When in Rome,

“To the girl sitting at the stairs,
You are a fucking goddess.”
~Anonymous


Gatwick Airport, London. A woman dressed in black was yelling at someone on her phone in Italian. I could filter out the swear words. And it appeared so could the little Spanish girl standing behind me in the check-in queue. ‘She just swore again!’ we told each other and giggled in our collective imagination. Yes, I am still eight that way.

The woman in black turned to me suddenly and said, ‘My flight got cancelled.’

‘The flight is cancelled’ is what I heard and I was jolted with a horrible flashback. No, not again, please.

The last time I had travelled internationally, I was stranded at the airport for three days. When I finally arrived at my destination, after a long struggle, the airline had misplaced my baggage and I had reached my university stinking quite literally and metaphorically with the world’s worst travel experience, the tale I would tell everyone I would meet and still do.

‘I understand sister. I understand’, I thought as I feared how I might be swearing soon too. She turned and started speaking on the phone again. Her frustration was palpable. When she finally hung up, I tried to console, ‘I got stranded in the airport once. I know how you feel.’
‘Oh, thank you. It’s horrible…My flight was yesterday and it got cancelled. This airline is the worst! The hotel room they gave me was in Brighton!’ she replied in thick Italian accent.
‘Brighton?’
‘Yes! Do you know how far it is! I have been here since yesterday.’
‘But today’s flight isn’t cancelled, right?’
‘Yes, hopefully.’
I was relieved. Her phone rang and our conversation ended.

What began as a casual remark about a book, soon became a discussion about reading, writing, parenting, politics, trade unions, love, grief and depression with a middle-aged man from Dublin named Patrick, who sat beside me waiting for the boarding gate to open, silently reading until I interrupted, ‘Kane and Abel, I love that book.’  Soon we parted ways and I found myself sitting in the plane. I had a window seat and when the plane approached Rome about an hour later I got to enjoy the aerial view of the city. The turquoise ocean, the islands, the beach, the boats, white trails behind them and the colourful small little buildings, all kissed by the sun that was caressing my face too. It was breathtaking.

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The immigration line was long. I was listening to a techno playlist and watching people around me. Most of them were Asians. I am an Asian too, I reminded myself. An hour passed slugging through the queue. The immigration officer looked at me, looked at my passport, scanned it, stamped it, I offered a weak smile, he offered none and I was in Rome. I found my way to the metro station. A friendly woman, blonde and pretty, who was also the ticket checker, guided me to the correct train. Half an hour later, I reached in the middle of nowhere.

It wasn’t supposed to be nowhere, it was supposed to be the city center. I stepped outside the station and all I could see were old, plastered, slightly vandalised Roman buildings. And they scared me back into the station.
I checked my phone, restarted it, restarted it again and still it caught no signal. I had thought UK SIM worked in all of Europe. But apparently, not in Rome.

I waited for my friend hoping that he would miraculously appear through the gates I sat facing. I knew he wouldn’t. That place just didn’t seem a right place to be and my instinct told me that he must be looking for me somewhere else.

I got hopeful when I found the station’s wifi signal. But sadly that was a hoax.
‘Ye ceiling dekho na, kitni sundar hai,’ a lady walked by admiring the interior design along with her husband. Definitely Indian. I thought and wondered asking them for help but settled for asking the man at the info point instead. After all, guys at the info points are helpful, right?
Apparently, not in Rome.

‘Excuse me, umm…I can’t connect to the wifi and..’
‘Yeah, there’s no wifi.’ he said.
‘Oh, okay. So I have a problem. I can’t find any signal on my phone. And I need to call a friend. It’s very important-’
‘I can’t help you.’
I stared at him, unable to believe what he had just said.

I braved to step outside again. I was sure I was at the wrong end of the station. I turned right and stepped further into oblivion. I expected Rome to be crowded but I couldn’t find a single soul – just distant traffics sounds, abandoned scooter under the bridge and bright yellow street lights.

‘I don’t want to be mugged. I don’t want to be raped. I don’t want to be murdered.’

