Enchantment

Enchantment

The speaker has a crow's nest on her head. It is really her hair heaped on top of her head; tendrils escape into jagged wisps that stand around her face and droop artfully onto her forehead. It is a conference, and she, looking like Draupadi, who, though not beautiful, is sitting regal and speaking well. She says the word identity, and I feel my heart jump. It is a word that evokes much in my world today. I am going through, you could say, an identity crisis. I have fallen in love, lust, infatuation; call it what you may. I have all the symptoms of this whatever - which in my case is a strange attack of the flu. I sit at the conference table, feverish and parched, and recollect our first meeting. I relive the scenario as if it is an art movie - all slow motion and strange dialogue; fragmented light that plays on a shadowed water garden that disperses the smell of araliya flowers. The color of her pale skin against black clothes. Gold hair and blue eyes. Gentle touch and cigarette kisses. I am easily frightened, and yet the tumultuous feeling in my gut does not let me go. I stay, and thus it is I who have invited her in. I feel that I am about to enter an irregular world.

Sleep

I will not sleep with you, I tell her that every day. And she smiles back at me. It is too confusing, I go on. And still she smiles. She runs her hand down my bare arms and goosebumps sprout aggressively in protest. She smiles while I push her away. I will not sleep with you, I echo firmly. Never! And then, I think, I have said 'never' before with regard to other matters. Nevers that have become maybes that have become I will. I look at her reclining in the moonlight. Her legs are swung over the arm of a swirly-whirly wrought iron chair, and her head is tilted to a side like a perpetual question mark. Her hair curls invitingly around my finger, and I give it a gentle tug. She resists and keens her neck up to the sky. She looks like a caged bird dreaming of freedom. She is so beautiful that my body feels hollow, my heart is at my throat waiting to jump out. We see a crescent moon and a perfect bright star. It is a lover's sky. She turns and looks at me and smiles while her fingers play nervously with each other. Her hands are smaller than mine and her wrists look smashable. She is taller than I am, and yet I find out she is so fragile. 'Careful,' she says a fraction too late as I dive in and bite viciously on her shoulder. She shakes me off. Now it is I who am smiling.

First Sight

It started with a squat. 'I can't do that,' she said, looking down at me while I deadened the pain in my haunches, trying to look comfortable. 'I am too old,' she said. She who has passed off as 30 and is 49. We were both mildly intoxicated, at that stage where you allow the waves of alcohol to wash over you willingly. She sat with others, but I had eyes only for her. The fountain dribbled a water song, and the reflection of the water divided her face into concave light patterns that traced dunes on her sand-colored face Her eyes were now a cool green that glistened like a newly sliced kiwi fruit. I wanted to lick it. Instead I let my tongue unfurl a torrent. I didn't know it then, but I was laying the trap. She blinked, but for an instant, and she didn't know it then, but she was caught.

I have to go away abroad, I tell her, for a few weeks. It will be good for us, she replies, her eyes granite. Yes, I agree laconically. Our hands remain intertwined. I leave her in the early hours of the morning with a chaste kiss on her neck. Her jugular twitches in betrayal.

Apart

I sit with my legs stretched out under crisp white hotel sheets. The warm Delhi night licks my skin, leaving traces of perspiration. My pajama top clings to me. The heat is unbearable. I open french windows, and a rush of air causes the long white curtains to billow flirtatiously and reveal glimpses of a quotidian Indian street. Sadarjis lounging beside ancient-looking new Ambassador taxis, their turbans wrapped like repression tightly around their heads, lean dogs that hunt determinedly through garbage piles, scooters weaving crazily at acute angles. A woman walks languidly by, her duppatta trailing on the dusty road. She irritates me for no reason. I want to run down and wrap her duppatta around her throat. Suddenly she looks up at me and smiles. I am surprised and retreat in haste. I have drunk tonight a few brandies with belligerent academics for company, and now, sandwiched between the sheets, I listen to my walkman play tapes of movie music that transport me to a meretricious world. In between Hungarian folk songs from The English Patient and stirring passages from The Last of the Mohicans I am strangely amazed at my situation. I am not young any more: these are feelings of youth, of those who have their whole lives before them. The churning intestines, the fluttering heart, the mooning around - it's not for us, middle aged professionals. I hate this, I think, or do I? This upheaval of my life, this unnecessary complication. Why, I wonder, do humans fall in love? Is it merely a habit, as Veblen insinuates, akin to alcoholism and religious ritualism? Is it that some people are prone to 'falling in love' more than others? Will it be discovered that some are born with a chemical imbalance that causes them to fall in love more frequently than others? I remember reading somewhere, some trashy supermarket magazine most certainly, that a Hollywood actor once checked into a clinic to be treated for being addicted to sex. Will there come a time when love prevention clinics will do thriving business? And what about this sex business? Why do love and sex have to be intertwined? Is it not a tall order to require the person you love to be the one you love to have sex with as well? Do animals not have it better? They see, they respond, they fuck. But is this love? I'm not sure. Was I ever sure? I don't know. I try to analyze it. Exhausted, I sleep.

