Isn’t it strange, that we only have a handful of memories as father and daughter, and a thousand more as friends? I am sitting here, staring at a blank word document, as I scribble these words in Calibri, because of course, writers write in Calibri and add an extra dollop of esoteric gravitas with it.
Perhaps it was time, perhaps fate, maybe it was sheer bad luck, whoever knows? But by the time you came home, I was already seventeen, a woman, a little chipped at the corners, but still standing.
Of the handful of memories I still have of us as being family, my favorites are fortunately still existing somewhere in the celluloid tapes inside a handy-cam cassette. I remember your years in Kosovo, how every three months you would send us a bunch of cassettes, then a privilege really, to own a handy-cam and a Whirlpool microwave, the latter still functioning in our dysfunctional family kitchen in a miraculous manner, and how Ma, my sister and I would sit, cooped up in front of the dilapidated television set, after cautiously connecting the wires of the two machines.
I remember your voice, still distant and unfamiliar, as if the voice of a guest we would often wait for, from a time when your appearance at home meant closed books, the utter rejection to study and eating the most delectable meals that Mom cooked, a time when it meant that the clock was not set at 10 PM sharp to go to sleep.
I remember how you had shown me the Parthenon for the first time through your eyes, how the statue of Athena resembled Durga, and how you were so desperate to show me the similarities with that tiny little video camera. I remember when you had visited the ice museum, and said that the father polar bear was embracing the child bear, just like you would often embrace me. And I had been young, so very young, that I had not realized your voice breaking a little, I had not realized you had been heartbroken, and I had only basked in the happiness, foolishly, of being the center of attention instead of my sister.
And then you came home, came home to your family, your visit did not beget a festival, a birthday, a grand celebration, because why celebrate the homecoming of family? Why, indeed. I was fifteen, the first time I had been so angry and disappointed at you. It had been a trivial reason, really. Something about you not being around on my birthday at a town where you were then posted. And I had been sad, a little distant, and unhappy even at times, cuddling mongrels in your bungalow, when you had sent the biggest rohu I had ever seen. A fish! A fish, because you knew I was really a kitten with mangy little claws and I could only be calmed by the tastiest fish in the river. I remember you coming home at 11:45 that night, just 15 minutes until Christmas would set in, and I had not noticed how exhausted you had been, as I finally decided to cut my birthday cake in your presence.
But one evening, somewhere between eighteen and nineteen, you had found me broken, crying, wallowing into depression little by little, and cried with me. And perhaps, on that evening between eighteen and nineteen, we became friends, as we crossed the threshold of being father and daughter. I remember the words you always say, that I am your God-gifted child, and most of the times, I do not wish to believe a single word of it, but sometimes, just sometimes, it feels good to be considered a hero instead of a sub-plot, doesn’t it?
I have had many heartbreaks ever since, I have cried buckets over failed love, failed happy endings, failed bliss and failed identities, and you had embraced me tight, not even wanting to put my broken pieces back together, and been broken with me.
I am not your ideal daughter, far from it. I am unpredictable, irrational, impulsive, too headstrong and stubborn for my own good, too lost in the grand narratives of life to actually concentrate on a single person in life, until you shake sense into me, before sanity leaves the building again.
I have been troublesome, tiresome and a handful. Also, I promise you that I have no intention of being perfect in the near future either. But I am glad you do not try to fix me, I am glad you do not try to fit me into a box, I am glad you see me as the unsuitable wild child that I am, and I am glad you love me as the imperfect little goblin that I generally am prone to be.
I am glad, Dad. I am just glad to have you in this post-apocalyptic narrative that I am often forced to call my life. And I guess in my own way, I love you as much as you love me too.
The evening falls in like the caress of a lover. The lights dim, and a heart of darkness is awakened. A faceless pianist plays a rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in a jazz bar in Tokyo. Hajime, the narrator, sits there, at home and yet stranded, sipping his last drink of the night, when the doors open, and in comes a woman, a woman with a face he treasured in another life.
