Unclean

A haunting story about loneliness   – By Priyanka Gopal

I

Standing on the cement jetty of Goa, on a crisp Wednesday evening, i am not alone.

There are a few anglers with their fishing rods casting bait into the dark water.

The night is young and the distant yellow lights of cheerful cafes behind me cast a gleam.

It’s peaceful, the silence occasionally cut through with a smattering of laughter from the diners.

As I look at the water, I feel myself drawn towards it.

I tear my eyes away.

And irrevocably, my gaze is drawn back to skim the surface of the water, and I summon the strength to ponder what lies beneath.

I have a fear of coastal water and its depth. I also find myself seduced by the crashing waves.

In my mind’s eye I can picture myself walking and slowly sinking, dissolving into the salty spray and rising over in the mist shrouding it.

The gentle splash that echoes every time a wave hits a breaker is hypnotic.

I let go. And take another step. Into nothingness.

II

I stroke the soft, fluffy white fur of the cat. I scratch behind her ears, and her cheek.

Before thoughts can form completely in my head, I forget what I was thinking.

I am not conscious of how many loops I have gone through.

Conscious. That would be the key word.

The weed tastes like peppery fried egg. The after taste is a little too oily for my palate.

But I forget I was thinking this.

Sometimes I attempt to write down what I am thinking.

But when I come down, off the haze, nothing makes sense.

Or maybe the green alters my perception of sense.

As I take a drag of the cigarette, I realize I do not remember when I lit it.

Half of it is burnt with a long crumbling stick of grey ash, barely hanging on.

Sometimes it seems easier to go through the motions of your vices when you are high, without a second’s thought.

And it’s easier to forget everything else.
Everything that matters.

My fingers feel warm.

I hold my hand out in front of my face and lose myself in the whorls, before I make an effort to hold on.

The cigarette’s burnt to the filter.

I stub it out and I cannot recall how much of the smoke went to waste.

Hell, I would have inhaled it in any case.

I lie back and close my eyes.

My heart beat is fast and thumping so loud it scares me.

What would happen if I were to die here, now and how!

I pass out.

***********

I cling to the porcelain toilet bowl and throw up again.

My head throbs and I can’t seem to focus.

My eyes close as my head slumps forward.

I rest my head on the crook of my elbow, resting it on the brink of the toilet seat.
***********

III

I trace the tattoo on my thigh.

“Unclean” it says.

People ask me why I got that written.

Who’s pure these days, I ask.

Rotten in both body and soul.

Most times I think, something will kill me.

Maybe, like the ads, if I do something often enough, I could get sick with something.
And I imagine the smoke eating away at my lungs, burning and choking it cell by cell.

I picture the weed scrambling my brains.

I think of what a drop of ink from my tattoo would do if it got into my bloodstream.

Pay a visit to my heart?

My heart would ask- who are you?

And the ink would say- I am a drop of the unclean.

I trace the scars on my wrist.

It’s not what you think.

Assumption.

I may look forward to death, sweet death, but I am too materialistic and cowardly to enter its door by my own volition.

IV

Unclean. Unclean. Everywhere it is  unclean.

My room. My heart. My soul. My space. My thoughts.

Unclean.

I scrub and scrub.

I scrub into the inked words and try to remove it.

I had found love and I had lost love.

Nothing was pure anymore.

Not my heart, My soul. My space. My thoughts.

You change and you change and yet you stay unclean.
Once soiled always shy.

I have bagged the empties and tossed the remains of the bottles of liquid courage into the communal bin downstairs.

I have cleaned and mopped every inch of my room.

There is not a speck of ash that remains.

I tried to deserve the love, I did. I worked hard for it. I swear upon it.

But he!

Oh the bastardness of it. That rat!

He worked hard on his back, double time.

What do you face in this life!

Cheats and maggots give you trust issues.

Liars and bastards who hurt you.

The heroes are already taken and the scum is all that’s left.

The thieving underbelly of the city crawls with these slicked vermins.

Unclean again. The city, these men, this life.

I rip my tee-shirt off.

It has a cheery image of Minnie mouse. But the print is scraped and bare in places.

The distressed look they say. Unclean and un-new again.

They give something new a history, force-feeding the information into its appearance.

It is meant to comfort you, soothe you.

But does it really?

Where are the joys of breaking into something. Creating your own personal history with your own memory prints.

The jeans you tore when you skinned your knee. That tee-shirt you ripped fighting with your brother.

The faded out patches on the knees of your cargos.

I step into the tub, into the hot water.

