“Exquisite ghost,” says the martyr, the witness, “it is night.”

“Where could we be, can you tell?”

Vayu is the one who asks, breaking the silence, sweat trickling down his left temple. It is not a particularly warm night. Neither is it humid. It is cold, rather. Chilly. The point of origin of this heat he so verily feels is somewhere deep within himself, Vayu recognizes, even as a wild gust of wind blows right through him. Its wailing is unsettling enough to make even the warmest of men parry for cover, and strong enough to undo a dune or two—which it does, as he watches on. Yet, remarkably, it fails to have any effect on Vayu. He only pants stronger.

The moon is a pale, crescent smear upon the jet black sky. Diminutive speckles of light appear smattered across its tapestry, as though they were carefully punctured by some wounded soul veiled behind it.

“We’re in the desert, of course,” Shirin responds, unfazed by it all. Vayu’s fear is only compounded by her indifference, which he now takes for disaffection. One of her games, he thinks to himself.

“The desert, you say? Which one exactly?” he retorts mockingly, picking on what he believes she has left unsaid.

“Oh, there needn’t necessarily be a name. But if you insist, for the sake of clarity, you may call it Faiz’s,” says Shirin, her eyes fixed firmly on the horizon, away from Vayu’s. The wind blusters again, fiddling with the tresses of Shirin’s hair this time, as if they were the bright, colored tassels of a young girl’s earring—merry, mirthful, and reminiscent of younger days. From where Vayu is sitting she appears gilded in silver on her right, bathed as she is by thin, lustrous slivers of moonlight. The tail ends of her white dress waltz with the wind. As he beholds this sight he feels he has never seen anyone or anything look more beautiful.

“Faiz’s you say?” Vayu finally manages to speak through his quivering lips, utterly perplexed. And just as he does, he feels something move down his throat. A smooth, volcanic stone—a black obsidian. Its weight now sinks in through his oesophagus and slithers into his diaphragm. His eyes turn a tad heavier and joyless. Shirin continues to not look at him.

“But why are we here?” he asks.

“We?” Shirin responds blankly. “It is just you here,” she adds. Her cold voice makes the hairs on Vayu’s forearm crawl up and stand upright, his skin now stiff like a vigil porcupine’s. As he contemplates a response the stone slips further down the tube. It is now in free-fall. Vayu gasps.

“You mean to say, I am all alone here?”

“Well, if it’s Faiz’s desert, you ought to be,” Shirin goes on, as self-possessed as ever. Her voice cuts incisively into the stillness of the night, ready to pierce through the cloak of blackness and reveal what is hidden behind it, if she pleases so. But not tonight. Tonight is here to stay.

Shirin’s remoteness only aggravates Vayu’s anguish, which has been eating at his soul for entire minutes now. Or has it been hours? He cannot tell for sure. There is no device where he is at, no method. Everything remains still, except for their conversation, the vagaries of the wind, and the shifting dunes of sand that surround them.

“But then again, if I am alone, how could you be here?” Vayu asks, puzzled. “Can’t you see? We are in this together,” he bawls, intent on making her see it his way. The night already knows he is not prepared for what is coming. Yet somewhere deep within Vayu’s blood vessels, processes unknown to him are now underway. The body listens more so than the mind.

“No, we’re not. Most likely, we’ll never be,” Shirin replies bluntly. To Vayu it is quite evident that she isn’t lying, but this knowledge only makes everything more incomprehensible to him. Yet, he observes that she’s measured in her tone, as he knows her to be. He desperately wants to make sense out of it all.

“Will you please stop with these games and tell me why we’re here? How we’re here?”

He feels increasingly encumbered by the weight of the night now. His shoulders might as well have belonged to Atlas, he thinks, tasked as they are to bear the heavy atmosphere all by themselves. But they are too slender to measure up to it. Incompetent. His clavicles are ready to snap.

“That is for you to figure out. I shall have no part in it,” says Shirin, without an inflection that betrays any hidden desire. Her words are as opaque as they come. Nothing to see behind them. No hidden meaning. Yet Vayu thinks of them as indecipherable. They reek of more meaning, but he has not the key, the cipher, he tells himself.

