The Keeper of Time

When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me a story about a cuckoo clock that she had seen when she was growing up. It was a large and imposing clock, with a little wooden house stuck on the centre where the hour and minute hands met. As the clock was about to strike the next hour, she always said, a little old man would step out of the house and slide the hour hand into perfect position before disappearing into his little wooden dwelling again. When you thought about it that way, time was always magical and within your grasp and and on most days, I would ask my mother to repeat it several times. I had so many questions.

What did the old man do if the clock stopped working? Did he ever step out of the house for anything else than changing the hours? How long did it take for him to get back into the house again after he was done with his task? I don’t remember most of the answers now.

But I do remember that there was a question that I didn’t ask my mother because I wanted to figure out the answer by myself. What did the old man do as he waited for his cue? Did he sit down? Was the house actually a proper one with chairs and windows? Or was his job to simply wait in the wings, on high alert for his cue? If he did have something else to do, how did he keep track of the hour-hand-task? Wasn’t he the keeper of time himself? And if he was, surely he could do nothing else other than just wait! Some days I told myself that the old man had an entire family with him and he was not alone. On other days, I was convinced that the clock would die the day the old man refused to step out.

I was at the shops with Miss A last week when we heard the news of the MH17 aircraft. We were in a busy mall, eating our lunch when the news flashed across screens.

Because I stopped talking, she did too, and we both watched in silence.

“Why does bad stuff happen to innocent people?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. They were showing scattered suitcases on the TV. “Perhaps that is why people believe in reincarnation because it seems so hard to make sense of everything in one lifetime.Maybe we need to blame it on the afterlife and the past lives.”

“If there was someone who wanted to turn over a new leaf the very next second, something like this would rob them of the chance,” she said. “How does reincarnation answer that?”

“I don’t know,” I said again. “We make up entire universes like that. Because so many things do not make sense.”

“Death is not the saddest thing there is,” she said, eyes still on the TV. “It is the getting left behind, the waking up everyday with such sadness. Death is easier that way. Those people that passed on, they no longer know of the chances they didn’t get. Their families will be sorry forever because they know.”

“The best thing to do is to be grateful for everyday,” I say. Though the food tastes awful by now and the pictures of those young children on that flight are setting my throat on fire and discussing shopping plans seems terribly trite and inconsiderate. “For this food and the weather and the fact that we got a car-park and all such things.”

But my words are lies and I don’t feel sure of anything.

“I suppose,” she says.

And then I realise, that she is looking for hope much more than I am.

“Even if it is not obvious, you have to believe. In the good stuff. In healing. In knowing that things will one day return to order.”

“Do you believe that?”

“With all my heart.”

“And those that are gone?”

“Especially for those that are gone. Because like you said they have no more chances left.”

“Where exactly on the map is Amsterdam?” my mother asks later. Many, many years ago, she used to point out these things to me on the atlas and quiz me later to make sure I understood.

I think of the old man in his wooden house then, I had forgotten he existed. While he was waiting indoors for the clock to run its course, my mother has forgotten her answers from another time. My daughter has questions that no longer have simple answers or even locations on a map.

“Who is to know what will happen to this world,” my mother says. “Nothing seems true on some days.”

The maps are changing.

The times are changing.

But after all these years, I think I know what the old man in the clock does while he waits.

I think he pulls up a chair and keeps an eye on everything that goes on around him. And then, no matter what, at the end of the hour, good, bad, ugly or magnificent, horrid or without hope, he walks up to the hour and advances it anyway. To signify the end, to signify the beginning. To keep things moving.

Yes!

I finally know what the old man in the clock does all day long.

He does not let the times control him. I don’t think he ever has.

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The shows that go on..

Last week, in rather uncharacteristic behaviour, I found myself 20 minutes early to pick Miss A up from her drama lesson. It must be mentioned here that the child does 4 hours of drama per week and this is not counting the tantrums and other dramatic session she sometimes unleashes on me. Sometimes I do these pick-ups and drop-offs on auto-pilot. Sometimes I forget my sense of marvel about the whole thing, I almost forget how much I love theatre and what it means to me.

It is autumn here, you know how autumn runs – it likes to pretend to be almost-winter. And so, last week, the air was thin and cold and the evening was almost translucent with a cold but orange sky. It was only 6:30 PM but the street lights came on. People became shadows and then silouhettes, the sounds around me became a soothing muffle.