Fortunately, I found a person who looked like the kind who wouldn’t commit any of the above.
‘Excuse me what’s the way to the central station?’ I asked him. I wasn’t surprised to find that I was heading in the exact opposite direction. I made a U-turn, passed the exit I had stepped out of half an hour ago, continued walking ahead. More and more people came into sight. I felt more and more relieved. And there it was, my destination – the Central station, in all its grandness and glory, holding my joyous and grateful heart. But it wasn’t to last long.

I looked around for my friend for a while. Several minutes passed by. I was panicking again. Suddenly, I caught his glimpse. ‘He trimmed his hair’ I wondered. And in a flash, he was gone. I ran to the place where he stood but he was nowhere to be seen. Did I just dream him?

Behind me stood a bored looking janitor. ‘Excuse me, I-’ He flicked his hands indicating that I go away. At least the guy at the info point SAID he couldn’t help.

Janitor’s rudeness paralyzed me. Did that just happen? Did he actually do that? I took a few deep breaths. ‘I am asking wrong people,’ I concluded. I looked around. There were many people but none of them seemed to be the right one.

Sitting in the middle of the stairs, her rucksack to her left, was this young woman with long black hair smiling at her phone.

It was love at first sight.

I went and as politely as I could, explained my situation and asked her for help.
‘I don’t have enough balance to make a call. But I can call through WhatsApp,’ she replied.
‘That would work, yes! Thank you!’
I sat beside her, told her the number, watched her saving it the wrong way – without inserting the country code. I knew what she was going to tell me in a while – ‘I am sorry. He is not on WhatsApp.’
‘Umm…can I..can I take your phone and try to call him, just once? I am sorry I am bothering you but this is really important.’

‘No’, I had once told a little boy when I was waiting for a friend at Dadar station, back in Mumbai an year ago. He had come to me and asked, ‘Didi, mujhe meri behen nahi mil rahi. Aap phone doge call karne ke liye?’ I looked at the child wondering if he wanted to steal my phone.‘Vo police mein hai. Ye hai uski photo.’ The child showed me a photograph of a girl in a police uniform claiming that she was his elder sister. Definitely a scam.‘Jaao, jaao.’ I had asked him to leave.

She took a second but she said yes.
I took her phone. I saved his number the correct way. I called him praying he would pick up. He did. I told him where I was. I saw him holding the phone, talking to me, a couple of seconds later. ‘I can see you. Just stay right there!’ I said and hung up. I gave the phone back to the girl, thanked her profusely, hugged her, thanked her again and ran towards him.

Welcome to Rome.

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*


“May you ask bored looking people for help.”
~A Chinese Curse

My new hobby

Is to think about you,
I search for the tiniest of our memories
in the remotest corners of my heart
stringing them along in
a new narrative
every day
every night
like a mini theater in my head,
I watch the same films,
same characters,
same scenes,
reach the same conclusion.

My new hobby
is to have imaginary conversations with you,
even though mostly,
in reality,
you spoke too much
and I didn’t at all
but now I say it all;
your part
my part –
things we would have never said
things we would have never done,
You are so painfully interesting in my imagination
I long
and I long
wishing that you are near and real,
tangible,
lovable,
knowing perfectly that if you are with me
all your imperfections are real too.

My new hobby
is to idealize you
and then to wonder how you aren’t ideal in fact,
my new hobby
is to clutch your memories close to my heart
where no one can steal them,
my new hobby
is to wonder
whether to tell
or not to tell;
What even?
Why even?
How even?
Rather be insane
with my mental conversations
and everyday retinal movie screenings
than to awkwardly reveal my secrets to you,
What to do?
What to even expect?
I am scared that in the end, you will only judge and reject.

Nevermind though,
You are and you will still be in my thoughts.
Silent suffering,
Mysterious rejoice,
It seems that’s my new hobby.

