(Reading Time: 15 minutes)
In many ways a dry cleaner’s job is like amnesia.
He is to clothes what tequila is to memories.
For as long as she could remember, she had always worked at her father’s store. As a child she had once held up her tiny hands at the sun, squinted at it through the cracks in her fingers. That pale, diffused yellow had never left her hands thanks to bleaching agents and chlorine. “Dipped in sunshine” as her father used to call them.
She had always had a tenuous relationship with memory. Holding onto moments when your daily job was to erase all signs of them. The whorls on her fingers betrayed no identification marks, they were smooth. Her memories seemed vague and hazy at best, like the faded color of a bed sheet around the areas where the spots used to be. Like that time when she had spilt Bournvita on her school uniform, or when Pinky had snuck her from school and in her haste pushed her into a puddle, or when she sat on that freshly painted bench outside Akram uncle’s shop and had gotten up with three bars of green on her otherwise pink skirt. They seemed further and further away each time she opened her wardrobe.
It was however by odd chance that her father had no such problems – his memory was immaculate. He could tell which item of clothing belonged to whom by the nature of the stains. He knew each customer’s stain pattern like they were names of his children. There were the lemon yellow splotches of the doctor who had an unsteady hand after his third drink. The indigo stains of the journalist who still kept a pot of ink on his table. The angry red of the lawyer who had a fondness for curry and short lunch breaks. But once these clothes entered the machines, they came out as good as new, devoid of their past and ready for a fresh start. Like an inverted prism function – changing the colours of a rainbow into white light.
Any dry cleaner worth his salts knew, that among various stains, the reds were the trickiest. She would observe her father engage in the subtle art of interrogation when stains with suspicious provenance would show up. If it were a kerchief he would speak of nasal infections and wounded knees, bed sheets with crimson stains were staunchly rejected. Her father was the perfect coroner, a man honed by years in the art of inquiry without the consequential public scandal. Ever so discreet in front of his nefarious clients. One would think a womanly presence in such matters would be more advisable, however her mother in the act of creating her, had forsaken her own being. Leaving behind a wardrobe of immaculately washed and ironed clothes that she would keep growing into and a sepia stained photo of an ancient face that occupied the spot next to Krishna’s on their puja ledge.
Given her father’s strict policy on stains, there did come a time when she could no longer submit her own clothes for her father’s scrutiny or risk running them through the machines. For four nights every month she would stay up all night and in the pale moonlight scrub away at the evidence of her siphoned-off womanhood. Scrub, scrub, scrub at it all night till the morning broke. A dry cleaner’s daughter reduced to the very primitive act, they had replaced for the rest of society.
In the seventeenth year of her ordeal, it was a particularly large August moon that reflected itself in the water trough at the village’s public washing area. Engrossed in her task she had failed to notice a shadow that had quietly appeared beside her own. The hurried scrubbing had masked the silent footsteps approaching her.
“It’ll be faster if you used lime with salt, I’ll go get some.”
By the time her panic-filled head would swivel around, all she could see was the back of another head covered with waist-long hair that bounced as a small figure rushed back into the darkness from whence it had appeared. Unsure of what had just happened, she was, at that moment, equal parts panicked and confused. Like a patient coming out of coma, she knew not what to trust: the concreteness of her dreams or the transient nature of her senses. Like her memories, her vision seemed shrouded in a fog of dubiousness. The sound of returning footsteps proved her wrong. Her eyes travelled from an outstretched clammy hand to a face silhouetted by the fading moonlight.
“Here you go, just use this, trust me.”
The voice belonged to a face she had seen every night since childhood. The sepia tones had been replaced by the glow of youth. The wrinkles had not set in yet, the tiny curls around the edge of her lips and eyes just beginning to form. Maybe it was the instant recognition that led to her blind acquiescence and or was it her hand languishing in the warmth of the other. Their fingers caressed momentarily as the act of giving became a physical idyll, an quatrain told through their fingertips. And much too soon was it over, causing doubt that it had ever been. Much was left to an exposition of sorts, of imagination, and the travails of the night seemed to vanish as her shadow merged with the black of the shade.
The next morning her father’s shop had a new customer – an elderly gentleman had just moved in with his daughter and an itinerary of travel-stained garments lay in a heap at her feet. Tied together in an old faded bed sheet turned grey over years of negligent effort.
That night as she lay in bed, her hands holding an old photo, the face was there blurred at the edges by the frame it used to be in. A face, out of focus, shot before the advent of modern cameras. A woman with her child sitting on a swing surrounded by a desolate playground. The face was too small to bear recognition or comparison, but those little lines around the lips and eyes were more pronounced. The sepia tones faded to be replaced by the moonlight from the previous night and the faces from both morphed into one. As teary eyes made for poor viewing, she reeled from staring as spots clouded her vision. Sleep eludes us when we need it most and memory is the specter that drives it away. Till the memory of sleep itself is what remains and in that void of both sleep and dream is the eternal limbo of the damned.
