The first time we met since that last time



I didn’t think I would see him in the café on Monday. I’d spent the last two days in bed, crying myself to sleep. I didn’t want light, didn’t want the sun. The darkness grew on me. All my life, I have learnt only to escape. Never learnt to heal. This time, too, I locked myself in the bedroom since he left, hoping an escape route would make itself visible. I tried to shut my eyes. My brain. The body knows how to heal when left on its own. Under rays of the moon. And with the whispering winds.

I didn’t think I would see him in the café on Monday. He was wearing the same shirt he wore the last time we were together. And happy. I had my hair in a bun. From last night. Wore dark circles like a line of kohl under my eyes. And an unironed pink dress. The one I was wearing in that picture with him from March. The dress looked happy in that picture. Like us. It looks miserable now.

I stumbled while entering the café. Eyes decidedly avoiding him. I chose a seat next to the window. Once, I wanted to fight everyone just to be with him. I wanted to experience everything with him. Today, I chose a chair by the window alone to distract myself with the hope that what I want, what I deserve is on the other side of the glass pane. He came and sat across the table from me. I played anxiously with my fingers. His eyes were fixed on my red nails. Once, we would have held hands. Today, I felt my skin burn, wanting to be peeled off like a blouse from my body. He passed me his glass of water. I reached for it, instinctively. Then held back. Shook my head.

I insist. His voice was the same as before. I insist.

And I returned immediately to the last two nights on my sleepless pillow as tears rolled down my face. The hours spent staring at his name on my phone until I could see no more. Writing him messages I would never send. Talking to him in my head, over and over and over and over again, hoping my voice would reach the antechamber leading to his heart. Hoping he would open the door, invite my voice in, sit with it, hear it out, caress it, fight with it, be gentle with it – anything but silence would do. I talked to myself until the words made no more sense. But why did you leave? Why did you leave? (As if the answers weren’t staring me in the face!) You knew what made me cry. You knew from the way my mouth curled in a smile if I’m hurt, or I’m hiding something, or battling a monster. You knew the different shades of red I like. Or how I sigh. I know where your birthmark is, you know where I’ve buried my secrets. Why leave after all this? Would you have stayed if I asked you to? But how does one make people stay who are determined to go away? Do you not know how much I love you? How could you not know? After all the time we spent together? All the songs? All the dreams? How long did it take us to build this? Months? Hours and hours everyday, for months? And you broke it like a mirror. In seconds. We used to talk about kintsugi earlier. Where’s the gold to hold us together now? Fix us and make us one, so one that we melt into each other? I want to go to the hills with you, and lie under a storm sky together, hearing the falling leaves sigh. Go to an Anupam Roy concert, and an Ed Sheeran concert, and a Taylor Swift concert, and sing until midnight. Then walk to a 24×7 dhaba, get some chai, and discuss that film we watched last week and the review we’re writing. Talk about everything with you like I talk to myself. And books. Books! All these books that want us to read them together. Well, does she love you better? How does one love better? Could we not have learnt together? Have you touched her? Where have you touched her? Does she finish your sentences like I do? Articulate your thoughts before you’ve even expressed them? Write you love songs and sad poems? How often do you meet her? Everyday? Every other day? How does her skin feel against your body? Do you talk to her all the time? Are you talking to her now? I don’t want to know. You must never tell me. But you must have been so terribly unhappy with me. Why else would you leave? Does she make you happy? Are you happy? I would have torn to shreds this cloud of unhappiness surrounding your heart. If only I knew. Why didn’t you tell me I made you so sad? How did I not see it? Why is my memory of us so different from yours? Why is my memory of us filled with love and light and laughter and literature and longing? And love! How could I assume you love me? Oh, the hubris! I got addicted to being chosen. Being chosen by you. And now you’ve chosen someone else. What did you tell yourself when you decided to walk away from me? Do you think of me? Why aren’t you writing to me? Write to me. Call me. Say something. Why won’t you give me a sign? I wish I could numb this pain. I’m hurting so much. I’m hurting so much, love. I need to talk to someone. Anyone. But not anyone will do. You. I need to talk to you. And I can’t. And I won’t. Because I cannot inflict these cycles of pain on myself. I could have a rainbow coming out of my mouth and it still wouldn’t be enough to make you smile. I’ll never be enough for you. Or anyone. Look at me. Look. Who would want me? But that’s okay. It’s not okay — not right now. But it will be. I’ll be okay. I’ve always been. That’s the only way I know how to be. I was so afraid of losing you. I wanted to believe my love would be enough to keep you, though I had a premonition of how this would all end. And look at me now. Now that you’re really gone. I’ve practised death before, it seems. You’re simply a footnote in my story. I cannot let you mess with my head like this. I’m seething. I’m so so angry. Gosh! I hate you. I absolutely, truly, hopelessly hate you.

I insist. He breaks into my thoughts.

