Amina, my letter begins once more, in squinted block print.
I have written many letters by hand over the years, but I have never truly felt comfortable using cursive. I prefer the words to be spaced; it brings me a certain joy when the thin black lines of the ms and the ns stand parallel to each other, like hieroglyphs on crisp cotton paper. My hand hovers over the desk for a little while. I struggle to think of words befitting the occasion, befitting the person they address. I have struggled to think of a lot of things these days.
Sometimes, I wish I could -
There’s a knock on the door. A Friday morning, but my milkman doesn't know I am not working this weekend. I’ve paid the maid already, haven’t I? Another knock, this time a bit louder.
I grunt a bit. I uncross my legs. I get to my feet, and let a wave of dizziness wash over me. In my early forties, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel older than my age. The last three years have been long, and with each of them the distance between my desk and the front door has grown longer. It used to take me a sigh and a half to get there. Today it takes me two. Today, of all days.
I look through the keyhole.
Kailash, the gardener, stands sweating outside with a potted mogra in his hand, his lazy eye wandering as usual. I chuckle as I open the door. ‘You did not forget, old man.’ ‘No, sahib, I did not forget,’ Kailash replies as he hands over the pot carefully. ‘I pruned the bunches well this time, sahib. At dusk, they will bloom like stars. Memsahib will like them.’
Arabian jasmine, it was called. Scented white flowers which remained shy at day and opened up by nightfall. The flowers of a mistress, Amina would say, as she placed them in a water bowl in the living room. Sometimes there would be a twinkle in her eye, and she would let her lips play with the last word as she leaned in for a kiss, her lips softer than the flowers …
I wonder if she will still like them. I decide to give her the flowers along with the letters.
‘Thank you, Kailash, it looks beautiful.’ I fumble around in my pockets, and hand him a crumpled hundred-rupee note. The old man, already hunched from squatting at the flowerbeds all day, bows even lower before he leaves. There’s another man who cannot move on with the times, I tell myself. I leave the plant by the door and remind myself to give Kailash a raise.
Another wave of dizziness. I lean against the door, and let the world spin around me for a few seconds. On some days, I just want to lie down and not get up.
A mostly empty page flutters mockingly at me when I get back to my desk. You’re close, I tell myself. Just one last letter, to go with the other eleven that are enclosed in yellow envelopes stacked neatly by the side. If I can think of what I truly want to say, I could finish this in time for the evening. I grunt a bit, I cross my legs.
Sometimes, I wish I could sit down and effortlessly put into words what you truly mean to me - how much it matters that I hold your hand, or cradle your head as we fall asleep in each others’ arms in the armchair. I wish I could -
The armchair needed to be repaired, I remember all of a sudden. One of the legs had become wobbly and loose. Or was it the dining chair? I get up and decide to go fetch my kit.
It takes me a while to locate the flashlight. It is not in the toolkit. It is not in the bedroom. I find it on a window sill in the balcony, when I had used it to check the washing machine’s outlet pipe a week ago and forgotten to keep it back. I check for batteries and start inspecting the armchair. Crouched on my knees, I find the screw that had fallen loose. I make sure it’s fixed tightly this time, and I check the dining chair for good measure as well.
My head is spinning again; perhaps I need to take my meds. I pat my pockets subconsciously, just to make sure they’re there. I go looking for water.
When I sit back at my desk again, I realize there are no more interruptions left to tend to. Memories come crashing down, the words spin in front of my eyes and I black out.
In the evening, I sit down and write neat little labels on each of the twelve letters.
june. july. august. Thin black letters in lowercase, spaced evenly. I take my time with november. The ms and the ns stand parallel to each other, like hieroglyphs on crisp cotton paper. I tie them all together, and I do it carefully - teal twine curving lightly into loops for my parcel knot. I look for the potted mogra, but it is no longer by the door. It never was.
I gather my keys and my wallet, and double check if I’ve locked my door. I subconsciously pat my pockets to check if I have my meds. As I walk down the flight of stairs that lead out of my apartment, I try hard not to think of the fact that I don’t have an armchair in this house. Or a garden. Or a gardener.
The cab driver likes to talk, and I pretend I like to listen. I want to look outside, today. The city passes by, oblivious to itself; more shops on the street, brighter lights at the windows, louder cars on the road and the new multiplex at the end of the old sidewalk. Colourful hoardings of the latest Bollywood flick hang by the entrance gate, but I do not see familiar faces. The mithaiwala has closed down, next door. There’s a supermarket in its place.
I pause just outside the cafe, hand on the doorknob, forcing myself to stop and remember. Slowly, I turn around and look at the street. Traffic whistles past me with a gusts of wind, but with deep breaths, I look for the red and blue stripes of the city buses. I watch them pass by me a few times before I move on.
There was a couple sitting in the cafe when I walked in. As the light was low, I didn't know who they were until the woman turned around, and I saw it was my wife.
I stop for a moment, there’s a lump in my throat. Amina’s hair is still long, and amidst its dark curly waves, the crystal earrings I’d given her for our previous anniversary peek out with a faint glow. She has a bemused look on her face, eyebrows hunched together in pleasant surprise.
‘Honey, what are you doing here?’ she asks.
I can’t help it, I want to tell her. I cheat so very often.
I take the cubicle by her side, and sit down quietly as she watches in surprise. I let the sound of her voice wash over me, like I always do, and simply observe. The tilt of her head and the shape of her chin, the parting of her lips and a glimpse of a nose ring, and her large, kohl laced eyes. She is beautiful. She is so painfully beautiful.
The person sitting with her does not know who I am, he never will. He has a stack of envelopes hidden under the table. Eleven yellow envelopes, tied together with teal twine looped lightly into a parcel knot. He wants to finish the last letter before he tells her about them.
‘Why?’ I ask him. He looks at me without an answer, his gaze mirroring mine. And in that moment, we both seem to become acutely aware of the fallacy of our meeting.
Another wave of dizziness hits me. The world swims in front of my eyes, my legs buckle under me. Red and blue stripes flash in front of my eyes, and I hear screeching tires and a sickening thud. Somewhere, someone screams. The white tabletops melt and morph into hospital walls, and I am running down a corridor again, watching a stretcher carrying the woman I love fade away into oblivion. I am falling, falling …
When I come to, I am lying on the floor, drenched in sweat. The waiter is standing over me, I know his face. ‘Are you feeling better now, sir?’ he asks me. I sit up, and look around. There is no one else in the cafe. There never was.
‘I made you take your medicine, sir. Perhaps you should call Dr. Tambe again.’
‘Thank you, Kailash,’ I tell the waiter, ‘I’m better now.’
Kailash looks at me worriedly, but by now knows better than to insist. I fumble around in my pockets and hand him a crumpled hundred-rupee note before he nods and leaves.
I take my seat by the cubicle and gather myself before I look to the empty seat. There are words I need to say. Words for the silence to hear and consume. I place the stack of letters on the table. I untie it, carefully. I sift through them, keeping each one aside. I feel dizzy, again, and there’s a lump in my throat.
I open the one called december, and start to read aloud.