He had never written prose before. No, that’s not true. No prose that was personal in essence. It just did not gel with his lifestyle. Prose requires too long a span of commitment, and he had had too many demands on his time. Too many women to think about. Too many books to contemplate reading. Wife. Work. Friends. Too many angry, jealous-of-each-other Gods to pacify. But primarily, too many women. Besides, in the non-America where he grew up, it was customary to shroud one’s personal emotions in the delicate vagueness of poesy. Poetry has its advantages. The act of commission does not place too much demand on his time. And, he does not need to invoke a name for the girl.
He was not sure whether it was the café or his age or his changed circumstances (new profession, new country) that seemed to force him to document his wisdom (newfound, American) in turgid sentences of prose. The first day it happened, he was caught unawares, so to say. Prose-writing had long been in that long list of sacred wishes which he did not want to molest by fulfilment. But when the girl in the dark corner lit up, he saw a brutally direct, hard-hitting sensuality in the folds between her eyebrows which shook him like it was a tremor, and he had this almost biological urge to hold the moment, not to let go, and he knew that the only way to do that was to write it verbatim, undistorted, pure.
The fixed point
What is sacred, he asks. Fixed points, probably. The Absolute zero, say. Some axioms he can anchor his thoughts on, that tell him that he is, that distinguish his self from his perceptions. Without acknowledging it to himself, he has always been somewhat suspicious of “truth”. But he has been all too aware of the dangers of ending up in madland in his attempts to escape the thrall of perception. On top, he was never sure that there are any fixed points. But there was this whining, nagging, difficult otherness in him that defined sense in a different sense. It insists that truth, or what seems, can be peeled like an onion to search for fixed points or sacredness or purity or whatever, and in that journey (certainly futile, because there is no inside of an onion) lies a lot of fun. But maybe there is an asylum inside an onion? And here his normal self deliberately intends the pun, despite knowing jolly well that the pun is the lowest form of humour.
If you are confused, you follow your instincts. After five thousand years of civilization, our primary instinct is carnal – all that our history has done is rationalize it with knowledge, embellish it with frills and institutionalise it with norms. Thankfully! Therefore, when he, with all his selves, his confusion, his non-American values, his American experience, his five thousand years of history weighing down on his axioms, walked into the café, it did not strike him as odd that he found what he thought was his moment of truth in a woman lighting a cigarette.
He knows that he has to distinguish between the act and the vision, but he can’t . The vision is his and his alone, he can turn it over, rewind it, fast-forward it, replay it. But the act belongs to a different time and a different person. Being human, his immediate desire is to possess what is just eluding him – that again is another human drive that has built five thousand years of civilization, with its markets, monuments and institutions. (Immediate corollary, history is a continuous chain of small incremental changes, and not a link of quantum jumps.) In this case, he is not happy with the image; he wants to seize the reality which is projected in that moment. This is how he peels the onion, by defining every next stage of the wild goose chase as “reality”.
That translates into his desperate need to find this woman, although he is not sure what he does then. (Ha, the prodigality of search!) The difficulty is that he never saw her again. He has tried it all. He asked those who tend the café, those who patronise it, those who sit and sip, those who come only to idle away or to show off their latest find in Amazon, he visited the café everyday, but she seemed to have had materialised only for him, and only for that moment. I guess any intelligent non-human being would have found in that a sense of finality, and even a sort of happy, though mystic, ending. But he, being intensely and fatally human, saw a beginning instead. He decided to create her.
The Story begins
Thus started his story. Rather, her story. He doesn’t have much time, you see. Besides, he loves freedom. And variety. And possibilities. So he creates her bit by bit. He sits on the computer everyday for a short while, and gives colour to his passion. She changes everyday, as he does. She grows, as he does. She comes to life through him, and he tastes life through her. But then, wasn’t she his secret life? Why the hell does he put her up on the internet?
Hope-against-hope, in its doomed struggle against rationality, always uses devious means.
The Right. The left. Swing. One-Two-Three.... To the right. To the left. Then one, then two. Then again. Hands outstretched. She loses her hands. The right. The left. The feet forget to touch the ground. Higher...higher. Her name recedes into sweet oblivion. Everybody watches. She slowly forgets that. She is suddenly frightened that she is losing it all. All that she has built over the years. What the heck, she thinks. Thankgod that she can still think at all with the cadence going lub..dup...lub...dup...inside her being. Her life sinks into the vortex - her groceries, her bank account, her profession, her identity, her secrets, her fairytales, her thoughts, her unborn words, her longings, her cravings, all scooped out of her. She stops existing. She grows into someone far, far away and spreads her wings in the open blue...
