Outside, the world was on the brink, and the poets gathered in the old café.
War, warlike had reduced the city to a lunar landscape of white dust: the sound of refugees chipping at the rubble gave the tick to the Victorian clock. It was said that a poet called Gertrude Stein had stopped at the café on her world tour: traumatised, Sarita could not speak now, except to recite her masterwork, Tender Buttons, while chewing on her long plait. What is it history teaches? History teaches. It was a way to stay sane. Sanity was senseless like an exchange. When The Group arrived, Sarita smiled her long-plait smile: they brought the notebook — and — the last known proletariat pencil in the entire city. Like pencil cases they carried a zip of excitement with them, as if they were only waiting for the right moment to start the revolution and today could be the day.
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They came for a turn of tea, and though the sugar was infested with weevils, they stirred it in and ignored the tiny black bodies floating on the milky surface. (There was, at least, still milk: the dairy farm had taken over the streets.) Sarita was beautiful and lively and she was also young. She suspected The Group came also to see her and her puppy Wazir, a foundling she had rescued from the last bomb blast: she lacked manners, but had a good wag.
Only one in The Group was actually a poet (and that, too, of couplets.) The others were a journalist, a fictioner and Sarita’s secret love, the translator (who came each day, no matter what.) Today he was wearing the beloved: the dark green shirt which made his eyes glitter gladly, his charming chest and arms seemed to spring from it. Sarita had seen naked translators before, but this one made love for free in five languages, and not the more common two.
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As usual, The Group were one man short. The law said only four men could meet in one space at one time, so they took turns to stay home. Today the historian was absent, but Sarita knew that secretly, none of the others minded: he didn’t read their work and they felt he never said much to take note of. Despite this, and the crowd in the café, they were honourable: they kept an empty chair at the table for him, and pushed Wazir off by her wet snout when she tried to climb up.
Sarita eyed the pencil and the notebook even as she heard their familiar order: one black coffee, one Kashmiri chai, one masala chai and a frothy latte. That was for the journalist, who was leaving soon to go back to America, so he often promised. He pleaded with Sarita to go with him, but she side-eyed the translator and flipped her plait over her shoulder. She felt it tease her lower back: she laughed shook her head to feel it more. She had responsibilities — she had the café — after the ruling against public speech and gatherings, her father had gone mad and fled into the streets shouting freedom, wearing her last dupatta like a band of blood around his head.
There had been some resistance, but in the end, the poet argued that the institution of the café seemed more important than not allowing one dumb (in the speechless sense) woman, once, to hold the fort while her father went AWOL in the ruins. He would come back, went The Group thinking: and when they tired of listing the day’s material losses — the last teeth snapped from the comb, a final pinch of tobacco, the end of wax pomade — they imagined her father’s adventures and argued over who would write them down on his return.
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It was a pressing question: memories were proliferating unchecked across the city, whispers were changing the stories, and they only had one pencil left between them.
The pencil belonged to the journalist; that was the disaster of it. In exchange for him sharing, The Group took it in turns to pay for his tea. On the days he stayed at home, they fought over this, and over who would get it when he finally left. Sarita thought if she agreed to go with him, he might let her hold it, and then she could slip it to the translator, who (if there was any lead left in it by then) would write his couplets only to her. But if she left, who would serve? The café would fall. Where would The Group meet? Wouldn’t the shame kill her father, when he returned? What would happen when the pencil ran out and only she was left to recite what history teaches?
There was war: the borders were being erased for better control. The law had proved itself flammable, and no amount of tears could stop the burning. Sarita kept Wazir close, her eyes followed the pencil stub. She had fingers. A mind. Feet to feel and felt was a world to her. She was excited to think of the pencil in her hand. In the meantime, she chewed her plait and served tea and listened to The Group call each other bhai-bhai and argue, as they constantly did. She loved to hear them. To her, there was nothing more beautiful (or beguiling, given the blackouts, with the cinemas barricaded and the TVs kaput) than writers splitting infinity over all that was left: tone, form, style. Though they argued in English, each man wrote in their own tongue, which made the translator the centre of attention (and this, she confided sadly to Wazir, she knew was the real reason he always came to the café).
