Azham loved colours. He was pondering over the vastness of the white cloth which extended like a still sheet of water all over his body. His fingers were tucked neatly and tightly below his thighs and he clenched the sheet as if it were his armour in war. He noticed that his orange socks were glowing from under the white pool of water and the black screen which stood transfixed to the wall, reflected his bearded face. Sleep was eluding him and he shook his leg vigorously in anticipation of some impending doom.
For some reason the Delhi winter amplified each and every sound in the city. It was as if, the thick smog which had conquered the city helped expose the raw realities of these sounds. The guards’ thumping stick, the wailing of the dogs, the sweeping of the road, the rush of rubber on tar and metal on rubber, the temple bells and the ticking of the brown hologram clock which floated on the pink wall. But only, in the night. During winters, the day was like a dream and the night was consciousness. To Azham, the day was a blur, neither light, nor sound.
Azham was a writer, or that’s what he liked to call himself. He was a writer at a current affairs magazine. He recently quit his job. He wanted to write, really write, not puke shiny words onto glossy paper but simple words which made everyday suffering lesser.
Azham pulled out off the white blanket, pulled over his lemon jumper, buttoned his beige pants and slid into his grey shoes. He wanted to walk. He wanted to walk – to explore. To do the minimum amount of activity in order to attain maximum experience. Azham always wanted to explore this idea he had. Rather than always working towards something and achieving a set goal, why not let the collective energy of the living world force an experience. An experience unplanned, not necessarily unwanted but positively un-scheduled.
Neon lights. Speeding cars. Racing cyclists. Running teenagers. Hovering boards. The neighbourhood was alive with party goers absorbing and releasing substances in all forms.
He closed his eyes and could smell aromatic smoke which made his mouth and nose water. He could taste fried onion and garlic, but his mind was rendered powerless to concoct the taste of minced meat. The kebab stall was like a volcano, emanating immense heat and smoke, but breathing out onions instead of ash.
He noticed a certain sadness in the young couple holding hands and walking down the pavement. Uncertain steps and uneven realities. But there was a luring charm to the fragility of the aged man, sharing an ice cream with a bouncing child. Innocent intentions and purity of heart.
He walked on, crossed pavements, crossed barriers and still couldn’t find the rhythm in his step.
Delhi behaved like a revered goddess for every winter night it was a part of. Full of light in the streets and void in the alleys. Painted, flowered and scented. Musicians singing to it for its mercy, devotees chanting to it for its blessing and companionship. The fumes of passion and the wisdom of abstinence. An amusing reality of the human brain was, that it forced us to run away from accepting the banalities and the frailties of our existence. We often associate our shortcomings to the fault in our stars instead of accepting the fault in ourselves. Fascinating beings, thought Azham. As a member of the human race, he wanted to explore the imaginative, the unfathomable, the creative and the magnificent.
Azham was a devotee. Seeking solace from his trepidations in the warm embrace of the winter night. His legs by default carried him to Laxmi Bazaar.
For Azham, literature, specifically fiction, including comics, was that blue pill, that modular portal, that black hole, the gates to his imaginative world. Since the time he could remember, he had been dissolving his surroundings in these pages. Pages black and white or glossy and coloured.
The very first time Ammi took him to Laxmi Bazaar, his small feet and short legs couldn’t keep up with the pace of the place and he was forced to step down and he let himself be abducted by the instruments of illusion, installed to create this very effect. The throw into a parallel universe, exiting one’s surroundings in order to see the world hidden behind the veil. Not piercing it, but slowly lifting it.
Laxmi Bazaar was the largest market for books and literary publications in the whole country. Open only at night, the bazaar was only shut at the strike of dawn or on public holidays. Its purpose was to serve only the night creatures and hide away from the waking world.
Azham remembered his first encounter with Laxmi Bazaar very clearly. It was as if he was looking through a kaleidoscope from three feet above the ground. The book-stalls were huddled together so tightly that it was hard to differentiate one from another. The bazaar stretched for about one kilometre and when he looked from one end to the other the tall tents on either side appeared to be fixed to the ground, but they were so high in the sky that their top ends seemed to meet somewhere high up in the air. Each visible part of every stall was lined and pinned with books of every shape, size and colour. These stalls had books from all genres and across ages, for the nimble hands of a child to the steady palms of adults.