I must tell you here that the drama classes are run in a quaint little building with a creaky wooden staircase and attics and eaves and discarded cupboards full of wigs and costumes and pearls as large as plump stones. Tins of greasepaint and posters for plays that were staged in 1992 or 2005 or any other year that takes your fancy. Old rickety chairs and thick drapes, that kind of a place. Miss A and the other kids love the building, it is like a second home to them. There is an old theatre downstairs where amateur productions are staged every month, for a season or two. On Friday nights, people converge here in pearls and black dresses and scarves and mufflers and gloves that have seen younger and better days. They line up on the pavement, these people, and they buy little program booklets and they reminsce about the plays that are almost always classics and have been staged a few thousand times before in some other part of the world. It is that kind of a place, like I said, it is all about things that once were – old and crinkled and warm and speaking of other genteel times.

And then are the kids and Miss A from their class upstairs, they talk and giggle sometimes too loudly, they swing the doors with abandon as they rush through the old archways of this building which has cracks and is whitewashed and has seen so many acts. The kids drag squeaky chairs over pockmarked floors and they sometimes recite their lines to one another as they wait to be picked up. The theatre patrons smile at them but the young uns – they have so many lines to learn and they are always in a hurry to find their parts.

Last week, as I reached the theatre and waited, it was the end of the season for ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. The props were being cleared and the posters were being taken down. There was no line of stage-goers and except for the pack-up truck, our stage was deserted – no one hangs around for an ending, you see. We all wait for the curtains to open, we are in a rush to go away once the curtains fall. The little ones, upstairs, were doing a reading and there was no giggling and no patter of footsteps. Everything was so quiet, so lacking words.

Mendelsshon played on the car radio. The tower clock sounded its gong seven times. The truck driver locked the stage door and pulled out of the parking lot. The evening got darker, the first fog of the seasons left traces on my car window.  The street was bathed in yellow and orange and the colours of the evening, everything was at once cold and looking away. The concerto reached a crescendo. More cars buzzed around me, in the dark, on an almost-winter evening.

“This is the now,” I remember, thinking to myself. “Now. It looks like this, it feels like this, it smells like this. There is no yesterday and no tomorrow and no light and no dark. The Now. It is quiet and dark and not at all sad.”

But it was, a little bit. Because dark theatres are sad. As are empty chairs and wings without anxious voices and grand pianos.

And then the doors swung open and Miss A and her friends tumbled out clutching scripts in their hand, new words and new lines to learn. The lights from the drama class windows spilled on to the orange pavement. And for beautiful and ridiculously brief moment, those lights brightened up the signboards of the silent theatre. Tangible proof of the show going on, this was it. This and Now. This and the being Here. As things change and end and mould and re-open. The Now. It is such a constant.

Outside the theatre is a bench inscribed with the Bard’s words. On summer evenings, I wait there for Miss A.

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Sometimes, life, it just lines up.  Everything just makes sense.

Word Stains

It is a sheet of lined paper, folded and refolded many times, the questions a squiggle, the space for the answers stringent and economic.

“You need to fill it in by hand,” she tells me. “And use your best handwriting. I could get points for this.”

So, I sit down after dinner and fill in my feedback about Miss A’s learning portfolio. Half an hour later, I have a document that looks a lot like my journal entries from the engineering days. There is, on this itsy-bitsy paper, a need to say and do the right things, there is a need to dot the “i”s and leave plenty of margins. The “g”s are perfectly looped, there is a smidgen of space between the paragraphs, the capital letters are imposing and grand with their curves.

It is like my handwriting of yore,  when words were solid and pebble-like, thick entities that dug their feet into the paper and stood there with bravado, looking you in the eye. Even if you did strike them out, there was a whiff of their presence, sulky ghosts that peeped out at you from behind the lines that beheaded them. The words then were for the long term – they did not cease to exist in their entirety because of a few, fast-tapped, frivolous backspace key strokes. Things were more permanent when the world was younger, when I was a child.

“You don’t write like that, anymore,” Miss A says.

I don’t. I can retract my words now, I am an adult. I understand that words and promises can break and disappear and that there is always a clean slate around the corner. I can say what I want to because when you grow up, your vocabulary grows with you and you learn words like disclaimers and fine-print and clauses that can be summoned when it is time to shatter truths. You can say you never meant what you said, you can forget the pen-strokes and you can reach for the eraser before reaching for the pen.

