This haunting ennui. It made me take long walks, desperate to be alone for sometime, away from the familiar. Though I’d close the door of my room with a firm resolve to wander off into the night’s wildest recesses, I could never make it past twilight before I came back to my lair, not because I was afraid of the dark, but because I got tired and started missing all the joys of technology that arranged themselves proudly around in my room.
On one such walk, as happened with my other walks, the impulse for a human connection overwhelmed me, and I was filled with the desire that a stranger, a girl perhaps, would look me in the eyes and understand all my troubles so we could talk the night through. I imagined her in every girl walking the street and had to restrain myself from shouting out to them- such was the power the desire churned out.
The sun had already gone yellow from the boredom of the afternoon when I reached a bistro at the corner of the street I was walking, luring me inside with its imposing orange signboard, offering me promises of a fresher life. I chose the same table as the light had chosen: I wanted to read the book tucked between my chest and right arm. The red and white chequered table cloth reeked of oil soaked from food repeatedly splattered on it. I reclined in the cushiony seat, rested my head on the window, raised the book to my eyes and started to read…
David Kepesh was getting restless while wooing Consuela when I was lifted out of his bedroom and brought back to the little bistro by a tittering bunch of girls. They chose the table opposite to me.
She was sitting there, with her eyes transfixed on something behind me, unblinking. I turned around to look at what she was looking at, but found nothing remotely interesting. There was the usual stuff you’d find on an Indian street: some beggars, some cows, a Maruti, sagging power lines crisscrossing the skies, and a multitude of humanity running purposelessly from nowhere to nowhere with a back stooping from the weight of their purpose… I turned back. She had noticed me shuffling at her gaze. With a sweeping glance at me, she turned back to her gang donning a plastic smile.
Then on, I found it difficult to concentrate on the book, I’d found my Consuela. She, with her green pashmina sweater clinging to her body, charged electrically due to the constant rubbing, charged sensually due to the woolly dryness, provoking me to do things to her, right then, right on the chequered table, fired my senses so much that I raised my hand and waved it at her. Such effrontery! But it was wasted, she didn’t see it. I sank into pools of shame and hid my face in the book. But the enchantress- I did not even realise that I was looking at her till she threw her Gorgon-like gaze at me, turning me into stone, unable to move my eyes off her for I didn’t know how to. Then she did the most awesome thing in the universe: she smiled at me.
Instantly, the bistro disappeared, the music stopped, the other girls vanished, and the air filled with the scents of a flowery future. I managed to stretch my lips wide enough to produce something resembling a smile, and reflecting her audacity, waved at her. She pointed to the book in my hand and twisted her nose. Gosh, she was beautiful. I pointed to the empty chair on my table, and she nodded. I made a mess of getting out of my reclined position, tumbled in the attempt, and made a fool of myself in front of the other girls who were getting maniacal with their giggling. But she just laughed and came to the table.
“This table stinks. Why’re you sitting here?” Give me a million chances and I could never come up with such a confident start.
“Heh, it was just for the light, I wanted to read.” I replied, with the cutest smile I could conjure, I was her puppy already.
“Let’s sit there. I hope you won’t read when I’m sitting with you.” she said, pointing to a table in the corner.
I followed her to the table praying that she doesn’t hear my heart pounding against my ribs. She had the most adorable set of boobs, comfortably resting in her sweater, and I had to remind myself to not stare at them, just a surreptitious glance now and then would have to suffice. But then I made a mess of that too and started blinking like a myopic, and ended up staring at the table instead. She, on the other hand, was elegance personified (of course, her company wasn’t as awe-inspiring), arranging her golden-brown hair carelessly with her ivory-white arms. Her name was Aphrodite.
“Hi, I’m Natasha.”
“Hi. I’m Samarth… or Samy.” SAMY? Did I hear the universe shouting ‘GAY’ at me? Why did I say that? I hated that name. ‘Hey waiter! I’d take a coffee and two pellets of Potassium Cyanide.’
“No, Samarth is better. Please don’t call me Samy.”
“Haha, relax. I hate it.”
“Me too… huh? hate what?”
“The book you’re reading. What did you think?”
“Oh nothing, nothing. I thought you hated my name. I think it’s alright.”
“You just said you hated your name. Make up your mind, you hate it or is it alright?”
