How can my love hold him when all I have is my ebony morning,
bruised, breathing like a wrecked car? Didn’t I smell like
pungent rain when my poems scratched old wounds, and I
swirled and swirled, stumbling down into our own emaciated shadows?
My voice, the storm of heat, spinning, and spinning into spirals of words
and songs, songs that seep into the cutting edge of me, choke him.
My man, the voice dangling in my furtive black sky, the nameless,
sacred scar I wrap around my asphalt neck, bruises me.
I find him under my crushed ribs, my blood, heart
and scarlet light, waving at the splintered ME.
(Inspired by “A Losing Battle” by the phenomenal poet Kamala Das)
In between the neon lights that burn, fade and resound, in between the petal dance of footsteps and the wildflower kisses of Moulin Rouge, I trudge, forlorn, lost, unveiled. Ah yes, the perfumed streets that house the metronome beats smile at me, like a coquettish woman. The euphoria and the gluttonous poetry of Peter Cat, Flury’s, the dazzling vignettes of the hotels, bars and the VIBGYOR of the shining cafes seep into me.
“Hey, Raai, where are you off too? And when did you come to the city? Wow, one month back? Where have you put up? Didn’t even know you are here!” An old face, a flicker of a few trivial moments, an exchange of a few fading words and a slithering repartee. There, our wandering feet disperse in different routes. Do these faces emerging out of the routine crowd startle me anymore? I wonder. I flash an unaffected smile stamped on my cheeks for a few fleeting moments, babble a couple of inconsequential sentences and move on. An old intoxicating drug works on my mind’s reflexes, as I burst through the haphazard crowd of the sprawling, the innocuous, the nostalgic Park Street.
I make my trail, clogged, blocked, bursting open, in spurts. Lovers chase each other frantically, running restless, stumbling over the silvery labyrinths of the bars, nightclubs, and those unloved, chasing their mocking mirages.
Which is more sweet? The chill running down my spine as I gulp down a few more sips of the frothy margarita, the voice of the vocalist performing inside Trinca’s, the fanatic rain of the acoustic guitar he is strumming, or the taste of the kisses that that assail the lovers’ slippery mouths?
“This is a cocktail mix of a bit of gin, a few ounces of vodka, a few trickles of the juices of my fragrant love, and some more. Taste it, and don’t forget to enjoy it with a handful of cashews. Sheer bliss, you know.”
“I…I don’t think I can handle this…I never boozed ever, in my life.” A young feminine voice mutters, under her raging breath.
“Ah, you never know the magic unless you are under its spell. It’s the New Year’s Eve, my darling, don’t chain your free spirit, not today at least!”
Their trembling hands clasp each other, their breaths press heavy against each other, their ardent mouths and lips smudged in a hot lava of a lingering want, their bodies intertwined, melting in the dim, seductive silhouette of the evening. This evening, the musing of the hour when she becomes a wildflower, is mine too. This frenzied evening, she reclines in the voluptuous embrace of the first love of her life. Her womanly desires start pirouetting, surrendering to his testosterone urges. I see, I set my feet in the old, forgotten hills, valleys and creases of my own self, more ‘girlie’, more light, breezy, unblemished, years younger, with a hazel-eyed, bearded lover guy…it is just the gnashed, resurrected language of memory, where the giggling and the steam of seduction, the brushing against each other come alive, like glasses clinking with ice.
I know them all, I have seen, felt, played with them all in another life–the scented petrichor, the cocoon of the translucent light where I had deflowered myself, the fierceness of virgin passion pouring over the kohl lined eyes of the night. I have known the crescent moon spilling her ivory blood over the gushing hearts wandering, lingering in the mad mob of the New Year’s Eve. Yes, the new year it is, the ushering of yet another series of sunrises and sundown, a ritual of the joie de vivre of a broken-winged world. A world, festering, yet looking over the vicissitudes of life, today, grinning ear-to-ear, taking selfies while kissing, nibbling, limping in its dazzling light.
“Oh, well, wait a minute….who is that tall, dusky, light-feathered girl, smoking in that extreme left corner of the bar?” I move, in awkward steps, a few yards closer. She looks obtusely at the psychedelic lights and the mad, conceited footsteps and voices that surround her. A bulky, bespectacled middle-aged man seated across her in that cozy booth, tickles her feet, her knuckles, the soft mounds of her thighs peeking from the slit edges of her silken skirt.
“Isn’t she a known face, the ebony hair, the faint sparkle in those eyes spelling out old acquaintance of a familiar train route, amid the din and bustle of the Sealdah station? Putul, her nick name, and Reena, her school name that she despised?”
