Two people met on a boat in Kashmir when the floods came in 2014. The man was rescuing people. The woman was reporting on the floods. They exchanged only a few words then. They bumped into each other in the virtual world, met a few times and told each other stories about this and that. He called her Morpheus. He called himself Neo. They called their situation a matrix. Was it a love story? They didn’t know. They still don’t know. But a letter is a confession.
He once quoted poet Agha Shahid Ali: “The world is full of paper, write to me.”
I am no longer allergic to lilies. You had promised a thousand lilies once. You sent a few. In installments. Yellow and white. Our story could have ended there.
But then, it got resurrected.
I bought lilies yesterday. I am in a village that has narrow roads and tall coconut trees and chapels and churches, blue skies and orange sunsets. There is the sea too. Not too far from where I live. I painted a snowflake on a glass pane. In your letter, you reminded me of snow.
You called me Morpheus.
You also wrote there would be another letter.
“To be continued” is how all stories should end. There are no endings, you had once said.
You were right.
I drew a plane the other night. I drew a little boy. I called it Boy and the Plane after a song. It was by Marcel Khalife. I had sent it to you once. You flew planes once upon a time.
I wondered if you ever walked on the boulevard on a November evening, you might remember a woman who sat here on an evening wrapped in a coat watching the trees rise against the skies, a cigarette dangling from her fingers. I hadn’t even thrown a pebble in the Dal Lake.
There’s nothing I left behind except a scene. A stranger in a city under curfew, a lake and weeping willows.
It was at Jetty No. 2 at Dal Lake. Just in case.
Nobody would remind you of me except me. Neither the boulevard nor the coffee shop. We never made it there. Not then at least.
I had come to your city when the mountains seemed suspended in the fog as if they had no feet. Our story played out in scenes that had no ground. Like that river. Like these mountains with no feet.
We met in hotel called Cordoba. I was the lone guest in that hotel that had 76 rooms. It was all very quiet that night. Two young men had been killed during the Muharram procession. That’s where you had asked me first if I knew where we stood. There was a lot of dust in the room. There was a stone bed, a broken chair and a dresser. I drank six cups of tea that evening.
Nothing has been effaced in time. Memory resurrects us.
I am an archivist. I am also an an amnesiologist. I like to work with absences and silences.
You once said you were in love.
Being in love is like going to a war. At least in our country. I subscribe to that argument — personal is political.
You once said in this lifetime we’d defeat the idea of death.
You were always ambitious. You called me “my immortal.”
Let’s begin where you began. In that rescue camp in that year when the floods came and bloated bodies of 300 plus cows were floating in the streets.
The stench was unbearable. That was before I met you.
Let’s call the raft a boat. That was where the story began in any case.
We met on a boat in a temporary river.
You offered me Parle-G biscuits on that boat.
We were in Bemina in Srinagar. It was submerged. You wore Ray-Ban shades, a life jacket and green slippers.
In my story, I described you as a “tall, lean man” and I wanted to add that you didn’t need to wear the life jacket. The water wasn’t deep enough to drown us.
Yes, you offered me your green slippers. You walked barefoot. You even stepped on a nail. You bled a bit.
Yes, I had a notebook and a water bottle. My canvas shoes were torn. I threw them away before I left your city.
These are the facts.
You offered me a story. It is yet to be written.
Lilies and Chinar leaves.
Ravens and pigeons.
Threads and promises.
All these endless tomorrows. All these endless yesterdays. That’s all there is.
Memory is an affliction. Makes one catatonic.
I once read about a man who collected the cigarette butts after his lover had smoked them.
The whole point of the book was to immortalise the love that he had felt through everyday things that his beloved discarded.
Orhan Pamuk built a museum where 4,213 cigarette butts with dates and little notes underneath them were etched on a wall. It is called the Museum of Innocence after his eponymous novel. It is a museum of memories. Fictional. But that’s not the point.
The writer archived love.
For so many years I have wondered about the love measured in cigarette butts.
How many did she smoke in a day?
I also wanted someone to build a museum for me. Ambition, aspiration, desire. Call it whatever.
On some nights, I go through our conversations. I don’t know how to begin our story. Or how to end it.
