by Medha Singh
It is November. I’m on a train through India. North to South. Delhi to Mumbai. 26 hours. I’m with a friend, Esther. She is falling in love, it seems, and sleeping better. I’m writing poems about the changing character of the sun. It feels as though we move from country to country. And what is India but a movement, a house big enough for all the countries it carries in its flesh?
There she is, telling me about her sisters. One has an art gallery in Paris, and a production house—she has produced forty films, and took the greatest risk in putting it all together. She’s telling me about her nephews. She’s telling me about the Second World War, Auschwitz, about her family, about Polish Jews in France, her grandmother who gathered, cooked and ate discarded potato skins to survive the winter; at ten, she took care of her siblings in the absence of a mother. Esther is talking to me about Simone Weil and suicide, I’m talking to her about self affirmation and surrender. We’re talking about love and loss. About all that’s vanishing, constantly leaving us, as we gaze out the window. We are hamsters in a moving vitrine.
A man sharing our compartment troubled our sleep. We let his wife and he take the lower berths, as they were elderly. Abusing our good manners, he invited his entire family over from another bogey to have dinner in our chamber without consulting us. The children made a raucous noise throughout the night—bad parenting, of course. His daughter, well in her thirties, and her rowdy husband chatted all night at the top of their voices, as he occasionally proceeded to yowl at his wife, every time she didn’t seem to agree with him—they were speaking in Marathi, so it went over our heads—he cast rude glances at us each time I asked them to keep it down, and we were well within our rights to do so (how dare a young woman speak out of turn). My fangs grew out and I said a nasty thing about Bombay and was surprised to know immediately that I meant it: the urban are quick to don Americanised clothing and behave as properly sculpted subjects of neoliberalism, of “mondialisation”, as Esther would call it, but this, this family, is their cultural reality. Not having enough universities, publishing houses and a political life will do that to a place – any place. It’s among the best in the country, Mumbai, but the country isn’t much to compare with. I write the words in my diary: globalisation interrupts the natural flow of primitive cultures to their logical sophisticated ends, so they may flourish to something elegant. Some cultures remain primitive and animalistic. As I write this, I feel craven, cruel.
We have arrived in Maharashtra. We are two hours away from Mumbai. First light. 5:00 AM.
This is my first photograph, this time, in Mumbai. Carter Road. Esther insists on going to the Bandra fort and I absolutely detest the idea. She says she needs her tourism dose. And gestures as though it were a shot of heroin, the sound of her small hand slapping her thin forearm. She recites Baudelaire after that, as though it were a bribe (she’s excellent with Baudelaire and Aragon), I’m pleased enough (why am I so easy to please?), and agree to visit it the next day. I am writing slogans on my phone against corrupt Mauritian leaders, and she is helping me tighten them in French.
I took a surreptitious photograph from within the Synagogue we visited in Mumbai. Close to Kala Ghoda. The Rabbi told us numerous things about how the Jews made their way to India. How a priest called Benyamin visited and certified them as bonafide Jews, though they had not a single morsel of their holy book on their person, years after inhabiting the place and living as Jews. He was Israeli. He blessed us both. He told Esther, being a Jew, it’s important to marry one. She politely replied with (read: retorted) “my kids will be Jewish irrespective of whom I’m married to.” We both share a glance and immediately know we agree on the truism that one is lucky to find love in life even once, twice is a blessing. The third time, a lie.
I’m watching Esther fall in love with Mumbai. I’m Sancho Panza witnessing a madness (who on earth falls in love with Mumbai when you have Delhi?). As we walk along the road and find ourselves approached by street musicians trying to sell us handmade drums, Esther asks me why they’re poor, and why they only make drums. I take this chance to explain to her that caste is in every bit of Indian life. His family were musicians, it’s probably the only skill he has, and mondialisation, as it’s known in French, has left him behind. Capitalism does not reward artists. It kills us. It kills us with poverty, destitution (and if we make it big), with drugs, alcohol, loneliness. It’s ugly. It cannot withstand beauty. Which is why anyone beautiful is forever alone. Which is why this man with the skin drum is poor. We don’t buy the drum. We only tell each other stories. We proceed to the Prince of Wales museum, and the David Sassoon Library.
This seems to be the entire stretch along Colaba. Populated with vendors selling trinkets, chiefly items of women’s clothing and jewelry. Fake antiques. I meet a crystal maker and buy a green aventurine. It’s a real crystal. Esther and I are tired. We have walked the entire day looking for a navel ring (no one seems to have one). I look at the woman in the engraving, think of the words “To be free…”
This is part of the facade of the Taj Hotel. Site of the terrorist attacks. There was a junior in my high school who lost her mother to them. She was a journalist, I think. The last words, they said, she wrote to her husband were “They’re in my room. I love you.”
