City Girl

I’m a city girl.

I dream of living somewhere I can cycle where ever I want to go with my skirt flying in the breeze and only green around me, I’d like to live alone, in the mountains or beside the sea and always feel like I am part of something infinite — this fantasy is enough to tell you that I’m a city girl through and through. I’ve grown up in a several cities, and now once again, I am in a new city.

The two cities closest to my heart — not always dearest, but closest by choice and by faith — I would like to think I know well, but I do not know them at all. I am always getting lost, even a few hundred metres from my house. Everything looks familiar and at the same time chaotic, but I am sure it will be okay, because I must be part of this living, breathing organism. I remember these draws of cells from school, and how every little ribosome and mitocondria looked like a creature by itself. I fancy myself a centrosome in a huge cell, which is a tiny cell in something bigger that I cannot know. 

I realise an adventure I have had with all my closest friends — deciding to get lost. I am usually lost anywhere within five minutes. Infinity hasn’t gone anywhere in the city, it is just even more incomprehensible, while my brief visits to the mountains and oceans is fuelled by being completely overwhelmed (and all the Coleridge and Wordsworth that echoes in my head). Sometimes, of course, it – the city – is finite, I do not think about how endless the universe is every night in the city. And then it is also boundless but all concentrated in one small dot, some mathematical twisting which I can barely understand — this sense of being completely unknown but always watched, lonely but never alone, this wonder at human progress and this despair at all of humanity.

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From William Booth’s illustration “In Darkest England and the Way Out”

I don’t know why I write so much about the city — I say now “the city” instead of cities because that’s what it suddenly becomes — every city is the same and completely different. I write more about the city than about lovers, maybe because I believe the city is my greatest lover, someone I can never know completely. Someone who makes me feel like a stranger sometimes, and then like no one could know me better in the world.

I’m in a new city now, and I spend a large amount of time reminiscing about the old. Anything can trigger it — an ice cream shop, a ring tone, an old Hindi song.

(T brings me ice cream in the middle of the night because I have cried too much, over what, I do not even remember. I eat it a slobbering mess while T laughs. S and I talk over the phone half an hour after saying goodbye at college, and I wonder how we have still not exhausted topics. P would ride his bike while I sat on the back dizzy from a little alcohol and he continuously hummed under his breath.)

Friends reassure me that I will grow to love this city, and I don’t yet know about love but it is creeping up on me. I now feel reassured that I will not die in traffic because I understand how vehicles move. I get lost almost every other day on my way to college, but I usually reach hoping that all roads will lead to Rome. And I spy on my neighbours every morning and every evening as they spy back on me. But what is that mundane profundity that love always surprises? So I have stopped waiting around for the precise moment that I fall love.

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The Maps of Matrakçı Nasuh, Ottoman Polymath
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15 August, 2017

rain in a drawer

12.36 AM

The cat tried to enter the house again. I had left the door ajar as usual and she popped out of darkness with her usual noiselessness (I should fix the bulb outside. This will be the fourth one in six months). Her movement is so noisy, but without a trace of sound. The first few steps are brisk as she hauls half her body in through the opening as thin and fat as her. Then the sudden halt, complete stillness save for the belly heaving under brown-white fur. Her ears sense that I am looking at her. With a quick jerk she turns left to find me in my usual spot. I look into her alert green eyes and wonder if she can see the dormant sleep in mine. I also wonder whether the rest of her body is as still as the present half pretends. I think especially of the tail. The inside of my right palm trembles invisibly as the image of a soft tail escaping my loose grip flashes for a second. Meanwhile, we are still looking at each other, testing waters. At times, without looking away, she takes a step forward and I lunge at her with a mock threat. Immediately the supple feline body folds back into darkness like half a wave. Tonight though, we were too tired for these games. She retreated gently into the night.

I wonder if she will come back tonight. Her surrenders are never final.

 

1.32 AM

I cannot sleep. I must remember this. Even if we spend every living moment of our days and nights together, doing the same things, together, we will never fall asleep, together, at the exact same moment. Even if we see the same dream, we’ll always be at different points in the story. I miss you terribly. The night is a torment. It’s raining. I don’t have to water plants tomorrow.