In 1992, Haruki Murakami penned a story that started in a quaint little town in Japan in the 1960s and sped across decades into the heart of a beguiled jazz-loving romantic Tokyo. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition of the swansong that was Hajime’s life, one intermixed with love and melancholia in equivalent proportions, and narrates a simple, and eerily futile, tale of an ordinary man’s life, a man burdened by enormous dreams.
Growing up as a lonely single child, Hajime the child finds friendship and the first pangs of unrealized love in the company of Shimamoto, his childhood friend. Carrying her memories and the symphony of Nat King Cole’s ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’, half-remembered in the sounds of vinyl records and the silence of afternoons, Hajime steps into adolescence. He finds love in the arms of his classmate and girlfriend, Izumi, and yet, the sense of incompleteness, of inadequacy, never truly deserts him.
Ending the relationship at the cost of being haunted by ghosts of regrets and guilt in years to come, Hajime the dreamer comes to Tokyo, where he continues his education and gets himself a job as a book editor, only to be disillusioned by the monotony of his existence.
The following years are spent as Hajime the young man who finds stability and settlement in life, as he makes a home with his wife Yukiko, and opens up two successful jazz bars with the help of his father-in-law in the popular city. Yet the memory of the wraith from an unfinished love story never truly leaves him, giving him only a half life in return.
That is where Murakami uses his sheer brilliance of language to create a trance and uses his knowledge of music to frame a sequence that forever emblazons itself into the reader’s mind, somewhere after a third of his short novel is completed, as he reintroduces Shimamoto, the phantom of Hajime’s past in the heart of his present, inevitably creating the most iconic turning point of the plot.
Spinning a tale that follows a lucid trajectory, South of the Border, West of the Sun is by no means a complicated novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It does not drive you to constantly be on your toes, or crave for further details. Instead, it flows like a stream of words that gradually woos you into its lull, offering you the aftertaste of melancholy and inadequacy behind.
But the essential soul of the novel lies in the spin of its words. Murakami masterfully injects a unique Murakami-like melody to his words, threading the spaces in between with music, especially jazz, as he sews in a heartland of ineffectual romanticism. In an act that is not often associated with the writer, he lets the grand narrative and the overarching threshold of the novel supersede the character depth, letting the sequencing of events speak bounds about it instead.
And with this conjugation of music and lyrics, Murakami lets the novel transcend to a plane hitherto achieved by a handful of contemporary books, where language creates visual frames of reference with every change of sequence. From a description of poring rain to the sunrise in the end, the words weave themselves to embody a lens, something to view Murakami’s world with.
Another added layer of penmanship is the rise and fall of the counter-development of characters. Even if Hajime is the compass of visualizing the plot, Murakami lets Shimamoto rise as a concept perceived by the narrator, as if looking through the haze of a dream, while Yukiko gradually, and steadily, rises as the pillar of reality, Shimamoto’s polar opposite. The graphs presented by either of the two women form the moral framework of the novel, as the reader is forced to dwindle in the insufficiency of the narrator, only to question the trajectory of the novel even when the last line has been said and done.
South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition that is borne of words, caricatured with imagery in interloping sequences, and a powerful ode to the bildungsroman genre, with the signature Murakami taste of existential crisis. And even when the book has been long since read, its words half-remembered and erased, Ellington’s notes resonate to the lull of melancholia whenever you hear ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in the years to come.
Somewhere in Jandy Nelson’s book, Jude gives the trees, the stars, the ocean and even the sun to Noah, her twin brother, all in exchange of a face, of a portrait. And in that moment, as I read across the lines, once, twice, thrice, and over and over, I realized in some 400 pages, that for a moment, even for only the briefest speck of time, the sun was all that could be given and yet, so much more, so much warmth, so much brightness and infinite love could be gained in exchange.
