Mine is purple, at the moment. It generally is, by which I mean I don’t remember a time it wasn’t. The city shoots up a red glow, and the sky reflects it back in purple. That is how I know that it was supposed to be blue. Purple is better than grey though, which is what I think the sky would be if we had white lights instead of yellow ones on the streets. A dull grey glowing unhealthily like a muted computer screen. Thank god for halogens.
The city looks pretty and stark under them. The shadows grow deep, long and adequately fearsome.
That is the anatomy of fire, I think. During the 1916 insurrection, parts of Dublin burned for a whole week. James Stephens, a chronicler of the insurrection, had described the restless nights in vivid details of gunshot patterns and a red, red sky. In 1916 skies were supposed to remain dark blue. A red sky meant something was amiss.
Something surely is amiss now, as my midnight is tinged perpetually with red. But it doesn’t feel like so. Things go amiss very slowly in the world, the red seeps into the blue and the purple goes deeper. I wonder if the perpetual knot in my stomach has something to do with too much sky-watching, the dread becomes accustomed in the returning gaze. Cities burn. Such has been their destiny since the Industrial Revolution. The red, red destiny seeping in slowly as decades eased into centuries and blue became purple.
So why do I still look for a blue midnight? Why do I always check the sky before preparing to stare at the ceiling for the next few hours, what and why is this need to ascertain whether it is blue or purple every night?
Maybe because of that saree. My mother had bought a midnight blue Benarasi Katan for her wedding trousseau 31 years ago. It was one of those sarees that she herself chose, a motley selection apart from the numerous other clothing items chosen by her mother and aunts and in-laws that she prized above all and have preserved with a jealous love all these years. Twice every year – once at the beginning of winter and once at the end – when the sun is fuzzily comfortable, she takes out her favourite silks and lets them soak in light and warmth. She takes them out of the grand old steel cupboard and lays them down on her gigantic bedstead, both relics from said wedding. Then she unravels them fold by fold, hangs them on the cloth steins side by side, and lastly covers the display with a soft white dhoti to protect them from the harm that may come from too much of any good thing, in this case the sun.
The darkest one always stood out. I pranced around Ma as she performed this intensely personal bi-yearly ritual and watched as the sun pooled and flowed along every tuck and crease on the inky blue surface. Tiny seven-pointed stars blinked equidistantly in threads of silver touched by a hidden, inner gold. The border shone like some ancient weapon, terrible and exquisite, with sharp, tiny teeth along its upper edge and flowers woven in muted pink, ochre yellow and moss green in the middle. My mother called it her midnight saree. She wore it just once, and she wore it with the only diamonds she had, a pair of earrings received as a wedding gift from her grandmother. And I knew it was blue, and I knew it was midnight, because ma told me.
I still know a lot of things simply because ma told me. I have no initial memory of them. Like I know that I once had a pet lion with a cough problem that I kept under the TV table, even though I have no memory of it. Like I don’t remember the last time I saw a blue sky at midnight. But I know she called it midnight blue, and years later when I read the Maimansingh Geetika, I found out that the feisty, brave and beautiful Mahua of our folk legend wore an Ashmaantara saree at her wedding to the man she loved and sacrificed everything for. Ashmaantara – a sky full of stars. It was ‘as blue as the midnight’, and encrusted with the cold and distant fire of stars that have died out long before we could even begin to perceive them. Fire touched by frost. Gold enveloped in silver.
So regardless of empirical evidence, I always thought of Ashmaantara when I said ‘midnight’. It wasn’t until I landed a late-shift job and started travelling during the sleepy hours that I discovered the dissonance, or thought about it, really. Deep down, we are all a little bit like that mad philosopher who had once concurred that objects simply vanish when we cease to perceive them. For example, when I see a chair in the blue room I know it exists. When I exit the blue room and enter the yellow room, I no longer see the chair. Our mad philosopher would say the chair doesn’t exist anymore. Child psychologists would tell us that such a thought process is prerogative of the child; we adults don’t have the luxury of simply wishing away the existence of things we aren’t perceiving anymore. But I suspect we all do that, to greater or lesser degrees, for greater or lesser reasons. Reasons like belonging and sanity and love that has very little to do with ‘Reason’ as the Enlightenment Thinkers conceived it.
I remember the sense of loss I felt that night. I remember because the memory is still not past the seven-year mark. In seven years all the cells of my body would have undergone complete transformation according to pop science trivia, so all that would or could remain of that memory are distant echoes of electrical charges configured in a particular way and nothing more. All our memories are echoes after a certain point. Objects last a little longer. The Ashmaantara is the object that tethered my idea of midnight to blue.
As I lay out my mother’s Ashmaantara on the little box-like bed in my rented room with green walls and dusty window panes, I can envisage so much more that is not like what it was when the midnight was indeed blue. Like my bedstead which allows only intimacy and not sleep. Love requires intimacy, but peace requires room. My lover always struggles to fall asleep in my bed. There’s no room. We poke and prod each other involuntarily; we try not to shake each other out of sleep when we need to change side. We contort our knees and elbows into strange shapes and wake with a frozen shoulder the next day. Or we simply make love and go to sleep in different rooms after. It’s a functional choice. Like choosing to believe in Ashmaantara with a purple sky overhead.
For we are not mad philosophers who think things don’t exist from the moment we stop perceiving them through mere senses. For we know that even if the sky is purple at the moment, somewhere beyond the fumes of this city exists a blue exactly like the Ashmaantara. Even if it is too cramped for two in the small bed of my rented hovel under a purple sky in a time gone amiss, there exists a bedstead which can accommodate two with enough room to love and to breathe.
Inside both of us, there exists a city where there is room enough to love and to breathe, even in times gone amiss, a city with a blue midnight.