And his hope-against-hope, the stubborn, the wily, knows that someone far away is reading this as she dances away into the darkness.
As soon as he is done posting, an emptiness hits him. So long, the vision was his, very intimately, very secretly, his own. Now that he had translated it in words and laid it bare in front of the world, he has nothing to cling to. He feels naked. God! She is on the internet! The world can now peer into him. He cringes. He feels powerless. She is no longer his captive – she has slipped out into the open. This is what unbridled, irrational hope does to you! And then his impudent hope has the gall to sermonise to him – everything has a purpose! Not knowing what to do, he does the only thing a mother knows to avoid postnatal depression – commit all her being to the newborn.
She, the sparrow
She did not want to be a fairy. Fairytales are always partial to the good. The only one she likes is where one has to kiss a million frogs. That approximates life, which really is an endless stream of chimerical frog-kissing. The value of the prince is in his non-existence: if one gets the prince, he decides to go after the next one. So, in general, she hated fairytales where people lived happily ever after. She, rather, longed to be the little bird that lived and died for the Happy Prince.
And now that she was flying, she became the bird. The little sparrow. She does not attract attention. So she can live life on its own terms. No obligation to sing, or to look good. Or to soar into powerful countries’ national anthems. All she cares about is building a little nest, caring for the little ones, flying to get them food, flying to teach them to fly, flying to live in the moment. The only way one could escape the frog-kissing routine was to see the world from a distance. To fly high.
The no-story begins
There is no story here, he discovers. He wonders why most of original writing, prose, at any rate, tells stories. There, things happen, and things follow – like a column of men marching under orders. It puzzles him. Feelings always come in eruptions. Visions always pop up from nowhere. It is this constant oscillation of shock and surprise that makes life worth living. And the only thing that there is to express is this excitement that defines life itself. And, the only way one can do that is to express it verbatim, virgin.
Sometimes she hates her shadow. She wants to run away from it. Then she flies. She flies over lands and hills and lakes and seas. She feels the warmth of sunlight on her wings. She knows that just like her, her shadow is also running with her along the lands and hills and lakes and the seas. But she cannot see her shadow. She takes comfort in her distance from her shadow. (Is that how I think about independence? He thinks.) But as the sun begins to scorch her wings, as all the lands start looking the same shade of vacuous grey, her tired feathers pine for the coolness of her shadow. She disagrees with her senses, but she knows that there is no escape. The shadow, like death, stalks her. It tempts her with its motherly shade. She gives in, and even bows to it. Because she knows that some time she has to. And, with night, it engulfs her. Maybe, it may just be, that we all love death when it comes. And every revolution is doomed at birth.
He is appalled at this verbosity. More so, because it is pointless. But was there ever a point anyway?
Much of modern philosophising tries to establish some point in the very pointlessness of life, of anything. He doesn’t see any. There is really no secret, nothing lying at the centre waiting to be revealed. There is no destination, only another road at the end of the road. The same onion story.
Why does he go on living, then? Largely, because he is stuck with life. The switching cost to non-life is too high.
Now that he is stuck, what does he do to bide his time?
Create a point. Chimerical, but nonetheless…
Isn't that what we all do? Isn't that the only thing everyone ever does?
She was here, the owner tells him.
Disquiet, disbelief. Who? He asks again. Yes, it was her – the one you saw – the café guy says. She just left.
His first feeling was one of being wronged. Violated, in a hundred ways. If he missed her, why did he have to know it? Why would the café guy have to know his story? Why would someone else, who did not pine for her, who did not deserve to see her, get the vision that was his alone? Why would someone who could not tell the sight of her from the vision of her, have to see her?
He ran out – looked around. The metropolitan traffic mocked at him with its crowded emptiness. She was not there; or worse, she was there – melted among the ordinary. He would not know her unless he saw her in the setting of the café…
While walking back, he remembered that he had forgotten to thank the café guy.
Then it occurs to him. Like a flash. He tries to arrange it in plain, no-frills, brass tacks terms in his head. It frightens him.
