Priyanka is a freelance journalist and creative writer based in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. She pursued her higher education in the United Kingdom itself; and achieved a BA (Hons) in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Warwick and MSt in Women's Studies from the University of Oxford. Priyanka has extensively published poetry during as a child; and published three volumes of poetry as well as various publications of poetry in magazines, newspapers, online journals and anthologies. At the moment, however, she is focusing on short stories.
I am a practitioner of creative writing forms such as poetry, short shorts, short stories, and novellas. I am particularly interested in stylistic innovation within my writing, such as experimenting with narrative structure and experimenting with language. I am also interested in amalgamating various artistic forms with my writing such as juxtaposing poetry with paintings, for example. I largely situate my works within Indian locations and contexts; thematic influences operating within these works include Indian diaspora, arranged marriage, and role of women within Indian society.
----Everyone carries a room about inside him. Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks----
After some time, Sandhya excused herself to go inside her bedroom; the door slammed and I heard water running a few minutes later. I remained sitting in the living room, eavesdropping on whatever was visible of the flat. The flat had seemed tidy on initial appearance although the disorder was now beginning to make itself apparent, having been reluctant earlier to emerge in the presence of the flat’s mistress. Stacks of newspapers and magazines had been pushed behind the sofa while random objects peered above from crevices between the sofa seats, partially visible knitting needles and a remote control, precursors to a treasure hunt of sorts. The disorder reiterated the flat’s general shabbiness: the sepia-stained ceiling, the mismatched carpets and curtains, and the peeling strips of wallpaper, sharp and curved like overgrown fingernails. Sandhya and Sunil both seemed content with the state of the flat, almost as if expecting the other to eventually sort the place out. Someone, most probably Sandhya, had feebly attempted to contain the chaos that littered the bureau and coffee table, carving out space for photographs and pair of candleless silver lotus-shaped candlesticks. I was examining the family of photographs on the bureau when Sandhya entered the living room, having swapped her beige salwar-kameez for an olive turtleneck and faded jeans ensemble instead. She was carrying a large, capacious handbag and wore no make-up except for brown kohl panda-ringing her eyes. I had rarely seen her in a salwar-kameez and found myself oddly relieved to see her wearing trousers again. “Is it OK if we lunch outside, Mahesh?” she said slowly, her eyes fixed above my head. “I would have cooked you a proper dal but the kitchen’s in such a mess…”
“Of course,” I grinned. “I will survive your dal some other time.”
Sandhya smiled faintly. “Of course,” she said, buttoning into her gray coat and looking around the flat as if memorizing its details for the one last time: geography of the furniture, the way sunlight freckled the wall, and the ubiquitous, unending clutter. I stared at my palms, feeling like an intruder. The flat was beginning to make me uneasy and I was glad that we would not have to spend more time here. Sandhya jangled her keys and when I looked up, she was studying me as if aware of my unease. “It can be a little dingy,” she said, opening the front door. “But it was all we could afford.”
“Any chance of Sunil meeting us for lunch, Sandhya?” I asked. “I was really looking forward to meet him.”
She locked the door and dropped the keys inside her handbag. “He can’t,” she said abruptly. “You can meet him – next time.”
It was sunny outside so we could pretend that it was summer rather than that twilight area in which spring feebly begins to assert itself. We ambled through the streets, Sandhya deliberately choosing a jagged, diagonal path, sharing and exchanging memories between ourselves as if they were a bag of peanuts. In the light, Sandhya seemed decidedly more animated and loquacious; in the house, she had looked dead, almost as if she had been scalloped and prepared to be consumed for lunch. I wondered if she resented the lack of sunlight more than she cared to admit. Here, in the streets, she talked rapidly, choosing one memory after another to dissect even before we had finished discussing the previous one. I was surprised that Sandhya asked about Cheryl only after we had left the flat. I had not told her much about Cheryl in my emails, somehow unable to elaborate: I can’t write a novel on about how I feel about her. And you! Did you even mention a word about Sunil before sending me your wedding invitation and saying you were moving to London afterwards?
“Your parents OK with a British girlfriend?” Sandhya asked casually. “Or still parading one Gujju beauty after another in hopes of tempting their wayward son?”
“They’ve met her,” I shrugged, reluctant to remember the occasion: my parents had pursed their lips and folded their arms, watching Cheryl fumble with her words, napkin, and composure. I had been a portrait hanging on the wall: helpless to do anything but watch. “My brother got married to a Gujarati though. That should compensate.”
“Let me guess. She’s tall, fair, slim – and a doctor?”
“All correct - except she’s a lawyer,” I said, grinning.
We became silent afterwards as Sandhya stopped talking and began to walk ahead of me, seemingly determined to reach the restaurant before I did. I preferred to walk at leisure, examining the houses that we went past. Majority of the houses dated from the Victorian era and still retained a genteel, beautiful aura despite their obvious state of decay. In one of the houses, there stood an almost bare, ascetic-like tree in the garden, standing as if in meditation, its age seemingly evident from its gnarled, knotty fingers. The neighborhood itself seemed to be in hibernation, awaiting its moment of awakening so that it could also participate in the world living around it. I looked up to see wooly tufts of gray clouds blotting the sun: the illusion of spring began to dissipate, leaving behind depressed trees and vague shadows in place. I have always disliked urban winters for some reason, the winter always being more palpable, grayer amid the concrete and glass. How had Sandhya been able to bear this flat and neighborhood for the past few months? I remembered that we had met each other three days into our MA Management course: our first conversation had been about how homesick Sandhya had been for sunlight in India. Afterwards, whenever I visited her flat, she would be found in the kitchen, sitting in front of the window so that the sunlight touched her first before anything else in the kitchen. I was to constantly see her in that posture for the remainder of the year. “I instinctively feel better when the sun is shining,” she used to say. “The world seems so much more happier.”
