— Dedicated to a friend
(Inspired from the lives of a few real people)
An amorphous rain stifled the city, wetting us with pixie dust of an otherworldly romance. A few cars slid past in the wake of an earlier torrent. The streets were mottled with the vestiges of withdrawing umbrellas and blurred neon lights. The dying notes of Für Elise closed behind us. She smiled one last time, started to say again that it was nobody’s fault, but stopped when the departing bus caught up. Then a flash of light signaled another impending downpour and I was left alone on the kerb for a long time.
I remember sitting at Mr. Remarkable’s oblong dinner table as a child, my legs swinging like twin pendulums under the wooden tabletop. Not long after, Maa had whispered to me that I needed to stop that annoying habit, and everybody had whispered to one another that it was not okay for Mr. Remarkable to marry someone at his age.
‘But I am not marrying her’, Mr. Remarkable had said, shaking his head vigorously. ‘We are just living together.’
‘That is worse, Baba’, Ajit Da had protested. ‘Did you think for a moment what people will say? Did you think how we would feel? How Maa would have felt about this?’
For a long time, Ajit Da’s Maa had smiled at us from her mantelpiece picture. I had wondered if Mr. Remarkable would have it removed, if the combined weight of its frame and its memories would be too heavy for him to carry. I was not an adult then, did not see the world from the lens which Ajit Da could don at will. My teenage heart romanticized love; my sympathies were with Mr. Remarkable.
I had been in love that year — my very first romance: Shruti. You do not know her. She had lived in the next town, quite at some distance. We did not even go to the same school. I had known it was love when I had covered this distance. When, from knowing of her, I had gone to knowing her and it had made all the sense in the world. And all the world had made more sense. I had spent hours listening to Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso lying on my back, while my fingers had traced imaginary piano keys up in the air, waiting, wishing, hoping and resigning bit by bit into the confines of my one true love. I still play that tune sometimes, still waiting, still wishing.
In those days, our schools had easy winters. We sat unchallenged at our desks — maroon blazers on our backs and perfect Windsors at our throats — all through the final months in our senior years, never flipping the pages of our textbooks. Outside, the world looked as if someone had pressed the pause button, for nothing moved save the ephemeral smoke rings our lazy whistling would birth. The school walls shielded us from the city and the patterns of revised adulthood that we were too young to learn. No, our brash and adventurous selves kept us safe, kept us children for a while before it was time to grow up.
While the stench of cigarettes dissipated, I had looked up at the clear blue skies and wondered if Shruti and I would forever be together. If there was truth enough in Kajol running across the platform to hold Shahrukh’s hands. If Shakespeare could be frozen at ‘Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ and be heard no more. Each of us had had a girlfriend to dream of, and each of us a love story that would not end in happily ever after.
So I had asked Mr. Remarkable if he would remove the picture from the mantelpiece. ‘Is it not difficult’, I had asked, ‘to forget your yesterday for something that you think will give you a better tomorrow?’
Mr. Remarkable smiled. ‘Why should I forget’, he had asked, ‘and how can I forget someone from my past without forgetting a part of myself?’
‘Do you mean then’, I had ventured hopefully, ‘that you can look to love someone tomorrow if you also love someone from yesterday?’
‘And what of today? When have we ever lived in the present’, Mr. Remarkable had asked, ‘and not in the fictions of prospects and memories?’
Our examinations had begun in January the next year, and would have ended in June. Then, I had memories of Shruti, coloured by the kaleidoscopic confinements that all good memories have. But there had been no prospects for us. Perfectness does not last, and I believe now that it is just perfect that way. Then, however, I was young, heartbroken, and terrified. Our lives as star-crossed lovers had come to an unfitting end. There had been no platform rushes, no grand speeches, and none of the other million fairy tales which I had invented. The end had not come sauntering; it had thundered past us like an express train. It was all over one day for me, a month later for her.
Mr. Remarkable and I had spoken about these days later. I had asked him what happened to great love stories when they ceased to be great. Or about love. Or stories.
‘No Ayush’, he had explained, ‘The literature of love is not to be blamed for the miseries of its monsters or men. That is not what it seeks to do.’
‘Then of what use is the literature’, I had wondered, ‘that makes love make men out of monsters, if it does not keep them that way?’
‘Well, we draft trivialities when love transforms men into monsters or monsters into men. The truly great stories are when love makes a man more of a man, or a monster less of a monstrosity.’
‘And you think that it sticks? That I can write something today that will make you eternal?’
‘Can it make me guiltless?’
From feeling deceived, I had graduated to feeling guilty because I could not craft a brilliant love story with Shruti. A bad story is poor wine for a writer — it makes misery more miserable. A winter passed and then another, and we emerged outside our caves of impudence and childhood. We had learnt how to live with the jagged handwriting of a weak plot in an old manuscript. The stark realities of everyday lives had taken a toll on our dreams, our friendships and our stories. We had all stopped writing.
Mr. Remarkable’s wife had died one fine afternoon from what people had called cancer and Ajit Da had called destiny. She had called for Mr. Remarkable, slurred, spat and slept in her own discharge, never to wake up again. The bearers had transferred her into clean white linens and taken her away in a golden hearse. Mr. Remarkable had been visibly disturbed by the entire affair. In the months that followed, he could not be seen at any gatherings. People had said that he had divided his retirement equally between his work and his room. But I had always hoped he would come out of the room one day, wearing his glazed off-white kurta over casual pajamas, and everybody would remark, ‘Look! Here comes The Romantic Mr. Remarkable.’ He had to some day, so that we could be inspired in love and its loss, and in the romance of it all.
But no one had seen him when he had come out of his room to declare his moment of moving on. Except his wife, perhaps, who would have marveled at him from her new place on the mantelpiece. The Romantic Mr. Remarkable had then walked up and down a few paces to the balcony and back. The world would have changed for him and he for the world, but all of it is was insignificant. Moments from then, he would have decided to walk out of the house, and impress upon everyone that all was normal again. He would then have realized that the world did not need it, that he himself was normal again, and all was perfect and insignificant then as it could ever be.
On the day I had seen him strutting down the street, I had realized that the literature of love held more in store for me. That someday, I would walk down a similar street somewhere and I would know that everything was just as it needed to be. That there were places to visit on every map and people to meet and things to do. We had all seen Mr. Remarkable that day, and we had all realized that the time he had spent in that room was a time he had spent there for all of us. That we would be spared the dispassionateness of a world lost if only we remembered the promises of a world anticipated.
I did not remember this while I waited on the kerb for the rain to stop. I did not remember this for many more rainy nights to come. The world aged one day at a time, all days similarly grey and separated by incisive bolts of lightning. The rains misbehaved that year, pouring sometimes all at once and sometimes not at all. And for five months it breathed down a moist haze on my bedside window, obscuring the city.
Five months since I had last heard Beethoven, I saw a remarkable sight. I raced past rising smoke rings and mantelpiece smiles. I sprung over piano keys and crawled through Shakespeare’s lines. I walked down to the intersection right into a cloud of amorphous rain. There, finally, I revelled in its insignificance.