TABLE OF CONTENTSShort Stories:
The Game of Chess
A Microsecond Is Enough
Our Script Was Different
Kindly Let Me Forgive You
King of the Hills
1. The Mountains Will Remain
2. The Drug Addict
4. The Misfit
5. To Be
6. Eternal Spartacus
7. Faces, Places, and Events
9. Journey of the Eternal Man
10. Cochin City
12. The Rain
13. The Prisoner
14. You and I
15. Christmas Song
17. Hide and Seek
19. The Caravan
20. Take on the World
23. This, Our Life
25. Yeoman and the Nation
26. The Separation
27. The Days Gone By
28. Champaran Highway
29. Just Once
30. An Autobiography
31. The Road to Siberia
32. The Song of the Dejected
33. The Benevolent and the Magnificent
By the time he forced himself into yielding to the prospect of taking his own life, it was breaking into a regular, run of the mill Indian dawn. Winter had hardly given way to our Indian edition of spring. The mornings are blanketed by an eerie mantle of thick fog in which the people move about like ghosts, translucent and amorphous.
Once a decision is taken the rest is easy. Taking a decision is a tremendous exercise, it puts your ignorance to test in the first place, and then it disturbs the centuries past, present and future. It is an extrapolation from the past follies, your grim and uncompromising teacher.
He plodded into the morning slush, squelched and masticated by thousands of running feet, day in and day out, spread across the centuries. The externality of the long march of civilization is dust and soot, when the dust settles there will remain—muck and soot. The rikshaw pullers groped their way in the thick tuft of fog like mysterious coachmen. Sleek motor vehicles scooted up the hazy road like flitting fire worms. Army trucks whirred past with a haughty impatience.
It was yet another February when Gitanjaly Express defecated him into this sleepy medieval city of the Indian heartland. Now it appeared to him that offering himself to the chugging fury of the same locomotive was the most appropriate thing. He was not particularly miserable, especially at a time when being sad was a marketable fad. He was just tired; he forfeited the appetite, the fever to take on the world. It is a blessing, he reasoned, that one is endowed with the safe option of walking out on life, of shutting out the tomorrows by choice. There will not be a morrow to pitch against our sorrow, he rhymed it with elan. The prospect of having no more tomorrows seemed mysteriously frightening and exciting. Every alpine wolf holed up in the obfuscated subterranean urban bunkers will have to come out into the open for a tryst with destiny; his fiercely guarded solitude will shatter. We owe somebody a death. Like a floating shadow, he veered down the road. The smell of burning coal saturated the air. Ugly street urchins frolicked with the hogs wallowing in the grey water. Women squeaked, washing plates and collecting water from the common tube well. Radios blared Hindi devotional songs from the dingy holes and ramshackle huts. He did not notice anything. Calcutta-Bombay railroad was a few blocks away.
Yet he could not help but notice Somanath Sen's Ⳡtailoring shop. On many an occasion he had noticed the old man. An old man who always looked sixty. Despite the passage of years Sen never changes nor does his little room react to the magic hands of time. His shop and he himself remained a curiosity, frozen in time. His customers were old men who refused to change with time. Our creativity is our sexuality, and sexuality emerges from our incompleteness. All through the last fifty years he stitched the same stereotyped outfits and never bothered to introduce the sweeping rages of fashion—somebody who learns nothing new and forgets nothing old. Such people, by and large, are shadowy men held prisoner by the ghost of the past. Sen was always seen lost in his work, furiously chewing his imaginary pan (betel leaf), as if he was masticating the whole world, never looking up, never speaking out, indifferent to pleasures and pressures. But then an Indian life is modeled by chances and accidents alone, and there is an eternity before us in which time doesn't ⴠexist. We argue because we know not; we prove a point because we are not sure of the point. And the point does not cry out from roof tops for its own suicide squads.
Sen was still there, but this time around he was not doing anything, his nimble fingers were idle, and his face straight, vacantly eyeing the wet and filthy road, where the tiny globules of water swirled, eddied, and settled, a road where the myriad show of life goes on as usual. The individual feels and society heals! We could but be ourselves, and if we strain and strive to be more than what we really are born to be, we would easily achieve what we are supposed to be. But to be is an unnerving burden. If we forget who and what we are, we fuse into the mosaic and then nothing matters, not even Mirza Galib Street.
He smiled at Sen, Sen echoed it and said in his subdued tone, “Come on in, baba, sit near this old man. I need your company today more than ever. Today, after the silence of a lifetime, I want to speak out as moths do in the cool of the evening. One has to flutter and fly out. You must steer clear of the lies of the wise and mark my words distilled from long, long days spent in silent observation.”
He obliged the old man, because he was not in a hurry; there was an eternity before him. Gitanjaly Express was still puffing down east hundreds of miles away. He sat on the shabby couch meant for the customers who were rare and far between. Sen was apparently taking a holiday. It was not like Sen to take a day off. Sen was like time, never taking a holiday, continually taking the length and breadth of customers, and subsequently stitching artless and drab straight jackets for them.
"You know what my child, Sen said with a paternal warmth, I long for company at times. Man cannot survive without something to do, something to hope, and somebody to love, so say the learned people. So, young man, may you have all those things that are most essential in life. Remember life can even be an absurd case of somnambulism," Sen grinned patronizingly and chewed his imaginary pan, tormenting his toothless gums. “To hope, to work, and to love is the recipe for a happy life,” Sen smirked while clumsily grappling with the key words that were attempting to scatter like elusive goblins in the corridors of his mind.
“You have your Devendra Sen to love, your sewing machine to work, and your tomorrows to hope,” he teased out of an innocent bitterness.
"I have neither this nor that. As for the sewing machine I have given it up—Indians never had stitched clothes, you must know that, we had plain clothes without sleeves or legs," again, Sen chewed with a fury and continued, "Did ⴠyou know that they killed him the other day?
He sat still for a moment. So that was it, then Devendra Sen was one of the unfortunate victims of the communal riot that had been ravaging the city for the past few days. The city had regular bouts of Hindu-Muslim riots, somewhat like a regular seasonal ritual. Communal rioting is the safety valve which vents our pent up frustrations by pandering to base predatory instincts. If we do not turn against each other, we will turn against the system, against the establishment. Thus, the carnivorous carnival, a gory expression of the killer instinct lying dormant within us. Others have the Olympics; we have communal riots. They play to the gallery while we play to our primordial instincts. They fight it out according to the book, we according to the knack.
The old man watched the reaction being registered on him. Devendra Sen was the only son and relation the old man had, his sole link to the world. He felt sorry for the whole of humanity lost in the business of life and struggling to dig out a meaning for the struggle.
Life is a malady, he thought, and it demands an immediate cure.
“Do you think I am lost?” Sen asked, furtively looking at him. Now his chewing had settled to a gentle tempo.
"I can imagine, he said softly, with a consoling tone. Who asked the old man's son to step into Mirza Galib Street? No Hindu ventures into a Muslim enclave. It was all Devendra Sen's fault, he demanded it, his time was up.
He thought of Mirza Galib Street, of himself, of his yesterdays left smoldering and fuming. He too had a one man tea shop in the Muslim street, his bread and butter. The religious zealots burnt it down, thereby freeing him of all material possessions.
"I do not feel miserable and lost, Sen continued, “have you read Gitanjaly? You should. It is the very best advice the people of Bengal could offer to the world. Somewhere it says, ‘hast thou not heard his silent steps, he comes, he comes, he ever comes.’ Who is this mysterious he? Anyway, it is not God. It is realization amounting to death. So realization is the cure for life.”
"Ok, Sen dada," he was apparently moved, "Why do we suffer? And why is there no socialism in suffering?"
"Must you ask me so, baba?," Sen chewed mysteriously, “I am not against suffering, suffer we must, which alone imparts some meaning and depth to the chemistry of life, because life and all its variegated facets are just chemistry they say. You take it from me, sorrow is the shadow of God. God was sad otherwise this world would not have been created.”
"Krishna celebrated his ailment; he swooned in ecstasy when the powers above racked him. When our will merges and identifies with the eternal will, we will cease to be. Every man in his elements is a masochist. But, sorry, sorrows are also ephemeral. I missed your question, I am old and seventy-four you know. You were asking why we suffer with a difference. My old mind tells me men are not at all equal, their traits and temperaments are different, their interests are different, and their requirements are different."
For a moment, Sen's guest delved back into his own younger years at Kunnamangalam, in his home state, Kerala. There was a time when he dreamed of a socialist revolution. He had ardently taken part in many an in camera meeting; he had clandestinely listened to Peking Radio. He, too, had fancied an ideal world where all men are equal irrespective of caste, creed, language, region, and religion. The jackboot of the state ruthlessly stamped out the Naxalite movement which had been catching the imagination of the colleges and universities. Many of his friends had vanished or died in false encounters orchestrated by the police. Other friends had melted away as yet another atom in the faceless ocean of humanity in distant cities. But somewhere in his mind remained an ideal world. Revolutionaries are selfless, poetic and sad, and at last they end up mad.
"Yes, Sen dada, you are against socialism," he made the statement with an affected indifference.
“There you are, I am against all isms, including Hinduism. All isms are the spiritual props the industry of religion and politics deign to dole out to the masses. Even Marxism has its own pantheon of saints, prophets, rituals, and even a pontiff and a hierarchy of clerics. Every ism is at the mercy of certain concepts and abstractions, which are translated into images and symbols for the benefit of the masses.” [When he said masses, the m was nearly silent]
"Islam needs the accursed infidels and Christianity the pack of fallen angels to survive. Islam will end up in a Diaspora when infidels are at last wiped out. Christianity is packing its tent because God lost his beard and Satan lost his tail and horns and both became human beings. The hell within us we find without. Every religious man apes, and that very poorly. They ape Buddha, Gandhi, Christ, Marx, and others and forfeit their originality. Nature does not appreciate imitation. Ultimately your ignorance is your identity and your refuge. The problem with man is that he is not satisfied with eating, mating, and sleeping. Man does not survive on bread alone." Sen took time to chew away the moments trickling between them. "Our demented institutions were long ago out of joint," Sen said with a finality.
He let the words of the old man sink into his being and struggled to make sense. Words reverberated and eddied inside him.
Having the courage to take your own life is not at all a laudable fete. We risk ourselves to protect certain absurdities because every change takes with it its own quota of rolling heads," Sen said with shocking brutality. Sen turned pallid despite himself, then made an effort to pull himself together.
"Our world is a passenger bus. You board it and watch the show. You are just a traveler, do not ⴠforget that ever. And you are not the driver. Wait and the driver will take you to the shore of eternal solution. It is foolish of us to pretend to be more than what we are without pretensions. At least you can be you. Being true to oneself is the most difficult and most rewarding compromise."
"What am I worth?," he fumed and sank into a reverie. He had left his house in Kerala fifteen years ago. The Gulf oil boom had then reached the high water mark. All people languishing in this social no man's Ⳡland dreamed of going to the Persian Gulf and striking it rich. Many, on returning from the Arabian countries loaded with petro dollars, bought their way up the social ladder with a vengeance. And many more lost themselves in their struggle to cross the Arabian Sea. He, like many other naive villagers, had been ditched and bamboozled by fake recruiting agents.
He had been the hope of his immediate family, consisting of his mother and four sisters. With what he saved overseas he was to have married off his sisters and recovered the small tract of land and the rickety house that they had mortgaged to pay for his voyage. The family was upbeat during those days, they dreamed of good husbands goaded in by the modern god, money, for his sisters and a good and furnished house for him and his mother who had never ever strayed into the sunny side of life. His mother's words still burned within him. "We will recover it all and much more through you my dearest." He was her dearest, her investment for the future, her refuge in her declining years. She suffered for him not to suffer, and projected him as her showpiece, her treasured asset. But that would never be. On reaching Bombay the fast talking recruiting agent had vanished into thin air and with the agent went his passport, money, certificates, his mortgaged house, and property. He could notⴠ think of going back, of facing his mother and sisters who had risked everything for him. They might have long ago been driven out of their house. Do they still have a roof over their heads; have the sisters been married off? Do they get a decent meal, do they still pray for him, for that matter do they still wait for him, waiting for his treasured footsteps in the still moments of the night, when rains fight and lash against the walls?
The monstrous machinery of the city churned and twisted him, then spurned and ejected him. Dignity is an unseen barrier actuated by social conditioning, a built-in barrier that brutish characters are entirely innocent of. Dignity becomes a casuality in the struggle to keep the soul and body together. Gitanjaly Express had gobbled up and subsequently defecated him in a central Indian city where Keralites were seldom seen. Better his mother dwell on the vacuous hope that he would one day turn up to right all the wrongs perpetrated by time. For their image of him to be intact he would have to cease to be. The realization came as a flash to him: the driver of the bus is absconding.
"Those religious extremists should read about Gora," Sen continued, being done with a vigorous bout of chewing away the absurdities of the world, "A Muslim has the right to be a Muslim and the duty to let an infidel be an infidel. None can right the wrongs because nothing is right and nothing is wrong. No religion is the absolute custodian of truth and every man is his own messiah. Look at the way I am straying, my mind is wandering, I guess. Gora, I was telling you about, the hero of the great poet who penned Gitanjali. Let me tell you now dear fellow, my Devendra Sen was a later day edition of Gora."
He cocked up his head, whipping up some curiosity for the sake of the old man.
"Twenty years ago," Sen continued, "our street had a few Muslims and Mirza Galib Street had a few Hindu families. One day in a paroxysm of religious hysteria they exterminated all the Hindus on Mirza Galib Street and Hindus reacted in the same way. Then a certain Muslim mother came running to me and deposited her child in my lap. You take it from me all mothers are of the same religion. She chose me because I had nobody and I was no party to any sect. I took the child because her eyes could have melted even an unfeeling stone. She was omnipotent in the capacity of a mother. Later they raped her, tortured her, and torched her in the name of religion and civilization, our civilization very much part of our increasing entropy, our civilization denatured by cultural eutrophication. [Civilization moves from one equilibrium to another until it collapses from inside.] That child was my Devendra Sen, the foolhardy youth who happened to be in Mirza Galib Street when communal tensions once again reached a flash point. With but and if we link our life. Mirza Galib Street is an endemic question, a delirious dimension to an epileptic existence.
I am sorry for you, dada."
"I don't ⴠfeel sorry for anything. I am old but bold because tomorrows do not haunt me and yesterdays do not hunt me. The driver is very much there, I know. I relax and watch the show."
He left Sen to another spree of gum chewing, as if he was chewing the ideologies spewing fire. All the Hindus in Sen's street had a soft spot for him. Sen had come to India in 1947 as a refugee from Naokhali, Bangladesh. His parents, brothers, and relatives had been massacred by Muslim League activists on Direct Action Day. His sisters were killed by his father before the marauders could get to them. The venerable and mysterious Sen dada whose age seemed stalled at sixty.
"You know my boy, Sen began, "There was only one true Indian, amongst our phalanx of leaders, all the rest were imposters and charlatans. Only one could identify with the soul of India, an old man who became what he believed. It was Gandhi who walked all the way into Naokhali on bare foot and his lips mumbled, 'go it alone.' We walk alone with a pair of bloodied feet thinking of a collective salvation. It is true that we can wake up somebody asleep but not somebody pretending to be asleep. Take this also my wretched Madrasi, when we stop raving, we know we are dying."
He slumped into a shallow slumber after many days of disorientation and wandering. Sen watched him benevolently. When he came to his senses in the afternoon, the fog had cleared out and the sun was mildly laying rotund shadows on the floor. Sen was perched on his ancient wooden chair, serene, peaceful, and dead.
THE GAME OF CHESS
Adi Reddy moved the pawns against himself on the chessboard, folding himself up in a creaking, faltering, and protesting chair. He is perched at the balcony of the first floor of a century old bungalow fast crumbling and darkened by the ravages of time. Time hasn't been kind to the mansion. The mossy, musty walls and the dusty floor exude the odor of death. The ceiling, done in expensive rosewood, with its exotic mural carvings and exquisite workmanship had long ago lost its finish and sheen from layers of cobwebs, dust, and soot. Hornets made themselves at home in the dandy cornices. The gargoyles were gagged by the filth of the decades that had gone past the building. The structure stood out defiantly at the nerve center of the provincial Andhra town like an intimidating monstrous being.
Adi Reddy sat there, quite oblivious of the capsule of silence that he was shut into. His dry and insipid fingers crawled on the chessboard like crabs on the sprawl, reluctantly and tremblingly. The day was dying on the horizon; the cool December night marched in from the east and filled into the depressions of the landscape. A towering palm tree softly dragged its lengthening and fading shadow in the compound of the bungalow. People hurried back home in the eerie gloam of dusk on the dusty roads, after haggling their purchases. Shortly, the roads will be deserted and the inky night will devour the sleepy town where medievalism lingers with a fury....
Then, something unexpected happened. Women turned their faces and screamed in protest. There is a sad sorority amidst them. The street urchins hollered. The hurrying pedestrians stood back petrified. The people forgot their hurries and existential worries. Adi Reddy lifted his wrinkled haggard face and strained his failing eyes to see down on the road. He strained to discern something in the dying light of a December dusk. Somehow, he recognized the actors in the macabre drama being staged down on the street.
Two men were parading a woman in her early thirties, naked and brutalized. This atrocity had in fact provoked the sorority and impotent protest of the passing womenfolk. Her dry silken hair was flying about and her hands were tied from behind with pricking coir rope. A bushy, well built man was dragging her along the road and another man was driving her from behind, flashing his whip and cracking it at times on her bruised back. The eyes of the woman were dry and vacant. On her fair and exposed bosom, belly and navel, bloody furious rashes and welts crisscrossed. Blood slowly creeping down from her forehead disappeared in the blue, fluffy pubic hair.
Adi Reddy bent his aged head in disgust and silent protest. Battle raged on the chessboard. The black knight galloped and the white bishop fell. Adi Reddy was anxious to checkmate his foe, who was none other than himself. The pale face of the naked woman filled the canvass of his mind. She was his maid servant Muthamma. She was born and brought up in that bungalow, being the daughter of his former servant Kanakamma, who had died giving birth to her.
The sole link he had with the living world was Muthamma. She smuggled in food for him regularly. He was very familiar with her frightened face and gentle footsteps. Like Braille script, he used to experience her presence even without the faculty of vision. She had an oval face, fair complexion, and Aryan features, totally unlike her mother, as if by accident. Adi Reddy moved the pieces on the chess board. He looked down again, still, at a distance, he could figure out his son dragging her and his son-in law brandishing the carnivorous whip. They are ambitious; nobody survives his ambitions. And, believe it or not, individuality is an institution of pride.
He turned his face again. If anything was relevant, it was the game of chess alone; as long as the game continues, the world and its methods will drag on. Everything else is impertinent and base. Many years had come to pass since his son had banished him to the obfuscated top floor. He had ever since been pulling on his vegetable life in the cocoon of time. He is not angry with anybody, nor is he nostalgic or proud of his tremendous yesteryears. The past is a phantasmagoria, the bristling pride and the voracious greed and lustful thirst for the world were reason enough for him to laugh away his time. He laughed at the bubble of the universe, even laughed at himself. He knows that in this game his will be the last laugh. He who knows he knows knows not, and he who knows not he knows knows. Consciousness is one of the five holy wounds of life. But that also doesnⴠmatter much, the world is an absurdity spread on the plane of time and space. Women decorate the openings in their body, betraying their desire to fill in the spiritual vacuum with life; men smudge this vacuum with strife and death. We suffer from us and from none else. The musk deer seeks the source of musk everywhere but on himself. A vengeful mind is an asset, the vengeful cannot die. Forgiveness blunts the edge of life. There is no true love other than self love. Either you love you or you love none, you cannot make love to a concept. Adi Reddy excogitated on truths vandalized and prostituted. The difference between USA and USAma [Editor's Note: Usama bin-Laden] is simple, one sets truth free and dissects it in different ways and the other highjacks it and tethers it, and truth cares for none. Christ was wise indeed, he mused, Christ answered a tremendous question: he was asked what is truth and in the most eloquent way he answered it. His answer was silence. When time is ripe, truth will speak out through the wrong openings if we shut out its regular avenues. Reason is a treason; where reason dies poesy springs.
He moved on the chessboard. On the road the way of the cross progressed undaunted. The people recovered from the initial shock and disorientation. The Good Friday was perfected by a Veronica in the form of Somayya. He had seen Muthamma at the market on many days. Her frightened and apologetic face remained etched in his being. He had known that she belonged to his caste, the caste of shepherds. But she was fair and delicate in contrast to his blunt, black Dravidian features. When he recovered from the initial confusion, Somayya darted forth, pushing away the thronging crowds, peeling his long and soiled shirt. But the Roman centurion frightened him away by cracking the whip. Fear was infused into his fawning being, the residual survival mechanism in the wilderness of humanity. One has to be a seer to fear fear. Fear sets the pace of our life. Somayya by nature was a soft-hearted fellow. He was moved easily by the misery of others. His monthly visits to the town for purchases of essential goods, were punctuated by regular deeds of goodwill. For example, a few years ago he had been deeply moved by the sad plight of a vociferous Christian preacher, who was preaching at the main thoroughfare to an unsympathetic and pooh-pooing audience. He felt sorry for the preacher and offered himself to be converted. But his conversion was skin deep; he had no other religion than being kind to others and being at home with himself. Once the preacher caught him in town and forced some pamphlets on him which he could not read because he was innocent of letters.
"Life is not as simple as proclaiming that your master is a Jewish carpenter, you really have to be one," the preacher chastised him.
Adi Reddy had a glorious past. The town had developed around his castle, and all the denizens of the town were at a certain point of time his obsequious tenants. He had his regular durbars, and lively discussions on poetry, art, and religion. He had his education in Europe and had assimilated the English way of life. India, in all its diversities and contradictions, was a beautiful country to him, but alas! It was peopled by Indians. Now the world has come a long way away. His children are grown up. Superiority is a misunderstanding; we feed on the same absurdities. He thought of the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan grabbed power and glowed in imperial glory. Then, one fine day he was arrested and put in solitary confinement by his son. In his miserable years of confinement Shah Jahan could watch Taj Mahal across the Yamuna, the mausoleum built for his wife at the cost of thousands of lives. The Taj Mahal stood before him, as Tagore put it, like a drop of tear on the cheek of time. That is the way of life, Adi Reddy reasoned. Cyrus the Great discovered it too late. The eloquent epitaph of the Persian emperor reverberated in his mind. The world is created by us, each one creates this world, without us there is no world. Life belongs to the quixotic carpetbaggers and history is created by neurotics who are not at home with themselves. They trouble trouble and sparks of history come flashing down.
Ere long, the ups and downs of the landscape were inundated in darkness. Adi ReddyⳠblank oval face turned to the darkness, and he had visions of the past and present. The game of chess continued. They left her alone at the end of the street where the road dived into the unfathomed depths of gloom. The voltage starved street light at the extremity of the street was failing in its miserable fight against the waves of darkness. Her tormenters left her with a parting kick, "show your ass again in town and we will chop you to pieces; do you get it bloody bitch?" Consummatum est!
Muthamma did not hurry to cover up her bloodied and tortured body. Her dignity had been violated. Her body reeked and had been burned here and there. Her mind was blank. She took stock of her state of affaires in the refuge of groping darkness. She had not been able to think anything during the course of the ordeal; she was just a detached spectator. In the beginning, she had tried in vain to cover her private parts; in the beginning, she had railed and ranted at them; she had even begged for mercy from her tormenters. By and by, she became silent and blank. She became oblivious of the whip and the cruelties wreaked upon her body. The penetrating eyes of the bawdy onlookers did not anymore make her uneasy. Her mind wandered at a plateau far and away. And now in the inky solitude she tried in vain to put together the broken links of reason.
Her mind refused to delve into the ground realities and wandered in the rarified heights. Her mind was like a bird soaring high and away. All of the crude and taunting facts melted away into absolute emptiness. The real world vanished, leaving nary a trace behind. A new world opened out around her, fresh, bright, and beautiful, as if she was slipping into another birth, into another existence. She moved along the track lost in darkness like a shadow. The world waited in bated breath.
By mustering all the strength of his hands to move his heavy legs, Adi Reddy tried to make himself comfortable. But his legs remained inert and stationary, weighed down by elephantiasis. Again, his fingers snaked on the chessboard. The stench of the past filled the air. He toyed with the prospect of death. Death liberates many things including a name; life binds many things including a sign. Life is green in color and death is blue. And life can certainly be much more than a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing. This world with the triple co-ordinates of space, mass, and time will sink to a point and the dream of life will fade out; the fragrance cannot outlive the flower. Life ought to be much more than living, much more than breathing. The coconut speaks a mysterious language. The two eyes of the nut come to naught; when the third eye opens, life sprouts.
The canals from Nagarjunsagar Dam radiated away into infinity. A dam that copiously blessed the people with filariasis and fluorosis. Muthamma moved falteringly by the side of the rippling babble of the waters. The night was starlit. The chill of the night excreted fine droplets of dew. The stars watched benevolently over the earth comfortably sleeping. Muthamma patiently stepped into the water and moved down into the depths as if she was going home. We are bold when we have no place to flee. Death can even be a remembrance. Life is an immensely simple question which is always hovered over by a mysterious answer—death. But when we are in the fitful rage of life, we beautifully and in a sense, dutifully, forget the question as well as the answer. Silence settled again, the ripples and disturbance in the water also died down.
The world did not end there. Muthamma opened her eyes; she was in the lap of Somayya.
"Did I not die yet?" he asked, her sadness and despondency condensing.
"No, you did not.
"Why did you do it?," she wailed in excruciating anguish.
"It was not me, it was somebody else high and above."
Adi Reddy moved again on the chessboard. In his hazy consciousness it occurred to him that he was the fundamental cause, the primordial drive of this phenomenal world and everything associated with it. And the reason fights against itself. The nonsense perpetrated in the evening was part and parcel to that psychological macrocosm residing inside him.
"Leave me alone strange man, whoever you may be. I am done with this world, I have no business here," Muthamma sobbed and stammered. She was in fact irritated by his stupid intervention.
"This life of ours is neither mean nor melancholy, Muthamma."
"I am fed up. Please leave me alone."
"Dear Muthamma, the world is not the same everywhere, every time. The world changes and so do the actors. I invite you to the distant hills; there we will walk way into the evening of life hand in hand. When the sheep move about in the lonely pastures, I will play a tune or two on my poor flute in the shadow of an evergreen tree. The flowers will tell us from everywhere that April has come. At night nightingales will come out with their lullaby. In the morning the gentle breeze will dance with the gaudy boughs. Summer will come with gray skies and nocturnal rains. There will still be music in the hills. In Autumn we will watch the crescent moon laying its gossamer in the sleeping valley. Winter will come again with floating yellow leaves and permeating silence. Our days and nights will come and go this way and that way, part of a larger harmony. April will always be there beckoning to us."
Then he broke into a song, a song he had perfected during his solemn moments in the pastures, by giving and taking, polishing and honing up.
Come away, you come away
Come away, mon agnus dei
Dancing breeze and dreaming trees
Running streams and winning dreams
Come away, you come away
Come away, mon agnus dei
Rolling hills, where sunshine dies
Falling rains and nights and days
Come away, you come away
Come away, mon agnus dei
Hills and dells and winsome hollows
Dance and sleep in fulsome shadows
Come away, you come away
Come away mon agnus dei
Flush your sorrows, flush your morrows
Never one lends and never one borrows
Come away, you come away
Come away, mon agnus dei
Play I shall there on my flute
Watch you shall, it thrilled and mute
Come away, you come away
Come away, mon agnus dei.
Muthamma slipped into a placid slumber and watched the dream he was directing for her. Live your dreams and soon you will crash against the wall, leave your dreams and soon life turns into lead. The dream is an alchemist of sorts.
My legendary uncle visited us recently, only to transform my life once and for all. It was a time when I had concluded that the best thing to do was not to do anything. I had tried many jobs; nothing lasted, nothing worked, and I grew depressed.... Then, popped up the dreaded question, a question that accosts anybody who emerges alive from a shattering event: what to do with what remains of my life?
My father had left me and went God knows where. He was a curious character in our sleepy little village. You know, the world is not meant for the sane; he was copiously endowed with the faculty of eccentricity and made a patent celebration of it. He was a medicine freak; he protested to suffer from an enormous number of curious imaginary diseases. Let me add though, that he was long ago a caring father and a gifted mason (we belong to the caste of masons, you know). One day, he switched from the obsession of parenting and masonry to medicine mania. A certain woman, who is at present raving mad, is said to have tried black magic on him. He was the easy quarry to the mendicant quacks, monte blancs, and other conmen. He tried traditional herbal medicines, Unani, Allopathy, Homoeopathy, yoga, and faith healing and pestered all the doctors in our region. When the doctors tired of him, he began to prescribe medicines for himself and the obliging pharmacies always accommodated him. He haunted all of the free medical clinics organized by charitable organizations. With his staple diet of tablets, capsules, and tonics, my father grew thinner day by day. He sought a panacea as if life itself was a malady that demanded an immediate remedy. And one day he disappeared from his regular orbit linking a string of government hospitals and faith healing centers. Some of his close cohorts told me that he had hinted of going to Benares, on the Ganges. Anyway, he was gone and I was left to my own devices. This development reiterated my decision not to do anything for a living. Replenishing my small stomach was not a difficult task, and when food was not handy I slept my day away. Then my uncle showed up. I was meeting him for the first time. Some twenty years ago, he is said to have visited us, and had taken me in his arms and blessed me. But it was long ago, when my mother was with us. My uncle is like a comet that cares to visit the earth irregularly.