 

2.04 AM

The rain has turned furious and is crashing passionately against the corrugated plastic roof of the veranda. I have two towels. When it starts raining, I save only one of them. The rain is so thick tonight, that the one hanging nakedly on the wire, will remain soaked for a long time. Perhaps it will take till afternoon for it to dry. That is if the sun comes out. I hope it does. Hot water showers depend on it.

 

2.23 AM

All that sound and fury lasted for twenty puny minutes. I am sure the annoyingly slow but insistent puttering of droplets will last longer. I thought I’ll go through the text I have to teach this Friday. ‘Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea’ Shakespeare, Sonnet 65. The copy of the textbook they gave me, is in tatters.

(British Literature from Chaucer to the Present Day: Tomes and Tatters)

This copy once belonged to Amina Kauser. Her handwriting, like her name, carries a guileless elegance. Diligent notes fill the margins of practically every page. Around the dark black ink of printed words, Amina has practically re-written the whole text, with the softness of her pencil and plainness of her language.

In Sonnet 65, she has no patience for Shakespeare’s tentativeness  : “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea”. Her version on the side is more conclusive – everything can be destroyed by time beauty is temporary.

She complicates the last line though : “That in black ink my love may still shine bright” (Amina’s note: poem immortalised my friendship to my love (poem)).

 

3.00 AM

Tried sleeping but couldn’t. I felt like going through Amina’s book again, this time to find the more interesting notes – doodles, obscenities, declarations of love, nonsense conversations. There were none. As if Amina always knew that her book will end up in a library. As if she was performing a task, a duty of sanitizing Goldsmith’s dirty mind and containing Donne’s unruliness in her polite annotations. Or perhaps these words and thoughts are not her own, only the handwriting is. I did chance upon a few spellings that Amina is likely to have made up on her own – orthodocs, shasiated, disulutionment. And a question that I cannot decide is a doubt or a rhetoric – “Why is speech primary and writing secondary?”

The last page of the book with no printed word on it, Amina has used to write down all the phonetic symbols in order. Next to each symbol, she has recreated the sound in Urdu script. I think of that old hindi film song where the creepers on the wall, look like Urdu letters and words. This book now looks like an old house full of creepers crawling on walls.

I’ll perhaps listen to that song, while I try to sleep. The cat didn’t come back.

 

12.25 PM

I slept through the morning. When I woke up, a few minutes back, the day was so sunny that for a moment I forgot about the rains. It was raining in my dream though. There was rain, grass, mud and you. Our bodies were glistening and shivering, feet glazed with damp mud, hair as thick as rivers. We were wrapped in each other like coiling leafy creepers, and our hands moved with the elegance of verses written in longhand.

I woke up utterly disoriented. My whole body felt dry as a desert, inside and outside. A strange stiff shoulder and a blocked nose. I should not sleep naked in this weather.

 

1.38 PM

I haven’t opened the door since morning and all the windows are shut; the sun is warming their translucent glass panes. I slept through the breakfast hour, and now I am too lazy to cook. I plan an elaborate lunch for every holiday, but on the day itself, cooking seems like the worst idea. I’ll order something. Water is over too. I hope Murugan is not too lazy to bring it today.

 

2.00 PM

I feel like writing a poem to Amina Kauser. The title – to Amina Kauser is running in my head. I searched for her name on Facebook. The first profile that popped up, carried the picture of an anime girl with pink hair and doe eyes. The profile was empty save for a few pictures, with a string of comments by several men.

One of the pictures said – ‘Life is full of fake people! Trust no one’.  Amina in her book had put a curly bracket around the last two lines of “To His Coy Mistress” and added a note – seize the day. Another picture, another advice – ‘No Love, No Tension’.

The most recent picture was a still from a Hindi film – closeup of a teary eyed actress. The text on the picture said – ‘Don’t come visiting me after I DIE.  I needed you when I was ALIVE’.

 

3.50 PM

Murugan brought water. When I opened the door to collect the canister, he was grinning at me like an idiot. It took me a few seconds to realise that he was grinning because he thought I was an idiot. I had left the garbage bag out last night and by now it lay it tatters, its contents strewn around gloriously on the cement floor. “Abhi poora saaf karna padega” Murugan said, still grinning with his overly white teeth.

Bloody cat!