“You still haven’t told me much about Sunil,” I remarked, causing Sandhya to stop and turn around as if I were a stranger that had chanced to converse with her. “He almost sounds like a ghost: he seems to exist only because you tell me he does.”
“What’s there to tell?” Sandhya commented expressionlessly, the tip of her boot edging away a dry, rust-brown leaf from the tree it had lain beneath towards the pavement. “We met, went out for few months, liked each other enough to get married and then informed our parents. They organised and paid for the lavish weddings. Very cut and dried.” She crushed the leaf beneath her heel. “I am desperately searching for a job at the moment. I am going to go mad if I have to spend few more days cooped up in that flat.”
“You couldn’t find any other place?”
“Sunil’s company organised the accommodation. And, as I told you, it’s all we could afford,” she added crisply. “I am planning to flood the place with lamps. Every night will be Diwali. ”
“How is he? Sunil, I mean,” I asked awkwardly.
“I can’t write a novel on how I feel, Mahesh,” Sandhya said, smiling: I realized we had turned around the corner and were standing next to a cracked window with TAPAS painted across the crack in alternating chrome and crimson letters. Sandhya’s smile was a ghost of her former ones, haunting in the way it lit up her eyes: it occurred to me that I had always visualized Sandhya’s face with an incipient smile, her expression of a secret, perpetual amusement.
“Ha!” I declared, holding the door open for her. “What happened to I only eat Indian?”
“Sunil happened,” Sandhya remarked, smiling to acknowledge my gesture. “He’s an excellent cook – much better than me, in fact. I will get Sunil to cook for you in your next visit.”
I nodded and began walking towards the nearest table when I realised that Sandhya had not followed me. “Mahesh?” I heard her say and I turned around to see her still standing in the doorway, once again wearing that same expression she had worn inside her flat. “Could I make a request?”
“Of course,” I replied, feeling that unease rise within me once again.
Sandhya rotated the toe of either boot as she spoke. “Is it possible that we don’t talk about our present lives for the next couple hours? I felt as if we were still at university, returning to halls from a lecture, while we were coming here. I would like to preserve that illusion – for some time.”
“Of course,” I repeated mechanically, trying to smile for Sandhya’s sake; she smiled palely in return, taking my arm and leading me towards a table.
Afterwards, when I thought about it, it was an afternoon I would not wish to remember. We had lunch, bid each other farewell and I then caught a cab to the British Museum where I spent the remainder of the afternoon. I could have done some shopping, wandered around Covent Garden and met up with friends for coffee but I chose to roam through the museum instead, touching the cold, firm statues and examining the tiny mummy huddled within the glass, marveling its ability to be both visible and invisible amid the crowd. I sat beneath the sky lighted hall, thinking about Sandhya, her flat, her conversation, the last request so casually but meaningfully made to me at the restaurant. At the flat, she had sat diffidently, her face cleansed of emotion, somewhat, I realised, like the flat itself. Anyone could walk into those rooms, subtract a few objects, add a few pictures, and create a new spatial personality within a short period of time. And Sunil, as I had remarked, was truly a ghost. I would have even believed that Sandhya had invented him had it not been for his photographs on the bureau. What was undeniable, though, was that I had met a Sandhya who resembled little to the one that I had befriended at university. I have always believed that a person retains a particular nub of individuality throughout their life, a nub that instantly distinguishes them as them even if you met the person twenty years later. I could find no such nub in common with the Sandhya that I had met today and the Sandhya that I had known. This erasure of personality disturbed me for Sandhya was beginning to appear as the ghost. Evening came: I caught another cab to Euston and returned home. As I am inclined to do, I cut out the encounter from my mind and threw it away to the passing fields. It sat upon the frost-tipped grass, its limbs splayed out like an amputated starfish. At the station, Cheryl waited patiently, her hair gleaming auburn beneath the icy mauve lights. “How was your trip?” Cheryl asked as we drove home from the station. “Did you meet Sandhya?” I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. “As a matter of fact, I could not. She was - busy. But yes, otherwise, the trip was great. I really should do London more often.”
A week later, when Sandhya and the trip had become a distant, irresoluble memory, my mobile rang at five minutes to nine. I had to meet a client at half past and was reluctant to answer the call, as I did not recognize the number flashing on the screen. The ringing abruptly stopped before resuming once again and I accepted the call, cursing the caller’s persistence.
“Mr. Mahesh Patel?” The voice was unfamiliar although the accent appeared Indian.
“Yes, Mahesh Patel speaking,” I replied brusquely. “May I know who’s calling?”
“I am Sunil Agarwal,” the voice spoke. “Sandhya’s husband.”
I sat down without knowing why. “Ah, Mr. Agarwal,” I answered mechanically. “Sandhya has told me much about you.”
