This is Delhi, my adopted home.
I’ve spent my day in Chandni Chowk, looking for a shop that would repair my Vivitar camera. I finally found one. Everyone finds what they’re looking for in Chandni Chowk. The place is an auctioneer’s three wishes come true, the mother of all bargain basements. At all times, it buzzes with activity, from the shops that have sprung up, repairing and selling cameras and watches, both the genuine and the cheap look-alikes, and the stalls with chiffons and net georgette billowing in the wind, to the blinding flash of a bangle shop. This is the part of Delhi that gets you, the Ostentatious tells the Quiet, and the Quiet nods her head in response. The Mediator smiles at her two selves for now, while looking out over the ramparts of the Red Fort. It is a battle far from over, for, very soon, the Quiet will take an opportunity to lord over the Ostentatious. Meanwhile, the Atheist breathes in deeply, and takes in the view.
How strange it is, the Querulous wonders. I’ve lived here in this city for close to seven years now, yet this is my first proper visit to the fort. My first visit, since I was a five-year old child in a powder blue jumpsuit, walking along with the customary traveling pair of Bengali parents. (Bengalis travel – that’s what we do, intrepid pioneers of the first order!) Of course, I don’t remember much from that first trip, and I have to depend, instead, on the glossy photographs in the glossy album, with the picture of a sultry woman on top, too much dark red lipstick. This was a long overdue trip, I know, says the Finalist to the Querulous, who is satisfied for some time.
“Have I seen you before?” he says now, interrupting the Slave’s entropy, the Rationalist’s reason, the Quiet’s planning, the Ostentatious’ revelry, the Quiet’s truce, the Querulous’ satisfaction and the Finalist’s answer. “You look familiar.”
“I’m sorry I don’t think so.” But no, I’m not sure, really. The Querulous is bubbling with a new question now: could he be…? The Quiet is suckling on a finger.
“Are you sure? Are you Bengali? Perhaps, in Calcutta?” The crow’s feet around his eyes are strangely exciting, the Ostentatious notes, and smiles in quiet mystery, imitating the Quiet.
I think back now, and a part of me remembers something, a brief encounter, a shared walk down a tree-lined road – “In front of the Grand Hotel? The Bookshop?”
He laughs, a sound that seems to fill our immediate surroundings, and I feel myself smile with him. (The Rationalist is stumped, and can’t think why.) For I remember him. That’s the one. He’s the one. The one in front of the book stall before the Grand Hotel, in Calcutta. Not very long ago, actually. The Ostentatious smiles again, glad to have her guess proved right.
“Aa, yes! The bookshop, and then we walked down Chowringhee, but you took the metro at Maidan. How was the book, by the way? Have you read it?”
A copy of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and my own multiple Children smile in delight at the thought. The book had been well read, and sat now, on top of my bookshelf back home in GK. I have a very neatly arranged bookshelf, and another one for music, the Atheist surges in pride.
“I have. It’s a brilliant book. But what brings you here to Delhi? This is such a complete surprise, seeing you here!” The wind is toying with the light cotton stole I’ve wrapped around my shoulders, and he rescues the sash that threatened to blow away. Delhi is like that, you know – free.
He smiles and comes closer. The Mediator does not mind, the Quiet is a bit shocked, but is shushed down by the Querulous, who wants to know more, as usual. “Well, I think I told you that I have relatives here – in CR Park. My cousin just passed his college exams, so I came down for a quick visit. And where do you stay?”
“South Delhi. GK.”
“GK? Phase one or two? I’m in Phase Two myself.” We’re walking back towards the Queen’s hamam. Whitewashed now, once inlaid with precious stones and jewels. Whitewashed now.
“I thought you were in CR Park... how come GK?” I play with him, and the Ostentatious smirks in approval. The Slave is a little worried, however.
He smiles again, and says, “No, I said, my relatives live there. I prefer not to stay there when I’m in Delhi. My company has a guesthouse in GK Two, M-block, and I usually stay there. Very nice place.”
“I’m in M-block, too.” Demure? I like him. I liked him then, at the tea shop in front of the Maidan metro station in Calcutta, but I thought it strange to have tea with him then. But this is Delhi. This is my turf. How strange an effect territory can have on a person, the Querulous wonders, and the Mediator shrugs in response.
“What a coincidence,” he says, in the tone of a man who never believes in coincidences, and the Rationalist in me laughs. I find him funny, I find myself retarded at times, perhaps it’s the place that does this to me.
“So, what do you have planned for the day?” he asks, as we pause in front of the red sandstone gateway. Brilliant view, the Atheist sighs, but I don’t’ know whether she’s talking about the man or the fort, smirks the Ostentatious.
“I should ask you that. You’re the tourist here. What do you plan to do, after the Red Fort?”
“Well, actually, I wanted to catch the son et lumiere show they have here. I’ve heard a lot about it. It’s supposed to be very good. Would you like to watch it with me? It should start within a few minutes. It’s already begun to darken.”
I’d planned on doing the same. My camera had been given for repair. I had taken leave from work for this. I had nothing else planned for the day. A sound and light show at the Lal Qila had seemed like a good idea, the perfect way to round up my day at Chandni Chowk, so I said, ‘yes’.
There are few things as romantic as a kiss in the evening haze. Some things that are supposed to be, are not really so. That doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure what does. How do I explain it all? I’ve never been one for talking tall. I’ve never been one for expressing myself. It’s simply too much trouble. People have all these preconceived notions about me, for some reason, and most of my effort goes in trying to dispel those, in the first place. Like the one she had, of me in CR Park. Or, when she thought, back in Calcutta, that I was one of those hundreds of educated intellectuals roaming the streets of a dying megapolis in the eternal quest for something… atheistic.
But she was different this evening, from that first time I saw her, hunched over a bookseller’s wares in the Grand Arcade in Calcutta. She seemed less skittish, less poised to run. There was something that teased me here, and something in her that delighted in that. I like her multiple selves. I liked the fact that a thousand lips, and a thousand souls behind those thousand lips, kissed me back, when I reached over.
What was the sound and light show about? A different age, and different people. An emperor who lived in an old India, and built castles and forts, and defended his empire. He levied fabulous tribute from his vassals, and his people lived in prosperous harmony. A princess who skipped through the lanes of Chandni Chowk, and bought glass bangles, and her mother who distributed gold mohurs in payment for the glass trinkets that her daughter picked up. Another foolish king who wined and dined away his kingdom, playing with his harlots, while the enemy burnt his castle down, so that he fled, forever reviled by his former people. And an earlier emperor, an amorous one, who built the world’s most famous monument to love.
Her kiss was hungry. Soft and searching at first, not sure as to what she may find. Something a good Bengali girl has been taught to do, through generations of self induced hesitation. And then the lustful abandon, as she decided to take the plunge. That makes it seem almost vulgar. But that is, what it was. Abandon, and even vulgar. A conscious decision to open her mouth, flirt with my tongue, lick my oral cavity, bite my lips, feel the flush and rejoice in the power. I was that mad king with his harlots, but I had a thousand here, while he only had a hundred. My thousand girls were so much better attuned to what both I and they needed, and they loved me.
A word I am ever unsure of, and try to run away from. A whole world, rather than a word.