Bunches of yellow blossoms hang overhead like delicate chandeliers. I can almost hear the clinking of the crystals as they sway to the tunes of the gentle summer breeze. But death lurks in the shadows that dance on the parched earth below.
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying . . .
. . . Robert Herrick whispers his prophetic verse into my ears. Yes, the blossoms would be history in the days to come. The delicate petals will detach themselves from the stalk and float down in a spiral. The koel, whose melody reverberates in my ears today, will sing a dirge then. But I, oblivious, would trample the fallen petals under my heel even as I tried to imitate his enviable call. I seek him amongst the leaves of the jamun tree – in vain. He is an expert in covert operations, it seems.
A dog lies flat in a far corner. He’s not dead; but could well be. Summer is slowly building up the heat and I wonder what she’ll put up for the final show. Last year, the heat had held hundreds in her passionate embrace, unmindful that they’d drop dead the moment he loosened his grip. Even as I get comfortable on the concrete bench as one gets comfortable in a theatre seat before the beginning of a long play, the sun -a stubborn child- continues to hurl down searing darts, refusing to acknowledge the evening that has stepped out from behind the wings.
Scene 1: A middle-aged couple plays badminton, barefoot, on the dried grass. Just for fun. It doesn’t take long for the fun to turn competitive though. The shuttlecock is each one’s own inner monster. Each tries to push it away, far away, but it boomerangs just the same. The chalice formed by its neatly threaded feathers does well at shrouding the angst that fills it, much like the book I hold in my hands. Ulysses. I decide to christen the shuttlecock ‘Fidelity’.
Even as the duo play out their lives on the emaciated stage, I imagine playing the game with myself. I stand at both ends of the court, racquet in hand, and smash the monster towards my other self, who smashes it back to me with greater fervour. As I play on like a maniac, determined to thwart my opponent, a part of me knows that there will be no winner in this game. In a clash of egos, victory belongs to the devil.
The husband goes for a big shot. The wife misses. Fidelity lands on the cracked earth next to my feet, without announcement. But I can sense its ghostly presence without lifting my eyes off the words sashaying along the pages of my book. I stoop down from the bench, pick it up and examine it. Tattered with scars that run deeper than the Devil’s gaze. I smirk. Why am I not surprised? As I make a move to return it to the couple, the husband dismisses it with a wave of his hand. “No, no . . . we’re good,” he chirps as they move into a new game with a brand new shuttlecock.
I toss wasted Fidelity away and coax my eyes back to the book – a book that is at once my solace and my nemesis. But the gradually rising pitch of a toddler’s cackles heralds an interruption.
Scene 2: There he is! The little boy totters to the middle and takes centre-stage with his cricket bat and ball. He sways his bat back and forth, a swashbuckling sportsman. He places the ball on the ground with great ceremony and swings his bat, but all he manages to whip is the air. He tries again, with a stronger swing. The bat slips off his tiny palms, flies through the air and lands next to the dog who, after an initial startled whimper goes back to his near comatose state. The mother tiptoes to the bat, picks it up with caution and hands it back to her son.
After a hurried sip from his bottle, the tot is back at the ball with renewed vigour. Many more unsuccessful attempts later, he finally connects the bat to the ball. The blue orb rolls slowly at first, picking up speed as the mother’s claps fill the air. It spins to a halt next to my feet. I pick it up intending to throw it back to the toddler but a young man making his way around the jogging track for the umpteenth time has caught my attention.
The sweat has dampened his shirt, but not his spirit. A chuckle tries to nudge its way through my parted lips but what escapes instead is a sigh. By now, the little boy is at my side, eyes glowering. I look at the ball in my hands. It feels much lighter than Fidelity did. It feels like a bubble, in fact; it might burst if I hold it longer. I fumble as I hand him the ball. I feel like a thief. Did I just steal a bit of his happiness?
Scene 3: As the toddler runs back to his mother, my eyes seek out the jogger once again. I try to time my reading with the laps he runs around the park -one lap should equal two pages, I decide. But whilst he completes several laps, I haven’t reached halfway down the page that has been dog-eared and un-dog-eared so many times that it is no longer a page but a dog’s ear.
My eyes are glued to his strapping frame, except for when he turns the curve behind me. Too self-conscious to turn around to continue staring at him, I wait until the corner of my eye catches a glimpse of his silhouette again. A man looks good when he’s jogging. That doesn’t mean he’s a good man. I chide myself for being a sceptic; but in my heart, I know I can never again surrender to that charlatan called trust. But then, what is love without betrayal?
Scene 4: After a while, the jogger steps into the lawn and starts to skip on his rope. My interest in him peters out as I wander down the pages that draw me into the heart of a Dublin brothel where mortality is being parodied in the same breath as morality. But just as I begin to contemplate the meaning of that extra ‘T’, I’m dragged back to the here and now by a voice that could well have risen from the grave of disparaging memories.
“K! To see you here!” Mr. Lingam’s voice pierces the stillness around me. I wince. Mr. Lingam dusts the bench with his bare hands and wipes his palms on his trousers before plonking himself next to me. He sits too close for comfort, sending me shuffling farther to the edge of the bench.
