I’m honoured to have been included in tribute to women all over, as part of The Camel Saloon’s special edition literary compendium for International Women’s Day – many great words here to peruse!
Ara wakes up and searches for her dream. She can’t catch it, but a thought lingers.
“Since I’m not going to have children, I need to make a commitment to the life I’m living now.”
Until today, Ara’s been having the same dream every night since Ken died. She would wake up every time enveloped in a vibrant blue colour as real to Ara as the painting of the Mediterranean Sea on the wall above the dresser. They were planning a trip to Europe for their first wedding anniversary.
This morning, the large space of blue around her is gone. She can’t roll over and swim in his essence. There are just the sheets, and her rumpled side of the bed.
For the second time in a year, the hard lump that’s come to live in her diaphragm gurgles alive, swelling until she can hardly breathe, and she has no choice but to carry it around with her everywhere she goes. She wonders again how something that is so empty can have this kind of weight.
By 6:00, the sun has streaked the sky and the day fades into a dull blue-grey. Ara sets the dimmer on low and wipes the kitchen counter before placing a cutting board next to the sink. She finely chops fresh shallots, and has just enough ginger to shred for tonight’s meal for two. The congee’s gurgling on the stove, seething and oozing thick white bubbles. Steam curls up and rests on the window above the sink. Ara opens it halfway and looks across the narrow road to where a man sits on a bench, his back to her, facing a park shrouded in darkness.
Ara wipes her hands on the towel under the sink, runs her hands through her hair and leaves the house through the side door. She’s at the park in under twenty seconds and hesitates before taking a seat at the bench. She’s never seen the man’s face before. They both look ahead.
“I get this feeling” he says, “that if we both look at that tree together for long enough, I’ll disappear.”
“Well, it’s not going to be the tree; it’s here for the long haul. And I suspect you’re not going anywhere. So that leaves me.”
“But why does something have to disappear?” Ara asks, the lack of blue thrashing around her ribcage.
“Before you started watching me,” the man says, “I used to watch someone too. A man, middle-aged, with a full head of hair a bit rough-hewn for a businessman, though you could tell he tried to keep it neat and professional. He came here every day at exactly the same time. 12:30. He wore a dark suit with a white shirt. He’d sit down on that bench by the water fountain, and put his briefcase on the ground. The first time I saw him, I was sure he’d grab a sandwich from his bag, but actually, I never saw him eat. I always wondered when he got a meal in. But no, he’d ever so gently retrieve, of all things, a flute, followed by some sheet music, which he placed on the edge of the water fountain. Sometimes, if it was windy, he’d hold it down with a rock he found nearby. And he’d play. For forty-five minutes. To be honest, I could never tell if he was playing one long piece or several shorter ones, but the sound was sweet and haunting. The flute really has a way of drawing out the essential sadnesses of life, don’t you think? I never realized that until I started listening to him. I don’t have much patience for art. But there was something about the way this salaried employee, who I’m guessing has never been outside the country, would spend his lunch hour creating the most melancholic sounds. It really made me wonder about him.”
“I don’t know,” Ara says. “Maybe he has travelled. Maybe he’s been to Greece, even. Flute playing goes back a long way there. I was recently reading up on that.”
“Of course it’s possible,” the man says. “He seems sophisticated, anyway.”
“What happened to him?” Ara asks.
“I’m not sure. I stopped coming here at lunch time. You’ve never heard him?”
Ara squeezes her eyes to block the image of untouched tea, and loud power ballads she’d play for hours at a time to block the sounds of her grief.
“The fountain has an amber colour around it,” Ara says. “You know, sometimes I take water from there to use in my cooking. I have no reason to, but I’ve always been drawn to it. I never realized I was infusing so much sadness into my food.”
“I’m not so sensitive,” the man says. “I don’t think I could detect emotions in my food. You say you can see colours around things? Like auras?”
“Yes. Since I was little.”
