Our eyes first locked across the street but I may be mistaken about that.
Across a street, things look different from what they are. Like I once thought that I saw a man selling orange-pink phirkis. I had not had one since I was a boy and my father got me one at the Gadimai fair. That phirki was yellow and green. Like sunshine on new wheat. It was my beautiful possession and I kept it safe through the winter. But that was a long time ago. So when I saw a man selling phirkis, I crossed the street to buy one. But they turned out to be birds of paradise. Flowers!
I hadn’t seen any before, but I have since found out that they are very expensive. One flower costs more than a rice-plate. The young man was holding those flowers rested them casually on his shoulder, like he didn’t care about how expensive they were. Maybe he didn’t want to be seen holding a bunch of flowers the way a girl would hold them.
There was a girl with him and when I came close and asked the name of the flowers and how much they cost, she giggled. She said, in English, that it serves him right to be mistaken for a flower-boy. He dresses just like a sadak-chhaap, she said.
He doesn’t. I wanted to tell her, I know a sadak-chhaap when I see one. This boy’s jeans were like only the rich boys can afford. His belt was a slim one with bits of metal sprinkled on. His shirt was loose and his hair was longer on one side of his face than the other, with one tuft standing up tall like a silken minaret. And he wore open sandals. A real sadak-chhaap steps outside wearing shiny shoes and tight jeans. He colours his hair too, because he thinks that’s what rich boys do. But you can always tell which one is the expensive cut, and who got a third-rate job at the barber’s shop down the road.
I wanted to say all this but I was angry at myself. Why did I ask about the cost of the flowers? This boy was too rich to care about the cost. Besides, I didn’t like the girl. She was short and her hair was uncombed. She was obviously not so rich herself. Why was she laughing at the boy? Such girls irritate me, but there are a lot of them here.
You have to be careful with girls. Here, nobody knows where anyone is from. And sometimes, this is what I like. Today I am me, from Birgunj. Tomorrow I can be from
And if I meet someone from Gorakhpur,
then I can be from Champaran. But with girls, it is different. You must know
where they come from, who their father is.
My father told me, if you must find a girl in the city, make sure you know where she is from. And he is probably right. Because one big lesson I have learnt is – things are not what they seem at first.
Like the other day, I saw some artists working on a big sculpture. From across the street, it looked like a model of a building. It was solid and shiny and wobbly. Just like houses in this city. Concrete, but so fragile. You look at them and you wonder if they are safe. Some have cracks running down the sides, pasted over with cement like strips of grey band-aids. This sculpture, though, had no windows or doors; just smooth round walls.
I thought the artists wanted to say something about the city. Like this city doesn’t have enough air. Or that you cannot really leave this city. Buildings are like tombs without sunshine or friendship. That was what I thought.
But when I crossed the street to take a closer look, the sculpture turned out to be a shoe. One giant boot. I felt really stupid. But that is the trouble, you see. Things look different from far. When I was a boy, we used to chant a set of foolish rhymes about the illusion of distance.
“From far, I thought I saw Vyjanthimala drying out her hair/ turned out to be a buffalo wagging her tail while taking the air!”
“From far, I thought I saw a dozen eggs getting hard-boiled/ turned out to be a bunch of baldies getting their heads oiled!”
Nonsense rhymes like that. But it is true. You cannot make things out from a distance. That is why I do not talk much to girls. That is why I did not give much thought to that moment when our eyes locked across the street.
And yet, it seemed as if the breeze had dropped, as if the sun had trembled and begun to sweat. It seemed as if she was crossing the street only to come towards me.
I have a hard head. I know, she was not the type to look at me. She was surely a college girl. She was standing on the road divider, trying to cross the road. As for her eyes, who can say whether they were looking at me, or right through me?
But then, I saw her the next day too, clutching the railing on the road divider. She was looking right and left, but the traffic would not stop even for a moment. Every few seconds, she would squeeze her eyes shut as a bus growled past, tossing fumes and dust and light splinters into her face.
She stood there a long time and maybe she forgot why she was there. There was a gap in the traffic finally and all the others who were balanced on that divider began to rush across the road. But she just stood there, eyes at half-mast, looking at nothing.
She looked so sad in that moment. As if a passing bus had knocked her down and ridden right over her heart. She looked like a child might look when her bright paper phirki falls into a puddle. She looked like the girls in my village, when they were engaged to be married to someone who lives far away. In that moment, I suddenly felt like I knew where this girl comes from.
All of a sudden, she seemed to wake up to the street and its noisy horns, and she rushed across. Just in time, just half an inch from another growling bus. My heart almost stopped for a second.
She was wearing a saree that day. I saw her go into the library. I stood outside. It is a nice spot to stand. Nobody comes into the library so the staff does not glare at me if I hang around. But that stretch is busy since the big, new shop opened in the next building. Such a long shop! As long as six cars parked one behind the other. It has big glass windows and statues of men and women dressed in the same red color. During the Diwali season, these statues wear such rich clothes. Even the brides in our village never wore anything so rich. And during Christmas, these statues all wear red pants and shirts.
