I was dreaming before I awoke in the middle of the night. The sound of a cat woke me up again, I thought, but I couldn’t be sure, and I couldn’t remember the dream either, except that it was happy, as they had been of late. I eventually drifted back to sleep.

*

I was on my way home from work as twilight was turning into night. The three months at this new job were starting to feel like three years. I was twenty-seven, and it felt like midlife, only, I was waiting for the crisis. Or was this it?

I got off the bus. The night was still bustling, lights on shopfronts still flickered, and the aroma of street food warmed the brisk winter air. I picked up dinner on my way—my tiny kitchen has been an idle appendage to my apartment.

I paused before I entered my gate. I heard something. Or did I imagine it again? I was prone to that indulgence. But it sounded like a cat, the same cat that woke me up night after night.

Along the alley to the left of me, a man was carrying a bawling toddler, swaying and rocking in an attempt to quell the infantile tantrum. To my right, an older lady and a younger woman exited the building hastily, the younger chastising the older as they disappeared round a bend. Faint upbeat music reverberated off the walls, dogs barked out of sight, vehicles groaned and horns blared in the far distance. Startled by something invisible, a flock of pigeons abandoned their resting places and flapped away upwards and disappeared into the night.

There was no cat, I decided. I was about to walk through the gate when I felt something brush against my ankle.

It was a puny little thing. It meowed as it glanced up at me and circled my foot, brushing its matted grey fur against the hem of my trousers. Its cry was weak and pitiful, like it was spending its last bits of energy to call attention to itself, to beg for help.

I had no idea how to care for a cat. We had a dog once. I was seven or eight when she died. Her last few days were vivid in my mind. There was a great deal of whining, and I could still smell the stench of the vomits in my mind. I cried when we buried her out in our backyard, and so did my sister, younger by three years, but only because she saw me crying. But my brother, older by ten years, was stoic and motionless. My father dug the tiny grave, and my mother planted marigold on it as we filled the hole.

I opened the gate and let the kitten follow me in.

‘Where did you come from?’ I asked as we walked up the narrow stairs. ‘Where’s your mother? Your family?’

It did not respond.

‘Then I guess we’re not too different,’ I said, almost in a whisper.

*

That night I dreamed a happy dream again, but I remembered the dream. We were swimming, my new cat and I, in a river I did not know. But the water was calm and clear. There were dark storm clouds in the distance, but they were far far away. I was happy in the moment.

* * *

My birthday came around—the 24th of December. There was a message from my sister, and there were other wishes from people who hadn’t entered my thoughts in months. I thanked my sister. My mother would call later in the day, and I would exchange brief guarded words with my father as well.

My brother . . . I could only pray and wish.

I got to the office half an hour early. There was someone else in the lift lobby equally early. She was the new hire, less than a week on the job. Twenty-eight years old, a marketing major, and this was her second job. Born and raised in the midst of the bustle and the hustle of Delhi, she claimed, in her customary introduction speech, to know what went on in every niche and crevice of the pulsing metropolis. She loved art films, and she was a weekend singer in a small-time jazz band. She sang a couple of lines from a jazz tune after the whole office bullied her into it. Everyone loved her.

Her soft greeting smile reduced the chill of winter. Despite her beet-red nose and an evidence of cold in the crumpled tissue in her left hand, she still managed to look merry.

I smiled back. I wished her a Merry Christmas, my first words to her.

She wished me back, her first words to me.

Green garlands framed the rigid windows, fairy lights blinked lazily along the walls, red and white balloons hung from the ceiling, and a bright and colourfully adorned Christmas tree stood at the centre of the office. The office was bustling, most of them infected by the spirit of the season.

They sang happy birthday to me at lunch. I smiled awkwardly as I stood in front of a cake with coloured candles crookedly planted in it. They clapped as I blew them out, and asked for a speech. A tradition. I simply thanked everyone for being there to celebrate with me and to enjoy and that was all I said. The new girl was standing to my left, a smile and a cheery gleam in her eyes.

“I’m not really big on birthdays, but I think they are precious when you are surround by those you care. And to me, birthdays aren’t about growing older, so much as they are about the life you’ve led, about the experiences you’ve had, and most importantly,” I look into her eyes, “about the new people that come into your life. So, I thank you all for being a part of my life, and I hope you play a bigger part in the years to come.”

They shook my hand and slapped my back, as if reaching the age of twenty-seven was a feat, an achievement. Christmas carols played in the background as we ate cake.

