Dear Swara Bhaskar
Shortlisted in the Himal Short Story Competition 2019.
It is autumn and the sky is the colour of smoke. I am sitting by the window, thinking of a land where the women sheathe their hair in henna until it shines like glowing embers in the warm sun of the fall. I wonder if your hair is that same red sheen. But I have sat too long, stared too much, thought too little. It is time I write. This is a letter to you, Swara Bhaskar.
A letter is a false confession. There are secrets in between the lines that make up its opening, middle and end. But these are secrets made up, lives wholly imagined and put into words that make sense only to the sender and receiver. Letters intercepted are like sheets of code, emotions encapsulated in lines. Letters make writers, readers and thinkers but they also make liars out of us.
There is the beginning, how everything starts, whether with a salutation or simply a head-long leap. A hi, hello, how-are-you is perfunctory, where you’re lying before you’ve even begun. The exclamation point in ‘hi!’ is usually a lie, as is the question mark after ‘how are you?’ No one is excited and no one really cares. Over ink, artifice comes naturally. Lying is so much fun when the other person believes you’re telling the truth, and people tend to trust what is written down.
But I ruminate and digress.
I wanted to ask you for your mailing address when we spoke the second time. There was a pause when I could’ve asked, a fraction of a second when we both waited for the other to speak. Did I sense anticipation in that silence? It must get lonely, with just that one phone in your hand.
You might be wondering but my phone is fine now. I was never very good with technology. I could never get used to the phone as an appendage. I have already lost track of where it is. The internet now works perfectly on my smartphone, thanks to you.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear an Indian accent when I first called support, for I have long done away with such prejudices. Still, it was a pleasant surprise to hear your lilting English with its hard constants and soft sibilants. It was comforting, like the smell of turmeric.
You too were nonplussed when I told you my name, I could hear it in your voice, as if you didn’t expect another Southasian to ever have a problem with their phone service. But there are so many of us here – Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Nepalis. And we’re not like other Asians. We can always tell when there’s someone from the subcontinent around.
We hung up the first time with our standard goodbyes. You said thank you for calling so-and-so and hope you have a nice day. I responded with the reflexive ‘you too’, an exclamation point for added effect, something I never use in real life. We were both reading our own scripts.
It was either coincidence or fate that you answered the second time I called support. The romantic in me leans towards the latter but years of living in this capricious world have taught me that there is no destiny, only happenstance. This time, you asked me if I was Indian. Was that disappointment I sensed when I said no? You pushed ahead anyway, saying my name was common in India. I said I knew. You wouldn’t have been interested in the migration history of my family anyway. If you’re wondering, we left Rajasthan more than a century ago, carrying with us our names, our religion and the adaab. India was the fountainhead for so many of us.
I asked you for your name and you replied that it was short for something else. Swara sounded delicate, like the sound of a flute. Just before you started on your goodbye script, there was that pause, heavy and pregnant. I could’ve sliced that silence in half, one portion each for you and me.
There is a call-centre somewhere, possibly in Hyderabad or Bangalore, where you sit in a cubicle clutching an old receiver to your ear. I know things don’t work like that anymore. Everyone has headphones and a computer. But I’d like to make believe. You have one leg under you and the other dangles just short of the floor. Your right ballet flat dangles from your toe and you talk absently, helping foreigners with easily surmountable problems.
It must be warm there, and sunny. The worst of the monsoon must have passed, like the bullying heat of the summer. Where I am, you can go a week without seeing the sun. It is always overcast and it is always drizzling. It is a bleak place, grey and leached of life. Everyone else seems to enjoy it. They like the architecture, they say. The way the balustrades and the parapets of these ancient buildings loom against that perpetually leaden sky. The immigrants who have been living here long have adapted, as humans are wont to do. They brave the drizzle with barely a head-covering and cycle in the rain as if it were no irritant. I’m not there yet. I can’t bring myself to raise my head and straighten my back. I am always hunched over, as if weighed down. I am always squinting, as if short-sighted.
I was in India a long time ago, in those dusty states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It was dry and there was death in the air. There were vultures circling a teetering cow whose ribs stuck out like bars in a jail cell every time it took a breath. But in the cities, sarees of every hue under the sun, dazzled my eyes until I couldn’t look any longer. Many years later, as I was to meet the woman who would become my first serious lover, I would recall just how those women in the border towns of UP and Bihar had met my eyes with a gaze that threatened to consume me from the inside out.