My fervent soul sought the petite, spirited schoolgirl I knew a decade back, tracing the curves of her eyebrows, her soft, sylvan smile which often escaped her lips when her friends surrounding her grinned and giggled, her dark, brooding eyes stirring something in my inner core.
“Do call me Putul, Raai didi, I am like your younger sister.”
“But why not Reena? It is a lovely name too. Isn’t it?” I would ask, in an irresistible bid to tease her, as we plunged our bodies and made our way amid the sweaty jostle of co-passengers in the hard, wooden seats.
I had seen her red, flustered face, the animated laughter of her school friends inside the train compartment and the irked, pissed off tone of her voice when they would tease her with a refrain in Hindi:
“Tere bin kyaa jeena/Reena, haseena, de de dil, dil de mujhko Reena.”
I remember her sharp, juvenile face glittering with an inexplicable sadness that lurked, like a sour reality rolling over and settling in the lumps of her throat. Her school friends sang medleys of Hindi songs in the antakshari game which we all played inside the train, indulgently, and she sometimes joined in the sessions, humming a few lines, albeit hesitatingly.
“Who calls you Putul at home?” I had asked her once.
“My father, my Babu. You know didi, he works in a toy manufacturing company in Howrah, and named me Putul the day I was born, the day he completed one year of his employment there.”
“And your mother? What does she call you?”
“Reena was the name my mother gave me the day she admitted me in school, rhyming with her own name, Meena. I hate both, Meena and Reena.” Her lips trembled in an unknown rage.
“But why?” I had asked, my voice awkward, trying to make sense of the looming clouds brewing inside her.
“There are boys, younger boys, men, older men who step in our house, time and again, whistling, calling out to her as ‘Meena Kumari.’ My father, Babu and she fight like cats and dogs in those dark nights, the old bed of our tiny bedroom creaks and their shouting voices tear apart my peaceful sleep. I feel like running far, far away…I cling to Babu late at night and try to fall asleep, my mother trembling, weeping…. forget it, didi. Which station is it, by the way?”
Day after day, she would emerge in the same compartment, with the same old braid, the same wrinkled, pale school uniform, the same old tattered schoolbag sitting heavy on her slender shoulders. She would drift away, slowly, unassumingly as the train came to a screeching halt in her destination.
Aren’t those the same brooding eyes, coated with layers of eye make-up and kohl, staring nonchalant, at the dim, phony surroundings? Aren’t those the same soft, feminine cheeks and pouted lips, resting beneath the cheap, lousy make-up, faintly spelling out an untold story which might never come out of her closet, unguarded?
“Putul, is it you? How are you?” I almost shout, my vain voice stumbling over the mad mirth and revelry of the evening, trying to walk a few more steps closer to where she sat. “Putul!” I wave at her and try to come even more close, as I watch her look around, following the cues of my voice, and giving me a cold, barren stare for once before looking away. The man accompanying her flirts with her nimble fingers, her torso bent against him in an unabashed surrender.
A minute or two. I keep staring at her as she dwindles in his broad arms, I suspect, under the spell of a strong alcoholic beverage. My eyes sting, as I follow them, surreptitiously, like a creepy apparition. The man shoves her body with inordinate care and takes her along, away from the cozy booth where they sat and frolicked, away from the bustling bar and walks out with her, staggering, in the neon-lit by lanes.
“Yes, yes, I will be done within a couple of hours. Give me a call back when you reach the hotel and then you can pick us up.” The man flashes a nuanced smile, attending a call on his cell phone, while with another hand, he grabs the young woman’s arms, inhaling deeply into the creases and folds of her tight, body-hugging shirt.
“Reena, hey, wake up now, baby, we are nearing the hotel, you see!” I sense him utter in her smudged ears.
I forget where I should have been by now, I forget where I am headed to, and in a frenzied zeal of discovery, I start following their trail, as the man leads her surrendering body to the dim lights of the plaza that ends at the nearby Park Hotel. Within minutes, they get lost in the labyrinths leading to the lounge and then, I know, to the forbidden, paid, momentary pleasures of the plush hotel room that the man must have booked to nibble, chew on her, suck her dry.
I run, run and run, the color and the euphoria around fading in my eyes, dangling in front of me like a monochrome landscape. I falter a number of times, trampling over the droning voices of fleshless street urchins and ebony beggar kids, torn, unbuttoned. There, in the ground that I tread now, teardrops have trickled down the cheeks of cheap, phony prostitutes whose meandering ways have been too easy to condemn, whose sultry tales have been too hard to gulp down. My palms wipe my truant tears, a frail moment of surrendering to the volatile tides of homecoming. Five years, it has been, five truant, yet cajoling new year’s eves since my old flame Bhaskar, that tall, lanky guitarist had spurred me on to my surrendering in that same booth inside Trinca’s where another Putul, another Reena smolders and burns today. Is it the same way how I had burnt years back, in hope of a heady, adventurous voyage of love, in hope of a home and a pure, glorious bed some day?