One fine afternoon, he unceremoniously pulled me out of my facultative siesta, breaking into peals of fulminating laughter. The stifling heat of April was ruthlessly smothering us. The furious heavens frowned down upon us. The heat of the day and my troubled slumber made me think the queer apparition in front of me was a ghost, because our ancient village is frequented by ghosts of various denominations. With his paroxysms of laughter rocking his lean body, overflowing pepper and salt beard, and cemented wands of hair, my uncle introduced himself, and then I was interested.
"So my nephew has proved himself to be a good for nothing loafer," he declared gleefully. "But do not ⴠworry," he continued, "I was like you; all Indians in their true colors are like you. So yours is not an endangered species and may your tribe prosper." He guffawed again. His celebration of being himself appealed to me.
"Now shake yourself up my flip-flop nephew, I am going to be your Tao," he said with finality. His unwavering energy was smoothly energizing me. I cocked up my antennae against the tantalizing stimuli.
"I will show you the right path, but I am not the path. Every path is the right path but there is only one righter path for the righter person." I guessed that he was going to take me under his wings, a prospect which seemed altogether enticing because I was averse to taking responsibilities.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked.
"You should take to the road," he said and gauged the reaction reflected in my face.
"Do you want me to leave my hut?"
"Yes, you have to. Your soul is there where your wealth is. When you have nothing, the whole world is yours, and you belong to the whole world. You can be anywhere, everywhere, anytime, every time."
"Who is going to feed us, who is going to clad us, who is going to give us money?"
"Look at me, you lousy chap."
I surveyed his saffron clothes, vermilion smeared on his forehead, and his soiled cloth bag.
"This uniform is a possibility, a passport to travel anywhere in the country. Our British raj stitched the country together with their railroads. Now it is yours, the country and the railroads. You board a train dressed as a monk, a true Hindu will never inspect your rail ticket, and, if he is modernized and spoiled, he will get you arrested and imprisoned. But worry not, you are not in a hurry, you are at home everywhere, they will feed you and will offer a roof above your head. When they are tired of being your host, they will let you free, you board the very next train until the next prison takes you in as a guest. Knowledge kills and ignorance keeps you. Drink and seek not the chemistry of the teat, eat and seek not the recipe of the dish that is prepared for you. To know is to know that you know not to know," he philosophized. My uncle looked at me with a mischievous glow in his merry eyes.
Negation of knowledge fascinated me; I am a dropout from primary school, you know.
"How do we find acceptability, being innocent of knowledge?" I inquired.
"Again, I say knowledge killeth your dreams and faith giveth life. Have you not heard the story of the quack of Calicut? Here it is. Long, long ago there lived an idiot close to a miracle doctor who cured snake bites by sprinkling water and reciting mantras. One day our fool is sent to the doctor by his mother to learn the mantra. He goes to the doctor with an ash gourd as a reward for sharing the mantra. On seeing the fool the doctor bitterly scowls: 'wherefore is this ash gourd, you idiot?' The fool places the vegetable at his feet and runs home pleased and happy because he thought that the miraculous mantra was: wherefore is this ash gourd, you idiot? He recited the mantra a hundred thousand times the number of letters in the mantric sentence. Then, he treated one patient when the true doctor was not home. It worked. Then, patients came trickling in; he chanted his treasured mantra and sprinkled water on the sinking patient; he lured them all to the world of the living. One day, the princess of the kingdom was stung by a deadly serpent. She was immediately taken to the true doctor. He failed to coax her back to life. Then, the idiot tried his mantra and sprinkled water and, lo, she woke up from her coma. His name spread far and wide and the true doctor eclipsed into oblivion. One day, the idiot was being taken to the palace in a palanquin, and he saw the true doctor on the road, weak and miserable. The idiot ordered his bearers to stop and alighted; he fell at the feet of the doctor and said: 'great master I am ever grateful to the mantra you taught.'"
"What mantra?" asked the flabbergasted doctor.
"'Wherefore is this ash gourd, you idiot?' the fool muttered in awestricken respect without batting an eyelid. So knowledge kills faith and there survival begins."
"But how does one eke out a living, in and out of trains?"
"You travel across this vast country, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Always seek the villages, for India is long dead in the cities. And you sell your wares, abstract wares. You sell shadows."
"What do you sell for a living?"
"I sell nothing for a living. I sell for the fun of selling. And I sell dreams. I sell dreams—streams of dreams. I am the merchant of dreams. I offer beautiful dreams and sound sleep to the insomniacs. And my offer has enough takers. They will offer you money. Do notⴠ take it; they are inadvertently poisoning you. They will give you anything in this delirious world in exchange for a pleasant dream."
I stood enthralled and starry-eyed. "Then, Madhavan uncle, what is to become of our life?" I asked.
"Survival begins when we begin to live. Stop living, forget that you are alive. Life is understood in the heart and not in the brain. Strain not your brain, train yourself to meet sun and rain and you forget pain and gain, then you become heavenly strain." He stood erect congratulating himself.
He dramatically half sat on my icky, rickety cot, pulled out his shoulder bag, and searched in its infinite number of pouches. The bag was loaded with many curious articles like safety pins, musk, dry flowers, desiccated balsam leaves and much more. He pinched out a pinch of holy ash and applied it on my forehead. I was thus initiated into his nomadic fold. He got to his feet from my soiled bed, and on a second thought turned to me again and said, "If you are destined to become an enlightened vagabond, never harm anybody, never steal anything, never tell lies, never put on airs, never hurry, never leave behind a tale of tears, and never swim against the flux. Never go for anything, everything will come to you if the flux flexes its primordial will. And, most important, never hope for anything. We become what we believe and not what we know. Have benevolent and pleasant thoughts because thought precedes action."
Then he dramatically walked out on me. I ran to the door to see where he was going. He had vanished; he had chosen not to take the narrow path crawling downhill to the dusty road across the brook. He might have gone uphill. Now, it little mattered whither he went; I was initiated into an order without order. To the order of remitting my will at the sanctum sanctorum of the universal will, into the rarified circle of enlightened vagabonds I was recruited. An electric thrill proliferated in my cells and I experienced it sweeping my gawky being. Every man is reborn every second, I discovered. I imagined myself adrift like a soft breath of breeze willy-nilly blowing, like a feathery whiff of wind willy-nilly flowing, all set for a sedentary life in which infinite possibilities of permutations and combinations are there.
Many days thence, I landed up at Ernakulam Junction, the main railway station in Cochin. Trivandrum-Guwahati Express was due at 17 hours. At the station, sooty, smoke-belching diesel engines had been replaced by sleek electric engines for northbound transit. Trains to Trivandrum, Mangalore, Bangalore, and Hyderabad were available but I chose Guwahati because it was the first train leaving the station and its flood of humanity. I entered the general compartment without a ticket and without money; I was trying out a theory. As destiny would have it a seat was found vacant and I engaged it immediately. Passengers poured in, wave upon wave, dragging their fussy bags and luggage. It is convenient to have no luggage at all, and it procured me the first vacant seat. Thousands had gathered to see off the departing souls, as if we were off to another world. Shortly, the compartment was full and each one made himself at home familiarizing with the few square inches of area he happened to be sitting on or standing on. Each has his own mechanism to guard his territory; the most common method in general compartments being to pretend to be a ruthless brute.
Close to me was seated a suave and well bred gentleman with his timid wife and excited child. He seemed very irritated and impatient. Certainly, people of his ilk are not expected in general compartments; general compartments are meant for wretches who move about in the shadows of life, leaving life entirely to chances and accidents. He was irritated because the foul smelling rabble poured in without a method or decorum, the rural scum floating down to urban mire. His journey up to Cochin had been peaceful as passengers were few.
The train pulled out, the people inside and outside waved to each other, some touched each other, tears rolled, some even sobbed. High voltage moments of sentimentalism began to ease out when the train rolled out of the enormous station, and we began to relax. Still there were tears in many eyes. Then the gentleman turned to his wife and muttered in English, apparently tired of all this third class melodrama, "I expected this; it is all your fault. I cannot travel in an unreserved compartment. Your stupid mother chose to die so unexpectedly." She looked at him with a pleading helplessness. His little son said something to her.
"You filthy muck of an idiot," he jeered at the child and slapped him across the face. "I have told you time and again not to speak this bloody local language. Speak English or shut your box for good."
"Jose Achaya, please do not create a scene," his wife looked at him like a beggar.
"You shut up, bloody bitch. You spoiled this bloody bootless brat and shattered my peace of mind," he said in English and looked at her venomously. It had a dramatic effect. She and the child fell silent, their silence spread into the cabin, and it turned glum and sepulchral, as if a frowning schoolmaster was watching over us. He looked formidable with his domineering authority, English, spic and span outfit, and above all with the perfume in which he had drowned his natural body odor. It appeared that he might smite us as well for smothering him with our crude and artless presence. I surveyed other travelers in the cabin. There was a young mother with her baby in the corner close to the window, accompanied by her young and beaming husband. Others were youths in their early twenties, like me. We sat there beneath the stiff bitterness of a towering sphinx, afraid to move. The train floated past across Kerala landscape parched in summer fury. At night the train pulled into Palakkad Junction, the last station in Kerala. The gentleman hurried out and came in a few minutes later to collect his things.
"Berth has been arranged for us in the sleeper coach, come away," he commanded.
More wretches poured in and filled into available spaces, longingly looking at the occupied seats. We sighed a sigh of relief, as if a weight had been lifted, as if the tyrant of a school master had left the children to their own devices.
"Thank God, now I can freely fart out all my pending farts," one declared aloud.
"If you fart, fart artfully," another advised.
"His English is as bad as ours," a youth consoled us, breaking the spell. We broke into a hearty laughter of solidarity.
"That dastardly bastard will whack his wife because she represents the impossible world, the true humanity that he is inclined to be but afraid to be. He is battering his tormented alter ego," diagnosed somebody sitting close to me.
"He is one of the bourgeoisies sucking our nation dry," another accused. The youths were on their way to Tiruppur to work in textile mills.
"The nation is a beast, a beast feasting on otherⳠmeat," said another youth, "with its basic instincts of property, libido, and survival of the fittest."
"If the nation is a beast, then society is a bitch," said the youth who judged the gentlemanⳠEnglish, "frowning on the fawning and servile to the system that prevails."
"That bastard is most probably on the payroll of the CIA," another youth decided aloud.
"Pax Britannica is replaced by Pax Americana; in any case we have our pax. So much the better," said another.
"America is ubiquitous; it has penetrated our dreams. We dream American dreams; they have stolen our dreams. So much so that the material world has a subtle American taste to it," said the gentlemanⳠjudge.
"The difference between India and America is little. They have their tomorrows and we have our yesterdays and both converge at the cantankerous arena of today."
"India is funky, fussy, and mussy, a quarrelsome hussy. She needs a man of high thinking and lofty vision to be tamed and trained. Hitler made love to the thronging masses, the mass is feminine, and a charismatic leader is masculine."
"But man is troubled by a bubble, the bubble of being."
"Woman is an ecstatic woe to man, a distraction that leaves him open to the perils of the world."
"Man is a spark and woman is a heap of gunpowder."
"There will come a certain man with a vision and a mission to extirpate our mediocrity."
"Our problem is that we did not ever kick start afresh with the momentum of a revolution. We are the lotus eaters with a congenital residual faith, a faith that miraculously became our raison d⥴re. India will remain with a cold and timid glow no mater how many Somnadhs become the stepping stone to the mosque of Samarkhand."
"The problem is that we are too many, it is time to jettison the country."
"You are farting through the wrong hole, do not come out with sentences too big for your tiny orifice," someone chided the chirping young man.
"Now, where are you to?" another one turned to me and asked, armed with an amicable disarming smile.
I had to concoct a story, a real cock and bull story. I said I was to Calcutta, where a relative of mine had arranged a clerical job for me. One wanted to know the name of that relative. I said it was a Sreedharankutty. Another youth said he had a friend in Calcutta by that name, who was with Alkali and Chemical Corporation. I said my Sreedharankutty was in the Railways. Fortunately that was the end of it.
The train pulled out with a jerk. We were leaving Kerala; we were leaving the roaring industry of politics, the sanctimonious political theorists, and perfunctory lethargic bureaucracy. The passengers en masse peeped out into the looming darkness, to get a final view of Kerala. They imagined red flags etched with sickle, hammer, and star, red and cream KSRTC buses whirring past, raising a cloud of dust. A mist of nostalgia spread across the whole length of the train. For decades, Keralites have been going out of the state into alien languages, cultures, and environments, and all of them, in the bottom of their bags, no matter whether they be a soldier or a businessman, kept a copy of Remanan or a novel by Muttath Varkey or M.T.Vasudevan Nair. They took a piece of Kerala with them. The train crossed Palakkad Gap and plunged into the dry, sweltering night of Tamilnad, and, suddenly, all lights in the sleeper coaches died, the passengers went to bed with a heavy mind etching the last treasured view of Kerala. They were taking a piece of Kerala with them whatever they happen to be and wherever they happen to go.
"I must drink some water now, even from the pipe," one complained.
"Donⴠdo that, the penniless cannot afford to be sick. The doctor will feel your purse and write you off."
"Better to die thirsting than to die with a leaking bottom," another reasoned.
The heat was unbearable. The young mother with the baby pulled out a bottle of water boiled with cumin and offered it to us all with a motherly generosity. It tasted good. Then, we became aware that a woman was amidst us. But she was a mother; motherhood saves women from many a trouble. For example, sex starved neurotics will not ogle nor will they have imaginary sex with her, feasting on her anatomy. A mother is respected and even treated with deference.
Then, she shared with us all in the cabin a delicacy made of jackfruit and flour wrapped in spicy leaves. In fact, I was terribly hungry. It was real manna. When the child got used to the new world, he made himself busy by engaging all of us. I do not get along well with children, you know. Yet I found him amusing. The passengers took turns to keep him in good spirits. The mother glowed with pride and satiation as if she was the crowned paragon of womanhood. Her husband, Kurup, was taking her from Mavelikkara to West Sikkim, where he was employed as a clerk. She had waited for two years to join him after their marriage. During her pregnancy and post natal care she had been dreaming of joining her husband in the Himalayas, and has her own plans of making a home. Kurup also betrayed true masculine pride in that he was taking his wedded woman to his exotic world. I found it all mysteriously fascinating. To be frank, I envied the child for being mothered over by such a graceful woman. She was not particularly beautiful, but in the capacity of a mother she was radiant and divine. Motherhood is one of the miracles of the world, I decided.
We tried to steal some sleep. The prospect of being apprehended for ticketless travel did not bother me anymore, and the ticket examiners found it loathsome to squeeze into the jam-packed and foul-smelling compartment. The trouble of dealing with a culprit was too much for them. Some tried to sleep sitting, some standing. The train surged ahead through the plains of Tamilnad. At midnight, the young men alighted at Tiruppur. Some others barged in to occupy the vacant seats. In the morning the train pulled into Madras Central station, a station which was booming with activity. Many more Tamilians poured into the compartment. Kurup's family and I were the only Keralites left in the cabin. Very few Keralites choose general compartment for long distance journey. The young mother fished out some pancakes and she shared them with me. The Coromandal coast sprawled ahead like an enormous frying pan. The child became restless in the heat wave. We thought aloud that it must be raining in Kerala. I privately thought of the merry, wanton streams bordering our property, and the fish catch during the first flood of the year.
By midday, we reached the enormous railway junction at Vjayawada. My ankles were swollen from sitting non-stop. It became a difficult task to keep the little monster of a child in good humor. He pulled out pens and tickets from the pockets and the little tyrant bawled the non cooperating passengers into submission. The mother melted as a lump of love unto him. The train blasted ahead in full fury across the river basins of Godavary and at night reached Waltaire. The cornucopia of the motherⳠbag kept me from being terribly hungry. She came out with a good variety of delicacies which motherly concerns had made her prepare. In her capacity as a dame, she will feed five thousand with five pieces of bread. Another sleepless night passed, and in the morning we were fleeting past the plains of Orissa. The child again woke up and began his pranks.
The child, having no other curiosities to amuse him, pulled out his motherⳠwallet from the bag. On finding its texture to feel wonderful, he reasoned that the next best thing was to eat it. You know, our primary instinct is to assimilate anything wonderful. We usually satiate that feeling with greedy smacking kisses and sniffing. Mother, with a loving force, tried to dissuade him from that unwelcome exercise. The child in his little wisdom reasoned that if it was not good for eating, it was not good for keeping and in a flash flung it out through the window. For an instant, everybody was thunderstruck. The parents looked at each other, letting the reality sink into them. The train was flying at its maximum speed. Somebody had the resourcefulness to pull the chain. The train seemed least inclined to entertain the caprices of puny little men. It surged ahead impatiently. Within a few minutes, the train got the message and it dragged to a reluctant halt sounding questioning and protesting horns that it was not supposed to come to a grinding halt at that time. But, in the meantime, we had passed a good many kilometers. On consultation it was decided that Kurup was to alight there and run back to track down the wallet and the mother and child would proceed to Calcutta so that they could wait for him at Howrah Station, where he was to join them by the very next train. Together, they could proceed to Siliguri by another Guwahati bound train. The problem was that all her gold and silver, their train tickets, and all their money were kept in the wallet for safety.
Kurup jumped into the gray Orissa morning, and his wife wailed with concern and anxiety, "Oh dear, God help us. Do not tarry. You are more precious to me than the wallet. You must positively reach Howrah by the very next train." He did not hear her wail; he was running like the first Marathoner. The train moved. In the morning daze I wanted to tell him that the electric post at the point where the tragedy occurred had a number with the last digits 8356, and that there was a pond and a neem tree at the site. But he was already gone.
For the next three months, I wandered throughout the towns and cities of Bengal. I had completely forgotten Madhavan uncle. I didnⴠeven look for my imaginary cousin Sreedharankutty.
Life rolled in the gutters, I lived on country liquor and cheap flesh. But during rare sane moments the sad memories of Kurup and his wife came floating to me, and I drowned them in more booze. I shuddered at the thought of Kurup racing against time in his blind foray, and at the possibility of being run over by a furious train. Then, I fancied the possibility of her waiting for him at Howrah ad infinitum, at a place where the language and culture are absolutely alien to her. I couldnⴠhelp pitying them. They were nice, straight, and benevolent.
After three months, once again I landed up at Howrah station, to watch the huge concourse of humanity. Then, I found her there, still waiting. Her bag gone; child gone; charms gone. Her hair was haywire and her sari soiled and stained. I watched her from a distance. Her face was vacant, she was just sitting there, looking blankly into infinity, looking through and through the eddies of humanity.
I moved closer to her. She looked through me. There was no recognition. I called her by her name; there was no response. She was telling something to an imaginary person in an imaginary language, it was definitely not Malayalam, our mother tongue, nor was it any other language known in the world. Language did not fail her, she was solemnly telling something to the space in front of her. Then I did a curious thing. I rummaged through my bag and pulled out her wallet and flashed it in front of her eyes. It did not mean anything to her. I opened the wallet and produced a photograph of her sitting with her child at home in Kerala. This extreme gesture also did not provoke her. I abhorred myself and felt utterly miserable. I had squandered all their wealth; now, only the empty wallet was left.
I walked out of the bustling station and went to Howrah Bridge. I stood there for hours leaning on the railing, watching the inexorable flow of the mighty river of time.
Time died in the morning; to be precise it happened at 6:42 AM. I was at the site of the epochal event lying languidly on the floor. She had long ago left taking her morning sickness with her. I watched the hands of the clock quivering, slipping back, and trying to climb again. After a few attempts the clock gave up and died. That sleek and crisp electronic clock had been presiding over our jerky, faltering life as man and wife ever since she entered my drab existence. Somebody dear to her had given her the clock as a wedding gift. I didnⴠbother to ask her who it was. To be frank, it was the single luxury in our drab life together. I had often dreamt of purchasing a transistor radio, but somehow it never happened; the money evaporated away to meet other immediate and important needs. Ours was a simple Spartan existence bereft of colors and red letter days.
It was raining throughout the night. The storm was lashing across the lea day in and day out. Our delicate land perched between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats [EditorⳠNote: Ghats is the Indian word for hills] is rudely and maliciously flushed with the evaporates abducted from the antipodes all through June and July. Prudent and realistic families store enough food and firewood to tide over the difficult months, however, we couldn for us today mattered much more than tomorrow, because there is no tomorrow without a today. Having nothing else to do, I would silently watch the storm unleashing its fury across the valley. Whenever the rains slacken to mobilize for the next salvo, the moody trees will whimper and weep, trying to remember something sad and distant. Tears will trickle down from the drooping branches until the trees are drowned in the next violent rainstorm. I had been hibernating at home for many days now, there was no food and because of the inclement weather there was no work. Once the rains are over, I could go out for rubber tapping or lumbering. She knows where to find work as she is closer to life. She would go out to carry wood or to work in the paddy fields. But we couldnⴠsave enough for a rainy day.
We have certain seasoned mechanisms to tolerate each other. When she raves, laments, and curses me and everything connected to me, I just switch off my ears. When she is in the right mood, she silently suffers my negligence, drunken madness, and irresponsibility. Ours was a working arrangement necessitated by the pressures of life. She darted in from the haze of the raving rain with a bundle of dripping firewood. I sniffed trouble, she had been asking time and again for me to collect and store some more firewood. Setting fire in the damp hearth is a daunting task; she would blow and curse me, her eyes would be wet and her face smoky. She has the nose to dig out some edible roots and tubers to fill our stomach, probably half ripe tapioca. But to boil it is next to impossible. As I expected, she began to blow off like a shrew. I moved to the damp little verandah, rain danced in the little pools, and the wind twisted and twirled the trees across the river. Then, in a wanton bout of recklessness, I shouted at her, "Cut it out, woman. I donⴠneed your bloody rotten food. Take it and shove it."
I put a towel on my head and plodded into the rain, impudently squelching and splashing the water trapped in small puddles. The rain was sad; it was crying sonorously. I walked down to the river at the foot of the hill. The river is a resort where I can sigh my life away or take an elaborate bath. The violent river of blue-green water laughed into white metallic streaks of froth and crashed against the tremulous willows. I stood silently in a clump of weeping trees watching the torrent of the mountain river and brooded on our poverty. Penury is more a state of mind than anything else, I decided. There is no escape from its clutches. Wretchedness is reflected in every word and deed of the congenital wretch. The dog licks from a river in spate and an elephant slurps in gallons. The month of June kept weeping down from the gray heavens and the wind shuffling the trees. The rubber estate where I work on sunny days stood sadly lost in wordless meditation.
The Periyar River negotiates an enormous bend in our parts. The interior of the crescent is by far calm and sequestered, even when the river is at the highest water mark of her regal glory; here the waters are not troubled by vortices and upwelling. Putting on the towel, I stepped into the pinching cold water. Only the first dip is difficult, thence you are not cold anymore. It is just like life: if you wait and tarry, you wait infinitely, and if you take the plunge you forget everything. Before I could take the first dip, a suffocating stench enveloped me. I looked around to locate the source of the foul smell; it was not to be sought far away. It was floating down towards me with measured confidence and a cold determination, as if it slithered away from the violent shear force of the core of the river with the single mission of having business with me. The floating corpse was three days old; I immediately recognized the body. Three days ago, a first class judicial magistrate and his friends had gone to Bhoothathanketu Dam picnicking and in their drunken bout the boat had capsized drowning them all. All of the local newspapers had printed the photograph of the missing judge.
His body had swollen to explosive dimensions, the white of the eyes bulged out, and there was a floating halo of debris around the body. The skin had peeled off at certain parts revealing white filamentous tissues. My attention was hooked on the forty gram gold chain around his swollen neck. I reasoned that the honorable judge, dead and decaying, was not in dire need of that precious metal, whereas I was. I waded to my benevolent visitor to receive his parting gift which he seemed to be very inclined to give me. Though I was not an admirer of unfeeling high profile bureaucrats, I felt sorry for him, being the beneficiary of his post mortem charity. That treasured chain of gold was more important to me than to anybody else, it could potentially buffer me against the hard times I was in the thick of, a temporary bail from my ogling financial problems, a rarest of the rare opportunity to take on life with confidence, a chance to finish off my half built house.
But it was not that easy to free the judge from the chain. The metal had eaten into the flesh. The running nose and the frothy mouth offered more resistance. Now, on looking back, I gather that the awareness of my sad state alone forced me to be adamant. Once the mission was accomplished, I pushed the body back to the mainstream with a floating pole of reed that came by. He floated away reluctantly, with his eyes eagerly fixed on the coveted metal. Then, I struggled my way back out of the water. I vomited into the slushy mud while holding the stinking booty; from my empty stomach bitter yellow bile came forth. I vigorously washed the chain in the flow of the river, but the smell still lingered. I washed myself thoroughly, but the smell pounced on me from all sides. I wrapped the booty in colocasia leaf and trudged my furtive way home. I was rocked by violent palpitation, a dark shadow weighed on me. Then, I understood the significance of the death of time. The death of time is a relative experience and the end of the world is also a relative experience. I looked for a place to hide the booty and at last placed it in her trunk under her threadbare saris. Afterwards, I sat closer to the fire in the hearth to singe away the lingering stench.
A contrite wife taking pity on my drenched miserable state offered me boiled tapioca. Poor girl, she will never know how base and mean I have become. It was sheer treason to have disgraced a corpse. My civic sense protested that I should have contacted his relatives who were searching for him all along the course of the river. The sliced and boiled tapioca looked exactly like the floating filaments of the judgeⳠtissues. Stench smothered me again. I vomited violently; my convulsive belching frightened her. She massaged my back and asked me time and again what was wrong with me.
"Donⴠyou feel the stench?"
"What stench?" she said flaring her nostrils and sniffing like a cat.
"Nothing," I buried my head in my hands like an ostrich stricken with panic.
"What happened to you, my man, your face has gone pale."
"It is nothing," I tried to smile at her.
"It is not stench, it is the pinch of hunger," she declared.
Again, I walked out into the rain. Rain rained monotonously. The domesticated fowls huddled up under the thatch eaves jerking away the sinking water drops and dreaming of better climes. My half built house made a sorry sight behind me, swaying in the wind, leaking, and walls missing in many parts. In front of me, the rubber estate lay helpless in the gloomy general haze. I longed to take an immediate hegira to someplace sunny and warm where life opened out in myriad colors. It was my practice to idle time away at the local tea shop some two kilometers away, reading newspapers and discussing politics. Reading between the lines was a merry sport. But with no money at hand, the tea shop did not lure me. I was purposely shying away from the shop because debts had accumulated there beyond a tolerable limit. I strolled along the deserted mountain path like a mad dog. The plumage of the dejected thickets looked pallid for want of the sun. Starvation as such didnⴠmatter, dignity didnⴠmatter, but this shadowy existence did. We suffer from us and from none else because we differ with ourselves. We fail to be at home with us. The cold and sullen landscape echoed the human condition of those burrowed deep in the woods down in the valley. Most wretches are walking stomachs, alimentary canals on the move. But a few are haunted by the encumbrance of being. I happen to be one among that hapless lot. The cycle of life is analogous to the hydrologic cycle, we coalesce and fall pure and transparent, we gather dirt and filth soluble and insoluble, we degenerate and flow down and down until there is no more down. When we cannot drift down anymore, we merge with eternity. As long as we have a smeared and smudged separate entity, we are burdened by the state of being.
I emerged from my inky, distracting thoughts late in the evening and returned home. Back at home, I was once again accosted by the nasty smell. I shuddered like a possessed fellow. The villainous judge afloat in the ocean of darkness stared at me with his laser sharp eyes. As sleep evaded me, I tried to focus my mind on something invigorating and hilarious. She slept serenely in my warmth, on the screw pine mat which had turned soggy in the long wet spell. I touched her calloused hands which had long ago lost their feminine tenderness. I thought of our working together to complete the construction of our house, of our working with a fury to pool up enough money to build a pleasant home. I hankered on such thoughts to ward of diabolical images. I thought of her mother who cried silently when we came to her for the first time as man and wife. On many an occasion I had wondered what made her sad in our union. Certainly, I was not a desirable son-in-law, with little education, undesirable habits, and no permanent income. Still, I could not stomach the idea that I disappointed them all. Now, I found it expedient to remember it all and the reaction I got when I asked her mother why she had cried on the day of our marriage. Then, she deigned to tell me a story which made me all the more miserable because of the wet, fresh, and innocent tenderness the story exuded. My wife had an elder brother. When he was three years old, he picked up a seed of a jackfruit that tasted of honey, and, looking at the intimidating heavens that were rumbling to break into the first thunder showers of the year, he is said to have proclaimed, "for my sister and mother to eat and grow, I am planting this seed." The seed sprouted and grew up swaying its black-green leaves. But the child did not survive the next rainy season. He perished in starvation and waterborne disease. In the years that came, the tree spread its bushy branches and offered its cool protective canopy to the courtyard of the house. When the tree came of age, it offered sweet fruits in scores and the tree became an integral part of the family, feeding them and offering fodder to the livestock. Then, my wife filled out into a wench of consequence and it became a pressing duty of the parents to marry her away. But the dowry stood in the way; a poor girl cannot dream of a comfortable marriage because she will inevitably be married away into inconsistencies, hard work, and despair. They sold the tree for twenty-five thousand rupees [EditorⳠNote: $542 in US currency] to finance her dowry, and that amount has gone into our half built house. All gestures of the trembling tenderness of love make us sadly happy. Either we are sad or we are mad, there is no option in between.
