We always met at the same spot. The neatly laid out bench in the middle of a worn-out park. I would always wear formals — with shirts and pants of contrasting colours. She would forever be in a white salwar suit, complete with a dotted yellow dupatta. This was our Eden’s garden. Away from everybody, everything, and as Rumi would say, “beyond the idea of wrongdoing and rightdoing”.
I would start our meetings with a story, always, like Scheherazade of ‘One Thousand and one nights’. She would caress my hair, some of them always in a bunch, while I lay on her lap, staring at the blue sky and white clouds. Sometimes, she commented on how there wasn’t a single bird flying, and I would say, they are infamous for spying, and in our heaven, shouldn’t all of it be our and our alone?
I began from the beginning. The first day that I laid eyes on her through the grilled window of the classroom, as she walked past the garden outside and entered the class. For the first two months, we didn’t share a single word. One day, I read aloud my story in the class, of a girl who put her soul into a bottle before going out each day because she feared the world would corrupt her, and she wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. One day, a thief breaks into her house, and makes away with the bottle, leaving the girl forever without either a soul or a night’s sleep; condemned to live the same moment for eternity. The next day, she sat me down and recited her story of a dog who wouldn’t bark, ever.
Most often than not, we’d bunk the college and escape to that park, where I would feel the burn mark on her shoulder. For someone who revelled in stories, she was a rather private person, and so I could never know anything more about the burn mark.
“Why do you like stories,” she’d asked me one day.
“Because I think they are the most powerful thing in the world. Basically, everything is about stories. The greatest emperors eventually die, but it’s their stories that live on, and that’s what they desire as well. The entire human civilisation is a bunch of stories that we tell each other; some so contrasting that people are ready to kill each other for the sake of believing their own version of the story. That’s the power,” I said.
“Hmm.. stories have been an escape for me,” she said.
“Escape from what?”, I thought, but didn’t ask. If she thought it was important, she would tell that herself. Almost like an afterthought she added, “The absolute thing I desire in this world is freedom. And if I cannot get it in this world, then I allow stories to help me experience that.”
Gradually, this became a routine. Every day as the clock struck 4, I would be there, and she would be there as well.
On one of those days, she plucked a white hair from my head, and looked quizzingly at me.
“How come you have white hair already?,” she asked.
“Men age earlier. That’s how it has always been. Don’t worry about it,” I assured her.
The next day was an usual one, for she complained of sickness, of the heart. “It’s ironic,” she said, “that I feel the most free with you, and yet, of late, I also feel my heart is closing in, and soon as you leave, as if someone puts on a blindfold and the world stops for me. As if my world starts and ends with you.”
“Isn’t that a good thing? The intensity of the love between us is such then,” I said.
“No, I feel as if I have tied my very being with you, and without you nothing else exists. That is not what I want. I want to grow for myself too. The other day, I saw a white hair, but it wasn’t mine, the wrinkles I feel aren’t on my cheek, and I fear the sheer joy of living in this world isn’t mine either. It’s all yours,” she said, with a rather disgusted look.
That was the first time in years that we have had an argument. I walked back home that evening, and while staring into the mirror, spat at it. “Must I continue doing this?,” I thought. My heart burned, and the gut rebelled, but in the end, I decided I couldn’t afford to lose her once again. With an ounce of regret, I stared at the bottle in my hand — the one I had stolen from her house one night; it was the first time in years that her soul had turned black. I carefully placed the bottle on the night table, slipped inside the covers of my bed, and, for the first time, imagined how it must be to be her — to be frozen in time, having to live the same day again and again and again, with neither a soul or a night’s sleep. And just like that, I dozed off, into the sleep’s warm embrace.