Nelson spins a tale stuck in the melancholia of opposites, of dichotomies that crave to touch one another, only reticent for the underlying regret and self-loathing that lies in between. With overarching narratives of identity crisis, fragile familial bonds, the discovery of one’s sexuality and the undying passion towards one’s art, Nelson stems out a simple plot that covers the perspectives of two congruent narratives in alternating timelines, only to fluidly intermix the two in one wholesome concoction of masterful completion, something which I admit is extremely hard to achieve when the para-text of a novel is the size of a gigantic universe that spitefully looms over the characters and their unique voices.
Beginning the story with Noah’s narrative, a voice that is woefully subtle and loud about its desires at the same time, Nelson tells the story about a young adolescent boy who is passionately in love with his art (drawing portraits) and discovering his homosexuality through his bubbling puppy love towards the neighborhood boy. Mixing magnanimous quotes with the touch of innocent erotica, Nelson brings the mind of a homosexual softly, slowly and most importantly, with empathy.
The narrative then shifts to show Noah’s perspective towards his wilder twin, Jude, who is freer, feistier and the apple of their father’s eye. Jude is reticent to expose her art, yet hedonistic enough to freely surf in the California bay, drawing the lustful eyes of all the male residents in the area.
But the point of contention gradually emerges as the twins’ mother, Diana, comes into the plot. Battling to gain her attention, the twins fight in every sphere, from art to their secrets; everything is an act of winning the love of their art-loving mother.
Intermingling with this sibling rivalry, Nelson blooms an innocent, almost intangible, love affair between Noah and the new neighbor, Brian. Perhaps the most iconic sequence in this narrative is how Nelson beautifully pens a scene where the two adolescents watch the constellation Castor and Pollux through a telescope one night. The voice of Noah’s longing, intermixed lonesomely with his hesitation, brings out a splendid nostalgia, an ode to the memories of first love.
The novel then sweeps over and falls into the narrative of Jude, the wilder twin, and the timeline too speeds over to a couple of years later, leaving unanswered questions that intrigue the reader to the fullest. Unraveling mysteries from the previous narrative, while simultaneously weaving the inner dilemmas of Jude, Nelson walks a fragile line that might bias the elements of the narrative and unbalance the scales at any moment. Yet, the writer succeeds in maintaining the brittle balance between the past and the present, and even brings to life the words of the supporting characters.
Continuing the theme of conflict, Nelson then shows a more mature version of adolescent love through Jude’s narrative, as she spins a more reluctant love story between the quintessential bad boy Oscar and Jude. Shoving into it, she plays the underlying dwindling passion of Jude towards her art (making sculptures) through the interactions with her mentor, before she begins the face-off conflicts between the twins, inadvertently beginning the vulnerable climax of the plot.
I’ll Give You the Sun packs in a strong narrative, overarching themes, scaled characters and the sine curves of rising and falling character development. It makes a poignant effort at a social message with the subtlest undertones, but never lets that overtake the voices of its narrators. Jandy Nelson stays to the core of most tropes used in a coming-of-age novel, but her greatest credit is how she uses her well placed twists to build a new visage in a seemingly easy plotline.
However, the one thing she fails at is to bring out the deliverance of certain characters, especially the twins’ father, with relevance to the actual plot, therefore creating questionable loopholes at times. Although this creates holes in the layer of the voices, she does make up with her own narrative in the end, at times through dragged descriptions and sometimes through incomplete information.
Nonetheless, the novel rises above all else as a poignant read, with its textured characters and unique narrative skills, with a far more fleshier sketch than her debut novel, The Sky Is Everywhere. It is interesting, therefore, to see the author’s development too through the consecutive readings of both her books.
Finally, reading I’ll Give You the Sun is very much like its soulful quote, “Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.” You would know the flow of its story, and yet seek out its journey just the same, as if finding your way around the dark in a home that resides in your bittersweet memories.
