Wednesday, May 28, 2008

NO ROOM TO BREATHE (Complete)

“I wish I could save you.”

“But you did.”

The idea was simple. Go to a sleepy town. Find a cheap but clean hotel room. Sit by the window and wait.

Things would have worked just fine, had a pair of wayward feet not led me to the tiny book shop in the alley across the window. What can one do when the rooms with a view of the valleys and mountains are not really inexpensive. But neither were the books. Reading the complimentary ‘paperback’ Bible, strategically placed under the pillow might not have redeemed my soul, but saved me a few crumpled notes. So, I went back to sitting and waiting, with my back to the window.

The room was a green box set in a double timbered frame that smelt of mould and orchids. The net curtains, carpet, bed cover were all green with large floral prints. I recalled reading about the patronage of such patterns by the Soviets. The patterns somehow assisted in bugging rooms; not of much use in this tiny dot of red sloping roofs with rainfall overflowing the station master’s gauge upon the eastern edge of the Himalayas. Or perhaps, half a century ago a Japanese soldier had seen the tears of an abducted girl melt in front of the candle wick and left the green room with his muddy footprints on the giant green flowers as a reminder of her good luck.

I closed my eyes and the newly purchased second-hand Ishiguro.

That morning had been a rare rainy November morning with an ominous beginning, right from the decision to wear the new Converse shoes to choosing the ITO bridge. Now the shoes bit with the vengeance of a crocodile fed on soy chunks and a truck decided to unload its merchandise of a hundred kilos of cabbage right in the middle of Delhi’s rush hour traffic, managing to crush two men into a vegetative state and my hopes of making it to the 10 ‘o clock meeting.

It ended with a skeleton popularly known as Death masquerading as my editor in ill-fitting denims, demanding my presence at the garage sale of another bored socialite’s hobby classes. At least there would be free white wine and no byline, both rescuing my self-esteem from the very real threat of complete annihilation. I plugged in Prince’s essential collection and got downright busy playing Hangman. But wait, Death was fast approaching and I was stuck at _E_OI_ when the lightweight skeleton slips right on my red desk and starts talking while playing with the green cue chalk I use as paper weight. Not that it does a good job, it’s just that I don’t have much paper. And, I refuse to hear what she is saying, choosing to hear crying doves over orders for what would be another trip to another corner of the city to collect press releases printed on glossy paper praising another designer range of incense candles with hidden healing powers.

Maybe there was a knocking on the door that woke me up, but if indeed there was someone, he was long gone.

The room was dark and it was raining slowly and sarcastically, as if the sky was leaking and everyone wanted to let the world rot, than plug the black sky. Maybe I can blame the power cut but I knew I had packed a black jacket and a scarf, and that I will go see them play at Hideaway Tavern. Another room with a pretentious English name, plastic cues and varnished mock wooden panels displaying the exploits of a yellow submarine and silky textured underground. The place was not yet crowded and I took a seat the furthest from where the equipment lay entangled in wires but closest to the bar. The drums were missing. A baby piano had made an expected entry.

And they played while we drank. And they sang while we cried. And they prayed while we clapped. And they watched while I ran away.

Run away, you say, run.

Balancing the phone between my shoulder and left cheek, hearing the monotonous ringing, and cleaning the green powder of the cue chalk I was digging from under the half-moons of my over grown nails, I hoped the person who answers will be more than happy to feed me the details of the new assignment. Of course nobody answered and two hours later I arrived at an auditorium I had never heard of, for an event I had not heard of; thanks to Prince. This time there were no polished PR agents with bad English to greet me, so I dial the number again but I don’t bother to wait for anyone to answer as I had spotted brilliantly done up bikes with 'Free Tibet' prominently displayed. I make my way to the white canvas tent, returning nearly a hundred smiles to sit on the green grass with a colorful milieu of monks and Tibetan students. Finally a leaflet reaches me and I know I am attending a spiritual speech by the Dalai Lama.

I start speaking to students around me, feverishly writing down their responses till the phone rings and it’s a familiar unknown number.

