In speaking of those days I do not wish to say that they were unhappy. They weren’t. But they weren’t happy either. In fact those were our dog-days. Days that we have barked ourselves by.
But me, I’m content with a river. Give me my river, I say, and you can keep your salt and your lover. I choose a life of austerity if I have to, for the sake of my river.
It runs, as I see it, undulating down the valley. Its curves are soft. Like a woman’s I would say, except that the women I have met in my life have been harder than I would like this river to be. It undulates softly, as in children’s pictures. The crude outline of a house, a single door, a single window, brown in the middle of a meadow, the sun rising in the background from among the hills (the mountains?). The children always have the sun rising. Even I used to, though I can’t any more understand how. Now I picture the house, in three dimensions, in the noon, in the heat, in the sun. In the edgy despair of twilight. I stifle my sneezes in it through the night when I can’t stand its particular dust any more. I see it falling with the falling darkness, weeping in the raining sun. Quiet. Unobtrusive. Seeking to blend with the soul of the river. Begging for admission. Wretchedly dignified. Watching a life go by in the shape of a river. I would like to live in such a house by such a river. I’d have liked to be such a person.
This road we live on experiences concussions from time to time. A bleeding at the gums that is swallowed as it comes. Traffic clogs up like muck in drains and requires certain measures. Then we hear shrill whistles of traffic policemen trying to make sense of an abundance of cars. It would make the heart swell, this spectacle of prodigious productivity in a narrow city street, this amazing witness to a marvellous yield of cars, an overflowing harvest swaying to the wind, reaped of the best fertilizers, an insane sentiment of pride in I-know-not-what. We can do this, you know. This, too, is possible. And so one wonders.
To the left of us is a chemist’s shop. Our ready life-saver. Our daily aspirin. To the right of us a shop for cigarette and paan. I don’t know what to call this. The small pleasures of our life? Our chronic kill? We rarely make use of either. Right below us lies land that stocks cassettes and now CDs. Revolution happens beneath us while we sit on our pots. I meditate while new products flood the market. We hold our hearts.
Our hearts are jumpy, a little insecure, slightly timorous. We are happy to sit still. The noise of the street fills our day without any of us having to do much. It’s in the house, you feel it as you move, this helpful noise, you can touch its sides and stand leaning on it if you’re tired. It is always there. It never runs away. It never plays truant. Nothing can put it out. A droneful melody. I wonder if it can be asked someday to pipe it up a bit, or tune down a little, to change its rhythm a bit. To shake things up, maybe. To change the texture of my mouth. Through my whole body I feel the kind of revulsion you have for your own sense of taste when sick.
We live above a sprawling commercial street. Shops lie on either side of it as if waiting to spring. Shoppers dance a dazzling dance as they move from store to store, down the street, with purpose, acceleration, intensity. Parking is a perennial problem. That’s why the horns honk so well. We’ve grown more or less used to it. Other people’s problems, other people’s solutions. We are merely witnesses who happen to be on the spot. Maybe this is what we were brought here to see. Maybe… At least we can claim the credit of trying to shut ourselves off from it. We keep to our rooms, avoid windows, don’t pay our telephone bills. We survive.
The CD-cassette-player-man pays the rent on time. It is grossly disproportionate to the amount of profits he makes on the shop. It is the rent he used to pay twenty years ago. We somehow couldn’t ask for more. We know what he gives is enough for us. We don’t have to work. We earn our keep by sitting on a piece of prime property. What more could we ask for?
As I look out from a window in my wooden house I see the sun set on the river. A desire for a heartstopping peace fills me. I’m not sure though why I should want my heart to stop. To be still. Not crouching, just still. Insect sounds charge the air as night begins to fill its vessel. From this house where I stand I can see a blue range of mountains (hills?) just beyond that line of trees. That is where the river is coming from. The air is suddenly cold and I can feel the shiver in the river. As human as the rest of us, or more so, the river runs the gamut of emotions. And not just emotions, ideas as well. It is not enough to say that the river is angry today or that it is sad. Those are simplicities best left to… I don’t know to whom. The angry river is many things – I cannot begin to plumb the depths of its intensities. I feel anger, sadness, terror, despair, love, all at the same time. I look at the river and I can see all this drip from its veins. Since pollution is really yet to come to it, you can see right through the river. It doesn’t even have a nudity to call its own.
As a child I never used to wonder much. I took my world as I found it, sort of met it with a straight face. The eyes always a little anxious, the heart always a little contracted. I wonder about that now. This is also how I have lived. Look here, this also can be done. Why, though?
Our straightfacedness has more or less stayed with us. I guess we never found new skins to grow into. We bit into our little chocolate-chips, took our mandatory car-rides, we wandered around a damned while, separate, alone, practically dead. And then we came back to live our dog-years here. By a sort of mutual consent.
When we returned the market had come to be what it is now. But that is not how we’d left our street. I remember it wide, sparse, clean, colonial. Almost like a hospital-ward solely dedicated to chemist’s shops. A different feel to it. Our children’s eyes used to stare out of the dark room and bright window at those restrained shops looking politely back at us. Clothes, bags, shoes. As we grew up we had wanted something else for ourselves and had tentatively tried. Not being really braced to it though, we gave up rather too easily and quickly. I wonder if it should be a matter of regret to us now that we did. Somehow it inspires no feeling at all. Right step, wrong step, wrong step, right step – kids’ games that we’ve never learned to play in all our lives. Chappy lips. Sloppied leaves. Recalcitrant lives.
On coming back we found the dark rooms to be the same as ever, but the bright windows to have acquired new colours. Restraint seemed to have vanished with the drains. The monsoons managed to fill the street up now. It was a strange incomprehensible sort of plenitude. The same rack contained double the amount of things these days. What we hadn’t wanted was no more there to not be wanted. Instead, a new face that we had again to work out our relationship with. To like or not to like. To want or not to want. Just the incredible thought of having to begin over again scared us to death. We never even tried.
