Black

Dhee Sankar

You wore green that day. No, actually you wore many colours at once, I wrote green just because one has to start somewhere. You wore green like the time you first told me devastating things about yourself. Of course you don’t remember, why would you, it was nine years ago! You liked that dress a lot, didn’t you? Bright, blinding green, the kind of green parrots wear. Do you still have it? Is it yours, or did you inherit it from someone? I like to think you bought it just for yourself, that its young cotton body has never known any other body but yours, and it sleeps somewhere in your wardrobe blessed with the peace of belonging to you alone. But I digress. 

That day you wore a different shade of green — more variegated, with more shadows. Not the green of a tree but the green of its cool shade. Crisscross arabesque of branches. I reached early but the restaurant we had picked was bustling with gorging friend-groups, the kind of people whose presence turns places into the wrong kind of places to be thinking of you. I could not sit in a place like that with my pockets bursting with all the red I had picked up on my way. So I came out. Everything felt full, as if the street would burst and spill all its contents into the sky. Like trauma, one never gets used to anticipating you. 

“…I know, I look like a crazy person…” 

“No. You look like a person with unique fashion sense.” 

The sound of your arrival got lost in the traffic, as if it never happened and you were never elsewhere. We walked into bylanes like some people’s words walk into confusing sentences when they try writing a story. But bylanes confuse only one of us, only one of us struggles to remember the paths the feet of our stories take. Am I stuck in your terrain, destined to wander in alleys that know you even better than you know them, alleys with shared sorrows that never fail to smell out an outsider? Between your alleys and your lovers, I envy the alleys: it is they who know you better than I ever will. How does one even make an impression, when one’s rival is a city? 

“Hey, stand there. Taking a picture.” 

“No!”

“Okay, someone has strung some underwear there… Here, then.”

“Okay…” 

Instead of posing, you fiddled with your phone. Green and black and blue. If at some point I want to reclaim my right over this mellow heat that haunts afternoons, to detach its touch from all the colours in your palette, how will I ever do it! 

I wanted the one who finds a place to eat this time to be me. Google Maps was full of options, after all — how hard could it be. I forgot that history trumps geography when it comes to us as a species, since we always suffer before we travel. The perfect place would not answer to a stranger, or to anyone less perfect than it. 

“It’s closed!” 

“No, it’s open! Come along.” 

You led the way, held the door open for me. Silence and bibliosmia. When a warm afternoon seeps in through glass windows, it turns pale and cool, loses all its heat and some of its light, becomes domestic like a lazy cat. The room we entered shows me, in hindsight, that even cool afternoons will be impossible for me to paint with some other palette. Maybe heaven is not a place where one is happy, but a place where one is heavy. Yes, I have been to other deserted rooms, with other abandoned people, and that is how I could come up with that ridiculous epigram. The things that make people heavy! 

You picked up a book. “Huh, of course Shobha Dé praised it… Why does the cover have to have a woman’s back on it! Are they selling the book or selling this woman’s back!”  

“Hmm, it’s supposed to catch your eye. More people will look at the book, and out of ten who look at it, one will buy it. Sales increase, simple math…” 

Somehow, for a long time we forgot to order. You had a lot of things on your mind, things other than bare backs on paperbacks. I had nothing on my mind; my mind, I sometimes think, is the biggest parasite on earth. That is how we roll — no matter where we dine, who pays, you are always the host.

I feast on your world. Today, you needed to vent some of your frustrations on the work front. The fine points and pitfalls of the international social development sector. I loved the idealism you had managed to integrate with work, so I always listened intently.  You also badly needed to bitch about your bitch of a sister-in-law, compare her with soap opera vamps I had not heard of. After your brother got married, life at home had really gone south for you. The housework, the petty politics, the parents, the patriarchy. It got on your nerves, even though you would leave home soon, have a new job, a new city, a new lover. Listening to you listing your plans, few would suspect the darkness that lay underneath. Darkness is always the truth, yet why does it always lie? The food arrived. 

“Look, everything is heart-shaped! These people will never change.” 

I shook my head in fake irony, wary of the warmth that had attacked me. “Fake irony” — is that even a thing? A fake of a fake…? Just like the fake hearts they made on our coffees. The fake catering rules that teach them to always assume a man and a woman are a couple, and make weird shapes with their food and drinks. The false heart that mimics those fake hearts and misses a beat. The false face that must hide what the false heart knows — all too well.

