If you are courageous enough to venture out after midnight in a small Indian town, you will be greeted by the creatures of the night. Your first companions will be the stray dogs with limp tails, their eyes glinting in the dark, their noses leading them to their late night snack. They scavenge through the piles of rotting garbage while their fortunate pure-bred counterparts enjoy a snooze in their marble palaces. Look up and you will find flappy wings in the sky as large bats try to cast a shadow on the moon. Don’t get startled by the shrieks of the owls, they are less dangerous than the silent serpents in the grass.
You might find a seemingly abandoned pair of slippers by the side of the road, don’t steal them, their owner still lives. Look inside the concrete pipes and under the heap of polythene sheets, you will find a tired rickshaw puller sleeping barefoot and possibly bare-chested. He has moved to the town from the village, to send back money for his siblings. You will notice blisters on his palms and wrinkles on his face but he will be smiling while he is asleep. In fact, don’t try to find him, let him rest until the sun announces a new morning of back-breaking labour.
If the town is big enough to boast of an ATM, there will be a group of youngsters a few feet away. Far enough from the peripheral vision of the drowsy guard yet close enough to steal some light from the vestibule, the privileged progeny of the rich merchants enjoys a party on the footpath. Leaning against their motorbikes or lying down on the boots of their cars, they laugh at a vulgar joke while draining the last drop from their beer bottles. Why they need to congregate in the middle of the night is a mystery to all but them. Perhaps at the centre of the huddle are secret lovers who cannot meet in broad daylight or maybe they just prefer the taste of the Biryani sold by the stall that opens for business after dark.
You can stand and judge these creatures of the night or can walk towards the innocent looking houses. Over the chirping of the crickets, you will hear the moans of a battered housewife as she is brutally whipped by her drunken husband. The wind might carry the whimpers of a woman abused by her own kin or the sobs of a bullied child who doesn’t want to face another day at school. If you stay really quiet you will hear the creaking of the beds, the rolling of the tears, and the whispers of protest. The creatures of the night do not just haunt the streets.
The soothing scent of sandalwood wafts in the air. The venue is all set for the big day. The Mandap is decorated with shimmering pearls and marigold flowers, but the yellow blossoms have started to wilt already. Soon the lawn will be flooded with guests, but for now, the relatives lurk in the cold confines of their hotel rooms. They sneakily peep through the windows for any sign of movement in the garden. The clanking of cutlery will be their signal for marching out; they will guard their post until dinner is served.
The bride is an epitome of beauty tonight, but her breathing is heavy and her neck is bruised by the weight of the stunning jewellery. However, it is the happiest day of her life, so she puts on a brave smile, even though the layers of silk make each pore of her body sweat profusely. The struggle is no different for the poor groom, who vigorously fans himself to prevent the patches of sweat from ruining his Sherwani.
The wedding procession looks sombre and gloomy. No one dares to shake a leg out of the fear of dehydration. Panting and gasping, they take a shorter route to quickly end this ordeal. The twinkling fairy lights at the gate are a welcome sight, as the table fans cool their skin and destroy their fancy hair. The bridesmaids rush to powder their faces while the rings are exchanged by moist fingers.
The ceremony is a test of true love; the holy fire crackles at an arm’s length from the couple. Even the priest slowly inches away from the flames, with the recital of every vow. The number of guests keeps dwindling throughout the rituals, those who remain drift into a heat induced sleep. As the vermillion powder trickles down from the bride’s forehead to her nose, the priest joyfully introduces them as man and wife and flees from the scene.
The couple is escorted to the most palatial room of the hotel. Even the jasmine buds sprinkled on the bed seem to be dying a slow death at the hands of the sultry weather. When the last bridesmaid is bribed to let the newlyweds enter the room and the mahogany doors are bolted shut, they look at each other properly for the first time that night. Their eyes glint with sinful joy as the much awaited moment is here, they can finally turn on the air conditioner! They race towards the remote of the appliance, whoever grabs it first will get to control the temperature for the rest of their lives.
I can almost taste the gale that gently singes my face. A hot and salty mix of gases that has driven the men and animals into the shadows. I seem to be immune to these poisonous winds as they barely tickle my skin and drift away to consume more innocent lives. As I stand on the balcony that looms over the melting roads, my thoughts get corrupted by the heat of the Indian summer.
One must not trust their instincts in the summer months. The angry weather gods entertain themselves by pushing us towards evil temptations. To recover my senses, I crush a mango leaf and inhale the raw aroma of heavenly nectar. The fruit is just a momentary indulgence while the potent scent of the leaf lasts all day long. It transports me to the childhood days when I would rush out in the middle of a dust storm to gather the fallen golden and green orbs.
My hosts think that I am crazy to be out in the unforgiving heat. I am summoned into a dark, cool room where the other guests are already seated. The frosted windows are an unconvincing lie; they appear to be icy but leave painful blisters on the fingers. The familiar sound of steel hitting against glass echoes in the room and the hostess hands out tall tumblers of pink sherbet. The tinkling of the spoons continues as the guests dissolve the viscous syrup in the water, only to find it settled at the bottom of their glasses again. Unable to defy the force of gravity, they hurriedly gulp down the drink to end this unfair battle.
A strong breeze brings in tufts of dried grass from the parched garden. A cruel reminder of the brevity of life, yet my heart still yearns for the scorching sunlight. These kind souls are depriving me of my one true love, the passionate rays of the sun. I feel powerless as they feed me course after course of chilled delicacies. They don’t realize that the heat is my mistress and my muse. I reach into my pocket for the vial that I carry around for such occasions. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I politely refuse the dessert that drugs the lunch party and induces a state of deep slumber. It is amusing to watch grown men and women doze off on the dining table, their hair swimming in gravy. As much as I want to stand and admire my handiwork, there is not much time to spare. I rush out of this prison of practicality with my trunk in one hand and the host’s wallet in the other.