The next day I felt better. There was little sun in the morning, but it filled our vacuum. The honorable ghost seemed to have left me alone because I was more or less happy again. The unnerving stench also seemed to have thinned away. I ventured down into the river in the rejuvenating sun. The huge trees that mutely watched the passage of the centuries spread their wide canopy above the chilling swirls of the river. The river heaved and swayed lasciviously. I can stay under water for a full three minutes without coming up for air, listening to the sounds in the translucent aquatic world. Water caressed me and went its way. When I came up for air, the monstrous stench smothered me full blast. I was drowning in the stench; it asphyxiated me. On red alert, I stood up on my legs. On my shoulders there was an arm, the stinking, withering arm of the malicious judge. Screaming despite myself, I ran to solid ground. A sight it was. He was staring at me. One eye was gone; the flesh of the lips was no more. I stood still for an instant. The flow was circular in the inner pool of the meandering river. Raving and ranting, I pulled out a long pole and turned to the judge who was visiting me directly from hell.
"Enough is enough. Dare no more to put me on trial and sit in judgment, go you must to the world of the dead, your honor; you belong to the silent necropolis." I strived to push him into the mainstream once again. "Good boy, hurry away and worry not about the yellow metal. It is in safe custody as my keepsake. Donⴠhang around with your shady, diabolic mission. Remember always that you are dead and no more."
This time around, the judge seemed to have got the message and headed for the rapids. Still, I kept on ranting. For the next few days, I was confined to the bed, raving and feverish. I was completely out of my senses. One morning, when the rains had subsided for a much needed interregnum, my wife came to me and guessed that my madness had subsided to a tolerable level, enough that she could reason with me.
"You have gone mad, really mad, that is it," she accused. I did not venture to rectify her. I fixed my eyes on the leaking roof and slipped into another slumber.
There was a tense armistice for the next few days. I was limping back to my former self; the stench was far gone. The ceasefire ended quite unceremoniously one night. It was after midnight, the part of the night when you sleep unconsciously. Then, it occurred to me that I was sleeping with the judge, embracing his rank yielding flesh. His stench filled me. In the softness of the flesh, his gold chain pricked me. I opened my eyes and recoiled. Cold sweat broke out. It was he, on my mat, and the chain was on his neck. I shrieked and jumped up. My hair stood on ends. Immediately, the judge was also on his heels. But it was my own wife in a white nightgown and the accursed chain was around her neck.
My neurosis was contagious. "What man, what happened?" she asked equally nervous.
With an impotent horror I stared at the chain. There was a blood red precious stone at the junction of the cross on the chain.
"Oh, you are worried about this chain?" she fondly ran her fingers on the metal.
"How could you, why did you take it?"
"What a man you are; why did you hide it from me? The other day I found it in my trunk. Now it is ours, and that makes it half mine. I wonⴠpart with it even at the pain of death."
"No, it is not ours."
ᙯu are a slow coach, poor fellow. You got it from the river, now it is ours. I will put it on for a day or two. Then, we will hoard it for important occasions. We will sell it when I have had enough of its charm."
I have heard that there exists a chemical affinity between women and gold. To understand is to forgive. Shall I deny her the little pleasures that come her way?
I rushed out of the room. There was a faint gray in the east, day was nigh. There was no arguing with her. Had we ever been happy? She shares my poverty because she was born to poor parents. She had no dreams when she joined me. Everything begins in the mind and ends in the mind. But she could not expect anything because she was marrying a real pit. In our struggle for existence, I could not offer her anything. Was I man enough to be a man to a woman? Her life did not change much with marriage. Just like her father, I also gambled, boozed, and squandered my days. We could not inch ahead in life. Fairs and holy days went past us. I have watched her; her eyes are dull; they have no dreams. I have heard about the infinitely eloquent blue eyes of winsome girls, reflecting the condensed sadness of the whole world. She lost her feminine charms somewhere down the road, perhaps even before she joined me. The comforts of life and the treasured luxuries such as electricity and electrical appliances are more than what they are. We collect things and pretend that it fills our spiritual emptiness. Everybody tries beyond his means to be held prisoner by his luxuries and comforts. Then, we pretend to be sinners and we force ourselves to believe that comfort is a sin. For every comfort, we hoodwink us by our skin deep lamentations: culpa mia, culpa mia, mia magna culpa! It is strange that we cannot outgrow us. We cannot even fill into our true frame.
Sometimes, after the regular hassles, I would sit in the open listening to the shrill sounds of the night. We quarrel because we are caught between different pulls. She is solidly and stolidly rooted in the soil, I am part of the avifauna, I float in the air and feed on air, I dissolve my absurdities in cheap illicit liquor. Given a chance, every Indian will make a bee line for the Himalayas. The brave new world does not impress us. The Indian rustic is just like Kilimanjaro, the flagpole of Africa, which told the first aviator that dared to fly above its cold lethal grin: "stay away man, I am not impressed." My wife finds expression to her fecundity by planting this or that in our tiny tract of land. Our inner disorder or order we find outside. Strange bedmates we are indeed. Sometimes a nameless bird would cry out in the woods, heralding the change of season. The silken stillness of the dragging night would permeate me. When our inner pandemonium dies down, we almost hear the ethereal music of transparent silence. At that point, imperious distances and separations become irrelevant. She is too busy in the business of life to be distracted by somber thoughts; blessed be her lot. Certain people, on the other hand, ramble along like homesick exiles, sharing the glories of an impossible Jerusalem. Years heaped up between us. Now the confounded chain has obliterated everything.
In the morning, I put on my shirt and curtly walked out. I thought I would walk my misery away.
"Where are you going?" she called out from behind.
"I donⴠknow." It was the truth.
"Well, must you leave behind a pregnant woman like this, especially when she has put on a precious gold chain?"
"To hell with your gold chain."
I walked and traveled all day. At night I slept on a rock on the seashore. The sea growled and seethed. It crashed against the shores and swooned. I heard the roar of humanity, and the endless inky sadness. The ocean makes one sad, sad for no reason. Behind me, an ancient European fort was crumbling under the weight of the centuries. I fancied the struggle of generations. From the very first man we repeat the same mistakes. We embrace the follies of the generations that went before. Where is salvation? Where is emancipation? I am my nemesis and my salvation. When all is said and done, we sadly realize that it is all the same. It little matters where you are and what you are. We dance to a tune set by somebody else. Salvation and condemnation are gifted hoaxes employed to jilt us. The chimera of death is a tremendous possibility; it sobers us and at times moderates our voracious greed. Truth is a tragedy and ignorance is the breath of life, I concluded.
My journey back in the morning was troubled by stray thoughts. Something was wrong at home. The fowls holed up in their coop protested aloud. I opened the coop and let them out. They celebrated their freedom by flapping their wings. The house was silent. I entered the house to find her in front of me, dead and disfigured. The back of her skull was broken and her eyes stared into the distance. In her clenched fist, the cross of the chain was still intact. In the throes of death, she managed to save the cross, however, the housebreaker got away with the chain.
Dry Chestnuts and walnuts were raining down the trees to settle on the thick mat of litter. The precipices and wet valleys were streaked by a riotous profusion of dahlias and dandelions, and the orchards flashed their wares of mellow luscious apples, oranges, and pomegranates. The early days of winter were arranging blue-white floral festoons on the leafless trees. We, I and Lendup Dorjee, the dearest disciple of Guru Rempoche Dava, boarded the state bus, at the monastery bathed in morning dew, starting from the top of the mountain at the crack of dawn.
I was leaving the ancient monastery, overlooking Kanchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world, the ruling deity of that Himalayan kingdom, the abode of secret treasures. The peak had been a part of my existence for many years. I turned and stole one last fleeting glimpse of the venerated mountain.
"I have entrusted everything to Lendup. He will handle everything properly," Guru consoled me. Suddenly, it seemed funny to me that somebody from somewhere else has to barge in to forcefully make a twist in our destiny. The existence of a someone at a somewhere makes our existence a reality, and that someone basks in the secret pleasure that he is, at least for a while, at the helm of another personⳠdestiny.
There is a shady benefit when you board a Sikkim National Transport Bus. Donate one or two rupees to the conductor and alight anywhere you want, provided you do not insist upon a bus ticket. Across the melting darkness, we crossed clumps of pines and terraced orchards pensively perched on the stooping slopes of the mountain. We whirred down seven thousand feet to the notch of a furious mountain river, crossed it, and ascended another seven thousand feet and alighted at Rabongla, a small mountain hamlet. The senile sun was out caressing the humanscape into life. We procured a long jute rope, a knife, and biscuits and started off east along the mule track winding straight into the woods. I tried hard to shake away the vertigo lingering after the tortuous bus journey.
Far, far down the Rimbicola River smiled mysteriously like an anklet at the foot of the towering mountain. Snow clad peaks jutted out in the horizon brooding and troubled by the gentle sun. Lendup flitted across the rolling boulders and I struggled to follow his heels. Within hours, we landed in a sad and silent pine forest. My guide turned back at times and encouraged me to hurry up with an eloquent smile. I could not comprehend his obscene hurry. I preferred to take my sweet time, feeling the shining flakes of graphite on the exposed rocks, greeting every coniferous tree that came our way, drinking the trickling water from every secret nook and cold recess, letting my mind loose into the expanse of imagination. Never shall I hurry. We are at our destination wherever we are, I decided. We hurry as if the world was a burning ship and willingly prostitute whatever little values we are endowed with, virtually for nothing.
Down in the valley, diluted by the persistent mist, the shining roof of Tamling monastery could be discerned bathed in the November sun. By the time I surveyed it, Lendup had darted a long way off. I let the majestic grandeur of the mountains sink into me and catching up with the impatient guide became a non-issue. The words of Guru Rempoche came reverberating, "we are one—the peaks and the people, we look up into the heavens, grow into the heavens. No Muslim adventurer and no European could colonize us, and we slither away from their complex economics." When Lendup melted away into a puny speck on the dusty road, I relaxed even more. I collected and cracked walnuts, plucked wood apple and relished their proteins and acid. There my life transcended into an infinity because time swooned and ceased to be. The fulsome time that fulminates, the tiresome time that terminates, the variegated time that demotes, promotes, and again demotes, the delusive time that devises to navigate us around the contours of a zero, a circle. When we forget time, we remember infinity; when we merge into infinity we become one. Across the silence of the woods, I stumbled on Lendup, he was sitting in padmasana, eyes closed, lost in meditation. The evening sun painted his shaved head and yellow face shining gold. His chinky eyes, high cheek bones, and flimsy beard imparted an exotic appeal. His thin and stiff lips held back the Mongolian secretiveness. His face registered my physical presence and broke into a cold smile, understanding and obliging.
"From this point we have to go straight down to the valley," he told me. I craned my head and looked down; it was a pool of darkness. We tumbled down the fragile farmlands held in place by savage bunds. The shadow of the western peak had inched its snaking way across the narrow valley and was struggling uphill. I followed him faltering and falling.
"I had warned you that we should make it fast," he said thoughtfully. Again we entered the dark wilderness, dense and pathless. We were threshing and stamping cardamom plants in our tumbling way down. This tortuous trial groping our way down the precipice came to an abrupt end when we crashed into a rude hut, the walls of which were made of clay plastered on a frame of split bamboo. I collapsed on the grassy yard relieved that it was over. An old and dejected dog, too lazy to bother me, accepted my intrusion into that Elysian solitude of little wants and no hurry, with a piteous impotence. It was the humble abode of LendupⳠelder brother. I lay in the grass watching the swaying fleece of the towering trees; the sky was overcast and it might break into a rain.
"Lobenla," I turned my head languidly and saw a little girl of seven looking down at the curious wreck of a wretch.
"Have tea," she said with genuine concern and respect. I took the salted tea she offered in a bamboo cup. She was in a long and old gown too big and too awkward for a girl as small as her; it was obvious it belonged to somebody else much older. Her little head had the sweat, soot, dust, and tears of toiling in the dioxin rich, oxygen starved kitchen all through the day. She was playing the vicarious little mother to her younger ones.
Then, she distributed the biscuits to her little brothers, never bothering to take one herself. They grabbed and gobbled it with shameless greed and unsheathed envy for each other. The remaining one biscuit she crunched and pressed into the tender lips of the baby in her arms and he felt the taste of the strange substance and looked at her curiously. Then she went into the house with the baby to make food for us.
I dragged myself into the small verandah and spread my length and breadth on the floor washed by cow dung. It smelled fresh, like nature. Hunger was telling on me, true infernal greed for food flared. And pity welled up somewhere inside me for the child playing mother, sweating and steaming for us.
At night, her parents came back home after the exacting toils of the day in a distant farmland. And, suddenly, the hut became noisy with complaints, hugs, laughter, and tears. The children were vying with each other to relate the sagas of the day and to appropriate treasured kisses. They make the better of their lives though innocent of the boon of a silver spoon. Home is a tremendous institution, I thought, spreading into the past and future. Then I thought of myself, coming from somewhere far and away, floating in like a timid gust of wind to melt away like a sedentary formless cloud, I stand alone, here outside the shell of linguistic and consanguineous intimacy. Still, I felt very safe and sequestered. The riotous greenery and the dank sympathy of nature made me believe that no force could perpetrate a standing harm upon me.
It was time for food. I ventured out into the open. Numbing cold water came gushing forth from a rubber hose connected to a mountain stream uphill. The water imparted a new lease of vitality to my sagging ambition. In the soft mat of grass, pearls of water drops quivered, watching the heavens in their nascent innocence. They treated me with boiled rice, beans, stinging nettle, fern shoots, bamboo shoot, and soup served in wooden bowls. Lendup seemed neither hungry nor exhausted, he was mountain smart. He ate very little and was very reticent and often relapsed into long spells of reverie. After eating they continued excited discussions. Lendup was telling them about monastery life, Guru Rempoche, and the new developments of the world without. But do they know that every news creates a new wound, that every news is a prospective noose?
I was making myself at home on the open verandah insulated from the excitement inside. Hours later, he shook me awake to let me know that we were not to spend the night there. I expressed my gratitude to the family in my broken Tibetan. I was in fact too weak to suffer another ordeal of a journey downhill. While feeling our strenuous way down, I thought about the little girl and wondered whether her fresh innocence and altruism would stay intact in the long and nerve racking process we call life. Somewhere deep in the timeless night, we reached the banks of a moon blanched river. The sky had cleared after a soft drizzle which happened while I was sleeping my exhaustion away. The still leaves smiled silver in the moon. The sands of the river lay in an ethereal glow amidst huge boulders and erect columns of rocks. Logs and dry wattle were found precariously perched on rocks, the fingerprint of a recent flood. Lendup was familiar with the river and its personality. Even at night, one can see the steam spiraling up from behind the mammoth rocks. Across the river, a huge granite mountain stood up against the sky like an intimidating fortress, beckoning at time and the forces of nature.
"The thing that you seek is to be scraped out from the bosom of that towering rock," Lendup pointed to the black citadel of nature across the river.
The exotic aphrodisiac silajith is excreted from the lethal flank of the rock. I had braved all the way to this valley with an unholy and avaricious mission to harvest the forbidden fruit.
We moved to the steaming hot spring. The boiling sulfurous water and the chilling waters of the Himalayan river violently mingled there, provoking conspicuous ribbons of steam. We slid into the comfortable warmth of the aquatic world stark naked. Laying our heads on the bed of sand and feeling the tender ministrations of the ripples, we slept. Later, we went to dry ground and slept in the shelter of each other's warmth. It protected us from the chill of the night. Again, it drizzled sometime in the morning. I opened my eyes and received the silken needles of the drizzle until it drenched me fully awake. Lendup Dorjee slept beautifully and serenely. He is at peace with himself; hence, he is at peace with the world. He is an empty flute in the hands of God. Though there are only the two of us, we can become a snarling and nervous crowd amidst the cacophony of incompatibilities.
When he becomes a full fledged monk and flies away to European cities to market his mysteries and religion, marketing the Buddha and Guru Padma Sambhava, perhaps in his still and solemn moments he may remember these towering pinnacles of nature, this dark green deluge of vegetation, and this wild and self-willed mountain river. Will he remember the drizzle raining down on us like a gesture of goodwill by pristine nature, these hallowed moments, and me coming from a hot and bustling corner of the earth? He may remember, he may not remember, but one day in the evening of my life, I shall relive these moments, I thought.
Morning beams focused their searchlight on the summit of the rocky cliff. I watched the awe-inspiring cliff secreting silajith in the broad daylight. The intimidating terror of the black turret of magma was offset by the placid beauty of serene nature. The river washed the feet of the mountain with her frothy flux of silver and meandered into the mysteries beyond, making one surmise that there does exist an exotic Shangri La behind those towering peaks. In between the columns of mountains, the clear heavens beckoned us with ultraviolet exuberance. We once again washed ourselves in the hot spring.
We waded across the river, often jumping from boulder to boulder jutting out from the water table. The flat river basin was bursting at the seams with orange orchards. We had them to our hearts content. I tried to collect some luscious fruits in my bag. Lendup stopped me. "Eat as much as you want, but you cannot hoard it or cart it away."
Shortly, the laborious ascent began, along the treacherous slope of the granite hill. With stout and solid steps Lendup moved up. Whenever I lost balance and fell with the rolling stones, he swished back and scooped me up. We had to climb a thousand feet. By the time we landed on the tableland the sun had emerged over the eastern peak and bathed us in its freshness. We reclined on the rocky surface.
"Rest as much as you want," Lendup smiled with an obvious empathy.
"Let us move, it is getting late," I exclaimed as I pulled myself together and stood up. We had to trudge another half kilometer across the tableland. It was getting to be noon and once again the sky was overcast as if it would break into a drizzle again.
The next step was to tie the jute rope to a tree or peg and climb down the precipice. I had a fond presentiment that Lendup would do it for me because I was his guest and he was my benefactor. We love others because we love us, we fear God and death because we fear anything that defies our imagination and comprehension. But Lendup diligently tied one end of the rope to the trunk of a chestnut and double-tied it for safety. Then, to my momentary bewilderment and confusion he handed the other end to me. Then only it dawned on me that I was in real trouble. It was too late to back off. A mortal tremor swept past me and cold sweat broke out. If I had a premonition that I was to go over the precipice alone, I would not have embarked upon this venture at all. At least he should have told me about it at the river basin; that could have saved us a great deal of hardship. I was ashamed to spill out my inner turmoil and thought it was foolish of me to have hoped that Lendup would do it for me. Only to save my face, I tied the rope to my waist and veered my way along the slope wildly holding onto the rope. Then, the rock slanted down like a vertical wall. Being confused, disoriented, and inexperienced, I lost my poise and tumbled head over heels down the sheer face of the cliff. I found myself dangling upside down. The wild mountain river roared and broke into peals of laughter, thirsting for my blood, taunting me. The gaping rocks looked up at me with an obscene greed. At a distance, I could see the steam wafting high from the hot spring.
Yesterday, I was more or less free while bathing in the hot spring, and then I could not have fancied me in this fix. A second is enough for us to slip into another world, into another shell. Every moment takes with it the space connected with it also. Being subjected to these weird thoughts, I surveyed the whole valley. It was a queer experience to see the world upside down, dangling in the air like bait hung to trap an imaginary world. This is the temple of solemn serenity, and I? I fit perfectly well into the shoes of a vandal out to plunder. If I take this booty to the distant sunbathed and dusty cities, it may bail me out from starvation for a few days. Then it will be all the same again. I turned my head and looked at the rock wall close by. The coveted musky secretion of the rock was just in front of me, tantalizing with an uncanny appeal. It is mine if I take my knife and slice it out. But I could not make myself do it. I could not defile that sacred atmosphere with my lusty and lewd mind. I know that philosophy is the last resort of congenital bunglers. It is the creed whence follies breed, vollies of follies laced with incorrigible and impossible ignorance, the green room to lick and brood. Even after the last man has signed off after having sung his last song, perhaps this river, this valley, these snow-clad peaks, and these seasons will be here intact. We are a breed known for its foolhardy greed.
Who am I? Only a thin rope holds me to the world of the living. Where will be my silajith and greed if the rope gives out? But it does not have to break; Lendup can easily finish the business by cutting the rope. I strained my head and looked up. What I imagined was true; Lendup was ready with his traditional Tibetan knife, whetted and shining, which he had smuggled in, keeping it inside his yellow blouse or pink frock. He was closely watching me, our eyes locked. What was the language of his eyes? He looked like a priest, performing a solemn religious ceremony. I closed my eyes and waited for the last. I didnⴠfeel like begging Lendup to prolong my life. All my ambitions fled from me in an instant. A day before, I had been sleeping close to Lendup in the lap of the river, now we stand in two worlds and look at each other helplessly. He has to be himself; it is a covenant. Nothing more had happened when I opened my eyes. Lendup was still there and he had not withdrawn his ceremonial knife.
Spartacus was happy in the throes of his suffering because his suffering was divine, whereas I suffer from myself and for nothing.
I struggled and twisted to get hold of the rope and dragged myself up, brutally stamping on the rock and grappling with the rope. I cannot give him the luxury of curing my amnesia, of curing my mortal grossness, of dutifully catapulting me across the vortices of time and space. Blood oozed from palms and toes. When I got to the plateau, Lendup had withdrawn the knife and was ready to go. Panting and gasping for breath, I ran after him and asked, "Was it GuruⳠdirective?"
"Yes," he kept on walking in his steady undaunted pace, he was cool and kept his poise and did not bother to turn back.
"Then why did you not do it?"
"Guru asked me to do it the moment you touched the secretion with your knife." He walked away, not willing to entertain any more of my questions. Somebody pulled me back from behind. I fell headlong onto the granite. I was still tied to the tree. It had held me back at the end of the rope.
I remained on the granite. The wetness of a drizzle enveloped me. I watched Lendup sinking behind the tableland. From the point where he disappeared, thick fog came burgeoning in. Soon, the valley and I were buried in it. Then, the mountains ceased to be, the river and valley ceased to be, the secretion of the rock ceased to be, and I ceased to be. The world had faded into nothingness. All that remained was the rope linking me to nature like an umbilical cord.
A MICROSECOND IS ENOUGH
The month of November, and winter mobilizes all its powers to smother the world. Anne settled the accounts of fees collection for the day, removed the thick window curtain, and peered into the imaginary figures across the frosted windowpane. Then, by an impulse, she opened the glass door and stepped into the verandah which was hazy from the lingering mist pumped in by the persistent wind. That was how she saw him for the first time, a towering person, tall and black. A savage, reading the articles on the notice board, casually observing the pictures in the showcase. She moved near to him, and turned her head up to his bemused face and asked, "what can I do for you?"
Very languidly, he tilted his face down to the little young woman washed in his imposing black corona, and whispered softly, "I am coming from Trichur with this, the appointment letter you had sent me."
"Oh, you are from Kerala, we were waiting for you."
Disappointment welled up somewhere inside her. Who fancied that the applicant was such a crude monster? He did not seem to be in the habit of taking a bath, or washing his clothes. His Karl Marx beard shrouded him like a halo, his eyes were fierce and penetrating like laser guns, his forehead was wrinkled with an indelible stamp of penury, and the tussled and dusty hair was growing thin. Anne squinted at him furtively, struggling to make sense of the absurd scene.
"Where did you do your M.A.?" she asked only to break the spell.
"At St.Thomas, many years ago." The answer was crisp and offhanded.
"Do come in," she ushered him to the principal's Ⳡchamber, opening a series of creaking doors. "The new appointment from Kerala," she reminded the head.
The principal in spick and span western outfit whirled in his chair and with a dramatic effect which he had a penchant for, turned to the stranger. Like most principals of public schools in the hill stations, he was prospering on showbiz, with an affected western twang and a proclivity to judge anything Indian wrong. His is not an endangered species—more English than the English, stiff and upright, punctual and reticent, a slave of the chronometer. Being unable to come away from his self-styled high pedestal, the true colors of life are denied to him.
He eyed the stranger from top to toe and stole a fleeting glance at Anne as if it was her fault. He had told her that male candidates are not to be considered. Women can be controlled and prevailed upon. They are docile with their secrets and coveted sorrows. But Anne was adamant that he was the right choice. In going through his scanty and informal application, she had thought he was the best. In a state where there are four million unemployed, choosing the right person from a flood of applications is an art. She opted for him because he was what she was not, careless and irreverent.
"Well, gentleman, please take your seat. How many years of teaching experience do you have?" he asked the stranger coldly.
"Many years at many schools. And I have lost count of the years. Who counts it all?" he smiled.
"Alright, alright. That is interesting. But where were you working before joining us?" He did not ⴠwant to leave behind a person as an unsettled enigma. Once you understand a person he falls beneath you.
"I was at a temple, carving out gods and goddesses from stones. Every stone is everything if we chip off everything but the everything," he teased again.
"So my young man from revolutionary Kerala, you do not have a standing job," he was anxious to wind up the farce.
"No, I don't ⴠhave. I have lived my days across the country as a sculptor, journalist, ascetic, revolutionary, and even as a vagabond."
The principal was instantly satisfied, he could understand him. An idiot and a brute, who squanders away the measured days given to him. Somebody who vengefully refuses to leave behind his footprints on the sands of time. Now he can go home without a heavy mind.
"In case you join us, how long will you be here?" he asked with obvious impatience.
"Not more than two months."
"Two months?" despite himself he jerked his polished head.
The stranger remained silent as if there was nothing unusual in it.
"Look, gentleman, actually we do not need teachers from outside. And all the other teachers are women. Anne alone is from Kerala. We cannot, as a matter of policy, appoint teachers who cannot stay with us at least for one academic year. So sorry, man." That was the end of it.
"It is alright, let me hurry back, the day is dying."
Both Anne and the principal were astounded by his disarming indifference. When he stalked out of the snug chamber, for once he looked at Anne, a piercing but innocuous look. When he became a disturbing vacuum amidst them, Anne darted out of the door as if an unseen hook had pulled her. He was slowly making his way through the drenched turf of green, green grass.
"Just a moment," she called from behind. He halted, then slowly, very slowly, turned towards her (like a mortar being zeroed to the target, she thought later).
"Then, as a matter of fact, that is if you don't ⴠmind," she faltered, "do you have bus fare to go home?"
"I didn't ⴠhave money even when I started from Kerala," he smiled like a moon after the rains. The pines buried themselves in the fur coat of thick fog. His naked feet got wet.
"Please wait a few minutes," she exclaimed and ran inside.
"Sir, he will be here until Christmas vacation. We can appoint another hand in the meantime. The students will not feel the pinch if a new teacher comes after the holidays. How can we turn him out after having invited him?" she said vehemently.
"Look, Anne, do you think this mysterious boor would get along with the kids? The guardians will come out with a volley of complaints. This is a matter of survival, we should remember that."
"But sir, he is experienced, let us try him."
"He is from your state, I can understand. I do not like the idea. But then, okay, we will try him."
When she walked to the hostel with the new teacher, night was descending upon the landscape. Tiny globules of mist settled on his shock of a beard. Streetlights created timid and pallid circles in the mist.
"Is it very cold for you, especially since you come from the plains?"
"Very well, you must be hungry."
"When did you have your last meal?"
"Still, are you not hungry?"
He stopped and turned to her, "long ago I decided not to hunger any more and never more I hunger."
"That is interesting," they moved again. Somewhere a church bell chimed. She crossed herself. He kept moving indifferent to the world around him. "Look, sir, this is not a big school," she enlightened him. "After my joining here, there is slight improvement. The hostel also is a small one. Fifteen students, a maid servant, a cook, and me. I shall arrange a room for you though it is not much. Then, what news from Kerala?"
"The same sun rises and sets there," he said with a mischievous smile.
Deep at night, while going to bed, Anne prognosticated that it was a wise move from her side to have retained him. As if a new confidence came to stay with her, as if he brought with him the warmth and musk of a distant, colorful world into the frigid and rolling meadows of the hill station.
In the morning she asked him, "Can ⴠyou shed that beard?"
"Of course I can, but it will grow again." Clean-shaven and without putting on the sweater Anne had from somewhere procured for him, he presented himself at the school office.
"I teach only those who can be taught," he told her at the office. "I cannot train parrots to babble 'ba ba black sheep.' Learning is not a skin deep process; it is a process of assimilation and becoming. The teacher just sheds the light; it is up to you to discern what is what and what is not and choose your path."
He was told to engage students of tenth class. There were only eight girls in the class—the three boys in the class would turn up only to remit fees. Instead of teaching he acted out the scenes from history. The students were amused and engrossed. Anne, watching the show from a distance, was thrilled and impressed.
"How do you teach without a text?" she wondered aloud with a mysterious smile that did not fail her.
"History walks with you, history sleeps with you," he declared.
"You act well," she complimented.
"I was with a theatrical group, also," he explained. Within a few days, he fit nicely into the campus, engrossing the students in many creative activities.
On a Sunday evening, while strolling on Kocker ⳠWalk, she asked, "Are you a poet?"
"No, never, but I make a poetry out of my life."
"Do you enjoy poems?"
"Yes, I do very much."
In a sudden impulse, she opened her bag, pulled out a book, and read: "Why hast thou bloomed in my silence?/Why hast thou showered me in thy radiance?/Didst thou not see/ In the petals of my treasured day/Trembling drops reflecting you?/Coalescing drops that come to stay."
"This is the feminine mind," he said aloud, smiling his own patent smile, "woman seeks a god in man; woman seeks a raging fire in a man. Man becomes the walking inferno which thirsts for what is not, a black hole in the midst of a universal whole."
"But what is the true masculine mind?" she asked out of pique.
"The masculine mind is a tree straining to touch the heavens. A lonely tree, thirsting for thunderbolts and tempests on touching the stars. A tree scary of and weary of the climbers with their tendrils and their tentacles."
"Tree of a man also needs his share of flowers and bees. Was it not a male poet who wrote: I want to do to you/What April does to a dreaming tree."
"The feminine mind is the music of the earth, the everlasting ooze of life. There are many with a feminine mind. Let us leave it at that. Teacher should have become a poetess."
"Had I been one!" she looked at him.
