In 1999, I was 9000 miles from home, building a new life, working 80-100 hours a week looking after the sick. Today I had driven my new, blue, second hand Renault 19 into town for the very first time. After much worry, I had thankfully managed to find the right place to park. It was a Saturday morning in November, cold and almost too bright for Belfast, famous for its ‘jeans and polo-necks’ season all year round. I had my black boots, black denims and a light blue high-necked jumper on. I was looking for the Thomas Cook office. Couldn’t wait to buy plane tickets to go home after slogging all alone in a foreign land for nearly 5 months. My ears were thirsting to hear my beloved Hindi language again and my tongue was dying to speak it with my loved ones. My heart ached for home.
I couldn’t find the wretched office. It was 11 am. I was on a street called ‘Donegall place’. People walked about happily shopping, talking, laughing and sipping their portable drinks. They smiled and chatted as they strolled about with their friends and family. A portly middle aged man walked alone on the pavement with a newspaper tucked under his left armpit. I gently approached him for directions. Even before I had spoken, he retracted, scowled and spat, “I have nothing to give you.”
In that moment, every cell in my body wished to disappear.
You may call it cheesy. I can see Saagar roll his eyes and give me a crooked smile, shaking his head, as if to say, ”You’re hopeless.”
I never imagined I would ever meet anyone whose notions of romance are more hopeless than mine. I now poke my arm with the back of a pen to spring my attention to it as it happens. Connecting with Si without words or gestures in the most public of places, sharing the smallest, sweetest, bitterest, cringiest moments silently, merely by an exchange of looks comes most naturally. Having never experienced this before, millions of ‘red heart’ and ‘red rose’ emojis jump up and down in my eyes every time.
On a warm Saturday afternoon we went for a walk around Streatham Common. A toddler waddled his way towards us. Suddenly he got sucked into the beauty of white flowers on a bush on his right. He stopped and turned to face the bush. “Hello Flower!”, he greeted the bush with a smile as big as the sky. Both of us caught that moment and held it.
On long haul flights we watch films together – the same film precisely synchronised on our respective screens. We start, pause, restart and finish at the same time. I did promise ‘cheesy’. Water-bottles, travel pillows, chocolates, books, music shared.
Lives enriched. Memories created. Bonds strengthened.
He can tell from my body language, voice, sighs, shadows across my face when I am not in a good place. Even when it happens for half a second, mid-sentence in a restaurant in dim light, he catches it. I don’t expect him to. But he does.
Two bodies, one organism.
Time doesn’t heal. Love does.
PS: Happy first wedding anniversary my darling. Think of this as paper.
The train had only a few people in it. It was quietly making its way through the Irish countryside. Callum’s borrowed black suit stank of booze. He’d just finished with his mum’s funeral. He looked at my face and consoled, “When I go in d sun I turn d same colour too. Its awright. We’re all one. I’m tryin’ tell ya. Its awright.”
‘Did your mum have a hard life?’ I asked.
“She grew me up with my grand-moder. My dad died in a car-crash at 27. I never seen’im. I’z a very hard young boy ‘cause I won’t listen to nobody. So, I go from home to DC to prison.”
“Detention Center. My mummy gonna hurt for 20 year. The pain remain. I too weak. I go up and down d hospital for 2 week. Then, she die. Pain is love and love is pain. That’s all that remain. You and me is the same. See, I’m not stupid. It’s awright. I know she always want me be strong. When you feel weak, don’t fall and crumble, ‘cause she don’t want me to stumble. She never leave me. I promise. I never leave her. It’s awright.”
He loved the company of older boys. The younger ones annoyed him. His favourite thing as a toddler was to stand in super-big shoes belonging to the older men in the family. He waded around the house in them. He happily posed for the camera with a toothy grin, looking up with his twinkling eyes.
He couldn’t wait to grow up. As a 5 year old, he would sit studiously at the dining table and squiggle pages of nonsense words on a writing pad, claiming seriously, ”I am doing office work.”
About a year later, one Sunday I was on call. We were driving to his child-minder’s house at 7 am. There was no traffic at all. All of Belfast was asleep. I said to him, “Look Saagar, it’s so unfair. Everyone is resting today and I have to go to work.” After a moment’s thought he said, “But Mamma, you’re a good girl.”