“Yeah, looks like they know nothing’s happening with my heart!” you laughed. 

Then they knew better than me, I thought. As for me, I knew nothing. I could not even ask. Why couldn’t I ask? The few times you spoke about it, I did put up a fair enough show… So why did I wince at the thought of walking into it on my own? Aren’t things that hurt supposed to hurt less when we confront them? 

“You operate at a depth most men can’t see. You seem so simple and full of life, people who don’t get you don’t notice they are missing something.”

“Um, I don’t think depth is necessary in a person, anymore,” you shrugged. 

“Really! You don’t think depth is a must? What is a must, then?” 

I made it sound like a casual follow-up question, but I had to know. That impossible urge to know the needs of the one one needs. 

“Empathy. Just some empathy and decency, at this point.” Your voice ached with the tiredness of a thousand wrecked ships.

“Empathy without depth?”

“Not the kind of empathy that feels things and stays inert. The kind of empathy that feels things and does something about it.”

“Empathy accompanied by action?” 

“Yes, that. Just potential for depth.”

“Okay.”

I could not tell you, “You sound a bit too on-the-edge about this.” I could not tell you, “There is no such thing as potential for depth; either one has it, or one does not.” My words could not bear to touch this topic anymore. They never should. 

There was a large wall hanging behind you, portraying monarch butterflies and maple leaves in different seasons — green, greenish-yellow, reddish-yellow, yellowish-brown, brown. There should also have been a maple leaf that does not exist, the last stage of the seasonal colour change: leaflessness.  Maybe it was there; it would not be visible, so how would we know!  I felt time running out. I too had a colour to part with, a moment to cease before the leafless season caught up with me again. It was easy. Nothing new, nothing unexpected. Why was I stalling? It had already been an hour. In the end, you helped out a little.

“Did you vote?” 

“Umm, no, didn’t feel like it. …Instead, I was hanging around in my neighbourhood and… I came by this.” 

I took out a bunch of jungle geraniums from my breast pocket, and put it before you on the table. I did not, or could not, hold it out to you. But your face lit up all the same.

“…And the saga continues!” 

You picked it up, examined its maudlin redness, embraced the smallness of the florets that made up the bunch. Time stopped, the way it does those few times we realize that nothing else matters except for the here and now. Now that you knew the saga continued. Now that I had put down the weight of the colour I had been carrying in my pocket for hours. I did not feel any lighter, though. Because colour is only light and nothing but light, it does not weigh less when we let it go. Whether you hold on to it or bestow it where it belongs, it weighs just the same. Once you take it up, you carry it till all the leaves fall. Colours may change over the seasons, but they refuse to be put down. Even non-existence has a colour of its own. Colours go all the way, even if you don’t. And sure enough, the entire room behind me was scarred with red décor and shameless scarlet balloons.

“It feels like I am talking to you after months.” 

“Yeah. We did talk quite often though, but well, not really. We didn’t talk talk.”

You gave a small laugh. Perhaps it got muffled by the air around us, now so thick with a palimpsest of history I am not going to write a word about. 

“You… You are like sand. It feels like you are slipping away. As if… I am losing you.” 

“No. Don’t you know I would never slip away like that? You are the one slipping away in a couple of months.” 

You lower your face with so sad yet so bountiful a smile, when you have to admit a point. 

“Right. That’s work. Can’t help it. I need a fresh start, I have to start a new life somewhere. I don’t want my working life to change the life we share. …Sometimes, I feel terribly selfish. Sometimes I wonder how much pain I have caused you. Why do you never talk about it?” 

I remembered a line from Macbeth, a line that nobody remembers but I had never been able to forget: “These deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad.” It was a rather unquotable quote, so I found something better to say. 

“If you start talking about your own pain, the other person will immediately stop talking about theirs. One puts water only in an empty vessel. If I start talking about ‘my pain,’ You will see I’m full, and won’t share so much of your pain with me anymore.” 

“I have made your vessel overflow, haven’t I?” 

“For sure! My vessel overflowed, I had to get a lake and empty the vessel in it. When the lake overflows, I have to get a river and put the lake in it. And so on, until I get an ocean.” 

“…God!” 

You beamed at the floor with an exasperated blush. Maybe you are right — maybe I am like sand. If I did not belong to an ocean, I would belong to a desert. Nothing in-between.