A late night thought

Hope is that someday it would make sense
Or maybe we’d to learn to accept the senselessness
Hope is that someday we would find order in the chaos
Or maybe we’d learn to deal with the high entropy
What, when, why, how
There’s no ignoring
There’s no escaping
Things happen;
Painful ones, joyful ones,
People happen;
Interesting ones, awful ones,
Who’s wrong?
Who’s right?
We are, in the end, just lines oriented at a random angle –
Converging, intersecting, diverging,
Maybe we make sense from a plane above,
Maybe our experiences together are infinite hues splashed over a vast canvas,
Maybe, maybe there’s a reason
Maybe, maybe there’s an answer
Hope is that someday our beautiful mind would find beauty of his own;
Hope is that till then, he wouldn’t give up hope over fears unknown.

*

Bonjour

My eyes flick open again,
Just as the sun wakes up,
Just when the moon falls asleep,
Too cold to step outside the blanket
Too late not to.
I gaze outside, tad bit drowsy,
tad bit curious,
tad bit joyous,
tad bit furious.
The buildings display quite an opposite effect of sunlight on them,
Reverse tanning, to be precise,
I can’t possibly count the shades of green I see,
I can’t possibly count the kinds of flowers,
The kinds of bees,
The kinds of buzz,
The kinds of me.
What’s wrong?
It’s too early.
So what?
I can’t sleep.
How come?
I can’t sleep.
What’d you do?
I can’t sleep.
Why’s that?
Maybe,
Maybe these days I am dreaming with my eyes wide open.

*

 

I fear,

I fear I won’t live again,
I fear death,
I fear I may wake up in the hospital tomorrow
complaining about migraine which maybe actually turn out to be tumor –
a beautifully malignant one.
I fear cancer
because cancer runs in my family.
I fear cardiovascular disease
because that runs in my family too.
I think I also fear every other kind of sickness,
irrespective of how related they are to me by blood,
for who knows what’s coming for ya?
I fear pain,
For I have witnessed it in action too closely;
Most of it has been forgotten
but the handful of remnants are enough to haunt me for the rest of my life.
I fear grief,
I can’t even think of it,
I don’t want to think of it,
I have been his neighbour, maybe his roommate, may have been him himself,
Anyway, now I want to stay the fuck away.

I fear love,
I fear people might disappoint,
Someone might wound my heart,
And what if it’s never healed again?
I fear dreams,
Often I dread that they are delusions,
Often I dread that I don’t love them enough,
Often I dread that I am running out of belief.
I fear future,
For there are so many things that I don’t know.
I fear past,
For there are so many things that I don’t know.
I fear present,
For there are so many things that I don’t know.
I fear hope,
For I fear failure,
I fear happiness,
For I fear success.
I fear my purpose,
Or lack of purpose,
I fear I may be meaningless after all.
And I fear that I fear too much.

I want to freeze
in this moment,
ice cold,
unblinking,
motionless.
Maybe I should be a tree,
I want to be a tree,
Bloom in various hues, through various seasons,
Overhear the conversations between birds and squirrels,
Dance in rain,
And bath in the sun,
Have people marvel at me,
Have people love me,
Have people chop me down.

I think I fear end,
I know I fear end,
And if this is the end –
I fear I just have to deal with it.

*

 

“Have you considered being a Model?”

Well, why not?
I am tall.
I am skinny.
Yes, I walk with a slouch,
Yes, I am not exactly photogenic,
but they can work on me, surely!
There’s always the training,
There’s always makeup,
There’s always good lighting and good photographers,
And there’s always Photoshop.
But still model?

No,
I am more qualified to be a coat-hanger,
Because…model?
Who the fucking fuck is a model?
Yes, I would like to be a model who tells you
that it’s okay if you have the talent to fall simply by standing, wearing a footwear that’s flatter than a coastline,
that it’s okay if you spend an hour searching for your lighter in your bag and find it in your pocket instead.
Yes, I would like to be a model who continuously wears the same sweater for three weeks and will continue to wear it for another three.
I can be the kind of model
who fumbles with forks and spoons,
who fumbles like a fucking cartoon,
who fumbles and tumbles
everywhere, every time.
Every step she takes
is an open invitation to all kinds of disasters;
Sudden climate change and alien invasion, all together.
Yes, I would like to be a model
who doesn’t have a sophisticated accent,
whose language doesn’t have a single trace of eloquence,
who could use a phrase like ‘fucking fuck’,
whose opinions are crude and brutal and maybe even stupid…

Maybe I could tie my hair in a french twist,
Wear suave shirts and trousers,
Wear long eyelashes and mauve lipstick,
And pronounce mauve the correct way,
Use contact lens that makes my eyes hazel,
Nails that make my hands an artist’s well-crafted miracle.
How tempting!
But how far away…
I am more likely to visit North Korea than this.
But thanks for suggesting,
Thanks for asking,
I would like to ask you back though,
“What is a model?”

