Retrograding Glances

>> Wednesday, June 20, 2007

It is my story. Or perhaps, a part of it, is my neighbor’s. Forgive me, what took place forty-fifty years ago is clear to me like yesterday but what happened yesterday seems far away. It’s exacting to face the mirror. My face transformed into a stringed network of wrinkles while it waited for the joys of pubescence. That young girl, who stayed next door, was a replica of my youth. I read my own desires into her slender figure because as an erring mortal I could not be dispassionate. I solemnized my seventy-sixth birthday last month but even at this age, my life is not without it’s moment of unexpected excitement. To understand how completely the dead may survive, one had to meet me. I lived through her, in the outside world..

I occupied a four-bedroom dwelling alone, in perpetual darkness. During the day, intermittently, I fell into light sleep and dreamt I was falling into depths that were darker and tighter. Each time, it seemed I’d reached the bottom, the foundation collapsed under me and I began to sink again with greater speed. In the night, I sat on my terrace smelling the unknown past that had infiltrated the stale air. I looked at the neighborhood I’d grown up in through the tree leaves that had always trembled between my visions. In those times my adolescence came back to me with a sickening poignancy. I’d conceived that being the youngest meant, being the luckiest. Little did I know then, that this so-called luck came with a curse. You watch them all go one after the other and they never return. I comprehended myself to be no different from anything there that the wind was blowing on, my happiness of no relevance, in the dark torrent of nature.

The only ray reached my isolated dump when she came back from work, a few minutes. . preceding the sunset. She had left her parents and small town to chase her dreams; she said and had rented a flat in a house adjacent to mine. I don’t remember how we augmented fondness for each other and cultivated a queer friendship. I was her gray-haired friend and she dropped by everyday, prior to retiring in her own lonely chambers. . The light outside seemed brighter when she arrived and the rectangular patterns of sunlight wavered on the peeling wall, swirling, as though they mirrored the rushing waves of her young heart. Those days, she flashed with prismatic fires as she had found what she’d been looking for. Her man, who was: ‘half saint, half demon, half air, half shade horned like a buck winged like a bat, with the mind of a scholar and heart of a highwayman.’ These were her words or my own, I’m not sure because I’d known a man like that. But that part can wait..

All was well in our world, Rekha’s and mine. Yes, Rekha was her name, till my childhood friend, Shikha, returned. The very same day, Rekha behaved erratically. She kept clenching and unclenching her hands and when she spoke her words were slurred. She enunciated that she could not stand this prosaic city with its noise, hurry, dirt and greed for money. Then she stated something about her wretched love. The entire romantic claptrap wasn’t worth a penny so another philosophy followed. Those ‘romantic loves’ that our poets laud with such lofty phrases actually ruin lives. We were bubbles of the same ocean, moss from the same swap. If we could not love everybody, one should not love anybody. Finally she broke down and all this boiled down to one plain and simple clichĂ© that the man she was so earnestly in love with was presently dating her best friend.

I'd grasped that much of the love of our time is sheer betrayal. It is often hatred too but I did not know how to console her. It had put me back to an epoch, which I had thought of already belonging to an eternity. My own feeling was that the greatest virtue would be to abandon the body and all its iniquities. I wondered if the fight for survival could opiate her as loneliness had opiated me or she still dreamed of glorious adventures. She retreated and I was contemplating her case, when Shikha called unexpectedly. I had to accede though I did not wish to see her. She’d married and moved to Australia almost fifty years back. Her residence close by had been locked for past twenty years since her parents passed away. She was their only child and visited them occasionally. Though she had lost her husband long ago, I’d cerebrated she would never return. She had been implicated in one of the most painful experiences of my life. The embers of our friendship had turned into ashes, now cold, and blowing on them would neither revive nor extinguish anything.

I waited for her, pondering, what scared me more. The prospect of her being as old and wrinkled like me, or the fear that she would still be the beauty, she once was. She was a few months older and we’d grown together. I was vivacious, a lovely leaping gazelle and she was the lilting incomparable serene beauty. Together we could set any place on fire. The delicious irony was, we fell in love with the same man, Neel. It started as a joke. We’d met him through a common friend in a dingy theater, where he played Shakespearean characters. His pep, his oozing passion, his diligence and effectiveness had cast a deepening spell on young girls, who imagined themselves as Miranda or Rosalind and since then he figured amongst our favorite evening topics. We discussed his aquiline features and fantasized about his muscular body. In that dewy age, he wasn’t any less than an indolent starlet from motion pictures. I’d stealthily started meeting him and we’d even tossed ardent protestations of love at each other. I pretended to not care but I was afraid of losing him. Amidst this Shikha confided in a delirious tone that Neel had proposed to marry her. I noticed that she had flowered into writhing sheaves of blossom, which left me whimpering. I felt cheated and gave her an exaggerated account of my rendezvous with Neel. She listened quietly while tears glistened in her large eyes. We never mentioned him again.

