I was smoking a cigarette lying on the sands of the Thar when I heard, or remembered, a Rajasthani folk song in which a woman is telling other people, most likely her female friends, about how she could have died the night before when an enemy scorpion bit her. (In the desert, after all, there are scorpions who are friends.) Her lover takes her to the vaidya, and when he asks for money, the lover offers to pay in gold coins.
We don’t know what happened to the couple after this, whether they remained together forever in the house they must have traced on this same sand where I was lying, looking at the smoke from my mouth disappear upwards somewhere. How will archaeologists find these houses of sand that disappeared with wind centuries ago, leaving no trace except in songs, in landscape, in bodies which, we always knew, also carry memories of times that were and that will be?
Still on the sand, I imagined a romantic scene where I get up to go to one of these smaller post offices, and send a letter that only says “Poetry, because history doesn’t recover enough.”
Who would I send this letter to? Certainly not to my mother, who would laugh at my pretentiousness; nor to my friends, who would probably not understand. It would have to be one of the lovers, real or imaginary, who like me enough and don’t know me enough. But then I closed my eyes, and tried to feel the smoke inside me, which a moment later would be as if it were not, but it would remain in my lungs, near my heart, continuing to alter and damage the chain that binds me. It will be in me long after it has disappeared, like the sound of a bell, or the face of an old man in a photograph.
I tried also to listen more carefully, by now I was sure that someone was actually singing, not too far away but far enough to be invisible. The person—I couldn’t quite tell from the voice if it was male or female—was singing a song I’d only heard my mother sing before: a love song lamenting the lover’s absence, asking the kurjan to carry her message to a lover who is far away, perhaps somewhere the kurjan travels to.
Kurjan. When did someone give demoiselle cranes a local name, I wondered, and what does the word mean? How did they know that these cranes, which they saw every winter, covered a great distance to be here? What does a great distance mean anyway? Anywhere you can’t reach, however close it might be, is too far. Like yesterday, or across the border.
Now I could hear the ravanahatha, whose melancholic sound, I always thought, seemed to travel from another, older time, when the desert had water, the muslin weavers their hands, and the air your perfume. When the song—yes, someone was singing again—of Moomal and Mahendra was not yet a song but a life. How would either of them have answered Gilgamesh’s immortal question:
What have you known of loss
That makes you different from other men?
Don’t ask me to retell my pain, he said.
Who said? Mahendra? Or someone else? I don’t know. Don’t ask me to retell my pain. You must remember that even when I was with you, the sight of happy couples made me uncomfortable. I never understood why, but today, listening to the tragic love song, I thought about my body, which was half sand, and that it perhaps remembers all the unrequited loves of this land, all the kisses that were forced here, all the children born of loveless marriages.
Don’t ask me to retell my pain. We sing these ancient songs of grief because we can’t retell and because we can’t forget. When Kublai Khan mentions that Marco Polo still hasn’t spoken about Venice, he says, and I remember word to word, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”
In Kolkata’s Park Street, there’s a restaurant called Moulin Rouge. Inside the bar, there’s a mural of Paris’s Boulevard de Clichy that looks like Kolkata’s Esplanade. The woman singing the tragedy of Moomal and Mahendra is singing about herself. Every time I am with someone, I am with you. You are implicit.
The woman had long stopped singing. I remained there for a long time, feeling my sorrows seep into the landscape coloured endlessly gold.
(this was first published in Kindle Magazine, where I write a monthly column on cities and memory titled Neem, Coal Tar.)