by Manoshij Banerjee
Vapour from over a saucepan of boiling milk touches the scent of earth for the drizzle outside. A cheap stereo barks out songs in a tongue I gave up learning. There are dark ugly people with large ugly feet and bad teeth huddling under this porch placed by the highway. And a gaunt figure aged much over sixty dressed in shirt and loincloth is feeding the earth tea and water from identical glasses- an act whose regularity and posture has made me and Zehein presume that it is an offering. This is Old Cabbage’s tea shop.
Two, four, six and twenty-two wheelers pass us by speeding on the highway injecting a bit of their apparent urgency into us. Our early morn ease shudders mildly. I unwrap a toffee, put it to my mouth and because these days I don’t stuff wrappers into my pocket anymore, I throw it away.
Where are they going?
An enormous eagle hovering somewhere up in the sky notices the traffic chain moving on the highway and flaps its wings such vigorously as to go stationary; it sticks to a point in air like a chandelier in a marriage hall. Her panorama shows people running, hopping and frolicking about, bouncing off different edges, proceeding erratically to the next they are expecting with absolute certainty. This concrete road, the concreteness of which has been taken so much for granted might dissolve in a moment’s whim into undecipherable nothingness; the passage of every moment is submission of a bit to history. Eagle realizes this and laughs with ominous scorn; she imagines these people not having a good night’s sleep because they were too anxious to wake up at dawn, take bath and perfume and doll themselves up and leave their homes for journeys they have rehearsed in their minds. After much rumination, she comes up with a probable answer: they are all going into oblivion.
I, Z. and these fishermen squatting around us are crutches to Eagle’s residual faith on man’s intellect for we aren’t moving (Eagle is indifferent to locomotion). We are sipping tea, sucking on cigarette butts and shouldering the weighty hopes of this Occidental creature, astonished that immobility could mean so much. Z. is sharing with me snippets from John Rayleigh’s life who invented a resolution formula we have been taught in class this semester. I have a bald grumpy professor deriving it using complicated algebra on the blackboard (me inhaling chalk dust on the first bench) in mind. Old Cabbage, as the corners of my eyes note, is stirring milk and scraping the saucepan sides with a large spoon, wooden spoon, I have steel ones at home. His hand twitches occasionally when a drop of boiling milk erupts out to land on it. My right hand involuntarily goes to graze a spot on the left arm where the skin is minutely raised. Inside the head, bites nostalgia.
Eagle rewinds time by six years and focuses its view on a Bengali household in a town faraway; a dining table affair floats up to her sight. She sees a father brandishing a long-handled tablespoon at his son who’s struggling to factorise a second-order polynomial, his mother is busy taking notes of rose fertilizers in her diary. Eagle wrinkles her face when the father, in the manner of several whacks, helps his son to simplify lumps of alphanumeric entities, creating a lump of loose flesh himself. After an episode of painful calamine smearing, the family sits down to dine with bitter gourd dipped in mustard oil for starter. Eagle smiles condescendingly; she’s an orphan, she’s no family.
The scent of earth and tobacco has left a curious blend in our nostrils. The azan falls in our ears in a grotesque voice from the nearest mosque. Z. is seen staring blankly into the black of the highway, smoke from his cigarette rising in a pencil stream getting dismantled at his chin, blurring his vision. The abrupt season-change has bought me pharyngitis, so I sip tea and drain it slowly through the throat imagining with comfort the pink heads shrinking. Is this heavy-headedness from the tea or the rain, I cannot tell. Eagle whispers it’s because of Z. I say no but she quizzes me.
How much do you know of him?
Z. by birth belongs to Varanasi and by upbringing to Dubai and Delhi. He has a peculiar fancy-named syndrome which causes his body to be too cold in the night and very hot during day. That night, the night he disclosed this secret to us, I heard him murmuring in sleep that in childhood when he was living his last week in Dubai, he had swallowed some sand believing it was “coarse water” and it is that talismanic sand that lavatorial exercise has failed to remove (and remains deposited in a deep-ochre welt round his waist) which gives him the syndrome, a farewell blessing he said. That to my assumption is the only speck of foreignness he wants to retain.
