On my way upstairs by Anannya Dasgupta
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I should go up I thought, as I turned off the ignition but sat in the car for a good long while instead, windows rolled down, the soulful lament of Madredeus still playing on loop, the sickly sweetness of the frangipani wafting in from a bunch that hung from a tree directly over the parking spot. I sat there, my head resting on the steering wheel. I didn’t care for my car to be fancy, but the music system and the speakers had to be the best. ‘O Pastor’ in the full richness of its sound resonated in my bones, splitting them into fine, brittle shards.

 

Oh no one returns/ To what one has left/ No one leaves the/ great wheel/ No one knows where they have been

 

It was late enough for the night to be deserted. Cars neatly resting in their spots, the rear view glimpse of the chowkidar dozing in his chair at the entrance to the building reminded me of how I longed for rest. Anger and hurt slowly receding had given way to a restlessness I could not calm. This sorrowful song was meant to soothe, to gather and reassure, but it had not worked as intended; the syllables in the melody imploded as they landed on me, made my heart burst and my brain haemorrhage, and there was no one I could say anything to; there was no voice to say it with, save the one screaming inside my head: how? how?

 

Oh no one remembers/ Not even what one has dreamt/ And the small child sings/ The shepherd's song

 

I couldn’t just keep sitting there. I had to do something. I remember getting out of the car. I remember a deep and heavy haze. I remember the smell of smoke. I thought I’d walk around inside the apartment complex for a bit before going up to my apartment. It was still. My tread felt heavy and unrelieving. But there was nothing else to do. I pushed myself through lead, through iron, carrying the dead weight of the night. Where was the shepherd who could stay my wandering and gather me in song?

 

I had left the crematorium soon after the jaws of the incinerator had opened and the rails had rushed her into the fire. I could feel her skin melting, her skull exploding, her hair, her beautiful hair turning instantly to ash. I got into the car and drove through the clogged Delhi traffic that never seems to reach anywhere. Keeping level with impatient drivers, I found myself on the highway to Gurgaon and speeding up as the traffic thinned past the exit to the airport. The relentless afternoon, the roads, the speeding cars, people walking, crossing the streets, riding in trucks and motorbikes, cycles, all alive, everyone. I drove on and drove back, drove through busy roads and markets of fruits and vegetables, people in rickshaws, readymade clothes hanging on mannequins from shopfronts, men selling food on roadside carts, pie-dogs looking beaten, tails between their legs, the rotting smell of garbage. The smoke billowing out of the chimney was her. Bits of ashes that blew out with the smoke was her. One wisp of ash that settled on my arm was all that was left of us. I didn’t brush it off.

 

I stopped at a roadside stall for a bottle of water. I drank some. I let the rest gush over me and drench my shirt. I stopped at a petrol pump. I drove back to the road on Vasant Kunj where someone ran her over in the middle of her early morning walk. What is that person doing now? Must be hoping that she is not dead and that no one saw what happened. No one saw what happened. How could that be? My phone rang. I didn’t answer. I turned it off and waited by the side of the road. People driving to the mall. Movies. Food. Students and teachers going to the university. Libraries, canteen, hostel. There is so much purpose for the living. People going home together. People going home alone. I had to go home too, besides I had no claim on her ashes.

 

As I walked, my body like thick rubber glove, the details of the day floated away; all sounds became a faraway, hollow echo. The night turned cool. Lapwings called out to each other and I walked. I counted my breath, letting my foot fall with every exhalation. The apartments rising out of the grounds in towers loomed menacingly tall over me as I walked mindlessly, heartlessly around them, winding up an invisible spool of thread. Binding, binding, binding lose ends. In this faraway suburb, where concrete still competes with wild kaash flowers every October, I had found a way back to my body, to myself only to be torn open to wandering and wilderness again. But this was inevitable, was it not? I walked wrapping unspooled thread around the concrete towers, ordering chaos out of habit. Habit, I thought, is clothing, what we wear once the spooled thread is made into cloth and cut and stitched, ready to inhabit. My shirt hung loosely from my shoulders, my body fraying in threads.

 

On the days she stayed over, we did this walk together in the evenings, sharing stories from the day, of all that went on at work that looked so different from my glass office and her work desk. Sometimes we’d argue about whose turn it was to cook dinner and who would do the dishes. Invariably I did both and she helped, perched on the counter-top nibbling on the vegetables I had chopped. Sometimes we did the walk after dinner, with the promise of ice cream afterwards – vanilla with sliced fruit, nuts and a drizzle of honey, just how she liked it. We’d walk and we’d talk. She would tell me about her life from before we knew each other, of when she was a little girl, times in college, her ongoing separation to end, hopefully, in a not-long-drawn divorce, and her parents who had still not made peace with its inevitability. I would listen and tell her how much I loved her. The trees came alive those nights and the stars poured light into my soul. I walked by her side, my heart full. Everything that came before her, all loves all losses added up to little compared to what the universe had heaped on my old heart now. If only she’d let me proclaim her from the rooftops. It would only complicate our workspace and our lives she said as she wove us into a cocoon. My universe shrunk-fit into my two bedroom apartment, and my two-bedroom-apartment life expanded to fill the universe.

