I never could have thought my keyboard transforms so naturally into a grand piano every time I write. The prelude, the exposition, the recapitulation: it's my mind that creates; the fingers execute.
Once you love someone you can never un-love them. Be it weeks, months, or years, you pick up the strings and begin again as easy as reaching your hands out to the flecks of snow whirling around you. Love grows into your bones, through to the tendons, the sinews and you soon find your entire being infusing into that of a person once again as though it were just yesterday you had closed the door on them. Could this be because their ghost never really left you when they did?
I am perpetually hounded by my ghosts: the demonic and the angelic ones; the little ghouls in black outfits and scurrying eyes waiting their chance to wind me up with bygone mortifications; the old naggers devising ways to torment me about the paradigmatic pasts in direct proportion to the mundane present like some sort of follow-on to Newton’s third law; the grey phantoms needling dormant fears, exhuming them into half-existence; the old school-time poltergeists racketing about in pockets of consciousness; the apparitions, gorgons, banshees of folks I have met over the years; the spirits of those inanimate knick knacks I have once surrounded myself with; the dancing nymphs and zephyrs of the seas, rivers, mountains, woods, trees I have grown up among; the genius loci of places I have loved and left. The inventory could go on forever.
I realise that perhaps more than living with my human equivalents I live with my ghosts. They surround me. Now it would be a matter of debate as to whether they seek me out or I am the one who has never let them go. I am trapped within this inordinate desire to cling on to things: to never let go. It is either this or the fact that the things track me down. It could be objects or simply the essence of them – a sudden flash of colour, a sound, a smell that might set me off. And I find myself in the dominion of memories: powerful memories that have the energy to rip me away from the present and transport me into a desirable past; or perhaps a not so desirable one after all.
It was just the other day that I went ballistic trying to find an old bookmark that I’ve had with me since year three. It’s not that this was the only one I owned. I must have dozens more but I found myself poking into every corner and riffling through endless series of books to locate the one. There was something about it that called to me at that point of my read. None other would have satisfied this unfounded hankering of mine. It was the one crafted eons ago with my then little fingers, collaged with pictures of trees, giant butterflies and an enormous moon on the top right hand corner. It had stories living in it; it was redolent of images that had frozen inside my head for years. My present read might have incited something within. I couldn’t say. I just knew I needed to disinter the memory, or image and weave newer tales on it. These tales were sustenance for me.
I’ve often done it unconsciously, seen others do it – this wrestling with their ghosts without actually being aware of their presence. I remember walking back from a literary lunch with my friend Marcus some years ago, absorbed in dialogue concerning the incandescence in Turner’s Fighting Temeraire and exclaiming over how we were both so enamoured with the man’s genius when we reached the avenue leading to our car park. I saw a complete transformation in Marcus’s behaviour as we touched the tail end of that road. Reaching out and barricading my path he had hastened an alternative. “Let’s take the other road. There are repairs going on here,” he’d mumbled.
We walked on. But I couldn’t help wondering over the man’s behaviour. I had just this morning walked the road to our luncheon venue and it had been clear. He did sense my discomfort after that as we took the longer route and in silence. Then, seating me in my driver’s seat he paused by the window before waving me goodbye. “Sorry about that back there,” he said, wiggling a thumb behind him, “there are no road-works going on there which I’m sure you know.” And he’d laboured up a deep sigh. “That’s where I first met Carol.” His wife Caroline had died five years previously but her ghost had lived on in things, places, smells, sights, roads. The pain of her loss was perhaps too colossal for him to stir-up even if inadvertently. I sat and stared after him as the man made his way to his car. How agonising it must be for him to have Caroline’s ghost transmute into places and objects of his everyday existence. I knew he must have tried many possibilities, even revisited places over and again in the hope of obliterating the hurt. But some ghosts were there to stay.
