UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 04/2012
NIKHIL CHANDWANI

AN OLD INDIAN CRY

         For the third time in as many years they faced the confusion of what to present a young man who was incurably unbalanced in his mind. He had no hopes. Materialistic objects were to him either hives of evil, vivacious with a malignant activity that he alone could comprehend, indecent, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his non figurative world. After voiding a number of clauses that might offend him or scare him (anything in the gadget line for instance was prohibited), his parents chose an exquisite trifle: a hugebox with ten different dark chocolates in ten different compartments.

         At the clock of his birth they had been together already for a long time; number of years had elapsed, and now they were quite old. Her drab dark hair was done anyhow. She wore cheap blye dresses. Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Khan, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked black visage to the fault- finding light of spring days. Her husband, who before his retirement had been a fairly successful bank manager, was now wholly dependent on his brother Swapnil, a real Indian of almost forty years of business standing. They seldom saw him and had nicknamed him "the King."

         That Saturday everything went wrong. The train derailed in between two stations, and for half an hour one could hear nothing but the repetitive beating of one's heart and the swapping of newspapers. The bus they had to take next kept them waiting for ages; and when it did come, it was overfilled with talkative high-school children. It was raining hard as they walked up the grey path leading to the sanitarium. There they waited yet again; and instead of their boy shuffling into the room as he usually did (his poor face filled with acne, ill-shaven, half burnt, and confused), an ambitious nurse they knew, and did not care for, appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit might disturb him. The place lacked staffs, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the domain but to bring it to him next time they came.

         She waited for her husband to undo his umbrella. He kept clearing his throat in a special resonating way he had when he was depressed. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the half made street and he closed his umbrella. A few metres away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny half-dead unfledged crow was helplessly twitching in a puddle.

         During the delayed ride to the railway station, she and her husband did not exchange a word; and every time she stared at his dead hands (swollen veins, brown-spotted skin), clasped and revolving upon the handle of his age old umbrella, she felt the mounting pain and pressure of tears. As she looked around trying to hook her attention onto something, it gave her a kind of soft shock, a mixture of compassion and dream, to notice that one of the passengers, a girl with dark hair and grubby red toenails, was weeping on the shoulder of an older woman. Whom did that woman resemble? She resembled Megha Jain, whose daughter had married one of the Brahmin - in Mumbai, years ago.

         The last time he had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor's words, a masterpiece of smartness; he would have succeeded, had not a jealous fellow patient thought he was learning to jump - and stopped him. What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole and escape.

         The system of his illiusions had been the subject of a detailed paper in a scientific monthly, but long before that she and her husband had questioned it out for themselves. In these very painful cases the patient imagines that everything existing around him is a veiled reference to his personality. He excludes real people from the conspiracy - because he considers himself to be so much more intellectual than other souls. Phenomenal nature protects him wherever he goes. Clouds in the horrifying sky transmit to one another, by means of latent signs, incredibly detailed information regarding his life. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating plants. Pebbles or stains or sun light form patterns representing in some awkward way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a code and of everything he is the centre of attraction. Some of the spies are seperated observers, such are glass surfaces and still liquids; others, such as coats in store windows, are witnesses, innocent at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of disorder, have a distorted opinion of him and monstorously misjudged his life. He must be always on his guard and dedicate every second and breathe of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very oxygen he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings - but alas it is not! With displacement the to rents of unholy scandal increase in volume and volubility. The outline of his red corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the final answer of his being.

II

        When they emerged from the storm and poison smell of the pathway, the last hours of the day were mixed with the street lights. She wanted to buy some vegetables for dinner, so she handed him the box of chocolate jars, telling him to go to the apartment. He walked up to the third landing and then remembered he had given her his keys in the morning.

         In silence he sat on the friction steps and silence rose when some ten minutes later she came, heavily slogging upstairs, smiling, shaking her head in deprecation of her mistakes. They entered their one-room flat and he at once went to the mirror. Straining the edges of his face apart by means of his trembling thumbs, with a horrible mask-like grimace, he removed his new painfully uncomfortable dental plate and severed the long tusks of saliva holding him to it. He read his Hindi-language newspaper while she laid the table. Still reading, he drank coconut oil that needed no teeth. She knew his moods and so she was also silent.