Esther is enjoying the sun. It has burnt a hole in my scalp from all the walking. She said there is nothing more she loves than the sun. I think of a long poem I’m writing at the moment. There’s a line there: “A writer is slow release realising all his favourite stories have the sun in them…”
I simply couldn’t bear that sharp sun, not with my head bowed, least of all, my face. Here, I am. Behind Esther’s bench on fresh grass, absorbing the sunset at the Hanging Gardens. Crows encircle me overhead. Is something in me dead? I think of cadavers, think of “Une Charogne”. Is Baudelaire’s ghost around?
A cat sleeps in the lobby of the Willingdon Sports club. We’re being entertained by a singer here, he’s telling us about the Lord and Lady who owned this place, and about his own heartbreaks. Lord and Lady Willingdon lived here when Lord Willingdon was Governor of Bombay. Esther and I discuss the indecency of colonialism among us in French, the basic contradiction between the notion of decency within—the code of—imperialist nations, and how they crucially defy their own standards when abroad. We speak among ourselves in French, because we suspect he’s a royalist, and hope he can’t understand what we say, as we are led to the dining hall. The dinner is splendid. We drop this singer home, he was amicable and rude, hot and cold, in turns. The night was rather odd. It seems he does not want to leave us, his lifelong solitude has descended to loneliness. Esther recites Rimbaud. He’s pleased, and bids us goodbye. He leaves us. We both talk about the loneliness of middle aged men. So many of them deserve it for having no values and leaving a trail of destruction behind. Anger, followed by sadness. Then, I say, some don’t.
I quietly think to myself of a man in a foreign country I thought I could have loved. How it will be a story that will start with the phrase “some years ago…” in my middle age.
We’re chatting with Sharon, another friend, at the Bombay Worli Sea Face. She tells us about the hidden intricacies of writerly circles, that I should be careful, that I shouldn’t talk too much to male writers. One shouldn’t talk too much to men a certain age, I say. They’re lonely, and harmful. Our feet are tired, we sit cross legged, and cast overlapping shadows under the orange street lamps. She tells me of women whose writing lives have been destroyed by male writers in Bombay. It’ll all be written down. None will be spared. We wait for the ticking hand to whack them to their end. Patience, I believe, is a virtue higher than persistence. Let them “suffer the shame of incontinence alone, for all their sins”, I curse like a proper witch. I feel the sharp flare of anger subside with the tides before us. I think of Raza – “There are men on this earth who are worthy of love.”
I’m calm, again.
That’s Esther at the Taj Mahal Tea House. Sharon is about to join us. Before us, is a picture of Tabla player, Zakir Husain, I’m engrossed in my book, and take a moment to photograph Esther. I think this is what my family home in Bihar looks like, a strange sense of familiarity overwhelms me. The salads are overpriced and it does not matter anymore.
We are joined later by a photographer, he’s from Punjab. He takes us through a basti and makes us meet his cats and finches. The finches are in a large, sectioned aviary. We press on towards the edge of the sea. Sharon tells us not to think about taking a dip. We will die of cholera (or something of the sort: if this thing enters a nail, it’s fatal). I see a fisherman fling the bait far, far into the water, astonished at the range of his throw. No one else seems to be. They say to me, he’s a fisherman, it’s no cause for surprise. To me, it’s the marvel of human anatomy. This body can learn anything. It endures everything.
Sharon, Esther, the photographer and I take a moment here, as we climb the fort. I’m exhausted and red in the face. I stop for breath, my hands on my knees, elbows bent, I look up and find the sea, the sky on my brow. Turner’s wraith emerges in the pale light to hold my hand.
Esther and I at the airport. We’ve had a stupid, stupid day. The day before we’d realized she booked the wrong tickets for the wrong day. We spent an hour and a lot of money rectifying our mistake. We scampered all over the house gathering our things. We ruminated over the rudeness of cab drivers, of men, of the aggravating crowds at Haji Ali mosque (men staring at us constantly). We thought of the housekeeper, a boy, who came to our house. We thought of the jokes we made behind his back because he locked us out one morning (we suspect, on purpose, a male ego thing). We thought of how we’d scoured the streets for a locksmith and convinced him to come break the lock. We thought of how the boy arrived just in time with the key, confirming our suspicion. We thought of how some men we know are clearly gay but say they’re bisexual to keep their mothers happy. We thought of the sorrow of men who recognized they were good but not great. We thought of how women settle for the worst men out of loneliness. We thought of how we ended up at this Irish pub. Then we knew: it’s because the Irish detest the English just as the French and the Indians. We thought of the loneliness of people in Mumbai. We thought of the massive Bollywood studio we visited, and Pompom’s despair at the best equipment in the world being used for the worst kind of music, with the most hypersexual, violent images. We thought of how journeys change us so subtly. How some friendships are so intimate that they cannot withstand company. How such friendships constitute a mood unto themselves. We thought of moods. We boarded our flight to Kochi, late to it despite being on time (oh, wine!) looking to find another sun, another shadow, another sin.
About the Author:
Medha Singh is music editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @medhawrites from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.