This intimate piece about reminiscing and grief titled ‘Honey and Ashes’ was rejected by the ‘Electric Literature’ magazine. Grief has a peculiar quality: it doesn’t rely on understanding. It sets camp in your being, and slowly takes over you like a symbiote. And before you know it, there’s nothing you can be without it, consciously or subconsciously...
A grey dawn. There is only so much that breaks the lull. I remember you, but what does recollection mean at all? You would say, “Memory is the aftertaste of guilt.” And I, crassly mocking your cynicism, would ask you how often you’d swallowed it.
My life has been a loosely-strung necklace of shame, Vera. And so, I write for those who’re ashamed to breathe, guilty of never taking the call, guilty of waiting in a phone-booth with a dead dial-tone while the rain drums the window panes in relentless inquisition.
Vera, I mocked you, but the truth is that I always envied your love for the world and your faith in its promises. Maybe you were right, maybe memory is the aftertaste of guilt – one that burns your throat and leaves you parched. You hungered for love, but your lips would crack from all its salt. You carried the bane of wandering through the ruins of your own heart upon your wrists: always bandaged from the nights you would spend writing mad letters. Now that you are gone, all I’m left with, all I can resort to, is memory.
Memory of nights that were ripe with the scent of Rajnigandha in July, memory of my hand being held as my grandfather walked me to the bookstore, memory of the horror when I realised I’d lost him before he was no more. Truth be told, I have stalled writing about him for a while now, a while, I say, but it’s been over a decade. Of course, I can always say that it’s all fiction, but that’s why one writes at all, isn’t it?
Vera, this story doesn’t come from your world where every ache is a streak of colour across the sky; this story comes from me and my world, one devoid of rain, devoid of cold park benches that you’d etch your hope upon with a thumbtack, in waiting.
* * *
We talk about the world and ourselves as if we were real. But were we ever real, Vera?
Nobody questions it, after all, one is born into it: this idea of reality. Definitives become superseding, we learn that there’s ‘real’ work and ‘reasonable’ dreams. Ambiguity is defined with an iron hand, and limits are guarded by loyal gatekeepers of sanity.
I once tried telling my father about Van Gogh, how he cut off his ear for a whore. You know the strangest thing about judgement? It’s that it claims to draw from morality, but it isn’t ever moral. It didn’t take him a second to discredit his whole life, never wondering about his Starry Nights, never caring about the yellow paint he swallowed in his fevers to paint a sun within his gut. Vera, it is not too late, is it? Is it too late to tell you that I mocked you out of my shame, and nothing else?
* * *
What if we were all just vessels of life, and not life itself ? What if time is nothing but our passage through constants of existence, like a wave, where the water never moves, but the disruption does? Vera, are we merely waves?
* * *
His skin had grown cracked from all his years, his head, bald and smooth, shone like a painful, perfect cage under the tungsten lamp. He was running a fever, so the family was called to assemble. I was seven or eight at the time. He had bitten into the thermometer’s mercury bulb in rage and cut his lip. My mother was looking for beads of mercury on the floor.
He was in a fever, a fever that would either break his body, or liberate his mind. “Free the bird”, he would say in his fits, never abandoning the elegance of his Hindostani. “Free this bird, it’s been caged long enough, it has sung its song!” And he would extend his arm towards the ceiling, the deodar rafters, gazing vacuously into the ether.
The bird couldn’t break out its cage that night, but it sang rebelliously at the brink of its freedom. Years later, I found myself looking at his vacuous eyes again, just this time, there were no words. He had hurt his head the previous morning – brain clots, and we didn’t know until it was too late. In the meanwhile, as his world, the world that he had lived and loved in, disintegrated around him, he caught on a fixation: a fixation to walk up to a window and gaze outside silently. We would try talking to him, but it were as if our faces and voices had long crumbled away into his oblivion. There is something that draws one to a burning house, Dostoyevsky had said. There is a certain pleasure, even rapture in seeing the flames engulf one’s life.
And I held, restrained him while he fought with all his might to walk to the ground glass window and gaze outside. I would be in tears, I knew he was gone for good, that the house had burnt and was now all but ashes. It was the cage, the deodar rafters, the mud plaster fighting me. This time, the bird had already long broken out.
* * *
Vera, this isn’t about grief: for grief can be reasoned with, grief can be appropriated. When you identify feelings this way: grief, joy, even hunger, you resolve half your torment. But what does one do about the want of memory, about eyes and hearts, crosses and pentagrams struck out with sharpies all the same?
The wave traverses, like an air-bubble across a tall jar of honey. I walk through this sea of life, every morning to work, every evening to my apartment, slow as ever, battling its resistance, never knowing what I feel.
* * *
But I know that I am guilty, why is it then that memory fails me? I wonder if you are at the banks of some endless river, and my words: these words from the living world where there are still houses to be set ablaze, from this bottle of honey, reach you like muffled cries. Are the birds really free where you are now? Does your face still catch the light like it did when I found you?
Arsch, 28, has been writing professionally for three years now. He has penned works of creative fiction and non-fiction, including opinion pieces, essays, short stories, poetry and novellas.