[Image: Pokhara, Nepal. Image source.]
This story was published by The Bookends Review.
“Is it really possible to stay awake for four days?” said Jaya. “Will we even enjoy it?”
Four days. That’s all we had. Two of which we’d spend in the train, coming and going. I decided: we mustn’t miss one minute. We emptied coffee sachets down our throats, giggling at the sari-swaddled middle-aged woman frowning at us across the aisle. We climbed up to our top berths. The bhang we drank discreetly, from a flask: mixed with rose-scented lassi to cloak the smell. Jaya was nervous: with edible marijuana, dosage is tricky, and she’d had panic attacks. I did her dosing for her. Studying for exam after exam, in noisy hostels in Allahabad, in summer’s endless heat, I’d perfected bhang dosing. Coffee and bhang: that’s all you need to stay awake and happy. In this moment forever.
“Trust me,” I assured her.
Four days. Then, back to university to pack our bags before hostels closed for summer vacations. Then, Jaya would go home to Jaipur to marry the stranger her parents had chosen for her. Then, I’d spend a month at home in Hyderabad before leaving for my M.S. at Caltech.
“My head is swimming, Sarthak,” said Jaya. Facing me, a foot away, eyes struggling to focus as if already a thousand miles away. “If you weren’t here with me, I’d feel scared.”
Behind cover of our backpacks, on the seat between us, I slipped an arm around her waist. “I’ll always be with you.”
We were going to Nepal. Her first trip abroad. Mine, too. Her bridegroom was a schoolteacher. This might be her last.
“Tell me about prions again,” I pleaded.
Jaya laughed. Stoned, she always launched into a lecture. She was passionate about learning. It was she who’d tutored me, exam after exam, these three years. It was she who’d made me unashamed of my own studiousness.
“Tell me!” She always resisted launching into a lecture. Resisting bhang’s tongue-loosening effects. How could she bear it? She, the class-topper, going off to be a housewife.
Always obliging, she began: “A prion is a misfolded protein. Every protein has a correct shape…” I etched into my soul the sound of her voice. Low and vibrant. With all my might I focussed on her smooth cheeks and dark curls. Around her, inside the train gently swaying, our bodies bhang-swaying, the world slipped dark and gentle away.
Boarding the bus at the India-Nepal border, we’d already been up 24 hours. I’d stayed up many nights: but you never get used to the feeling. Of drifting, free of your body, through time. Time in a loop, freed of the tedium of linearity. Freed of knowing that I was lying. I wouldn’t always be with her.
Up the mountain roads, round hairpin bends, our bus climbed. Our stomachs, empty, fell downwards, leaving our bodies a longing hollow. The solidness inside our skulls fell forward into our foreheads. Into a locus of nausea dull but surely growing.
Jaya held out. Then, she prepared to ask me for a lime to suck. Before she could ask, I was groping through my backpack. I unzipped the plastic bag and gave her a lime. She took it from me without asking how I knew. She knew how I knew.
How did I know? How did she know? When you’re stoned, you realise: separate bodies, separate consciousnesses – that’s an illusion. There is only One. We were one with the bus stumbling up the mountainside. My nausea was one with Jaya’s. I wasn’t yet nauseous: not need-a-lime nauseous: but I felt Jaya’s nausea exactly as, soon, I’d feel my own. Soon? Already I was feeling it.
I was one, also, with the stranger who, a month ahead, would lie beside Jaya. In their bed. Tracing in the dark, with his fingertips, the contours I’d traced with mine. Sitting beside Jaya, on our bus, bracing myself against the seat-back ahead to hold off the nausea – I felt him. I felt the stranger, feeling Jaya, with his fingertips, a month ahead. Through his fingertips, I felt her now, at mine.
Dusk fell. To keep awake, on the unlit mountain roads, the driver blasted music. A woman singing, falsetto, melodies sick-sweet. Why do we still want women to sound like infants? Abroad, they’ve got the right idea. At Caltech I’ll hear around me, as I’ve heard on albums, women who sound like adults. I’ll hear songs that face reality, without running from it with melody after melody desperately cheerful. In Jaya’s low and vibrant voice, I’ll hear the echoes of my graduating, from infatuations, to Jaya.
