“Shall We?” – 3

Somethings need to be said. Somethings not.

Its been a while.

And I havshall we_ - III.pnge begin to fear that I may have forgotten the stranger after all. Did he ever exist?

The Botanical Gardens in Kashmir in winters are a lonely place. During summers college lovers sneak into the gardens to spend time hiding the bidding of their untrained hearts among the bushes. Expressing the excitement, the nervousness, the fear in coy whispers.

Looking out of the gazebo, Love had seemed a bit pointless. Like the silly morning breeze in Kashmir. When the whole city is asleep except the muezzin and the kandroo, and time stares blankly in the quiet, I realized that the stranger may have never been in love at all.

The faraway warrior. Fighting his own personal battles.

He has a habit of silently walking in and our of my prayers. As an unfulfilled desire, he is always there and yet never spoken of. The stranger would look out of his window and see his reflection in the rain of an unknown city. The rain drowns the humdrum of life and locks you up inside. Alone, to confront the memories of the past. The past where the Botanical Gardens were an unabashed reality and the chinars were full of promise in autumn rain.

But when the rain had asked the question, Shall we?

The memories were silent.

 

 

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Lost Forever

Its a long way to home. Always.

Srinagar. The Bund is a bending road around the Jhelum. Like memory it takes subtle, soft turns. I saw the stranger walk down the Bund in autumn, and my memory from years ago is like it happened yesterday. Perhaps it did.

That promenade around the Jhelum is like a metaphor for Srinagar, fallen from grace.

He appears from below the Chinar trees, the golden leaves’ dust on his shoulders. He smiles, but his eyes are hollow.

“Don’t lose hope, love” I want to yell. But he doesn’t see me. He sees right through me. I can almost feel his gaze. Piercing, like his eyes. It warms my heart.

As we walk together, I can smell the leaves in autumn – with their strong dry fragrance, and his cologne. We walk past the Goodfellas cafe, the chairs in the lawn are hunched. At another restaurant, the sign says open, but the door is closed. The coffee shops are all closed in the city. A few men sit in the park opposite on the benches around the trees. There is no one else.  “What do you love about autumn so much?” he asks.

We walked in silence for a while. The question hung in the air. I had once questioned what lovers in Srinagar did in winters, when it is all hard and cold. I think I know now. They wilt. The stranger’s hollow eyes are an answer enough. His dream seems to be deserting him – it isn’t fair for anyone to be so beautiful and without dreams. But Life is too busy to take such questions, and we must pass this promenade of memory and into the maze of the city. The cacophony of the city doesn’t reach here. We seem to have found a corner of the place, most people have forgotten. Two men were digging the side of the road. What if they found treasure hidden at the bottom of the city?

In this place bereft of all romance the sun sets early these days. It rises late. The sunset is very golden behind a grey sky. It is the only thing that makes sense, the clockwork of nature. We were walking away from the sun, and our  shadows were long and touching as we got off the promenade near the Post Office. Even if I wrote him a letter, I would not have been able to post it. This year all the love letters were delayed. Love was put on hold, momentarily, and lost forever.

It was getting dark and the markets crowded. Near the unfinished construction barrier at the Fountain, the hawkers and the cars were adjusting themselves to the pedestrians.

An old man calls from his chestnut cart saying this is the last of this year’s season.

“Its like short lived romance, where everything is possible.” I say, “It also doesn’t last.”

Twos and Threes

For a brief moment he gathered his thoughts, and then let go. He did not like what he saw.

The stranger had re-emerged. In this yet unknown city, where he tried hard to belong, he had anchored his heart and let his mind sink. His precious idea of life was far from realized, but so was his life. He wasn’t dead yet. It was just another year passed. It was just a birthday.

The only two greetings he had had were from an old friend, who had bothered to remind him that he was fast growing old, and Google. He was somehow grateful for that.


Why must it rain today? The sky was overcast, and as he looked out at it, it only seemly to grow darker. Clouds kept moving in, and yet there was no rain. A tattered blue tarpaulin sheet waved aimlessly at him, a black cat moved under a log and white pollen from poplars floated in the air.  
There will not be any celebrations. He felt that he had reached the mountains to find there was no fire, just gusts of cold air. A thunder clapped loudly in the sky and the electricity snapped. For all that had happened to him, he had played with the poorest cards he had. Twos and threes, against aces and kings. Even the occasional Jacks.
In his room, he thought of something to wish for. Something, he would carry into the new year. Something that would get him through this night. He blew the candle. I need more hope tonight.
And, then it rained.

