The Speaking Walls…

 

She dragged the last suitcase inside the room, left it in the hallway and flopped on the couch in the room. She heaved a sigh of relief and closed her eyes for a moment. As she lay there, she dozed off. The door creaked after about half an hour or so and she opened her eyes, squinting at first, then wide as she realised she had left the main door ajar. She got up to shut it.

The moment she locked the door, she heard strains of a bagpiper being played somewhere around, floating within from the netted window in her room.

She walked across the carpet, towards the window, still in her boots and opened the glass on the window slightly. A fresh breath of cool wind swept over her face with a swishing sound and the sound of the bagpiper became louder.

She craned her neck, half-hoping to spot someone in a Scottish kilt but could see no one. Her nose pressed hard against the net of the window began to hurt.

She moved away and rubbed her nose. The sound of the bagpiper continued to flow as she looked around her new house.

The walls were cream-yellow with some sort of coating on it, most probably to dissuade students from spoiling the walls with any sort of graffiti or other such nonsense.

Right next to the window where she stood, lay the Study Table with three shelves over it for the books. A sofa, two chairs, a coffee table and dining table filled up the rest of the room.

At first glance, it looked sufficient. She walked across the carpet again towards the shoe closet facing the bedroom to take off her boots which had suddenly started hurting her feet. As she took them off she knew it would be just a matter of a few days before she would make this house her own as well.

She felt an urgent need to use the toilet and walked inside the bathroom, right next to the closet. The floor felt cold on her bare feet as she walked in.

When she flushed, the sound of the flush tank reverberated loudly in the silent house and she shuddered for a moment thinking it would disturb her next-door neighbours. She waited for pounding fists at her door but nothing came. No one came.

It took the flush tank about ten whole minutes to subside and even then it kept gurgling like a disgruntled old man ignored in his old age.

A friend of hers had once told her that in Switzerland one could not flush toilets after ten in the night. The neighbours could book you for a legal offence.

She didn’t know how true it was but she had read about the Flush Toilet Syndrome on Facebook and she definitely thought she had that. It was about a group of people who felt nervous about flushing the toilet in the middle of the night because it sounded so loud.

And the walls these days…they transported every single sound from one house to another-not just flushing tanks but every whisper.

Her father was a retired Civil Engineer in India and he kept complaining about the thickness of walls these days and how one could not be angry and loud in his own house. This reaction was normally provoked during one of his regular arguments with Ma as she kept shushing him to lower his tone. But what Dad never noticed was that their old house in Delhi, which had thick walls, also carried sounds.

She clearly remembered that all houses in the street were stuck to one another as if their fates were sealed forever. One had to move out of those houses to change one’s destiny or else they were fated to lead a complacent middle class life in those narrow gossiping streets.

Once when she was playing hide and seek with her cousins, she remembered hiding behind the wall on the ground floor and leaning against it. Suddenly, she heard some sounds. She forgot about her play and strained her ears to listen to more.

The muffled sounds, even though not audible, told the story of the house next door. Screams, shouts, pans being clanged…maybe even thrown, hurling abuses and god knows what more…the child in her cringed in fear as she was jumped upon and spotted by her cousin.

She lay exposed and so did the house next door.

Ira, her friend next door came the day after, carrying with her a doll and a mark across her face. She looked apologetic as she said, “Papa was passing the pan to Ma and I came in between.”

Many years later, Ira fled from that house with a young man who promised her the dream. The walls of that street whispered for months to come until Ira landed home, pregnant, without a husband.

After an abortion and years of loneliness, Ira started talking; day in and day out, Ira secluded in her room on the terrace, spoke to herself. Everyone called her mad and children pelted stones at her but it could be possible that she heard the walls of her house responding.

She switched on the only light in the living room as it had begun to grow dark. The cloudy Canadian September was slowly creeping into her house and she shut the glass over the net window. The bagpiper had long ceased to play.

She moved towards her suitcase and began to unpack. The first time she had unpacked on her own was when she had moved to the hostel in Mumbai for her post graduation. Dad had packed everything neatly and her friends had laughed at her for her inability to pack on her own even at 21.

She smiled now because she knew that even today she didn’t know or understand the ‘optimum usage of space’ that her dad talked about. Back in the hostel, she was petrified of staying alone for the first time. The slightest of sounds would wake her up. Once, she stayed awake the whole night by the sound of a rustling paper outside in the balcony.

