LOOKING AT THE mammoth spot-lit ads for chubby babies and running shoes, he feels very far from home. When he imagines talking to his son, the voice isn’t right. Too stern. Or too soft.
They haven’t spoken for three years – after their fight in a room hung with photos of the family younger and rosier. The boy had said, You have no nerves, and flung the full plate of his dinner against a wall. The father had said, You mean I don’t have the nerve, you idiot. But then anger sparked in his brain too and he said, Get out of here. His wife wiped her nose and laid out more food as if some bird had flown off with a child’s dinner. She had ruined him with adoration. They’d been arguing about money – son for, father against, mother inconsolable. And here he is now where the billboards are aglow with wealth.
He peers out into the night through the large bus window, trying to read the road signs. The address, which had seemed self-evident to him when he’d noted it down from his son’s email, now feels quite irrelevant. He knows the name of the place but it is a signal he’s looking for. A large gang, all young men and women with laptops in backpacks and none of his nervousness, get off at the following stop and he does likewise. He senses he is near and, besides, there are rickshaws. The night outside the air-conditioned bus is warm, scented with eucalyptus trees and the fumes from a biryani restaurant. The driver of the first passing rickshaw he asks looks nonplussed for a moment, and then agrees to take him to Gundu Circle.
The poet feels a moment of relief. He hasn’t written poems for a while but now contemplates one. He’s seeing his son after three years and is not sure he wants to. The invitation to a reading in Bangalore, the sudden light in his wife’s eyes, and the ensuing pleading. Meet him? I should send him a bill of accounts – that he would appreciate, said the poet. You don’t understand, answered his wife. Who speaks to him on the phone every week? Who can hear the great big hollow in his voice?
So a reunion was engineered and the boy sent an email saying: I am alone in a villa, come and stay with me for as long as you like. The poet replied as tersely. Coming to read my poems. Can meet you for dinner. And then he signed – love, Baba.
Less than a minute later he regretted that word. It burned in him like the memory of the curry dripping off the dining room wall. He consoled himself with Shakespeare. What’s gone and what’s past help should be past grief. He examined his son’s note again. I am alone, it said. Come.
The rickshaw judders under him as he thinks with dissatisfaction of his day. The poetry was mediocre all round. Delivering his own lines he sensed their lightness and wished he’d put on a finer shirt or had Tagore’s beard. This is literature, he thought. Poetry’s never grander than the life of the poet. He’d felt dazed, as if some treasured thing had turned on close inspection to dust and air. On the podium, a lady weighed down with silk declared: No one remembers the date of my date of birth and that is a good thing. Animals, trees, the earth and the sky don’t have a date of birth. Literature is bodies and voices, thought the poet. A tall man towers over the rest and a sweet-faced woman’s words go a longer way. Over lunch the poets discussed their liver problems and children’s careers. He brought up the subject of his unpublished manuscript so he could get advice from the superior ones. They were sympathetic but no one said – I’ll help. So he focused on his lunch and ate more than necessary.
He is still uncomfortably full and soon there will be dinner over which he has little to say to his son. Something like a line of poetry tugs at his tired mind, the idea that he has no word for his wordlessness. They keep driving – a hospital or two looking oddly radiant, like monuments to pain – finally reaching some kind of circle at which the traffic is ranged on every side, straining at its leash. As soon as he alights he is helpless again, the lefts and rights he has painfully transcribed from his son’s directions meaningless to him in this brightly lit, howling island of the night.
THE POET STARES at a glass-walled gym on the second floor of a corner building, people inside running strenuously towards nowhere, and wonders if it is a possible landmark, the talisman that will bring them together finally. Where does he turn from here? He can hear his son, berating him for not possessing a mobile phone, a savings plan or a streak of modern ambition. He appeals to a passer-by who, without breaking his stride, points into the distance and says, fifteen kilometres. That side.
