After the university accepted my application for a research scholarship, my father introduced me to his buddy, Iyer Sir, the Dean of the department, to start working.
Iyer Sir lived in a timeworn Victorian quarter in the old city’s underbelly that retained Raj’s hangover. One could circumvent the long winding road that led to Sir’s quarter by crossing the electric crematorium’s yard, although most were hesitant to take this route. But I had no qualms about using the shortcut. Upon entering the gravelled ground around the house, what first caught my attention was the auspiciously grown cluster of three-and-a-half to four-meter high basil plants in a raised square at the centre of the courtyard. On the day I arrived, Sir greeted me with an embrace.
I went to Sir’s house once a week in the evenings. We would sit together in his private library on the house’s upper floor, where a mixture of incense and sandalwood lent divinity to the air. As my visits became habitual, Sir’s wife started staying back to talk to me until I finished the filter coffee she would bring me. As days advanced into weeks and weeks into months, my tête-à-têtes with her began to get much more intimate than how it would have been with the wife of any customised mentor. Once, I told her that my mother had an excellent ear for music and how she had hired an accomplished Hindustani classical music tutor to coach my sister. Of course, she knew my mother, but not quite so well. While I was detailing her about my accidental brush with music and though my back was turned towards the door, I felt someone’s presence at the doorstep. The scent of jasmine flowers was faint, yet I had no trouble in identifying its source.
After the tutor had left for the day, I felt left out and couldn’t control my tears. The following day, I too joined the group as the tutor’s second disciple. It took me quite a while to pick up the basics, the scales and the rhythm. Two years later, I switched tutors and became the disciple of a textile merchant’s father who had moved from the northern part of the country and made our village his home. It took me another five years to grasp the ragas and pick up the finer nuances like the Bandish, Thumri, Khayal and Dhrupad. For reasons I didn’t quite know, Meghmalhar turned out to be my favourite raga. As she left with the coffee cup, she came close and said that, however insignificant it may appear, such incidents should be chronicled. Life is all about the uncertainty of what comes next. The act of committing ink to parchment gives a deed permanence. The scent of jasmine flowers, in the meantime, had withered.
On my way out, I had to descend a flight of wooden steps and walk past a corridor that led to a foyer, leading into an open veranda from where one could step out onto the gravelled grounds. After the staircase landing and before the corridor emerged was an enclosed isle that Sir’s daughter Maya used as her study. Shafts of light would trickle through the half-open door of her retreat. When my footsteps approached its entrance, she would hurriedly get up from the chair. I would describe Maya’s movements like those of a bunch of ripe wheat buds swaying in the breeze. From under those curved long black lashes, the pupils of her vaunting eyes would lift and stretch toward me, and traces of a smile would spill over her dimpled cheeks to culminate in her bounteous lips… and my heart would skip a beat. I do not recall how long this scene played itself out. I’d lie awake the entire night thinking about her gently upturned nose and heron-in-flight eyebrows resembling an alphabet from some nomadic calligraphy that had lost its way and finally found refuge over her forehead.
Soon began the exchanges of scribbles on small bits of paper between the two of us. Everything about her, even the paper slips’ serrated edges, were as artistic as cut out from machines.
Maya’s younger brother, Raghu, had won many accolades at high school for his singing. I once mentioned to him how Geeta Dutt, a little girl from a small village in East Bengal, would sit under a tree, listening to boatmen’s songs as they ferried people across the river and grew up become the most sought-after female singer in Hindi cinema. She later married a fickle-hearted young filmmaker who developed an infatuation toward one of his heroines. Their failed marriage and subsequent alcoholism and liver cirrhosis led to the premature end of one of the music world’s loveliest voices. I could sense how deeply the singer’s tragedy touched Raghu. The next day I handed him a compact disc that contained many of Geeta Dutt’s popular songs. A week later, as I passed by Maya’s study, I heard the crooner’s voice without accompaniments: Meri jaan, mujhe jaan na kaho meri jaan.. (My love, call me not your life). I stopped in my tracks, stunned. The niceties, nuances, the emotive interpretation—I couldn’t believe my ears; it was Maya.
It must have been a year later or maybe even longer. One evening as I was leaving her home, the paper roll she dropped in her adorable, slanting cursive hand read, “Everybody will be away at the temple ground tonight watching the festivities. Let’s do the Meghmalhar act.”