A prolonged pause followed afterwards in which I could only hear television playing in the background: it was coincidentally tuned to the same news channel as mine.
“Mr. Agarwal? Is everything all right?”
“No, I am afraid everything’s not all right,” he finally replied. “Sandhya has disappeared – to put it bluntly.” He paused again but I was so astonished that I could not speak myself. “She actually disappeared last Monday. I believe that you had met her for lunch that day: Sandhya had mentioned to me that she was going to see you that morning.”
“Yes, we did have lunch,” I answered quickly. “I was at your flat for about thirty minutes and then Sandhya suggested we have lunch outside. So we walked-“
“Yes, Mr. Patel, we learnt that you lunched at a nearby Spanish restaurant,” Sunil said. “The police have made all the enquiries. The restaurant manager informed us that both of you separated at the restaurant itself. They called a taxi for you so you left before Sandhya.”
“And Sandhya? Where did she go?”
“She stood outside for a while before resuming walking in the direction of our block of flats,” Sunil said. “She was last spotted a few streets away from our block of flats. One of our neighbors saw her there at quarter to three. They both greeted each other but the neighbor was in a hurry so they didn’t speak much.” He paused. “I acquired your number with great difficulty. I believe that you had talked to Sandhya on her mobile but she had – has obviously taken her mobile away with her. We then checked our landline records and discovered that you had also called her on our landline. We were only able to trace your number through that method. This was the reason for my delay in contacting you.”
“I am shocked,” I told him. “I am extremely shocked.”
“I returned to the flat at about five in the evening,” Sunil said wearily, clearly narrating the story for the umpteenth time. “She wasn’t there. I thought she had gone out for a walk as she sometimes did. I tried her mobile but it was switched off. I began to worry when she hadn’t returned home by eight. I knew that she was supposed to have met you that day but I could not locate your number. In any case, when I informed the police and they made enquiries, it became clear that you would not have known much either.” He paused. “I believe that you arranged to visit British Museum after lunch.”
“Yes,” I replied. “I had been meaning to go– for ages. I had to kill time until my train left at six twenty– so I spent the entire afternoon there.”
It was already nine twenty three but the client no longer seemed to matter. “The police say it’s a simple case of disappearance. How easy to say: simple!” Sunil said. “I cannot blame the police though. They have questioned friends and neighbors, notified hospitals – and regularly updating me on discovery of unidentified bodies.” He paused, the latter possibility clearly as unimaginable as the very fact of Sandhya’s disappearance itself. “Where could she have gone? Her mobile is permanently switched off – she has only a few bank cards and presumably some cash in possession-”
“You can monitor her movements through card transactions and cash withdrawals,” I said. “She will have to withdraw cash at some point.”
“Yes, the bank has also been informed but nothing has come up yet,” Sunil sighed. “Sandhya just seems to have – disappeared, Mr. Patel.”
“Please call me Mahesh.”
“Yes – it’s just so difficult to believe that she is actually –gone, Mahesh. I wake up in the morning, temporarily amnesiac, thinking she is still here, making tea in the kitchen – before memory returns…I hope you don’t mind me asking but - did you find her behaviour unusual that day? I understand that you were good friends – did she give any indication that she might – do something like this?”
“No, certainly not,” I said, that unease enveloping me once again. “We were meeting each other after years although I did think she was a little depressed, due to the weather. She could never adjust to the winters here.” I paused. “She did admit she disliked the flat.
“Yes, she did dislike the flat,” Sunil agreed, to my surprise. “I feel as if I never knew her though, let alone understood her - how unhappy she must have been to even think of taking such a step.” He fell silent and I eventually had to cough to remind him of my presence. “I am sorry to have taken up so much of your time but I felt it necessary to inform you – you being Sandhya’s friend,” he continued, lapsing into formality. “The police were also keen that I speak to you - I am afraid you may be brought in for questioning as well.”
“I still cannot believe it...”
“I am sure there must be some explanation,” he said absently: he paused once again although I felt it to be calculated, rather than unconscious, this time. “You will tell me if she contacts you, Mahesh?”
“Of course,” I said immediately although I later wondered at the alacrity with which I replied. “I am just so sorry – and shocked – to hear of this…”
In the evening, when Cheryl dropped by after work, I told her everything, including shamefacedly apologizing for the white lie. I had cancelled my appointments and remained at home the entire day, thinking about Sandhya. Sandhya and I had remained in sporadic e-mail touch with one another when she had returned to India after finishing the MA course; we had had been good friends though and I had happy memories of her. “We should get married, Mahesh,” she always used to say. “We would make two families very happy. Yours and mine.” I had laughed those words away, deliberately deaf to the absence of her laughter in those words. How much had I known Sandhya? I tried to imagine what she was doing and thinking at this very moment – but where? It makes little difference if we have enhanced our ability to communicate with one another through telephone or cellular or Internet connections for they ultimately cannot enable us to access that most inaccessible domain of them all: the mind. Sandhya drifted through our minds, a trapeze artist suspended between life and death, not flesh but not quite ghost either. Does a person become a ghost when you start referring to them in past tense?