Anahita Menon never carried an umbrella, no matter how much it rained. She was an anthropology major at a university better than the one I went to, something she never failed to bring up every chance she got. I went where a scholarship was offered, I cared little about alma maters and brand names. I was studying applied physics, that mainstay of the Southasian scholar. The hard sciences, that’s where we’ve always excelled. I wanted to study poetry or literature, but that was never an option for someone like me. There is money to be made in the sciences, or in engineering or as a lawyer. Poetry is the province of the upper classes.
My parents were poor, made poorer still after my father died. Mother tried to scrape a living the best she could, but she had no real education and wasn’t smart like the rest of those office-going ladies in high heels. She worked as a secretary at a television network and provided for us the best she could, which wasn’t much. So, when I got a scholarship to study abroad, she made me promise I’d never look back. I never did go back. And now, every time we speak on WhatsApp, I mark another grey hair on my mother’s head.
But back to this girl who liked the rain. Anahita Menon always wore long flowing dresses that grew dirty at the edges. She never seemed to mind. She wore Gucci sunglasses and carried Louis Vuitton clutches. I once tried to buy one of those to send home to my mother. Alas, my middle-class mind. I found a knockoff on the streets and sent it home with a friend. My mother didn’t know what Louis Vuitton was anyway. She was just happy to carry around something that her son had sent from abroad. I wonder if she ever looked at the label where it says ‘Made in Bangladesh’.
I never learned why Anahita Menon ever decided to go out with me. I was never the most good-looking, the smartest, or the funniest. I could never come up with a good one-liner, I got a 1300 out of 1600 on the old SATs and I was short, already losing my hair at 23, with a pugnacious nose and bug eyes. We met at a Diwali event hosted by a friend of a friend. I only went because it was expected of me, as a ‘desi’, to make an appearance. And I wanted to meet girls.
I was just stiffening up my spine to go talk to a dark girl dressed simply in ill-fitting jeans and a T-shirt when Anahita Menon struck up a conversation. I don’t remember what she said, just that she talked at me, ignoring my responses as if they were inconsequential, which they probably were. But I was not used to talking to glamourous women who hid their eyes behind designer glasses even in the shade. She towered over my 5-foot-6 frame in her three-inch heels and, looking up at her, I was already at a disadvantage. She was friendly, maybe a little too friendly, given how often she reached over to brush my shoulder. But she wasn’t drunk. She didn’t even drink, she told me. I took the opportunity to down the two glasses of cheap box wine I had wrestled from the free bar.
It was late when Anahita Menon asked if I wanted to go somewhere else. I didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, I might have gone anywhere she asked me to. On the other, I could most definitely not afford the kind of places Anahita Menon frequented.
We left without saying goodbye to anyone else and she linked her arm through mine as we looked for a taxi. We walked into a bar and she bought me a stiff whiskey while she sipped on a soda. She looked around as if she was expecting someone and I half expected her to leave with the many, many men who bought her drinks that night. I drank them all. And, in one corner of a dimly lit bar playing an old Bruce Springsteen tune that I recalled from my high school days, we talked of India and, bizarrely, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that poet prime minister. In my drunken shame, I recited some Faiz Ahmed Faiz I had memorised, to impress her. It worked, because an hour later, we were in bed together.
I realise this is inappropriate for my first letter to you, dear Swara Bhaskar. But I want you to know that I have nothing to hide. In the years that I’ve been living in these foreign lands, I have learned to leave my shyness at the door. The louder you speak, the more people listen. This is a difficult habit to acquire for someone from our part of the world, where an inane comment in class warrants a rap on the knuckles from a stiff wooden ruler. But here, our vacuity is celebrated. That is one small advantage of being brown. We are the harbingers of diversity. Never mind that I can recite Bohemian Rhapsody and Tangled Up in Blue from memory, all while quoting Kanye West and making fun of Harry Potter. We are all children of the internet.
Anahita Menon liked that I could read and speak Hindi. She got off on it, quite literally. When we made love, she would ask that I talk dirty to her in Hindi. I had to bury my head in the pillow and allow her to mistake my full body shivers of belly-racking laughter for spasms of pleasure.
Anahita Menon herself couldn’t string together a sentence in Hindi without sounding like a child. All her education in India had been in English, as she’d gone to one of those premier institutions that cater to the scions of Indian high society, one of those boarding schools in one of those hill stations run by some of those habit-wearing nuns. Her clipped English had none of the lilting sing-song that makes the Indian accent, like yours. It had been scrubbed out of her mouth.
