Featured Artwork by André Letria
When they met, he was visiting her hometown. She had left the city of old forts, dust pink skies, giant roads and dry hills. He still lived there. They had one thing in common besides a shared city – cloudy grey skies in place of a heart.
Neither knew about the nursing heartbreak the other carried.
Later, he would call it his “dark times.” Her “dark times” had been going on and off for a few years, then. In the dark, she read. In the light, she read more. That evening, she was reading again. Camus. And Meursault. At Matteo, a coffee shop by a street named after a non-existent Church.
She happened to find him reading the blurb of a book she had left on the table, when she’d returned from the Ladies’ Room. She was annoyed.
“Excuse me”, she said coldly.
“Oh! Oh! I’m really sorry.” he said. He looked at her with worn eyes, lightened by the sudden cornering of rare mischief.
She immediately softened. This was a problem. She easily gave anyone who expressed some form of basic courtesy the immediate benefit of doubt.
“It’s okay.” She said and settled back into her seat.
He pulled out his phone and began texting away at the next table. She couldn’t seem to get back to her book. The Stranger, by Camus. Meursault’s inability to see beyond the now was pecking at her. Sometimes she wished she could help him see. But she knew that you could not insert a heart and expect it to beat. People didn’t work that way. But here, perhaps Meursault was the only one with a heart. And others could not see. Because societies worked that way.
She turned to him, “I’m sorry for intruding, but may I know what made you look into my book?”
He turned away from his phone. The creases on his forehead eased to form a forced smile.
“Uh….I’m actually doing a Master’s in Philosophy from IGNOU and I was reading up on existentialism recently and happened to come across Albert Camus. I wanted to look it up, but never got around to doing it, but then I just saw the book on the table and I couldn’t help it. I’m really sorry for invading your space like that.”
“Oh no, it’s okay. Master’s in Philosophy, nice! So, what do you do generally, are you a teacher or something?”
He laughs uncomfortably at this. She’s a little embarrassed now.
“No. I actually studied engineering, and then took a few years off to do the UPSC exam, finally passed it last year and now I work in the Department of Health and Family Welfare.”
“Oh wow!” she says. She is at that age when the government job is marketed as the ultimate goal of a settled life.
“Yeah! It’s not so wow, anymore, though!”
“You mean, all those years made you confront the existential, so now you’re turning to philosophy?” She is teasing. She knows this can go badly. And that she will be disgusted by herself, if this makes him close up. But she still finds herself saying it. Goading someone can be second nature if you enjoy the discomfort and power.
He smiles again. “Maybe, yeah, something like that.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry”, she says, ready to go back to her book.
“No, it’s alright. Um…”, He looks into his phone and then back at her, “Uh…my friends are going to be late…if you don’t mind me asking, are there any good bookstores around here that I can check out in the meantime?”
“Yes! Oh yes, in fact there are two on either side of this cafe – Blossoms on the third floor of the next building, and Bookworm after Wolfish – in the opposite direction.”
“Oh! Okay. Thank you, I can be a little bit of an absent-minded klutz sometimes, I should have been more aware and looked out. Anyway, thanks.” And he proceeded to get up.
She’s surprised by the sudden wave of disappointment.
Almost, as if in an afterthought, he turns back to her.
“I’m sorry, I’m Arjun. Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” she responds, “I’m Leila, by the way… um… are you on Instagram… it would be nice to keep in touch…”
“Oh! Um… okay, okay, yeah” and he gives her the name of his handle. It has something to do with the sky.
She writes it down on an open page of her book and looks up. He has a faraway look on his face. “Hmm, okay then, I’ll be off” he said with a tight smile, and walked away.
She stalks his profile after he leaves. Most of them are photographs – with friends, by himself. One of them is an underlined page of a book on Man’s Freedom. Another has a caption of rain, and another one of clouds.
Camus lay abandoned that afternoon.
They start sharing dank memes. There is shared comfort in the knowledge of meaningless pursuit. A few months later, they are tired of sending appropriate emojis and Insta-chat replies that cannot respond to specific texts. There are polite requests and phone numbers are shared. In the first moments of careful trust, she decides to indulge in the conversations. Until that day, she is reserved, afraid to scare him away.
