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Stories

Mausoleum

By Hridi

Twenty-one months later, Rai[1] arrives in Paris. It is spring and she is here on a pilgrimage of memory. It is not her first time in this city, she has visited it before through the eyes of another: a city bathed in the mellow yellow of an exceptional limestone, chestnut trees abloom beside the Seine, a river green as malachite, the white sleek pleasure boats and the chuffing barges passing under the grave arches of thirty-seven bridges, each distinct from the last, a differently shaped shadow rippling below, connecting over and again the opposites of what divides the city, a people who know the art of touch all too well. Yes, the sights, the smells, all familiar. The spring air smells of her beloved; an enormous peace descends upon her.

Ever since she stepped on the train from the suburbs where she has taken her rooms, she finds herself scanning every face in the metropolitan crowd, every face looking elsewhere, somewhere, lost outside the present of their almost mechanical movements, perhaps like her, seeking another face. Strangely, this feels like home, like the city she left behind many months ago, ostensibly to travel. For all it takes from its inhabitants, a great city gifts them an anonymity that is sacred to the human heart. Therein remains its primary seduction for diversity. Your face becomes a mask of itself. You live, unapologetic, learning to make room for yourself where none exists. Every great city has this air of elsewhere, she concludes. I can already see Rai could live here; it is reminiscent of where she grew up. Yet, today, more than ever before, she is homesick, for the soil, the faces, the lives she tore herself away from.

You wonder how I glance into her heart with such ease. Let me lead you to the answer.

She has your address, half-a name, a few photos. What does it matter? One cannot create what one did not destroy first. She is obeying the laws of physics you joked about nineteen months ago, the laws that would inevitably bring you nearer and nearer. Here she is, touching you almost, a ghost walking beside her, pointing out every other piece of beauty in this city which does not lack of them. You stood here once, your feet touched this pavement, oh god, you stood here! This is where you clicked the photograph you sent her saying, “Remember me.” But she isn’t speaking to you, not yet.

Insecure, naïve, scared, stuck she had been, but mostly scared…terrified… of losing you, the last thread of sanity in a world collapsing around her, screaming into her ears with a deathly consistency, inevitability. You had been her escape, god, how she had escaped… Looking back, she thinks… no, there is no looking back. I almost lost my mind when you left, she would like to say, but… almost, that word… I was living with monsters tearing each other apart. To you, I showed only what I hid from others, and hid from you all that offal the monsters would leave behind at the end of each meal. They knew how to devour a girl of nineteen. The result is her face, at twenty-one, that of an old woman.

But that is an advantage, especially in big cities.

when you left even the stones were buried:

the defenceless would have no weapons.[2]

Her poet knows she remembers every place you promised to show her. It is the city of forgotten promises. She has read every book you ever recommended, watched every movie you spoke of, revisited two languages for you, painted you, cursed you, pleaded with you, desired you, hated you, shattered the boundaries of her known world for you; for the rest of her life, she will celebrate the nineteenth of July as the birthday of her heart; and yet, you are only a ghost who she cannot talk to. But she will, now that she has reached your city. Tomorrow she will talk to you. Tonight, she will write for the first time in twenty-one months. Through the dim lights of the small window of the suburban apartment, you will see her typing away. She will write again.

The painting earlier this morning made her think of God. This is not unusual, merely the first impact of a Monet painting on one who has only seen photographs all her life. Remember the poems she would translate for you? She reads them sometimes now, searching for mistakes. Her innocence makes me laugh, her capacity for love is adorable. It is what she will write about.

Why did you introduce all those new words in her mind? That was a mistake. Didn’t you know words are a writer’s biggest fear? Well, you can see the result for yourself, aren’t you happy? That she forgot how to write, that she mixes up alphabets of three different scripts every time she picks up the pen, trying to find a language that will make you answer. But you tricksters play on…

This city is a mausoleum of your memory. This is the first line she writes. The rest of the night is spent weeping between fits of sleep. You watch on, right outside the window. I watch you watch.

