“I’m sorry, I’ve seen you before, but I can’t seem to place you. Who are you?” Her eyes were large and wide, and a slight curious frown furrowed her too-large forehead. Her half-smile wrinkled her left cheek, leaving her right cheek smooth. Her pale fingers were cool white chocolate against his arm, where she’d placed them a moment ago, to stop him as he turned away.
Time stopped. Or rather, he stopped and time rushed on, like a thudding motor-bike, racing past him. The heat of the chai spread through the paper cup he held, burning his insensible fingers.
Who was he?
He didn’t remember having been born… but then, who did? General consensus was that he had been born, at some point. Officially that point was January 16th, 1974. But that had just been to make it easier for him to get admission in a ‘good school’.
Colours had always fascinated him. From before he could remember. The way they changed as the light did. He’d always felt a strange kinship with colours.
He was told he had been born Abdul Akshay Khadar. But that had not gone very well for him… and he did not remember being called by that name, except during his mother’s ‘episodes’. When his father died and his mother returned to her family, his grandfather had insisted on him being renamed Abhishek Krishnan… but sometimes his mother would forget and call him ‘Abdul’, and then burst into uncontrollable tears before having imaginary conversations with his father. At first he hadn’t known what to do, and had run to get his grandfather to help. But after watching his mother be held down and sedated, twice, he started trying to hide these bouts from his grandfather, and keep his mother as quiet as possible.
Shapes were another realm he enjoyed exploring. The way everything he saw could be reduced to a few basic shapes. Sometimes, as he looked around he didn’t see trees or cars or people, but circles, rectangles and triangles. Triangles were his least favourite shape. Too many triangles and he would have to close his eyes to rid himself of his shape-vision and see people, trees and cars again.
As a child, he’d been afraid of butterflies, with their feathery segmented bodies and flaky triangular wings. His grandfather had been angry that such an intelligent boy would have such an irrational fear. He had been locked up in a room with twenty segmented-eyed butterflies and moths that his grandfather had managed to catch. All night he’d heard his mother sob and plead outside, for the key. His grandfather had ignored her. In the morning, when his grandfather came in, he was huddled in a corner, shaking uncontrollably.
Music played him, sometimes. He did not know how to use an instrument to make music, but sometimes all he could hear was music. Rhythmic chirping of crickets, the beat of water dripping from a tap, the thunderous drumbeats of his grandfather’s voice, the sharp blasts of vehicle horns in traffic, the soothing harmony of the wind…
Once, he wrote a poem in class instead of listening to the physics lesson. His teacher had caught him. But instead of punishing him, she’d pushed him to write more. She had even mentioned this talent to his grandfather. His grandfather had beaten him, and had got the school to dismiss the teacher for not doing her ‘duty’. After that he’d never written a poem, till his grandfather died. He kept them in his head.
They grew there, the poems. Some grew stronger, and preyed upon the ones that didn’t. Others withered away of their own accord. Some tried to mediate an uneasy peace. Others grew sly, and hid in the recesses of his mind. Some sucked the music out of his life, leaving him at times breathless, pale and sickly grey. The doctors called this acute asthma. But he knew the truth. Still others absorbed the panorama of the colours he could see, feasted on them and exploded, freeing a riot of colour that seeped haphazardly into yet others. Some entwined themselves together and became one. Others spawned little versions of themselves…
Every report card-day, his grandfather bought him a bar of chocolate for doing well. If he’d scored high in maths and science, he’d get two bars of chocolate- a Dairy Milk and a Milky-Bar. Because his grandfather had thought it such a treat, he didn’t dare tell him that he preferred the Dairy Milk, till he was in Class VIII. His grandfather had been quite hurt that he hadn’t told him before, and after that only bought him Dairy Milks.
His father had been a poet. And his mother had believed in him. She’d run away from home and married him. They’d been happy for the most part. She worked and provided for them, while his father wrote poetry, painted and looked after their infant son.
When his grandfather finally died, his mother had wept uncontrollably. It was far worse than any of her ‘episodes’ he had seen so far. But after that, she began to smile again. And he had started to write poems. She told him that his father had hated butterflies too.
At first he’d been shy. And a few people had laughed good naturedly at his uncertain poems. Later, they would boast of having known him from the start.
His mother played the flute in the evenings. She used to play, she said, when she was young. Her father had loved listening to her play. When she got married, she’d had to work, and there’d been no time for her music. She hadn’t really minded, but she enjoyed playing again.
The first time he’d seen her, she had been reading a red book, her short, curly cloud of hair spilling around her head, obscuring her face. She had been leaning forward onto her elbows, holding her book and balancing the plastic chair precariously on one leg, as she shifted the balance, moving her legs. She’d been wearing a faded grey T-shirt, and deep blue jeans. She shook the hair out of her face and looked up for a second, biting her lower lip on the left. Her eyes had been far away, lost in the world of the book in her hands. He had been sorely tempted to accidently kick her chair as he walked past, but he’d refrained. She’d lost balance anyway, as he passed her, making him feel guilty. A few people in the shop had looked up and laughed. A slick sunglassed boy with headphones in his ears had run to help her up. And he’d walked out of the shop without looking back at her.
She made him think of white-chocolate, which he’d always hated. He developed a taste for white chocolate. And wrote intense white poems.