Impossible, says the poet, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose. This is the place, I am here. He waits, imagining his hotel room. And then the phone on the nightstand and his wife on the other side, not asking a thing, waiting for him to yield. He singles out two elderly men who seem to be taking a leisurely evening walk in some halcyon dimension, unconcerned about the present one filled with car horns and commerce.
One remains silent while the other says Good evening, and scrutinises the poet’s crushed scrap of paper, looking up and down the street in thought. Then he says with great consideration, You’re in the wrong Gundu Circle, sir. There are two.
Wonderful, says the poet wearily, trying and failing to remember where he has gone wrong. The best thing to do, says the kind man, is to get onto the ring road and take a bus. But I just took a bus, the poet wants to say. He thanks his saviour, pressing his hand. The walking companion remains quietly supportive.
The conductor on the bus tells him it will take forty minutes and suddenly the poet is relieved again and loses himself in the journey. They go into striped blue underpasses and wide open overpasses. Outside is his son’s world – high-rises that enfold hundreds of homes, huge banks of lit-up office windows, names of international companies in blazing letters crowding the sky. There is no word for the wordlessness within us, he thinks. And there is no love that is not a measure of defeat.
The conductor nods at him, and he steps out onto a street that feels so uncannily similar to the one he was in an hour ago, he is almost shouting for the bus, afraid to be abandoned there. Of course it’s not the same place, he admonishes himself. Carver Street, says a blue and white signboard. And take this lake, I haven’t seen it before. There is something otherworldly about the lake. It is completely overrun with weeds and at its centre is a tiny island on which stands a lone tree, lit up by the artificial glare of the city. He walks with purpose, seeking as before some kind of a sign, and comes to a bus stop where a girl stands waiting. She seems to anticipate his questions and tells him he has gotten off the bus a couple of stops before he should have. It’s too far to walk, he needs a rickshaw, she says, and then returns to her silent vigil.
So he is near and there’s even an interested rickshaw at hand. He gets in and shuts his eyes. It is late and the boy has perhaps given up on him and gone to sleep. Thinking of the email again, he is enraged. Why did he feel the need to mention his villa? Of course he hasn’t changed. There is nothing to him except this gross attachment to things. The hefty rickshaw driver has been driving without awaiting instructions. The poet taps his shoulder and repeats, Gundu Circle. He nods and continues speeding.
Enough, says the poet suddenly. He is certain they have overshot their mark. His man goes on. Stop, stop. What? yells the driver. It strikes the poet that he could be an unsavoury type, and this an evil city. Not reached, says the driver in English, but, just as the poet is contemplating either jumping out or wringing the man’s neck, the vehicle hits a red light and screeches to a halt. He pulls out his wallet angrily and there is some argument over the right fare and the question of who is to blame for this unnecessarily long journey.
It is only when he has worked his way through the traffic and on to the pavement that he knows his right trouser pocket is empty. As soon as he completes this thought, the light turns green and the monster rickshaw shoots off. He had, for a moment, dumped the
wallet on the seat while counting his change. The address is in it as is all his money.
Wonderful, says the poet out loud. He puts his hands into his wide pockets and begins walking in the opposite direction. He walks without tiring, happy that this is a city without end. At the end of a broken street is a small bar; a man stands smoking outside. Decent place? asks the poet, gesturing at the door. No, says the man. Lousy. They both laugh. I’m new here, says the poet. First time in Bangalore. You like it? asks the man. Lousy, says the poet and they laugh again. The man extends a hand. He is a property consultant. The poet says he is a poet. Ah, says the man. Then I must buy you a drink.
They go in and sit down with the other men talking in the gloomy bar suffused with the aroma of fried fish. The waiter brings them their whiskies and sodas. He slowly drops ice-cubes into their glasses. I was a poet too once, says the property consultant. Lousy poems I used to write. They clink their glasses together. The poet’s new friend asks, And you?
Lousy poems, says the poet, smiling.