Her breath misted the glass, and her lips left a heart shaped blur. Nothing that cannot be wiped away. We talk through mirrors every day, recreating the magic of the Lady of Shalott.
‘She shouldn’t have died’, she says. ‘It was a beautiful death however, was it not? Ophelia-like.’
‘Yes, that was the curse placed on the Lady. Ophelia’s death was mysterious and surreal, like a dream.’
‘What do you call it… poetic justice?’
‘Maybe. Yes. Yes, I think so.’
‘A man’s death won’t be that… touching. I mean I cannot imagine Hamlet floating down the river, borne up by his garments’, she smiles slyly.
‘Why are we talking about death?’
‘Oh I don’t know. To me death is but a concept. When you die, I vanish. That’s all.’
I smile too. A thunderstorm is raging outside, shattering some distant window. She moves her chair and tries to see the razor-sharp lightning streaking the sky.
‘Doesn’t rain too often these days, isn’t it? Once in a while Nature storms down and shows that she exists, strong and virginal. It scares me at times. The wind howls you say (I cannot hear it from my side of the mirror), almost like a vehement denial to all that has been wrought by man. Shows you your limits, sternly, awe inspiringly.’ She pulls back the curtains like I do and lets the rain inside.
‘What a pity you can’t hear the wind or feel the chilly air… and it smells great too. There are no pines in this part of the country but I can smell young green pine leaves’, I tell her.
‘Well there are limits to being an image, you know. I understand everything you say but I feel nothing. It is like delving into your mind, flipping through files of information you have stored there and knowing what you are talking about, without of course having experienced it. Just as there is no pleasure, there is no pain. To me they are thoughts. If you could live like I do, you’d survive out there. Would you mind getting a cup of tea and a cigarette? I am getting a headache.’
I am back within a couple of minutes and she has been waiting patiently, though her eyes are a tad swollen. ‘It is the headache’, she mutters, ‘Go on, light the cigarette.’
She exhales the smoke, watching the white patterns diffusing into thin air, in spirals and curls. We are silent for a moment.
‘Remember the day we first talked? You jumped out of your skin with fear.’ She laughs loudly and shrilly.
‘You scared me; I was just talking to myself in the mirror. Lots of people do that, though they seldom acknowledge it’, I say.
‘Yes, if you say so. Well, what were we talking about just now…death, right? Are you afraid of death?’ Her eyes twinkle with humour.
‘I don’t know. I hope I die suddenly though. I won’t be able to stand prolonged illness.’
‘We’ll die together then. In my case, I simply vanish, cease to exist any longer. However, I’ll disappear only in your absence. Your death is mandatory to my not being here. Poof!’ she squealed in delight. I do not find it a charming thought so I turn away from her and towards the red sky. ‘This reminds me of the twilights in Shimla’, I tell her. ‘The sun would drop like an orange ball behind the iron railings every evening, while I sat silently on one of the many wooden benches lining the street.’
‘Why did you return?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘That is your problem. You hardly know anything. You live in a bubble, taking pleasure in dissociating yourself from reality and being sensitive about all that manages to slip through that bubble. Ahh!’ the last sip of tea was sipped and she looked disgruntled. ‘Well, can’t you be more like me? Decisive and indifferent?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘I knew it. You can’t control anything. Not even me, and I am your image. I live off you; I replenish myself through you everyday, and yet I am my own person.’ She rattles on.
I do not answer her. I am thinking about Shimla and its long winding roads. I think of the shy woman who would get me my breakfast every morning and of her child who slipped her fingers into mine and watched the sun drop behind the railings every evening, I never knew her name. I remember the charming professor who took classes in the open field teaching us Shakespeare, and I remember snowflakes hardening slowly overnight. Sometimes we walked over to the picturesque temple, treading softly on the steep staircase, imbibing some calm and warmth from the air scented with incense sticks and we rang the bells…
‘Can you hear me? I was saying that you should stay put here. You have your job and a respectable salary. All you need to do is harden a bit. You are almost there… just some more effort, a few more late nights. You can do it.’
‘I know my limits, that’s one thing as you rightly said, Nature has taught me.’ I retort.
‘Ah. Yes, I had forgotten my words. But what I meant was-’
‘And you say you will disappear only when I die?’ I ask. She looks baffled with the diversion.
‘Yes, of course’
‘That is not mandatory. You can vanish even while I breathe. Like right now.’ An unsettling calm had overwhelmed me. The air though chilly (she couldn’t feel it) was taut.
‘Don’t be silly, that is not possible. You die, I die. Not vice versa, and definitely not-I die-you survive.’
‘I survive,’ I say drawing out the syllables as if I were etching them in the space between us, tasting each word, and I touched the mirror (she touched it too), ‘but you can die. Vanish if you like it better that way.’
She smiles uncertainly, sprouting her theories in a slightly trembling voice. I have stopped listening, and I hurl the empty cup. It shatters the screen and she vanishes.