Give me the centre stage
And I can’t, just can’t, greet you with a stone face
that tells you I am miles away from your wildest dreams.
I am not miles away from your wildest dreams,
I am there as the background in the most mundane ones.
Give me the centre stage
And I would pull you close,
And peel my heart,
Ask you to trace the scattered bits of self esteem
bit by bit,
tears by tears.
Together maybe we can discuss the utter misfortunes
of my privileged life,
of your privileged life,
about how bad we are,
about how worse we could be.
Peel my heart further
And if I show you my pain,
would you judge me for being ‘artificially complicated’?
And if I show you my insanity and wild happiness instead,
would you judge me for being naive and shallow?
Peel my heart
And if I show you that I am as equal as you are
would you judge me or judge yourself?

So what model?
I am the coat hanger.

*

The Accident

Liverpool

Our bus halts. There isn’t any bus stop in the immediate vicinity. I don’t notice it at first, still enjoying Dorayaki. We had dropped these Japanese pancakes on the bus floor while trying to open the packet. That hadn’t stopped us from eating them. We had picked them immediately and stuffed them into our mouths. There’s always that three seconds rule.

“Sorry, you’ll have to get off here. The road is closed ahead,” the driver tells us. Abruptly brought back into reality, we stare at him, puzzled.

“Don’t worry. Your stop is just 2 minutes walk away.”

We thank him and get off the bus. A few seconds pass by deciding which way we should head to. Which nothingness are we willing to pursue tonight? The right one or the left? Our London plans are always nothing. We end up going to the same places, every time – Soho, Piccadilly, Camden, Shoreditch. London is too big to be explored on spontaneous weekend plans. We walk anyway, to the left or maybe to the right, hoping to find an interesting place and probably meet interesting people. My hopes are dim. The night has progressed too deep and it’s Sunday – nothing’s going to be open. But I am enjoying shivering in the cold and unsuccessfully trying to find the top of the buildings around me. It’s the first time I have been to Liverpool. With fancy buildings and offices splashed all over the man-made scenery I am walking through, I am too amazed to know where to look and fix my gaze at.

“So, that’s why the road was closed…” Lee nudges me.

I look at the ambulance as well.

Accidents are not unknown to me. I have seen plenty on Indian roads – the overturned trucks, cars with shattered windshields and their engines bleeding green, two-wheelers lying in the middle of a road – the victims engaged in a verbal fight, curious people gathering around them and traffic growing rapidly behind.

Lee and I continue walking past the accident scene.

“I..I..” a man is sobbing before us, trying to speak but failing horribly.

“There’s a woman on the road..” I tell Lee as cold shiver traverses through my backbone. She nods and we both look at her, immediately turn away afraid of what we might end up seeing. I can’t help it though. I turn to look again. There are three paramedics around her. She’s lying motionless, head covered in blood.

“Paramedics are already there, she should be alright,” I think.

I recall the face of the of the man we had just walked past. So, it was his car…

“Do you think…” I try asking something, immediately forgetting, feeling colder, falling numb. I want to get out of here. We both walk as briskly as we can.

“That woman was-”

“Dead” Lee completes the sentence for me.

I look at her, blink for a couple of seconds, wondering if there was a question mark or a full stop at the end of what she had just said.

*

The Movie Premier

We were walking through the streets of London again, still thinking about Mochi. Our tongues craved for more but we were determined not to succumb to our perverse insatiable greed for this Japanese dessert.

“Is today 12th?” Lee asked.

“Yes,” I said checking my phone.