The search had so far been his private luxury. His life might not have had a point, but it had a career, a family, some norms he had abided by, some carefully constructed myths which he lived by, some limits and a slow movement in a certain direction. Even while he searched for this woman or whatever he had seen or felt, he went to office, he caressed his wife, he chimed his regular words to his friends and family, he met expectations – his life was still in the regular orbit it had followed so far. This trajectory was almost pre-ordained during his childhood, and save for some itsy bitsy random perturbations, his life had moved along this path over the last thirty or so years, and over the three or so continents. This sameness defined him, and gave him comfort.
But now that he had had this brush with actually finding the point of his life – he was in danger of being thrown out of the orbit. He knew that he probably could not live the same life any longer, if he had found her. But what was there beyond the orbit? What did it mean to have no trajectory?
What is there beyond the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? And, what do you do with the pot, especially after it kills all you have been so far?
He mulls over it for a long long time. Cannot decide. Paces across. Does so for an hour. Wife notices. Doesn’t say anything. He reaches for a coin in his pocket. Mumbles his call. He is about to toss, but stops on the way. Brings out a pad. To commit to the call, scribbles: Heads – go for it. Tails – lucky, safe.
Then tosses the coin. It’s a tail. Relief, indeed.
He looks back, hesitates – then with slow, doubtful, slouch-shouldered paces, walks toward the café. Somehow he knows she is there today.
The café looked quite the same, with the hum, aroma, and haze in its three chambers. The outside chamber, the façade, was the place where coffee-lovers came, sat, read, drank their cups and left. Then there was the lounge, with its sofas and board games. People came there to have a nice time. It had to be there because the inner “real room” was so different a world from the outer façade, there had to be a buffer – you could not just walk from the north pole, cross a door, and enter the south. The third, core chamber, was the frequented by people addicted to the bitter, tangy taste of life. This was the only smoking chamber. He had seen a wide range of people there – half-mad men from a mental home in the neighbourhood, bikers from faraway places, foreign students who had not been home in six years, couples that liked to bite each other, normal looking people with destabilised insides like him, and a woman lighting a cigarette, whose face he did not remember.
Now he realised that all he had noticed about her was the tilt of her head, the shade of her hair that fell across her face, the shape of her fingers and nothing else. The café owner would really know her better than he would.
So he sat in a daze, his infusion getting cold, scanning the faces around in search of the face he thought he knew by heart but in reality had no clue of.
Then the girl, right next to him, took out a cigarette from her packet, put it to her lips, searched her bag, tilted her head to him with her hair falling across, held out a hand with the fingers he knew so well and asked whether he had a lighter.
He took out his lighter, flicked it on, and as he was reaching towards her with the little flame – unable to believe what he saw or did – a mad desire swept across his whole being: he wanted to put fire to her hair that fell across her face, to her face that held her firefly eyes, to her eyes that pierced his being and knew his secret instantly. He wanted this moment to go up in flames, so that there is nothing after it.
The moment hung still, like a summer noon in a blind alley. He felt trapped in a time warp, where all that existed was the aroma of coffee and the dark odour of tobacoo wrapped around a tilted head with hair cascading across piercing eyes, and all that moved was wave after wave of doomed desire.
Hw would probably have been asphyxiated, when he was brought back to the familiar world by her voice: is it…about…me? Spoken with disbelief, confusion, hesitation, diffidence.
It was then that he realised that he has been caught in the act. His laptop screen was right in front, there for all to see.
Angry that his fantasy had lost its virginity, confused that his many realities were suddenly forced stand face to face without knowing what to say or do, he blurted out: NO.
She seemed relieved: Sorry, I was…getting ideas. She got up, took her things, evidently quite embarrassed.
Every tragedy has its comic moments. By the time he had rushed to the door mumbling yeses and no’s and buts, she was already on the other side of the street, and a river of speeding cars separated the two.
Moments, moments, moments. They come unannounced, they leave without saying goodbye. They test you in a brief flash. You cannot run or hide. You are defined by how you receive the moment that visits you, how you take it in your arms, how you respond to its call. You don’t get a second chance.
And he let his moment go. He had been praying for it, with all his being. But when it came, it blinded him with its flash. He was overpowered, inadequate. It slipped by.
Am I not strong enough for love?
The word. Love. It almost jumped out of the context and hit him. It occurred to him that he had not thought of the word in a very, very long time – it had reached out to him from the abyss of oblivion. Strange is the power of moments.
Ruminations of the elsewhere
She has come with her friends. They look happy. They look full. No chinks. No doubts. No entry. He too is happy, when she is absorbed and oblivious. Then he can comfortably withdraw from the happenings around him, forget the tension, and convert the café into a 3D cinema screen.
