Selenology – by Apoorva Saini

by TBLM

“In the end, the only stories that loving you brought me were the stories of what it meant to not be loved by you.”

— Sharanya Manivannan, Conchology

*

That evening, the sun was slow to set, the sky cloudless, and the moon—eager. And so it loomed, amid the soft contrails left behind by the airplanes on the gentle azure sky, early and agog: that paperwhite moon. I came with my eighteen-year-old kohl-smudged eyes to see you. You came with your fervent self of twenty-one. We were in the heart of Delhi, at a café that has its tables fixed around a magnificent Gular tree. We were both melancholic and in need to be heard: I’d missed a train that afternoon for the first time in my life, and you were—in love with me.

You had told me about your feelings a few weeks before this. We used to meet almost daily in college for the rehearsals of a play we were both acting in, yet our conversations happened mostly over SMS. We were both very shy, and our friends painfully inquisitive. And so when we came to meet under the cloudless sky that evening, we chose a solitary table behind the Gular’s wide trunk.

‘I wasn’t supposed to be here today, you know.’ I said and immediately regretted it because you already knew, and rather well. That afternoon, when I’d stood hopeless and confused with tears running down my face on the railway platform, you’d happened to call me. I’d told you how I ran after my train because I was late, but had missed it. You’d asked me if I was okay and what I was going to do; there were still five hours for the next train to leave. I’d told you I didn’t know. You’d asked me then if I wanted to hang out for a while, and that’s how we’d come to meet at the café.

‘Hey, relax. It’s okay.’ you curved your lips into a smile. Of course, you knew. I became aware you were reading my thoughts. I instantly picked one of the fallen Gular leaves from the table, began fidgeting with it, and spoke without looking at you, ‘No, I mean. I feel terrible for having bothered you like that over the phone. I was in shock; didn’t even know I was crying until you asked me why I was. I am so embarrassed right now.’

‘Listen, don’t worry about it, please. I’m glad to see you, in fact — —’ you said, and left the sentence with an unexpected pause. That pause was just long enough to make me drop the leaf and look at you. And the moment our eyes met, you added ‘more than you can imagine.’ A shudder ran through my spine. You weren’t going to cut away from your feelings today, and unlike over the phone, I couldn’t respond with a vague smiley or avoid the topic altogether. The birds in the tree sang a bittersweet song.

A waiter took our order and as the evening moved forward, I told you why I’d kept my thoughts about you so kept. I’d been scared to find out my feelings. The idea that they mattered so deeply to another person, to you, overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t figure out how to respond to your attention. When we talked that evening we conversed as we’d never done before: of uncertainties, of courage, and of allowing oneself to be loved.

After a point, we abandoned our footwear among the strewn leaves under the table. And when I said that I liked you but was too nervous to get into a relationship, you found my feet and brushed it softly with your toe. You asked me if I wanted you to stop. The birds in the Gular created a ruckus as their song reached its crescendo.

‘No.’

You leaned in and placed a kiss right on my mouth. It was quick but did what it meant to. When our lips parted we immediately checked the vicinity. There was no one around and I broke into laughter, ‘You just stole my first kiss, mister. And this Gular guarded us so well, we should probably worship it.’

‘Guilty and glad! Let me tell you though there’s someone who peeped at us through this Gular.’ you said and pointed a finger right above us. Tides rose within my body as I looked up: glittering behind the silhouette of the tree’s dark and leafy canopy, hung our witness; the paperwhite moon, which by then had turned into a luminous lime white. I cursed and blessed the day of its birth in the same breath. You squeezed my hands in your own, and it was already time to go.

Later, from the train window, my eyes followed the Moon all night. I mused over a contested theory about its birth which said it was born somewhere far away in the solar system. The Earth and the Moon were still too young, and in search of their own orbital paths around the mighty Sun when: the Moon happened to pass by and got snapped by the Earth’s gravitational force.

I lost trail of the thought when my eyes began to close. I was reasonably happy that night. And about the birth of the moon—there were other theories too.

*

A few years later: you and I were called by the mountains. It was an extempore trip made with five other friends. We’d taken an overnight bus from Delhi to Dehradun, and from there a morning milkman was persuaded to give us a ride in his delivery van to the hill station of Chakrata.

