A case for the evening people
Are mornings really all that? Ankita Shah flits through dawn and dusk, seeking a place in time that feels like home.
1: The best sunrises never happened at sunrise points. They emerged instead, in absolute darkness, at an unfamiliar place, whose contours were untraced and the depth of whose horizons weren’t measured yet. They emerged when we were unsure where to look for light.
2: Very rarely have early mornings been of wakefulness. I’ve been mid-dream most of my life when the sun rose, except when I was in school. Schools meant being woken up so early that you had too many wakeful hours left in the day that then had to be spent being active. It was a cycle of over-productiveness and exertion.
Back then, I would leave home at 6:30 in the morning, so I could reach before the other kids arrived. Being the person of importance that I was (read class monitor, prefect, prayer-girl, yes that was the term), I had errands, or if there was another description for a false sense of responsibility.
I lived only fifteen minutes from school, so I would walk each morning, often alone. Very close to my school, on a road that was recently restored, was an abandoned, dilapidated structure, painted by moss and surrounded by wild plants. Bamboo trees lined the outside of the gate and once I’d spotted a snake crossing the road.
Each morning, that broken house, whoever it belonged to, and whatever its history, felt like it was staring back at me. I grew up reimagining what that structure could have been. In that reimagination, I was someone who lived in it. Now, I was certain, it was possessed by ghosts, who I’d believed would weep every night, so no one dared to take this road when it was dark. But that hour in the morning was treacherous. Its light did to brokenness what gold did to broken pots fixed by it - foregrounded its cracks and turned them into a thing of beauty. That beaten structure now seemed like a person.
My half-awoken, naïve self, would sometimes ask for a wish when I would cross that ruin of a house, like one does when crossing a place of worship.
3: In my previous house, I had the privilege of having a tiny room to myself, which meant my father was less annoyed since the light didn’t disturb his sleep when I was up late. But he was mostly less annoyed because my family wasn’t continuously waking up to my shrinking night suits, that revealed a boob one day or a stretch-marked posterior the other, the blanket, all along, at the end of my feet, wanting to awkwardly leave too.
This room meant I could work late nights and the sun, like my mother's eyes, would be gentle in the morning. The window faced west. It overlooked the society’s private road, where uncles and aunties would be found jogging. One day, I woke up to a series of really loud, but melodious whistles. When I say I woke up, I don’t mean that I woke up and heard this sound, but I mean the sound woke me up. I thought someone had really lost it. What was this way of calling? Whistling at 5 AM? The whistle continued between the same short intervals and in exactly the same tune each time. Something in me wanted to get to the window and see who this idiot was who wouldn’t stop, but something else in me, who I affectionately call the evening person, wanted to stay put in bed and defer such things for later. It took me a while to realize that this was a bird; all along I stayed determined that I would deduce the mystery from my bed. I hadn’t heard a fantail ever before. This was one, confirmed my friend, to whom I sent two short audio clips that morning.
It was only many days later that I actually met the fantail, or rather fantails. There were at least two of them, I would see occasionally perched on a cable wire or on a building gate, or on rare but special sightings, on a bench under the champa tree, so close as if there was nothing to be afraid of. One could say, by then, we were familiar with each other; their songs entered my little bedroom every day and I learnt not to be startled anymore.
4: They call a group of vultures feeding on a carcass, a wake of vultures.
5: Since relocating, mornings begin with walking to the window and checking for spring.
I bought several plants after moving to the new place; I love having them in and around the house. If they grow well, I feel a sense of privilege, and even better if they flower. One morning, brushing my teeth on the couch, with the curtains still drawn, I managed to see through them a sunbird pecking at the orange hibiscus that had bloomed. Sunbirds are common city birds, so it’s not rare to spot them. And yet something was extremely special about that moment, a bird on a flower.
But mornings don’t really begin this way. At dawn, when the night is still negotiating its retreat, I’m awake replaying a dream I saw. It’s said you forget your dream within ten minutes of waking up, so if you don’t retrieve them, you would believe you've had a dreamless sleep.
On most mornings, I see my father, and I know it by the way my body awakens, as if it's been through another, untimely autumn. I say another because even in my dreams, however vivid they are, I know my father has “returned”, that I, have lost him. My father returns to me almost every week. And I lose him again, just as quietly, every week.
When I see him, I lie in bed for several minutes after, tracing every image like someone traces dragons or candy floss in the shape of the clouds, unsure what to make of something so constantly changing and so out of reach. But I trace my dreams to let them into my consciousness, as if I was collecting them for some purposeful reason. I think I fear I will forget him one day, like days and weeks and months go by without even an involuntary thought of my grandfather. I lost him when I was twelve and the only poetry I knew then was of a host of golden daffodils which hadn’t quite equipped me for his loss. There is a kind of poetry, I learnt years later, after my father’s death, that prepares you for loss; the kind that speaks of grief as the closest friend it has known.