You and I. Two green dots.
You and I live in a post-truth world. But you and I are also preloved beings.
“There are no endings,” you once said.
I said there are no doors either.
You spoke about relapsing time.
I said anything is possible. We are all time machines.
You and I.
Two green dots on enemy sides.
You called me an occupier, an oppressor.
You promised me a story once. You also promised me a thousand lilies.
I dreamed of the thousand promised lilies that night. White lilies that fell from strange trees that didn’t birth them. They fell like gentle snowflakes. I saw you smoking in the snow.
There you stood, a creature of my imagination with a thousand lilies floating around you.
There were mountains that were whiter than the snow and the evening clouds that swirled around your head like balloons of fireflies.
I think I made you up in my head — a protestor, a son, a tall, lean man.
There is no chronology.
Once upon a time in a cafe in the national capital, I wrote letters as aids to memory as bombs fell elsewhere in the country. People were killed in your state. And women beat their chests in despair for the killed, the maimed and the disappeared. I read in the papers about the unmarked graves, the half-widows, the stone-pelters.
Too many tears.
What are we?
Secrets in a coffee cup, whispers in the glass of wine, a fragmented note in a coat pocket?
You said you were born in a place where protests were way of life.
All love means revolution and resistance.
All love is protest.
All love is also material for research.
All love is ultimately an act of resurrection.
You said I treated you like a story.
I made rockets, boats, birds of the sheets of paper where men wrote about their love with all the predictable symbols — moon, rose, sea, mountains, hand, feet, hair, ears and eyes and sent them on a space odyssey. Nothing goes unobserved, undocumented.
Writers are unfaithful. I’d say we aren’t ungrateful.
We are such doomed species. Heartbreaks are stimulants for writers who wake up looking for material, scratching their head staring at empty screens.
We place ourselves in the way of the lava that volcanoes vomit, to understand and repeat experiences as we set out to gather fireflies.
We pack the fireflies in a glass jar hoping they’d swim in the air exploding into sparks if you tapped at the jar. That’s ambition.
I told you I’d come in the months of snow and make dolls out of the snow and name after you. In your part of the world, there is timeless snow.
How do you define this ‘paradise’ then? A place of dead lilies, of tear gas shells, of stones and blood, of unfreedom and weeping willows, of martyrs and saints?
I am no longer allergic to lilies. Not even to deception.
Would you ever bring me the promised lilies?
The promise of lilies remained suspended. In time.
I dream of a time when dervishes would dance among the pigeons on a moonlit night and snowflakes will descend and ride on kites and break the notions of freedom and occupation.
The sky lasts forever.
And so does love. Or whatever it is that goes by that name.
You talked about black holes often.
Many stars must have collapsed then. A black hole must have been created. And you and I must have fallen into it, crushed into a tiny point at the centre they call ‘singularity’. We hit no surfaces. We floated forever.
I know black holes are dark, dark places. But I also read that a black hole is boosting star births in galaxies.
Green dots, dead lilies, yet another curfew.
In 2019, we wrote to each other again. Before the lockdown in the Kashmir Valley.
“What are lilies?” I asked.
“Angels who dance when you die,” you wrote back.
We endure stretching silences until we have forgotten how to say “hello”, you said. That’s how you defined your curfewed state to me.
The manuscript has been lying on my shelf for a long time. All these years spent writing, rewriting, reconfiguring sentences, events, betrayals, love, speeches and everything else.
We spoke briefly on the night before they cut off the Valley from the rest of the world. You asked me if I knew what was going on. You also said you had been through worse times before.
Next morning I sent you a copy of the notification in the official gazette of India. “You are now a Union Territory,” I wrote.
The message remained undelivered. For a long time afterwards. Then you called one evening.
You had come to Delhi. We met. We didn’t talk about us. We spoke instead about the lockdown.
You invited me again. You dangled the idea of the story. Chinar leaves, snowflakes, ravens and lilies.
We still inhabit this fantasia where lilies bloom.
You and I. Two green dots in the ectoplasm of our imagined love.
That was then.
I asked you later why you chose lilies for me.
“They are funeral flowers,” you said.
“Lilies are also flowers of resurrection,” I wrote back.