Do my tears have the same salt that have made theirs? Do my yearnings have the same wrinkles, the same stretch marks, the same glory, the same sin that have conjured theirs?
Young, gleeful, make-up laden faces giggle, peer over each other in the lush comforting zone of Flury’s, gorging on the buttery cakes and chocolate pastries. The warm embrace of the posh bakery adorns their saliva, and they lose themselves the wintry fog of their smudged conversations. I sit, hunched in a corner, burning in those familiar tunes, yet a few light years away from the idyllic cacophony. The bus-stop, the burst and cackle of bodies waves at me from a few yards away. I know I have a destination for now, a towering hospital building at the farthest end where these deceptive, silken lights melt and drown, a general cabin where a once noisy father stares, wordless now, lying prostrate in an overused patient bed, benumbed into a dysfunctional reality.
The dark, chocolatey crumbs of the black forest cake of Flury’s melt in my hungry mouth, and a freshly lit incense of a guileless childhood returns. A childhood when the father brought in our suburban home heavenly slices of the same cake, culinary delights from the same bakery shop and wove stories of the opulence of the New Years’ Eve party in Park Hotel where he would join his colleagues, get a bit drunk, forcefully, and return home with a hangover he would be unwilling to admit.
“How are you feeling today, Baba? Any better?”
I enter the room he is in, overlooking the window, from which he stares at the silhouettes of the vast expanse outside. He nods, in half-acceptance, half-denial, as always, since he has been on the rehab session of the neurology unit, hanging vicariously in the thin rope of a diminishing memory.
“Do you remember the date? It is the 31st December, the New Year’s Eve, you should have seen the lights of park street today, such a sight!” I see the glimmering streaks of a faint remembrance pushing the boundaries of his dementia-affected brain. He smiles, and winks at me.
“Now, now….be a good boy and eat a slice of this cake I bought for you…remember Flury’s? How does it taste like?” I gaze at his moist eyes, and wipe off his tear-laden cheeks, and while I do all the talking in the somber hospital room, I fill his mouth with small crumbs of the cake, one little spoon at a time, and wait for his brain to convey its aroma, its essence, the fleeting atoms of its memories.
“See…how you smile! You do remember having it before, right? Now can you say ‘Happy new year’ loud and clear?”
“Happy new year…” his feeble, jittery voice reverberates in the room, cutting through the raw wounds, the rough-hewn edges of a frail, long lost childhood, swaying in the arid air between us. “Happy new year” is the only coherent phrase he can utter, for now, while swaying his head in the warm, monitored confines of the hospital room. I can feel him silently questioning the year, the happenings around, the years that have passed in between. The grey clouds of anger, making up, the losses and the revival that he had chased for all those years have dispersed, and what remains is a tiny blob of a moment in time.
“Seven more days, I think, and you can take him back home with some medicines and don’t forget to continue the restorative therapies, though dementia is an incurable ailment. Try treating him as you treat a young toddler, and take one day at a time….and yes, happy new year! Go and celebrate.” Dr. Abir Roy, the young, muscular neuro-therapist squeezes my hands as we stand close to the elevator, and share meaningful glances, those of empathy and the hint of a reassuring love, waiting to eclipse me if I ever respond to it, willingly.
“You have my number, Raai. Hope you will keep in touch once you take him back home. I will wait.” His parting words slice through the cold silence of the hospital and linger in my head while I meander in the streets, looking for a cab that will drive me back, further north, to an empty, hollow home.
……“Raai didi, it is me, please take me in, I am Ree…ummm, Putul. I am stranded alone here; ekta taxi-o jete raji hochchhe na (no taxi is willing to give me a ride).”
I am startled for seconds, shaken out of my pendant thoughts. My heart thumps loud in my chest, not the least bit prepared for this unforeseen finale to the evening. I give a silent nod to the driver, as he opens the door to the cab’s back seat where I sit, huddled in a corner, my face, my nose perched on the open window, inhaling the evening revelry of my festive city. She sits next to me in the backseat, just as she would sit in the train compartment years back, the shy, hesitant schoolgirl, and we both remain silent, our minds fumbling with the proper words to start any exchange, whatsoever.
“Didi, should I take you via B.T. Road, or do you want another route?
