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EcstasyAndFear

Words can be deceptive

Afrah

“What you seek, is seeking you.”- Jalaluddin Rumi

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She stood behind the tombstone of one of the lesser known Sultans of a dynasty that once soared into the skies higher than its international counterparts. Only now, it looked desolate, forlorn. Like a mansion that’s abandoned in a fire, left hurriedly, and never returned to. She stood at its edge, eating the leftover edible skin of the raw mango, consumed more than half by the army of ants. Her sister, Masoom, stood at a distance, trying to make a perfect throw at the tree with the wild berries with the pebbles she’d collected this morning, chosen especially for this task. After all, she’s been eyeing the maroon berries for quite some time now. They look scrumptious, they’d make a nice breakfast, she tells herself. Masoom comes back to where she is standing, a few berries in her hands. “They don’t taste as good as I thought they will. Not bad either. Here, take some”, she offers a generous share of her already meagre share of natural resources.

They’d named her Afrah, her folks. It means happiness, one of the few English words she’s learnt over these years. When curious foreigners ask her what her name means, she’s learnt to tell them, Afrah. Khushi. Happiness. They smile and give her small tips, sometimes an anna, sometimes two. She likes working in the petty eatery, peeling vegetables, washing the glasses, and even though Faizal mian doesn’t pay her much, she relishes the roti-tadka, and the occasional beef nahri. They come here to explore ‘the true Dilli’, the one they’ve read in history books and watched in historical movies. Some of them come here for photoshoots, to add fancy portfolios to their résumé, she overhears them talking. She wonders what hers would say, Afrah Saleem, Vegetable peeler by day, ragpicker by night. Faizal mian treats her as his child, for that she’s grateful. Without him, she and Masoom would have died of hunger long back. But he’s not their father; he can’t send them to the madarsa to study, he’s paying her, she has to work, that’s how the rules are.

The apartments in Mehrauli are quite well-maintained, she observes on her way to the tombstone, her home, their home. She’s heard they charge 8 rupees per unit for electricity. “Saara paisa current ke paise mein hi jaata hoga”, she thinks. (They probably spend all their money on electricity bills.) She laughs in her head. It’s funny, even in her weirdest imagination, that someone could spend money in amounts she only dreamed of on something that she never had access to in her entire life. When she’s led a life of roti and kapda, without the makaan, things like electricity seem like a faraway dream.

She doesn’t remember her Ammi, she died when Masoom was born, she was only two at that time. She doesn’t recall how her Abbu used to look, but that’s a different story altogether. He was always in hiding, either from the police or from his fellow comrades, as he used to call them. Few days after he realised it’s not worth the risk and left the movement, someone shot him at 4 in the morning when he went to pee in the field. Afrah was four, Masoom was two. They didn’t have preschools then like they do in almost every street now, and Afrah had just begun to learn the alphabet, a bit of English, a bit of Urdu. Abbu used to teach her in the evenings when he was home. And now, they had no Abbu and no home. The first few months were terrible, they felt like an infant who’s sent to a marathon but never taught to walk, like the world is a matchstick and they’re a forest fire waiting to happen, vulnerable, exposed. Then, it started to sink in, the wholeness and the emtpiness, the gravity of it all-they were orphans, they would have to put an extra word before their parents’ names-“late”, the idea that they were all alone was unsettling, terrifying, especially if you’re the elder one, and especially when you’re hardly five years old.

She puts her finger on the engraving on the tombstone, she couldn’t read it, no one taught her Urdu after Abbu, but it looked like someone had carved a prayer that couldn’t be said because so little time is allotted to the ones who live, like there’s an assurance with the dead, they’re not going anywhere, they will stay dead. She tries to understand its touch, like its written in Braille, like it’s meaning will find her, tell her something about wars won and kingdoms lost, but it doesn’t. Masoom watches her from a distance, she’s the smarter one, more practical. It’s the beginning of Ramadan tomorrow, and she knows there will be good food all over the city. “Beggars look cleaner than rag pickers, so we need to look like beggars for the next 40 days”, she wisely tells Afrah, who’s half-listening to the crickets and half wondering the meaning of words she’s not able to decipher. Masoom shakes her head in disgust, she knows Afrah will spend a good half hour thinking of things that aren’t meant to be. She goes from grave to grave, picking up their clothes that she’d left to dry. Once she’s done, she braids her hair hastily but skillfully, applying coconut oil out of a used Parachute tin. After two whole minutes of persuasion, Afrah does the same. They don’t have doors to lock, windows to bolt. But it’s a habit, they look back at the graveyard once to check if everything’s in place, like people check their homes before going out, only their home looked like no one lived in it.

