First chapter from a novel I have been working on - Letters from across the street
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To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Hamlet contemplates at the beginning of Act III Scene I of Hamlet, a tragic play written by Shakespeare. I am neither Hamlet nor do I intend to break into a long monologue on life and death. I am just an ordinary person, living across the street, who finds himself in a similar dilemma.
However, the question for me is different.
To write, or not to write to you.
You have occupied my thoughts from the moment I saw you. I was walking down the street, when I happen to look at the window across the street. A shadow, of a lady, appeared in front of the window. She flings her hair back. Pearl like water droplets splatter in all directions from her wet hair. Then in the glow of the street light, I see a face emerge from behind the black and lustrous hairs, wearing a bright smile. That beautiful, glowing face was yours.
That image of you swinging your hair back and the heart-warming smile took my breath away. That moment, I was mesmerised by your face. You stood there for maybe a fraction of a second, but I just could not move. The moment kept playing in my thoughts long after it was over.
I have so much to say to you, but I lack the courage to appear in front of you and say what I want to in person. I felt writing down my thoughts on a piece of paper will be a better option. I would be able to compose my thoughts, choose my words and build my sentences. The best part about writing a letter is that, I can rewrite the part that is not perfect, unlike spoken words.
My emotional heart says I am doing the right thing, but my rational mind advises me not to. My rational mind has reasoned with me. My mind fears the consequences of my writing this letter to you. It is possible that this letter never reaches you. I do not know of anybody who knows you. It is also possible you do not approve of this letter, in which case, I might end up hurting you. It is also possible that you get the letter, you read the letter, and after reading the letter, you may have me arrested.
My heart did not argue, it only had one thing to say – It is possible that the letter reaches you safely, you read the letter, and after reading the letter, you respond, and I get a chance to meet and know the face I have been obsessing over the last few months.
Thus, the question; to write, or not to write?
I am a person who always listens and does what the heart says, hence, whatever is the outcome, I have decided to write this letter to you. Will this letter ever reach you? And if it does will you read it? And if you do read it, will you reply? I leave it to destiny to decide.
After deciding to write the letter, I spent, the whole morning and the afternoon walking around the street, thinking about what to write and how to write. I spent the early part of the evening, staring at the puff of smoke rise from the cigarette in my hand towards the slowly rotating fan, lying on my bed. Come night, I was writing and rewriting the thoughts in my head, striking them off, until I felt they were perfect. Rereading, the pages of my thoughts, I felt disappointed. I rolled the pages into a crumble and threw them down the deep caverns of my mind.
In the morning, the rays of the sun made their way through the crack in the window in my room. I gathered some courage and decided to sit down, on my study table, and write this letter to you.
The letter has to be perfect. I planned the structure of the letter, the order of the words, the flow of each sentence. Just when I thought I had it perfectly planned and I got down to the real act of writing, my thoughts deserted me. All I was left with was a lot of crumpled paper, lying close to the waste paper bin near my desk. It has already started to overflow from my efforts over the course of the last few hours.
I took a new leaf of paper and placed it on the study table. The fresh sheet of ivory white paper, sitting on my Tabletop, was staring at me with rage, as if it will gobble me up. The effect of which is such that I have scribbled more than a hundred words and yet not written anything sensible. I wonder if I should continue to write this letter or ramble about life and death like hamlet.
When I began to write this letter, to you, I spent a considerable amount of time to think of a suitable greeting for you. 'Dear Lady' sounded too stiff and 'Dear Friend' sounded too personal. I settled on the words — “Dear Stranger”. It was neither too stiff nor too personal and conveys the
relationship between us as it stands currently.
You are a stranger to me. All I know is your face and where you live. Apart from that I do not know who you are and what your name is. I am intrigued by your face, it feels familiar. Perhaps, with time we would no longer be strangers. With that hope, I write this letter to you.
Every morning, I walk up to your window and wait on the other side of the street, near the lamp post. It has become a daily ritual for me. Like, the devotee, who goes to the temple every morning to offer prayer to start the day on an auspicious note. I hope I am not scaring you. I am not a stalker. It does sound a bit crazy, but don’t worry, I just want to get to know you.
You might be uncomfortable reading this letter from a person you don’t know. Perhaps, if I tell you something about me, you will feel comfortable. So where do I start? Well, I live close by, just a few blocks away. I am new to Mumbai. I came just a few months back. Like millions who arrive every day, I also arrived in the city, with the desire to pursue my dreams.
The initial challenge for any person living in Mumbai is to arrange for the basic necessities of food and shelter. Food should not be an issue as long as you are comfortable with eating at the roadside food stalls; they have something on offer for every palate and every pocket. Shelter though could be a problem for people with limited means, then again the city teaches you to compromise and adjust.