Shortly after, she settled for a marriage arranged by her parents and left the country. We drifted for a long time, down the languid current of reminiscence. I sat unmoved though she tried many times to push her way back through the overgrown channels of past. I cruelly and willfully smashed up the charmed world of love and admiration around me with my incessant cynicism. I’d lost interest in Neel and never cared to inquire his whereabouts. But he remained with me, a word, a name, a guilt in my conscious. There wasn’t enough of me to die then but so I wished. ‘I want to die!’ how often do we say flippantly? Now I don’t need to say that. It is in the proximity.. I can sniff it.. and I’m petrified. How do we know what happens after death? I really hope that death is the end of all our nonsense. Ten years ago, someone apprised me, Neel expired mysteriously.
.
****
It was really late when Shikha came and enclosed me into a tight but chilly embrace. She appeared an image of despair. She was now a tall wrinkled bony woman, another version of my stout and furrowed form. She smelled of rosewater and carnations and smiled the smile of those who had long since discovered the vanity of all human endeavors. She oscillated between outbursts of light-chatter and periods of taciturnity when she seemed lost in her own thoughts. We discussed almost everyone. Her parents and mine, my brothers and her favorite cousin, their children, our common friends, carefully avoiding the topic of Neel. A sentimental apology toward a memory already classic was vacuous.

The breaking down of the barricade of reticence between us had discharged buried emotions. She exited but beside her, my private injuries paled. What was the difference between us after so many years? I had lost my vivaciousness, she had lost her beauty and we had both lost our youth. What had the years given us in return of what they had taken away? Some relationships take decades to develop subtle glow. It seemed we were close.

Meanwhile Rekha had transformed into a perfect specimen of lady talkers who vex you with no ideas and try to protect you even with one moment of silence. I’d believed that the present generation would’ve developed new attitudes between sexes. They would no longer demand faithfulness and would be putting an end to jealousy. It disappointed me. What was there left to preach her? nothing but silence. While with Shikha, our eyes met in a lonely simple way such as had never happened before. Tardily, it became my daily routine. A couple of hours after Rekha’s departure, Shikha breezed in and we plunged into reveries of childhood. We dined together and took after-dinner strolls. At times we passed a crematorium which waited for us and our ambitions & illusions.

Our favorite spot was a neighborhood park. On one such night we sat there mutely on a bench. That night had an aura of cosmic change and a hope that I’d never forsaken arose in me. Suddenly I discerned that the ground heaved up and the streetlights intertwined, elongated and foggy. The park began to circle like a carousel. We spotted our proverbial man but his cheeks were sunken and a sickly pallor lay on his face. He looked as if he was on the verge of sleep, his eyes were those of basset hound and his silver eyebrows grew in fat tufts. Soon, the difference began to disappear, as if some hidden power were quickly retouching his face to the image, which remained in my memory. We sat and observed, gripping each other’s hand, waiting for that moment to pass. I perceived a morbid and uncontrollable fear of death stating out in the form of a pair of dreadfully familiar ghosts, one clutching my hand and the other playing spiteful tricks and filling my nostrils with insidious dust. We were frozen for hours.

Finally the sun rose, like a coal glowing on the heap of ashes, casting a light, scarlet as the fire of hell. Shikha silently nodded to me and walked toward her own building & I dragged myself home. I felt drowsy and comforted just as I experienced after any kind of misfortune. It was, as if I’d been delaying the funeral of a death that had occurred long ago. The burial was over and now the process of grieving for my lost years could begin. I was ready to abandon the daily drudgeries, the joys and catastrophes of fools. I dozed off and my eyes would blink open, stunned by a dream I instantly forgot. Gradually, things stopped bothering me. I fell into a stupor for hours and was awakened by a thunderous pounding on the door. There stood Abhinav, my nephew with a small suitcase. I had so much adrenaline in me that I sensed no emotion.

