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Letters on the Wall

Shakko B

Every night I wake up in the middle of sleep, sweating in waterfalls. My roommates sleep cautiously, back to the wind. The balcony door remains half open and hits the partition intermittently with a dull thud.
This happened for the first few weeks after I moved into the hostel. But all the waking ups felt the same. So I rolled over and soon went back to sleep.
But the nights further wore my sleep thin. I woke up in fits and starts, always and forever. All night, I would find myself jerking my eyes open to the jail-like barricade of the balcony. It was a sentry at the edge of our room. There was this finality in its existence that had the power to make people sad. It made me sad.
The back alley blue fox…
And then I would lie awake, looking at the ceiling and to the silhouettes of my roommates clumsily lying on their own beds. It seemed to me as if they were not them; as if they had been replaced when I wasn’t looking.
After a while, when their bodies fell asleep completely, the darkness would strengthen around them. They looked like mounds of the night. Hollow shadows that lay staring through invisible eyes.
I would wistfully turn away and let my body fall asleep. My mind, however, would leave and roam the halls of this building. It isn’t as old as it looks. It was a hotel, apparently, built for the rich and rascally. It had 11 stories and a swimming pool, which now lies dry and marked with strains of vomit from drunken escapades. I have difficulty imagining the glorious past of this building.
The back alley blue fox…
I have walked most of its corridors and staircases, lightly holding on to the walls or handrails. In some places they feel much older than its age, and in others, too new. The building is a sad space. We live here.
The back alley blue fox…
#
I don’t know how we exist, drowned in our selves. We share our time between the reading room, and the library, classes and the lawn. We smoke in hot and cold balconies, and we smoke everywhere else when no one is looking. My blood is full of caffeine borrowed from the canteen log books. The coffee they make is an unmitigated disaster, but one that I just cannot do without.

There is a reason why we school here. Why a university functions out of an old hotel that it has acquired as a donation from the government. No one knows why the property is disputed, but apparently that is the reason we were allowed to set up shop here.
There is a reason, of course. But it is a forgotten presence at the back of our minds. None of us love it here. But none of us absolutely hate it either.
The back alley blue fox…
#
The cooler in our room swivels slowly and tries to air all of us. It hums in a low metallic tone, and the air winds past us in layers. Whenever I wake up in the night, the sound makes me think of someone watching us. I look at the cooler humming in the corner and notice how the tiny lights on its dashboard look like four eyes staring unblinkingly into the distance.

One night, in one of the myriad dirty balconies where we have our smoke breaks, Mysore told me about the suicide that happened here. Someone jumped off one of the balconies adjacent to our rooms. Since then all of them have been wrapped in iron grills to ensure minimum suicides. Not accounting for the suicidal tendencies that they arise in the imprisoned students, obviously.
Mysore says it was back in the days when it was a hotel. The family of the man apparently sued the hotel. That is the reason it is a disputed property.
I ask him which room it happened in. He doesn’t know. He says that no one knows. It could be any one. He is sure it was at least above the sixth floor though.
We live on the Seventh.

The back alley blue fox…
#
I stare at the light pollution tripping over the concrete edge of the balcony and spilling into the room. I imagine this balcony as the site of the suicide. I imagine wanting to die. No. I imagine wanting to not live. It isn’t very hard.
the back alley blue fox..
The man walks across the room, unmindfully. He is probably thinking of other things that shouldn’t matter now. He is not sure if he is going to jump or not. He keeps distracting himself. Itches a spot to blood. Shrugs.
He looks at the concrete parking lot all the way down. There is a faint registration of the possible pain this might cause. He doesn’t let the thought gestate and puts his weight on the edge. It takes the lightest of shoves to float himself out of its boundaries. And then, even before the finality of his decision can hit him, he hits the ground.

The back alley blue fox…
#
Sometimes Raza and I read poems late into the night. When his roommates are away, or asleep, and I am completely unable to tolerate mine any longer, we accumulate the butts of un-burnt cigarettes and smoke them to oblivion. We cough a lot and laugh a lot.
One such day, he told me the story of someone dying in the basement. It was apparently when the hotel was yet to open. One of the workers slipped and fell down the basement stairs, which were not yet completed then. He broke his neck and lay at the foot of the staircase, dead. Apparently he lay staring up at the top of the stairs as if looking hard at someone standing there. The workers who were present there were so scared that they quit.
I asked if it was built on an Indian burial ground. Raza didn’t really appreciate the joke.

The back alley blue fox…
#
The yellow walls that rise up along the back staircase, which doubles as a fire escape, are coarse like unkempt skin. It has the texture of something young but rough. I sometimes have dreams about it going on forever and ever, me dying and withering on a lonely landing, witness to multiple closed doors. Somehow I keep dreaming beyond the death, staring vacantly at an indefinite space in front of me. I don’t wake up from that dream, but simply realize that I am lying on my bed. My eyes are already open, looking at whatever is in front of me.
The first time that happened I spent the entire day being paranoid about my consciousness. I was almost sure I hadn’t woken up. The ground felt softer and flight seemed a veritable possibility. I felt a stronger-than-usual desire to jump from high places. I knew I could fly down.
I also knew I couldn’t.