And yet, here on the paper that my daughter will take to school, alive and present, a clunky yet clear truth emerges in this collection of words that came as my first choice – no edits and no corrections, no afterthoughts, just honest writing with a borrowed pen. This page, she tells me, will be filed into her portfolio and it will come home at the end of the term. I will look at it then and wonder if I should have said something differently, if I should have been more verbose in my praise or less subtle with my criticism. But this, here and now, is a time capsule. And time, that unctuous thief is the only honest one out of all of us.

“I used to write like that all the time,” I say. “Once.”

Once. In another time. A girl with ink stains on her hands and endless  reams of clean paper. Once. When words were supposedly forever.

“You should start again,” she says. And then, with a wink, “I have tonnes of cursive writing you could do for me, Mum.”

“They would be my words then,” I say. “Not yours. And you need your own pages, you cannot borrow mine. And I cannot borrow yours. We have to write our own stories.”

“You were someone else, once,” she says.

And I was.

And so were the words.

And now it is all strange and clinical and precise and there are no ink stains on my fingers.

Questions, questions…

So. Because I am wonderfully organised when it comes to looking after one blog, I figured it would be a sensible idea to set up another place to neglect. This is the thing – I need a place to list the links to my published writing. Now, if you are a friend of mine on FB, you will know how I post links the minute I get an acceptance and how I refresh the page every 10 seconds to see if anyone liked my work. What was that? You didn’t know the latter part? Oh well,ummm, you do now.

But anyhoo, I am in two minds. There is some decent stuff I have written over the years (yes, yes, I am getting old) that I would like to share with you peeps. For those that did not know this, I am not called Scarlett in real life. To give out those links here would mean outing myself. Yet, the lure of instant gratification and the need for a pat on the back is so strong that one feels recklessly tempted (is there any other kinds?). It would be nice to have one blog where I can store all my writing work (failures/acceptances/links/demented ramblings/grocery bills etc etc).

Questions, questions. What do I do, dear gentle reader? Ideas? Delurk and tell me already.

Sigh…

So no one comes this way anymore other than 1 or 2 of my buddies (thanks Rajavel and Captain, you guys are awesome. And very kind to keep reading my ramblings)? Sigh.

And I thought we were friends too, all the rest of you :/

The Tourist

“Be a tourist in your own town”, the board proclaims. It is stained and dirty; it also looks weather beaten and has the look of someone that has bid numerous goodbyes without actually going anywhere. It doesn’t work that way, you cannot be a tourist in your town anymore than you can be a guest in your own home, no matter what the circumstances. The difference between a tourist and a local is that the local carries his baggage of memories; the tourist looks at the labyrinth of streets with a pristine slate.

On a dusty sunlit evening, I walk the cobbled streets of what once used to be an old abode. I realize that after a while the paths chart themselves out for you because you have walked them before. I no longer need to know where I am going, there is a set of hazy footprints to go by, sometimes I see it, sometimes I don’t but I have been here before and my feet will follow the marks. It is a slow journey, punctuated by sentiments that hang heavily around old reminisces. There is the side path just near the over bridge, you have to make way through the overgrown brambles and forge through the ankle-high grass till the road opens out into a clearing.

A small jump over an old unused drain and you are back on the main road again. A tourist wouldn’t find this; it is not on the map, not at least on the one that takes you somewhere. And yet, the path exists as a testament to the fact that there are no straight roads to get anywhere in a hurry, you must traverse the sidewalks before you get somewhere. There are the pauses that you must take before merging in with the flow.  We have been there before and we will do so again, how we get there this time is what counts.

Behind the old walking trail from across the main park is a tiny road that hums to itself and disappears behind a thicket. It does not matter that no one walks this road anymore, it is only the tourist that needs to live in the now, the local has his stories from the past. A long time ago there used to be a stream that flowed past the surrounds after particularly rainy monsoons. I had paper boats made of old grocery bills and I would watch them disappear on their journey in this seasonal stream. There was the thrill of not knowing when they would vamoose out of sight – I didn’t know it then but it was the closest I got to understanding that at the best, you can know where you are going, no one will ever be able to tell you if you will make it or how you will get there.  The boats would disappear, the monsoons would become a memory and the stream bed would hide under thick grass and brave new shoots. I never went back after a few monsoons, I never saw the boats again either. We both learnt that a goodbye is the first thing to pack for a journey.

