(This isn’t fictitious. At all.)
I left the house at 8 o’clock, when I’d planned on leaving at 7. The earlier you leave to read outside the better, because it gets progressively hotter and more stifling (sweat, sweat, sweat galore) as the day progresses, climaxing sometime around noon and then it starts cooling down again, and as I drove down I half-heartedly lamented the lost hour. Things lost are always greater in potential than anything ever , and I (foolishly, in retrospect) thought I could’ve pack more reading, bike-riding and early morning sight-seeing into that sixty-minute stretch than can physically, temporally, spatially possible. It’s ridiculous now, but it wasn’t then. And that’s another thing about me: in retrospect, I’m always dumber. Or maybe not strictly dumb as much as unreasonable, taken by immediacy of circumstance and idea and thought and occurrence, and given to impulse. And that’s probably the reason: I’m overrun by the now and overwhelmed, so I act on unthinking, immature, sometimes instinctual modus. Is that what all the Zen-masters are talking about? Are they able to calm themselves so significantly, so aptly as to achieve ultimate possible clarity, that thing we – by that I don’t mean ‘we’, I really mean ‘I’ – need hours, days, weeks to achieve? I’m not sure.
I’m listening to someone called Drew Ryniewicz, her rendition of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and, nicely sung just now: People always told me, ‘Be careful what you do. Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts. Mother always told me, ‘Be careful who you love. Be careful what you do, because a lie becomes a truth.’ I don’t know who this Ryniewicz is (a friend gave some music and I’m only listening to it now) but she has a nice voice. Passionate but sensitive. Attentive. That’s it. The best singing voices are attentive: they (their owners) know precisely when to rise in triumphant soprano and plunge in woeful contralto. Anyway, I’ve digressed heavily.
I drove along the corniche, only sometimes catching a whiff of sea-air (I’m not the fondest of that particular odour), finally making it to a bench I arbitrarily deemed acceptable to read on – they line the corniche, a few meters between, and I could have picked any other one. I read for about an hour when a woman approached me. Now, I say approached but I was really startled by her presence, because for the past hour I’d been sucked into the parallel, imagined world of the book, only rising (voluntarily!) to peer about, sporadically, as if making sure my surroundings were still there. In that hour, three police cars sped by, sirens blaring, and I wondered what prompted the hurried dispatch. The woman wore a black abaya and headdress, and spoke Moroccan Arabic (as dialects of Arabic go, it’s instantly discernible), and when I’d turned to her I thought she was elegant, dignified. “Excuse me,” she said, “do you know if that road breaks to the other side?” She was wondering if there were any pedestrian crossings leading to the other side of the road. She was walking, and there must not have been one for some time; from where she stood and I sat, there weren’t any, the road was flanked on either side by concrete partitions. “I want to get to that building,” she said, and pointed to a tall one on the opposite.
“I don’t know,” I said. She thanked me and was about to leave when I said: “Wait here, give me two minute.” She was baffled as I packed my book and earphones, looped by arms around my backpack and carried it, and slid my parked bike out, as if to drive it.
“No, no,” she said immediately, understanding what I meant to do.
“It’s no problem,” I said, “I’ll just go check. Two minutes.” I took the bike and drove down the road. She was smiling (with incredulity) when I drove back to her. “There’s a traffic signal five minutes from here,” I told her, “you can cross there.” She smiled again, repeating “Jazak Allahu khair” more times than a sentence can carry. (At least five.)
I sat back and read again. Pedestrians walked past (and, naturally, had been before the lady, I should add), and every time I couldn’t help but look up to inspect who was walking by. Three men in dishdasha, two joggers, seven bikers, one of them with a bike the wheels of which I thought were too thin to support his weight. Half an hour later one of the bikers, an American lady (again, the accent tells all) on a blue bike stopped by. “Isn’t it just an excellent book?” she said, eyeing my copy of Life of Pi.
“Oh, it is,” I said. “Excellent book.”
“Couldn’t put it down,” she said. “Movie’s coming out, too. Soon.”
“I know. Looks great. This is the film tie-in edition.” I showed her my book’s cover, with the film poster instead of the official cover artwork. Now a major motion picture from Academy-Award winning director Ang Lee. Life of Pi. A novel by Yann Martell. Printed and bound in Great Britian. £6.99.
“Gotta finish it quickly so you can watch the movie,” she said. “Keep an eye for it. It comes out this week or the one after.” Then, almost before she finished her sentence, she kicked her bike alive and drove away.
I couldn’t help throwing her a “Have a nice day!” as she drove away (and I do mean throw, she’d driven away surprisingly quickly, I had to shout it). She glanced back at that, smiled, but didn’t reply. Or was the smile reply enough? Another jogger in a form-fitting black outfit hopped by – again a carefully chosen word, because rabbits came to mind as she passed me, head bobbing and body skipping forward. After some time, I decided I’d read enough for one sitting, and biked back home, absentmindedly missing my turn and driving all the way to the seaport, the sight of boats (one in particular, emblazoned in bold THE GREY DOLPHIN) telling me that I should turn back, that I’d driven along the corniche a bit longer than I should. I got back with an urge to write about what happened.
And now I have.