One summer evening, he had been playing outside with his friends for a couple of hours. We lived in the hospital accommodation which was a block of 6 flats surrounded by green grounds and tall trees, a safe distance away from the road. At dinner time, he said he wasn’t hungry as he had had snacks at one of the neighbours. I had prepared dinner and had been waiting to have it with him. I tried to coax him to eat just a little bit. But he didn’t want to. I persisted with my efforts, making up stuff like, he would get bad dreams if he didn’t have a proper meal before bed. After a while he sat me down and said, “Mamma, when you are not hungry, do I force you to eat?”
Why? How did we get here?
Why us? How can this be?
Why him? Such a sweet child!
How did it feel to be him at that point?
How did it get that bad?
Why could no one see it?
How could I be so blind to his pain?
Did he try to tell me in code?
Could I not hear his cryptic messages? Why?
Did he hide it? Was he trying to protect me?
Were there clues I missed?
How could all this be happening straight in my line of vision?
Is this a crazy practical joke? Fake news?
Could I just go back and rearrange events like my dressing table?
Did he tell anyone else? His friends? His hair-dresser?
Why did he say nothing to me?
Did he not trust me enough?
Did he think I loved him too much to bear hearing those words?
Did he think I loved him too little?
Did he think I wouldn’t understand? Would I have understood?
Would I have freaked out?
Did he think I’d be better off without him?
Did he have any idea how wrong that could be?
Was it a choice or a complete lack of choice?
How bad was his pain? How unbearable?
I want to stand where he stood.
I want to see what he saw.
I want to feel what he felt.
I want to experience what he experienced.
I want to go back there. NOW!!!
How much love does it take to keep someone alive? Why was mine not enough?
The annual festival of my beastly treacherous demons has begun.
Thank you Autumn.
He sits on a bench in Borough market with one of his friends who gets up and goes to get a drink. My heart takes a giant leap. Si is with me. He calls out his name and he beams his trademark squinty smile of recognition at him. He stands up. They shake hands like old mates. My eyes fixate on his face like those of a mad woman. His eye-lashes are not as thick as before. Everything else is the same. I recognise his off-green t-shirt that he lived in. I can’t hold back. My fingertips explore his shoulders without his permission. He doesn’t seem to notice. He’s definitely real. I can touch him. He raises his left arm to rearrange his hair the way he does. He pinches the front of his t-shirt between his right thumb and index finger like he does. Either he can’t see me or he’s letting me do my thing. He’s talking to Si.
“The guys in grey suits wrote to us in first year at Uni. All the students on the Arabic course got the invitation.”
‘You didn’t say anything.’
‘No. They told us not to. They offered us jobs.’
‘Exciting. After the second year at Uni I thought I’d take it up.’
‘It was fun but then … 4 years was enough.’
“So, is this for good?”
‘Yup. For now.’
“Good to see you man.”
‘Yeah. And you. Great to be back. Argentinian Empanadas. I remember those.’
I am still invisible to him. We used to buy empanadas together. Beef ones for him and Spinach and ricotta for me. My finger tips are still confirming reality. He has been working out. I can tell. I want to check his tattoo but that would be too bold. I want to look for the scars on his left forearm but my eyes cling to his thick black brow, his slightly dry lips, his careless stubble. Their thirst cannot be quenched. My ears clasp his voice, his breath. Every word, a harmony. He is here. His words are real. He’s been hiding all this while, working with some kind of a Secret Service. He looks like a British Indian James Bond. But he still hasn’t noticed me and it’s ok.
The tension in my arms lessens as more and more confirmatory signals feed into my brain. My heart is doing somersaults like he did when he was 6. My eyes are so wide, they can take the whole world in.
These worlds, like multi-coloured balls in a kid’s play pen in Ikea overlap, intersect, collide, clash and merge constantly. They clang as if at VT station, Mumbai at 8 am on a Monday morning.
At the core of these spheres is a mush of thoughts, words, impressions and feelings, ground into a thick viscous treacle. At their margins are bright green woods.
I live in the shifting woods that border these globes. These borderlands are safe. Nothing can be taken away from me here. If one world vanishes, I jump onto another. All of them are home. They tumble along and slosh about merrily in a pool of love, inside and outside of me.
Sanity & Insanity
Life & Death
Reality & Illusion
I have six homes.
A 4 minute conversation, Si and I : The Listening Project on BBC Radio 4 (19th Sept 2018)
I-Player (only available in the UK)https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/b0bk1fc0