Leaving has a rhythm

I left Mumbai when I was 21. Leaving felt like a battle-axe. It’s only geography, someone said. The boy I loved, and I thought, how we understand place is how we understand ourselves. Orhan Pamuk never left Istanbul, never left his birthplace. Such precious winglessness. In Joshua Tree where the Mojave and the Colorado meet, granite bears up from within granite in fantastic plutons. Cephalopods. Ancient continents eroding and sinking like vast wallops into mud, underground, moving and heaving like animals, colliding and coming apart. This kind of rock is called gneiss. I felt like my body was gneissic rock rising from what the city had made me. What creates gneissic rock is change, when humans leave a place, we are subjected to these shifts under our skins, under our bones, at some sub-material level we can’t know. Every time we leave a place, the bands change. There is color. Gold and green.

“but in the city / in which I love you, / no one comes,” says Li-Young Lee. Lover as city, city as lover, the two intertwined like twin skins, like snakes on a bronze medallion. The closed and drawn architectural spaces are the lover. The seeking of love and coming up empty. Against the shut door, is memory. If Mumbai had been the shut door, it had also been the kites soaring. The heat and water. After I left, I bloomed a cactus flower, red and prickly, inside my head. I thought of my headache as heartache, mixing up my head and heart easily and everyday. Sundays, I drove to the airport so I could look at the airplanes flying above like white geese. All my dreams were of leaving, all my dreams were of return. My new city was an assortment of streets and rental contracts. Fallen leaves gathered in my lungs. I tried to fit in and failed. Perhaps I was not trying. Perhaps all my trying was a mask for not trying. I wanted to be cast out.

Every time I visited the city, I envied those who lived in its tiny apartments. Once a friend showed me his apartment on the 41st floor in a high-rise from which you could see the blue of the sky and the blue of the plastic tarpaulin stretched across thousands of slum hutments. Distant and close at the same time like all cities of a certain magnitude. Blood and milk. Inversions and disruptions. Ayodhya, where blood spilled over which gods lived there and for how long. Cain, red in hand and heart, constructed a settlement after a murder. Babel appears on the Tarot card, carelessly spilling its people into thin air. The historical city is saturated in color, is greyscale, is mordant, is sepia, is cartographer blue, is hieroglyph, is ombre. The power of one thing blending into another. At one end, memory in the flash- freezer. At the other end, mutation.

I returned to the city with my husband, a child in my belly, our dog in the backseat of our car, perched atop a cotton mattress, ears flapping in the breeze. Sometimes he stuck his head too far out the window and we called him Suicide Dobby in baby voices as a joke. He would die in three years of cancer. We didn’t know that then. It is the sort of thing that haunts you, the casual reference to death that you should not have made. My belly grew tight against the red batik dress I bought from a street market. The quality of returning to a place you’ve loved is strange and yielding. Every memory comes alive in magnified, magnetic, technicolor versions. Even crows are beautiful when it rains in my city, I had said in a poem. At a literary festival, the street was occupied by a gigantic sculpture of a crow. I took it to be a sign that we would stay forever. I was always looking for such signs, my entire being concentrated in an effort to remain.

Flat scales of water. Shrimp farms outside the window. Parrots on a wire.

The day my daughter was born, I held her in my arms and looked at the Arabian sea, calm and grey outside our window, and knew my heart was a swooping thing. It behaved like a bird though it was not. I had come back so she could be born here, for something as fleeting and as necessary. Euphoria lasted a long time, was so intense I could not find place in its interstices for anything else. It was postpartum and oxytocin-fueled, the manic and sleepless joy of a new baby, a new way of being. But it had coincided — I had made it coincide — with returning to a loved place, so it was hard to tell where happiness was springing from, the exact source. With the euphoria of love comes fear. In linking my happiness to the place, I became afraid. It is the kind of fear that makes some people leave before they can be left.

Leaving has a rhythm. It is a dance. There are as many reasons for betrayal as there are gods in the pantheon: meat and blood, money and air, and love. Gneiss does not refer to mineral composition but to texture. The segregation of light and dark minerals, joy and sadness. There are children on the streets of my city, glinting and chasing in the gutters, running up to cars. This is a partial image. It is the one I pull up when I feel the urge for redressal, for return. When someone else presents the same image to me, I feel angry and misunderstood on behalf of the city. I feel as if I must correct the impression.

For Michel de Crete, the city is the social experience of lacking a place, an interminable absence of place, defined by the negative. By its travel from one place within it to another, a city is full of betweenness, no-spaces, the nothing. “In the empty fort, a city / In the empty city, a settlement. Who sleeps and who wakes here,” said Kabir. Marine Drive on a summer evening is a nothing space. If I imagined the city as a color, it would be teal.

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