Lilies sprung up where drops of Christ’s blood fell in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went to pray the night before his Crucifixion. They call them “white robed apostles of hope.”
When Eve was expelled from the Garden of Eden, her tears birthed the lily of the valley.
They will also tell you these are poisonous.
“What does a raven mean?,” I asked.
“It is the king of messengers,” you wrote back.
“What does a dove mean?,” I asked again.
“It is the raven itself,” you replied.
Noah from the resting place of the ark on Mount Arafat released a raven first to see if the waters had subsided. The raven flew eternally and never returned. It fed off the dead. Then he released a dove and it returned. Seven days later, the dove was sent again. It returned with an olive branch. Again, seven days passed and the dove was released into the world. It never returned. That’s when Noah left the boat. The world was ready to be inhabited again.
The Biblical flood lasted a total of one year and ten days.
I am always looking for flood references.
We met in September one year and parted in the month of August the next year.
Years later, you told me the raven knocks on your window every night. Edgar Allen Poe, I said.
You said you read the poem in the book I gave you one evening.
I told you I watch the pigeons come to my terrace every morning.
You said ravens knock on your windows at night. In your country, “murder of crows” assumes a deeper meaning.
I remember a canvas by a painter in which a woman stands in the center holding a dead bird in the middle of a forest. She is wearing a Pheran. The crows gather around her on the five-panel canvas in ritualistic mourning typical of the scavengers, who, as folklore goes, hold funerals and express grief collectively. And a collective noun used to describe a group of crows is “murder of crows.”
That was the title of Gargi Raina’s painting I once saw. In your part of the world, women are always mourning for disappeared sons, brothers and husbands and fathers and lovers. Collective mourning.
You didn’t bring me the lilies when we finally met after years in my apartment in New Delhi.
You couldn’t give our story a closure with a bouquet of lilies. You said I told you dead flowers are bad omen.
I am rewriting our story again.
I took you to the terrace to show a part of the skyline. If you look into the distance, the tall trees here look like they belong elsewhere. Perhaps your city.
“Can you see the Jhelum?” you asked.
“Yes,” I said.
We had once sailed through your city in the waters of the Jhelum in a red boat.
You continued to tell me stories from a faraway place called Kashmir. They restored phone connections at some point in 2019 and you called on some evenings. One evening you told me it was unusually cold for October. You were buying chicken at a butcher shop and you had been wearing a thick jacket. I imagined you smoking a cigarette while you stood on the pavement. A nine-year-old was slicing the pieces of meat at the butcher shop. They don’t go to school anymore. Everything’s shut. There is not much to do here, you said.
You said your hands were freezing.
You said whenever there are protests, the weather gets affected. I asked you why and you said it has happened before. In 2016, when they killed Burhan Wani, the weather changed patterns.
In Kashmir, thousands gathered for his funeral. The Indian state declared a curfew then.
That year October was a very cold month in Kashmir, you said.
“There is a long, brutal winter ahead of us,” you said.
In New Delhi, I switched on the air conditioner. In October, it was still warm here. You said endurance is something that comes with all the collateral damage of conflict.
“You see, humans adapt,” you said.
“Go home,” I said.
“Paradise will run out of hope and food soon,” you said.
And the line went dead. Again. The internet had been suspended again.
A presidential decree on August 5, 2019 revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution. Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its political autonomy. The lockdown would continue until March, 2020, and another lockdown would follow in the aftermath of the pandemic.
In the news, I read 38,000 additional troops had been rushed in after the abrogation. Fundamental rights were effectively suspended and Cordon and Search Operations (CASO) were conducted.
Once you called from the basement of your new house where you were lighting a fire in the hamam. There had been a power cut for two days in the Valley. In the newspapers, they said people were running out of candles.
You said the pigeons had taken shelter in your house.
“We take care of these birds,” you said.
After you would hang up, I would sit and compile our conversations. Like I always did.
We never spoke about us over the telephone.
One evening I asked you if you knew this old poet whose house had been burnt down by the Army. A 1,000 pages of poetry was reduced to ashes. This was in 2018. You went to Balhama the next day to find the man who had returned the next morning to the site and wrote a verse with charcoal on the burnt pillars of his gutted house.