“I am not sure, I need to check, but if I think what’s tonight is really happening tonight, it might just turn out to be the best night of our lives.”

“Oh, nice!” I said pretending I understood what she said.

“Yes! I know where we need to go!”

I followed Lee blindly. Wherever she would take me, I would happily go. No, I wasn’t in love, we just didn’t have any other plan.

We talked, walking on the pavements, crossing the roads, watching people around us.

“Look at that lady,” I mumbled to Lee. “Yes, I saw,” she nodded.

“I want to be like her when I am old.”

“Me too,” I thought. Who wouldn’t? How could one care to be so well dressed even at eighty? I didn’t intend to be offensive if that thought is offensive in any way. I was just shocked because I am twenty-four and I have given up on life already. I don’t even bother to comb my hair sometimes. I wear the same canvas every day. I wear the same jumper. I wear the same jacket. I don’t bother wearing contact lens, I prefer saving two minutes over doing nothing and looking weird in specs instead. This lady, on the other hand, was a model. How does she have so much life? Bottle green stylish hat, velvet dress, shiny pearls, red but not too loud lipstick, white gloves – Posh and graceful – this is what I would like to be. How do I end up being messy and loud instead?

Later, we started coming across even more fashionably dressed people. Silk gowns and gloves. Crisp and handsome tuxedos. The shiny sparkly queue of glamorous rich people was boisterous and long. Everyone seemed happy. Why wouldn’t they be? They were going to watch Star Wars with people who had starred in that movie themselves.

Lee was brimming with excitement. We walked till the very end of the queue, at the entrance of the Royal Theater. Actors were stepping out of the Limousine, posing in front of the camera, stopping by to say a word or few to the anchor, waving to the crowd, signing some autographs, smiling at the camera again and then going inside the theater.

We could have tried asking for an autograph or a selfie too, but we were on the sadder side of the barricade. The free side. I stared at the huge LED screen while Lee tried clicking some photos by going closer to the barricade hoping for better angles and views.

Star War premier, who would have thought?

A part of me was excited. I wanted to post photos on facebook, send snaps to my friends in India. “STAR WAR PREMIER! WOW!” #London #IloveLondon #RoyalTheater #soexcited #unbelievable #likereallyunbelievable #Pleasetellmeyouarejealous

But I didn’t.

Wish I had watched even a single Star War movie. Wish I had given a fuck.

*

I am offended.

If you tell me that I am beautiful, I will be offended.
If you tell me that I am ugly, I will be offended.
Don’t waste that cheesiness on me –
If you do, I will be offended.
If you don’t ever, however, I will be offended.

Tell me I am too tall, I will be offended,
Tell me I am not tall enough, I will be offended.
Tell me I am pretty,
I will say you don’t mean it.
Tell me that I am not,
I will say you are mean.
Tell me I am too thin,
that you are almost almost jealous,
I will say I badly need the gym,
And wonder how you’ve been callous.
“Your teeth are like pearls”
“Your teeth are like cat’s”
Whatever be the case,
I will try to conceal them while I chat.
Tell me to lose those specs –
So much better I might look without them,
Have you seen the dark coffins of my eyes?
What will I do about them?
A major concern as it seems –
My smartphone beaming with an awkward photo,
Snap a couple more sefies,
A game similar to ‘Lotto’,
A jolie, filter dipped face now finally bears my name,
And I will still be offended,
How I don’t actually look the same.
Tell me I look tired,
Had the previous night been rough?
Tell me I look sick,
Did I not sleep enough?
Why do I look so stoned?
Why do I look so drunk?
I guess my face carries a mystery,
A lot of myths to debunk.
Tell me I am smart,
I will judge you for being dumb,
Tell me I am a fool,
I will say you are an arrogant scum.
Use all the beautiful adjectives,
And I will ask, “What do you want?”
Use nothing, nothing at all,
And still that shall haunt.

Maybe, there doesn’t exist a compliment
That could bring a genuine smile,
So, I guess my offense isn’t your fault –
I am just stupidly vile.
Tell me it’s not the case, I will say you pretended.
If you don’t, however, I will still be offended.