Would anybody believe it was I who finally ended things with Anahita Menon? You would scoff. The short, balding, unbecoming man rejecting the glamourous, beautiful, way-out-of-his-league girlfriend. But what do appearances matter when the insides roil at the very thought of one another?
We were on holiday in Italy. We had taken a cable car up to a hilltop and laid on the grass a plaid picnic blanket with an array of cheeses and a bottle of Chianti. She drank only wine and wanted to make love on the hill. The weather was warm and balmy. It was then I realised that our season of enormous discoveries was over. So, as she fiddled with the cork of the wine bottle and made sounds of longing under her breath, I watched the cable car rise along the pylons and thought of an Italo Calvino story where a scene like this one had first occurred. Like in the story, I too remarked that we would miss the next cable car if we didn’t leave right then. She kissed me on the mouth and I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of me.
I ended things on a particularly cold and rainy night. Anahita Menon cried until her make-up ran and her eyes turned into two large blossoms of kohl. We made love one last time before I left unceremoniously in the morning, ignoring her eyes that followed me accusingly as I moved from bed to bathroom. That is perhaps the only thing I regret. As we huddled close beneath the blankets, she believed that she was keeping me, when I knew that it was really a goodbye. I never saw Anahita Menon again. Last I heard, she was engaged to an Agra businessman, ten years older.
You must be wondering, Swara Bhaskar, why I am telling you all this. You who knows nothing about me except for the problems I had getting the internet to work correctly on my phone. I am not so sure myself. Perhaps it is because you and Anahita Menon are both Indians that makes me retell this story in shame. I did treat her badly. But I was younger then and I am so much older now.
I always knew Anahita Menon was too good for me, everyone knew that. I never really got over the looks we got when we sat together at those restaurants that have dining out on the streets, al fresco, I believe it is called. She liked to walk hand-in-hand on the streets but I saw the glances of the passers-by. Men and women both looked over her appreciatively and, when their eyes alighted on me, a slight raise of the eyebrow, a curl of the lip. If I were in their place, I would’ve done the same but that didn’t stop me from feeling second-class, like I never belonged next to fabulous Anahita Menon.
I might have resented Anahita Menon, but Bazir Khan really hated her. Bazir Khan was the only man to ever rebuff Anahita Menon. He wasn’t impressed with her wide eyes or her Manolo Blahnik shoes. He sneered at her openly, really for no fault of her own. It wasn’t so much that he disliked any intractable part of her personality. Bazir Khan was just a virulent Pakistani who hated everything Indian, for no fault of his own.
Anahita Menon and Bazir Khan first met at a teach-in organised by my university to mark Partition. The panel consisted of an Indian professor and a Pakistani researcher, moderated by a white Englishman. Oh, the irony. At the reception, I introduced Anahita Menon to Bazir Khan hesitantly, knowing all along that he might hate her. Perhaps I did it hoping that he would. He brazenly gave her the once-over that Southasian men feel so comfortable with, up and down and down and up. Unimpressed, he asked her where she was from. Anahita Menon was no nationalist, she barely cared for India. But challenged by a Pakistani in a foreign land, she rediscovered her patriotism. Jinnah cried openly when he saw the ravages of Partition, Anahita Menon reported. He’d have wept more if he’d seen the violence Muslims suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of men with saffron headbands wielding wooden sticks, retorted Bazir Khan. It was an argument with no end and one I had no interest in, even though I had engineered the whole thing.
Bazir Khan and I shared a two-bedroom flat with one working stove and a water heater that boiled over all too often. He was like most Pakistanis I’ve met, open, ribald and large-hearted. He’d lived abroad longer than I had, but nationalism is the oldest habit of us all. As a Southasian, it was something I knew all too well, especially against India, the regional hegemon and condescending big brother.
We always knew deep down that our nationalism was petty and insincere. After all, Bazir Khan could recite the latest number from Pakistani-turned-Indian singer Adnan Sami off the top of his head. He worshipped Bollywood and was in love with Manisha Koirala, the sole reason why we became, and remain, friends. We bonded over repeat viewings of 1942: A Love Story, Bombay and Dil Se. In these films, he cheered on the Indian heroes with as much fervour as he reserved for Manisha Koirala.
