In the winter, trees all around the school turned red, carpeting the ground below them with ruby petals. At first, they lay there lush and full, their flaming crimson petals intact to their stalks. But every year, as children returned one by one, running over these carpets to hug their friends unseen for so long, the petals would bleed into the soil to brighten their path. When the soil would revert to its original state, catalysed by sunlight and footsteps, and the trees would become naked to expose their woody arms, we would know that it was time.
Time for senior students to end their arithmetic and literature and go off to other, newer chapters. To graduate into new roles, and leave behind this comfortable space they once called home. In the summer, when the naked arms began to cover themselves with clans of leaflets, stingingly green as if to announce their birth, the next year would begin with fresh starts and new excitements. But years ago, before they left, I saw some of them on their final days, walking under the crisscrossed shade of naked trees. They unlaced their shoes, unstrapped their sandals, to touch the ground with their own soles, their own toes. When they saw me, hiding and peeking from behind a trunk, they shouted: “Do you know why we send our dead into the ground, or ablaze them to be one with this soil? Because this ground is holy.
And before we pen down our elegies to this land that has nourished us, we will take off our shoes to feel it directly. Because this ground is holy. We will walk atop this sacred earth and let its dust collect over our skin. Because this ground is holy. And when your time comes, to bid farewell to what has raised you, you must too, walk bare-feet.”
Because this ground–it’s holy
The scent of eucalyptus filled the common room yet again, falling onto its colonial decor of carved wooden tables, cushioned sofas, and an out-of-place bed added later in time. The sun, escaping the room’s three windows blanketed in white embroidered curtains faded with dust and washes, fell onto the stone floor in three blocks of golden. Disturbing its perfect geometry was I, lying on the floor, head cushioned atop a warm thigh clothed in linen, its rustle audible only to my right ear, so intimately pressed against it. A pencil toyed around in my palms, while his occupied a novel.
I take no shame in my privilege, attending Latin and the classics in this selective college. I’ve earned it, and I learned it early on. It is the boon of my lineage and I treat it as no negative. It’s no fault of mine, no vice, simply what god rolled for me on his dice, he read aloud from a boring paperback to avoid the suspicion that our privacy and seclusion could create. His speech reverberating across the room, its emptiness replying to him in echoes. And with that he paused, snatching the pencil from my hands in haste to highlight this spoken prose. A feeling, that he revealed he found inside himself too; which while problematic, was an honest sentiment, stemming from his core: pride in his privilege, in his class and society. A repulsion from those less gifted with this roll of god’s dice.
Yet, instead of being blinded by this arc, I saw in his eyes something else—a strange, deep growth of intimacy. A touch beyond skin, flesh, muscle, the heart. A glimpse of his whole self, down and out, scars and all.
Catching the look of my eyes, he began to brush his fingers around and across the curls of my hair. Now woven together into a warm tapestry of flesh and locks, he unravelled it to move lower, onto the surface of my cheeks. Until he retreated them, only to place parallel to my side-turned head, his own, like a painting of shared faces, leaning against one another as if to seep into them.
We lay there, silently, as the cicadas cried their afternoon allegros, the wind rustling the eucalyptus branches in a slow swaying rhythm, letting its fragrance flow along. The chirping of birds harmonising, followed soon by the distant pedalling of a cycle, creaking and rolling its way out. A minuet of crowded footsteps joined in, becoming louder and louder, their gradual increase allowing us to savour our last seconds before drifting apart. Before changing our postures, our flow of words, their accents and their tones. Before turning into alternative selves, unidentifiable, concealed, covered.
“What’re you guys doing?”
Strangers for years, we walked around with gaping holes in our torsos. Like stencils ripped apart from a larger sheet, lost tiles from a jigsaw puzzle, floating around to quench their alienation, their estrangement. Until that class at half past one, on a Tuesday—a literature lecture by a visiting playwright on his latest adaptations of Shakespearian plays.