"Then you would have written about darkness—the mystery which melts all beings into one. You would have written about long and ascending falls through the shafts of darkness. About the pensive peaks, about the tumbling drops from the plumes of the brooding pines. And if you were a painter, you would have painted mysterious snakes snaking into holes, or a spider meditating at the intersection of the radii of a world wide web, or even a horse surging into infinity."
"Believe me, I had dreams like that."
"There you are. Don't ⴠworry. You are entitled to be you. Then you will be exposed full blast against the gorgons of truth."
"I am not afraid."
"Truth will leave you alone and you will speak a new language. But worry not. Everyman as a debutant is an Athanasius contra mundam."
"Slowly, but silently, I am discovering myself."
"In that case make it fast and get it over with before I leave this place."
"I try to."
"But let me tell you. It is not right for you to discover yourself. You cannot discover something that is not lost. There are certain things we see but see suffer, but experience not. We can just realize us. In certain cases this happens at the last second. A microsecond is enough, a tremendous microsecond, and it will outweigh a whole protracted lifetime. Salvation is a subtle microsecond away, a microsecond that we let slip across our palsied and unsure mental fingers."
"I have never had room for realization. My life flows eventless and devoid of ripples, to the tune of the church bells, never questioning never doubting. The primary school at Palai, rubber plantations, fairs at the parish church, and little streams; all these and much more punctuate my monotonous life. At Alfonsa College, I by-hearted my way across the university examinations. At St. Thomas, I gobbled up Harold Lasky, Ricardo, Keynes, Malthus, and Adam Smith and regurgitated them onto the answer sheets. Then, the life in this igloo, and I send monthly money to my parents and sisters, like many other monthly discharges."
"I steer clear of all your economists. My economics is simple, simple as a thimble. I spend what I have and do not depend on what I do not have. But, of course, I am for your Adam Smith."
"It is very kind of you. But why him?"
"Because he used to walk long, long distances, lost in thought, in his crumpled underclothes. He lived in an astral world and refused to growl and grunt at the curs all around. Society prevails upon the individual to commit a necessary harikari in the social amalgam. At last even nations and civilizations, too, commit suicide when they have nothing else to do. Every civilization is a flower at its time, and when it wilts and decays, it smothers the garden with its stench."
"You are an alien in our civilization."
"India is a crumbled glass of civilizations. Civilization is a collective memory, made up of language, trust, and symbols, and thus, fragile. Every civilization, like a puffed up and conceited frog, stands up against the world—and its flimsy facade will come tumbling down when its symbols become obsolete."
"Is this what history taught you?"
He laughed. "You know what? History teaches us that history teaches us nothing."
The lawn of the deserted American Church was wet. They entered the church and settled on adjacent pews. Fading daylight filtered in through the colored Venetian glass. Therapeutic silence enveloped them. The aquamarine infinity of the mind opened out to float and flee beyond the veil of human speech.
When they emerged out of the church, he said, "Anne is a poetess. Every pious person is a poet."
"Why can't ⴠyou turn to God?"
"But I have never ever turned away from God."
The boats in the lake were one by one landing. A day was signing off. The venders selling baked maize and roasted groundnuts were packing up and going home. On the way to the hostel he said, "Anne will give birth to a child."
"But I know not the man."
"The child will be conceived by the holy spirit. And from you will emerge another Anne. Like a day giving birth to another day."
"You are demented and brazen. I knew it long ago. But you have read the gospel."
"Yes I have. I have a nose for poetry."
* * *
"What are your suggestions to improve the image of our school?" the principal asked him.
The answer was at the tip of his tongue, "You should wind up this school. All schools of this genus must be shut down. Who needs stereotyped, toilet trained robots in uniforms? One day I am going to open a school somewhere in the lap of nature. My students will grow living in the sun, earning their bread toiling in the soil, learning from the rhythms of nature. They will learn long enough to discern the echo of the music in each one of them in a certain chord of nature. That is the end of education—to find out where we fit in to be us. Nobody is a good for nothing. Each one has a role to play in the world. Education helps us find out our own world."
"Does such a world exist?" Anne asked later.
"We will make one," he consoled.
"Would you let me work in this ideal school of yours?"
"I embark upon that project only after burning out all of my excess energy. There is a time for everything."
"I also dream of such ideal worlds. But I have to support my parents and younger sisters. They are all on my head. Now I am twenty-nine. As you mentioned, one of these days, I will give birth to another Anne," Anne said almost like a soliloquy.
"Only the idiots are carried away by the notion that one lives for somebody else. For that matter what are we? We are a dream that somebody dreams somewhere else."
In the morning, Anne's Ⳡfeet were swollen. "Do you know what this signifies?" He looked at her quizzically. "This portents evil days for me. I am a life running out fast. I need an injection every six months. Once in a while I black out. I have a problem in the heart. Doctors say that I am too frail to survive surgery. Yet it cannot wait beyond next year. Before they take my consciousness, the doctors will ask, do you have to meet anybody in particular, and I will say "yes, there is one, somebody who comes in like a puff of wind and melts away like a puff of mind. Whence he came and wither he went, nobody knows. Somebody who has nobody, somebody who castes the spell of pleasant sadness. Will you come?" she looked at him with a violent expectation.
He surveyed her frail delicate body clothed in sari and sweater. "Yes," he said like a mantra.
Another day, they were at the Pillar Rock, a tourist hot spot of the hill station. After a long spell of silence, sitting in the soft mat of grass, watching the towering columns of granite penetrating the dizzy haze of mist, oblivious of the hollering tourists around them, she said, "In the next birth I prefer to become a column of rock."
He looked at her with a newly fanged curiosity.
"A petrified being that braves the furies of nature stoically. Never melting in the rain, never breaking in the sun, never shivering in the winter nights. Eternally meditating on the side of the flux of time, Anne, an igneous turret," she mused, beautifully lost in fantasy.
"Just like this," he showed her a paper in which he had drawn her petrified form. In the picture she was not wearing glasses. Her silken hair was flowing down, as if in a storm. Her face was subtly and exquisitely half hidden. "I read your mind when you were looking at the rock with a curious greed."
Crossing the thick clumps of trees, they moved to the Golf Club, whose mortal attraction is Suicide Point, which they reached by ascending the granite steps bordered by peaches. And a day was burning out in the western crematorium. She stood by the steel railing at Suicide Point. Periyakulam town and Vaigai Dam are visible far way, and fear below. She stared into infinity. Little monkeys were flitting along the flanks of the precipice, like the souls of the dead.
"Where are you going after Christmas?" she asked.
"Beyond these hills there is a temple town. Renewal work on a temple begins there in January. My guru has invited me."
"It is four years since I left this mountain station. I am just like another birch or pine. I cannot suffer a bus journey and the horror of dust in Tamilian Towns. And, what is there at home? I can only renew my holy wounds."
"For me, my destination is where I am. Just a leap away from these railings is the short cut to the world across time. That also can be a destination. Every death casts a spell of gloom not for the sake of the deceased but for the living in the miserable struggle of being on this side of the grave. This telescope peeping into the infinity, the silver streaks of merry waterfalls, the swaying fleece of coniferous trees, and all that we come across appear to be a part of something that we see but see not."
"Where will be my place in your mind when you are gone?" she asked on the way back.
He didnⴠsay anything for some time. She felt embarrassed—as though she had strayed deep into his private, sacrosanct world. When they crossed the thick of the town, he said, "It would be very sanctimonious of me to brag that you will be with me as the heady fragrance of the nocturnal flowers, or if I say that as a half-blown bud smiling at you by the road, or like the gentleness of the soft drizzle in the dancing breeze, your memories will be my consolation in the blazing summer of life. That is the beaten style of our general run of romancing Romeos." After a pause, he began again, "But where will you be? I cannot obliterate that feeling by defining it through the medium of language. That I will experience in the eloquence of silence."
The campus became deserted for Christmas break. Anne escorted him to the bus station to see him off. He was going back the way he came—empty-handed. When silence suffocated her, she sought her sound, "Look, I had had an epiphany last night. Hitherto, I have been flowing along a groove, never bothering to think wither or why. Now I know that I was a fool."
"That is strange. Usually people realize it at the last moment of life. To carry on the buffoonery of life this knowledge has to be kept from us. Without realization life is more sexiting, full of sexpectations and there is more smileage for life, and we keep creating this or that to stick on to a false happiness of filling up our inner emptiness," he smiled gently.
"To date, my ego was my driving force," Anne continued with a rising passion, "even without me, my sisters will survive, even with me, they will survive. I was deluded that I must be there for my sisters to buy their cosmetics and education, for my mother to buy the goodwill of the parish priest, for my father to buy his daily dose of booze. Every man is an island, donⴠyou think so?"
He looked down upon her. "So, it has happened at last. I will carve you out in one of the pillars of the temple, naked and forlorn. Many centuries hence, I may go there again to look at it transfixed and wonder-struck, never knowing that it was I who sculptured it. Then will it be me really who is going to make your petrel form? Man lost his paradise when ego came to him; he became aware of his nakedness when ego had him. Animals and plants still live in paradise. When we are cured of ourselves, everything becomes one and all routes merge into one."
"Sir, just touch me once before you board the bus."
The bus bound to Palani had pulled in.
He smiled. Touch, the magic wand that helps us forget our loneliness. He took both her hands in his. Her small, white velvet hands lost into his calloused rough hands. He felt her body shivering, a body housing a vigorous mind that thinks and sinks, flares, and flunks.
"Donⴠsay anything. Let silence link us across the distances," he said and, freeing her hand, boarded the bus. Anne stood still. After the bus departed, she left for the Golf Club with a cold satisfaction.
OUR SCRIPT WAS DIFFERENT
"At this rate," I admonish us, "mmm, we might as well miss the bus." The day fast fades to a cold and obfuscated dusk. We trot down the cobbled road, under the thick and ancient canopy of a clump of trees that silently and stolidly watched the march of the centuries and generations down the lane. Our brand new shoes hurt my ankles and mercilessly squeeze my toes. It must be bleeding inside; we halt my listless body for a while and survey its gawky profile. A sight I was, so queer and awkward, unsure and uneasy, blanched and unbecoming. It is real fun to see me in this fancy dress, we decide and plod on. New pants, new shirt and new shoes and we are showing off, though we have never been used to European dress. And that, too, by disposing of our milching and understanding cow, who used to watch our moods and fancies with an obliging sallow simper. Let her go to better climes and better times. She now envelopes me in the form of a complete set of fashionable clothes.
We walk me slowly down and we emerge into the open. We hurry not, as the inner drive, the feline enthusiasm, to take on the world is hardly alive. The western skies nearly break into a bashful blush athwart the spreading hazel haze. The thick tufts of mist patiently feel their lazy way across the undulating turf of grass in the cool of this autumnal afternoon. Far down, in the hollow, we discern the thin winding ribbon of bituminised motorway, which, too, looked deserted and melancholy. Even the sight of the road does not make us hasten. Then, like distant spectators, we watch the bus whirring and inching its way, like a ladybird beetle along a thin and slanting wattle.
Thus goes the last bus. The last bus. This unpalatable truth seems to hover far above us and we stand deflated, more or less. We guffaw, and I enlighten us, This completes our show full square. Then I find us on the deserted road. The lengthening shadow of the hill lay oblong, blandly on the soft mat of grass. Flocks of enormous bats float their way eastward in V-formation. In the cold recess of the covert green, meekly cheered by a blithe mountain stream, we stand and silently debate. The cold prospect of being stranded on a rarefied tableland, fringing a famous tiger reserve, is not a bit amusing. Drat it, old chap,please tell us. If we trudge our weary way to the north, Vandiperiyar town is a night away. And to the south, Kochupampa, too, is nearly that far away. The grim possibility of being accosted by ill-humored tuskers in the thick of the woods turns my feet cold. We will wait and meet our fate right here, we chorus. We move down the brook and sit me on a shining granite block of good finish, polished over time by the feathery flow of a patient stream. We sit and brood in the middle of a rill, with a shingle frill. We smirk, surveying from that high pedestal the strewn corpse of our latest dreams amidst those temperate copse. This gory sight serves us well and good, we chuckle covering my face. We are tied, however much we tried, to a looming spectre of fiasco—tears trickle somewhere inside, besides us.
Suddenly, a close up of the Managing Director comes floating to us—puffed up and rose-pink, pugnacious and peevish. This unbearable and impossible, we prognosticate. I decide to replay the show and we divide.
After a six hour bus journey, I announce my gaudy, fustian presence at the doorstep of the administrative office of the estate with a timid and furtive dry cough. All three pen-pushers cock up, their dull, insipid eyes target me with a synchronous question. May I meet Manager Chandy? - we croak, eyeing them all, being uncertain as to which one among them was this Manager Chandy with whom we were to have our crucial rendezvous. There is no recognition, no answer. They look at each other quizzically as if that was the most absurd thing that could come of their frigid existence of perfunctory life. Then, there is a hush-hush and a pronounced rustle. We stand there like the condensed nucleus of a tremendous event. Something has to transpire; they cannot have us standing there like a dandy scarecrow. Hush-hush continues, hush-hush proliferates, hush-hush reaches behind us. A light wisp of a Tamilian with a snow-white profusion of Sai Baba hair haloing him, emerges behind us and hush-hushes to let us know that the MD was decidedly expecting us. Involuntarily, we go for the panic button. Suddenly, from the blue that tremendous moment has come. We have to edify and brace ourselves up. I tweak my bum to sober us.
How to face an interview impressively? In our moment of disorientation we strive to recapture the striking points. One should always exude a Monalisa smile, never ever betraying the inner turmoil. May I come in, sir? You say.
Yes, come in,comes the mysterious sound.
Good morning, sirs, you greet them obsequiously.
Yes, very good morning, please be seated.
Thank you, you take a seat without dragging the chair, without making a fuss. You answer the questions with a feigned dignity and confidence, sitting upright, your hands resting placidly on your lap, never getting worked up, never gesticulating. As for the questions: scientific name of cardamom Elattaria cardamomum matton—family cingiberacy, raised in the western ghats above 2000 feet, shade-loving (Thank God! In oral examination, you need not spell those confounded words). They might even ask of its poor cousin—Himalayan cardamom. If needs be, we can add a few more words about the menace of Guatemalan cardamom smuggled into the domestic market. Scientific name of tea—Camelia cymensis—family Theasy. Original Chinese name—the evergreen bush, main market—Russia. Or they might ask silly questions to try our resourcefulness. For example, the number of hairs on the head of a 17-year old lass. Without batting an eyelid, we say 846,597. Or the number of steps to the MDⳠoffice. This we have to count to be on the safer side. We will prove to be damn observant.
You have to tell the truth, for your own good, the Tamilian whispers, ushering me on softly but peremptorily. That is exactly what we are going to be, truthful to the hilt. B.A. (History) third class, passed in the second attempt. We would have scraped through in the first appearance itself, had it not been for our unwieldy English. We can speak at length on our poor existence as a manual laborer or on our experience as a marginal farmer. We can enlighten them on the ground truths of agrarian life. Their tongue-in-cheek jokes we shall suavely smile away lest they notice my missing tooth.
We climb the flight of steps flanked by bright dandelions. We count the steps frantically. MDⳠbanglow is enshrouded by a patch of morose trees in which thin gossamer mist lingers. His metal roofing is painted green and the glass window frames white. We stand at the half-door and we announce with the theatrics of affected English— "May I come in, sir?...."
There is a rustle and furious rush. The Tamilian guide, taking the cue, vanishes into thin air, fawning and cringing. The door opens and we find us before a pink and impatient face. Suddenly, something within us dies.
Who are you? This question ricochets on the granite wall. We divulge our name and place. What is your business with Chandy? No bon homme, no etiquette.
㍹ father asked me to contact him for a job,we squeak.
For a job, he mimics, you're an idiot, his half-closed and sedate eyes suddenly become enraged. His peppered sprig of thin, bristling hair reminds us of a provoked porcupine.
Idiot that we are—that is one of the very few points on which we can positively agree with him. As this promising fact gradually sinks in, he bares his yellow fangs. Tell your father, whoever he be, mutters he with seething wrath and gauges the reaction registered on us. Ask your father to tell this Chandy that I would unearth him and make him cough up every paisa he has stolen from me. Tell him I have my own means to outsmart him. He will not go far, nor will he live to feed on his booty. Thus steams out his impotent fury. We watch his skin twitching above his cheekbones. He reminds us of my standing alone near Padma junction at Cochin, pick-pocketed clean, and dazed as if the thief had raped our soul and made good his escape. Given a chance, everybody hoodwinks us and we, the insignificant butts, cannot target anybody on which to vent our spleen. We are the walking shadows, helplessly hopeless and hopelessly helpless, tormented by rare wakeful moments.
Then the door slams shut, straight in our face, just like that. But then, our script was different. We tiptoe our way back above the debris of our quixotic dreams. The ubiquitous Tamilian suddenly materializes to let us know that the last bus was 40 minutes away.
Now, it is fun again under this savage bower and we are one again with our present labor. A white-collar job is an enticing mirage. The lucky one who finds a berth in the bureaucratic pyramid becomes a new species overnight—he is the honored guest of the state. No natural calamity affects him, no ordinary mortal ruffles his peace. Then there is a wonderful solidarity, a white collar never undermines another white collar. Whereas the rabble, the peasantry, not on volition but by the inexorable hands of fate, is the grist for the state to feed on. They stoically cushion the economic shocks and are gullible enough to be carried away by emotive waves that our leaders trigger and ride on radiantly. We don't even have a nuisance value. We, the simpletons, cannot bask in the shadow of our glory and eat our daily bread in the sweat on the brow of lesser mortals. The society, the state, the bureaucracy, and the church take us for a ride. Suddenly, we flip a few pages in the book of our life and zero in on a certain stage, where we find us at the district Registrar's Ⳡoffice standing in trembling hope, the clean-shaven head-clerk escorts us to the verandah and tells us in a deigning, conciliatory tone amidst a copious spray of red spittle, once and for all the Registrar madam wants to let you know this— they give us Rupees 5,000 and the case is settled or we shall make you remit Rupees 40,000 or be ready for the indignities of revenue recovery procedures. He has a patronizing smile in his eyes, whilst he wildly chews the pan, waiting for our reaction. The smile in his eyes tells us, Either way you cannot escape our web. Once the shower of spittle is over, we splutter and our incoherent words strain to reason with him that the stamp duty has been paid in tune with the tariff rate of the land, that it was my fatherⳠsmall chunk of land with title redone in my name. He cuts us short, that we should not try to teach him. He gives us a day or two to make a choice. We bear the burden of the world and that of the dead centuries too. We are manacled and handcuffed, too.
Thus, we sit on a rock polished by time. Suddenly, we remember the confidential letter perched snuggly in the breast pocket of our new shirt. It is not confidential any more as the addressee is absconding, leaving behind a trail of embezzlement. I tear open the envelope addressed to Mr. Chandy Thomas, Manager, Century Estate. The district president of our party had given my father this ill-fated missive. In the gloomy glow of the descending gloom we read his large hand:
Hello Chandy Dear,
How is life up there in the foggy heights of secret delights? Lately, I see less and less of you. I still revel and remember our funny, wild parties. We need such breaks from time to time to recharge ourselves.
The father of the bearer of this letter protests to be a committed follower of our party. God knows. I donⴠtrust him, I never do. Even if he really is, it makes little difference. He is just a poor farmer. You know the difficulties of a popular leader. We must sow the seeds of dreams though they rarely sprout. We make them believe that we are concerned. If we allow them to scale the heights, they would use us as ladders and kick us in the face at last.
Now, this guy, who claims to be a graduate of sorts, seeks a placement in your firm. Do not disappoint him point blank, keep the carrot dangling. Let him go back with a pair of dreamy eyes with one ruse or the other, such as when the vacancy arises, he will be informed and, if by chance you find him useful, use him.
With warm regards,
This underlines our tragedy, already full square, we laugh together and suddenly in an instinctive impulse I cover my face lest somebody notice my teeth. That much for our job hunt, our obscene endeavor to dodge the vortex of sweat, poverty, and insecurity. We, too, were on the lookout for our lebestrom, lebenstrom that betrays our mastery over history. We pat my back, a back itching in anticipation.
I open my eyes in the thick of the night to the tune of a flute, melancholy and forlone, accompanied by the orchestra of the variegated nocturnal life of the wilderness. He is sitting beside me—the savage. His broad smile alone is visible, like the smile of the Cheshire cat. The rest of him is unobtrusive and invisible in the darkness. His smile appears to me innocent and embarrassing, as he doesnⴠbother to cover up his missing tooth. I engage our great god Pan, after the initial reservation. His body language assuages my fright.
You live here?
Yes I do. Here and everywhere in the woods. I sleep where sleep finds me and eat when food finds me. He laughs gleefully. He is not ashamed of his laughter nor is he bothered by his missing tooth.
"What is your name?"
Many names I had Saar, Podiyan, Joseph, and Abdullah. Now, names I have none. This time I laugh, covering my face. "I let some people baptize me," he continues, "and some others to circumcise me—of course, for a reward." Silence envelopes us for a while. Again, he shatters the silence between us.
"Saar, you from Kottayam or Kanjirappally?"
"Between both,I would say. Have you been to Kottayam?"
"Oh! Yes, our great god Pan brightens. Some people took us down there for some rally for something and among other things we saw a train running on rails."
"Is it wonderful? I encourage him."
"Yes, I would certainly have worshipped it."
"What else do you worship?"
"Everything, virtually everything above me and about me.
Then, I closely observe him in the sidereal gloom. He is naked except for a black loincloth, which he apparently collected from the leftovers of Sabarimala pilgrims. There are two strange steel bangles on his wrists. He was obviously handcuffed by the police, the stigma of his intercourse with civilization. A fugitive, a black horse in the tribal community.
"Have you been arrested by the police?"
"Yes, yes, long, long ago," There is no reticence, no reservation.
"What was it for?"
"For burglary, once I needed money." The answer is prompt and innocent.
"Money for what?" Money, the revered propellant of the modern motor.
Oh, well. For booze and beedi, he is enthused to talk himself inside out.
Then they arrested you?
"Yes, yes. And I fled into the thick of woods. The police raided our tribal colony and gutted it down. It was built by the government anyway to make us lead a settled life, which we Ullada tribals cannot. He laughs heartily.
Silence. I hear the music again. The day might break into a gray dawn across the silken mist shortly. I fade again. And a streak of lucid thought crosses my dwindling firmament: at this rate the bus might as well miss us.
KINDLY LET ME FORGIVE YOU
The evening bus from Narayanpur lands you at Gaya at the crack of dawn, provided, of course, nothing unexpected intervenes in between. There were nearly forty passengers, I suppose. The last passenger, who turned up puffing and fastidious, was a grand old Brahmin. He was gracefully ushered to a vacant seat by the porter and he protested vociferously. His stance was that he should know the caste of the passengers sitting nearby. When the passengers in the neighboring seats condescended to divulge their caste, and when a Mussulman in the neighborhood moved to a respectable distance to avoid a fuss for nothing, the bus was ready to take on the road. Then, the scenes of typical Bihari villages began to slide past across the glass window of the bus—the poor manⳠbarber who does his duty on the roadside in the pathetic gloam of a kerosene lamp, the towering canopy of the monstrous tamarind tree which grows alongside the main thoroughfare through a picturesque village, the opulent shops of the Marvaris—fleeting past all these fingerprint sights, the bus lunged deep into the blue silence of the mango orchards and cornfields, and on into the bleak desolation beyond. The road stretched ahead like a river of melting darkness. The conductor switched on the stereo system and music enveloped us and permeated us.
I reclined on my push back seat, pulled out a pinch of lime and tobacco from a pouch in my breast pocket, and mixed the magic concoction well before stashing it down under my tongue—it burned and melted into my bloodstream. Since the bus was steaming in the summer heat, I opened the glass window to the maximum to let in some fresh air.
Every filament of my being sings your song/We may win and we may fail/But you win, so we sing and throng/Sing we one with snail and quail.—The song whispered.
"It is really wonderful to smoke grass and listen to the melancholy strains of Gazal. But while sleeping in the ugly underbelly of the cities, doped high with liberal doses of cannabis, you do not have access to Gazal. Now, when you enjoy Gazal, you do not have access to the ugly alleys of the dark urban underbelly. Never are your moments complete. The mechanism of life is like that. The primary cause of creation itself was a curious sadness, dense and divine. Thus, my life drags on like this. I never became anybody, never reached anywhere, nor do I have anybody to care, anybody to share my madness. If it were otherwise, if I had fought against my destiny, perhaps I would have lived a yuppie life in the fashionable quarter of a fashionable city. If I were a conformist, I could have lived my life as yet another rubber tapper, with his regular drunken bouts, killing the wakeful moments in heavy doses of tapioca and meat, perpetually tormenting a frightened, suppressed, and depressed woman, becoming the author of the most common sins with the safety valve of the church and the confessional. But life is all the same no matter what your stratum is or what your type is. There is only one true socialist in the world—it is none other than death."
Thinking away such stray thoughts, I melted away into a troubled slumber. I had a dream in which, after a good many years, I saw Mercy Kurian. In my dream she came to me and wept uncontrollably, her frail body swept by paroxysms of misery. Only once in my life had I seen her weeping and sobbing; it was when the first rose on the plant she planted, watered, and nurtured was plucked away by a brute of a classmate and neighbor during her years at school. She brought out the first flower while watching over the plant the entire night with an esoteric patience. She guardian-angeled over the bud teetering to burst forth into a nascent, tremulous, and innocent world. She gave breath and life to the flower that convulsed into the vernal dawn with a teardrop on its crimson petals. And she burst into tears when that flower was plucked away on the sly by her high profile classmate.
The bus pulled into a jerky, unceremonious halt somwhere in the Bihari wilderness, somewhere in the still and solemn moments of the night. I was flung forth and jolted back to reality. I got a glimpse of the driver, as if in a dream, diving into the inky darkness and fleeing for his dear life. A hooded fellow in arms opened the door, darted into the bus, and yelped out, "March out each one of you, one by one, and leave your things behind."
The petrified passengers looked at each other, wailed, and attempted to comfort one another. Some tried in vain to suppress muffled sobs. Children bawled, unable to fathom the unusual commotion. Some wrung out time for hurried goodbyes. There were many more masked fellows waiting outside, with their guns pointed. They isolated women and casteless Hindus, questioned them, and goaded them for a distance. Then, they paraded twenty-seven of us on the road. A tall, hooded man speaking fluent English gave them a command. In response, one masked man barked at us, "Traitors, repeat what I tell you if you want to save your wretched skins. Long live the revolution!"
"The miserable devils echoed the slogan. Then, it occurred to me that living a century is the same as living a second. It was beneath me to buy my life to prolong a mistake. For a fleeting second I realized that the fraction of a second between life and death contains an infinity."
"Down with capitalist imperialist reactionary forces," he shrieked. "I refused to acknowledge his shrill shouting."
"He hit me with the butt of the gun. Blood filled and spilled out from my mouth; pain penetrated into numbness. He showered me with curses.
In a semi-conscious state I also echoed his words: "MCC Zindabad." It was repeated thrice. I kept wondering since when had I become a capitalist and a bourgeoisie? A pregnant silence ensued. Some of us seriously thought of returning to life. I watched the amazing glint in the eyes of the victims. They were hoping and begging, begging to prolong a state, a state that inertia makes us cling to. The tall English speaking fellow said something. Suddenly, bullets hissed out from the light machine guns. I felt something hitting me forcefully. I fell headlong. For an instant I watched the cold star-studded heavens. The stars were cold, infinity I was merging into, silence I was becoming part of. Somebody sang on the stereo—"Part we shall hereafter/Tears and dreams comfort fears/Part we shall hereafter/Sharing tears, sharing cheers/Part we shall hereafter."
I opened my eyes in another age in another world. I was in a hut. The oily black youth sitting nearby shouted in excitation, "Doctorsab, he has opened his eyes." Footsteps were heard outside. A tall fair man in kurta-pyjama sporting Tagore beard and hair appeared. I tried to remember something. Again, I sank into the world of the stars. Many days hence, I opened up again to a mysteriously familiar sound. The tall bearded man was closely watching me, he smiled at me, transferring his energy. I know that I know him. But who is he?
"Just relax my dear friend. You will be alright," he consoled. His words exuded confidence and genuine care.
"My dear friend, you may speak to me in Malayalam, our Kerala language, because I am a Keralite and so are you," I said, but no word emerged. He tried in vain to decipher something from my face. Somebody called from outside, "Doctor sab." Doctor sab. Doctor James Varghese. By the time I realized it once again I was descending down a tunnel.
James Varghese, the one who plucked MercyⳠrose, the one that our village envied and admired, the one who graduated from our high school with record marks, Mercy's Ⳡclassmate.
We secretly abhorred him because our teachers wanted us to emulate James. Usually, I accompanied James and Mercy to the school, and a journey it was. Crossing the mountain streams roaring and streaking, gathering wildflowers, collecting and sharing gooseberries, mangoes, and tapioca tubers; playing and frolicking. But James was a prodigy. Mercy's Ⳡfather, Kurian master, held him in good stead. He was a schoolteacher somewhere in Kottayam district. He came with his two children to our village in Malabar close to Karanataka border for reasons not known to us. Some say his wife cuckolded him. But his hermitic existence was interesting. He spent his days on books, and listened to the programs on radio, a luxury that nobody could afford in our village. For the precocious James, he became the refuge and master. The whole village called him master because he seemed to know everything about everything. James was the old man's sport. He tutored James with astounding enthusiasm. They would discourse deep into the night, exchanging ideas on cosmology, history, literature, and science. Master took more pride in James than in his own children. His own son was a seasoned blockhead. All teachers with the exception of the math teacher had written him off. He found no reason in any other subject. He had no vision, no resourcefulness, and no curiosity. He had no worries. He couldnⴠunderstand history. For him they were all the same places with different characters. English, which master was very proud of, was his Achilles⠨eel.