Daylight begins where dreams end. Fatigued bodies have a way of messing things up when you need them to work out. Uncoordinated limbs carried her through the day and the night was no relief either. Insomnia is the true face of personal interrogation, there’s no need for a harsh spotlight. When deprived of sleep, your mind begins emotionally waterboarding itself. The distraction therefore, was a welcome relief when she heard sounds familiar to her own coming from the public washing area. There was no moonlight tonight and a solitary candle illuminated those same eyes that haunted her a few nights ago. Imagine if you can, the irrationality of the act about to follow and empathize if you will, the call that leads us into the heart of darkness, enslaved by curiosity. Irrationality is the defining trait of the human race.
“Do you need help?”
She found her voice quivering hesitantly addressed to the long, dark, spine-like braid. Those eyes glanced back at her and said, “No, not really. You are welcome to stay, it is quite scary here and the candle keeps going out.” Her hands cupped the candle and held its flickering flame steady. In the glow of the candle she noticed those tiny wrinkles at the edge of her lips and eyes. The sepia-stained photo threatened to emerge from the corners of her head and she forced it to recede by keeping the conversation going.
“You’re new aren’t you, where are you from?”
The answer never mattered to her, nor was she paying attention to her voice, all her attention was taken up by the slight nod of her head as she scrubbed away at her garments. The oddly shaped birthmark at the tip of her chin, how her eyes blinked in rhythm with her hands. It was comforting to just stay there and look. She wanted to trace the edge of the birthmark. This thought caused her much alarm but as much as she forced herself to deny it, it was deeply present. She could not feign ignorance at her own awakening and yet was startled by its boldness.
The next few days were spent in a permanent state of infatuation and self-loathing. She denied herself the opportunity to submit into the temptation of going to the public washing area. For the next few months, her soiled undergarments found a new home in the underground sewer system.
While earlier, she loathed the lack of control over her body, but this time it was both her body and her mind that refused to appease her. Every day, once her father left for deliveries or to buy supplies she would bring out her old diary and scribble away furiously her outpour of mental rebellion. Her mother’s sepia-toned photo had become even more fragile due to her constant scrutiny and the frayed worn out edges had begun to crumble. Paper turning into pulp and memory into oblivion. One day the old picture finally gave way to the heat of her touch and in her hands lay a heap of ashes, yet there was to be no figurative phoenix here.
In the absence of the old there was the new to be found and if fate would take away from her the last vestiges of the past, she would fight against fate itself. That night her journal bore testimony to a new kind of ferocity, if nothing lasts, how could sin.
“If there is but rain in paradise
It must be in the memory of you
And the face that held me as a child
Now appears as you
Mother dear, is it you returned
To hold me close again
And in your memory is love found again
Which for years was lost
And as I lay here with you again
In blankets that still smell the same
The gods look down approvingly
For this love has no name
In your comfort my body finds
It’s true resting place
And the stars seem brighter today
While the moon lies here in my bed.”
The problem in India with most things has always been the delivery mechanism. Right from the rain to the post, if Sophie Coppola were to make a movie about India it would be called ‘Lost in Transition’, starring the ever-lost government subsidy and paved roads.
How to get a note to her was all that occupied her mind that day. Panic ensued when she saw her walking towards her shop, a huge bundle in hand. Her lithe frame stooping slowly towards the left due to the weight of the tied-bed sheet bundle in her thin, long hands. How she longed to clasp them in her own! Those long fingers went well with her eyelashes and her feet shuffled a bit as she struggled to get to the shop counter. She mumbled an excuse to her father and ran through the backdoor, through Karim chacha’s tea stall and Munna’s dairy and didn’t rest till she was home, curtains drawn and the door firmly latched. In the house she hastily used her last remaining piece of blue chalk to firmly scribble but three lines in nearly illegible script.
“Your admirer would request a meeting.
Midnight at the public washing area.
Part token of love, part hostage note. How could her first token of love, be the “Ramesh hearts-with-arrow Geeta on India Gate” of a note? But it would have to do; rebellion is least of all polite or pretty, it is made of sterner stuff.
Two blocks from her shop she trailed her. She could spot that rope of hair anywhere, the slight sway of her hips, it was as if her every step had purpose. Currently to mess with her infatuated mind it seemed. A slender strap held her square money bag close to her frame and with each step it would bounce and cling to her waist with a ferocity she found her heart matching. Its zipper was broken and it would take a bit of deftness on her part to slip in her annotated offering without drawing attention to its owner.
She managed to, trepidation overcome by a zealous and wanton need, and it was a light heart that carried her through the rest of the day till the moment of reckoning was almost upon her. Armed in her Sunday best she headed out to her amorous affair. The setting of romance never was so anticlimactic, a washing trough – where most women got to this avenue post marital bliss she was here already, and the chill of the night, a sufficient alibi for goose bumps. The sound of hurried footsteps egged her on. The illicit nature of her bravado hit her with full force but was pushed aside by the sight that stood in front of her. Words are often quite unnecessary when it comes to such things and their bodies united with the full force of an impending implosion staggering into each other and collapsing into infinity. An overture so intense, a shipwreck raft when it crashes onto the shore. Bodies stumbling in rapture as they clutched onto each other, final vestiges of social propriety torn by haste and inexperienced handiwork.
