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Monochrome

Shambhobi Ghosh |

The highway ahead looked almost liquid under the midday sun. The trees in the sparse grove on our right were ablaze with sunshine. In our part of the world the soil was red and dry; clouds of dust whirled up as heavy-load vehicles whooshed past our red Chevy Beat one after another. I suddenly noticed the silence in the car as the petrol station loomed into view.

Aditi was sitting beside me slightly hunched forward, and as usual she didn’t have her seat belt on. She never wore seat belts until we rolled into the city where the traffic police were doing their jobs for real. I could feel her pursed lips and her faint frown even without looking which, again, was quite the norm on these journeys.

Aditi didn’t like travelling by any sort of vehicle except the train. She was mildly claustrophobic, and long rides made her sick. Good thing that we made this customary halt, I thought as I swerved left towards the station. That way she could take a breather, smoke a cigarette or have a drink from the vending machine standing. There were other ways of travelling, of course. But having to wake up at six in the morning to travel in rickety buses for three hours didn’t appeal to her any more than the car-ride.

I stopped the car before one of the oil machines and looked at her fully. Her face seemed to have suddenly aged within the past week or two. The lines running across her forehead and fanning out of the corners of her eyes had deepened, and her hair was a lighter shade of grey. Despite the heat she had refused to put on the air-conditioner and insisted on rolling down the windows. Gusts of hot wind had messed with heralready tangled tresses, but she didn’t seem to notice.
I an

xiously took a peek at my own reflection in the mirror. I might be fifty, but I didn’t want to look it. Neither did Aditi, I’m sure, but things were different for her now, at least for a while. I wondered how long the mourning was supposed to last, and immediately felt rather shallow. It had been a marriage of twenty five years, I reminded myself. Healing needed time.

Aditi’s husband had passed away suddenly but unremarkably, for a person of his age. It was the usual heart attack; nothing epic, nothing dramatic. One weekday morning Aditi had woken to find him still in bed, which never happened because he always made his own breakfast as he went off to work an hour earlier. She told me she had put a finger on his hand and immediately known that he was gone. The hand she had touched was icy and hard; the hand of a corpse.

“Do you mind getting me a coke?” I was shaken out of my thoughts by Aditi’s request, “I don’t feel like getting out today”. She sounded tired, like she hadn’t been able to get any sleep last night.
“Of course,” I said, hastily opening the door, “you just stay put.”

I could see the profile of Aditi’s face from where I stood. She was now resting her head on the back of her seat, her eyes gently shut, looking more exhausted than in grief, I thought. As for the white sari, it wasn’t something that I wasn’t used to. In my two-decade-long friendship with her I had never seen her wear anything other than neutral colours.

Several images of her throughout the years flashed in my mind as I put the change in the vending machine. A tall slender lady with black-framed specs and a grey sari, her hair tied up in a neat bun; a forty-something woman in a smart pair of black trousers and a crisp white shirt. I couldn’t remember any occasion when she wore any other colour, and that’s saying a lot, since we’ve travelled together every single day for twenty years to a college in the neighbouring city where we taught literature to a bunch of unwilling teenagers.

She was already married when we had met, but she never wore any markers; no vermillion, no iron bangle. I still remember some of the snide comments she used to receive from our colleagues in the early years. A portly gentleman on the eve of his retirement had asked her in an avuncular manner whether there was a reason why she always “dressed like a widow”.

No, she didn’t look any different on the outside now, but I could tell that she had suffered loss, a loss perhaps greater than I could ever imagine.

She smiled as I handed her the chilled can. A part of me wanted to embrace her and tell her it was going to be okay. Another part held back. For all our years of commuting together, I didn’t really know anything about her. It’s true we talked all the time — in fact, all we ever did was talk — but our conversations never once touched upon private matters. We discussed the sorry state of the youth and the general disinterestedness of our students; we debated long hours over the greatness of Yeats and Eliot.

But whenever our domestic lives came up we only referred to it in passing, like a vague backdrop. I knew what her husband did for a living. But she never told me what kind of a man he was and how they had met. I knew she had a daughter, but nothing more about her.

I knew most of her daily habits and tastes, but I couldn’t have told you whether or not she believed in God, what her politics was, or who were the people in her life she truly cared about. I dropped her home every day after work, but I had never been inside the house. I’d stop my car at the gate and watch her climb the small flight of stairs to the front porch and ring the bell.