The back alley blue fox…
#
The back stairwells are haunted. People excitedly whisper stories about how footsteps always disappear and linger in the distance, going much further than the possibility of any open doors. They walk slowly, taking their time. The steps are deliberate and sure. They sound like heavy steps of boots. But the footsteps are those of elegance. Of someone who has learnt to walk well.
There are so many stories about its origins. Someone had once told me the story of a young Russian painter who used to stop in this hotel whenever he came here. He would apparently get the workers to open the usually inaccessible roof and set up his easel to paint the skyline. He also took photos in and around the place. He donated one of his paintings to the owner, who reportedly hung it over the erstwhile reception desk.
He was well liked by everyone because of his charming presence. I believe it is indeed difficult to dislike a landscape painter.
the back alley blue fox..
He was murdered outside the airport on one of his trips to the city. Two men stabbed him to death before running away. No one really knows why.
It might be him who walks up the stairs trying to access the roof, which is now even beyond the purview of bribery.
There’s also the story of a man who looks for his daughter, stopping everywhere to check all the nooks and crannies. His footsteps carry away to the empty mess halls, where there are stories of chairs being moved around at night. A guard sits by its closed gates. I have never found him awake.

The back alley blue fox…
#
I lie on the bed thinking about the footsteps wandering from the staircase to the mess hall. What an infinitely long walk to continue forever. The cooler watchfully drones on. I do not like the darkness of cities. It seems so dim. As if someone has stolen the night away and replaced it with a diseased version of the day.
My mind comes back from the alleys of the world. It settles here, in this room. The room is full of shadows that don’t mean anything. All of them shift and rock and mingle with each other. But they cling to the hanging shirts and curtains they are attached to. They never become substantial in their own right. The movements are sudden, sometimes. But things in this world move in a certain way. You recognize them.
the back alley blue fox, the back alley blue fox, the back alley blue fox…

This time the blue fox tumbles into my mumbles. I hum painfully making it sound like someone is holding my mouth shut. My roommate stirs and settles. I try to keep the blue fox away for a while but the sentence keeps barging in; thebackalleybluefoxthebackalleybluefoxthebackalleybluefox…
I shake my head trying to throw it out. It sounds like a war in my ears, but neither of the two other people move. I settle down once again. The stack of books and paraphernalia on my desk looks like a thick block of night. I stare for a moment and let the light from its edges reach my eye. I see the faint lines dividing each book, and the clusters of pens, papers and cigarette boxes lying nearby. My breath settles for a while, as I stare at the spot right above the bunch of books. It’s empty now. But that’s where I find the letters.
They are sentences that seldom make sense. And their appearance makes even less so. I found the first one on the day I moved in. I thought someone had scribbled it in. It is, after all, a hostel room. I didn’t really think about it. But it got stuck in my mind. I just kept thinking about it. Initially it wasn’t even a problem. Thinking isn’t really a problem. It’s the thoughts that are.
One day I noticed that the sentence had disappeared. It had read something like ‘Goats don’t gloat over oatmeal.’ It ceased to be funny then.
The sentence got stuck in me. It was a fever that never went away. I was surprised to realize that the sentence became more frightening to me than the clear erasure of a very distinct etching on my wall. I dreaded the appearance of the sentence. Although I knew I was the one thinking it, and it didn’t really mean anything, I had a clear lack of control. I felt haunted by the words.
One day a new set of words appeared, and they once again got stuck in my mind. There was a slippery but long lasting glue in there; a spider web that kept catching the words.
Sometimes I would feel like a train station. As time passed the sentences stopping there increased slowly, but surely. I was inhabited by these sentences that would come back and lose all their meaning through fervent repetition. Only the fear remained etched in them. Just the words.
Sometimes I would jumble up the words by accident; often in sleep or general unmindfulness. And it felt as if an earthquake took place inside me. I would feel my body shake, and break, momentarily. I could feel hope leave for a while trying to get away from me. After a few moments of numbness, my common sense returned. I settled inside it and tried to untangle the mess of words. I saw people around me notice my movements and mumblings and discretely ignore them. I was relieved.
thebackalleybluefoxthebackalleybluefoxthebackalleybluefoxthebackalleybluefoxthebackalleybluefox.
THE BACK ALLEY BLUE FOX!
The sentence drowned this time. I didn’t know for how long, but it did. I lay staring at the blue eyes of the cooler until I fell asleep.
#
Mornings make the room mundane again. The sun light makes the shadows disappear behind ordinary things. Their movements are no longer mysterious but inhibiting. I lie on my bed thinking about the day ahead. I am not sure about the routine. The days and dates have dissolved into the background long ago. It doesn’t matter.
I remember the quarrels that I will have to walk into as I enter the class. How people stare through each other, disqualifying their physical existence. How lovers shout in secret locations loudly, announcing their position to the entire building.
The building eavesdrops on all of our thoughts and conversations. I feel it carrying the voices and the words and the feelings in each of our faces and minds away from us in echoes. They travel along the identical corridors and the infinite steps, in and out of other people’s heads.
Raza often caresses the walls and asks it, lovingly, why it is sad. I don’t think he has ever found any answers.
I slip out of the bed and walk to my desk. No letters were left for me today.
thebackalleybluefoxthebackalleybluefoxthebackalleybluefoxthebackalleybluefox…


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