Central Edinburgh, 11 pm. We are in the tiny lobby of a backpacking hostel. I pull my windcheater—black, dripping wet—around me tightly, trying to ignore the increasing puddle of rainwater at my feet. Some people run down the musty, carpeted stairs, laughing, probably readying themselves for a memorable night in spite of the terrible weather outside. The Chinese girls in front of us have just finished paying; we’re next in line.
"You girls are travelling alone?" the receptionist asks us casually.
N glances at me; I suppress a smile.
"Yes," N answers. She does not smile.
The receptionist does not notice. “You’ll love Edinburgh, it’s a great city”, he continues. “Lots to see”.
"Yes, I come here quite often," N says, pulling out her debit card. "I live up north."
The receptionist looks confused, but sits up straighter. “Right,” he says.
It is hardly news that women who travel alone have a harder time than men do. We constantly have to think about safety, and the kind we’d want, ideally—usually harking back to a requirement of basic human decency, involving no harassment or assault—is the kind that is often associated with expensive travel, and even then, even then there are no guarantees. Bellboys wink at one another when you walk past, the concierge will insist on holding on to your keys, strange calls will be made to your bedroom at stranger hours—not enough for you to get the right kind of ‘worried’, but still enough to make you not meet their eyes the next morning—the manager will condescend, and you are, by default, a woman to be chatted up before you are a woman who is, consequently, ‘not interested’. That is, of course, the primary axis of understanding, your availability; you are there to perform this bold, independent role, for their eyes only, very much like how women are expected to wear red lipstick only for ‘occasions’, or write only for a living—
(—and even then, even then, but even that—)
But physical safety aside, travelling alone is seen to be the sort of thing women do only under ‘special’ circumstances, and especially women of colour in the west. First of all, the questions, intrusive, startling, asked so easily that you’d mistake them for politeness and nothing but that, the questions about whether you are, in fact, travelling alone—or even with another women (‘girls’, here)—when it is perfectly obvious that you are, whether you need any ‘help’, and after a while, even why you’re doing this. It must be for work, or visiting family, or friends, or because you look so different from the rest of us and your accent isn’t really from here, a student or tourist or both. There must be a reason for this aberration.
What do you mean, you just wanted to travel?
[“Are you lonely? Are you okay?”]
Perhaps it isn’t even restricted to travelling and is more symptomatic of catching sight of solitary women, anywhere; you sit in a bar by yourself with a drink long enough, and eventually, mostly, a man who has walked past you a couple of times will approach you with an expectant smile. Everyone likes company, but it is curious how it is assumed that a single woman at a bar is almost always in search of it.
Or you wait in line to be seated at a restaurant, and you watch families, men in business suits, aged people, boys from university, couples and large groups of people being prioritized over you. It happened to me at two restaurants last weekend, in this very town that I live in, when the manager in one case, after letting his eyes linger on me, had moved swiftly over to the people standing behind me with a smile, and the woman seating people in the other had just not noticed me at all. I had soon lost my appetite and walked around the arcades restlessly, staring at mannequins in the windows of Reiss and Topshop, wondering if I’d had been more well-received, more visible, had I gone there instead. Women who shop alone are less anomalous than women who eat a three-course meal and drink by themselves, even in the “first world”.
Or sometimes, you will be the last to be served. You will watch people around you who came in after you be served first, and waiters and managers will pretend not to catch your eye when you call them. More often, when there is shortage of space in cafes, men will ask if they can join your table. They may mind their own business and keep to themselves (oh, small mercies) and mostly I will agree, feeling sorry for people who have to stand and eat, but then I will look around and notice that there are empty spaces in the corners—where no one wants to eat—and that all the men eating alone are still only eating alone. The privacy or men who eat and drink alone is to be respected. It is sacred, it is not a matter of trifle.
Or take the second-hand bookstore I visited in a seaside city last month, a delightful one in which the shop owner had arranged the books “by whim, and not by any reasonable order”, where before long a middle-aged male journalist had struck up a loud conversation with him about how it is rare to find women walk in alone in bookstores run by men, because boys apparently frequent them more. “I don’t want to sound sexist, but it’s so unusual, isn’t it? Especially in here,” he had said. I had stopped thumbing through a dog-eared book by David Remnick only briefly to look up and had found him staring at me. I still don’t know if he meant women read less, or if women are intimidated by men who run bookstores. Both are especially amusing thoughts for a woman who once worked in a bookstore.
Or even women who like to walk by themselves, in strange or familiar towns, aimlessly, thoughtlessly—how far can you go before a man glances at you slyly or throws a stray remark your way and jolts you out of your reverie? This is not a problem restricted to “our Indian men”, this is a problem with patriarchy world-wide, patriarchy that is threatened by women who aren’t doing something befitting their role, women who aren’t hurrying, eyes down, women who aren’t heading somewhere with direction, women who aren’t always in movement. Take that moment in Penzance, 2010: I am walking along the promenade, occasionally stopping to study at the golden moss growing along the sides of the wall, when a man comes running at me from across the road.
"I see you been here all morning" he says, smiling. "You alone? What are you doing alone?"
I remember taking a step back, feeling confused, alarmed but overwhelmingly fearful of being impolite in a country I had only just arrived in a few months ago, in a city I’d been in for only a few hours. Of course he’d ask me that, I remember telling my 20-year old self unconvincingly later that night in my room (having put a chair against the door to secure it), he must not see a lot of Indian women here in Cornwall. I couldn’t understand why I had felt scared, not until much later. Even now, the subtly treacherous ways of patriarchy make me uncomfortable but I often find myself lacking the language or ways of reading the situation. The discomfort remains, and gives me pause: should I ignore the situation and move on, and find vocabulary for it later on or should I raise my eyebrows and make my displeasure safe?