For the brightness and contrast of the place, it took the eyes of a new comer a few seconds to focus on the activity inside the bazaar. Every stall had a tall screen outside of it – displaying the latest offers and advertisements. Customers could also access the entire collection of books of a particular stall through the screen and some fancy and ‘up-market’ stalls even had live automated audio assistance in case patrons wanted to check the availability of specific books or magazines.
It was an unintended mix of today’s aspirations infused with a syrup of yesterday’s dreams. The automated screens and the wooden stalls. The screens had not replaced paper and people were still spotted closing their eyes to smell the books before they bought them. The co-existence of physical matter and digital pixels. One with a distinct soul and individual personality and the other cold to the touch and lifeless to emotion.
Azham’s favourite stall was tucked somewhere in the maze-like side alleys of Laxmi bazaar. He came across it one fog laced winter night. He has ten versions of that night swimming inside his head but a few aspects run common through all of them. He remembered that he could not walk straight. The fog was so heavy, he felt that it had descended from the sky for the specific purpose of lifting him up.
A flick of the hair and a bounce of the hem, he had battled with this detail for a number of years but he believes he was drawn to a girl, but he still wasn’t sure. A whisper and a faint voice. Strings attached to his feet and a hook on his chest. He felt cold, the kind which made you look around and rub your arms. The only other detail he remembered was standing in front of an old man, staring at him, looking for answers on his wrinkled forehead.
Shankar kaka, belonged to the erstwhile world. The world where there were no screens, no bots and people used to wear glasses in front of their eyes to read. Kaka took refuge amongst books, to save himself from the annihilation of the screens. Often he was found sitting in the middle of a sea of books, entirely consumed in thought and balancing a leather-bound on his bald head. Kaka hardly spoke to anyone, his only companion being his motorized leg, which he had to get installed due to his failing knees. Kaka spoke to his leg like it was a child, caressing and banishing it at the same time, for the functionality of life and the pain of living. Kaka had a yearning to live, though he never revealed his age to anyone, he looked like he had definitely lived for over a century. Azham often visited a memory from his brain, where kaka was telling him that the only reason he agreed to have the motorized leg installed was to work every day at his stall. He couldn’t bare the thought of being away from these books. Azham revered kaka, for his passion to live and his attachment towards the physical world.
Azham liked dolphins. Though according to his research they had been extinct for more than fifty years, he was fascinated by them. They saved human lives only to be butchered in response and more importantly for their advanced existence of contemplating and being successful in attempting suicide, self-death, choosing death over life, rubbishing the survival instinct and mocking at science. He picked up a white book which had two dolphins drawn on its cover.
While standing at the counter, waking up Shankar kaka to pay for the book, he felt a sudden and severe nausea. He felt that he was falling into the unknown; he could see colours which rotated from being gray, cream white, yellow and then a sudden blackness. He could feel sweat trickling from his brow and his feet trying to find the ground.
As the world slowly started to come back into focus, he caught himself staring outside the door. He thought he saw a girl wearing a blue dress, running across the street. He thought he saw sparks. He rushed outside to see if the girl had left any blue marks on the road behind her. There were no marks, but he was certain he saw a girl, dressed in a blue dress running at a very high speed. Probably flying. After standing for a few minutes on the road, staring at the ground and trying to re-gain his bearings, he walked back inside kaka’s store. He rubbished the possibility of what he saw and blamed it on his diseased brain. It probably was a child on one of those fancy hover boards they were selling nowadays, made you appear like you were flying three feet above the ground.
Now, it was kaka’s chance to wake him up. They both laughed and giggled at suffering from the same disease called imaginative existence.
Azham was about to walk out of Shankar kaka’s store when he saw an animated poster. It was a motion poster, similar to watching a movie on a piece of shiny paper. Latest technology. It was large: 10×12, pasted right at the corner of the wall behind the counter. The colours on the poster largely consisted of bright yellow, sharp pink, neon lime green, some amounts of ocean blue, black where necessary and white on the blank spaces. It took Azham a few seconds to make sense of the poster but it simply depicted a small town made up of candy. With round, life size balls of swirling candy depicting all kinds of towers, toffees as cars, gummy bears as people on the road, the road was made up of cotton candy in all colours and shapes, with the colours changing every few seconds, sweet breads for buildings and sour sticks for bridges. The river was made of dark red jelly. Above the candy town, a broomstick hovered in the sky. A fluttering flag hung from the broomstick inviting you to jump on-board and experience the madness of – “Edna’s – The only candy store for adults! Open only from 00:00 to 06:00 hours.”
