Two Maps – A Short Story

dscf4632

I’m so happy to have my new short story, Two Maps, published with The Trump Antidote. I suggest reading the story on the website, but I’ve included it below as well! Two Maps is about a brave little girl describing the world she sees around her, and offers her unique perspective on life. I hope you read, share, enjoy! And please take a look at the other great stuff on this new site!

*

I ran home from school and it was still the same. The creaky fence was half open. White paint chips sat in piles at my feet like weird summer snow. The lawn was still brown like an ancient threadbare rug hanging outside to dry. Or an ancient dog lying outside to die.
When I went inside I said to my jidu, “It’s still the same.”
“And why should it be different,” he asked, stooped over a cup of tea at the table. I told him that I overheard the grownups whispering at school. Little blasts of sound, like gunshots. A new era. A wall. Forced expulsion, denial of entry. I didn’t understand and had to write it down so I’d remember to ask. I also heard the world turning upside down.
This I got. Immediately I saw in my mind’s eye clouds rolling on the ground and grass floating above, and people walking on their heads and houses lying on their roofs.  But when I left school everything looked like it did before. The sun was still baking everything in a right-side-up world.
“Rima habibti,” my jidu said, “sometimes things look one way on the outside and another way on the inside. This is something you feel, not see.” His eyes darkened and I saw a story buried in them I couldn’t make out, that circled back deep into time.
At school, there was a map of the world. It was open and pretty like a puzzle. It had sort-of-real blue water and very fake-looking land in all sorts of pastel colors, like pieces of candy that look equally delicious so you can’t choose. Sometimes I’d forget I was in class as I jumped right into it, hopping over rivers and leaping through deserts and summiting the highest mountains with the ease of a cougar. Every country on this map felt like home.
The last time they told me and my friend to go back to where you come from lousy dirty brown breads it felt like I fell right off the map and slam dunked to the bottom of the Arabian Sea. When I got home crying, my jidu asked what was wrong. I asked him where is home, really, because maybe it wasn’t where I thought it was, and that’s when he spoke for the first time about the homeland with a sad look in his blurry eyes. But he also said never forget that home is where the heart is. He stuck his bony finger in my chest. Here.
In the science room at school, there was a picture of the human heart. Its shape was similar to Africa but, other than that, it looked nothing like the map of the world. It was a dark bloody red mess full of sickly blue and purple lines running through it like a traffic jam of claustrophobic tunnels about to explode. When I saw the map of the world I felt like a feather or a gazelle or a lion that could conquer anything. When I saw the map of the heart I became seized with terror that this oozy alien is why we’re alive.
Around the land masses on the map of the world there is water. Heavenly light water that can carry you away to anywhere. Around the pulpy heart there is a cage made of solid bone.
It’s hard to feel it, but we’re made mostly of water, and the heart sitting in its cage is the true map of our world. It is the central station of our tears, laughter, pain, fear and anger, and it is much harder to read than the map of countries. When things are fine we don’t notice the heart. Then it beats a mile a minute before you even know why, and then you are running and running until you are stopped because the world did turn upside down and you are forced to go to strange places you’ve never seen on any map.
That central station explodes with fear and almost collapses with confusion.
The heart can be a scary place to visit, habibti, my jidu told me that hot afternoon I came home from school crying. But it is your treasure chest. There are many jewels inside and they belong to no one but you. That is why it sits in a cage, so the treasures can be protected. And here is the beauty: you are the treasure and you are also the guard. The cage cannot tell the difference between enemies and friends. Only you can. You need to take this job very seriously, as you are the one who decides what gets inside.
No matter how hard it gets, Rima, do not let the wall around your heart get too thick or too high. Outside in the world, you will find terrible things. Walls will be built, places closed off, there will be injustices you cannot even imagine. But all those things, they are made by human hands and they can be destroyed just as easily as they were made. What is inside  your heart is forever, and no one can change its borders and no one can take its treasures away from you.
Just as I was wondering about that, he said, “Do you know what your greatest treasure is, habibti? It is your power to love. Guard it with everything you have.”
The map of the world is changing now. But I stand guard in front of the one territory that belongs to me. I am a warrior goddess who does not forget what I’ve been taught: that to protect the treasures of our messy hearts is to change the map of the world. It might take a long time, but this is our legacy.
I will not let the wall get any higher. I will not forget that the blood running through my veins and the oceans on the map of the world are one. I will work, no… fight… for love every day until the walls are torn down.

Advertisements

Happy International Women’s Day! Short Story Published.

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!

 

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

The Wait

by Tammy T. Stone

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.”

“Why?”

“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.

“For what?”

“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.”

Ara shivers.

“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.