“Hi Tsering, I needed some information from you. I am reporting on…” I manage to spurt out before he cuts me off, “Oh yes, of course, I am waiting for you at the gate, where are you?”

“Oh, but I am already seated. Why don’t we meet after the speech ends?”

“Yes… yes,” he answers.

By the time I found Tsering who was surrounded by some twenty Tibetan youths, I already had over a dozen interviews scribbled over my notepad. He swiftly cut away from the little crowd and greeted me with a firm handshake. He thanked me for our active interest in their cause before he answered my questions in his trademark soft whisper with feverish hand gestures and a hesitant smile never leaving the face.

When your mother tongue has been ruthlessly escorted out with you, learning a colonial tongue just to communicate with a world that otherwise cruelly refuses to acknowledge you becomes another forfeit. You learn to speak its language, but with contempt that never allows your tongue to betray the mother tongue. And so Tsering spoke in his peculiar accent that I came to impersonate out of adoration over a million cups of hot tea on his yellow cot.

By the time I reached the hotel, I was drenched and the old men playing Dominoes at the reception could not make the tears from the rain drops. The books were still lying on the bed, reminding me of destiny’s wheel circling faster than ever to reach the destination called my sin.

The photograph on the poster in the bookshop was one of the many I had taken, when Pipe Dreams had played at a local Blue’s festival at my favourite watering hole. Again the plastic panels sketched out the family tree of lyrical gods from decades ago, supporting new boys singing about another revolution that will never come, but for the suffocating by lanes of Majnu ka Tilla and the apathy of generations wrapped in a quilt of lost dreams.

“The funny thing is, don’t tell anyone, I am actually a royal descendant of one of the tribes.” A hushed whisper in the front seat of my moving car made me burst out with laughter.

“Yes, the Chinese have installed a spy cam right here, in the eyes of Lord Ganesha.” I said pointing towards the tiny yellow God affixed with super glue on my dashboard by an anxious mother. He didn’t laugh.

“Alright… where are we going, if I dare ask, risking of course the Chinese following us.” I asked.

“To the restaurant’s Opening, Choedan is very excited but some more furniture just arrived and it is out on the road and I need to put it in very soon.” he replied.

“Does the girlfriend know I am invited too,” I asked trying hard but failing to not sound playful.

“Of course, a journalist at the opening! Why do you think she is excited?” he quipped.

Tsering, the student of literature, spends more time writing worthless subversive songs than writing papers on Joyce and Boyle. Tsering, the waiter, spends more time discussing soccer with his employer and bandmate than serving beef dim sums to the empty tables. Tsering, the activist, spends more time cleaning a shrine to the holiness atop a wooden stool in his room than preaching radical ideas to fellow comrades at the Tibetan Youth Congress.

But, just like life, Death need not bother, so the tenets of Buddhism being the antidote to cosmopolitan poisons, interspersed with quotes from the leaflet was ordered and before it could be buried in a corner column a brave attempt to chat over cigarettes and coffee was made.

“I already have the material… if you don’t like it, trash it, but at least let it be written.” I presented my case and a pack of cigarettes.

A week later between five cups of coffee and a new pack of Bensons, a death warrant was issued.

“NO! Still, there is some potential here. How about the whole mysterious ethnic culture thing… some stuff that can be turned into, you know like the Chinese coins Feng shui thing or origami or chandelier earrings or… yes, the food… you know move over Chinese, undiscovered little joints selling whatever it is that they eat, or music and the films, didn’t Brad Pitt do one on them?”

“I think I’ll just do Janpath, a hot kitten heels thing,” I tried my luck knowing well that this time I had tightened the noose myself.

“Really? Kitten heels? ...haven’t seen them around much.”

I don’t know what was tougher; allowing Tsering to be my enthusiastic guide or hiding the guilt on my face from the profuse thank-yous showered by his grateful peers. By the time ‘Shangri La is Hot’ appeared, the cue chalk and note pad were gone and I was free from the clutches of Death. And, as for Tsering I convinced him I had done my part of research for an earth shattering political piece being done by a senior editor and he must wait, patiently.

