Not too many memories here, in these chic walls caught in the daily grind. But between the walls there are those truths—whistling through the subway of time—that keep jumping at me. Some of those memories sparkle like soft, plump aubergines and others like mucus-y, rancid milk. Each of them telling me that some languages are never forgotten, not even when you think your neurons are growing frail at forty-eight. They creep in, the rancid-milk ones, like phantoms dancing all over my skin. Like a cynical leech scoffing at me as if I am acid rain. As for the plump aubergine types, they seem remote even though they aren’t dead. At least, not dead to me as dead dead. Some part of my mind wants to room those intuitive moments of scats and improvs, those innocent indulgences in Gouda and the Packers. An accommodating purple in their copious oneness, something I no longer believe in, those aubergine memories keep cat-burgling me. So much for memories feeding into the walls of my one-bedroomed apartment in NYC. Once on the streets, I turn into something. The energy spuming out of Big Apple waves in its own perceptions just like the rest of the world does. I feel “looked at.” As if I am a dark character in a film noir shrunken to a comic cliché —a conglomerate of the tech-y kind who lives in a sprawling house that smells of cumin and sambar. There are times when I desperately want to conquer this mystique sticking to me like the obnoxious end of a gum and screaming through the grooved streets. Saying how much I belong to the Manhattanhenge. And that I have not moved from any South-Asian country carrying a hunk of a pressure-cooker, the one catering to the needs of an Indian kitchen. That’s what my mom and dad did. Not me.
More than eighteen years it has been. I still can’t ignore the burden of my name. My name is the burden. But there’s ‘Ash n Ash’, the purple memories tell me. And then my mind is taken back, momentarily, to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. We were the ‘A’ Train guys. ‘Ash n Ash’: that’s what they called us in high school. Ashish and Ashraf—we were inseparable. Both of us found a palpability in jazz, the music talking to us in its creole and polyphonic accents. The light and dark sounds of our piano duets, the melodies of our comps and solos resonated the substratum of our minds—minds that were growing with an all-reaching speed. And we both endeared to the buttery vulnerability of spaghetti squash and catchy enthusiasm of Cheeseheads. Madison filled us with gusto, the Mid-Western monotony never seeping into us because we had each other.
Kindergarten ice cream social—the epic start to our brotherhood—was our first improv. It was a jazz moment when life, to two five-year-olds, went far beyond harmonies and melodies. It was the rhythm of erratic heartbeats spontaneously delving into a wholesome pulse. The rhythm growing into all those shared moments of many of my childhood firsts with Ashish. Our teeter-totter and water park adventures were some of those first memories since we were five. We both rediscovered our inner super-hero passions—dressed as Spiderman—on Halloween night. Each of us priding ourselves—as we made our ways through the nip in the air—thinking the other to be the fake arachnid hero. In middle school, Ashish and I laughed plenty over those early childhood October memories. And then we turned into the ‘A’ Train fellows leaving a wake of our Ash n Ash duets. We both excelled at the keys, our jazz instructor dreaming our futures as pianists. We played as the High School Stars at the isthmus jazz in the Madison summers. As adults, we continued our contributions to the jazz festival—playing chords and doubling the bass line—as performers and also donating to the jazz community. Our octogenarian teacher in 1996—that’s when I saw him last—was proud of our continuing fidelity towards music and friendship. The piano instructor was not happy with both our parents, though. Mr. Olson was aware of the South-Asian imperative of building a career in the math/science arena. Ashish ended up as a Computer Science major that automatically enclosed his life within the walls of office cubicles. And I felt derailed from the delightful surprises heaving from syncopations and blue notes. Chromatic scales got left behind. I was leaving the music of the soul for the mysteries of the body. I could never be good enough for my parents until I became a doctor. After all these years, I don’t play the blame game anymore. I should have voiced myself back then. But I didn’t. I have no one else to blame but myself. I should have sculpted my life in my own terms, I keep thinking. But life is never simple. And it isn’t for me. I am not sure who to blame for all the ugly imbroglio that have left me ectopic on this mother-earth. The new century changed my stroke of the keys—all those flats and sharps inspiring me with colorful time signature and swinging bebop became tight-lipped. It was 9/11.
