Far from the grief of the present

The world closes beyond the window of my clinic room. Everyday I wake up and the first thing I do is stand against my four paned, vertical lined black grilled clinic window and stare out. I see each day the money plants at the parapet grow, a strong water weed like plant the name of which I do not know of floods out of our verandah gates and occupies the air. The jades have outgrown their terrariums and a year old frangipani that showed no signs of life in the beginning suddenly brings in a platoon of buds and moves to the light without the slightest of effort. As if it were always alive, almost voicing like a fossil that nothing is ever hidden or dead. I do this because I like my morning breakfast next to the window. I do this because it reminds me of someplace and there is a sense of being elsewhere. They say, we can only travel to places in our minds we have been before. Somehow I agree. For even when I am imagining icy waterfalls and purple meadows and black mountains, I know I am reimagining bits and pieces of the hills and water bodies and fields from my early childhood in Rupnagar. Most times I simply go back to imagining a place with lots of trees and clouds. Long unending plateaus of carpet grass and gulmohars lining along the fringes. If you look down, the table top of this red vascular mountain sinks into large grooves of bamboo and other thorny trees. But right here, where I sit on the tabletop it feels like a crispy warm summer, almost with the promise of a sweeping rainshower at the end of the day. I lie down there looking at the sky through the leaves and branches of the gulmohars and I am a small six year old with a radio next to me. It plays some of my favourite songs sung by Alka Yagnik and Kumar Sanu from the 90s.

Since the lockdown, I have taken my morning hours to listen to songs from films like Kasoor, Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi, Sirf Tum, Tum Bin. I listen to them plugging in my airpods. Even when my partner knows that I listen to them, I somehow feel embarrassed listening to these songs early in the morning looking out of my window while having breakfast. Sometimes, he tells me that I have lost my taste in music, film or art. I no longer take interest in french or polish cinema, hardly listen to Preisner or Vivaldi. I do not pick up Kundera during bedtime or claim which impressionist piece would I like on the wall above our new dining table. Even when I tell my clients that it is okay to fall out of love with things you once pursued with passion, I find it difficult to swallow it myself. It’s difficult for me to admit that I don’t know the reason for this falling out. But what I do know is that as we grow older we long to grow back to who we were. It is as if what we will eventually become is already lived by someone else, and we through them and the knowledge of how life will be is embedded in us, like the secret wisdom of the frangipani buds.

Maina Mahi, my mother’s youngest sister, died while I was in my fourth year at medical school. She set herself on fire. She struggled for several hours before she died. While I ran around asking every intern and senior if third degree burns could heal and if her face could be reconstructed in the future, she gave up. Sometimes I have this strange thought that what if all these people whom we loved hadn’t died before the pandemic, would they have succumbed to the virus by now. Would it have pained as much as it pained back then. I do not talk about it, but send my mother songs I listen to in the morning. It is something Maa and I share with the intimate awareness that it’s nostalgia. Although she doesn’t know the meaning of the word or hasn’t heard of it till today, she says: eibur gaan xuni, Maina loi khub monot pore. When I listen to these songs I really miss Maina. At that moment, I want to rush and hug Maa, but I cannot. We haven’t seen each other in the last eight months. Although we speak over video calls, I am only able to allow her to take me in completely through the regeneration of this strange grief — when we listen to the songs together. As if I already know ten years later, when we listen to the same song in the morning and miss the same person, we do not think of her tongueless mouth or her disfigured face in the hospital bed, but the young girl who lived with us back in our Rupnagar house, all three of us — Maa, I and Maina Mahi — lying on the floor and listening to Pooja Bhatt and Rahul Roy’s Badalon mein chup raha hain Chand kyun from ‘Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi.’

Every afternoon back in Rupnagar, before Papa returned from office, all three of us would go out for a walk. I’d carry the radio with me. Because I liked to listen to songs while walking. And I knew Maa liked them too. Maina Mahi would keep guiding us the way and our everyday aim would be to climb the table top plateau. Sometimes, sitting there on the red ground and watching the red sun dissolve, we’d all listen to tu meri zindagi hain, tu meri har khushi hain from Aashiqui.

I call Maa everyday at 9:30pm in the evening. I tell her that I will try to come to Guwahati soon. Maybe by July or August. It’ll almost be a year by then. I tell her that this time when I am there, we will go back to Rupnagar and listen to our songs together. She says, yes you find all of them on YouTube now, you don’t have to wait for it to repeat. I smile thinking how far we’ve come, we now have things with us that we couldn’t even imagine back in the time of the radio. What on earth would I have given to have Tere Dar pe Sanam playing on loop fifty times the whole night while all of us lay on the floor listening. It is then true, that the simple desire of the soul is to go back to what we once had and somehow preserve it. For people like Maa and I it is the only talisman we seem to hold on to while the world changes rapidly around us and takes away our loved ones. With our songs, we relive the strange grief of nostalgia every morning for it’s the only place we can go to for now, far from the present.