That Monday constantly cartwheeled through my mind: I could remember everything about the day, whether it was the wind that braised our cheeks, Sandhya’s gray coat, and little terracotta bowls of tapas, except for our conversation. We had reminisced about our university days although Sandhya had mostly dominated the conversation; despite this surface bonhomie, I had left Sandhya feeling in possession of an illegitimate knowledge, an accidental voyeur who parted the curtains of a window and viewed a violent argument in process. I once again saw her looking around the flat as if for the one last time; I could only appreciate the specificity and the irony of my observation in hindsight. Was that true? Had I not been aware of an unease at the flat itself? If only I had not complied with her request at the restaurant, if only I had asked, “What’s the matter, Sandhya?” I could not have because I had never permitted myself to indulge curiosity, always preferring to look the other, and often more expedient, way instead.
“How sad,” Cheryl said sympathetically afterwards although I suspected that her sympathy largely lay for me, rather than towards Sandhya. She had never known Sandhya and moreover seemed bewildered as to how anyone could consider disappearing as a means of resolving their crises. She had had similar difficulties relating to those suffering from clinical depression as well. “I mean, everyone has a blue day or so – but depression? How?” she had once told me. I had never held it against her though as she had never held my refusal to indulge curiosity against me. “I suppose, we should stay in tonight then,” she remarked, trying to conceal her disappointment; we were due to meet some friends for supper that night. “I don’t think that you would be up for it, would you?”
“I doubt it,” I admitted. “Cher, you go ahead though.”
“It won’t look right if you don’t turn up as well, Cher: you can explain my disappearance, at least,” I said, feebly smiling. “Pretend we have had a fight –that will set the girls off. They will be around your place tomorrow night, armed with DVDs and pizzas and self-help lit.”
Cheryl shrugged. “I don’t know what I will do there without you, honestly speaking. Karla and Janice will drink too much and James and Mark will also drink too much and then pass comments about how horrible it is when women drink too much. You are the one who sorts everyone out.”
I had willingly played mediator many times but it was not in my capacity to do so today. “You know, Cher, we are always hearing about cases of missing people in the news – but we never quite expect that those cases could be of someone we know. The irony is that we then start thinking that we actually do no longer know them, as in what motivated them to disappear, just as we don’t know of their whereabouts. Which either lack of knowledge is the more unbearable one?” Cheryl nodded, looking down at the carpet, drifting away in its river-blue softness. I sighed. “I can’t imagine where she could have gone. She returned to UK in December and she doesn’t have many friends or family here, as far as I know.”
Cheryl stared up at the ceiling for a while before speaking. “You once told me that Sandhya really enjoyed her time during her course at Sheffield. She might have gone there, perhaps. It’s like an equivalent to comfort food: comfort place. You have such rosy memories of a place that you wish to return and seek them out, escaping whatever crisis you are experiencing at that moment.”
I took Cheryl’s hand in mine, feeling guilty at having been so dismissive of her ability to be prescient about the situation. “That’s a good suggestion, Cher,” I told her. “I will definitely phone Sunil about it tomorrow.”
Sunil sounded interested when I telephoned although he didn’t display too much enthusiasm. The television broadcast in the background had been replaced instead with constant hum of voices, some low, some frenetic. “Practically all our friends are camping over here,” Sunil said when I asked him about the noise. “Everyone’s so worried – and so surprised. They all keep on saying they had never expected Sandhya to do this.”
“Well, no one really expects anyone to disappear like that, do they?” I responded irritably although I had said as much to Cheryl the night before. “Sunil, please do try to get the police involved regarding Sheffield.”
Sunil continued to regularly update me on the situation: he also convinced the police that interrogating me would be ultimately fruitless although he did not seem as effective in making them initiate investigations in Sheffield. I doubted if he understood the importance that Sheffield held for Sandhya. “It seems that there is nothing left to do but wait,” he told me, sighing. However, two weeks after Sandhya had officially disappeared, she called me on my mobile. I had finished loading groceries into the car bonnet and absently glanced at my mobile to see a message on the screen: ONE MISSED CALL: SANDHYA. Sandhya! She had been resurrected from death, the physical presence of her name rescuing her from the limbo that she currently occupied in my mind; it troubled me though how easily I had presumed her death simply because she had been absented herself from my life, her identity reduced to that of a fill-in-the-blank sentence. During my adolescence, while hurtling through my own trapeze-like existence, I had once woken up, filled with a lingering, dead sense of loss, recalling that I had just dreamt that my mother was dead – and that the rest of my family had not only accepted her death but assumed it as a perfectly plausible, permanent reality of our lives. I had frequently witnessed the familiar turn into unfamiliar but I was still yet to inure myself to that chilling painful split-second of transition in which the world turned upside down. I stared at the message until I was convinced of its existence before feverishly punching in the buttons to call Sandhya. The call was answered on the fourth ring.
“Mahesh?” Sandhya’s voice was barely audible, sounding as if it were traveling a great distance in order to reach me.
“Sandhya, where are you? Sheffield?”
Her voice petered away although other sounds gradually became more distinct: her uneven breathing, the muffled, dream-like sounds of distant traffic, and a clock’s rhythmic, sensible tick-tock. I have always believed that sounds are the ones that ground you: sight can be deceptive, taste is too remote and smell too subjective. The existence of sound positions you within the world, a coordinate on a graph, in midst of dialogue with other coordinates.
“Sandhya? Please listen to me. I can’t express to you how relieved I am that you have called. But – you have to come back. You don’t have to go back to Sunil, if that’s what you want,” I added, relief at hearing Sandhya’s voice making me renege on the promise I had made to Sunil. “No one needs to know until you want them to know. The most important thing is that you have to come back from wherever you are.”