The Twin Towers burned on my birthday. It still chars me—in spring, 2020—when the world is swept by linguistic nuances and subtleties between “contagious” and “infectious” have never been more real-sounding. I understand what it is to be nuanced: I pass through a subtle line of what may be called contraries, a railroad track that crisscrosses distant and irreconcilable dichotomies. As if being American-born to Indian-Muslim parents is a paradox. How could that be? I feel this question written, still written after almost nineteen years of the al-Qaeda attacks against the United States, on faces of people all over the nation and the world. There is a hidden grammar underlying my being, as if there are musts and must-nots in how I ought to have been and am. I have been “atlas-ing” the onus of a coffee-skin, birth-name, and ruptured-history. I smell like Time’s charcoal, its residual prisoner. I don’t leave behind me the electric jazz trail of “Take the A Train”. Not anymore. September 11, 2001 has changed the world. It has changed my world. This new century has taught me to run. I have been running away mostly from myself ever since America came closer together in spirit to beat one of its worst national moments. I am still fleeing. But the run belies me, each time reaching a dead end. Ashraf Akhtar is not just my name. It has become a concept. I am a flagon poured into. Doubts and hatreds from all over the world pile on to me and I taste the rancidness of milk. My memories, just like my nuanced self, are a litany of opposites. The rotten milk immediately flips to the other side, the aubergine, that is. Because neither one can ever be discrete from the other. The tenderness of the plump and purple memories get invoked every time the milk rots.
“I don’t think I can take time away from my huge backlog of work this weekend, Ashraf. I guess I won’t be able to make it to your after-birthday plan on Sunday.” That’s what Ashish told me two days after my birthday in 2001, my birthday being the day when humanity went wrong. “Okay, no problem. Just let me know when you are free. We can go out for a drink. I am an old booby of 29. No point ritually celebrating my birthday. And anyway, this whole terrorist attack last Tuesday, on my birthday that is, threw me off. It is hard to imagine the enormity of the whole thing. Absolutely devious!” I was waiting for Ashish to respond. There was a strange silence—a camouflage, sly and hidden. I was yet to discover that this was a disembodied silence honing its strategic muse, secrets stealthily chugging through its clandestine subway platforms. We hung up. He must be real busy, I thought. I left it at that.
Almost thirty, yet I was such a bubblehead! Phone calls stopped. “Hey, Ashish, It’s me. Call me back.” I left umpteen number of such messages on his phone. But each time the silence came back haunting me with its burning smell, the flames of the WTC catching on to my being. My doubts—floating in the air like an unsure kite—had to be snagged with a frail, misguiding bridle. The face of the kite, I thought, should be disabled such that it failed the right angle for the wind to lift it up. How busy can he be? I wondered. Hope he isn’t ill or didn’t get into any road accident! I thought of driving to his office in New Jersey—an hour away from my work. But, first, I wanted to check with his parents. Could be that they were not doing well.
“Hi Sima Aunty, how are you?”
The other end of the phone had a snappish tone. “Yes, fine.”
Her answer took me aback. Not a word of greeting to me or query about my parents who have been her friends since I was five.
“Is everything okay at home? How is Ashish? Has he dropped by your place recently? I have been calling him for almost a fortnight. Didn’t get any response from him. So….”
Ashish’s mother cut me in the middle of my sentence. “I have to go now. Very busy.”
Another snap: she disconnected her phone from her Wisconsin home. That was Ashish’s childhood home too. And the home to my fun memories.
I was dumbfounded. I wasn’t ready for reality.
Durga puja was in late October that year, I remember. Ashish’s biggest holiday was never complete without us. For almost a quarter of a century, my parents and I have been invited on the last of their five-day autumnal celebration. For me, it was never a Hindu territory; it was purple and fearless like our jazz that could easily coalesce incompatibles. And the best part of Eid, for me, was enjoying beef biriyani with Ashish. My friend relished the tender meat cooked into the aromatic basmati and saffron. He took to it willfully, I thought. He was making bold statements against the religious taboo of his own Hindu community, I gloatingly believed in admiration. The autumn of 2001 was deafened to all that togetherness. A nagging feel of cruel abandon brooded over me. Ashish Mitra and his family had boycotted me and my parents for who we were. We have been the same all along, but with the AA Flight 77 crashing into the western side of the Pentagon, we suddenly became what they thought we were. I felt like a lost train in the subway darkness.
“I think it is best that we don’t keep in touch anymore.” He said with a cold, stolid voice trying to convince me of the best for our lives. I wasn’t prepared for this response when I called Ashish on the last day of Durga puja to wish him ‘Shubho Bijaya’. I wanted to express my good wishes not just verbally but give Ashish a three-time-hug like we always do both on Bijaya and Eid. It would be, I thought, a fluid continuation of a tradition that we celebrated for years. But the flow of all those giddying waters—that crossed language and religion—were suddenly stymied. Ashish’s words crawled up on me with an ugly viscosity that challenged my trust, love, and belief. I felt lightheaded, a searing pain locking me into a frozen heartbeat. It was an insidious moment between a swing and a shuffle, me hanging precariously like a squeeze beat and slowly losing the pulse.