It is still very dark when Rai finds herself irretrievably awake. A faint fragrance of some spring blossom is wafting in through the half-open window. It is light by the time she reaches the small station; the air is crisp as the ticket in her hand, the cold from the river making her button up her coat. Today she will walk beside the Seine.

Many have said that the soul of Paris flows in the green waters of the Seine. Obviously, those fools know nothing about souls. Souls do not flow away, they haunt.

The yellow aura of the buildings is enhanced in the pale morning light, the river dappled in the golden, the empty promenade inviting. Later in the day the tourists and hawkers will crowd this part of the city, but it is yet hers, all hers. A few joggers and some sleepless ones as her claim the early hours.

She starts walking from the tower towards Musée d’Orsay along the river. You walk behind her, slightly unsure. On this morning you realise this city entwined itself in her personal history long before you arrived. It wounds your pride, shakes your confidence in her fidelity. The artworks hanging in that building yonder have been the pursuit of her fascination for almost a decade now. You knew it, if fact, that is where you met, in a shared longing of elsewhere, of nostalgia for a world you were never a part of.

In senior school math, they taught that for an equation to have real solutions, one must apply constraints. But within the parentheses of those limits exist an infinity of choice. Remembrance is a choice. Her math tutor from school, the old man with the twinkling eyes, would insist mathematics is the purest form of poetry. How long has it been since she remembered him? What is the pollen in this air that brings back the past so lovingly?

The path Rai traces, to a viewer like me, appears most comical. But I’ve been around here long enough to know lunacy is the mother of imagination, it afflicts the seekers more often than you would think. Sometimes she walks beside the river, sometimes climb the stairs to cross a bridge that fancies her, then strolls again along the other bank, as if her wandering steps cannot have enough of the novelty of a river joined with such frequency, such care. In her culture, the poets have sung for centuries of the two banks of a river as lovers separated in togetherness, together in separation. This far from home, the metaphor revisits her.

My memory is again in the way of your history2. A city with a history of over two millennia, glorious in this spring, what does it care of your unrequited love, foolish girl? Yet she would repeat under her breath these lines from her favourite poet. He spoke of war, of a heritage blown to bits overnight, over years, preserved in the memory of its refugees; how interchangeable is it with the torn love she carries with such grace? Foolish as she is, I think I am getting quite fond of her stubbornness.

And you! I almost forgot your apparition there, caught in watching her too. What are you sulking about? Quick, she is walking towards the Pont des Arts. Wicked rogue, won’t you play her once on the love lock bridge of clichés? She is standing at the centre now, spread before her the split halves of tremendous urban life, speeding fast in the midday heat; on either side, decades of forgotten promises caught in iron, rusted, locked away. She bends to inspect the locks. Even as you rush ahead to play your game, you turn back and shout at me, “You are wrong, it is a cliché only if you win in love.” Through the strong breeze on the bridge, I try to make myself heard: “So much for your words, go close enough if you dare and she will speak to you.” I think you heard me. The plan works. On one of these locks, Rai discovers her own name, a single name, a word, perhaps echoed in rust from decades of a solitary namesake on the same bridge, but that staunch heart knows what it wants to believe. Who will save her? You are close enough to touch her now, and she senses you. When you have spied on people’s secret lives for as long as I have, you tend to expect melodrama. But Rai, travelled across twenty-one months of quiet longing, is not surprised. You have appeared before her on fretful nights, sweat-stained afternoons, rainy mornings, in songs, in tears, in sudden joy, in sunshine, in broken shadows of grief, in the citadel she has built for you, how can she not expect you? She is narrating a story now, the story of what her name, written on that lock, means.

It was the one of the first fables of love ever fabricated in her part of the world. Centuries old. The story of a woman who falls in love to the music of a cowboy she has never laid her eyes on. Their illicit love-making becomes the whisper of the land. With the passing years, the musician in the boy slowly succumbs to the warrior in the man, who eventually gets crowned in a country far away. Rai is left waiting; music is not so easily forgotten. Like all classics, this too is of unrequited love.