(accompanying thought: What is safer for you? What can you get away with?)
Public toilets for women on the road, single rooms and ‘tour’ options (the single/individual usually being more expensive than the double/’couple’ options; a dismaying occurrence given that men are usually able to afford the individual option more often), the kind of clothes a woman must carry while travelling “for her own protection”, the constant search for places where she thinks it will be ‘likely’ she will be left alone, general lack of flexible check-in times or distance between the hostel and the point of commute (‘is it safe for me to arrive late at night? but cheap tickets!’), the fact that female dorms in hostels are more expensive than ‘general’ dorms, as though we are paying more for our safety—I could go on.
It doesn’t deter me—or hasn’t yet so far—perhaps because I have been lucky for most part (and it is really luck, rather than ‘good sense’, that has kept me occasionally ‘safe’) and I have the privilege to take calculated risks when I travel alone, in my own city-of-the-moment or otherwise. The op-eds that brightly tell you to claim your freedom and discover yourself by travelling alone as a woman are silly, and arise from a blindness to the factors that makes such freshly-found freedom (which can be absolutely intoxicating when it is available to you, I will admit) possible, in the first place.
Occasionally, just occasionally, there is triumph, in spots and degrees. A sunny afternoon in College Green, Dublin, 2011: I am sitting on the steps of one of the most famous bookshops in the area, humming and watching leaves of the imposing tree across me glint in the sunlight. A copy of Antigone sits on my lap; I have nowhere to be and nothing in particular to do. People walk quickly past me, faces merge, conversations appear and disappear, the cacophony of the city builds up, readying itself for the evening, and I—a stranger here, having not said a word to anyone except the bookshop owner while payment, all morning—am suddenly overjoyed at the moment; it is mine, it is memorable, and it may only remain till yet another incident, glance, catcall or question squeezes its way in, as it does.
Triumph for women who travel: it is choosing our memories carefully, and delighting in them while they unfold.
It’s Diwali week, and we’re back with our original CONTRIBUTIONS series, this time with a riveting, long short story by Rabishankar Bal of Dozakhnama fame, translated by the wonderful and prolific Arunava Sinha. Enjoy!
‘This is a strange century, just see how one person has to tell another, believe him.’– Kamalkumar Majumdar
Here, roses bloom. In the rose garden. Every day Manimoy observes the blooming of some roses and the wilting of others. Facing the roses here in this sanatorium, his life in a mirror has begun, where time only gathers ruins - his skin wrinkles, his hair acquires a silver sheen, his hearing is dulled, vision dimmed, smell obliterated. In effect this sanatorium and these roses in the garden have informed him how to use a mirror to overcome the distance, as was once seen in Cocteau’s scenic poetry. Like all other people, Manimoy did not know how to use mirrors earlier. In other words, he used to stand in front of the mirror to see himself, which meant that he had not learnt now to use it to disappear. For such miracles take place only when the mirror makes itself vanish. And this is possible only at a sanatoriumwith a rose garden.
Manimoy also observes the boy every day in the rose garden. No older than ten or eleven. He has been here for over a year because of congenital illness. Very thin, like the heart of a mynah (?), thought Manimoy. With a head full of reddish curly hair, the boy creates different geometric patterns as he walks in the space between the rows of rose bushes. Manimoy thinks the boy’s feet don’t touch the ground, they seem to surf a wave. The boy also turns around sometimes to look at Manimoy, whose face is glued to the window, as though drawn on a sheet of transparent paper. Holding his face against the pane, Manimoy has the sensation of trying to break out of a canvas. Every day he feels the urge to call out to the boy, but he cannot, though he does not know why.
He looks behind his shoulder at the sound of the door opening. Dr Bagchi is standing there, his hands on the doorframe. Manimoy smiles, and so does he. ‘Not disturbing you, am I?’
‘No. Please sit down.’Manimoy moves away from the window.
‘We’ll let you go soon. I’ve written to your family to fetch you,’ says Dr Bagchi, taking a seat.
‘When will you let that boy go?’Manimoy sits on his bed, folding his legs beneath him. A Kangra paintinghangs on the wall in front of his eyes, above the doctor’s head. Oh, such wonderful symmetry.Manimoy admires it in his head, forgetting the doctor. The next moment he is struck by astonishment as the boy’s reflection appears on the frame of the Kangra painting, his movement stretching the images towards the undulating lines of the distant mountains. Dr Bagchi looks at him and clears his throat. When Manimoy turns towards him, he says, ‘Which boy?’
‘The one who roams about in the rose garden.’
‘Don’t you know his name?’
‘Then tell me his name.’
Manimoy is silent. Before his two and a half years under treatment here at this sanatorium, he has only been uttering names, a succession of names, forms of identification. Should he explain to Dr Bagchi that names lose their miraculous powers eventually? And that this is the reason people need to be addressed with more than their names? For instance, he never addresses his wife by her name, but calls her the‘woman who teaches me the beauty of jealousy’. But according to the doctor this is a symptom of his illness, which they undoubtedly refer to as a crisis of language. So Manimoy does not say anything at all.
‘Tell me his name. You’re cured now.’
Instead of answering, Manimoy keeps looking at the Kangra painting. He can always ask the doctor, tell me which school of painting this is. The doctor says, Radha-Krishna. Manimoy bursts into laughter. That mountain, that trail, that row of trees, sky, birds, river - are these nothing, then? The man and woman amidst all this are Krishna and Radha?