After high school, Mercy stayed back at home as it was unaccepted for a woman to go for higher studies. And James went for higher studies at Calicut. Still, he visited master from time to time. Theirs was a peculiar relationship transcending blood relations.
In the meantime, Mercy filled into her years, spreading herself thin in the hills and brooks. Far west on the western frontier, one can see the Arabian Sea merging with the horizon. At times seagoing vessels become visible like mustard seeds. To the east, the peak of Thalakkavery, where the holy river Cauvery rises, is seen towering high. During the monsoon months, the hills and dells will be mantled by hovering mist, and the mountain stream would shoot forth violently crashing into silver, dancing into pearls, swirling and whirling, waltzing and daring. Crimson crabs venture out from their proud holes. Far down across the valley, the Chandragiri River grows to significance during eerie rainy days. Still farther away, tiny specks of buses plying between Payyannur and Rajagiri can be seen, shadowed by a tail of dust. On clear days, huge falcons are seen idling in the sky, casting their dark shadow on the hillside. MercyⳠmind on many an occasion would strain to soar and reach out to the frontiers of imagination, to something she herself had no idea of, in any case she felt to have been shut out. When she weeds the tapioca orchard or the paddy field, when she dries pepper and when she collects it in the cool of the evening, when she harvests rice in autumn, when she takes her lonely baths in deserted mountain streams, when she gasps for breath while carrying water uphill, her mind would strain to fly beyond the mysterious horizons. Wildfires would break out in the eastern hills during summers. The farmers would clear the forest, burn it, and cultivate paddy with songs and celebrations. Mercy toiled in the sun, tucking up her skirt, putting a veil on her head. She watched the sun sinking into the blushing sea with a sad nostalgia. Whenever a person goes out of our hills, we would watch his exodus with jealousy; he goes into a flamboyant, brave new world. Whenever James radiated away into the exotic cities, she, too, had looked at him ravaged by the same feelings. On the day of his departure, she would go uphill to an ancient tree and would gaze into infinity for some time—she would even fancy imaginary guests coming to visit her from distant cities.
James became our hero when he joined the medical college in Bangalore. He was an amazing character for the village beau. He did not spend himself on country liquor, he did not holler and howl along the hills at night, he did not stay out doors at night to scare away wild animals, he did not go hunting in the woods, he did not make country bombs to blast wild boars, and he did not assimilate the ways of the woods."
"There are three stages in the course of the development of a youth. The first stage is fraught with curiosities and dreams, the second one is that of rebellion and selfishness, and the third one is that of reconciliation and accommodating things as they are. Perhaps the greatest moment ever in life is the moment of reconciliation with oneself. There life begins. But very, very few of us have the drive to cross the magic gate of self reconciliation, and out of pique life holds many things from us. In the case of James, his straightforwardness and innate nobility were very much on the wane during his years at the medical college. Just like his colleagues, he became greedy and hedonistic to a certain degree. We prostitute and squander our virtues to shed weight and board the magic carpet of modern life. He resorted to stealing marks in assignments and test papers through foul play. The end justified the means. He regularly subjected his juniors to shocking atrocities. He did not have time to look back and take stock of himself. But it was nearly impossible to remain insulated from the socio-academic milieu of which he was part and parcel.
Mercy, on the other hand, remained in her lush green arboreal world. She took a fancy to the tribals whom she had not noticed hitherto. They moved about staggering and swaying, rendered quite drunk by the illicit liquor brewed by the settlers, the easiest panacea to cure the pangs of being. The settlers gave them liquor and axes. And for the first time they learned to fell the trees, the trees that they once venerated. In the grim silence of the rainy season, she had seen them roaming the woods in search of wild bananas and the decaying carcasses of wild animals. In autumn, she went out with them into the woods to gather gooseberries, wild beans, wild bitter gourd, and honey. She sang their primordial songs which strained to remember something that transcended words and sounds. She had her porridge like them, in a banana leaf placed in a pit dug in the ground. Perhaps this nostagie de labour was her feminine expression of silent protest, a dignified rebellion.
On a cold wintry night in winter, James was with the master deep into the night. He was on vacation. When he came out of the thatched house, groping his way downhill, he felt a shadow crossing his path behind him. It was Mercy. They had quarreled long ago for the rose, but they were children in those days. Now, luscious youth has filled out the space in between them. Now, also, they do not speak anything. He touched her shoulder with a shivering hand like a thief. The rest was easy. She had him like the dry, desiccated glebes in summer dreaming rains. She assimilated the music of urban life and the brave experiences he had experienced by sucking him into her secret world. On his way back, a nagging veil of gloom enveloped him. Certain things came crumbling down inside him. Next morning, he escaped from the village, like a blasphemous thief, crossing the dreaming streams and windswept hills before daybreak, when the December wind twirled, shuffled, and twisted the bushy plumage of the creaking trees."
"After a throbbing interregnum of three months, he got a letter from her. A matter of fact letter. It contained only a question—'I am in the family way, tell me what I should do?' The letter reeked and fumed in his pocket. He walked the streets like a drug addict. Because he had never been in the practical world, he was not a man of action. A student often became a blinded horse getting only a tunnel view of the world. When the letter inflamed him, James pulled out the letter and hurled it away as if he was hurling his past from him. Then, a huge dead weight came to stay on his soul. He recovered the scathing letter and placed it under the tablecloth. That was the end of it. He took particular care not to go to his village, and not to remember her anymore.
Mercy had a brother indeed. He breathed and lived, as if by mistake he strayed onto this earth. He was always in the clouds. He never bothered Mercy or she him. He wandered in the distant lands following his restless mind, and master shut himself out from the world. So she was left to her own devices. When the world was euphorically celebrating her illegitimate pregnancy, at first her brother was in disarray. Then he dreaded the villagers as if he was naked. He was not particularly angry with her, but it was his duty to be angry with her; it was his duty to be ashamed. One day, for the sake of the villagers, he attacked her in his drunken stupor. She did not bother to divulge the name of her secret lover, the sly architect of his glaring shame. She did not even cry, she was utterly indifferent to the world. But certain other things came to pass out of this madness. He melted away into the world. Her pregnancy was aborted and master died silently like a candle in the wind. He did not wake up one day, just slipped into eternal slumber like a drop of dew merging into the ocean. Mercy still lived her life away, tending her orchards, associating with the tribals. James lived in a world insulated from the developments at home by the thick walls of time and space, like a seasoned coward. Problems will take care of themselves if we allow them to settle."
"How do you feel now?," my doctor asked me exuding mercy.
"So-so, yes, I am here in Bihar. Here in this hut, doctor sab is close by, he has long hair and a beard, doctor has an artificial leg, he is handicapped. I tried to say something. Language failed me. But some sounds spluttered out.
"Yes, yes you will speak out later. You will revert to your former self in the course of time, but you have to live a disciplined life with regular physiotherapy for a few months," the doctor smiled. The hearty smile of James, a smile that squarely betrays him.
"I was with Mercy, James, and all. Thereafter, I do not have any direct information about James and Mercy. I had in the meantime joined an ashram in Wynad to practice oil painting. An ashram run by a Belgian hermit, a disciple of Sree Naraqyana Guru. With the passage of time, I heard that James did at last reach his village as a full fledged doctor after doing his M.D. at Thiruvananthapuram. A hospital was going to be opened by the parish church to accommodate him. He was given a reception at the local school run by the church with all the pomp and pageantry that the rustics of a remote village could afford. People came out in the hundreds to receive him, not because they cared for him, but because they wanted a reason to steal a day from the regular tempo. Regular irregularities make irregular regularities bearable. He did not take particular trouble to meet Mercy. But he saw her once, in the church, all to herself, donned in a sky-blue sari. She was amidst the women, standing close to the wall. His eyes forcefully strayed on to her, and remained glued on her. Her image remained with him even after the mass."
"Late that night, he scribbled a letter to Mercy. He might have written that he was sorry for her, that he was most willing to marry her. The content of the letter I am not privy to. But he had mentioned that if she was willing to marry him, that she should again come to the church on the coming Sunday in the same blue sari, that is if she was willing to accept his proposal. It was his benign duty to his master and also to Mercy, he thought. One cannot dodge the past. The next Sunday, he went to the church to speak his heart to Mercy. She did not turn up, he waited for hours, and she did not come even after the service. For the first time he realized that he could not forget her or reject her. Accepting her is not a sacrifice, it is a fulfillment," he reasoned.
"After a space of many years, he made himself go to Mercy's Ⳡhouse because anxiety had been eating into his peace of mind. He was familiar with every molecule of the house, and his dynamic yesterdays lay intertwined with the faces and events associated with that thatched roof and Spartan floor with the scent of cow dung. On seeing nobody around, he opened the bamboo door and stepped inside. Mercy was on the old bamboo cot dead and decaying. Flies flourished on her stiff and swelling body. James left our village on that day and nothing was heard of him thereafter."
"And me? I am like the Siestan River, flowing somewhere in Iran, flowing to nothingness. It flows into the dry desolation of the desert and evaporates away. Who am I? If they ask me, do I have a presentable answer? A drunkard, a drug addict who leaves his body in the ugly alleys of the cities to wander for nothing in the valley of the stars, a painter of no consequence, Thomas Kurien, the bungling prodigal son of the master, Mercy's brother.""I was aching with impatience to declare to James in our language, 'James I know you. And I forgive you.' Certainly my forgiving him or not forgiving him has no meaning because I have never had any ill will towards him nor had I ever thought of tracking him down or wreaking revenge upon him. Still, I loved the dramatic effect of making a melodrama out of this meeting. Such a declaration is pregnant with a secret pleasure, the pleasure of telling him: 'I am your old time friend, Thomas, and I forgive you for all that happened between you and my family.' After all, it is a customary duty expected of me to forgive him or punish him."
"Doctor sab was the light of his village. He visited every house and taught them the basic lessons of hygiene and disciplined life. He corresponded with the authorities for their welfare, opened a school to impart holistic education to the villagers, and became one among them. He ate their food, shared their sorrows. He helped them construct modern latrines for every household and cleaned up the environment. Regular events of epidemics among the lower class people became a thing of the past. The mosquito menace ceased to be. However, the villagers could never understand his motives. He did not proselytize them, he did not preach any faith; he was just good to them."
"One of the symptoms of the malady of life is egotism. This symptom becomes pronounced when you are out of the grip of drugs and drinks. One day, when my egotism got the upper hand I asked James, 'Do you know me, doctor sab?'"
"He looked into my eyes, eyes that lost their natural sheen long, long ago.""Yes," he said and smiled like a moonlit night, "You are God, I find God in every man. Which God do you please by living this life?"
"It is not to please any God, nor is it to please my self esteem, it is not even for these people. Then for whom? It doesnⴠhave an answer, it is for something that defies language."
"At long last when we stand at the feet of your God, do you think he will forgive your sins and take you unto himself?" Again he smiled, moist and tender, "You have heard of the great man Dostoevsky?"
"What whisky is it?" I teased.
"One of his characters ruined himself and his family, and drove his daughter into prostitution, and then we find him in a drunkardⳠhole in the nadir of his degeneration. He said, 'Christ will call all the virtuous to his mansions, then he will call Soniya, who degraded herself for her dear and near, because she loved so much.' Then, he would call the hopeless sinners in, because we hoped for nothing. I, too, expect nothing."
"Do you believe in final judgment?"
"Who can judge whom on such a day of Armageddon? He will have to judge Himself. Because sin and virtue, good and bad, victor and victim, man and Satan—all is He."
"Have you ever been haunted by a guilty conscience?"
"Raskolnickov fell at the feet of Soniya. I also fall at the feet of every individual of this poverty stricken village, these people who bear the burden of the world, these people who forfeited the charm of life, these people whose dreams have been taken from them. Because God lives in them, lives with them. Their instilled sadness is God. Sin and absolution, paradise and salvation are neither my end nor forte."
"You are God to these villagers."
"I am not their God, I am not their messiah. Nobody can ever save anybody; it has to come from inside. I am not reforming anybody nor am I capable of doing it. Life expresses itself in different ways. Its cause and effect we are never to know. Man ceases to be himself when omniscience comes to him. The feudal lord of this village had once tried to take my life, and his people chopped off one of my legs. Still, I am undeterred. I saved his life few months ago. Now, he admires me, lets me have my way with the village, and trusts me. Here, I am not the cause and effect nor is the Thakkur. These are the necessities in the flux of life. The Marxist Communist Centre activists who slaughtered most of you take me to be an obstacle, because I am the wet ground on the path to a proletariat revolution. No revolution is capable of solving the social and political questions. Revolutions change them but do not undo them. Every revolution has its own vested interests. Of the twenty-seven hapless victims, you alone survived, only to die another day. They may wipe me out one of these days, but I have no complaints because it is absurd to analyze life in its elements. Life is the poetry in the totality of elements."
"Then, I realized with a deflated mind that he was much above the pardon I was anxious to offer him for free."
"That night one man was found limping and dragging his way in the pale moonlight, taking care not to disturb the people sleeping in the open because of the sweltering heat of a typical sultry Bihari night. After he had dragged his way to the open fields crossing the orchards bordering the village, I realized that he was indeed me."
Ganga appeared at my doorstep unexpectedly one evening. It took some time for it to sink in that she was in front of me. Fair-skinned caste Hindus nearly never visit our village, let alone their women. She had begun her journey early in the morning from Alwaye. She apparently reached Munnar hill station in the afternoon and proceeded to Top station by the state bus that visits the border post once a day. It was surprising that she walked the twelve kilometers to my humble abode, crossing the grey silken drizzle and nagging fog all alone. The evening was a limpid and frigid one, an evening when everybody chooses to stay close to the hearth. I had just come home from the regular chores in the orchard. In fact, in my wild imagination I had fancied that she would turn up one day. And now she is in front of me plain and barefooted. When you see her, you would probably look through her, just a plain ordinary girl. A wisp of a woman who is no threat to anybody, who does not expect anybodyⳠacknowledgement that she is a woman endowed with a gentle breath, a woman whose footprints are never left on the sands of time, a woman who provokes a cold indifference in us. Youthful vitality had long ago left her, nonetheless, she climbs the steps of time, faltering and gasping for breath with no hopes for the future.
I know her inside out. Ramanadhan had told me every development in her life. She was his guardian and she virtually mother-henned him. Her ups and downs were intertwined with his destiny. Being the eldest child of the family, Ganga took upon herself the responsibility to support those below her. Ganga went from house to house giving lessons to schoolchildren and rushed to college in between her treasured tutoring. Her life was a war, a battle against her times, against the socio-cultural status her family enjoyed by accident of birth. Then, one day, she fell in love. It was a fatal infatuation. She fell headlong in love when he, her lover, smuggled a letter to her through her friend. The letter said: "Your memories came to me like the consolation and peace coming at last to a patient writhing in agony."
She was very much interested. Lovers concoct beautiful mesmerizing lies and the beloved beguiles herself by believing those deluding lies. It felt wonderful that somebody needed her the way she was. She had known him for many years; he was in the thick of campus life, with his tall stature, delicate features, and mystic nature. He was in fact a curious character, who had faith in nothing and wanted to be a part of everything. His rhetoric attracted girls and his changing political stances attracted curiosity. His honeymoon with revolutionary socialism was cured overnight when the police rounded him up and broke his bones for pelting stones at state buses during a strike protesting against American intervention in Chile. She expected him to become somebody great, with his charisma and charm. They got married when he was a research scholar at the university.
He was fond of stealing the thunder everywhere. One day, he burned the holy chord, the symbol of his Brahmin descent and declared that he was a humanist and not a brahminist. She let him have his way. The best way to best a zestful idea is to let it run itself out. Another day, he came to her making history, which he had a penchant for. He defecated at the doorstep to the office of his research guide and walked out on the university. For many years, his greatest solid contribution to the skin-deep intellectuality of the emasculated inner circles of higher education was celebrated among the academic elite. All of them agreed that his parting contribution was much better than the poems that he frequently sired and tormented his friends with. Then, he became a drone, a parasite on Ganga, as his university fellowship was terminated with immediate effect. She thought he had better plans for their welfare, but he had not had any. Still, she could not abhor him. Although Ramanadhan and his younger sisters had long ago learned to look down upon him, she still strived to be supportive of him. One day, she asked him whether he could instruct college students. He smirked, "Yes, provided the students are young beautiful girls. We will discuss Santayana, Spinoza, Adi Sankara, and of course a little Freud, too."
"I am learning to hate you and you are generous enough to provide me with reasons aplenty."
"Donⴠworry, noblese oblige."
"Are you not ashamed to thirst for other girls?"
He countered her with a verse in Sanskrit and explained, "a girl is not enjoyed by her father but by his son-in-law and a poem is not enjoyed by the poet but by the critic."
"You are too base and mean to be loved."
"Woman, rather woe to man, you speak a different language. Though the words are the same, what women mean is different from what men do."
"What do you mean?," she asked pricking up her ears; on occasion he can be painfully sharp and true.
"It is a difference in semantics; love does not mean the same to women as it does to men."
"You cannot be loved, you are selfish."
"But love emanates from selfishness. When you are imperfect and incomplete, you love—you love everything you cannot be. A brahmachari is like the group eight elements, the noble gases. They are complete in themselves and trouble nobody. But I love you my busy bee. Only I hate your chadupadality."
"What is this chadupadality?"
"Oh well, it is a word I invented to define your haste and restlessness."
"Please donⴠdilute a beautiful language with your profane, artless sounds."
"Donⴠworry, it is between us."
In the evening, he would habitually go out into the city and charm his way to the nearest bar. He had friends everywhere. Former classmates, former comrades, and friends of friends. He had the magnetism to attract people with his charm, ready Sanskrit verses, and impressive Inglish.
She secretly liked his Bacchanal adventures. When back home, he treated her with melancholy poems. He had an immense store of poems. He tried Edappally and Asan in the beginning. His memory was amazing. Later, he graduated to Maria Rilke, Pasternak, Mayakowsky, William Cowper, and Thomas Gray. She pretended that she was not interested. She reveled and remembered the college days when he delivered electrifying speeches quoting Che Guevara and Pablo Neruda.
One day, she suddenly found him not to be so charming. She sadly discovered that the lines he had written to her to win her over were not his own—he had stolen them from an Urdu poet.
He explained it away off-handedly with a disarming smile, "Once it is born, a poem does not belong to the poet, it belongs to the whole of humanity forevermore. The poet was merely a medium. Poems are born when memories of experiences strain against eternity."
"Why do you live?" she asked him one day, betraying her rancor.
"Wonderful," he said, "wonderful, you are becoming philosophical. The same question I have been asking myself. We live because we believe that we live."
Next day, he serenaded her with Rezs䠓eress' Gloomy Sunday.
"I am not impressed, I have my underlings to look after," she said.
He broke into Sanskrit again and said, "The soul is something that cannot be mutilated with a knife, burnt with fire, dried with wind, or wetted with water. But you know what? Subrahmanya Das threw himself in front of a train yesterday."
She had heard of Subrahmanya Das. He was one of the firebrand revolutionaries whipping up socialist dreams on the campuses. In the late seventies and early eighties, most of the dedicated revolutionaries ended up in lunatic asylums or committed suicide. Many precocious youths from prestigious educational institutions committed suicide. In fact, Kerala became notorious for suicides. Revolutions lose their momentum in the treacherous sands of Indian demography.
Shadows crossed her mind.
"And the revolutionary left behind a message which read, 'We are a failed nation,'" he laughed bitterly and continued, "as a nation we did not fail, but imported doctrines failed on us."
One day, he disappeared, just like that. She felt relieved; a dead weight was gone for good. She prayed and hoped that he would not come back. She had other encumbrances, her tutoring. A week later, she got a letter from Benares in which he said that he was with a German woman who happened to be an incorrigible Indophile. He was busy servicing her sou,l brain, and body.
Let the German slut take him; she felt relieved. She was a slut to have settled for such swain; it serves her good, Ganga decided.
Now, she stands at my doorstep. After a space of many years, I was seeing her, melancholy and stooped by the weight of a large family.
I politely invited her into my humble home plastered with cow dung. I thought of offering her goat milk and papaya.
"Could I see Ramanadhan just once?" she asked, her voice weak and trembling. I sat there silently. In fact, I have been asking this question myself for the last few years. When shall we see him again? Like the dry winter breeze that scatters the falling leaves, like the rainbow that blooms down the hill at drizzling dusks, like the globules of dew trembling on the blades of grass in the morning, he may appear and disappear anywhere in the woods. Where went the winter breeze, wither went the spectra on the hills, where went the globules of dew? What shall I tell her? If I tell her what I know, it may come to naught.
Although we were from the same village, I became close to Ramanadhan only when we became classmates at Union Christian College. We had a common denominator, squalor and dismal, debilitating poverty. He was precocious but simple, too much of a simpleton to take to the ways of the world. He wondered whether the river Periyar flowed the way it did during the day; it was hard for him to believe that the death of a character in a drama was not the death of the actor. During lunch break, we used to sit in the cool, sprawling shadow of a mango tree said to have been planted by Gandhiji long ago. Lunch was most often than not the polluted air of that industrial suburb of Cochin and chlorinated pipe water provided free during our college days by the welfare state. He had a regular soiled dhoti and threadbare short sleeve shirt and on his forehead he sported a shock of sandalwood pulp and walked on bare feet. I failed miserably in the degree examination. Ramanadhan passed with flying colors and scored full marks for his mathematics paper.
I had long ago realized the futility of joining the bureaucratic machinery of the state—procrastinating, sluggish, and thick. The advent of socialist democracy brought with it some degree of social perestroika. Every change claims its own quota of victims. The Indian version of socialism does not pretend to undo the difference between haves and have nots. It aims at perpetuating the lateral divisions in the social pyramid. The traditionally underprivileged and untouchables were eternally stigmatized. Scheduled tribes and scheduled castes—the various political parties pamper and spoil them with reservations, special privileges, and other election gimmicks. The traditionally well-to-do upper caste Hindus were steadily being pushed to the wall as democracy became the tyranny of a united minority at the cost of a stray and proud majority. In the struggle to eradicate the caste system, caste became cemented into the social fabric and the reserved castes became a strong political weapon, a pliable vote bank. Meritocracy died and caste crazy political opportunism thrived. When the protective umbrella of the royal dynasties withered away, exposing the caste Hindus to the furious sun of democracy, they were too pale to brave the furies of nature. The bureaucratic berths, once a preserve of the traditional elite, were opened out to the lower castes by way of reservations, and it was beneath the elite to do menial jobs. By and by, many of them were pushed to the margins of social life; many lived in the shadows of the past. Ramanadhan and his stoic sister Ganga belonged to that endangered species. The roaring, big business of democrazy flourished.
After my aborted attempt at higher education, especially since the Kafkaesque citadel of the government did not appeal to me, I chose to settle as a small scale farmer at Vattavada, a sleepy village on the Tamilnad border placed safely amidst towering mountains. Ours is an interesting valley, insulated from the maddening clouds, tucked away from the rapids of life, innocent of whirlpools and ripples, we flow with infinite patience. We are nearly six hundred people, living placidly in splendid isolation. The inhabitants of our village are Tamilians who founded this settlement six hundred years ago. They fled the temple city of Madurai when invading Muslims pillaged it. We raised garlic, oats, potatoes, and vegetables, bathed in the crystal clear water that reflected the frontier of the universe, and collected the nuts and fruits that grow wild.
On many an occasion, I had invited Ramanadhan to come away with me to the eastern hills, escaping forever from the frenzied and disgusting disguise of sanctimonious urban life. He hoped upon hope to find a fashionable job in the cities, and chased the elusive tomorrows. Ramanadhan was the hope of his mother, sister, and other siblings. Ganga turned her life into a desolate desert to keep the family going. Theirs was a family where men didnⴠlast. For many years, their father had been the center of gravity of the family. He was working as an accountant with the giant petrochemical company at Cochin, and was wrongly implicated in a case of embezzlement. The natural pride and hypersensitivity characteristic of his caste got the better of him and he killed himself. The greatest tragedy in life is to lose faith. One has to have faith in oneself, in others, or in God. Certain vague and amorphous hopes in the nebulous future kept them going somehow.
Ramanadhan kept knocking at doors, and longed to keep the hallowed promises, to realize the silent hopes vested in him, and no doubt feared the impatient enthusiasm of society to pass judgment. Yet, at a winter evening, he turned up at my doorstep, his eyes burning with high fever, shivering in the ruthless cold of the verdant silence of high altitude. He did not come to me the way I wanted him. He did not come to me leaving behind his academic merits and his elite social background. He came to me like a refugee fleeing a catastrophe. I didnⴠbother to pry into his private tragedies, and he was not communicative either. Our days dragged on amidst encircling silence. We were comfortable in the cocoons of our private worlds, and one day, just before going to bed after our daily porridge, he shattered it all.
㗨y donⴠyou ask me anything?" he demanded.
"I didnⴠwant to be prying, that is all."
"You must know this, I am a murderer."
The image of a murderer didnⴠbecome him. I wondered who might be the victim of his wrath. He could be a phony recruiting agent to the petrodollar rich Arab countries; he could even be a cruel employer or his sisterⳠparamour. Lately, it has become the fashion to kill all the family members and to commit suicide, the easy way to solve a good many impossible questions. Kerala has the dubious distinction of being the state of suicide maniacs. I was sinking into a sad slumber ravaged by such thoughts when he opened up again.
"Why donⴠyou ask me who it was?"
"I am not very anxious about it. Whoever he was, he was dear to somebody somewhere. Maybe a mother, a sister, a wife, a lover, or a friend is waiting for him, pacing the deserted path in front of the thoughtful house with his or her expectant eyes."
"But it was none other than the mayor of our village, Chacko."
He looked at my face to gauge the feelings involuntarily displayed on it. He squatted on the mat and excitement rocked him. His eyes were shining. "I turned his skull into pulp with a piece of wood. It happened behind the coconut tree behind our house. It was the moth hour. I had him by surprise. He fell with the first strike; still I disfigured him with a vengeance."
Why did he do that? Chacko was dear to everybody in the village. He was omnipresent. Being the son of a freedom fighter, he had connections in high places, he had contacts in large cities, and above all he was handsome. He was an orator of consequence. He could whip up a frenzy with his verbal jugglery. In the course, he became tired of the worn out cliche of his verbal acrobatics and the people became immune to catch words like bourgeoisie, foreign hand, proletariat, working class, etc. Still, they enjoyed the loose motion of his verbosity. They were amused that his foreign hand had at last come to rule the country (the election symbol of the Congress party is a hand, and the party is headed by Sonia Gandhi, an Italian). Chacko belonged to the Syrian Christian sect. They thrived on the new political dispensation. With the advent of democracy, they were freed from the restrictions imposed by the kings. Socially and intellectually, they were no longer inferior to the caste Hindus. With freedom at hand, they unsheathed their ravenous greed. They attacked the forests, they developed rubber, tea, and cardamom estates, and they sent their women to the west mostly as nurses and nuns. Hard currency came flowing in. Their churches had a monopoly on education and health care, and made them into lucrative businesses. The Syrian community dominated banking. They hijacked the printing and publishing industries. They swindled the caste Hindus out of land and property. They were not restrained by values, traditions, taboos, and virtues. They left culture, art, and literature to caste Hindus; they were interested in affairs that delivered goods. The so called untouchables did not have the intellectual drive or the financial muscle to take on the world, and the caste Hindus did not have the vigorous dynamism to change with the times. In addition, they were restrained by treasured classical values. However, the Syrian Achayans had no reason to look back.
But these characteristics did not necessarily qualify him to be murdered so crudely. Reading my thoughts, he continued, "I donⴠknow why I did it. I could not help it. It was an impulse, a mad obsession."
Chacko, in fact, represented the reigning political climate of the state, with his perpetual patch of a beguiling smile and a patronizing exuberance. He belonged to the guild of robbers who pass for adored demagogues. They do not rob us point-blank; they do not rob us at all. They pillage our future as a nation. Every Indian is born with a debt of ten thousand rupees. They borrow more from the global funding agencies and live a life an ordinary mortal cannot even dream of. World Bank funds the management of virgin forests, the verdant woods that survived for hundreds of thousands of years without the vicarious managerial skills of man. The best way to manage a forest is not to manage it at all. World Bank cleared the thick undergrowth of the wilderness and planted mango and jack tree seeds. When the auditing became difficult and compromising, the officers in charge set fire to the woods. Millions of rupees changed hands, and our political bandits, the seasoned intellectual Lilliputians with a myopic vision to settle for a sensational todayism, thrived. And here lies a depraved and disinherited nation—a nation barbecued for the benefit of a pack of leaders, astute and conniving. We are cadgers amidst plenty. The politico-bureaucratic nexus feeds on the cadaverous geopolitical ambiguity we call India. The problem is that the megalomaniacs have a mission and a vision to bolster themselves and the man in the street is absolutely innocent of such troubles. Culture itself is a deluding fallacy. Indians are not political animals, and we grind teeth and pretend to tolerate each other. India is a nation teetering tremblingly for an implosion, under the dead weight of the alien matter heaped up along its psychological periphery. Nation is not important. A bubble of eternity is trapped inside us. The rest is nonsense. Culture is, at its basics, the madness of the majority. Cultures of all times and places belong to the general vassalage of nature, subject to the whims and reasonless reasons of nature. So every culture bears endemic geo-climatological fingerprints. Nature is like a ruminating cow, tolerating the pestering flies and ticks of culture for a few distracting moments. The death of the dreams of a nation portents the death of the nation itself, because dreams die first. But the residual reason of India will persist. The Romans defeated Hannibal by letting him run out of steam.