The poet’s name is Madhosh Balhami. He used to recite poems at the funerals of the militants in villages in Kashmir and he was arrested for it a few years ago. You told me he lost all the verses he wrote over 30 years.
What’s the story?
On the night of March 15, 2018, three young boys carrying guns had come to his house and asked him permission to die there. They were hounded by the security forces.
“Balhami said all belonged to them and left the house,” you said. “They killed the militants and burned the house. That’s what happened. That’s what happens all the time. They burn down everything.”
I told you I read in the news how an imam in one of the old mosques in South Kashmir wailed at the loss of mulk-e-Kashmir as he concluded the Friday prayers.
And then, others cried along with him. Their collective sobs issued from the minaret for two minutes were heard in the neighbourhoods.
I tried to imagine that mourning sound coming from the skies, seeping in through the windows and travelling in the streets.
Friday sermons were stopped thereafter by the police. Nobody was allowed to cry on loudspeakers.
Do you still hear dogs crying through the night? Do the pigeons that I once fed at the shrine of Maqdoom Sahib have enough to eat? Do birds cry?
I have never heard birds cry. But in your part of the world, anything is possible. You told me the dogs still cry. Even the pigeons. Even the people.
In New Delhi, they say terror blooms in the valley like the tulips. You told me when tulips bloom in your city, it looks beautiful. I didn’t see the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden. Almost 30 hectares of tulips cascading down the foothills of the Zabarwan Mountains, the first flowers to bloom in spring. They say a red tulip grew where the blood of Farhad fell. In the Persian legend, when Farhad heard his beloved Shirin had died, he rode his horse off of a cliff. In another story, Shirin died, too. And their blood gave red tulips their colour. But tourists post happy pictures from the garden, their painted red lips matching with the red of the tulips. And with blood.
Letter writing is an exile’s main occupation.
That isn’t my sentence.
But that should explain my long letters to you from this liminal place. All these non-linear narratives that defy the binaries of arrival and departure. Yours and mine.
Will you ever read this?
There are no endings in the empty immensity of everything that happened after we met on a boat when your city had been turned into a river.
Remember Noah’s Ark?
Every year they announce on the radio and elsewhere there would be floods again. But I told you that there won’t be floods of that kind in any year again. Nothing repeats itself except history. Except wars. Maybe you will row a boat again. But I won’t be in it.
You said beauty is a curse.
“A stone to a bullet,” you said. “You won’t understand.”
There is no music at the shrines in your part of the world. Only the sound of pigeons flapping their wings. And the wails of the women who beat their heads against the cold stones at the shrines.
Is peace possible then? Between me and you?
“Sab faani hai (everything is earthling),” you wrote to me. “Remember this when I am gone.” Nostalgia is the keepsake of lonely hearts.
We are always looking for love in the wrong places. This, I scribbled much later. I did not return to Cordoba.
Do you remember the night we met in that hotel with its 76 empty rooms called Cordoba? We always met in strange, half-finished places.
Before you came to see that evening in November in 2014, your voice floated in the darkness. We smoked too many cigarettes that evening. I remember that we didn’t hold hands. The first time I noticed your hands, I didn’t like them. You don’t have long fingers.
I remember the stone bed that almost looked a tomb. The room was dark and cold. Nobody had come to live here in a long time. The owner knocked with a pot of badly brewed tea. He placed a hot water bag and a few blankets and went through the motions of dusting everything in the room.
But in the dimly lit room, the dust seemed transcendent. From the window, I could see the trees. The trees seemed like they were weeping. They call them weeping willows. The branches swooped down these grotesque trees and you could see a million tears hanging from the branches. It had already begun to snow.
You lit a cigarette. I was the lone guest that evening. Elsewhere in the city, there was a curfew of sorts. Two boys had been killed by the police at a Muharram procession. Things that were routine in a place like this. I had suggested meeting at a cafe but most cafes had shut down since the floods.
The room hadn’t been cleaned in a long while. After the floods, Srinagar was altered. No tourists came anymore. The room had three zero power bulbs. Enough to see faces. Not enough to read them. I asked you if we could go for a walk. You laughed.
