Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Loss of short memory and other stories
I have been writing short stories for last couple of years but not publishing them regularly. I am using my blog to put on net my short stories so that my Friends and others who are interested in reading contemporary creative writing mainly about complexities of modern urban life can read them. hope you like them . let me know your comments. happy reading
Prakash Bal Joshi
It is almost two years since I bumped into Amolik .There is a particular reason for remembering him today .A scrap of paper which just now fell down as I am rummaging through my collection of books is the reason.
As I emerged out of Churchgate station a couple of years ago , I paused for a minute. Like ants, people were streaming into the subway leading to suburban railway station. Very few like me were walking against the flow, trying to get out of the ant hole. There was no point in trying to board a train during peak hours, I told myself while climbing the last step. I was contemplating what to do when Amolik , my college friend ,bumped into me. I had not seen him since I had left college. Feeling quite uncomfortable and embarrassed, I did not know how to respond to his greetings.
After saying hi and hello, I took him to nearby Wayside Inn, my regular joint where I gulp a glass of beer before I board my train after a grueling day at the law firm, Desai and Desai . Actually, there was nothing common between us and Amolik not even belonged to my group of close friends.
Both of us used to occupy different rooms on the same floor of the college hostel and used to bump into each other whenever we visited a small canteen on the same floor for our morning cup of tea. Actually, I never liked him for one reason- --whenever we were together; he always used to ask some irrelevant but personal info about my friends with whom he had no connection , irritating me to no end. However, all these things were from the distant past and I was feeling happy to have met him and as I had enough time to spare, I invited him for a drink at the bar.
There is a special reason why I vividly remember our earlier discussion I did not resent his blunt and direct manner but he often confused me and made me feel uncomfortable. Ah, now I do recollect that there was a smirk on his face when I asked him to share a bottle of beer with me. The smirk was not there when we entered the bar and got a roadside table. It was only after the initial pleasantries and gathering info about who is where and whether we keep on meeting these pals from our college days , did I realize that there was twisted smirk on his face and knew exactly why it was there. But I did not mind it. He was silently reminding me of the time when I had given up beer during our hostel days.
"Really those were happy days. No tension , no work ……"
"And very little study " he completed the sentence as both of us erupted into laughter.
"Why should we be tense ? Dad used to send money orders as there were no ATMs or any-bank money transfers," I recalled how at the beginning of the month almost all of us used to wait for the postman to deliver money orders from our parents and how we used to celebrate MO day at the Irani restaurant with bun maska and double omelet.
"You had a nice binge at Paud …… "
I could not figure out what he was referring to and the lack of any reaction from me saw him frown questioningly .
"You guys had gone to John Kale's village for testing a local brew – pahili dhar. Don't you remember?" he appeared to be confused over why I was not responding. How could I forget such an event which had become talk of the hostel those days.
Like a flash it came back.
"Come on you were not part of the gang "
"Ok, I never was part of your gang. But we knew about it. Everybody talked about it for months. What exactly happened?"
I did not answer immediately.
"What happened? We had a great time. Open air, lot of booze and good food …"
"I know that. Something did happen . No one openly talked about it but some whispers percolated down and we were just wondering what did happen at the Paud party."
I could not understand what he was hinting at. I remember the Paud party but there was nothing significant about it. And what was there to hide? In fact ,I had totally forgotten all about the party as the days and years passed by and I got busy with my career.Now that Amolik mentioned the incident, I started recalling it in bits and pieces. For Amolik, remembering things had become a habit. He would himself not participate in anything but would try to get his information second hand by asking nosy and irritating questions. But once I realized that he meant no harm or ill-will, I began tolerating him.
"You were very upset after you returned from Paud. You did not talk to anyone for almost a week and kept to your room.
What was he saying ? I could not recollect confining myself to my room and not talking with anyone for a week. I ransacked my memory and tried to unearth some detail about the incident but somehow could not find anything. This was quite embarrassing, not recollecting anything about the Paud incident. It is surprising that Amolik remembers so much while I could not remember anything at all. Why ? Something must have occurred, an incident or event which must have induced partial amnesia.