His mother wanted him to study abroad. She felt his talents would never be discovered here, and he would die unrecognised, like his father. She showed him a few of his father’s poetry and one painting. The rest, his grandfather had hidden or destroyed. His mother had never been able to find them.
He saw her again, at a bus stop, her curly hair drenched in the rain. She fished out a yellow umbrella and opened it, smiling to herself and pushing her wet hair off her face, revealing her too-large forehead. He’d taken a bar of white chocolate out of his pocket, and broken off a square. He’d carefully wrapped the rest of it back in the silver foil and watched her play with the ripples in the puddles under her yellow umbrella, as he tasted the square of white chocolate.
That night the music rose in his head, and he wrote till dawn. The poem was white and strong and beautiful.
When his mother died, he couldn’t afford white-chocolate anymore. The music died in his head. He tried to write new poems, but they were colourless shadows on paper that he crumpled and threw away.
He cancelled his plane ticket to pay for her funeral. After that he had started looking for a job.
He began to give tuitions in English to school children. That was where he met Mira. She was the beautiful elder sister of a little boy who had trouble with tense and the neutral gender. She read a few of his early uncertain poems and was impressed by his potential. They talked and laughed about the ways of the world. She told him his white poems were too beautiful. Too monochromatic. They lacked something important that his early poetry had had. She was studying to be a lawyer. She believed in him.
His grandfather had explained refraction to him, with a piece of broken glass. He remembered the magic of seeing light split into so many colours, on the sheet of white paper they’d used as a screen.
They were married a year later. She supported him, so he no longer had to struggle with little children who could not understand tense and neutral gender.
Mira was kind and funny. Their home was filled with light and laughter. He could afford it now, but he never ate white chocolate.
Their first baby looked like her. Beautiful chocolate brown with sparkling eyes and straight black hair. She had his nose, though, and a mole on her right knee, just like him. They called her Kalpana. Mira couldn’t work for a while, after Kalpana was born, so he’d had to find work.
Their second baby was small and sickly. Like the poems he wrote, alongside his boring desk job. They named him Abdul, after the name he’d been given originally. Mira was much weaker after Abdul was born. She was often tired and irritable, particularly when he retired to his world of shapes, colours and music.
When little Abdul died, the poems dried up altogether. Mira couldn’t bring herself to even try to live again. He had to look after Kalpana.
The music came back, one morning, when he saw her again on his way to work. She was cycling past, her hair pulled back with a purple hairband. She leaned back easily and rested the palms of her hand on the handle-bar, guiding the blue cycle past his black car, deftly. Her hair was slightly longer, and her eyes were outlined with kajol.
He wrote a few more white poems and approached a few publishers. When at last, a publisher accepted his work, Mira was still critical of his work. She felt he could do better. He bought himself a bar of white chocolate, to celebrate when his book of white poems was published.
Mira began to smile again. Kalpana joined the basketball team in her school.
He never saw her again. Till the day time froze for him.
It unfroze in a rush of scalded fingers. And he dropped his cup of chai. It splashed in a beautiful circle, around the paper cup, which landed upright on the pavement. It drenched his toes, in his sandals, and a few drops splattered on her lemon yellow churidar.
“I’m so sorry!” she said, quickly, bending down to pick up the cup and throw it into the bin. “It’s my fault!” A strand of curly hair escaped her black hairband and fell across her eyes. She pushed it away with the back of her hand as she straightened up and smiled at him. “Can I buy you another chai?”
“Thanks,” he said, the word escaping his mouth, unbidden.
She bought him another cup of chai and handed it to him. “I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
The music rose to a crescendo in his head. Colours seethed.
She smiled at him expectantly, her triangular earrings glinting in the sunlight.
Suddenly, he felt a deep revulsion for the sickly alabaster sweetness of white chocolate. “Have you?” he asked, “I can’t remember having seen you before.”
Who was he? What was wrong with him?
She grinned, “I’m sorry… I seem to do this a lot. Kishore says I live in a permanent state of déjà-vu!” she gestured the handsome young man beside her, engrossed in a conversation with someone else.
“It’s perfectly alright,” he replied with a smile he didn’t feel. “Thanks for the chai!” He turned to walk away.
It seemed to him that the revulsion for white chocolate had been there all along, suppressed in some part of his psyche along with his fear of butterflies.
“Wait!” he heard her say, “Are you Abhishek Krishnan?”
“Yes,” he replied, turning around.
“Kishore!” she gasped, tugging at the man’s arm, “Look who I’ve just met! It’s Abhishek Krishnan! We love your poetry,” she added by way of explanation to him.
He smiled, as he shook hands with Kishore and replied politely as they gushed over his patently ridiculous white poems. Her name was Maya. He introduced Mira and Kalpana to the two of them.
That night, he bought a box of dark chocolate for Mira. They laughed and talked till she fell asleep.
He wrote a new poem, filled with life and love, sadness and joy, colour and music. It wasn't pristine and unnaturally beautiful like his white poems. It was far more real. Bitterness offsetting sweetness in a pleasantly palatable way. It was beautiful, and he knew that this was what Mira had believed him capable of, all along.
He brushed a strand of hair off her sleeping face, and settled into the bed next to her. Mira smiled in her sleep.