“You don’t go for walks in a curfew,” you said.
We sat under the flickering lights on a faded brown carpet. The only chair in the room had a leg missing. A smaller room led into this room, which had green stained glass windows.
There was a dresser but in that light, you could only see your silhouette reflected in it.
I couldn’t sleep that night after you left. We could hear the same dog barking in the night. You had said you were putting up in a relative’s house nearby. Your house was still under water.
The stained glass windows seemed like a flimsy armour against the chill that night in November when we met.
Outside, they had placed a plate of rice, and mutton. I ignored the food. I could see a silhouette against the glass. I hoped I was dreaming.
I wrote in my journal.
“Poetry means nothing. Paradise is an idea. It is never home.”
I called the next morning to say I was leaving. But I stayed another day. I found a place. It was like a fortress almost.
The second night I spent was in a beautiful room that overlooked the lake. But in between the lake and the window, there was a strange tree with red flaming leaves. I looked past it.
Is it because of the blood that roses here are so red? Do the tulips rise out of graveyards? Your gardens are strange. They are wildly alive.
That evening I went for a walk. That evening I sat down on a bench at Jetty No. 2.
The next morning, you came. We only had a few minutes. Enough to give you a book by Mahmoud Darwish. You pointed out to a tree. You said it was every Kashmiri’s favourite tree. I don’t remember the name. Deodar?
In 2017, we again bumped into each other. In the virtual space.
In my apartment, there were white lilies. A friend got them. When I woke up the next morning, I remembered you. That’s when I looked for you again. You had left me a note in 2016.
There was a cue about dead lilies and darkness.
I sent you a message.
“Oh, you. You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” — Joker
That was the message. Just that dialogue. Once, you had used the “unstoppable forces meets an immovable object” reference. A part of the whole. You and I are destined to do this forever. Throw a message in the universe and hope you get it. Like letters in bottles floating in the sea.
You said you had been waiting. You said you had this recurring dream of being in a desert. I said I had been to a desert. It is a place of mirages. Like a matrix. Remember the red pill and the blue pill story?
The rabbit hole?
You know in Matrix, Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the red and the blue pill. The blue pill is what is tempting because it is so secure, a known space. But the red pill... well, that’s a different story altogether which changes every moment.
And each time I am faced with doubt... I remember an old conversation about matrix with someone who saved my name as Morpheus.
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes... Remember, all I'm offering is the truth, nothing more,” Morpheus said in the film.
The questions are no longer valid. Don’t ask. We don’t have to waste time over it. Why suffocate ourselves with such inconsequential stuff.
I asked you for your version of our story. You had too many conditions. Memory has no sense of proportion, I said.
In your letter so many years later, I see how our memories are not aligned. I wanted to correct the timeline. But I didn’t.
I had once given you my pen.
You once sent a note to me.
“Love is explicit. Love is remembrance. Love is free falling. Love is memories. Love is shadow and the sun. Love is hurtful and beautiful. Love is the unknown and undefined. Love is carefree and non conformity. Love is to let go. Love is to listen and feel. Love is to heal to burn. Love is about dead lilies and poetry. Love is what it is and we still don’t know what love is.
You spoke of bruises and scars; I smiled at my end and kept silence. All of that reminded me of my words for my broken heart; reminded me of the night when it rained and I held my pen ever so tight but couldn’t find any words. I drew so blank and ended up writing three little dots on a big sheet of paper. Just like the warm bodies with cold hearts wrapped up under a white sheet under yellow lights. It was midnight and you described how the sky looked pink; the stars hid behind a veil of clouds and I could sense the detail about that. I told you that I know you and you shrugged it with a smile; I smiled too because I knew more than you knew. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the girl sitting on that bench, staring at the scarf tied to the tree; the scarf that swayed with the breeze of loneliness and despair.
