BY NAVTEJ SARNA
There are times when words cannot quite capture the eloquence of silence that underlies companionship.
It is late at night and I find myself in the tiled and polished anonymity of the waiting room at the Old Delhi Railway station. I am suddenly alone and unexpectedly footloose. My bag is cramped with several half read books. There is the fascinating tale of the eunuch detective uncovering conspiracies in mist-laden nineteenth century Istanbul of the Ottomans. It jostles for space with a new book on Sufism with impressively ornate calligraphic illustrations. A murder mystery in modern India written by a young lawyer cries for attention as it pushes against a haunting depiction of a marriage going adrift in the warm and magical light of Jerusalem, way back in the fifties. I could, if I so wished, write about all, or any of them.
But the present is too much with me. The complexities and absurdities of life, its sudden beauty and its lingering pain, its constant surprises, its vanities and its forgetfulness sometimes turn the most exciting of fiction into a mere faint shadow.
At such times, it does not appear worthwhile to try and discipline the mind. So relishing the indifference of strangers around me, I leave the bag of books unopened and let the journey take hold.
The city that I am leaving, though only for a few days, is an old friend, perhaps even an old lover. She and I both know how life has changed the other. There is no need of words, so we let them drop, all the taunts, the pointed complaint, the sly innuendo. Her new fancies stare me in the face. I notice her love of brick and mortar, of steel and glass; I rue her fascination with glitter. I watch her flaunt, with an imperial sweep of her overly bejewelled hand, her soaring new flyovers, the rising stadiums, her shiny new metro, her crazily crafted road corridors, her multiplexes and malls. And I shield myself against the callousness with which she has rejected so much that we once shared- my flower-laden roundabouts, my little theatre café, my corner shop and even my favourite bookshop, owned by an owner who knew his books.
Yet there are moments when all does not appear lost. Occasionally, we still exchange glances that no one else can understand. Every once in a while we smile, for no apparent reason, at the same word and on some nights I can even see her tapping her foot though she knows full well that I can only sing out of tune.
On other evenings, we watch as the red dying sun, with merciless disdain, makes equally sharp silhouettes of the mighty Qutub and kikar branches alike. On such evenings she lets her veil slip, ever so tantalisingly. I watch, sipping from my cup of nostalgia, and I see the blaze of the young gulmohars, protected with brick guards along the streets of south Delhi where the houses are still to come up. I see the cascading garlands of yellow amaltas flowers under which a man in pyjamas sells Carryhome icecream from a pushcart. I see school children buying ice dollies through barbed wire fences and running back to class even as the syrup drips down their wrists. And all around there are green parks among the single storied houses where groups of boys are playing cricket, French cricket, dog ball cricket, one-tip-catch-out cricket. There is even a glimpse of college students in woollen dressing gowns warming their hands on a coal fire some far away December, waiting for the tea to boil in a blackened saucepan. And from somewhere there rises, along with the full moon, a full throated ghazal against the backdrop of Mughal ruins. There is so much else too that need not, can not go into words. The blood knows. We both know. And we let it be.
For the cities that we truly love are the cities of our minds, lying in the cradle of childhood or on the crest of youth. Each one is a personal Shangri La which age cannot wither, beyond the tick-tock of time. And every so often we return to them, searching for the light that has not faded, the companions who have not aged, the idealism that has not soured.
Finally, an hour behind time, the train begins to move, leaving behind the platform shrouded in surreal bluish white light. We will not cross the river tonight but that does not matter. Whatever the direction, there is only the dark night that stretches beyond the city. And I know what awaits me at the straggling colonial railway station at Kalka, which I will reach in time for the first call of the day by the local muezzin. There, once the last stars have faded, will be the comfortable silhouettes of the freshly bathed hills, the balm of the mist as it will rise to greet me, the certainty that I will fall asleep to the sound of the cicadas and the birds will come to wake me up.
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