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It was the only two-storey house in the neighbourhood, the rest of the land surrounding it was consumed by the high-rise buildings of corporate real estate agents, milking off a zealously bursting population, and a sky that seemed limitless. I was on its roof, those same structures rising like behemoths which, it seemed, would drop down low, scoop us up and devour us in the name of progression, of advancement. I felt no sun on my face, and no breeze slithering through my clothes.

The roof was a small cement-floored area, surrounded by 3-foot high grilled bars. And at one end of it were a small room, and consequentially, another roof, which held the tanks feeding water to the residence. A ladder rested neatly at one end of its wall. Even though the roof was small, the room was almost fourteen feet high, and hence, its wall shone like a white, expansive beam of light among the grey-tinted colossuses and the thick polluted air.

I looked up at her; she was sitting right at the centre of the wall, legs dangling of its edges: two sticks of kurta-clad limbs resting on a ledge. Such ledges, each of about five feet, were scattered intermittently along the face of the wall. Her hair was knotted into the tightest of buns and she had her arms resting on palms shoved against the concrete beside her. Our eyes met.

“Come,” she said, grinning, “Sit on my wall”. I smiled back, a little hesitant, still unsure of the reason behind the invitation. But I followed through and walked to the ladder. The ladder was painted a pale, shining white. Or rather, it had been, once. As I climbed up, I could see that the paint had fallen off in a lot of the places from repeated use, and wherever the white coat remained, it held on meekly. I reached the top and went up to her, standing behind, her arched back forming a smooth curve that stooped into the ground, a quiet, brooding arc. She continued to look across, away from the roof.

I was about to sit down beside her when I noticed something peculiar. On her left side, there seemed to have formed a semi-circular dent in the plaster, the whiteness giving way to a darker, brownish texture. I surmised it had been formed by the continuous sitting of someone else who had come here, someone else who used to sit on her wall, just as I was about to. I retracted to her right side but there, I found the same kind of indentation. But here, the shade of brown had become darker, the white almost invisible against its overpowering permanence. I felt an uncertain pang of something creeping up inside of me, a sting I could not yet define that had emerged at the sight of the serrations. I moved past her and sat a bit further away from her.

“Mmm, why are you far away?” Softly, she muttered. Why, indeed? I didn't speak. I rarely did, it just wasn't my thing, and hence, it wasn't ours. I felt an urgent need to not succumb to what those dark patches meant, or had once meant, and also an ambiguous necessity to learn the history behind each shade of brown that had formed around her. Sulphuric inquiries burned the edges of my mind. I could not yet understand it, this need. I looked down and saw that the ledge had ended exactly at the edge of where I had refused to sit and the next ledge was farther up the face of the roof-on-roof. Either way, I had nowhere to rest my feet. I was in limbo; I would either have to stay here, uncomfortable, not too far away from her, not too close, or I could move to the next ledge and increase our distance. What could I do?

Words choked my throat; the art of the spoken word haunted me. I wanted to tell her to come to me but the thoughts I wished to express, they never came out. Instead, I just rubbed the patch beside me, indicating to her my wish. She smiled and shook her head. That was her place, the edge she now perched on. Her stay there was irrevocable. What would make her come? What would make her stay? I did not know.

My throat released its cruel clasp. “You should let your hair down.” She smiled again, this time a hint of mischief in the curve of her lips, a flickering, bright glow in her eyes. She softly touched her bun with the tip of her fingers, and as she did so, her other hand, subconsciously, went to the patch on her right, a velvety caress that reeked of longing. Gentle fingers probed into unseen knots of hair; it was as if she was contemplating listening to me. But she shook her head.

“I don't do that anymore.”
I had no choice, I realised. I shuffled over beside her, her high cheekbones going higher at my arrival; she seemed genuinely happy. I was about to place my feet on the ledge but footprints stared back at me. It was too late now; I had gone too deep. I put my feet inside those prints. The stain of someone else's feet proved too big for my feet, so that it formed a dark outline around their contours. The brown stained my clothes and there appeared to be a heat emanating from the surface, a heat that was getting warmer the longer I stayed there. She took my hand in hers; it was warm too. The edge where I sat was hot now, burning me, searing the skin it kissed upon. The intensity of the need to know increased further, the need to know of a time when hair stroked her shoulders, when clear paint embraced walls, when her inhibitions were worth letting go of. But I recalled how her face had changed, and it struck me that the importance and the gravity of what once was would not allow me the freedom to ask.

I forced a smile back. The sky darkened, clouds gathered. Lightning filled their insides, ready to burst with drops of purity. But the clouds, I knew, never would. Some questions you never ask.

By S. N. Rasul

The Last of the Men in Hats

“Last of the men in hats hops off the coil,
And a final scene, unfolds, inside…”

Children are cursed. They have the curious ability to see the world without its inner meanings; their eyes are devoid of the cynicism that makes the world seem fingerpainted with shades of grey. The ignorance the world is so quick to defile and cherish is not merely bliss; it's more a blanket, which keeps the mind warm. Children are cursed, but the curse would be a blessing, a salvation for those older and weaker.