Year later, as I walk those roads again, those that once matched steps with me are far away, and yet if I strain to hear them, I can hear a stifled giggle and the slurp of an ice-cream on a hot day. I turn around in a trice and almost expect to find a best friend from that age asking me to wait as she catches up. The roads are empty, a road full of strangers is always an empty street to some walking down memory lane. I sigh and keep walking. I cannot be a tourist here, they are too alive, those memories and sounds of another era.

Some more walking brings me to a road I have studiously avoided in the last decade. There are broken promises and there are unshared dreams here. Another time and another place, it led to a happy place. And yet as I walk down this path, the pain doesn’t come rushing out of the sidewalks like it normally does. The promises, even the broken ones (for we tend to magnify all that is incomplete) are hazy, the dreams are strangely harmless and incapable of hurting anymore. I notice the road for the first time, like it were a new thing. Time has dulled the intensity and age has given me a newness that feels like a beginning. The exorcism of the reminisces is complete, at least right here, right now on this street. I scan the road ahead with new eyes, I am tourist here now, and there is nothing that binds me to this place.

I am ready to be seduced by the journey again, a new chapter awaits….

PS: Have I ever posted this one dear people?  This post was sitting in my drafts for a really long time. Ah well, here goes.

The Ancestor

Time will alter you with its deft brush, adding strokes that you will never want to admit to. Age and maturity are a deep, deep precipice – you may twinkle toe around these boundaries but words will fail to convey the platitude of something so dynamic. A part of growing up is growing away. But no one will ever tell you that.

Growing pains, struggling to build an identity and flirting with the hazy land beyond known boundaries are travel-mates. Do you remember how you listened to music that you barely understood, when you were on the cusp of growing up? How eating a cuisine you didn’t grow up with was far more fulfilling? How far away vistas were better than the neighbourhood?

The journey starts when you look upwards and outwards out of your window and notice that sliver of a blue sky. It was there all along, it must have been – but one day it beckons like a leprechaun and you wear your travelling shoes and follow the trails into a land you have not set foot in, ever before. None of us would ever travel if it was only a home that we were seeking. When you are seduced by the call of time like this, a home is always a starting point. A home is what you leave behind because familiarity breeds boundaries. And you do not want them now, not when the world is your oyster. Or your pearl.

New lands will not let you down – ever. There is much that will dazzle, much that will take your fancy. And so you open yourself to newer senses – you change and your morph and you shed your old robes and you embrace newer roles. It is deep – this chasm of age, like we said before.

There is another thing that no one will ever tell you. At every milestone, at every signpost, the road breaks into two. One path points you forwards, the other asks you if you are ready to go back home.

Like the sliver of the sky that beckoned a while ago and whisked you away on new adventures, a day comes soon enough when every bend in the road reminds you of home. I find myself reaching for the music I heard as a child, old sentimental favourites that my mother and I hummed on cold, wintry mornings. When I hear a song that I heard on the radio with her, I feel transported to a better place. I see her washing her hands in a hurry even as she rushed to crank up the volume on our old Phillips radio. I need the music that comes from inside -and somewhere along the way I have learnt that the music that comes from within often mingles with the sounds of home.  Comfort redefines itself as you age.

I find myself calling her up more often to ask for the recipes that she whisked up for me when I was a child. A plethora of new cookbooks lies on my kitchen top – perhaps I no longer need to define myself by the predictions of far-away cuisines. I have travelled enough and nostalgia is the sweetest taste there is. Steaming hot rice, with a mound of perfectly cooked yellow dal, a dash of lemon, a drip of ghee and a pinch of salt is my idea of manna. Old memories, time tested recipes, music that recreates another era – going back is much easier than you can imagine. Perhaps it is homesickness. Perhaps it is being weary of travels. Perhaps they are the same things. Perhaps the day you realize that you need to stop being someone else, home will let you back in.

In another time and another place, I would have laughed at anyone that tried to tell me this – we all believe that our calling is always more important than our roots, that our dreams are better than our beginnings. But time will add deft strokes to your portrait  like I said-  strokes that you never thought you would recognise. “Every single one of us carries our ancestors in our hearts – we just take a long time to accept this!”, my father once told me.

