in the open city, i move like an eel. i am electric and curved like a smile razored. in the open city, i live on hot food and hot music. i distract myself from weight. in the open city, a man makes a rape inside the womb of a book, and fills it with hot air. the words never deflate. in the open city, a woman is free to lie. and i believe in wonderlands lying at the bottom of holes, and i believe in blackbrown alices that reach their destination. in the open city, translation is not sold in the shops like rope necklaces. in the open city, i fly without an electrical cord making me marionette. look there, some me has fallen and killed their darling self. in the open city, i am flâneuse venus never in retrograde, cinnamon brown flesh and moonless. in the open city, i am a queen on the chessboard, mobile as a dream or dictator. in the open city, memory is no cannibal but a child making jigsaw. in the open city, i can change colors. make blues into hot pink, my brains all alchemist.
Artwork by Sheila Hicks “Comets Sculpture, 2016-2018, (detail).” Magasin III Jaffa. Photo: Noam Preisman.
there are several ideological lines, the first being there are three bodies to contend with: mine ours theirs
my body is really heavy with guilt, this leaking thing charged with sex and stifled
our body is really heavy i am so crushed by the burden of bodies belonging to me, i must occupy space for our body i must walk as these bodies, these naked and piling bodies, these bodies thick to stack and build upon, these equally weak and temporary bodies, these bodies that are simultaneously more and less
(i was holding my copy of the women of brewster place too tightly, almost wrinkling gloria’s name when my white coworker lifted her nose and said she could only read books she actually heard of and that were well written)
finally their body is really heavy. the body on and outside my body is rendered weak in its own construction,
as it renders itself during and only through its relentless creation of my body and their body and whatever bodies that birth themselves in between, outside and aside of this central body of work which is itself a body
my body is really heavy. our body is really heavy. their body is really heavy.
this theory comes up against what I’ve identified as three ideological lines in their bodies of work:
my body is weak against their body. my body must relent to their body of work. my body is only here because of their bodies and body of work.
i disagree with these lines in their body of work.
precisely because they are lines and what lines actually make up my body?
their bodies are all line which is why their body of work consists of lines and why my body does not fit into these lines, its form enjoys everything but lines
(the chapin I’ve been fucking on and off for four years makes it a point to remind me of his love for redheads who burn easily)
walls are supported by their body of work walls are made by promises written about in their bodies they are losing their grip on these promises
(old white women point at my legs when they are crossed on the train and in their way. and on three occasions in my adult life white women have shoved their chests in my face non sexually)
my body is constant and in the way of their body of work and it’s lines.
my form was here before and birthed their bodies my body will continue to be a body of work more than it is just my body
reading and writing about the body and their body and their bodies of work should render all the bodies silent, dead it doesn’t, I learned
(my ex still has my copy of borderlands i still have her copy of beloved)
as i wrap myself in the flesh of my own body — my own, meaning i own it, this is a line from their body of work that i am now forcing on my own created body and body of work — I’ve learned to tell you it isn’t there you become accustomed to my body of work which is more my body than my actual body
They say it doesn’t rain in Abu Dhabi, but this is a lie. Something’s always leaking. Fat, fat droplets, that I see on Sayed’s face sometimes, when he walks in from the heat or disappears into the storage closet to quickly rub his eyes. It’s probably sweat. Everything here sweats: the air-cons above the shops, the glasses of lemon mint and the soft-skinned people with cameras who look at me too long. Abu Dhabi is really a rainy city, otherwise it would burn up. That is why when Sayed gets tense, I go to him. Like today, there were no customers around so I walked into his room to let him I know was there. Sometimes he just looks at me for hours, not moving. It is a very long time. But I don’t mind with him. His face softens a bit, like sogged up paper, and he lets something in him rain. I don’t know what that feels like but I do know that in Abu Dhabi, it is very important to stay cool.
Sayed is making chai. It reminds me of that boyfriend I had once, with skin the color of karak. He stayed close by behind the baqala, from where he’d steal large cold water bottles for me. One time, we had ended up walking as far as the corniche from Al Wahda. There were so many men there, like yapping puppies, dressed in t-shirts fitted to the smile of their bellies. I fleetingly wondered how my body would change if I got pregnant. The men had been staring. Staring hard, it seemed, at a pair of logs, in a creamy pinky milky color, like a shake. Logs? We moved closer. The long peach stumps soon revealed a set of knees, swelling up into thighs, flowering up into a whole person. It was a white woman, sunbathing.
