Well past midnight, in the middle of the now empty M.I. Road, unable to drive further, I sat inside my car staring at the oppressive light of those five halogen lamps and thought how strange it was that I felt so beautiful under my burning hot skin, imagining what it would be like if it’s one of the more serious fevers, dengue perhaps, or malaria, or something else altogether: I will probably not die, but it will be painful, and I might get those red hemorrhagic spots. I imagined, though only for a brief moment, how exquisite my petechiae would look against your healthy, wheatish skin. I thought about all the people who had died, who will die from these bursting blood vessels and those headlines in the newspapers that would follow, the ones we would ignore because if we didn’t, it would be impossible to write another love letter, to talk about the colour red, to complain of too much salt. If I die, who will let you know? How will you explain your grief to anyone? What will you do with your remaining kiss? Who are you? Am I imagining you in this fevered state? Who am I? Prajapati, the creator-god, had asked this same question: who, what am I? What is this world where I suddenly find myself, helpless and in love with nothing but a dream?
I opened my eyes to see what I thought was a flamingo just outside my car, which in reality was perhaps just an image of one, seeming quite out of place here against the strange salmon background of this city, so far away from the pink saltiness of Sambhar, where I had understood, for the first time, that landscapes alter the flow of time and that colour makes the strange familiar. I’d then understood why, last year in Calcutta, I had stood outside a café looking at a woman for over an hour: an old woman in a café, holding a glass of wine, wearing the same nail colour as my dead grandmother used to love wearing. I stayed for as long as she stayed there, just to look at a hand with lavender nails move again.
I called my mother and told her where I am in a brief moment of coherence, before getting out of my car for some fresh air, to escape the rising temperature of my body. In that delicious midnight desert air, I started looking at the grilled window displays of closed shops when I came across a piece of paper, like a notice or a memo, pasted on one of the displays. It said something about Delhi I think, but then it increasingly started reading like an old entry of a diary I abandoned in 2011:
It felt like a film. And all of the old Delhi in its nightly beauty seemed like a blur background. Let’s leave it like this. A photograph of sorts. Preserved forever as the present without any distinction of time. Maybe also like a silent film where dialogues come after the moment, sometimes never arriving at all. You hear what I say only after I say it anyway. For my voice in the present belongs only to me. You hear it only after the moment I have actually spoken.
We all belong to different times that way. We cannot escape these timescapes except in instants we do not speak to each other.
I had told my mother where I was but where was I? I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, must have entered that sister-reality I had only read about in books until now. I remember reading about the elevator game on the Internet, where when you press a certain combination of buttons, you might end up in what is called the Otherworld: no one is certain how and why it happens and you can return, but before getting off the elevator you must be entirely certain that this is your own reality; all the other realities will be off by just one detail and you must be careful to not mistake another world for your own.
But just then I saw Ma pull up, and then I don’t remember much. In the morning, I woke up in my own bed, still feeling weak and fragile, still with a fever when I noticed that the morning sunlight which usually falls on my bed now fell on the chair kept in the other corner of the room.
(This was first published in Kindle Magazine, where I write a monthly column titled Neem, Coal Tar on cities and memory, etc.)