They go to one of the 8-rupees-per-unit-electricity-paying apartments, and knock the first door. A man in a Pathan suit, probably in his early sixties, opens the door. “You’re just in time for iftar“, he says. In a strange way, his warmth reminds her of Abbu. He leads them to a room where a few people had gathered and food was being served.

“What’s your name, beta?”, someone asks.

“Afrah”

No one asks her what it means. Either they know, or they assume that she doesn’t. Either way, it saves her the trouble.

Happiness, Khushi, Afrah, Masoom tells her when she sees the food on their paper plates, that for once, they’re not required to wash.

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Sunday

“We had no money, no capital to invest in. We couldn’t afford even a second-hand car. God knows how many weddings we missed because it was raining and all your father had was a broken Bajaj scooter”, she remembered her days as a young mother with an emotion that was half disgust, half gratitude. Ma was kneading the dough for a late Sunday breakfast at our ancestral house, mixing the curd and water with the flour at minutely measured proportions that only mothers managed to get right. “But poverty, or I think they have invented a better term, what do they call it, yes, urban poverty, teaches you to acknowledge and appreciate the value of what’s given to you, it’s a blessing in its own way.”

She lets the dough rest and closes the kichen door, for Pushi the cat was always on her paws for anything that remotely tasted, or smelled good. (Pushi is a funny name, I’d always wondered, till only recently I realised it is only a more local, household version of the English word used for its kind.) She then goes on to dry out the clothes on the yellow plastic rope that she made Baba purchase from the Saturday haat on his way back home. I held out the basket of clothes pegs, and even though we hadn’t practised this ritual in quite a few years, it didn’t feel unfamiliar at all. These little things of hers, like how she was always so careful not to hang two of different bright coloured clothes together, like there was always the risk of their colours wearing off and seeping into the other.  “Careful!”, she always used to tell me, when I had tried to help her as a child, giving in to her precautions and getting back to carrying the basket of clips, the one thing that didn’t require me to be careful.

So we grew up, left the house in flying cars (that’s what we used to think airplanes are, until Baba told us otherwise), leaving what remained of us in our torn Yonex racquets and Enid Blyton novels that became a warehouse of dust over time. Ma stayed, and so did Baba, handing us homemade lunch for the journey in stainless steel tiffin boxes, like they did when we went for excursions earlier,  carrying our bags all the way to the airport, but keeping our baggage. “Keep the suitcases chained to your seat”, the only thing Baba would say amidst Ma’s innumerable concerns. He didn’t know, until several years later, inside a Jet Airways plane, that the seating arrangement of airplanes and trains are not exactly what we call similar.

“What do you do when the sole of your shoe wears off? Some people get a new pair, but people like us, what do they call us, yes, the middle class, we go to a mochee (cobbler) and get it fixed. Same with people, beta, same with people”, she’d told me after my first high school heartbreak. People like Ma and Baba, they don’t understand that some people can’t be fixed, the more you try, the more they break. But she did, “only elastics can be stretched and outstretched, other kind of strings, they tear when you try to stretch them beyond their limit.” I couldn’t tell her then, the only elastic I’d known was herself.