After spending the first few days sleeping in an open Park, at the beach or on the pavements, I finally found a place. Being light on the pocket, one accepts and makes do with what is available. I chose the cheapest option available, which can at best be described as liveable, not perfect but liveable.
I chose to park myself in a paying guest accommodation, in the dark and desolate streets of Dharavi. Sounds so adventurous right. The accommodation was nothing much to write home about. Located in one of the old fashioned buildings that dot the skyline of Mumbai, it is a symbol of the bygone era, left at the mercy of its owners. Dilapidated to the core. The state of the structure is similar to that of a bastard child, nobody wants it. The cracked walls and the murky corridors would certainly make you believe in god even if you do not. At night when a train passes by on the track at the back of the building, you pray that the building would stay together.
The hallway greets you with soot covered interiors, lit by a bulb in autumn of life. The walls are covered with wallpaper right out of a B grade bollywood movie set. The hallways smelling of dead rats and littered refuse. A carpet of moss patches welcomes you on to the staircase. The door to the room, peeled like a rotten aubergine, splintered and jagged at places is held together by two rusted screws at the hinges.
The room interiors compliment the hallway. The room must not be more than six feet by eight feet, with a window, on the left side wall, as the only source of light during the day. A light bulb hangs from the ceiling, off center, towards the right hand top corner; which adds to the gloomy ambience. An old, unfinished wood cabinet is placed against the right side wall. Single bed, placed breadthwise to the center of the top wall, is decorated with a crumpled white linen. The linen is stained with reminiscence from nights of loneliness, emptiness and hopelessness. The ambience is not all that bad, there is some luxury provided. One is spoilt by choices in the way of death to be had – death by suffocation or by looking at the slow rotating ceiling fan running twenty four by seven. Nobody dares stop the fan, it might fall apart or just not start again. It feels like a 3rd degree treatment, which even the police of Mumbai will not be able to provide. Like I said, not ideal but that is the best I could afford.
Once settled in, I started to explore the city. Every morning, after the seven horses of the Sun’s chariot gallop, across the silver clouds, to spread gold dust across the sky, I rise. I fill my heart with hope and head out to a new part of the city each day in pursuit of a livelihood. The journey would take me to new places. My eyes would relish the colourful scenes that are dished out every moment. Colourful, crowded, fast paced, and full of life – that is the city of dreams. The city is an artist’s delight. When I am done with the job search for the day, I would just pick a spot to sit. It could be any place, on anywhere I would sit and just look at the crowd, invariably it would throw up images that I would just click with my heart.
I would return after the night has set in and streetlights are up, yet the dark corners of the street looked darker. The dirt and grime on the street start to consume me. I return to my room, exhausted and disappointed from the ordeal. There are these few rare occasions when I do return with a glimmer of hope, though they get washed away as fast as the name on the sand of Juhu beach. I would spend hours smoking a pack of cigarette, looking at the slowly rotating fan. Thinking like Hamlet would about what is worse in life — life that I live today or death that I shall face tomorrow or this slow rotating fan. I doubt if this fan would be of much use to even a person contemplating suicide.
On the few occasions that I am able to survive the darkness around me, I pull myself together and paint or write the thoughts that walk through the dark and empty corridors of my mind. I forgot to mention, I am an artist – I love to paint, and I like to write, only two things that are able to keep me sane in a place like this.
One day something unexpected happened. I was returning to my room from the bus station, a good half a kilometer away, miserable with the rejections through the day. I was walking through the dirt and despair that marked every corner of the street, the only thing that gave me some relief was the beautiful red sky.
As I gazed upward, I chanced upon a picture that I would savour for the rest of my life. I saw a face through the shadows of the street, at a window of an old building. The room was not too brightly lit but the face that appeared was so bright and cheerful that it could brighten up even the gloomiest of surroundings, a twinkle in the eye that would pale the radiance of the brightest star in the night sky. I was awe struck.
The whole moment would not have lasted for more than a few seconds before that face moved away from the view. I stopped in my way and kept looking in the direction of the window, hoping to catch another glimpse of the face. I am not sure how long I would have stood there, but the face did not appear again. I started to walk back to my room; my eyes were still fixed on the window in faith until I could see the window any longer. I dropped my head back onto the street; I had a smile on my face.
For the next few days whenever I would pass by that window, I would invariably raise my eyes, hoping to see that face again. I would not find it, and I would just smile at my silliness. It is difficult to forget such a remarkable Face. The Face would appear in my dreams and take up most of my spare time, on the bus, in the queues, in my room. I felt I was hallucinating, I would think of the face while I kept staring at the slowly rotating fan hanging from the roof, until the early hours of the morning, when the morning rays would tear through the darkness.