When I reached the deck later that night, a full moon stood alone, threatening to hide behind the hill and painting the sky in unusual shades of pink and purple. She stood in the shadow of the bamboos with her back towards me. When I was only a couple of yards away, she suddenly turned around and looked me in the eye without flinching for several moments. And then, as if it was the most natural thing to happen, she darted into my arms like a puff of breeze. Only a half wall stood between the backyard and the sea. It had a small wicket-gate at the centre opening towards the seashore. Hand in hand, we headed down the slope to the cool sands. Behind us stood the majestic Geomagnetic Observatory, an antique glass building.
Despite my earnest efforts not to, Maya coerced me to sing. The wind carried the drum beats from the temple around us, and I thought of harmony. It was all and only about the merging of individual sounds. My ascending voice touched the ‘M’ note—just a moment. But that moment lasted, merely the length of a breath. Above the waves’ lapping onto the shore, I listened to the gush of cascading water and birds chirp. Then the glass doors and windows of the Geomagnetic Observatory shattered, to which Maya was unmindful. She zestfully ran into the water, playing hide and seek with the tide, more like a five-year-old than the full-blown young woman she was.
When the waves rolled in, she would run towards the shore; once they rolled back, she would hurriedly run after them. The salty breeze blew the silken strands of her hair upwards and caressed her long pale neck. She turned towards the dune where I sat and beckoned in invitation. I got up but did not move. She turned back again, casting her eyes over the refracted shadow of my unmoving figure. She picked up her sandals from the dry sand and began to walk towards me. The tide came in, wetting her feet. It filled the deeper rear part of her footprints with seawater in which appeared the reflection of the moon on its rollback. The tide’s momentum on its rollback sent a shiver rippling over the seawater within the footprints, eventually breaking the reflection into little fragments. It was as if she was reluctantly leaving those broken bits of the moon strewn over the tiny strip of shoreline.
I felt my body on fire as I awoke the following morning. I was confined to the bed for the entire week. On the seventh day, I woke up in the middle of the night only to find her footprints harbouring tiny bits of the moon scattered all over the floor. I tried rubbing my eyes, pinching myself, but neither came to my rescue.
One sultry afternoon while the windswept fallen autumn leaves drifted over our courtyard, a beaming Sir and his wife walked in with the news that his cousin had approached him for Maya’s hand for his son. The proposed groom was an aeronautical engineer with an international airline. They knew the groom from his boyhood and were overwhelmed by the good fortune that had come their way. They scheduled the wedding four weeks later.
I stopped going to Sir’s house. My mother asked me why on a couple of occasions, although my blank stare had given away that something was not right. Perhaps she believed I would open up to her, which was the only discernable logic to her silence.
The lone two-storey building stood tall in the shade of the mango grove. The short, winding road that ran past the bunch of trees disappeared over the foothill. A pallid blue sky stretched lazily, festooned with slow-moving clouds that, like a cunning jackal, murkily swallowed the dazzling yellow sunlight. My eyelids felt heavy, and I struggled to keep my eyes open. I had always felt that Maya’s breath was distinctly warm, resulting in her tears evaporating and rising to form a condensate cloud that the westerly wind floated past the group of bamboos, the deserted yard of the electric crematorium, the uneven long gravelled road and then lowered the altitude of its flight path over the bougainvillaea branches nested over the gateway of our house before sneaking through the windowpane of my room. As if hit by a splash of silver iodide, it cooled down abruptly to reinvent itself in its original liquid state, descending over my left cheek with a thud prompting my eyelids to open. There she stood, Maya, right over my bed while all the others relished their siesta. Were her eyelashes drenched with hurt? Were little droplets, like petals of jasmine flowers, streaming down the sky? Her face appeared swollen, and her dishevelled hair fell loosely over her shoulders. I got up and sat on the edge of the bed without the slightest idea of how I would confront her. She dropped to her knees, hiding her face in my lap and wept openly. All I could manage was to run my fingers over her tousled hair that still held the faint lilac scent that filled my head with dizzying thoughts of summer. When she rose, I held her in a tight embrace. I felt our world was about to explode at that spot and held her as close as I could, never wanting to let her go.
Without breaking away from my grip, her eyes bore down into mine, desperately seeking an answer. I couldn’t match her stare and looked away, afraid that I would drown in the uncharted depths of her eyes that blatantly laid bare her hope against all odds. Unexpectedly, she regained her composure, shrugged off my embrace and walked out of the room without uttering a word. I knew she loathed me from her gut more than anybody or anything else at that moment.