When I was a child, Durga Pujo did not come with calender dates, not really. It came when suddenly in the middle of a dreary September, the first bamboos were hoisted by the workers, a sign that the pandals would arrive soon enough, when the huge advertisement billboards of innumerable brands were strung up all around the city, from shampoo to food, when the first issues of Anandomela and Anandolok came to fill up the entirety of the newspaper and magazine shops in the streets.
When I was a child, Durga came with the last half-day at school before the holidays came ringing in, she came when the last pages of the mid-term exams were submitted to a solemn class teacher, she came when my friends and I half-heartedly trudged towards school to attend the compulsory last day on Panchami.
When I was a child, Pujo came with bittersweet happiness, with silent excitement, with innocence not yet lost.
If someone would have told me then, that the goddess would be strung up in the city, bartered in the name of religion, and questioned for her affiliations, I would have looked at that person with a blank look of astonishment.
When I was a child, my next-door neighbor and resident best friend in the locality was a Muslim girl of my age who would always accompany me, along with her little brother, as my father took all of us to buy the endless paraphernalia required to dress ourselves with in the Pujo.
And then, after the odyssey of shopping was finally completed, my sister and I would curl up with an issue of Anandomela and laugh her heads off as the different caricatures of the goddess with her brood of children colored the pages of the magazine, portraying her as she begun her southward journey from Mt Kailash.
There used to be so many colors then, the goddess traveling on a water jet with her children, her son Karthik obviously standing like a king on the deck, pictures of the divine family ready to celebrate Pujo with guitars, drums and cellos, and even some where her husband Shiva would come to drop the family off on his bike. I remember how those evenings were the best part of pining and waiting for the Pujo days to arrive, the days where I was excruciatingly excited to wear my new dresses, munch on every unhealthy street food I could get my hands upon, and see as many idols in the pandals as possible.
And then there were the newspapers of course, when come the morning of Panchami, the incredibly long list of pandals around the city was published by Anandobazar Patrika, and my sister and I would stoop over, red sharpie gripped on hand, marking which pandals we would be visiting in the coming days, my mother of course muttering something along the lines of how her hooligan children would eat till their stomachs burst.
But now, the sounds have departed, the smiles have become cajoling diversions and the warmth in the embraces have long left our limbs. Because, somehow, somewhere, someone asked the question: Who does the goddess come for?
Is Durga for us Hindus, is she for the Muslims, or is she for the Christians? If she is a Hindu goddess, why does the Muslim children in our localities buy clothes that are assorted for Ashtami and Nabami still? Why do the younglings still visit Bow Barracks and Park Street and gaze at the glittering evening lights? Pardon my french, but why the hell does Chetla Agroni Sangha and Mohammad Ali Park are still allowed to host their own Durga Pujo, when clearly the leader of one community is a Muslim man and the other is named after a Muslim himself? After all, as someone says, Durga is a Hindu goddess.
So why, I ask, rather plaintively, does Mr Jawed Habib dare to have the audacity of insulting our Hindu goddess in his marketing campaign, and produce a caricature where the goddess and her children are happily getting ready for the Pujo? Why is Durga allowed to wait while Karthik gets a facial and Ganesh a pedicure? After all, Mr Habib is a consumer of beef, a Muslim, a criminal, an utter disgrace to all us great Hindus and their exalted goddess. He should never be allowed to commit the blasphemy of so much raising an eye to our Hindu goddess.
I am a sinner too. You see, I have been going to his chain of parlors for the last decade. I started out as a silly brat at fourteen who wanted nothing more than the long flowing tresses of our Hindu goddess and now I actually do have that hair, all thanks to the years of undying persistence of my favorite hair stylist in the parlor. I remember the number of times I broke bread in the shop of this Muslim man, the number of times I drank his water, the number of times I visited every new branch that cropped up in Calcutta during their grand openings.
