Monday, 16 July 2018

Chessboard

For the third time that day, Julio was walking the length of Walnut Street. The drunken tramp was still ladling obscenities at everyone near 18th, and a very non-committal protest had broken out in grounds of the university near 33rd. But it was the first day of summer and the joggers near the Schuylkill trail were breaking into the running shoes they had bought at full price. Clumsy tourists flocked in mild disappointment near the Liberty bell on 6th, and children fumbled about in overalls  at the train station near 50th. But it was the first day of summer, and there were holiday rainbow lights perched on the window of the tattered apartment of a girl Julio used to see a few months ago.
He walked across Philadelphia like it was a juvenile grid of roads and people and dogs and rickety buildings. On few days the city walked with him, but mostly it was too tired.

Julio drove a cab for money in the evenings, all the way into midnight. At the brief training program by the cab agency, he was instructed to be warm and cheery, ask for music and heating preferences. He was instructed to sympathize, apologize and organize convenience for his passengers. Julio did this by crushing the remains of his cigarette and rolling down the windows.

He had moved to the city as an apprehensive grad student, trying and failing miserably to cultivate an aura of effortless ambition. Stumbling through his classes, eating cold pizza and drinking inexpensive beer by the river, he fell into a liking, if not love of the chessboard city. Then he met the girl, Anna, found himself in fatal obsession with her freckles and open toed sandals. For the first time in his life he would wake up and want to kiss her on the forehead, tickle her while she picked her avocados. He surprised her with flowers at the coffee shop during her shift breaks, read his favorite children's stories to her in bed. She was pleasant but not overtly remarkable, but the manner of their meeting in a second-hand book store, the unfolding of summer with drinks before and after dinner, made Julio seize her like all the poetry that would walk into his life, singing of destiny and happily-ever-afters. He did not absolutely believe that, but like all cowards oscillating between the pits of cynicism and clouds of euphoria, he held on tightly. He did not exactly tell her that he might be in love, knowing fully well that she would laugh sarcastically if he did.

This went by in a few blinks, and it was not surprising when Anna, an ambitious girl of twenty three, slipped out of the city in the last Greyhound to New York, to look for a job while she lived with some friends. Julio did not exactly ask her not to go, he stared blankly at the ceiling as she packed. You need to be more put together and grown-up, she insisted. You have talent, you just needed direction, she insisted. I never meant to hurt you, she insisted.
Over the last days of summer, Julio drank excessively, exchanged wads of money for poor quality marijuana at the fringes of the city, bothered strangers with loud descriptions of how Anna had broken his heart, how Philadelphia had broken his heart.
He also found his bittersweet excuse to drop out of school, completing the final chunk of a painfully cliched story he would never write.

The years that followed were slow and comfortable in their monotony. At the brief interview for his driver's job, he dramatically broke down and rendered a version of his break-up. His passengers would be treated to similar renditions, though they grew violently tragic or sweetly nostalgic, depending on his mood that night. In the theatrical ones, Anna had left him for an ugly millionaire, leaving the humble engagement ring he had given her on the dresser. In the lighter ones, she had been cheating on her husband with him, and he had discovered their hideout. Their reactions were varied; some of the young people would shift uneasily and avert their eyes, trying to talk about the awful heat wave they were expecting, while the more sensitive ones would cluck their tongues in mild sympathy. The daintier older women would gently pat his shoulder and wipe a tear while their solemn husbands would ask him to get it together and move on, because he deserved happiness.

Julio went to bed in the early hours of the mornings, fuller and rounder from sips of pink wine and feedback he had garnered. He cut the calls from his mother, who was harried from her own divorce, living her days frivolously and bitterly. She texted him with details of more respectable jobs she could get him, which he deleted. He cut the calls from the few friends he remembered from college, consciously trying to forget every stray memory that did not fit the story of tragic lover/loser he had weaved. He dated sparsely, every girl leaving his apartment angry and hurt. Around midday he awoke and greedily ate croissants from one of the bakeries where he believed he had sat across from Anna, tracing his fingers over a spot she had probably laid down her glasses, and making sure the servers knew. After that he walked across the city he still accused of betraying him, looking for the direction he was determined not to find. In his seeming insanity he remained calm and steady, fulfilled by the unhappiness he wallowed in.

It was his sixth ride, the night was still young. He stopped the car while one of the skinny girls retched by the bushes. "She used to drink too much, Anna. One time she broke the heel of her shoe and I had to carry her all the way home.", Julio was telling anyone who would listen. He heard a nearly passed out girl ask her boyfriend if he would do the same for her, and smiled with what he believed was a pained expression. The drunken party was dropped off at a holiday inn on Spruce, and they fist-bumped him gratefully.
One girl remained in the cab, fiddling with her earphones while Julio tried to look at her pleasant, unremarkable face. She seemed quite disinterested in his story. When he pulled over outside her house, she came up to his window and tapped on the glass.
"Goodnight Julio. It was nice seeing you again".
He looked down at the name on his phone and burst out laughing. 'Annabel Carter', it read. He was still laughing when the lights went out, one by one.
Julio had forgotten, or perhaps never really known Anna's full name.




Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Cheerless dusk through dusty shades 
And lodged on the floor of my closet 
I unpack a box of Lego blocks
In blindingly cheerful colors.

The instructions are bold, concise bullets.

I build an unkempt room
A bitter morning when I
Memorized the unremarkable ceiling
Dotted with lonely fruit-flies.

The instructions are cold, apathetic bullets.

I build a dying forest
The brittle twigs rage against 
Ashen leaves that have turned
Enemies after petty, pathetic quarrels.

The instructions are faded, yellowing bullets.

I build my memory of home
The cool tiles and sonorous walls
Forbidden liquor under lumpy sweaters
My mother rereading Jane Austen.

There aren't enough pieces for that one. 



Monday, 15 January 2018

Deer Crossing

Winter

I had known her for a while. She had dimples on both cheeks, though the one on the right cheek sunk deeper than the other. I wasn't in love with her. I only noticed because I liked to look at the way she laughed. I wasn't in love with her. But she would smile wide once, straighten her lips and laugh aloud till there were tears in her eyes. I wasn't in love with her. But we didn't have a car so I insisted she put her right hand in my left pocket. I wasn't really in love with her. But she woke up to wildly graphic nightmares and we disabled the fire alarm and smoked cigarettes while she described them to me.
I don't think I loved her.
But it was colder than usual that year and New York was a giant glowing icicle and we walked gingerly on every avenue, going into shops that smelled like candy and marijuana. 
I was in business school. Abigail, let us call her Abigail, because her name isn't really Abigail, scoffed when I told her that. She scoffed again when we were at the foot of the lighthouse in Montauk, watching the cold sea trying to crack open stoic, brown rocks. 
"This place, doesn't it make you want to melt into it? To be one of the maroon pebbles, just an inch under the water. And you still want to wear a suit and work from behind a glass window. "
I was irritated.
"It isn't the worst thing in the world, making some money. Maybe I will make enough money to buy a house in the Hamptons"
"Well I could never do it. The best lines I write are on kitchen towels when I am hungover"
Abigail was a poet, did I tell you Abigail was a poet? I mean she fancied herself a poet. She was all the idealistic, whimsical, impulsive dreamy crap that I envied. 
"Abigail, it's a fine evening and we are twenty three. But you don't really know what you want, do you?"
"Oh, but I do. Don't you?"
I think I blushed, even in the cold air. I felt viciously uncomfortable.
"I mean, nobody has got it all figured out. This was a change. And I like New York. I like you."
She rolled her eyes. "I can't picture you in a suit. Maybe an ill-fitted suit."
I clenched my fists. I couldn't be in love with her. I was so wildly jealous of how every hair on her body had found freedom and decided to stay in it. 
We stood in silence, till the sea engulfed the sun and the cold seeped into our hearts.

New year's eve. We went ice skating in Bryant park. When she fell on her elbow we decided to sit down by the stone fountain. They had turned off the water. There were children all around, whining and blowing their noses. An impeccably dressed gentleman asked if I could take a picture of him with his disgruntled date. 
"Do you go to college here?"
"I do, sir, Columbia." 
I could feel Abigail fidgeting beside me. She disliked new people.
"I had a cousin there. He dropped out though. Went on to become a poet."
His date snorted loudly.
"He wrote those poems that don't rhyme. A real hippie."
I could not stop myself from being utterly petty. 
"Yeah, do you know anyone who is a poet these days? Like, is that a real job, even?"
I thought Abigail would roll her eyes and preach to me later, loudly and drunkenly about the wastefulness of my halfhearted pursuits, and how I was just malicious of her freedom. I thought Abigail would stomp the ice and I would catch her as she slipped and sigh as I listened to her rant. But she didn't do anything. I heard her crying in the shower. When she came out I asked her if she would watch the Amy Winehouse documentary. We didn't really talk that night. 

The evening before she left, we had cherry wine sitting beside the heater, and she gave me a blue tie with a handwritten note. I wasn't in love with her. But we effortlessly belonged in movie screens. I couldn't be in love with her. I attributed it to the snow and the city and youth.