She goes back to the kitchen, picking up the flattest ladle from the wooden rack she uses to store her cutlery. I offer to help, but she refuses straightaway, she wouldn’t like the paranthas half-burnt, she laughes her half-laugh, a perfect combination of wit and sarcasm. “When I’ll visit you in Dilli, be my host. Here, at home, only I am the reigning queen. You, my precious, are only a guest.” Sometimes, her words sting right where they’re directed at, and I try my best to defend my indifference by shuffling through some magazine, three months old. “Her sense of humour is a little weird, frivolous really, don’t let it affect you”, Baba keeps on reminding me. But Ma and I, we share more than half of the same genetics, we forget to rub words off us, if anything else, we implant them more carefully.

“Go call Baba and the others”, she tells me, signalling breakfast is ready. She wipes the drops of sweat on her forehead and nose with the ends of her dupatta and sometimes I can’t help but think that everything about home is almost everything about how Ma likes her first cup of tea in the morning, or how Baba is always the first to wake up amongst all of us. If I sit to jot down the things that I do from morning till the time I get to bed, I’d probably forget to mention a third of them. But this is the thing about routines, you get conditioned to them, you don’t forget the things you can’t remember.

Like in exactly seven and a half minutes, Ma will tell me I should bathe before breakfast, not after, and I’ll try to argue for the nineteen hundredth time in the last nineteen years, why it’s okay to not follow rules on Sundays, while Baba, with today’s newspaper in his left hand, looks over in diffident despair.

devotion//

McLeod Ganj #2

peace//

McLeod Ganj #1.

I’ll probably move out sometime in the next couple of weeks. And you’ll probably not be satisfied with how things ended or maybe you’ll ask me for a better answer. But I won’t have one, and I can’t tell you all the reasons that force me to leave when there’s just one to stay, staring right into my eyes. You, yes you.
Every little thing in this room reminds me of you. The amateur sketch of Guevara you made when you were fourteen, your mouth organ in the corner of the bed I don’t sleep on anymore, your pictures from the Polaroid that are beginning to fade, they’re from nights when you smoked up on the terrace and no one could drag you home, I guess you saw too many stars that night, I guess you wanted to count all of them.
When I leave, I want your keychain. The one that looks like a skull, it embarrasses me so much every time you take it out of your pocket, but I want it. I want you to get rid of things I don’t like, one chain at a time. 
I want you to get rid of habits, like filter coffee on weekdays and orange juice on Sundays. On Saturdays, we order in, anything we like. I want you to remember to switch off the bathroom light every time you’re done using it. I want you to remember to pay your bills, and dispose your garbage bags. I want you to remember not to carry trash, along and within.
But most of all, I want you to remember I’m gone. I don’t want you to wake up at four in the morning, huffing for breath, holding out to me, because you can’t find your calm. I don’t want you to not be prepared for hailstorms, even when it’s not monsoon.
But if you don’t find where I kept the sugar, you can still call me. You and me, between us, things won’t change much. Fill the water bottles, hold your pillow tight, and have a good night’s sleep.
And when I’m gone, I hope you’ll still follow me on Instagram, and I’ll still follow you back.

I think all of us need that kind of light in our lives, like the kind oozing out of your eyes when you talk of opening a café in the mountains, or the kind that stretches to your lips when you cuddle your Labrador, or the kind that I see in your fingers while they play the keys. I think we need that kind of light, not too bright, just the right.

I can’t forget how your voice cracks up every time you try to match the falsetto of some Spanish artist, and how you always cover it up with a cough thinking I didn’t notice, always changing the topic when someone touches on your fear of getting attached, or how you always, always sleep with the light on.

On days when you’re away, I like to think we’re together, sipping the raindrops mixed in our chai, making Boomerang videos of the smoke out of the paper cups. I like to think we’re holding hands, when yours is slightly warmer than all the hands I’ve ever held, and how we don’t need an umbrella in the rain anymore. On days when you’re away, I like to think we’re happy.

It’s two and a half hours past midnight, we’re both awake in our homes, only one of us being written about. Assignments keep you awake, and I’ve given up on trying to sleep. I need to wake up in less than five hours but sleep seems distant and all I have for company is a John Denver song I wish I’d never heard, it makes me a little sad, you know.