I steered him in and looked at him questioningly. We exchanged few words when I heard another knock. Now Rekha popped in with couple of my neighbors. I felt so addled that I forgot to be surprised by that invasion. Rekha vanished for a brief moment to fetch snacks and drinks from her apartment while others asked aberrant questions about my health and well-being. I retained the impression of nocturnal horrors and answered in a daze. One of my neighbors, enjoined that he’d telephoned Abhinav after discussing with Rekha that in my interest I should be admitted to a ‘home’, as I needed help and round the clock vigilance. I was informed that I wandered in the night at odd hours and had spent the last night alone on the bench in the park. When I protested that I was with Shikha, Abhinav asked, who Shikha was. I reminded him of Aunt Shikha, about whom he had heard from family friends and had perhaps seen her too. He frowned and held my hand gently. He uttered it wasn’t possible and then divulged something that I already knew. Six months ago, in a distant country, Shikha had passed away, in an old age home.

22 comments:

cheti June 20, 2007 at 2:22 PM  

Okay - just for pleasure of showing you that i was here. I will be reading it a couple of more times before i can even start some where. CAtch you around

vi June 20, 2007 at 8:02 PM  

Thanks for scaring us Hon *rolls eyes* (yup...old age)

On a serious note...close to reality...very well written...and kind of makes us pounder over things.

vi

aria June 21, 2007 at 2:20 AM  

Cheti!!!! *waves* so happy to see you. If you can't read its k.. its way too long though I edited at least one more page reluctantly :( I don't post stories coz it doesnt fit here & I don't like sequels.

Vi .. thanks for reading! Ok honestly tell me, if it really was 'scary'? I erased some spooky parts & re-read so many times for editing that it lost that 'effect' for me though the first time I wrote it, I slept in dad's room. :D

AakASH!!! June 21, 2007 at 5:52 AM  

When i reached the park-part, i thought you were being Marquez (yes it really was that phantasmic). But then it became a spook tale, which justs chills you from somewhere inside.

Wonderful writing! (yes as always)

vi June 21, 2007 at 2:53 PM  

I meant scarry at two levels the ghost part as well as the experience of old age...loneliness, losing mind etc

:)) at sleeping in dad's room
Mind posting the original as well Please :D

vi

asuph June 21, 2007 at 10:34 PM  

Girl, you stun me every single time. This is very very well written. You should be submitting this somewhere (in the least to get a more professional feedback than from the likes of me). Really. Needs very little editing, almost ready, IMO.

Of course I have couple of suggestion :D (so what if I can't write like this?), actually just one. Don't spoon-feed the readers with the "complete circle" part. It's better omitted, IMO.

I particularly liked the way you've sketched the relationship between Rekha and the narrator. It's just about right, in confident carefree brush-strokes. The narration, in general, is smooth and very visual.

The more I read you, the more I think you're still way away from outdoing yourself. This is good, hell this is damn good, but you're made for far better things.

keep writing,
asuph.

parikrama June 22, 2007 at 9:30 AM  

>> The embers of our friendship had turned into ashes, now cold, and blowing on them would neither revive nor extinguish anything.

The long wait (for a prose piece) was well rewarded.

I speed-read this in office, and it didn't come across as something extra-ordinary. I decided to withhold my verdict until I did proper justice to your writing, so I didn't comment immediately.

After re-reading (on Friday night @ home) at leisurely pace, I stand corrected. You are simply not capable of writing an ordinary piece :)

p.s. : Don bhaai ke hotey huay aap dad ke room mein bhaag gayi ? Shame.. Shame..

aria June 22, 2007 at 12:14 PM  

Aakash .. Thanks! I should read that book (100 yrs). Even Zofo said once, something in my writing reminded him of that.

Vi.. Ohh good! Nice to know it produced desired effect. Ok, I'll post that deleted part sometime though mainly what scared me was, I tried to imagine myself in that situation. :D

Asuph... I'll edit that para, it was kinda stinging me too Thanks for pointing out :D I don't know where else to post it but what you say has motivated me to do better with my writing. I hope I can do it ..

IW ... I'm very much capable of writing trash and please don't hesitate to tell me so. But I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for reading it twice. I think, it did need a bit of concentration.
Hehe @ Don bhai! Kya karien he is also 'male' he has ditched me these days n sleeps in dad's room :( Apni kismat hi kharaab hai.

----------------------- June 22, 2007 at 9:23 PM  

fascinating.

cheti June 25, 2007 at 11:58 AM  

Stunning !

... funeral of a death

Aria, you are a treasure !

Old age now scares me !