 

Hello! {an accidentally visionary tale about Hello Kitty’s – and our – identity crisis}

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

Preface

I’m the same age as Hello Kitty. This doesn’t mean we’ve gone through life in the same way, but it does create an affinity, one people of all ages have for her (which explains her inordinate popularity). I grew up with the predominantly red Hello Kitty items available to me at the time. Going to find Hello Kitty stuff wasn’t just like going to the candy store. In the case of my youth, I can remember that it was actually a matter of going to the candy store,  actually, a Tabagie, a smoke stop of sorts, in suburban Montreal. My best friend and I would gape at the little plastic queendom of Hello Kitty in the dim and cluttered, as I recall, basement, and then buy some green and purple flat, sugar-coated licorice on the main floor. Your earliest memories of Hello Kitty are likely different, as they probably even are for my best friend and I. But the love affair might be quite the same. Years later, just as Hello Kitty was starting to become an object of nostalgia for my generation, I moved to Bangkok, where this story takes place, and where I wrote it. This was truly (one of) Hello Kitty’s world, her popularity was universal, and this was both comforting and jarring to me. Now, I’m living in Japan, which, in the context of my lifeworld-with-Hello Kitty, adds another level of meaning to the recent events that have caused ripples worldwide. Hello Kitty is not a cat? Or, she is kind of a cat as Kitty White, personification of one? None of this should make me think so much, but it does. The idea that something outside of Hello Kitty (even if its her creators) can come along and throw information out there that both changes everything and nothing is disconcerting. It’s also interesting. I hope that my story, in a small way, brings Hello Kitty to you however you need her to be.

 

Hello!

 by Tammy T. Stone

 

I’m in an electronics alleyway in Bangkok’s largest market. Gadgets with wires hanging out of them, computer parts, toys, toy guns, massive calculators, tools, shiny things resting on beds of saturated colour on scratched metallic table legs. The men call out to me half-heartedly, beautiful, beautiful! But mostly I’m completely ignored.

Zoned out under a sun just beginning to acquire the power of a day in the tropics, I wade through other distractions until I reach a stand being watched by a tiny teenage girl. She’s selling watches, almost exclusively Hello Kitty, which lords over street consumerism in Bangkok in pastel and deeper pinks, also one of the King’s two colours. Hello Kitty stares blankly, cute but not entirely indifferent as she stares out at passersby from any number of brandable objects, from pajamas, pencils and hang bags to stationery sets, neck pillows and Rubix cubes.

The men sitting here on the stools with toothpicks in their mouths, and the elderly doing their shopping are not the target consumer for cute pink things that teens and white collar workers here love so much. Hello Kitty’s audience is missing. She isn’t a mockery of herself but the magic, which comes from collective adoration that almost verges on something important, is absent.

It makes me want her more. The watches are 70 baht apiece, and dangle vertically from mini racks. Most are working but the times on each vary. Some are stained with grime. I lose myself in this kaleidoscope of time-tellers as I lift watches from their little hooks to examine them – for what and with what kind of discerning eyes, I don’t know. I’ve hardly noticed a gaggle of schoolgirls approach to gawk at me. I may have brought them there, I may not have. In this country I never know some pretty basic psychological things, which at home I rely on as the schema for a functioning life.

The girls don’t leave. I’m still trying to choose a watch when I see one glinting at me in smile. The girls chatter to themselves. I decide I’m going to buy one Hello Kitty watch and one of the nameless-cartoon ones. I want to surround myself with this glorious wealth of plastic that might eradicate each of us without an agenda of its own.

I see that the girls have put three watches each on their left wrists. Nine watches in total. At that exact moment, they flick their wrists again with a quirky grace too intoxicating to be absurd. I have to close my eyes from the shine. Of course when I open them nothing can be the same. And it’s not.

*

I see them right away. They’re pink, bigger, up to my thigh or so. Furry and white, mostly, but some are shiny and hard. Plastic. But filled with life. Their heads see and move and propel them this way or that in small clusters of like-with-like. I’m the only person here who is not Hello Kitty.

One of them hobbles up to me, bouncing really, and takes my hand. Come, her look says. She can’t speak, she has no mouth. She looks serious. I wonder for the first time if all Hello Kitties are female. They look androgynous. It was always the pink of their corporeal existence I associated with their femaleness. Cats in general seem female when only half of them are.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never really put Hello Kitty in the cat realm, though I think her popularity in Thailand must have something to do with the Chinese reverence for felines.
Where are we going? I ask Hello Kitty, but she doesn’t answer. She tugs gently but firmly on my arm and starts hoppiting forward. I follow right behind. She’s guiding me like she’s the wind and I’m a fragile leaf just fallen from the tree with no conception yet of ground.

She bounces from foot to foot and I walk through. I feel like I’m floating or on a conveyor belt. The world passing by is pink and spotted with other pastel-coloured objects. Everything here might taste as good, as surprisingly saturated, as cotton candy. There is no one else on the conveyor belt with us; most everything else rests higher up, in the sky of light gauzy pink. Then the movement stops. Ahh, I say, gently landed. Hello Kitty lets go of my hand and makes a squeaking sound. Her whiskers twitch. Hello Kitty’s alive, I think with amazement. The twitching stops.

She’s a million versions of herself and they’re all vibrating, or giggling, I can’t tell which. But their eyes remain serious, little black dots looking only forward, until they turn their bodies to hop somewhere else and begin twittering again. Some of them sit on regal furry sofas, all pink or white or a combination of the two. Some of them have images of Hello Kitty embroidered onto them in glossy, fuschia stiches. Kitty, the one who has led me here, cranes her neck to look up at me.

