On smoke

I woke up at 7:30 in the morning from a dream of a woman whose face was covered with the smoke of her cigarette, and even though the smoke must have disappeared almost instantly I couldn’t see her face and from then on, on this walk I was taking in a space accessible only through minds, everywhere I saw faces covered with disappearing smoke, sidewalks scented with its memory, hands flicking ash for as far as I could see, filling me with a sense of dread I’d only felt once before, almost a year ago when, walking at midnight through Prague, everyone I saw on the street and inside windowed rooms resembled a writer whose photographs I had seen on Google but whose name I just couldn’t remember at the time, and after reaching the hotel that night despite my racing heart, I didn’t leave my room for the rest of the trip.

I kept sitting on my bed for some time, resting my head on the headboard, trying to understand the shapes and shadows of the morning: how light transforms a concrete room into a body with hidden geometry, visible only to the eye that stays. You have to love the room, the body, before it reveals its secrets to you, its incomplete circles, stories of its earlier inhabitants. I didn’t get up from the bed until A. came into my room with a cup of tea sweetened with blackberry jam, a foreign recipe she’d learnt from a Russian poem, and asked me, even though she almost already knew, what I was thinking. I told her what I wasn’t thinking about: proofreading a book on Karachi, written, as these books always are, by an American, where nothing happens except stories and the city is nowhere to be found except in descriptions. I started telling her how a foreigner writing about India makes me uncomfortable, how writing a life you’ve not lived, even in mind, is dishonest and hence simple, before she interrupts to tell me that Karachi is not in India. I smile, surprised, embarrassed at my incorrectness.

I stayed on the chair for some time after she left, thinking about spellings and periods, rewriting sentences, and how just yesterday at lunch, when they were discussing the correct use of comma, I wanted to tell them that commas remind me of a photograph I had seen somewhere, perhaps in a second hand book store in Daryaganj, perhaps in D.’s house: reflection on a granite wall of a man walking in Panjim, with a bright blue line at the right side of the photograph. I had tried to imagine the scene without the blue and it looked so different, so unlike the image I still remember. Treat the comma like a colour, a lost friend’s grandfather had once answered my grammar question, after giving me a set of watercolours. Everything you ever need to know is inside this box, he’d said.

I was still half-thinking about colour and what her grandfather had said, I don’t even know his name or what he did and what else he knew, when someone said: “If the commas were removed, these sentences wouldn’t be as clear but the meaning would still be the same.”

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As I walked up the stairs of the office later that day, I saw smoke in intervals behind the door and I stood there transfixed by a presence without a body and for less than a moment, the smoke from the cigarette became a spirit moving about, looking perhaps for something vanished long ago. I entered through the door and the vapor covered my face when I heard a shutter sound.

My heart always beats loudly in this smog city, where nothing is ever fully revealed, where everything is covered in its own dust, everything just out of sight.

What happens when the smoke lifts?

—–

(This was first published in the Kindle Magazine, where I write a monthly column on cities and memory, etc.)

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