We Will Have No Regrets

No. We will have no regrets.

The stranger had reappeared in a familiar city.

 

He had once told me that happiness is a task. An uphill climb. Like hoping against hope. Its an achievement often, and not always desirable. That sadist hero! He had let his hair flop on his forehead and swept it away, and told me that misery can be a uniting factor.

People drift apart when they are happy. Everyone is scared to share happiness with others who are miserable. And they are miserable, you can be sure of that.

I dont agree, you know. We can be happy together. I mean people.

Are they anymore? I mean people.

Why explain. Why delay. Don’t go away. Simply call it a day.

I hadn’t said anything in protest. But misery isn’t the objective. Neither is despair. We live in Kashmir, or somewhere where Kashmir is always present. We live in doubt.

Now both are quiet, and he is to leave. He always does.

We are scared of familiarity in Kashmir. The warmth is all for strangers. I leave it at that.

As you leave I can say. Love was King. But for only a day.

In doubt I reminisce about this idea. Is despair the center of our life now or is doubt? It is the center of our relation, of course. That’s how relations with strangers are, full of doubt. Is the blankness of the future, burnishing us now. Our minds and hearts?

Its a warm, regrettably sunny February. His hair is glinting auburn, like autumn air. Its a colourful day, draining the winters and almost spring. He looks at me and then looks away.

Pleading moments we knew. I will set them apart. Every word, every sigh. Will be burned in my heart.


(Song lyrics: Shirley Bassey “We will have no regrets“)

"Shall We?" – 2

At the end of the trip was Srinagar.
At the beginning of it was Srinagar, too. Like return of Spring in March. A bit unsure, but very much there.
The stranger looked back at the aeroplane that had brought him here. How unromantic is air travel! What story of love if it doesn’t travel over rocky mountains and dangerous cliffs. What love if it is not hurled over a precipice!
The stranger passed through the waiting queue of people at the baggage carousel. People were already piling their trolleys when he reached and waited patiently for his suitcase. There are only two baggage claim belts at Srinagar airport. The other one was empty. The arrival terminal is bereft of any glowing billboards and other fan fare. Just a Foreigners Registration Desk and a few policeman.
A policeman came forward and asked him if he was a foreigner. The stranger said no.
Confused the policeman asked, “What is your country?”. “Kashmir”, he said.
And smiled to himself.
Thats how I saw him coming and that’s how he shall appear in my eyes on countless occasions. Smiling to himself, his red lips curled in an unabashed grin. Behind his dark glasses his eyes adjusting to the sunlight outside. I remember how gently his hair had fallen on his forehead. I remember that he had secretly loved his looks. I remember I had done too.
Love is a pointless emotion anyway, he had said before he had left. And now I couldn’t help a sinful wave turn inside me as he made his way through the throng of waiting placards. His fair face and red shirt standing out.

Of course we had coffee. Words and laughter flowed. A lot was said and heard. Autumn was not melancholy after all. I dont think it will ever be. I had prayed for him, and it was answered. Under the falling leaves of the chinar it was all blossoms.

The frail question still hung, “Will you dance with me?

..to be continued…

Porcelain

The waiters had appeared, setting glasses upside down in preparation of early evening diners. But mainly the restaurant was empty. Tea. A cup of tea is a good idea at this hour. The tea arrived brimming hot in white ceramic. the waiter laid the cup slowly, and delicately like an artist, took a step backward to examine its position at the table. Like still life, in which the stranger was just an object. An object in someone else’s painting.
As if acknowledging this idea, the waiter nodded at the stranger and smiling went away.

A few tables away a young guy with blue spectacles sat looking prettily at his date. A light jazz played in the restaurant. “Strangers in the night” the stranger could hear in his mind. It was hot day, by Srinagar standards. And the air was dusty. The many ornamental plants and the air conditioning did nothing to improve the air. Across the lawn trimmed to perfection, beyond the edge, traffic rumbled by. Its many sounds barely audible over the music in the café. A small marquee had been set up inside the hotel to give it a Middle Eastern feel. The curtain around the marquee looked untidy and unwashed.

The stranger had wandered into this place looking for company. He realized that he stayed there for too long. He looked at his tea cup. Empty again. It was Eid and he had nowhere to go.