As he searches his mind for it, he starts feeling the chill of the wind against his chest for the first time. The frost cuts through his red poncho like a dagger. Its serrated edges sever the knits, accost his skin.

“Then what exactly are you doing here? Can you at least tell me that?” he is nearly yelling now, reeling from the pain cutting into his chest. His agony is as palpable as the minuscule grains of sand getting dislodged by the hasty windfall, all around him.

“I’m nothing but your hope,” Shirin says sternly, collecting herself. As Vayu looks on, she extends her arm and points her index finger towards her north-west. There, almost a mile away, palm trees—a thicket. A verdant cornucopia, reflections and the promise of water. An oasis.

The buzzing of the wind swells up in Vayu’s ears, as though he’s covered the both of them with empty steel glasses, like he would as a child. But he would do anything to escape their ominous white noise now. “Could we, could we walk there?” he asks, shivering.

“After you,” says Shirin. Vayu jumps to his feet with whatever life he has left. He is going to get through this night. He will get them water, get Shirin to warm up to him, and leave this wretched place, with her. Forever. Or so he tells himself. He implores his limbs to act on his word. He has to be right. They hesitantly try to appease his ambition. And thus, petulantly, he lugs his body’s growing weight across the sand, his throat aching for water.

The moon gets shrouded behind wile, grey clouds. But Vayu does not notice it. His eyes only see the foliage at the edge of his field of vision, where the silhouettes of dark dunes merge with the hem of the sky. At one point, he turns back to look at Shirin, expecting to see her following in lock-step. But her soles are not on the ground. She’s hovering a few feet above the earth. Par for the course, he thinks. Tonight is a strange one.

Refusing to look for more answers, he ambles on towards the oasis. But, as he fumbles along, he slowly starts to realize that despite all his pace, the oasis has not moved an inch closer. If anything, it appears less distinct, less defined and less real now. How could this be? Vayu sinks to his knees as he begins to comprehend it all. He prostrates in defeat in the sand. His sorrow wells up inside him, collects in his eyes and spills over on to his gaunt face, his cheekbones and jowls. Shirin notices that his face appears bedewed—bejeweled—as the moon comes out the clouds, gleaming vulgarly.

“You’re taking revenge on me, aren’t you? It’s a fucking mirage,” Vayu screams. His rage blisters the deafness of the night.

Shirin appears shaken, if only for a moment or two. But she quickly composes herself. “NO! It’s your remorse making you say things. I was never interested in revenge. Never will be,” she rejoins, halting a few yards behind him, looking askance, to her east.

“Then why, why this? All I ever did was tell you. And I had so much to tell you—things I had so longed to tell you. And for so long. But when I finally did I couldn’t help myself. And I admit that I got ahead of myself there,” Vayu bemoans, desperate now.

“But this is no kind of punishment for speaking it, is it?” he falters on, “Somebody had to. But this—whatever you’re doing now—this is pure torture. Nobody should deserve this, least for speaking the truth.”

Again, for a moment or two, Shirin appears visibly discomfited by his helplessness. Yet she manages to hold back the water now rising up within her resplendent, illusory being—anymore of it, and he would make her turn real in this desert. With him. And then there shall be no escape. For either of them. This she knows. So she holds it back with all her soul force, and gazing further away, speaks exactingly, “I was not ready. You should have listened to my pleas.”

Vayu looks on, consumed as he is by tears now. He quavers unintelligibly. Shirin looks away, hiding herself from his whimpering. He should have listened. Vayu knows it too. But he had thrown caution to the wind. He curses himself for his callousness now.

Suddenly, a flash of lightning strikes down on a dune, a hundred meters from where they are. The skies have abruptly decided to burst alive. Clouds converge right above Vayu’s disconsolate frame and conspire to drench him in their insolence. They cannot let him leave here yet. They alter their state and leap towards him, millions in number.

When the first drop of water hits his skin, Vayu is midway into issuing an apology. “I did not know better at the time. I’m terribly, terribly sorry,” he stammers, stringing together the only words he can muster. The lightning strikes the same spot, a second time.