“This is why I have called you, Mahesh. I have to tell you why I cannot return. You can only return when there is something to return to: in my case, there is nothing left for me to return to,” Sandhya spoke, employing tones of calmness and authority that I had never heard her use before.
“I felt that you – of all people – should know.”
“Sandhya,” I repeated again, feeling the unfamiliar sensation of panic surge through me as if it was fire meeting itself in a forest. “You have to return: you do not realize how much you have to return to. Listen to me. Stand up. Wipe your face. Pack your handbag. You will go outside, hire a taxi, go to the train-station, and buy a single ticket to Nottingham. I will be waiting at the train-station. And you will be waiting to see me.”
She hung up and I was left staring at the cold white screen of the phone.
I only smoke whenever I have to wait. I stood at the train-station, smoking one cigarette after another, inwardly commenting upon all those who walked past me. There were British couples, Caribbean families and two over made-up Asian girls, who instinctively pulled down their thigh-skimming skirts upon seeing me. An Indian family occasionally went past, the father leading the way, the children loitering behind him, the mother following at the end, tightly pulling her cardigan around her sari. Déjà vu gripped me: I saw my parents visiting me during my undergraduate university days. It was always a fixed time: alternate Sunday mornings of the month. “Come at ten o’clock,” I would instruct them. “No one will be awake then so no one will see us either.” They always turned up a few minutes after ten: Dad, holding the white duffel bag stuffed with homemade food, and Mum, the cardigan awkward and reluctant over the restless contours of her sari. I always wondered whether it would not be more convenient or acceptable if she instead dressed in trousers and shirts and blouses, rather than that awkwardness, as I then perceived it. She never did – and I never asked her to do so either: the question nevertheless remained with me, destined to be a cipher.
The crowd had thinned so there were fewer people’s lives to extrapolate. I lit another cigarette and amused myself by inspecting the walls instead. There were biro-colored phone-numbers, shabby but tidy patches of graffiti, bits of ripped off posters and scar-like, weathered cracks that gleamed distinctly beneath the lights. I contemplated contributing towards the walls myself: a sketch, a quote, a poem, anything that had wandered into my mind. I stroked my chin and thought hard but there seemed nothing worthy enough to be emblazoned upon a wall so clearly blasé about life. I almost wrote an adolescence-tinged I love you Cheryl because I do but I could not. I capped my pen and leaned against the wall. Sandhya had not arrived but I knew that she would come. I lit another cigarette and watched the smoke disperse in the air: I usually smoke whilst preoccupied with another activity so this was the first time that I was smoking for the actual experience.
The chill clung burr-like to my skin: I looked around the station, noting that it was deserted and asleep. A lone Pakistani couple sat upon a bench few hundred meters away from me. I found it odd as to how I immediately perceived them as a couple for they sat on the opposite ends of the bench, like bookends; however, it was evident that they were connected to one another though because language of marriage does not alter through translation. The wife looked down at her feet while the husband stared ahead of him. He would periodically glance at his wife as to ensure that she was still sitting there, much as you look upon a sleeping child. We all waited, the three of us, although I doubt that either any of us knew what exactly it was that we awaited.
I continued smoking my cigarette, observing the couple although they seemed unaware of me standing nearby. The husband shifted closer to his wife, choosing to whisper although the platform was empty: pieces of Urdu and English nevertheless echoed in the air, echoes becoming ghosts parodying the living world below. I did not want to advertise my presence to the couple now, feeling uneasy at them imagining me deciphering their marriage: I shifted backwards, hiding myself inside a triangle of a shadow. The couple had abandoned conversation and resumed staring at the floor and the darkness. The husband turned to his wife after ten minutes, taking her hand; the wife did not look at him but continued staring at the floor. He held the hand and raised it to his lips before returning it back to her. The wife’s face appeared to tremble although I attributed that to my imagination. I turned my face away, burdened once again with illegitimate knowledge; similar to the one I had gained after leaving Sandhya at the restaurant.
The cold in the air was turning into fury but I could not feel it: sensation is an incidental aspect of my life, I fear. I once more leaned against the wall, my head secure in its fat of knowledge and history and story: my thoughts ran and melded into one another like colors in a water-color painting.
The wall reminded me of ancient thousand-year old trees, twisted and gnarled and bruised but still being able to sprout fine down of yellow feathery flowers every spring. The sun had burnt itself upon their bark and wind sculpted their tombstone around their roots yet they had still persisted to exist for a millennia. Was that the definition of immortality? These walls were possibly more vulnerable to destruction: an architect, old enough to be my child, would arrive at the station decades later, deride its interior and proceed to okay its destruction. He would not mourn as the bricks of the walls collapsed, along with the history and bones within it. I recall my parents showing me a Hindi film as a child in which a Mughal emperor entombed alive a courtesan who had dared to fall in love with his heir. She had remained immobile, her beauty intact and frozen as bricks systematically blotted her face. Why was her indifference the only aspect that I clearly remembered about the film? A scene from my own life superimposed itself on the courtesan’s face: Cheryl standing, her hands upon her hips, the pain contorting her features, after that ill-fated dinner. How could you possibly just stand there and simply not say anything? Why did you do that, Mahesh? In a few years, I would get married to Cheryl – in court, a temple, a church, it did not matter. We would be known as the couple: Cheryl would occasionally wear saris, our children would waddle amid the sea and land of our differences, unsure whether to swim or to walk. The color of their skin would depend on the intensity of the sunlight and when they would look at themselves in the mirror, wondering who they were, I would not know what to say to them. Yes, I had thought about everything, perhaps, even Cheryl had also thought about it: yet there was no turning back because what is done is done.