We are talking about mirages now awaiting a second round of tea and cigarettes. Old Cabbage’s deft hairy hands distract me. His over-fidgety fingers handle the culinary apparatus with a certain care which looks familiar to me. The tea that he makes is a fluid of wonder. He says he learnt the technique from a Japanese recipe book written completely in music notes- this I have registered as the talk of a poor aged aging into a loon. If asked about the content of the mixture he stores in a glass jar of smoky turbulence within, only a pinch of which he stirs to every full saucepan of milk, he will curtly reply “Ferns, final words of dying oysters and particular crescendos played on violin”. And “Right!” I will find myself saying smilingly. From mirage, our conversation has tumbled into the alleys where, as Z. lectures me, “the authentic Delhi folk reside, pet pigeons and gorge on mutton delicacies.”
With metal braced teeth and metal rods fitted into his right arm and right thigh (the latter coming from playground mishaps, the former a correction of a hereditary feature), Z. is deservingly a man of steel (and sand), more so when with noticeable tongue effort he swears in the Haryanvi brogue he is particularly fond of. Z. lights another cigarette (which we’ll share) as he sways his turbaned head (the turban he has made out of a brown chiffon dupatta belonging to his ex) to the bark of the music player. He resembles right now an imported brown furred bunny which wobbled its head and emanated folk tunes when switched on. Father tried, but couldn’t bargain it down and I couldn’t take it home. After we returned home that evening, I was anxious to note his reaction which I expected to rely on pampering. He as I discovered was keen to read up a chapter on ‘metal fatigue’ which had fuzzy diagrams scribbled all over. I understood little of him then but I understand the diagrams now- we had a metallurgy course previous year in the course of which Z. and I became what is called close for we have tried since then to close on each other the burdens of love sacks (mine all empty, his too full) that we have carried from our not very ancient pasts. We could afford each other’s silence, which has been of help.
Ash meets water with hiss; we believe it won’t rain for a brief spell; bidding eagle goodbye, we are riding on a scooter I have borrowed from my room-mate without permission. The scooter crosses the highway into our college gate and is roaring at forty on a boulevard. There’s egg smelling from the wet road which is blotched with the orange of the lamp posts.
A pomegranate tree which I pass by everyday catches my eyes. Having gotten drenched in rain it looks prettier than usual. The pomegranates, ripe red tapered balls holding countless redder beads within, hang amidst small green curly leaves, the slender branches wanting to relieve themselves off the weight they have gathered over an autumn of red-formation (love formation?). It starts raining again, now with excessive vigour; we rush to the tin-roofed patio of the night guards’ building. It is raining heavily, very heavily. The tea taste is ceasing to be. Z. tells me things which I respond to with perfunctory hmm, he shuts himself up. There’s raging patter, there are fluttering leaves and there is a suffocated organ wanting to exhale.
A rainy afternoon. I had returned back from school with drenched and soiled canvas sneakers. As I tip-toed across the dining space I met father studying me with glowering eyes. Pleasantries were responded to with gritting teeth. The actions that followed I remember in order- multiple hair pulls, jostle as defence, thudding slaps, strangulation, wiggling. Black tears rolled out and dried leaving furrows over my fair skin. “You rascal got me late for office!” he grumbled as he rushed out swaying a paunch held in a pinstriped shirt smelling of fish. Ma paused the video tutorial on bonsai she was concentrating on all this while, came to me, picked me up and whispered in her tone of half-affection-half-complaint “Never again kohl your eyes when he’s around”. She held my face cupping her menopausal fingers the way she held dahlias to notice if the colour patterns had developed well. “But I thought I would look well, in contrast to the white Friday uniform,” I managed breathing with constriction as I looked into her eyes claiming penance. “We’ll go shopping okay? Go change, quick, there’s sardine for lunch”. We did go shopping in the evening. The return drive had me stuffed along with fat polythene bags in the rear of our car; with a lollypop bulge on my cheek I watched a city life wanting to be tainted, drying on the moist tar streets.
We are nearing our hostels. Z. is chilling, as I notice with an accustomed worry during the abrupt breaks at the bumpers, he’s learning to ride. A tinge of cannabis reaches my nostril as I brush against his woolly tee. The rain like always seems done for the day. A humungous crow populace thrives in the canopy by Z.’s hostel which might be estimated by the amount of shit-marks on the road beneath and they, after their dawn ritual, are bickering in violent shrieks. “Must have gotten tonsils overnight,” says Z. as he kisses my forehead owing to an Arabic goodbye custom; I purse and ride back to my hostel. I forget to remind him of the sleeping pills he’s been taking under prescription for over a month now.