“I asked you to stop, you did not listen. I do not care for apologies. I care for action. For understanding,” says Shirin, unshaken.

“You think you have learnt how to speak, don’t you?” Shirin asks, her voice growing louder, “And you think you do it so well. But now you must learn, to listen.” Her words are studied and stern. Yet not unkind. Vayu tries to remember that conversation from months ago. She had struggled hard not to turn hostile even as it strayed farther and farther away from where she intended it to go. Yet he had not lend an ear to her admonishments. He had kept at it instead. He had willed to tell her everything, and there was no stopping him. Despite her repeated appeals to the contrary.

But now he nods. Now he tells her that he understands.

“Listen, you will inevitably despair as I leave. Despair is my absence. But you must learn to belong with it, to sit with it as if it were a friend,” she tells him. He listens now, intently. What else is there to do?

“And when you finally learn to sit by its side, still, gentile, without giving in, a thin wall of detachment separating you from it, that’s when you’ll begin to learn,” Shirin continues. Vayu simply looks on.

“You must learn to find rhythm, by yourself,” Shirin carries on, “Look around you. You aren’t entirely alone here. There are twenty two million stars. There are double that many dunes, and a quintillion granules of sand making up each of them. You must learn to tell them apart from one another. You must learn to count.”

“And once you have learnt the art of counting, you will be able to measure time. And when you have figured out the workings of time, you will have understood when it would dawn. How it will dawn. And you will learn to wait for it, until it does.”

“I will wait for it,” Vayu sibilates under his breath. He brushes off his tears with his sandy palms. Grief gets smudged across his cheeks. But he realizes only too well that he’s brought this brute turn of fate upon himself. “I’ll be patient this time,” he asserts.

“You will be,” Shirin says reassuringly.

She turns, takes a step or two further away from him, tilts her head slightly to the left, almost as if to register his presence through her side eye, before saying, “Remember, despair you will. There is no escaping it. But do not forget. It will dawn, once you learn to measure the speed of wind; the doing and undoing of the dunes; the phases of the moon, the shifting of constellations. The weight of the sand beneath your feet. Do you follow?” she asks. Vayu looks up at her and nods. It is almost time for her to leave now.

“I only know this because,” she stops short.

“Because you’ve been through here before,” Vayu interjects. It is when he does this that she loses it. She wants him to not know such things. But uncannily, he always connects these dots. Yet the simplest things, he will leave in his wake. She reluctantly chooses not to bash him for it now. He’s had a tough night as it is.

“If it dawns, I guess you’ll find me again—in the morning,” is all she says.

Vayu opens his mouth as if to speak. But the wind swirls into a spherical flurry before his eyes, swooping Shirin up, and erasing her from being. He buries his face in his hands as he regards her departure. He weeps. He mops his face with the ends of his poncho and looks up again. There is only him and the sands of time. No Shirin.

He notices that his clothes are now drenched, as is his body. The rain has stopped. He collects himself and sits cross-legged on the sand. He takes off his poncho and pajamas, dries himself with their wetness, and leaves them on the sand to let the wind attend to them. Tingles rush across his spine as the sand scrapes against his bare calves and thighs. He takes a fistful of sand and releases it on to his palm. He starts counting the grains slowly, individually, one after the other. He gazes up at the stars. He starts counting one star for every grain of sand. By the time he counts to 11,971, he falls asleep.

“The defenceless would have no weapons,” says the martyr, the witness.

***

At 7:22 AM Vayu wakes up to the vibrations of his phone. His room is blue. The pale white curtains to the west lilt in the winter air as bands of light flush in furtively through the window panes. He rubs his misty eyes, partly holds back a yawn and turns the alarm off.

