From a shadow's desk

Courtesy: Dvs (licensed under Creative Commons)
You go to the beach. So do I. Glad for the sunshine. Unlike you, I die everyday. Sometimes more than once a day. Rebirth isn't painful though. It's almost inconspicuous. Wherever you go, I follow. When you pause, I look up at you, wondering if you notice that I'm there. I marvel at the detailing in your face and wish I had that too. It's lonely out here on the ground. When you were a child, you'd talk to me, play with me. We were friends. What changed? Why has adulthood changed you so? Sometimes I wonder if I'll get to be a real person once you die. Yes, your death will be my liberation. But I can never transcend this lifetime until then -reborn though I am every time the sun peeps out. Sometimes I cross paths with my non-human cousins. The dark selves of trees and animals. And even inanimate objects. We exchange the strangest of stories. A tree's shadow told me of a child who outlined the entire shape and then coloured it with crayons, making her feel almost like a real tree. Almost as good and worthy. I wish that might happen to me too. A little colour would be nice. Do you know, sometimes when you sleep, I defy the laws of science and dance across the walls like a drunken loon. Once, you were about to wake up while I was doing that. I nearly died (for real I mean) that day. Imagine walking into the sun and finding no shadow self to tail you and keep you company. Imagine if I wasn't there. Maybe you'd notice me then.


Dave Nakayama (licensed under Creative Commons)

Macaroni never tasted this good when Agatha made it herself. The recipe was the same - no rocket science after all. But there had to be something that maami (that's what she called her nanny) did differently. Agatha thought about it as she savoured the rich smell and softness of the cheese. Perhaps it was voodoo. Maami looked quite formidable after all - her skin wrinkly and her eyes narrow, rather like a witch. Agatha giggled at the idea. Maybe maami muttered spells under her breath as the macaroni rotated in the oven. Or perhaps, there was a magic herb she added to the sauce. "There's nothing magical about it," Maami said, stirring ferociously in the chilly winter noon. "It's called rosemary and that's what adds the flavour to my macaroni." "What does it look like?" Agatha asked. "And does it have anything to do with roses or someone called Mary?" Maami laughed, the ladle pausing to shake along with her merriment. "Rosemary means 'dew of the sea' in Latin." She cocked her head to look at Agatha. "People used to believe it could ward off witches." The young girl gasped. "Did you just read my thoughts, maami?" "Why, what were you thinking?" Agatha considered. If maami already knew, this was just a trick question. She decided to go with the truth. Even if maami was a witch, she wouldn't hurt her, Agatha was certain. "I was wondering if you might be a witch." The soup had now reached a boil. "Well if I was, the rosemary wouldn't let me stay here, would it?" That did make sense. Satisfied, Agatha went back to her macaroni while Maami shook her bemused head.

Best two hours of 2013?

Anoushka Shankar: Wikimedia Commons
Often when I put pen to paper, it’s because I feel like visiting someplace new; or revisiting a particularly charming place. Today, I want to revisit the two hours I spent in Anoushka Shankar’s company, albeit two floors apart.

She sat there, graceful as a lotus, the sitar nestled in her able hands. And she might have been strumming the strings of our hearts, for all we knew. Because every sonorous twang felt like the resonance of a suppressed memory. When she played, I was no longer Ankita Shreeram, writer and resident of Bombay. I was just a throbbing being, kept alive and sculpted by the notes that danced around and into me. What is so intoxicating about losing all sense of identity? What is so right about not being who you are but just a bundle of uniquely-hued energy?

Her ‘voice of the moon’ might have made me cry but my soul was too busy celebrating. Perhaps it felt like it was finally receiving some attention – a rare treat – because all other times, I only fed my thoughts and my base senses.

To her right, there were the cross-legged, sedate shehnai (trumpet) and mridangam (South Indian percussion instrument) players. And to her left, was the Italian percussionist, the cello player with his hair tied back in a sleek bun and the slender African singer Ayana, whose luxurious voice made me weep to hear Norah Jones (sweet but not Ayana) in the original recordings. Western and Indian classical instruments came together in a joyous union that rode high upon choice Carnatic ragas.

Four days ago, it had been her father’s death anniversary. It had also been the date when the Delhi gang rape happened in 2012. “I poured all my darkness into this song – ‘In Jyoti’s name’,” Anoushka told us. It should have been ample warning of what was to come. But I was still deeply shaken and disturbed by the urgent, pained notes that ensued. It was just what it should have been but I couldn’t wait for it to stop.

But the other tracks from ‘Traces of you’ (her new album) – Metamorphosis and Lasya among them, helped me recover. But that would be unjust, because they did more than that. They inspired, soothed and uplifted. They made me feel truly blessed to be alive; to be there in that hall for those two glorious hours, and have the fortune of listening to such masterful melodies. This is living – my heart told me. And I believed it, choosing to forget for that moment the monotony that greets me every other day. But that’s not really true, is it? To breathe and to exist – in synchronicity with the Universe, is a blessing far too great to be clothed in the grey rags of monotony. Now when I revisit that beautiful place, I believe my heart’s whispers again. I believe that I am happy. And there was never any reason to be otherwise.

When the concert ended, with dazzling individual pieces by each of the supporting musicians, I was convinced that those had been the best two hours of 2013. But of course, it’s easy to be overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of things. Now that the sheen has been dimmed by the unforgiving dust of time, I wonder if there might be other contenders for that title. It has been a pretty good year after all.

The three kinds of talk

Wikimedia Commons

The other day, while trying to explain my introversion to a friend, I realised that there are three kinds of talk:
  1. Social talk
  2. Routine talk
  3. Real talk

Social talk is the endless jibber jabber most of us engage in everyday. It is the conversation that flows at parties and large dinners. It is a life-saver when you meet someone new and if you are no good at it, well, you'll end up hemming and hawing your way through awkward 10-second encounters, the way I usually do.