Delhi Dreaming

History lolls heavy on Delhi's shoulders. There is no escaping it. As I was driven around this old and weighty city doing touristy things, I thought about her. How she looks, what she may be doing, her blue-green eyes, her delicate hands; my absorption in her is abruptly disconnected by the taxi driver drawing my attention to Majnu Ka Tila. It is a place where vegetation has repudiated the earth. A barren place that yet steams with the ghosts of passion. Cliff of lovers, the taxi driver says softly, staring up at the rocky ridges. I turn my gaze to him and I wonder if he has ever been in love.

Many many lovers, he says, and immediately I am interested; they jump, he concludes dramatically. I react, startled into silence and ponder this morsel of morbidity. He seems bent on drawing my interest to the peculiar. Nehru Park, he whispers after some time, having driven crazily back to the city, and points out slim wavy-haired boys who stand affectedly smoking Tarzan beedis. Their bush shirts open out to salaciously reveal firm stomachs. Their betel-stained teeth flash. A Jaguar cruises. A diplomat or a rich man looking for perfunctory pleasure. The boys go wild. They gesture obscenely, lick their lips, wiggle their hips. A dark tinted door opens, a pale hand beckons, a young boy gets in. He smiles shyly at the others. He can be no more than 17. His hair is plastered onto his scalp. His cheeks glisten and redden at the whoops and whistles that leap out of the crowd as he gets in. The car drives off. The driver looks towards them leeringly, and I am beginning to get frightened. I look at the back of my driver's head and wonder what's in store for me. Take me back, I request in a panic. But he doesn't understand. Will not understand? My singular tour is not yet over, and mixed with alarm, my mind subconsciously absorbs my surroundings. Old Delhi is cramped and thick with narrative. I see a well-fed man, wearing delicate embroidered crimson shoes on his tiny feet, scurry through the passages and wonder if he hurries to keep his appointment of love. I almost hear the tinkle of anklets and imagine a pale-skinned nautch girl, whose name is Zubeida or Raushen, singing a ghazal that weaves harem intrigues around her captivated audience. They still exist. These nautch girls who have now acquired the patina of Bollywood and sing lewd songs with zest. Their eyes stare out harshly at their audience of new-rich men who jostle each other with impatience and rivalry. They long to be done with the niceties and get down to the real business. I am deposited safely back at the hotel, and pay the taxi driver with quiet alacrity, relieved to find myself safe and sound; he nods his approval of my passive behavior.

Introspection

It is Sunday and the city monuments stand in majestic solitude. I saw a dead cow yesterday lying across the middle of the road. Someone had carefully laid its shape out with rocks and placed a green branch at its head. It lay there all day; I must have passed it a million times. It made me think about death. The evanescent nature of life. If everything is so transitory, I think, then why do we put such weight on decisions we make in our lives? Why not live for the moment, the feeling, the now? Why not make all decisions with the id in the forefront? Because, I converse with myself, we don't live life alone. We interact with other human beings, we love and hurt and teach and learn other human beings. We need, and with that thought in mind is how we live.

Today, I notice idly, the cow was gone. The rocks and branch still stood marking out the space of death as if to mourn what once was. We drive through wide streets flanked by old tall trees that arch out expansively toward each other. Big houses and big gardens stand in opulent solidarity. They are big square blocks with ugly windows and balconies. They are nondescript slabs of money. Rich people, my guide indicates with drawn out gestures that speak of lots of money.