When I was alone again, I climbed the stairs to the first floor of our house. Holding onto the wooden railings of the balcony, I stood with a barren mind. Far away on the island, the lights blinked. I could not identify the tide’s movement as darkness had spread over the water. I did not try to unfold the happenings of the afternoon. The moonlight did not appear to turn the water surface into silver, a moonless night perhaps. The wind that blew from the distant island carried the familiar line from an old song: Meri jaan, mujhe jaan na kaho meri jaan… Who was there? My ears tried to listen up. Nothing. Only the darkness stared back at me.
As the bus negotiated the rocky mountain slope at an altitude of 15,000 feet, shrieks of trepidation and perturbed, laughter could be heard in the background. One slipup by the driver and the bus could plunge into an abyss several thousand feet down the mountain. The bus drove around a confined, winding road with no guard bannister or protected border for over 150 miles. The views of the valley thousands of feet below from different angles, however, were breathtaking. The bends emerged, followed by the curves, like a woman’s body from the thighs to the back. As I got down from the bus, my back hurt and my feet felt leaden.
The river flowed quietly in front of me like an obedient child. It was the only source of irrigation for the farmers of the valley. Any place that squats near the water is harboured in a metaphysical relationship between the static and the dynamic. I found this as a narcissistic liaison in which the place found her own reflection in the water just as in a mirror—potent desirability for a traveller of my ilk.
When the waiter at the makeshift eatery served me tea, I couldn’t help thinking about the quality of the water that came from the river. I stared at the flowing water through the shadows of the willow trees and back at the tea glass before me from which steam rose. The waiter told me there was no toilet facility around. Pointing towards the flowing river in front and a mountain pass at the rear, he chuckled saying, “We manage.”
An old white stray dog speckled with ochre over its belly and back appeared from the rear, wagging its tail and making a curious sound. Its tongue was hanging out and breath heavy. The shade of its moistened eyes was a perfect foil to the river water. I offered it a roll of bread with some meatballs from the supplies that I had bought from the local grocer. As I began my hike upward, the now spirited dog appeared in no mood to leave me alone. On the way, I was lucky to find a quay with a flight of steps leading down the river where I managed to wash and tidy up. The freshly baked bread was soft and delicious. Here I stood, without any knowledge of my destination even after several months of nomadic life as a carpetbagger.
A good five hundred metres farther up, I found a natural hollow space that looked like a cave on a hillside. As soon as we entered the cave, the dog spread its legs and lay down to rest. I, too, wanted to stretch my legs and shed myself of the baggage. That’s the last I could remember before I fell asleep. When I awoke, the sunlight had shifted towards the east. I felt as though I were reborn. How long had I slept?
I felt like someone who has landed at the wrong end of a black hole. I whispered my name as if to make sure I was my self. To my ears, it sounded like a misnomer, though. I dipped myself in the river and felt like having been baptised as I came out.
Downstream, I saw men watering their herd. A young woman and her little sister with their sheep waited for their turn. It looked like the men did not care. Soon it would be dark. I offered to water their sheep, and the young woman appeared relieved. The little girl struck up a conversation with me and asked me to accompany them to their home in the hills. The elder one, Zulekha, nodded. Their father, a bearded old man, tall and lean, struck me as a victim of a cataract. Zulekha argued her case, and eventually, the old man agreed to keep me as their herdsman.
As days passed, the father developed a liking towards me and spoke of a son he never had. Whenever Zulekha served the old-fashioned black tea with herbs added, she offered it in a glass teacup to her father and me in an earthenware mug because mine was tea with milk. When I told her I preferred black tea, the same kind served to her father, she was visibly upset, her thick eyelashes flapping up and down, like the leaves of a palm tree laden with fruits in the gust, but I didn’t want to encourage her.
On full moon nights, I would walk across the conifers and go down to the valley to catch up with my old singing habits. When my Meghmalhar aaroh reached its crescendo, the spruce, hemlock and larch would sway their heads to the rhythm. On the twenty-fourth full moon after my arrival, as my aaroh stretched to the ‘M’ note, I felt my voice touching an ethereal tenor. Were glimmers of a golden yellow light streaming through the woods from a distance, accompanied by the clinking of anklets? Was the Goddess of Knowledge from folklore just about to descend from the heavens into the valley and grant me a boon?
Abruptly the lights went out. I felt a cold shiver up my spine. No sooner had the old gloom returned than I heard cascading water gush and birds chirp. A mirror shattered, like an echo from the past returning from deep in the forest. Startled, I turned around. There stood Zulekha, sad and sorrowful, in the shadow of a hemlock tree, broken bits of glass sticking out from the frame of the vanity mirror in her hand.