But Bazir Khan still couldn’t stand Anahita Menon. He thought she was lascivious, never mind that he openly ogled the girls sunning themselves in bikinis in the park, or that he slept with a string of women he took home from the neighbourhood bar. Bazir Khan was a ravishing Pathan from Pakistani Kashmir, with the sculpted cheekbones and the piercing eyes that women found irresistible. Whenever we went out, he had only to raise an eyebrow and smile.
So, when I broke it off so unceremoniously with Anahita Menon, Bazir Khan seized the opportunity to introduce me to Pakistani Malika Khatri from Karachi. But much to Bazir Khan’s disappointment, Malika Khatri and I could never date. Except for chaste kisses on drunken nights, we were tea-drinking, poetry-reading, urban-exploring friends.
Malika Khatri might have been the opposite of Anahita Menon. She was small, slight and boyish. Although she had long flowing hair that came down to her waist, she always kept it rolled up into one tight bun on the top of her head. She wore nothing but pants, never so much as owned a skirt or a dress. She wore either jeans or a salwar, and always chappals. In all the time that we spent together, I was never really attracted to her but I was drawn to her. Attraction reveals itself in you but I felt something pulling me towards her and I never really knew what it was. Maybe it was just that Malika Khatri was the Pakistani anti-thesis to the Indian Anahita Menon.
Again, I’ve started speaking of another woman even as I write to you, Swara Bhaskar. These memories come unbidden and although I wish to stop, it wouldn’t be fair to do so. We are, after all, the products of our memories and as false as they may be, they are the stories we tell ourselves each morning when we wake from the small death of sleep. I am simply writing to you as if I would to a new friend. And since we do not have the privilege of meeting and talking over a hot cup of tea, this letter will have to suffice.
As a fellow Southasian, I am sure you share my belief that it is tea, not alcohol, that is most conducive to conversations. The Chinese might have shared tea with the world but we in the south have really made it our own. The British might think that they’ve perfected tea drinking but what is a bland, tasteless cup of Earl Grey when compared to the full-bodied, heady aroma of a bubbling, frothing, hot cup of cutting chai. A shot of delight. My friends here drink herbal tea, flower tea, fruit tea. I call blasphemy, and Malika Khatri would agree with me.
As coffee is to Mahmoud Darwish, tea is to me. Put a pot on boil and while it’s boiling, cut ginger with a knife, smash it with the back of a spoon. Pop open some cardamom and crush those little nuggets too. Throw it all into the pot when the water starts to bubble. Add some sugar for good measure. Once it gets going, add the tea and boil for six minutes, not more, not less. Add the milk and let it froth. Go easy on the sugar and the milk, let the fragrance of the tea fill up your apartment with the scent of home. Rang kadah, cheeni kum, as my grandfather always used to say.
Malika Khatri and I drank a lot of tea. She was a fanatic for it, drinking it with a lot of milk and a lot of sugar while I preferred it like my grandfather, less milk and not so sweet. Malika Khatri also ate a wide variety of laddoos, barfis, gulab jamuns, malpuas and rasmalais with her tea. She raided the nearest Indian grocery store, buying cans of gulab jamuns as if prepping for the apocalypse. I gagged often at the number of sweets she put away. When we kissed, her mouth tasted like the inside of a rasgulla.
Malika Khatri was five years younger than me, and on a study-abroad programme from a university where she focused on postcolonial literature. She quoted Tagore and Dr Muhammad Iqbal, the latter she always named with the honorific as if anything less would be an insult. We spoke in shayaris, as if sparring. I’d lay on the floor and she on the bed, listening to YouTube recitations. My untrained ear liked Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan while she preferred Abida Parveen, long before she started appearing on television alongside Asha Bhosle. Malika Khatri did not care much for Manisha Koirala and that nearly broke my heart.
While Anahita Menon was always so certain of herself, Malika Khatri told me often that she was afraid. She was scared of everything. But Malika Khatri often vocalised many of my own fears, maybe some that you, Swara Bhaskar, share. They might seem like banal worries, given where Malika Khatri and I lived, but we wondered often about returning to our countries as exiles, laden with the baggage of the English language. We’d arrive as non-residents, carrying whatever meagre foreign currency we’d managed to squirrel away. We’d enjoy the adulation at first, as the foreign-returned, but soon, we’d begin to chafe. We would feel acutely what we had left behind, clean air, cheap transportation, heat in the winter. We’d become foreigners in our own lands, speaking English, patronising bars and restaurants well above our pay grade, making friends with others like us, latching on to any reference of the West as if we understood what it was like to be white even though we would always and forever be brown.
