At 2am, this neighbourhood is finally quiet, quiet enough for me to be able to hear the dull, muted clatter of my fingertips hitting the keyboard. Of course, this being Bombay, it’s not really dark. There are windows the colour of blue-white neon pricking the night. Some places have stars, Bombay has sleepless citizens.
My room, unlike the ones that are making sure night and darkness remain separated, isn’t lit. I’m sitting on my bed, without a light on, with only the glow of the screen before me, reading old love letters.
I’d forgotten how persistent wakefulness can be. Of late, by 2am, I can feel sleep sidle up to me. Not tonight. Not for the past few nights. Maybe this is how my head processes the fact that I’ve got some serious writing to do and that I’m not doing it. Perhaps my head hopes that I will use this sleeplessness sensibly — by working. It was how the first book got written. (We won’t get into just how good an idea that was in terms of the writing. The point is, in terms of reaching word counts and meeting deadlines, it was a perfectly satisfactory plan.)
I couldn’t remember where — let’s call him B. For bastard? Beloved? Bloody Bad Idea? Bloody Good Idea? Tick all of the above — was when I was writing the first book. I have an email from him promising to buy the book. I doubt he did.
An ex-girlfriend of his described him as ‘permanently pubescent’ because it’s always a grand romance with him, even when it’s a one-night stand. Perhaps especially when it’s a one-night stand. As he wrote in one letter to me, when you’ve known the other person as nothing other than a lover, how can the memory of them be anything but sensual?
Thanks to the search feature on my email, however, I know that even though it was years after our ‘moment’, we were exchanging emails when I was going through the proofs. The emails are full of completely innocent sentences. Only with B’s letters, the most polite sentences could be a prelude to aching, heartbreaking, hedonistic romance. It took six emails for a conversation that began with me taking a crack at his hideous suit to culminate in us mauling each other against a door that wouldn’t lock, risking dignity and more for the sake calming down a fraction.
I’m not sure where B is now. He’s like a comet without a fixed orbit. He’ll suddenly streak past, without warning, and then disappear for ages. We were so painfully young when we drew circles around each other. Of course it didn’t work out. Of course, he broke up with me, all the while telling me he would always love me. Of course I’m rolling my eyes even as I type that line and as I read the ones he trotted out for me. All said and done, though, the man’s written me some curiously lovely letters over the years.
A lot of them are from when we were ‘seeing’ each other, though the truth is that we actually saw each other much better after everything was over. There are some that are from later, unexpected pop-ups in my inbox and his because, well, why not? There’s one, for instance, that ‘s just one line made up of two sentences. The first is the name of a wine. “It tasted just like you do. Did.”
I have to shut my eyes and cringe for a second when I read an email I sent him, saying I’d lost my phone and so was writing for his number. My phone was fine and dandy, as were the contacts in it. It was just a pathetic attempt at getting a few moments with him. He must have seen through me, just as I saw through him trying to let me down gently.
They’re all emails and chats. It’s almost as though some part of us knew we wouldn’t make it but was defiant that whatever we manage would be imprinted, rather than wispy like phone conversations that you forget or embroider imaginary details into over time. If I wrote him an email with one paragraph, he’d write me two. If he wrote me a line, I wrote back a letter. Photographs, quotations, science trivia, nostalgia, fantasies, songs, memory — “It’s aphro city, love,” he wrote to me when years later I sent him an amused email, commenting on how there must have been more hours in the day when we were together because otherwise, this output seems impossible. “It’s ours for those times.”
“Those” times? Which times are those times? I’d asked him that back then too. He wrote nothing in response. The first reply had come within seconds of my email being sent. Evidently this question in contrast deserved no urgency. Some people have Paris, we have aphro city, an imaginary palace made of fluid sensuality, madness and heartbreak. Because ultimately the winding paths do end up at a river of rushing, miserable bitterness, with undercurrents of deceit and anger.
Going through those old emails tonight, I have to say, I’m glad it was on these banks that we built our aphro city. The sadness really does make the romance feel more romantic.
Someone told me about a book of love letters that’s being put together. The editor of this book has decided no emails are allowed; only letters. There isn’t enough romance in emails, apparently. It’s true that Arial may not necessarily be the most sensitive transmitters of emotion, but there’s something that emails betray that letters rarely can: a sense of urgency and immediacy. Letters, with their ink and paper, age. They’re delicate, beautiful and changing. These emails, in contrast, are unyielding. They look the same as they did on the day they were sent. Whether it’s the email in which I write about marking him as mine or the one in which he tells me he has no moral compass, it all feels as much of the present as it does of the past.
B and I aren’t a memory. We are torrents of words that can be trashed, but not erased.
It’s 4am. Now it really is dark. Only the stairwells in surrounding buildings are lit up and I’m locking up the gates to aphro city. These are no longer those times.