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  • Hridi


Twenty-one months later, Rai[1] arrives in Paris. It is spring and she is here on a pilgrimage of memory. It is not her first time in this city, she has visited it before through the eyes of another: a city bathed in the mellow yellow of an exceptional limestone, chestnut trees abloom beside the Seine, a river green as malachite, the white sleek pleasure boats and the chuffing barges passing under the grave arches of thirty-seven bridges, each distinct from the last, a differently shaped shadow rippling below, connecting over and again the opposites of what divides the city, a people who know the art of touch all too well. Yes, the sights, the smells, all familiar. The spring air smells of her beloved; an enormous peace descends upon her.

Ever since she stepped on the train from the suburbs where she has taken her rooms, she finds herself scanning every face in the metropolitan crowd, every face looking elsewhere, somewhere, lost outside the present of their almost mechanical movements, perhaps like her, seeking another face. Strangely, this feels like home, like the city she left behind many months ago, ostensibly to travel. For all it takes from its inhabitants, a great city gifts them an anonymity that is sacred to the human heart. Therein remains its primary seduction for diversity. Your face becomes a mask of itself. You live, unapologetic, learning to make room for yourself where none exists. Every great city has this air of elsewhere, she concludes. I can already see Rai could live here; it is reminiscent of where she grew up. Yet, today, more than ever before, she is homesick, for the soil, the faces, the lives she tore herself away from.

You wonder how I glance into her heart with such ease. Let me lead you to the answer.

She has your address, half-a name, a few photos. What does it matter? One cannot create what one did not destroy first. She is obeying the laws of physics you joked about nineteen months ago, the laws that would inevitably bring you nearer and nearer. Here she is, touching you almost, a ghost walking beside her, pointing out every other piece of beauty in this city which does not lack of them. You stood here once, your feet touched this pavement, oh god, you stood here!This is where you clicked the photograph you sent her saying, “Remember me.” But she isn’t speaking to you, not yet.

Insecure, naïve, scared, stuck she had been, but mostly scared…terrified… of losing you, the last thread of sanity in a world collapsing around her, screaming into her ears with a deathly consistency, inevitability. You had been her escape, god, how she had escaped… Looking back, she thinks… no, there is no looking back. I almost lost my mind when you left, she would like to say, but… almost, that word… I was living with monsters tearing each other apart. To you, I showed only what I hid from others, and hid from you all that offal the monsters would leave behind at the end of each meal. They knew how to devour a girl of nineteen. The result is her face, at twenty-one, that of an old woman.

But that is an advantage, especially in big cities.

when you left even the stones were buried:

the defenceless would have no weapons.[2]

Her poet knows she remembers every place you promised to show her. It is the city of forgotten promises. She has read every book you ever recommended, watched every movie you spoke of, revisited two languages for you, painted you, cursed you, pleaded with you, desired you, hated you, shattered the boundaries of her known world for you; for the rest of her life, she will celebrate the nineteenth of July as the birthday of her heart; and yet, you are only a ghost who she cannot talk to. But she will, now that she has reached your city. Tomorrow she will talk to you. Tonight, she will write for the first time in twenty-one months. Through the dim lights of the small window of the suburban apartment, you will see her typing away. She will write again.

The painting earlier this morning made her think of God. This is not unusual, merely the first impact of a Monet painting on one who has only seen photographs all her life. Remember the poems she would translate for you? She reads them sometimes now, searching for mistakes. Her innocence makes me laugh, her capacity for love is adorable. It is what she will write about.

Why did you introduce all those new words in her mind? That was a mistake. Didn’t you know words are a writer’s biggest fear? Well, you can see the result for yourself, aren’t you happy? That she forgot how to write, that she mixes up alphabets of three different scripts every time she picks up the pen, trying to find a language that will make you answer. But you tricksters play on…

This city is a mausoleum of your memory. This is the first line she writes. The rest of the night is spent weeping between fits of sleep. You watch on, right outside the window. I watch you watch.