In Ara’s recurring dream, Ken’s wearing his favourite top, the blue polo shirt he was wearing the day he died. Ara used to tease him about blue being so conservative, but Ken insisted it depended on the shade. How can you compare Mediterranean blue to the blue of a Nerf ball? In the dream, the shirt is shimmering, more like the midmorning sea than product packaging. It looks like you can see right through it, and Ara looks for any hint of Ken’s internal organs – his heart, his intestines, those parts of him she possessed without ever seeing them. She never finds anything. Ara searches frantically for any marks of her love, their history on his body. Ken catches her desperation and says, You know that’s not where you can find the story of us. “But you’re disappearing!” Ara screams. Right before me! Ken’s standing on the other side of a hole that spews a ferocious red every time she approaches, keeping her away from Ken. Watch me, Ken says, and before her eyes, a transformation begins. First, he’s Ken in the blue shirt, with the scar on his left arm from surgery he had on their honeymoon after he got too zealous with a coconut tree. The next moment, he’s on the shore of the Mediterranean, wearing a white loincloth. He’s Ken and not Ken, swollen in the belly, and she knows he’s with their child. She cries and touches her own flat belly. Then, this new Ken extends his hand out to her, as if to say, we’re ready to start over, your patience has led you to this, but just as she’s about to take her first step, he becomes transparent and disappears, until all she can see is the effervescent blue of the water behind him. That’s when she wakes up, every time, with the distinct feeling that all she has to do is wait.
“You okay?” the man asks.
“Oh. Yes,” Ara answers.
“What’s it like?” the man says. “To see auras?”
“I guess we take things like that for granted when they come naturally to us,” she says, remembering how it took a few moments, as she bathed in Ken’s blue light, before time would creep back in. With time comes all the days and years that waiting actually stands for. This morning, without Ken’s light to keep her company in bed, she’s been forced to learn something new about time.
“Would you like to eat dinner with me?” Ara asks. “I made enough. I thought we can eat out here.”
“Sure,” he says. She excuses herself and comes back a couple of minutes later. The tray is filled with two bowls of congee, a small dish of grated ginger and thinly sliced shallots, and two cups of barley tea.
Ara still hasn’t gotten a good look at him. She places the tray between them.
“Is there water from the fountain in this food?” the man asks.
“No, not tonight.”
“That’s too bad,” he says as he digs in. “I was going to try and taste the flute music. Mm, it’s delicious.”
“Thank you. I’ve been waiting for a long time,” Ara says.
“I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure.”
“Yes,” the man says. “That’s why you and the tree over there aren’t going to disappear.”
“Waiting doesn’t feel safe. It feels like floating. I need to fill my body with grounding food, so I’ve been trying food like this. And with you fearing your own disappearance, maybe you need it to.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of it. Disappearing. It’s what things do.”
“At some point,” the man continues, “I guess we have to become aware of the point where waiting and living intersect.”
“You mean, something along the lines of stop waiting and live life to the fullest?”
“Sounds clichéd, I know.” he answers, “Waiting is like looking for a needle in a haystack, to give you another cliché. But everybody knows there’s no fun in that. Now that I think about it, I’ve always felt a bit like that needle.”
“I couldn’t pinpoint your aura from my kitchen. It wasn’t really a specific colour. But now it makes sense. It was exactly what you just mentioned, that something between living and waiting. You don’t have the things I normally see, no craving, fallen hopes, expectations, desire even. You’re really not afraid of disappearing.”
They sip tea in the dim light of a new moon. The man puts his hand on the bench between them, palm open. Ara takes it in her own.
“I wonder if the flute player still comes by,” Ara says.
“If you find him, maybe you can let me know what music he’s playing. Maybe knowing that will change everything.”
Ara smiles and swings her feet lightly over the sand, and then takes the tray inside. As she washes the plates, she can hear, beyond the man on the bench and through the fading sound of crickets, the Mediterranean flowing into its long, dark sleep.
“There are daily acts of generosity and kindness and love that should be represented on film.” – Albert Maysles
Albert Maysles, one of the pioneers of the cinema-verite movement in the United States, has passed away at 88.
Cinema-verite, versions of which emerged nearly simultaneously in Canada, the USA and France, amounted to a revolution in the way documentary films were being made. Filmmakers were longing for greater freedom of movement in order to go out and explore the world, and by the early 1960s (way, way before the reality TV craze that owes its legacy to Maysles and his peers), new portable, 16mm cameras and syncronized sound capabilities were finally allowing to go out into the streets and attempt to capture life as it was.
