An excerpt from “Travel with a French Writer” by Subhadip Majumdar

Suzanne, my lovely French friend who has come a long way from south of France to cover the Jaipur Literature Festival, is a wonderful writer too. She  teaches me a lot on writing, and to discuss literature with her is an enthralling thing. Sometimes she scolds me in French, and I promise myself again that I will learn French so well that one day I will beat her in this word game. But that one day is still quite distant.

Today, she wants to see this marvelous old city Jaipur, and thus she wears pink. Pink in the pink city. She, of course, looks gorgeous. Her many stories are already published in many French journals and she, just like me, is obsessed with the talent and writing of Lila Azam Zanganeh.

As we walk through the Purana bazaar near Hawa Mahal, she stops picks up a dupatta or a kurti and starts bargaining. She does very well in that. I am a sort of hopeless in bargaining. I stand away as the haggle goes on. Suzanne, just like any Indian girl, smiles a last laugh, bags the product at half price and winks at me with her perfect green eyes.

We stop to hear Rajasthani music at the roadside; sarengi and and a sort of Rajasthani instrument in full fusion. Then we walk to the city Palace, which is always a treat. History is a living legacy of India.

***

At a fine open air restaurant over looking the Hawa Mahal we, just like any other tourists, had dal bati  churma, the Rajasthani cuisine. And that evening, near twilight, we sit at the bank of Jal Mahal.

“I feel like writing something,” she says.

“Tell me what do you think of writing,” I say.

“Maybe a story. Some part of me which I have never written of.”

“And what’s that?”

“It is about the shadows I come across.”

I say, “We all do that. I try to understand the shadows. “

“And what they say you?” she asks.

“Suzanne, it’s very hard to tell that. I can only write about that.”

“Exactly. That’s what I am feeling.”

“Like a journey of happiness?” I say.

“And somewhere, pains.”

I know her meaning. “They are always there.”

“It is strange. Between all the color loudness and crowd of India, I still can feel that I can see the shadows returning to me.”

“Is it peace?” I ask her.

“You can say so.”

“Good to hear.”

She goes on, “But there is something else.”

“What?”

The sun is about to set across the Jal Mahal. Birds are flying over the lake. The pink city is all pink now. She opens the book of Lila and reads a passage from it that I know well.

“It is my favorite passage, too,” I tell her.

“And something else is there, too.”

“I can guess. But shall I ask you what?”

Suzanne comes a bit close and presses her fingers on mine.

“It is a strange feeling of surrender,” she says. Then she adds three more words, “Of old love.”

For a while we both sit silent. The old city with all its noises fill up the vacuum between us. The sun is about to set and the moon can be seen taking over the sky. Birds are flying back into their secret places to hide in those old buildings of seven hundred years.

“From where did it begin for you?” Suzanne ask now.

“Did what begin?”

“Writing.”

I tell her, “Perhaps from the day I lost my father.”

“It is always from death?”

“Well, perhaps it is.”

There is a span of silence.

“What about you?” I ask her.

She, with her deep green eyes, looks at me. Then towards the sky. Then her eyes touch the dome of the fort and its magnificent darwaza. The evening light turned blue now, sheltering her in her eyes.

She says, “Well, I always had a very unsettled childhood. I was not allowed to stay in one place for long. My parents were always moving. And when I at last came to sense and understood the world, I found I was in the most beautiful city. Paris! But still,I was almost an outsider there and I knew. For days— for months I would roam each street and smell them searching for the fragrance which I had lost forever.”

“Is it the smell of home?”

For a moment she is numb. Then she says, “That’s why, between the whole festival, the moment I saw you, I knew. Here is someone whom I can trust. And the moment you came to speak to me, I knew you were a writer. Yes, it is the smell of home that I searched on the streets of Paris. I still search that. Isn’t it weird?”

“It is. But it is the way of this naked earth where we live.”

“And I also feel that I have been stripped and stand naked in the dark night with only the light of the street lamps coming through the window and covering me with some shelter.”

***

Between the historical fort, where somewhere a Rajasthani music being played, where somewhere still the jharokhas swing in air, where still the sheeshmahal glitters the full white moon, there in front of me a lady sits who is a fascinating writer, no doubt but now with each word, she becomes closer to me.

Shadows crossed. She is my friend now.

“Do you know that you are born for literature?” I keep my eyes on her ocean eyes.

She looks at me and, after silence coming down straight from the Aravalli, she says, “I feel sometimes devastated. But tears do not come.”

“It is when you write. Isn’t it?”

“Yes. Write and break myself.”

“Break, break, break. Then?”

She hold my hand, then says, “Perhaps find that which every writer wants.”

“What?”

“Shelter.”

***

That night the dew falls below the white moon in silence. The night birds flap their wings and somewhere in the air floats the faint music. Suzanne, the French writer slowly tips over the platform and gets down to stand on the rail tracks.

In the blue light she looks stunningly beautiful, and her face bare at the same time grains of pain as well as peace. If there is anything called a writer’s face, then there it is.

I know each writer carries a secret chamber of untold stories. That even they forget. Which, at any moment, life will remind them of. And they will open the vault and pick up one story, shade off the dust and write. It happened to me a lot of times. I think Suzanne is facing one such moment now.

She walks alone in her red kurta, white skirt and cardigan. She is not here, I am certain. She walks on the tracks and in the white mist with the blinking red signals. I think she has lost herself now. The walk of a woman on the midnight tracks, I can feel it as a story itself. Seeing her, the face of a woman with whom I walked in a railway track in a freezing cold December night comes to me and for a moment I close my eyes. I let it pass. Or I visit it once more with a strange happiness. When I open my eyes, I see Suzanne slowly coming over the platform and walking towards a lit fire where some poor people and porters talking in Hindi and sharing the warmth on their hands. Suzanne slowly sit beside them and extends her hand over the fire. I look into the reflection of fire and see a writer’s face.

Subhadip Majumdar is a writer and poet from India. He studied Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. He also edited a reputed Bengali poetry journal, wrote a short novel as Tumbleweed writer in Shakespeare and Company, Paris. He has two published books of poetry and stories published internationally. Subhadip is currently in the process of publishing his first novel.

Shelter

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