         When he had gone to sleep, she remained in the drawing room with her pack of heavily soiled cards and her long forgotten albums. Across the narrow yard where the water tinkled in the dark against some battered ash bottles, windows were blandly alight and in one of them a black trousered man with his bare elbows raised could be seen lying supine on a untidy bed. She pulled the blind down and stared at the old photographs. As a baby he looked more surprised than most babies. From a fold in the album, a maharastrian maid they had had in Nagpur and her fat-faced fiance fell out. Three years old, in a park: moodily, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel as he would from any other stranger. Aunt Aditi, a fussy, dark-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, break ups, cancerous growths--until a kidnapper put her to death,for her gold chain, together with all the people she had worried about. Age six - that was when he drew beautiful birds with human hands and legs, and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man. His cousin, now a famous chess player. He again, aged about eight, already difficult to understand, afraid of the lizard in the passage, afraid of a certain picture in a book which merely showed an ugly looking reptile staring at him; aged ten: the year they left Mumbai. The shame, the pity, the humiliating pains, the vicious, backward children he was with in that school of specials . And then came a time in his life, coinciding with a long convalescence after pneumonia, when those little phobias of his which his parents had stubbornly regarded as the eccentricities of a prodigiously gifted child hardened as it were into a dense tangle of logically interacting illusions, making him totally inaccessible to normal heads.

         This, and much more, she accepted - for after all living did mean accepting the loss of one happiness after another, not even happiness in her case but waves of emotions that for some reason or other she and her husband had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of ego contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed, or lost, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful fruits that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches.

III

        It was past one in the night when from the drawing room she heard her husband scream; and presently he staggered in, wearing over his nightgown the old overcoat with half torn collar which he much preferred to the nice blue T-shirt he had.

         "I can't breathe," he cried.

         "Why," she asked, "why can't you breathe? You were tired."

         "I can't breathe because I am dying," he said and lay down on the couch.

         "Is it your stomach? Do you want me to call Dr. Attin?"

         "No doctors, no doctors," he moaned, "To the devil with doctors! We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise we'll be responsible. Responsible!" he repeated and hurled himself into a sitting position, both feet on the floor, thumping his forehead with his clenched fist.

         "All right," she said in tears, "we shall bring him home tomorrow morning."

         "I would like some coffee," said her husband and crawled to the bathroom.

         Bending with difficulty, she retrieved some playing cards and a photograph or three that had jumped from the couch to the floor: knave of hearts, nine of spades, ace of spades, Sneha and her bestial beau. He returned in proud spirits, saying in a loud voice:

         "I have it all figured out. We will give him our bedroom. Each of us will spend some part of the night gaurding him and the other part on this couch. By turns. We will have the doctor see him at least thrice a week. It does not matter what the King says. He won't have to say much anyway because it will come out cheaper."

         The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for their telephone to ring. His left slipper had come off and he groped for it with his heel and toe as he stood in the middle of the room, and childishly, toothlessly, gaped at his wife. Having more Hindi than he did, it was she who attended to calls.

         "Can I speak to Rahul," said a girl's dull little voice.

         "What number you want? No. That is not the right number."

         The receiver was gently cradled. Her hand went to her old tired heart.

         He smiled a quick smile and immediately resumed his excited monologue. They would fetch him as soon as it was day. Knives would have to be kept in a locked drawer. Even at his worst he presented no danger to other people.

         The telephone rang a second time. The same toneless anxious young voice asked for Rahul.

         "You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing: you are turning the letter O instead of the zero."

         They sat down to their unexpected festive midnight tea. The birthday present stood on the table. He sipped noisily; his face was flushed; every now and then he imparted a circular motion to his raised glass so as to make the sugar dissolve more thoroughly. The vein on the side of his bald head where there was a large birthmark stood out conspicuously and, although he had shaved that morning, a silvery bristle showed on his chin. While she poured him another glass of tea, he put on his spectacles and re-examined with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, red little jars. His clumsy moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels: apricot, grape, beech plum. The old man went to grab an orange when the telephone rang again.








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