by ashwini gangal
On a warm Saturday afternoon, Gabroo, dressed in her customary black shorts and ganji, flung herself on her bed, belly down, opening the Italian novella she was determined to finish reading over that weekend. It was a collection of fictitious conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, as they discussed the Mongol’s empire, town by town.
Inside her dusty lilac mosquito net, a misfit in a modern urban household, Gabroo felt like she was far removed from the rest of the house, the rest of the city, the rest of the world. As she started reading, Gabroo slowly slipped into a familiar literary trance, travelling to distant lands, from the safety of her netted cocoon. Like an alcoholic drinking wine can’t recognise the exact moment she crosses over to the dark side, Gabroo didn’t realise when she left the salty, humid climes of Mumbai and entered the wet, labyrinthine city of Venice.
The afternoon sun poured in through the window and touched Gabroo’s body with the authority of a new lover, making her skin glow like pale marble, uncovering every scar, hair, pore and blemish, but loving her anyway. The only bits of Gabroo’s exposed skin the sun could not touch were the shadow-lines made by the net.
Soon, the sea breeze wafted in all the way from Arabia, trying to seduce Gabroo by caressing her neck and stroking her curls. Absently moving her head as the breeze tickled her ears, Gabroo continued reading. She was on page 93.
Kublai: I, too, am not sure I am here, strolling among the porphyry fountains, listening to the plashing echo, and not riding, caked with sweat and blood, at the head of my army, conquering the lands you will have to describe, or cutting off the fingers of the attackers scaling the walls of a besieged fortress.
Polo: Perhaps this garden exists only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids…
As Gabroo tried to read the rest of the sentence, the wind lifted the page slightly, trying to take her to 94. But when she exhaled, the force of her breath pressed the page back into place, gently. She continued reading.
…and we have never stopped; you, from raising dust on the fields of battle; and I, from bargaining for sacks of pepper in distant…
Again, she was left hanging mid-sentence, as the breeze lifted the page, trying once again to turn it prematurely. But again, Gabroo’s breath, coming from the other side, pushed it down and she carried on, hungrily.
…bazaars. But each time we half-close our eyes in the midst of the din and the throng, we are allowed to withdraw here,…
As she inhaled and exhaled, the page kept rising and falling. And so began a rhythmic dance of air against air, breeze against breath, sometimes teasing, sometimes threatening. Gabroo now read the words at a slight incline, as the page, caught in this invisible battle, was neither pinned down, nor allowed to fly. It fluttered and struggled like a fish caught in the nets of fate.
…dressed in silk kimonos, to ponder what we are seeing and living, to draw conclusions, to contemplate from the distance.
With that, Gabroo was done with page 93, ending the mysterious war against the forces, exerting her right with nothing but her most powerful weapon, her breath.
“I will turn the page when I am ready,” she would have said, if she knew about the silent argument her spirit had just had with the elements. But simply flipping the page, she carried on reading about the hanging gardens of the Great Khan’s palace.