A new kind of observational-style film, quickly dubbed “cinema-verite”, or “film-reality”, was born.
Much debate ensued over the years: is it naive to believe a camera can capture reality, free and unhinged from the subjective perspectives of the filmmakers and their potential biases?
I’ve thought and written a lot about cinema-verite, which became a passion of mind when I chose it as a focal point of my graduate studies in film. I can summarize my views in a very concise way, though, as I’ve come to believe that we can exhaust ourselves talking about biases and subjectivities and how there is no “reality” to capture, uncover or make sense of.
The point, I believe, lies less in a semantic debate about reality and more in the intention of the visionary artists and filmmakers of that time (the early 60s), and this intention amounted to a desire to peel back various overt layers of artifice and approach the world in a spirit of observation. Of course the cameras were angled in a certain way, and decisions about what to shoot and then edit were made. However, looking at the films themselves – “observations” of such subjects as a presidential race, music sensations, a salesman – one is continually struck by the sense of wonder and captivation with the world on the other side of the lens, something that almost amounts to a reverence, and a plea with audiences to regard the world beyond the footage the way the filmmakers did – in the spirit of observation and discovery.
When we approach the world with this kind of wonder and adventurous spirit, and allow our tools and media to follow suit, there are endless things that can be discovered, and an entire universe of awe and magic to behold.
“We get crushes and we get crushed from almost all the subjects that we film.”
“The film is sort of the the beginning of a love affair between the filmmakers and the subjects. Some filmmakers make targets of the subjects they film; that’s not our way.”
“I think my training taught me above all to be unprejudiced. Psychology was social science and so in a way my work has always combined a kind of scientific approach with art.”
“People are people. We’re out to discover what is going on behind the scenes and get as close as we can to what is happening.”
“I have no difficulty in getting access or establishing rapport. Usually, it’s just from the first moment of meeting someone. I think it’s the way I look at them and establish trust right away. There’s nothing in my method that is subversive or hurtful and I think people get a sense of trust right away.”
The Sound of Art: Lonely Boy
by Tammy T. Stone
What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art … Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art …
This article is an unabashed love letter to a film that many of you may not have seen, but which forever changed the way I look at movies. And since I’ve long believed that we can learn much about how we construct the world around us from the way we watch movies, it’s fair to say this film changed the way I look at the world too.
The movie is called Lonely Boy, a half-hour documentary made by Canada’s National Film Board in 1962, at the zenith of its artistic and technological innovative prowess. Using then-new synchronized sound technology, directors Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor (one of the key inventors of IMAX a few years later) created a brilliant gem of a film, doing – in my humble opinion – unbelievably sophisticated and resoundingly philosophical things with the raw yet profound material that is sound. I should also mention here that Lonely Boy was sound-recorded by Marcel Carriere and edited by Kathleen Shannon, two of the Film Board’s regular posse of gifted artists.
So what is this little film all about? First of all, it was made during a very exciting time in cinema’s history – and the greater cultural history at large. Koenig and Kroitor had just made a series of documentaries as part of a collective, Unit B, at the Film Board. Called Candid Eye, the films used a purely observational style to examine topics like tobacco farming, the Salvation Army and Montreal’s wintry days leading up to Christmas, all with a sense of ironic detachment that became emblematic of Canadian filmmaking in general. At this time, no small thanks to the Film Board itself, it was now possible to synchronize recorded sounds with the images being shot with 16mm Arriflex cameras. As documentary filmmakers, Koenig, Kroitor and their peers were ever-seeking ways to get closer to a more directly experienced and immediate ‘reality’, and more authentic ways of transcribing witnessed actualities as they were happening before them. The ability to record sounds and images simultaneously rather than use recorded interviews and found sound (like road traffic and music) over images – as was the tradition until then in documentary film – would prove to be an instrumental achievement in fulfilment of this goal.
Everything was pointing in the right direction, then, when they decided upon a subject for their final film of the series. They got word that Paul Anka, a native of Ottawa, Ontario and then 19 years-old, was going to be doing a few performances in Atlantic City. Anka was rapidly becoming a superstar in the era that eventually saw the likes of The Beatles causing girls to faint at the mere thought of them – but Anka did it first.