I douse the loofah with liquid soap, and I commence scrubbing myself.

My skin is raw and tender, pink, with red scores in places, from the harshness of my all-natural scrub, doubled with the nylon synthetic strings of the loofah.

Clean is everything I want to be. New-born and innocent. Impossible?

I do not crave richness and spaces, nor travel to places.

All I want is a fresh new start on life.

Healthy, happy, heartful.

I once was empty, but now I am not.

I am filled with the weirdly wonderful glow of self-righteousness and directional ambition.

With a new narrow focus on life.

I scrub and I scrub, why do I not feel cleaner than before.

My heart is full of thoughts of purpose.

My future is what I can see.

But cleanliness does not come to me.

I scrape the ink, I gouge my flesh, I scrub and scrub and scrub.

I wipe away my tears of pain.

And then the first trickles of blood begin to drip into the waters of my bath.

Red, red blood.

And the more I scrape, the redder it gets, the water is a pool of watery blood.

The more I scrape, the more I scrub, I rip my old scars open.

More and more, my blood, it drains and I still feel so unclean.

And then there is a lightness to my soul.

And I scrub and scrub and clean.

V

The last time anyone saw Maria, was 2 days ago.

At first, we thought she had gone somewhere for the weekend.

And then Gina, in passing, mentioned her door was not locked from the outside but within.

I went upstairs after breakfast and knocked. But there was no answer.

I called her on her phone, and I could hear the harshness of her ringtone break out within.

I pushed at the door a little harder and I was surprised when it opened.

And then I remembered, she had complained about the broken latch in her room to the warden last week. How do I know this? She complained to everyone, when it broke, She complained when she told the warden and called her a fat lazy pig. And something much worse that I do not care to repeat. And she complained when the warden did nothing about it.

She was always one for complaining.

And whining.

Her room was spotless. That was odd.

And there was another oddity.

The drapes were pulled open and the warm sun cloaked the room with yellowness.

Maria loved the dark. And she loved the dark side of life.

Calling her name, I peered into the verandah.

But she wasn’t there.

I walked towards the bathroom.

I pushed the plastic door.

It did not budge. It was locked from the inside.

I hammered the door and called out again, and again.

There was no sound.

As I pushed against the door, I felt this coldness at my feet.

And then, for the first time, I looked down at the floor.

I rushed to the warden.

There was cold, black, blood.

VI

The warden called the police and they took their timing coming.

They sat down in her room and had tea and biscuits.

They asked the warden to fill out a form and spoke to some of us, and took down our statements.

A missing person report was filed after 48 hours, they said. And it was about 52 now.

They took their time to talk, and feed, and at long last, they were done.

For now, they said.

They went upstairs to Maria’s room.

***********
Everyone was talking about how shocking her death was.

How young she had been.

Her rudeness was now spoken of as honesty, her ruthlessness as determination, her bitching as sensitive.

It was almost as if she was sainted after death.

Like the dead always are.

It is almost impossible to think of how bad they were or how miserable they made people.

You can always try. But you can never succeed.

It is almost as if death has this magicality to change the livings perspective of you.

The dead are always respected, and spoken of in hushed tones.

When they found her, her body was swarming with spiders, larvae and flies, the more gruesome of us relished in saying.

Her nudity was enshrouded with their hairy legs and the wispy wings and their rounded fleshy bodies.

The air was buzzing with insect activity.

The bathwater had spilled over, and her blood was all over the place.

It speckled the white bottles of soap and shampoo next to the tub.

It had splashed over the peach towels in her room.

The black candles that she favored had long since burned out leaving odd molten puddles on the cracked, stained floor.

Her ear phones were still plugged in, but the i-pod had long run out of charge.
Her skin was scrubbed clean off they said.

Her loofah, was still in her hands, when they found her.

The young dying, is a shock enough, and someone who was normal-by what today’s standards of normal are-killing herself, had shocked everyone.

For who knows what is running through the mind of someone you know.

Who is suicidal and who is not.

Which is worse? Hurting yourself or hurting someone else?

Should you be jailed for attempting suicide?

Can you be capable of suicide if you were mentally stable?

What is mentally stable?

Suicidal, is everyone.

That man on the road, your teacher, your aunt?

This world makes you want to end it, for the clarity that this world has bestowed upon us at a very young age, helps us to see things as they are, and not veil ourselves, or cheat ourselves into believing otherwise.

Such is life.

So am i.