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Today, the beef was who would write. They moved the pencil around and spun a stuffed Bulbul for backup. The poet won; time was short and he could flip a phrase as if doing baby fillets on the grill. Then came the serious question of whether his burnt-off tongue would be best for the story; then they turned to titles, and each wanted something different. What to name the piece? They settled on Better Days, which seemed nonsense to Sarita: there had been a roti shortage and a market bomb that morning, five children had died, none of which was yet written. Finally they argued, and this time violently, on the use of metaphors in a time of war. A punch to the mouth from the poet. A kick from the fictioner’s foot. Sarita had to salmon to stop herself laughing — couldn’t they see the fire on the mountains, the melting snow? The journalist said — There are no signs, there are no metaphors. The poet insisted there were, but that he was the only one qualified to write them. The fictioner evoked Manto and Faiz, Allama and Chughtai: he talked passionately about structure and voice; semicolons; and duty and longevity (and by that Sarita understood he meant fame) which he always mentioned, no matter what.
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To Sarita, now feeding her birds (whose names were those of the aforementioned writers) there was only metaphor — all of it was — and all of them, and her dog, and the birds and the café and her plait, and this place and her own name: the squiggles of lines in the books she possessed told her that. Her parliament of pets, to whom she recited Gertrude, agreed with her — they knew her deepest secret was not translator-love (though she did feel that of all the men, when he looked at her, he truly understood her and might voice her silence, but perhaps that was just his occupational skill.) No: it was to write herself.
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Once they invited her to take the empty chair. She sat straight at their questions: What was the word for this part of the body? What was the word for that? They pointed to her cupid’s bow, and to her pinna. She answered — a cushion has that cover. Only the poet’s lip disdained. The others listened respectfully: it gave her a thrill. She sat on the edge of her seat, which enhanced it. They wrote down what she said, and her mind was on fire — they would certainly get it wrong and she could put it better — after all, wasn’t the feeling hers?
She chewed the end of her plait. She served the tea. They began to argue over whether she was too tall for marriage, and how her plait stretched her skin, enchanting eyes to chips of ice. The journalist called for the trauma menu: he was in need of new material and could afford a small story of, say, a child taken down by a sniper for the book he was planning on the war. Sarita gestured to the price — ten rupees, plus a foot rub and toe suck for her at the end of the day. Hearing this, the fictioner, who quietly loathed Sarita’s taste for the anti-aesthetic, and longed to get authentic access to the knotted detail of certain kinds of pain, kicked Wazir and made her whelp for the pleasure of licking his hands: the whelp made the birds screech in the cage. Under cover of the noise, the translator slipped up a hand and pulled at Sarita’s salwar by its tangled knot. He demanded more hot water though he knew the rations Sarita managed: he tickled her belly and she brought it, her plait swinging. It grazed the tea, dripping a trail over the translator as she straightened up. He wiped it away, and his hand was brown against the blue denim: she felt an extreme hot to see it.
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It was an afternoon at the end of the world; The Group were now debating the construction of a printing press. No one had the knowledge: the machine workers were the long exhausted dead. Sarita was recording all of this in her head, the journalist was gesticulating; the pencil flew from his fingers, Sarita watched it fly, Wazir watched her, then saw her chance. She jumped up and caught the pencil in her teeth, her wagging tail knocked over the tea: just then a rag of prostitutes came through the door, demanding service after finishing their shifts, the bitch took her chance: pencil in mouth she fled into the streets and was gone.
Uproar. Why do women, with their shrieking and their hair unbound and their torn old blouses, bring the house down to nothing but chaos and truth? The Group began to shout at Sarita, blaming her stupidity, her stupid clientele, her dumb (as in stupid) dog. The women whipped out, fearing bloodshed. The translator shouted he would flay Sarita with her own plait. It was a mess inside and outside. There would be to show for it. Wazir was gone and the pencil was her chew stick. The Group rushed out, went fetch for the dog. A sudden light: another bomb, somewhere in the city rapapapapapapapa fire, making eyes bleed a band of red around heads.
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Sarita sat among the debris. Fetch for the pencil. Their abandoned book. She pulled it towards her across the table. She ripped out what pages were used, and was left with what was left: blank space, sugar crystals, weevils in the spine. She dipped the end of her chewed plait in the spillage of tea.
She began by painting her name. Then BANDH HAI, she wrote, and tore the page out, and stuck the sign on the café door.
Preti Taneja is the author of We That Are Young