Not all social talk is shallow, though I wish that were true. It is the art of presenting one's knowledge in topics of mass interest - such as films, television, fashion, music and food - in the most entertaining way possible. I have found that sadly, literature is rarely a topic of mass interest. Nor is analysis about why we think the way we do and the mysteries of the universe. Little wonder that social talk is far from my area of expertise.

But if you can master this art to the extent that it comes naturally to you, (most often this process takes place as we grow up but some of us manage to get through it without much socialising and pay for the omission later) then you are guaranteed help from folks whenever you need it, and usually, success at a faster pace than the the ones who aren't adept at it.

Routine talk is what we practise with family and the people we live with. How was your day? What shall we have for dinner? When will you reach home? Is your cold better? You get the drill. Far from being boring, routine talk is a great source of comfort for most of us. When it comes to people we love, the mere exchange of words is a pleasure - even if those words are nothing monumental.

Now in the digital age, a strange phenomenon is taking place. Routine talk is being exchanged with complete strangers thanks to chat and messaging services. But as long as it serves the same purpose - that of reassuring you, making you feel that the mundane details of your life matter and you are not all alone, I think it's absolutely fine.

But real talk is where the magic of communication resides. These are the long, heart-to-heart conversations one recalls even years down the line. Real talk heals, inspires and rejuvenates. And it is with only a select few that we can indulge in them. I would put any conversation with some 'substance' in the realm of real talk. And I believe this is indispensable for one's happiness. One can survive without social and routine talk but real talk? That's non-negotiable. And cultivating relationships with people with whom we can enjoy this privilege, is an effort one has to be willing to make (note to self).

One observation that came up in my conversation with the aforementioned friend is that a lot of talk does not make one an extrovert. If most of your talk consists of social prattle, then you may be as closed up as an introvert who barely speaks. True extroverts are those who feel comfortable sharing intimate details of their life with all their friends. Then again, may be the definition of 'extrovert' is broader than that.

In conclusion, the things we say are a disorderly combination of the consequential and the inconsequential. Too much of the former and you're broody. Too much of the latter and you're shallow. Just the right balance of both - and you're the friend who's always in demand. Me? I'm happy with my pointless theorizing. :P

10 - The girl who died next door

Wikimedia Commons
Death. It comes in myriad ways but the one distinction between all these ways is the pace and it’s corollary - suffering. The nature of death is defined by whether it is gradual or sudden; whether it comes in bursts of suffering or one swift stroke. Death from burning – long and torturous; but death from a fatal bullet wound – instant and merciful. If I ever had to murder someone, I’d go the merciful way. To spare myself the torture of watching of course. Why should another person’s pain bother me if I can’t feel it? Compassion, most of the times, is feigned. Feigned until people are convinced they truly feel another’s feelings – an absolutely illogical and fanciful notion. Compassion traverses the blind area between imagination and reality.

Of course, all this conjecture about death applies only to the living. Suvarna’s death on Shayan’s canvas was another matter altogether.

I spent my days on tenterhooks ever since the day I’d seen Shayan in pieces over (dead) Suvarna’s aging. I kept waiting for the day when it would all be over and I was never certain if it was happiness I felt – or fear. Perhaps I’d always had an inkling that it wouldn’t be pretty when Suvarna’s spectre followed the footsteps of her physical self. I was driven crazier by the fact that I could confide in no one. I took to recording my exchanges with Shayan on a private blog I called ‘The girl who wouldn’t stay dead’. On days when I’d had too much wine, the title would crack me up and I’d giggle every now and then, while I typed macabre words.

Monsoon had made way for the suffocating warmth that was the city’s sorry excuse for autumn. I’d have to add that to my bucket list – experience autumn in its faded mahogany emptiness. While I was musing aimlessly thus, I heard a deafening crash from the house next door. It sounded like a cupboard, or something of that size and heaviness had toppled over. And then there was silence. Unadulterated silence. No screams of pain, no shouts for help. No excuses to offer for my immediate panic and compulsion to check on Shayan.

His apartment was filled with smoke and the acrid smell of it. The man had turned into a monstrous smoker. The haze made it difficult to see and for a few moments, I blundered forward blindly; my eyes watering. Then I saw him. Slumped on the floor, sobbing, while his beloved easel lay on the floor, the palettes of colour leaking into the tiled flooring.  I allowed myself to dwell over the strangely beautiful sight of different colours forging their individual paths and tributaries on that pale white expanse. Then I pulled myself back to the pitiful figure in front of me. What aspect of that was capable of charming a woman? Nothing at all. And yet there I was, a repulsive mass of unbidden concern. “You stink.” He looked up, tear-stained face and all. “It’s over,” he whispered, so low that I had to read his cracked lips. “Finally.” He didn’t seem to have heard me. “I have no reason to live any more. All I want is to die.” And he collapsed into wracking sobs on the last word. This was insane. With a sudden burst of righteous anger, I grabbed Shayan’s largest painting brush off the floor and tore through his last painting with its pointed end. Shayan may have screamed but I did not hear him. The torn canvas gave me the rush I imagined murderers felt when they severed veins. I drove the brush through every painting I could lay my eyes on. I hacked through her doe eyes, her luscious lips and her lustrous hair. I drove It through her very soul and I found mine rejoicing.

And then I felt, rather than heard him rise off the floor. With a flash of warning from my primitive sense of self-preservation, I spun around and caught his arm before he could bang my head with the heavy painting he held in his hands. “What have you done, you bitch?” he raged. “How could you kill her like that?” “I didn’t kill her!” I shouted back. “She was already dead! A simple fact you could never fathom!” and then I was rushing out of his apartment, away from him; away from his sapping insanity.

I moved out of my apartment that very night. Since several months, it had brought me no peace. And now I was in desperate need of some.