Anka-mania preceded the Beatles 1964 invasion of America by about three years, which means Lonely Boy, the little movie that could, is in effect the first film to capture a music idol sensation in all his glory on film. One could even say it’s the predecessor to the now-famed genre of the rockumentary.
What better way to use synchronized sound, you may think, than to go to a few concerts and record the footage of an apparently very likeable star? Anka does, in the film, sing his legendary hits like Put Your Head on My Shoulder, Diana and the song that became to film’s title, Lonely Boy, and watching a teenaged Anka do so is startling and impactful. And we also get interviews with Anka about his artistic and fame-oriented goals, as well as a few scenes of him schmoozing with his manager and preparing future songs. But this is no mere canned portrait of the artist (or celebrity) – the filmmakers have a much more complex and even obtuse interpretation of what they found before them during the shoot. The best moments of the film, I think, occur when the filmmakers deviated from their standard mode of using pure observation to record events, and manipulate the sound and image juxtapositions to paint a multi-faceted picture of a young, ambitious performer.
In one scene, Anka performs at the Copacabana club to an older, more sophisticated crowd than the nubile ones screaming and swooning at his concerts. Anka’s manager, Irvin Feld, has earlier commented in an interview that if Anka could corner this older market his success would be guaranteed. As he performs, the viewer can see that Anka is engaging his audience. The camera shoots Anka from behind so that he appears in the frame alongside the white-cloth tables and metropolitan couples. The sequence also cuts to medium shots of Anka with the microphone in his hand, arms flailing and thrashing about, lips moving in song, and to close-ups of the smiling, calmly-enraptured faces of those being entertained.
But here’s the trick: throughout the sequence, we can hear not one note of the song he’s singing. Instead, we get Anka speaking in voiceover about his having been given a gift to sing and entertain. On one level, this particular commentary is appropriate since the visual images are of Anka performing to a pleased audience. But there’s something eerie about hearing Anka proclaim he has a gift, and then seeing him sing with no voice, move his arms to a rhythm that those in the Copacabana were privy to but is entirely absent to the viewer of the film. It is as though the filmmakers are commenting on the fragility and incomprehensibility of stardom, on the question of what it is, exactly, that audiences are attracted to; they add a great sense of irony by inserting a voiceover discussing Anka’s musical gift and simultaneously stripping him of the very element that gives him this gift, emphasizing persona over performance. But the enthralment of the audience does emanate through the close-ups, culminating in a wave of applause that starts off in silence (again an eerie phenomenon) and reaching a thunderous sound that is also the only synchronized sound in the sequence. The entire film, which never really delves into Anka’s personal life, is about the construction of stardom (45 years before Bieber!). Here, Anka is literally constructed in the editing room out of silent body parts, an off screen voice, and faces of the audience upon which his image depends.
The filmmakers’ vision of Anka here is at once satirical and slightly disturbing. They use the same sound technique in another scene, however, to create a more sympathetic picture of Anka. This scene occurs near the end of the film, as Anka sits at a piano and tries to play a new song for Irvin Feld with some of the crew hanging out nearby. The cutaways to the others in the room enforce, by sheer observation on the part of the camera, an overall atmosphere of melancholy which would have been abundantly clear by presenting the scene exactly as recorded with with sync-sound. The filmmakers go one step further, however, by fading down the piano-playing/singing and bringing in a voiceover of manager Feld speaking in his fast-talk, glibly confident way about Anka’s talent. The film seems to be telling us that Anka’s entourage surrounds him not out of respect for his talent, but for the money. The filmmakers have used editing to literally fade down, or drown out, Anka’s music and his voice.
The girls, however, are always listening. In a time when sync-sound was still a new innovation, the possibilities of which were still being explored in film, it seems paradoxical and ingenious that Koenig and Kroitor used manipulated sound/image pairings to achieve an immediate viewing experience in which we feel we’ve plunged right into the already canned life of Anka, aged 19. Performances shown earlier in the film took advantage of sync-sound to simultaneously present a performer and the sound of his fans – a performer so successful his music was being overpowered by all of the cheering and screaming. The editing of the last performance of Lonely Boy, however, combines long shots of close-ups on girls’ faces with a muting of their screaming mouths to comment not only on Anka’s looming presence but on the girls’ lives, which are portrayed as having become completely devoted to the worship of a star. Tears stream down their cheeks, hands clutch their faces and mouths silently (to the viewer) contort their faces into claims of “I love you Paul!” Nothing can be heard but the song “Put Your Head on my Shoulders”, although the crowd must have been deafening. The final impact of Anka’s godly musical presence hovering over such riveted, lively yet silent faces transcends any discussion of message, intent and underlying philosophy of this film or any other, heading right into the terrain of the ineffable, even the mystical, reminding us why life is such a grand mystery.