 

Priyanka Gopal is a 29 year old artist. A self confessed dreamer she claims she has ” Mood swings between anarchical punk and crazy hippie ”  🙂  Bohemian Rhapsody mirrors her take on life

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Hands – Part 2

Alan
It was surprising how he had never noticed her in all the ten years that he sat in front of his piano by the window. But then, that was him… He never noticed anything when he was with his music. The world blanked itself out.

Today however, the world lay outstretched in front of him. He saw the traffic on the flyover on Sardar Patel road and heard the voices of the workers in the warehouse below. But his eyes were riveted at the window opposite his. She sat next to it, framed by a fork in the branch of the tree in front of it. Her head was bent over a frame that stretched across a thin piece of cloth. Her fingers moved the needle up and down. The lamp under whose light she worked cast a soft glow over her features.

She suddenly looked up across her window at his. He was glad that he had switched off the lights in his apartment. A moment later, she took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes slowly. He saw her flex her fingers and wince as a pain somewhere in them seemed to hit her. After folding the cloth and putting it aside, she reached out her hand and switched off the lamp, clothing herself in darkness.

He remembered her words “ I also live by my hands and fingers” ! He did not know if it compared in any way to what his hands and fingers did for him but he had the humility to accept that she, like him was also a creator of sorts!! It was just that the senses the beauty appealed to were different.

But would he be able to create anything again? His mind sank back into the deadly quicksand of depression again. The surgery along with the hospitalization and physiotherapy would cost him close to two lakhs!! Where was he going to get that kind of money? He had no health insurance and the money he had got from selling his grandparents house was long gone ! Some of it had financed the marketing of musical compositions of his that never saw the light of the day while a lot of it had been taken away by unscrupulous people in the music business who quickly realized that he had no clue about managing money!

He gazed at his hand in frustration..!! This is what came out of getting into a fight in the middle of the night with hooligans. He should have walked away from that scene outside the night club .. Why did he have to jump in and try to save an old beggar from being beaten up?

He had to come to terms with the fact that he might lose the use of one hand forever! Sure, his right hand was still functional. But he could never play with just one hand. And if music left his life, there would be nothing left in it! He might as well think of himself as dead.

But was he ready to die at forty eight? His gaze rested on his piano. He moved his right hand lovingly over the keys. There was only one way out now..! He did not want to do it but that was the only option that was left.

Nilofer
She was shocked when he told her what he had in mind!

She had visited him again the next day, this time with some food. He had been  rude as usual, refusing to accept it. But as she persisted, he started eating and slowly calmed down.

She was very unprepared when he suddenly asked her “ Do you know anyone who might want to buy a piano?” She did not need any further explanation to know what was in his mind.

“Why?” she asked him

“Why not? “ he challenged her.

She did not have any answers. And anyway, it was his hand and his piano. If he wanted to sell it to finance his surgery it was his decision. Who was she to influence it in anyway… ?

Besides, what alternative could she offer? She herself lived an impoverished life inside a crumbling old mansion. What she made out of her craft was just enough to pay for the basic necessities of life. It could not finance something like a complicated orthopedic surgery. Why, what she made did not even leave her with enough to pay for those medicines she took for her arthritis. She rationed the pills taking them only when the pain became unbearable and her fingers refused to move! She used the gas stove and the electric heater sparingly, heating water to immerse her aching fingers only on those days when it was very cold.

She felt very helpless as she continued gazing at the darkened window opposite. He never switched on the light these days. It was as though he wanted to fade away in the darkness!

She wished she could do something to change all of this….!!! She closed her eyes, making a mental inventory of things that she could sell to loan him money for the surgery.

Her eyes traveled around the room taking in the few sticks of furniture-antique no doubt but too few in number. She would hardly get twenty thousand for those few pieces. The cut glass chandeliers had long gone leaving behind only the naked bulbs. The rare pieces of crockery and the silver cutlery had been taken by her various aunts leaving behind only the chipped and damaged pieces for her to eat out of.

She sighed… !! There seemed to be nothing of value left behind with her… nothing except…..

Alan
He was completely closed to the idea of her giving him money for his surgery.

“Treat it as a loan” she said. He did not want to be indebted to anyone, he said .
It had taken her two afternoons of persuasion before he agreed to consider it.

But where had she got hold of so much money he wondered? As far as he could see, she was just as poor as he was.

“Are you selling your kidney” he asked her suddenly.

She laughed for a full minute before she told him that he had a wild imagination.

“Why would I sell a kidney? Won’t I need it for myself?” she asked .

“But you are obviously selling something aren’t you” he asked her .

“Yes, I am but not something that is important to me” she said as she left his house.