You might ask why I’d been so obsessed with Shayan that entire while. Why had I allowed his madness to impact my perfectly normal life? Why hadn’t I just let him die in that apartment, which I had anyway eventually done? I don’t have an answer to that question. Any more than I have an answer to why Suvarna insisted on extending her sorry life on paper. All I can say is – there are some impulses none of us are powerful enough to ignore; whatever may be the consequences. Or perhaps – because of the possible consequences. For every dark turn that my relationship with Shayan took, there has been an alternative turn glimmering in the corridors of hope. My subliminal hope.


Memoirs of innocent artifice

Pic: Ankita Shreeram

From a dusty drawer, the ghost of a scared child peeps
From another, a stoic teenager
The child has scrawled a Wordsworth quote
Sitting pretty on feigned adulthood's moat

Heartfelt essays now bear the dust of lies
Of a pretence in half-hearted disguise
Memoirs of innocent artifice

In a blue jewelled box, a seashell lurks
A piece of joy, locked away for posterity
Un-caged, the memory flies
Loosening its grip on a heart that sighs
For all its inhabitants, condemned to be temporary

Time has left arrogant stains on the creatures of my past
Kept alive like bloodless vampires
Staring at me dolefully
Why have I not spared a single thought for them in all these years?
Never held them to my bosom
Or fed them with my lusty tears?

Erasers, mechanical pencils, dog-eared notebooks and glittering cards
A child's possessions
But childhood is no more than a fleeting memory
Devoid of sensation, of smell, of touch or sound
Childhood would be a fancy bed-time story
If not for these accusing diaries - hard-bound

I save some from the ogling bin
But none of them matters to me
Not really
Nothing feels real except the chiming of the clock
And sometimes, not even that

Some relics I wrestle with, like this delegate card
My hand hovers, and is pulled back by my pleading, bleeding heart
Like a husband held back by an emotional wife
The husband succumbs, the card returns
To the Pandora's box that is my nostalgia.

Listen to something someone recommended.

Listen to something someone recommended. Imagine the way the beats and synapses flowed over their senses and teased their limbs into unconscious movement. Dance imperceptibly, and wonder if they did the same. Smile at the sudden, soft notes, and wonder if they were enraptured by the very same ones.

Listen to the singer's voice, the secret lyrics and wonder if they were meant just for you - a coded message from the one who recommended the song. Drink deep from the fountain of words and marvel at how they've been redefined by the music they are set to. Catch yourself blushing at certain phrases and look around quickly to ensure no one's watching. Find the song suddenly playing in your head when you're at the entrance of your train, wondering what to have for dinner. Allow the music to intrude, when you're at a pressing meeting at work or when you're strolling past the chana-wala at the turn of the street. Welcome the song with open arms when you're lying in bed, weary from the day's travails and disappointments. Along with the song, will come thoughts of the one who recommended it. Listen to the imagined ghosts of their sighs, even as the singer croons.

Feel your heart skip a beat in those initial few strains of music, before the vocals burst upon you like an expected, yet sudden shower. Watch your skin break out in goosebumps when the singer travels territories you never even knew existed. Walk in those unexplored realms with the one who recommended the song. Notice the words and the music mutating every time you listen to it, like a living, breathing creature. Like a shared force between you and that person. A sinuous thread of magic, wavering in the wind, changing colours and sparkling every time either of you smiles.

Everyone I know.

Ancestral voices by Firsov Kubla (from Wikimedia Commons)
everyone i know,
wants to tell me who i am.
everyone i know,
points at pinpricks of darkness and light
within me.
as if i didn't know they were there.
everyone i know,
tries to make sense of me
find the key to messy mystery
draw a map of my psychic history
trace the origins of my insanity.
everyone i know,
pokes and prods with sadistic glee
my squirms are their sorry victory.
everyone i know,
insists on reminding me
on rare times when the sunshine pokes through
that i am porous
and i will never retain the warmth long enough
to recover completely
to regain wholly
what i was once born with.
everyone i know,
revels in chiding me
that i know nothing of real pain
that my woes are but contrived
children of a needlessly cynical mother.
everyone i know,
is a voice of annoying wisdom
a speaker of irrefutable reason
a paragon of what i should be.
everyone i really know
is just another part of me.

One quarter please.

Courtesy: Ankita Shreeram
If I asked you to describe yourself first thing in the morning, before anything had befallen you, you'd still do it without skipping a beat. You'd probably give me the same answer every single morning. Perhaps you'd say "I'm a friendly, amiable person who likes going out and meeting new people. I like black and I love jazz. I like to dress comfortably and my favourite travel destination is Ibiza. My idea of a holiday is to relax on the beach with a beer by my side." In this vein, you could probably go on until I asked you to stop.

On the eve of my 24th birthday, I ask, what makes us such great authorities on who we are? Is there any law that stipulates that one's likes and dislikes must remain constant all through one's life? Why do we wake up every dawn with the burden of our memories - with voices of a dead past telling us who we are, what to do and what to wear? I don't want to get into a relationship because memory tells me that I have difficulty communicating and sharing my life beyond a point. Memory tells me that true intimacy scares the living daylights out of me. But what if I chose to discount all of that and make a decision based on instinct alone? Instinct comes from the heart, perhaps even a primitive knowledge of the soul. It does not come from colourless knowledge of facts that have long since breathed their last.

Memory is grossly overrated in our nostalgic, reflective times. We go over events and statements with a mental microscope like detectives seeking clues to an unsolved mystery. We ignore the present and choose to stay cloaked in a secret world built upon the pillars of things we've seen, heard, smelt, touched and experienced already. Sometimes, we shake off the cloak to find more fodder for this world. But we always go back. Always.