The lazy warmth of the afternoon has brought out many on the promenade. Sunning away, relaxing with beers, some sitting alone, some in picnics; in the little island of Île de la Cité, a band of young jazz enthusiasts blow into their trumpets; the flowers compliment the myriad soft colours on all dresses: the Seine is the frame of happiness. I watch the two of you stroll, a happy couple, woman and ghost, breathing in the Spring you promised her not so long ago. Grief is the kindest of opiates, it dissolves in its own fantasia. Tonight, with all the walking, she will need some wine. The cheap wine of this tired evening will put her to sleep. You do not have to sing lullabies, but pray, lie down beside her. Let her hold in her palm the ghost of your erect manhood, rest her head against the illusion of your chest. In you, she desires sleep so in her sleep she may desire you, consummate a mirage. Do not stay outside.

It is night yet when she leaves. “The Frog & British Library” glows in its ironic neon, the streetlights halo in the clear blue hour. The Pont de Tolbiac stoops groggily over the ultramarine blue of the water pregnant with shimmering reflections: the illumined buildings, the barges anchored at the edge, the symmetrical reflections from the arch of the next bridge, perhaps (she fancies), the last of the stars too. The beauty of this night stings her eyes with an almost physical pain. She is thinking of you, of what remains of what you were.

I’m everything you lost. You won’t forgive me.

My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.

There is nothing to forgive. You won’t forgive me.2

Her poet is speaking again. Yes, she is here to ask for your forgiveness. She has left everything behind, for nothing ahead, in this long, long solitary journey only to ask for your forgiveness. Forgiveness for naïveté, for insensitivity, for distance, for loving with more sincerity than a heart bears without protest. The little crystal she wears around her neck on a string, she believes it has a beauty she does not deserve, like you, who loved her more for the magnanimous reflection in your kindness than her own small artless self. Your absence fills the air above the deep blue Seine like a forgotten god of this city that is yours. The semi-circle of these lanterns shiver beneath her like a pantheon of answers. Hope costs nothing, you told her once, and that is how she dared. To cross an ocean for you. The boatmen of this world speak of riches on the opposite bank, her voyage was merely to free the emptiness of her claustrophobic heart, restless, restless, oh, ever so restless. Perhaps, and I speak only as the outsider who inhabits you both, you should forgive her now.

Years ago, on summer nights, her grandmother would tell her the story of the boy who dived into the bottomless pond in the middle of the desert to salvage the pink pearl. The next morning, the villagers found a banyan tree at the centre of the pond, its roots vanishing into the fathomless. Legend says every full moon night, the heart of the boy cries for the pearl, and in the morning, a new column is added to the mass of hanging roots, a stream of condensed tears feeding the pond. Thus grew the desert city of Ehsaan around an oasis of endless fertility.

The blue is beginning to fade, a turquoise haze envelopes the bridge, the barge, the lamps, her; from the horizon, a faint blush rises, spreading softly over the sky. It is still night, the crescent moon still in bloom, but the last scattered stars are evasive now.

If only somehow you could have been mine,

what would not have been possible in the world?2

Suddenly, the streetlights go off. In this instant, dawn has arrived. The sky transits less hastily. The city of her beloved is waking up. A bus awaits to take her where she came from, through fields of uniformly shaven colour- yellow, green, brown, waves of symmetry upon a calm earth. A piece of this calm resides in her now, the river has doused the fire scourging her insides. Something has healed.

She will return. I, the Seine, rushing past a million lives, over a hundred thousand springs heartbreakingly beautiful, have promised to save the pink pearl in my bosom until then.


[1] Another name of Radha, the beloved of the divine cowherd Krishna

[2] Excerpted from “Farewell” by Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

Hridi is an Indian writer currently based in Belgium. Her works have previously appeared in AainanagarContemporary Literary Review IndiaModern Literature, The Piker Press and Across the Margin, among others.