Another associate of mine, Aaron, once confided in me that he loved the rains as much as he hated them. The only woman he had ever romantically fallen in love with and then lost was during one of his camping trips in the Highlands. She had sought shelter one stormy afternoon in his tent. For the young man of twenty-two to have this radiant creature, the ebony curls clung to her temples, eyes glistening like the raindrops around her, sit with him in that tiny tent of his and talk her heart out about what had driven her to trekking those remoter hills, was magical. He was indeed smitten for life. He could still evoke with as much intensity the smell of sodden earth, rain, musk and wild flowers that she’d exuded as she sat there with him within the billowing canvas walls eons ago; and however hard he tried he could never erase that image nor disremember the fragrance she carried about her. He told me how later that evening the picture of her vanishing with her troupe, into the swirling rains that had brought her to him, was imprinted in his head forever. Even to this day (happily married for forty years and grandfather to seven), whenever a storm sprang up or the rains lashed his windows, he thought of the rain-woman as he’d so christened her; and he loved her and hated her because despite her many promises she never wrote back to him or got in touch. He told me how for months after, he had rummaged through the post every single day in the hope of hearing from the girl who had stolen his heart in the Scottish rains.
For my part I can never bring myself to going back to Darjeeling, my hometown skirting the Himalayan foothills, after having left it those many years ago. My ghosts would never let me. And I have far too many of them back there. When I left home I brought along with me its wood nymphs and tree gods, the water fairies, the spirits that I had frolicked about with through my growing years. Every little road meandering down a valley, every hillside raging with the wild grasses and flowers, every moss- strewn crag rising out of its band of mists spoke to me; still does. A friend recently said to me that the mammon has taken over the town now. It is unrecognizable in its shopping malls, its skyscrapers, its fast-food joints where once it had sported hosts of rhododendrons, the pine firs, the breath-taking views of Mount Kunchenjunga. My footsteps would never take me back there now. I am afraid that if they ever did, I would never find that spirit, which I once couldn’t get enough of. It would be buried deep down there and below these brand new foundations of change and perhaps even my most persistent of ghosts wouldn’t be able to resuscitate it.
There is also this childhood gorgon that has lodged itself in the grimmer recesses of my mind for as long as I can remember. She wakes up at odd hours, stalks the alleyways of my past failures, torments me in my present failings, thwarts my future endeavours. Metamorphosed into this hideous beast, this girl from high school stands as a mark of everything that failed me then or does so now. It all began in my earlier years and from the time I befriended her – my tale of incessant academic malfunctions and her perpetual stealing of my thunder in those much troubled high school years of mine that followed. I wake up nights haunted by those days when all scholastic achievements of mine were eclipsed by her grand ones. It was from those days that she manifested herself into the arch-gorgon of my life; and she has not left me since. A slight let-down and I find myself slipping into that rut where I see her hunched up in her corner, bespectacled and egg headed, supremely mocking my personal miseries. I am told the young woman now leads a much prolific life up North somewhere, basking in newer accomplishments whilst I rake up her ghost from my past and torment myself.
Some nights I awake to the glowering eyeballs of the ghouls of the literary world. Occasionally they overrun my days, prancing about my study table in the shape of books or sometimes newspaper articles, knocking over stationary and artefacts, shrieking in glee, tormenting me with stories of recent successes of some or the other literati, sneering over my many failings. And there are far too of them for me to eliminate now: sudden heroes in the form of supernovas whose new bestsellers have taken the world by storm or those older and well-established demi-gods of the written world that writhe within me like chronic pains and aches. They sprout everywhere like lichen in the media world. I watch them garner praise for their works, bag prizes, sermonise the art of writing, share their processes, whilst I recede further into the abyss of my own endless struggles. I have learnt somewhat to make a pact with these phantoms of my literary existence. I have left them to waft about my dailies and perform their dances of triumph until I tire myself of the rhythmic platitude they gradually take a turn for and let them wilt into the distance, their chins flopped over their fists, lowering at me.
My ghosts live in objects around me. They watch me from their many corners; they often calm me but occasionally set forth a tumult inside of me. As I sit at my desk and type, a miniature dictionary grabs my attention: this book, not any bigger than my thumb, given to me when I was barely six by Mrs Gwendolyn Le Blond, the old childless Welsh widow to a French Padre and in her seventies that time (who shared with me a most extraordinary relationship) has within it volumes of memories that come alive every time I flick my eyes to it. Her stories have lived on in each little artefact or trinket she has gifted to me in affection or for the sake of ridding herself of it that time, which I had of course failed to notice then in my joy of receiving. Her ghost springs alive when I visit churches, reminding me of the days she had clasped her gnarled hands in my tiny ones as I’d puffed up with the pride of chaperoning her weekly to her Sunday Mass; or when I trail a similar path nearby leading into the bluebell-strewn woodlands late Spring; or when I sink my teeth into the finest of fudge cubes that could never contest the homemade ones she prepared for us as mini treats. Most of all there is that one lone spectre that surfaces above all others and reproaches me silently. It has lodged itself to my memory from that time when she’d lain pale and dying in a hospital bed, her cheeks streaked with tears, lips cracked into fissures and gauzed with saliva strings to the sides, calling out to me for a goodbye kiss. I was barely ten then. I recall how my aversion then had prevailed over the compassion I might have felt for her and I’d had that uncontrollable urge to escape from there, which I did surrender to. The hapless dowager died a couple of hours later or so I was told, alone and waiting. For what, nobody knew. The kiss I could have then parted with pursues me still whenever a sight, sound or voice exhumes a dark memory latent inside. She died thirty years ago but a demon lives on, trapped within my psyche somewhere, waiting to jab at my past fiasco.