What I distinctly remember is the fact that I stopped drinking beer after our visit to Paud and I never had a sip of the brew till I finished my college. I began drinking again after I joined the law firm and had to attend a number of social gatherings and interact with clients to gather information which was so vital for my seniors. What did occur at Paud which turned me into a teetotaler ? I was feeling frustrated at not remembering. As I tried to recollect what really happened at the Paud party , the bitter taste of beer brought back some submerged memories. The picture was a little hazy and unclear but the feelings of bitterness and disgust seemed familiar. Was my mind playing an hide and seek game ……..
" What are you talking yar , I cant remember a fucking thing of that party. Ok , as you say I was not talking about it then, but there is no reason why I should not tell you now after so many years. …………."
" Well, you must have forgotten about it totally. But those days your behviour was different… when I asked you about it while sipping a hot steaming tea , you just flared up and asked me to fuck off. But Gupta had talked about it a little bit about it ….."
" Maybe yaar, but I do not remember anything. Why should I keep it a secret or hide it from you or for that matter from anyone… it was plain simple booze party and that's it."
Is it possible that I have deliberately forgotten things with which I was not comfortable and did not want to tell him then and could not recollect now ? Was it totally erased from my memory so that no one , not even I could recollect it - – a total delete job?
" It was great fun and I never got such a kind of kick ever ….. "
Under influence of strong beer, persistent grilling by Amolik , my effort to remember our party at Paud, was like diving deep into ocean and rummaging through unknown depths to unearth a lost treasure trove .It was like trying to recollect sequences from a dream, and slowly but surely , images and details about the party started surfacing in my mind . I verbalized these images to Amolik ; it was like seeing a mute film and talking about it frame by frame,. Sometimes I would miss a link, struggle, to get back to it again.
A small sleepy village, dusty roads and rows of small houses with a main throughfare winding through dilapidated thatched cottages Amber turned into deep gray and evening descended on the village as we entered main lane and walked along. It ended at an old isolated church building with a wide open unkempt courtyard , a row of small outhouses at the back end, hens strutting from one corner to other, cattle returning after grazing on the slopes of small hills located just behind the rows of these outhouses.
John entered one of the houses, said something to an old lady ,and came back. As we started strolling towards the small hills behind bushes, someone came out of the bushes, approached John and talked to him. We start following the stranger , John, I, Ashok and Ramesh in that order, and came to a sport below the foothills which was covered with gunny bags and a dimly lit kerosene lantern .We sat in a circle, one by one we got plastic glasses filled with some odorless sparkling liquid, Ramesh called it pahili dhar , the first drops of distilled alcohol prepared with naptha and jaguar, no taste or odor, it goes down with burning sensation, we just gulped it down, didn’t look at it , and as the second round started, it became pitch dark or did we imagining things as we are became weightless wonders . Time stood still, one by one we got up and started our return journey, almost blacked out , as we started descending from the foot of the hill, we felt a fresh breeze making us lighter than a feather and we started floating in the air. Were we walking or floating , dim lights of village appeared distant , barren farms , the stars sparkled across a clear blue sky, I smiled to myself , so beautiful I told myself , as if I saw them for the first time, or did they look different from a village, felt like singing , someone slipped down and tried to get up with great difficulty, I laughed loudly but stopped when I saw some black shadows moving back and forth in the field. I strained my eyes to see a herd of sheep with eyes glowing like diamonds, together they formed a thick back cloud moving slowly , stars or eyes , clouds of sheep , confusing but soothing , why was Gupta , I am sorry, Ashok pushing and prodding every body from behind , why was he in a hurry, hungry with a grumbling stomach , I felt as if I was on a merry go round , looked back , there was no hill, no sheep , no trees, nothing except a barren dead farm , the church building glowed with a halo around it , dogs barked from a distance , in a pin drop silence , a few shrill human voices mingled with each other and then silence followed ,we sat down in the verandah , John went inside , an offensive odor of urine and cow dung mingled with the sound of bells hung around moaning cows , the stomach churned inside ,don't puke you silly, no light , the kerosene lantern burned with dancing flames making our sizzled shadows dance to its tune, we had aluminum plates in hand with jowar bread and hot egg curry , Ramesh kept on muttering something inaudible, suddenly he shouted, where is fucking onion , tried to hold him back , his lips keep on moving without sound , eyes looked insane and focused on infinity, felt better after swallowing rice and curd , washed hands carefully, lied down on the verandah, closed eyes, tried to sleep, chickens made strange gurgling noises in between, whose hand was this on my stomach, slept for few hours, got up and walked back to bus stand with heavy head after profusely thanking John’s friends who fed us with good food .