So when I meet my father now, I stay in bed catching my breath as if there has been a storm. I wait for the air to settle, so I can see the wreckage.
Mornings begin like this, standing beneath a tree I lost to autumn and watching paper flowers grow on it. Sunbirds don’t come here anymore.
6: Sleep is distinguished from wakefulness by a decreased ability to react to stimuli.
7: My mother has been the first person to wake up in the family for years now.
She was and still remains the most hardworking one, to the point that the rest of us rely on her for everything, even to start the day. As a result, I’ve grown up a little too entitled, brushing my teeth and finding a cup of chai and bhurji pav magically appear in front of myself.
One summer, many years ago, some friends and I made a plan to go to Alibaug for the weekend. To reach Alibaug, a coastal town south of Mumbai, one usually takes a ferry from Gateway of India to Mandwa. We were to take the 7 AM ferry and had to reach much earlier to book our tickets in time. At 5 that morning, I was startled by a call. It was from my mother, who had rushed to Nepal only a few days before, to nurse her own ailing mother. When I answered the phone, I heard my mother’s thick, half-awoken voice, “Get up, you’ve to go to Alibaug”. I remembered later that I had mentioned to her I was to wake up early.
I still tell my mother all of my morning plans if I really have to get up on time. But I fail to tell her if I’m reaching home late. She understands this better than I do, that alarms only represent our desire to wake up early and doorbells our privilege that someone’s waiting for you at home.
8: There is a quietness to 4 AM that is both beautiful and ominous. It feels like the hour when anything can happen. Unlike 2 AM when you can only expect the worst, at 4 AM, you could, in fact, make a wish.
4 AM feels empty, the kind of empty that understands possibilities and promises as much as it understands endings. I remember a 4 AM, when I was returning in the cold winter of December, from Gokarna to Mumbai, in a night train. Amidst the clangour of the tracks and deep-sleeping co-passengers, I sang Malkauns to my friend.
Koyalia bole ambua daal par
Ritu basant ki det sandeswa
A cuckoo is singing,
perched on the branch of a mango tree
It says the spring is coming.
9: Whenever I’ve visited a relative or a friend and stayed over, I’ve found myself awake early in the morning. While I’d like to believe it was the bed or the mattress that changed my cycle, I think there was more to it, because this doesn’t happen when I go on vacations. When I went to Vietnam last year as a part of this creative expedition of sorts, I was usually the last one to wake up. By the time I would get to breakfast, everyone else was done and ready to leave. So, I vividly remember the only two times of the two weeks on that trip that I woke up and went for a walk. Over the course of our stay, we went from Hanoi to Sapa to Cat Ba Island and then Hue to Hoi An. From changing landscapes to weather to cultures, every day was a new day.
Both Mithila and Magali, photographers and my co-travellers on this trip, would go around the city in the morning. I remember Mithila telling me one day that you really get to know what a city looks like in the wee hours when the tourists haven’t encroached the streets and the locals are getting about their morning routine, setting up shops or exercising or mass exercising as we saw in Hanoi one day.
On our first photo-walk there, we discovered its people really loved “movement”. The sun hadn’t even laid its eyes on the Hoan Kiem Lake yet, but the locals had already lined up on its shore walking, running, twisting, flexing, dancing, tai-chi-ing. Each group either had their own instructor or their own music system or both. So each time we passed one, we would hear a different kind of music; old women doing tai-chi to western classical tunes and a mob of young couples salsa-dancing to American pop. Some who had neither instructor nor music would be seen mirroring steps from across the other end of the street.
In the night, the same road leading to the Old Quarter would be lined with shops selling souvenirs, food and local beer. As Mithila said, everything we would see later in the day would be a result of us being there, hordes of tourists. If we had to know a city, we’d have to see its mornings.
10: I’ll admit I’ve never quite liked 5 AM as much as I’ve loved 5 PM. 5 PM has always felt more kinder, its light softer.
I’ve liked 5 PM because the world feels like it has already seen its end and made its mind about it. I’ve liked 5 PM because it seems less treacherous than the morning light, foregrounding nothing except an impending end. I’ve liked 5 PM because it does not lead you astray. It prepares you for looking closely. There is a simplicity to it, a kind of nostalgia even, and maybe something forgotten about it too. There is a kindness in the way the rays fall on everything at this hour – in that kindness I see both love and loss.
I feel 5 PM is for waking up.
Ankita Shah is a Bombay-based poet and co-founder of a local outfit, The Poetry Club. She currently works with the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture. You can find her at @ankitashahpoet on Instagram