‘His name is Yayati,’ Dr Bagchi says, yawning. ‘Do you know who Yayati is?’
‘He wanders about in the rose garden,’Manimoy says, smiling.
The doctor smiles too. ‘Don’t you remember there’s a character named Yayati in our scriptures?’
‘The one who was afraid of beauty?’
‘Meaning?’ Dr Bagchi’s brows contract.
‘Do you know where beauty comes from?’Manimoy gets off his bed and begins to pace up and down, going up to the window occasionally to look at the boy in the rose garden. And as he paces, he recites:
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
Orders? And even if one of them suddenly
Pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
Stronger existence. For Beauty’s nothing
But beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
And why we adore it so is because it serenely
Disdains to destroy us. Each single angel is terrible.
‘Your poems really are wonderful,’ Dr Bagchi stammers.
Manimoy is amused. What harm would it do if this really were his poem? Can he not publish this elegy with his own signature? After all, he is present in everything written in the past and in the future, like an essential absence. He cannot tell the doctor all this. How much does he know of the expanding universe anyway? Manimoy notices that the doctor has risen to his feet. ‘So you’re letting me go?’
‘And when will you let HIM go?’
‘Who?’ Dr Bagchi is irked now. Wiping the signs of irritation off his courteous smile, he says, ‘Oh I see, Yayati.’ He is silent for a while. Manimoy realises the doctor is trying to inflict pain upon himself. This is the real reason for the silence of doctors. Alas, silence never gives birth to emptiness within them, it only helps them put on a different mask. And fixing this mask, the doctor says, ‘He will never be released. Except to go up there.’
About to smile, Manimoy pauses. How heartless and devoid of intelligence all kindness is. Since this is about the boy in his rose garden, whose reflection wanders all over the extreme symmetry of the Kangra print, he does not smile, but returns to the proximity of emptiness, stamping his foot on the avenue to oblivion.
‘His parents had sent him here for a cure. But something went wrong. About eight months ago - you don’t know? but how would you, you were ill too at the time –while he was wandering about the garden, a thorn from a rose bush stuck in his finger. That wound gradually led to leukaemia… blood cancer…’ The doctor chokes.
Manimoy moves towards the window as he listens. But the boy is no longer to be seen in the garden. He has gone to his room, or somewhere else. Manimoy observes a few rose petals drifting to earth… you are the joy beneath the eyelashes that won’t let a person sleep.
Manimoy had a photon rocket which he would ride backwards in time to the bottom of a lake where a murmuring palace stood. That was where he had seen the mother whom he had never consciously set his eyes on since his birth, in a room in that palace, on a bed as white as ocean foam, as blue with agony as she was when giving birth to him, as naked, her legs parted, her nipples erect, her mouth open as she screamed, her eyes bulging, churned by emptiness. Just like the Kangra painting, there had been such symmetry in his mother’s figure - he would stare with eyes heavy with desire and touch death. The way he had got hold of this photon rocket was extraordinary too. Climbing up to the terrace one day, when he was about fourteen or fifteen, while he was in pursuit of a kite, cutting through the blue of the sky, the beams of light began to race so swiftly, the darkness too, that he fell to earth, his face contorted. When Manimoy awoke - no one had bothered to wake him up - he found the photon rocket next to him. As a matter of fact it was as a price for riding this photon rocket that he had to occasionally tolerate the attack of lights of beam pursuing him. It was by riding this photon rocket that he came to know of different lakes and palaces, of the lost languages of ports and whorehouses, of the terrified life of plants, and that somewhere there was a blue glass vessel touching which allowed a person to be everywhere at the same time. Neither his job nor his marriage could free him from this four-dimensional geometry. Instead, all names slowly lost their miraculousness, whereupon he began to address his wife as ‘woman who teaches me the beauty of jealousy’, flung her into a ravine at the instant of sexual climax and rode off in his photon rocket, retiring to the past; how exquisite the monologues in all ancient deaths were. And then one day Manimoy was brought to this sanatorium for treatment. Although his photon rocket was seized, he had realised on arrival that this was the womb of lost time, this sanatorium, this rose garden. Over two and a half years his restlessness was gradually reduced, cohabitation with the Kangra painting filling his mind with a geometric emptiness. He began to write poetry occasionally. Such as:
In life or history, because of this, the meeting ground of many
Is so very valued, the value of the place where this sea, this river and bank,
This sky, these birds, these clouds and sun and moon and stars and I meet
In that case a simple, eternal principle of this entire cosmos
To go from the first line to the second or third or fourth
You have to visit the lowest line of all, only then can you go
The most fulfilled way to go - this complete going - is in the cosmic rules
He believes poetry such as this has no writer, it is only the subject of its creator’s pursuit of understanding.
In the late afternoon Manimoy goes out. In the corridor he comes face to face with the person on whose countenance history is tattooed. Manimoy averts his eyes, unable to look.
‘Going for a walk?’
Manimoy keeps walking, the man by his side. ‘You go for a walk every day, don’t you? Why not come to my room today? Just this afternoon I completed the second chapter of the history of jealous wives… You don’t believe me, do you?… All the facts have been verified repeatedly… Such a materialist analysis of the history of jealous wives has never…’
‘Some people cannot do without a toothpick after a meal,’ says Manimoy. ‘They are uncomfortable all day if something sticks to their teeth.’