I paced back and forth, thinking, forgetting the reason I had come here. A train swept past me before gradually slowing down, the gathering wind so brusque that it felt as if it were skinning my face. The couple stood up, each picking up a bag, entered the train and sat down in the compartment, appearing as if they were two people who had just met at the platform and decided to travel with one another. I continued pacing back and forth, neither unable to stop thinking nor able to start rationalizing. It took me a while before I registered the figure standing in front of me: she is a tired beauty, I thought, the first words that flew in my mind before consciousness jumped in and named her Sandhya.
“Nice place,” she remarked as we walked inside the living room. I stuffed my hands into my jean pockets, dispassionately examining the place. I had tidied it up before I left but I no longer cared about its appearance. I found that I no longer even cared about Sandhya’s fate either; in fact, I was almost tempted to pick up the phone and dial Sunil’s number before remembering the promise I had made to Sandhya. I had already reneged on one promise, I could not renege anymore: Sandhya would decide when she would make that call. I watched her examine the front window where the tree branches had turned towards the house, the branches appearing to seek refuge from the cold. At the railway station, she had looked faded and insubstantial; the overhead light here made her look more robust. “You must get so much light during the day,” she said, sitting down on the couch.
“I wouldn’t know,” I told her. “I am not here most of the day.” I lifted her coat off the back of the couch and hung it upon the coat rack. I noticed it was the same gray coat she had worn on the day she disappeared. “Would you like a hot drink? Tea or coffee?”
“Tea, please,” Sandhya said, taking off her boots and starting to massage her feet. “I haven’t had a decent cup of tea for ages.” She was still massaging them when I returned with the mug of tea. She enquiringly glanced at my mug-free hand as I set her mug down on the coffee table. “What about you?” I took the cigarette packet out of my jacket pocket in response and lit a cigarette. I was beginning to feel ill with the acrid taste of nicotine but it gave my hands something to do. I could never have been a successful actor, I suppose: I feel so uneasy if my hands are idle. They would have been permanently hidden in my pockets.
“I thought you had given up,” she said, slowly sipping the tea: the steam rose in the air, a diver reaching to break the surface of the water. “What would I know though?”
“I only smoke when I have to wait: I started this packet at the station. See, it’s almost finished.” I jabbed at the packet. “You?”
“No thanks. I never have and this is probably not a good time to start,” she replied and then lifted the mug. “Your tea-making skill is excellent as ever. Cheryl must appreciate that.” I was unsurprised that she had brought Cheryl into the conversation: I had seen her glancing at Chery’s framed photograph sitting on the bureau, as soon as she had entered the room. Cheryl had presented this photograph of her at her twenty-third birthday to me on our first anniversary: she smiled so hard that her eyes were winged crescents, threatening to fly off the image. I had looked at Cheryl in that photograph so often that Cheryl no longer seemed the Cheryl I knew. “Incidentally, where is she?”
“At her flat, where else? We don’t live together,” I replied, more sharply than I had intended. “And Cheryl prefers green tea.” This was the time to ask: why? Cheryl asks why all the time: Why didn’t you pick up the phone? Why didn’t you let me know about the party? Why didn’t you say anything? Why don’t you ask me anything? “At times, you seem so indifferent – and selfish,” she had finally admitted to me once, more hurt than offended. “Which I know you are not – but that’s how you appear.” My antipathy towards curiosity meant that I no longer knew how to ask questions: a legacy inherited from my parents, whose immigrant experiences had taught them to ignore curiosity, believing that gaining certain knowledge inevitably led to entering situations that could precipitate unnecessary conflict and therefore, pain. It was easier to look away, I suppose, rather than gaining painfully superfluous knowledge that threatened to become infectious. Ignorance was sanitized bliss: why would anyone unnecessarily leave its confines? I could have chosen to disinherit this legacy in the belief that it did not hold the same importance for me as it did for them; however, I willingly chose to vaccinate myself against curiosity for reasons of personal convenience, inoculating antibodies into refusing to surrender to answers beyond questions. However, I could now longer look away from Sandhya, as I had earlier done, no matter how much I resisted: I would have to confront curiosity, viewing it as the instrument of cure, rather than the disease itself.
“Why did you do it, Sandhya?”
Sandhya seemed to have been expecting this question. She placed her mug on the table and smoothed her skirt. “I don’t know,” she answered.
“You must know. You cannot disappear like that - because you don’t know.”
“What if I didn’t know?” she asked quietly. “What then?”
“There must have been something,” I said. “You aren’t happy with Sunil? You don’t have a job? That basement of an flat?”
Sandhya looked at me as if she were attempting to lip-read my thoughts: it was as if she was doing that to ensure that I had actually articulated those words that she had thought she had heard. I did not blame her: I had never been so brutal with her – or anyone else- before.
“You did not ask me why when we spoke on the phone,” she said slowly.