It seems the new information drove a gap between us. He observed me round the clock to read my mind. But I gave little thought to his gory deeds. At a certain point in time, I had a strong urge to sermonize that the killer does not ⴠkill and the victim does not die. Both are illusions created by time; the Gita teaches us so. But I reasoned that my thoughts were the product of my indomitable ego and I returned to my silence. I left him to his own world; I tended my orchards and watched the plants and flowers responding to my tender care. In the evening, together we would watch the caravan of ponies moodily trotting, carrying the produce of the cities of Tamilnad. Before us the day would die away into a universal night, and on the flanks of the hills kerosene lamps would timidly blink across the fog. The valley fell silent and slept under a thin, translucent, gossamer blanket of moonlight. Truth whispered to us in the condensing silence. Mornings were brilliant. The ruddy tender fingers of the sun expunged the tears from the immaculate flowers. And the fingers failed to attend to the tiny flowers lying humble and low in the mat of grass. Days and nights drifted past us.
At one such evening, he said, "They will come, the police."
"Do they know?"
"I sent a letter home."
The next morning, Ramanadhan made all of the mental preparations for a protracted prison life. He anxiously waited for the police. But ours was a village where the police hardly ever went. A tradition going back six hundred years is not easily broken. The day dragged into a wet and silent evening and yet the police thought it better not to bother him. If police would not come for him, he thought of going to them and giving himself up. But others did turn up, the venerable patriarchs of his village, led by Mayor Chacko.
"What, brother, what happened?" Chacko asked him and laughed with a cocky confidence. He lit a cigarette and mildly admonished Ramanadhan, "You shouldnⴠhave done this to your mother and sisters."
Ramanadahn gazed at the visitors wildly. He shivered as if dealing with a malicious apparition. Then, he dived into the darkness of the house.
"What is wrong with him?" Chacko asked me. "He just disappeared one day, poor devil. Those poor women at home nearly died of anxiety. Yesterday, they got his letter. We were afraid that he might have taken his own life in frustration. Unemployment is ravaging the youth. We have come with a car. It is waiting at Top station. Ask him to get ready. His mother is dying to see him."
Chacko entered my house to spirit Ramanadhan out. But he had disappeared. He had gone out through the back door. Thereafter, he was very rarely seen in the wooded hills between Marayoor and Kodaicanal, naked and with a halo of hair. He seemed to be lost in an ecstasy, celebrating his blissful amnesia; he had become the soul of the wilderness. His advantage was that he had forgotten the words of human speech and the encumbrance of being. Will she meet him again? If she does she will meet God himself. He may be seen reading the dreams in the eyes of a little flower, or observing the dignity of a blade of grass, or riding the shrill strains of a nameless bird. He moved on like the desire of a primordial psyche.
Ganga stood on her feet, "If only I could see him. Mother may pass away in a day or two. She asks for her dearest time and again." GangaⳠeyes were blank, thickened by the cruelties of the world.
She opened her fluffy puff of overflowing auburn hair like a cascade down a cliff. [Like the colored leaves floating down the trees in autumn, like the blushing clouds adrift in sunny autumn dusks, thought Pierre, perched atop a plumeria tree bursting in its vernal bloom.] The tree had shed its leaves to highlight its fragrant plumage weighing gracefully on succulent branches, the explicitly exuberant expression of its ecstatic intercourse with nature. He rocked the tree with his annealed might and copiously showered her with its pale yellow flowers. Armed with all her rapturous and fecund youthfulness, she scooped up the fallen flowers from the moist blades of grass.
"Is it enough Henrietta?" asked the African boy, dancing like a gibbon on the fleshy, glossy, and flashy branches of the tree.
"This will do, this will do," she chirped like an excited bird. Pierre dived down from the tree with the agility and flexibility of a youth used to the ways of nature, like a fish diving to the depths. In the meantime, the crimson rays of the sun were gently falling on the apex of the towering volcanic mountain, farther north. The shadow of the peak lay softly on the soft turf of grass. They plodded their way back home through the blue-green silence of the plantain orchard.
"Your aunt must be home by now," he reminded her.
"Yes, yes," her beaming face radiated an aura of unbridled enthusiasm. Her papaⳠsister was coming to stay with them from a convent in France, crossing the ocean, bringing with her a piece of Paris. From France! Henrietta is waiting in anticipation for the momentous day of her aunt's arrival from France. France was with her from the day she was born. France lives in her dreams as a riotous deluge of colors. Many times over, she has rehearsed socializing with the debonair gentry of Paris, admiring their etiquette and refined ways. She is quite familiar with the boulevards on the Seine, Notre Dame, Sorbonne, cafes, and the exciting events in France. Now, somebody from her fatherⳠhomeland was coming to visit them. Suddenly, a mischievous flash flitted in her hazel eyes.
"Pierre, kneel on the ground just for a moment, bend just one knee, yes, now kiss my hand," she demanded. She offered her velvet hand, soft and ruddy like the tender leaves of a tree waking from its winter hibernation. Making an obscene smacking sound, he did what she asked him to do, in an irritably crude and irreverent fashion. He broke the hallowed and overhanging spell she had arduously engineered.
"Idiot," she cut him short. It was very crude of him to have shattered those solemn and august moments. Yet she knows for sure how the cream of Parisian society would treat her. Like a merry, wanton little devil, Pierre darted into the encircling gloom of falling night and melted into it. Gathering her gaudy full length skirt, she followed him.
Madam Lebon reclined in the parlor of their bungalow, in the cool confidence of her sophisticated simplicity, glossing over Le Monde. All arrangements had already been made in the room meant for the guest expected from France. Hereafter, petite Henrietta will get the coaching and training to grow into a lady. She was obviously happy that her lady in the making was to be entrusted to capable hands, well before her debut into Parisian society. The convents of Paris know how to forge a lady from a country lass. Madame Lebon had brought her up as a child of nature. She had taught her to love and adore the seasons, the tropical flowers, and the mysterious history of their tropical island in the Caribbean. The graceful endowments of the island brought blessings to her and her husband as the placid years went by, or so she believed.
This way we shall walk into the slanting rays of our evening, she thought with a pleasant sadness and consoled herself that their journey on the paths of life had been fruitful. Their beautiful days were charged with the heady musk of maiden soil and the rippling greenery and sweetness of plantains, pineapples, cane fields, and above all the romantic plumerias [Editor's Note: also called frangipani or temple tree]. She is least inclined to go back to their homeland, France. Back in France, she would have to stand at the foot of the social pyramid as a nobody within the sea of faceless masses. Here, on this island, all the asperities and pitfalls have been filled in with wealth. Monsieur Lebon had become the nucleus of the social and cultural life of the island state. Moreover, he had appointed himself as the philosopher and political analyst of the island. His wealth had recruited an audience willing to listen to his show of erudition.
Business flourished, and in the same phase, relations, too. Madame Lebon would oftimes brood on his pastimes as an obliging mother watches over the merry pranks of her child—his ludicrous efforts to make the city yet another edition of Paris, his enlightening discussions on the influence of nihilists and anarchists in decadent tsarist Russia, or Russian designs on the Far East, or the budding imperialist dreams of the Asiatic island nation, Japan. Let him do it all; it does not eat into her solemn and lofty private world. She had a world of her own. Her long and lonely walks across the hills, silently watching the quay and the city sprawling and throbbing far down in the plains, or walking into the deep and dense woods with Abbe Montaigne, the naturalist of a priest and letting the sequestered seclusion sink into the soul, or reading her Émile Zola. The silent influence of the priest had turned her into an ornithologist of sorts. Now, she is familiar with the birds of the Caribbean and their habits. Her craze for birds made her a natural painter also.
Henrietta laid down on the thick, soft turf of the small plot of grass in the garden in front of the house, spreading her overflowing skirt, like a great butterfly fluttering and brooding, unwilling to fly away. In the meantime, Pierre scrambled up a tree which appeared melancholy and pensive and shook its branches to cheerfulness, because he knew the moods of the trees. Henrietta gazed into the heavens amidst the encircling gloom. Her radiant mind made her believe that the heavens were reaching out to embrace her. She opened out her arms to embrace the skies. An innocent eleutheromania possessed her.
"Did you notice that, mademoiselle?" Pierre asked.
"What?" she looked at him questioningly.
Up above the peak, amidst the floating cirrus clouds, a strange and curious bloody hue was spreading, furious and ominous, acicular and intimidating. She looked at it, it appeared atypical. The skies appeared to have been worked up into a rage, as if the heavens were bleeding down to the volcanic crater. Even after the darkness inundated the hills, dells, and glens, the piercing bloody streak persisted.
As they were distracted from the youthful spoils by the heavenly spectacle, a motor vehicle was heard winding uphill. Instantly, her feminine antennae became alert, her aunt from France was coming. The treasured guest from Paris was at last materializing.
Madame Lebon stayed at home all day in order to receive the guest on the verandah. But the guest did not seem to care about the formalities of introduction. She was a dry woman, lean as a stick. Again, the transatlantic voyage and sea sickness were telling on her nerves. Refusing to stand for ceremonies, she dragged herself upstairs.
"She is too weak, she needs rest," Monsieur Lebon justified her strange behavior.
"Oh yes, I understand," she played it down.
Black despondency settled upon HenriettaⳠlovely face when the sheer curiosity and excitement subsided. The guest did not look like a lady from Paris, nor did she look like her father. More like the witches in the fairy tales, with her thin shade of beard, sunken pinpoint eyes, long hooked nose, and prominent teeth, the damsel thought bitterly. A hag, a shrew, an outright, uptight beldam, she accorded herself the secret pleasure of judging the guest for whom she failed to have a natural affinity.
Early in the cool, silken stillness of the morning, she tiptoed to the guestⳠroom to get a true taste of Paris because curiosity and awe got the better of her. The honored guest was still in bed, coiled up in a tight ball, very much like a fetus snug and warm in a uterus. She brought out her very best smile for the treasured guest, her disarming high lumen smile.
"Bon jour, aunt," she accosted the curious figure.
"So, you are Henrietta," she declared stoically, turning to the buxom country lass.
"Yes, it is me, your auntie," she said proudly. She surveyed the bags heaped up in the corner. Her childish curiosity had her by the horns. "Papa says that you will be with us for a long time to come. Shall I help you open your bags and arrange your possessions?" she could not help asking.
"Yes, if you are particular about it," the nun said reluctantly.
Henrietta attacked the bags in no time, betraying all her ravenous excitement. She expected the most exotic things in the bulging massive bags: dainty and cute articles from the fashion capital of the world. But all the bags, altogether eight or nine, were pregnant with old torn rags, threadbare and stitched many times over. Old clothes, dank, musty, and swaddling, with a strange odor of death. Having been subjected to repeated mending, most of them had long ago lost their original shape. When the girl failed to unearth anything else of interest or aesthetic value, she tactfully gave the slip.
The guest ventured to show herself down in the living room only when the sun had gone a great way uphill. Madame Lebon guided her to a chair obsequiously.
"I can imagine the voyage was hard for you," she said.
"Yes, it was a nightmare. I was very sick, I might have thrown up my entrails altogether," her voice was shrill and piercing, obstinate and intransigent, like a cricket.
"Although this is not Paris, you will learn to love the place."
"I hope so. But you have to take care of me as a mother."
"Here, nobody looks after anybody. Everybody lives and fills out in his own world."
"Look, I am unhealthy. People like me need proper care, attention, and medication. I came out of my order and habit on the fond hope that you would attend to me like a mother."
Madame LebonⳠflushed face registered disbelief and bewilderment. She looked at the strange woman for a minute. "Let me make a clean breast of it. I am not a bit interested in being a nursemaid to you. How very strange it is, you are younger than me. Still, you want me to play your mother. Please try this somewhere else. You are free to live your life the way I live my life."
"Yes, Iᬬ live my life. But I need loving care and people to fulfill my needs."
"You surprise me madam, really surprise me. Man is basically alone and he will ever remain so. You have no right or reason to expect others to live for you, to suffer for you and to cushion the asperities of your life for you. You cannot even expect to direct the affairs of the world according to your script. The world is just a medium, and you are you and I am I in it."
"I didnⴠcome half the way around the world to learn your philosophy," the guest began with poorly disguised annoyance, "and tell that girl not to enter my room. This morning she spoiled all of my clothes."
"I see," Madam Lebon looked at the woman queerly.
In the meantime Henrietta flashed in like a running rainbow, shadowed by Pierre.
"Mother we are going to the mountain stream to collect wild berries," she declared, more or less like she was asking.
"Be back before lunch."
In another flash they were gone.
"Who is that negro?" the guest asked looking at the boy with suspicion and apparent aversion.
"In the first place," Madame Lebon said unceremoniously, "he is not negro, he is Pierre. He is our handy boy." They watched the black boy walking down into the wilderness with a feline grace and stealthy confidence.
Another Catherine and Heathcliff in the making, the guest told herself, as she lacked a sympathetic audience. After that uneasy encounter, she kept to herself.
In the evening she ventured into the garden. The garden was in riotous bloom. The spring of 1902 was altogether wonderful and fragrant on the island. Flowers flooded the mountain flanks as if the dreams of the earth were expressing themselves in vernal efflorescence. From what little she had seen since she had arrived, some pernicious observations began to work their way into her thought processes. Her brother was at last affluent and influential. The magnanimity of the graceful equatorial nature was evident. She sat basking in the gentle evening sun, and the crimson rays of the sun tickled her pale, unhealthy skin. Around her, the last days of March unfurled their flamboyant embellishment. As if in a dream, she sat on the cement bench, tearing blood red hibiscus petals into thin shreds. The bloody filaments of the flower piled up in the grass and lamented aloud. She thought about their impoverished childhood, and the psychedelic horrors of war.
Marriage did him good, she decided bitterly. Aqua regia came to a boil somewhere inside her. He had found his El Dorado and the invidious glow of affluence. And her life was a canvas mottled with silent inner disasters. Life had given her the shit end of the stick. She was not sure what she had been expecting from the island. Perhaps she wanted the world to be as miserable as ever. She sadly remembered that happiness is a state of mind which is independent of the circumstances. She contemplated her existence blighted by life, slighted by bitterness. Here goes the grammar of life and glamour, too. She suffers from herself. But how very ruthlessly fortunate he is! And the self aggrandizement and hauteur of his wife seemed unbearable. The old bag is effulgent and ventures forth as if the sun shines in her all the time. Something burst forth inside her. She looked at the beautiful house presiding over the port city, and a venomous darkness sank into her. Had she been potent enough she would have thrown the whole world and herself into a conflagration or to something equally catastrophic. The world was cruel to her and she had been shut out from the brave new world and made to hibernate in the sepulchral silence of medieval satanic mills.
The bloody shreds of petals grew into a conspicuous heap. His wifeⳠself-confidence and radiating gracefulness are extremely irritating; she seems to be queen over the world. Her self-confident gestures and considerate self-restraint are unnerving. As if she was Empress Alexandra of St. Petersburg! Accursed be everything, everything.
PierreⳠfrolicking lured her back to reality. He was running up a papaya tree with an easy grace; his sinews rippled rhythmically. He seemed to radiate Brobdingnagian energy—intrepid and inadvertently inveigling. She sensed his sanguine robustness and rapturous masculine agility slithering through her consciousness like a rattlesnake in the grass. "This fiendish Negro brat," she muttered. At that moment she would have stung herself to death because she could not sting the world to death.
Exactly as Madame Lebon had predicted, the guest carved out a world of her own in the course of time. Still, she has accounts to settle, she has to speak out. She was capable of speaking for hours on end, with her eyes bulging and burning. But every talking bout ended distastefully. By and by, it became clear to her that Monsieur Lebon was dodging her deliberately. And, to a certain extent, it was true because he was not anxious to create difficult situations and the emotional strain thereof. Most of his day was spent in town on business and pressing engagements. The latest encounter between them went like this:
"I am not in the pink of health; I am not like others. Monsieur Lebon, you surely must realize that by now."
"Oh dear, you are a little bit tired, that is all. Donⴠworry, this pristine nature will work miracles on you. Just wait and see. This land does good to everybody."
"No, never. It is not like that, ᴨe hypochondriac got all worked up,⠉ am sick, I thirst all the time, and I am feverish. I suffer from unquenchable thirst and fever, that is it. I would still be thirsty even if I drank the whole Atlantic dry."
"It is all nonsense, old girl. You are not an iota more feverish than me, and you do not drink more than a healthy woman usually does."
"Yes, I do!" she shouted in a fit of rage, standing there akimbo with her eyeballs bugging out.
"You are all worked up. Go and sit in the sun and cool your nerves in the evening breeze. I have some exigent work to do in the city," he beat a hasty retreat.
Thereafter, he was not available to let her vent her seething fury. Madame Lebon remained stiff and formal with her. They talked less and the host was very particular not to create an ado about nothing. One evening at tea, the guest said, "Look, Madame Lebon, I have got something serious to tell you. Beware of that Negro boy, I warn you. He flirts too much with that girl and gets too familiar with her."
"What of that?" she asked the guest. She showed absolutely no interest in carrying on with the confabulation. She had long ago tired of her loose motion of words and constipation of ideas.
"What of that! What an audacity. She is fourteen and he is almost old enough to be a man. And men are evil."
"I do not find any evil between them. I know them inside out." He was almost always willing to chaperone her among the denizens of the woods when she was in the mood to go ambling in the wilderness.
"But you do not know men," the guest shrieked desperately.
"Do you know them?" she asked out of exasperation.
"Yes, I do. I know the secret of these matters due to the purity of my mind and body. I know them because I am nearer to God. Men with their carnivorous greed will pounce at anything in a skirt."
"If you think so, let it be so." Madame Lebon left the scene. The guest remained in the dining room for a long time. A secret fury raged inside her.
In the safety and privacy of the night, in the flood of old clothes, she defecated onto a sheet of paper. With loving care she watched over this steaming child of hers. She never gets tired of her own feces. Her petrified tarts of excreta from previous nights are kept in a tray under her cot, precious and treasured, for her to fondle and make curious sounds of endearment over when she feels the urge to do so during the day.
Another day she rounded up Mm. Lebon and demanded, "Have you any idea as to the whereabouts of your husband?"
"You are well aware he has business in the city." She looked down into the sprawling harbor town and the majestic expanse of the Caribbean.
"You are his truly wedded wife, keep an eye on him always. You never know who he may meet in town."
"Must you say so about your own brother?"
"But he is a man, and men are evil. The devil is always with them. For example, the other day I caught the Negro boy looking at me with a lecherous lust."
"You, among all others," she looked at her guest with amusement, "you are sick, you are very sick. And, one more thing, I donⴠgive a damn what my husband does in the city and whom he meets. Whatever he does, it is his own life. Do not rack and strain your little head on that score. Your neurosis does not ruffle my composure and my composure tells on your neurosis. Do not seek the hell inside you outside you."
History is created by neurotics. Those who are at peace with themselves stay to themselves and nobody notices them because they have no nuisance value. The neurotics carry a tremendous vacuum inside them and seek to suck the whole world into it in a catastrophic maelstrom.
Fortunately, Marie Lebon subsequently developed a pastime. She sought out all of the leaking pots, vessels, and buckets, plugged the holes one way or the other and stored water in them just for the fun of it. She collected curious things to plug the holes and spent hours mending the abandoned vessels. One day while being happily lost in this euphoria, she sprained her foot. This seemingly trivial event was to trigger greater events. The date was the first day of April, 1902.
At night, upon reaching home after a hectic day, Madame Lebon visited the sick woman and promised, "I shall send Pierre to you and he will massage your sprained foot with medicinal oil. You will feel better in the morning."
Pierre did not particularly protest. But he was not at all amused by the prospect of massaging that irksome hag. Henrietta secretly called her the Medusa from Paris. Her protruding yellow teeth and five o⣬ock beard were a definite turn off. Pierre had often watched her watching him without her being aware that she was watched while watching him, a situation that made him uneasy. Still, he dragged himself into the foul-smelling room and applied oil on her wattle thin shin. She moaned like a cur and watched him in fleeting glances.
She decided she would teach him the LordⳠPrayer and Hail Mary one of these days, but not today in any case. Sometime later. He was softly massaging her, with his stealthy, masculine hands. Does he enjoy touching her flesh? She furtively stole a look at him. He pretends not to, little imposter that he is. But his touch felt beautiful and comforting. It lulled her into a sweet calmness like music therapy, like a forlorn lullaby. His warm fingers inched ahead, the inquisitive fingers explored up her leg. She experienced herself being undressed—her skirt and jacket thrown on the floor. She was helpless in a tipsy stupor.
But Pierre couldnⴠbelieve his eyes. The old woman was peeling off her clothes and flinging them on the floor. He looked upon the desiccated, decrepit, and emaciated nude body with nauseous hatred. Suddenly, she started and sung out, "Oh help, help. I am being attacked, a poor old lady like me attacked. Help, oh dear God, help."
Pierre was petrified for an instant. Then, with an impulsive primordial fury that he must have inherited from wild Africa, Pierre pounced on the old woman and strangled her. It lasted for a few minutes only. People came running upstairs to find the reason for the racket. But she was dead. The corpse was warm. Her eyes were bugged out, righteously blaming the whole world for the murder of a virtuous woman. At that very instant ,they heard a deafening fulmination—the entire hillside rocked. A blinding flash streaked across the hill. Tremors swept past the spine of the building.
After the silence of many a century, the volcano had come back to life with a pealing thunder. It spewed fire and belched smoke. Ribbons of thick jet black smoke spiraled into the heavens and obfuscated the landscape. Over the next few days, the fireworks became a spectacle. The frightened citizens of the town gradually pulled themselves together and learned to live with it. Some of them even went uphill to steal a closer look. Shortly, many more were scrambling up the peak to they were not afraid. The Governor General himself came to stay in the town to boost the morale of the people. By and by, the townⳠfolk settled into the regular tempo of life. The fire and fury of Vulcan had all in all failed to make a lasting impression.
The eighth day of May, 1902, was an important day in the life of Pierre. He was condemned to be executed in the morning. His hours were numbered, slumber eluded him, and he remained in the shell of his solitude counting the hours. The guillotine was ready, so was the hangman. He remained in the crypt with a blank mind; he could not remember anything. In the morning, he will no longer take part in the world of the living. Yet, he could not fully comprehend the rationale of the white manⳠjurisprudence. He did not feel guilty. In his instinctive built-in religion, in his residual faith, nobody kills and nobody dies. We are all in the game where nature gets things done in her own way and nobody is at fault for being himself. Just like the flowers of April, like the short fuse rains of spring, like the giggling streams of rocky mountains, man comes and goes, just like that. Life was never meant to be an entrenched battle against the furies of nature. But was he ready for death? For him life was a game, everybody tries to win the game, some falter and fall along the way. He was in no mood to falter and fall; the game had only just begun. One should keep hoping until the very last moment. But the white man has his laws, books, restrictions, and machines. The weak and artless fall in the game and are transferred to the hell or heaven designed by the white manⳠGod. Time was running out. He could hear the steps of death outside. Shortly, he will be relieved from the mundane tasks. Now, he has to say his last prayers. But prayers did not come easily. He closed his eyes and waited for the event. Again, footsteps were heard outside, clear and succinct. Then, he heard intimidating tremors. Monstrous sounds were heard reverberating down in the valley. All lights burnt out; solid, inky darkness settled.
Enormous toungues of fire licked up the town. All vestiges of life were expunged within hours. The streets were buried deep in scalding pumice. The ghost town stood out against the heavens, black and smoldering. Even the sea boiled out. Three more days came to pass before the fury of the fire died down. The magma had taken twenty-eight thousand lives by the time the dust and smoke settled—almost the total population of the town. When the rescue workers removed the debris and ash, they pulled out a boy alive from a subterranean cell. It was that African boy.
KING OF THE HILLS
Amanulla splurged his massive rippling body on the front seat of the Kerala Public Works Department jeep. By the time they started the journey back, dank and chilling darkness was falling on the hillsides. An eerie pestering fog inundated the trees, ravines, and the difficult jerky jeep road. The headlights of the jeep failed against the bales of cotton air dropped by the thickening mist. It was a mule track where vehicles seldom went, the grim prospect of coming across laconic and lonely tuskers not much impressed by the puny gadgets of humanity being fairly high. The serrated sierra in the horizon had faded away.
ᇯd keep us,⠤river Bhagyanadhan silently said his prayers. Frizzy bitterness bristled up inside him. It was Saturday, on weekends he was to visit his wife at Kampammet. By the time the engineer sir got over with his visit and other programs on top of the hill the day was done, and the track was impossible.
"The road is terrible, sar," Bagyanadhan complained. The jeep jumped from boulder to boulder and climbed down tortuously. Amanulla nodded, his heavy head betraying no emotion, parts of his fleshy body danced. The driver seethed with impotent rage, tomorrow he was to go to Theni to attend his nephewⳠmarriage. His rage found an easy vent on the state vehicle—everybodyⳠproperty is nobodyⳠproperty.
It was nearly two months since Amanulla had been transferred to this difficult terrain from the humdrum urban life of Cochin. His attitude towards this God forsaken wilderness was indifference bordering on abhorrence. He breaks into a heavy rocking laughter upon thinking about the reasons that led to his punishment transfer. The punishment does not matter much and, when the dust settles, he can return to his former slot. The hornetⳠnest was disturbed when a bridge collapsed on the very day of its inauguration. He knows that no one can ever punish him, no matter how much the fourth estate cries from the rooftops for his blood, because everybody else in the hierarchy had taken bribes from the contractor to look the other way when he diluted the quality of the reinforced concrete. Nobody can ever punish anybody in that system because the PWD is a solidarity of sinners from top to toe. A more fitting title would be the Public fund Wasting Department. The punishment transfer to appease the masses is just a holiday for him. While in the thick of the system, he could build palatial houses for his wives, stash away huge amounts to secret bank accounts, and own vast estates outside the state. The so-called punishment transfer is just a joke for him. He knows for certain that. regardless of what happens to India, nothing will ever affect his well-being.
Cold and mist filtered into the jeep. He had started to the hilltop in a pleasant mood; the outcome of Sharja Cricket Test had greatly excited him. But now, on the way back, the happy mood had left him. Nonetheless, he was by nature a patient man, not moved easily by the trivialities of life. Somehow he wanted to reach the guest house, take a thorough bath in warm water, and spirit Bhagyanadhan into pandering a well-endowed Tamilian girl. He took special pleasure in banging non-Muslim women, it was like banging India. Wheedling Bhagyanadhan to perform embarrassing jobs was not difficult if he is in the right mood. When you brutalize a woman, you brutalize a culture, you profane a nation. He tightened the muffler and lit a foreign cigarette. Hardly had the first puff rolled out from his flared nostrils and the delirious nonsense began to unroll. He experienced it all as if in a dream. First, he experienced somebody hitting him, and then he found himself bumping and rolling down the thickets. It was followed by the fierce sound of a violent crash. Disturbed mist ribboned up from a moody covert below and an unnerving sound accompanied it—steam hissed somewhere in the hollow.
His enormous shirt was torn, the sweater was gone, and the cigarette, too. Amanulla stood on his feet and took stock of himself. There was no fracture, no sprain, and no bruise, but still he felt dazed and stupefied. He looked in the direction of the battered and flattened jeep, and called the driver. There was no respone. Struggling downhill, pebbles rolled under his expensive shoes. The pungent aroma of crushed green leaves filled his nose. Far below, Bhagyanadhan lay dead—plastered to the ground under a distorted jumble of steel. Pearls of water trickled down from an inquisitive granite block close by.
"This portents a sleepless night," he concluded bitterly. Let alone sleeping, where is the nearest shelter to spend the night? Being a privileged guest of the state, he was not used to the rigors of life. Given his bulging, rotund limbs and rolling lumps of fat, it would be impossible to trudge all the way to Elappara. The gravity of the grizzly fact that his driver was no more failed to sink into his being. Far, far away, on the distant flank of a hill, a dejected whelp yelped away. Wild birds wondered aloud about the unusual commotion in the melancholy thicket. Again, silence descended on the landscape. Amanulla dragged himself to the top of a rock and searched his pocket to fish out a cigarette; there was none. Despite his thick stock of rippling fat, the nocturnal chill permeated him, and mist lashed against him. He was not used to making decisions; he routinely endorsed the files presented to him and accepted the prerogatives provided by the thrifty contractors and the senile institution of governance.
Some time later, he was alerted by human sounds. Two distinct silhouettes appeared on the road above. They were cautiously descending towards him along the clearance that had been created by the runaway jeep. Amanulla did not move.
"The side of the road has collapsed," the first silhouette stated.
"You climb a little way down and find if anybody is alive," commanded the second silhouette.
"These fellows could not find a better place and time to orchestrate this nonsense? Something much worse should have happened to them."
One man resolutely climbed down and examined the jeep. "The jeep is no more a jeep and there is nobody around. This must be a ghost jeep with no driver and no passengers," he shouted.
"Look, stranger, I am the passenger and the driver is down there under the jeep, dead," Amanulla announced his presence.
The stranger was disoriented for a moment. Forcefully, he overcame his embarrassment and shouted, "Yes, here there is one man."
A second man—tall, lean, and straight—came down to Amanulla, and asked with genuine concern, "Are you alright, any fracture or injury?"
"I guess I am all right. But the driver, Bhagyanadhan, is dead."
The nature hardened hands of the tall stranger helped the obese victim to his feet. "You need some rest and refreshment, sir. My parents are a little way from here. Kindly go with my friend and make yourself comfortable. In the meantime, I shall arrange for somebody to go to Elappara." He then turned to the other fellow, "Kunjappan, take sir to my father and see to his immediate needs." There was an imperious authority in the words of the stranger. And his eyes had the power to force anybody to be a docile lamb. Amanulla followed Kunjappan like a truant school boy suddenly turned obedient. Tawny and flavescent litter flitted along the untrodden path. The trees swayed thoughtfully. A cocktail of fragrance of the numerous flowers filled the air. Merry little streams giggled amidst rocks. Amanulla dutifully dragged his aching body along the path, groping and brooding.