‘Some people don’t buy anything but clothes too large for them. They always think they will grow further.’Manimoy begins to laugh.
‘You’re laughing?’ The man stops. Manimoy continues on his way. Every day he pauses for some time at the gate. The mountain ranges are in the distance, covered in green. Much higher than the one on which this sanatorium stands. An enormous gorge lies between this mountain and those in the distance, smoke spiralling upwards from it constantly. Manimoy resumes his walk. Every day he goes out of the sanatorium and walks up a winding trail to the abandoned helipad. This is a solitary journey. No one else comes here. They go towards the market or the church field.
At the helipad Manimoy spots the boy from the rose garden. Dressed in a blue tracksuit, he is seated on a slab of rock. Manimoy stands behind him for a long time, looking at him, watching the boy’s reddish hair flying in the wind, the orange hue of the setting sun near his shoulder. A little later, the boy looks back, rising to his feet, flustered, on seeing Manimoy.
‘What are you doing here?’
The boy does not respond. Manimoy sees his face clearly for the first time. A little swollen, pale. A long scar near his chin. Beads of perspiration have gathered on his forehead and neck. His eyes are red. Manimoy is charmed by the curve of his eyebrows, like the flowing brush-strokes of a Chinese painter.
‘You’ve never been here, have you?’Manimoy approaches the boy slowly.
‘I won’t come again,’ the boy says guiltily.
‘Why not? Come every day. You can come with me too. I come here every day.’
‘Doesn’t anyone come with you?’
The boy’s voice makes Manimoy compose a line in his head: the bird sings with its claws. Then he says, ‘What brings you here today?’
The boy does not answer. He is reminded of Jhagru. The pantry boy at the sanatorium. Everyone calls him old Jhagru. Should he tell this man that Jhagru has asked him to come to this place? Jhagru says, a blue glass vessel is hidden here, go look for it Shonababu. Jhagru does not lie, and although he has not found it yet, anything you wish for will come true if you touch it and ask. Yayati would ask the blue vessel for just one gift. The wooden figure, the gleaming black wooden figure, nearly ten feet tall, which he had seen at an art exhibition with his father when he was still in Calcutta. He had pleaded for the figure, labelled ‘Niranjan’, to be bought. His father had scolded him soundly. ‘Silly boy, do you think it’s a toy? So expensive! Rich people decorate their rooms and balconies with such things.’
‘Are you afraid of me?’Manimoy puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
The boy trembles briefly. Then he raises his eyes to look at Manimoy. ‘Jhagru says…’
‘What does Jhagru say?’
‘The blue glass vessel… can be found here.’
Manimoy stares at the boy with bulging eyes. ‘The zone,’ he mutters. Jhagru knows of the zone? At once he kneels, embracing the boy frantically, kissing him on his shoulder, neck, face. The boy flings his arms and legs about, trying to extricate himself. He screams. Manimoyholds him tighter. He feels an arousal which he has never experienced before. He has goosepimples. An electric current is flowing along his spine. The boy collapses in his arms. His eyes are closed. Holding him with both his hands, Manimoy licks his neck and face. As though this existence is a lovely Kangra painting stretched within the circle of his arms. And the sound of anklets climbs up the boy’s neck.
Jhagru sits in his veranda, smoking marijuana. After ten pm, when the sanatorium has fallen asleep, Manimoy has opened the back door behind his room, crossed the wooden fence and come here. Jhagru does not speak. He smokes his grass, smiling occasionally. Much later he says, ‘Have you gone mad again, Babu?’
‘You’re sure the blue vessel is over there?’Manimoy is still panting.
‘What blue vessel, Babu?’ Jhagru smiles again.
‘The one you told the boy in the rose garden about.’
Jhagru bursts into laughter. Manimoy feels as though Krishna’s sudarshan chakrais whirling. Jhagru’s laughter is slicing him up. ‘I don’t know whom you’re talking about,’ says Jhagru.
‘The boy in the rose garden.’
Manimoy does not answer. He hopes Jhagru will reveal everything now.
‘But then he is a child,’ Jhagru says, laughing, ‘so I spun him a tale. He keeps saying, bring me Niranjan, Jhagru. You know Niranjan don’t you Babu, a wooden figure. I tried to explain to him… but how can I scold him? How much longer is he for this earth anyway? So I just told him a story… about the blue vessel. It seems he’ll go mad if he can’t get Niranjan, so, to keep a child happy… he keeps saying, bring me Niranjan, bring me Niranjan…’
As he walks away, Manimoy can hear Jhagru still talking to the darkness… to keep a child happy… he keeps saying, bring me Niranjan, bring me Niranjan…
Before his afternoon walk Manimoy looks for the boy. Going to his room, he finds the boy in his white bed, wrapped in a white sheet, his eyes closed. A nurse is sitting next to him. ‘Because of his illness he has a fever all the time,’ she says. ‘The fever went up when he returned from his walk yesterday. He was delirious all night. The temperature has dropped a bit this afternoon. He’s asleep now. Do you know who Niranjan is?’
Manimoy does not answer. He is entranced by the sleeping figure of the boy, just as he had been by his naked mother in the palace at the bottom of the lake. Oh, such wonderful symmetry! He articulated the words mentally. And naturally what appears in front of his eyes at this point is the Kangra painting, given form by lines as subtle as music and by the brightness of the colours, and, the very next moment, the boy’s sleeping face. Manimoy’s lips turn thick with clouds for a kiss.
‘Do you know Niranjan? He’s been saying his name all night,’ the nurse repeats.
‘Hmm,’ nods Manimoy. ‘A friend of his.’
