Of the three worlds possible, I hate the one I see in my bedroom. It is the same world in a brothel too. In a brothel, the worlds stretch out and ebb like the dance of light from that swaying bulb on the second floor of Kanta’s shack. At once you see flesh and then there is an offer to show flesh. I had met Yamuna in one such place, but she has disappeared. So did she belong to the third world?
World of real, world of suppressed-real and world of beauty – can’t you see it clearly around you? Then why call me mad? Why buy me a small room on the terrace of a butcher’s shop and ask me not to visit you? Can you look around and not see the trichotomy into which every unquestioned fragment of this world falls and is comfortable? Why then do you deny the walls? Why do you feel better when I tell you that the walls are porous? No, I am not saying that to make you feel better. Nor am I slowly sliding into accepting your definition of a singular world (how daft!). You will know, soon, reluctantly, but soon.
Soon she will take off her clothes, and I will have to leave soon. Strange that I can only leave after she takes them off. How each layer brings her into that other world? She thinks she is going to make me yearn for her. How silly! She reveals one hasty breast. How it flops there, ugliness precipitating to the bottom in a dark cone of unexcited business. Rivulets of her humaneness flowing down like the ruts on a weathered bota bag, collecting sediments near the snout. She looks at me with practiced coyness and I reach for her clothes.
Clothes are what makes a man or a woman beautiful. Like a mottled table made the neighbour’s envy with a rich table cloth, clothes ensure that we can walk on the road amidst other human beings. You surely are a woman? A man? Don’t even hope for kind words from me. Take your clothes off and stand in front of the mirror. What do you see? Skin gathering in warts and hair, skin hanging wherever it can, dragging the rest of you into a stooped revulsion! Women are more unfortunate. What must hang does so shabbily and what should stay hidden realises secrecy by wrapping itself up in an overdose of flesh and skin. Stretched and crumpled, patches of discolouration, sagging and smelly. Perhaps an undressed woman is uglier for the contrast is more stark between her suppressed real (isn’t that lace, seen through her blouse, so beautiful!?) and real (a sudden strand of unruly hair near her navel).
Navel thrusts are what she serves me as I reach for her clothes. I look away and hold the right shoulder of her blouse in my hand. I push it back up and while it stays on her shoulder, her breast hasn’t been hammocked yet. I reach for my wallet (I carry a separate one for such sojourns) and she screams at me. Several men have come to her but her pride still hurts when a man walks away paying her for putting her clothes back on. She abuses my father and curses my mother with barbaric rampages. She throws the note back at my face but I know she will quickly take it and shove it into her blouse once I leave and tell her friends that she would never take money from a man who made savage demands. I keep walking while she screams from the corridor. I reach the road and walk beneath her flailing arms, now spanning the breadth of the road and moving in black sweeps under the fluorescent bulb above her head. I smile at her soothing shadow which touches me by not touching me. Soon I walk beyond the reach of her shadows.
Shadows converse as they merge into the other on the roads leading to the river. I wonder whether people are the projections of each shadow, each one wanting to be dressed differently. That in red and that one in chiffon, each greeting the other without collisions and emerging from the other, never the same. I lie down on the cobbled road with my right eye close to cool stone. The sudden coldness makes my skin cringe into a tightness (that should reduce the sag around my midriff). I watch the shadows talk to each other while their hopes stand in a line outside the wine shop. Their intelligent conversations are the breeze over the puddle and leave a rainbow on the film. Where men collide, shadows merge. Where women stink, shadows leave it to your imagination. Where men are shabby, shadows are well turned out. Where women are shapeless, shadows are well cut (move the light a bit that way and that broken nose could belong to a Greek God).
God created light before he made this world. Why? I ask you that, and you hurriedly walk away. Because he had to create the third world of beauty. Single tone and hue, egoless, honest, loyal (has your shadow ever left your side?) and non-disruptive (which war was ever fought between shadows? All war is a war of images not shadows). But in that same light, the real world also became visible. And God regretted it enough to give us clothes as an apology. The Sun and the Moon both cast shadows and scorch the the inhabitants of the real world. You do see this and still you deny my three worlds? Let me show you all of it. People clothed and when they are naked (not undressing) and when all you can see are shadows of the very same people. And you don’t find the shadows most beautiful? No? No? Look again! Lie down by my side on this road and see again. Don’t make my heart grow heavy.
Heavy footsteps rush towards me. They think I am drunk and rush to me with sympathy laced with quotidian annoyance. When I raise my hand to tell them I am fine, they grip it and hoist me up. Poor shadows stare at me wondering at the commotion. I explain to the people that I am fine and I haven’t had a single sip of anything even remotely intoxicating. They are angry at their kindness gone in vain. Someone calls me stupid. No, not his shadow. His shadow is still looking at me but with no cruelty. Someone reveals that I was also at the nearby brothel and had created a lot of nuisance out there too. I try to explain but someone hits me hard.
Hard are your hands as they hold me down, in fear that my walls might become real. Every time I raise my head you think the walls are growing stronger and you hit me again. You were there too, weren’t you? Did I do something wrong at the brothel? And you hit me harder lest the other think you are my friend. But you are. You and I walked the entire evening together. Why are you telling them that I am a madman who was stalking you? I didn’t. I wouldn’t. All I did was talk to you. They look at you, but when you beat me harder, they are convinced I am a madman. They abuse my parents for having soiled society by giving birth to me. But they aren’t even here to listen to this. Someone kicks me in my stomach. I hear a familiar voice from a distance. Blows come to rest on my bones and cheeks and hips as I curl into something that yields a beautiful shadow shaped like a stuffed bag. A bag of shadows.
Shadows too merge with mine and ebb and return to my foetal hemisphere on the road. All I see are these elongated black ropes reaching out to me and caressing me as the voice grows stronger. Blows lessen and the shadows converse sharing news about the afternoon meal at the Irani cafe. Yes, the chicken was burnt and he was stingy with the cardamom. But the tea was good as always. Not a single shadow knows me before today or will know me beyond today. Why, yes, we are all keepers of shadows though I would let you into the real secret some other day when I am in lesser pain.
Pain from the last blow leaves my shadow throbbing to a beautiful rhythm. All the other shadows stop and admire. The voice scolds everyone back to their work while the shadows mingle to create new patterns on the cobblestones. A pair of hands reach down and stink of lamb gut. I throw up and he withdraws, though his shadow does so, slower than he. He pours a jug of water on my face to wash the vomit and picks me up.
“Didn’t I tell you to stay in the room till I throw the bones to the dogs?”
I smell the sweat near his neck and shudder. His apron against my cheek gladdens my heart. I try hard not to imagine him naked for I had once seen a large lump under his armpit. Is that Yamuna there turning around the corner? A shadow follows her and beckons. And more shadows glide along in unchoreographed harmony. Shadows which an entire world is made of.