Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021
Book Extract

Is This Love?

Extracts from Pankaj Mishra's Romantics, shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award

Is This Love?
Is This Love?
The Romantics
By Pankaj Mishra
IndiaInk Rs 395; Pages 277

LATER that night, during one of her spells of melancholy silence, Catherine reached out and kissed me. I responded, fumbling, but with an avidity that filled Catherine with mirth and left me feeling embarrassed.

It is hard for me to describe the physical aspect of what happened next. It was made memorable only by my incompetence in everything that followed upon Catherine's first disencumbering kiss: the first nervous explorations, the fumbling with buttons and hooks, the awkward impasses and shameful lonely climaxes.

Even if I could describe it without being meretricious, I would still be false to my memory of the event, which matched at only a very crude level the usual adolescent fantasies I'd had about the savouring of unknown pleasures.

The revelation was of a different order, and in it lay all the sweetness of that moment -- the moment I wanted to prolong; indefinitely, for it had awakened a part of me I had never known. It came to me later, in a calm moment after the disorder of the physical act, as I lay next to Catherine, listening to her endearments, her declarations of love -- the declarations she said she had long wanted to make to me, and which I reciprocated clumsily, making her laugh -- watching her face, so tender and beautiful, in the candlelight, the vision reminding me of the first time I saw her, playing the tanpura, sitting very straight on the mat, her face bathed by the golden light from the flickering diyas.

I couldn't get over the affinity that had so abruptly and spontaneously sprung up between us, this intimate proximity with someone who seemed until a few minutes ago a remote and unsettling stranger. Our nakedness; Catherine's glowing face, which had never failed to hold me and which was now so close to mine that its features took on an unfamiliar cast; the infantile nature of our conversation; our quick easy laughter over silly things -- it all appeared miraculous.

Is this love? Is this love? I kept asking myself, more insistently than in the recent past, when I witnessed it only from a distance, and the part of me that was made uneasy by the unreal quality of it all -- listening to Catherine's words of love for me, which referred to someone other than the person she saw before her -- was soon overwhelmed by the part that embraced eagerly the possibility that Catherine had seen things in me I hadn't, the part that wished to surrender to the mood of the moment, to the new intense emotion it released within me -- the emotion which was also a suddenly acute awareness of the great yearning that had lain suppressed within me for a long time.

I wanted the moment to go on for ever; I wished never to let go of its intensity, and the morning, when it came, felt like an unwelcome intrusion.

I had stayed awake for a while after Catherine drifted into sleep, her head resting on my shoulder, the shadows from the candle still swaying across the walls and ceiling of the room. I felt restless and exuberant; strange wild thoughts criss-crossed my mind and then faded out of sight. At some point after the candle burned itself out and the room plunged into darkness, I too fell asleep.

I woke up, and the first wakeful moment was suffused with the thrilling memory of the previous night's events, before being almost immediately assailed by panic.

Catherine was gone.A mess of bedclothes and wrinkled sheets were piled where she had lain the previous night. Where was she?

Then I heard the noise of the tap and the din of water falling into a steel bucket. She was in the bathroom, and between registering this rather too plain fact and the panic of finding her absent from my side, I felt the memories of the night recede.

The room itself looked ordinary, stripped of drama, in the bright glare filtered through the dirty green curtains. Random sunbeams fell on discarded backpacks, untidy huddles of clothes and shoes; there was something monotonous about the even noise of the river.

The tap in the bathroom was turned off. I heard the quick, squelchy sounds made by her flip-flops and then, after a short mysterious spell of silence, the flush toilet with the rusty chain roared and gargled.

The door opened, and Catherine appeared wrapped in a black towel, her hair wet and glossy, tiny beads of water on her bare shoulders, which were bunched up against the cold. She didn't turn to look at where I lay, half propped on my elbow. With short mincing steps, she went up to where her backpack rested against the wall, rummaged for a brief moment through it, brought first a white T-shirt, then her underclothes, and holding them in a bundle she turned, as I knew she would, towards the bed, where her jeans lay on the floor.

She noticed my gaze. She walked towards me, a small reluctant smile on her face. I smelled the sandalwood soap she had used on her face as she leaned down to plant a quick kiss on my forehead. She withdrew abruptly and untied the towel around her.

Naked, her breasts shaking slightly, she dressed herself and 1, still supine on the bed, couldn't help but watch: first the underclothes, and then the T-shirt and jeans and the woollen jumper. All this -- elastic straps slapped into place, hooks and buttons fastened, zippers zipped -- was accomplished with a practised ease and a matter-of-factness that left me oddly flustered, and the exchange of tenderness that I half hoped for as she came into the room began to feel inappropriate.

She bent her torso to one side and began to dry her thick mop of hair.

She said, between the sneezing sounds the towel made, 'I see . . Indian women . . . doing this . . . in Benares . . . They do . . . it really . . . well.'

So composed and remote she already seemed, so different from the tender and high-spirited person I had held in my arms. It was peculiarly painful to hear her Benares -- the larger world that the last few hours of our intimacy had managed to keep at bay and to which we were now going back.

