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The Touch

solitary green plant on parched and heavily cracked brown soil.

Aymen ached to feel another’s skin, if even for a moment. Memory brought back all those bodies that they had revelled in; time heightened the yearning.

The red earth of the little island, Sant Estevam in Goa, cracked in the isolating pandemic summer, now began to smile with the downpour. Aymen felt relieved that at least the weather offered some respite. The heavy feeling of just wanting to be held seemed to pulse like a throbbing toothache. How beautiful it was for those who were married and living with their spouses! Marriage, or for that matter any romantic or erotic relationship, was something that was not easily available for everyone. And often marriage seemed the basis on which intimacy was sanctioned, and made possible. Whether it is fingers caressing one’s back, teeth nibbling on an ear lobe, or just the warmth of the other’s breath, these were blessings only some could treasure, especially now. A lockdown is not just about restriction of movement. It is also about who society and the state allow within the confines of their homes. Thankfully, the months prior to the lockdown had been financially good enough. Aymen worked as a goods supplier for two local hotels and also had a small tapioca and herb garden. The thought that there was something to eat even in the worst of times brought some respite.

On the island, most houses were so close to each other that many of them shared a common wall. Before the pandemic, the next-door married woman, Belana, would blatantly ogle at every person who came to Aymen’s house. Once, while she came over with some valchi bhaji (Malabar spinach) from her garden, she sneakily asked, “Tujea gharant jaitea dadle kityak yeta?” (For what do so many men come to your house?) Why was she interested? Aymen knew what she was up to and with nostrils flared simply said, “Hea pavti tujea panam baulim koshim dista! Dev borem korun.” (This time your leaves are drooping! May God bless you, thank you). Belana left with a smirk that Aymen could not decipher. Was it her marital vows that were suffocating her or her incredulity that Aymen could have what she could not?

Now during the pandemic, it seemed like each one was on their own. Yet, the policing of people’s lives increased like never before. Neighbours appropriated authority over others’ privacy, and it almost seemed like a witch-hunt. One’s house-help could not work in other homes. Daily-wage workers and masons were not allowed in. Outsiders could not enter the island.

The fantasy of a lover dazzled Aymen. Yet, the mere thought of the outrage that would ensue were an outsider to visit their home was stomach-churning. They knew that if they were to even connect with someone ready to come over, having an actual in-the-flesh moment, seemed unlikely. So Aymen would scroll different apps. When they bought their first smartphone, it was magic. There were so many people of their kind – seeking sex, intimacy and even love. With time, came the realisation that people were very complex. The possibility of a lover, even in a distant country, seemed better than having no one. The sheer excitement of feeling desired by someone they would probably never meet was reason enough to be imbued with liveliness. Yet, over time, even these online conversations became less frequent and then ceased.

The solitude that the lockdown enforced brought moments of reflection. Aymen was aware that they were blessed with good health. There was food available and most importantly Aymen knew people who knew where to get food. In the initial days of total lockdown, every single shop closed overnight, without a warning. And those who did not have homes stocked with food had it bad. Suddenly any food seemed better enough than none. Gradually, food became available but the prices sky-rocketed. So many people had it really worse. Single people had no access to any domestic support. Breadwinners in households lost their jobs. Migrant workers walked excruciatingly long distances towards railway stations to escape cruelty, joblessness and xenophobia. Amidst this, Aymen felt terrible that they were anguishing over the personal void within. But just having someone to talk with in person would have made a world of a difference. The hairs on their skin felt invisible, yet heavy. Seeing Belana sweeping her balcaõ as she talked to her husband made Aymen feel the need to be with a person even more. The craving to be touched and feel alive would grow absurdly huge and Aymen felt almost swallowed by emptiness. Some evenings Aymen would hug the huge mango tree that grandmother had planted when she was a young bride – the bark’s coarseness against their skin exuded strength.

One evening, some months into the pandemic, in the dull dark chasm of feelinglessness, Aymen was startled by a quirky message. “Hey there! What’s a plant lover doing here?” Something about that text felt warm and unusual for its response to a person’s hobby rather than a bodily attribute.

Ami zadam rovtat, anik follam sodtat! (We grow plants and we search for fruit.) What brings you here?” asked Aymen naughtily, shuffling between Konkani and English.

“I’ve been in Goa for a while now and decided to try this app,” replied the man, whose profile was adorned with poetry.

Thor tuka Goyen medlem!” (So you have found Goa!)

“Ahaan… I have yet to experience its soul.”

“Then taste and feel all that’s good.” And with that began a series of conversations.

Days later, there was Ruben. The singer and poet. With doe-like eyes and a silly smile. It was an early morning, a beam of light through the mango tree falling on Ruben’s face. “Hey Goekar, here I am,” said Ruben. His lankiness was adorable. Aymen squeezed him in a hug saying, “So glad you made it.” As if, the moment wouldn’t be complete without her, Belana faked a cough while standing in her balcaõ. They both turned their heads towards her and then went indoors, eyes drunk with desire.

That day, in bed, Aymen and Ruben hugged each other like Siamese twins in their mother’s womb. Vulnerable, yet whole. The feel of each other’s skin, hair, flesh and warmth … it was as if life were reinvigorating their being. They did not know what the future might bring but that moment was bliss enough for a lifetime.

Cover Image: Photo by Renzo D’souza on Unsplash