Thursday 28 September 2017

The City I Left Behind

The whistle sounded, signalling the impending arrival of a station to those on board. The entire coach, sleepy and quiet barely moments ago, suddenly came abuzz with subtle activity. Passengers got out of their berths yawning and stretching, counting and recounting the items in their luggage, bags and kids alike, as they prepared to disembark. Some seemed genuinely excited to finally reach their destination, whilst relief was more prominent on the faces of the more frequent travellers carrying small bags and briefcases.

Sitting next to the window, I couldn’t relate to them. My gaze remained fixed on the vista outside, as it had been for most of the night. Trees and houses raced past, bathed in the soft orange glow of the pre-dawn. The moon was still visible on the horizon as an ethereal shadow of its night-time beauty. Wind rushed in from the open window, blowing my hair all over the place, providing a physical expression to the turbulence that raged inside. After all, I was returning to the city I had left behind, to meet someone I thought I had left behind long ago – you. The person I loved like I had never loved anyone before, nor have since.

Another whistle interrupted my reverie. I turned my gaze away from the window and readied my small overnight bag. The sight of familiar landmarks – the house painted a garish shade of green, the abandoned signal house with graffiti all over it, the railway crossing with an adjoining flyover – rushing past was anyway becoming too much to bear. These once used to be checked off my list one by one eagerly and impatiently, these reminders of a past I’d willed myself into forgetting. No doubt they still helped others measure the distance from their beloveds, but they were no longer for me.

Minutes passed, and the train finally arrived at its destination. The murmur of activity steadily grew into a distinct buzz. People shouted at their companions to hold on to their kids and leave their bags, or to hold on to their bags and leave their kids. Some of the younger lot stood, their faces making evident their displeasure at being held up by those travelling in larger groups. I remained seated, waiting patiently for the heaving, teeming mass to spill outside. I was familiar with the train’s secrets, you see, secrets I had uncovered over a million voyages. I knew the train’s journey culminated here, in this city. As it did for me, all those years back. As it did once more.

I was probably the last passenger to step down onto the platform, and I did so hesitantly. It had, after all, been a long time since my last, acrimonious visit to this place. I wasn’t sure of how I would react to the city, and how the city would react to me. The old, colonial-style station was still there in all its regal splendour, a stark contrast to the rather new, rather modern geometrical monstrosity that had been built as an extension. An odd set of misfits, these two buildings, and yet they looked right at home with one another. Much like we probably did back in those days, when my shoulder served as the perfect headrest for you to lean on in your momentary respite from society, your family, and everyone who told you I wasn’t the one for you. Those were the days, weren’t they, when our eccentricities and differences seemed to rather complement each other? But shoulders changed, as did the heads that rested on them. The newly-laid cobbles underfoot still felt familiar somehow.

I had buried the bones of every memory of you in the bottommost recesses of my mind, like silt on the ocean floor, but their ghosts still greeted me at every corner of this city so alien and intimate. They sat next to me in the auto-rickshaw we used to ride as I dropped you home, they waved at me from the next table in the coffee shop we loved frequenting, stood in front of me at the counter of the patisserie near your house. They surrounded me on the crowded by-lanes of your favourite market, but failed to greet me at the mall that stood in place of your favourite shop. I was grateful for one less ghost. The ocean floor had been disturbed enough, and the muddied waters blurred my vision as they fought for an escape. But it didn’t matter. I did not need to see to find my way around these streets.

My head hurt by noontime, and I was already questioning the wisdom of my decision to come here. Why did I even think this was a good idea? I had no answer. How could I, when even the most knowledgeable intellectuals over the ages failed to understand the whims of the heart? Maybe that’s where they went wrong, using brains where they ought not to be used. But then again, we had followed our hearts and fared none the better.

I do not know when I reached the park, or how, but there it was, standing like a monolith out of a long-forgotten dream. It had started off as a dream, remarkable and alluring, turning vividly real for just a moment. But before long it turned to ashes right in front of our eyes, crushed into dust by our own hands in an attempt to avert that very fate. I wondered, just then, standing in front of the entrance, about what happened to the dust of dreams. My eyes fell to a trail of sand, invisible to everyone else, and my feet followed it unthinkingly.

The sight that greeted me was painfully familiar. There was the bench, where we once sat cuddling amongst fellow lovers, away from the judging eyes of society. There was the fountain you once fell into when trying to push me in. There was the tree we used to sit under, kissing furtively and breaking away at the slightest hint of a sound. There, right outside the park, stood the mall where we used to watch a movie whenever we could afford to. We had little money to spend on each another back then, but we had all the time in the world. It all seemed so juvenile to me, our hopes and dreams, as I sat on the stone steps where we once plotted global domination. I shifted to ease the distinct discomfort that can only come from sitting on a wallet full of money.

With no other way of whiling away the time, I took out my phone. There were no notifications on it – none that mattered, anyway. It made for an extremely dramatic change from the time when you used to bug me with calls and messages. I wanted to call you then, but I didn’t. I had deleted your number in anger one day. My fingers still hovered over the keypad, but I could not bring myself to trust muscle memory; it had proven to be far too accurate, far too many times in the past. The number still seemed to dial itself on its own, but the call would not connect, no matter how many times I tried. ‘Please insert SIM card’, the phone requested politely.

Time became intransitive for a couple of hours after that, as I slowly merged into the background. There were people around, families and social groups and loners, but it was the couples that really stood out. Everywhere I looked, every place I turned to, they were there. Walking hand in hand with one another, they were there. Lost in their own private worlds, they were there. Sneaking a peek from behind our tree before kissing, they were there. We were there. But not really, not fully. We existed only as shadows in my mind, spawned by the glow of what we were, hiding in the shade of what you and I had since become. I chased these shadows, a ghost in a ghost world, crossing paths with other ghosts revisiting their old haunts as all ghosts are wont to do. None acknowledged my presence, and I returned the favour.

My ghostly passage wound past our bench, the one where we spent endless evenings watching the sunset in each other’s arms. It was already occupied by a couple of youngsters, who broke off their embrace rather hurriedly at my sudden appearance and sat looking at everything but each other. I pitied them; I envied them. I cursed them, I blessed them. But the ghost that I was said nothing, for there was nothing to be said. Not there, not then, not anymore.

The sun had gradually wound its way to the far corner of the horizon. There lay, in the bruising of the blue sky, the threat of the imminent arrival of dusk. It brought me back to the real world that I had to return to, no matter how much I wanted to stay. I made my way back to the same station I had got down at in the morning, boarded the same train I had disembarked a little more than twelve hours ago, and took up almost the same seat. I knew of the train’s secrets, you see, secrets I’d uncovered over a million voyages. I knew that its journey originated here, in this city. As it did for me, all those years back. As it did once more.

Minutes passed, and the train signalled its readiness to depart. I turned my gaze to the window, to the vista outside, where the sun held on stubbornly to the pale shadow of its day-time brilliance, and the twilight slowly gave way to the moon.


  1. The thing is, there are a lot of good things about this. The build-up is nothing short of superb, the gradual unfolding of the un-named city is authentic and evokes perfectly the feeling it should.

    In the second half there are a few instances of sentence construction that, perhaps, could have been improved upon. The passage where the narrator passes the couple on 'his' bench is very well done, as is the end, but some of the other passages don't hold up as well.

    I'd still say this is a fine story whose good points far outweigh the slight weaknesses, and that's as much as I've ever wished for in my writing.

  2. I'm not going to critique this piece because for me,this raked up some very painful albeit fond memories. And just for that, all I'll say is it's brilliant. It's pensive and evocative. Love it.