You tell me I should sleep, I tell you it’s okay not to. Between the exclamation marks that I’ll never learn to use appropriately and the laugh in your voice notes, I think I feel a little of what they call love. But I see the mountains in your eyes, and I won’t lie, they seem too far from here.

It’s a long way up there, I think I’ll just let it go. Until then, we can pretend to be lovers tonight and wake up in the morning not remembering a thing.

​//eulogy for my lover(s) that didn’t reside//

Six weeks since the last draft, I decided to rewrite what I felt was the remains of you being in me. Like the way you would spoon me around, your cold fingers on my spine, your lips pressed against my neck, it’s a little funny how we never kissed, you know, you didn’t ask and I was never the asking kind. 
It’s been almost four years since I called you at midnight and you said you couldn’t talk, you said you were with someone and asked me not to call anymore. I swear I haven’t cried for anyone since. We’re still on talking terms and sometimes, just sometimes at four in the morning when I wake up from a bad, bad dream, I wish you were there. 

You told me about the ghetto you were brought up in, how your parents were illegal immigrants in a land of many, how you learnt to love basketball and math, how you admire the German way of life. I remember, you told me how the process is more important than the outcome, in the only conversation we ever had. 

You tell me you’ve changed, you’re clean now. You’ve left alcohol like you’d left home, but I don’t tell you how your words reek of dishonesty, I text back like a good friend would do, but love, I could never be a friend to you, sans regret.

I found you in the wit of some other lover, trying to fit in your shoes, but he’s still here, and you’re long gone, and I can’t, I can’t sleep tonight. Your voice plays in my head like an Amit Trivedi song that I can’t seem to get rid off. Love, I still have specimen of your handwriting in the pages of my scrap book that I left at home, you’re too terrifying to be carried along, and I can’t sleep with you in my mind.

You’re not one, you’re many. I remember you, because I write about you. I imprint you in my palms like I intend to forget the things I care about the most, only I don’t. I don’t forget things easily, you know, like how your eyes would never focus on mine, or how you would stand below my balcony on days we both would wake up late, or how easy falling out of love is. 

And love, I wouldn’t forget how you didn’t reside, but left your residue in me.

I like beginning things on random notes, so no matter how often someone tells me to clear the mess on my bed, I’d probably tell them why the Sherlock poster right on the next wall is my favourite.
Let’s meet someday, and I’ll tell you about things I like and other things I find beautiful and the thin line of difference between both. I’ll tell you that I think pregnant women look divinely beautiful and that flowers look better in a garden than in the bouquet I know you’d never gift me again.
Sometimes, I wonder if I left traces of myself in people, would the person in the mirror look hollow? I think of lovers that don’t exist, the kind who’d have let me plant flowers on their tongue, so that every time I wish to pluck a rose, I could kiss them instead. But they’re there only in my head, immaterial, like conversations that didn’t happen or like the dead cells on the mosaic floor.
It’s a little funny, how grief almost always is backed up by guilt of some kind, that in times when people around are mourning, all you can think of is the reasons how you could probably have let something not happen. But there it stays, like a piece of metal tied to your chest, dragging you down every time you try to breathe.
And just because I can’t sum a lot of things in words, I just as well might tell you, I like random endings too.

​My fears, they come in the form of men with crooked smiles and dimpled cheeks. They come in the form of a half-grown beard on a boyish face. They come to me, snatching my poor attention span, in conversations.
My fears, they come in the form of gratitude, in not knowing what to say next. They come, hounding, pounding, at my heartbeats that grow fainter, and worries that grow louder. They come in the form of people who love and let love.
My fears, they crawl up to me at the devil’s hour when I can’t fall asleep. They come at their own rhythm, and leave at their slowest pace. They come to me at 11:11 when I desperately wish to wish for something I long but I can’t.
My fears, they come to me when no one’s watching. They come to me in the form of half-eaten pretzels and tables for two half unoccupied. They come to me in the stink of stale cigarettes and in the two-thousand rupee notes I wish I had and in the people I felt I owned.
My fears, they come to me during the day, at night and mostly, mostly when I think I’m not afraid anymore.

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