Awash in the leaden moonlight dripping through the breaches between the tree leaves lay the outline of a heart with a conduit across that Zulekha had furrowed with her big toe in the virgin soil. I looked into her eyes that were like turbulent pools, the surface of which was bizarrely tranquil. I had no intention of drowning myself in them. Was it her circuitous way of letting me know she was heart-broken?
Halfway through the night, I woke up unawares. A quarter moon, shaped like the curved fruit-bearing stalk of a palm tree, stood in the eastern sky. A cool breeze sailed past, and there hung a calm in the air. Out of the blue, I smelt the odour of the oil that my father used to apply all over his body before he had a hot bath an hour later. I felt uneasy, only to realise it was time to go home.
My father’s funeral was over long before my arrival. All my mother did was hold me in an embrace that lasted the good part of a minute. Our neighbours looked at me scornfully, as if the prodigal son had returned. Much had occurred during my exile. Nothing was what it used to be. The links that formed the chain that held us all together were snapping one at a time. Iyer Sir and his wife had fallen victims to the pandemic that had struck the world from an animal market in the Far East.
I never left the house, spending most of the time in my room or staring into nothingness on the veranda. Raghu, now a well-known journalist and literary critic, was a frequent visitor. He tried to persuade me into joining the editorial desk of the newspaper where he worked. When I did not yield, he urged me to write, to which I relented.
I did not attend my book launch nor the prestigious felicitation and award ceremony at the nation’s capital. “Nine years is a long time, and you’ve tormented yourself enough, don’t you see,” my mother would ask, desolately trying to repress a sob in her throat. When Raghu’s earnest attempts bore fruit, and I received an employment offer from an Arabian literary magazine, my mother assumed it was the pathway to my redemption. “Opportunities like this are few and far between”, she said, “no matter what, you’ve to be out of this penitentiary you’ve hatched for yourself”.
My flight arrived in town on a chilly February morning when the day was just about to break. Halfway through the aircraft’s descent, I could sense the cityscape rising like a luscious maiden shaking off the weariness of the previous night’s exhaustion. My mother’s cousin, Uncle Prabhu, and his friend Alex were waiting in the arrival lounge. A stamp on my passport read that I was not permitted to travel to a Southern African nation, which at that time was reeling under racial discrimination. The list of countries where I was permitted to travel was written by hand. The wise guy at the immigration counter grinned at me as if he had just caught the most fraudulent act of the millennium. He quietly went to his supervisor and showed him what he had found. The supervisor turned the pages of my passport and showed him the other handwritten entries in the same hand. The wise guy was utterly disappointed and stamped my entry date in the passport and decided I was not worthy of a second look. All this while, Uncle Prabhu and his friend were waiting outside anxiously without any clue about the events. When I explained to them, both looked at the other, smiling ruefully.
From behind the wheel of the white Toyota Cressida in which we sat, Alex appeared like an ace at manoeuvring the car through heavy traffic. After a while, the Cressida cut into a service road, circled an open-air cinema house and came to a halt before a row of villas. Was this a new beginning?
Even after a year, I did not feel it was so. Last night was the first time in quite a while that my mother mentioned Maya, suddenly, without any preamble, during our otherwise casual phone conversation. One month ago, Maya’s husband, Shantanu, was posted to his company’s headquarters that by some strange quirk of fate was located on the outskirts of the same city where I lived. Maya was now a mother to two adorable children, the chirpy and talkative ten-year-old Meera and Manu, whose conduct was delectably sombre for his age; he was hardly six. I had dinner with them in their lavishly furnished apartment, of which every room had a breathtaking view of the enclave of chalets built in reclaimed land charted in the shape of a palm tree, the sprawling seven-star hotel complex and the harbour beyond. As Shantanu spoke animatedly of his plans to construct a bungalow back home, I could only pretend to listen, occasionally shaking my head. At the same time, I was lost in the song of the slithering raindrops sliding down the glass windows. The next day when I telephoned my mother, the conversation started with the case of my marriage, as it invariably did. However, this time she said she was voicing her concern only at Maya’s insistence.
I felt as much a stranger to the city as much as it was to me. The city appeared far from the spellbinder it once had been and had walked me through my first sins. The leaves of the date palms were still wet from the mid-day showers. The heritage village had shut down for the day. Atop the massive pole beside the prayer hall flew a colourful flag. I picked up a packet of Gitanes from the vending machine and crossed onto the sands.