‘Yes. My name’s Niranjan.’
‘What the hell are you saying,’ the nurse says through clenched teeth. ‘Raving lunatic.’
Manimoy smiles. ‘Why did you ask,’ he says. ‘You people don’t believe anything.’
‘You people don’t have any faith. Except in scientific superstitions. Scuds and Patriots can destroy a country, which is what you believe in. Nothing else beyond all this.’
‘Go away, let him sleep.’
Manimoy doesn’t wait anymore. He storms off. Leaving the sanatorium behind, he tramps up the winding path to the helipad. He stands looking at the slab of stone, as he had the previous day. This contemplation of emptiness thrills him. He trembles momentarily. His arousal of yesterday is returning. The boy’s neck, face, shoulders. He runs up to the slab of stone, kneeling near it and resting his head on it. An electric current down his spine. The tinkling of anklets is back. And now he is clinging to emptiness, left behind by the boy in the rose garden. Frantically he embraces it, runs his tongue over the skin of emptiness, disrobes it, squeezes it, kneads it, rubs his mouth over its body, thrusts his penis into its mouth, and in this cloud of desire is heard Manimoy’s whisper… I’m here, little boy, your Niranjan, your wooden figure, complete in myself, take me…
Dr Bagchi is here again today. Sitting by the window, Manimoy has written barely two lines:
Because any word - night or niche or noite or nuit or nishi -
Has many sounds but just one existence in a background world
‘Are you writing poetry?’ Dr Bagchi asks with a smile.
‘You know, doctor,’ says Manimoy, rising from his chair, ‘some people knew how to disappear in the mirror. How is this possible? Do you know whether this is a scientific process?’
The doctor is silent for a while. Then he says, ‘Have you been feeling unwell again of late?’
‘You said something to one of our nurses.’ Now the doctor dons his mask of professional gravity. Manimoy understands. So he looks at the Kangra painting. His defence.
‘I think you’d better stay here some more time in that case,’ the doctor says.
‘Don’t you wish you could go home?’
‘I’m quite happy here.’Manimoy starts pacing up and down. ‘Do you know what my new name is? It’s Niranjan. I am your rose garden boy’s Niranjan. A wooden figure.’
The doctor stares at Manimoy in surprise.
‘But those people who could disappear in the mirror - how do you think they did it? Of course, you must know the correct use of mirrors for this. It’s not possible if you stand in front of a mirror only to see yourself. You’ll see someone else in the mirror - who has left you, who’s beyond reach, merged with the reflection. Gaze at him in wonder, you’ll find him vanishing slowly - he’s nowhere then, he has disappeared into everything, children play sex games with him then.’
‘Manimoy-babu!’ The doctor roars.
Manimoy stares, his mouth falling open. It’s just the doctor’s face now. He is defenceless. The Kangra painting is out of his line of sight.
‘I haven’t done anything.’Manimoy’s voice sounds like a sheet of newspaper rustling in a gust of wind.
‘Your madness is turning obscene by the day. Last night you entered Yayati’s room and kissed him, shame on you. A sick boy… if you behave like a lunatic you will be tied up.’
The doctor’s tone softened again. ‘You’re cured. You’ll be going home soon. Rest for a few days. You will live again with your wife and children, what could be better?’
Manimoy is at the helipad again today. The boy from the rose garden has also come with him, secretly. On the winding path, Manimoy has alternately held his hand and held him in his arms. Rubbing his face against the boy’s, he has felt his fever. They’re sitting on the slab of stone together. Manimoy touches the boy’s face with both his hands and kisses him on his forehead. ‘I love you.’
The boy breaks into peal of laughter. ‘Why are you here?’ he asks.
‘I ran away.’
‘I’ve forgotten all names. And my wife told the doctors that I’m a necrophiliac. When I had sex with my wife, I felt as though I was having sex with a corpse. I told her this. Actually she doesn’t believe anything. She doesn’t want anyone the way you want Niranjan.’
‘Have you seen Niranjan?’
‘I’m your Niranjan.’Manimoy kisses his cheeks.
The boy laughs again. ‘But Niranjan is wooden, Niranjan is black.’
‘So am I. Look at me.’Manimoy stands up. Against the backdrop of the mountain, the boy sees that the man is taking off his shirt, trousers and vest, and a muscular nakedness stands like a tree. Raising his arms to the sky, Manimoy keeps saying, ‘Look at me, look at me from all sides. I am black, I am wooden. Your Niranjan.’ The boy looks at him with fear.
