I’m back from a packed weekend with a number of intense experiences and I’m doing the next three prompts in a row so there’ll be patterns and repetition. Okay, you were warned. Here goes the first Reverb10 prompt.
December 24 Prompt – Everything’s OK
What was the best moment that could serve as proof that everything is going to be alright? And how will you incorporate that discovery into the year ahead? (Author: Kate Inglis)
Monsoon. A tiny (you won’t believe how tiny) flat on the ground floor of an unfashionably locality in suburban Mumbai. The rain lashing against the single window. An occasional earthworm getting in through godaloneknows where.
It was the final gasp of the pitchy darkness that had engulfed me in the first half of the year. I hadn’t had the time to think about it, make sense of it. And finally I did. So I remembered. And I grieved. And I raged. And I bitched. And I ranted. And I cried. A lot. Not the nearly poetic, beautiful tears cascading down my cheeks. But unsightly swollen eyes and runny nose, hacking sounds as tear glands struggled to keep up with the outpouring of emotion.
When I was all spent, I opened my eyes. My face was buried in an old tee-shirt whose smell felt alien then (and that I would come to recognize with clarity). A rough face pressed down on my head. I shifted, reality and the present coming back into sharp, sudden focus. The arms around me tightened perceptibly.
Where are you going?
It’s getting late. I should get home.
You are home.
And I was.
I particularly remember the details of a particular journey. It stands out in the multitude of other daily routes and frequent destinations that would checker the rest of my working life.
I used to take an AC bus to work each morning where I was spared of the usual Mumbai crowd. My favorite seat was the last one from the back, on the right side. Its window was not interrupted by a frame, the seat itself didn’t lend itself to additional bumpiness on account of being situated over a tyre and it was far enough from the initial seats which would get taken by the occasional non-regulars.
These were my early days of employment and all I had was a battered Walkman to keep me company. In fact on most days, I didn’t even carry a cassette, choosing to listen to the radio instead. Yes, I didn’t even have a phone with a radio on it.
Once I sat down and bought my ticket, I’d settle my handbag to a corner, arrange my Walkman on my lap, adjust the blinds just the way I wanted and close my eyes. The music and the motion lulled me into a gentle semi-slumber, of the sort that I, like most other Mumbai commuters would perfect over the next few years as a substitute to the regular sleep we missed. Exactly three stops (and 7 minutes) away from my destination, my eyes would fly open and I’d awaken fully refreshed. Just in time to switch off and pack away my Walkman, gulp down my entire waterbottle, tidy up my appearance and make my way to the door. The routine never varied.
On one particular day, I couldn’t sleep. Traffic jams and the ensuing horns blaring, even if they were much filtered by the capsule I was in, kept me awake and irritable. And then we passed one of the bus-stops on the way and my head jerked around, almost 360 degrees. At the bus-stop across the road, I caught a passing glimpse of a tall, slim girl with long hair in a ponytail, clad in a bright red top of some sort and jeans. I absorbed all of this without fully realizing why I had turned. It took me a few minutes to piece together with memory before coherence happened.
The ex- had spent much of our time together, playing mind-games and one of his early techniques was ‘My ex-girlfriend was hotter than you, thinner than you, smarter than you, better than you’. It was the most torturous routine I have ever been subjected to and its memory lingered on far beyond the death of that relationship. For every minute in that relationship and a long, painful time after that, I felt ugly, undesirable, unimportant, unintelligent and unlovable. Inadequate. I had never met her and she made me feel terrible about myself.
I struggled to make my peace with my past for a long time after. But I found I couldn’t stop obsessing over what I had heard about this girl. I even tried to get in touch with her, tried calling her just to be able to hear her voice. I wanted to hear a lisp in her speech, one mispronunciation or perhaps spot just one single mole on her face. Anything at all to let me know that she was not perfect. It haunted me for a long time.
All of these memories came flooding back. One time, when we drove past this bus-stop on his bike, he had whipped around and with a practiced solemnity declared that he thought he had seen the love of his life standing there. He refused to turn back or say anything more and after all this while, I suspect it was no more than a ploy to keep me troubled and under his control. Yet, I succumbed to every one of his ploys and tossed about in the black sea of self-loathing and worry.
The girl I had spotted fitted his description to some extent. What was she doing in Mumbai? Was she still living with her aunt as he had claimed? I sank back in my seat, the flood of unwelcome memories overwhelming me. And suddenly I just felt very tired. Very, very tired of hurting so much.
I closed my eyes in despair.
And that’s when I was suddenly conscious of the sound in my ears. The radio had been playing all along, only I had been too caught up in the moment to notice. And the words I heard as clearly as if someone was telling me gently, very gently,
When I finally opened my eyes, I realized that it could not have been the same girl. Or perhaps it was. Either way, it did not matter.
In the past two decades, I’ve had a troubled relationship with faith and God. There have been turbulent storms that have broken my belief. And then there have been islands of reprieve such as this one. I have no other name for them.
The hurting didn’t stop immediately. But at least I stopped continuing to hurt myself. I think I just needed someone – something – to let me know that it was okay to stop punishing myself. I made my peace with it at one level back then. But closure happens in stages, little by little every minute, some visible, some not so much.
Some time ago I thought of her again and made contact. She didn’t reply. And it occurred to me that if I had been in her place and received such a letter from a stranger, I would have responded out of empathy or at very least, pity. I know I would have because I already have, in another case. She didn’t and I think that makes me a better person than her. It may be very weak, it may just be rationalization but for what it’s worth it makes me feel better.
In a life starved of belief, when you’re being tossed about in confusion, you grab onto whatever you find and hold on for dear life. Sometimes even a stray line from a song will do.
“It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
– The Little Prince, Antonie St.Exupery
What shall I do when I find myself lost, without a map or sign of redemption?
And how will I remember that there are those who await my return,
When the darkness wraps me, leaving just a knife-edge sliver of light to show my downfall?
Romance is dead, this is true.
Romance is just a myth foisted on the world by men to keep women chained to their stupidity.
Which is why I think romance and its sorry butt can get kicked, strangled, have acid poured down its eyeballs, buried barely breathing and have its grave danced upon.
Instead I’ll just switch off my phone that’s too expensive to smash against the wall, eat a melting brownie too sinful to be wasted and walk out on an emotion too disempowering to be chained to.
Skin powdered to smooth perfection
Lipstick patted dry to a subtle, near non-erasable hue
Eyes smoky and heavy-lidded
Colours muted enough to be classy
The voice pitched a tad above inaudible, just below husky
And her movements just the right side of languid,
Never erring into lethargic,
Shying clear of boistrous
And yet, through the night
She is, as a beacon
Moths or fireflies perhaps,
Flocking to her banked flames
Later, much later, early in the a.m.
She washes her face
Patting it gently dry as the beauty manuals advocate
But the shining in her eyes stays until she shuts her eyes
Gilt may turn to gold and back,
But tears and pearls can never be changed.