It is the city you love, not I. The city that lives separate from darkness with its millions of sparkling lights. The city that you made me tour with you. Go straight down, on the main road, and you catch the industrial neon signs. Hook a sharp left into the colony, and you radiate with the glow of the matchbox houses. Then, turn right, in the narrow back alleys, and you are enveloped by rows of fairy lights. Find yourself lost, in the endless maze that the city presents, but still, you will find light. You never spent a moment in the dark until you met me. 

Before they had me, my parents wanted to call me Sita. After they saw me, they decided on Radha. A fair name like Sita can only go to a girl that is fair enough. I was neither fair nor enough. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin. And so, Radha it was. A girl that would never be able to pass the Agni Pariksha. I was destined to go up in flames. Still, you chose me. Did no one tell you one spark is all it takes? Did no one tell you a flame only gets larger? Did no one tell you that a raging fire takes down everything in its path? It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s too late to soothe the burns now anyway. 

Growing up, I tried my best to separate myself from my name. I wanted more than a blue hued boy to take me away. Yogurt, honey, aloe vera, lemon, cucumber. I scrubbed each substance on my skin, hoping it would at least turn red. It could never become red. It was mud, it was sludge, it was quicksand. No matter how hard rubbed, it would only cause me to sink in further. You pulled me out of the quicksand. You never asked me how long I had spent in the sun. You never asked me to carry an umbrella outside. You never asked me anything at all. Was I beyond repair? Darkness is irreversible, I tell myself. 

When I first found the bottle, I did not understand the words on the label. Dare and Dully, was it? No, my brother corrected me, it was Fair and Lovely. A magic potion that had the power to make all my problems go away. When I told you this, you laughed and said it reminded you of Oberon’s nectar. I did not know who he was. A man blinded by love, you replied. I know what that is like. You, with your English Literature degree and dewy white skin, taught me what that is. At the time, I had not been introduced to you or Oberon. I slathered the goopy liquid on every inch of my body. I prayed, to Sita, that it would work. 

That bottle was not my last. Over the years, I tried every single brand of lightening cream I could get my hands on. All of them singed me, but it did not matter. I was already coal after all. I would wipe every remaining drop off my body with my handkerchief. Before you, it was a rag. But, you turned into a handkerchief. You claimed words would help me see the world differently. If I replaced the names of objects, I would gain a new perspective. You were my Puck, constantly manipulating alphabets and phrases with your every whisper. You would take the handkerchief, and tie yourself to the bed. You wanted to cede your power, to let me have a taste of it, even if it only lasts for a second. Was I able to take it away from you? The show cannot go on without Puck, can it? You turn around and fall asleep after you finish. 

By the time I got to college, I was aware that I was not like most other girls. Kali, they would call me as I walked down the hallways. I picture the goddess of destruction, with her additional limbs and her tongue hanging out. We are the same, her and I. The ones that are deemed outcasts by the rest of society. If you were here, you would add names to my list. Caliban, Bottom, Othello. You would stop at the last name and look right at me. As if I were Othello. 

The first thing I could ever commit to was my major. Psychology, it was. I had never been to therapy, but I set my sights on being a therapist. Radha Kumar, the therapist. I made my own plaque to put above my wooden desk. My brother snatched the piece of paper and ran away. He came back in fits of laughter. The rapist? You want to be the rapist? This is not right, Radha, not at all. His English was as broken as mine. The duo lost in translation, you coined us. As I deconstructed the human mind, I assessed the functions of my own brain. I believed that my darkness had seeped into my interior. Black blood had to be lodged somewhere. It was clogging my arteries, my veins, my heart. 

The only other thing I committed to was you. I no longer remember when I first saw you or fell in love with you. But, I remember the moment I decided you were mine. Diwali, 2001. The day that Sita and Ram came home. The day when patakas polluted the sky and diyas littered the streets. The day on which darkness was banned from existing. I went with the theme, covering my black skin in black attire. You did the opposite, your white body draped in white silk. There were other people at the party but neither of us noticed. The night had gained a star and nothing else mattered. 

Neither one of us had words the first time we met. Some might label us animals. Others simply shrug as off as sex-crazy. We were immediately drawn to each other. Our hands refused to let go. The black sari in the white hand, and the white kurta in the black hand. Yin and Yang. I left your white sheets soaked in my black blood and you never complained. Did the stains ever fade? Are they as dark as I left them? Did you throw them away? I never saw them again, as I snuck into your apartment night after night. 

We only revealed our names the sixth time we met. As we lay tangled in silence, you went first. Ram, you abruptly sighed. I thought it was me, that I was contaminating you, and you were crying out to Lord Ram. But, no, it was just your name. I was not supposed to be with you. Radha seduces Krishna, not Ram. I explained this to you, between my sobs of frustration and desperation. You smile, and tell me that mistakes are inevitable. You explain to me how Iago forces Othello to lose his mind and kill Desdemona. I do not know how that is supposed to offer me solace. Not every story is meant to have a happy ending, Radha, that is the point. After this, I convince you to tell me a story before bed every night. 

Stories become our bedtime ritual. We tell stories, we make love, and we dream of each other. It is all perfect, until I start waking up to you yelling. Sita, Sita, Sita. You gasp for her in between desperate screams. The sound echoes through the warm summer air. I am the only one that can hear it. At first, I blamed it on my dreams. I must have been dreaming, this is all just a figment of my imagination, I must be going insane. My subconscious is revealing my own insecurities to me. Why is Sita always the one who has to win? Can Radha ever get to be with Ram? If only, I could change my name and all these questions would disappear. 