It ended as it had begun, words playing their part, details of future meetings negotiated and final caresses exchanged. And they lay there together till there was nothing more but the memory of what had been, indelible from their hearts and minds. Their many exchanges as it is with any form of addiction only grew in frequency over the passage of time. Till at last one fateful night, she packed her old white bed sheet and headed off into Vani chacha’s mustard fields at the edge of town. Her explanation to her father entailed an overnight visit to her aunt’s house in the next village and she would return next morn from the same. While at the laundry shop her hands were shaking as she padlocked the main door, the key slipping out of the lock twice, frantic searching in the dark till it was recovered. Her muttered curses punctuated the empty streets till she was home. Her father had not looked up from his evening newspaper ritual when she had left for her aunt’s home. She had begged and bribed another friend who had called as her aunt confirming her presence there. They met, bicycles clashing together and set off, their heavy scarves fluttering in the night breeze. Pedaling furiously to shorten the commute, as they hoped to maximize their time together. Favors from friends and aunts were perpetually in short supply.
A spot was chosen and the bed sheet laid, their quintessence was disrobed and it showed, blissful and glistening with sweat. Words of mine would blush, employed in their usage and yet would do little but hold a pale mirror to what transpired that night. All I can attempt to describe is the ecstasy of the moment, much like the homecoming of a favorite son. There is joy but there is gratitude, deep gratitude, for where the onerous burden of life is taken away and replaced with the nothingness of union. A constant shot of adrenaline if you could feel enter into the pores of your heart, an intense dose of laughter gas, making your life force beat faster till it should explode but it doesn’t.Prudery wasn’t the only thing that died that night.
As young as they were, the aftermath of the act was more an act of rebellion against loneliness than that of social protocol. An act of selfish innocence than the breaking of a taboo. There is no cognizance of propriety involved in the act of pure love. Much like the wildebeest after a stampede they lay there satiated in their own little waterhole. And like the flower that blooms because it wants to, so it was. The frequency of trysts increased and in no time they were consumed by the fire of the love they bore. Like the concubine who lives to please and subsumes herself in the act of giving, they became inseparable. Their nightly rituals of absolving their garments of sin became much more. An act of secret shame became the highpoint of their lives. An approach of revulsion and shame was transformed into that of intense longing and satisfaction.
The mysteries of relationships befuddle us all. It is far easier to divine a prophecy or gleam knowledge of the future from studying the stars, than to predict the causality of turmoil. Things end as they begin, lost in the fog of everyday trifles. We know we are what we cannot become and we seek what we cannot explain and in who we are is the answer to what we can never possess. Their meetings gained the wear and tear of a machine neglected for far too long. Till the gears grinded and wore each other out.
And in this venture it is memory, oh sweet memory, that is the eternal sandman, the recurring ghoul that haunts us, the shade that steals from us the elixir of the night. It is the keeper of our sanity and the leash on the three-headed Cerberus of introspective angst, retrospective remorse and the loss of reminiscent rapture. It is memory that pillages the pleasure of the moment, that spirits away the joy of fulfillment in our moment of achievement, that purloins our identity leaving us as the untangled mass of coils and tentacles that we are. It is then that the memory overtook the moments together and the absences where the past was cherished became far dearer than time spent together and they grew further apart.
In the eventful scheme of her life, nothing came close to that fateful day when the last token of their time together was delivered. A requiem of time squandered in the pursuit of the flitting. It arrived as most major apocalypses do, without warning. A charging bull in the tiny, narrow, cramped space of a Chinese-owned tableware store. As much as movies would have us believe, there are no warning shots; there is no thematic danger music that precedes the oncoming of Godzilla.
A bundle of soiled clothes wrapped in a white bed sheet, an innocuous little thing. It dropped on the floor with the quiet solitude of the fallout, the lonely silence of her ears ringing as she stared into the wasteland that was once the city. 14 days and 15 nights later, it had arrived with all the quiet pomp of a Dire Straits song:
“They wanna get a statement for Jesus’ sake
It’s like a talking to the wall
He’s incommunicado no comment to make
He’s saying nothing at all”
The clothes pilfered into their respective piles and like a corpse the white sheet lay there. Banal in all respects but for those two scarlet stains. Evidence of her womanhood lain bare at last.
There was nothing more to say, nothing left to feel but look at the watery sun as her fingers mechanically scrubbed white vinegar on the breakup note. She imagined birds chirping a mournful tune, but there were none. She laid her head on her shoulder for lack of another’s and a lone tear eked its way out mingled with the vinegar and lay on the scarlet red. A transparent drop of twinkle for that which could have been.
“Well at least the salt would get the stain out.”