Had it been nineteen seconds? Or nineteen minutes? How long had we been in that café? Lord, my heart breaks embarrassingly loud for someone my age!

I took a sip from his glass. Old habit.

I thought we should talk, he said.

Yes, I responded mechanically.

The coffee was going cold on the table. Someone said something. And then something more. And then something else. And we somehow ended up thinking of the first time we met. Who wore what. What we had talked about that day. How do you remember so much, he asked. How?

I remember things about things important to me.

– Photographic memory, as I keep saying.

Perhaps. Perhaps my brain takes photographs of people and moments that are special. And I look at these with a sense of nostalgia, even before the moment has passed, even before the people are gone. Knowing full well they will be gone.

– Do you miss me at all? Why haven’t you texted in the last two days?

I’m used to people leaving. You cannot hold on to waves.

He tried to fix the sleeve of my dress. I froze. What if I dissolve under his touch? What if these aren’t his fingers? What if I made this all up? And he isn’t here? Wishful psychosis, Freud had said, in Mourning and Melancholia. An essay on trying to dissociate from the dead. Have you heard of chronic hallucinatory psychosis, I ask him.

A disorder? What kind?

– People create images of the dead in their head. If it’s involuntary, it’s a form of hallucination. If it’s deliberate, we’d call it wishful psychosis. But these images of the dead – these graphic, palpable images leave the realm of Imagination and start feeling intensely real.

And that’s how Frued explains ghosts, I suppose? Seeing the dead?

I laughed bitterly. And wondered how it took me so many years to realise that Frued’s essay was not simply about the cold and the dead. How do we sever ties with ghosts of lovers past?

My grandmother had cautioned me about nishi daak when I was a child. It’s the Call of the Night, dida had said. Do not respond. Never look back. These creatures of the Night call out your name and tell you things you want to hear to tempt you, and lead you to your death. Don’t look back.

The last couple of nights, lovesick, when I thought I heard him call out my name, I was reminded of what dida had said about nishi daak. What if this is how the nishi daak story started, I asked him.

What story?

Nishi daak. There must have been a woman waiting for her lover to return. He didn’t. And she imagined her calling out her name one night, so she walked into the dark, looking for him, chasing a chimera, chasing his voice like a person crazed, chasing it to her death.

Love, what are you on about?

– I get scared sometimes. Not always. But every now and then.

But it’s okay to get scared. I’m here. Talk to me.

His fingers touched my wrist. I flinched. Will you stop me from holding your hand, he sighed. Then continued after a pause: I was reading that poem by Kamala Das you suggested. My Grandmother’s House. Why did you say you’re like Kamala Das?

I don’t know. Kamala Das was so hungry for love. And when you’re that hungry, they say you’ll lick things off the sharp side of a knife too. She was looking for love desperately. And in all the wrong places. Whatever she could get. So she went from city to person to poem to god, knocking on shut doors. Wrong doors. Locked doors. I started writing when I was in college, you know. One day, my professor decided to read out to the class something I’d written. My best friend stood up, and said, oh, but Mili sounds so much like Kamala Das! It was the best thing anyone could’ve said to me! Until — until SG told me after class that afternoon, but why do you want to sound like Kamala Das, Mili? I want to hear Mili’s voice. What does she sound like? That was my second lesson in the art of writing poetry. Kamala Das was the first. When I was younger, I wanted to be like her. And now, I’m afraid I have become her. And will meet with her end. She died searching. Brilliant. And restless. And unhappy. And lonely. Like the other brilliant women I love. They all went mad. Or killed themselves. Or died lonely. Virginia Woolf. Sylvia Plath. Anne Sexton. Janis Joplin. Marilyn Monroe. Parveen Babi. Amy Winehouse. Jean Tatlock. Anna Ott. Eustacia Vye. Bertha Mason. Esther Greenwood. Jocasta. Lady Macbeth. My best friend.

– Earlier you would put Princess Diana’s name too on that list. Does she still haunt your dreams?

Princess Diana. Yes. So tragically, magically flawed. Starved of love and acceptance and tenderness. You know that British-Pakistani doctor she was with?

– Hasnat something?

Yes, Hasnat Something. I think she found a love in him that was real, raw. After her make-belief fairytale-princess-lovestory went so horribly wrong. Hasnat Something probably saw who she truly was. Beneath the tiaras and the ball gowns and layers of royal protocol. I don’t think he was committed to the deranged-divorced-distressed-princess-needs-rescuing narrative. Yet, this deranged, divorced, distressed princess became too overwhelming for him, eventually. They can’t handle women like us.

– Deranged? You? What rubbish!

Deranged. Like me. Like her. Yes. Like KD. Like Lady M. When Hasnat Something decided to call things off, I think Diana begged him to stay. We all do. And you never stay. Hasnat Something said to Diana, but you don’t need me. You have the whole world at your feet. And Diana replied, there are a million people who love me, Hasnat, but not one who can stay with me.

