Nearing Thiruvananthapuram, the road bends, entering the city, as a vein enters the heart. The bus moves along the curve with its load of human destinies. People nap inside, in the secure snugness of their seats. For those who are awake, it seems like an age. The tarmac is slipping away under the bus, rhythmically, in a curve, the music of it floating in the air. We can feel it in our hearts. But we are too masked to notice. This stretch of road is slipping away from underneath us, slowly, metrically. Here in this turn, the wheels of the bus move along a track, restrained in its freedom-as if on rails. The wheels trace a path unique from the ruts of a million other wheels. The past is slipping away from our lives. The city as we knew it is leaving us. We are entering the new city. We have arrived. The city that presents itself before us now is different. In the linear scale of time, it has moved backward or forward. Every time we enter the city, we encounter a different city-a thousand cities in a lifetime. It sources energy from boundless reserves and renews itself, every time. It chooses from interminable permutations and dons its façade. Choices are aplenty. The slimy pathways to its slums, the blinding lights of its malls, the wares of its hawkers, the particle impurities in its air, the strange ways of its people: all hold infinite possibilities. Hidden among them, one perfect combination that will make it a Tokyo, London or NY. But that will take away the charm. It no longer will be mine-this coastal town of unlucky people. We are turning around the corner, entering the city, anew.
To our right is the State Central Library, where a poet stands guard amidst the darkness of the streetlights. Even at night, it looks inviting. Now I go inside its red-bricked walls, into the dusty darkness of its womb, where the pages of some tome rustle in the trespassing night breeze. It is hard finding a book in the dark, but you can still smell the books. Between the pages we can find sugar, salt, spices, the ocean, the sky and clouds, and maybe a bristle of peacock feather-anything but the crushed pith of trees. Something from here spreads throughout the city, weighing down weather balloons and rippling atop flagpoles. Reluctantly I leave the quarantined library, I don’t have a membership here.
That was the city’s brains, its intellect. Now I want to dive into the depth of its souls, the hearts of its people: the dark-skinned men who hold umbrellas in the sun, the middle-aged ones who buy medication for baldness from the streetside, and the bodybuilders beefing up on egg whites, sans amour. But I find them closed with no-entry signs displayed outside. So I go to the seaside, where the sea unceasingly implores the land to open up, to release the pent-up pressure of age-old repressions with a fizz. For the sea, we are special. The sea brings its gifts. Days, nights, water, wind, fire-everything is the gift from the sea. Still we are ungrateful and think only of fish.
Around me are the figures perching on catamarans under the moonlit sky, cracking jokes. They have families, bellies to be fed. The old men around here seem to have it easy. Not so in other places. The last of the hawkers have left, only some peanut sellers are around. The beach has hardly any revelers. It is the time of Onam. There is no celebration in the air. I notice a man sitting apart from the others, hunched over. He must have had a bad day. He has the air of someone destroyed, not defeated. Vaccinated. The local Santiago. He seems to be still thinking of his marlin, stripped bare to the bones by the sharks. I go and sit near him. A cool breeze is blowing from across the sea, bringing with it the crushed fragrance of wilted roses. It makes him restless. Something wells up inside him and he scrawls on the sand in some primitive notation, unaware of my presence. An ancient music drains from his heart and into the beachfront. He seems to be waiting for the dawn to break, to haul in the bounty of the blues. I get up and leave, feeling empty, and weirdly, happy-a kind of poor man’s nirvana.
Buses wade through the darkness of their last trip before the impending lockdown. People hop out of the moving buses in twos and threes on the bumpy coastal road. It seems as if the vehicle is shaking itself empty. It is past midnight, but I want to go shopping. Sleepy mannequins invite me into textile showrooms, where one has to go and ask for jetty, to buy underclothes. Upmarket stores use a different vocabulary and have more fashionable mannequins. Fortunes of the inanimate vary along the street. The sidewalks are deserted but for the odd roadside eatery, with a few people standing up to savour the thattudosa, porotta and other evergreen favourites, braving everything. The hawkers have surrendered their territories to the night. Gradually I too yield to its sleepiness.