"Who is he?" Amanulla could not help asking when they reached a dusty track bordered by lush grass.
"Who? What do you mean, sar?" Kunjappan was taken aback by the question, he was apparently carried away by the force of the events.
"That man, that bearded fellow."
"Oh, him, he is the king of the hills."
"Yeah, everybody says so."
"But what does he do for a living?"
"He is a strange fellow, sar, he does odd things. In fact he is a strange man."
"Strange in what way?"
"You may find it incredible, sar. His abode is on top of that mountain. He is armed with a long metallic tube and watches the heavens at night. Then he reads strange and curious books written in foreign languages. Well before the crack of dawn, he gets up and completes his daily chores on his farm, and then he will take a bath in the stream and goes to the pinnacle of the mountain to receive the rising sun, fresh and radiant. He says that the sun is the magnanimous propellant that animates the atmospheric heat engine and thus life, too. His humble abode also is curious; it has no door, and it is always open."
"Your king is an interesting case, does he live alone?"
"Now he is alone. His wife left him long ago. But he is not worried about it. He had a brother who passed away suddenly at the engineering college. But it was many years ago. Five fingers are not alike, donⴠyou think so, sar?"
They reached an old thatched house and the fresh scent of nature received him. The scent he had long ago forgotten. Huge, ancient trees stood in front of the house like towering monsters. The orotund music of the stream in which they had washed off the dust of the path was audible.
A stooping old man named Varkey received the stranger, raising the wicker of a kerosene lamp and betraying obvious excitement. He was not used to gentlemen from the city. Amanulla stepped onto the verandah plastered with cow dung and charcoal.
"Kindly sit on this chair, sar." Varkey was concerned that his abominable rusticity might offend the great officer of the omnipotent government. The old wooden chair strained hard to keep its integrity when Amanulla squeezed into its puny frame. Varkey politely sat on the floor, dangling his legs down the plinth.
"I wonder whether sar is used to chewing paan," he asked opening his plastic pouch.
"No I don"
"I am addicted to it," the old man confessed apologetically.
"So, good night, sar, I must go now," Kunjappan emerged in front of him. "Old woman, give me a little bit of fire, my beediwill show me the way; it is very dark."
"Sar will be alright here. Before you sneak away, go and collect some honey from the hives. It is good for sar."
Amanulla sucked on the sweet honeycombs and looked vacantly into the valley far below. A bird chirped somewhere for a second. Then it was silence again except for the somniferous melody of the stream.
"Here, there are so many birds. These woods attract them," Amanulla stated to himself.
"Very much so, my sar. Now is the time when pepper ripens. They come in large numbers to steal the red globules, those sprite and gay thieves. After the season of the mist, all of the trees will break into bloom. Thereafter, they create a racket here. Sar may relax here. Dinner will be ready soon."
He fancied a boisterous April in the cool of the hills peopled by ravenous and avaricious Christian brutes, with pensive pansies, secretive poppies, fresh morning glories, tremulous forget-me-nots, buttercups, and bluebells flashing their gaudy wares like brides at church.
"Sar, please take it easy, we have been through more difficult times. God knows better than we do as to what is good for us. He will come in the meantime," the old man reasoned that the guest was very miserable.
"You mean the king of he hills?"
The old manⳠface suddenly eclipsed, "The people are saying so for nothing. He is my son."
It was far late into the night when the king of the hills turned up. Amanulla was very ill at ease for no reason he could discern. He was not used to the asperities of life, but his discomfort was not entirely physical.
"News of the tragedy will reach Peerumed and Elappara shortly; I have sent messengers. The body of the driver shall be taken out from under the jeep. Arrangements have been made for that and the police are expected shortly. Sir has to spend a night here in this brazen rusticity, though. A night like this will be an experience."
"It is okay, where do you sleep?"
"I am going to the accident site, but usually I sleep on top of the hill."
"In your palace?"
"Well, in a sense. For everymanⳠhouse is his castle."
"And his little tract of land is his empire."
"Yes, but only for those who make fences around their property, like the selfish giant. Those that do not care for fences fare as the emperors of the world."
"Without ever conquering the world?"
"Many wretches conquered the world, but the world did not go along with them. The true emperor does not have to conquer the world, he only has to destroy the walls, and settle to a life of action with out self-assertion and production without possession."
"So you are one among them, basking in the rarified heights of enlightenment." Amanulla stated thoughtfully.
"I am only a poet, sir, finding poetry in flowers and plants. One that listens to the music of the stars; one that reads the esoteric language of silence. And then, perhaps richer than sir and richer than anybody else in the world."
"Could you clarify that statement?"
"The one who is happy with himself, and satisfied with whatever little he has, is the richest man in the world. Sir is tired, your bed has been arranged in that room," the tall philosopher told him, apparently not inclined to drag on the discussion.
"Your philosophy is interesting."
His bed was arranged in a small unkempt room adjacent to the verandah. There was a mat on the old cot and a woolen blanket on top of that. A gentle breeze breathed in through the casement. Rats scurried in the attic and on the roof. Amanulla removed his shoes and socks, and spread his inflated body on the protesting cot. The pungent but consoling aroma of the clean mountain villages entered his brain. On the window sill there was an old kerosene lamp, timidly flickering, and on the wall there was an ancient black and white photograph with a smaller, passport size photo in the left hand bottom corner of the frame. As part of the primordial strategy of all animals, to familiarize himself with the circumstances in which he found himself, Amanulla surveyed the room. His tired eyes wandered lazily over the photograph which was gathering dust. Distant figures groped in his memory. Then, his attention gravely zeroed in on the picture, with all his senses fully alert for the first time after the accident. He struggled up and lifted the lamp to scan the picture. For a closer analysis, he dusted the frame with the fag end of the blanket and wiped out the signatures of time. Now, faces, places, and events came together succinctly.
In the larger photograph he could see the faces of his teachers and classmates at the engineering college. They were all standing in an arc behind a coffin with grave and grim faces of dole and dirge. The occupant of the coffin was shown in the passport size photo in the corner—the photo of Thomas Varkey. Amanulla sat on the cot still holding the rank smelling lamp.
The death of Thomas Varkey remained a mystery buried in an enigma. Was it a clean case of murder, suicide, or natural death? Amanulla and his two close associates were the only ones privy to the secrets behind it.
Thomas joined the engineering college in August 1977 as a gaunt social greenhorn. He was landing up in a major town of the plains for the first time, alien to the art of survival in the civilized world. As the hostel was fully occupied, he rented a dingy room in a shady fraternity house. He had floated down to the nadir of despondency and melancholia because he was not used to many things he was exposed to. Education had become tortuous. He had performed wonderfully well at the high school of his village and scored the highest ever mark in the history of the school in his final examination. Then, at the college in the nearby hill town, he also made the highest marks. That entails a curious tragedy—those who are precocious must either become an engineer or a doctor. Lesser mortals have to settle for low profile courses. Talents and temperaments do not matter. But Thomas did not have a natural inclination for science and technology, his was a world of abstractions. Still, social pressures and the dictates of his father forced him into the strange new world of technocrats. He had no appetite for food and lost interest in everything during his difficult days at the college. And he failed to make friends who could serve as inner pressure relief valves. Hence, after his death, it became nearly impossible to unearth his private sorrows. Yet the fair, lean, and haggard frame of Thomas remained in the memories of the campus for a long time. The post mortem report also failed to divulge any information of value regarding the secrets of his mysterious passing away, loosing a flood of uneasy questions.
At the time Amanulla met Thomas, the former was a sixth semester student. When Thomas joined the campus, Amanulla was at home for vacation following examination. He heard of Thomas many weeks after coming back to the campus when he visited his two friends at the fraternity house.
"There is good sport, my dear fellow, go to the next room. He is said to be a prodigy, but he is all blue. You know, we took turns at making a hell out of his disoriented life."
Amanulla and a few classmates of his had formed an unholy nexus. They ravaged the farmlands outside the campus, stole chickens, coconuts, toady, and tapioca. The locals abhorred and feared the thugs. They could deftly open locked up coops and abscond with the most fleshy cock without a rustle. They would cut off the power supply, silence the dogs, steal streetlights, and the big shots of the town hired them to settle political and personal accounts. The principal was not responsible for their activities outside of the campus, and the police were afraid to provoke the vociferous student community.
Amanulla's friends had been tormenting Thomas for many days. He was their slave. For them he went to bootleggers and brothels, and it was his duty to do their assignments and practical records. They shattered the hallowed images he had instilled in him about mother and womanhood. One day, they forced him to stand naked while describing the anatomy of his mother in detail. Hazing was a treasured privilege of the seniors in the seventies and eighties. It brought to the fore the jaded pleasures of the beast in man. Teen age is a temporal no manⳠland, old enough to be aware of the liberty that age entails, but too young to discern the pitfalls which are part of the package. But his tortuous tenure at the fraternity house and college did not apparently result in his death.
When they were at college there was a famous prostitute in town—union Thankamma. The fashionable prefix, union, meant that she was the treasured medium of the union leaders by which to assuage their accumulated venom. Amanulla visited his friends because she had promised to turn up. When she did not, he showered her with abuses and profane verbosity. Still, she did not show up. Seething with fury, he went to the cell of Thomas who was cautiously drawing engineering diagrams with his set square and pencil.
"Oh, missy, are you busy?" Amanulla began. "I cannot let you be so studious, especially when I am so desperate. Do you know that Thankamma ditched me?" Thomas knew that he was in for real trouble. He raised his head.
"Have you learned Newton's fourth law?" It was a lewd obscenity they had forced him to learn.
"Yes," the victim said politely, further whetting the thirst for blood.
"Good, tell me, sweetie."
"The thrust of the breast is proportional to the thrust of the cock," he said and wondered how thick-skinned and worthless he had become over the past few weeks.
"You son of a bitch," Amanulla worked up a fury, "don"t you know how to respect your seniors. Get up, bloody idiot, you had the cheek to utter obscenities at a senior."
ᔨis fellow is thirsting for a reason to pick on me,⠔homas decided.
Amanulla looked around. His eyes quite accidentally noticed a dagger in the innermost corner of the half-drawn drawer. His eyes glared. He grabbed it immediately.
"What is this for?"
Thomas⠦ace went pale as milk. He had brought the dagger from home to confront his tormenters should the situation demand it. After all, he was of Syrian stock, a people who took special pleasure in drunken bouts and in dispatching each other with their handy daggers.
Amanulla examined the keen razor edge of the steel.
"Why you are getting pale? Pals come in, there is fun," Amanulla called out. His friends who were engrossed in a game of cards darted in.
"Let us see whether this son of a bitch has blood in him, he looks so pale."
Thomas shut his eyes.
"Open your eyes," Amanulla thundered. Thomas obeyed. Amanulla pressed the shining steel against the quivering neck of the victim. "Are you frightened, ninny?"
"Please leave me alone."
"Leave you alone? I cannot, my darling, honey, you make me horny," he forced a kiss on the red lips of Thomas for the gallery. His friends laughed, enjoying the show thoroughly.
The acrid flavor of cigarettes and liquor permeated Thomas' mouth; he gagged.
"Donⴠlike the taste of man, honey? Donⴠworry, I promise not to deflower you. Your virginity will remain intact," said Amanulla as he dragged Thomas onto a cot.
"Please, leave me alone," he wailed, looking at the blade of the dagger.
"So, you are afraid of blood. Donⴠworry. We are very generous. We shall blindfold you."
They blindfolded him and tied his limbs.
"Someone find the chief vein from the leg and I will cut it open," Amanulla said.
"Honey, you have wonderful thighs," Amanulla said, slapping the knife against the white thigh of the victim.
Thomas felt the pinching pain of the knife, he winced, and they held him tight. Blood wetted his leg, and trickled to the floor. "Donⴠmake a mess of the floor, get a jug to collect his blood."
"Who could have imagined that he had so much of blood in his wiry body? Replace the jug with a bucket."
Blood rained into the bucket.
"Pals, this is getting rather serious, he may die. Donⴠbe vexed—let us do something about it. Look, the bucket is already halfway full."
"Tie a tourniquet above the cut."
"It is too late, he is drained dry of blood."
Thomas lay laterally on the bed, legs dangling, pale, and blindfolded. Actually, they had not cut open his vein, nor did they collect his blood. They just pressed the dagger on his thigh and poured lukewarm water down the leg. But when they opened his blindfold, the gravity of the situation dawned on them. Thomas lay there dead as a plucked chicken. He had breathed his last some moments before.
Many more years came to pass. Amanulla scraped through the examinations through foul play and passed the practical test through the good offices of Muslim external examiners. Then, he entered the lush pastures of the government department. He managed to amass immense wealth and, having fattened at will from the public trough, became grossly obese in due course.
In the east, it was blushing into a crimson dawn. His lamp was burning out and the scent of dry cow dung and pepper wafted in. Amanulla still sat there. There were books and notebooks gathering dust on the shelf. Books used by Thomas along with his practical records.
Somewhere in the entangled boughs, a nightingale warbled its pestering loneliness away. The stream continued its long sonorous litany. He sat there, setting his mind free and unfettered; it floated and strayed. If Thomas had come out with flying colors as a full-fledged engineer, he would have been whisked off by a prestigious institution in India or abroad. He would have joined the cherished universities of the west and would have brought fame, wealth, and social position to his rustic parents. Thomas had taken the seat on merit, whereas Amanulla had bought an available slot in management quota.
Amanulla wondered for a moment about the twists and turns in the vicissitudes of life. Hours trickled past. His thoughts strayed to a larger canvass—India, the invincible mystery. India's silence is the silence of confidence, he thought. Quite unknowingly, he coupled a couplet of Kipling; Oh, East is East, and West is West,/And never the twain shall meet. A country he had learned to hate, a country of queer infidels. A ludicrous rhetoric of a celebrated national leader echoed in him—'Who lives if India dies and who dies if India lives!' His long forgotten encounters with India came back to him. The first sight was that of a young woman clad in a gross gunny bag lying in the vestibule of a long distance train in Delhi. Three little babies were sucking from her shriveled bosom. "She is Mother India," his companion had commented, "ravaged by marauders, indifferent to aggressions, giving birth to bastard cultures, and yet keeping her integrity intact. Treasure hunters will come and go but India will remain," he had said. His floating mind settled on yet another sight immediately, the sight of a dog whose hind legs were mutilated, apparently by being run over by a train, the lasting stigma of civilization. The dog does not give up hope. It drags along its body with infinite patience. Patience pays. The next vision was that of a blind wench, begging in a deserted village, stretching her beggarⳠbowl to non-existent men and smiling sweetly at the imaginary benefactor. Many smile away their charms into nothingness. Then, he remembered the face of a boy, begging in Patna while blood and puss oozed from a hole in his forehead—the gore of being. Although Amanulla was not used to the practice of thinking deeply, it occurred to him that the world was a collage of absurdities and extremities.
"Our facilities are poor. I hope that sar slept well, winter is gaining," Varkey came to him and apologized.
"It was alright," Amanulla said, breaking away from his nocturnal spell.
"Sar, kindly sip on this hot coffee, I ingest nothing until after my morning prayers. Sar does not have such habits, I guess."
He had listened to Varkey and his wife praying at night: "Our father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, give us this day our daily bread. Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us..." and later ending the day with the Twenty-third psalm.
"The jeep to take you back is ready sar, please come," Kujappan came running to inform him while Amanulla was sitting in the sun drinking hot milk.
"Where is the king of the hills? I need to see him."
"If it is important, sar, I will bring him from the top of the hill," Kunjappan offered.
"Please, it is important."
He was not sure why he wanted to meet him, he just wanted to meet him. The king of the hills turned up after a couple of hours. Amanulla got to his feet. He felt dwarfed and slighted in front of the king's six feet two frame. He stood in front of the mountain man like an inflated balloon.
"Did you ask for me, sir?"
"Yes, I actually wanted to ask you this much, do you believe that God exists?" he said in English. It was the style of the urban elite to switch over to English when anything secretive or important is to be asked.
The king looked at the stranger askance. "Sir, come away the jeep is waiting for you," he supportively held AmanullaⳠhand. Amanulla felt peevish and piqued that his question was not taken heed of, as if he was a prattling child.
When they crossed the mountain stream, his companion said: "We become philosophical with the visitation of harsh realities. Mammon or God, we have to choose somebody to fill in the blanks in the answer sheet of life. Every hedonist lives in the present, every pessimist in the past, and every optimist in the future. You chose to ask me an immense question. I don"t think it has a simple answer. I am not sure whether it has an answer at all. We cannot discover somebody who is never lost. But if you meant whether there was a creator and a creation, I would rather say that the creation and the creator are one and the same. Nil posse crear de nihilo."
"You mean we are all part of a universal God?"
"You know language kills the meaning. God is an experience. Al Hilal Mansoor discovered that he was God and could not survive his revelation. Quasi Nurudeen Vally melted away into the woods of Kashmir and discovered that God was the very pristine nature itself. Satya Kama Jabal, the most learned person of his times, was weighed down by his erudition and the essential knowledge defied him. One day, he walked away into the remote woods with his cattle. His language died, his erudition withered away, and then he became a god. So god is a silent experience. The Christian sacrament of Holy Communion is more meaningful than meets the eye. Is it not the last vestiges of a cannibalistic past? When we are pure in heart, we merge with God."
"Like the legendary almond tree?"
"Very much so, sir," he looked at the engineer with approval, "the good mute almond tree has only one language to describe God, she blooms all over. When you lament and howl—eli eli lemma sabachthanim, it is the wail of a grain of snow, wailing out to the ocean. But the flake of snow also is an ocean."
"I meant the God of the great religions and the questions raised by modern science."
"I am not at all in the game of religion. Religious intolerance and globalization have the same motive, a global cultural monolith. And globalization is the fashionable word for techno-colonialism. At present, we dream their dreams and steam their schemes. As the legendary Red Indian lamented, every civilization mutely protests: 'You robbed us, and above all you stole our dreams, too.' Technology transmutes and transfers our problems and never undoes them. The externalities of scientific civilization confined in RCC coffins will one day let out the fissile ghosts, and they will come demanding their pound of flesh. Remove the caparisoned facade of urban life and with it will go the borrowed glories, glories borrowed from the future."
"But you did not define God."
"Well, God does not stand definitions, nor can we distill him out from the world around. He himself translated into space, time, mass, and energy; they are all one and the same. Hence, the Christian Holy Trinity has a poetic appeal to me. It is the mystic union of creator, creation, and the will to create—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. So the generic brand of monotheism becomes very prosaic. Thus, we are not independent. We can be wrong, but not for long. We can be strong, but not for long."
For a moment he looked into himself and decided that he was not a fanatic; he performed the five duties expected of a Muslim, and there ended his religion. And his Islam stood in the way of dissolving in larger Indian society.
"Do you pray to God?"
"We bray and pray and go astray, you know. Individual lusts—lusts for achievements, lusts for sex, lusts for wealth, and lusts for salvation. He wants to be a rich man in this world and a saint in heaven. Individuality is a disturbance in the ocean of eternity. Lust goes with individuality, as a bubble merges into the ocean. Then, we remember."
"So, infants are closer to the ocean?"
"A baby is sexless, polarities develop later. An infant is selfless, individualities develop later. Have you noticed that some men are trigger-happy because the gun is the symbol of macho masculinity? As it was practiced in certain African communities, everybody secretly treasures the trophies of skulls—skulls reaped in the struggle for domination. The less lesser fish eats the lesser fish. God does not create; god is not even a hermaphrodite. And it is not GodⳠbusiness to play referee, man has to spend himself out. Men and women are ephemerally incarcerated in bubbles, oblivious separations from the ocean of eternal man."
"Do you think women are different?"
"Women are closer to nature and men are closer to the skies. I happily dwell in abstractions because my woman left me. When two men meet, they discuss politics and weather. When two women meet, they discuss ornaments and children. When she says Amen to the high priests of culture she means ᡨ, men!⠗e are like that and our best option is to live life true to ourselves, even though we are not endowed with the feather to brave this weather nor the force to wither this tether."
"Let me ask you one more thing, if you do not mind, why did you not try to get a proper education and secure a berth in the government?"
The tall man smiled, "My brother tried it and failed miserably. He was once my model. But I cannot emulate anybody; my mission is to be me. Convention makes us believe that a government job can be equated to salvation."
Amanulla felt uneasy; he got into the jeep that was revving impatiently.
"It was nice seeing you and talking to you."
"It may be nice, but never wise seeing and talking to me because it can potentially disturb your composure."
"All of you were very kind to me, I am grateful to you for that. If you need any help from the Government or the department, feel free to contact me."
"But I have no business with the government. I shall leave the government alone as long as the government leaves me alone. Hope they wonⴠintroduce a capital tax on breathing."
"Then, one more question, do you believe in the destiny of India?"
For Amanulla, India was a collage of weird images which fused, rolled, and parted at random, a mystery behind the recorded history, a diverse canvas of infidels. He waited anxiously for an answer.
"Yes," said the tall hermit thoughtfully to the dust left behind by the jeep.
Amanulla reached the guest house at Peerumede in the afternoon. He had lost all enthusiasm despite the pleasant sunny day filled with life. Her took a thorough bath and spread out on the bed. Daylight intruded into his privacy. He got up again and closed the curtains to ward off daylight. Slumber remained elusive. He surmised that something went wrong with him after the accident. He decided to take a long leave and to get admitted to a five star hospital in Cochin (and of course to make the government foot the bill).
In his troubled stupor, it suddenly occurred to him that he had an appointment. He had promised to meet his first wife, Suhara Beevi, in the evening; it was unwise of him to have forgotten that. Suhara, pure and delicate as a rose, Suhara innocent and simple as a basil sheaf, Suhara who stands beyond time, eternally young and appealing. He jumped to his feet, changed into fresh clothes, applied perfume, combed his hair, and looked for the key to the car. Then, it came as a flash to him that he was acting foolish. Many, many years ago she had passed away. His second and third wives were still there in their well-furnished houses.
He fell in bed again without bothering to change clothes. This time around, he dreamed that a snake was inside him. It slithered and dived in his alimentary canal to find a way out. He flexed his body with mortal pain. The serpent struggled up the esophagus and strained at the neck. He gaped his mouth open to let out the reptile. The constricting snake was asphyxiating him. He struggled for breath and screamed aloud. When he was jolted back to wakefulness, he had broken into a cold sweat. His internally empty and outwardly noisy existence was shattered by loneliness. Inside his enormous body, a child in him wailed and whimpered.
He sat up on the bed, drank some water, and lit a cigarette. With the cigarette between his fingers, he dozed again. This time, he found himself standing in front of his fatherⳠhuge house in Kollam. It was in flames; flames licked the craning trees. He stood there mystified and petrified, unable to call for help. Slowly, the flames ate their way to him, he was unable to move, flames singed him, he cried out and jumped up. The burning cigarette had done the trick; it had burnt his finger and part of the bed sheet.
He scooped away the tail of the curtain and looked through the window. The day was dying. Darkness was inundating the hillsides. Streetlights opened their eyes. The sky was clean and deep. Amanulla got into his car. The new Maruti dove out onto the highway. Along the roadsides, pale blue winter flowers smiled at him. Huge bats perched upside down in pensive trees.
Amanulla drove down KK Road. The music of the night flowed through his veins. The solemnity of the stars enveloped him. From the long leaves of cardamom plants, tiny dew drops coalesced and rolled down to splash on the grass. Vast rolling deep green meadows and tea estates lured him. He stopped the car and sat there lost in stray thoughts, runaway thoughts. When he opened the door and stepped into the night, the soft turf yielded beneath his feet. He lay flat on the grass silently watching the star-spangled heavens. In the serene silence, many locks opened inside of him. As he was opening out, the mystery of the universe melted into him. He became familiar with the complex chemistry of the stars. He opened his eyes and greeted the heavens—aslamu alaikkum. He remained like that for hours. His eyes were shining when, much later, he called out, "Suhara, I...."
Next morning, Amanulla was found in the same posture, but dead. The dew had washed his body and the crimson leaves of a nameless tree had formed his shroud.
1. THE MOUNTAINS WILL REMAIN
When all is over
And the curtain is lower
When the task is done
And the actors gone
When the day is done
And the night has won
The mountains will remain
With their veil of mystery
And a tale of spiritual history
Beyond those snowy heights lo!
The land of Shangri La
And a heap of generations
Prone to spells of hallucinations
With a tremendous capacity
(Rather a queer propensity)
To mystify world, words, and deeds
And to hide in the din of rituals and creeds
But when time closes the board of game
With a silver sheen and myriad dream
The mountains will remain,
Years ago in a pinching winter
When the dayⳠlight faded as dying ember
I watched the saber cloak mantling the valley
And the snowy rooks smiling at the heavens glory
Those dead old years, memories remain
And time has brought me back to this domain
To find again
That mountains will remain
The flags fluttered in the hissing breeze
In the swaying pine and other trees
And ripples spread oft and fast
㠈ail the jewel in the lotus䠼/P>
The dance of yeshe and dorjee
I mean that of mind and body
And the harmony of eternity
Beyond these psycho-mundane dreams
The mountains will remain.
2. THE DRUG ADDICT
I asked him whether he was on dope
Yes, he was, a case beyond hope
His eyes hazy and dull
His face pallid and still
I asked him whether he was on the high
Yes, he said, never felt so high
And knew not why.
He bathed me in his Mongol- Saxon eyes
By a flicker of merry wanton rays
We sat together in my dingy rustic bunker
Silence linked us, the day was getting darker
I asked him whether he was stoned
Yes, I am, his languid face droned
Past and future swirled in arbitrary fusion
A baffling confusion by timeⳠcommotion
His jerky fingers fixed a joint in frenzy
A jet of curling bluish gas
Lifted him to a blissful plateau hence
And no more he knew whither or whence
A nihilist bent to bury such impertinence
I asked him who spoiled his mind and body
Nobody, he said, ever spoils anybody
His mind again floated and soared
Realities slept like a dying hoard.
Man in all his simplicity
Is a product of infinity
He comes like an apparition
A fading sigh sans comparison
The space in between is spanned
The days in between scanned
By a jumble of events
And moments of reasonless inspiration
I mused, sitting with his body alone
While he hummed off tunes of Elton John.
The month of December
And so much to remember
The luscious musk of pinching dusk
That the swaying air hung
The odour of pepper and dung
And those eternal heights
The abode of ethereal delights
Yon, the blushing disc of dying sun
After the scorching course of dayⳠfun
This melancholy dusk and mild winter
I revel and remember, memories wander.
The peace and hope that X-mas brings
Flowers and merry dew whence poesy springs
Oh, so much to remember
In the month of December
The day dies and the year too
Time flies with a trail of memories due
The neo-fable of Prometheus bound
I am tied fast the year around
The dead old days that eternally haunt
The month of December
And so much to remember,
4. THE MISFIT
"Didst thou not see
From thy distant life too free
The change of human seasons
Of measured fashions
And of sure and paying passions?
Where hast thou been?
To stare at what is seen."
"Is it but a WinkleⳠdream?
Or strayed I off this wondrous stream?"
"Thou art verily out of step
On this tremulous mundane web
Still a prattling cub
Draining on a dreamy cup.
World is thence far
Whence thou left it dear
For thy endless nap
In thy fairy's lap."
5. TO BE
Is only to give
Our dreams and perspiring moments
To them—to us—in different garments
And I believe
That I deceive
Myself in my blind forays,
They come, and my ferry delays
Anxious as they are
To fleece us walking dreams
To sieve us running streams.
A wordless language screams
To ease a weight that steams.
We are nameless millions
Like Paris of the Trojans
Crawl again to our Eanons
The words to be kept
And the tears to be wept
Heave about in anticipation
We carry an ocean
And strive to keep it still
But we let it spill
We, the dreary souls of passion.
6. ETERNAL SPARTACUS
May be a streak, a hope, a flame
Now lost in human bondage
Now fly as godⳠfools or birds
Now smiles as vernal bloom sans words
Now afloat a lofty tuft, a nimbus
Whence and whither? Just beyond
Beyond the vicious whirl of time and space
Hush! Rest is silence whatever it was
A curse with bell, book, and candle
A curse still
Down from the timeless mill
To spread to scatter is the will
That oneness, Pangaea, to the space.
Comes Spartacus again to trace
The bleeding follies
Chains clank and lo! A dream all is
The eternal Spartacus thunders
And now cows down and whimpers
When the sun drowns in blood and tears.
Every sun is born afresh
Every Spartacus seeks beyond his flesh
And the curse remains
Entrenched down his domains.
7. FACES, PLACES, AND EVENTS
Days back at a winter night
On my way to find a sublime address
Came I across letters scores
Frozen quanta of hopes gathering dust
Each letter indicates a watermark
Those that sired those letters
Are now out of my reach
I stay here like a tree
And like wind they went
Hissing and panting.
I stay here like a timeless gloom
That none could so far wipe or blot
Like a bizarre Silurian painting
That a random flux of magma did on crust.
I am tired but intransigent
Unquestioned answers float about
And every answer points to naught
Though every question has an inborn answer
Waves visible and invisible
Audible and silent
Smother us and drown us
And we transform in texture, shape, and size
Only to change again, to change again
For some time we trap the flux and let it go
As the stream of thoughts, dreams, and words flow
And does it serve any purpose? does it?
The question goes out the questioner doesn
It is stupid to be wise
To be haunted by a host of ᷨys⼯P>
And at last to realize
That you missed altogether the bliss
Of being lost in this empty showbiz.
