By Aalia Jagwani
Image Source: Pinterest
She sat at the table in the corner, facing the rest of the room. That’s where she always sat when she came to Kala Ghoda Cafe. It was 12:26 on a Wednesday, and only one other table was occupied. She was glad; she liked watching the empty ones fill up, and then empty again and again as people came and went, the room itself changing a little every time. For those few hours, as she watched the world happen around her, she was a part of the scene—as much so as the chair she sat on. She was an observer; passive, undetected, free.
Sometimes she took a book to read, but that day she just took her journal. People would think she was engrossed in her writing, unaware of her surroundings. And they’d be right, in a sense. She was there to write about them, yes, but she didn’t know them and probably never would. She’d use the fact that they were in the same place at the same time as her, and make up the rest of their lives to suit her story.
They would eat lunch, leave, and continue living their stories while she struggled to write hers. Other people didn’t do these things deliberately, she thought, they didn’t try to orchestrate fate and inspiration. They were protagonists in stories which were theirs but which they didn’t even know were being told. I was a protagonist trying to take over the narrative of my story—but no, that’s wrong, she reminded herself, stories aren’t allowed to shift from the third to first person perspective halfway through. Still, she liked that she did things deliberately—there was nothing cynical about poetry for poetry’s sake.
She was taking a sip of her coffee when she heard the door swing open. A man entered and asked for a coffee to go. He didn’t sit while waiting. He didn’t look around. He was typing furiously, radiating a sense of urgency that made her and everyone else in the room look at him. This was an important man, they were all thinking, with something more important to do than be there drinking or serving coffee like the rest of them. It made her restless, and it made the only other customer in the room restless too, she could tell. But the man would pay for his coffee and leave, and the easy contentment of that Wednesday afternoon in the café would be restored.
He would go back to his office or to whatever meeting he had to attend, and he wouldn’t remember that there were other people in that café at all. He would work past 5 pm and get home just in time for dinner. He’d be too tired to cook and he lives alone, so he’d order in for the third time that week—but no, this was just a caricature, she was not doing this nameless man justice—he will order in to try this new delivery place his old friend opened. He will leave a good review for his friend online, and he will call him and tell him how much he loved the food. They’ll start talking, it’s been years, and they’ll meet for a drink. They will have a good time, but he will suddenly remember why they haven’t spoken all these years—because there it is, that thing he feels which he wasn’t ready to name and still isn’t. That thing he has lived with and buried because facing it means change and he thrives on monotony. That thing he’s afraid to admit. But his friend is not afraid, and he shares his courage. They finish their drinks, and they go home together.
All her stories end like this—happily. She believed in happy endings, more than anything else. And the whole reason she invented these stories was to create something prettier than reality. She realised that she had been staring at the man, and she forced herself to look away. She felt him pass by and heard him swing the door open, allowing the brutal light of the mid-day sun to break into the room.
The sun seemed to be brighter than usual that day, glaring with purpose or fury or some other ordinary encouragement.
He squinted as he walked out of the café, putting his phone in his pocket as he started walking back to work. Ideas came at their own will, and he did his best to catch them before they could slip away, even if he was in a café with people staring at him, or in class, or at a party. That girl in the café had made no attempt to veil the fact that she was staring at him, and it was obvious she had written him off as a corporate automaton. Typical of a writer, he thought, openly judgemental and unashamed of it. Of course, he was assuming she was a writer based on the fact that she was writing in a journal. That, and the condescending staring. But she was wrong about him, and he knew there was a good chance he was wrong about her too. He just wished he could make it known that she was wrong. He wanted to tell her that he, too, was an artist and he, too had that unwarranted superiority complex he saw in her. He knew it shouldn’t matter to him, but these things did.
As he passed Rhythm House, he felt that familiar pang of nostalgia—Could it still be called nostalgia if he never actually lived the time he longed for? It felt like nostalgia when memories filled the space in front of him as he walked. He walked past memories of college kids putting on headphones in the ‘listening rooms,’ past memories of people from other cities falling in love with Bombay for the first time in that very store, memories of vinyl slowly morphing into cassettes and finally, discs, before it all disappeared—
The road had reached a dead end, he hadn’t realised. He stopped walking and just stood there for a minute. What he just saw—those weren’t his own memories, but somehow he had them. They were stories. Stories he had collected throughout his life; stories he didn’t remember hearing but which were potent enough to become fully formed images years later.
He turned around and walked to the building his studio was in. It was on the first floor, an incredibly small space where he stored the largest piece of his soul. There wasn’t much space for anything else after that, but he made it work. He opened his notes app and looked at the lyrics he had written down at the café. Then he read the instructions he had written down for himself, and he got to work.
He wrote, he played, he edited, he fixed.
He listened. He smiled.
He watched the world change colour as the key changed in his song—it went from purple to yellow, just like that.
He looked outside his window, at the people walking by below.