Toffee put to mouth
A long dark corridor and thirty two steps take me to my room on the second floor. A door I push open and am ushered into a familiar two-bedded space. The beds are by far the most intriguing elements here. Spaces usually dictate their decorum (pubs are in perennial frenzy, exam halls are solemn and graveyards are godforsaken) and the decorum of my room is sluggishness- a slippery incline, ultra-conducive to the kind of slumber that’s worthy of auction; ugly people borrow this slumber from me without the faintest idea of debt. So I lie down and wrap myself in multiple sheets stained in white-going-brown hither-thither, and bury my hands in the warmth of the valleys. And it is strange but true that the dial of the watch glued to my warm wrist is developing frost as I become a powerless body, a body chained by the inevitability of perpetual brain mechanisms. In some while all the sounds- the fans’, the vermin’s and those from the endless outside become one continuous stretch mildly fading away.
A sort of grammatical phenomenon occurs next. The narrator of our ordinary lives is often not us; in moments like these, we take the liberty to change person, to become the third person singular narrator we die wishing for in the flesh. The first person singular thus becomes a specimen under the observation of the third person. However, the singular denomination is lost, for the third singular is tied in some way to the first singular, for the observer is never independent of the specimen, for all dichotomies are inexplicably linked. It is to say, a double-singular thing, a mind coming out of the body and having a look at it, but see the mind by itself is also a body, isn’t it? And that’s the singularity of this event.
A new music begins. On the bedside chair a female phantom wrapped in a white, red-bordered sari ogles at him with prosthetic eyes. Her eye-lashes are horribly long which sway to the rhythm of the Beethoven melody (his father’s caller tune for the past twelve years) she’s playing on his cousin sister’s piano. The space in the room warps such that the furniture, the appliances, he himself and his room-mate who are peacefully asleep are disfigured into disproportionate bulges. The air breaks into massive ripples and the violently flickering space takes the shape of an octopus-head frenetically retching in dismay. It vomits out his father with dusty books tucked under his arm and in a series of equally painstaking spasms, his mother along with a potted yellow rose plant, a cough syrup bottle, heavy maroon curtains, a terracotta portraying Krishna embracing void, a black diary made of handmade paper and finally Zehein, sucking on a cigarette and as unkemptly dressed as always. The octopus-head vanishes leaving behind an apparition; as it turns out, it is him, becoming opaque little by little.
The intruders are battling fierce space crunch, it is a small room. With disappointed faces, they jostle to accommodate themselves. Inanimate nature has been shed: the curtains have hung themselves on the window across the chair, the syrup has found place on the table amidst piles of papers and bar-coded books and the terracotta has mounted itself on the wall without a nail. The cough syrup and the diary float on vacuum.
His mother is examining his bodies with squinted eyes, one lying on the bed like an overgrown caterpillar, the other nearing completion.
He’s there, a body newly formed but of pieces old and worn and tormented. His face is an object of abject beauty, something standing out, something lethal- this is the beauty we associate to illness, one which comes with high fever. His eyes are like thorns ready to impale, the grief-pouches under them gone black, his bat-winged eyebrows quizzical, and chiselled tarnished lips quivering as if with words held back within for too long. An air of solemnity hangs in the room now. His father, unsure what to do plonks his books on the table and his mother and Z. wait for his gaze to turn to them. The phantom turns to take notice of the situation.
“Are you sick my son?”
Lady phantom gets back to playing the same tune, but now at a much slower pace, as if trying to squeeze words out of the motif. This tune, which everybody had taken until now for a tune of euphoria, is melancholic by nature, hadn’t Phantom slowed it down, nobody would have known.
“I have pink eruptions on my throat and they hurt so bad Ma,” he says.
“Here’s the cough syrup we brought for you. Two teaspoons and you’ll be fine like my roses. See how wonderful they look, phosphate fertilizer did the trick.”
“Haven’t you always treated me the way you tend your flowers?”
