Nine Postcards from the Pondicherry Border

by Sharanya Manivannan


   
“Sometimes I think of you and wonder if you really happened.”
—Aamer Hussein, Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda



1

Each time I leave here, and leave I must, I number these things among those which I leave behind: waking in the quiet cool before sunlight, coffee on the round red table, the tendril of basil at the center of the open courtyard, the pepper vines curled around the trees at the porch steps, and at night, that mesmeric canopy of stars.

There are parts of the world that imprint themselves on our souls, and we carry them with us ever after. Then there are places where the soul itself chooses to stay, riveting down a piece of itself, tethering us so that no matter where we journey beyond that point, we are only orbiting.

So whenever I leave, and leave I must, I number my soul too among the things I miss. I come back here, transfixed, possessed, as if under a spell. I have long conceded that this is witch country. Its hold on me is almost ancestral, as though somewhere in this burnt umber earth lies a cosmic umbilical cord.

I would write to you in secret, in some civilized way, if I had such a way. But you have erased my coordinates from your maps, expunged all record of me, forgotten my name. Yet you own nothing of me, not even that which you took away. So I circle and circle back here, to this house of red bricks with its roof open to the light, this strange southern enclave, and like this, I try to reclaim all I have lost, all I have left behind.

2

Of course, you and I both know that this territory I have staked hardly belongs to me. I live elsewhere, in the city, a city I constantly attempt to abandon but cannot, wilting there like a plant that cannot tolerate new soil. In the long months that turn, before I know it, into the longer years, I cry out for something that feels intuitive, indigenous. And then I come here.

When I am away I close my eyes and see the entrance of this house, understanding at last why my grandmother spoke so often of a porch in her final days, as though to set eyes again upon that doorway of a home long departed would be enough. When I first came here, I was heavy with recent death. How was I to know that my grief would only widen and deepen, take spate? The things I carry, the things I cannot leave behind no matter how I try. I haven’t had a night without disquietude since.

But I am here now, and sleep comes easy. Or perhaps I don’t need sleep at all. It seems that the nights begin when the stars start to spark up, and end long after they evanesce, but the small hours between then and the new day are sating enough. Do you know I can hear you dreaming on some days, in another hemisphere? I raise fat rice and fried bittergourd to my mouth with my fingers and consume your sleeping diagrams with it, the afternoon around me heavy with the slumber of the distant and the lazy. The dreaming and the dead are with me everywhere I go. But here, more than any place else, they come and sit beside me. I finish my meal, fix a drink, read a little, and I wait here, threading bracelets from fallen leaves and bougainvillea, for whoever comes first: lost loves, ancestors, or those who wake from naps and amble over, well rested, ready to enliven the evening with their rumors, their vendettas, their perfectly ordinary lives.

3

When I first met the drummer, he came across to me the way he comes across to everyone else—moody, lonely, never sober, never sane. A fixture of the environment, a plain fact, and one so easy to dismiss. But then, there was that night when he was playing the ghatam, with me sitting on the djembe beside him, when he suddenly turned to me and said, “It’s like you. You're so cool—you can take anything. Except for a compliment." This is how we became friends.

One of the dogs comes by, sniffing at my feet. In my hands, his fur is thick and smelly. He is full of fleas, and has eyes the color of mud after rain. Another unlikely friend. I was weeping one day, when you were here and yet so far, in the thicket just beyond the property, and he had come and sat by me. Not a whine, not a bark, not a single demand. Just sat by me, silently. And that’s when I knew he had called a truce: I had been afraid of him at first, and like all animals, he had reacted only to what I put out. I think over that time now and wonder how I could have been led that far astray, my intuition deluded on such a profound level, so that I loved what I should have feared, and feared that which could love me.

With the dog, I walk back to the thicket now. There’s nothing much to see there. Sometimes, grazing cows, their dung steaming and fly-studded in the heat. Sometimes, a snake. Nothing that will do me harm unless I invite it to.
     
4

The gardener whose name I don’t know chops some aloe vera straight from the ground for me, his sickle cleaving the leaves so the sap drips onto my fingers as I walk back to the house. I put it in my hair to soften it; I will wash it out later tonight, before the party. My mother is allergic to aloe vera, but I am not. I have full lips, and she does not. I was once the ugly child of an exceptionally lovely woman, and I carry around the fragile vanity of those who are never secure in their beauty, never quite believe what their baby feathers molted to reveal.

She calls every few days, briefly. I do not ever call her.

I want to say that I don’t think you know how lovely you are. But maybe you do. You behave like someone who has never had to ask himself if he deserves what he wants. How simply you plucked me, like a flower for your pocket or your hat. How simply I waltzed into your arms, and not seeing your thorns, took your sap to my lips.

For my hair, I have asked the woman who does the laundry to bring me night-blooming jasmine. I want the scent of it lingering after every greeting kiss there will be this evening. I know that in this village and out in the world there are people who believe that it was I who did the bewitching. Only you and I know it isn’t true; like all instinctive creatures I was only reacting to what you posed to me. Still, I don’t discourage the notion. After my bath, I will perfume my wrists and loop little bells around my ankles.
   
5

This house sits between two worlds: the Tamil village and the international commune. It is both and it is neither. It is of no world at all but its own.

In the morning we will have breakfast in Quillapalayam, the drummer and I. He has a new bike, a big one, but I like his old green one. It’s reliable, closer to the ground, quieter. More and more, I am beginning to trust things that move slowly, that stick around. We will order omelets and coffee in that shop along the main road. I will inevitably be distracted by some trinket or top—you cannot find things this pretty in the city I live in, and yet in this tiny settlement, you can—and we will talk about the party. He may be in a bad mood. I may not be hungry, as I sometimes become after intense nights. We may be silent, but it will never be taken for a slight. He and I are direct people. We have sharp tongues and soft hearts.