He sits up in his bed, relaxes his muscles and practices a round of the Wim Hof breathing technique. It helps with the stress. The Buddha painting, framed on the southern wall looks over him as he uncrumples his pillow with soft pats across its cover. He makes his bed. He plays Thom Yorke’s Dawn Chorus on the speakers as he brushes his teeth. He exercises. At 8:44 AM he eats his breakfast. Scrambled eggs, bread and sausages. Black tea. At 10:10 AM he feeds the neighborhood cats some milk. It took him weeks to get them to be friendly to him. Now they’ve finally let him pat their backs. After he’s done playing with them, he sits among the trees for a while and lets the stillness engulf him for exactly four minutes.

At 11:11 AM he finds that two more work mails have arrived in his inbox. This time from Bangalore. It’s the 22nd of December, the day of the winter solstice. Shortest day of the year. Yet it feels as though it were the longest. Only a year ago, on that date, had he taken rounds at the university, talking to students, covering the protests.

Shirin was there too. Not on the 22nd, but on the 21st. A day before he was. She had traveled all the way to Delhi, from Mysore. They had no knowledge of this. They had walked past the same spot, albeit separated by precisely twenty four hours. Vayu distinctly remembers how he had felt something odd while there. A strange ineffable feeling had come over him. An intuitive knowledge, like a spectre had seized his being. Appalled, he had looked for a familiar face in the crowd, amidst the thronging young protestors. But he did not find any.

Vayu would only find out whom he was looking for, much much later. The same face he was always looking for in the crowds. There only ever was one. He had obviously always known. But consciously acknowledging the truth to oneself is a cumbersome task. He was not ready for it then. What one hides away from waking life, however, is only recreated more vividly in sleep. In dreams. It would take him quite a while to finally start interpreting them the correct way. And when he finally finds out, it would be one among the many coincidental, synchronous threads of meaning he would stumble upon, one after the other. This is how he finally starts seeing it.

On 22nd December, 2017, three more years ago, Shirin had messaged him asking, literally, to save her life. It was an exaggeration of course. Shirin was working on a story, on a tight deadline, and his help was necessary. He had readily rushed to her aid. Another solstice.

He had perhaps liked her more forcefully than he should have. That’s what apprehended him. To combat the feeling, he sought to keep it only to himself.

Shirin and Vayu had met five years ago, in the time of spring. In the time of lilacs. At the café named Moksha, accompanied by another friend; the corner of the table between them. Then, again in autumn. In the time of belated laburnums. Face to face this time, in his mother’s house, amongst other friends. Just twice, briefly. Never alone, or by themselves, although they had made plans. But something always got in the way, something was always amiss. Like those 24 hours, in Delhi.

He remembers how he registered her presence like he had done nobody else’s, when they had met at the café. It was felt deeply, fundamentally. He had looked at her through his side eye, never making direct eye contact. He was afraid. He shelved the memory and kept it locked up in a forgotten corner of his mind. Because, after all, what had he done to deserve the light Shirin possessed? Nothing. He was a nobody? Anxious, morose, lonely. That’s all he was. A Kafkaesque vermin.

Yet, when they occasionally messaged each other, for work or for the occasional banter—randomly—there were definite sparks. It was the news of her becoming an aunt. It was either her father’s birthday or her niece’s. It was his graduation day. It was his grandmother forgetting his name. It was them being in the same city without realizing it, only to talk about it a day later. They were all occasions. Always. And important ones too. Vayu would recognize this only too late.

***

Unfortunately, entirely unbeknownst to him, Shirin had always known. She had looked up and into his eyes, on day one. She was anxious too, but not afraid. She had seen them, and it had struck her there and then. It was only when he failed to understand that she began looking away.

And slowly, over time—and it took years—her gaze, solidified. Her eyes became adept at looking afar. She had decided it was not to be. “So what if we did sit, the corner of the table between us? It did not matter to you. Not the least. So would it not to me. You are not the one, you never were,” she had told herself.

She shelved it too. And that was that.

And yet there he was, years hence, saying all that she had known, always. Known, but put away. Here he was blurting the obvious in the worst November of her life, like he’d found out the answers to some profound, fundamental mystery of existence. What an a-class idiot.