On 13th September, I shall celebrate Independence Day. Independence from the shackles of my own memory; from that strange soulless identity that tries to teach me what my fabric is made of. My fabric is a mutating, magical thing. It never remains constant and it is certainly no slave to yesterday's events. My fabric can be sewn into a different pattern every single moment of my life. And I can change the colour of the threads with a single thought; with the simple flick of a switch called intent.

I am completing nearly a quarter of the century that most humans these days seem to live and I'm still bound by memories of childhood, of innocent fears and baseless reservations. Hiding in a dark corner is a scared little girl who refuses to leave the safe confines of my head. This birthday, I must release her. I must let her walk away into the sunset of my past. While I stride forth into the sparkling future. Adulthood, unlike memory, is sadly underrated. Adulthood is confidence, freedom and the sensibility to absorb and appreciate art. Adulthood is indeed a doorway into everything that's miraculous and beautiful. 

Monsoon goddess

Courtesy: Ankita Shreeram

The sky peers at us
Through half-closed eyes
Irises a soothing silver-tinged gray
A gaze that wills us to believe
In the charm of a glow-less day

Darkening canopy of cloudless firmament
Somehow muting the downward sounds
Causing us to move with somnambulant ease
Slowing our heart-beats
And the pace of our ever-rushing feet

Birds – oblivious
Trees – felicitous
And humans? Humans – ignorant
To the warning of imminent storm
The sky is a crystal ball
But we choose not to see
Our innate clairvoyance submerged
Under layers of careless thought

Spotted aloe plants look on stoically
As sheets of rain dance violently
On tar roads and peeling windows
On bald heads and rusted, tin roofs
With every step, she seizes a little memento
No, the rain never returns empty-handed
She will scrape away tiny bits of you
But she will also leave behind
A precious whit of her own soul
A fair barter, in her swirling eyes

Sometimes, she comes wearing bangles
Their raucous jingle jangle
A worthy accompaniment to her primitive music
She is both musician and dancer
Both puppeteer and puppet

Some babies press their noses
To misted windows in glee
While others scream in terror
Pressing against their mothers’ breasts instead
Some would like to pirouette along with her
On diamond-strewn streets
Others wish murderously
For the music to be silenced forever

Today she dances a tribal dance
Her movements feverish
Her music unsettling
But yesterday, she performed a measured Kathak
Her lashings graceful
The thunderous rumblings almost poetic
She is a woman of many unpredictable moods
But I am swept away by every single one
For I am her daughter,
Nestled in her bosom when I was born
On a glorious monsoon morning in September
The city plump with its fill of rain
Belly positively bursting with stormy goodness
I drank from that fountain as a babe
I drink from it still and guess what?
It still tastes the same. 

Of broken glasses and beer.

Jagged edges.

When glasses descend
kiss the ground
with  stunning brutality,
their edges acquire a unique beauty.

Broken shards surround their romance
collateral damage
in a quest to stand out.

Once smooth
glasses are now instruments for damage.

Poke them into your palm
and you might draw blood
glistening beads of life force
the very colour of the wine
that once rested in those glasses.

But now,
jagged edges
are all that remain.

The beer and the sun

Courtesy: Ankita Shreeram
One glass of beer and a walk in the sun
All we wanted was to have a bit of fun
Cobble-stoned paths and shuttered shops
One canvas beneath and one besides us
One to tread on, the other to run fingers by
We had shut out the sun but it continued to burn
In a dancing flame in the pit of our stomachs
And when we felt the flame diminishing,
We abandoned cool cobble-stoned causeways
Hopped on to a black and yellow magic carpet
Ands sailed apace to have another sip of sunshine
Two glasses of beer and another walk in the sun
This time my feet wanted to dance, not to run
Shadows of overhead leaves danced on our arms
While the monsoon sun kissed our beer-warmed fingers
Golden warmth smiled through my lips
And voices of joy sang through my eyes
When the sun went down, so did the fire in our bellies
This time we let it die, happy to cradle the ashes
There would be another walk in the sun
Another look at children's toys and posters that promised to brighten your days
Another stop at raucous bars and another dance on rain-kissed streets
On a day not too distant from this one.

Harbour view

Courtesy: Ankita Shreeram
 Bright golden stars
Float upon the distant sea
Like jewels strewn with a careless hand.

A reluctant moon spies on their asymmetry
Perhaps plotting a tidal wave
That would reassemble the jewels
Into a perfect half-circle
Cast in the moon's image - 
Ode to it's narcissistic beauty.

As the sea joins hands with the blackening sky,
The golden stars acquire a salmon halo
Like a scarf made of spider web strands
And then steeped into salmon-hued glue
To keep the golden warmth safe
From the hungry water,
The moon's covetous eyes
And distant observers ashore.


My feet
Sing songs of sweet agony
My muscles
Tell tales of disharmony
But my mind
My mind is in deep slumber
A nudge
No answer
Don't desert me, thought-buddy
Silence and I, we're awkward strangers
But now we're left alone
Like a man and a woman on a first date
Hesitant but fearfully hopeful
I take a tentative sip
From a glass full of stillness
Silence fidgets, then relaxes
The room darkens
We smile, hands lying on the table,
I keep looking around for familiar intruders
Memories, regrets, analysis
But this is thought paralysis
Silence begins to melt
Though the room is cool
Melds into the velvety darkness
Leaving me alone
A heavy serenity
Wrapped around me like thick smoke
Inescapable, strangely comforting
Now I don't want my thought-buddies back
But I know they will come
Already, the door is opening
Inch by inch
Silence, she won't stay too long
A hard woman to woo
Maybe next time
I should let her take a sip instead.

Blur for clarity.

Let's crush the paper
bring the corners together
the world folding up
maps shrinking
distances blurring
let the sun shine on all of us equally
At the same time
let it illuminate all our eyes
at once
let seas heave into mountains
and mountains collapse into cornfields
let the world fold up
maps going up in flames
forests melting down on us
continents merging
boundaries blurring
let it all end
come together
fire and ice
deserts and icebergs
a storm unimagined
a tornado unforeseen
let it take our smiles and our tears
Our dreams and our fears
And hurl back at us
Something more honest, purer
More magical, truer.