In sooth I know not why I am so sad, it wearies me, you say it wearies you, the playwright chanted. Rambled on to our listening faces, affirming the tone, this melancholic beginning, this jumping eight beat, these masculine Venetian landscapes—
“You!”, he said, pointing at me, “Come recite these for me.”
So I recounted, uncomfortably, the sorrow of Antonio, weary of lost love disguised through merchant ships at sea. But later, entered Bassanio, curled hair and sharp features, a gaping hole in his rear like a lost puzzle, a cut-out. Seen till now only in corridors and dining halls, he spoke, To you, Antonio, I owe the most, in money and in love.
Lectures ended and scenes wrapped, but our dialogue seemed to continue. At first, on the horror of stage-fright, his love for poets, verse, rhyme, and theatre. And days later: of schools, homes, families, and passed time. Months fled by and we kept going: troubles, fears, long lost years and relationships begrimed.
Till eventually, we stopped fitting the other in tightly packed schedules, instead planning our days around simple moments with them. Till eventually, he sent me a voice note of a recorded guitar tune of a beloved Beatles song, I once had a girl or should I say she once had me. Till eventually, our hands skimmed at day, and climbed rooftops at night. Beneath the open above, its dark skies and cloud cover, lying on tiles that dye your clothes a clay red colour, we realised our gaping holes were in the shape of the other. Our puzzles now pieced together.
Or at least I thought so.
And when I a – woke I was a – lone
Had I known what was coming for the rest of the year, I would have chosen differently. Made lengthy, wise decisions. Done it all carefully. Been slow and steady.
But no one did.
Had I known what was coming for the rest of the year, I would have spent longer on the walks and talks of late February and early March; adored deeply the green covers and spring breezes of boarding school life, that slipped by without notice; stared harder at the sunflowers that grew near the lake and the clouded skies of winter mornings; mentally captured each of their shades, strokes, and tones and penned them into Keatsian poetry.
But most of all, had I known what was coming, I would have avoided distance. I would not have asked him to give me the space I needed then, but instead to keep me closer. I would choose to be slow. Walked slower with him, stopping each step. Eaten slower around him, to stretch each meal. Talked slower with him to memorise each articulation, each syllable that rolled after another. But now it’s too late. Only the unforeseen lies ahead. I lost it all fast. But the mind doesn’t fail to spill some remembrances back time and again. The surprises at restaurants, the memory of every detail, Norwegian Wood for ringtones. The changing of personalities, the unconscious smiles, the problematic views.
“Told anyone?”, he would ask.
From glances in dim lit rooms that occurred without fear or worry, we strolled to the underground. The world of which secrets are made. Hushed meetings atop rooftops. Notes slipped in bag packs that lead you to isolated walkways. Two friends walking along, only to disappear all of the sudden. Away from the eyes of gossiping schoolboys and girls who could make you social pariahs.
Touch me, outside of their gawking pupils. Say my name, around talking trees that quell our words from eavesdropping auditors. Hold my hand, under starless skies that camouflage our figures. Yet, a forlorn Antonio was always accompanied by his Basanio—at dining tables for meals, for private stroll within a herd of walking students, a shallow conversation within a larger one with others.
Together in public, unsuspectingly strolling in the fogs of winters.
Privately wandering, inside post-its and whispers.
It was distance I asked for, and it was distance he gave me. But foolishly, greedily, I turned to God for more, which I was then given, too. Locked within a home in a cluttering, shouting city forced into silence. I traced the end of our affair to before the lockdowns, the deaths, the viruses, to late February. But last week, on a late night text chat, my dear friend Roma disagreed. It was much after late-February, she typed. Rather, she believed, it was the distance and isolation that followed in mid-March. The moment this space shrinks, connections will heal and re-heal. “It’s simply all this lockdown and separation, believe me.”
At first, all this lockdown-and-separation was a vacant, horrid silence. Quiet, day in and out, with birds chirping their loudest as if to mock our human foolishness. Roads wide empty in their muteness. Clearer city skies unseen by generations. Later though, all-this-lockdown-and-separation turned to books and tunes. Words from a list of summer quarantine reads and music to hum to in the shower. But slowly, there was voice. A weekly video call with ill at ease screens, black backgrounds and buttoned initials—PB, SM, TP, KR. Quicker then, without realising, one by one that emptiness exchanged itself for faces at homes, smiling and waving in silly childhood bedrooms to a digital screen.