She would have none of it. She had built another life for herself now. She had books to write. Essays to structure. Pets to feed. There was the new, indestructible meaning she had constructed out of her aloneness. One she took comfort in. There were routines she had cautiously, painstakingly developed. To adhere to. There were responsibilities she had taken on, resolutely, to ground herself. Grounding was necessary. For she knew she couldn’t carry on living in that old school of dreaming anymore. Where she was raised. Where they belonged. It was a war out there, and dreamers died every single day. Only the pragmatists could find a place in it anymore.

Around her she had erected the iron fences of ideology, to fortify her hiding place. To ward off the dreams. Sometime in between all this, she passed through the desert herself. But she had pined for him to come, while she was there. He did not. She had willed him to come knocking so she could put an end to all of it. He did not. She would have let go of all that second-hand meaning in a second. Returned to that world she sorely missed. Yet, nobody arrived.

Then she learnt the art of counting, of sitting with herself. Of forgetting, of learning to not wait. Until it became second nature.

And now, when everything was over, here he was, arriving furiously to rankle her windows. Knocking on her doors. Crying out loud that he had finally crawled out of Eden. That she had come in his dreams; that he should have known long ago. Yelping new words he had discovered, new rhythms. And old meanings he had apparently deciphered out of thin air! The buffoon. Here he was screaming that the universe was involved. “Yeah? Nothing!” she told herself.

“Garbage. Cow-shit,” she rebuked.

Does he not realize he made it too late? That it was already the thirteenth hour? The stupid disgusting man-child. How he serenades the night like a wile lout. Like a rabid clown. How he now extolls the aesthetics of love. Of romance. Of truth. An imbecile. A bae-waqoof. Well, señor, too late. I am living on my own now.

And yet, yet, yet, she tried to extend him one last chance.

“Stop, sirrah. I will need time,” she had said. There was so much to undo. So much. But the impetuous loon, he only got more restless at that. Like a peevish little twerp, he battered on her walls ever more agitatedly. He twitched and turned in his sleep at night, causing Shirin to stir and awaken at unholy hours, in her dim lit room far, far away. When he drowned himself in whiskey, all those miles away, she felt the toxins enter her veins.

Vayu was trying to make up for lost time. He couldn’t wait for the rest of his life to begin, now that he had finally discovered his truth. His meaning. Or whatever it was that he had discovered. He had sat on a hilltop on a drunken night and talked to Elvis. “Are we allowed to rush, Elvis? Tell me yes, you drunken moron,” he had said. “Go home, Vayu. You and I are fools,” Elvis had replied, half-singing. He chose not to listen.

She had to cut him off. He left her no option. She had to get back to watering the plants. To feeding her cats. To writing for the world. So, she asked him to contact her no more. Threatened him she’ll have the machinery involved if he didn’t oblige. Seems to have done it. He was nowhere to be seen now.

“Well, good riddance. Who was he anyway?” Shirin thought to herself. “Merely a vague acquaintance. A friend perhaps? No. No more pilfering meaning out of that house of dung, Shirin,” she tells herself resolutely. Then she returns to her routines. Although, it has become oddly difficult for her to go to sleep these days.

***

At 8:44 PM, Vayu eats dinner. At 9:22 PM he bids adieu to the cats. Between then and 11:11 PM he reads a new novel, or a short story. Sometimes a poetry collection. It was Call Me Ishmael Tonight, last night. It is The Enchantress of Florence tonight. He listens to Bon Iver or Benjamin Clementine before hitting the bed. They help him soothe his soul. After the more unsettling days, it is Nick Drake. When his longing grows insufferable, he plays Iqbal Bano. And then some nights, when he is comfortably ensconced in his restraint, it is entirely Mehdi Hasan. He ponders the lyrics as he slowly falls to sleep. For sleep he must. And sleep he does, soundly.

There is more sand to collect while he’s at it. More stars to number. There is more counting to do for him tonight.

“They make a desolation and call it peace,” says the martyr, the witness.

***


Appu Ajith is a writer based in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He was formerly the Deputy Editorial Manager of The Caravan. He completed his Bachelors in Design from National Institute of Fashion Technology, Hyderabad, and an MA in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. 


Image Courtesy: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash A

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