One must not trust their instincts in the summer months.
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As soon as the clock strikes 7, the nudging and nagging begin. Little does she know that he was up till 3 o’ clock, fighting a losing battle against the pestilent mosquitoes that were troubling her sleep. The aroma of coffee finally manages to entice him and he drags his aching body out of bed. The omelette is a little burnt but he can’t muster the courage to mutter a word because her cell phone has gone missing. Twenty minutes are wasted in retrieving the gadget from under the bed and now he is late for his morning meeting.
Work is the usual mishmash of incomprehensible instructions and demonic deadlines. His eyes hurt due to the lack of sleep and the overdose of caffeine, but the glaring screen shows no mercy. His existence seems similar to that of a blinking cursor, half-awake and half-dead, serving no purpose for half its lifetime. On the positive side, doesn’t the blinking make it more prominent? His thoughts wander in such random directions all day as his job is unable to challenge his intellect. He soldiers on because even the thought of quitting is a cardinal sin, what with the baby on the way and the startling mound of bills and loans. He now needs to go into a soundproof cabin and scream a little.
By the time he manages to escape from the office, the sun is long gone and the stars are sneakily shining through a blanket of smog. She takes the car to work these days because of the bumpy roads. After multiple rounds of haggling, a languid auto driver agrees to take him home for twice the usual fare. He is half way there when the phone vibrates, and now that he has noticed it, the guilt of ignoring her would be too much. She needs some ice-cream and it’s urgent, how can you say no to such a request? The detour to the ice-cream parlour results in a heated argument with the auto driver who threateningly demands an extra 100 bucks. He crawls towards the front door, weary and dejected, even pressing the doorbell is too much effort at this point. The door unbolts after what seems like a century, but the sight of the cold compress on her head hushes his fuming complaints into absolute silence.
A patchwork of ephemeral visions perturbs my sleep at night. A disorderly chaos of people back from the dead and long forgotten lovers, against a curtain of surreal scenery. In this parallel universe, the birds can fly backwards and the tigers are tame, the waterfalls are set ablaze by the sun and the dew drops freeze into shiny pearls.
You can be at several places at once, in fact, the cities walk to your doorstep. A magical mosaic of childhood homes and palaces from hazy summer destinations. Your troubles are reduced to crippled versions of their harrowing selves and your enemies morph into hilarious buffoons.
The world conspires to make you invincible, a boon so powerful that you cannot be destroyed. Gigantic butterflies rescue abandoned souls and carry them across oceans within seconds. Immortal ponies gallop over fires, sheltering your skin from the scorching flames. You can be an artist or a gypsy, a witch or a merchant, but what you really are is a goddess.
Who would ever wish to escape from such a flawless dreamland? A land devoid of painful heartbreak and blistering betrayal. Where no fall is too hard and no slope is too steep. Where the clouds are your cushions and the breeze your wings. If only life could be so glorious.
Of late the blotches of reality have been tarnishing the pretty picture painted on my mind’s canvas. Fear, anxiety, and sorrow are making an appearance in the form of horned demons. I am trapped in a fractal of nightmares within nightmares. An endless loop of waking up in a state of panic; a serpent devouring its own tail. A vicious cycle of screaming into pillows and crying myself back to sleep.
Is this the curse of growing up or the outcome of the maledictions muttered by my mistakes? Perhaps an evil ailment or the fruit of unintended sins? Whatever this brutal beast may be, I know of a way to defeat him. I will now embrace a sleepless existence and will forever walk this earth with parched eyes.
I sat on the edge of the bench in the corner, palms moist with sweat, praying vehemently that she wouldn’t make it in time for the first period. I must have said my prayers wrong because the familiar clicking of heels was fast approaching. The musky perfume tickled my nostrils even before her red toenails had crossed the doorway. She looked miffed as usual; I quickly altered my prayers and requested God to prevent any pieces of chalk from flying in my direction that day. Every tick of the clock was an achievement, a moment bravely survived, although my throat was dry with fear. The much-awaited bell finally broke the monotonous rumble of the mathematical formulae that she recited in her robotic voice. She disappeared from the room in one swift motion, with an extremely audible sigh of relief. I often wonder why she chose to become a teacher if the mere sight of children was such an annoyance to her.
We marched towards the playground for the physical education class, a meandering line of kids ranked according to height. The class was less of a learning experience and more of a humiliation as I could barely jump with my tiny legs while the lanky girls leaped from one end of the monkey ladder to the other. You cannot hide in the shadows on a playground; all your shortcomings are on display in the unforgiving sunlight. The lunch break is not much better either, the classmates exhibit delectable goodies while my humble sandwich drowns with shame in a sea of sugary jam. The barely nibbled at toast is better off as a misshapen lump that I sneakily discard in the bin.
Story time is what follows the lunch break, a faint glimmer in a realm of darkness. Now I can quietly sit and dream about a life devoid of school and bullies. A world where one is not mocked for the shabby state of their second-hand uniform or scolded for speaking too softly. Where discipline does not mean the lack of expression and everyone is not expected to have the same handwriting. Where parents do not blindly believe the notes sent back by teachers and the worth of a child is not measured by their elocution skills alone. In such a wonderful land we will not need to restrict our imagination to one period of storytelling and the playground will not be a battlefield. But for now, the story time is over and an hour of sticking beads on fabric with trembling fingers lies ahead. The sole consolation lies in the fact that only twenty days remain until the summer break.