Furthermore, I remember one of my father’s closest friends, a tailor in the heart of Metiaburuz, a Muslim man, I confess, who would send the most beautiful bunch of colorful frocks for my sister and me, every year, a man who would send the most delectable shimui as his blessings for Eid, and how his son, a man I grew up calling my brother, would come to bless us during Pujo, break bread with us once the austerities were over with the prosad our family cooked for our 150-year-old Durga Pujo. I remember how beautiful his wife, my boudi, had looked when on one year, my mother had lovingly colored her cheeks with sindhur (vermilion) during the last hours of Dashami.
And yet, no one in my family, not my loving father, not my usually strict mother and definitely not my crazy-as-the-Mad-Hatter sister told me that I was a sinner. No one told me that Kaku or Dada were Muslim, untouchable, unwelcome, and somehow, I grew up considering them just as we were, humans.
Perhaps that was my childish foolishness, but in a world where goddesses are cut open, their intestines spilled out to see the color of their blood and count the faithfuls they cater to, maybe the opinion of a child is the only thing that can save us all.
And maybe, just maybe, Durga is not a Hindu goddess, maybe her brood of adorable children are not only for the ones who pray to cows, maybe she is for all of us, for our families, our friends, our acquaintances, and even our rivals. Maybe, just maybe, Durga is for every Bangali across the globe. Just think, what a beautiful world that would be.
In my ruefully nondescript twenty and three years of life, I have spent exactly twenty and two of it in the city of Calcutta. Yes, she may call herself Kolkata, but until my dying breath, she will always be Calcutta to me.
I studied in this city, I played in this city, I fell in love in this city, and I got my heart broken in this city. And amidst all of that, I breathed, I loved and I lived in this city. And after years of living, loving, existing and sometimes, hating this city, I find myself inexplicably attracted to every one of her oddities during the months of September–October, when this city dresses herself in the prettiest lights, the highest pandals, and the most colorfully dressed citizens to welcome the Goddess Durga.
Every year I decide that this is it, this is where it ends, this is where I no longer feel the cravings and aches of wanting Pujo to come faster, of the notes of Birendra Krishna Bhadra to stop affecting me physically, with the head tingles and the goosebumps and wanting to wake up at 4 AM, all to hear a now-dead man sing about a goddess who is portrayed in the most pot-boiler depictions in certain Bengali TV channels, not to mention the abominable special effects. And every year, I happily accept my defeat.
Because when September comes, the city wakes me up from my haze of just passing through life to actually live it instead. And in spite of myself, every year, I break the promise that I will not buy expensive new clothes, NO SIR.
Here is how it starts: My parents abduct me from the safe haven of my beloved cafe (where I sit confessing my sins at the moment, the tea, I assure you, is no balm to my newest wounds) and whisk me away to the most beautiful saree shop you can ever hope to imagine. And by beauty, I definitely do not mean that it appears grand like some Chanel or Gucci showroom. I am talking about a four-storeyed building that is jam packed with people to the extent that if you are kneed in your gut (or unfortunately, a little lower) and ask for an apology, they will knee you some more, this time, definitely a little lower.
But in spite of that fresh hell (god help you if you are claustrophobic), shopping during Durga Pujo has its own adrenaline rush. The colors, the feel of the cloth in your hand, the way some Katan Silk sarees melt their purples into the green, like a swift shadow-play of colors solely done by thread, they seduce you. And by the time you are shamefully walking off to the billing counter, your wallet about to be butchered and your self-control already dead and done with, you cannot help that absolutely gobsmacked shit-eating grin that basically interprets into something like this — “YES! HELL YES! I got that Dhakai Jamdani saree that I am so wearing in Sandhi Pujo during Ashtami (the eighth and most glorious day of the Pujo) and making that really cute boy in my para (locality) swoon over me.”
And when that adrenaline rush has fallen and the regrets set in, your hands still weighing down with the weight of your wrong decisions that take the form of around four to five ridiculously expensive six meters worth of cloth, the city hypnotizes you with her evening lights, the unfinished pandals where the men toil day and night to finish the temporary buildings on time and with the by-lanes of Kumortuli where the most beautiful clay idols of the goddess are colored the brightest shades of yellow and red, the eyes still left unpainted, waiting for the tithi (time) of Mahalaya.