Thank you, Robert Frost, who wrote, 'Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction, ice is also great, and would suffice.'

The Girl Who Died Next Door - 9

Almost blue.

(Story so far: A new neighbour moves into the vacant apartment next door to Kavya, a television professional. His name is Shayan and he's an artist. The apartment had been abandoned after Suvarna, the teenaged daughter of the family that lived there, committed suicide. Shayan becomes obsessed with Suvarna's spectre and paints her day and night, allowing her to age and live through his canvas. His obsession comes in the way of Kavya's strange fascination for him, and keeps their story from ever becoming something more than a neighbourly friendship.)

I saw Shayan so little these days that it almost felt like I'd gone back to my neighbour-less days. I was almost blue, because I wasn't sure that it mattered whether I saw him or not. Chet Baker's Almost Blue seemed the perfect choice for the moment. As the mellow notes caressed my weary, melancholy soul, everything seemed clearer; all those times Suvarna had averted her eyes from me, in fear I had thought. But suddenly, I was reminded of a woman in the train who bore burn scars all over her neck and arms. Her eyes had held the same furtive, frightened flutter. One might have perceived it as hostility but fear was what it really was and perhaps, a call for help. Was Suvarna's seeming avoidance of my company a convoluted cry for help? Were the rumours about the servant true after all? And if so, perhaps she was having her revenge on me for not coming to her aid; for not hearing her silent, veiled pleas. Perhaps that was why she had chosen to monopolise Shayan's canvas - both physical and mental. That canvas seemed to have become her playground; a sorry substitute for life. Sorry? Really? My mind whispered. It was right of course. There was nothing sorry about the medium Suvarna had chosen. Within his palate, Shayan possessed every fathomable colour; every hue known to mankind. Did life offer such a wide choice? It does, but the tragedy is that much of this choice is out of reach. If our lives were paintings, there would be a dominant spectrum of colours in each but none would boast of every colour in the kaleidoscope. None would be able to say - "I've seen it all." Perhaps, living within Shayan's brush-strokes was not such a bad idea after all. Idly, I contemplated haunting Shayan when I died.


The doorbell rang one Saturday morning, while I was deep in alcohol-induced slumber. In my dream, I missed a step but before I could plunge headlong into nothingness, my eyes cracked open. For a moment, I thought I was suspended in mid-air in a land of no-return. Sometimes I think I had a narrow escape from being marooned in that world of no sensations except heart-stopping dread. My head spun when I stood upright. It seemed that the phantom of last night's inebriation was still determined to haunt me. I decided not to fight it. With the honey-brown phantom's arms wrapped snugly around my neck, I walked unsteadily to my door. When the clouds cleared, quite unlike the stubborn monsoon sky, I saw a dishevelled Shayan shuffling on my doorstep. His eyes simply wouldn't focus on one single spot and I wondered if he could have possibly downed more whiskey than I had the previous night. And then he surprised me by reaching for my hands. "Kavya, you have to help me. She's going to die and I have no idea how to stop it! I simply cannot stop painting." I watched his features contort with pain and desperation and contemplated upon the warmth in his fingers. I like people whose hands are warm and heavy with something pleasant. People with cold, clammy hands make me want to jerk away with a combination of distrust and repulsion. "Show me," I said, and followed Shayan into his apartment. Our hands were still entwined and I had to hold my breath so stop his warmth from seeping into me.

His apartment looked even worse for wear than the last time I had set foot in it. And yet, the blasts of colour that emanated from the portraits carefully stacked all over, somehow made the rooms beautiful. And I hated them for it. I hated the fact that every stroke resonated with careful deliberation and loving perfection. I despised the softness in her features and the dreamy wistfulness in her eyes. I wanted to shut my eyes against the realisation that that was exactly what Suvarna might have looked like, had she made it past the turbulence of her youth. "I wished I'd known," I found myself saying. "Known what?" "That the servant was molesting her. I'm sure of it. She tried to tell me, many times. Not in so many words but in several other ways. I wish I hadn't been blind." If I had bothered to listen, Suvarna would still be alive, Shayan would have never been a part of my memories and he would still be smiling and sane. He would still be himself and not this raging mass of despair that now stood over me, refusing to let go of the comfort of my skin. I jerked my hand away and for a moment, enjoyed the hurt that crossed his face. Of course, that was immediately followed by regret. That seemed to define most of my life - impulse followed by regret. "Where's the last painting?" I asked and followed the motion of Shayan's pointing fingers. There she was, Suvarna, in her twilight days, her beautiful features wizened by the curvature of years and her milky glow dimmed by the shadows of approaching oblivion. "I don't want her to die," Shayan whispered, the thickness in his voice like a coil around my bones, pressing until they threatened to snap. I made the mistake of speaking my mind. "Isn't it a good thing? You'll be free, at last." Bony hands were gripping me by the hands and enraged eyes threatened to set my face aflame. "Free?" Shayan said, the low decibel of his voice pooling at the bottom of my heart like inky fear. "These have been the best days of my life, Kavya. I have never felt so absolutely absorbed in my life and my art as I have felt these last few days. With every wrinkle and silvery strand that I paint, I find my soul shrinking. I fear there may be nothing of me left when she's gone." With a start, I realised that my eyes were moist. This was unexpected. It struck me that Shayan had spoken of Suvarna as though she were his soulmate. "Why don't you ask her what to do then?" I said coolly, wrenched his fingers off my reddening arm and managed to walk out of his apartment without shivering once.

I spent the next hour staring vacantly into the morning, from my perch on the balcony, resisting the strange moisture in my eyes.