The road leaving Dehradun—for many kilometers—was fenced with tall eucalyptuses on both sides. Throughout the way, the milkman kept greeting the locals and bartered milk bottles for baskets of fresh vegetables, newspapers, and postal service. When we reached the foot of the mountains, he let us all climb on the roof of the van, where for the remaining journey, enraptured by the lush florescent landscape, we sat singing songs and nibbled on raw juicy gingers.

As our van ascended uphill, the breeze became cooler and the morning sunnier. The rising road, now fortified by the high mountain wall on the one side, was fenceless against the depression of the gorge on the other. My head rested on your shoulder and you scooped me in an embrace with your arm: hands were held, cheeks pecked, and waists caressed. By the time we reached Chakrata, our spirits had turned feral.

The milkman dropped us at a point from where we had to trek downstream to a campsite. As the seven of us began to walk, the rucksacks hanging from our shoulders swung against our hips. Five Himalayan griffons, flamboyant in their flight, circled high above us in the sky. Many slopes away to our left: the bird-filled Deoban forest rang with chirrups, from where, the wind, arborous and restless, brought with it the sweet scent of Deodar trees. The gust’s mighty force fluttered our clothes; ruffled our hair. Every time it hit us hard, my grip tightened around the palm of your hand, and you locked our fingers together—harder.

Our friends were a little ahead of us when we stopped by a hovel. Its roughly built stone walls had left-open frames in place for a door and a little window. I held both of your hands and led you inside. The hovel was empty yet its air was heavy with the pungent smell of dry grass and sheep wool. When I looked out of the window: the valley appeared breathing, as its chest—a great green trough—heaved with tall grass and bright wildflowers.

‘This feels like a dream.’

‘I know, right? This valley is straight-out-of-books unreal.’

When I turned around, I found you leaning against the opposite wall, watching me, and for a moment I thought you would say nothing and I, pierced by your gaze, would turn into a thousand uncollectable shards. But then you brought your hands out of the pocket of your jeans, folded them up against your chest, and spoke, ‘I meant us—how far you and I have come.’

Your candor dazed me. So I did the only thing that could have stopped me from swooning downright: I inhaled deeply—to process my thoughts; to utter words; to stay in my senses; to look into your eyes and ask, ‘Why are you making me so happy, dammit? I feel my heart is going to burst open.’

‘Tsk-tsk, that’ll be a bloody mess.’ you smirked as you walked forward and held me so that my lips sank in the skin of your neck. We dropped our bags, and kissed again and again like hills rolling into hills rolling into hills.

That night at the camp, under the silver glaze of the moon, which a friend tried to capture with his camera, we sat around a bonfire. The Moon in its fourth-quarter—half-dark, half-lit—was gently burgeoning on in the exact direction in which the Earth too was headed. But the moon also sailed that night, inverted, as if in its first-quarter not fourth, moist and soft and purple, touching the earth’s surface under the ripples of the stream next to our campsite.

To see that upturned moon was to see where the Earth must have been on its orbital path, in the past. Some say, in the early solar system, the Earth and the Moon had formed from the same celestial dust, and have been circling together since, inseparably. In the heart of the valley: as the two half-cut moons coursed through that night; in those saccharine moments of September; our hearts too, yours and mine, took shape after that cosmic alchemy, and were unimaginable—one without the other.

*

It was around four supermoons later—by the time we’d graduated and started to work—that our jobs prised us to settle in two different corners of the city. You lived in your ancestral village on the western border of Delhi, close to your office, and I’d rented a small apartment in the south near mine. Work-days gulped our weeks after weeks, and the Sunday trysts, too, had begun to slip by like desert-sand in a fist.

One such weekend, I walked to the market square near the DTC bus terminal and waited for you at the stairs of the Adham Khan tomb. I scanned the windows of every bus that passed by, though I knew, there was still some time for you to arrive.

