Authors: Sachin Kundalkar
To boatmen of every kind
hat you should not be here when something we've both wanted happens is no new thing for me. Today too, as always, you're not here.
The house is quiet. I'm alone at home. For a while, I basked in bed in the shifting arabesques of light diffusing through the leaves of the tagar. Then I got up slowly, and went down to the backyard, and sprawled on the low wall for a single moment. The silence made me feel like a stranger in my own home.
I walked around the house quietly, as a stranger might. The chirping of sparrows filled the kitchen. The other rooms were quiet, empty, forsaken. In the front room, the newspaper lay like a tent in the middle of the floor, where it had been dropped. At the door, a packet of flowers to appease the gods and a bag of milk.
Then I realized I was not alone. From their photograph, Aaji and Ajoba eyed me in utter grandparental disbelief. I took my coffee to the middle room window and sat down. That girl with the painful voice in the hostel next door? How come she's not shrieking about something?
To savour each bitter and steaming sip of coffee in such quiet?
That you should not be there when something we've both wanted happens is no new thing for me. Today too, as always, you're not here.
When you came into our lives, I was in a strange frame of mind. I would have been willing to befriend anyone my age. I was ready for friendship with someone who only read management books; or someone who was studying information technology; or someone who wanted to settle in the United States. Anyone.
You came as a paying guest. You gave my parents the rent. You gave me so much more. Then you slipped away.
Those shrill girls in the hostel next door, weren't they keeping an eye on us? I'm now going to sit on the wall, and when my coffee's drunk, I'm going to scrape the dried coffee off the rim and the squelch at the bottom of the mug with a fingernail and then I'm going to lick it off. When that's done, I'm going to take off my shirt and continue to sit here.
One of the fundamental rights of mankind should be that of wearing as many or as few clothes as one likes inside one's own home. Or one should be able to wear none at all. Wasn't the eye that the shrill girls in the hostel kept on us an invasion of our privacy, an abrogation of our rights?
After a bath in cold water, you would wrap a towel around yourself and sit on the low wall, bringing with you the smell of soap. It was you who broke my habit of going straight down for breakfast after bathing and getting fully dressed.
Another of my habits you broke: my daily accounts. I'd write them down faithfully. Rs 40 for coffee; Rs 100 for petrol.
âWhy keep accounts?' you asked once.
âIt's a good habit. You should know where you're spending your money and on what.'
âWhat do you get from knowing that?'
I asked Baba the same question in the night.
Baba's answer was so stupid, I felt a spurt of sympathy for Aai. That night, I went for a walk and ate a paan; and I did not write down how much I spent on it.
We hit it off immediately; neither of us liked the kind of girl who would sing syrupy light classical musicâbhav geet; nor the kind of boy who would wear banians with sleeves. There was another thing I didn't like: marriage. And the many relatives who made it their business to discuss the subject ad nauseam. You had no relatives.
We would both have liked this moment. We knew that it would be ours one day. But it is now mine alone.
When I woke up, my eyes opened peacefully. I felt the kind of peace you feel when you come in from a hot afternoon and pour cold water over your feet. When I opened my eyes, the day stretched before me, free of anxiety. When I opened my eyes, nothing was left of the night's anxieties. My eyelids floated up. To wake quietly from a deep sleep is a rare thing and, when it happens, you can almost imagine that the world had begun again, at least for a few seconds. Or so you said.
Watching me wake up one day, you asked, âWhy those frown lines? This look of pain?' Once when I watched you wake up, you had the same frown. You said, âWhen one gets up, there's a moment when everything looks odd and strange.'
I let it go at that.
Today, when I woke up, my eyes drifted open. I felt the kind of peace you feel when you come in from a hot afternoon and pour cold water over your feet. But when I was making coffee a line inscribed itself on my forehead; and I began to think: Why this peace? Shouldn't I be crying? Throwing a tantrum? Complaining to someone?
Your stuff was all over the room: cloth bags, easel, guitar, books, cassettes, camera, Walkman, rolled-up canvases, and a book of pasta recipes. Baba had finished his fifth cup of tea. Aai was making the sixth. Aseem was in bed.
Anuja stopped the rickshaw at the door and got out; and, as is her wont, shouted three times, loudly, for change. Was that the first time you saw each other? When you took the ten-rupee note to her? Anuja shook your hand firmly, no doubt hurting your fingers. Aai introduced you over lunch: âThis is Anuja, Aseem and Tanay's sister.'
In the next two years, how much did you find out about my sister, a girl whose idea of fun was a strenuous trek to a fort, who grinds your fingers in a painful grip when she shakes your hand, who snores a little in her sleep, who listens with complete attention as if you were the last person in the world?
But that's my Anuja. Who is your Anuja? When did you get to know her? How? And how could I have been so blind right up to the end?
When you were giving Anuja the ten rupees, I was up in the tower room, picking up the shirt you had dropped, inhaling your scent from it. When you came up, I was looking through your albums. I hadn't even thought of it as an invasion of privacy. You came up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder and said quietly, âThat was taken a couple of days before the accident; the last photo.' My Marathi-medium school had not taught us to say, âI'm sorry for your loss' at such moments. I hope I took hold of your hand then and gripped it tight.
Can a single day bear the burden of so many random firsts?
You spent all your Diwali vacations with uncles of various stripes. You ate your meals in hostel messes and, at each new halt, you found a roadside stall at which you could get your morning tea. You made yourself at home easily when you lived with us. It must not have been new, this living as a paying guest.