– You sound a little like her sometimes, you know. Is that normal, or am I being cuckoo?

Living and loving are probably not the same thing. And love has not been enough for you anyway. Or why would you leave?

– You’ve stopped answering my questions. You’re not being fair.

Yes. So add Princess Diana to that list. You know what Kaberi said the other day? My friend. She’s a writer. So gifted and accomplished. She was unwell for a while and her fans and Facebook friends started texting her. Asking about her health. And then some decided to slide in propositions along with the concern. Not the obscene kind of propositions. The self-assured, arrogant kind. How is someone like you still single, Kaberi?

Why am I single, Mili? Kaberi asked me that evening. This question can’t just be individual. Surely, it has got to do something with the society we live in? Why is someone like me still single? Well, I want to ask these well-wishers, can they live with someone like me? I’m thinking of organising a swayamvar this December. Shall we ask these suitors to register, Mili? These men who are so concerned about my singlehood? And let’s hope they don’t turn up with feeding bottles in their wailing baby-soft hands!

– I miss having these conversations with you. Have you decided not talking to me is the solution?

You know what Amrita Pritam said about Sahir Ludhianvi? She took to smoking Sahir’s cigarettes. Said that holding those cigarettes between her fingers felt like holding his hand. She was already married by then. Sahir never married. I think he told his mother that Amrita was the one for him.

– You haven’t been sleeping, have you? You look exhausted.

And Frida. Frida Kahlo. She had a disability as you know. Polio first. Then the trolley accident. I’ve not known anyone who has survived an accident like that. Spine crushed. Foot broken. An iron rod piercing right through her pelvis. Frida took to painting self portraits when she was lying in bed, crippled, immobile chest downwards. I felt like her the other night. Writing my story, lying in bed, in crippling pain, the torchlight of my phone and ghosts of you and me for company. And then Frida met Diego. Debauched Diego. Dilettante Diego. Diego Rivera. Twice divorced. Fucking every model before painting her. Everyone told Frida he was wrong for her. And yet, she married him, the love of her life. Who cheated on her. And hurt her. And loved her. And helped her explore her own sexuality. And grow intellectually and artistically.

– Cheated on her and loved her? Can you hear yourself?

But love is like that, no? Messy. Can you ever completely stop loving a person? They were chaos together. And they created art out of that chaos. Painting each other for over two decades. Learning from each other.

– And was it all Diego? Only Diego? Wasn’t Frida, what was that word you used, yes, “exploring” too?

It wasn’t just Diego. Frida had her share of lovers. Trotsky included. Georgia O’Keefe included. Yet, Frida and Diego found each other. Repeatedly. The needs of the body are different from the needs of the mind. And the soul. I think. So, Diego returned to Frida again a year after their divorce. She was violently unwell by then. She said to him, but I don’t want your charity. Are you back now because you pity me? And Diego replied, no, I want you to pity me and take me back, so I can love you and tend to you.

– You speak like someone from the past. As if you are there and not here.

So, yes, add Frida Kahlo to that list too. I think she overdosed on painkillers. In a parallel universe, I am Frida. And Diego never leaves. You cannot think of Diego without Frida. Comrades — beyond chaos, beyond love, beyond lust.

In a parallel universe, I am Lady Macbeth. And my husband, my brave, murdering, tormented husband, doesn’t abandon me.

In a parallel universe, I am Jocasta. And Oedipus doesn’t loathe me, and the womb he came out of, the womb he came inside. He wasn’t the only one in pain. Could we not have shared each other’s?

In a parallel universe, Amrita marries Sahir. And when Sahir dies, she takes to smoking. Five a day. Then ten. Then twenty. Then two every hour. Trying urgently to turn her body into ash. When they ask her to stop, she simply says, but the smoke keeps him close to me. The smell of burnt tobacco reminds me of his body. As if he’s in the room. And like Frida Kahlo, like Jean Tatlock, Amrita’s last words in her diary will read:

But I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow. I tried like hell to understand and couldn’t. So, now I joyfully await the exit – and I hope to never return. मै तेनु फिर मिलांगी। कित्थे, किस तरह, पता नही। मै तेनु फिर मिलांगी। I’ll meet you again. I do not know how. Or where. Or when. But, I will meet you again.

– But Mili, do you really think I don’t love you? Why can’t you see? I love you in every story. In every reality. Every universe.

And yet, in no universe can I make you stay.

The coffee’s going cold. We are surrounded by smiles and words and strangers in a café we would once frequent as lovers. Today we’ve run out of things to say. How does one chase sadness away?



The first time we met since that last time


            She walked in in a familiar pink dress, stumbling at the door. I’m not sure why she looked like she’d seen an apparition. Did she not know I would come? That I would wait? That I want to talk to her? How could she not know? Does she really think I don’t love her? Will she stop me from holding her hand? These last two days have been –


(But this is not my story to tell. It’s his.)