This is so well written. Thank you, K, for letting me use it. Sending you lots of love.
K from Bangalore shares his story.
“If I were to describe you and me, I would do it in shirts. Yes, those garments made of two and a half meters of different fabrics, made to cover us and give us a sense of being formally dressed in the University we study in. It’s funny how after all these years in University, I am very convinced that no serious work can get done in a place unless people wore shirt-pant or patyala suits. But I digress. I don’t want to re-tell you the story of how we met- you, with your straight striped shirts, your own or a few sizes larger, depending on whether you ‘borrowed’ them from an older brother or not, and me, with my motley assortment of prints ranging from the 70’s onwards (generous hand-downs) and shirts that I had gotten stitched for myself.
I remember the black shirt with the paisley party print. Half sleeved. Similar to the ones worn by countless Anglo-Indian, Goan, East-Indian and Mangalorean men who worked on the ships, returning home every six months with a thicker gold chain, a heavier gold watch (and paunch), cargo shorts, and an endless supply of foreign chocolates, foreign whiskeys and homemade wat-men-maddaw-wat’s. You were walking towards college, and I, away. Actually, you were skipping, beaming with what appeared to be (a) happiness (that surpasseth understanding). You hugged me and shoved a fistful of plums wrapped in (wait for it) Tamizh pulp fiction. It was a good day. Later that evening, you stayed on to listen to me read out my poetry at a slam, even though it bored your brains out, and the plums that I had saved to share with you had gotten squished into pulp (fiction?) in my shirt pocket.
And then there was the white shirt, that went under you grey-pink-mother-of-pearl uniform suit. You wore that day when you cut you classes to meet me. You tired to convince me that you bunked coz you didn’t like the lecturer, and because you needed to read a section of the Arthashashtra before your next class. It was an interesting day. We spoke and laughed and played footsie or what we called feely-touchy. It was perfect till I told you I was in what seemed to be a slowly deteriorating relationship. A cloud dimed your countenance, and before either of us could storm out, the rains beat us. Till then, I thought the pathetic fallacy was the most pathetic literary device a writer or film maker could use. But that afternoon, the two of us had whirlwinds raging inside us- you had the battering of betrayal, while I fumbled with my fear of losing you- while the tempest terrorized the campus. It cleared briefly, and we decided to walk till the near-by hospital for you to collect a medical certificate. You gave me your blazer, to shield me from the cold and the rain, and as I saw you run across the traffic, I was convinced that I would never see you again. In all honesty, the crowd on the other side was thick. As thick as the slush I waded through and struggled to balance in as I trudged home, hoping to catch a bit of your smell from your blazer. I walked home, fighting tears, and as I pulled off my shoes, the clouds parted to let the sun shine through. I quickly messaged you, and sprinted to meet at the same spot where I left you. You looked up and down, and ‘nice’ (though later you denied it), and we walked and laughed and decided to let things grow as they are- to feel happy and loved and cared for and giddy in each other’s company. I told you that you were free to meet other people, and if you found someone else you wanted to be with, I would understand and let you go. You laughed and the sun bounced off your toothy smile, through the clear air. The pathetic fallacy never seemed so real or un-pathetic ever as it did that evening. But like a threatening cloud, every time we got to intimate, physically or emotionally, you’d remind me that what I was doing was wrong and immoral. And though it loomed over us, dark and threateningly, we playfully called my decision to stay in the seemingly crumbling relationship over being with you ‘Sophie’s Choice’.
The white shirt would re-surface at another instance, a few weeks and a lot of touchy-feely later, when you went out partying straight after college and stayed the night out at your friend’s. The next day, I regretted not stealing the sweaty shirt from your backpack when you came to college- a white shirt, dirty and greyish cream in patches after a night of drinking and dancing, smelling of booze, sweat and smoke; like the men I had grown up crushing on at weddings and dances, as they downed liquor and mopped their sweating brows with balled up crumpled hankies that had earlier been ironed and starched and slipped into their suit pockets. Later during the evening, the hankies would be unfurled and rhythmically swayed and waved to the beats of the masala music- the bailas and the mandos and the songs rich with sexual innuendo in Konkani, Marathi, Sinhalese and Indian-English patois. Young men smelling of stale whiskey sweat, camphor balls and hidden cigarettes. But of course, you thought I had snooped through your bag and were visibly embarrassed (on whatsapp). I had only imagined the shirt. And longed to hold it. If it would be the only way to hold you.
The next frame in my memory montage has you in a pale blue nylon party shirt, sprayed with tiny black sharks. It was tight and hugged your slim figure. But not as tight as the skinny pants that clung to your rounded posterior (let’s call it that in Nana’s honour) and your junk, highlighting every movement of those formed, fleshy globes. That day, I called you ‘jaws’ in my head. May be I called you that once or twice too. But what I didn’t tell you was that you made my jaw drop as you delicately inched around campus, struggling with crowds and daintily climbing up stairs as I walked you to your nth floor classroom. Or maybe I told you that too. I was telling you everything those days, and you occupied most of my days.
I don’t remember the colour or the fabric of the shirt whose collar that revealed a hickey one afternoon as I helped you type out an assignment in the library. I stormed out of the library and hastily collected my things to leave, only to be stopped by mutual friends who wanted to chat. You later came out of the library and gave me a sheepish smile. I was told you did it to keep yourself from getting too invested in me, and that you didn’t want to talk about it. I had no idea why I was hurt the way I was. But all I know was that I was hurt.
But my favourite shirt will always be the coarse cotton one, deep brown and burnt orange stripes, from a chain of stores that claims India is fabulous, borrowed from your brother, with a safety pin pinning the empty space of the top most button to its vacant hole, like an old spinster clinging on to her dead fiancé’s photograph. I love it because its huge and you float in it like a slender boy in his father’s clothes. I love it because it shows me you delicate golden-brownish chest hair curling against your bronze chest like the angry strokes of a chaste convent-school girl’s handwriting. I love it because you are built smaller than me, and in case we ever cuddle, this would be the only shirt of yours I could slip into and wear while walking around the house naked and fixing us another drink. But I love it most of all because of the missing button. It makes me want to hold you tight and hug you and care for like you are the only person in the world. It makes me want to force you into the washrooms in college and remove your shirt and sit on the floor of the corridor and sew your button in place (with the extra thread and needle I always store in my pencil case). I love it because it was the last thing I saw you wear before you disappeared into silence, when we walked out of college together to get the soles your scruffy stolen (‘borrowed’ from your brother, you said) shoes sewn by the roadside mochi. Every time you’d wear the shirt, I’d ask you to let me sew your button back on. You’d blush (yes, you do blush), shrug and refuse. And I’d say “It is the only thing I can do for you which is not ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’. There is nothing sinful in holding your warm, moist clothes and sewing a button back on.”
Sewing scruffy stolen shoes.
Sewing missing buttons.
Sewing hushed hearts.”