“Why you have so many books to cure yourself. Haven’t I told you how steel is produced? Man and steel are all but same. There are wonderful diagrams in these books I’ve got for you. Eutectoids and Damascus, you’ll see how beautiful they are to study. You never agreed to visit the plant with me, you never could do algebra!”
“I couldn’t stand the heat of the boilers, there’s already so much heat in me. And pages are human purpose fused with wood-scraps. Can pages really cure me? Even I’m an ilk of x, solve me up if you can Baba!” he says, his pair of thorns bleeding water.
“Cure you of what?”
“The taste of bitter gourd in my mouth, the want to kohl my eyes,” he weeps.
“There you go; I’ve solved it, x equal to half-a-man. And for the bitter taste, Ma will make Sardine for lunch.”
“How cunning are the equal-to signs, they bask in conceit, they are instruments not of equality but separation. Two small lines pretending to equate, but lines divide like the kohl lines on my eyes. You’ll never know how much time I’ve spent slouching on this chair which Phantom occupies right now, gazing at the fields, waiting for the dust winds to settle down,” he mumbles in a choked voice.
“The equal-to signs on your eyes are not straight, but those in my books are.”
“So you think I am litter, Baba?”
“Not you but the toffee wrappers, they are litter!” Sensing the argument in progress his mother interjects.
“See it’s raining outside son, the dust will settle.”
A wrinkled hand pointing at the window reminds him of the times he peeped out of his room’s window to see his mother toiling in the garden, wanting to be loved as much as the flowers.
“Don’t the rose thorns hurt your fingers?” he asks.
“They do and sometimes I wince, but when the garden blooms with red roses, blue pansies and white chrysanthemums, the memory of the prickles evokes pleasure.”
“Aren’t the pansies too beautiful Ma?” he asks in a moisture-heavy voice with the mix of curiosity and intimidation borne by the rope-walker’s eyes, the curiosity of right footing, the intimidation of succumbing to precariousness and falling into the abyss of loneliness.
His mother seems baffled by the question, she chooses to keep silent.
Wiping the melting thorns away he asks, “And Ma, will you plant a pomegranate tree in our garden? Not bonsai, the real thing.”
“And who do you think has the monopoly on reality? Remember what Eagle thinks about concreteness? Who decides how much real my bonsais are?”
He knows that she is right, her questions answer enough. The idea of bonsai is miniaturisation, miniatures of hope, ambition, pleasure and dreams: it is to have a banyan on the dining table. He suddenly grows despise for the large sprawling pomegranate tree, it seems a wastage of earth to him now, a wastage of space, time and a symbol of the crippling fear of man to be original, to be the real thing. He now has the feeling of a failing tyrant whose enemy has hoisted a white flag, the sense of battle lost.
“What could be worse?” he thinks to himself.
“The oppressed falling in love with the oppressor, may be?” Z. asks.
“True, let’s not go there but. That would be the ultimate defeat of the tyrant. Why have you come?” he asks.
“May I have some sleep?”
“Sorry to have kept you waiting, Zehein. Yes, see the moisture on my forehead? Rub it hard with your cold hands”
Z. does as told and the moisture bearing the imprint of lips coagulates to red capsules looking like pomegranate seeds and falls into his hand.
“They are your sleeping pills,” he says with a smirk.
“And why are they red?”
“Because they come from the brook of love by which Rayleigh sat deducing his formulae,” he replies.
“And where is the brook?”
“It flows between consciousness and its anti-thesis, through that void Krishna’s embracing over there,” he says pointing to the wall.
“And how do you know so much?”
He flips through the pages of his handmade diary with something of retrospection and says, “I note down my dreams in this; these pages are where my first and third person meet, the most important trysts of my lifetime have happened here on these pages. Like the sand in you is your talisman, this is mine.”
Phantom who hasn’t spoken one word all this while is still hammering away at the keys. Melancholy however has begun to stutter as Phantom begins to evaporate.
A greater silence falls slowly and remains, and remains, till silence engulfs itself and nobody knows what remains. The wrist-watch dial defrosts. Grammar fails again.