(To be continued)

In a Bombay train.

Courtesy: Jorge Lascar (Licensed under Creative Commons)

 Loud, cackling women
Erratic. Not in sync
With the rhythm of the
Train’s wheels
Or the drums beating in my ear
Or the fine whirr of the words
Rising out of my book.

Harsh, raucous speech
Abuzz with tawdry, uncontained excitement
Mutating, no longer human.
A foreign tongue
Of a foreign species.
The drums beat harder
The words rise swifter
Their music interspersed with
A voice I know so intimately
A voice I could name in my sleep
The railway announcer’s voice!
Youthful, splendidly even-paced
Like she had been born for this purpose.
For answering that existential question
Of where we are headed
And where we will eventually go.

If my life is indeed a train journey
And I don’t get to choose
Who travels in my coach,
I’d at least like to choose
The colour of my train.

A woman peers at my book
A little longer than necessary.
Frightened, I wonder
If she can see the words rising up as well
If she might want to seize them
Before they inhabit my mind.

Drums have now become
The mellow ripple of a piano
A beggar sings of love, of unrequited passion
The cackling has quietened
Human again
But not yet sublime.
And here we are, at yet another station
New coach members
New scents of aspiration, desperation
Vacant bliss and noisy frustration
I must permit them
The familiarity of my skin
Of the vibrations of my thoughts
Which have now become confused,
Misdirected mass
Of cackles, croons and cloistered cacophony
Rainbow of sounds
Bouquet of annoyance.

There I see men clad in orange overalls
Weathered skin darkened
By the passage of time.
Peering into unexplained mysteries of the railway tracks
And if I peered along with them,
Would my skin become weather-worn and shadowy too?

Buildings struggle to wriggle out of their foundations
And coconut palms strain to kiss the clouds
As we pass
But not a single nod of greeting
Not a whit of acknowledgement
We’re strangers – them and me
But we see each other everyday.
We’re strangers – the world and I
Though we breathe each other everyday.

Valley. Flatten. Fools.

Pic: Ankita Shreeram
The swirling mist
Joined hands with sedate, grey clouds
To hide the valley from our eager eyes
Our thirsty eyes
Our city-weary eyes
Maybe if we’d all dived in
With our city-weakened bodies
And primitive desires
We might have made a hole
In the singing mist
And our laden souls
To allow,
A little joy inside.

Touch and go. That's all it was
But I still believe
At a meandering turn,
I might find you
Holding a smile in your hands
And an embrace in your eyes.
Time will flatten
Like a deck of cards falling
And it’ll be like
We never stopped singing together.

By the door of her stone house, she stood
Unsmiling, watching, sedate
Her sari was a dull maroon
And her children were a happy brown
Their merriness and her silence
Both blissful, yet different
So different
From the unrest in my heart.
They played with sticks and stones
And she, with paddy and hot coals
We’re fools, you and I
We play with people and thoughts instead
And we feel the needles poke in bed
Our sleep as murky as wakefulness
Guilt seeping between different levels of consciousness
Dissonance causing cracks in the armour
We so proudly wear.
I want to be naked
Because You will cloak me
The one I seek
The one I see in the dreams I don’t remember
And walk with in the walks my selves don’t return from
You will show me
That we were never meant to hide.

Alone. Thirst. Economy.

Pic: Ankita Shreeram


Can’t a word stand alone
Before a fullstop?
The way I do
Before the finality of your words.
I teeter
But pride holds me aloft
Your cowardice hems me in
Holding me in place
Unable to move
In any direction but away.


We sipped from each other’s minds
Careful not to drink too much
At a single swallow
So the pool would remain deep
What I tasted intoxicated me
And I wanted more.
I wanted
To feed my insatiable thirst.


Careful, lest you say too much
Care too much
Let your love too loose
You will disintegrate
Bit by bit
Pieces cast into
Dark, uncaring nothingness
And you will yearn
For the softest echo
For a sign
That you are being heard.

Familiar Strangers.

Her eyes, they didn't reveal much, even though they were the first thing you noticed in her 2 by 2 inch display picture. Her tweets, they made you feel that 140 characters were all you ever needed to weave magic with words and make sense of life's esoteric puzzles. Following her was easy, accomplished with the mere click of a button. The quest before him was now to ease his way into her life, to charm her with his words. And when he did, they took a virtual walk together in the cold crispy air of London's famed Hyde Park. She let his words flow over her, whisper into her ears and enrapture her soul. She let his words in, and in doing so, she let him in.

She counted the days when he would return to Mumbai and she could put a face to those lovely words. They knew only each other's minds and souls - not mundane details like what they did and how many years they had spent on the planet. Yet, she was certain that he would be young and beautiful. A man who understood her thoughts so well and wooed her spirit with such unparalleled sensuality had to be the man she would love.

The day dawned cold and bright when they would meet. He wanted to let the mystery live a little longer, and asked her to wear a blindfold. She had a penchant for intrigue and obliged with pleasure. Evading the cops and curious glances of passers-by, he led her blindfolded, trusting self to his car and his world. What happened then changed her world.


She would read a random story and wonder, "Is this what he was like when he was younger?" There is so much to wonder about when you know so little about a person. The very dearth of facts acts like a drug, pulling you ever closer, until all the information erupts in your face and leaves you with a choice - to accept a lifetime of boredom, untouched by mystery or to spin greater mystery out of the facts you are now privy to. She had looked forward to the time when she would be faced with that choice. How delicious would it be, to hold in her hands a fate so heart-stopping, a fate that would undoubtedly affect him irrespective of his willingness?

