An Intercourse with Ghosts
by Anika Gupta
“Each word in its adult form possesses two sides: it is intelligible on one hand and moving on the other. These two qualities generally depend on each other and are therefore, in this way, contradictory. Furthermore, they are variable, because if the emotion conferred by a word increases, its intelligibility decreases and vice versa.”
– Epstein, La Lyrosophie, pp. 167-168.
At age 25, I live in New Delhi in a hopeless apartment. At night, the ceiling in the bathroom flakes away from its beams. In the morning I find slivers of plaster in the sink. The railing that borders the stairs curls upwards like a witch’s fingernail, and on my birthday (I can’t remember which one) the power goes out, so I eat my cake in the dark. My life feels dark and unmoving, like the green water that gathers in potholes in the street, where mosquitoes breed. I dream that I’m somewhere else, doing something else, with someone else. It’s a dream I’ve had for years, and sometimes I don’t know how to separate the dream from my life.
I dream of the future, including grad school. A friend’s cousin agrees to advise me on graduate school applications. Over the course of several weeks, he encourages me to aim high; he believes in my abilities. I write out essays, I try vainly to summarize and justify my life. In the evenings, as New Delhi’s heated rain gives way to dust, I date a few of his friends, but without much success, until one winter evening in Delhi when he invites me to a party at his house. The air is smoggy with the crumbled particulates from a thousand small fires, and the roof of his apartment building is paved flat. When my friend sees me, he asks if I’ve cut my hair. I have, but only by two inches, so instead of saying yes, I say no and look confused, as if to suggest, who told you that?
I scuttle downstairs and into his bedroom, where I find myself enraptured by his bookshelves. Years from now I’ll remember this moment, this spread. I gaze at his books with reverence, respect and avarice. They’re organized, and not by color. By genre, by historical period, by their authors and their essences. He has hundreds of them, possibly more than a thousand, and to me in my early 20s these books feel more like home than any home I’ve ever lived in. I look at his bookshelf and I remember, at age 16, climbing on a step to reach the top shelf in the Rockville Library. I remember tumbling titles out onto the floor, sifting through plastic-wrapped covers. Thinking, oh there you are, friends. Oh, there you are, future.
Everything about his life combines into a pastiche of what people can aspire to: the structure and aesthetics of a particular form of success, of maturity, of forward-moving life. I think about his stable, successful career and his graduate school diploma. I think about the business he moved to New Delhi to start. I think about myself, my life, described by a colleague a as “a startup that has received series A funding.” Make no mistake: she was talking about my dating prospects.
I leave his house feeling hollowed out by longing. Over the next few months I spend hours on graduate school applications for MBA programs in fantastic universities, because this is what I’ve been taught to want. And I do want it, in a sense. What’s the line between what we want and what we’re taught? In between writing out essays on the power of the word in my life, things that will not sway admissions committees for the types of programs I am applying to, I write a series of short notes to my friend. A sample that now makes me cringe: “You’re obviously interesting and smart and I feel like I learn things from talking to you.” After I send it, I feel like I’ve lost a limb, but instead of losing blood, I stare at my computer screen, shedding tears. He replies with an emoticon, but at least it isn’t the winking face. The graduate schools to which I apply do not, for the most part, reply.
I learn about Franz Kafka’s love letters when I offer to write a series of book reviews for a site whose logo features a picture of a woman reading naked in bed. The editors send me a galley for a new biography, the story of Kafka’s life as told through his love letters. In paging through the letters themselves, I find myself on the brink of someone else’s madness, and yet it offers me a comforting map. In his mid-30s fading Kafka, engaged to another woman, tubercolic, begins a series of letters to his translator, Milena Jesenská, with this bold provocation:
“The rain which has been going on for two days and one night has just now stopped, of course probably only temporarily, but nonetheless an event worth celebrating, which I am doing by writing to you. Incidentally the rain itself was bearable; after all, it is a foreign country here, admittedly only slightly foreign, but it does the heart good. If my impression was correct (evidently the memory of one single meeting, brief and halfsilent, is not to be exhausted), you were also enjoying Vienna as a foreign city, although later circumstances may have diminished this enjoyment, but do you also enjoy foreignness for its own sake?”
Let us enjoy the same difficult thing, for its own sake.
In Delhi, not prone to monsoon rains, I nonetheless find that the weather can be a generous metaphor. When it rains, the water gathers like silted treasure in metro stations and under highways, and children ford the sudden streams with yelps of delight. Motorcyclists pause under overpasses, alongside roadside vendors and English teachers, to mop their brows. The world stands still, for eight to ten minutes, and afterwards, the aftermath of rain magnifies faces and signs like a crystal prism. Brief human camaraderie – the fellowship of the waylaid – evolves, solidifies, and is lost. Maybe in my other world I’d find these rains intolerable. But these bursts of pleasure open up to me another corner of Delhi’s unknown heart. I want to love someone else like I want to love Delhi, for love’s sake, because love for its own sake does us good. I want to love someone else like I love Delhi, slowly unfolding the secrets of an unknowable heart.
Kafka populates his solitude with Milena:
“I would very much like to share Meran with you, recently you wrote about not being able to breathe, that image and its meaning are very close to one another and here both would find a little relief.”
The work they do together moves between them, shaping their correspondence, recalling it to reality in ways he cannot abide. He receives her translation of his text and lays out his disappointment: “I wanted to hear from you and not the voice from the old grave, the voice I know all too well. Why did it have to come between us? Then I realized that this same voice had also come between us, as a mediator.”