Toffee wrapper disposal
The greatest spoiler of every mood nearing intoxication is intense light; it is twelve past two when I wake up wiping drool with the hem of my shirt and stare into my third eye fixed over a funny lump of lonely flesh, it looks all the same all the time, all full of despair. There’s thirst in my throat and to quench it I leave my room with uncombed hair and un-brushed teeth for room 17 in another hostel (placed quite some distance away) which never runs out of cigarette.
I am walking with a limp (my left sole has a bruise from the constant rubbing of an unwanted leather frill) through a short-cut in the woods. The hostel is two turns away. A radio treats me to the cacophony of birds and crickets; at times I mistake my shadow for a slithering snake. It is when I am passing the first turn that I feel somebody following me. I hear dry leaves getting stepped upon when I look back to find a large metal wheel with hose wound around rolling down this incline to reach me. These wheels are known to me. They have been brought to water the new gardens planted by the horticulture people to compensate for the flora damage caused by the cyclone that hit Pondicherry six months ago. It fills me with fear for this path is narrow and steep and there’s not a chance to divert. Nothing save the proposal of escaping a serious run-over injury comes to mind. I catch my breath after every few steps and run.
I have missed taking the second turn, the wheel is still following me and it gets very close when I compromise on my pace, I can tell its proximity without having to look at it. It is steeper now and distant view would show a limping boy being chased by a gigantic metal wheel. I encounter puddles in between, the water in them splashes and I see how muddy the cuffs of my pants have gone. This path on a hillock runs parallel to the stretch I was riding on the scooter at dawn.
I see a wall ahead and am petrified; a timorous self grabs a branch and dives to a side. I am panting heavier than I ever have; the wheel rolls at full speed past me and collides against the wall with a massive clank, I shudder imaging how hard the hitting must have been. I go to the wheel, climb it sticking my feet at appropriate places, then climb the wall and jump to fall into the alley at whose mouth is old Cabbage’s tea-shop. Exposed to the brutal sun, its rays nibble my sweaty unwashed back at places my fingers cannot reach. But the shop remains closed on Sunday as I am reminded by the downed but unlocked shutter.
I pull the corrugated tin shutter half up and duck myself into the shop. A tune beckons me to a door which I am noticing for the first time. A newspaper pile, a refrigerator with a stereo sitting on it barking in low volume (the FM has chosen to fetch hullaballoo of enraged people over slapstick today), a stove, few utensils and few neatly folded loincloths are seen as I shuffle forward to turn open the door knob. I find a stoic Cabbage inside to my relief. He doesn’t speak a word.
Dressed in thick black denim jacket and blue jeans pants, seated in an awkward posture, he is playing violin to a basket full of opened oysters dripping fluid from their sides. His hands slipping on chords and exercising the bow are a pair of marvel. His stare is fixed to a music-stand holding a dishevelled bunch of brown dog-eared sheets. In another basket placed right there are wet shrubs purple and green, and right beside it is a glass jar with smoke fidgeting inside. I don’t feel to take my awfully giddy eyes off him but I do to notice a nude reclining Sophia Loren cello-taped to the wall. There’s ‘where are dreams manufactured?’ printed in italics over her (the best parts thus veiled) and a handwritten note scrawled just below in cursive claims ‘here, in my memory store.’
Eagle appears out of thin air to perch on the stand. She grins at me, takes a bow at Cabbage. She has something sparkling held between her beaks. Jolting her head in my direction she loosens her mouth such that the sparkle somersaults to land onto my hands. It is a toffee and the fate of a toffee is a moment’s consumption.
How do you dispose this wrapper?
I unwrap the toffee and put it to my mouth. With nausea erupting inside I am falling to the floor; it might be raining outside, may be not enough to settle the dust down, but being here inside I cannot know, I don’t feel like wanting to. The toffee tastes nice, not sweet but it will do; and I am not throwing the wrapper away, I am stuffing it into my pocket for this indoor is the only closure affordable and I dare not dirty it.
In this reverie immersed in the abominable bleating of hogtied goats, I remember Eagle regaling me once with a story about a town which disliked a certain toffee for it was bitter. It couldn’t accept toffees being bitter so the mayor blocked manufacturing it. Years later, having gotten bored of sweetness, they wanted bitterness back. So they started manufacturing beer, named it Fellotia, with the toffee stocks which rotted in the store houses for too long.