One day, they talk about the rain. He mentions it casually, “It’s raining here.”
“Send me a piece of your Hyderabad sky”, she says.
He cannot see the sky from his apartment, so he goes to the terrace. Gulmohar clash against the grey aftermath of the monsoon storm. He sends it to her, “Um, it sort of stopped raining now.” She misses that city suddenly. She cannot understand this man who goes to the terrace to take a good photograph for her. She is still in Bangalore and will remain there, for a while.
When he’s in her city a few weeks later, she tells him she wants to take him down Church Street again. Because it is a thing she always wanted to do. Hold another’s hand and speak about the books she’s found in Blossom‘s. The little hexagonal shaped store that was the earlier Bookworm and how every time she took that little passageway from the Handicraft emporium to the road with the stores full of graffiti shutters, her heart would skip a beat. Because once, in college, some guys at a seminar told the audience full of pre-adults that Church Street was a centre for child trafficking. She also wanted to tell him how those roads made her feel somewhat less of a Bangalorean than to others who walked down the same road. For instance, when dressed in a kurta there, she would feel out of place. Dressed in jeans or a dress, not so much. And how, as she browsed the dusty shelves of Blossoms, she always overheard men and women with pro-nuance-d English accents that made her feel less of a reader. Although by then, she had written down the title of the 300th novel she had read in her blue spiral bound notebook.
He would smile at her, a little more easily than the first time she saw it, and she would know that he was adding the moments to the Before – the years preceding that day in Matteo.
She tells him she wants to walk through other parts of Bangalore with him. Until then, there is no boy she wants to do this with.
“Okay, and whenever you visit Hyderabad, we’ll walk those streets again. Together”, he says.
Weirdly enough, the streets of Hyderabad were more earmarked by her feet than Bangalore and its places. She says she wants him to visit Lalbagh first.
At Lalbagh, they sit by the stone steps and she tells him about all the scenes in movies where two people sit on the hood of a car and speak about life. She tells him stories of eve-teasers and exhibitionists. How everyone said women could never go to Lalbagh alone. Because all the women in her life who went to Lalbagh (with men) – her mother, a friend, and a teacher had had bad experiences. He tells her of Hussain Sagar and she remembers the twilight of her stay in the city of old forts and pink skies. She tells him that in that last month in Hyderabad, she stayed for hours by the lake with a girlfriend and even by twilight, they were unafraid. It was only as they were leaving, that a couple of men began to call them names. Names they wished their crushes would call them. Avni, her friend said “Dickheads!” under her breath. And for the first time, Leila saw rage and fury on Avni’s face. They caught the first auto to Nampally and there they were met by a guy friend and were safe again.
Arjun tells her the story of the chaiwallah by the side of the Buddha Statue. In his version, there are no dangerous men or runaway trips from the chai store.
She liked how she could talk to him. Maybe Meursault was incapable of making sense to society or his girlfriend because of his inability to say what people wanted him to say. An inability to perform. But performing meant uttering much-needed untruths. And it had a trajectory of its own – most likely ending in pain. Arjun had the memory of Sheila to remind him of that pain. She had the memory of Sailesh.
She also liked how Hyderabad and Bangalore formed interfering waves as they moved into unspoken territories. Love, and its remnants. A pandemic that would dictate it. Most often, the rain held these waves together. Some days, he would be jealous of the rain in Bangalore. Jealousy reminded her of Sartre and Beauvoir. A conversation she had with some colleagues in the midst of a gossip session. Some institutional politics, some governmental ones. And then a love story by a colleague who wanted to convert it into a play.
That evening, in the midst of attending twitter storms against farm bills and a lack of media coverage, she was searching for links she could send to the guest writers for the magazine. And she chanced upon the bookmark she’d created for the essay about the two lovers. She texted him. Sent him the New Yorker article on Sartre and Beauvoir and all the letters that scripted their marriage filled with jealousy and mutual lovers. Arjun read the article and, on a whim, wrote her a letter.