The Hermit of Wandering Thoughts June 25, 2007 at 11:59 AM  

This is quite spooky for me to comment on right now cause I've been reading Edgar Allen Poe.. and most of his stories concern death and its aftermath.. so I've read this maybe and said coincidence I think not...!!!

Spooky..
Its a Dark Subject to write about but it fascinates anyone who reads it...

Have you read Satyajit Rays. stories, he was an Amazing story steller too and unique in his own right but also several interesting subjects like this.....
You should be writing a book..
cheers
z


You watch them all go one after the other and they never return.

The Hermit of Wandering Thoughts June 25, 2007 at 12:07 PM  

In his book MY NAME IS RED... Orhan Pamuk too treats this subject with a new (or lets say different) outlook.. so its interests nearly everyone who has contemplated life and its after effects...

'd grasped that much of the love of our time is sheer betrayal.

A thousand betrayals and a thousand deaths..

Nadim June 25, 2007 at 10:20 PM  

engrossing! may be u shud have made it more shocking at the end! i expected somthing cmin so the end effect wasnt shocking enuf, i think. or may be cos im well used to the idea of visual hallucinations!

aria June 25, 2007 at 11:45 PM  

…… Thanks for the visit. :)

Cheti .. I’m happy you read it. I wanted to know what you thought. Thanks much. You’ve made me really happy!

Zofo .. Thanks again for giving me some brilliant ideas for reading. I should explore Poe!
No I haven’t read Satyajeet Ray .. but now that you say.. it reminded me of that ancient serial that was aired on DD called Satyajeet Ray Presents or something. Was too young to remember properly but I still remember one story called ‘studio’ in which one guy painted portraits of dead ppl and how much it had scared us kiddos.
And yes most stories are predictable, it’s the treatment which makes it unique and that’s what I want to learn and experiment so I’ll keep your suggestions about those books in mind. :)

Nadim.. good to see you back. Actually it isn’t an all-out ‘ghost-story’ so its less about shocking and more about empathy. Anyway, thanks for reading.

The Hermit of Wandering Thoughts June 26, 2007 at 11:42 PM  

Yeah that Satyajeet Ray Presents were adapted from his stories... nearly all of them have something to do with the unusual and the supernatural..

I love Poe.. and His "Fall Of The House of Usher" is one of my favs..

you must read it.
cheers
z

aria June 27, 2007 at 2:09 PM  

I'm gonna hunt for that book and let you know what I felt about it. thank you :D

Equivocationalist June 27, 2007 at 5:02 PM  

i really liked this; you should write more prose. I was anticipating this story, since you'd mentioned it before. When i saw that you'd posted it, i was impatient to read it, but only just had the time to do so. i especially like the parts that reflect the passing of time, as a loss to the woman,

"You watch them all go one after the other and they never return."

sometimes, i find myself convinced that you're writing from personal experience; it's not easy to empathise with a character you create, to live it. do you base these on real people (or at least real observations of specific people) ?.

aria June 28, 2007 at 9:03 AM  

Thank you! It's a bit long and needed some spare time glad you liked it! Mostly I exaggerate personal experiences/add 2-3 incidents/combine them with imagination. This is the first time I wrote something entirely fictitious, even that must have been influenced by something I'd observed randomly but I can't put a finger on it. :)

Alok August 3, 2007 at 8:32 PM  

it was chilling aria ...

somehow my blood went cold for sometime, only relieved when i clicked on the comment sec ....

"We sat and observed, gripping each other’s hand, waiting for that moment to pass. I perceived a morbid and uncontrollable fear of death stating out in the form of a pair of dreadfully familiar ghosts, one clutching my hand and the other playing spiteful tricks and filling my nostrils with insidious dust. We were frozen for hours.

what i loved about the piece was its flow ... its gripped u to continue reading thru out ....

moreover the brilliant sketches of the intertwined relationship left me speechless ..

brilliant is the word tht come to my mind as i go on to say take care

do take care
alok

aria August 5, 2007 at 4:40 AM  

Really sweet of you to read this looong story and give such wonderful feedback. Thanks Alok :)

Ashen Glow December 14, 2007 at 1:44 AM  

The comment comes really late and probably might go unnoticed..
Nevertheless..
That was awesome.. Long , yeah.. So what.. It was equally gripping.. Brilliantly written and such exquisite choice of words..extremely impressive..
whew!.. am running short of words.. Heh.

Azad May 24, 2013 at 2:06 AM  

Bootifully written. It's been a long time since I read somebody describing death in such a way.

Keep writing.

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