Sometimes, when Aditi politely complained how I never properly visited them — and each time I promised to drop by soon — we both tacitly agreed that it wasn’t really going to happen. I, in turn, never talked about the time when my wife left me for a young, successful artist. I never told her how much I missed my two children who lived with their mother and rarely visited me. And I never told her about the time when I had a really serious crush on her.

Aditi looked absently towards the grove on the right as she sipped her coke. Her reverie was broken as I climbed back on to my seat. “Did I tell you about that app my daughter downloaded on my phone?” she asked as I was back on the highway. I thought it was an odd thing to talk about. “No, you didn’t. What sort of an app?”

“It’s really quite interesting,’ she said with a faint smile, “It’s this thing where you can read poems about love. Not just the mushy kind, but all sorts. It stores hundreds of poems, I think, from poets of all ages. And some of them have been recited.”

“Recited?”
“Some famous people have read a few poems for the app,” she explained, “and you can listen to the poems as you read along.”

“Oh, now I get it,” I said, “that does sound like a nice thing to have on your phone. Is your daughter fond of poetry?”

“Actually,” she suddenly let out a chuckle, “she fancies this young English actor… I forget the name. She only wanted this app because he’s read a few poems there, and she wanted to listen to him reading love poems.”

“Is that right?” I asked, amused.

“That’s what she told me,” she replied smiling, and then started to fiddle with her phone. I liked the idea of a digital pool of poems on my phone, be it cheesy romantic ones or something else. But I wasn’t sure what I thought about people reading them aloud. In my experience the reader’s voice mostly interfered with my complete immersion into the world of the poem. I was just about to tell her this when she said, “Tom Hiddleston.”

“I’m sorry?”

“That’s the fellow my daughter likes.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Listen to this,” she said, and before I could protest, she held the phone close to my left ear. I put the speed of the car down by a notch.

I confess I was taken aback by the title of the poem. But then suddenly everything made perfect sense; the whole conversation until now had only been a preamble to what she wanted to tell me, through this poem. Why didn’t I see it before? With the kind of relationship we had, she could never have told me how she felt; not in her own words, at least. And yet, at that moment, the pain of this realisation was almost too much for me to bear.

“Funeral Blues, by WH Auden,” announced a rich, deep baritone that sounded like it had been created for reciting the saddest poems in the world. The voice paused for a few seconds after the title, a few seconds in which an eternity seemed to flow past us. The clock had been stopped in that silence. The telephone had been cut.

And as the beautiful and heartbreaking voice slowly read out the familiar lines, I felt as if all colour was slowly being sucked out from the scene that we inhabited; from the highway, from the trees, from my car, from the depths of my soul. The world was in mourning for a stranger who was no stranger at all. For he was our world; our East and West, our working week and our Sunday rest.

But each of us had made the naive mistake of thinking that this great love of ours in our infinitely small and flawed world was as perennial as the universe itself. Of course, we were wrong. And I could feel my eyes slowly well up as a divine hand put out the stars one after another by the decree of this devastated young man, as it packed up and dismantled the celestial bodies, poured out the ocean and swept up the woods. Our great love was dead, and the world didn’t make any sense; the colours didn’t make any sense. Emptiness stretched out mile after mile before us like a barren grey no man’s land.

I hadn’t realised that I had stopped the car by the side of the road. My cheeks felt wet and my mind was strangely blank. The voice had stopped in the phone. I remembered Aditi’s presence in the car and immediately a wave of embarrassment swept over me. It was as if I had broken a code after all these years. Without a word I wiped my face and restarted the car.

“You know,” said Aditi quietly after what felt like an epoch of silence, “I felt hopeful after listening to this poem.”

I looked at her with undisguised astonishment. This wasn’t what I had expected to hear. She returned my gaze briefly and then spoke as we both stared at the highway before us.

“It made me think that there must be at least one person in the world who would grieve for another human being like this. I can’t say that for most people. I can’t say that for myself. To be very honest, I was practically relieved when he died.”

We didn’t speak for the rest of the way. I couldn’t tell what Aditi was thinking, but then again I never could. All the while I thought about the poem, the voice of the poem, and the stranger friend beside me, sitting in the exact same way she had twenty years ago, and carrying within her the same monochromatic heart.