All of this has a meaning of its own. I may not know why it happened but it has and it certainly has a story of melancholy in it. I looked here and searched for my smokes; I couldn’t keep my lips from constant murmuring of a song. A song that got stuck to my head like the smell of cigarettes and ink on my fingertips. I wrote and wrote with no meaning whatsoever. It was my own story now and I had no clue where to start from. Standing on a platform and watching myself go, I said I wanted to see the world. The song played; it rained against the window by the lake shore. My room still smelled of pines and smoke; the books looked disarrayed on a shelf covered with broken glass. My hair still wet and the drops on my neck reminded me of the person I used to be. I’m still wearing my boots and the grass still looks green underneath it. I have walked far enough but here I am where I got lost. Maybe it’s too late at night for me to make any sense. I walked through the woods after it rained; I wore my yellow jacket and I would stop at every pine and try to find myself. I couldn’t — so I moved ahead until there was nowhere to go. I sat and saw the valley beneath; there was nothing to see but a layer of clouds that hid the vale from me. I remembered all the trails I had been on; I even tried chasing saints and look for what they had seen. I never could see anything but the beautiful nature around. Why did it look so beautiful? Was it the clouds or the ugliness beneath and inside them that was hidden! I still searched for the answer; but I could only find myself on that mountain top. Alone with all the wilderness around me; the sound of life in that stream, the sound of mourning in that breeze. And when you lay down with your eyes closed, all you could see was yourself through the eyes of someone else. Your eyes betray what burns inside you. Your heart sees what burns inside you. Your mind feels what’s left of you and your soul was never meant to be your own. I walked back to my cabin; I tapped my foot on the wooden steps to tell them I was home. I opened the door and there was none. I dropped my empty notebook and sat down with my wet jacket. The fire had gone out but there was some smoke left. I walked around and heard my footsteps on the wooden floor; there was tea and some sugar. I lit a smoke and prepared my tea. It was getting dark and I could see the fog taking over the line of pines through that window. I stood there by the window and saw the light turn from grey to yellow. And there I was; the man on a window in an empty cabin surrounded by pines and snow. I wanted nothing more but a knock on my door. The fire gave me company but I couldn’t write. I thought about it all night until I fell asleep on the same chair. I still wore my boots and the grass still looked green. You said you believed in signs and I have never had any. What meaning does the sign hold when you see the dead grass still green? Did the changing of light from grey to yellow mean a sign too? Did listening to my own footsteps mean something too? I still hold on to the receiver and there is no one on the other side. The matrix, the blue and the red pill, the rabbit hole, the validation, the fear of abandonment, the terrace where the trees looked similar. What signs are they? Am I ever going to find you? Am I ever going to stop looking for something that I haven’t found yet?
All these questions never had any answers. I decided to read a note that I wrote for you, the stranger. Yes, the ink and smokes continued with a never ending urge to stop writing for you.
I don’t know how to start this or talk about it when I have no idea about it. It’s like “love — what do we talk about love when we talk about love!” So there can be too many thoughts about this, the one where I know the person sitting in the corner and the one behind this small screen adhering to my thoughts and me with each word she writes.
I have seen you quite often at a place and I wouldn’t hide if I said I didn’t notice. I couldn’t help. It’s like that one person in the whole wide universe whose energy you pick up and urge to know more. Like scars on your body. Which one do you choose? Each one has different memory — the lilies in the vase or the clouds behind that horizon. We all want to know about it. The girl with golden shoes drowning deep in her thoughts. Her foot tapping to the guitar note of her favourite band, the realisation of this being the imperfect moment which concludes at being chaotic in its own way. The moment when she moves her hair, something changes too. The butterfly effect? The single flutter of the butterfly creates a typhoon thousands of miles away. The similitude about it is the only real thing around right now.
Now there’s a person behind this screen who speaks the same language as my soul seeks. Call it a sandstorm as I see it, you move — it moves along. You run- it follows you, you can’t be away from it for too long! The only option you got is to standstill and immerse yourself into it. So the way I see it, I stand in it and face it because I know after it has passed I’ll be a different man.”
I rearranged the books on the shelves. I am waiting for your second letter.
I picked out a book by Mahmoud Darwish. I flipped through it, stopped at a page.
These were the lines I read.
“past: Do not change us whenever we stepped away from you!
· future: do not ask us: who are you? and what do you want from me? Because we too, do not know.
· present! Bear with us a little because we are nothing but insufferable passersby.”
I always said I was a passerby.