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Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Dinosaurs in France

Eiffel Tower Paris. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I am still confused as to how many continents there are. Is Oceania the same as Australasia? Do North and South America count as two or just one? Is Antarctica a proper continent and not just a frozen phoney? What about the subcontinent of India? Does that count as half, quarter, or some other fraction? What continent does Greenland belong to? And the islands of the mid Atlantic, what about them?

When I was younger the issue was simpler. There were six continents, Africa, America, Asia, Australasia, Europe and Great Britain. There was absolutely no doubt that Britain was separate from Europe geographically and spiritually. In fact, the mainland of Europe was the continent and things that came from it were ‘continental’ and mostly malodorous, quilts and kisses on the hand being exceptions.

In Europe people did peculiar things; they spread chocolate on bread for breakfast and melted cheese in communal pots in the evenings. Or so it was said. Europe was a place of mystery, a patchwork of suspense, and crossing its multifarious internal borders wasn’t likely to be easy. If you had to travel there, a large vulcanite suitcase that could be plastered with triangular destination labels was the minimum requirement. Better not to go at all! The greasy food, cooked in nasty olive oil, was certain to upset your stomach. And there were yodellers.

My great childish dream back then was to build a raft and paddle it to France. There were enough fallen trees in the forest near my home to provide wood for the construction. France seemed an incredibly exotic destination and my enthusiasm was increased rather than diminished when I was told that dinosaurs existed there. They had become extinct everywhere else but still flourished in France. Thus, I couldn’t wait to drag my raft ashore and encounter my first stegosaurus. Other lies that adults told me about France included the assertion that the Eiffel Tower was something that horses jumped over in the Grand National. Having no idea what a ‘Grand National’ was I felt only a vague sense of awe. It was many years before I learned that it is a horse race famous for being dangerous to horses and for the ludicrous hats worn by upper class drunken women who watch it and chortle.

Adults in those days told outrageous untruths as a matter of course. It was an accepted part of life. I grew up in an environment where no one said anything sensible but instead would make the most absurd statements with a straight face. It was an uncle who claimed that France was jammed with dinosaurs. He also informed me that we were living in Australia, not Britain, but that everyone else would try to trick me into thinking it was Britain and that they were all in the joke together and I shouldn’t believe them. The truth of the matter, he added, was that Britain was a fiction, it didn’t exist, or it had sunk beneath the sea, it was a joke or a memory and nothing more. This was Australia and when he was my age, he had made a raft, from twigs, and sailed it around the world and started a successful property business with a gorilla in a jungle.

And he told me that he once pulled the plug out of the bath while he was still in it and got sucked down the hole and ended up at the bottom of the sea where he lived in a gigantic air bubble with a dolphin who taught him dolphin language and how to make crêpes. None of this was said in a joking manner but in a tone of utter seriousness. Everyone was like this. The postman once told me that he lived in a marshmallow house and was terrified of lightning strikes because the heat would alter the flavour of his roof and that people were taxed on the flavours of their roofs, so for him it was a major concern that his tiles weren’t toasted.

One of my favourite absurdities concerned the International Date Line. Because Australia was so many hours in the future, people who lived there (like ourselves) could phone relatives in Europe with the results of football matches, horse races and boxing competitions that hadn’t yet happened, enabling those relatives to make a big profit at the betting shop. These European relatives could then phone America to pass on the same information, enabling friends over there to also make money through betting. However, because of the Date Line it wasn’t possible for America to do any such favours for any countries west of them. In other words, America took but didn’t give, and as a consequence, was building up a large debt to the rest of the world.

One day all the other nations of the world, all those living in a future time relative to America, would form an alliance and invade America and loot all its treasures in retaliation. I am fairly sure it was one of my schoolteachers who told me all this. Even supposedly ‘responsible’ adults liked to be ridiculous in a blasé manner and play jokes on children. I remember one outing to a pond in a park as part of a nature class. We were required to sketch any animals that we might encounter, and, in my mind, I can still see the teacher crouching over a child’s sketch pad and pointing to a duck that was paddling slowly on the water.