It is still very dark when Rai finds herself irretrievably awake. A faint fragrance of some spring blossom is wafting in through the half-open window. It is light by the time she reaches the small station; the air is crisp as the ticket in her hand, the cold from the river making her button up her coat. Today she will walk beside the Seine.

Many have said that the soul of Paris flows in the green waters of the Seine. Obviously, those fools know nothing about souls. Souls do not flow away, they haunt.

The yellow aura of the buildings is enhanced in the pale morning light, the river dappled in the golden, the empty promenade inviting. Later in the day the tourists and hawkers will crowd this part of the city, but it is yet hers, all hers. A few joggers and some sleepless ones as her claim the early hours.

She starts walking from the tower towards Musée d’Orsay along the river. You walk behind her, slightly unsure. On this morning you realise this city entwined itself in her personal history long before you arrived. It wounds your pride, shakes your confidence in her fidelity. The artworks hanging in that building yonder have been the pursuit of her fascination for almost a decade now. You knew it, if fact, that is where you met, in a shared longing of elsewhere, of nostalgia for a world you were never a part of.

In senior school math, they taught that for an equation to have real solutions, one must apply constraints. But within the parentheses of those limits exist an infinity of choice. Remembrance is a choice. Her math tutor from school, the old man with the twinkling eyes, would insist mathematics is the purest form of poetry. How long has it been since she remembered him? What is the pollen in this air that brings back the past so lovingly?

The path Rai traces, to a viewer like me, appears most comical. But I’ve been around here long enough to know lunacy is the mother of imagination, it afflicts the seekers more often than you would think. Sometimes she walks beside the river, sometimes climb the stairs to cross a bridge that fancies her, then strolls again along the other bank, as if her wandering steps cannot have enough of the novelty of a river joined with such frequency, such care. In her culture, the poets have sung for centuries of the two banks of a river as lovers separated in togetherness, together in separation. This far from home, the metaphor revisits her.

My memory is again in the way of your history2. A city with a history of over two millennia, glorious in this spring, what does it care of your unrequited love, foolish girl? Yet she would repeat under her breath these lines from her favourite poet. He spoke of war, of a heritage blown to bits overnight, over years, preserved in the memory of its refugees; how interchangeable is it with the torn love she carries with such grace? Foolish as she is, I think I am getting quite fond of her stubbornness.

And you! I almost forgot your apparition there, caught in watching her too. What are you sulking about? Quick, she is walking towards the Pont des Arts. Wicked rogue, won’t you play her once on the love lock bridge of clichés? She is standing at the centre now, spread before her the split halves of tremendous urban life, speeding fast in the midday heat; on either side, decades of forgotten promises caught in iron, rusted, locked away. She bends to inspect the locks. Even as you rush ahead to play your game, you turn back and shout at me, “You are wrong, it is a cliché only if you win in love.” Through the strong breeze on the bridge, I try to make myself heard: “So much for your words, go close enough if you dare and she will speak to you.” I think you heard me. The plan works. On one of these locks, Rai discovers her own name, a single name, a word, perhaps echoed in rust from decades of a solitary namesake on the same bridge, but that staunch heart knows what it wants to believe. Who will save her? You are close enough to touch her now, and she senses you. When you have spied on people’s secret lives for as long as I have, you tend to expect melodrama. But Rai, travelled across twenty-one months of quiet longing, is not surprised. You have appeared before her on fretful nights, sweat-stained afternoons, rainy mornings, in songs, in tears, in sudden joy, in sunshine, in broken shadows of grief, in the citadel she has built for you, how can she not expect you? She is narrating a story now, the story of what her name, written on that lock, means.

It was the one of the first fables of love ever fabricated in her part of the world. Centuries old. The story of a woman who falls in love to the music of a cowboy she has never laid her eyes on. Their illicit love-making becomes the whisper of the land. With the passing years, the musician in the boy slowly succumbs to the warrior in the man, who eventually gets crowned in a country far away. Rai is left waiting; music is not so easily forgotten. Like all classics, this too is of unrequited love.