“Shankar kaka, what is this – Edna’s?”
“Ah! Some buffoon pasted this the other day, he said it’s a new candy store catering specifically to adults and had all the candies in the world to treat all sorts of emotional maladies. I rubbished him till he told me that they were one of the few stores in the country which was completely non-automated. No technology. All brick and mortar, wood and plastic. The poster was the only technological device they were using; in order to attract patrons of varied tastes. At that time I gave in. But have been thinking of taking it down since then!” Shankar kaka excitedly replied in his shaky voice.
“Kaka, where is the store? Would you know?”
“It’s right around the block; they have taken a very large place I believe.” replied kaka.
“Great! I’ll see you soon kaka. Take care!”
Azham wanted to take this opportunity to experiment with the concept which had been meandering in his head.
Sometime back, Azham started to wonder that all experiences in his life, whether physical or emotional or physical and emotional were induced due to a set plan. He planned for his higher education, the sum of all the results arising out of it were based on the decision to study further; he meticulously planned all his trips, from minute details of where to eat, to what time to rise, which camera to take, what sites to visit and which people to talk to. All his memories were based on a pre-conceived idea of his experiences. More often than not, the enjoyment of his experiences were a culmination of the ideas and judgments he formed about them prior to his participation.
From day to day experiences like making a schedule of his days, planning his work, for that matter, planning a friend’s birthday party, all experiences, he thought were induced by his will, a press on the red button of the remote control would make him end up in a girl’s bed and orgasm would follow, if he pressed the blue button on the controller he would end up smacking his lips for the lovely crab meat he would have just eaten, the green button would help him reach the state of haze, the smoke ignited revolution of his head and the laundry of his thoughts; and he knew, if he were to press the black button, it would be the end of all. End of life, end of existence. Self induced, a press of a button on the controller.
In the pursuit of seeking higher control we often forget that though we live each day factoring in the outside world as a part of our lives, we were a much smaller part of the living world around us. If we could, through our actions induce our environment to behave in a particular way and generate a specific stimuli even the opposite were true.
Azham wanted to explore the idea of an experience induced by nature. He wanted his senses to be stimulated by an experience which he had not planned for. An experience which was unaccounted for and he would just head in directions his immediate surroundings would prompt him towards. He wanted to be a part of nature’s plan and not the opposite way round. He would let the space around him decide what stimuli he would experience.
Armed with all these ideas in his head sparked by the strange headiness which he felt just before paying Shankar kaka, he let his external world guide his next step and he walked around the block in search of Edna’s.
Azham was standing across a red coloured board. Edna’s Candy was written in bright white coloured font, where each letter was drawn like a tiny lightning bolt and the entire word was illuminated with yellow coloured light bulbs which would flicker every two seconds. There was an arrow on the board which pointed towards the ground. Azham’s eyes followed the arrow and he began staring at the ground beneath him. After a minute of staring down, Azham saw a purple button glowing in the dark. On pressing the button, a wooden door, mysteriously painted black, flung open to reveal a spiral staircase. Azham stepped onto the staircase and waited for the stairs to move. After waiting for about a minute and jumping on the stairs, he realised that this place was supposed to be devoid of modern technology. He grunted and started descending the stairs using his legs.
Apart from Laxmi bazaar, which was the strangest soupy mix of technology and the real world, Azham had never been inside a store like this before. It imitated the world he saw in old movies. The floor was decorated with beautiful white tiles, on the left were the payment counters which were curiously empty, the candies were displayed in racks which were as long as fifteen feet and as broad as ten feet and there were at least eight such racks in each row. Above each row, in a similar styled board, like the one at the entry, but much larger, were signs depicting various human emotions. Fear, anger, sadness, anticipation, shame, pity, envy, love, pride and disgust, each of these ten emotions had their own row and racks full of candies. Each flavoured candy supposedly cured its respective emotional malignancy.
Azham started exploring the store. There were no screens, no more animated posters, no one shouting promotional offers into the ear and no digital ladies selling products, there were wooden, non-automated ladders to reach the top of the racks and trial dishes kept next to each type of candy. There were just candies and sign boards. The entire store was deserted, Azham being the only being walking around.