The morning, when it comes, brings with it a queer lightness and finds me tossed upon the hillock by the city, the Mukkunnimala, where I once saw orange licking the green, and in whose heights someone once claimed to have received the divine revelation, the ten commandments. People called him pranthan-mad. The city’s unworthy Moses. Now I know, half asleep, exactly how he must have felt. When I get up, still feeling sleepy, I find the grass blades staring at me with a thousand beady eyes. Sleeping by my side is a member of the city’s canine population that somehow had escaped being culled. Somehow I felt happy for him, that he had survived, and that we were together here, in this dawn, which was breaking over coastal Thiruvananthapuram.
Now I finally get up and make the descent, sanity precariously intact. On the way down, I am joined by an urchin, around his neck a garland of withered marigolds, bits of the rubbish bin still hanging about it, and a mask. If I venture to ask him, he would perhaps reply with a wounding cheerfulness that he is a ragpicker’s assistant. But I don’t ask him. There is a mountain between us. But we continue our descent, together, down the treacherous slopes, crossing the highway and into the river Killi, in whose hidden depths some forgotten Pharoah once slipped and drowned. On the banks are trucks laden with river sand, his pyramids, construction still booming. The sand would soon reach the construction sites where the city dweller builds his `1500 square feet, two storey, roadside’ house on a three-cent plot. Thousands of such buildings dot the city’s residential areas-incarnations of the Pharoah. Sometimes at noon, with the skies gleaming, the cubical facades of the myriad empty houses resemble some kind of a Brobdingnagian traffic jam.
The morning tastes of wine. Moving amphibiously along the alleys of downtown Thampanoor, memories flooding the gutters, I surface near the city centre. There a bullock cart is waiting for me, to take me away from this mechanised morning in the city. But I’d rather stay here. Somewhere in this web of routine formalities and courtesies and protocols and general sham, is a shopkeeper who would rather gift you the purchase than take the cash offered in your left hand. Among the pavement dwellers is a cycle repairman who would politely turn back a late customer: “come tomorrow my king”. Somewhere along this winding path once I met a friend, walking in the shade of flower trees, a year of meaningless job interviews behind him. He’d once told me, “I live near the General Hospital. Nothing moves me nowadays”.
I remember walking along some busy stretch, stepping sideways to cross the road, and a blur and the sound of screeching brakes and then a void. Soon a hundred faces were buzzing around me like bees. Before long I had real flies and bees for company in the general ward of the Thiruvananthapuram General Hospital.
This city has no pretensions, unless you want it to be otherwise. But the city can love, in its own way. For the beggar, the rag picker, and the tramp, the city, like Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince, gives up its valuables one by one and finally demeans itself for their sake. Its kindness is something that seeps into the dampness of the slums, the heart of the vagabond, and the soft metal music of the peanut seller.
And surprisingly, the city survives, by being harsh, like we all do. It can take no pretensions. It is a labyrinth inside which every wrong step costs you precious time. Somewhere a clock is ticking away. It will soon be night. Bedraggled and lonely, you find that love, is not a kindly feeling. It saps everything in you-love. By the time I discovered this, I was mixing with the city’s atmosphere through the chimney of an inefficient furnace. It is said to have been once used for burning withdrawn legal tender. So the smoke has medicinal properties.
No, I did not end up in a cloud, from the ghostly smoke rings of the crematory, to eventually quench the parched dreamscapes of this city-a drop of life. Maybe, another time.
Umar Nizarudeen is with the University of Calicut, India. He has a PhD in Bhakti Studies from the Centre for English Studies in JNU, New Delhi. His poems and articles have been published in Vayavya, Muse India, Culture Cafe Journal of the British Library, The Hindu, The New Indian Express, The Bombay Review, The Madras Courier, FemAsia, Sabrang India, India Gazette London, Ibex Press Year’s Best Selection, and also broadcast by the All India Radio.