Identity Confusion

They think I'm an Indian, a North Indian more specifically. I have the look, I agree. The pale skin, the brown hair, the light eyes. I am not Indian, I insist, all the while aggravated that my colleague has got into the Indian spirit with zeal. He begins to speak pidgin Hindi, and causes us to be overcharged by the taxi driver. I lose my temper, and he withdraws, piqued. We don't speak, but later over dinner I try to explain. It is their arrogance, I say arrogantly between mouths of crisp thosai. My colleague delicately spoons cream of chicken soup into his mouth; he shrugs the Indian food off with disdain and can't seem to understand what the problem is all about. He loves to dress Indian, attempts to speak Hindi, but hates Indian food. I on the other hand, he says, shovel Indian food down my throat at the slightest excuse, but hate to dress Indian and refuse to even pretend to speak Hindi. Don't make a big deal about it, he says, dressed in a new brown kurta and white Indian trousers, munching his way through an Indian version of a hamburger. What does it matter if they think you are Indian? You should take it as a compliment. Indians are very good-looking people, you know, he says a trifle sternly. I acquiesce but am not convinced. He doesn't know it, but all my life I have been mistaken for something I was not. During my years in the West I was the Mexican, the Hindu, the Spaniard, the Arab, the Other; back at home I was everything but my own community. I realized that Identity was a luxury.

Gift

I have bought her a ring. It is delicately thick with spaces of intricacy woven in silver. I wore it all day so that it may be a shared gift. I twist it around my finger, and surreptitiously steal glances at it. I like it. I like it very much. I dawdle on the bed, trying to read. The television is on, and the Hindi equivalent of MTV blares out and clogs my ears. It is too much and I mute the sound, and in between page-turns catch glimpses of aggressive pelvic thrusts and shivering bosoms. Tomorrow I go home. I am not a good traveler, I realize. No sooner I leave the shores of my land than I ache to come back. I long for the heat and dust of Colombo. I strain for the sound of the sea, a glimpse of the Indian Ocean. I relish the monsoonal deluge that leaves roads drowned for days on end. I want to see the clash of verdant olive and emerald from my bedroom window.

The home of stone and light

We talk and sit in front of each other and try not to touch. Our knees almost meet, and our hands are millimeters away. I can't stand it and get up and walk around the house. It's a beautiful house. It's not hers. She is house-sitting, and yet she seems so appropriate in that setting. Open space and light that spills around like a generous daystar. It is an Architectural Digest kind of house, and she seems so at ease in it. The time to leave comes around, and we stand together to say good-bye. It feels impossible to come to the realization that once I leave I will not see her again. I talk to her. And our bodies lean into one another. We kiss. And she leads me slowly up the stairs.

She pushes me against the sideboard, and her hand slides up my thigh. My white linen dress is pushed upwards. Her hand rests on my stomach and I wait achingly for her touch. She finds me, and is wondrously surprised at the desire that leaks out of me. I arch my back and give into the sheer feel of pleasure, but when she demands more I am scared and push her away, and stand like a schoolchild with my bag on my feet and beg to be let off. She is angry; I feel it, and I explain that my resistance is not the fear of giving in but precisely that I will give in. My fear gives way to words and I tell her a story of many years ago. I must have been around eight or nine years old; there was a pretty girl who sat behind me in school. I don't know how it evolved but one day we began this game. It was called The Railway Children. We had been to see the film together with my parents. The next day she described a scene that I knew hadn't been in the film. I denied its existence; she insisted and offered to act it out for me. I hesitantly agreed and in doing so, set the stage for multiple re-enactments. Do you want to play the Railway Children, she would ask. and I would say yes. Then she would lift my school uniform and gently ease her hand into my panties, letting the uniform drop gently around her hand. Like this, she would whisper as she fingered me. Like what? I would ask hoarsely. Like this, she would say again. And after a few minutes withdraw. We played this game the whole term. She always doing the touching. Me always being touched. The next term she was not there, she had gone abroad. I never played Railway Children with anybody else.

She lies on the bed looking at me as I relate the story, and I am soon on top of her. I ask her to touch me. I see her pupils shrink. We roll around, and my dress is hiked around my hips and her hand is bucking inside my panties. Don't bite, she says as I come. I don't bite.