But he remained absent from each one of them. No buttoned initials, no black backgrounds, no childhood bedrooms. At first, I wondered why, knowing how attuned he was to socialisation and attention. But I soon learnt of his inability, his self-consciousness to connect through mediums so intimate, taking you into private rooms, postered walls, and cushioned beds. Where was one to draw the lines between his and mine in a world where borders and bounds had been ridiculed by a sickness clawing over barbed wire and bricked walls? Where was one to begin? Late February or Early March? What was to be spoken of? Sunflowers by lakes? Clouded winter skies? Or distance itself that kept interaction limited to screens?
But even during my desired distance, he spoke to me. Before we left school, packing in haste to reach our homes, he left me a stockpile of sheet music with words scribbled in between trebles and measures. On returning to my desk that afternoon, I found them tidily left between the pages of a book. To the untrained eye, they might as well have been mutated lyrics for famous compositions. Only he and I knew, however, what really splayed those bars—unspoken words hurdled by time and flimsy decisions rued in the future. A letter to bid farewell.
I’ll never know someone who understands things the way I do. I don’t say it often but you know it, I know you do. I hope we speak again someday, one day.
That night as I texted Dear Friend Roma, she agreed with his words. Thus, she justified her inference, one of hope: it was simply the distance and isolation. The lockdown and separation. Call him, she wrote. Talk it out.
this bird had flown
Ringing phone by my ear, waiting to hear his voice, I realised that once again I was the one who stood waiting. Waiting for him to pick up the phone. Waiting for him to come sit at my dinner table, waiting for him to eat with me, waiting for him to walk with me, talk to me. It was this feeling of attention that he enjoyed, a social high of sorts. To know someone stood there waiting to walk with him, sat there all alone waiting to join them, stayed quiet waiting to hear him speak. When I confronted him about it, he relegated it to some sort of childhood insecurity.
“But in actuality, we’re all creatures of attention,” he preached profoundly.
“Shut your mouth,” I grinned.
That one windy Saturday afternoon of Winter Break, when the rain came out of season, was the only time he had waited for me. Sitting across one another for lunch at a restaurant. The plan was an afternoon to catch-up with gossip and all the recent updates of our lives. But one could hardly hear the other over the gush of rain. As he rambled on, muted and overpowered, I realised slowly that as I graduate in late-March and he stays on for one last year, the mind will let all these memories slip by. Drop by drop, each one will precipitate into lost time. And I knew the solution for it—to not shut my eyes for a moment; to stare harder and harder to remember every form, figure, and tone; to bottle every smell; to observe every muted articulation from his mouth; to document his arms, the curl of his hair, the smile of his eyes. I knew better in that moment than to let time or rain wash any of it away.
The number you have dialled is either switched off or not answering. Please wait on the line or try again later. And yet again, he left me waiting. Wasting days waiting for a call, a reply, a text saying busy rn, call u later. Unlike before, I detested being left alone, with no guarantee as to when he’d respond or if he’d respond.. Earlier, I knew that he’d walk to me, talk to me, choose to be with me. This time I was unsure. It was haunting, yet justifiable. Troubling, yet deserved. We were far from those winter skies and sunflowers-by-lakes, green covers and spring breezes. Far from farewell notes between music sheets for Norwegian Wood. What was left was a chosen distance widened by lockdowns and viruses. The gap of silence had made speech harder. Slow talks, memorising stares, and bottling scents had died with the old world. We needed a recreation and reinvention of relationships. A new way to connect, away from late February, clouded skies, and flower coated lakes. And the only way was to go drop by drop.