“It was not the right time then: it is – now. I think you will agree that I deserve an answer.”
“Deserve an answer in reward of having rescued me? What do you want to know then?” she asked, sounding strident for the first time. “Do you want me to reduce it to a grocery-list of reasons that you can tick off? I was unhappy with my marriage, my flat, myself – I felt that I did and could not exist – and so I needed to disappear? Would it satisfy you then?”
“I come a little late into the picture, Sandhya,” I said quietly. “I am just thinking about Sunil. Did you not even consider once about how he would feel?”
“I did, god, I did,” she whispered.
“I don’t think you did - because it seems you were only thinking about yourself. It was like you jumped off a cliff, uncaring whether it led you to death or immortality – or nothingness – but you were only concerned about jumping, that’s all.”
“Perhaps I was too concerned about self-preservation to be concerned about others,” Sandhya said forcefully.
“Do you realize how selfish you sound, Sandhya? Have you forgotten that we live in a world full of people - not a bloody vacuum?” I found that I had balled my hands into fists: Sandhya was examining me once again as if introduced to me for the first time and was attempting to distil my personality from those few, impersonal minutes. I felt that I was also replicating this same gesture with myself for I did not recognize this avatar of mine either. You remain ignorant of the many who reside in you until a time comes when they are forced to assert their tenancy. I thought of all those epithets that had dressed me throughout my life: charming, easy-going, mediator. I had believed myself to be indifferent to them although I was now beginning to realize that they offended me just as my refusal to ask questions had hurt Cheryl. I tried to think my words aloud: “Sandhya. I understand that there comes a point in life when you think that you cannot go any more – when ending your existence seems the sole as well as the easiest solution. We all have had such moments, yes, even me, in some form or the other. The actual solution is to evict such thoughts from your mind, no matter how insuperable it seems. I would never have believed that you would have chosen to evict yourself from life instead, Sandhya: why didn’t you ever talk about – this – to anyone? Why didn’t you talk about it with me that day? I would have understood.”
“Would you have?” Sandhya asked.
“You could have tried, at least.”
“OK. Let me try to explain – now. You know, just before – well, I jumped off the cliff, as you charmingly put it, I was reading this book by Kafka. Have you ever read Kafka?”
“You know that I have never been much of a reader, Sandhya.”
“I never considered myself to be much of a reader either until I moved into that flat and became so bored. I started visiting the library, choosing whichever book whose titles intrigued me. This was how I picked up Kafka book, The Blue Octavo Notebook. It was Kakfa’s diary, full of fragments and aphorisms – but its first line indelibly remained with me. Every person carries a room about inside him.”
“So?” I asked.
“This one line crystallised the entire situation for me, Mahesh: I could finally put in words as to what I had been experiencing within me for months. I began to visualize and sense this room within me: the space within the room was becoming increasingly cramped although the room had not gotten any smaller. I found myself fighting with another presence in order to claim that space: this presence began to assume shape, becoming increasingly solid as time passed. I eventually realized that this presence was in fact another Sandhya, a more beautiful, louche, effete yet effective Sandhya, whom I had created and was carrying around, which was now pushing me out of the room into this abyss. There was no more room for me to exist, any more.
“I felt too exhausted to fight any more after some time: I decided that the other Sandhya should live in that room, possessing the right to adorn and make it her own. Make Sunil her own. I knew it would happen one day: I would come into the flat, open the door and see her sitting there – and she would tell me, Why have you come back? We don’t need you. Have you forgotten you don’t exist any more? This is why I decided to jump off the cliff into that abyss: I had been living life on the edge for so long that it was tantamount to jumping.” She paused. “If you could look at your face, Mahesh. Would you have understood me as you claimed to do so?”
“You should have told me all of this that day,” I found myself repeating again. Sandhya had either not listened or deliberately chose to ignore my words. “After I hung up on you, I lay on my bed for hours, wondering whether I should return or not. After a while, I found myself repeating aloud whatever you had told me to do – and doing it! I wiped my face, I packed my bag, and I ordered a cab. When I was in the train, I kept on hearing what you had said, “I will be waiting to see you – and you will be waiting to see me.” I still didn’t believe that you would actually be at the station until I saw you, Mahesh: your words and your presence ratified the existence of that old Sandhya, far beyond the confines of that room. But I was euphoric too soon. I had been prepared to tell you what I have just told you when you asked me why I had done whatever I had done – before realizing you were asking that old Sandhya to return existing within that room again, compressing her existence until she would be inevitably forced to relinquish her room to that other Sandhya once again.”
She sighed and leaned back against the couch: the explanation appeared to have exhausted those resources that had propelled her into returning. I tried to say something several times but I could find no effective glue with which to bind those disparate words I sought to assuage her. “Have you ever tried explaining all of this to Sunil?” I finally asked.
“No. I did think of leaving a note but I don’t think he would have understood.”
“How do you know?”
“I know – just as I should have known that you would not have understood me either.”
The cushion besides me stirred: I remembered silencing my mobile and burying it beneath the cushion, not wishing to be disturbed. I checked the phone: it was Cheryl, as expected. She did not know about Sandhya’s call or that I had asked her to come down to Nottingham. I switched the phone off and placed it on the table, knowing that the landline would ring immediately afterwards. It did and we heard it ring itself to silence.
