Notes from My Hong Kong Travel Journal: Sightseeing with a Silver Comb

I love the smell of burning. Some say it bodes of destruction; I see birthday candles and cake and new hope instead. When I walked past the Man Mo temple today, still jet-lagged and groggy, I simultaneously saw burning incense sticks and lotuses, and thought the lotuses were on fire. I had never seen something so beautiful and terrible before. I looked once, then twice: my imagination had as always deceived me and there were no burning lotuses to be seen.

*     *     *

I lunched today at a café a few blocks away from the temple, the silver comb and my journal quietly sitting in front of me. The comb’s presence calmed me and I would reach out for it as I wrote in the journal, burrowing myself deeper and deeper into the den of my words. It’s my favorite place to hide these days.

*     *     *

I have no idea why I brought the comb with me on this holiday. I stole it from Amma’s antique collection and impulsively packed it in my suitcase. She has so many antiques that she wouldn’t even realise what’s missing until probably months later. Our storeroom smells like an antique store because there are so many antiques there. My mother says they smell of forgotten histories. My father says they smell of dust, fungus, and other people’s bad luck, which makes them very tainted. I don’t think anything. We adopted the antiques and now they are ours.

*     *     *

Amma messaged me: “Have you taken the comb?” She found out, I guess. I told her, “Yes, I didn’t have my own.” She didn’t reply.

*     *     *

My mother says they smell of forgotten histories.

The guidebook told me I was on Antiques Street. After lunch, I walked and walked until I found a clutch of antique stores clotting the jagged streets, the antiques spilling out from the shops on to the pavement. I didn’t enter a single one, though, out of deference to the comb. I wondered what it would make of this library of kindred, abandoned, antique souls, waiting to be transformed and transplanted in other people’s lives, stories, and homes. What would they make of this new life of theirs? Did they ever remember their former lives? I looked at the comb, wondering if it, too, had similar thoughts. I turned it over and over in my palm until it was nothing but a silver kinetic blur, shorn of its past and present and future. When I finally stopped, my hands were trembling; the comb meanwhile remained its silvery swan serene self and I thought then, That’s what I want to be when I grow up.

*     *     *

The comb and I have been sightseeing Hong Kong together. So far, we have seen Victoria’s Peak and five MTR stations and a beach bordering an imprisoned sea. I sat on the crunchy sand, writing about the angry, restless water and the mansion-forested hills and the dying saffron sky. When I page through this journal years later, I will want to remember this sea, this hill, this sky. I will want to remember what I was at that moment. Photographs lie and deceive to us. Our words don’t.

*     *     *

I walked thirteen kilometers today. Or so my phone says. I walked until my soles were on fire, as if I had become one of those yogis who can walk on burning coals, unable to distinguish between their soles and coal. When I returned to the hotel, I sat cross-legged in bed for the entire evening, gazing at the nocturnal skyline outside my hotel window. The lights studding the distant peak looked like tired stars coming to rest on the beach of the night sky. Did you know that there are more stars in the sky than the number of sand grains in all the beaches in the world? I suddenly needed to be outside. I stuffed the comb in my pocket, grabbed my hotel key, and ran out to the street. Even though the light pollution did its best to taint the sky, I could still see the stars glimmering away, like Heaven telegramming messages of hope to those who cared enough to look above. I felt the comb in my pocket. I wondered what stars it had seen in its lifetime.

*     *     *

I shaved off my hair just before this trip. Everyone—predictably—was appalled, except for Dadi, who applauded my decision and wished that she too could do the same. It’s not as if I have much left, she told me. I promised her that I would help her shave it all off once I returned from the holiday. After the hairstylist finished shearing away my hair, I remember examining the glossy brown strands scattered around me. It had once been part of me and now no longer was. How easily I had been able to renounce it. I wish I could renounce my skin and thoughts and self as easily as I had renounced my hair; but no, I am forever doomed to live in this cage of bone and flesh.

*     *     *

I heard everyone back home gossiping that I am going through a transitional phase, a mandatory rite of adolescence that everyone dutifully performs at the temple of adulthood. It makes me feel like something out of evolution, a reptile undecided on becoming a mammal. They don’t know that I see glimpses of myself in the mirror and I can’t recognise myself. They also don’t know that I am okay with that. I touch my head’s soft dome (I never knew that it was so nicely shaped!). I touch the nose-ring and the archipelago of the tattoos embroidered on my collarbone, neck, and undersides of my wrists. Some days, I wear violet lipstick, other days blue. A shaved-head Indian girl with a nose ring, tattoos, and violet lipstick wandering in a city whose buildings are like trees in a forest, growing close to each other and yet giving each other just enough room to flourish. A city with vertical streets. A city where sea and land and rock are homes. I could stay in this city because it looks and doesn’t look like me.