**
Summer

My wife and I bickered all the way to the hospital. The air conditioner was out of order and she hated rolling down the windows. It upset her hair. It also upset her that we did not spend much time together. I loved her sometimes, when it wasn't so hot in New York.
We lived in a sleepy hamlet now, where families of deer crowded behind the barbed fence. I sat outside on summer nights and looked at their delicate gait. Sometimes when we were driving, we would find them at deer crossings, staring at the two of us, calling us out on our quiet insecurities. My beautiful angry wife and I. 
She told me she hated my guts and my headphones and the coffee rings I left everywhere. She told me everyday when I did not have the headphones on. 
I did not mind. I wrote about it. My beautiful angry wife. It was comic sometimes, tragic sometimes, always familiar. My readers sympathized. One even wrote me a heartfelt letter about how I should've stayed with Abigail. It was amusing. 
I stopped the car and played with a tie discarded on the dashboard. Blue silk. My wife gathered her things. I loved her sometimes, in pieces. 
"You really should get your life together. I need you to meet me in the middle. I can't fix things for both of us. This isn't a real job", began my wife, Abigail, the nurse. 
"You're just jealous because I know what I am doing."
I turned up the music as I watched her stomp away. 

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

For A

I watch the train curve around 
The bend, my feet almost trot on 
A reflex, the steel rails brace me 
To turn icy and shake it off,
Another tradition, for me.
For us.

I will clean my room with 
Headphones on, I will even hum
To myself, I will stop and reminisce
At every cookie crumb and sweater
Another tradition, for me.
For us.

I will wear my noisy boots and
Walk alone through polished halls
The cello and piano will not quite
Startle me, not without your whispers.
Another tradition, for me.
For us.

It is easy, I know, to move weightlessly 
Alone, ghost towns do that to you, how
When you finally decide you are ready to
Roll the window up, the sun has set already.
Another tradition, for me.
For us.

I have an eye and an ear for pretty things
For inky skies and loud lovemaking, 
I miss it though, us thinking the same things 
At the same time, not having to speak.
Another tradition, for me.
For just us.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

(Not) Open to interpretation

(Not) Open to interpretation 

On my 18th birthday when I awoke
My teeth crooked with expectations
I did not know how kisses worked
Let alone love. 
I spoke to clouds still
And threw words like soulmate
Around till they cringed themselves
Grey, unbound, laughing uncontrollably.

Before I knew it I was 20 already
Stark in the middle of repressed teenage
I did not know how words worked
Let alone love.
I spoke to my mother still
And she pulled the covers over me
Every night and lied that she was proud
As she watched me let her daughter down.

Turning 22 was a real drag and I
Crawled into golden cages and padlocked them.
I did not know how alcohol worked
Let alone love.
I spoke to shadows still 
Every sin and sinner made sense
Who the fuck did I think I was, an artist?
Taking liberties that I would never fully earn.

24 years into this mess I am, cleaning up after 
Myself, stacking my shoes in orderly rows.
I know how promises work, maybe even
A little about love.
I speak to myself still
Walk barefoot on beaches with majestic
Crabs clawing at my toes, and it does not
Hurt, I think I might have almost turned brave.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Fruity wine

Drowsy evening unfolds that dread
Between my stomach and heart
Unreasonable with a desperation
I thought I had long grown out of.

Moon in a gibbous, almost complete
But not quite there, much like you
Moving inside me. A love bite I will
Wear longer than any of my clothes.

My hair in a nest that wishes it could
Shelter our soiled sheets and chocolate
Wrappers and my earlobes quivering to
The last song you made me listen to.

A foreign bed drenched in foreign rain
But in your arms I could say I was home
And not even cringe. These other places are
Just signposts on lonely train stations.

Love poems are nonsensical anyway
So crumple these words to a side. It's
Just that our last kiss reminded me of
Promises we never made but kept anyway.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Fork


There is nothing more romantic than an unromantic marriage.

1.
I used to relate Kolkata to the hot, musty smell as we pulled into the Howrah station. I had looked out of the window, stark awake, hoping to uncover the mysteries of the elegantly crisscrossed railway tracks. The pleasantly off-key hum of ancient trains drifted in through the rusty bars.
Of course I don't remember those details. I am hoping that is how it had been.