I would like to believe that the ancestor stays hidden till you tell him you are ready to make the homeward trip. He waits while you conquer new lands and take in new sensations – he is wise, this elder, and he stands silent and biding his time. One day you tell him that you are done with your wanderings and that you miss your roots –  and he smiles because he had known this all along. He has already packed for the return journey. He knows the signposts that you have forgotten to read, he navigates the roads for you and he leaves you on your doorstep.

The choice to travel or to find a home is always yours. And the road not taken will never desert you, believe in this. Life comes full circle. So will your journeys. So will the choices you once made, or didn’t make. All you  have to do is ask that ancestor in your heart.

Chrysalis..

The gift boxed packaging nearly eludes me at first. Tucked behind a half eaten sandwich and a collage of artwork, is a white gift box that is mostly hidden from sight. I pull it out to get a better look; only to have Miss A launch into a frenzied outburst that I need to be very careful with the box.

“Awww, do you have a surprise gift for Mommy?”

“No, but you need to be careful, okay? You should put the box back!”

“Where did this box come from?”

“It is a gift from Emma. Mommy, you should really put the box down.”

Mommy does not hear the concerned tones. And proceeds to open the box. Only to have Miss A jump up and down as she tries to take the box away.

“What is in the box, A?”

“Promise not to get mad?”  Dear Lord, this can only end well.

“Yes, I do.”

She does a little drum-roll and asks me to close my eyes.  I hear the box being opened with great flourish.

“Open your eyes now!”

The box has leaves in it. And twigs. And a couple of pebbles. A spot of dampness – one assumes water existed inside the box in some form, once.

I move the pebbles around gingerly while A dances around me, giddy with the happiness that only a gift will bring.

I am about to confess that I do not understand Emma’s gift when comes the next declaration.

“I have named him Scallywag”

“Huh? Who?”

“Him. The caterpillar. See? See how cute he is?”

One must tread carefully in the vicinity of delicate feelings. I suppress the scream and set the box down on the table. Scallywag, in all his regal cuteness rests peacefully under a twig. He retreats to his idyllic world, even as A blows kisses at his rapidly departing form. I ponder on ways to word my questions with some sensitivity.

“So why did Emma get you a caterpillar?”

“You mean Scallywag? He is a part of the family now. You need to call him by his name!”

“So why did Emma get you Scallywag?”

“She didn’t. I named him that. She said I could name him anything I wanted”

Take 2.  I try again.

“It was very nice of Emma to get you a gift of a caterpillar that you named Scallywag!”

“Yeah. Charlie got one too. But the gift box was for me. Charlie had to keep her caterpillar on the desk.”

“Ahh. Emma has been handing out gifts, then!”

“Yeah. We didn’t ask for them, of course. That would have been rude”

“Of course!”

“But she wanted to get us something nice. Just for me, actually. But Charlie said she wanted a gift too. So Emma got two caterpillars.”

Strange child, this Emma. But I digress.

“So, this is like a, umm, pet?”

“Not any pet – Scallywag is special. Because Emma spent the morning looking for the cutest and the fattest and the fluffiest caterpillar she could find.”

“That is very, umm, generous of her”

“And then she had to go looking again because she had to get Charlie something too, remember?”

“Again, very generous of her!”

“Charlie kept her caterpillar on the desk because I got to keep the box. So the caterpillar went around in circles on her homework book. Mrs J. saw it and she threw it outside into the garden.”

“Awww, did Charlie cry?”

“No, but Emma did. She spent so much time looking for these fluffy caterpillars.”

The world can be harsh towards someone that has such exacting standards for caterpillars.

“Can I have the box back, Mommy? Emma just borrowed it. I don’t think her Mommy knows! ”

I promise to clean the box and return it in a day or two. This means that His Highness Scallywag will need a new home.  We all have the same problems – the need for a safe roof over our heads is a great unifier for all creatures great and small.

Miss A hums to herself and skips away after showering more affection on the hapless creature (the caterpillar, not me).

Someday soon the caterpillar will metamorphose into a butterfly with gossamer wings. Its wings will take it to distant lands and it will not need a home created of twigs, pebbles and carefully gathered leaves anymore. Someday the box will stand empty – yet overflowing with memories of a simpler time.