“I don’t hate my name, I hate Samy. I don’t know why I said that.”
“Oh, Samy is alright too.”
“I was talking about the book there, Samy sucks.”
“The book seemed like Roth’s writing practice to me. Really bad, with all that horribly put feminist and anti-feminine stuff.”
“I haven’t read much of it. Just a few pages. You like Roth?”
“He’s an intelligent and funny man, but sucks when it comes to writing skills. I know this sounds very harsh, but that’s that.” Who is this bolt from the blue? Roth is a sucky writer to her!
“I really liked American Pastoral.” The power of the boobs and the promise that I’d get to play with them kept me from eating her up alive.
“Yeah, that was definitely better. Anyway let’s not discuss that asshole. What do you do?”
“Well, I just spend all my days sitting all alone in my room wishing to find some secluded place to read.”
“Heck, that’s the dilemma of modern existence… Bitches.”
“Oh sorry, not you, or existence; the girls- look at them with all their insecure wooestry, and jealous eyes.” Damn, she was a girl after all.
I smiled a twisted smile at her, feeling good that the other girls were jealous.
“You mind getting out of here?” she said. Could I?
“No, let’s go take a walk.”
My sweet romance was unfolding in front of my eyes, right out of the unfinished movie in my mind. She took her bag from the other table and smiled her plastic smile at the girls as we got out of the bistro and started walking across the road to get into a park on the other side. She was walking by my side, silently, and it was in the middle of the road with its crazy traffic that I saw her lips closely. And was I dead? If the traffic couldn’t kill me, the lips would’ve. They reminded me of pink marshmallows, poisoned of course, such was their voluptuousness and such was their pinkness. So we were in the park when she started to talk again, moving those tasty lips.
“Now tell me, what do you do?”
“I’m in college.”
“Oh damn, too bad, tonight is my schoolboy night. Haha, just kidding. What’re you studying?”
“Nothing. I play all the time.”
“Play? Oh I get it, couldn’t find a better opposite of studying.”
“Yes yes, what do you do?”
“I’m a literature student. There.” she said, pointing to a brown building in the distance.
“What college is that?”
“Are you in engineering, at P__?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“Only those snobs don’t know the names of other lowly colleges. It’s G__ by the way.”
“Haha, I’m hardly a snob. In fact I’m at P__ precisely because I didn’t know the names of other colleges.”
“Yeah, sure. Wear that mask of bashfulness when all you want to hear is more praise. I hate such people.” No! Do not hate me, please.
“It was just an honest effort at playing modest.”
“Let’s sit on that bench, you must be all tired.” Did she raise her brow? Or did she plunge that thin dagger of a brow into and through my heart? Girls don’t need to speak: they’re just as well-off lip-syncing, with all these innate antics.
“Yes… what else have you read?” I said, making an effort to keep the conversation rolling.
“Oh I’ve read your butt off, kiddo. I devour anything and everything.”
“Brazen and foolish!”
“No, you must’ve read my butt off. What do you like most?”
“Burgess, Camus, Dostoevsky, can’t say which- I have a lot of favourites.”
“No favourites with A?”
“Huh? I don’t know, I don’t remember, why do you ask?”
“Heh, nothing, B for Burgess, C for Camus, etc… you know.”
“Wow! You with your sharp little pea-sized brain, you smite me. Hey, why don’t you bite me? You don’t think you’re too clever, do you?”
“With that small a brain size a decent self-image is too much to ask.”
“Here assholder, hold my bag. I need to tie my hair.” Body language lesson one: If a girl gives you her bag, she trusts you.
She tied her hair with a careless movement of her arms, her fingers moving around in those dense curls with a breathtaking nonchalance. She let me hold her bag till we reached the bench, where she took it from me and sat there clutching it with her two tender hands. None of us spoke for sometime, and my mind was rapidly drafting its next sentence, that could start a conversation, yet would be subtle enough to mask the intention. Finally, she spoke.
“Has this ever happened to you before? I mean, an encounter of this kind?” Choose your answer carefully, stud.
“Umm, no.” I said with a helpless smile.
“Yeah, with your nerdy looks. Was it your first time in that café?”
“No, I often go there and sit and read. Do you also come there?”
“No, not often, I hate cafés. That place has that stench of lust, which I love, adulterated with coffee, which I hate.”