***

We were nearly done with our food by now. We both had dreams, and when it came to executing them, things went wrong in different ways for the both of us. In other words, we had wasted years, and started secretly taking pride in lost time. People I loved kept on leaving, but I stayed, like a young relic, a line from some conflicted love song to the City of Sorrow. Now it was you who was about to say the long goodbye. I had always anticipated, and dreaded, this day — though I would never admit it. People who cannot leave, get left. After all, it had to be me who would always wait for you in this city of ours. 

“Hey, what are you doing with those chicken pieces!” 

“Keeping them for you.” And you pushed some more black-and-brown nuggets to this side of your plate. 

“What the hell, you already gave me half of them, eat those!”

“But you like them.”

“Yeah, so? Don’t you like them? You don’t need the protein? What’s this shit!”  

I kept up the fight for a few more seconds, but your fork would never pull back what it had once pushed forward. You were too used to winning.

“I’m going to the washroom. Then we’ll leave, okay?”  

“Okay…”

About to get up, you stopped short.

“Oi, what’s that face! What’s up with you!” 

“Huh? Nothing.” 

“O—i. Talk to me.” 

Sometimes you catch me like a child, and like a child I feel a twinge of guilt, even as the adult in me rejoices. I looked up sheepishly, smiled, and looked down again. 

“We will never recover from that letter I wrote, will we?”

Silence. The thing we write poetry with, when we cannot write with words.

“I don’t know. I’m really sorry about everything that happened… But that letter is a statement, it will sit in my inbox! Forever! You want me to recover from that? From that?” 

“…I somehow feel… that all this is somehow connected. There is some reason — though you may not know it yourself — why you said the things you said.” 

“I told you — it was because things have always been a certain way between us, and I was trying to change that…”

“Yes.”

“I started getting angry at you over small things…”

After “angry,” “with” is used for a person, “at” for an object or situation. I did not process it right then, but I think I would not object to being a situation in your life.  You had not finished:

“…and then the flower fiasco happened!” 

I loved the happiness in your voice every time you said this. It must have been a happy fiasco. A part of me will always take heart from the thought that no matter how wrong it went, it stayed in your mind as a happy memory.

The discussion heated up. All the infrared rays lying dormant around the nooks and crannies of the room rose up in angry, cordial warmth. 

“It’s as well I did not get them. You had a gift for me, but the meaning you ascribed to it was never mine.” I smiled wanly. 

“But I gave it a lot of meaning, you know. I asked you what colour of flowers I should buy for you. You were like, ‘I won’t tell you a colour, buy what you think fit’!”

“…I asked you to assign me a colour.”

“…Yes. I assigned you a colour, and I assigned a meaning to the whole thing. I wanted you to see the colours I had chosen for you, I wanted you to see them right away. So I wanted to send them over by delivery. When you refused…” 

“…you misinterpreted it and…”

“…because you see, I felt that urgency and I got really angry when that urgency was not respected!” 

“I did not want someone else , some delivery guy, to give your flowers to me! I wanted to go get them from your own hands. We both wanted the same thing, but in different ways!” 

At some point during this back-and-forth, you had gotten up to go to the washroom. My urgent cruelty had not offered you the courtesy of a break; you too had far too much to say. The flow of words from our wounds had refused to let up, and now you stood looking back, still talking, while your body reared to walk away. How symbolic. Let us freeze the action here for a bit, and dive into a flashback, open a small file from our endless archival records. It was worse than you described it, much worse.

You had called and asked me my address, because you wanted to send me some flowers you had just bought. I refused, point blank. Because you had never told me your address in nine years, or ever invited me to your house. Though I did not have any justifiable claims on your house, it was a point of pride you probably should have foreseen. If you asked for my life, I would give it away in a heartbeat. But you asked for my address, and I felt obliged to deny you. That is how heartless I am. How come you never saw through me? As your voice turned more and more helplessly angry on the other side of the line, I kept on bantering with you like it was nothing. Everything and nothing always look alike, I guess. How was I to know? It was not the first time, after all, that we had exchanged flowers… When have mainstream signs ever bestowed on us mainstream meanings? From my point of view, I did my best. I asked you to meet me if it was that urgent, asked you when. If you had said “tomorrow morning,” I would say okay. If you had said “right now,” I would still say okay, and brave the night with a bemused shrug. But you said something different. You said, “I won’t.” Just two words, muffled with what seemed like childish obstinacy. Two words. So I laughed and replied, “Wow, that would be even better! It would be great if I don’t get them at all, and you keep my flowers forever…”  

Owing to some glitch in the matrix, you were holding your heart out to me one fine evening, and that — that — was the answer you got. Flashback over. Now here we were. You standing with your body half turned, about to walk towards the washroom but arrested by words. Me craning my neck from my seat like an owl, arrested by nothing short of you. 