“What it that, boy?”

“A duck, sir.”

“No, boy, it’s a fish.”

“But it has a beak and wings, sir!”

“Yes, but it has a tail too. Can’t you see the tail? Fish have tails, don’t they? That means it’s a fish. Draw it exactly as you see it and write the word ‘fish’ under the drawing and tomorrow I will hand your work to the headmaster so he can form a judgment of your educational progress and I am sure the result will interest him.”

That’s how life was in Britain when I was younger. Practical jokes and getting other people into trouble for the purposes of comedy was standard behaviour. If you didn’t tell amusing fabrications then you were regarded as rather odd, dubious even, a spoilsport and also, perhaps, a saboteur or foreigner. I would look at adults in the street and wonder if any of them were French and on familiar terms with dinosaurs.

Then everything changed and the countries and cultures of Europe became much more accessible. Going to Paris, Madrid or Lisbon for a weekend took no more effort than visiting Weymouth, Blackpool or Margate. In fact, it usually took less effort. I began to genuinely feel like a European citizen, something generally considered not feasible for a British fellow, but I am Welsh, not English, and the Welsh, who are the original Britons, are hardly British. To feel European required only my desire and acquiescence, and I had that desire and yes, I was willing to acquiesce. Feeling European wasn’t an option denied to me at that time and I never thought it would be, at least not until plate tectonics reformed the continents and Europe ceased to physically exist.

It sounds ludicrously obvious, but it still apparently needs to be said. Britain isn’t a continent by itself. That was just a childhood myth, similar to the story that if you swallow an apple pip a tree will grow inside you, and in fact I once deliberately swallowed many pips in order to have an orchard in my stomach and never grow hungry. I would only have to jump up and down at mealtimes for the fruit to fall from the branches. Because the fruit was already in my stomach, actually eating it would be unnecessary. It seemed such a wonderful solution that I couldn’t work out why everyone didn’t do it. I supposed that maybe adults didn’t really like convenience. But no, we can’t have trees growing inside us. And sadly, dolphins don’t know how to make crêpes.

Politely we call such things myths. They are deceits, of course. But the world seems to have gone back in time. Travelling abroad is truly difficult again, impossible in many instances. I spend my days bewailing the reversal. I have started wondering if my old plan of building a raft might be my best option of leaving these shores and visiting other lands. There might be dangerous dinosaurs off the coast of France, those long-necked plesiosaurs, but I will take a big detour around them. I will steer by the light of the stars and satisfy my hunger by eating the walls of my marshmallow cabin. Everything will work out fine.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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Categories
Slices from Life

Baudelaire and Paris

By Sunil Sharma

Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877. 

I

Modern Paris was discovered by Baudelaire in his avatar as the flaneur. And Walter Benjamin made this figure intellectually respectful as a field of study.

In a recent visit to Paris, I hovered between two allied states of being a flaneur and a gawking tourist. I had come as a sightseer from Mumbai, India, allured by the tales and well-crafted image of a mythic Paris, drinking in the street flavours on those May days, passively registering the wide monuments and boulevards and palaces and towers in one clean and clear sweep — almost like a wide-angle shot in a Stanley Kubrick film. Spring had set in and the Paris of May 2014 was full of eager tourists from nations as wide apart as China and the USA; Africa and Middle East and Latin America. A bouquet of the ethnicities strung together.

Then, I became a flaneur, making a neat switch, in a single instant.

I became Baudelaire.

Different terms can make you look differently at a similar set of things or a common setting.

Of course, I did not have the urge to write a new millennium version of The Flowers of Evil. At best, you can parody a sacred text but you cannot re-write it, howsoever Borges-like you might be.

I am neither of the two.

Like Mallarme and Verlaine, you can carry forward an idea by expanding it further but cannot imitate with complete fidelity to the original.