Every time Catherine hit her hair with the towel, a fine spray of water rose from her head and briefly passed through the golden sunbeams crossing the room.

I suddenly remembered something. 'There is a woman who lives right next to my house in Assi,' I said. 'I can never see her face but I hear her drying her hair every morning.'

She didn't respond.When she stopped and straightened up, her expression was solenm. She was panting slightly; loose strands of hair fell over her eyes.

She said, her voice neutral and low, 'We must not let Anand know what happened last night.He would not be able to deal with it. It would crush him, and I can't let that happen. I feel responsible for him. I love him too, you know,'

My thoughts had been far away from Anand; this emphatic reminder of her connection with him -- after that already painful reference to Benares -- couldn't have come at a more vulnerable moment. She saw the puzzled hurt on my face. She leaned down to embrace me. I smelt the sandalwood soap; the wet cold hair against my skin made me shiver.

Then, as it was too uncomfortable to hold me while standing, she slipped into bed next to me and held me tight against her.

She repeated her endearments of last night, her conviction of a lifelong friendship. Soon, we were babbling in the childlike way we had discovered, without, it seemed, any effort on our part. when, a few fervent kisses later, we were re-enacting the rituals I had learned the previous night.

It was done with only a bit more competence on my part. Catherine joked about it and then, seeing me slightly put out, burst into laughter.

'You men are all the same,' she said, laughing, her teeth large and white, dimples on her cheeks. 'You all worry about these things.'

The thought came to me, with a pang of jealousy, of the men she had spoken of last night, the men who had not worked out for her.

But the moment passed; I was eager to fall in with her cheerful mood.

Catherine mimicked the chokidar's gait as we packed up our things; she spoke excitedly of the journey back through the mountains. As we walked away from the resthouse, weighted down by our backpacks, Catherine stopped abruptly and turned back.

'One last look,' she said in a cheerful voice. The sentimental gesture surprised me at first; but it was gratifying to notice her sombre face and sad eyes when she turned towards me.

Later, while waiting for the bus to Hardwar, we sat out on the rock by the river, eyes half-shut against the blinding reflection from the water. So new the world seemed, and everything of value in it present in this moment, when neither the discontentments of the past nor the desires for the future existed, everything touched by the pure happiness I felt -- the snowy peaks, glorious in the sun, the rushing river, the rope bridge, the grassy hillsides spangled with dew, the whitewashed temple and the ochre pennant fluttering from the very top of the oak tree.

The sadhu from last night performed his morning rituals a few metres away, a picture of grace as he stood facing the sun, pouring water from a glittering brass jug, his long hair wet, his muscular torso gleaming with oil.

How remote and neutral he appeared to me now, so easily blended into the brilliant morning scene, all the complex of melancholy feelings he had brought on last night defused and almost unrememberable.

He nodded at us as he left. I suddenly noticed Catherine watching him unseeingly, her face a mass of quick conflicting emotions, and she broke down as soon as he had disappeared from sight.

She felt oppressed by the confusion of her life, she said between sobs that shook her entire body, the confusion and the uncertainty. And it was getting worse: there was her attachment to Anand, with all its attendant responsibilities, and now there was a new one, to me, and it had come with its complications. Instead of detachment, she was getting more and more involved with other people.

Even in the midst of her tears, it was heartening to me to be spoken of as an encumbering attachment. I tried to console her, and after some time, she stopped crying. I brought her water in a plastic cup from the river; she washed her tearstained face and wiped it with my handkerchief.She gave me a quick surreptitious kiss, complimented me on my gallantry. Some of her gloom appeared to recede.

But the pattern was set. Her moods kept changing; and by following them as anxiously as I did, I became a prisoner to them. My eyes didn't stray far from her face. The few moments of pleasure on finding her calm would immediately be cancelled out when she collapsed into a fresh fit of remorse and self-pity.

There were more tears from Catherine on the bus -- tears hastily concealed when inquisitive peasant eyes turned in our direction. The landscape so closely observed on the way to Kalpi -- the villages teetering from high cliffs, the neat little flowerbeds in dung-paved courtyards of houses along the road, the ancient men with wizened faces smoking hookahs in chai shacks, the primly dressed schoolchildren, the hook-nosed shepherds with white dust on their beards, the clean blue sky overhead and the white mountaintops -- all of this now slid past unseen in a blur.

At Hardwar -- where we went intending to take a direct train to Benares -- a tout at the bus station led us to a dungeon-like guest house in a lane crowded with garishly decorated sweetshops and vegetable stalls. We remained there all day, too exhausted from the bus journev, to do much, and drifted in and out of sleep. People came and knocked randomly on the door and then went away. Tinny devotional music blared through the windows and a voice on a nearby loudspeaker kept announcing the numbers of lucky-dip winners.