Her child-like sleep now gone forever, she continued to stay awake to the sounds of the girl next door. With her door slightly ajar, she could hear the beds creaking as the girl’s boyfriend stealthily crept up the balcony adjacent to the Girls’ hostel and climbed into her warm bed.

The walls spoke of clandestine meetings, breathless love-making, whispered giggles and soft, gentle breathing of sleep induced by passionate love-making. She remembered falling into the rhythmic pattern of her neighbours and falling asleep once they drifted off to a timeless slumber.

Studies in Mumbai went by in a stupor.

She mastered in Mass Communication an intended to spend her whole life behind a desk in a newsroom writing news stories and fading into oblivion with the sound of the equalizer.

She was never the one to face the camera; never the one to expose herself…always conscious of her face, her body, her hands and especially her feet.

She would squirm in discomfort every time she came across pretty feet around her. Had it not been for her mother, she would have never got married as well.

She had never had a boyfriend even in college. Everybody knew her but she was never popular. She had a group of friends to hang out with but no one really missed her in her absence.

She was just there…somewhere in the background…plain, bare, unnoticed, unobtrusive… just like a wall.

She switched on the TV and there was the news. An earthquake of 7.0 magnitude had struck off the coast of Japan. There was no loss of human life but earthquakes always gave her the shudders. She remembered the earthquake in India on 26th January, 2001. Entire structures had collapsed and bodies and bodies were discovered mangled under the debris of the walls. She had always been scared but after this incident she went to bed almost fully dressed.

One night, as she and Amit lay on the bed, he asked her to sleep naked. She refused. He insisted but he laughed when she told her what if there was an earthquake and she had to run outside. It would be so embarrassing. Brooder. That’s what he called her. He called her depressing at times, not in so many words but he always implied it.

She shook herself out of the broodiness and got up as she felt pangs of hunger churning wildly in her stomach. She hadn’t eaten anything since morning because of the shifting. Her head was throbbing. Thankfully, she had bought a few packets of noodles on the way at a grocery store. That would keep her going until she settled.

The whiff of noodles from the pan brought back memories of their first night in the house in Bangalore. There was nothing in the house except their trunks and shipped cargo from Delhi and their suitcases full of bridal finery…clothes and jewellery she would never find much use of. It was one in the morning and they had still not unpacked.

Soon after the flight landed in the morning, they kept their luggage and took the same taxi for sight- seeing. Even though she had never wanted to move there, she fell in love with the city.

Four years went by in a jiffy. She now worked in a small news company called Network 24×7. Every day she would sit behind the desk, just as she had imagined, writing news stories which had no urgency whatsoever, to be heard. The pace was lax, the other employees were neither interested in their work, nor in her.

She simply occupied one of the many cubicles that lined her office…small little pretensions of walls, always permeable, always encroached upon. She used to hear giggles from across her cubicle as Anitha, the girl in the next cubicle would laugh at the boss’ joke when he leaned across her table getting a bird’s eye view of her ample white cleavage. Nobody had ever hit on her like that.

When she first joined the office, she did raise a few eyes because of her fair skin and she felt thrilled at times when she felt the men’s eyes following her from behind right till the time she reached her desk. But her cold exterior and aloof stance soon distanced her from a lot of potential friends and a whole lot of potential promotions. But she didn’t mind. At least on the surface of it.

Amit’s career was going well. He was yet another Software engineer in yet another software company in Bangalore. Soon after marriage, his bedroom became hers…his bathroom became hers and soon enough his friends became hers as well.

For the first time in her life, she began to feel accepted and lately her opinions began to find an acceptance as well. The colour of the sofa in the house was picked by her. The list of groceries was decided by her. The colour of the wall was decided by her and the arrangement of the paintings on those walls was also decided by her.

Her Paintings.

She had always known how to paint and had done it since the time she was a child. She drew the picture of her own house once. At first, her mother proudly showcased those paintings to whoever would look at them. But she soon tired of it as her daughter began painting one house after another in the street.

Awkward buildings on the roads, messy rooms of friends, her father’s cabin in his office, the bookcases at the British Council Library, the Parliament House and her maid’s living quarters-all in the same brush stroke.

Her mother wondered why she didn’t sketch people and her father would be delighted in the prospect of his daughter being a budding architect. But she didn’t know an answer to that. She would conveniently leave out the people standing outside the buildings, her friends smoking inside their messy rooms, people sifting through rows and rows of books in the library, cars with red headlights zooming in and around the building and her maid’s infant daughter crying her lungs hoarse. Her eyes just wouldn’t see them and her memory failed to recall those faces and voices.