And in this case, the sublime has been achieved with sound, and its equally towering other half, silence. When I think of Lonely Boy, how brilliant it is now as then and how affected I can be watching it over and over again, I remember how possible it is to create our own worlds into the fantasies of our making while remaining truthful to our experiences and to life.
See Lonely Boy here!
There’s No War in World: Red Flower of Hope
A red flower of hope gives birth to herself next to me, flush with sensual awakening, a fall flower, a red of violent determination. I can’t find a park or a shrine (or the Buddhist temple that typically flanks the shrine to one side), so I sit on the bench outside Circle K drinking my 100 yen coffee. Inside, the old man working at the convenience store spoke to me in English, a first. As I waited for the coffee machine to pour the coffee into my paper cup, where are you from? For me, this is music now, his smile, gold. He’s never been to Canada, but studied English in Los Angeles 40 years ago, a long time ago!. My husband studied English in Los Angeles fifteen years ago. Things flow in, things flow out. It’s hard to feel the slow, beautiful death autumn represents today, the sun shines so brightly, a late-day wise in the early morning, an ever-strong aging hero, allowing for early blossoms and late clarity at once. A day for convergence.
What exists between the wait and life?
The mermaids know.
The ocean knows.
Each little action you take in a day knows.
Being present knows.
The Man of Haridwar Station
The details take on mythic proportions. A tiny girl, aided by her mother who holds her hands from behind, squeaks little steps on shoes designed to make noise so that neither shoes nor child ever get lost. A group of young men huddle together like lovers on a mat made from the refuse of a goods packaging factory. They hug each other with one arm and hold their cellphones with the other, all of them, synchronized like chorus girls. Across from them, I can see the bottom half of a woman in an orange saree and I almost mistake her for a sadhu – India’s orange-clad men who have renounced all material possessions in their search for spiritual illumination.
People come and go. We’ve been at the Haridwar train station for over two hours now, having arrived early on a bus from Rishikesh. It was the smallest bus we’ve been on, or rather, the bus with the smallest, most uncomfortable seats. And this is saying a lot. We’ve been to India three times now, and altogether, this is our thirteenth month. We just finished a month-long yoga teacher training course and are on our way to Dharamsala, high up in the Himalayas, where we plan to do some intense meditation. We’re on the waiting list for a 10 day silent retreat. You do a lot of waiting in India. Most of the time it’s worth the wait.
For a month we’ve been sequestered in a yoga hall with five other students and our guru-ji (respected teacher), a Ph.D in yoga and a brilliant practitioner. We’ve been, for the most part, removed from India at large. Except for the occasional run-in on our few days off with other tourists, a self-proclaimed schizophrenic seeking rupees and a persistent drum seller on the main drag, we have been breathing clean air, eating sattvic (yogic, pure vegetarian) food and sleeping early. All this is a startling contrast to the two months of our trip prior to arriving in the safe haven of Rishikesh’s vast mountains and yoga spaces.
Being back in the real India is a bit of a shock, and nothing is more shockingly Indian than its train stations, thronging and humming with life 24 hours a day. Everyone has their own space but everyone watches each other. People eat, spit, sleep, talk, stare, fight and basically live their lives right out there in the open, despite, or maybe because of the crowds. It’s miraculous even as it’s exhausting. I look up and see someone I’m sure is Caucasion, only he’s in full Indian garb and has the casual confidence of a local. The albinos here always remind me how readily we recognize – and judge – people by the colour of their skin, with all the horrible things this implies.