For all the beauty it imparts, we are powerless against chrysalis. And perhaps a child knows this better than anyone else. A caterpillar is but a butterfly waiting in the wings till time calls its name.

Miles to go before I sleep…

Parshu was the laundry-wallah of a small suburb in the sleepy town where I grew up. There had never been any pressing desire (pardon the unintended pun) for most families around to own an iron. When we needed clothes ironed, we walked or ran up the quiet street and turned left at the cross-roads that meandered on to the market square. Two more skips, a jump across a shallow ditch and you ended up face to face with Parshu in his makeshift laundry. The little tin roofed shop had a messy pile of clothes on the left and an old rusty cabinet with yellowed glass on the right – ironed clothes occupied the pride of place here. In the middle of the room was an old table covered with faded bedsheets and threadbare blankets. An old Murphys radio on the wall behind him played Hindi numbers in a never ending loop. Parshu was hard of hearing and his coal powered iron made a fine hiss whilst it tackled our creases and so the radio was always cranked up to a very high volume. On the days, you did not want to walk past the cross-roads or jump past the ditch to check if Parshu was around, all you needed to do was to listen very, very carefully when you got to the bend in the road. If the radio was in operation, so was Parshu.

Parshu could neither read nor write. This did not preclude him from carrying out sums in his head and coming up with random rates for our clothes based on his whim for the day. The families around the street followed the same logic when paying him. An old grievance or a story of how he once burnt old Aunt Shah’s shawl or misplaced Mrs Sathe’s silk blouse would be aired with much melodrama from the aggrieved party – Parshu followed this up with much denial and feigned sadness and indignance. A paltry sum would be dispensed either way and all was well till the next piece of clothing went missing. My mother insisted that as long as you held up your fingers and itemized the cloth count for him, the man never made a mistake. The logic failed at times and when it did, we all blamed it one of two things – Parshu’s lack of literacy skills and his undying love for a drink. On a bad day, both factors combined and became a force to be reckoned with. The more he drank, the more emphatic he became. “Your clothes will be ready in the next hour”, he would magnmously promise us kids. “I will bring them over”, he would add loftily. “I will iron them so well that your mother will think you got them dry-cleaned” would be the next generous declaration. This was usually a sure sign to go looking for the other laundry-wallah in the neighbouring street who didn’t take too kindly to being utilised as a back-up plan for the mad-as-a-hatter Parshu.

Shortly after these flamboyant offerings of spectacular service, the main door of the laundry would close and Parshu would fall into a heavy slumber, his snores mixing with the lilt of the Hindi songs in the background. An hour or two after the drink had worn away, Parshu would wake up and make his way around the suburb, sheepishly letting people know that the ironing would take longer than expected. No matter how drunk he was or how busy he was or how many clothes had gone missing, Parshu himself was always attired in crisp, well-ironed sparkling white clothes. For all the things he was not, you could always rely on him to look like he had been to the best laundromat in town! An open field has a fence too – it is just harder to spot.

“Drinking never did anyone any good Parshu”, old Baa Shah would tell him. “Your soul, you foolish man, will be possessed by the demons”. Old Baa Shah laid much in stock by the demons and this was her routine threat for everything from missed homework by the grandchildren to errant cricket balls in her garden to Parshu’s drinking.

“Chee, chee, Parshu”, the doctor’s wife would admonish him. “How long will you play this charade? You are a very bad example for the children. I have half a mind to take my business elsewhere. That should teach you! ”

Parshu was the very picture of remorse. He promised to give up drinking, he promised to never make such high claims again and he promised to never let us down again. When he found himself near the bottle, all returned to normal around the street.

It was a problem but it wasn’t a big enough problem for any of us to buy an iron, find another laundry or take our business elsewhere. We may not know this at the time but we carry the burdens of those around us more than we think.

Parshu ironed a generation of clothes for that suburb – bibs, school uniforms, clothes for visiting cousins and family, wedding sarees, last minute shirts that needed ironing – the man ironed them all.  Like a memory film unwinding in bright, garish colours, our lives and our milestones found a way into his  little shop aglow and warm with coal embers. There are people who are witnesses to your life even when you don’t know someone is watching.