“Nah, this is not getting over.” You turned around and sat down opposite me again. “It made me angry that I was having to try so hard. I wanted to send them immediately.”

“…And like everything that comes with such an urgency, it was ‘immediately, or not at all.’” 

“I wanted to let you know what I felt. Then and there.”

“But what you felt — it wasn’t real! You were trying to feel something!”

I stuck to my point, the point of my undoing. Cruelly. Like a suicide bomber clinging to his loaded clothes, about to burst into red.

“But it was real. That need for immediacy I felt was real.”

“…   Right.”

What could I say? For that one evening two months ago, it was real. History shrugs sometimes. That anger was the anger of sudden, unaccustomed reciprocation, too real to be true. The anger of desire denied — denied, with no warning, by someone whose feelings you had counted on. Did that, too, feel like betrayal? Had I, by default, joined the ranks of all the men in your life who betrayed you? To have any right over that anger you nursed, I could give up nine lives. It was never mine, never to be mine. It was mine by mistake for that one fiasco of an evening, until you saw sense and put it aside. 

“I did give you flowers, though, remember? Afterwards, when we met?”

“Yes, you did,” I mumbled, my smile yellow.

“You got my flowers. You didn’t get my colour. It was my colour that needed the immediacy, you see?”

And with that regal blow, you got up and strode away towards the washroom. 

I craned my neck again, for as long as you stayed within eyeshot. Big empty space. A lone waiter sitting at a distant corner. Tables, chairs, house plants, dream-catchers, bulbs. Organized, prim, dream café. The very picture of ruin. I could hardly move a muscle, only too aware of having just heard something momentous. The poem we were writing together swarmed my vision in a polychromatic swirl. Only a few finishing touches remained to be made. My turn. What should the next line be?  You returned, stood tall over me, smiled. I was ready.

“It’s okay that I did not get your colour, you know. I can hardly handle my own!” 

I had also planned to tell you what my colour was, but it stuck in my throat. Let us not be dramatic, I thought. Is this why I am so unappealing? Not a doer, not a sayer of passionate lines. Dispassionately intense. As you nodded, your smile turned heavy with the weight of the situation. Now it was my turn to visit the washroom, ask for the bill, return, and return your gaze. Before we packed up and left, you took up your scarf, put your hair through it, and turned it once around the whole cascade of hair, making a single loop through which the hair passed. It looked as if the scarf was just thrown over your shoulders, while in fact your hair held it in place and vice versa. My god.

“It’s a good thing that you did not give me those flowers, after all,” I murmured as the quiet outdoor warmth of afternoon engulfed our bodies once again, “Since I did not know the meanings you had attached to them, and the meanings you attached to them were not real…”   

We walked in silence. Were you furious again? If you were, your fury was cooler than water, softer than silk. Does my fury also feel like this. 

“Would you like to know what colour I assigned to you?” 

***

Maybe I should have stopped dead and stared like my insides stared. Maybe I should have burst out with surprised expletives like my insides did. But I walked on, with only a brief sideways glance at your mysterious face. — Why? A colour is meant to be seen, not told. I would never see it. Why did you want to tell me? Was it so hard to keep a colour to yourself? 

“No, thanks.” 

“…Okay.” 

“You can tell me if you want. But I cannot afford to want to know. I cannot afford to be curious about something that never belonged to me.”

“Right.”

We reached the crowded main road, crossed the street. I do not remember if you held my hand. How heavy did our heaven make you feel? Colour does not weigh less when you let it go. Whether you bestow it where it belongs or hold on to it because it does not belong anywhere anymore, it weighs just the same. Once you take it up, you carry it till all the leaves fall. Colours may change over the seasons, but they refuse to be put down. A colour goes all the way, even if you don’t.

People are just as fragile as flowers, you see… Just a bright, momentary mess. Only a small pressure from your finger, and a petal breaks. You try once again — surely it can’t be that weak? — and another petal snaps off. Before you know it, what was once a flower lies scattered on your palm, in five petal-shaped pieces. 

Then the decay sets in. We go back to black. Black  is the brightest shade of broken.  

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