My dreams morph into nightmares. I still dream of you, only now you have red eyes and devil horns. You tower over me, causing me to stumble. You stand still, unable to form words. Then, your eyes light up and flash a neon green. A voice from somewhere rumbles. Kali, kali, kali. You are the only one I see. I wake up, drenched in sweat, unable to control my flood of tears. You never notice this. You are too busy dreaming of me. I wonder what you see. Is it the Radha you know or the Radha I once was? Which version of me do you see? Which part of me do you love? You never tell me anything about your dreams other than the fact that I appear in them.

We fall in love with each other before we know each other. I soon start to piece together your story. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle- some pieces fit, some pieces are isolated from others, some pieces are missing. You were born to parents who gave you the world, but they never allowed you to do anything you wanted. You became an English major by putting up a fight, but you knew you would have to run your father’s business. You wanted nothing to do with the export business, but your family has been in it for years. You go into work whenever you want, but you never pay attention to anything that goes on there. The picture starts to resemble two concentric circles- one within the other. It is the two worlds you inhabit. The one with me in it tucked deep within the depths of everything else. Will I ever get to see the completed picture? Will my circle grow bigger or diminish? When will everything go black and come to an end? I continue to fiddle with the jagged pieces, caressing each one with my touch. I wait for our piece to come into my hands, knowing that it will pierce me when it does. 

The apartment is where most of our memories take place. I used to call it your apartment, but then you said it is ours. It is no longer ours, it has simply turned into the apartment. You lived there far before I came into the picture. The apartment was where your father used to come to take his girls. When you agreed to run his business, he gave it to you. You repainted the white walls to a pale blue color, you reupholstered the floral furniture to shades of grey, you rearranged the bed to face the window. Your goal was to remove what was left of your father. But, whenever I am on your bed, all I think of is the girls that have come before me. Slowly, my things float into the space but they are unable to find their place. They, too, are unable to understand who the apartment belongs to. 

Our relationship goes from private to public. You want to show me all of your favorite places. Not the glass buildings, but what lies beneath. The half broken monuments in the parks. The ruins of what once was. As you stare at the rubble, you cannot stop yourself from imagining what the past was like. I am not like you, I cannot detach myself from the present. I see the crowd forming around us and whispering to one another. I cannot hear their conversation, but I catch fragments of it. Kali, gora, unsanskari. I have always known that I do not fit in, but now I have turned you into an outsider. If I tell you, you will laugh it off and tell me to ignore such backwards people. It is beyond my control. Remember when you told me about the shipwreck in The Tempest? I am that same storm.  

The days and nights start to blur together. I no longer count the hours, minutes, seconds. It makes no sense anymore. Instead, I channel my energy towards keeping the two of us awake at all times. Tell me a longer story, turn around and face me, keep your eyes on me. I cannot afford for us to fall asleep and lose ourselves. But, I soon discover that, despite our names, we are only human. We collapse into each other’s arms and surrender ourselves. That is when Sita arrives to haunt us again. She knows that this is the time when both of us are most vulnerable. As you continue to call out to her in the darkness, you continue your daily visitations in my dreams. I grow frustrated, sick of the games that our subconscious causes us to play. Will I wake up one morning without you by my side? Will you eventually go find a Sita for yourself? When will the two of us stop pretending that this is meant to be? I begin to think of the apartment as a dollhouse and as the two of us as dolls within it.

We go on sleeping in the same bed as if nothing is wrong. Neither of us choose to confront the demons that lie in our bed. It is far easier to put a pillow in between us. The pillow allows us to keep our distance without having a conversation. Forget about pillow talk, we have a pillow to do the talking for us. There is no goodnight, no last kiss, no I love you. The barrier has been put up between us and there it shall stay. I can no longer glance at you, and it has started making me resent the thought of you. The second you enter my mind, I kick you right out. Who are you to interfere with me? Why should I care about you? Why are you still here? At times, I wish I could start a fire and have the whole apartment turn into ashes. Then, I wouldn’t have to deal with the problem that is you. 

Our only fight was our last one. Before this, we had never spoken about what happens every night. Now, the fire that has raged within me was starting to burn. While words had never come to me like they did to you, they now overcame me. As I rambled on and on about Sita, you stayed silent. Did you have no words to say to me? Or were there no words that could express what you wanted to say? At last, you too crumbled like me. You rolled your eyes, and said “Fucking Othello”. That is the last thing I ever heard you say. Everything is black from there. 

Our relationship ended as I had predicted. I told you I would make it all go up in flames. You never listened. When I finally open my eyes, all I can see is white light. I am laying in a sterile hospital bed, covered in sheets and blankets. You are nowhere to be found. I want to speak up, to shout for you, to find you. I choose not to. Deep down, somewhere, I already know I can never find you again. A doctor comes to me and asks me to identify you. I see your still body, covered in black soot, on the white sheets. I silently nod, waiting for someone to give me an explanation. It is the same doctor that chooses to do so. A fire, an accident, a tragedy. I am the survivor, you are the victim.

The events of the night never come together for me. No matter how hard I try, I can never fully comprehend what happened. I replay everything in my head over and over again, but I black out at the same place every time. So, instead of reconstructing the past, I reimagine you. All I have of yours is an old sweatshirt, the one I happened to be wearing that night. It still smells of smoke, but I choose to wear it. For you. I push my hands in the pocket, hoping that I can feel your hand through it. There is something in there, I feel it. A match. Ram, ram, you should have never played with fire. 

One thought on “flame.

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