The sands were the same as they were a long time ago, several thousand miles away. And so was the sea drawn out beneath a crimson evening sky. The waves rolled over its façade like the rippling midriff of a spinster past her prime. The same sea that had witnessed a much younger me drawing Maya closer in the shadows behind the fisherman’s boat to plant a kiss on her lips as the twilight faded. The city resembled a courtesan, gorgeous and liberal, but with an inherent propensity to withdraw her favours when she chanced upon a cocky younger man. It didn’t matter because I was set to pick up my life as a vagabond from where I had left off a second time.
By noon the day after I had dined with Shantanu and Maya, I ran a temperature and left the office early. My head spun in the elevator, and I struggled to press the button for the level on which I was to get out. Yet I was able to identify the flight path of the tiny cloud that the westerly wind chartered across over the enclave of chalets, the palm island, the seven-star hotel complex and circumventing the long sandy strip strewn around with date palms before nose-diving to enter the door of my apartment that was ajar, and landing over my left cheek in its original state forcing me to open my eyes wide. There she stood, Maya, over my bed with a gravely concerned look that perforated into my entire being.
She hurried towards the kitchen and returned a minute later with a plain toast, a cup of black tea and a strip of Paracetamol tablets. She made me sit up and fed me the toast dunked in the black tea. She made me swallow two Paracetamol tablets with the remainder of the black tea. Before leaving, she left a flask full of black tea, a small container full of plain toasts and what was left of the Paracetamol strip on the bedside table. She had travelled the thirty-five-kilometre distance from her apartment to mine all by herself because my colleague had told her I was unwell and left early for the day when she called, and I did not respond to the calls she made on my cell phone.
The next day she called me at the office to reprimand me. It was high time I got married, she felt. She also thought I needed someone to take care of me. The following day our conversation was centred on my mother. It appeared she had called me for something else and indeed not to discuss my mother. I could not, however, put my finger on what exactly she could have meant to tell me.
A few days later, Maya mentioned that her in-laws were deeply concerned about their daughter, Mallika, who was unyielding to matrimony. She had, however, agreed after five long years when her brother brought up my case. Both Shantanu and Maya thought that we’d make a good pair. I implored her not to force me, that I was used to the life I now led, and more importantly, I didn’t deserve a decent girl like Mallika. Despite what Shantanu felt about me, the conservatives in their family would have an issue. Maya was in no mood to pay heed to what I had to say. “Of all the people, you… Don’t you see why she chose you?” There was no point in arguing, so I kept quiet that probably irritated her: “It’s your silence that’s all the more deafening.” Why would she be so desperate to pull me out of my misery after what I had done to her? Did she feel responsible for me too?
A few days after our conversation involving Mallika had died down, she started speaking about Meera in a troubled voice. I merely laughed it off. The inadvertent gesture, however, triggered her breakdown. There was no way I could have known that she was living for the past eleven years with the atonement of my fathering her daughter. She pleaded with joined palms that I leave her little household alone before things spiralled out of hand. The only part in the bargain I asked her to fulfil was to let us all take a trip together to the northern mountain range close to which lay the longest coastline and beach in the country, just one last trip. Maybe we could pretend we would see each other the coming week, even though it would not happen, yet pretend anyway; why not?
When I told my mother I was coming home, her response startled me. She spoke as if she had been expecting my imminent return, “She told you, didn’t she?” How could she have known? The years of my growing up did not make any difference; she still knew what transpired in my mind.
Loss is a sobering phenomenon. It causes people to re-evaluate what they hold dear. My mother could be heard from the backyard trying to coax Meera to go back to the house because it was getting dark. Then, Meera had her excuse: “Grandma, I don’t want to leave the tree alone. Amma has told me. Uncle had planted and watered it for her. I love Uncle as much as I do Amma and Papa.” Kneeling, my mother held her close, and resting her head on the little girl’s delicate shoulder, she wept, like how a tender bamboo stem would split. In the dimly lit azure sky, Maya’s quivering footprints that held the moon’s broken bits, strewn across the whole expanse, appeared inverted.
Three months ago, the Arabian Peninsula dailies had carried the following accident report on their Home pages: A Toyota Land Cruiser had plunged into the sea from the main highway in the Khor Fakkan mountain range, killing four of its occupants, two men, a woman and a child on the spot. The fifth occupant, a ten-year-old girl, had escaped unhurt.
Najeeb S.A. sees himself as a modern day ‘Charles Lamb-in-South Sea House’ by day and an aspiring writer by night. He has lived in Abu Dhabi nearly half his life, has a pet fish named Kittu, and still cherishes the memories of peacock feathers and broken bits of colorful bangles from his boyhood days. He blogs at http://najeebsa.com/