We kept back. Stayed at obtuse angles with the light. Fitted into a shady network configuration. Quietly reset our coordinates. Refigured our sights. A lapse that was easy and spontaneous. Perhaps like a house running to weed. Oh excuse me, I have to water my house now, I must not forget. My house in a pot in the backyard.
Who decides which is the front of a house? The entrance? What if you practically never use it? What if you stay by a certain window, in a certain position, and do nothing but watch a river flow down? What if you feel alive in a house only thinking of it a certain way? Back and front. Front and back. And back they ran from front to back. I stayed and got the sack. Tring-tring. An electric buzzing in the ears. A kwlpgnoqpjzm.
The entrance to my house is the not the important thing about it. That it faces the river is. The entrance door must be here somewhere if you care to look for it. The window, though, is unmistakable. It draws you toward itself. Not like a magnet, but like the singing of a bird. You need to be in its vicinity. From the window the river can be heard quite clearly. There is a hint of embankment between the two but it does not hinder the view at all. It rather reassures me that my house will not at least fall into the river and be swept away. For if it did, imagine for a moment that it did, then the window would fall face down and sink head-foremost. And then there would be nothing left to look at, just the river-bed right next to the window. A wall against a wall. Reinforced whatever. Then that would truly be the end of the house, the back-end if you like, and I could not bear to contemplate the front.
We did our baying at periodic intervals. That seemed the only way to go about it. We took our dog-biscuits regular-sized. Zero-fuss, little extravagance, small abashment. A steady line. Not moving here nor there, not looking around; keeping studiously to the prescribed lane. A law-abiding policeman-citizen.
We stayed in our separate rooms, naturally avoiding each other. We felt each other through the walls and that seemed enough. To not be alone was all we could desire. I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone in that house. Never. Not since so long ago. I knew I wouldn’t survive it. I should have broken the barrier and crossed over in that case. I mean I would probably have walked out the window. I should not have cared to look – whither I was headed. And I would have taken direction. Fatal, fatal.
To row a boat on a metalled road.
Our bathrooms are important to us. There are two of them (with an attached toilet each) and more than two of us. We have to, we must, play musical pots. We offload to a time. The rewiping clean of ourselves is quick, efficient, and unobtrusive. We’re a well-oiled machine. We work.
We work around each other. Avoiding all possible confrontations, we get through our days. This is somehow all we have left living for – not to get entangled any more. We wish to droop our eyes, hang our heads, drop to our knees, in peace. Our tongues must quietly run dry in the summer heat. Though we have nothing more to do with it we do not take steps to bar the sun. It streams in with the shop-products. Curtains would be superficial, black paper ridiculous. We practise further retreat. Make more corners out of corners. Mice have deserted us.
Our breaths keep running into each other. It isn’t something we can avoid, so we’ve taken it up as distraction. Or rather, a thread of continuity. We make love to each other, give incest a bad name. We do it dully, like an invariable habit. We break down, then up again. We have intervals of despair. We always outlive them. We shine our shoes in several kinds of darknesses. And in the middle of the night we hear the sound of a stray car go by. We reawake to familiar sounds.
Shouts of take it, grab it and bargain sale drum our ears. We drink them in like breaths, wear them like scales on our skins. We lie inert. Grow old to the beat. Sigh without wind. Dream without a heart.
I’ve grown old in this house by the river. It’s been my life-work, my romance, my adventure, my mystery, my devotion, my everything. The river makes the house glow and a gentle warmth tantalizes me with its tentacles. Tentacular bien-etre. I speculate on the nature of the river, from here, where I can watch it go by, flow past, descend, endlessly replace itself. It swirls and curves into the pit of my stomach, here, where there is space (haven’t eaten yet, today). Eddies rumble to the depth and make gas and sound. I bubble to the wonder.
Does it have a soul this river or am I just kidding myself? Am I imagining things? Has senility already hit me where it hurts most? Has this house induced fear, paranoia, anxiety, depression, this house where I’ve been too long, this hovel where I’ve been happy? Has it grown mouldy like biscuit, the wood hollow from termite, the air musty from re-use? The planes and angles on which it is based about to collapse into each other? Has geometry already given up on it then? Is this the end, of the dream and the story? The river’s still gurgling.
Yesterday I saw a boat on the river. The first one I’ve seen in all this time. Somehow I never imagined that fish existed in these waters. Apparently they do. There’s the man and his net, floating downstream. Soon they will move out of sight. And how I would wish a boat still existed in the picture! Maybe I could even live on it. Or maybe, next monsoons, the river will simply flood the house and carry it along with it to wherever it’s going. Maybe at an apposite and sufficiently heartbreaking place, I could drop anchor and stay, forever nestling and rocking in the water. In the picture, not out of it.
Suddenly a gust of breath tinged with water smell hits me in my room. It’s sombre. I don’t look around to see who it is, it know it’s my comrades. Others, in other rooms, breathing, living, surviving. My comrades-in-arms. What a way to think of them! Their embattlement is all I’m sure of, it is all we have of each other to hang on to. But do they look out at the same things as me? Or do they have other windows to care for and nurture?
How do they do, these housemates of mine, in their in-between moments of tired rest, weary relaxation? At what rhythm do their hearts beat? What do they look out on, from their individual little corners – the people of the faraway eyes? Do all of us share a house somewhere else, by the river, by a hill, by the sea? Do we mingle and stretch in that house? Do we have anywhere to abandon retreat? And what do they really think of, these brick-bound cohabitants of mine, my comrades, whom I occasionally love, when they look out like that, staring through the stone walls?…