Delhi for me is one phantasm of despair. Is it the city that mutates into an ogre or is it its people who still stand like silent sentinels, warding me off with a malevolence that grabs me the moment I am familiarised with anything that might still hold the key to those memories that I find myself constantly fleeing from? I lived for less than a year in the city and it has left in me a lifetime of residual wounds that bleed at the slightest touch. The ghosts from back there watch me perpetually: spectres in the shape of its buildings looking down upon the scurf of lesser lives; its deafening manifestations of motorbikes, cars, buses, trucks that move on and on, and into their own uroboric circles of existence; its mammon-worshipping fiends that stop for none but follow zealously their mirages of no realisation. Midst the many phantoms and ghouls that overrun the city, also looms that medusa-like spirit of fear that still torments me. She haunts me after all these years and across the many oceans, gloating over my miseries, cursing my moments of jubilation. Her voice rises like a banshee and ricochets about, disentombing over and over again the many memories I keep buried most of the times. Some hauntings indeed are in-exorcist-able.
Then of course, some of the most intrusive of ghosts that nab me are those that I could never have any control over. These are the music poltergeists, omnipresent and often startling. You might be walking down a street absolved of all melancholy when a sudden melody wafting down from an open window might snare you in its grip. I am of the belief that every song you have actually been touched by houses its own little ghost within its cadence, its theme, chorus, vamp, the ostinato patterns and all else that might make it. You never can understand how a particular note or feature or lyric has insinuated itself those many years ago or does so now and unknowingly, to make permanent seat inside your head. A song holds within it skeins of emotions and reminiscences. When let loose the worlds dormant inside unravel before you in colour, light and form, having the power to lift you to the higher spheres or sometimes pull you down into a swamp of lost hopes.
Matt has lodged innumerable ghosts in my head; or is it the songs and pieces of melody that he has left himself behind in? He materialises into that deep-throated ache erupting from Bryan Adams playing someplace; Don Williams trails my paths long after I’ve left behind his ‘I Recall a Gypsy Woman’, ‘I’m Just a Country Boy’, ‘Till all the Rivers Run Dry’ and many others; the Eagles and their ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ still have the power to whisk me away like djinns from Persia, into the farther lands where brooks gurgle, mornings explode like giant girandolas in the far east, night skies come alive with stars and all is right in that world of the ever-romantic clichés which have been benchmarks in my love life thereon.
You cannot un-love the one you’ve loved, however hard you try. Those phantoms living in certain sounds, smells, perceptions, which had once enamoured you when in love would never permit it. They grab your viscera, rekindling emotions you thought had long died. They never let go of you even though time has. Matt is vanished into my past but his many ghosts hound me still, enticing me into labyrinths that have no entrances or exits; where worlds of bygone days stand still and forever in pockets of memory; where fragrances, melodies, pictures, pains, come alive with the tiniest of touch. Everything around me tells its narrative. Should I simply pause and dwell on any one object, I could go on and in reams about these derelicts and mementos alike that have intangible material for a potential book.
My ghosts live inside of me. Not just in things alone but also in emotions. And they live in smells of sodden earth where I had once loved then lost; they lure me into alleyways and up staircases that lead to my very own Narnias; they harbour the mysteries of my smiles or the creases upon my forehead. They are paradoxes to my daily existence. They have forms but not bodies. Yet they are palpable, possess voices, can feel as they reach out and run their fingers along my flesh, watching me settle my pillows and duvet every night before I sleep or as I walk out my driveway in the mornings. They seek me out or perhaps it is I who has never let them go. I never will.
An extract from: Living with my Ghosts