Nilofer
When she said it was not important to her, she had meant it. And anyway, after twenty five years somethings held little meaning for her….!

She had been twenty when she had started work on the veil. The cloth was red tissue-a gift from Jah saheb himself! She had worked on it lovingly, putting together the golden threads and the stones on the zardosi. Each stitch was carefully placed on the pattern which matched the earrings that Zafar had gifted her !

Her mother had been so proud of her skill that she could not resist showing it off to the other women in the family. They exclaimed over the beauty and marveled at her talent. After all, how many brides worked on their own veil?

She was almost twenty one when the veil was complete. There were three months left for the wedding- three months during which she planned to put the rest of her trousseau together.

But that was a plan that never took off. Zafar suddenly fell ill and died two months before they were to have been married!! His family had been very cold with theirs after that. Her own family began to look at her differently. People began to whisper about her being “unlucky”.

Days merged into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. Her younger sisters and cousins got married, her parents , aunts and uncles grew older and passed on to the other world.

And today all that she had to remind herself of the Nilofer who was going to wed Zafar was the red veil and the pearl encrusted kundan earrings!

Seriously, did she need them now? At forty six the possibility of her ever wearing a bridal veil was nil…!!  Besides, it seemed right that a  creation of her  hands  should breathe life into that of another!

And as far as Zafar’s memory was concerned, she was sure he  would not have minded her pawning those earrings. He was a kind man who had always helped others

She sold the veil to a designer who specialized in wedding wear. Since she did regular work for him, he paid her some advance against future assignments. That, along with the amount she received from the pawnbroker was a tidy sum. She was sure that it would cover not just the surgery but also the after care.

Alan
Two months was a long time for him to have been away from the keys. He ran his fingers over them lovingly. His hand had healed well.

He sat down on the stool and switched on the lamp. This time when he played he was not losing himself in the music. He was finding himself through it. He played on for one hour, two and then three. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and more! As his fingers moved over the keys his eyes sought the presence at the window opposite. He felt like a ship in stormy waters that was being guided to shore by a beacon of light .

She was looking at him now with a smile on her face. He looked up from the keys and met those eyes. His ship was ready to drop anchor at the port.

It had been one long journey!!!

 

( I would like to thank my friend Christopher Vasanth, who is a musician for giving me some insights into Alan’s character)

Hands – Part 1

Nilofer
She looked up from the fabric stretched taut across the frame. The design was just beginning to take shape. Another couple of weeks and it would be ready!
She took out the thimble from her finger and looked out of the window. The silence was making her uneasy. No, it was not as if there was no noise- traffic flowed as usual on the noisy Sardar Patel Road. The street hawkers on Penderghast road advertised their wares in the same loud voice. Yet there was silence. A silence that was now almost deafening!!

She looked up at the source of this silence – the open window on the first floor in the building opposite hers. She craned her neck to get a better view of the room beyond the open window. But it seemed to be all dark inside. It was nearly a week now!

Nilofer’s world was defined by the shades of  the colors that she embroidered into cloth. The delicate patterns that came alive when threads at the end of a needle merged with cloth. She had an eye for color and design which coupled with her skilled fingers made her a reputed crafts person in the neighborhood.

She could not remember how long it was  since she had been using her fingers to conjure up beauty. It had been a hobby in the beginning but today it took care of her basic needs and helped her keep up the pretense of being one of the descendants of the blue blooded family who owned the crumbling “Zamarrud Mahal”. A family that now existed only in name- coming together to meet sometimes in court rooms to deal with the litigation around the “haveli”. Having no home of her own, she continued living in the crumbling old mansion hoping for an end to the litigation and the sale of the property when she would get some money in her hands and be able to move out of its prison like walls.

It was ironic ,that the life of a person who dealt with colors on a daily basis, could be so colorless! She rarely left the mansion. She met few people except her clients. She had a couple of old men who came in sometimes to do the zardosi work on the large frames. But old age and failing eyesight made it difficult for them now to come for work .

She flexed her tiered fingers and looked out once again. It was all silent like before.

Alan

His earliest memory was that of his grandmother teaching him to play the piano. He remembered how his feet had struggled to find the pedals. He moved up and down on the stool to hit the pedals correctly. What had started as curiosity surrounding the grand instrument in the living room one afternoon, soon became an all consuming passion!!

His grandmother taught the piano. She had students coming over in the afternoons and took them through the notes, teaching them the bass and the melody as he watched from a corner.

He hated these girls (yes, most of them were girls) who came to learn the instrument not so much because they loved music but because their families viewed it as a social accomplishment. He watched them with scorn as they giggled and whispered to each other while pretending to have a go at the keys. His ears flinched at every wrong note, making him want to punch their silly faces.