But if it had stopped at merely that, one could have reconciled with their personal loss of ignorance. No, as the years add their monumental weight on our backs, the world seems more and more ephemeral, as if transience could seep into existence. But it does. While we wait for the future, and while we ponder our pasts, while we predict and conserve to live up to our own image, the world grows ever farther from the realities of our minds. But children, they feel the very earth move. For them the wind on their faces is not merely a cooling breeze, but a story, a reality that can touch.

But even children are cursed.
What can they know? They perceive those older than them as wise, as if age could add to a man's acumen, they view our detachment, the very crutch that cripples us, as the state they must obtain. As if the mere accumulation of experience could equal understanding. In their guileless viewing of the world, they miss out on the meaning of their own wealth, and misapprehend ours. Our weary detachment is not wisdom, it is boredom. As life's monotonous circles constantly overlap, those old are afflicted with the same foolish repetition, over and over. Our covenant lies in the hope that something will change, in the collective despair of seeing nothing new.

But not just children are cursed.

The pen, every time it was touched to paper, made a distinctive click, a remnant of old engineering. In the age of ball point precision, old clickers were a rarity. An elderly antique, far past its prime, but all the parts still worked.

But then again, he mused, we, the elderly, always come in pairs. And all the parts still work, he thought, glancing at the neat writing across paper. My words he thought, made real, made absolute on paper.

A certain pride can be taken from a mind spent in dispensing its thoughts on paper; a naïve pleasure can be exacted from the ache of sore fingers after the act of writing, an enjoyment reaped from seeing words on paper. The mind attains a certain loss of clarity, the inevitable exhaustion of spent seed. He could feel it now, the oncomings of sleep, of rheumatoid fingers in spasm, of thoughts that merely stated the idea but refrained from exploration. A good feeling.

“Oh, but what can you know?”

Ah, yes, the dissenter, the Great Sceptic, back again are you?
Friends, given enough time, start to resemble an amalgamation of each other. One takes the mannerisms of the other, while the other takes the ideas of the one. In his case, in the long years of his life that had claimed even his wife, his scepticism had survived. And as it is wont to happen for those who have spent long periods in companionship, even their mutual hate becomes something they start to share. The Sceptic was no different, he was no different. They shared the same mind. They were friends born of hate.

Must you malign me, old friend; must these simple pleasures be also gazed upon in such vile scrutiny? Must my words be yours to mangle?

“Oh, but what can you know?”
He forced old bones to collect, old limbs to gather; old flesh to shake and slowly, with the infinite care of one sick and tired, rose from the chair. An accomplishment that rankled. For the strong to grow so weak, he mused. The Sceptic in his head chuckled, not at weakness, but at the claim of past strength. The Sceptic's thoughts coloured his, the optimism that he would so tenuously hold on to faded. He had thought, in youthless juvenile foolishness, that dispensing darker thoughts on paper could somehow scrape the palate of his mind clean.

He compared his mind to a sponge, forever absorbing and retaining, but refusing to let go of past hurts and wrongs, not matter how much it was wrung.

Slow shuffling steps guided him out of a study that looked veritably alive with clutter, into a house that smelled of manifest death, a house that seemed to be content to wait for vengeance.

Paintings that spoke of a mind divided, plaques of poems that bespoke of halved hearts, mementos of a past that was rippled with success and long periods of personal anguish. A writer, an artist, strives to bare his soul for perusal, and hates and loves it when he gets what he wants. The Sceptic agreed.

“Bitter, we share bitterness.”
The garden, the only other place in exception of the study that showed signs of life, of movement and human touch. Painstaking effort had been spent to make the roses bloom so. But red, it seemed offended the sensibilities of the earth. Cold, coal clouds had gathered in the time he had spent in his study, and the past promise of rain became a promise kept. For those who wear glasses, the first drop of rain on their person that they truly regret, is the one that blurs their glasses. He couldn't see the red for want of rain.

The blind cannot truly appreciate the gift of sight. No. That appreciation comes from those who have lost enough of it to realise, that the world is far, far more than they can ever discern.

And in that same vein, the untutored do not know the value of knowledge. That particular ignominy is reserved for those who have learned and forgotten, and those who have learned too little. The sudden desire to see the red in his roses, the green in his garden came upon him from the darkness of his thoughts. It wasn't the Sceptic who prompted this, or the nascent urgings of the writer that he had fashioned in himself. A small, infinitesimal portion of him had remembered childhood, had remembered the blaze of colour that had rendered the world real.

With his glasses off, he felt the blurred edges come slowly into focus. He felt his sight as if it were tangible, as if the spectacles were a barrier that more held him back, while allowing him to glimpse what he could not attain.

The red of roses seemed nearer. The world seemed real. For that moment, he saw the world as children do.
But the Sceptic disagreed, as he was wont to.

“You cannot hope,”
But for him, the writer, the painter, the old man, this intimate pleasure, he would save.

“This I need to save,
A simple trinket locked away,
I choose my final scene today,”

By Tareq Adnan


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