Each bus left behind it a mini tornado of dust, and the market’s helter-skelter mocked my searching-eyes with its usual indifference. Swamped by the paparazzi of insects, the lit LEDs, inept and graceless, flickered over the loud hoardings above the grocery stores; clouds of vapor rose from the momo-steamers set on the roadsides; and just at the foot of the stairs where I stood, the rickshaw drivers braved a long queue of cut-throat competition for passengers, and lovingly, threw the routine of insults at each other.

My gaze wandered upwards in escape and met a full moon’s sky. It made me think how you always saw the phases of the Moon in love bites: waxing and waning, sometimes crescent, sometimes gibbous. One winter morning when you had to leave early for office, you’d struggled to conceal under a muffler—the phalsa-dark display of moons I’d kissed on your neck. I’d teased you that it was just a little dot. You’d questioningly repeated the word dot twice, and then vexed for several minutes that I’d bruise-bitten you with the entire year’s lunar calendar.

But you’d been pretentious in your anger. I’d known what the real reason for your vexation was—you couldn’t have gone home like that, at least not for a few days. I’d literally marked you to return to me. Besides, the distance from my apartment to your office was tiresome. You knew I knew that. The matter had been discussed endlessly in the past.

Our families were too orthodox to accept a live-in relationship, and both of us detested the idea of marriage. We had our doubts if we would ever want to get married, nonetheless, we were sure we weren’t ready for it just yet. Those discussions had always had the same conclusion—there were no convenient options—the decision had to be left to time. So on that cold morning, after we ate breakfast in silence, when you’d vamoosed off to work without even a goodbye, my heart had throbbed so hard I’d feared it would have flung out of my chest.

‘Hey! Hungry?’

I was hit by a sea-sharp wash of relief as your voice brought me back to the full moon’s night. My exhale-filled hi was telling and surprised you a little. We could have cuddled in that moment, and that would have lasted for minutes, but we didn’t. Instead, I insisted to carry your heavy-looking bag, you accepted my help courteously, and we began to walk towards a restaurant.

We went to a terrace-diner near the Qutub Minar. Its tables were placed around a small fountain pond, and the air was scented with jasmine oil burning in diffusers. Behind the glass wall of the kitchen, a set of dexterous hands slapped naans inside the hot walls of a live-fire tandoor and smoky curries sizzled in the cauldrons. Both of us were famished, and we placed our orders as soon as we sat.

When you asked me what I’d been thinking earlier at the tomb, the disingenuous casual tone of the question pleased me. I squinted my eyes for a moment calculating the risk in answering but then surrendered helplessly as if in a surge of high tides. You responded with a thoughtful nod but didn’t say anything immediately. I was thankful that you didn’t. We talked about everything else as we ate. And you brought back the topic only when our vodka arrived, on-rocks and sparkling, transparent like selenious acid.

‘You know in Swedish, there is a word for lovers who are in a serious relationship but don’t live together – särbo.’ You said and raised a toast.

‘Like the Moon and the Earth.’ I stretched an arm forward and clanked our glasses together.

But then when I added that the Moon is actually moving away from the Earth, that elucidation danced between us dangerously, and the truth thundered away. The moonbeams lay shattered on the pond’s malachite green water, and we couldn’t get ourselves to say what needed to be said the most that night. And suddenly, we were beginners again, who knew nothing—nothing about their own love.

Back at my apartment, we saw the moon slip from one side of the Qutub Minar to the other. We drunk-tried to catch it and laughed so hard that the revelry of the sky chuckled with us, and a few meteors fell loose from the night’s arms. In the soft silvery light of my lunate balcony, we submitted to the moreish language of touch, which carved and chiseled our bodies like the sculptures of Ajanta and Ellora. And Saturnine, when you crushed me under your weight, I wept with sadness and ecstasy all at once, hoping to calcify in those moments—a lifetime of fleeting intimacy.

In bed, you lulled me like a mother and outlined my face with your somnolent fingertips. And as I watched you sleep, I realized what would happen if the Moon came any closer to the Earth. Torn between the laws of the universe, their own gravities would destroy them: there would be no moon, just ice-cold dust and frozen moon-rings disappearing into the circle of time around parched lifeless earth.

The next morning, we cooked and ate our last meal together. Our bodies had no marks of each other’s presence on them, and you left the apartment, moonless, like the memory of a new moon’s sky.

***