But Gran had told him to control himself. These classes helped her make money. Grandad’s pension from the school, was not sufficient to keep their body and soul together. His parents had not left behind any money when they had died. In fact, most of what they owned had to be sold to repay the debts that his father had incurred during his life time.

That her grandson was some sort of a musical prodigy was something that soon became apparent to Beatrice. She taught him all that she knew about music but after a point, realized that she had nothing more to offer. The student had surpassed the teacher!

She felt bad about not having enough money to fund his musical education. But Alan did not care about formal education. He did not want any grades from the Trinity college of music. He was a natural, seeking out teachers wherever he saw one. He spent time with old Mr. Samuel , the organist at St. John’s church and with other musicians in the town, honing his musical skills until he started composing his own music.

A man, chasing notes of the musical variety rather than the currency  ones, Alan cared little about making money out of his music. He played for the music and an appreciative audience rather than the money that could be made. He soon developed a reputation of being eccentric.

When his grandparents died, all that he was left with was the house, his grandmother’s piano, some faded black and white photographs and few pieces of  furniture. He sold the house, threw out the photographs, got rid of most of the  furniture and moved in with his piano into a small apartment on the first floor of a warehouse on Penderghast road. He did not want the burden of managing a house.

That had been ten years ago. He had no idea who his neighbors were. He paid his rent to the clerk at the warehouse below. His life within the walls was defined by the music he made sitting at his piano by the window.

Nilofer and Alan

It was Khadija bi who finally told her about him.

After nearly ten days of unbearable silence from across the road, Nilofer had asked the old family retainer who lived with her to find out what happened to the musician across the  street. When she heard that he was unwell, she was not sure what to do. She felt a little embarrassed asking her to find out more. After all, why should it matter to her if an eccentric musician living across the street had fallen ill! But after some deliberation, she decided to find out for herself.

She tried to rationalize it as neighborly concern. But deep down inside her she knew it was something more than that. Somewhere in  those ten years, the music that he played from across the street had become a part of her life. It had entered her soul and found expression through her fingers, seeping into the needle that threaded beauty in the fabrics. That mop of grey hair bent over the keyboard at the window opposite hers, had become a comforting presence in her life.

So, she did something that ten years ago, she would never have imagined doing. She, Nilofer Mirza, daughter of Dewan Sayeed Mirza came out of the gates of the haveli, crossed the street and made her way towards the gate of the warehouse. In her mind, she imagined a million eyes watching her. She walked up the steps to the apartment on the first floor, clutching her dupatta under her chin.

There was no door bell. She felt very conscious about banging on the door. After nearly ten minutes of banging, she heard someone yell from inside “ Who is it?”. Difficult question… What could she answer?

The muttered curse was followed by the sound of shuffling feet before the door swung open! He stood towering over her, an angry man with an unkempt look. She tried to find her tongue and introduce herself. She had just managed an “Aadaab” when she noticed it- his left hand was heavily bandaged!

He saw her looking at his hand and put it behind himself.

“I am Nilofer. I stay across over there” she said quietly.

“In that haunted house?” he asked her with a guffaw.

“Yes. I am the ghost that  haunts it” she said with a smile.

Now that the ice was broken he held the door open wider for her to enter.

The room was in an absolute mess!! There were clothes strewn on the floor, stale food rested on unwashed plates in corners and the piano was coated with a layer of dust.

“What happened to your hand” she asked softly.

“An accident” he muttered. She wanted to know more but he was not willing to talk. So she went around the room trying to tidy up the mess.

It felt awkward, to be alone with a stranger inside his house. He watched her for a full five minutes before asking “Why are you here”?

Before she could stop herself, the words escaped from her mouth “To look for the lost music”.

“You can keep looking. It is now lost forever” he said angrily .

“Why forever? Won’t your hand heal” she asked?

“ I have multiple fractures on my finger bones. It requires surgery to get them working again. A surgery that would cost a lot of money” he said bitterly.

She did not need to ask him anything further to know that he did not have the money.

“My life is now over. You can come sometime later to attend my funeral” he said laughing  hysterically.

“I am sorry” she said quietly.

“What are you sorry about?” he shouted. “Do you even know what it is like for a pianist to lose the use of one hand? My entire life and everything that defines me begins and ends with these!” he said waving his hands in front of her.

“I know the value of hands . You see I also live by them” she said before             walking out of the door.

 

 

 

 

( to be continued)