It was a half day today—the eves of big holidays were half days. The cake reduced steadily and the room emptied with ‘Merry Christmas’ a parting refrain. I was readying myself to leave, when . . .

“You didn’t tell me today’s your birthday,” says the new girl just as I was about to exit.

“Well, I didn’t want to steal the spotlight from Jesus.”

We head out together. The fog has cleared and the bright sun offers a soothing warmth against the breeze. We scrape our heels along the dusty dry asphalt, talking about skinned knees, kite flying, and climbing trees as we head for the tea stall down the street. We talk about our lives, our dreams and our hopes, the dreams that has died and the hopes we still cling on to, regrets and tragedies—I tell her everything except about that day my niece and I went for a swim.

On Saturday evening, I take the Yellow Line to the other side of the city—“the side where things happen,” she said—to a bar, “a speakeasy,” she called it, where her band of weekend musicians will be performing. I am the first person she has ever invited.

I follow her directions. I find my way to a run-down single-screen cinema inconspicuously occupying the dead end of a busy street lined with stores still hung up on Christmas. I enter the narrow alleyway by the building, the walls graffitied where it wasn’t peeling, sidestepping garbage bags and startling sewer rats. The door at the end has a buzzing yellow halogen bulb above it, flickering now and again. The door has the word “blues”, among other expletives, spray-painted in red in a font that was barely legible.

The place is packed. The men are in suits and tuxedos and the women in suits and dresses. The light is warm, the air is spirited, and there’s a comedian on a low stage in the middle of his set. I look at the time on my wrist—her band will be coming on soon. I get a drink from the bar and make my way to an empty table at one corner and light a cigarette.

Punchline. Laughter.

The host hops onto the platform and tells a couple simple jokes of his own that inspires only a handful of laughs, and then introduces the next act: “They don’t play for the cameras or the money. They play for the music! They play for us. Please welcome, the soulful, the sublime,” I spent some time on this, “Rue More!”

She emerges out of thin air and glides up onto the stage leading her bandmates. She smiles at the applauding crowd. Someone in the back wolf-whistles, and she responds with a wink and a flying kiss. The band take their place, they adjust their seats, mics, wires, plugs, make last checks of their instruments, playing a note here, a beat there in a subtle and sweet musical chaos.

After one last smiling glance at the crowd, who has gone silent in anticipation, she closes her eyes, then the music begins, and then she sings. She . . . sings.

I am arrested by the melody of the music, restrained by her intoxicating voice. I feel my feet tapping, my head bobbing, and my fingernails clinking against my glass of amber drink. I am in another plane of existence, where the air is pleasure and the ground a thrill, where you can’t be sad even if you wanted to be, or lonely if you tried.

Before long, it is time for their last song.

She scans the room, her smile, wide and never leaving her face. Her eyes find me, and they stay. I give her a little wave, and her smile widens.

And . . .

The night ends. We hold hands as we exit the cab together and she leads me down a narrow, cobbled street lit by warm orange lamps. I keep close to her as we enter an iron gate and trot up clean marble stairs. The light fixture above her brown wooden door, on which hung a beautiful wreath, glows a dim yellow. She lets go of my hand to unlock her door, and then reaches for it again. She gently tugs me in.

Music, wine, and bodies intertwine late into the cold cold night, warm and safe in the glow of my personal paradise.

*

Kitty wasn’t home. She was seldom home when I got back from work, but would sometimes sneak back in and go to the food and water that I would leave out for her. I’d leave the window ajar despite the cold. And if she didn’t return, it stayed open the whole night.

I was already in bed and half asleep when I heard the soft taps of her paws landing on the concrete floor. I got up and closed the window, but I didn’t lock it so she could push it open if she decided to spend the night elsewhere.

I got back into bed and watched her eat in the soft glow of the night. She made quick work of her dinner. When her plate emptied, she sauntered my way, sidestepping the tiny cot I fashioned for her, climbed onto my bed, and made herself comfortable by my feet.

‘No happy birthday from you, then?’ I asked.

She did not reply.

‘We had cake in the office.

‘I could’ve brought you some if you’d asked.’

She licked her paws.

‘I’m twenty-seven.

‘It’s not that many years when you think about it.’

She got up, stretched, turned in a circle, and curled down on the same spot.

‘Are you happy?

‘With your life, I mean.’

She closed her eyes.

‘Trying’s hard sometimes.

‘Sometimes I just want to stop trying at all.’