“How are you K? How’re you holding up? What Chari did to you is unpardonable! My son’s best friend, and such unacceptable behaviour? I’ve told him to stay away from Chari. It doesn’t take much for one rotten fruit to corrupt the others, you see.” Even as his mouth spouts sage rubbish, his eyes wander all over me.
I want to laugh at his face, maybe even spit at it. ‘Of course, Mr. Lingam, you must know much about rotten fruits . . .’ The caustic remark itches to slip off my tongue, but my rational half intervenes. Grudgingly, I purse my lips. Mr. Lingam interprets my silence differently. He lurches ahead in an attempt to hold my hands, but I pull away just in time. The Ulysses slips off my lap and falls to the ground with a soft thud.
“What’s this book about ma?” he asks, picking it up before I can, surprising me with his reflexes.
“Uh. . . just the same old . . . infidelity, dysfunctional relationships and such,” I reply.
“What ma . . . these aren’t the kind of books you should be reading. Not after all that has happened to you,” Mr. Lingam says, his head shaking animatedly like a Thanjavur doll. He rises from the bench and walks around to the back. Before I can gauge his intentions, he gives my shoulders a tight squeeze and runs his palm down the back of my neck.
Anger rolls up my belly. I grab his wrist and give it a violent twist, holding on until the stubby fingers turn pale. Mr. Lingam backs off, blood draining off his plump cheeks. But the intensity of his stare multiplies through the lens of his glasses -like reflections multiplying in the mirrors of a trial room. I cannot fathom whether the look is of contempt, anger or shame but he helps me decipher it rather too soon. “Bitch,” he mutters before striding away, leaving his stare glued to the darkening canvas before me.
A shudder runs through my body. The earth pulls me towards her, wanting to hold me in her comforting embrace, but I refuse her pity. Life is a wretch, I decide, but it must go on. All eyes are on me as I sit trembling on the bench. ‘It didn’t take long for the actors to turn spectators’, I muse, trying to return to my book; but the light is getting dimmer.
The parrots, after a protracted spell of bickering perched on the telephone wire high above, have called truce and returned home. The koel, having packed his precious music box, has left just as stealthily as he arrived. Having bagged their racquets, the couple makes their way out holding each other at the waist, their hips swaying in harmony. The tot, his mother and the jogger– the other unwitting actors of my play- follow them in unhurried succession. The dog rises from its quasi grave and staggers towards me. He sniffs and pokes at Fidelity with his paw before turning away and disappearing into nothingness. As darkness ambles into every crevice it stumbles upon, there is only me left lingering on the bench.
As if on cue, a family of crickets starts its veneration of the Dark Lord, their nagging chirps piercing through the blanket of warm air that has settled upon us. A black cricket portends death. Are these black crickets I’m surrounded by? Or have they merely consumed the darkness of the night and become one with it, much like the blossoms overhead? Yes, the yellow blossoms that had earlier teased my senses are no longer yellow, but a deep black. Exhorted by the chants of the crickets, they have morphed into their own shadows and melded into the fabric of the sky.
My wandering gaze falls upon the moon. It has been sliced into a perfect half – the work of a master swordsman, I’m sure. I look for its fallen half around me, but it is nowhere to be found. Clearly, I’m looking in all the wrong places. I would have found it had I looked into the half-dried puddle left behind by the gardener’s leaking hose. Yes, I’d have found it there and in a thousand other thirsty puddles, trying to save themselves from obliteration.
I do not fret about the moon though. Lizard-like, he’ll grow back his amputated half. But can the same be said of my heart that has been sliced into a million pieces? Can the thread of darkness sew it back into place before the world awakens, so I could get along with my life of a thousand pretences? Can the ghost of Mr. Joyce convince me that I, an ordinary woman leading an ordinary life with an ordinary spouse who cheats on me with his ordinary mistress, can morph into this epic character that ambles and rambles across the fabric of a society (that sneers and jeers at its battle-weary citizens even as it masquerades as being laissez-faire) hoping that she wouldn’t be sentenced too harshly for questioning the legitimacy of love, the veracity of marriage?
No. The darkness will not adopt a wretch. Why should it? And why should Mr. Joyce do anything for anyone who’s not a tried and tested Dubliner? As a solitary tear snakes down my cheek, I clutch the Ulysses ever more tightly.
The darkness is not happy with my presence. Wishing me away, he urges the ring of trees to bend into a conspiring huddle. A wisp of wind enters the huddle and is mercilessly tossed from one hand to the other until it manages to writhe its way out. As it beats retreat, it kisses the blossoms overhead, coaxing a lone flower head to waft down onto my lap. As it beats retreat, it nudges Fidelity just enough to move it back to my feet, still silent.
Dismounting from my stool in that Dublin brothel, I embalm the blossom for posterity between the pages of my book and head homewards, lest the malicious darkness seeps into my soul. But it has already done the job it set out to do. A shadow waits for me outside the wicket gate.
It is the jogger. He stands there with his legs crossed, leaning against the side of his sedan. He wears a half smile and waves a hesitant hand towards me. He asks to see the book in my hands. Before long, we’re deep in conversation, dissecting relationships with the sharp point of our tongues. “Coffee?” he asks. I nod and take the seat by him in the car. He turns the key and is about to step on the pedal when I stop him.
“There’s one last thing I must do,” I say to him and step out of the car. I walk back to the bench, pick up Fidelity and drop it into the bin.
* * *