I tried to speak: “If only you had told me what you had felt that day when we had lunch – if only you had told me something-” My words sounded even more meaningless from repetition. Sandhya wrapped her arms around herself: her eyes were dull and opaque like disused marbles. I thought to ask her if I should turn up the heating, if I should fetch a blanket – but I felt that I could no longer perform those preliminaries that had once so easily come to me. We sat there in silence, hearing the wall clock’s relentless disapproval shear time away. After a while, Sandhya covered her face and bent down as if to sneeze but began crying instead. I remained sitting on the couch, hearing her sobs gradually peter away until we could hear the faint sounds of birds singing. I was unsurprised that they were singing at this time of the day, the urban sunlit world having wound their biological clocks counter clockwise. I stood up, patted Sandhya’s shoulder and asked her if she would like to sleep in the spare room; she shook her head and patted the seat next to her. I turned off the lights, locked the front door and started up the stairs; it occurred to me to apologise only when I reached the top of the stairs. I started walking down but stopped mid-way: I could not apologise.
I did not sleep well that night and awakened long before the alarm shredded my consciousness. I drew the curtains and stared out at the pale corpse-skinned dawn: it seemed unlikely the sun would shine today. I went downstairs, inwardly preparing myself to confront an empty, abandoned living room. But - Sandhya was asleep on the couch, having fetched her coat and draped it over herself. The odor of nicotine still persisted in the room as if it were lost and did not know where else to go. I tried to open a window as silently as possible in order to allow fresh air to possess the room.
Sandhya opened her eyes a few minutes after I entered the room; she looked around, neatly hauled herself upright, and flung the coat away.
“You should have slept in the spare room,” I said awkwardly, pressing the couch. “This stuff must be made of rock.”
“Don’t worry. I have slept on rock before,” she remarked, her eyes pinioned above my head: I swiveled around to see tangerine sunlight slowly smudging the wallpaper. “I wonder what it would be like to wake up to tangerine walls every morning. It must be like being inside a dream or – a film, perhaps. Well, I was right: you do get plenty of sun over here – how wonderful it must to be drink your first morning coffee amid such light.”
“I am actually rarely up at this time of the day,” I said. “I have flexible job-hours so I can pretty much wake up and sleep whenever I please.”
“You must be glad about that,” she said. “You were never a morning person.”
We then both began focusing on different objects although I felt that we were still looking at each other instead. Sandhya stared at the filigree of sunlight on the downy, budded tree branches while I hefted Cheryl’s photograph into my hand, noticing the sunlight turning golden grain the dust that spread across the glass: the eyes still remained sharply distinct in spite of the dust. I have always preferred large eyes but Cheryl’s eyes are her own. A silly thought: everyone’s eyes are their own just as everyone is their own, for that matter. I returned the frame to its position on the bureau, thinking to ask Cheryl for a more recent photograph: I had lived with this one far too long.
“I am sorry about last night,” Sandhya said. “I have forgotten what it is like to think before speaking.”
“Same can be said of me,” I said, gallant, easy as once before.
“You were right in saying that I should have spoken about everything that day. Thoughts in mind can only become truths when they have been opened and exposed to the air. Last night, I thought about as to why I had accused you of not understanding: it occurred to me that I should have been castigating Sunil, rather than you. I had expected Sunil to magic me up, cutting away the other Sandhya as if she were no more than a blemish on a fruit. In the end, it was ultimately you who extended your hand and pulled me out of this abyss.” Her fingers drew eddies around her face in long, soothing strokes. “Even the night seems bright when you emerge from an abyss – yet how quickly you yearn for the blinding gold of sunlight. I suppose, you become greedy about living life after having almost extinguished it. You must forgive whatever I said yesterday as that greed, Mahesh – although I understand there is only so much that can be forgivable.”
Had I ever thought about rooms that we carry about within ourselves, particularly those rooms whose existence we deny by shutting and locking their doors? I saw my mother’s face as she watched my brother and sister-in-law walk the seven sacred steps around the fire: there was almost a death-like calm on her face when she had looked at Cheryl and I, watching the proceedings as well, arms discreetly around our waists. You don’t care about anything, do you, Cheryl had yelled at me, when we had returned from my parents’ house, standing outside her flat, people walking around us in their hurry to catch the last bus home, Not even me. I was standing at the railway station again, smoking, shadow-spying the couple translate themselves to one another, thinking of my children, asking the sunlight one day to interpret the color of their skin.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “What will you do now?”
“The morning will come no matter how endlessly dark the night has been,” she said. “I will return, tell I have awakened, and hope to be understood, perhaps even be forgiven.”
“And what about – the other Sandhya?” I asked, feeling timorous and brave.
“I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “She is still there, I suppose – I am also still there as well. Perhaps, we are doomed to share that room. But I can only find out by living life, right?” She slid her feet into her boots and zipped them up before buttoning herself into her coat. She stood up, pressing the handbag against her as if it were an errant child. “I should leave now, Mahesh, I have already taken up too much of your time.”
“Sunil…?” I murmured.
“I talked to him last night,” she said, her hand upon the doorknob. “He knows I am coming now.”
Sandhya opened the door and we were drenched in sunlight so heady and sweet that it felt like it was raining golden rain. She curled her fingers around mine before walking down the pathway: I knew that she would not turn back. I closed the door behind me, also knowing I would not open it again to see if she had disappeared from the horizon.