She smiles a half-smile. Bittersweet. Tangy. Her friends feel the reason. They comfort her with a knowing quietude. She exhales. The smoke flows like a sigh. She looks. The screen is pierced. And he remembers scenes from another time, another land. This little squirrel that he runs after. This sparrow that watches him running in vain. But he knows, and the sparrow knows that he is running for fun, the destination is the journey. The girl that wants him to catch the squirrel for her. The girl does not know that he just wants to run. The girl that realises that after she grows up. The girl that still wants him to catch the squirrel for her. The girl that still makes him run. The girl he ran across three continents for. The girl he got married to.
He suddenly feels tired of running after the squirrel. He desperately looks for the sparrow. But there are so few birds in the land around him today.
He forces himself back to the screen in the café. A cigarette dies in her fingers. She lights another. Her friend sitting next starts another story. Everyone hears. Everyone laughs. She too. He is happy that she is not looking. Affords him freedom. He notices that in this land they do not share cigarettes. Maybe close friends do. He remembers the time he shared cigarettes with his friends. He had once yearned to do so with another girl. He never could. She never would smoke. They got married eventually.
This is dangerous, this woman in the café, this no-one-to-him, telling him about his unrequited longings.
The green plastic chairs outside the café are all empty, as if waiting for someone with a sad somnolence. The coffee-cigarette aroma hangs listlessly in the desolate rooms, filling the normally redolent air with a damp heaviness. The man at the counter tells him that it is just too hot, and they are closing in fifteen minutes. He picks up his daily cup, walks into the smoking room, and is immediately thrown out.
He is thrown out by the sheer power of what he sees inside. Empty room, dark, dank – with only a woman with hair falling across her face, looking straight at him with piercing eyes, and the only thing moving being the thick grey plume arising from the bright orange between her fingers. The same vision. Déjà vu.
He realises that he cannot step out of the room like that. We do not know whether it was the desire to snatch this opportunity to resume his once-broken conversation with her or it was his remaining social sense that told him that such a rushing out is impolite to the point of being insulting – he decided to retrace his steps, but with the trepidation of a fell beast, certain of the inevitable death, but hoping against hope for some miracle to happen.
When alone, he had researched a lot of opening lines. He actually had a problem of plenty. He could ask her her name. He could ask her what she did. He could ask her why she was there, or tell her why he was there. He could make it look like an accident that they met again. Or he could tell her the truth (what was the truth?). Above all, he had told himself a million times – if such an opportunity (as now) would ever proffer itself to him, he should not repeat the mistake the he committed the last time. Be positive, be forthright, be forceful, be out there – he had reproached himself. Say something. Let your conviction, your education, your Kundera, your Derrida speak. No confusion. Clarity. Yo.
So he walks up to her with a forced menace in his steps, offers a sweaty, shaky hand and says, in a half-audible, hollow voice, the first sentence that comes to his mind: I love you, and then chokes.
LOVE? Nothing could be further from the truth. He is not even sure what that word signifies, apart from a lot of kitsch. It could be obsession, infatuation, madness, desperation or pure self-absorbed delusion – anything but love. So he corrects himself before she can react – Don’t mean it though.
She takes her time. Giggles, high-pitched, to fight her stupefaction. The giggle turns from embarrassment to sarcasm, and she asks: so, what DO you mean?
Thankfully, the café guy came to close the shop, and this time it was him who crossed the road and melted into the traffic.
In search of Meaning
He crossed the street, and the question chased him home. So, what does he mean? What on earth did he want to tell her?
He realises that he had nothing to say to her. Nor was he interested in the content of what he conveyed to her, except to will her to come to the café everyday, every minute. He was never interested in the woman – who she was in her life, which land she came from, who she cared for, who she slept with or who she pined for. The thought, appalling as it might be, disturbed him in a different way. It faced him, for the first time, with the reality that she was a person and not a figment of his imagination – that he had not created her. This left in him paranoid – because he subconsciously, but surely, knew that the only thing that could ever destroy his private world of ruminations, his unique world where he was the creator, the GOD, was the knowledge of her as a person, the knowledge that the projection of his imagination actually stood for something else.
For the first time he realised that the world he had built with all his care, all his tenderness, all his imagination, was hurtling towards its own doom, as infallibly as life rushing towards death.
For the first time in a few months, he stayed home in the evening.
The café missed a beat.