* * *

It’s been days since I last saw Kitty. I walked around the neighbourhood after work the last couple of days, but today I took a half-day so I could do my search before dark. Going to work barely awake and returning after the sun has set, it was not often that I saw my neighbourhood in daylight. Everything looked stranger in the light.

I retraced the paths I took, and then I took unfamiliar turns, wandering deeper into the jungle, discovering new garbage dumps and public toilets, making use of one. I ambled further on, taking the narrower roads, the darker and dirtier alleyways, until shadows grew twice as long and my back began prickle with winter sweat.

‘Where are you, Alley,’ I said aloud when I finally stopped.

I am nowhere, I imagined her saying. Maybe she found a home. Maybe she was in a better place. ‘She’s in a better place now,’ I said, and I didn’t realize it until the words were out of my mouth. How I hated that line.

Surrounded by the opaque, the absence of the sun invited darkness much more keenly and I slowly made my way back.

*

The wind was stronger on the roof, and it was colder too. A violent shiver ran through me as I wandered about, looking in every corner and every crevice like I did the last few nights, the ambient light hardly bright enough to make things out. But as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see that I would find no cat there tonight as well.

I leaned against the parapet and I let my eyes wander, not looking for anything anymore.

My phone chimed. A message from my sister. It was a photo, an old photo, of me, my sister and our little niece. Our goofy little niece, making faces every time a camera pointed at her. She was eight or nine there. She was thirteen this year. She would be thirteen forever.

I put my phone away and I leaned over the parapet and looked down.

Despite the ugliness of the faded grayscale of the streets beneath me, there was a level of morbid artistry in its sordid architecture and the kind of society that inhibited such a place. The stories that might’ve been told if concrete could speak; the stories they would continue to gather to keep.

I climb onto the parapet, slowly and carefully. In the elevation and the absence of anything to hold onto, the wind doubled in strength and the cold pinched. But I am stable, and in a moment, the cold becomes unbothersome.

I raise my arms, keeping balance. I feel the wind beneath my wings. And then gently, I take one step forward, stepping on air. My foot hangs over everything below. As gently, I take my other foot off the wall.

I am floating. I trust the wind to keep me afloat. I want to rise. And I rise. All I have to do is think about what I want, and it becomes.

So, I rise, higher and higher, above city lights, above the smog, above all the meaningless noise, above everything.

I fly, forward and back, in circles, dipping down and zipping through buildings, through the clouds, leaving a whirlwind behind me. I rise higher still, above it all.

I am not me. I am the wind.

Up here, the air is warm.

There is silence in my head.

* * *

Still no word from the shelters. The tiny cot still sat at the foot of my bed. It seemed to have shrunk in size this past month and it was only discernible now because I was thinking about getting rid of it.

My half-open window rattled in the stormy wind as the night drew darker. Soon enough the pattering of large raindrops filled the air in place of the nightmarish howls. Winter was over, but the chill tonight was redolent of my cold solitude before and after Kitty, of the warm fantasies I wrapped myself in, of the counterfeit dreams that looked so much like reality, that erased sorrows of the past until I would wake and the grief and pain of my lonely penance would once again wear me like a winter coat. I pulled my blanket tight to my chest, I closed my eyes, and opened my mind to my better place.

I run form the bus stop to the office but the rain still catches me. The new girl, not so new anymore, is waiting for the lift. “Have you found Kitty?” she asks. I shake my head. “Maybe she’s in a better place.”

The people are crying. The coffin, at the centre—

I opened my eyes and shook my head to rid my mind of the image. I listen to the rain and close my eyes again after a moment.

I am at the speakeasy. The girl is on stage, singing, a ballad. Her voice is beautiful, her words captivating. My niece loved to sing. Her voice was a constant in the house. But her last moments in the water were utterly silent. I was too late to realize the grave meaning of the quiet.

I could hear the echoes of the songs she used to sing. The thunder scraping the air outside, the battering of the heavy rain, the gusts of wind that rattled my soul, were all accompaniments to the soulful voice in my head.

I got up. I folded the clothes in the cot and put them in my cupboard. I took the bare cot and placed it outside my door to be picked up by the garbage man in the morning.

I shut the window, shutting out the cold and the night.

I climbed back under my covers, pulled my blanket over my head, and then I wept.

I wept and I wept, until the rain eventually ceased and the winds finally quieted.

And then I slipped into a dreamless slumber.

3 thoughts on “Better Place

  1. That was terrific! I really enjoyed that. Am sharing to Twitter. I’ll read it again later. Thanks for posting the story. The writing is lovely and held my attention till the end.

    Like

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