My parents were from the south of India. Ashish’s family came from the eastern regions—the delta-city that I had always dreamt of visiting. The charms of a British colonial city with its history of Black Hole, Rabindranath Tagore, and Satyajit Ray beckoned me like ingenious Dixieland chops. But my dreams of visiting an unfamiliar city have become like those old boxes we keep in the basement. We know that they are special, but dare not fight cobwebs and musty smells to open them. Unearthing the stored items is as much an adventure as it is a pain, the pleasure only a rediscovery of a lost past. We, Ash n Ash, had vowed on keeping track of how many visits we both could make in our lifetime to Hyderabad, my parents’ hometown and to Calcutta, his.
The only time we both went to Hyderabad, the city of Charminar and Golconda, was during Eid in the late 90s. The sweltering heat in that southern Indian town—where history is reborn through its Kohinoor splendor—could not beat the buoyancy of our spirits. Ashish floated into the culture of the mosques and bazaars with liquid ease. Those were some of my beautiful aubergine moments where life blossomed into a meaningful whole, we boys bonding in new ways discovering together the rich past of a remote part of the world.
Those times—of rediscovery of ourselves and each other—muddle me now. I wonder whether my on-the-run-life since 2001 was only a question of time, my ignorance of a furtive submarine river flowing underneath me all those years. History keeps reincarnating itself in myriad forms, the story of our friendship being a shameless refrain. A friendship thrown to the whirlwinds, a naked book stripped off its dust jacket. I am still grappling to find those textures of our music, the ones that I believed to have overturned all forms of the Cotton Club bias and transcended homophonic melodies to create new polyphonies. The “looked at” guilt becomes most turbid when I realize that all those searches for the tones and textures and opening up—beyond prejudices—have been merely fantasies. It does not matter that Ashish and I are both second-generation Americans with our parents experiencing the Indian diaspora. It does not matter that we both have brown bodies. Probably none of these have ever mattered, as if we have never taken the ‘A’ train.
My milk-and-eggplant-memory-ridden life of a bachelor doctor in one of the world’s most sought-after cities becomes caught in a tornado, the violent columns of which is spinning the entire world into uncertainty and death. COVID-19 is the predominant presence in all our lives now, New Yorkers being some of its worst sufferers. My life as a physician has never been so busy and traumatic. And epiphanic. To see death come alive every day is like swimming into an abysmal river where the deeper you go, the more darkness seems to overwhelm you. The shore seems so far that any spark of light is like a forbidden indulgence. Hope is a luxury, something that keeps eluding and leaving us untethered.
This eluding hope is a mystery of binaries, fear never isolated from the hope. I hear desperate yearnings for miracles in the voices of the family members of my Coronavirus patients. Those families seeking answers from me humanize me—I know that I am no god. My fears for the sick and the dying are, like theirs, groping in the dark. And I am with the families in this Fibonacci sequence of fears paired with hopes. This binary—sitting heavily on my spirit—is doing something strange to me. The burden of my name and skin has lightened, the onus feels diminutive. I shoulder a different burden—the unpredictability of life and sureness of mortality. Death looms as the most certain promise in the hospital wards, the dying still holding on to the will to live.
Resilience is a metal ashtray ignoring the dark embers stuck to the butt of a dying cigarette. I look at Tamara, my eighty-five-year-old patient. The veins spiking towards her knuckles look knotty, those knuckles looking for support from her clenched fist. That tight fist is what defines her, death not more menacing than her life at the concentration camp. This will to fight till the end rises above suffering and death, that last breath still breathing. I am scared to see those last breaths conquered, my own mortality staring straight at me. As a doctor, I have seen people die before. But the immutability of the soul has never come across to me this way, so visual and raw.
I wonder how Tamara’s mind is walking her memories, so many of her Auschwitz memories ripping humanity of what it is. I see her die here, right in front of me. Her death bed surrounded by all unfamiliar faces, one of those faces being mine. I find it hard to come to terms more with the mourning of her death than her death itself. Her loved ones shall not be with her to pay homage to her invincible spirit. We are living differently now, I say to myself, where our unsaid farewells to our families become one of the hardest tests.
I am holding other dying hands while the heartbeats give in slowly, life ebbing away into the forever unknowns. The quick raising of eyebrows, the acetone smells, hearts refusing to beat—all that makes me feel little and helpless. This futility is, paradoxically, making me move towards life. I feel I am the last anchor of my patients and I am not willing to let them go. At the same time, I see them as their families see them, the mainstays of many homes turning gossamer. Never before have I come so close to humanity where the suffering of others has taken me to my own catharsis. This pandemic is giving me my inner life. They—the patients and their families—have entrusted their future happiness in my hands. They rely on me even though I am Ashraf Akhtar.