If he has an errand to run we will leave Auroville and head into Pondicherry town, where we will have lunch afterwards. Pork at Rendezvous, perhaps, or seafood at Hotel du Parc, where we can sit on the elevated terrace that trembles each time someone walks across it. We will ride up and down the beach twice—where the water breaks on stone reinforcements put in place after the tsunami of 2004 and a single pier juts out with no purpose—make one stop to buy more wine, and then head back. It will be a Sunday, and this quiet town will be quieter still (except for tourists from the city in which I live, whom you can always tell by their bad driving and drunken antics). Knowing the drummer (and I think I do) he may swing around by the shops where men sitting by the windows gawk at us—a wizened man and a little woman on a bike—and taunt them, waving and yelling, “Look at all the monkeys!” Knowing him, he may even swing around to do it twice.

6

Basho in the 17th century: “Those who remain behind watch the shadow of a traveler’s back disappear.” Do you ever think of the love you walked away from? I myself have learnt to love your absence, your aftermath, everything tinged with a brief and bittersweet beauty, like the world after a storm.

7

By six-thirty, on cue with the sunset, the first guests start arriving. There’s a birthday being celebrated tonight, and the reasons why I have been alone all afternoon become apparent; deep vessels of food are brought out, freshly cooked—crispy prawns, basmati rice, a rich mutton curry, cottage cheese in pureed spinach for the vegetarians. Bottle after bottle of liquor arrives, mostly wine, for it’s the favorite of the lady of the house, whose birthday it is. Everybody air kisses, because this is a European town, but takes their footwear off, because the earth herself, even here, is Indian.

A joint is lit and passed around. The drummer and I take it only briefly, by tacit concurrence; we have hashish and Kodaikanal mushrooms in the rooms upstairs, so we let the social partakers have their fill. The night grows both cooler and mellower, the laughter increasingly louder, the conversations more disorderly. The lady of the house retires to her bed after a last round of kisses and presents. “The night is young though I no longer am,” she calls to the party, and, as we are meant to, we take this as permission and raise another toast.

And sure enough, there it is, someone drops your name, and I know it is solely because I am within earshot. I smile politely and change the subject. The only reason anyone else remembers you around here is because of me. Because even when I am far away, I am always here. You do not know how many other ghosts I carry. Neither do they.


8

Already the night has gone on too long. Someone stands to receive a glass, someone else reaches out to pour more wine for her. There is a moment of disconnection, the glass falls and shatters. The group is at first startled. Then, there is laughter.

I take the confusion of the moment as an opportunity to leave, quietly withdrawing to the house. I refill my own glass in the kitchen and take it up to the rooftop.

I can see them down below—a man and a woman have started to dance. I wonder how many of these people will sleep here tonight. There are beds enough, and warm bodies, and the ride back through the forest road will be too dark at this time for all but the bravest.

I lie down on my back and look up at the sky, one arm under my head, the other across my belly. This is one of my favorite things to do here. I was doing it when I met you, or at least, the first time I noticed you—how strange that I cannot remember being introduced to you. It is as though the memory of you only began from that night we were up here talking for hours—me stretched out like this under the stars, you with your back against the roof’s inner border. Your words in the darkness slipping under my skin at the beginning of an embroidery I did not even observe until it had become a tapestry. Until all your needles were in me, and I was stitched through with that sweet, sweet sting. You were jetlagged and I could not sleep. I liked you. I didn’t know then that I could love you.

Look at all that loves me back, I whisper to myself. I fall asleep like this. Down below, someone has driven their car into the compound and is blasting the Gypsy Kings from the speakers. It does not bother me.

9

The bricks under my back grow warm. The drummer comes up and finds me. “You left me here all night?” I am a little hurt.

Savasana,” he says. “The corpse posture. Nothing hurts you when it thinks you are dead.”

“Except vultures.”

“None here, baby.” He cackles a little, and gives me his arm. We go downstairs.

For breakfast, we eat leftover prawns with idli. Then we take the bike and go.

Secrets within secrets. This place itself, this house, this town, the sensation of having fallen into a surreal portal—is almost a secret. And even here, there are still more secret sanctuaries. We ride farther into the rural interior.

It happens so perfectly that it’s almost as though we had planned it. The first time I had been here, the drummer had taken me for a long ride so I could clear my heart of the weight of you. We were heading to the lake where he went when he needed peace, but we had gotten lost, having taken a detour along one stunning dirt avenue lined on both sides by coconut trees.

Somewhere on this unfamiliar trail, I saw her.

She faced away from the road but she was unmistakable from any angle.

We stopped and made our way into the undergrowth. “This is Tantric stuff,” said the drummer with a low whistle. “Serious shit.”

Kali, painted blue, her many arms full, loomed above us in stone. Goddess of weddings and beheadings. I put my hands on her feet and my head on my hands and wept in a way I cannot put into words.

And this much later, here we are, the drummer and I, heading back to the goddess in that grove with offerings to leave at her feet. We seek her as though we know we will find her, with or without maps, within or without memory. Here along this dirt road, in the heart of a village in a forest on the coast, I see them, my friends—the giant red and black butterfly, the wasps, the whispering trees, the wind, the dancing light. Over and over I return, even when all else has become irretrievable, and over and over, what remains, remains. I hold on tight and think, this is all there is. Look at all there is to love.





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