 

On one such walk, in the few weeks of our getting to know each other, while we were still on the shores of ourselves, quite out of context, she had said to me that her deepest fear was that she’d die violently in a road accident. I made light of it and asked her not to be morbid. But she refused to let it be dismissed. There was a childish earnestness in her that gripped my heart. Will you make sure that I die peacefully in my sleep? I looked into those large beautiful eyes; took her hand in mine and found myself reassuring her. Of course I will. I will take care of you. I will make sure you are at least eighty before you nod off to a nice long sleep. She smiled at the joke looking reassured. How about you? She asked. I don’t like to think about dying, I said. I didn’t tell her that I wouldn’t have minded dying even that minute. For life must surely be harder than death. Outliving loved ones is worse than dying. Having outlived a spouse I can say that for sure. If I could help it, I wouldn’t ever let her be hurt that way. And I had meant it too. Though, so much older than her, so much closer to the final breath, what were the chances that I’d indeed be the one to bear the grief I so wanted to spare her? The rest of our walk that evening was solemn, each touched by the unshakable fragility of our existence.

 

That night, in bed, she rolled over to my side and hugged me close. When I turned around to face her, she took my face in her hands and kissed me, deeply with all the longing in the world. I put my arms around her and nested her body in mine, soothing her back, kissing her over and over again. Lips, eyes, nose, forehead, ears, throat, breasts, arms, midriff, stomach, thighs. I was, and maybe she was too, taken aback by the force of how much I wanted her, how much we wanted each other. We made love holding on to each other, loving each other in the shadow of imminent loss, reassuring ourselves in each other’s full and assured presence. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t let any harm come to her.

 

Sometimes we’d drive out at night after the crushing office traffic had reached home. The Expressway empty, wide and lit up like a runway to space and the two of us intrepid travelers through the sky. She’d ask me to play ‘O Pastor’ and she’d sing along. She had found the lyrics online and memorised them.

 

Ao largo/ ainda arde/ a barca/ da fantasia/ e o meu sonho acaba tarde/ deixa a alma/ de vigia

 

She had a penchant for sad songs. She collected the Blues and loved Fado. Though she sang from rote memory, words in Portuguese flew off her tongue like sorrowful birds. A truly sad song is actually light on the edges she’d say; a truly sorrowful song is uplifting because it makes you admit to sorrows you won’t speak of. She was right. The solace of her presence settled in me and I was happy listening with her, listening to her. When I dropped her back to her house in Vasant Kunj, she’d want to invite me in but never did and I never asked her to. I understood her hesitation. I’ll be awake till I get a call from you when you get home. She was always anxious about my late night drive back to the other end of the NCR. No one is going to want to mug your old man, I’d joke. But I made sure to call her as soon as I pulled into my parking spot under the frangipani tree because true to her word she would be awake waiting.

 

Out there burning still is/ The vessel of fantasy/ And my dream ends late/ Leaving my soul as a watcher/ Out there burning still is/ The vessel of fantasy/ And my song ends late/ Awaking is what I do not want

 

I had left the concrete walkways and wandered into the gardens by the gym. The swimming pool gurgled chlorine. The smell awakened me from my dazed sleep walking. I was exhausted. I let myself drop on the cool grass by the pool. Soothed by the sound of the falling water, I must have fallen asleep.

 

Uthiye, uthiye. Aap theek toh hain? I open my eyes to the alarmed prodding of two chowkidars. The skies had lightened. They helped me up wanting to know which building I lived in, but I shrugged them off and started walking back. It took me a few moments to regain the shape of myself emerging from a day that I knew would carry me into the unforeseeable days to come.

 

I walked back to the car to collect my things. Freshly fallen frangipani on the roof and bonnet of my car were waiting to be swept away by the car cleaner already at work a few cars away. The chowkidar of my building, now awake and strolling by the parked cars, raised his hand in greeting, surprised to see me downstairs so early. I returned his greeting on my way upstairs.

 

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Anannya Dasgupta is a poet, photographer and a college teacher who lives in Delhi. Out of Print published her very first story a few years ago and she hopes to keep writing with them. She is grateful to the Dum Pukht Writers Workshop where this story came to be.