*     *     *

I heard everyone back home gossiping that I am going through a transitional phase, a mandatory rite of adolescence that everyone dutifully performs at the temple of adulthood.

I go to the beach again. Everybody is there with someone else except for me. I place the comb on the sand, watching the grains immediately invade its fragrant, stained, delicate silver surface. I ask questions that I had never asked before. Had the wearer ever been by the sea? What did she imagine the sea would look like? I was born in a city by the beach and I could not imagine what it was like not to know the sea. The phantom woman was gone but her comb was visiting the beach. I did not feel sorry about stealing it from Amma, although I should have told her that I was taking it. I should tell her so many truths but they are imprisoned in various parts of my body; I can exactly map you the points where I keep the hurt of a friend betraying me, an ex-boyfriend slapping me thrice without saying sorry, my walking on an empty city street at three a.m., terrified. These are subterranean tattoos, buried deep inside my skin but I know exactly where they are. I lift up the comb and balance it atop the softest part of my head. It feels like falling rain.

*     *     *

Today, I went to the Man Mo temple because I saw a sign saying that you could get your fortune read by a Chinese fortune teller. I don’t know if I believe in the notion of future any more than I do in the idea of fortune: they both seem like myths, Santa Claus I no longer believed in. But I stood in the queue, anyway, staring at the inscrutable, unhelpful face of a fat jade god, wondering what to ask about a tomorrow that I no longer believed in. I could map the atlas of pain buried deep inside my body but I had no idea how to plot coordinates for my future or even know if there was a future. When it was my turn, I sat across from the fortune teller and pulled out a bunch of sticks from a jam jar and heard him decode my nebulous tomorrow (yes, it did exist!) by consulting a small book: “Your fortune very bad before. It will take some time before it gets better.” I handed him the crumpled dollars and walked into the temple, inhaling the incense and pausing before the galaxy of unsmiling deities, seeing and smelling nothing. I preferred yesterdays, even those which were nothing more than stories which could never be rewritten; tomorrows with all their grand, glorious hope frightened me. What I wanted to know was about my today, not tomorrow. I had wondered if I could ask the fortune teller one more question, but he had a face that had shuttered up the moment he finished telling my fortune and I just knew he would say no more. And perhaps, there was nothing more to say, after all. When I came outside the temple, I instinctively reached out for my talisman, the comb, but even its moonlight lake coldness failed to console me.

*     *     *

I am at the airport, waiting to board my flight back to Delhi. My luggage weighs exactly the same as it did when I flew in here. The only thing that is missing is the comb and that’s because I gave it away to an ancient Chinese woman I met in a Kowloon park yesterday. I had been sitting there for hours, mourning the end of this holiday, when an incredibly hunched-over Chinese woman sat down next to me. Even though her skin looked like a very wrinkled antique map, she had the most luxuriant crop of rabbit-white hair. I took out the comb from my backpack and began to play with the teeth, as if coaxing music from a dead instrument. I thought once more of the woman who had once used it; I saw its silver home, that little house of vanity. I saw her in a steam-filled bathroom, brushing out her hair, gently coaxing the tangles to leave her hair. The comb didn’t deserve to be imprisoned in a storeroom or someone’s pocket. It deserved to perform its music. I nudged the woman and produced the comb in my palm, as if it were a lady bug that had landed on the runway of my palm-lines. “For you,” I said. She didn’t understand. I picked it up, ran it across my head, returned it to my palm, pushing it towards her. When she still didn’t understand, I gently reached out to her and ran the comb through her hair, a silver ship sailing in a snow sea. “For you,” I said again. Her face shattered into a smile and I had never seen anything so beautiful before. And then I walked away, feeling just a pang, a little bit of a pang, the comb beginning its tomorrow, already a yesterday for me.

 

Priyanka Sacheti is a writer based in Bangalore, India. Educated at Universities of Warwick and Oxford, United Kingdom, Priyanka previously lived in the Sultanate of Oman and the United States. She has been published in numerous publications, and takes a special focus on art, gender, diaspora, and identity; she is also currently an editor at Mashallah News. Priyanka is the author of three poetry volumes and is working on a short story collection. An avid amateur photographer, she explores the intersection of her writing and photography @iamjustavisualperson. She tweets @priyankasacheti1.