So, not in a mood for a cheap replication of a master praised by Proust so profusely, I took on the stance of a flaneur and became a connoisseur of the street-life.

Was it possible?

Assuming the role of a figure long dead or supposed to be dead? Replaced by a tourist? Solo or in a group?

Armed with a camera or a cell phone, in casuals, the modern tourist — guided by brochures and online information and a city map — looks at the urban skyline vicariously familiarized by prior research. Or, could it be at a professional polyglot guide spewing bits and pieces of history like a typical street performer or an amateur actor? A mass tourist consuming the city, architecture, culture, food, arts and clothes — public life — in a predictable way and sequence largely decided by the tourist industry. A few breaks are possible in that routine.

But to resurrect the role and agency of the classic flaneur, you have to take on a different position and way of seeing.

And what was that?

I could not become a dandy—detached, arrogant, inheritor of a small fortune, an idler walking a tortoise on a Paris street of the nineteenth century. Even if I had the means, I could get arrested for an act of animal cruelty!

Those were different times!

So what can be done?

The clues lie in The Flowers of Evil, perhaps.

Will this title be acceptable today? With changing definitions of evil? With life becoming more liberal and open?

Baudelaire was a dandy and a cultivated flaneur—the painter of modern life; a gentleman stroller of the city streets. Part of, yet apart from, the crowds.

But then, not every dandy is a flaneur and every flaneur, a dandy?

Again, dandy is a historical invention, a social-engineering, manufacturing of a social type for a particular age.

Perhaps, a metro-sexual male, now no longer fashionable.

Is he a voyeur?

Perhaps, we all are, given the nature of our society.

Or, a keen participant, an acute observer, a chronicler?

For me, the answer lies in the personality of Charles Baudelaire who in turn was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. But that would be complicating things further.

Let us stick to our central figure Baudelaire. His genius lies in radicalizing the trope of the French flaneur. A theme that fascinated Walter Benjamin who, in the twentieth century, tried to essay the same role performed so well by Baudelaire in the industrialized Paris of the nineteenth century. The former could not capture the underlying passion of Baudelaire in this unfinished project.

In fact, by the late 1990s and start of the 21st century, author-flaneur proved an impossible figure.

Market forces, on global level, have incorporated author as a producer of kitsch or dystopia. Dissidents were slowly and subtly disenfranchised.

We are all sellers!

Baudelaire resisted this initial process in Paris. Beckett was next. Sartre and Camus too tried.

Then the flow stopped.

The Flowers of Evil mounts a challenge to the order and morality of the Second Republic.

The poems challenge the bourgeois morality and conception of order and beauty and aesthetics in a radical way. The book talks of evil and implies that the source of evil lies in its origins — capitalism.

In that simple gesture of observing, participating, recording of street life, Baudelaire liberates himself from his historical position and becomes a true artist. By talking of prostitutes and vampires, the poet shows the underbelly of capitalism. His creations provide the material basis for highlighting these themes and give credence to outcasts from the system that feed on the blood of the innocent and the gullible.

The Flowers of Evil is the greatest indictment of the French bourgeoisie by a person deeply embedded in it as a bourgeois but a radical one that unveils the brutal face of a system that once talked of revolutionary slogan of liberty, equality, fraternity!

An evil society can produce evil flowers!

Vampires are for real!

II

That Baudelaire had not died in 2014 was proven on a street near the Eiffel Tower on that memorable trip.

A Roma girl, bold and audacious, stole my son’s cell phone from his shirt pocket. She returned it after a cop intervened.

I could smell evil in the air. The disenfranchised and the ethnic Roma are still the threat — like the prostitute and the vampire, the perpetual outsiders.

The Paris of Baudelaire is not safe.

The shoot-out at the Charlie Hebdo proves that.

The vampires are out.

This time round, Baudelaire the flaneur has disappeared. There is no one to warn us of these sinister presences.

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Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
For more details of publications, please visit the link below:
http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/
. This story was first published in Scarlet Leaf Review.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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