“Haha, amusing. I like that place. I feel like I’m in one of those cafés in France where the existentialists used to have their discussions.”
“How trite is that? Show-off?”
“You found it offensive? These trivial judgements, like calling someone a show-off, are very accurate, though they’re not that intellectual in their presentation. At the base of every human, no matter how dense an air of intellectualism he carries, there is a vain soul, desperately seeking attention, craving love. That is why I would still call you a show-off. That sometimes pisses me off.”
“I am a conscious pretender, so what. Aren’t we all? Are you truly what you are? I mean, how do you even know what you are? Just enjoy the drama, that’s all.”
“Oh truly, it’s as easy as that, isn’t it?”
“Who said it was easy? But it is simple.”
“Act in the great drama, wear that silver mask, and be eaten away by loneliness while you’re alive.”
“You’ll be alone even when you’re true, if you ever can be that. You know that thing about loneliness: it never leaves you alone.”
“It does leave you alone. When you’re in true love, you are not alone.”
“Oh I thought you were intelligent enough not to believe in that crap. True love? And what else? When other time are you not alone? When you beat off a monkey?”
“True love occurs in moments, now listen to me, I might just say something that will change your life. True love happens in those moments when we completely forget ourselves; it is like your blood glows with some ephemeral warmth. And very aptly, it is ephemeral. In those moments, you are not alone. Seriously, have you never experienced that?”
“For a while there, lady, I lost myself.”
“From Radiohead, right? I love Radiohead.” Her face lit up.
“My god, do we ever like the same thing? I hate Radiohead.”
“Now what is your issue with Radiohead? They’re frigging awesome, and probably have the best sense of music of all living bands.”
“Hell. You have to make proper songs, you cannot get away with playing some disjointed tunes and stick’em together and package it as some great psychedelic stuff.”
“Hardly, they hardly do that. They don’t call themselves psychedelic. They can be called experimental. Plus, a lot of people like them. They have proper songs, like Creep, Just. But for a man with a taste as crude as yours, they just might be esoteric.”
“Esoteric my ass. They are frauds.”
“Okay. To each his own.” And so I said the words to pull the plug on any self respecting discussion.
Twilight had set in. One or two stars were peering at us like the gentle eyes of the universe. A small kid was chasing a dog around the park. Through the corner of my eyes I saw Natasha looking at the boy with a soft smile on her face. I wanted that moment to stay forever. I wanted to look at her, soak my eyes wet with her beauty. Her words on love were still ringing in my ears, filling my head with a strange melancholy. I had never experienced that. I had never been not alone. Desperately, I wanted to.
“Children are the closest reality can get to the ideal. They, with all their innocence, are the happiest humans can ever be. They are not haunted by the fears of boredom, of loneliness, and strangely, when they are, they are more articulate than us when it comes to explaining them.” she said, without breaking the silence.
“Their existence is no less absurd than ours. As Camus would have it, they too are guilty.”
“Why? What crime is bigger than what the universe commits? The fucking universe, isn’t she guilty?”
“If she is, we should be thankful for it. Her benign indifference is something we all should be grateful for.”
“Really? What does that give you? That gives you freedom? Or does that merely save your ass? She lets you live, and don’t you see, can’t you see it, it’s her way of punishing us.”
“She could’ve been much worse.”
“How, would she have tortured us? Roasted our asses off with hot-hot fire? Made us go through hell here on this lovely little Earth? In any other case she would’ve cared, and that would have been some consolation, that would have been a balm for all the burns that we’d’ve had to face. You know what, I think the universe has to be grateful to us little souls, or the sorrow of one man could overwhelm the entire universe.”
“Yes, maybe, but we have to remember that we’re all guilty.”
“I saw something today, just outside the café. An old man, probably suffering from Parkinson, stretched out a shaky hand to call for a rickshaw. The rickshaw puller that caught his signal was an old man as well, much fitter though. His eyes were red, aglow from the fires of poverty that didn’t allow him a shelter from the heat. He sprang to life on seeing the call, in his hurry attempted to cross the road at the improper place.
“There was a divider in the road where he wanted to cross it. Naturally, he got stuck, with all the traffic zooming around him, not letting him get to the other side. The old man, impatient, was babbling words, asking the rickshaw-puller to cross the road properly. The traffic, however, didn’t allow him to move back even. Another rickshaw, however, appeared from the side, and the old man jumped into it and drove off.”