As the car caroused along the highway, the miles rushing up to meet them with unspecified joy, Anika tried to restrict her smile to respectable proportions, well aware that the curve of her lips would be heightened with the blindfold cloaking most of her face. "Will you tell me your name now?" she ventured, suddenly feeling ridiculous. What did she look like, sitting there with her clasped hands, wandering lips and hopeful words? And then he trailed a single finger along her arm and all doubts were silenced. "Rudra." That was a nice-sounding name, she thought. It wasn't so ordinary that you didn't want to be associated with it and not so exotic that you had trouble recalling it. He already knew her name of course. That was her Twitter handle. @Anika. "I like your name," she informed him. He chuckled, a sound that reminded her of the numerous waterfalls that appeared suddenly along the Mumbai-Pune expressway during the monsoons and disappeared with as much haste.

The music he played was soft and lyrical, the kind she listened to when she wrote. "So where are we going?" she asked, basking in the glow of the sunshine that seeped in through the closed windows. "A special place," was all he said. She had not told a soul about this encounter. Anyone who got a whiff of it would obviously doubt her sanity. And yet, if you really sought the novelty of adventure and the edge of magic, the lure of something transcending the barriers of probability, you couldn't help but throw caution to the winds. "What do you think of the music?" he asked, the intonations of his deep voice connecting with different fibres of her being. "It has oriental influences," she responded. "Yes. You do know your music well," he said and she could hear a smile in his voice. Music had been one of the several themes they had conversed on. His fingertips began teasing hers and she mustered the courage to tease him back. The tiny wisps of contact send shockwaves through her body, and she took a deep, steadying breath, her body turning hot and cold as she wondered where it was that his eyes lingered. That had to be the worst and the most tantalising part of being blindfolded; not the inability to see but the inability to control where the other person's eyes wandered. "Why are you blushing?" he asked lazily, withdrawing those teasing fingers. "I'm not," Anika protested, as her face heated up further. Rudra laughed. "It suits you. Makes you lovelier somehow," he murmured and her heart skipped a beat. She experienced a sudden, desperate need to tear the blindfold off and finally get a look at the man who had drawn her into this intoxicating web.

All too soon, the car stopped. The crescendo of anticipation and excitement in Anika’s heart had reached its climax. All the feelings that had led up to this unreal moment now quivered on the edge of revelation. “I’ll remove the blindfold once you’re seated,” Rudra said softly, as he opened the door for her and rested one light arm on her waist as he guided her along what seemed to be an uneven pathway. Presently, she could feel the blaze of the morning sun on her face and she was glad for the summery yellow dress she wore. The fresh, salt-tinged scent of the sea reached her nostrils and Anika smiled in delight. “Are we at a beach?” The sea would go a long way in settling the overactive butterflies in her stomach. “Indeed we are.” The cool breeze wafting in from the coast blunted the effect of the scorching sun somewhat. And then, they reached a shade of some sort and Rudra turned her around to face him. The touch of his surprisingly cool hands on her bare, sun-warmed shoulders made her feel quite light-headed. He leaned in close to untie her blindfold and the woody notes of his perfume brushed against the sensitised skin of her neck. She blinked a few times to adjust to the sudden light and then looked up into the unseen face that had featured in so many of her thoughts over the past few weeks. The sight that met her eyes nearly sent her reeling.

“Rudra!” She exclaimed. This was Rudra Iyer, a colleague from work that she was vaguely acquainted with. In fact, she might not even have known his name if not for the fact that he sat right across from her, a few rows away. Non-existent shadows clouded her vision in that sunny brightness as she tried to reconcile her reserved colleague with the man who had wielded so much passion with his words. Even though he was over six feet tall, Rudra Iyer seemed to shrink in front of her as he faced her doubt and barely veiled disappointment. “Yes, it’s me. But let me explain. Will you sit at least?” Still wrapping her head around this sudden turn of events, Anika sat down on the carpet spread below the beach umbrella and noticed for the first time, the chocolates, the wine and the flowers. She sighed. A strange sadness threatened to envelop her now as she felt the much-awaited revelation pale before all her expectations. Undefined though they had been, nothing could have prepared her for this. Rudra Iyer, the reclusive copywriter, known for his brilliant bursts of creativity and his general dislike of humanity – he was the man behind those intense messages and those beautiful verbal images he had drawn. “So was it all a plan? You followed me on Twitter with this end in mind?” she asked, trying valiantly not to sound accusatory and knowing she had failed when she saw the slump of his shoulders. “Wow, this is clearly not how I thought this moment would play out,” he said dryly. He sat down before her and reached for her hand, but she recoiled. Taking a deep breath, he sat back and scrutinised her, as though wondering which words would cajole her best. “Anika, you intrigue me. You always have. But I don’t do social interaction very well. Now the written word, that’s a different story altogether. Twitter happened by chance. I didn’t plan any of this. Everything just took on a life of its own once we began talking.” She stared at him, trying to read beyond his words, read into his erudite eyes and his insolent stubble. Had she ever really noticed him? Anika was in client servicing and she never interacted with the creatives department. There were other members in her team who did that. Her role was limited to interfacing with the brands that approached the agency. And with a job like that, she had to adopt an effusive, extroverted personality even if that wasn’t entirely true. No, Rudra Iyer had barely registered on her radar. Yet it seemed that she had featured prominently on his.