Manimoy walks up to him slowly. He kneels in front of him. The boy is frightened and speechless and, notices Manimoy, his eyes are terrorised. He is on his feet too, as still as though he has been struck by lightning. Manimoy begins to disrobe the boy, scattering the clothes around the dusty earth of the helipad. The boy’s pale, fair body is unveiled in front of Manimoy like a mirror. He embraces the boy and lies down on the ground, still holding him. The boy groans in pain and fear. He kisses the boy on his face and neck. Then he makes the boy lie down on the helipad and, kneeling over him, runs his tongue over his body incessantly. Inserting his tongue in the boy’s mouth, he flicks it about, running one hand through the boy’s hair and playing with his penis with the other. The boy shivers, like flashes of lightning. Sometimes he arches like a bow. Manimoy takes him back in the shelter of his arms every time this happens. The boy also sinks his teeth into the flesh on Manimoy’s chest, and squeezes Manimoy’s organ with lustful hands. Manimoy’s glance floats away in the emptiness - through the mirror - he is going back to the geometry of the lines of the Kangra painting and the music of colours. The boy says deliriously, Niranjan… Niranjan…
Now Manimoy is sitting opposite the Kangra painting. He hasn’t noticed earlier how restrained the lines of the painting are with death and desire. He realises that the symmetry of this painting has actually been born of devotion to nothingness. He bows to the anonymous artist repeatedly. This painting would not have been realised without the sensation of so much emptiness. And this reality is born through the refusal to acknowledge those names which have been deflected away from miracles, which represent only unidirectional information. The pursuit of light beams and the photon rocket had freed him from the reality squeezed out of a toothpaste tube, which was why he had succeeded in reaching this sanatorium, where the rose garden, Kangra painting and adolescent lust all blossomed with new petals. Only here could be become Niranjan. Manimoy sits down with paper and pen to write poetry:
It is easy to conclude from the union of light, from the web of connections,
That there is one starness in the universe, a single material star
The sum of all stars, its result; the gaps in between offer some freedom
This unification, melding, but with spaces - the gaps in the delta
Is the most intense union, an absolutely complete union
So the delta is almost entirely a preparation - for the journey to the sea
Hearing the door being opened, Manimoy is about to look in that direction when he hears a voice, ‘Niranjan…’ The boy is standing outside the door. ‘Come in,’ says Manimoy.
The boy enters slowly, coming up to his desk. ‘What are you doing, Niranjan?’
The boy goes off into peals of laughter. Suddenly he claps. Manimoy gazes at him. He has never seen the boy in the rose garden look so lively. The boy says, ‘Niranjan doesn’t write.’
‘Niranjan is wooden. He’s not a man, is he?’ The boy laughs again. ‘Niranjan never writes.’
‘What does Niranjan do?’Manimoy crumples the sheet of paper with his verses.
‘Nothing.’ The boy is quiet for a while. Then he says, ‘Aren’t you going to love me Niranjan?’
Manimoy embraces the boy, scattering kisses on him.
‘Aren’t you going to look for the blue vessel anymore, Niranjan?’
‘The blue vessel…’
‘Jhagru says the blue vessel is over there.’
‘I’ll look for it tomorrow.’Manimoy draws the boy close. He puts his hand on Manimoy’s lap. Manimoy bends over him and kisses his shoulder, runs his hand through his hair. The boy nestles close, accepting his kisses and playing with Manimoy’s penis. The lines on Manimoy’s face begin to merge with the Kangra painting again.
After the boy leaves Manimoy tears up the poem. Opening his drawer, he rips up all the poetry he has written all this time. Manimoy realises that the inscription of this life will be elsewhere, in a different way, perhaps using ancient words whose meanings were no longer clear. One day they would be intelligible, after an apocalypse, when this civilisation would be discovered as ruins, for words get a new life after they have crossed the emptiness of centuries.
Manimoy slips out of the sanatorium again at night to visit Jhagru. Jhagru smokes grass, laughs, and says, ‘You’ve gone mad again Babu… I say these things just to keep the child happy… you don’t think it’s true, do you, why don’t you understand… to live you need some magic, you need a mirror… and he is just a child…’
‘You know about the mirror?’Manimoy pounces on him.
‘Let go, Babu, why shouldn’t I know about the magic and the mirror?’ Jhagru draws in a lungful of smoke.
‘What about those who disappear in the mirror?’
Jhagru laughs. ‘I know about them too, Babu. During all my years on earth I’ve seen so many children die… all of them disappear in the mirror… how marvellous their disappearance is, Babu, they leave nothing behind… just a crack in the mirror… so I smoke all this and sleep…’
Jhagru says things that seem to have been written already. ‘But don’t leave Shonababu, Babu… he won’t live much longer… you have become his wooden figure, his Niranjan… he is your companion in your mission… don’t destroy this love Babu… don’t leave him…’
‘You know?’Manimoy hisses like a snake.
‘He has told me. You love him very much… this is not just affection Babu, he knows it too, you have become his lover… you have given him so much love, so many kisses… he says, Jhagru, tell Niranjan not to leave me… go mad again, Babu… ‘ Jhagru rocked himself as he laughed. ‘I will watch you playing, see how he takes you with him when he disappears in the mirror… this will be my vision of godliness, Babu… don’t let him go…’
Manimoy and the boy take the winding path to the helipad, holding hands. The boy is panting. Manimoy notices a thin trickle of blood from the boy’s nostrils. He takes the boy in his arms, wiping the blood away repeatedly with his handkerchief. ‘The blue vessel,’ says the boy.
Manimoy stops at the edge of the helipad. The bottomless gorge below is shrouded in darkness. ‘Does it hurt very much?’ he asks.
The boy lowers his head on Manimoy’s shoulder.
The boy lifts his head. ‘What?’
Manimoy points to the ravine. He says, ‘Jhagru says the blue vessel is down there…’
The boy’s eyes begin to shine.
‘Can you go down all the way?’Manimoy kisses him on his cheek.
‘Alone?’ The boy looks at him, his eyes popping out.
‘I’ll come too. How can I let you go alone?’
‘No. When you’re even more sick… tell me when you cannot bear the pain anymore, I’ll take you into the depths then.’
‘That you’re my lover.’ The boy kisses his cheek. Manimoy holds him tighter, covering his face and neck with kisses.