Cake and Sugar Dumpling

We speak - as usual, short hurried abrupt bursts that seem to frustrate her. Now, away from her, I regurgitate bits of information and scrutinize them for meaning. You want to have your cake and eat it, she said. I agreed enthusiastically. It was true. I made no bones about it. But I have no cake, she said. Only a sugar dumpling, I offer, enjoying the banter that has arisen between us. Ah! But first I must taste it, she re-joins, and I feel suddenly shy. She decides she needs to find herself a cake.

Discontent

I need space. I feel closed in. She doesn't trust me. She thinks that I am playing games. I want everything my way, she says. She is right. I do. I want to be with each of them, and I want to be left alone. Once again we have bad phone conversations. Once again we have sudden meetings that turn out all right. I talk. She listens. She's angry. I understand. And yet again we decide from tomorrow we are to be out of touch. One week. Two weeks. Till whenever. Till whatever. She says something interesting. We are back to the cake context. I have my cake and want to eat it as well. So does she. I will be looking, she says. Good, I reply. This is new for me, she says. I make a mental note that it is a topic I must pursue for later.

Black Beauty

It is evening, and as I sit at my desk looking out of the window, I see an araliya tree spill its flowers onto the sidewalk. There is a strangeness about me. I have met her today. A long leisurely time without the characteristic clock-watching and haste that has generally marked my visits. I have worn a black dress, black bra and black panties. Looks ominous, she says at the sight of me, and I bounce onto the bed with a big smile. She has discovered two triangles in my right eye. Two triangles of light that are balanced on the edge of my iris. Her blue eyes, now blue-green, bore into mine and they register that I am cool and calm.

Her lips hover over my stomach and I wait for the inevitable touch. This time I let her taste me, but I am tense and I reach down for her and pull her up towards me. I can't come, I say, and moments later she brings me to a silent and yet shuddering release. I laugh! She is surprised, and then even more when I suddenly roll on top of her and sit on her chest. Her hands are stretched above her, and I hold her smashable wrists in a vice-like grip. You are strange, she says, I have never made love to someone before who wants so much to be in control. She is partially right. It is that I don't want to be out of control. It's not the same thing. Her skin is soft and smooth. It bruises easily like an over-ripe plum. I suck my presence into her shoulders. She wears them for days, like a badge. And when they fade, I give her another.

The Beginning of the End

She has drunk too much and is angry. She sits at her little table and swills her beer carelessly to her mouth. It dribbles down the side of her chin and she angrily shrugs it off. She is depressed. The house-sitting days are over, and it's back to a cramped room and living with Mum and Dad. I sit on the edge of the bed, slightly uneasy. Her skin reflects the yellowed wall, and the tattered coir mat sits askew on the scuffed floor. 'I'm getting drunk,' she mutters. And I continue to sit silent, unable to react. I realize how it must seem to her. I come off as cold, heartless. A spoilt rich bitch. Her eyes shift uneasily as she senses my discomfort. 'Bugger off,' she says bitterly, unable to cope with my seeming shallowness. I hesitate just for a fraction, and then I stand up to leave. I deliberate near the door, looking back at her. She is still beautiful. She is still desirable. But I am no longer interested. She avoids my gaze. She doesn't fit in here. The place where she grew up has outgrown her. Nothing fits. It shouldn't be like this, I think. I feel apologetic and hate myself. I crawl down the dingy staircase, averting my eyes from the stains of neglect on the walls. Am I imagining a smell of stale urine? I fling myself outside. The day is pearl-gray. The sun is shrouded; there is rain in the air. I drive fast and it begins to rain.

Goodbye

I run up the stairs two at a time. She is sitting at the window, looking out. She does not turn around, and yet I know she is waiting for me. Her hair has grown and she has lost weight. She turns around and smiles, and my heart jumps right out. It lies before me quivering, and as I move towards her, I step right on it and squish it down.

She is house-sitting once again. Every year for one month. I heard it from friends. She has found her cake. I heard it from enemies. When she turned, I knew that she knew that I would come.

We balance on the stone slabs just outside the entrance and say good-bye. It is filled with lightness and laughter and I am astonished at the mood we are both in. We lean into one another yet again. A crow pheasant flashes by, startled. A water fountain purls softly, and her gold hair is entwined with mine. We linger over the parting. She places her hand in mine and slips the ring in-between. I close my palm and feel the circle of silver. I smile at her and she at me. We both have an idea of what is to come.