I am writing this. I want to keep writing something. I had started with something, thought of reaching somewhere. The tea is over, and it has managed to leave behind its stench in my breath. Cold is getting worse as evening is approaching…
I can’t write anymore. Few words here and there and I start getting disoriented.
So I look at her again. She is simple, there’s no applied glitter, but she radiates the magic of bygone days. She has a pretty face, her lips pouty, and her eyes bear an ability to penetrate the heart to a point of unstoppable throbbing. I cannot say if she is really beautiful, but she has something which has glued me to her for all these years. It makes a thin depression on both her cheeks as she does her smiling, looking at which I cannot tell how much time has passed. I have imagined hundreds of stories about this smile. Though the photograph has long faded, it makes me want to hold her. I keep her in my breast pocket. Days when I feel lonely, I keep looking at her. I don’t know why.
Someone said, some say it was Shakespeare, that life is a grand human drama. If that is true, my sorrows are measured before they reach me! So are my joys, so are my memories, so are my fears, and so is the pain near my chest which reminds me that I too will fade.
I am in Ratna Café. There is snow over the roof, on the trees, on the road. The place is not lively anymore. Not like it used to be in my youth. The café is in the college campus, trying in its own little ways to celebrate the glory, the lost glory, of this once famous college of arts. The library that lies on the other side of the cafe is still open, but there is no librarian there. It is open for everyone, especially for a drifter wishing to do a little brain exercise. They have kept all the stacks open, so that one can pick up any book and keep it forever without returning. Books here are out-dated or worse. They may attract research scholars. But no one comes here any more. Most of the time – almost always – there’s just white snow and grey mist.
It’s a strange old café, run by a man who belongs to… who knows what region, but born and brought-up around these parts. He’s almost my age, and he’s still alive. I don’t know his name, he doesn’t know mine. But he knows that I prefer ginger tea with poha. They taste good together. He knows that I like to sit on this table and none other. He silently comes and places tea without uttering a single word. I smile back in return. Though we never talk anymore, he knows that I like sitting here for hours, scribbling words here and there in my moleskin diary. I guess he even knows that the words I write never come out the way I want. He smiles at me when he sees me staring at a single spot for hours, as I search for more words in my mind. Sometimes I feel that he can sense my frustration. I have tried to talk many times but not anymore. Talking is something I don’t feel like doing anymore. Maybe it is the same with him. I think there is some residue of old memories that help us understand each other without talking. I admit that the sight of him in the café makes me feel good: feels like something is still the way it used to be. As if not everything that I can relate to is dead. I see him and I see someone breathing in the stillness of this place. It is a good feeling.
The sweet-spicy taste of sev khamani and the smell of wet soil are unavoidable when thinking of those days when I found in me an urge to write. The atmosphere loses its gloom when thinking of the Ratna Café of my youth. Maybe that is why I come to the café again and again – to recollect that lost passion.
I wrote my first story here, titled Bird People of Gombassa. It was about two historians searching for a cult of winged humans who according to some ancient myth controlled the world by controlling the telluric currents. It was one big stupid story. But that day, when I was writing it, I felt as if the nectar of life was in my mouth – you know, the kind of feeling which strikes an artist when he is creating something, or a youth who suddenly discovers his calling. I remember I had told myself: “Finally! I know why I am here”. Fact is: no one really knows. Come to think of it, how we attach meaning in what we do? It was just a moment. It passed.
I try again, but no word manages to come out on paper. They are there in the back of my head, always droning. But I can’t get them on paper. They require a delicate arrangement, which right now looks unachievable. This is what happens most of the time: sitting in Ratna café for hours, all I end up with is just few occasional words here and there on an otherwise blank page. My head feels like a nest of bees, and through writing I wait for that final moment when I’ll be able to release them all, and this endless buzzing shall stop. I sometimes see writing as my long struggle to become empty again. I wonder whether there is any such state: emptiness.