What am I doing here? I ask her. She continues to stare and doesn’t say a word. I’m not surprised by this. I am surprised, though, at how loud my voice sounds to my ears. Like the ripple effect, it has reverberated in and around the little spaces in which Hello Kitties congregate. Maybe it sounds like music to them.

Poke. My Hello Kitty is trying to get my attention. What is it? I say with my eyes. Show me. She takes my arm again, no small task for her; she has to take both of her short, stumpy arms and clutch them together around my long, slender one. I’m enraptured by her big head and her face that now looks earnest as she pleads to me even though her actual expression cannot have changed.

We’re in another space now, a yellow one. There are no Hello Kitties here, no floating objects, just yellow. A pastel yellow, granted, but it’s not pink. Hello Kitty doesn’t exist in a world of yellow. What is this, I ask. Her look is now imploring.

This is grotesquely wrong, I say to myself. Hello Kitty needs to be in her place because then we know our place. How did she find this yellow room though, and what threat does it speak to? Is the yellow room going to expand and invade the world of pink? Has it already, is this in fact a war because the world isn’t ready for this? Maybe this new insipid colour has stripped the pink kingdom of its language. I take Hello Kitty by the arm anyway and say come. Let’s go back. Who needs this room.

She won’t budge. I start to get a little anxious. Well, I say, I’m leaving. I feel a pang of regret already. I’ve been here for a few minutes, with someone I think I’ve loved for years, and my first thought is must exit. And I’ve gotten angry. Now I’m angry about getting angry. I’ve learned nothing. There’s no chok di, good luck in this for me.

I’m sorry, I say. No response. I start back where we came from.

As soon as I reach the place where yellow meets pink, I find a pile mountain high of Hello Kitties, and it’s glowing, actually shimmering. They’re trying to do something, together. What sounds, what vision! The desire they generate seems to promise a future. I am positively in awe of this white mountain of heads and eyes set in pink.

Take me! I want to shout. Carve a little space for me with your soft pliable selves and let me dive in. The world can stay plush, I know it can!
I don’t need to see outside amorphous confines of their world anymore. I can give up seeing and get carried away in other pleasures this new world offers.

I’m going to do it. I’m ecstatic. I poise, knees pent, and then –

I dive forward. The shimmer gets momentarily brighter, but then immediately disappears. I crash land into a pile of hard plastic that hurts my head and shoulders. I bump around for a second and then pile’s gone and I’m back in the yellow room. Many Kitties are here with me. They float around and the space between them seems thick and saucy. Something sounds like music, or at least, it did.

My first Kitty, my strange little guide, stands in the corner, far away, separated from the rest, watching me. I get the feeling she thinks I have something to do with this room. Something big. I remember that my childhood room was the same yellow. I had a pink Hello Kitty pencil holder with a little notepad and little colour pencils and a little eraser that came with the set.

I face a Hello Kitty perched on a Hello Kitty swing hanging from a non-existent yellow sky. The swing starts swaying faster and faster, until Hello Kitty rotates all the way around and is ejected so hard that she spins and flies and floats until she simply disappears. Goodbyyyeeee, I hear. The others disappear the second I look at them. I run but the air is indeed swampy and I feel like sludge. There is no pink in sight and the yellow is getting brighter. It’s getting to be as bright as the sun. The Hello Kitties must have found their way back. Good, I think, good. They’re happy again.

The room is getting yellower and hotter. My clothes stick to me and my face is dripping in sweat. My Hello Kitty is still standing in the corner, watching. I look back. She won’t divert her gaze.

Why are you looking at me? I’m not going anywhere. Why don’t you go back to your friends? It occurs to me that I’m not sure Hello Kitties can be friends with each other. Is friendship impossible when everyone is smiling the exact same smile or is that the very definition of boundless love, which much be happiness?

The heat is unbearable. Hello Kitty begins to look like a god to me. She’s so … unruffled by this. So assuredly here. Hello Kitty, I say. Help –

*

My words are violently cut off as the deep yellow turns into a blinding sheen. My eyes snap closed involuntarily and when I open them I’m on the side of a road. I don’t know where this road is going but I’m the only person I can see in all directions and I know because of this that I’m not in Bangkok anymore. There is bright green grass and a clear sky and no smog. I think there is a dilapidated cabin, maybe a farmhouse, in the distance. I am somewhere between water and sky.

I’ve said before that I want to buy a house in Saskatchewan, not in Saskatoon but off in a tiny town that is a shell of its illustrious farming days, a ghost town. I want a small house, nothing fancy, not to live in but to come to once in awhile, a place far away from all the clutter. So I can stop moving. I couldn’t, at the time, think of a place farther from everything than rural Saskatchewan. I’m here, I’ve made it.

Then I hear a faint twitching sound. I look down and see Hello Kitty looking up at me from my new watch, her eyes small and black and motionless but full of expression anyway. It still seems this way to me. She’s never close or far. She just is. She is exactly here, where we find her in any of our configurations.

 -end-

 

The Man of Haridwar Station. {Short story}

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

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.