The lazy warmth of the afternoon has brought out many on the promenade. Sunning away, relaxing with beers, some sitting alone, some in picnics; in the little island of Île de la Cité, a band of young jazz enthusiasts blow into their trumpets; the flowers compliment the myriad soft colours on all dresses: the Seine is the frame of happiness. I watch the two of you stroll, a happy couple, woman and ghost, breathing in the Spring you promised her not so long ago. Grief is the kindest of opiates, it dissolves in its own fantasia. Tonight, with all the walking, she will need some wine. The cheap wine of this tired evening will put her to sleep. You do not have to sing lullabies, but pray, lie down beside her. Let her hold in her palm the ghost of your erect manhood, rest her head against the illusion of your chest. In you, she desires sleep so in her sleep she may desire you, consummate a mirage. Do not stay outside.

It is night yet when she leaves. “The Frog & British Library” glows in its ironic neon, the streetlights halo in the clear blue hour. The Pont de Tolbiac stoops groggily over the ultramarine blue of the water pregnant with shimmering reflections: the illumined buildings, the barges anchored at the edge, the symmetrical reflections from the arch of the next bridge, perhaps (she fancies), the last of the stars too. The beauty of this night stings her eyes with an almost physical pain. She is thinking of you, of what remains of what you were.

I’m everything you lost. You won’t forgive me.

My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.

There is nothing to forgive. You won’t forgive me.2

Her poet is speaking again. Yes, she is here to ask for your forgiveness. She has left everything behind, for nothing ahead, in this long, long solitary journey only to ask for your forgiveness. Forgiveness for naïveté, for insensitivity, for distance, for loving with more sincerity than a heart bears without protest. The little crystal she wears around her neck on a string, she believes it has a beauty she does not deserve, like you, who loved her more for the magnanimous reflection in your kindness than her own small artless self. Your absence fills the air above the deep blue Seine like a forgotten god of this city that is yours. The semi-circle of these lanterns shiver beneath her like a pantheon of answers. Hope costs nothing, you told her once, and that is how she dared. To cross an ocean for you. The boatmen of this world speak of riches on the opposite bank, her voyage was merely to free the emptiness of her claustrophobic heart, restless, restless, oh, ever so restless. Perhaps, and I speak only as the outsider who inhabits you both, you should forgive her now.

Years ago, on summer nights, her grandmother would tell her the story of the boy who dived into the bottomless pond in the middle of the desert to salvage the pink pearl. The next morning, the villagers found a banyan tree at the centre of the pond, its roots vanishing into the fathomless. Legend says every full moon night, the heart of the boy cries for the pearl, and in the morning, a new column is added to the mass of hanging roots, a stream of condensed tears feeding the pond. Thus grew the desert city of Ehsaan around an oasis of endless fertility.

The blue is beginning to fade, a turquoise haze envelopes the bridge, the barge, the lamps, her; from the horizon, a faint blush rises, spreading softly over the sky. It is still night, the crescent moon still in bloom, but the last scattered stars are evasive now.

If only somehow you could have been mine,

what would not have been possible in the world?2

Suddenly, the streetlights go off. In this instant, dawn has arrived. The sky transits less hastily. The city of her beloved is waking up. A bus awaits to take her where she came from, through fields of uniformly shaven colour- yellow, green, brown, waves of symmetry upon a calm earth. A piece of this calm resides in her now, the river has doused the fire scourging her insides. Something has healed.

She will return. I, the Seine, rushing past a million lives, over a hundred thousand springs heartbreakingly beautiful, have promised to save the pink pearl in my bosom until then.


[1] Another name of Radha, the beloved of the divine cowherd Krishna

[2] Excerpted from “Farewell” by Agha Shahid Ali(1949-2001)



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