I imagine the voice from the grave as the voice of necessity, the things we do because we must. In between filing a police report for my broken door or beating back anxious palpitations over the machinations of an abusive boss, I perk my ears for a voice that heralds my work as a source of life. In Kafka’s letters, his illness becomes a transcendental state, and Milena figures as a sun burning through a darkness. He needs an imaginary cure because none of the real ones work.
In Delhi, I call my mother, my sister, just to hear their voices on the phone. My sister and I spend hours together on Skype without talking. I read, she cooks. Where’s the seam between love and love’s medium?
I would like to share New Delhi with you. I would like to share it at all.
I wanted to hear from you, but not the voice I know too well.
A friend of mine writes to me from an airport, a one-line email. “He’s engaged!” it says. I read the email six times. I swallow a grief so large it feels like if I open my mouth, I (like Krishna?) will show my mother the entire universe. The world inside my mouth is bitter and unyielding; or maybe that’s just what my mouth always tasted like and I never knew.
Not to be outdone by other writers, I pen a polite congratulatory note, even though I feel like I’m swallowing ashes. It ends, “I wish you all the best as you open this new and very exciting chapter in your life.” I feel as if something – the future? – is draining out of the cracks in my existing life. I consider an engagement gift: my copy of In the Presence of Absence, a love poem to life written by a dying author, the margins full of my notes. Love and its medium seem the same, the same.
Before he dies, Kafka gives Milena all his diaries. He never gives them to anyone else.
I wish I could fall asleep in my life and wake up in yours.
“German is my mother tongue and as such more natural to me, but I consider Czech much more affectionate, which is why your letter removes several uncertainties; I see you more clearly, the movements of your body, your hands, so quick, so resolute, it’s almost like a meeting; even so, when I then want to raise my eyes to your face, in the middle of the letter – what a story! – fire breaks out and I see nothing but fire.”
By some strange chance, I meet another friend for dinner the same evening I learn about the engagement. My friend – my actual, flesh-and-blood friend – normally lives in Stockholm. He arrives for dinner wearing a suit and carrying flowers, and I have a terrible sense of premonition. Over dinner he says, “I would never forgive myself if I didn’t say the following.”
He has written me a poem. It ends:
“Now as you look out for pastures anew,
Your tenure in New Delhi you never should view
When the bells ring for the last post…
Know that Delhi has turned Mughal and British invaders into burnt toast
In this regard, you’ve lasted longer and done better than most.”
He’s called it ‘Inferno at Midnight,’ and long after the recitation is done and years have passed and we no longer speak to each other ever, I’ll still have it.
The cousin – my imaginary friend – does not reply to the congratulatory note about his engagement.
As time goes by, Kafka’s letters to Milena seem to become more urgent and more sad. He begs her to leave her husband, but she waits and waits until waiting becomes its own answer. And into this waiting, Kafka writes: “Although my own room is small, the true Milena is here, the one who ran away from you on Sunday, and believe me, being with her is wonderful.”
He persists in claiming that he knows her: “I can no longer write to you as to a stranger.” In a parenthetical, as if it’s an aside, a private conversation hidden from the mediators, he writes: “(you belong to me, even if I should never see you again).” Who is Milena? The Milena he carries like a marble in his pocket, whom he bears like a shield against life: it is impossible to address her as a stranger because he has created her out of himself. She comprises verbs and nouns and prepositions strung together across a ravine, an invisible bridge, between the world and ourselves.
Milena, the version of her that may be true or may be false but anyway the version of her that is legally verifiable, does eventually divorce her husband. By then Kafka is dead, and she writes to someone else: “I was incapable of leaving my husband…I have, however, an insuppressible longing, a maniacal longing for a completely different life than the one I am leading now or ever will lead…And this is what probably won out over everything else inside me, over love, over my love of taking flight, over my admiration, and once again over love… And then it was just too late.”
Milena wakes beside Kafka in his exile from wellness, Milena marries someone else but dreams of children she’ll never have, Milena loves Kafka and will write him a beautiful obituary.
My mother: “He was too old and too Indian for you.”
And then it was just too late.
Kafka to Milena, March, 1922:
“All my misfortune in life…derives, one might say, from letters or from the possibility of writing letters. People have hardly ever deceived me, but letters always have, and as a matter of fact not those of other people, but my own…Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts.
How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power.”
One evening, after seeing his books but before he marries someone else, I sit down and light a candle – maybe my power is out, like it often is – and write him a letter. It is three paragraphs long, but I edit it down to its essence: I like you so much, and I never expected it. Give me a chance? I fold it into a tiny square and carry it with me like a talisman, until I forget about it. I am afraid of what it suggests and the life it enables.
I move back to the United States. Years pass. I’m standing on a street corner in New York, rooting for something in my purse, when my fingers find the familiar softness of old, worn paper at the bottom of my bag. I pull out the letter. I recognize it and something cold passes through me, not unlike a ghost. I feel a brief sadness, a mourning for a girl I knew and a dream she had. The mourning – the way it prickles in my scalp – feels like happiness, too. I’m holding the memory of something I loved, and the memory is precious. And yet, for all its rumored truth, I never sent it. Or maybe I sent it to myself. I am Kafka and Milena, the man who loved and the girl who waited. How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! I tear it up and toss it in the trash. I cross the street. It’s gone.
Anika Gupta is an essayist and fiction writer who lives and writes in Washington DC. Her work has previously appeared in the Common Online and On She Goes. She writes about migration, literature and travel. She spent five years living in New Delhi, India, and working as a journalist.