 

Nari’s transistor radio

The only celebration for me was the leaf itself, I’m sure Paru would agree. Ummoos had used the long ladder to twist, coax, cajole the large leaves from the tree only that morning. It was the first thing I would see every birthday morning while I brushed my teeth under that very tree, a mixture of Colgate and saliva that made the tree grow too tall for Ummoos to pull down its branches.

I loved her passionately, my saviour and friend. Ummoos was brought from Tirur five years ago to look after Ammamma. Achan had insisted she get some help after her arthritis got so bad that she had a nasty fall from the mango tree. No, really. Ammamma always climbed the mango trees in summer, in full mundu and veshti, completely unabashed. She fought with Achan about it for months until Ummoos made the perfect sour mango curry and then her religion was forgiven. Now ammamma and I couldn’t imagine our ripe mango and plantain leaf plucking summers without Ummoos. When mangoes were at stake, ammamma always found a way to make peace with her gods.

The leaf was bright green in colour, dotted with white, yellow, red, black and a lighter green. I started moving around the rice to form the chutti first, thick and white lining the boundaries of the face. I let the green of the leaf pour in, before drawing the black of the eyebrows with Ummoos special ginger-tamarind chutney. The eyebrows rose in a perfect arc. I stared at the half formed veshakaran. “Stop playing with your food, kutti!” Ummoos never called me by my name, just kutti. I looked up at the roof leaking more songs. “ Should I go upstairs and call him amma?” Ummoos asked tentatively. No one spoke about Nari in the house except us kids and ours was more with the transistor radio than Nari himself. The thing had to die, and it was our yearly mission to provide it the best possible death. “ I’ll go, I’ll go. I’m done anyway, I’ll take the food to Nari and come back for my payasam.”Appukuttan regularly punctured holes into Nari’s long, song-filled afternoons.

I pleaded silently with amamma  to let Appukuttan leave. There was an evil gleam in his eye when he wished me a happy birthday in the morning, I knew the familiar “Nannaku vechitundu di” look. Appukuttan firmly believed that ammamma was partial to me because I was from ‘outside’ and he sought revenge for every extra teaspoon of Horlicks and special hot water baths. My birthdays were always occasion for an elaborate prank. Usually involving a good degree of public humiliation, terrible frights or just some physical pain when in an uncreative mood. But amamma asked him to sit back down and eat his payasam off the leaf, “ And don’t let me hear you call him Nari again, he is your uncle. Show some respect child! Have you taken bath today?” Ammamma always asked him that question when he got into trouble, one that inevitably landed him in more trouble. “ The water was cold.”

I quickly folded my leaf and slipped out before Appukuttan caught my eyes, baths were a sensitive topic with him. Ammamma took a bath once at 3:30 in the morning and once at 5:30 in the evening. She took bath silently and in complete darkness, as if in secret. I discovered ammamma’s secret one achingly embarrassing night two years ago. I could never get used to having a toilet outside the house and the dark dingy little hole into which unspeakable things went into was impossibly worse at night. On that particular night, the urge was tremendous and all dingy holes and darkness was to be suffered, if suffer I must. On my right there was Appukuttan, to my left Unni and above, Nari’s transistor radio bleating steadily into the night. In the darkness, the radio sounded like a wailing banshee stuck behind the walls. I paused for a few seconds in complete fright, willing the urge to go back the way it came. But it was one of those nights. I made a sudden dash from one door end to the other.  Now if there was no moon that night, the darkness would have been so complete that I wouldn’t have seen her. But in the narrow gleam of the moonlight, a frail shrivelled up figure with a bright halo covered in white had a stunning effect on me. Again, the effect was so stunning that I could have remained silent, but in between two creaks of Nari’s wretched radio the figure looked up straight at me. I managed a scream of the likes that overcame all singing and all sleeping in the house. My urge found a way out and by the time the entire house had found its way to the ghost, ammamma had slapped me twice and whisked me away to get cleaned up complaining about having to take another bath. By the end of that summer my ears had turned a permanent burning red.

Ummoos and I went to feed Paru our leaves, “ Look at her, she can both shit and eat at the same time. Who does she think will clean this up for the third time today!” From what seemed like right behind us, a ringing shriek and a thud sent Paru mooing into Ummoos’ midriff.