I narrated these experiences as it came to my mind slowly. He listened excitedly but at the end was visibly upset at not hearing what he expected to hear. He was confused . But as far as I was concerned, it was nice to recall suppressed memories of an evening out in open field. The images that remained with me was of those shining stars in the sky giving a mystic canopy to whole experience .There was nothing that I remembered which made me feel ashamed or uncomfortable. There was nothing to hide from Amolik or anyone else.
"Ami , it was fanstastic experience. All that booze, the kick and the feeling of lightness , with all those back sheep and mystical stars . It was wonderful. Only thing I now remember is the star lit sky over a huge farm…..that is what I remember of Paud party.”
He did not say a word. He kept on gazing at his empty beer glass.
" But you see ….. " he started saying something and abruptly stopped .
"What I told you was like recalling a recalcitrant dream. Suddenly I realized that his glass was empty and he is staring into it. “Want some more beer ?”
"No . you must have forgotten something which you did not want to remember”, he insisted .
" Maybe I forgot a few details but I don’t think it is anything important or significant, or embarrassing or ugly .”
" Were there any girls when you had your dinner ?”
He remained silent, allowing me to think.
Yes, there were two girls in the family which served us food and provided an open verandah to sleep. They were just around to help their mother when she served us food. But there was nothing significant to remember about them
"Gupta had mentioned them , that is how I know about them. Did Ramesh made any tamasha ?”
"Tamasha ? What show ! He was totally out and blanked out .
“ Maybe he tried to molest one of the girls .”
“ No, no what are you saying ! If any such thing had happened I would have certainly remembered it
That was the end of our conversation and drinking session. I paid the bill and walked out of the bar. I do not know how much credence he gave to my reply. I once again tried to recall the Paud experience .Almost five years had gone by but I am still confident that nothing of that sort had happened in Paud .I had not remembered about the two girls while I was recalling the Paud experience. . Can I be categorically sure that nothing of the sort happened that night? This question was troublesome. Amolik’s tell-tale information made me consider the events at Paud from another angle.
As days passed by that nagging question and the swirling memories of Paud got buried once again as I got busy with my own work with the legal firm..
There was so much of clutter around that I rarely find what I want. Books, notebooks, clippings, photographs, torn pieces of paper, scribble pads. I have been trying to clear away the mess but was always postponing the matter. Today however, I forced myself to rummage through old papers and books so that I could decide what to throw and what to keep.
While shifting through books from my campus days , two sheets of handwritten papers attracted my attention. I had written on both sides of both the papers. The first line startled me…
I had no desire to go but John and Ramesh persisted and forced me accompany them to Paud. …
I scooped up the papers as if I had unearthed a treasure . I moved closer to window and began reading my own handwriting.
I had no desire to go but John and Ramesh kept on persisting and forced me accompany them to Paud. …Some change in the routine. It took half an hour to reach Paud by bus. The bus station was nothing but a small shanty structure with little open space to allow the bus to take a u- turn. We had to cross the village before we reached an old church which stood out as the only pucca structure in the area. John's father once worked in this place and knew couple of families. We dumped our carry bags at the outhouse .John told the landlady that we will be back in half an hour. She merely nodded her head.
We began walking towards hills and crossed two or three farms –it was difficult to walk across the uneven land. We reached a small hill which had a cluster of mango trees encircled by grey bushes. The hill overlooked a plateau which led to a barren ridge. Huffing and puffing, we reached another cluster of mango trees where a worn out tarpaulin was hung over a small home- made distillery. There were drums of naptha and gur lying around haphazardly. Two persons, apart from the one who lead us to the spot, were hard at work . Wearing loose white shirts and pajamas and rubber slippers, their unshaven faces looked fearsome but they also wore reassuring smiles.
We were amongst illicit liquor distillers, eager to consume pahili dhar ,a country brew known for its knock out punch. We were little relaxed as no one knew us here.