“Why did I intrigue you? Before we began speaking on Twitter?” she wanted to know. Rudra smiled. This was something he had expected. “I saw beyond your mask. The chirpiness, the unruffled attitude – it was all so normal and agreeable. Yet when no one was looking, there was restlessness in you that called out to me, a desire to get away, be swept away by adventure. That’s when I went looking for you on Twitter – to get a glimpse of your thoughts and see if what I felt was just the product of an overactive imagination or a lucky insight into the real you. Your tweets – they are out of this world. They wrap around me like silken threads and charm me with their frank sensuality.” Anika’s breath quickened as he spoke and suddenly, she had no trouble believing that he was indeed the one she had walked in Hyde Park with. Everything fell into place now. She had heard about Rudra going on a holiday around the same time that that had happened, though she had obviously made no effort to gather details. Yet, to fasten all those vague fantasies onto this man, no longer a fascinating stranger but someone she saw everyday; it seemed impossible. “I can’t do it,” she thought mournfully and realised that she had spoken out aloud. “I’m sorry Rudra. I think this is where our story ends. Real life is very different from Twitter. And I didn’t expect my existing life to collide so violently with what I imagined would be absolutely new.” Rudra stared at her, the hardening of his jaw telling her what she needed to know. “So you’re discounting everything that we shared? Simply because you already know I exist?” Anika sighed. “It just doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel that way about you. I felt that way about the man I exchanged those messages with.” “But we’re one and the same,” Rudra said with barely controlled anger. “I’m sorry,” was all Anika could say before she picked up the discarded blindfold and retraced those steps, this time with eyes wide open.


Monday morning would bring with it enough work to distract her from looking across the rows at the tall, lean man who rarely spoke and rarely smiled, Anika hoped. What she hadn’t counted on was the void that the sudden cessation of their messages would cause. And the way it messed with her focus on work. For the first time since she had joined Diffusion, Anika found her well-relied upon mask slipping and it frustrated her no end. Furtively, she watched Rudra Iyer type furiously at his computer and swivel in his chair with a pen in his mouth as he waited for a brainwave to strike. She watched him drum his long fingers on the desk as he sipped on endless cups of cappuccino and unbutton the top of his shirt as the day wore on. She found herself unconsciously licking her lips, leaning forward as she wished she could discern more details. She found herself scrutinising every woman he spoke to, on the rare occasions that he did. And then sometimes, when he suddenly looked right back at her, she hurriedly turned back to her computer screen, guilt causing her face to flush crimson. A few days after this tortuous situation, Anika had to fill in for a colleague on leave. “Follow up with the TBZ campaign. Rudra has to submit the creatives by 6 PM,” Brijinder, her boss told her. Her heart skipped a beat on hearing Rudra’s name. Finally, providence had conferred upon her an excuse to speak to him and get a closer look. She attributed her garish curiosity to the fact that she had woven so much fiction around the blurriness of the details regarding the man behind those messages.

Anika waited until after lunch to enquire about the creatives. Rudra watched her skirt-clad figure approach from afar, the kitten heels making her sway in a manner that had him gritting his teeth. He knew she was replacing Kiran today. He was prepared to face the moment with absolute nonchalance, even though the unfair disaster of their ‘date’ still churned up untold fury in the pit of his stomach. “Rudra,” Anika said and he hated himself for enjoying the sound of his name on her generous lips. “Are the TBZ creatives ready?” Don’t be distracted by the way the end of her braid teases the nape of her neck. Or by the slight quiver of her lips that betrays her nervousness, he told himself. “I’m done with one print ad. But we need to give them two more options at least. That’ll take me a while.” Anika wrung her hands, wondering how to deal with the hard-nosed Rudra. “The clients will call us at 6 PM. We need to give them a brief of the three options. Can you at least come up with the ideas for the other two?” Rudra regarded her unemotionally. This was his chance for revenge, small-minded and hardly satisfying though it would be. If he refused to cooperate, Anika’s ass would be on fire. But he would also be guaranteed her unending ire. “I’ll try. Check with me again at five.” A few moments of silence passed as both of them gazed at each other, perhaps trying to read into each other’s eyes the inspiration that lay behind those glorious words. Then, as though snapping out of a trance, Anika stepped back. “I’ll do that,” she said and turned on her heel, oblivious to his hungry stare that watched her until she was back at her desk and still within sight, as she had been in all those days that he had stolen glimpses of her, dreaming of one day ripping off that mask and tasting the inky sweetness beneath.


“Will you walk with me?” he had asked her, from across the oceans in a faraway street in London. She had granted her excited acquiescence, curled up on her bed at home, the evening sunshine paling against the glow in her heart. He had described the nip in the air, the wind among the leaves and the playing children that sent the sand flying. Then, he had decided to rest awhile on a wayside bench and soak in the fresh scent of the dewy grass and imprint the mellow beauty in his memory. It was then that he had slung a virtual arm over her shoulder and leaned in to sniff her hair, making her heart skip a beat as she nearly felt his breath lift a few wayward strands. She should have found it strange that he had exhibited no curiosity about her appearance, but then that had just been their way. Theirs had been an exchange that didn’t require the burden of cursory details. Or so she had thought. As she absently scrolled through the messages that now spoke of passion gone wrong, Anika wondered why exactly she had reacted so adversely to Rudra. Was it that she was repulsed by him? Far from it, given the way he seemed to capture her attention in the last few days. No, what had unsettled her had been the sudden imbalance in their relationship; prescience and deliberation on his side and innocence and naiveté on hers. What had made their connection so magical, in her mind at least, had been the blindness on both ends, the strange attraction that was based only on words and imagination. And yet, if she considered the twist in events that Rudra had suddenly forced her to confront, the new storyline would read something like this: This intense, reclusive and incredibly talented man, who couldn’t spare a word or a moment for most people at work, had inexplicably become enamoured by her, Anika Roy. He had observed her for days, weeks perhaps and divined facets of her personality that she rarely admitted to her own self. He had gently nudged into the soft layers she kept hidden from most, with a single instrument – words. He had taken her on the finest flights of fantasy, cast an inimitable spell on her mind and aroused her with his thoughts. Anika found herself smiling as she contemplated this brand new story. It might not have been the story she thought she had been reading but it wasn’t any less beautiful. Decision made, she stood up and made her way to Rudra Iyer, who presently had his legs crossed on the neighbouring chair while he doodled on a notepad. He looked up, surprised. “It isn’t five yet.” “No,” Anika smiled. “But I thought you’d like to have coffee with me.”