Even on the walls of her house in Bangalore, she had the skyline of the city as viewed from the top of the Thirteenth Floor, the famous pub in the heart of the city. The outline of the UB City Mall…a small detail of the Chennaswami stadium and all of it lit up in blue, red and yellow.

Before the wedding, Amit had taken a keen interest in her paintings but soon after that, his interest fizzled out. ‘They all look the same.’ He remarked in one of his callous moods.

He was right. There was a splash of colour on the canvas and then the form of a building emerged out of her carefully practiced and dexterous hands. But she didn’t know how to make one building look vastly different from another. Weren’t they all the same? Except maybe the Taj Mahal or for that matter the Leaning tower of Pisa or the Great Wall of China. But she was sure that if she were to visit all these buildings, she would see the same walls and would hear the same hollow whispers reverberating through them.

She quit her job. Amit didn’t like it. He didn’t want his wife to sit at home. Two people were needed to run the house. The expenses were huge and whatever little she was bringing in was additional help to Amit’s seven-figure salary.

He asked her why but she just told him that she didn’t feel like it. She was bored. Amit shrugged at this answer and walked away for fear of saying a little more which would lay the thread bare…which would tear the fabric of their four-year old marriage.

She didn’t want to quit but the layers of political games and sleazy favours behind the walls did not find favour with her and she knew it was time to go. But she could never tell all this to Amit. Maybe she never tried. Maybe he never listened. She cried the whole time that he was away that evening but when he returned the crinkled bed was smoothened out, the hot dinner lay ready on the table and the stolid calmness on her face, intact. Amit never broached the subject again.

Months passed and a mad frenzy overtook her. She began to paint like she had never painted before. This time also, there were walls but there was a difference. This time it was not just an outline. She depicted what she heard, what she saw and what she felt behind those walls.

Bold strokes of black, blue and red smeared the canvas and spluttered across the painting. It was like she had finally spoken. And the listener was anyone who could understand the language of colour…the words of those walls.

Ira was in those paintings nurturing a life within…the girl next to her room in her hostel stood naked but not shy and she herself…always there…always listening, sometimes merging into the background of violets and blues and at other times she became the ears and eyes of those paintings on the walls.

Abstract.

The people at the Bangalore Art Gallery called it that on her first solo exhibition. But inside she knew that nothing was more concrete to her in her life than those paintings. Nothing defined the stark reality of her life more than those colours and yet everyone wondered about the presence of the walls in her paintings.

Initially Amit had not said a word about this but one day he returned from office only to find the guest room turned upside down with her standing and painting wildly with her hands smeared in colour.

Her wavy-curly hair carelessly let loose and the dark embers of her eyes burning as she painted. Amit stood there quietly for an hour before she turned around to see him. He quietly turned away and she felt a sense of disapproval in his eyes.

A week later she received confirmation for an International Residency that she had applied for, to the Toronto School of Art. Amit was numb this time. When? Why? Why didn’t you ask me? A volley of questions followed by yet another silence. She looked at her paintings and that was all the answer he got. The wall had finally broken down and this time there was no looking back.

The day she was leaving, Amit had silently helped her pack. It was eerily silent that day. There were no noises, no voices. Even the old man at the neighbour’s house had not gargled his lungs out that morning. His usual spate of coughs that woke them up from their sleep every morning had not been heard today.

It was raining in Bangalore and the only sound was that of the rain falling on the balcony windows. The old man had been taken to the hospital last night after severe chest pain. And there was a lull of silence over their house that day.

It was almost as if the walls were mourning already because someone was leaving. Amit duly dropped her at the airport and returned. The flight was uneventful and now she was here sitting in her living room in Toronto.

She heard some loud, muffled laughter from below. She got up, pulled the curtains close and took off her jacket.

Just then her phone rang. It must be mom…she thought and picked up the phone. ‘Hello?’

There was silence at the other end and just a deep breathing. She recognized the sound of that soft, gentle breathing that she had heard next to her every night for the last four years.

He finally sighed and asked, “Have you reached safely?” “Yes”, she replied. “I’m a little tired but I will be fine. How are you? Did you have dinner?”

He answered uncomfortably, “Uh—huh…yeah…I had noodles.” She smiled. And it looked like the wall was finally speaking…

 

P.S. I wrote this story in 2010. I don’t remember the inspiration behind this anymore but it was interesting to read it after so many years with a new eye. It tells me of who I was six years ago…

 

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