The town where I have stayed for all these years is situated on the top of a mountain. If you are sitting in the café, you can get a good view of the distant mountains that right now appear as hazy as though it is just the reflection of the mountains that were once there. I love this sight. Sometimes I stare at these mountains for hours. It’s mesmerizing. Sights such as these leave me feeling exalted, but also vaguely perplexed, something which I cannot really explain. I don’t know what the people who established this town envisioned while creating it. To me, it is a symbol of wasted beauty. Its appearance reminds me of a beauty long faded. Like it has frozen between a transition from joy to sorrow and what I see is the memory of that transition. It is a cold and still town, with occasional movements and breathings. To a distant traveler who stumbles around these parts by chance, it may look like a town that is waiting for something to happen… so that life can begin again.
The tea is over, it has managed to leave behind its stench in my breath, and the story I am writing is not coming out the way I want. I have lost track of what I have to write. I had started with something, had thought of reaching somewhere, but I am going nowhere. So I stop writing. The cold is getting worse as evening approaches. I know there’s no one waiting for me, but still, I have to get back to my shelter. I get up and nod at my old companion in the café. He comes near and hands over a parcel of upma, which he has freshly prepared. I start walking towards the college gate. I wonder when did I last pay him, or when did he last asked for a payment. As I leave, he looks at me, nods, and goes back to his activities. I have noticed this every time. Every time I leave this café, he gives me a very casual goodbye look. It is not at all a look that an old man gives to another old man. His is a very sure look, devoid of all uncertainties of an old man’s mind. I mean, he seems to have an unconscious hope that I will live enough to pass this evening through night to return to the café tomorrow. I wave my hand as I leave. I don’t have such hope left.
The staff quarters are behind the college campus, where the college professors used to live. It is an empty three story building now, its white color captured by a black shade. The watchman sits on a chair facing the quarters that don’t require guarding at all. With his boots that seem stitched more than hundred times, and his woolen overcoat which has lost its original color, you may get a notion that either he has taken his duty too seriously, or has nowhere else to go. He has a fire lit near him, and there is an empty chair placed opposite his. He always places a chair for me. I imagine it is for me as there is no one else who visits him. I sit there and hand over the upma parcel to him. He feels its warmth with his chilled hands, smells it, and smiles, showing his yellowed teeth. I warm my hands over the fire as he starts eating.
I bring him upma everyday. Well, that’s what the café-owner prepares for him daily. It will not be inappropriate to say that I and this watchman depend on Ratna café for our food. We don’t pay to the café-owner though. We haven’t felt the need to. There’s no money in the town either. There are just resources.
The watchman eats very silently without making a single sound, occasionally looking at me and acknowledging my presence. He is a curious person. He likes reading books, which he brings from the library. It’s peculiar for a watchman to indulge in such things, but I believe that he’s erudite. Today he is reading William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. Only yesterday he was reading Goethe’s Theory of Color. Every time I visit him, he is reading a different one. Reading day and night, his life is dragged by an urge to know, and being a watchman is an ideal job for a person who just wants to read, and do nothing else; as if the mere purpose of one’s existence is to know as much as one can before the string gets pulled. Maybe, there’s a lazy pleasure in this activity that I will never understand.
He must have read most of the books in the library. He never likes keeping books with him. He returns all the books. I guess he just needs some place to visit now and then. The library is the reason for his occasional movements. At times he likes arranging and rearranging the books on the stacks. Books when arranged differently produce different designs based on the textures, colors and shapes of the spines, and he keeps changing the designs to produce unidentifiable images. The library keeps him busy.
While warming my hands, I look towards the road that passes by the staff-quarters. It meets the old cinema-house, which is in sight from here, and turns rightward out of the town. Suddenly a vaguely identifiable human figure swiftly crosses the cinema-house and goes out of range. That must be the postman. The timings on which the postman appears in this town are never clear. I have no idea where he comes from and where he goes. He never brings mails though. This small town with countable buildings has just four characters in it: the café-owner, the watchman, the projectionist in the cinema-house, and me; five, if we count the postman. There is no one in the world who can write a mail to us.
