Letter from Delhi

As I step out of my block on a Saturday morning, I catch a scent in the air, a smell so sweet you could almost see it. These are the thick Saptparni trees (Alstonia scholaris), also called “devil trees,” blooming to their capacity. I look around and see them spread like a carpet before my feet. Around the bend, the flowers shift in colors. A salmon tinge at their center, these are Shiulis (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis), also called the “tree of sorrow.” Early mornings and deep night hours have come to acquire a nip. The air quality has started deteriorating in several localities too, tipping over to the “poor” category.

It’s mid-October and winter is finally around here in Delhi. Well, almost.

As a kid I would get mild headaches around this time of the year. It would take my mother a couple of years to figure out that it was cause by the heady fragrance of the white Saptparni flowers. Blossoming at night to their devious full efflorescence, the sight of the flowers from my drawing room window would be a great cause for worry to me. Known to bookend the start of the winter (and festive for many) season, the flowers heralded a time of personal discomfort for me. Their saccharine smell gave me headaches, signalling the onset of sunless, extremely cold days and nights.

Now, I have come to look forward to them. That I don’t have a Saptparni tree anywhere immediately near my house is a big help.

Social media is awash with posts about people taking in the Delhi autumn. Ever since the second wave of the pandemic happened, I have been collecting dead insects’ bodies and pasting them to the pages of a tiny notebook. Having come up against death, passing, and leaving in various forms before, this time I decided to keep a journal of death, so I am not as worn out when I come across it again.

So far, I have (quite proudly so) gathered a death few dead moths, a dragonfly, a butter fly and a housefly. This is largely a private pursuit, a primal way to cope. Upon close inspection, it amuses me to see that these dead bodies are primarily all ether. If I press them a touch hard, they are reduced to a papery smudge on the page. No matter how hard I try to paste them on the hand-made paper, they manage to escape, leaving behind a flimsy, sooty trail of their beings. It’s almost as if they can’t be captured even after they are dead. This is nothing short of poetry. Better than I will ever write. Better than all the reading I’ve done on death and leaving.

Outside the sky is an inky shade of deep blue. The kind that holds promise of rain, but also of smog aplenty. On most of these nights, I succumb to ennui and despair, and pull out the tiny bottle of tequila from the drawer. But today, I have chosen to ink these words on the page.

The stray cats that use my balcony as their mating parlor are copulating as I write. Under the pressure of the male cat’s body, the female gives in and then gives up, almost. Thwapping her tail across the floor first lightly, and then with loud thumps. I can hear her flailing, fragile tail hitting the floor hard, as I feel something inside me shift. I experience an unnamed emotion which lies between the porous borders of pain and excitement.

I pause to intervene, thinking maybe I can help free her of the pain. But her eyes are shut, in deep throes of pleasure. She is purring too, as the male cat groans. I retreat, the male cat looking at me in between quick blinks. I know the human psyche can only accommodate greys up to a certain extent.

Giving up, I flip through my copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping that I bought in the 2020 lockdown. I have only managed through the first twenty-five pages of the book and a week has already piled up on me.

“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it,” I read someone quote this from the book on Twitter. Another person had shared this:

It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible—incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares.

At this point it almost feels like I am reading this book to pull out more and more quotes like this. And then see what they speak to in me.

I have forever struggled with loneliness—needing it when I was with loved ones, and hating it when I had it. Whenever lonely, I never quite knew what to do with my mind, my body, my soul. Since childhood I had more lonely hours than most of my peers. Working parents, an aloof older brother, an older cousin who molested me: the perfect recipe for an inward, coolly quiet demeanour.

In the first grade, I experienced an epiphany that when I grow up I will be a shiny, extremely happy, always smiling person. In my dreams then, I would see a splitting image of myself — a girl barefoot, smiling from ear to ear, playing alone with her toys.

Now, I try to fill up the hours by drinking, scrolling on Twitter, masturbating, watching porn and reality TV. Sometimes before going to sleep, I conjure up an image of myself as a happy woman, dressed up, standing in a throng of loved ones. It makes me smile.

Anandi Mishra