Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Too much coffee

The appam-stew was worth it. Worth the half-hour auto-ride that bounced her all the way through beach road to the grand bay. Worth braving auto drivers who cast her glances that threatened to break out into a hindi conversation, much before she could say “inox, an innocuous telugu-free phrase that wouldn’t betray her to them cheat her out of twenty five bucks.

The road began steep and rollicking in empty stretches where the sea lay bare and blue and flattened out as the warships and sailboats improved the view. Today the surf was white, too white as if an amateur artist had dabbed white poster paint in too many places on his seaside landscape. White in all the wrong places, the places where the sea slept with its legs folded.

She couldn’t think in the hours beween eleven and one. It was as if her thoughts had been short-circuited, words had been lost heart mid-wave and had washed ashore in half-sentences. That’s why she found writing so difficult. For her it was an act of memory, putting down words that were already fully formed in her head, an effort to speak in a gentler tongue than she did in her own head. Mostly effortless except on the days she drank too much coffee.

She was led to the same table every time by the steward. The serving staff wore angavastrams and maroon sherwanis, a sight that provoked less and less laughter with every visit repeated. A pair of stone elephants waited at the garden the table faced. She noticed that they were growing younger with every visit, the chiselled frowns, three parallel stripes on their grey foreheads eroded by gust after gust of sea salted air. The protuberances on skulls where light and shadow played hide and seek were softening from a grave carven look into an infantile roundness. Freshly sprouted shoots of grey flourished on her scalp, the same shade of grey as the elephants that were growing younger.

Behind her a group of seven couples stood waiting for chairs to be rearranged. She didn’t want to turn back for a better look at them because she already knew what they would look like, the old rich of vizag who lunched at the grand bay on Sundays talking about daughters who lived across the bay of Bengal in Singapore and sons who waited for their term to get over at the university of texas. Sentences that fell silent drifted half-formed to her ears but she brushed them away. She knew their as well as he knew the playlist at Dakshin, always the same set of carnatic instrumental CDs. She knew it right down to the unerring transition from violin to saxophone to the veena.

The glass walls were crisscrossed with bamboo logs that stood clustered outside like khaki-trousered legs of men sharing cigarettes. The scaffolding gave her a sensation being caged within. She wasn’t sure what the scaffolding was made out. Once the bark was chipped away every tree limb looked the same, wooden logs squatting together in a mass of twine knots.

A solitary guest was never unwelcome at a restaurant, she mused. When you overlooked what apparently looked like a wasteful seating arrangement of a single person at a 4-seater, you noticed other advantages. A solitary guest never tarries over orders unlike large groups where menu is debated lip-bitingly for half-hour lengths and orders and parried back and forth between, covering the notepad with squiggles of dishes that might have been. A single guest often names her order instantly sometimes even before the menu is presented. And she always tipped generously.

The coffee was not one of the restaurant’s strong points. That was the only thing she insisted upon, “Please make it strong.” She would tell them again and again. But the tall silver tumbler, its flaring rim a thin-lipped pout always, disappointed. What lay within was neither fragrant nor tingled with flavour that made you discover taste buds on the roof of your mouth. It was the watery kind of dregs-of-the-decoction cup that one might be invited to at an average home at madras, the kind that wouldn’t even elicit the perfunctory “Nice coffee” compliment. But it was one of the three places in Andhra Pradesh, her own apartment in Hyderabad excepted where the coffee transported her to madras if only between long deep sips that slid under her tongue and told tales.

You could taste good coffee a long time on your lips, sweet and thick, like a kiss. Sometimes it would stay in your mouth long after a couple of glasses of water had put it out. Here it slunk away untasted and cold like a stranger you ran into on the road.

She wanted to buy dolls from Vizag for the golu . September was six months away. Bur she had had her eye on that particular piece for a long time, a wooden carving of Krishna and radha with faces bleached and then painted ivory. What she liked best about the dolls was the complete absence of divinity in the identical almond-eyes both the cowherd and his companion the milkmaid. The flute sat lazily outside the corners of his lips as if he had just whistled out a dreamy tune and was considering a long nap in the shade of a gulmohar. They didn’t look like god and amour, just like any boy and girl chasing cows across a pasture. Their feet rose together from a wooden base naturally like lithe tree trunks, the awkwardly jointed ankles vanishing beneath purple silk that had bend draped over them.