Many people come to that shop and they all walk past the library. They don’t always buy from me but sometimes they stop to listen. I weave a tune that will clutch at their hems, scraping its way into their blood. A song with painted talons.
Sometimes, they turn to their children and ask if they want a flute. They always buy the cheapest one. Some do not want a flute; they just want to listen to me. But they look at me and I look at them, and they know they should pay up. But they also see that I do not want a coin tossed at me. The only way to pay me is to buy from me. So they buy a flute.
I do not know whether they are good people but if they catch my eye, they look me in the eye. They do not stare at my clothes or my bare feet. They have the decency to lower their eyes if they are not willing to pay me for standing there and making music outside libraries that nobody wants to visit. Their hearts tell them that they are small, so they scurry away, running from their own gut, from a new ache that wasn’t there before they heard me.
Perhaps, I should say that I really play for money. If I did not play, nobody would buy my flutes. And except for playing the flute, and cooking and cleaning, I cannot do anything else.
Not that this city wants my music. These people would pay me more if I cooked and cleaned. Some of them might even let me live in their houses if I did this. I did it too. But only for a year. Two boys lived in that house and I did everything in return for staying there. I made their beds, cooked two meals, swept and mopped, washed their clothes. Then one more boy joined the house and he said I must wash his underwear. I refused, so they threw me out.
Now I am happier, playing the flute. It was very boring inside that house. Locked up all day. It is better to be outside. The street has so many possibilities. Every day, some new story unfolds.
What I like most is to watch the city slow down when I play. I am not boasting; it really does. When I play, I look at the feet of people walking past. As they hear the rising notes, their feet slow down. They linger even if they cannot afford to stop. If I play the theme song from Hero, more feet slow down. Sometimes I do ten different versions of Hero. A man from America once told me that I was a jazz pioneer in my own right. He did not buy many flutes though.
Another good thing is, when I am out on the street, I see a lot of girls. Like that girl. The day she wore a saree, she walked past three times. From the library, she walked to the museum, then to the college building, then back to the library.
I think it was a special day at the library. In the evening, many women walked in, and they all wore silk sarees. The men wore kurtas and coats. I played a soft tune that day, so soft that only those who were really listening for it would catch it. I saw her catch it. She looked around but she didn’t see me because I was hidden behind a pillar.
She came again the next day. Dressed in black with a white scarf round her neck. It was edged with silver gota. She was standing at the entrance of the library. I started playing my heaviest flute as I walked towards her.
She stepped forward. Then she took out her mobile phone, pressed a few buttons and held it a little away from her body. I knew she was recording my music but I did not stop playing. A minute later, she stopped recording and put away her phone. Finally she looked at me.
I looked into her eyes. She smiled. I took two steps towards her, still playing. Finally she spoke to me. She asked how much I was selling the flutes for. I told her the prices. I showed her how the air sounded huskier in the bigger flutes, and how you could blow into some from a hole cut near the top edge, but with others, you had to take the slim tip into your mouth. I played out a very simple tune of three notes on the most expensive flute I had.
It was two hundred rupees. She bargained me down to one hundred and fifty. It was worth more but I let her have it. She stuffed it into her bag, and walked back into the library.
When she came out, she was walking fast, heading towards the college. I began to follow her, playing all the while, watching the dozens of feet that slowed and quickened all the time.
When I caught up with her, she was at the sandwich stall. As she stood there eating, I went on playing. Twice, she turned around to look at me but she did not meet my eyes.
Then she went back to the library. From a distance, it looked like there was a black shadow across the doorway. When I came closer, I saw it was a young man. A dark man with a beard, and dressed all in black too. Leather boots with big heels and a leather jacket and leather cap.
She was walking quickly towards him. When she was six feet away, he opened his arms out. She did not run. She walked into his arms and then he hugged her tight so their chests were pressed together. They stayed that way for a long time.
Then she was looking at him like she was drinking in his face, and he was smiling down at her like he was enjoying the sun whispering its dying words. She tugged at his arms and they began to walk up and down the old pavements. I followed, just a few steps behind, still playing my flute.
Their heels clicked softly as they walked, and after a while, she let go of his arm. The sun had gone down and their shadows were pale and smoky. Their feet dragged. I had not seen any feet so slow on that pavement before. It was an old lovers’ walk.
They did not touch each other again. They would never hold hands again, even I could see that. But their feet clung to the pavement as if clinging to the last note of a song that you cannot bear to hear. If they hugged now, they would hurt each other. And I think they had decided to stop hurting each other.
From a distance, their long shadows were twisted out of shape. Like a strange beast born with wings so large, it can neither fly nor run. Still, it must leave. It knows that if it is not killed, it will simply die of waiting. It will hop if it cannot run. Crawl, if it cannot fly. There will be no grace in it, but is there grace anywhere? So after one last look, one last gulp of familiar air, the strange beast will leave. Get on a bus, and not return.
When they stopped walking, I fell back a little. And then, a little more. Slower and softer, my song changed and descended into some new note of plunging silence. There were twenty feet between us and then thirty and then fifty and then I stopped playing.
© Annie Zaidi
[This story was first published in New Woman magazine.]