She was the one to speak first. “B.T. Road dhoro, bhai. I will get down at Dunlop.” And then, for the first time in the car, she grabbed my hands.
“You are angry on me, na? You called me, back there in Trinca’s, and I couldn’t…. kotodin pore dekha bolo to? (Imagine how long it’s been that we met?)”….she paused, and gulped the choking silence between us. “How are you, Raai didi?”, she enquired, with an ineffable warmth that has evaded me for long.
“What about that man you were with, in Trinca’s, who escorted you to the hotel? Wasn’t he supposed to give you a ride back home?” The spineless jerk! I mutter, wordless, under my breath.
She paused, let out a sigh, and suddenly broke open in peals of laughter. “Oh, that old ox, Mr. Bajaj? His wife called him back home… there has been a family emergency, with his mother-in-law having a sudden massive stroke! He quickly ran back home. You should have seen his face, didi, right at the moment when he was having the fun of his life!”
I gulped down a big lump and it settled in my throat, awkward, painful. When had she initiated herself in this murky adult world, this point of no return?
She added, as if reading my thoughts instantly.“He used to come to my mother some time back, until his eyes caught a fancy for me a couple of years back, and Ma relented…chharo didi, they are all the same, but their papered notes smell fresh and tempting, and those are what truly matter….
She looks out at the window of the cab, forlorn, lost. “I will go to visit Babu tomorrow, let’s see if I can surprise him on the first day of the new year.” She suddenly says.
“Where is he? Don’t you stay together anymore?” The feeling of disbelief tickles my throat.
“No didi, not any more, since our old house was pawned, following his lay-off from the toy factory. Ma had arranged for a small flat in the Dunlop area from Mr. Bajaj, and we stay there now….you won’t really mind if I take a couple of dregs, will you? She takes out a pack of cigarettes from her bag. “Babu is in a rehabilitation center near Nimta since the last five years, his deranged brain driving him to substance abuse and what not!” The cab speeds past the mad, dizzy streets and trudges along the busy highways. “Shaala haraami!” She cusses, looking disdainfully at the huge traffic ahead of us.
“But what about you, Raai didi? Didn’t you leave Kolkata with a job quite some years back, the last time I heard about you? So, you are back, finally? And did you marry yet?” She gazed at me intently, her unbridled curiosity killing me, one stroke at a time.
“Yes, I left, five years ago, but I have just been back…” I sigh, and flash an inconsequential smile, then pat her back as my parting gesture. “Bhai, please stop me right here.” I instruct the driver to halt in the bumpy lanes, leading to my new North Kolkata home. “And do drop her safely in Dunlop, please.” I pay him the taxi fare, and wave at her for one last time, looking into her questioning eyes throwing darts at me, as I cross the street and keep walking towards my empty nest.
How would it have been if I had lifted the fog of secrets hovering over my life in suburban Mumbai where I had been lured by Bhaskar, my first love, to the slippery quagmire of a bar singer’s life? How would it have been if I would tell her of the endless evenings and nights when my voice had rained songs, one after the other? Did anyone know back then, that none of the ears listening to them felt how I kept burning, while offering them a plastic, unreal slice of myself.
“Listen, Raai, you have to abort the baby, we really have no choice than to wipe out this ‘mistake’ we committed….just give both of us a few more years to make more money; then, we might marry and have a family. OK? Happy, baby?” His calculated words, his sly, manipulative stances had carried sparklers, illuminating my pensive soul, while both of us tried in our own, unique ways to climb the tight rope that leads to a glitzy, yet thorny musical life. How would it have been if Putul knew the storm, the deluge that ripped apart the love nest I had built with him in the evening when I had to succumb in a stranger’s arms inside a dingy, half-lit studio? Ah well, an agent in the music industry, promising to give us both our first big breaks must have his own rightful share, isn’t it so?
“It’s really not a big issue, you know, certainly not worth crying and whining, if you want this deal to be struck.” Bhaskar had grabbed me from behind, kissing the nape of my neck that night, begging of me to let go. And yes, I did let go, for quite a long time, I did believe a home with him would be possible at the end of this crooked journey, once we both would find our moorings in the music industry. I did believe, till the day I found him burying himself in the quagmire, choosing the easy route of an agent supplying pretty females to his co-called ‘musical’ clients.
“It is not easy for any of us, Putul, it has not been easy, being on this fiery trip, scalding from scalp to toes, yet never giving up on the chance to find the closures of our journey. I came back to find a closure to mine, and I am sure in a few years, you will find yours’, as well.” I knew the tracks of our lives were forged together, by the battles that we had lost, the battles we might win some day.