Like the last flowers of the season
Like the last lines of a painfully sweet song
Like the lull and silence of a fading dusk
Like the silent sorrow of a falling dew
Oft I see you on your lonely track
Lost in solitude and never turning back.
Once, ages ago, you flowered in my silence
Like a heavenly song lost but suddenly remembered
Like a wandering bird, a solitary bard
Like the mountain snows of November
The first flakes in the chill of the morn
Heralding a silent eternity
Then the eternity died and the spell of silence too
Like the mountain fog in summer beam
Like a vernal dawn by a mountain stream
Like the wordless agony of a lucid thought
I found you melting never to be caught
9. JOURNEY OF THE ETERNAL MAN
We create this universe
A blundersome work all the worse
And then, tired, we walk out on what we feel
That way too the curse of life will heal
The truth is silent and indifferent.
Life is a helpless trap
Once entrapped, longs to reach out, merge
Straining at the wall, trembling on the verge
But life insists on a separate identity
The ensnared being devours everything around
As it cannot be the other way around.
In between them are moments
When a sound, smell or wordless memories
Take us to the brink of eternity
And we strain to gaze beyond
Does it mean anything—this void and tranquility?
For the eternal man timeⳠtide is tied
.Beneath him life is a jumble of sounds
Whispers, cries, and endless sighs.
Far above the eternal man lies
And all but him eternally dies.
The march of seasons and the advent of senility
The delusions of wisdom, hope, and vice
Mean nothing, to eternal man; one dies.
10. COCHIN CITY
To the million souls of Cochin,
The loose and dazzling ocean Queen,
For you life and all has been
A colored dream, an endless stream
Oft I have on dingy alleys seen,
Far away from fashion shows and bloom
Squalor, death, and endless gloom
To these faceless, teaming masses
On the by-lanes of life, nursing losses
This humble harmless requiem
Once this city lured me as do winsome lasses
Now we stand divorced the city and I
We part ways obvious how and why.
But the destiny of this daring city
With amorphous growth and progerial stench
Is deeper than a luscious wench
Tremendous centuries lay buried
With generations that hoped and worried
And nations trod on nations
Latins, Semetics, and Teutons
Hatched and tried their stratagems
For this good old Asiatic city
And time sans a pinch of pity
Left them deprived and dispirited
Life is just an artless story
Of one steaming out all libidinous fury.
The dream left behind, next generation regains
Beyond this skin deep show remains
The aura of an eternal gloom
With all walking shadows loom
The stealing wraiths of doom.
Comes the wandering Jew
(And his likes are not a few)
On his back the empty bundle of ages
Stalking space time sans wages
Comes Ahasuerus in every human form.
In the sequestered cabin of his home
Listening to the weeping of his thatch eaves
Indifferently he realizes, that he lives
And that very knowledge has a shadow of death
And every revelation tastes of death.
When he finds enraptured
In the still magnificence of nature
In the harmony of every creature
Mind strains to remember something
Something that transcends everything.
Then he knows, remembrance is death
Right from the moment of birth
One metamorphoses to a flying Dutchman
And it dawns on him, fulfillment in everyman
In his restive course on earth
Is pure and simple case of death.
Life being a helpless separation
Across the languid lengths of desperation
One finds, the therapeutic union is death
ManⳠindustries and action
Are aimed at a tragedy- Satisfaction
And satisfaction is the word for death
The hapless prisoner after incarceration
When exposed full blast to freedom
Coldly remembers- freedom is death.
The shattered victim of fate
When lands on the shore of bliss though late
Sees silently-bliss is guised as death.
Bronté, Bruce, and Lincoln with a sigh
Found at last to succeed is to die.
12. THE RAIN
So divine is the moment
The throbbing expectation 洨e sweet torment
The brief and anxious lull
Before the next blast is lashed in
And the whole Heavens are flushed in
Whilst the icy mists coalesce whispering
And the thickets wait trembling
To receive the hail of ecstasy
The sky heaves in anticipation
And the river beneath
Spreads in supplication
All movements are stilled
And the fleeting moments killed
First a few drops as single spies
Breath abated nature hugs the skies
To receive the celestial spurts
Blithe abandon is a boon, though it hurts
After the eternity of a moment
It crashes in on the azure silence
That the distant sierra shrouds
In the translucence of that silken haze
Nature convulses in her bliss
Silence looms, heavy and opaque
Beneath the Sylvan canopy
Moments thaw and trickle down
When the silken mantle slowly falls
In the valley and the hills
And the heavenly spray thus fills
The cells and soul of biota
True bliss is a forgetting sans an iota
Of thought or reason or time
The world is lost in orgasmic throes
When the lashing spray falls
In the woods, hills, and dells
Rain dances like a lass
And tickles up the blades of grass
Strutting all those nimble feet so fleet
It prattles across coffee leaves and eave
And trickles down the silence of a frozen day
To drench my shriveled yesterday.
This way and this way
Round I shall my lifeⳠlittle day
There will still be rains
Watering Onam, Vishu, and lonely nights
There will still be souls
Watching sweet those falls
Even when my mortal frame is lost
And vanished like a melting ghost
13. THE PRISONER
Your tears I find in my eyes
And your dreams still in my palms
Days unfold one after another
In quick succession
And drags on your hopeful sublimation
Only to see those black and eerie days
I can see your pathos suspiring
Into the gloomy days expiring
When you lie down, a halo of dreams
Above and about you beams
And the ancient neem tree blooms
At Dawn you see them from their cradle bough
Fallen and crushed, and never for cupidⳠbow.
You gaze in the morn mutely on the ground
Those fallen dreams that wither all around
Tall and still those palm trees grave
Straining high and natureⳠfuries brave
They never brood or complain
Ills and woes they confine
In willing submission
And yield to timeⳠaggression.
From your casement you look
Then in the capsule of silence
Across timeless distance
You feed on fading bygone days
And hope still lingers in your face
Your dreams are wet
And wait in trembling hope
The flame doesnⴠdie
For still there dream is for a try.
14. YOU AND I
At a certain point of time
You and I decided to make it together
We, then, had an assortment of dreams
They evaporated, one by one
In our struggle we didnⴠeven notice it
Now life envelops us
Soggy and threadbare
The colours are gone
Am I destined to see again
The hopeful sheen in your eyes?
We strived and floated into the gray areas
And wasted our fury to flare up selfish pride
You need recognition, and spitefully though
I deny you that luxury
Your words of approval
I treasure most
You know it and seek a price for it
Once the furies are spent
We will stand together
Helpless and accommodating
And feel distantly
The sad music of life.
15. CHRISTMAS SONG
Rolling hills rolling bells
Ringing down the hills
Harken men and harken gals
Our lord is born to us
And man will live to meet his grace
As Christmas came to us
At a still and silken night
Of a frozen winter, straight
A silver star did sight
Magi saw the light
That our lord is born to us
And man will live to meet His Grace
As Christmas came to us.
The fleeting angels sang
And the dozing herdsmen heard
Down the slopes and dales and glens
That hallowed is the night
Our lord is born to us
And man will live to meet his grace
As Christmas came to us.
Virgin Mary stood
By the sleeping humble lord
In the soggy swaddling rags
And the booming wondrous song
Peace to thee O Jerusalem
Our lord is born tonight
And man will live to meet his grace
As Christmas came to us
With resigned curiosity
I watched you metamorphosing
From a demanding lover and wife
Anxious to enjoy the colours of life
Emerging a mother top to toe
And by and by died the wife in you.
This is the miracle of time
Long ago with me you came
Wide eyed relishing the freshness
Charms and walks of lifeⳠbusiness
We visited cities and towns
And distant hills of foggy crowns
Now nothing matters but the baby
Sweet gentle one, so it be
Long long ago a baby in you died
And a dreaming girl, you glowed
From the debris of a child
A lady in you bloomed
Long time hence at last
What else can you be
But God, for being a dam
Is just beneath that charm.
17. HIDE AND SEEK
A sad game of hide and seek
It is Christian life, a game of temptations
In what we do and what we speak
There are pitfalls and concealed lamentations
As the Nazi prisoner found at last
The long sought God amid tribulations
Is very much there, on the scaffold fast
Trembling and quivering, for the liberation
God doesnⴠstay apart.
Watch the gory scene of flood and fury
He is us, till we depart
Hoping and dreaming, waiting for the ferry
Hence stalk on, regally and proudly
Right into failures and desolation
With poise and dignity, but mildly mildly
We will stand in the debris and isolation
The debris of our dreams and ill-fated schemes
Were then worth their value, it seems
So we will chug on, as our spirit steams
Tumbling and falling, chase fairies and dreams
Writhe royally at last, on the eternal cross
Fools we are, pawns of human wisdom
Blinding wisdom leaves us only in his kingdom
I stand on a shore, no more scriptures
And no more religious strictures.
He smiles at me in the rolling meadows
He laughs with me in the lengthening shadows.
Where is god—asks our rationality defiantly
ItⳠan experience—whispers heart faintly
Watch a sapling growing in your palms
Or a bud just blowing in her charms
And you feel something divine
Something that our words fail to define
Sometimes across the rainy hills
An occasional rivulet smiles
Or monstrous puffs of snow white glow
Grace the hills and gracefully flow
And somebody knocks at your door ajar
With a placid whisper, soft and afar
Watch the patient shoots of grass greening the bed
In the slushy film of alluvium after flood
Or the dancing angel forms amidst the hydrophytes
Gaudy and blithe showing off in flesh and blood
And a contagious smile spreads
An ancient freshness outsmarting all dreads
When a heavy lull breaks to an easy rain
One sits back to listen again
The silent footsteps of somebody far
The wordless language of a distant star.
19. THE CARAVAN
Battered and tattered pulls on life
Hopefully and tremblingly in the paths of strife
Right to the edge of doom one hopes
And into the abysmal mystery leaps
A modicum of sun and bliss
Makes one turn to life and kiss
Conceited as we are, we wait
For the next of timeⳠlottery to light
When the march of days and night retreated
And the inexorable flux defeated
Some solitary spirit somewhere
Stripped of gaudy plumes and ware
Would sit back in silence and darkness
To devour what is and to be still
Is weighed equally as spread and swell.
20. TAKE ON THE WORLD
Take on the world take on the world
Take your cudgels, too
There comes the world rude and bold
As the warriors do
We will fail, down the drain
Still we sing our falling strain
Till we part our mortal frame
And till we fade in dreaming grain
We will train all hearts
Not to pine down the lane
Where one starts and where one parts
Is the same, there is no pain
We will keep chasing dreams
And flow like mountain streams
Till the last of dreams is lost
And palsied, we change hosts
Days lost in long wait
The day at last, you are late
Angel is gone you are lost
What has life been for
Sad it is, to celebrate an eternal gore
This is my fate, I blossom late
I roam and groan, I love and hate
And the days are lost in long wait
Shall I call it a day, the day I date
With this miasma, my life
A life—an impotent longing and strife
A delusive separation is this meandering life
And these days I long and wait
I survey me—my artless state
Torn and tattered, not a clean slate
Amidst these smoldering fumes I state
My state—waiting at the gate
Random clouds of black moods
Feel their way, linger, and stay
To show dutifully the paths of gloom
Yet an eternal soul persists to say
That every moment and every torment
Is part of a universal whole
No matter you brave it or miserably fall
Moments stand by, we flow
Time winds and unwinds, we come and go.
We celebrate our wants
On this Easter day
No delicacies no dear friends
Just yet another day
No meat, no bread, and no feast
We celebrate our Spartan little day
I plan and dream a better way
For colors and flowers to thrill our puny way
Amidst penury and dearth
We sit by our dear hearth
We trust this life and this lonely earth
The little ones are curious
And are at times furious
That they are denied a wondrous life
She strives and strains, my hapless wife
To make a home, day and night
When I cringe and flunk, she makes it light
She is nature, I a lingering shadow
She a laughing stream, pure and shallow
We celebrate a silent sadness
Easter flies past with its sweetness
The little ones need sweets
The baby little prattles forth
Splurges a bundle of cashew nuts
Nuts that she hoarded religiously
Dawn to dusk, for the thrill of it
Her little sacrifice her little joys
Sweeten this day, we rejoice.
23. THIS OUR LIFE
This our life, this one way traffic
Feels its way, listless and terrific
Across the darkling plains
Baring it all—crackling pains,
Sparkling gains, and clanking chains
We suffer from us and plod on
We differ, we float, and never return
We pitched our little tent
And our caring hours spend
On our meager possessions and tend
Our puny pack of dreams
Amidst schemes and fiendish screams
We stray down to a world unseen
Luring and enticing, with a wondrous sheen
Anticipating an ecstatic agony
We veer down to shed our form
Like those ephemeral globules of ocean foam
Is an everlasting silence our eternal home?
Or shall we return in a changed form?
Wisdom tells us lies
And to lies we adhere for our rise
We seek the shadows of a truth
When at last we boil and bubble in our own broth.
This tortuous trail
We pursue with our form so frail
The parallel lines of silence with a smile
We link, and shed our private tears awhile
Dive and dissolve we shall
Into an indifference, as we fall.
Till then hopes and fears tease
When the scourge of wisdom will cease
Into a non-duality we ease.
We never become us
We ape others
We never believe us
We believe others
We deify them
They defy us
We entrust ourselves barrel and stock
They kick us about, rattle and rock
Alright, we are the rabble of fault
But able and strong, to take it with a pinch of salt
Oft we wake, to stammer and falter
An impotent hope to transfer and alter
These indelible ills, the stigma of our breed
The inner culpability or the victim of their greed!
Vintage books, (Greek or Latin) they read
Stunned and unsure, formless fears we heed
They need a Christ, on the cross
Their vegetable pawn, to pass and toss
The foundation of a structure old and solid.
Such stuff we are, mute and stolid
To shoulder the burden of the world
To cushion the well bred, suave and bold
We need them to be us
We feed them to avoid a fuss
We dream again nonetheless
But dreaming ones are venomous and hiss
Hence they keep us awake for their bliss
We never turn to us
We turn to turn others
We never trust our folks
They are fit with their chain and locks
With gilted books
And polished looks.
Numbers are not numbers
Albeit numbers we end in whimpers
Canⴠwe sting us into a few?
When rage compels, as rattlesnakes do.
25. YEOMAN AND THE NATION
Every pickpocket is an unseen rapist
Ubiquitous and ruthless an abdominal parasite
A rapist anyway, whose deed like a spike
Pierces our soul our dignity in a strike
I sit on the seashore
With a ruffled soul, Bleeding and spread-eagled
An unseen hand did it all, greedy and evils
He knows not what he did
Nor does he care all the more good.
Sand what is to become of me
Disowned by the world I be
For his jaded pleasures he may throw
What I earned in the sweat of my brow
The worth of our wealth
Is the sweat and energy we sacrificed for it
Every pie matters to a rustic farmhand
Having burnt his life in a fastidious farmland
To the Fagin, every conquest is a fun
Hilarious and thrilling, a life in the sun
Then in the final reckoning
When we stall our human reasoning
We converge into one
Victor and victim, who lost who won?
Fawning and servile, cringing and yielding
Every peasant is a walking apology
His puny world is fraught with terrors
Of the fustian Bumbles and natural horrors
Of the lurking gods and theirs purple panderers
He bears the burden of our national sins
And cushions out it shocks, as he thins
Nations lay their foundation on his silence
And build up a facade, on his resilience
Then crops up this blasphemous question
A nation we are, but what is a nation?
A fashion or a delusive notion?
One is alone—fashion or notion
And one is one, when it boils down to reason.
26. THE SEPERATION
In trembling fears and tearful hopes
She waits and frets, silently weeps
I wander in the woods of humanity
Silently and stumblingly defying reality
Oh dear had the world been so
As to make us placidly go
I walk like a floating shadow
Deep in the polis shallow
One day my dear one day one day
We will sit together and say
Say nothing- And by then
Our day would have been done
It is faltering dragging course
Into the night we ride, by force
A force of a thousand horse.
Into the universal night
Of everlasting unity—and light
A deluding entity.
Lone in the tinsel world of bliss
I am the sadness of the hills
I am the trickle of the rills
The grinding groan of a rickety shack
In the bottomless night
I am the silence of the lake
Dreaming of the light
I am the drops from a cloud
I am the shadow of a fleeting thought
Fleet and disarming
I am the dream of a flower
I am the soul of an opinion
In place and weathering
27. THE DAYS GONE BY
The light was fading on the lea
Night devoured us you and me
We walked alone in the land of god
The ruddy blush still lingered
Like bowls of fire time fingered
You told me then facing the fading day
㉠love this time when dayⳠgiven way伯P>
The woods were sad and silent
When the frozen stillness stood defiant
Clear water laughed its way down
To waste again in the maze of town
Pensive pines were towering high
Swaying tufty boughs up the sky
You asked me then to hold your hand
I did so then in my mind
Night exuded the fragrance
Of sweet and subtle winter elegance
Roses, hyacinths, and magnolia
Jasmines, daisies, and petunia
You told me of your early days
On a distant island of boats and quays
We still plodded on or our feet did
And the footprints night anon hid
The cane fields slept in dark stillness
Then you teased me with a fleecy branch
Whilst I watched the sheep down the ranch
Now I remember all these
The romance, poesy, and peace
The lacuna set in, somewhere in between
The yawning depths of time and space
Those days are still in my mind
Etched deep, dear and sound.
There is long long distance
Should it make any difference?
In early pearls of winter dew
One sees the world fresh and new
Time fails and the distance too.
When mind hails a deeper view.
When the day dies for the night around
In this empty world as memories surround
I find again as Adam did.
This fulsome world that fantasy bid.
28. CHAMPARAN HIGHWAY
On the road to Champaran at nightfall
Stood I, a grotesque silhouette on the night wall
The scooting trucks blared and roared
On their bizarre course on the dreary road
In the grim darkness, the Champaran Highway
Ancient monstrous trees sal and tamarind
Hemmed it, still and pensive, roots centuries behind
The dark orchards lay buried in dead silence
Comes the caravan against timeⳠviolence
On Champaran Road where time died a century back
A fossilized inertia along this obfuscated track
With a rippling melancholy knell
One by one casting still more gloomy spell
The carts dark and rustic in a single file
Rolled on and on for a while
On the road to Champaran
Across the bleak terrain
Heaps upon heaps the centuries lay buried
Where monks and monarchs scurried and worried
The bland and suave, gauche, and rustic
Sakya and Mahavir with Akber and Jehangir
On the road to Champaran
Across inordinate oblivion.
I visualize those apostles of cloak and dagger
Stalking proud and sans a stagger
Letting frightened blood cold and sober
A lonely motorist went up the road
He may vanish into the hands of God
As Enoch did long ago shedding his load
A motorist in the black stillness to Champaran
Where dacoits lurk, highway queen flash ware
The road to Champaran and the stench of time
That lost its way and missed its chime
The sighs of generations dead and alive
Like gusts of wind from everywhere arrive
The Gandak gleams, the gentle smile of scared moon
Slides fast as sinking boat, to be devoured soon
T^he oblong shadows, prisoners of their past and future
Wriggle around dead to right and reason
The Champaran Highway, centuries away
Night after night dark forces run their writ
On Champaran road where the spineless fret
And the sd realities groan
By the burden of the atrocities grown
On this trail of blood and solid tears
Where loom cold and stolid fears.
29. JUST ONCE
Well before the curtain fall
Just once I want to call
Those distant dear haunts
And fill my heart again
The strains of blue-green grass
And the world is all the same
Though I failed to win the game
My yester haunts know why I came
To smell the fumes of blue June breeze.
Once again that autumn fall
To watch down the castle wall
And I greet the silken leaves
Fall you fall from still brown trees.
Walk I in the distant dells
Where I once could touch the stars
Alone with my highland folks
When winter snow did brace our dreams
It is all the same I came alone
They are fresh the days bygone.
30. AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Days come again shadowed by nights
Squashing dreams taunting man to the heights
And everybody falls sooner or later.
One is home and lives as fool no better
Bu t out one goes annealed and wise
Awakened and disillusioned from all those lies
Onam comes clad in autumn flowers
The wet nights weep right into the day
A drizzle lingers reluctant to give way
Then comes the late autumn night
With speckles, skies, and brilliant lights
Dewy dawns with wet and soggy sorrel leaves
Dancing down to settle flat as sheaves on sheaves
Winter calls on distant wind swept hills
Billows on billows like gusts from SatanⳠmills
Blooms bougainvillea, bleeding down on hedges and eaves
Christmas comes and dead old year leaves
Heat and dust of spring is killed
When fresh and nascent rain has filled
Soil and sand of quenching drops
And farmers think aloud on future crops
Fading days are shadowed oft by cumulo nimbus
And plumb and little limbs are seen on re-born campus
Year rolls on, lives unfold and die in between
Many hope and believe, few had been*.
Those young years were chilled with fears
The wilderness and solitude when night nears
The hillsides were silent and down a sylvan brook
Giggled in winter and in June hollered down the creek
The sun cruised from hill to hill
Day dies leaving everything dead and still
Rainy days are wet and eerie
Rain lashes in it s ebullient fury
We sit around peevish glow of idle fire
Deep buried in mist and fog, snug and dear.
The childish dreams led me oft
To watch the autumn morning dawning soft
On a divine serene dusk
Blushed and kissed with a crimson disc
On top of that eternal mountain
Which to me was a cosmic fountain
Winter comes and pepper is ripe
The mellow sun smiles, bulbuls chirp
And in the silence of the darkening peaks
One is exposed to the language eternity speaks
Rippling from across the sands of time
But listening to the same today is a crime
Sometimes atop the hill you go for a stroll
In the company of God, oblivious of the world and all.
I never waited or planned
Chased momentary dreams that time fanned
Three decades across I stand here now
Still floating and know not how
There was something of a Sathyakama Jabal
But didnⴠwait enough with the cattle afar
Still a Sathyakama Jabal in the making
Still a bungling Buddha in the waking
Down in the woods an unseen cuckoo coos
Having no echo coos again all his woes.
It remains deep in the boyhood
Where and where thence not for livelihood
Where and where chasing myriad dreams
As children do, chasing moths and drones
I remember you on this modest day
You are a drop of tear in my mind
A part of me lost and found
Perchance you were in me ere the tick of time
Or with me on those distant trails you came
Like a dream like an anguished sigh
All those shadows do I leave to die
Again we will build our dreams dear
Watch I shall it glowing in you near
Why on earth we stumbled into this role
To pull on and pull on this strenuous droll
We forgot before we could remember again
The heaving dark and silence across loss and gain
Once you fluttered about in your gaudy attire
Like a dream in flesh, then it was time to retire
Oft we lose our eternal character
And we forget what we are
But what we are?
A silent glow held prisoner by this mortal frame
Happily lost in ignorance, duped by a raving brain
At times a restive spirit stirs
To merge again to wither, to merge into nothing
Ignorance is the anchor the real boon
That too is ephemeral, we are relieved soon
The diablerie of time and all its agents
Makes us fade on palette spent.
*knowing and becoming are entirely different experiences.
31. THE ROAD TO SIBERIA
In that sad and desolate area
Amidst eerie shadows, on the road to Siberia
One can fancy the march of dismayed generations
From the four roots of etiquette and sad relations
From the Great Catherine to Nicholas the frail
One hears muffled sobs on this melancholy trail
Up the frozen tundra north of Asia
A cold oblivion across the Urals beyond Russia
The fleecy poles of pines, elm, and poplar
Ivies, lichens, and flora polar
Caste a spell of fossilized melancholy
Then the deafening silence in the sulking valley
On the way to Siberia and cold eternity
And man turns manⳠgod,a new fraternity
One sees the great masters of Slav gloom
Pushkin, Fyodor, down to Pasterank
Rodion Soniya Malsova to Sergius mark!
On the trail of heartⳠbloom
In this dreary land to find again
Man in god and god in man
Looking down the looming dark of wilderness
One remembers, vague of course, the sadness
Found stilled in the depths of her gloomy eyes
One remembers Russia and her sulking ways
Unlike Saxon Thames of even flow
Russia remains with her cold glow
And the litany of humanity
Led by those sad drops of gloom
That ever and ever do always loom.
32. THE SONG OF THE DEJECTED
Those cold and sure fingers
Of death that prevails and lingers
Are stealthy but feathery
Deft but slippery
Why, a seasoned insomniac I am
Waiting to fade in oblivion
In the maze of amnesia
For man is an amnesiac
When he is just born
And even when he melts into eternity.
In this confused existence too
Something ineffable keeps on knocking
An urge to know, but defies knowing
Across the door of dawn less sleep
Sliding down the flank of mountain steep
In the valley dark and silent deep
One is bound to realize
With the scars of time that seemed to tick
And those years one spent to brood and lick
Luck is a sham, a brilliant hoax
A carrot that does back to life coax.
33. THE BENEVOLENT AND THE MAGNIFICENT
Far across the sands of Arabia
Stood the hunter lost in dwindling hope
At an oasis where of t the wandering herds stop
Al day long he kept his lurking loop
With burning hunger waited he in aching stoop
The sun was climbing down hi s western grave
Hunter pined 権s dear ones in mountain cave
Famished are they waiting for their father brave
㓡ve me o God for my little ones you give
Good a little beast now down the grove伯P>
When the final rays of vernal day were sinking fast
Came a goat there bleating down to quench her thirst
Quick and fast he pulled a knot and she was caught
Hunter raised his chopper to cut her short
The swinging knife was thwarted by an unseen hand
The shining steel still thirsting, but it canⴼ/P>
Kill this dam, being seized by a divine hand
Turning, hunter sees an aged man of unknown land
㑵it, care I none for old or young
Hungry man is angry man and you may bring
Your own end now, whoever you be god or king
Free my hand now, lest I make you cringe伯P>
㈵nter dear, waited you for all day long
Wait a moment, for you take me wrong
Kill or hack me, you are young and strong
But wait and see that tangled face
She too has her little ones to feed and raise
Waiting they are for her caring ways
See you once her pleading eyes
Look down at her dragging teats
You can kill her skin and cook and eat
But once, just once let her go and meet
Her dear ones and tell them not to wait
That she is for a hunterⳠmeat
That they should henceforth be on their own
Thence will come she for your feast
Doubt you not now not the least
She will come back I know the beast
Doubt you still and hold me fool?
Take my flesh bones in her lieu
And me you make a larger stew
If she goes and comes never back.
Here I step down in your pack
Pray now free her quick and tie me now伯P>
㔩me I none have for you cow
Still gentle those eyes turn me how.
See I now there pain and love
Here she goes now fast and free
Wait we shall to the last of day
If she fails till night I say
Then and there with life you pay
For we play this game down all your way伯P>
She goat ran her way to the lea
Across sands and dunes that spread like sea
Nursing soft her winsome lambs
㈥nce sun and moon be your lamps
Hurry I back to the hunter far
Reach I must him before dark
Lest a saint dies for my sake
Wait you no more for my milk
But learn your life as all your ilk伯P>
㔩me is up now fallen dark
Wait I no more you may mark
Better by far you should die
Fools and dull wits with a sigh
Fill their days with loss and shame伯P>
Hunter raised his shining steel
ㄩe you must you stole my meal伯P>
㗡it I did it for your weal伯P>
㎵t! You may not win your game䠼/P>
Comes the goat at nick of time
Soft and bowing there she comes
Giving up her flesh and bones
Wonder-struck the hunter stands
Eyes he once that beard and face
Eyes once those tranquil eyes
Eyes he around him divine rays
㋩ll I neither goat nor thee伯P>
Falls he headlong at his feet
ガess me master curse me not
All my life has come to naught
All my days are gone and lost
Still I weigh this moment more than that
God thou art I knew not yet伯P>
㐲aise you not me Allah est
Graceful high and benevolent
Come with me you where my tent
Keeps a bit of camel meat and edible nut
Share we shall it for the best
And Allah bless us till the last伯P>
Alex Paikada, Chathanthara P.O., Mukkoottuthara (via), Kottayam Dist., Kerala—686 510.
E-mail Alex Paikada at:email@example.com
The Author, Alex PaikadaI am one among the faceless masses that cushion the sins of the powers that be. I lived a simple pastoral life far away in the hilly terrains finding “tongues in trees, sermons in stones, books in running brooks, and good in everything.”
Our vision of the world is essentially anthropocentric. Humanity is not a necessity to the world a fraction of a second more than the seasoned wisdom of nature thinks we are. Hence, worry not about cataclysms, let us just be true to ourselves and also to others. Every day that dawns on us is a gift, and we should not look beyond it. The day itself is late, the wise lived yesterday. There is an indelible element of me in all of my stories; I multiply into various characters.
I was born to Syrian Christian parents in Kerala state on the 25th of May 1961, and lost my mother and younger sister to poverty and waterborne diseases when I was three. Syrian Christians are a very ancient lot who are the followers of St. Thomas, who is believed to have come to India in 52AD. Despite difficulties on the home front, I did well in school. After earning my B. Tech degree in Mechanical Engineering from Kerala university, I took off to the Himalayas and lived there for many years in a Buddhist Monastery. Then I wandered across the country, making a living by teaching at various private schools. After a space of 7 years, I came back to Kerala in 1992. In the same year, I joined Cochin University of Science and Technology to take my masters degree in Environmental Science. In 1995, I chose to retreat with my aged father to a remote village on the Pampa River to live the life of a rustic country farmer. Subsequently, I married a girl from that village at the age of 34, a very late marriage by Indian standards. Now we have two wonderful children, a boy and a girl.
Kerala, like the rest of India, is besieged by globalization. As a result of Pax Americana, the entire world is being molded into a cultural monolith with an American veneer manifested by dress, food, habits, and the internet/cellphone culture. Those who fail to maintain customs and traditions stand to forfeit their identity. Kerala and its values are fast slipping into history.