After playing Writing to Reach You, they told us he had been missing for nearly six months before his room mate of two years stumbled upon his pictures and a death certificate in his name on the internet. The photographs showed he was shot in the back of his head along with six more prisoners, while a small crowd cheered the firing squad.

“Only six! And your family let you go.” I asked, watching intently a bead of sweat form on his stomach. The single turn-table, left behind by the old occupant of the yellow barsati, just above Sonam’s little restaurant in Garhi had only one Grateful Dead vinyl to play, but I didn’t mind as long as the clutter of the community kitchen next door didn’t disturb me.

“It was my mom’s idea,” he said attempting to sound nonchalant. “You must understand, there is nothing left for us, no education, no songs, no god, no devil, only poverty.”

“Will you ever go back?” I asked knowing well there was no answer to this question.

“I haven’t spoken to her in twenty years.”

The first time Tsering tried to kiss me, I punched him in the chest. The second time, he told me Choedan is gone and he received no weak punches.

“You are just using me.” I blew smoke into his ear with the cigarette butt threatening to burn his eye through one of the sockets.

“Use? You can’t even stand the sight of raw meat, let alone cook pork.” He pinched my chin leaving the imprint of two joined commas from his index fingernails.

“I know your plans, marry an Indian, get a passport, all of you. Remember what that lady doctor with her Tibetan medicine clinic said, I am not Tibetan, I am an Indian. Of all people...she?!!”

“Aren’t you clever," he said.

“I wish I could save you,” I teased him, tickling his moist stomach.

“It’s not your job to save me,” He said before kissing my gaping mouth shut.

With a new job at a news channel, the only spare time was late nights, which were exploited well in the back seats of old and new friends, and Tsering’s songs were reduced to a distant buzzing on the horizon. Surprisingly, he did not clutch at the strings of my lies or linger on after his number was deleted from the phonebook. Once, he invited me to Mc Leodganj, where he was going for the funeral of his school headmaster. My silence ensured he wouldn’t contact me again.

I had fallen asleep on the bed with my wet shoes still strapped to my tired feet. I woke up with a sore throat and heart. I ordered tea in the room but drank only the warm milk. I stared at the bookshop till a third sugar cube had melted on my tongue. I decided not to find the grey stone bearing his name. There would be no body below it, just wet soil, even that which was not his to claim.

When Sonam spotted me in the corner last night and made his way through the maze of chairs and broken beer bottles, I ran out the door, up the hill, till I ran out of breath. Arunachal had been the state they had crossed into more than two decades ago. It had been the first home to the six year old refugees. Unlike Tsering, Sonam’s parents were already in exile and they took in Tsering like a second son. The yellowed, dog-eared picture taken in Hamburg, when both the boys had played in a friendly match of football as members of the National team of Tibet, was always found in Tsering’s wallet. The team never played again. A customary diplomatic reprimand was issued by the Chinese Consulate in Berlin, as was a new black-list by the Chinese government in Beijing. Maybe it was the photograph, or maybe Tsering had tried meeting his mother in Tibet.

I know you must be busy… it’s just that… I am leaving. I am going to Taiwan.

It was early morning and I had not even taken off my stilettos when I snapped open the phone the instant it vibrated in my hand, expecting to read a dirty goodnight message.

“Don’t do something stupid. Please promise me, you won’t try to go to China, I mean Tibet. Fuck… I am serious. How much more do you want to study? Study here… why Taiwan?” I could not have waited for a couple of hours and called him right away, afraid that it might already be too late.

“I can make a lot more money there. And no... I won’t do anything illegal, except maybe play football… with the neighbours,” he chuckled and I pictured his mischievous grin and the tiny slits of his eyes narrowing, just a tiny bit.

“Take care of yourself and do write to me sometime.” I replied while something heavy crawled up my voice-box.

“I… I have to go now… umm… you get back to sleep now. I will write… I promise… it’s… it’s just that I don’t have your mail id."

“I wish I could save you.”

“But you did.”