Between spells of sleep, Catherine broke into fits of weeping. Once again, I tried to console her, but was helpless to do so. Her tears seemed to come from a source unknown to me and often moved me to tears myself; but they were also puzzling and filled me with every kind of fear and insecurity. They created a new physical awkwardness between us: lying close together on a narrow hard cot, under a ceiling fan with broad rusty blades, we didn't kiss even once.

Hunger finally forced us out of the room, where mosquitoes had begun to collect in busy swarms. We went to a roadside dhaba. Catherine didn't eat much; calmer now, she talked about her travels in South India, and drank glass after glass of mineral water, fetched by an agile waiter-boy, who sat at the next table when he wasn't serving us and stared at us unblinkingly.

Afterwards, we walked through the brightly lit alleys and their crowd of pilgrims and cows to the Har-Ki-Pauri -- Hardwar appearing a miniature version of Benares-- and sat there watching the evening aarti.

Grey-haired pandits with wrinkled paunches stood before the idols dressed in shiny dolls' clothes anal waved large brass lamps, tracing great golden haloes in the fog of incense smoke. Tonsured young initiates blew hard into conch shells. Down below where we sat, the lights of the ghat glimmered in the blackish river, which, so gracefully serene in Benares, heedlessly rushed on here, cruelly overturning and extinguishing the diyas which devotees had so gingerly set afloat upon it.

Catherine asked me about my father: how did he live by himself in Pondicherry? What did he do all day? She said she was intrigued by the idea of retreat and renunciation.She said she wanted to visit him; she said that parents were often the key to understanding people you cared for.

'But I am happy,' she added, with a sudden giggle, 'that you are not following in your father's footsteps any more, that you are not a celibate Babaji any more.'

I smiled weakly, to fall in with her mood, but could not but feel the flippant remark as inappropriate, especially the casual reference to my father.

After the aarti ended, little boys with vermilion marks on their forehead went around with collection thalis; they sprinkled holy water on devotees, who warmed their palms and face on the camphor flame and dropped a coin into the thali. A couple of them came towards us. Catherine dropped several coins, and then caressed my face with her warm palms.

Disappointment awaited us at the railway station. There were no sleeper berths available on the train to Benares.

My somewhat abject entreaties to a thick-jowled ticket conductor managed to obtain a single berth directly opposite the toilets. But the door to the toilets didn't close, and a stench of urine and excrement kept wafting out all through the long insomniac night. The train languished interminably at morgue-like platforms strewn with slumbering white-shrouded bodies and then lurched off again, creaking and groaning, into the night. Far-off lights beckoned in the dark, and came nearer and nearer, only to swerve away at the last instant; the train would mourn each such abandonment with a heart-rending wail.

We took turns lying down on the narrow berth. Still sleepless, we sat side by side in the end, wordlessly watching the fleeing night through the open windows. Between spells of calm, Catherine cried quietly, and long after the journey I would remember how the dust blowing in through the window marked her wet pale cheeks with dark trails.

Morning brought Benares, huddled under a dark canopy of rain clouds; shuttered shops and broken roads and slime-covered drains and defecating men passed our weary eyes. At the railway station truculent coolies bargained with passengers driven to near-hysteria by the simple act of offloading family and luggage.Ragged urchins screeched 'Chai, chai' while cracked loudspeakers above droned out details of delayed arrivals and departures. Outside, rickshaw drivers with thin, unshaven, moustachioed faces and blood-red eyes jostled, harangued and taunted arriving visitors.

The world, held at bay for so long, was beginning to filter in, but my own gloom was yet to come.

It had drizzled for a brief while earlier that morning and the sky was still overcast. Muddy water ran down the broken pavements in narrow self-made channels. The streets were littered with tiny soaked slips of paper and rotting vegetables and cow dung, the profound silence cleft only by the slow grind of rickshaw wheels. The houses on both sides looked wretched and dark. Here and there on rickshaw seats lay slumbering bodies in cramped postures.

'At least,' Catherine said, as if reading my thoughts, 'at least we have got another day together.'

She was referring to the fact that Anand was still in Bihar, visiting his parents.

It pleased me to hear that. I was beginning to long for some reassurance of her affection for me. I wanted to be alone with her again, and it was with a thumping heart that I ascended the staircase with the familiar mural of Rama and Sita.

Catherine leaned forward and kissed me lightly as she turned the key to her door. I followed her into the room to encounter, first, a chaos of sitars and tablas and discarded clothes and overflowing ashtrays, and then Anand, spreadeagled lifelessly on the floor -- not dead, as I thought in one instant of great alarm, but sleeping.

All through the long journey from Kalpi, I had been more conscious of the little time I had alone with Catherine. I had known again and again the sharp, wounding realization that the hours we had between ourselves before we reached Benares were few and dwindling fast. To see Anand now was to be jolted into an awareness of the problems that lay ahead.

I felt a new kind of unease: it was the beginnings of the guilt I had not known until this moment. Watching him as he lay there, appearing so vulnerable and exposed in his deep slumber, was to have a dark, heavy sense of the relationship that now bound me to him.


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