These days, I sit out in the verandah every night — just sit there, absolutely still, as though it were a role assigned to me in a play. Sleep has deserted me and become part of the distant clamour. The noise keeps resounding in my ears and every now and then I feel the crowd is heading this way, coming closer.
But even if the mobs reach here, I know they will do me no harm. The very thought fills me with shame and I cannot articulate it even to myself.
I am often filled with shame these days. My eyes are moist most of the time. Perhaps I am growing old. They say one’s defenses sag in old age, along with the body. The tear-wringing lachrymose gland becomes a municipality water tap. Open the tap, and it is dry. Then suddenly it erupts like a spring or whimsically starts leaking — drip, drip, drip. I have reached a state where I am afraid to look at myself in the mirror, afraid that I might burst into tears at the memory of my forsaken moustache and beard. But even away from the mirror, the lachrymose gland remains active.
I have shaved off my moustache and beard. I look different, but in any case I am not afraid. Why should I be afraid when I am proclaiming to the whole world that I have come here, that I am staying here, when I deliberately keep the front door open and sit here like this so that the neighbours can see me clearly, especially when Kaluva comes at dawn with his pooja thali and I reverently cup my hands over the flaming lamp in the thali and then ask him — just the way I used to — to make me a good, strong cup of tea. I make it a point to come out on the verandah every now and then so that people can have a good look at me, recognise me, know that it’s me and no one else, and thus remain at peace.
There is more than peace these days; there is silence, complete silence. If one sees anyone at all it is the occasional middle-aged housewife coming home with a bag full of groceries or some domestic help with a milk can hanging from his bicycle in the early morning, when the curfew is relaxed. The can still clangs against the bicycle but the cyclist is silent. He no longer sings Keh do na keh do na you are my sohnia. His silence is unnerving. There was a time when I was so fed up with this song that whenever I heard it, I would grind my teeth and rush to switch off the TV. But right away, every television set in town seemed to come alive, blaring the song from every direction. And now the song seems to have buried itself, gone underground.
Even young blood appears to have frozen over and if girls want they can walk the streets without fear of being jeered and whistled at by the neighbourhood boys, who no longer step out of their homes.
The youths who venture forth these days are others. In other places. They are not locals, people say. They gather every day at the clock tower, form groups, and head in one direction or another, tossing slogans on the tips of their swords and tridents. The rumour is that now they plan to come this side.
But I have to sit unafraid in the verandah. Everyone knows me here. Ask anyone and they will tell you my name, my religion. They see me, they know me. I have no fears.
But fear is not such a simple thing that exists only when you acknowledge it. It wafts in the air and anyone who inhales it is caught in its grip. It is like a wandering ghost that enters any body at will, making an old man speak in the voice of a child or a dead man from the mouth of a woman. Is it fear, too, that lurks in my assertion that I am in no danger? Fear, that sits huddled beneath my fearlessness suddenly rises, leaps, crosses the boundary. It disturbs my balance so completely that I, who just a moment ago was a hero ready to face the mobs and be killed, am now a frightened fox, tail between legs, desperately seeking a bush to hide in.
I get up and switch on all the lights of the verandah. The dim night-light may lead people to suspect that I have something to hide. I sit in the bright light, completely visible, illuminated, fearless, correct….
Tomorrow is Holi. It is the chhoti Holi. In the evening, the Holika will be set aflame. People will sit around the fire singing Hori and picking grain from long stalks of wheat1.
In my childhood, the burning of the Holika was a much-anticipated event. We would start gathering firewood days ahead. Piles of wood were heaped up at crossroads and street corners. Ma would rub our bodies with powdered gram and turmeric and all the grime that came out with it would be collected in a bowl to be burnt with the Holika. It was a way of burning away all that was murky. It was the day of cleansing. It was also a day of fun and frolic. We are not Western folk, who must suffer the burden of original sin century after century! We are of the East — our impurities are burnt in one clean sweep, then it is the time for colours, the time to let go, to celebrate.
In our university too, boys and girls would have the time of their lives as the Holika burned. They would dance, flirt, romance. Each tongue of flame was lit by the mischievous expectations of the next day, by the colours of Holi they would lovingly drench each other with.
Has anything changed?
Yes, something has changed.
These days, if one sees wood piled up at nooks and corners, one does not assume that it is meant only for the symbolic burning of Holika. Anything can be burned down. Fire, after all, is fire. It spreads in a flash. And its flames can engulf a Holika or a city or even the whole world — who knows how far it can spread?
So everyone is alert and as the festival draws close the air is filled with foreboding. My heart is sinking. I have forgotten what sleep is. Kaluva told me today that people had been asking about me — when had I come, how long would I stay… telling him that it was not safe for me to stay…
I should be relieved by this news. I have been identified. Everyone knows that I am sleeping here and they are concerned about me. Or they know that I am not sleeping here and are concerned.
But my mind is restless. All eyes are on me. I am not used to being at centre-stage. I am just an ordinary citizen and I just want to stay in my corner. But I am caught in the floodlights. Its glare stuns me, unnerves me. I long to crawl like an insect into some dark crevice but I am afraid the lights may follow me and even if I cower, where would I hide? So, assuming the mien of a lion, I sit in the open, hiding my coward’s heart.
Yes, there is fear in being safe, to be sitting in a verandah like a declaration: Look, it’s me! Don’t I belong to the creed entitled to safety?
I am sitting in the verandah and my every pore is aware of the scrutiny of the buildings around me, as if they were people, as if the open windows were their eyes, staring at me. I am pleading with them to note that I am not hiding. Why should I hide? Canyou identify me? I am a Hindu! The light has been switched on bright and I am scorching under it so that they may see me — it’s me, brothers, spare me.
The other houses are drowned in darkness.
Geetanjali Shree is prominent among the younger generation of
fiction writers in Hindi. She lives in Delhi