 
 
The waiters had appeared, setting glasses upside down in preparation of early evening diners. But mainly the restaurant was empty. Tea. A cup of tea is a good idea at this hour. The tea arrived brimming hot in white ceramic. the waiter laid the cup slowly, and delicately like an artist, took a step backward to examine its position at the table. Like still life, in which the stranger was just an object. An object in someone else’s painting.
As if acknowledging this idea, the waiter nodded at the stranger and smiling went away.

A few tables away a young guy with blue spectacles sat looking prettily at his date. A light jazz played in the restaurant. “Strangers in the night” the stranger could hear in his mind. It was hot day, by Srinagar standards. And the air was dusty. The many ornamental plants and the air conditioning did nothing to improve the air. Across the lawn trimmed to perfection, beyond the edge, traffic rumbled by. Its many sounds barely audible over the music in the café. A small marquee had been set up inside the hotel to give it a Middle Eastern feel. The curtain around the marquee looked untidy and unwashed.

The stranger had wandered into this place looking for company. He realized that he stayed there for too long. He looked at his tea cup. Empty again. It was Eid and he had nowhere to go.

After the Eid prayers, a random person stepped forward from the throng of strangers at the congregation and hugged him. The stranger hugged him back. It was Eid after all. But the man was gone before the stranger could see his face. He was lost in a throng of onlookers and bored people waiting to get out of the mosque. He had thin shoulders and deep black eyes. He disappeared in the crowd.

There was a moment of happiness and the plain joy of it bounded onto him. This would be over soon, he said to himself. There is a fire on the mountains. A long road leads up the hill. If you make it through, the air is fragrant with burnt roses. The singed petals pave the way up.

The stranger smiled at the empty cups. The top of the mountain is an unknown place. It may have roses, luscious and covered in dew drops. Or nettles, grown over the years.

The music in the café changed, to a deep soulful violin. The boy across the table was still smiling at his date. The stranger thought of the man who had hugged him. In a city of unknown people, someone had tried to make a connection. But then he had disappeared. May be for all the warmth of his heart, he had found the stranger cold, and withdrawn. The stranger was still thankful for that. In the weepy sky that overcast the city that day, he wrapped his hand round the cup of tea. It had gone cold. Now it was just porcelain.

To the Stranger who asked for Prayers

We had been silent for coffee shops were not quite our thing yet.
The coffee was gaping at us from large porcelain cups, uncomfortable and quiet.
The conversation drifted from one thing to another. Arundhati Roy said that when people meet only the small things are said, the big things remain unsaid. Lurking inside. I am pretty sure she said something like that in The God of Small Things. 
And so we taked about the weather. You can talk about the weather in Srinagar for ever. So did we. Then we talked about other random stuff, before falling quiet again. The silence made flitting appearences throughout the meeting. There and gone, in a moment.
But it would soon turn all pallid. He would leave.
“Pray for me”, he said.
Did I believe in the power of prayer, he had asked.

The stranger before me was an old friend, who rarely met. And even though I loved him, he wouldn’t have known. We take things we dont care about for granted. In fact, right then sitting across him I felt as if I had never really met him. May be I never had. May be he was just a name from the long list of people I have come across on the internet who materialized.

So I said, yes, I will pray for you.

We paid for the coffee and left. In different directions. His to leave the place, mine towards the maze of Srinagar lanes to home.

The air was heavy with the burden I carried. I must add his name to the prayer. But then, my prayers had carried no name. It had been more of a wish, a secretly expressed desire to which God was a witness. And of course, his Prophet (PBUH). And yet, it would have been unfair if I hadn’t mentioned him specifically. Donated a whisper in his name too.

What is the price of prayer?

On the day of Jumat-ul-Vidah, a few years ago the Imam was fervently praying after the congregational prayers. There were loud gasps as people broke down, saying Amen. Afterwards they chimed in loudly for a highly effected Kashmiri na’at. Even in the women’s section teary eyed women raised their shawls and the hems of veils in prayer. The prayers then too had no names. They were universal for every body. For joy and happiness. For peace and justice. For life.

However, at night I tried to remember the name of the stranger. The little warrior far away from home, fighting his own brand of despair. And wished his freedom. I tied the wish to the wings of prayer for the stranger. That he may find rest from all that was hard on him.

I prayed that someone would do so much for me too.