And then, Mahalaya comes, Devi Paksha sets in. For years, I myself was no expert in the meaning of such terms, in spite of the 150-year-old Durga Puja that is celebrated every year in my home. I remember in my adolescence, when the word of the most popular student in the class meant holier than the Bible, I hid my belonging, my love for such ridiculous austerities. After all, who would ever want to wake up at five in the morning, only to go all the way to the Ganges banks to bathe a banana tree (Kola Bou, the consort of Durga’s favorite son, Ganesh) and then take a dip in the freezing river? Let me tell you the answer: surprisingly, almost everyone.
However, coming back to Mahalaya and Devi Paksha, it essentially means that the hour of the goddess has officially arrived, and the beautiful lady has started her south-bound journey towards her baaper bari (father’s house) from Kailash. Also, before you ask me how she survives in the freezing cold with a husband who is only into tiger prints, marijuana and being partially naked, let me remind you that none of you had any qualms in believing in the dragons of a certain Khaleesi, and let me assure you, Durga is way “cooler”.
And so your regrets wash away, like ink on water, and you cannot help the certain sprightly beat on your steps when you look up to the cloudless skies and the somehow softer sunlight skimming through your skin, making you yellow as the goddess herself. The radio channels swing from ‘Dhitang Dhitang Bole’ to ‘E Ki Labanye Purno Prana’ and that little tap on your feet makes you smile a little brighter, feel your head a little lighter, and there is love, love . . . and so much love.
Then the Pujo actually arrives, your house bustles with relatives you wouldn’t want to even glimpse upon the rest of the year, and suddenly the crowd is tolerable, the noise almost lovable, and you question whether this is even you. And it is you, oh so much you, only with the extra “muchness” that the Mad Hatter had promised about little Alice. And you are suddenly mad, happy, ecstatic, and you are flinging through the bazillion dresses and sarees and you have to find the right bangles and earrings with that particular shade of red Dhakai Jamdani, and yet, all is well. I promise.
So you set off, there are smiles in the lips of your friends, your hands are entwined and you are laughing at the oddity of being children at twenty-three. Why else would your fingers be so warmly clasped on that of the old friend you haven’t seen in such a long while? The one who had not replied to your mails, the one who had not given a shoulder for you to cry upon when the distance between the both of you become all too much. And even the rivals seem bearable, and suddenly, all you wish is to smile, and definitely gorge on the ounces of mishti doi, jalebi and jhal muri.
And as Ashtami sets in, that cute boy in the para comes out, but oh! What do we have there? That quintessentially weird and silent boy in the para whom you have always kept a distance from seems ridiculously gorgeous in that black Panjabi and white Pajama. Also, brownie points for settling that roving eye on Mr. Silent Weirdo while his hands are filled with bits of that annoying genda phool and hibiscus, while bits of bel pata sprout out, seemingly out of nowhere, as he waits for his turn at the Ashtami Anjali. Well, you cannot help but settle that anchaal of your aat-poure a little softly on your shoulders, and squeeze into a tiny space beside him. Oh, young love, whatever would we do without you?
The food suddenly tastes better, I assure you, it does. Kaka’s cha is a little too sweet, but you don’t mind, not at all, especially when you see the teenagers are having at their first puff of a cigarette, coughing and spluttering the tea all over themselves. And you cannot help but laugh, because almost a decade ago, that was you. And you remember that same deer-caught-in-the-headlights jittery movements that they have, because what if paasher barir Kakima (the neighborhood aunty) sees you while you smoke?!
