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.
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.”
Anoushka smoothens out the non-existent creases on her well-fitting maroon skirt with both hands. The slender brown hands, terribly unsure of where to rest, how to move, how much to move. Them randomly reaching up to her head for no reason and then hiding behind her back to hold and comfort each other.
As she hears footsteps approach, she jumps up to stand. Her sharp black eyebrows jump up in unison. The hands now form sweaty tight fists by her sides. In walks his mum, an elegant lady in a long blue linen dress and a light white cotton scarf casually wrapped around her neck. A soft smile adorns her face. Her eyes sparkle with kindness. She holds out her right hand, leaning into the young lady with her upper body. The room warms up. Anoushka’s muscles relax and a smile surreptitiously escapes, mirroring the one shining at her. Her twinkling, perfectly set teeth contrast magnificently with her silky chocolate skin. She radiates utter relief.
“How do you do? Matthew has spoken so much about you.”
“Anoushka. I am good. Thank you. I am happy to be called Anu. Thank you. How are you today?”
“I am very well but my husband is not too well. Matthew is with him now. He should be here soon.”
“I hope it’s nothing serious.”
“He has a weak heart. He has had for some time now. The doctor was in last night. He has advised rest and altered some of his medications. He is rather delicate today.”
“Ah! I am sorry to hear that. I hope he feels better soon.”
“I hope so too. It would have been nice for you to meet him today but now I think it might be better to wait till he’s better.”
“Sure. Whatever you think appropriate.”
“Well, just the colour of your skin would be enough to give him a heart attack.”
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-August and I am missing you. To say ‘I miss you’ is like saying ‘I am alive’. I think of all the evenings and weekends I spent at work while you were home. At that time, I thought I had no choice but now I know I did. I thought wrong. I think of the time we were walking through an ‘Ideal Home Show’ and you wanted to buy a brown leather bean-bag for your room and I said no. I thought you should have more floor space. Again, I thought wrong. These thoughts are sets of darts that fly in uninvited at supersonic speed and leave parallel rows of bleeding abrasions behind.
This summer has been exceptionally glorious but Nature at large is annoyed with us I think. There have been flash-floods, droughts and heat-waves in most unlikely of places, forest-fires and famines, violent volcanoes and earth-quakes. I wonder what you would’ve made of the burning Middle-east, Mr Trump, Brexit and North Korea. If only Electric cars could solve all the problems of the world.
They say the longest journey is from the head to the heart. I made that journey in one second – the second I knew you were gone. You won’t believe how many real friends and real conversations I now enjoy. I also read a lot more. I wonder what you think of my new reading glasses – metallic purple frame. Yes. The time has come. After carrying them all over the world in a red polka-dotted Cath Kidson case for more than a year, I have finally started wearing them.
While clearing up a corner of the study I found a set of drum-sticks that belong to you. They looked well used. ‘REGAL TIP USA But Naked’. 🙂 I held them in my hands like you would’ve. You remember how we competed in the game of ‘chop sticks’? One shrimp, one string of spaghetti, one edamame bean, one grain of rice, half an edamame bean and so on… you won every time. You rascal!
Yesterday, the ‘Old people’s’ radio said that ‘Friends’ was the most streamed TV programme on-line. I remember how our opinions about Rachel clashed as though she was the most important person in our lives. FYI, I’ve still not changed my mind about her.
West Norwood High street has many more cafés now – Thai, French, Brazilian and Portuguese. I feel a stronger sense of community is developing here. The new improved South London Theatre is putting up some great shows and a new Cinema is being built where the Library used to be. The streets and cafés miss you too my darling.
I attach a picture of your beloved drum-sticks for you. I could write, not just a letter but a whole book for you but, another time. I hope wherever you are, you’re having fun.
S is for Saagar.
For Simon and Sangeeta.
Sudden shocking jolt
For shameful silent suffering,
Like one strike of lightening
Sucking up a few lives at once.
S is for surreal memorial services
Soul-searching and seeking
Sometimes screaming out-loud
Shattered dreams, salty tears,
And sweet memories
Strewn across the wooden floor
Like techni-coloured glass beads.
S is for simplicity
Sparkling smiling eyes
Salvation and solace
Shiny haloes and surrender
Like the curve of a weeping willow
Stooping down to kiss the ground.
S is for sharing
Speaking out loud
Saffron rice and saag-paneer
Saturdays and Sundays
Self as everything
Like the stars, songs and strings
Of guitars, and drum skins.
S is for solitude
Silence and serendipity
Sublime sun and sea
Sunflowers and sushi
Shirts and silk ties
Subtle messages from beyond
Like smoke signals in the distance
Sent out by friends from before.
S is for stigma of suicide in society.
Stashes of hidden sadness
Shrouded in small dark spaces
So little support and understanding
Such little compassion
Screened behind sports-cars
Suntans and scotch.
Like a corpse in the room
A long time ago, on a Sunday morning at a village fete I saw a beautiful black-clay handmade earthenware pot. I wanted it. He said that we shouldn’t as it might break. We brought it home. A long time ago, it decorated our home for a long time.
He said if something is breakable, there is a real chance it will break, no matter how much we feel it ‘should’ not. Each time we looked at it our hearts warmed like the insides of fur mittens. He said nature had its own laws of demolition. That was a long time ago.
Another day, we brought another sweet fragile thing home. It was delicate as a little bird. It claimed all our love, our time and our sleep. It cooed and cackled and played silly games. It decorated our home for a long time. Each time we looked at it our eyes sparkled like north stars and our hearts overflowed like rivers breaking banks. He said the cement of our love would keep us all intact and together. Forever.
We forgot that this thing was breakable. And we were breakable too. He said even if we moved across continents and oceans everything would be alright. He said even if we had nothing we would be okay. He said nothing would break. That was a long time ago.
Now the black-clay handmade earthenware pot from a long time ago sits in the centre of our living room, on a glass top coffee table, looking pretty. It’s breakable.
One turn of the pedal after another, cycling along happily, cocooned in my own contentment, sliding into a meditative state by the repetitive action of the legs, almost zoned out, I was within a mile of home. The afternoon was warm and a caressing breeze was gracefully nullifying the warmth, making it dream-like. Out of the blue, a loud rude honk shattered my trance and sent a shock up my spine. What was the point? If there isn’t enough space for him/her to overtake me, it’s not my fault. What does he/she think he/she’s going to achieve by making a racket?
There was nowhere for him/her to go. He/she had to follow me. This was the perfect opportunity for me to do something I have never done before but wished I could – show him/her the finger! While keeping my attention on the bike ride, I put my right hand out at right angles and stuck a finger out. Oh! That was my thumb. Saying completely the opposite of what I was trying to say. Cancel. Delete. Try again. Out went my arm again and this time it was a finger but it was the index finger! Wrong again! Take it back. This was turning into a joke. I was obviously incapable of doing the simplest of jobs while cycling. I had to give it another try. Got it right this time. Yay! Success at last although I suppose by now, he/she is thoroughly confused – ‘well done’ followed by ‘one’ or ‘don’t you dare’ followed by ‘ I am annoyed with you’.
A few yards ahead, I stopped by the side of the road, letting him/her pass. On the next road, we were met with an almighty traffic jam. I spotted the silver Saab I had interacted with before. I merrily trundled past him on my bike, with a big smile on my face, humming a little tune to myself. There was plenty space for me. Only if honking could help him now.
(Moral of the story: Practical skills get better with practise. I need practise.)