How different those men were from Sayed. They must not be praying; and I’m sure it had even been a Friday. The thought of it makes my back arch again, as if some cold slime is trickling through the vertebrae. I remember my boyfriend gazing out towards the water, oblivious to all. We had not looked at each other for a single moment; there was something more beautiful in front of us. It was so blue, so bright and lovely and unmarred by humanness. An oasis. And yet, I don’t remember much else but feeling hot, just too hot. That boyfriend is gone now, but my stomach still feels funny when I catch the smell of karak.
These days the weather is quite cool at night, so I go walking in Al Wahda. Hours pass as the taxi cabs go by. I think they are beautiful. These days I find myself dreaming of walking straight onto the road, as if wading into an endless current. Nobody would see me; everyone would be looking up, looking at the road ahead. How long would this game last before I lost my body, in some forgotten underbelly of that powerful stream? Yet when I watch these cabs swim through the night, something inside me stops. I wish I could communicate it – that ripple settling into silence.
Why don’t the big, creamy, perfumed people take photographs of such things? Like the yellow hats of taxi cabs or the pastel apartment blocks with so many eyes or the crushed pools of dates on the pavements. Things grown and fallen and full and lived in. Instead, they pick and choose what to see. My friend Roza who stays with an American expatriate, told me that they like to gather in very specific places, like Emirates Palace. Or they go to the Louvre, to take pictures of the ‘rain of light’. I wish I could see this mysterious rain but Saadiyat Island is very far and I would die walking there. But I’m sure I would like it. One day perhaps, if Sayed gets a nice car; a rain of light sounds like something you could never look at long enough. Perhaps it’s true then, maybe those people do know better. Maybe they look so carefree because they are the best at deciding the most beautiful and lovely things. Imagine, a rain of light. Even Sayed might pull out his phone to take a picture and send it home. Maybe he’d make it his background for a while, replacing the shot of his parents’ home in Lucknow.
It is difficult for me to understand Sayed’s world. But I think I have definitely figured out the word “paisa”. Sayed needs money. I’ve obviously never needed it myself but I want to make Sayed happy and that is what he says he needs. Paisa, paisa, paisa, he yells many times into the phone. At first, I thought paisa was a woman. There was this Filipina nurse who came into the shop once. She had soft hands, and she bent down properly to talk to me, her voice kind of sticky. I saw Sayed look at her for a very long time, even when she had walked out. He would stare as if the corniche itself was in front of him, except there was no visible horizon, only a world he wanted to reach his arms out to forever – if only his body didn’t ache so much. On that island there would be no rain perhaps. Just sun and palms and breeze – and paisa. Different. Different from where he was.
Sayed talks to me a lot nowadays. I’m afraid I’m his only real friend, except maybe Hamza-bhai from the baqala who comes over with a pack of cards on a blue moon Saturday. But nobody really talks to me either, unless they want me to get out of the way. I know I’m not pretty. I’m too skinny, even though I eat well now, and my limbs remain bone and angles. But Sayed still loves me. He told me so. I didn’t know how to ask him what love was, but I think I sort of figured it out one day, from a guy called Rahul. He was a skinny boy with a face in permanent shadow. I found him one night while walking, spraying the letters “A M A L” on a wall, eyes leaking and leaking like some faulty faucet. He taught me some signs; he kept going on about how he had missed or dismissed them. Like the way someone talks to you, a bit more padded and softer than usual, like the underside of a new-born kitten’s paws. The shape of their palm when they touch you. Where they touch you. A gaze that lingers. Sayed lets me sit next to him while he prays. When he finishes, he looks up for a long time, his face as open as a desert. I look too but I don’t really see anything. Not even rain. But I am grateful to be with him. Nobody else sees the love he mouths upwards, evaporating to join the clouds. I always move closer and lay my head on his thigh. And he smiles in return. I think we have so much to give to each other.
We watched a new Madhuri Dixit film today. Obviously, we couldn’t miss it on ZeeTV now that it was finally showing. This was Sayed’s favorite actress, and the most beautiful woman in the world. How incredible, firstly that I even have a name, and that I’m named after her. I often wish she would just shake off the TV screen like pesky bathwater and walk into Sayed’s arms. Then we’d be a real family, a filmy one in a white house. Sayed would smile so much that his cheeks would ache for months. He would hug us and call home and pay for extra meethai and invite Hamza-bhai for chai and then hug us again, tighter. I would wind through both of their legs. They would laugh, entwined, Sayed’s face bursting like the splitting open of a flower, seeds spilling, life pouring forth.
This is my favorite daydream.