There is nothing that impresses this on us more than the airport. My white friends move easily like fish through water but we somehow end up caught in hooks and nets. We need visas and our applications are rejected for no reason other than the visa officer didn’t feel like it or was having a bad day or didn’t like my face. I can’t grow a beard because I’m afraid I’ll be pulled out of the queue every time I’m at the airport.
As a brown man, you don’t want to draw more attention to yourself. It’s enough to lie low and go unnoticed. Everyday I don’t get called a bloody Paki is a day that has gone well. For women like Malika Khatri, every day they are spared the white boys with Indian fetishes is a day to be cherished. I tried once to explain to a teetering lad outside a club the difference between myself and a Pakistani, an Indian and a Bangladeshi. I should’ve known it was futile when he spat to the side and said that it made no bloody difference. And he was right. It really does make no bloody difference. We’re all fucked up desis when we’re abroad, Swara Bhaskar.
After her semester was complete, Malika Khatri left. She is now a PhD student. Malika Khatri is one of those few friends I still write to. We exchange long emails intermittently. She has invited me to visit her many times but I have yet to take her up on the offer. It is not that I do not want to but there is just so much to be done. There is always another book to read, another job to go to and another class to attend. In between, there are sometimes women and sometimes friends. At my age, it is no longer surprising how many good-looking women end up with ugly men. That is perhaps the most obvious sign that it is truly a man’s world. Forgive me, Swara Bhaskar, for I do not mean to sound like I am special. I am not a confident man and there is very little of substance to me. I am a liar and a cheat and yet I seem to have been exceedingly lucky when it comes to romance. It is not me. Attractive women just seem to feel most comfortable with unattractive men.
I do not know what you look like, Swara Bhaskar. I do know that there is a Bollywood actress with the same name as yours and she is a beautiful iconoclast. I follow her on Twitter, even though I have yet to see a single film she’s been in. I’d rather live with this image of her, as fierce, outspoken, intelligent.
I wonder if you are like her. Forgive me if my assumptions are offensive. You owe me nothing. And yet, you might wonder why I have bared all of this to you. I wonder that myself. It is often easier to deal with what might have been than what really is. A letter like this provides me with an opportunity to speak myself anew, to renew what once was and to reminisce in a way that is not nostalgic. I have written to you all this so that you will see the truth from the lies, what is from what could have been. We dwell in possibilities and yet it is frightening to think of possibilities ever becoming real. What would we do then?
Have you ever wished you were something else, Swara Bhaskar? Something other than a call-centre worker? Of course you must have, as have we all. I imagine you, in your early 20s, living with your parents, perhaps going to college in the mornings and working the call-centre at night. Do you carry an umbrella with you wherever you go? Do you wear the high-waisted jeans that were popular with girls across the subcontinent when I first left? Maybe a kurta, maybe open-toed sandals. Do you smell of Davidoff’s Cool Water? Do you ride tempos or do you take the metro? Are you in love?
Maybe you too dream of one day leaving everything behind and moving to a foreign land where you won’t have to answer phone calls anymore, only you might have to wash dishes and mop floors. I’ve done both, and cleaned bathrooms too. There’s no shame in work. It is all relative. Back home, I would never dream of doing any such work, but here, I will wash away anyone’s shit. I find myself thinking sometimes that I would rather be answering phones at home than here, under a sunless sky.
It feels like I’m always running away from something. But everywhere I go, there are too many Southasians and I cannot bear to look at any more brown bodies with studs in their noses. I came here thinking I would escape the lure of that far-off landmass but here too, outside the busiest train station, I hear my mother tongue in the air, floating like that stench of turmeric we desis always seem to carry with us.
And now, I am writing to you, Swara Bhaskar. Outside that inverted pear that is the subcontinent, somehow, we – Nepalis, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis – are all desis. But we are really not, are we? You are not me, and neither was Anahita Menon, Bazir Khan or Malika Khatri.
Outside, it is raining again and my room is cold. I would like a drink but this city is too expensive to splurge on extravagances like alcohol. Perhaps a warm glass of water from the tap. And then back into bed, under the blankets, where I can finish this letter. I have gone on for far too long already. I always liked to tell stories. When you tell a story, you want the listener to hear you out, all the way through, from beginning to end, no interruptions. I really should’ve studied literature. I really should’ve studied poetry. But that’s another life unlived. Maybe in my next letter, I will be a writer. Or a poet.
Read our editorial reflections on the 2019 short story competition.