It’s finally today. Today, I make that short journey that will feel deliciously long. I watch as familiar landmarks flit by. Every centimetre of the road that my vehicle pushes back takes me closer and closer to that first glimpse of you. I know our meeting cannot last forever. But still, go I must, leaping at any chance to meet that fleeting joy. I can’t wait. I want to keep waiting.
At last, but too soon, I reach the bridge that separates me from you. Held up by steel cables, the bridge takes me across slimy, murky waters that contain all my insecurities and petty thoughts, all that ties me down and holds me back, all my weaknesses and incompetencies. As I drive across, clouds gather, the evening light fades away, leaving all my demons writhing below and I hold on to the spectacle of you across the bridge. You just stand there, waiting patiently for me, shining like a million lights.
You are resplendent.
Our meeting begins tentatively. Now that we are together, I’m suddenly tongue-tied. I have no idea what to do, where to go. But I don’t have to anymore. I abandon my vehicle and stop thinking of roads and routes and let you lead me everywhere, anywhere. I’m in your land.
First stop: chai-sutta. This stop, inhaling many-flavoured, dangerous fumes, is my deep breath before I plunge into your world. By now, we have a few usual spots for this fatal breathing exercise. My favourite is the one outside the railway station. As night falls, a blue neon sign shines cheerfully. The blue of the sign, the red of vehicle tail-lights and the yellow of streetlights glint off the rain-washed roads into your eyes. Blue. Red.Yellow. Primary colours. Primaeval desire. My faltering gaze finally rests in your steady one. Look. Breathe. Hold. Stay.
The way I want you in that moment is always new, like a first-time feeling, always familiar, like it has existed since the beginning of time, always instinctive, like something beyond rational thought. Anything can happen now.
You are an adventure.
It all started with a night walk through sodium-vapour light. Just like tonight, everything was yellow-brown, stark. That night, turns out, we both stepped out of a party full of strangers and threw away our masks. I’m glad we didn’t meet in that noisy, smoke-filled hole of a room. Out here, under the glow of streetlights, outside closed shop shutters, with a lone cigarette-wala cycling by, there is more room to ask real questions and more patience to listen to complicated answers.
I tried to resist your charms in the beginning. We are very different, said reason. I come from a small city, with small desires. You come from the land of limitless ambition. I like to hide within the ordinary and familiar but you come alive in the unusual and unknown. But this insurmountable disparity between us has never bothered you. You show me interest, possibility, sometimes even challenge, but never disrespect, judgement or condescension. With you, I can be whoever I am in that moment and whoever I want to be in the next. In the end, reason obviously lost all arguments.
After that we keep meeting, on breezy nights, under endless streetlights, sometimes in unfamiliar lanes or on the promenade, along a dirty, dissatisfied sea. Sometimes, you bring along other people but I try not to feel possessive. We swap stories about you, our only common acquaintance. Even in the haze of heady infatuation, I understand that I will never be able to possess you as wholly as you can consume me. I wonder what was more foolish of me — allowing myself to fall impossibly in love with you or even trying to fight the certainty of falling in love with you?
On such nights, it hardly matters where we go. We walk on footpaths, over broken stones and crooked cracks and stand, leaning against rusty railings. People pass us by, blurs that we choose to get into sharp focus for a moment and invent instant, fantastic stories about. Even after most people have gone home tired, we stare at lights flashing across the street and discern patterns in their blinking irregularities. When I meet you like this, I feel powerful, like I control the narrative of this whole, whizzing world. I feel like I have resolved all my existential angst. I feel wise and elated.
You are freedom.
One night, we keep walking along the railings into an old park, surrounded by stately buildings. Leaving the railings, we make our way over freshly-drenched grass to an ancient tree. We take the revered tree’s permission to stand on its earth for a while and imagine all the seasons, all the stories it must have witnessed standing here, since when there were no parks, no railings, no buildings. My eyes follow the branches, twisting into each other against my favourite shade of muddy-midnight sky. When I listen to you flow into song, I know I have entered a secret pathway. Perfectly timed, the clouds part to reveal the moon and your song ends to reveal a part of you that I like to believe, no one else has seen.
You are magic.