I seek my own anchor in these crossroads of death-in-life and life-in-death. I try looking for jazz moments to let in some aubergine with its purple shine. I play the hospital piano in the hallway to usher in joy. Jazz tunes come naturally to me and my morning duties begin with the dazzle of Oscar Peterson’s “Cakewalk” or the lilt of Dave Brubeck’s “Strange Meadowlark.” But I know that I am doing it again. “Take the ‘A’ Train” has become a conscious absence in the circadian rhythm of my life since I was twenty-nine. Both my mind and body get caught into a stasis even by the thought of playing it. The thought is like a perigee where my happy and sad memories come closest, the rotten milk’s orbit getting nearer and nearer to the tender aubergine. I never let my keys bring them together. But this April morning, something is taking over me. I do what I have not done in years.
My locked-life within my apartment on the east side—a view of the river, an upright piano, and some impressionistic murals—has hardly offered me to myself for almost two decades. I have kept only to myself, though. Bodegas and restaurants have been sufficing most of my gustatory needs. Few women have occasionally shared my bed. My interactions with the women—never flowering into friendships—start from a casual bumping into them. These experiences have never been my purple moments because they don’t bond into relationships—they have an unsaid but understood temporariness about them. My life, pedestrian and linear, always returning to the self-confinement. And in my completely solitary life, my married partner is fear. The more I have tried to steal away from the world’s gaze and myself, the more enamored of fear have I become. Fear designing my bed skirt, the plush pillows cordoned off with the trauma of rejection. My mind, feeling snagged all these years. My lonely musical moments in my apartment could have become the highpoints of my life. But I have not let that happen—I deliberately avoid playing the tune that has once been the touchstone for my happiness.
But this April—like the eastern sun—springboards me into a new consciousness. Music is taking me to a different plane from where I have been self-quarantining all these years. I am an irony—in the midst of this lockdown—that has had to wait for over fifty-thousand dead bodies to tell me that some loads feel more leaden than the burden of a name. The epiphany, it gives me rebirth. I play the first four bars and then move on to the A-A-B-A. I can still do it—I am once again tying heartbeats with my ‘A’ Train. I don’t feel at the passive end anymore. My jazz has just created a moment of giving, a bricolage when differences are not remembered. And this ‘A’ Train is not a duet. It is my solo, I tell myself.
Two nights later, on my way home, something unexpected happens. It is as surprising as the new stroke of my keys. The fatigued street lights look soft and muted in this spectral town. The ghostly silence—broken only by the ambulance sirens—gets redefined by a scuffling sound some fifteen feet away. I see two young men grabbing the collar of a middle-aged man. The man is choking as he is trying to get rid of his angry attackers. This solitary drama on the deserted street looks as fictitious as real. Who, in this COVID ruckus, wants to fight? Before this thought escapes my mind, I am looking at the victim. He is trying to free himself, his salt and pepper beard—seating his small chin and defining his square jawline—gleaming under the night light. Those eyes are not new—I am familiar with that self-assured look. I feel that I am in a frozen scene, one finely choreographed for a movie.
Ashish is here before me on the point of being beaten up. I sense the unfounded anger of the attackers, their cusses echoing through the phantom silence. They are about to punch me in the face when I volunteer to stop this brawl. My flat, Asian nose and brown skin are no help in this revenge against what is deemed a Wuhan virus. A policeman tears the two men away from Ashish. Some layer of my mind, in all these years, may have envisioned this: Ash n Ash together, alone. Now that it is true, the awkwardness of the moment switches me into a weird neutrality. I feel neither anger nor hatred. Not even sad or a gratification of poetic justice.
I see that Ashish is wearing his age, a little shy of fifty years, with quite an élan. He is not sure if he should smile, though. He says, “thank you” after minutes pass with the silence hanging between us. “No problem”. I say, with as much casual an air as I can muster. He gives me a nod and vanishes into the darkness with his confident gait.
I don’t tell Ashish that I have started playing our favorite Billy’s composition again. I could have asked him what brings him to NYC near Lennox Hill hospital. I wonder about the meaning of his nod. I think of the seven-o’-clock applaud I received as one of the frontline heroes. The wrinkled face of my septuagenarian patient at the hospital floats before me. This morning after I played the piano, he held my hand and silently let tears of joy stream down his quivering face. Healing can come in so many different ways, sometimes in blended forms. I smile and cry as I hum “Take the ‘A’ Train” in my mind. I am on my way back home. The half-gallon 2% milk jar—which I bought just last night—sits fresh in my refrigerator. I feel tired but not heavy.