An hour later, or was it a minute later, Jaya said, “Is it the same song on loop? I don’t understand the words, but it all sounds the same. It’s so loud, it’s making me nauseous! I’m going to sleep.”
“Don’t,” I pleaded. “It’ll make you feel worse.”
Hours later, relieved, we disembarked. Solid ground! We stamped the ground to stamp out of our heads the giddying feeling of still moving. Just for a second. Stop moving.
We checked in at our hotel then strolled towards the lake.
“It’s so clean!” said Jaya. “I could eat off the pavement. It’s incredible! Nepal’s a third-world country too. Or is it that Allahabad is that dirty?”
Why mention Allahabad? Irritation scratched at my throat. Or was it bhang resins?
Jaya halted. At a storefront gaudy with silk scarves and purses. I opened my mouth to ask what she wanted. I closed it. These three years, long before the stranger had materalised, knowing that he’d materialise – Jaya had refused to let me buy her anything.
“Couldn’t you ask your parents? Just once?”
All month, I’d been longing to ask her. Afraid to wound her by asking. She seemed to have reconciled herself to our parting. Why should I ask her? But what if all that stood between us and happiness was my asking her, one more time, to fight for it? To tell her parents about me. To ask their permission to marry me. All month, as we’d studied for exams, stealing in the dark moments together, I’d asked her in my head. Struggled not to ask her aloud.
And now? Had I asked her again in my mind, or aloud this time? Our bodies floating far off, my voice aloud as faint as my voice in my head – I wondered.
She smiled at me. She took my hand. We walked on. I kept wondering.
Here, we could hold hands. Tonight, we’d share a bed. Back in Allahabad – our hostels adjoining, our classes the same – we’d had to book hotel-rooms to spend the night together. Two rooms, with IDs for proof-of-address. My ID with a fake Delhi address. ‘We’re engaged,’ I’d tell the desk-clerk with suspicious eyes. ‘I’m visiting my fiancée for the night.’ Peering from my room, waiting for the corridor to empty, I’d sneak into hers.
For strangers’ benefit, I’d called Jaya my fiancée. Hadn’t it bothered her that we’d had to lie? To spend our month’s savings for one night together.
“Look,” Jaya pointed. “See that boat, rowing away? It’s almost gone.”
Under the frangipani tree, in evening’s deep blue, we stood gazing at the lake. Blue lake. Blue sky. Blue inside our eyelids. Were we still awake? In sleep, she wouldn’t be separate. Quietly, firmly separate. I feel her swaying against my arm. Back and forth, on our heels, the bhang is making us sway to one rhythm. Doesn’t she feel it too? Our consciousnesses swaying. One.
Down her arm’s length I followed her finger. Saw the boat. Doesn’t it bother her that our time together was almost gone?
Jealousy is easier. If I’d been jealous of Jaya’s stranger – I could’ve found him and murdered him. But to stand, beside Jaya, our hands on the railing, our lungs bloating with the murder-sharp sweetness of frangipani – to stand beside her wondering why she finds it easy to look ahead – that’s hard.
I seized her hand. “Let’s keep walking. We’ll walk through the whole city. We’ll run! It’s safe. We’ll see Pokhara when everyone’s sleeping. Just us.” Stoned-high, high with sleeplessness, high with running – we’ll run mile after mile desperately now.
Jaya laughed. “What about dinner? I don’t remember the last time I ate.”
I shoved at her the lassi-flask. “Drink this. It’ll make you forget you’re hungry.”
“I don’t want to forget! I want to eat.”
“No. When we eat we’ll feel sleepy, and when we wake up it’ll be tomorrow.”
“You really want to stay awake for four days? Will we even enjoy it?”
“Yes!” Seizing her hand in mine, I turned to the street. “It won’t feel like four days. It’ll feel like a month. Yes, we’ll enjoy it.”
I felt a pull.
Her hand was my hand. Moving together. Feeling together. So where did I feel the pull? I turned back.
She stood still. Her hand in mine. Not resisting. Not yielding.
“Sarthak,” she said. “It’s just a holiday. It’s just begun.”