Thursday, October 4, 2007

Strange Cities

When your mouth starts tasting like the city, you know it is time to leave.

Time to leave, you muse, as you trace the thick coat of grime, dust and parched gaping streets that have made their way into your mouth, with the tip of your dry tongue. You look at your callused feet and wonder, to whom do they belong…and as you run streaming water through those cropped tresses you wonder why it smells like tar…

Yet, you step out to brave another day of strange faces and myths. Evening descends and on the bus-ride back home you trace the thick coat of grime and dust with the tip of your tongue and again you decide to leave the city. A slice of emerald green enters the square frame of your spectacles leaving you startled. Oh yes, the sky still exists.

Instead of going back to the four-walled home you inhabit these days, you enter a little café on Park Street and after deliberately prolonged sips at a simmering cup of coffee, you take out one of those black notebooks you carry to write little stories in. That was when you heard them, I believe. Two young women sat opposite your table and carried on a hushed conversation, the words found their way to your table of polished wood and yellow mugs.

-She is me. She is me in another city. Not here, not in Calcutta. In Calcutta I am myself. But look at her, all alone and wretched and sad!

-She does not look wretched, perhaps she is one of those people who enjoy being alone.

-No! This loneliness is forced down your throat. This loneliness is that of strange cities and strange nights. I can be found in Mumbai, sitting with a diary, smoking innumerable cigarettes and drinking steaming cups of coffee, counting calories, reading some odd, bright book that I had picked up from a nearby bookstore- in a café where people are busy sharing memories with someone or the other, in a city that revels in company…and me… I’m all alone. And loneliness feels like being drugged after a certain point of time…
That girl sitting in the corner of this busy café in
Calcutta marked out by her short hair and notebook, with her coffee is my image. It almost feels like I have stepped outside my body to look at myself… I could amuse myself for hours on end. I could look at her and pretend that I am gazing at myself. Look at her efforts to appear comfortable, look at her finishing her work on time, trying to make the first and last sip of her coffee last- last for hours on end. Clutching the corners of the table when it is time to close the shutters and then she might step out in the rain with her umbrella of muted colours. And pretend that she likes being lonely, pretend that the sad lost gaze of her eyes only adds to her charm. Yet she knows, she knows that if she disappears one night, disappears under the glare of a thousand headlights, disappears in the long drawn peals of the church bell… no one will miss her. Even if she screams till her voice decides to break.
None will notice the translucent figure of a solitary woman on these streets… not even if you walk the same streets a thousand times over, not if you buy your newspaper from the same man on the corner every evening, not if you throw some money into the crooked bowl of the dozing beggar every night. I do not blame them in Mumbai… and I’m sure she too doesn’t , here, in
Calcutta; such are the customs of strange cities. In such outlandishness we fade away… and through our skin they see the coloured panels of the shop, they see the rain through our hair and the stars through our eyes, we cease to be substantial to them.

And when you walked back to your tiny apartment that night, the stranger’s voice crept into your ears repeating itself like some unending echo, persuading you to believe that you were indeed translucent, that your skin was stretched tautly encompassing the entire city, stretched like a canvas, and that you ceased to be solid while succumbing to that intense pull…

You repeated your well-rehearsed prayer while kneeling beside your bed at night. The ground felt cold and hard, and your ankles seemed bound to some ancient stone, and a line slipped on its own into your prayer (a prayer usually preserved for forgiveness, kindness, pity and love). You heard yourself say, above the din of the stranger’s voice you had carried home in that black notebook, “Make me opaque.”

Next morning I did not see you step out to brave the gray morning.

You left the city on that very night of voices and answered prayers I heard, and that they call you a green gypsy these days.