The Tribes India store on beach road sold wares of traditional artisans. The doll looked like it could have been whittled by fingers Rajasthani, Oriya, Bengali, even Chattisgarhi. But when it sat among older papier-mâché dolls on one of the seven stainless tell rows, her mother would say “Oh that one! Ramya bought it from Vizag.” She had let the secret of its origins rest with the salesman, biting back the question that would have turned it into one of her breed, a visitor to the city waiting to flee to faraway places

She wanted the doll to be nothing else but a Vizag doll, she needed to add to her mother’s golu hoard something ransomed from her itinerant life and her navaratri absences. By carrying it away home she might be carrying a bit of the city back, the city that had been many places to her at once Pilani by winter, Madras by summer but forever a city that would hold her captive, healing her like a hometown and hiding her well like a lair .

It was the coffee, too much coffee every time. She never managed to stave off coffee cravings that begged her to douse the aftertastes of meal with its uniform foam of bitterness. If she skipped the coffee she would have been able to take an afternoon nap. If she drank it she sank into a trance that permitted neither pointed thought nor drifting repose.

The plastic pouch popped with a squeak when she stepped on it, right at the throat of the packet so that it spat water at her toes. She stepped around dead fishes that lay flat and silvery against the ground glimmering like lost coins under the full moon. The entire stretch of road was fragrant with fish that had been left to dry on the pavement. People stepped around her carefully on the sidewalk as if trying to keep their soles clear of a smelly liquid that was spreading slowly on the ground beneath them. Vizag cast mourning robes on her, maiming her with limp of a sorrow that invited second glances from passers by who guessed at its cause but daren’t stop her and ask.

It was such an easy city to walk around in. Coastal cities always are. Landlocked at Hyderabad where the sky was spread over them like a blue polythene sheet over a hutment, she’d wander in circles waiting for that explosion of open skies that never came. Here was a road that had called up a city into existence from its four-metre breadth, the road that was laid by south-bound voyagers who had merely wanted to flee a plundered kingdom but had been charmed by this flatland between the ghats and had stayed back.

Teneti park was the closest she could get to being back at elliot’s. There were fishermen about squatting atop upturned catamarans with gouged eyes that wouldn’t ever set out to sea again, singing fishermen who sat at their polysester nets that kept up a drumbeat with their fingers in accompaniment to their songs.

The whiff of far-off places was always there like the soft call of a song that was playing at a forbidden place, a song playing within gates she daren’t pass. Ships stayed brightly lit, marking out the otherwise indiscernible line parting sky from sea. She counted them off from dolphin’s nose to the cliff that held her eyes back from straying further north. She wondered how many of the ships she had counted off in the afternoon had reached the harbour and how many anchors lay drooping and drooling rust at the same spot in the sea.

It was the coffee again The vendor at teneti park sold coffee that streamed from the tap of a steel drum that was slung around his shoulders, a steaming dragon bellyful of thick choclatey Andhra filter coffee. She always sought him out among the evening throng of the slow-treading elderly and harried parents giving their fleet-footed brood a breathless chase. Lately she had grown superstitious about her visits to the park, never leaving till she had caught sight of the old man. She would cut off mid-cry his hoarse chants of “coffee-tea” and exchange a five rupee coin for a Styrofoam cup. Half of its contents she would forfeit to the grass that lay burning on the way back to her stone seat.

She fingered the scab on her elbow, picking away at black corners of discarded skin that moulted with the ease of a gift wrapper. At the centre it swung stiffly on hinges like a padlock rattling painfully with a false key within, before breaking away in a burst of pus. The rest of it stayed glued to the sea of pink like dark unexplored continents on a map.

She had said her farewells to the city many times over only to find that she had to return again. She returned to find dark hills grow dense with a yellow hive of houselights that winked from rooftops, returned to roads that no longer abloom with an eight pm hush but wheezed with streetlit motes of dust raised by stragglers who refused to be bid good night, to find pristine shores hammered with footprints that didn’t fade, to find the coffee watered to light brown oblivion and yet craving it between hour to hour.

She looked at the sea again at the places where it no longer slept with its legs folded but writhed in a nightly serpentine dance. She saw the white daubs of poster paint had disappeared in the dusk making way for subtler blue-black brush strokes of the night and was happy.

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