The desperation to catch another glimpse of that face soon turned into an obsession and then into madness. With growing anxiety and desire to see the face again, I would find reasons to linger around the window. I tried changing the time of my return, so that it matched with the time of the day when I first saw your face. Sadly, no luck. I would sit at the tea stall opposite to the window at different times of the day, just to get a glimpse. I would return disappointed.
After weeks of loitering around the window, I almost gave up the possibility of being able to see the Face and dismissed the incident as a chance sighting. I started to think of the incident as a figment of imagination, of a tired mind. My heart looked for hope where none was left. The real problem was I still could not get that face out of my thoughts.
I returned to my usual routine, of hope in the morning and despair by night. Just as, my pursuit of the mysterious face was going nowhere, my pursuit of realizing my dreams were going nowhere. I was getting restless by every passing day. I would return to my room and just fall on the bed, but I would not be able to sleep. My mind would wander in different directions, retracing the images from the day, with thoughts of the picture I have been thinking of doing or verse of the poem I had not been able to complete, but every time I would return to the face.
There was this once, when a thought struck me. I immediately set up my easel and drew out a new canvas from the stack. I squeezed some paint on a plate. I soaked a broad brush into an old mug, stained with paints from my previous efforts, in water. I started to fill my canvas with broad strokes of vibrant colours and emotions that I felt. I was surprised with my ability to use such colours. It felt weird, it felt warm, and it felt happy.
I was not sure for how long I was working on that portrait, but I must have spent more time looking at it than creating it. I had tried to recreate the feelings from the time I had seen that face at the window on to the canvas by filling it with vibrant colours and broad strokes. The moment had lingered in the deep caverns of my mind and heart for some time now, but I still could not capture that sparkle, that radiance and that warmth, which was visible on that face.
As the first rays of the morning sun made its way through the cracked glass of the broken window in my room and fell upon the painting, I realized that my Brush strokes and Colour, which are used to painting darkness and despair, have prevailed on this painting, as well. I got up, kicked the easel, and tore apart the canvas. I picked up my jacket and my ragged bag and walked out of the room.
It was 5:30 in the morning; the street wore a deserted look. The only place on the road that had any life was a tea stall right opposite to that window. I sat at the tea stall facing the window, hoping against hope that the face would appear. I took some tea and some bun & butter and placed it on the concrete bench. I then drew out my scratch pad and a couple of charcoal pencil and began scribbling.
I was not able to think straight. I would every now and then anxiously run my eyes from one corner of the street to another as far as eyes would see, while I sipped on my hot tea. I would quickly steal a glance at the closed window. I had no choice but to wait for the window to open.
Such is the tragedy of man that he tries to find hope when all hope is lost. I was about to leave, when I saw the doors of the window flung open, and the face that I was longing to see, appear at the window, soaking in the air — eyes closed, hairs wet and a beautiful smile. I was spell bound. The face I was searching for, the face that gave me sleepless nights — your face.
You were dressed in a white kameez with a towel on one of your shoulders. You took the towel, spread it outside the window, and began drying your hair, as you flipped back your hair and sideways, tiny droplets of water spread far and wide. I could see the joy on your face as you laughed at the rain you made. My heart desired for me to run across the street and under your window and soak myself in that rain, but I stood there watching you like a child who has just seen a magician perform a spectacular trick. I kept looking and soon felt a smile rise on my face. I felt elated. You hung the towel on the line outside your window and went. I soaked in the moment, with the smile still on my face I picked my stuff and walked back to my room.
It must have been the happiest I have felt since I came to the city. I had found hope, and that is good. On my way, I stopped at an old stationery store and bought a new set of brushes and some colours. I had just thought of a beautiful picture of my canvas, and I could not wait to do so.
I returned to my room, set up my easel, placed a new canvas on it, took out the brushes I just purchased from my bag and soaked them in fresh water. I stood about three steps from the setup and stared at the canvas. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to focus on the image that I wanted to create. Once I felt that the picture was clear and perfect in my mind I quickly squeezed some colours on to the plate and dipped a broad brush in it.
The first stroke on the canvas is rather crucial, it sets the tone of the painting. I put a light stroke across the centre. Stroke by stroke I began to fill the entire canvas with colours of a different hue. I allowed my soul to take over unreservedly as I painted with gay abandon. I must have painted uninterrupted for at least a few days until I finished. When I am engrossed in my work, I hardly notice the time.
It was finally finished – My Masterpiece - I was so proud of myself at having reproduced my imagination on the canvas to such level of detail, I would rate it as my best work. I let the canvas stand in the corner such that as I entered the room, my eyes would fall on the canvas.
