A City Called Mine by Ranjini Nair

Aug 30, 2021

Content warning: mental illness

A quiet breaking has begun. A single dry leaf crushed into asphalt. The sound of this breaking. Even quieter – can I go even quieter? A cough swallowed whole in a silent room. A grating, a friction is imperative. The promise of unpleasantness. I cradle this fragile breaking within me. Or around me. It envelops me. I am stepping into its puddles. Shh. Too loud. Whisper. Spider’s web. So fine that no one can see it. But it is shredding into me. Stripping muscle from bone, one hair breadth at a time. Each strip an excruciating shriek. Too loud.

You turn to me as I lie in bed. Staring straight up. Sleep is evasive, it always has been. It clears shadows under my eyes, war paint for the battles that rage (quietly) inside me. I ignore you. There is nothing I can say that I haven’t said before. You will understand less and less each time. The first time, I thought you understood. I explained how the gulmohar1 tree in front of my window would burst into flames, mimicking the summer sun. There was an owl that lived in this tree. One day, the owl disappeared. You said you understood. But then you asked again. I said kala khatta2 was my favourite chuski3, and I liked the one outside my college gate, the gate at the back. It lined my lips purple and kissed them cold. There was a park beyond this gate, where men would masturbate at you, flash you. These were rumours. It had never happened to me, of course, I said.

The sun is setting. It is February, when the air in Delhi is sometimes golden. There is no other way to explain it. It shimmers around me, when I reach out my hand to touch it. I am in Lodhi Gardens, in the Bara Gumbad. I sit on the balcony and read, when a tourist comes up to me and asks if they can take my picture. I agree because I am not sure how to refuse. I am vaguely flattered. Then I am sad. This is my sixth answer to you. I can tell you are getting tired. But so am I. I hold your hand and drop it because I can see crusted-over imli4 chutney in your nails. I want to scrape it out and eat it. Did you eat a samosa without bringing me one? Samosa in old newspaper, oil stains forming shadows on it.

None of these stories are satisfying to you. You search and search and search. You wish you could frisk me, detect the explosive that is ticking, the one threatening our easy existence. The news these days is terrifying, but the news has been terrifying for a while now. Or maybe it always was, but I had never paid attention. I cut out one word from the paper one day. Run a Fevi Stik over it and stick it behind our bedroom door. The next day, I cut two and repeat the process. It has been a month of cutting and sticking when you snatch the scissors from my hand. I sit on our bed staring at the door for hours on end in the day. The fans are coming on; the slow whirring lulls me as I run my eyes over the words. I trace each letter carefully, my eyes marking their path, intimate, touching each curve lightly. You traced a finger down my spine one night. The cooler was on by now. We are saving up for an AC, but I like the smell of the cooler, the dampness it brings; it reminds me of roohafza5 from the fridge.

Anyway, then there you were, on top of me, and I was terrified. You pulled away, hurt. Aur bhi dukh hai zamane mein mohabbat ke siva6, a poet famously said, and it was coming true, I thought. His words were ringing through this city. Sab taj ucchale jayenge, sab takht giraye jayenge, hum dekhenge7. You forgot to get me mangoes. I forgot that you prefer Alphonso to the Dussehri variety. You hated the sucking. I loved it. The juice would coat my fingers, run down, braiding the hair on my arms together, and I would lie, sticky, on the cold stone floor. I lined the kitchen shelves with newspaper, the cupboards too, then the floors. You said this was odd. But this way I could read them all the time. I underlined words. I would roll them onto my tongue, and then stick my tongue out, watching it drop to the floor. You said there was an app for newspapers now.

I started making paper boats from the newspapers instead. If I make a thousand paper cranes, one of my wishes will be granted. But it is easier to make paper boats. I highlight the words I would have cut with a fluorescent highlighter. It is monsoon, and the rains have been generous. I float paper boats, each time it rains, into the streams that meander outside our house. Poor drainage systems characterise my city.

The swollen clouds retract their liquid tongue. I am left with the smell of wet earth. I have heard they bottle the smell and sell it in Chandni Chowk. Or was it in Lucknow? I am not sure. I wait for the newspaper to hit the balcony, rolled up with that black rubber band. The thud comes around 6 am, and I am awake. I run to the balcony and sit on the floor and spread it open, flattening it out. I read every word. Then I read once more. The stories duck and weave continually through my brain. What if we rename each other, I ask you? You look at me strangely. I think it could be an effective strategy. Cities and roads have begun to be renamed, we could just change our names, and that would be that. I understand Toba Tek Singh so much better now than when I had read it during my time as an undergraduate. Maybe I could name myself Toba Tek Singh, but that would draw too much attention. After all, satire is not taken lightly these days. Only recently a fellow was banned from the public transport system for questioning why no she-goat urine was available for the devotees of the Vermillion Party. We cannot ask questions of she-goats, especially when they have so many people speaking for them.

I turn towards you. I feel words rise up, welling in my throat, threatening a deluge. I turn instead to the peanuts in the paper cone you have handed me. The salt dries my mouth. I want to ask you if you recognise how this place is mine. I have seen you shrug off the news, saying that it is the ‘intellectual types’ peddling conspiracy theories to bring down this country. I want to tell you how, when I say my name, I have been seeing flickers in people’s eyes, a movement, a darting, an assessment. I want to tell you how I want to turn away from my faith, forget the idea of a god, but I don’t know how that could fix anything. I want to tell you how I wear a bindi more often these days. How I eat vegetarian when I go out, and it has nothing to do with climate change. That sometimes I resent you because your name has given you an easy access card to this country that is both our homes. Instead, I tell you about Purana Qila. I tell you how two Islamic rulers, Sher Shah and Humayun, built it together. I find it funny because they were competitors for the Delhi Sultanate, and this fort seems like their enmity solidified in stone. I tell you of my favourite spot in the ruins, which overlooks a sea of acacia, and in the distance lies Humayun’s tomb. Birds rise from the trees, trailing across the skies. I tell you how there is a dig site from the excavation for the mythic city of the Pandavas, from the Mahabharata, that great Hindu epic, here. Every one of my stories are undergirded by your stories, I want to tell you, hating how these possessive adjectives are splitting this country, our home, our love apart.

I am screaming. It is ear-splitting, and I cannot stop. You are staring at me. You cannot understand why. You draw close to me. My arms flail, my legs drop, but my mouth remains open, each decibel higher than the one before. I remember when a shopkeeper in McLeod Ganj sold me a meditation bowl, convincing me that they sing and cleanse your aura. I keep my house keys in them, and stray safety pins, and disappearing-act hair ties. I am cleansing this city. I see burning newspapers rain around me. The soot blackens my face.

1 Royal poinciana

2 Literally means ‘dark and sour’, it is a syrup used in sherbets and ice lollies

3 Shaved ice lolly

4 tamarind

5 Trade name of a popular sherbet

6 There are more sorrows in the world, than those caused by love

7 All crowns will be overthrown, all thrones will fall, and we shall watch

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