3 years

Between the Sheets

Craving the Unfamiliar

Sonali Khan was holding on to her virtue, and then she fell in love... with several men. She drinks whisky, not Cosmopolitan
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Are my days of newness and adventure behind me?

The past two weeks have been all about travel. So much so, that I can now draw detailed maps of Delhi airport’s terrifying T3; so much so, that one particular member of Air India’s geriatric cabin crew has started to resemble Grandma K to my homesick eyes. But I digress.

They say there’s no place like home. It is, after all, the place where the wi-fi connects automatically and the indent in the sofa hugs the contours of your butt in a way that can’t be replicated even in a designer’s atelier; where the lizard looks at you beadily, in silent greeting, when you bend to check if your lone plant, Kaku the cactus, has died due to abandonment issues. And yet, each time you come back from a long vacation or an extended business trip, even home feels different. Familiar, yet new. Suddenly you’ll find the novel you’d given up looking for. Or come across the pyjamas of a long-forgotten lover while hunting for fresh sheets.

Cities aren’t all that different. When you live in one as unrelentingly fast and unforgivably exhausting as mine, people and places become a blur, merging into a continuous whole. Until someone or something makes you stop and take a closer look. Like running your fingers along walls you’ve known forever and finding the door to a secret room. I believe that half the fun of going away is in the coming back. And that half the fun of meeting someone new is in the prismatic way they make you look at yourself and your life.

He was three years younger than me and broke when he came to my city. I was working 20-hour-days in pursuit of my big break. We met at a watering hole I wouldn’t be caught dead in, if it hadn’t been for a friend’s exhortations. Me with my Harvard dream and he with his disgust for institutionalised education, we had to happen.

We tried hanging out with my people but he pissed them all off by routinely turning up unshaven and in clothes missing buttons, a strict no-no in my neatly pressed and creaseless universe. We all knew that he gave zero fucks for their opinion, which pissed them off further. From then on, we hung out only with his friends. They pretended to understand world cinema and discussed it self-importantly until the wee hours of the morning.

We partied at bars I didn’t know existed, drank rum and Coke, and made out wherever and whenever we felt like. There were no rules. I’d clock in an exact eight hours at work and rush to his dingy flat where we’d fuck behind doors that wouldn’t even properly latch. I’d change into clothes I wouldn’t have touched in my other life. The anonymity was exhilarating. I felt like a character out of a Dostoyevsky novel.

He was seven years older than me when I met him at a gallery where I was taking an art-aesthetics class. He was in my city for a year-long work project. A coffee date turned into a dinner invitation which segued into a breakfast engagement. Soon, his driver was waiting outside office to pick me up after work. His friends were frighteningly intelligent but mind-numbingly boring to me. They smoked pretentious cigars, popped expensive pills discreetly and owned vacation houses in multiple cities. When I decided I didn’t want to be with him, friends wondered if I needed psychiatric intervention. Only mad women kicked a gift horse like that in the mouth. But the perfection of our togetherness was more than I could handle. I could never find that one damning flaw that would make me fall irrevocably in love with him.

This time when I came home, a series of wrong turns had me crossing both the neighbourhoods I’d never have known so intimately if it hadn’t been for these two men. And suddenly, I’m craving a second go at these characters I played in two different lifetimes. Suddenly, I want to be able to see myself and the city I call home through a new pair of eyes, to have a stranger breathe a whiff of new into the old. And then I come back to the present and its inevitable choices.

There is a future that’s beckoning me, urging me to rush into its open arms. And there’s a past that’s trying to seduce me back into its whirlwind, where the next adventure and next hidden room is always just a tap on a familiar wall away. Do I have to forego one to keep the other alive?