My grandparents lived in a perpetually hot flat in Ballygung, the balcony dotted with parched potted plants. They liked card games and fried fish, disliked company. It was mid June. Lolita ushered me into sitting room, and showed me my blue strapped hawaai chappals. Gargi had a matching pair, but her feet were a little bigger. Shunil( my grandfather, obviously) took out the set of painting brushes he had gotten for me. I had grown out of painting recently, probably Gargi hadn't told him. Gargi who's grey hair and young wrinkles were suddenly conspicuous.
My parents had been married ten years ago,a hasty affair, to accommodate the last wishes of the grandmother I never met. There had been pomfret fry, rabindra sangeet and my mother's dream of a Jane Austen-ish romance. While the former two are reliable, Ashutosh was about as romantic as a counter at an insurance company. His passion for work coagulated with his mild thoughtlessness and dripped over my mother's iced cupcakes. They had stumbled through ten years of futile conversation and a general lack of laughter. 
'These silly books you women read, well-dressed men and their ostentatious promises, how shallow na? They always say that its only love and nothing else, yet the hero is awfully good looking and awfully rich. Hypocritical, if you ask me"
But she had not, she had not asked him, Gargi had rolled her eyes and rolled over on the rickety bed of their one bed-roomed flat in Old Delhi. Ashutosh was a struggling engineer, and Gargi wished he was a struggling poet instead. If you ask me, she wouldn't have been any happier if he were. Gargi had wanted glamour, like most women of her kind do, and she would not admit it until years later. When she was to have me and she had made the customary trip to Kolkata, he had not called her every night. He had not said that he missed her.
My mother coaxed me to eat a large piece of fish. I relented eventually, with copious amounts of ketchup and a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. We watered the potted plants and Shunil showed me some drawings. Most of them of a broad shouldered girl, sitting alone in various settings. Lolita was gossiping with the maid in her musical voice. Inside the room I would share with my mother, Gargi was crying silently.
The summer stretched on in stages of dullness. We played cards in the evening, after which Gargi asked me to sing. The high notes went flat as she fell asleep, and I sat by the white grilled window, listening to the orderly chaos of the city. Waiting, waiting, not knowing what I was waiting for.

2.

July on the threadbare couch. I was impatient. Ashutosh was impatient. He ruffled my hair that my mother had just flattened. He wanted to take me to Science City. The life size dinosaur models there were a novelty. Gargi sipped her tea and looked at The Telegraph. "Don't you want to come too? And Baba was hoping to see Titli in Durgapur for a week."
"Yeah, I suppose I will come along too." Gargi wouldn't look up from her papers.
"I mean to Science City."
"I have work to do."
"I was hoping we could go to the recital later too."
Gargi wore a pale green saree that day. I have a picture too, of the two of them almost smiling, under a giant black umbrella. It's the only picture in which I wasn't accidentally covering the lens with my fingers. We pranced around the air conditioned halls, my mother shrieking whenever she thought I would trip, my father asking her to calm down. I think I fell asleep halfway through the recital, because I hadn't heard the song that Gargi tried to teach me the next day.
Ashutosh stayed for the rest of the week. He watered the stubby cactus on the terrace. The crows would chase him but he flapped his hands rapidly till they left us alone. He bought fresh fish from across the road, and helped Gargi measure the mustard that she cook it with. I watched their silhouettes as I sneaked to the refrigerator, free from the bitterness that I knew was the norm. Shunil took me away to show me how he sharpened his pencils with a blade and I was easily distracted.
Through the translucent windows of the hall, the ancient blue buses of Kolkata blared their musical horns to get our attention.

3.
I did not go home when summer ended. Ashutosh dropped off our things at the Ballygunge flat. I remember the smell of cologne on his bush shirt as he hugged me six times in a row. His lip trembled. I was mad at him for breaking the chimney of my doll house. I was so mad that I did not listen carefully when he told me that we would not live together anymore. That I would go to the missionary school by the river in Chandannagore and that I should learn my tables well. That he would come see me every three months from Delhi. That there is such a word as 'divorce'.
Gargi was shelling peas at the table. She turned on the radio as he left.
I skulked around school, hair braided, my english halting, my math deplorable. Bharat sat next to me in class, his fountain pen leaking illogical amounts of royal blue. We did not make eye contact as we spoke, only when we snickered at the teachers. Gargi was furious when the royal blue had stained my starched white skirt, even more so when I asked her where my father was.
Then when I was thirteen my cousin told me that her mother told her that Lolita had told her that Ashutosh had cheated on Gargi. It had been with his manager's daughter and my mother had been distraught.
I ate my fish without complaining that night. I also stayed up an extra hour studying, while Gargi tuned the harmonium. She would look up at me once in a while, searching for something she couldn't find.

4.
I broke it to my mother yesterday. I told her we had been dating for a year now, and that I might actually marry this one. I was very excited. She did not reply, walked over to the bookshelf, kneeling to sift through the row that held the photo albums.
"Ma?" I asked, as if apologetic for her failed marriage.
Gargi was famous in Kolkata now, they took her reviews very seriously in the literary community. I found her work when I clicked on the article links that my aunts texted me. I found them a little lofty but I called her and told her I was proud. She sighed slightly and before she hung up, always asked me to call my father. I never did.
"Titli, you must know, your father did not cheat on me. He loved me very much. I may have loved him too, but I could not live in his cage."
I backed up against the wall.
"We decided that summer. Just before that week he stayed here. We decided I should have you. I am after all, more artistic, more complete a person. We told everyone here that it was his fault. You know how people talk. You must understand. I needed out. I couldn't breathe."
I watched her lips move contemptuously, till my mother faded out completely and I could only see Gargi.
And Gargi was a stranger.