Each row of candy had specific racks, depending on the duration of the effect of the candy, ranging from five minutes to one full day. If you ate another candy before the minimum five minutes the effect of the replacement would kick out the previous induction. By the time Azham had tried ten different candies, his head was swaying and he could not wipe-off the smile from his head. He headed towards the bench to sit down and calm his senses.
It had been just a few minutes sitting on the bench, when something flickered through the corner of his eye-sight. Startled, he got up and started rubbing his eyes. He replayed the incident in his head and immediately caught hold of the handle bar of the bench he was sitting on. He had seen a girl hovering mid-air. She was wearing a blue dress.
Azham wiped the sweat beads off his brow and slowly began walking towards the corner from where the girl had vanished.
Chasing corners, grabbing boulders, walking, jogging, running, pacing, stopping, looking here, looking there, Azham’s fear, anxiety and curiosity had given way to exhaustion. Heaving and out of breath, he slumped to the floor next to a rack of candies. Up until now, he had just been following the flowing blue dress of this strange apparition of a girl. She was not walking but gliding through mid-air. There was a faint-foggy glow emanating from her and her entire body flickered as she moved.
After concluding to head back home, Azham picked a packet of candy each from the fear and anticipation sections.
The girl was standing right in front of Azham, her hair was left to hang over her shoulders, though neatly combed. She had a small face with high cheek bones and big almond shaped eyes. She was wearing kajal around her eyes and had a slight smile on her lips. Azham started walking slowly towards her. When he reached within touching range, the girl smiled, gave a slight nod and vanished into thin air.
It took Azham an entire hour to regain his composure. Within that hour he had eaten both his packets of candy and his brain felt like a cocktail of emotions. He picked up the two empty plastic packets and headed towards the counters. He was relieved to see another person around and he rushed towards the counter where a girl was sitting on a high stool.
“Hello and welcome to Edna’s or I should say, thank you for visiting.” the girl greeted Azham in a high pitched voice. Her name tag read as – ‘Ujwala’.
“Hi Ujwala! Sorry I consumed these packets of candy inside the store. Would you please bill these for me?” replied Azham.
Ujwala swiftly billed Azham for the candies he had consumed.
While Ujwala was doing her work, Azham kept wondering whether he should ask her about the girl. He feared exposing his own mental malice and he wasn’t use to talking to people, especially strangers about his personal experiences.
“Is there anyone else in the store at this time?” Azham hesitantly asked Ujwala.
“No. I’m afraid not.” replied Ujwala.
“I saw this… I met … I came across this girl…” Azham was struggling to ask her the question.
“Oh! You met Edna? How lucky! What does she look like? How is she? Did she talk to you? What did she say?” Azham was not prepared for such a reaction. He was expecting her to ask him if he was intoxicated in any form or ill.
“What?! Who are you…?! Excuse me?!” replied Azham.
In the next fifteen minutes Ujwala told Azham the story of Edna. She was a young girl who had been making candies since a very tender age. The special feature about her candies was that consuming them could help people deal with their emotional malice. But she never wanted to commercialize her skill and thought that her candies would never really help people deal with themselves and they would look towards them as escape routes. She had died about ten years back at the age of thirty-five. The reasons for her death were still un-known.
Around a year back, her family found the recipes to her candies hidden in a safe, inside a house which had been long abandoned by them. Though Edna never wanted to sell her skills, her family had no such qualms. It is believed that though it had been ten years to Edna’s death, she never leaves the store and tries to search for and talk to people who were deeply wounded.
“I have been trying to meet her for the past few months. I have failed each time. Wait. You met her, you saw her, right? asked Ujwala.
“Yes, I think so.” replied Azham.
“What was she wearing?”
“A deep blue dress.”
Ujwala rushed inside a door and came back with a note in her hand.
“She has left this note for you.”
Azham held the piece of paper with his shaking hands. It was a hand written note. Azham could see the smudged ink on the corner of the paper.
It read as –
‘ To the man in the grey shoes, who has been frantically looking for me.
Sometimes, I sit by the side of the lake. Yes, there is a lake nearby. If you come looking for me you shall find us both.
Follow your instinct and you shall find me.
It will be good talking to you.
P.S. You scared me with your running around.
With that, Azham knew where he was headed next and he climbed out of the candy store. He walked across the street, into the still of the darkness.