Khelaghar (The Playhouse)

Maria Uzma Ansari

We can only hide behind counterfeit relationships forged by Biology or by the erroneous actions of nature for so long. Nature’s solecisms have to be paid for by us picayune humans. The fallibility of biological relationships has always been so high that most biological relationships are destined to fail in my eyes, because they are built on the ideas of fideism. Biology could not dictate what we felt or how we felt, I had come to learn from the closest associations in my life. I do not have any recollection of these associations or maybe I locked them up somewhere, deep in my subconscious and lost the keys, willingly.
I have never felt a sense of belonging, my birth has been a coincidence.

My parents were vagabonds of sorts, possessing the spirits of vagrants and a lust for life; They lived out of suitcases. This impermanence had oft made me wonder how it’d be for me to have a life rooted in a single city; conveniently the place of my birth, where I would grow old, grow cold and die. Where my funeral would be attended by friends who had known me all my life, having been frequent visitors at my home for Sunday lunches. The familiar sensations of home ought to have felt like biting into a cheesecake but in my case the familiar sensations of home were never warm or fuzzy, they were lukewarm like coffee with no milk, no cream, no sugar.

People had often inquired how I had grown like a grove without any roots and I usually never had the answers they were seeking. Therefore, in order to find out— like handwriting cramped due to the lack of paper, I packed nineteen years into two boxes and moved across continents, ending up at the only semblance of home known to me. It took two dizzying flights, a 5-hour layover in-between them and a train ride before I was greeted by the unsparing odour of platform no.8.

The stench of fish irritated my serotonins and histamines to send me whirlpooling into a dizzying sneezing frenzy. A drizzle cast a glossy, translucent layer over the city and by the time I caught a yellow taxi to start for home, the drizzle had taken the shape of torrential rain. I could well & good taste salt crystals sitting on my tongue even though the coast was a 100-km drive from the city. Soaking wet but still perspiring from the suffocating humidity, a thick distasteful coating grew on my tongue.

“240” The driver said, pulling up the cab in front of an ashy red boundary wall. I had a wallet but to no avail because money was astray in my bag. I would have to rummage through it to find change.

Quick-tempered by nature I turned to the cab driver to ask him in Hindi “500 ka change hoga, bhaiya? (do you have a change for Rs. 500?)”

“Hein? 500 ka? (What, of 500?)” his voice unsuccessfully concealing his reluctance.

I somehow managed to find a hundred, a fifty, two twenties and five tens and entrusted the money into his hand. I waited for him to finish counting the money and he signalled me to leave with a wave of his palm.

‘’Khelaghar” the sign beside the gate of the house read. My grandmother vehemently objected to Khelaghar being sold while she lived.

“Not in my lifetime” she had retorted when the idea of her ancestral home being leased out was floated to her.

Setting foot in the home I had never known, I took a mental note to remember everything.

The verandah had been gathering dust like it was never in use before. On the patio were dried leaves that were never swept. There were cobwebs living in sun emblems of doors and all the bulbs in the house except for one, had fused. Grandmother’s favourite papaya tree in the backyard wasn’t standing anymore. The walls inside the house were paper.

Cupboards raised from the cold mosaic floor were crammed with Jibanananda Das, Michael Madhushudhan Dutt, Robi Thakur and Bengali renderings of the Bhagavad Gita. The sitting parlour which must have once been lit by incandescent laughter was now showing signs of abandonment. The madhavilata was climbing to the second floor of the house, clinging to its walls to conceal everything that was unprepossessing and unattractive about Khelaghar. Khelaghar had caught a flu due to old age.

Even so, in my preparations to live at Khelaghar I was determined to make renovations. I took out the dusty curtain tresses for washing. I decorated the old beds with cotton white sheets and covered them with brocade bedspreads. The bedposts would support the mosquito net to ward off mosquitoes, like talismans warded off demons.

I’ve slowly begun to shake off my unease with Khelaghar but I cannot shake the smell of dormancy that lingers here, not even when I burn effervescent candles, colitas or bring out the ménage à trois. I plan on getting the old mirror in what is now my bedroom fixed, as well. It is shattered and has only been taped together. It is possible for someone to cut a finger open on its broken shards, if one tries.

The entire house sometimes creaks in the middle of the night as if aggressively conspiring to wake me up. I sometimes hear rain beating on the roof, pond water in the backyard sloshing and the mirage of the papaya tree swaying but I tell myself it is the wind and send myself back into slumber.

On days I cannot calm my nerves because I don’t stop hearing construction noises and footsteps from the floor above, my somniums trail off to cadaver-like bodies that lie strewn one atop the other on hospital floors preparing to be engulfed by the gloaming darkness of quietus. In my dreams, I stand in the middle of a hospital ward as the strong smell of iodoform travels towards me, mixed with air to tickle my nose.

Death has extended its scrawny hand to me within the four walls of this house. l have been tied to this place by occult ropes, my limbs lax from being unable to move. Here, I have felt death dig deep into my skin, switching its folds for scars and lesions. Gash marks on my red wrists are leftovers from encounters with the intangible grip of a hand.

Today, I had woken up feeling paralysed and charged with hollowness disallowing me from congregating my thoughts and without enough vehemence to fling myself out of bed to fetch a bottle of water. I saw dawn breaking from the corner of my eye and lay on my bed, focusing on the blades of the electric ceiling fan as I felt light come in through the curtains, washing over everything in the room and turning it to a pale hint of blue.

I instinctively wanted to pull up my covers, sensing something tighten its grip by placing a physical hand on me, as I lay unguarded. My chest weighed down from something heavy on it, crushing my bones into chalk powder, seizing me with trepidation. My body was warm, even though my feet felt like they had caught frostbite, forcing me to look at them.

And then, I noticed movement.

I closed my eyes to everything happening around me but the blood vessels that ran amok through my body became more prominent with what I can only describe as a growing toothache. A toothache that began from my frostbitten feet before it spread all over me, clutching every cell in every limb. I had fallen into asphyxia.

My breathing was obstructed as though my alveoli had gathered moss. My irregular ventricular contractions gave me the impression that my heart was mothering a clot. My head felt like it had experienced a concussion, disjointed from the rest of me, it floated about the room. The hallucinations that followed must have been a result of the blocked supply of oxygen to my brain.

I wasn’t afraid, I never had been. Neither when a silhouette had turned towards me to reveal serpent eyes nor when I had chased a group of gentlemen in a crowded lane, only to discover they had glassy, translucent eyes, the crystalline cornea covering the whole of it. The sight had caused a scream to whirl around my belly button, threatening to crawl up and claw at my vocal chords but I had learnt to abort it.

I have felt the closest to sanctitude when I’ve laid with the demons in my bed and the ghost from the mirror overlooking me.
Of all the places I haunt, I have only experienced the familiar sensations of home at a graveyard.
I knew that the girl I had seen in my reflection and the one I’d see from the corner of my eye were clairvoyance of the same phenomenon.
I knew we could dilute into each other, never wholly or fully but substantially like a black pupil and a black iris can never be homogeneous but can work to complement one another.
I knew that if I didn’t move right now, I should be ready to be turned into stone, the very thought of which made my toes wriggle involuntarily.
I finally darted myself out of bed to sit up straight, screaming three times before falling silent.
The house fell silent.

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