Sometimes it comes back so sharply. My life three years ago – eating out of garbage cans, like so many others in this city. It was so difficult to move. And then Sayed. Sayed found me in that pedestrian underpass. That place where the sun couldn’t glare at me anymore, where the ground was cool as lemon mint because of course, everyone knows it is important to stay cool in Abu Dhabi. I had gone to that underpass to give up. My body spread in surrender. So many footsteps bobbed by me, interrupted at times by curiosity and then inevitable, helpless revulsion. My eyes were perpetually half-closed but I still saw, always the same grotesque realization hooking onto their features: “Awww…oh…oh…poor thing. Poor kitty.”
Until. One pair of feet, paused. A man kneeling down to look at me, properly, even gently patting my fur. He had begun to talk softly in Hindi, which a lot of people speak here. The words I know best are “Chal hat!” and “kaali billi.” I get the feeling they don’t like me because my fur is a deep black. And so they don’t understand when I try tell them it’s just like the hair on their heads. Many of them run away in fear, eyes popping.
Sayed brought me to his home, and soon I came to learn new smells – blackened banana peel-stinks forgotten, I discovered the sharp tang of lemon dishwasher liquid, so heady my eyes swam. I remember resting for many weeks in a little bed made from old fabrics. All the fabrics sold at Sayed Fashion Tailors are the color of apartments in Abu Dhabi. Or of sand. The sand is to Abu Dhabi what hope is to us: me, you, Sayed.
“I think, I will name you Madhuri,” he had told me when I finally started walking properly again, pointing to the television. And he had smiled. We had looked at each other for a long time that afternoon and I hope he knew I was close to happy too.
I hope he knows.
Today, Madhuri Dixit is dancing, shut within the television set – for outside the window, there is rain, and a song is beginning to play. It talks about love. As Madhuri’s body moves, she suddenly remembers that she knows all the words well.
Grab this sick this
Bittersweet easing out
Of animal and
Into self-ness by the scruff of its neck.
Hold it in your lap, in your lips.
It’s crystallizing, your awareness of your
Sitting in an empty subway car maybe
Bandaging your hands with hope that you weren’t too
Peeled open and poured shouldn’t you feel victorious?
Well you are
Sugar spun in calcified spirals,
It lay in the air
Two liquids when they were done
The slow separation – easy
Float of a dream dissipating
The morning after.
The settling down of that clawing mania
Released into a slurry weight for the time being
The lightness of self returns
Floats somewhere overhead.
A separation like rainbow spilled oil
On a wet pavement.
What is there to be sad about?
The finality that hung in the air and
Gathered in the shadows under his eyes, pooling
The ease of goodbye and the promise that neither would be the first
Trembling for the other’s bandaged hands?
It was there when she met him and it’s there
And here too–
In your confused pride, wide eyes
In the way he reached, pleading for you to
Wrap around him and assure him that he’s different.
In your inability to hear him over You’re gold baby but Men, they’ll bite into your blood to suck it from you It’s in their nature, they’re wrapped around A twisting lick of hunger deep inside…
You lay down wondering if
He got what he wanted or if he’d be back
For more digging; you hoped you buried
The best of you
Deep enough but then someone else said
Love is believing the other person is entirely real.
your palm is a map, they said
drawn upon with lines
by a man above you, they said
your future is there
where the line
(and what is a palm but a leaf but a land but a country)
(and what is a line but divide but a border but fate but a worry)
how long i will last depends
on how i am held, they said
whether a hand is extended in
a fist or caress.
which means, will they love me
roughly or, well
(and what is a fist but landlock but a trap but stopped breath but control)
(and what is a caress but medicine but peace but an exhalation but love)
so i teach the land of me how to breathe
to inhale and exhale
someone else’s decisions, they said
i must find balance, walk the line
ready to spread myself
wide as a smile, call it love, don’t
scream it inside a fist, then
move on, forget
gather my skirt full of memory
(and what is a tightrope but decisions but existence but what happens to you)
(and what is balance but finally, power to a woman)
when i’m splayed five finger wide
like a palm frond in the wind,
it is still only an invitation if i say so
yet i know you often do not care.
even during a storm,
when i say welcome, come in
i know i could be left
in peace or in pieces, they said
it all depends on the hand
(and what is a country but something governed)
(and what is a woman but something governed)
(and what is man without a hand to govern)
in search of happy endings,
i span the equator
wound that cuts me in
two or more places, i learn
to call those wounds homes:
thatch them with thoughts and
erect them upon my heart till they push
out roots, and give way
(and what is growth but defeating the odds)
(and what is blooming but a woman, without)
keep going, they say
your life is always there:
and i’m searching still
travelling newer terrains
till the land of me stops breathing and
even my palm will not remember
the power it never held.
Artwork by Mequitta Ahuja, “Performing Painting: Seated Scribbler”, 2015