The House of Cards

‘So you’re all set for the day?’ Azeem asks in his toneless voice. ‘You are coming, right?’

I look at him. He is sitting on the armchair, eyes fixed at the bookshelf, watching the spines of Homers’, Dickens’, Austens’ and Brontes’ with an insatiable gaze.

‘Yes, maybe,’ I reply while returning to my desk to complete the letter I had been writing.

‘Maybe,’ he repeated slowly after a while as if making some sense of the word.

I know that he would never cajole me into going, my refusal would mean that he simply goes alone. Yet, his tacit expression spoke otherwise- that my presence would be somewhat appealing to him.

The shirt I was wearing was clinging to my back, sweat tracing the bones of my spine. I got up and opened the balcony door; there was not a trace of sunlight. I touched my face, rubbed the side of my nose and was left with a grimy, oily residue on my hands. Awaiting rain to fall on the now deserted streets, I came back in.

I have been close to people in the same way I have been with myself, just that I’m unfiltered chaos by myself, whereas, what others get is an infinitesimal part of that chaos. But with Azeem, my ideas had an urge to jut out of my mind. I look at him again, and every time I find something new hidden in those wistful eyes, which speak more than the monosyllables uttered once in a while.

‘I heard you fighting with papa,’ I remarked in a fervent tone.

‘Yes,’ said Azeem with an expression of dejected sadness.

‘What was it about?’

‘I don’t know, the usual.’

‘What usual?’

‘The usual, usual.’

‘Why can’t you tell me? Why do I tell you everything? You are a horrible person, you know that! And if I’m not admitted to your sadness, I don’t wish to know to share your happiness too,’ I finished, already regretting those words and turned around.

He stood up, grabbed his crutches and moved slowly towards the bookshelf; his hands reached for a book, his muscles flexed into an arch, like that of an intrinsic piece of architecture, his shoulders were perfect and his hands agile as if to compensate for his languid legs. The acrid smell of pomade which he always applied, reached my nose, and he crumbled down into a chair facing me. I felt miserable for some reason. That smell makes me sad. But he loves it and uses nothing else, almost as if he’s afraid that his hair won’t be the same without it.

And that I did not give anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do whatever I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes,‘ he spoke directly looking at me.  ‘You know who said this? Mary Oliver!’

For some reason, this made me even more vexed. Quoting people and quieting people, that’s all he ever did. I did not wish to say anything more and remained silent pretending to write something important.

‘Ada, listen,’ he whispered with a voice which quivered with a glint of sadness. ‘It’s just that I don’t wish to disclose the most intimate details of my life. They are to be devoured within the heart. So that no one can claim their part. It’s my pain, that’s the only real thing I can claim for myself. You know when I am sad, I am always thinking about myself. There is this overwhelming feeling which cuts me off from the world. I feel more alive with every step I take, every breath is a mournful celebration. Yes. A celebration, Ada,’ he spoke softly, looking at my confused expression. ‘Celebrations are meant to make you alive, and this makes me so alive. Maybe that’s why I don’t hate being sad, nor am I afraid of it. Why should I be afraid of something which makes me more alive and close to myself?’ he finished with an ounce of satisfaction and looked at me. Just looked at me. I knew he did not want any reply, it was a look which embarked a new journey, which said here- you are a part of me now, I’m allowing you to know me because -I love you.

‘I am going for a walk,’ I said, suddenly. ‘I’ll be back before lunch. Tell amma, will you?’

He nodded.

I put on my small bonnet because I knew it would rain and did not feel like holding an umbrella.

I went to the park just below our house. There was no one there except a small child with pale blue eyes, crying hysterically. I went over and sat next to him and asked, ‘Why are you crying?’ looking at the shattered house of cards.

He paid no heed to my presence and continued to bawl.

I took the cards and built a house out of it again.

‘See, it’s okay now!’ I exclaimed proudly.

But watching the now perfectly built castle he sobbed harder. His expression was that of bewilderment, accusation and betrayal as if I had done something which shouldn’t have been done. Suddenly, I felt a huge droplet hit my nose. I looked above and saw the sky turn black. Within a matter of seconds, it started raining cats and dogs. I saw Azeem peeping through the window, raindrops mapping the curves of his face, reaching his mouth. I wonder how salty it must have tasted. The sound of the rain, the muffled cries of the child and Azeem’s innocuous smile, all blended into an inexplicable emotion. It felt like a new beginning.

‘Ada,’ Azeem called gleefully, ‘come, amma is calling. Lunch is ready.’

I nodded.

The child had stopped crying. He trotted, jerking his tiny head sideways, every time he took a step, leaving the perfect house of cards behind.

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