us hanging by a makeshift tangle of wires all carrying stolen electricity. Against the polypropylene-papered wall, the blankets make tantalizing shadows that obey the pendulous motion of the bulb as perfectly as the moths above do. I walk away towards a house that no sunlight can blind, a bed that no family-size quilt can warm, a chill that no season can pierce.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Old Love

Yesterday, I turned full-throated in class, offering answers out of turn, scrambling under desks for candy that scattered past other hands unearned.

Yesterday, you were sitting at my table, not cross-legged and conversant, but with a scowl that only a stubborn splash of the last night's candle, a blob that refused to be scooped into your fingernails, can inspire.

Yesterday,you could listen to me on the phone with another, for half an hour straight without turning away or pretending to be absorbed in your own little squares of light, and then tell me without waiting for my recap, "That was a very sensible thing that you've just told her."

Yesterday, you could shut your eyes tight enough for my throat to swallow a cry and choke on the song that was already yours.

Yesterday, you could remind me of every kiss yet unclaimed, by a parted hand, a smile that couldn't beget mine, your way of falling asleep.

Old love isn't love grown weary of suppers gone cold and crowded clotheslines. Old love is not love that died young and poemless, having forgotten every line read and having stabbed its own rhyme shut.

Old love tramps past broken hedges, sidles up to me in solitary streets, and steers me instead towards glittering shelves and the fatal charms of peddlers' cries.Old love shoves past the doors I shut behind it, past my ultimatums and follows me out bleary-eyed like a child that refuses to sleep alone in the dark.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Singing in lost lands

I found myself singing today, chorus-clipped songs that had stayed on long after the stage had cleared, the car radio had shut mouth half-open, and my mother’s voice disappeared into a songless senility. Nobody else heard it, in the smack of thumb and forefinger, in the limped detour from straight and fast that my feet have taken, or between drummed wall corners that my fists seek out as if to punch the song out of my being. On buses, the curtain string that cuts window views into red-lined halves trills long with the song but whether they travel backwards like sea waves on reverse gear, I don’t know.

First I merely hear the song in my head, furiously piecing together the lines in order, shunning the absurdly addictive rhyme of chorus, waiting for the music to fill up places that a bad memory and an ear thought to be tone-deaf can’t. And then I hear it – whole and at last, a more flawless version than I ever could have with the best stereo system in the world. Soon my lips play shadows to the words, just the words, because the music will have me out of breath and crying even before its starts. But lips are taking cues from a resurrected melody only to jump every gun and miss every note. And soon its is not the song I hear but my own voice groping for tune syllable for syllable, missing refrains and filling the place of words missed with hoarse helpless breaths.

Soon our conversations will wrap itself around a glossary of abbreviated endearments that we’ll both grow impatient with, until they wind themselves into a silence unbecoming of lovers. And one day, we’ll say nothing to each other that desire can’t mute and habit can’t muffle. .
And when I hear the raindrops at the windows, leaning against long-forgotten shoulders, I will sing every line (but the chorus) I have snatched from an intensely unmusical life. And you will listen, not to any reckless rendition but the song as I hear it, its stabbing sobbing senses intact.

Because you will have touched me enough to sing in spite of myself.

If you outlive me, as you probably will, you won’t give way to a grief that you can’t afford, but shake your head and hear those songs in your head just the way I had, chorus clipped and perfect.