So I lit a fire
Winter Break ended with the pronouncement of a fresh whitened sun, glowing through the fog. Yet, the cold had not disappeared. I craved the white sun, its gentle heat amidst the gloomy shiver that the wintertide brought. He despised them, and refused to get out of the bed till all the white had turned to gold. The January afternoons were a sign for layers soon to be shed. Ripped off sweaters and torn down jackets now lay tied to waists, their sleeves in knots. Evenings got cooler and cooler till they became shivers. To see the sun setting was to reapply those woolen coverings. Walking from dinner to dorms were lines of adult-looking adolescents in wool, woven differently on each torso.
“I love winter clothing. It’s got a kind of warmth to it,” I proclaimed.
“Huh? Yeah, sure.”
Monosyllabic answers and padlocked masculinities. He was always a hard read, each page outlined with subtle metaphors and deep descriptions straying you away from the point. I knew what he wanted in such moods—to be asked if everything was alright, because opening up on his own was harder than a Herculean adventure.
“I have to tell you something, but I don’t know how.”
And that was when he confessed. Opened up to reveal another relationship, newly formed and more publicly acceptable, more straightforward to a default mind. One he would reveal to his friends, share with the world, be seen in without suspicion. One he wouldn’t have to hide in between strolls and conversations, or veil with brushed fingers and mistaken touches. The world seems so wonderful to those of us who grew to be sensitive and humane. Yet, at once, it can be so cruel. Tides wash in, bringing bit by bit the love, the hope, the smile of our eyes, only to recede and reclaim it. I took comfort in the sincerity of our relationship despite the apparent flatness of our friendship. I had belief in the wholeness, in the curves of this connection, flipping from gossip to informal debates, something we read in sociology to that tiny column on page three. But this time too, it was one-sided.
Things changed. It was he who waited now, who asked the questions, who ate alone in hopes of being joined. But like me in the present with phone calls declined, it was he who had begun to wait without assurance of being accompanied. It was troubling to pretend to share a relationship I knew was crumbling into mush.
I need some space. I think we should stay away from one another for a while.
He refused at first, but understandingly complied. Within days we heard of a strange epidemic washing over fences and boundaries. Over weeks, it turned into a pandemic, the incidents moving closer and closer. That unnamed family in Bombay, the foreigner in the North. Within a fortnight, we were out. Asked to pack up, cover faces, wash hands and return home. The distance widened, stretched across miles. No voice, no sound, just silent streets from polished windows. It was warmth I needed, not space.
is – n’t it good, Nor – we – gian Wood ?
The nights made sleep unamenable, while days seemed to gush past between that chirping bird at 4 AM through ten consecutive episodes on the television. Phones now lay hidden away as the body tired itself from them. The routine calls started at 7 PM with hopes to end in two hours, but slowly moved from 9 to 10, continuing till almost dawn. This lockdown and separation.
From winter skies to horrid silence. From sunflower-lakes to muted cities. From mid-February to the present. Memories, trapped in the mind as catalysts to keep love alive. Praying and praying to keep the dying alive–it’s a strategy for suffering. It bars them from leaving, forces them to stay. It was a feeling of attention he enjoyed, a social high of sorts. Relegating it as some sort of childhood insecurity, he preached: “But in actuality, we’re all creatures of attention.” It is with this trait, this desire for care, that we pray. Attempting to keep alive the past in a world of change. But foolishly, we fail to realise our selfishness, in retaining that which has done its time. Things of the past have done their time, inked us in ways we can never wash off completely. Let time and rain wash away as much as it can, gently, gently.
In August, the rain came. The clouds got heavier, floating over oceanic skies rid of smoke and dust. The comfort of polished windows through which I painted these picturesque heavens was all I did in the monsoon. Memories were bleeding now, lost drop by drop as isolated time passed. The stared moments had faded, despite the grip with which I held my eyes, sharp and observant. The bottled sounds were now voiceless, trapped in the past, never to be heard again.
I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me. She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood? My phone was ringing from its hidden corner. She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere. I moved from the comfort of the polished windows that today showed a crimson sky descending into the deserted twinkling of nighttime. So I looked around and I noticed—
Tanmay is a sophomore in Sociology at Shiv Nadar University, India. He prefers to spend his time making art and watching home makeover videos.