You don’t miss a part of the landscape till you lose your way.  The clothes had piled up, the shop was locked and we wondered whether he had gone on a holiday without as much a word – something he had done several times before. When they did find Parshu, he had been dead for a couple of days. He had fallen asleep by the roadside after a drinking binge and somehow this time around, he didn’t get up from his slumber and  finish the part of the act where he went around retracting his promises. Miraculously, his clothes were still impeccably crisp. Those fences in the open fields are closer than we think.

For all the things we are not, there are always things that redeem us. None of us are a lost cause. We just don’t know this at the time.

Passing Ships in the Night…

No one loves a small town forever, you had once said.  Right before you reminded me that you were made for bigger and perhaps better things. I didnt know enough to correct you and I perhaps adored you too much to disagree with you. My dreams found their haven within the safe confines of the bylanes, the meandering,crooked streets and the genteel rambling houses that our town was famous for. The old lake aglow with dinghy tubelights from the surrounding streets spelt home for me and the glenn behind the old primary school reminded me of how much of our past we always carried with us . You spoke of a distant land and I half listened to you even as I watched a plethora of rain drops slide off the dusty gulmohar boughs. Your horizons loomed wide and daunting in places that sounded foreign and yet rolled off your tongue so easily. I said these names out aloud to myself at times and wondered how people could form a new home in  a new country and forget where they came from.

I called you up from the corner telephone booth after you had left. My mother gave me a 100 rupee note and asked me to wrap up my talk in that amount. Perhaps she knew better than me that when you are summarizing an entire future that is not to be, you need very little time and very few words. The telephone booth had a rickety,wooden stool and a calendar from 1995 – another stark reminder that some places, like some people, have trouble moving on. Someone had lit an incense stick in the booth that morning and the air was heavy and thick with the sweetish aftersmell.  There was a fine layer of grime on the wooden ledge that housed the phone and a couple of phone numbers had been etched on to the drab sunmica panels with a ball point pen. A sequence of digits. A sequence of lives. One reality depending on the other like a chain. A link between two lives. Perhaps the last link in the chain.

I was in such a rush to talk to you that your receptionist didnt understand who I wanted to talk to at first. When I finally got through to you, you stayed your usual non-committal self. Your visa had come through, you were leaving soon. I could call you up in a new contry next year, you suggested. I wondered for a moment if, like my memories of a better time, a 100 rupee note too could stretch and sustain forever.  But I ended up telling you I would call because I didnt know what else to say. I even managed to get some change on my money.

I dont know how your evening unfolded after that call. But I chatted to the shop owner. And to the old lady across the road as I wheeled my bicycle back home. There was a storm soon after and then the heavens poured for what seemed liked an eternity. I let the rain talk to me and I soaked up the rain, the bone drenching showers and the monsoon chills believing that I was letting the pain wash away. When the sun came out again, a part of heart was still shivering.

I stayed in the town for a few more years. And then like you, I packed my bags and left. And I never went back in any true sense of a homecoming. But this year after many,many moons I found myself on the same streets again. The sidewalks had a profusion of wild grass like always, the crooked lanes still meandered and the lake was older but still caused a ripple. The corner grocery store was no more. Familiar faces from another era were dotted with grey and sepia, and yet there were sweeping chasms of lost memories and lives where an old friend or a dear neighbour once existed. Everything was so old and so much in place that it was almost new again. The STD booth was there too – was it the same rickety stool that had once stood witness to us sealing our fates and bartering our futures for the allure of faraway lands?

There were no clouds in sight – the rain gods had abandoned their bounty and the sky was inexorable in its blue cheer. I paused by the booth and for one, pure, undulated plump moment, I thought of you, of me, of us. Of the way we were back then. Of the roads we never took and of the patois of the heart that we ignored. And then just like the day, I had walked out of the booth with change in my pocket and a burning hole in my heart, I walked on. Except that there was no pain left anymore. Someday, if you keep at it long enough, time will announce that its dues have been paid and leave you to your fate. It will promise you no victory – all it will promise instead is that someday you could be trounced again on a level battlefield where there is no book-keeping for the victor or the vanquished.

I nearly didnt say those words back then, I nearly didnt wish you well for everything that lay ahead. I am glad I did though because someday at some crossroad, everyone struggles to find the way home.  You didnt know this when you left because you had your eye on the destination. I didnt know this when I left because I had my eye on the starting point. And yet we both lived to tell the tale. It was not our tale anymore, it never needed to be so. We journey alone – we arrive alone. The greatest of love stories is but the tale of passing ships in the night.

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