The watchman, or anyone else in this village, never show curiosity on the postman’s arrival. Sometimes I get a feeling that this watchman, the café-owner, and the projectionist are mere extension of this town; that they have always been here, and will always be here. I sometimes see no difference between them and the things, or matter, scattered around in this town. I can’t explain this feeling, but they look like fading images trying to live in their funny little ways. At times I get a feeling that they are there only when I am looking; that they disappear when I look away from them. It is abstruse. Maybe because no one talks here anymore; all I know about them is from memories of earlier conversations. My relationship with everyone in this town is that of silence, which at times gladdens me because it feels like a small achievement – that of overcoming words. Even if they are real, and not figments of my memory, I am sure that like me, they also dwell in their solitude; that this town is an image of how solitude looks like. Moreover, I have, at times, grown a strong urge to believe that the everlasting winter has frozen the past along with them, and they would melt down with everything else in sight and be lost forever once the first rays of summer touch this town. Maybe, I have gone too deep into myself, and everything around me: all that I see, all that I smell, all that I taste, is just an illusion of my senses. Maybe there is nothing on the outside…
I sit by the fire for some more time before leaving for the day. As I get up, the watchman, his stomach satisfied, gives me a smile and buries his head in the pages of the book he holds. I pick up the road that leads to my shelter through the cinema-house. Plan 9 from Outer Space is being played today. The projectionist is a tireless soul. There is never a day when I pass by the cinema-house and a movie is not playing. I sometimes sit to watch a movie, but not today. The last one I saw was two days back, a worn-out reel of Lanka Dahan. The Watchman is the only character who watches films everyday. But his timings are different. It has happened only rarely when all of us have watched a film together. It last happened when Cabinet of Dr. Calligri was played.
On the far side where two streets meet I can see an effigy of a man sitting on a horse. Passing that, I reach the university playground which is at the center and circling it are different departments. I can hear noises of children playing in the ground, but there are no children there. On the distance I can see shadows of a few professors dragging between departments, like apparitions. They won’t go away. Maybe they are there to keep reminding me of lost enthusiasm…. A little further and I will reach my shelter.
My room is always open, there’s nothing worth stealing here. Moreover, there are no thieves in this town. The drawing room has a dull light-blue color. It feels really cold in here at night. There is an empty bed near the corner, and two big couches kept in the middle of the drawing room. A boy is sitting on one of the couches, which is cold and damp. He often comes here. He must be in his twenties. I forgot to mention about him. But he doesn’t belong here – he seems to be coming from a different time.
“I can’t write today,” he tells me.
“Coming here will make it only worse.”
“I was looking for her…near the cinema house, even in the university library…”
“I have told you many times that she is dead.”
“But she is alive in me.”
“Maybe, but somewhere in the transition from you to me… she’ll die.”
And if her giggles are still heard near the cinema house, if the air near the library still smells of her, these are not the actual memories of her. These are desires – tired of waiting to be realized, they have turned into memories.
“Whenever I look at this photograph,” he begins holding a photograph of the woman, very similar to the one I keep in my breast pocket, “I feel empty. I know that she is just an idea of the other I have imagined in solitude to give shape to my cravings, but still there are nights when I want her badly…when I slip in my bed, alone. My confused sorrow lies in the impossibility of her existence. Yes, that maybe. I was born with such desires. The photograph of this woman just gave them form.”
This boy believes that I am one of his possible futures. That we are the same person, separated in time. Though we have not fully agreed on that, I have seen traces of him in me, or mine in him. He shares same name as mine, Nikhil Barot. Titles of the stories he has written are same as mine. When I hear him for a long time, even his youthful longing for a beloved has familiar sighs. Like me, even he finds it impossible to write what he envisions.
“I fear sometimes,” he had told me during one of his earlier visits “that the expressions I am looking for will always elude me. What will I do if I am not being able to express anymore?”
There are times when he comes here confused, asking questions like “Must I write at all?” – receiving only silence from one equally confused.
He must be coming here during his disquieting moments. I guess he comes here to find an assurance. Even if he finds a slightest trace of her here, a glimpse of that idea he has so dearly created, it’ll reassure him that something will still keep him going when nothing else will. Gradually, I guess, he’ll learn that he will not find anything here. This place is just an attempt to rekindle the passion for beauty and knowledge he may lose in the balance of time. This place is the result of impossibility – impossibility to create anymore, impossibility to retain the beautiful notion of the other forever.
He will churn out his effusions and leave. Somewhere in time, he will be sitting in the same room… only a little warmer. Papers may have been scattered all around him, echoing the many disappointments, the flights of fancies, the disconcertments, the reassurances, the joys he must have experienced while putting words on them.
I wonder: Am I writing him? Or is he writing me?