That day became a turning point in my life, I had faith, I had the courage to fight the world, and I felt I would realize my dream. The next day the first place I went for a job, I received positive feedback on my work and was confident of bagging the job. By evening, I had an offer for a job to create artwork and write an article in one of the finest art magazine in the country. The job would provide me enough to sustain my existence and seek bigger dreams.
My every day routine changed. I would wake up at five o’clock in the morning, splash some water on my face and hair and head out to the street.
The city is something else at this time of the day or, so it seemed. The shadow of darkness had still not fully receded, and the sun had just started to spread its wings. The chirping of the birds, the odd stroke of the broom on the tarred road and the squeaky sound from the cranking of the hand pump are the only sounds one can hear. The streetlights have still not switched off, and most shops on the street have their shutter down. The only movement to be seen on some of the road side stalls preparing to welcome people who will come in for breakfast.
One of such stalls that remain open twenty-four by seven is that of Aslam Bhai. It is bang opposite to your window. At his stall, tea, coffee, biscuits, and bread omelette is served all through the day. I would spend the next one-hour at his stall, sipping tea and reading newspaper waiting at Aslam Bhai’s tea stall hoping to catch a glimpse of you. I was slightly disappointed.
I had become a regular visitor at Aslam Bhai’s stall, and I was usually the first to arrive in the morning. Aslam Bhai and I would just sit, sip tea, and share some worldly thoughts until others would start arriving. We shared many stories of the street and of the people who lived here, it seemed as most people knew Aslam Bhai or Aslam Bhai knew everyone. I thought of enquiring about you with him but then decided against it for the time being.
I also began to enjoy living at the street. There is poverty and despair for sure, but there’s optimism in people’s eyes, and I think that gives strength to the people living here. Every morning while having breakfast you would come to meet a lot of people, we were all strangers to each other, but we kind of shared a common routine, we were all at Aslam’s at the same time and would leave around the same time.
A silent greeting, a quick smile, an acknowledgement through eye contact and we would go in their separate directions. I also got used to this ritual. You could look at each face, and you can understand what is keeping them awake at night. The lines on their faces would tell their story, their dreams, and their disappointments in life.
When someone had some fantastic news, he would give everyone a treat, nothing lavish just the tea and biscuits, which would be hardly a few rupee per person, but that, was enough. The notion of sharing your joy and sorrow with complete strangers was an incredible experience. I come from a small town where everyone knows everyone, and you feel at home. When I had first arrived at Mumbai, I had felt like an alien walking through the streets, but now I think the city has approved of me, or I guess it always did, It is only now that I have opened up to it.
In the midst of all this, I had my lucky days when I would catch a glimpse of you going about your business through the four by three, window at different times of the day. Sometimes I would find you immersed in your thoughts looking beyond the horizon. Sometimes I saw you lost in the words of a book; then there were these other days when you would be enjoying the company of your friends. Having the opportunity to see you through these various emotions, I began sketching those moments in my scratch pads and re-look at them when alone.
I felt on a couple of occasions, when you sat in the morning, next to the window, sipping on your tea, that you looked directly at me; I felt your eyes locked with mine for a few seconds and then you looked away. My heart used to skip a beat at that moment, and I would wait to look into your eyes again.
You would not believe, but by now I must have filled a couple of scratch pads with just sketches of you, all in different poses, in some you were sweet, some serious, somewhere you were lost in thoughts, and some, some are funny actually. There were days when you would not turn up, and I would look at the scratch pad. I would return to my room and spend hours sharing my feelings with it.
I used to feel a bit guilty about the same, as I had not taken your consent to draw you. I deliberated on how to approach you about it and decided to send you my scratch pads along with this letter. These are your sketches, and it is up to you, what you want to do with them. I only request that you flip through them just once, to look at yourself through my eyes. You would realise I mean no harm, nor I am a stalker.
Well, I have blabbered for many pages now. If you have read till here and still reading on then I am glad. I don’t know if I made any sense to you. But, there is a lot more to tell, and lots more to share. The words on this letter are not enough to express, so I hope we meet face to face, with your permission that is. I hope that this letter had given you some reason to meet me. Want to assure you my intentions are pure.
There is the possibility that you may not like what you read and what you see and the fact that I drew sketches of you without your permission or wrote this long a letter. You may want to tear these up and may never want to see me; if that is what you decide to do, I shall accept it with an open heart. If, I have hurt you in any way I am truly sorry. I am not a cultured person and do not know the language of an eloquent man. I only know the words of my heart, so apologize for being crude in my letter.
I would eagerly wait for your response. You can leave the letter at Aslam Bhai’s stall.