I had had my eye on that room, a dark one but well ventilated. Its main attraction was that it had its own access. I had assumed that it would be mine when I grew up. I would be able to come and go as I pleased. I would paint it the colours I wanted; decorate it the way I wanted. I would sleep in it, alone. But of course, that was the very room that my parents decided would attract a paying guest. And so I had showed this room to many potential residents, my face dark with resentment.
When I was a schoolboy, this was the room of my grandparents' illness. There were two low cots ranged against opposite walls, my grandmother on one, on the other my grandfather. Then only grandmother remained, the room suffused with the smell of Amrutanjan. After she had suffered all her karmic share of suffering, phenyle drove out the other smells: of the ageing body and drying behada bark, of supari and medicine. But the smell of Amrutanjan lingered.
When you came to see it, you said, âWhat a tempting aroma this room has. Do you come here to sneak cigarettes?'
That's when I realized that smell is a matter of the mind. What smells you brought with you! Rum and cigarettes, your sweat and macaroni cooking on the hotplate, and then, because I loved it, attar of khus. And the smell of you, a unique personal smell of your own. When I think of you, that smell comes flooding back.
You came into the room and said, âWhat a tempting aroma this room has.' I thought, if this chap takes the room, things might get interesting. I filled my chest with the smell of the room. Then you said, âDo you come here to sneak cigarettes?' I realized that smell is a matter of the mind. Nothing is real.
As we chatted, sitting on the window ledge, in the middle of the night, I became aware of the mediocrity, the ordinariness of my secure and comfortable life.
You lost your parents when you were still in the tenth standard. You were offered the option of staying with relatives but chose to live in a hostel instead. You decided to live alone, to be independent, to make your own decisions. And through all this, the grim decision never to let a single tear fall.
When the results were declared, you did well. The crowd of happy parents made you uncomfortable and you slipped away. At the time, you were living with one of your aunts and you made your way home. The door was locked. Everyone had gone out. You sat on the sun-warmed steps, mark sheet in hand, and waited until eveningÂ .Â .Â . when you told me this, were those steps still warm for you?
Midnight in the window, just you and me. Even then you didn't cry. At these times, I felt I should be your mother, your father, your brother, your friend, everything. But you had long reached the point at which you decided you would never cry again.
The mattress I had brought up, saying that I would study in the tower room, was never taken downstairs again. I encroached on your space slowly, hoping not to be rebuffed at each new foray.
One night, when everyone had fallen asleep after dinner, I came upstairs and found you in my beige kurta, sketching me. I got it: you didn't mind my stealthy incursions. I also figured out that when the sketch was done, you were going to place it under my pillow. I slipped out again, closing the door behind me quietly and sat at the foot of the staircase, inhaling the scent of the raat rani.
The air was still. There was a light on in the kitchen, then the scrape of Baba's cough and the light went out. The girls' hostel across the road was still active. Some girls were oiling their hair and giggling. The rest were playing antakshari. Idly, I wondered what would happen to these foolish girls.
The light went out in the tower room. I went up and opened the door and approached the mattress. You were curled up on one side; the other a place for me, an invitation. Under the pillow, your sketch of me. But it wasn't the one I had seen. This one had me, the staircase and the raat rani.
When I looked carefully at you, I could see you had screwed up your eyes like a child pretending to sleep.
When we lost a one-act play competition, I sat on the hot steps of the theatre and wept as a child would, sobbing and gasping. You sat down next to me and drew me close and once again I felt we were back in the window, back in the middle of a cool night.
Two days after you left with Anuja, Baba ransacked your room. One moment he was drinking tea; the next he was on his feet, calling Aseem as he marched upstairs. Aai and I followed him, at a run.
There wasn't much in the room. From outside the window, we watched as Aseem and he turned what was left upside down. I had no energy left to speak, to intervene, to think. That pile of stuff reminded me of your first day here and my eyes filled. Aai thought I was crying because I was missing Anuja and she hugged me. Baba found nothing: no notes or slips of paper, no telephone diaries, no addresses, nothing that would fill out your context. No one saw how much of the stuff that they had tossed on to the floor was mine.
When they left, I saw four or five black-and- white photographs I had taken of you, peeping from a file. They'd faded a little over time and were stuck to each other. Delicately, I separated them.
When I took my Pentax out carefully from my bag, the rain had stopped. Soaked to the skin, you were looking at the sky, close to a black boulder washed clean by rainwater. You began to wipe your face with your sleeve and I stopped you, mid-wipe. You can see the glow of the rainwater and the gentle sun in the photograph.
You were about to finish a new painting. You had been at it day and night. In that riot of colour, I now see a cage. It isn't my face in the cage, but it resembles mine. That night when I came up to the terrace, you drew me greedily to you. And dark patches of colour sprang up over my body: red and yellow and the purple-black of the jamun. Irritated, I upended your wooden palette over your head and then, in the middle of the night, by lamplight, I took a picture of your colour-streaked face.
I stuck a few of those pictures up on the wall in my room below as well. But I didn't want anyone to be suspicious so I added random pictures of some college friends around them, one of my parents, and one of Anuja as a bawling baby. That night, Aseem came to sleep in the room. He locked the door and lit a cigarette at the window. He turned to me and said, âTomorrow I'll get you a picture of Sai Baba. Stick that up as well. Spoil all the walls with Sellotape marks.' When all this got to me, I would wonder whether I should ask you to leave with me, to go and stay somewhere else, somewhere far away.
But then I'd suddenly feel that I should ask you what you want to do with your life. Do you want a relationship? Would you dare?