To my right, an old man sits in an effortless half-lotus potion. There’s bright pink dye running down the back of his white shirt, dried now, and he wears a pink scarf that doesn’t seem to be the source of the dye problem, this time anyway. Ladies chat together on one bench and men on another, always separate, always preferring the company of their own, directly in front of my view. It’s the man between these two benches, by a post that he has claimed, who catches my attention and captivates me the most.
He arrives with a wooden stick and a bag, and sits for awhile, leaning against the post. A great struggle begins. He’s gotten it into his head to remove the contents of his bag. It’s a tight fit and the stuff doesn’t come out easily. But the man’s resilient. He bends over the bag; this doesn’t seem easy for him. He’s an older man, at least 60 in my estimation, though it’s hard to tell here sometimes. He wears a long-sleeved, pale yellow shirt in the Indian style, long and loose, and a white cloth as his pants, or skirt. His scuffed black sandals are neatly stacked by the post. He’s rather meticulous, I can tell. He stands on another mat made from faulty goods packaging – crinkly and shiny, these are common seating aids at train stations; people sell them here for a few rupees apiece at most of the stations I’ve been to.
The man struggles with the bag for a long time. His fingers shake and he doesn’t seem too stable. I want to help him but something stops me. He has a pride about him, a fierce independence that’s familiar to me but I’m not sure from where. Does he remind me of the many older, homeless Indians I’ve seen who have to fend for themselves in adverse circumstances? Is it my grandmother he’s recalling, who resisted help at every turn as she aged and succumbed to eventual mental illness? Is it both, and this man is bridging cultures, worlds for me? There’s something so sad about this struggle he’s engaged in. You almost never see people on their own here. People move, breathe, congregate and travel in packs (the homeless notwithstanding and, tragically, even here, they are not as visible as the rest). As I write this, a family nearby numbers seven – five of them are on two adjoining benches and two sit on the ground in front of the rest with the luggage, on a pink and white cloth. It’s so common to see large families travelling together that the old man’s solitude is striking in contrast.
Is he a widow? Never married? A recluse? Is he sick? It’s impossible to tell. He’s still bent over his bag, trying to retrieve its contents. His bare feet are dirty, long and lean, his calf muscles a good size. Maybe he was really strong once. He wears a black hat that might distinguish him in some way – caste? – but I’m not sure how. Now he’s approaching the frailty of old age. His white hair stands out too – not only out of his cap, but as unusual in a country where most old men dye their hair black or red. It’s very rare to see white-haired men unless they’re extremely old, or sadhus/swamis/gurus living a more natural lifestyle – if you can call dreadlocks, extreme austerities and constant near-nudity natural, and this depends highly on your conditioning and your point of view in the world.
The man’s fingers fumble as he tries to lower the bag around some kind of blanket, the object of his desire at the moment. There’s something else in the bag, something metallic – a bowl, maybe – that’s stopping the bag from easily falling away from the blanket. He pauses to take some water from a plastic bottle and then lifts the bag again, this time from the bottom. Success. He holds has a really pretty purple and orange blanket, thick and cozy-looking, in his hands. With great care he unrolls it and, over the course of a few minutes, neatly spreads it on the mat, which is perpendicular to the post. He kneels down and it looks like he’s praying, his back to me, but I don’t think he is. There is something staunchly atheistic, anarchic even, about him to me.
Now the bag is in his hands and he wipes something off the blanket. Then the bag itself catches his attention. He removes the bowl and a few other things from it, and moves over to the bench on his knees. The family is aware of him and ignoring him at the same time – the former is informed conjecture on my part. He empties the contents of the bag onto the ground underneath the bench. All I can see emerging onto the floor are a few orange peels, but he takes these into his hands and eventually puts them back into the bag. He crawls back to his new home and puts his scattered objects back into the bag. He then spends some time arranging the bag just so – here, he reminds me of my grandmother, who also used to arrange things at great length, and who used to say ‘just so’ to mean ‘exactly this way, to perfection’ – and now he has the perfect pillow.
Finally – wearily? – he sits down, back against the bag/pillow and the post. I feel I’m watching a lone king surveying his land, obtusely and indifferently, from his lair, with the entirety of his existence. He doesn’t rest for long. Minutes later he’s made his way to the far reaches of his blanket, where he neatly folds the edges so the blanket aligns exactly with the packaged goods mat. Satisfied, he crawls back to his pillow, and sits down again to observe his surrounds.