Exhaling cigar smoke, Dr Bagchi fiddles with the paperweight. He cannot look at Sutapa, who has been sitting in his room, opposite him, for quite some time. And yet Dr Bagchi is silent. He draws on his cigar frequently. An irritated Sutapa says, ‘Doctor…’
Now the doctor looks at her. He has been waiting for this. Stirring, he says, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Sen. I had thought he was completely cured. But the illness has worsened again since I wrote to you.’
Sutapa sits in silence for a whole. Then she says, ‘He probably doesn’t want to come back to us.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘I’ve told you already, he considers me a corpse. He had hoped that I would be death.’
‘What do you mean?’ The doctor sits up straight, tapping the ash off his cigar.
‘I don’t know either.’
Dr Bagchi shrugs. ‘There’s so much we don’t know.’
‘You’re saying that too?’
‘Why not?’ Dr Bagchi smiles.
‘He used to say this.’ Sutapa lowers her eyes.
After a little hesitation, Dr Bagchi puts his hand on Sutapa’s, which is placed on his desk. Sutapa raises her eyes towards the doctor. She smiles.
‘Let’s go for a walk. You’re exhausted, Mrs Sen.’
‘Call me Sutapa, don’t be formal.’ Sutapa takes her sunglasses from the desk and puts them on.
Dr Bagchi rises to his feet. Tucking his shirt into his trousers, he smiles at Sutapa. ‘Nor you. How are the children?’
Sutapa is lying back in an easy-chair in Dr Bagchi’s room. Seated on a murrah at her side, Dr Bagchi says, ‘You don’t feel guilty about this, do you?’
‘Why?’ Sutapa looks at him out of the corner of her eye.
‘After all Mr Sen is still alive…’
‘Please. I’ve been living like a desert for years.’
Coming closer to Sutapa, Dr Bagchi kisses her neck. ‘You are beautiful Sutapa, you are lethal alive. Your husband had no idea.’
Manimoy is tied to a chair. He swims about in the lines and colours of the Kangra painting; he has kept Jhagru’s request. He has gone mad again. How else can he stay close to his lover? Sutapa has come to take him home. He has not seen the boy for two days. Jhagru came to say he is unconscious with a high fever. Blood is oozing from his nostrils, mouth and ears. He cannot visit the boy. For until the boy disappears through the mirror, he will have to remain within this madness, remain imprisoned, in order to be nearby. Jhagru has told him, however, that he will free Manimoy when a crack appears in the mirror. He will go to his lover who is being churned by death, kiss him, and even, with Jhagru’s cooperation, evade everyone’s eyes and take his lover to the edge of the ravine at the helipad, followed by the journey to eternity in search of the blue vessel.
Many lines are written as he sits this way… all that we do is draw, none of it is primary, everything is drawn as pictures… fragmented lines, written somewhere like the Kangra painting… this is how acts similar to creation are discovered, all names are obliterated and only creation remains… maybe there is a gush of blood from the boy’s nose… light, time and the sky have almost converged, they are so close that they will touch… is he sitting up in bed now out of fear of the fever, because of his heated blood? Is he calling out… light, time and the sky are living and infinite, occupying the entire universe, these three beings… Niranjan, Niranjan… and yet, not three, if it is assumed that there will only be one such entity in the universe… now blood is pouring from his mouth like a torrent, the sound of the anklets is indistinct… it should have been so, but it’s clear that I alone am this light, time and sky… blood cascades from his ears… the body is the soul and the soul is the body… this thing without a beginning or an ending was created from unity… the map-bed is soaked by the blood streaming from the anus… everything had been united once - light, time, the sky, poetry, the body, they were supposed to have been together… in agony his eyes try to reach the emptiness… when will he again… trembling suddenly, he feels it has happened today… the eruption from arms stabbing through the sky in desire of emptiness… I sing, the vowels following the short and the long notes… he calls out as he makes the cracks appear in the mirror… just the way the short and long notes had appeared, the sounds and the melody merge to become the score… Niranjan, oh my wooden Niranjan…
The door opens. Jhagru tiptoes in. His eyes are red. The tears have dried on his cheek. He sobs, ‘It’s all over Babu… I will untie you now… he called with such love… like little Radha… where’s my wooden Niranjan, Jhagru, call him…’
Manimoy runs off as soon as he is untied. He is frothing at the mouth. His eyes are red reciting the poetry he will never write because Niranjan does not write. He races down the corridor. Shouts are heard, ‘Catch him, lunatic on the loose.’ No one can stop him. He arrives in the room of the boy from the rose garden and flings himself on the bed. The boy is lying in a stream of blood. Embracing the boy, he keeps kissing him. Many hands pry Manimoy off and take him away, outside the room. Manimoy finds Jhagru in the corridor, chuckling. He understands, Jhagru, this is his final mirror, the ‘zone’, which he is now crossing. Manimoy does not hear Jhagru bowing in the direction of his departure and saying, ‘Wooden Niranjan.’ For Manimoy is stilled by the absolute sound, all names have been obliterated and only creation remains.
(Portions of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Guillaume Apollinaire. and Binoy Majumdar have been used here as Manimoy’s work.)
~ Translated by Arunava Sinha
It’s almost Frankfurt Book Fair time, and next in our original Contributions series is an account of a visit to a second-hand book sale in Mumbai by co-founder of CinnamonTeal Publishing and the PublishingNext conference, Leonard Fernandes.
During a visit to Mumbai last week, we opened the Mumbai Mirror to find an advertisement for a book sale where books were being sold by the kilo. Having already been to the second-hand book market where we spent a considerable amount on Winston Churchill’s WWII books, we were wondering what else might get sold in a place where books were being sold this way. Curiosity got the better of us and we landed there hoping for a good bargain.