So you must remove the stench of the nicotine from your mouth, and don’t forget, from your clothes too. Also, you need food, because when are you ever not hungry when Pujo is here? Blame the atrocity of available food everywhere, here is the smell of biriyani, and just a little further, the stinging sound when the besan of jalebi hits the scalding wok of oil, enslaving you in their seductive clutches. And you stride off, friends in toe, because what better excuse is there than removing the scent of smoke in order to spend a ridiculous amount of money on that cafe/restaurant you have been eyeing for months? We all know the little lie, your friends know too, and you are all smiling and laughing at your shared idiocy, but right now, everything is perfect.
Yet, moments accumulate into hours and hours into days, and suddenly you realize time has slipped by, and Dashami awaits at your doors. The goddess must leave, it is time to say goodbye, and your heart hurts, hurts because you are now too old to say that it is broken. So you smile, your lips do tremble, and the others see and un-see it just the same. Because everyone shares your brokenness when the sandesh has been stuffed to the goddess’s clay mouth, only to leave a bittersweet aftertaste before you bid her goodbye. You sit beside your mother, your sister, your father, your family, and you see the watery eyes of the goddess in the reflections of a darpan (mirror) on water, and in that minute, you know that she knows, and she is sad too, but it is alright, I promise it is, because she will come home again.
So you rise up, you take that container of sindur (vermilion) and color the cheeks of every friend you find, and you are all smiling, laughing, sharing sorrows in the veils of joy, and when the goddess is immersed into the waters (bisharjan), her beautiful clay face slowly loosing its color to the waves, you know you will be alright. Because in this moment, you have found your home.
I was fifteen when the first barrage of adolescent rebellion swarmed my homestead, me as the nexus of course. Suddenly, my vision cleared overnight and I had convinced myself that I was surrounded by ordinary filth that would choke me to death if I didn’t run away now. That I had to be different somehow if I had any chance of survival.
So, armed with a copy of The Outsider, and feeling quite confident, might I add, I set off for school. But as every hero of any story, I needed my personal playlist for vanquishing all evil. Unfortunately, I have been quite musically disinclined all my life. And even now, as I remember the awkward dates where I have been asked what kind of music I listen to, I still cringe, thinking about the side-way glances I would give towards the café door and calculate how fast I could run for my life.
But at sixteen, one of my classmates saved me instead. I remember there were incessant rehearsals for a certain play that school year, and happily obliged to bunk classes, I tucked myself away into corners while one ear always collected pieces of conversations from the popular womenfolk.
One such name regarding music was Chester Bennington. At sixteen, and absolutely unaware about the world, I had no idea who this man was, except that he sang in some band called Linkin Park. So when they turned their glares at me, my mouth decided to have a mind of its own and say I listened to Chester as well. And seeing the magical change of their expressions, I doused myself some more in my lies, borrowing information from broken conversations and piecing them together with phrases like “Hybrid Theory”, “Numb”, and “In the End”. Suddenly, a stranger named Chester had metamorphosed the mousy awkward nerd in the corner into an attractive introverted intellectual who spent her days amidst tasteful books and music. And still I had no idea who he was.
That was until I decided to end my hypocrisy and actually listen to “Numb”. The first time I had heard the song, I admit, I understood nothing. I was absolutely impaired to comprehend American accents, and an American accent with music was my personal brand of nightmare. I remember I had felt there was a lot of misplaced anger, impotent angst and a lot of screaming. And whenever the chorus came, I would start “singing” those incoherent words too. Finally, Google saved the day and when I actually found out the lyrics of the song, the clarity was exhilarating.
Can’t you see that you’re smothering me?
Holding too tightly, afraid to lose control
‘Cause everything that you thought I would be
Has fallen apart right in front of you.
And suddenly, these four lines were everywhere, from the last pages of my notebooks to the blackboards of empty classrooms.
Chester Bennington didn’t save my life, far from it. Perhaps at sixteen, it wasn’t required to be saved just yet. But he did fill me in with words, words that I didn’t know I needed until that day when I was dawdling in some lonesome corner.