“I’m sorry if I sound very unsympathetic, but that happens regularly here. What was so poignant about that man, I fail to understand?”
“Hope had filled that rickshaw-puller’s stomach in that moment. When the old man rode off in the other rickshaw, the fire in the eyes of the rickshaw-puller suddenly changed its nature. It was no longer the angry fire that would destroy everything, it was rather a benevolent fire, constrained to stay in his eyes forever, a fire that would never destroy the universe, no matter how cruel it is to him. In that moment, the sorrow of one man would have overwhelmed the entire universe, and in that moment the universe must be grateful to the little souls who chose not to reduce it to ashes. In those moments, the macrocosm must accept its subservience to the microcosm.”
“To me,” she continued, “life is not the sum of the moments that ignite our existence, but the moments themselves. Each moment is a separate life, each emotion a different flavour taken from the huge concoction of spices called our lifetime. If life was simply the period when we were alive, why would we called have that word? That is why, despite the injustices meted out to us, I can reconcile with existence, for I am grateful for such moments. What I saw today outside the café was another such moment. I don’t know why, but I felt this sudden urge to share that thing with someone, and I wouldn’t waste it on those dumb bitches, so I came and talked to you.”
“I sure am much obliged and flattered… It’s a nice way of thinking, I don’t know. I’ve spent my life in a state of forgetfulness, or frustration, or just found refuge in reveries. My life has been more like the scenes that you see out of a moving train’s window. Never stopped at one, just kept passing them. It was the same with everything: girls I treated with a strange distrust, never opened myself to my friends, I found my family too stupid for my taste, I passed and left everything behind. So there is no one here who knows me…”
She took my hand in her hands, and effortlessly wrapped my arm around her shoulders, and using my chest as her cushion, rested her head on me. The night with all its gentleness had blotted out all the light from the sky, and the streetlights in the distance mournfully illuminated the road. The traffic had hummed down, and a lull had fallen over the place. In that instant, I let myself be lost in the silence, felt the touch of her cheeks on my chest soaking into my heart…
That was one of the two times that my train had ever stopped. No matter how much I tried, later in my life, to stop time, to let a moment become my life as she called it, I couldn’t. I cannot help but feel a tinge unhappy about that fact. But then again, we all have no control over our characters, and in a way, are fated to live life the way we live it.
“It’s getting late, don’t you have to get going?” she said.
“I take long walks, usually stopping at the café, with the intention of roaming till dawn, but mostly end up in my room by the time the first star shines in the sky. Today was my lucky day.”
“Haha. Weirdo neirdo…”
“Look who’s talking! Don’t you have to go back?”
“No. I can go back whenever I want; I live in my own apartment, with some friends.”
“Why? Couldn’t find a hostel?”
“Actually I cannot bear to live at my home. My house is haunted by the ghosts of a terrible past. My mother died, funnily, by slipping in the bathroom and hitting the toilet seat bang on the head. She was alone at home and it was already too late when I came back from school… Don’t make that sad face, it was a long time back, doesn’t matter now.”
“Oh. Don’t you live with your dad, then?”
“No. My dad does not, for he cannot, live in the house. His mental condition deteriorated so much that he had to be permanently transferred to a hospital.”
“What was his problem? The death of your mother?”
“No, he was a man too strong to be broken by that; but to break the backs of such soldiers the gods have other weapons. Huntington’s disease.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a degenerative disorder, and results in the loss of your cognitive and motor skills. Incurable.”
“How do you get it?”
“Me? I get it genetically. It was my father’s birthday gift to me.”
“What? You have it too?”
“Yes kiddo. Actually, mine is a variant called the Westphal Huntinton’s, which is a rapidly progressing version of the normal, which means I’m going to get the symptoms pretty soon.
“Don’t act so shocked, you’re not in love with me. I still have some twenty more years to live, but I think I’ll just end it myself by the fifth year or so. That way, I would take some of my dignity to the grave with me, feeling that I had the freedom to choose my death, if not my life.”
I wanted to say to her what House said to one of his patients, that there was no dignity in dying. I stopped short, there was. There was a beauty to some deaths and a vulgarity to some. But I wanted to say something to break the silence, the silence that was tearing my ear-drums apart. I couldn’t.
That was the only other time my train ever stopped.