On another night, we launch an expedition. Instead of tiny lanes, we walk through majestic boulevards, lined with impressive stone walls and charming art deco facades. But you’ve always had an eye for the hidden, the hurt and the haunted. So, the building you lead me into, stepping over and ducking under shaky scaffolding, is one of those scheduled to be taken down. The molten red wax sealing the massive, old doors shut and the peeling, paan-stained papers warning trespassers and squatters to keep away, do not apply to you. Only you know the significance of these soon-to-be-dismantled, solid iron pillars. Only you know that one day, centuries ago, a curious crowd of colonisers and connoisseurs had gathered here to watch the first motion picture flicker over the now fungus-smeared, lime-plastered wall of this very central courtyard. I wasn’t there the night the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘Train leaving the station’ first thundered over the astounded minds of the audience gathered here. But it feels like you were there… awestruck and starry-eyed, living, absorbing the moment that you transfer to me tonight, many, many, many nights later. Particles of demolition dust swirl around us like they might have been waiting with bated breath since that glittery night, when they were dust stars caught in the beam of the projector, participating in creating history. Now, finally, their secret had been passed on. They are now free to die.
We walk up a winding stairway and I imagine each stair crumble and fall, as soon as I follow in your steps to the next one, defying gravity. Another secret pathway. A forgotten terrace. A cityscape breathing its last. I feel the quiet thrill of something clandestine, something beyond words being revealed to me. I feel the waves of time wash and dissolve over me as I listen to yet another story from your endless repertoire.
You are timeless.
I feel happy enough to die, but not quite in this literal sense. We are on a speeding rickshaw ride, soaring over flyovers, careening around corners, suddenly free of the daytime traffic stranglehold. I hold on to the side of the rickshaw and try not to let my cigarette fly out from between my shivering fingers. I thought I knew my way around by now, but these twists and turns still take me unawares… Not all the pathways into your heart are pleasant.
There are nights that are difficult to recall because they are unclear, like things seen through the haze of tears or lines on crumpled paper…I can always feel the heaviness weighing down on my chest that remembering them brings back.
This time we are in a warmly lit bar that is freezing. I wish time were frozen, instead of the air-conditioning. The waitress we’ve made friends with has stopped asking for permission to bring us the next round and we have stopped measuring our intoxication in glasses. It is now measured in intimacy. Or is our intimacy getting measured in intoxication? There is a recklessness surrounding us that fills me with hope. But I know it will melt away as soon as I try to draw any warmth from it. And soon enough, our friend says it’s closing time and we down our last swigs. Bottoms up.
We step out into the muggy night and mingle into a crowd that has been turned out of other warmly lit, freezing bars. For a moment, I lose sight of you in the late-night rush and pre-live the desolation I have no hope of escaping. My eyes set off on their frantic search and see you, walking on — unperturbed, uncaring, as if I were just another stranger, in your midst.
You are despair.
After wandering around till the night decides to call it a day, we find a bed to sleep. You drift into oblivion, almost instantly, but I lie awake next to you staring at the starving, pining distance filled with shimmering mirages between us. I know it will soon be time for me to leave.
Somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, I dream that I’m dreaming a dream. In the dream, you move closer to me, mingling your breath in mine. I wake up realising that I’m dreaming. Then I feel your lips lightly and tenderly touch mine and I believe that is reality till I wake up again. I lose count of how many dream layers I cross before there is nothing left to wake up from. I’m sure this is reality because here, we do not touch at all.
You are a nightmare.
Now there aren’t enough words to fill up the restive silences between us. So, we decide to let the rest of the world in. We don our respective masks and re-enter that party we abandoned. You are eager, possibly relieved, to laugh at old jokes. I try to show interest in the new faces you introduce me to. For a while, I can discern your shape in the strobe lighting, but with every pulsating flash, I’m less and less certain it’s you.
Finally, I stop looking for you. I have lost you long ago to others who know you better than I do. But I know you have danced with each and every person here. So, in a sense, even if I dance with someone else, I’m still dancing with you. Tired of trying to keep pace with a foreign beat, I make my way to the fringes of the revellers and try to catch my breath. My head is spinning and it’s unclear if I’m still and the world is moving, or I’m moving and the world is still.
I’m now standing on a beach. With every grey wave that laps at my bare feet, I recede farther and farther away from the party and the people and you. You are now a glimmer on the skyline. I close my eyes and let the sea breeze take me back through beds and bars, buildings and railings, streetlights and footpaths and fumes, all the way across the bridge that separates us.
My demons are still trapped in your murky waters and you are still within me. When the winds turn and I hear your siren song again, I will come back. But now, I’m on my way home.
Bombay, my love, you are alone.
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