As the years flew by, “Numb” paved the way for “In the End”, which led to “Shadow of the Day” and “Castle of Glass”, all thanks to the randomness of YouTube. And most of the times, I admit I couldn’t understand a word until I pulled up the lyrics from some shoddy website. Yet, for the first time, it seemed that words could make a home for melody, and there I could be, in something akin to a shelter.
Chester was a doorway, a doorway to a world far greater than I could imagine in my wildest dreams. And although he led me to many a tragic figure in the music industry, from Cobain to Mercury, I never forgot my first friend. He was, and always will be, a memorabilia of a childhood lost, and half-remembered in the sweetest dreams.
And perhaps, just perhaps, something lets us step into a haven of surrealism amidst our realities. How else can I explain that after spending half a decade of not listening to Linkin Park, I find the news of Chester’s death on the night YouTube decides to play “Burn It Down” one last time? As if my old friend was still here, still blaring from my speakers, and the whole world was lying to me.
I didn’t shed a tear for you, Chester.
There was nothing left to cry for anyway.
Because you see, I am strong. I am a strong woman who bites her lips to stop herself from crying beside her favorite aunt’s deathbed. Because crying is for the weak. And I have long since promised I would be strong, I would survive.
Even if I forgot to laugh, sing and live along the way.
Or maybe, just maybe, I have remembered all my sadness and frustration, and finally let it go.
Maybe that was what you always wanted.
Maybe that was what I always sought.
But then again, in the end, it doesn’t even matter.
When all is said and done, the sound of a name, the stray odour of a forgotten love story, the quiver in a pair of lips as the past thwarts in between, the littlest things begin to matter. You become a miniaturist.
So, hello Old Love,
I have come to your doorstep. I have some words to say. And perhaps I shouldn’t call you ‘love’, when the story I started was left unfinished. For a minute there, I want to take my pen, draw a line in between a page, make a border between you and me, and write the reasons why we remained unfinished.
For a minute, I want to do the ordinary thing. Because ordinariness is safe. Because predictability is home.
But when you a have a stark-white page that peers into your soul, sometimes, just sometimes, you want to do something extraordinary.
And so you scribble. You cut, you write, you bleed, you melt, and then, you become words. There is no red pen in the corner of my page anymore. I won’t correct my words. I won’t look back and see the mistakes I have made. After all, I never did that for you.
So let the words hold flaws. For even love, as beautiful as it often is, is flawed. I used to see that beauty. Now, I just remind myself to smile again.
There are the nights though, deep into the bosom of darkness, when I let myself fall a little more than I would let myself in the transparency of daytime.
When I would curl up in my bed, my pillow in my arms, and I would close my eyes. And I would see you. I would see us. Perhaps you and I would smile. Do the most ordinary things, sit for a breakfast, or I would throw a stray piece of paper at you, with its undiscovered trove of words inside. In my fantasies, there is always daylight. And maybe that is enough to make me remember that I have drifted a little further off from reality.
I would bleed tears after, or words instead. I have come to love the words more now. You see, when dawn cracks into the night, light filtering into my room, I like to be reminded it was never a dream.
Seasons change me the most, though.
Summer colours, the yellows and the oranges, the purple hues in the dying hearts of sunsets at riversides, and the slows kisses in winter, azure and purple playing with one another, until the sky itself becomes a confused infinity of grey. It is beautiful, oh so, beautiful, that it almost breaks my heart.
I lose my track often, as I do now. I write to you, and instead I lose myself in the montages of unmade memories. It is a new habit I have developed, to love things that are incomplete, unmade, forgotten, abandoned. Fallen leaves, crushed flowers, crumpled papers, broken quill nibs, I find a strange love for them, growing each day inside of me.
And in loving them, I, too, fall into pieces, brokenness and halfhearted remembrance lingering as effigies.
There should be an end here. According to the laws of words, I should scribble lies with ‘yours lovingly’ or ‘yours forever’. But I am mine, only mine. I collect all these fallen pieces of me, stick them with glue and watch them break away again. But there are still all mine.
So until I find some of me to share with you, in fantasy or in reality,