You and I, we are borderline nihilists believing the existential formulations of old men long dead (Where are the women’s voices?) I am not attracted to them; however, we are both drawn into the web that questions our existence. Perhaps our love is contained within these letters. Perhaps in moments we will have and have had – they meet in a quantum loop, carrying us within and outside itself. Perhaps this is a simulation of dreams we’ve held and caressed. Or perhaps these are strange realities and we are Mersaults trying to make sense of a world that does not like too many of us – us who think about thoughts and don’t know to perform them.
Through this uncharted reality, let’s hold on to small moments of meaning, love letters of a crazy man and his crazy lover, a book that we shared separately in a coffee house, and the promise of a love that numbs the questions of existence. Maybe that’s why Camus said Life was Absurd, and maybe that’s what Sartre meant by Meaning in existential disbelief.
PS: Are we now in a relationship?
Beauvoir was also an existentialist. And I think women in existentialism are best known in novels. I am personally in love with Woolf and her thought-meandering river, Drabble’s Jane Gray who keeps comparing herself to Therese Raquin. My most favourite is Chopin’s Edna Pontellier. (The Awakening is what happens when a woman writes Anna Karenina.) I’ll tell you about them when this is over and we finally meet in one of our cities.
That apart, your letter made me think.
You know? When I first read Camus in the university library at Hyderabad, it was raining outside and I couldn’t hold on to a thought. Maybe meaning is created only in conversations. And maybe love is the existential dregs of conversations that mean something.
PS: Do you want to be in a relationship?
Wandering Confused Soul,
Do we love because we want meaning? Or do we love because we want conversations? Or because we want to be heard in meaning and conversation?
Also, I’m sorry. I assumed women’s existential voices were erased. Maybe I’ll read some of those books before our conversations!
PS: Do you want me to want to be in a relationship?
Cloudy sky of ambiguity,
I don’t know. And this is not a performance.
And then, one evening, she walks down the streets of Church Street again. Everyone is wearing masks. She counts the fingers on her palm. She wonders whether she wants to be in a relationship because she is unable to be alone with herself. She suddenly wants to become a prisoner of her own self. Read so much that she will refuse to exit this prison, or walk all day by a stream – like Woolf. In the end, she calls him up that evening.
“Next time, let’s go to The Roastery,” she says.
“And you have to show me that little shop that sells cinnamon tea by the Chowmahalla gates.”
“Yes, and we need to go to Tipu Palace.”
“And NGMA with its 40 Rupees Sandwich.”
“It’s raining here.”
“So, do you want me to want to be?”
“Arjun, in the spaces when I left the book on the table, you entered it, and the words came out. But the words can wear out. And then, meaninglessness enters. But the spaces remain. Bangalore is home to me, because in the absence of words, it rains, and when I cry, the city holds me. Hyderabad did not do that for me. I spent raw moments in a fort built by the Qutb Shahi Kings. The spaces are bereft of words, of meaning and unaccepting of tears. That’s why it isn’t home.”
“But Leila, spaces expand with time.
She pauses this time.
“Meursault’s only fault was that he chooses words to insert into spaces at the wrong time!”, she says.
“I suppose. Do you think it is possible? If we decide to send words alternately? From Hyderabad to Bangalore. From Bangalore to Hyderabad?”, he says.
“We’ll be in a conversationship then.”
“I like that. Committed to love in words, meaning, and spaces in time.”
She liked being a conversationalist with him.
In time she realises that the first feeling of home in Hyderabad was the moment in the library – when she first met Meursault on the pages of an old book. Rain outside. Conversations of sadness within. No one to share them with. PhD students hunched with thoughts of their own. The old worn chair holding her body. Letting her be, in that space.
Time had a way of changing the meaning of words. Making you fall in love.
They weren’t wrong.
By Anna Lynn
A former teacher and current research scholar, Anna Lynn likes her choice of warm drink served with a book. The anxieties of a female heart are her muse and as the Woolfian stream passes, she presses watered images into writing. In between the commas lie her stories, poems, essays and book reviews. They find their way to her blog www.seagirlstories.wordpress.com and Instagram pages @seagirlstories and @lettersinthemargins. Mostly a confused wanderer, when she’s not obsessively reading, she is often found staring into the closest available Kantian sublime.