We marvel: he must have only these few things in his whole life. What freedom! Where is he going? Will he stay the night? Who will greet him at his next destination? (He seems utterly without human connection). How will he get the blanket back into the bag? Why isn’t he, like most, staring at us foreigners?
A sadhu sets up shop next to him. He appears much wealthier than the old man. His hair is thick and clean and he has metallic food containers and a glass to drink from. The two don’t speak.
The old man starts playing with a few rupee bills. He rolls them in his hands, over and over. The action is absentminded and deliberate at the same time, somehow.
“Chai. Chai chai chai. Chaiiiiii.”
There are two chai, or tea wallahs (men, sellers) in this part of the station, carrying their heated chai in a metallic holder, and paper cups. So far the old man has not said a word, which I find hard to believe now that I think about it, since I feel I’ve been in dialogue with him for over an hour now. Still silently, he beckons one of the wallahs over. He indicates that he wants a chai with a nod of the head and holds out one of his few bills. I can see it’s taped together in a few different places. Indians are obsessed with clean bills and usually won’t accept torn ones. This wallah is no exception. He discards the bill and walks away. I try to read the old man’s face but get no reaction. A few minutes later he tries again with the second wallah and is rejected for the second time.
We discuss buying him a chai because a chai is such a simple thing to get and such a pleasure to consume but again, we’re thrown by his independence. Some people don’t respond well to being helped, and we can’t tell if he’s one of them. I think of the ladies I saw in Amsterdam’s red light district over fifteen years ago, showing off everything from behind glass. Music comes out to us on the street, but our voices don’t reach them, and there’s no chance of communicating with them, finding out who they are, though everything is superficially visible. Here too, he’s very visible, but it’s an impenetrable division. There is him and there is us.
While he’s being rejected for his chai, an older woman who appears to be talking loudly to herself, spreads a mat on the floor next to me – I’m on a bench. I can see what her packaged-goods mat references: BAR CLIF: CHOCOLATE BROWNIE. I’m guessing she’s never had one of these in her life, but its packaging is now her throne, and indeed, like the old man, there’s something regal about her. She wears a blue saree, has wild grey hair and has an adorable feistiness about her. Where the old man is a master of detail she is thoroughly rough around the edges, almost graceless, except for the dignity and pride that pour out of her like a salve. I can almost feel it soothing my skin. She throws a large bag on the mat and flutters around, chatting to herself. The old man, meanwhile, has laid down on his side for a few minutes, before thinking better of it. He sits back up and catches the old woman’s eye. This is all it takes. She zooms over to him and kneels down, displaying a more perfect posture than I saw during an entire month of intensive yoga. The man is unmoved. He watches her with eyes that seem nonchalant and occasionally gracious while she talks and talks and pats him on shoulder now and then.
Eventually it seems he’s had enough. He says something imperceptible to my ears – his first words of the evening – and she abruptly gets up, nodding in understanding, and says her goodbyes. He then touches his forehead and spreads his hand across his face as she gets up and leaves. She wanders away, sometimes returning to her brownie mat and mostly leaving it alone. We’re in the anteroom of the station, between the front entrance and the platform, where most of the action is taking place. She disappears around the corner to the platform area and we don’t see her again until we have to leave to catch our train.
The old man lies down again, but when I get back from buying a Sprite, he’s sitting with a seller of some strange-looking black plastic boxes all hanging from one central piece of string like a mobile. He’s leaning on the blanket; he’s been invited into the old man’s sacred space. The old man is eating something out of a newspaper. How did I miss this? Where did he get the food? From the black plastic box seller? Did he pay for it? With the taped 10 rupee bill?
What did the woman-in-blue say to him and will they talk again, these two denizens of this summer train station night?
I’m still here, but I’m already nostalgic for these monumental dramas that seem to have no end in this vast, multitudinous country. And this is just what I’ve seen, observed, let alone imagined. The old man chats briefly with the sadhu to his right and asks one of the family members on his left to help him open a little white plastic vile, giving him a large grin before spitting on the floor under the bench. Now he’s laid down to attempt sleep again. I will board my train and inflate my soul with his dreams.
* This story was originally published in The Bactrian Room.