What we found there amazed us. Although such sales may be par for the course for a Mumbaikar or Dilliwala, for us Goans to see a huge hall like this with books stacked on every available inch, hundreds of boxes still lying unopened and shopping carts tied with string so you can pull them around, this was a revelation. It was obvious that these were remaindered books and that they had most probably come from the UK. There were rows of children’s books, novels of every imaginable kind, encyclopaedias, coffee table books and travelogues and a whole row dedicated to dictionaries and thesauri. It was a bibliophile’s delight.
And they came by the hordes. There were mothers scouring for books for their children, choosing from comics, illustrated books, children’s encyclopaedias, illustrated stories and nursery rhymes, even collectibles like the entire collection of Winnie the Pooh stories. There were college students looking for a good bargain on their favourite novels, or a good study aid. There were teachers sifting through the dictionaries and other reference books and there were the other readers, simply trying to find a book that they could spend an afternoon with, during what was a particularly rainy spell in Mumbai.
Remaindered book sales like these are a publisher’s nightmare. They represent a channel of sale that publishers do not have control over and can do little about. Although there was not a single book published by an Indian publisher (or an Indian arm of a foreign publisher), there might still be some publishers and booksellers who may worry about sales such as these. That books were actually being sold by the kilo, children’s books and “literature” at Rs. 200 per kilo and other books at Rs. 120/- per kilo, might only add to their worries.
For the book buyer though, this is a godsend. Such books are rarely available (We later went to a Crossword store and confirmed this) and definitely not at such throwaway prices. So why won’t they buy? And buy they did. We saw one teacher buy something around Rs. 2000/- worth of dictionaries and similar study material. As we were leaving the hall after spending about 2 hours there, the crowds were still pouring in.
For a student of publishing and the book trade, this throws up a whole set of questions. The legalities of remaindered book sales aside, does this phenomenon point to the fact that book sales and book pricing needs to be re-examined. At the recent PublishingNext conference, Kinjal Shah, CEO of Crossword Bookstores, remarked that he constantly implored publishers to raise the cost of their books to absorb inflationary impact. Is that the way to go, or are book buyers interested in still lower prices? And if lower prices will harm publishers, what could be the way out of this impasse? More libraries perhaps? There seem to be no easy answers.
The next in our Contributions Series is this sparkler from the author of Between Clay and Dust (Aleph 2012), Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Farooqi has also translated Rococo and Other Worlds: The Complete Works of Afzal Ahmed Syed (forthcoming from YODA PRESS).
On a sad weekend after another brutal gangrape in another city, we continue with our series of contributions by authors/friends/editors of Yoda Press. This week’s piece is a haunting, angry bit of writing about loss and coping, from Timeout Delhi Editor Jairaj Singh.
Grief is not easy to grasp. One moment you’re fine and picking up, the next you’re broken, low, and feel like throwing up. The past few weeks have been surreal. I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of dreams and I can’t clear my thoughts. I haven’t slept for nights. If I do, it either comes after endless trials of 4am, or whiskey and exhaustion.
Each time I close my eyes at night, I hear a kitten crying in the distance, which sounds like a little girl, or a chudail from one of my stories. I can’t tell. I don’t know what sense to make of life or death anymore.
It’s been a year now, I haven’t lit a cigarette and taken a deep, long drag to calm my demons. I think with time it will get better, easier to forget. But each night I have this dream in which I am smoking. When it slowly dawns on me what I have done, I tell myself in a soft, calm reassuring way, it’s just a cigarette. How bad can it hurt?
My friends used to say how fortunate I am to not have had a nervous breakdown, which hits you like a sandstorm and cuts you in a thousand ways like bits of glass. When you lose control, shut out everyone, and can’t crawl out of your room towards the sunlight for days. Now, I don’t know how long I can hold on. Don’t ask me if I am okay. I am not sure what it means. What is okay?
The great American writer Gore Vidal, who died earlier this year, once said, “Write something, even if it’s just a suicide note.”
I’m not planning to kill myself, but I am using this to write something. I don’t exactly know what. It most certainly isn’t mainstream or commercial. It’s just been difficult to write. Everything is so subjective these days. Everything is so easily consumed. Everything is in ruins.
There is a poem by Charles Bukowski called the Bluebird, which I like to listen to on YouTube before I switch off the bedside lamp these nights. It’s not a sad poem, but each time I listen to it, it doesn’t make me regret being a little broken inside.
I read somewhere a long time ago that the best way to deal with sadness is to consume it. But try telling that to a person who has lost someone close to him.
How can you lose someone? When you have them in your thoughts and prayer. When you can’t forget them and don’t want to.
Nothing lasts forever except cobwebs and scars. Not even sadness. But I prefer it to happiness most times. Happiness is just a shoestring of words as meaningless as a Facebook status update. You can find it in a fast food restaurant, TV commercials, and anything that comes with a price tag. At least, hope comes with a shawl of despair covering its head. Don’t hope. Hope’s just a word.
But, grief is not sadness or despair. Grief is like a void in the soul that needs repair. A knife in search of a murder. You cannot hold it, or grasp it, like smoke in an upturned glass. It’s like the bluebird that sits in Bukowski’s heart, which he knows is in there, and wants to let out, but he only sets it free at night when everyone is asleep.
It’s not easy to lose a friend. I’m not sure I can afford to lose anyone, anymore. Yet, I know everyone I love will one day merge with mist and rust. One can’t be sentimental about life or death. What is the point of looking for a point all your life when we don’t care for answers, or clear blue skies?