He wanted to tell them his world was yellow, and explain that he could feel the yellow inside him. He wanted them to feel it to.
Sound and colour weren’t inextricable for everyone, he knew, but in that moment he just wanted the world to stop and listen to what he had created.
But the world didn’t stop, and the people kept moving, because that’s what people do. He looked down and saw a woman sitting on the bench in front of the building, eating what looked like a brownie and sipping water from a bottle. It made him sad, thinking that this woman, who was right there—so close—when he created his magic, might never listen to it. And even if she did stream it six months later, he would never know. It made him realise just how irrelevant proximity was when two lines weren’t destined to meet. He watched her as she got up and started walking away, instantly forgetting what she looked like.
She was walking fast.
She always did, but this time it was because she was late. She shouldn’t have stopped to get a brownie on her way to lunch with her friend. But he’ll understand, she thought, he knows me.
She thought she had heard music from one of the buildings when she was eating, but she hadn’t been sure. It took her a while to realise she could still hear it as she walked, softly, but not far away. It wasn’t getting left behind, like the buildings were—it was following her, like the setting sun follows a car. She stopped for a second, looking around. But it wasn’t coming from inside a building. It was right there. Around her. And it was telling her something—she couldn’t explain it, but she suddenly had the inexplicable urge to paint, to create. She could see the picture forming every time she blinked, she could feel it threatening to spill out of her one way or another, reaching closer and closer to the surface, and she knew somehow that she couldn’t let it escape.
She turned around and ran back towards the bench, stopping only to buy paint and brushes from a store on the way. She reached, she took a minute to catch her breath, and then she crossed the road. There was a wall there, full of graffiti. She found an empty patch, and she started painting. She didn’t understand how it worked or what it meant, but she knew with absolute certainty that she was painting the music.
As the image began to flow from her blood to her paintbrush, the music started to move away from her—it went farther away without ever getting softer, until she could tell it was coming from the first floor of the building with her bench. She looked at the window from across the street, and she thought she saw someone looking back at her. There were no lights on, and the walls were white, but somehow the room seemed yellow.
She turned around and continued painting. Her phone started to ring, but the music drowned out the sound, and it seemed far away. She let it ring until it stopped.
It stopped ringing for the third time.
He sighed and kept his phone back, finally giving up. Tired of waiting, he picked up the menu. He was usually self-conscious about eating alone, but the only other customer in Kala Ghoda Café was eating alone too. He realised suddenly that she looked incredibly familiar. Not just her face, but this entire scene in front of him—the girl, sitting with her journal at the corner table, occasionally taking bites of a chocolate cake.
Still stunned by this mysterious recognition when the waiter came, he ordered a muffin without registering it.
You should get the flourless chocolate almond cake instead, she said. It’s better and it’s healthier. Because it’s flourless.
He took a moment to recover before responding, That doesn’t sound very appealing.
Well it’s better than it sounds. Trust me.
If you say so, complete stranger lurking alone in the corner.
Hey, I like coming here alone. And you’re alone too.
Yeah but my friend stood me up. She isn’t answering her phone.
It’s okay. What are you writing about?
I like making up stories for strangers I see and writing them down.
And I’m the only stranger here, other than the guy who was on his phone for like, the entire five minutes he was here.
Yeah, so I wrote about you and five-minute phone guy.
What? What story did you give me?
You don’t want to know.
I really do.
Okay. I wrote that you’d been stood up, but you were the kind of guy who gave people a hundred chances to prove you wrong, so you waited for hours. I wrote that you get anxious when you’re alone in public, that you feel like your alone-ness leaves you susceptible to scrutiny, to circumstance and to strangers who will try to make small talk. And I wrote that you wish you could be that kind of stranger—a person who can just start a friendly, casual conversation without thinking about it agonizingly for hours afterwards. But you aren’t that person, so you try to pretend there’s nobody else in the café, or that the girl with the journal hasn’t even noticed you.
You did not write that.
I did. You can read it if you want.
That’s scary. Do you know me?
Not that I know of. But this feels familiar.
You seem familiar. Did you name me in your story?
Yeah. I did. Jess.
What’s your real name?
They stared at each other for a moment, wondering simultaneously which universe they knew each other from.
They asked each other questions silently, questions none of them could articulate, the answers to which none of them had.
Why did this interaction take place at all?
What was the absent friend’s story? What made her decide not to show up?
How many other individual stories had to take extraordinary turns so that their stories could intertwine, even momentarily?
Why was 5-minute phone guy a part of their stories, and which other worlds had he accidentally strayed into?
Or did they get it all wrong, were they just side characters in his story?
It’s a tangled web, they realised at the same time. The world is a collection of stories that intertwine and separate, forming a web of interactions that spans the universe.
Or maybe it’s just one story, she thought, the same story told again and again, from seven billion different perspectives.
Yes, he agreed silently, and that’s what the universe is made of—
Seven billion narratives.
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