We sat in a small circle near the trunk of a mango tree . John was called by our tour guide who said something in his ears and returned to join us. "Now guys relax and drink to your heart. But be careful, it will give you the kick of your life time. There is no priest around, so cheers "
We were given small plastic glasses of different colours. I got red while Ramesh got blue, and Gupta's yellow glass appeared dirty. Someone came with a rubber balloon filled up with liquor and poured it into our glasses. There was no colour, taste or odour. Was it some kind of elixir, a somras of the gods ?
It went down well, though there was a burning sensation when we gulped it down .Even before first glass got emptied, I began feeling lighter. As usual Ramesh started talking loudly but there was no need to worry since we were not disturbing , nor were we sitting in any pub or restaurant.
" Woow, fantastic yar , I never tasted anything like it before. Thanks John, you are great . What an ambience, trees, bushes, blue sky and hills to give us company, cheers, boss….." he went on talking and within no time he became inaudible .I could not make out what he was saying unless I concentrated on his words. When we were served the second round ,Ramesh held on to hands of the fellow and praised him to the skies.
We climbed down slowly and by the time we reached the cluster of farms ,it had become pitch dark. Our guide turned back after ensuring that we had reached out destination. John tried to say something but we could understand his words. Perhaps he wanted us to thank the fellow but we were struggling to keep our balance.
It must have taken some time for us to reach the farm. Ramesh was giving lecture, hectoring and talking non-stop. Gupta was hurrying as it was becoming dark and we could hear dogs barking somewhere. There was a herd of sheep grazing in the field which appeared ghostly as they keep on moving ahead of us. It was scary .
Reaching the farm, we slumped on the verandah. An elderly person was already there with his grey head buried between his legs, probably he was landlady's husband. He appeared to be sizzled and now waiting for food. John went inside to check for our food.. "Please come in sir," the elder said and almost went back to sleep. Ramesh was constantly repeating himself while Gupta was restless with hunger. Both followed John into the kitchen who brought them back saying ," just wait here for a few minutes… hot and spicy food will soon be ready."
"Oh, let us give them helping hand, "Ramesh wobbled back in kitchen where the lady and her two daughters were preparing cucumber and tomato salad. One was cutting onions and wiping away tears. Ramesh went and sat near her , grabbed a plate and volunteered to slice onions ."Just move aside, I will help you…," he babbled. The girl got up and stood near a window. The lady got up and took away the plate and knife from Ramesh saying ,"sahib ,just leave it alone..you will cut your fingers.". Meanwhile, John and I tried to cajole him out of the kitchen.
"What the hell. Do you think I am drunk. Get away. Let me help those poor girls. You idiots.. you just sit here and watch. You don't want to help them because your are chauvinists…. "
We tried to make him sit but he preferred to stand and give lecture on women's lib and all that. Actually, it was good diversion as the women were left alone to cram the plates with hot steaming food---- jowar bhakari, egg-curry,chicken and salad with a lot of onions . The food was good and tasty and we ate a lot. " Sorry auntee, we troubled you a lot," we mumbled as we enjoyed the food. " Sorry, we can not offer you anything more delicious." she said apologetically and kept on stuffing our plates.
We washed our hands and laid down on the verandha with pillows below our heads…..John had magically got them from somewhere. Gupta was the first to start snoring. Meanwhile, the lady and the girls along with the grey haired man finished off the leftovers. John went inside when some one called out to him.I was just dozing waiting for sleep to take over when I heard a chanting .Ramesh woke up and went inside the house. They were sitting in a circle round a lantern. John had some crumpled book in his hand and he was reciting something and others followed him in hushed voices with folded hands. John said, "He Prabhoo… " The younger girl was a little louder than others.
Ramesh sat near John and tried to peep into the book. I sat next to him worried that he may create a scene. He sat quietly throughout the prayer till John closed the book and his eyes.
Ramesh began his sermon in an unsure but loud voice," I am happy we prayed for Yeshu . After all , there is only one God . We may call him with different names. As Swamy Vivekanand once said : even though God is one , we have different ways to approach him …."and he went on rambling . The grey haired man slipped out of the room and went to sleep in one corner in verandah. I tried to stop Ramesh’s now incoherent speech but he now stared speaking to the landlady , "Auntee tell me if I am wrong … let me speak "
Finally we got him out of the room. John kept Ramesh between us and we tried to doze. I was feeling uncomfortable as the stomach was making strange noises. The stinking smell of cattle urine and cow dung become more offensive as night descended , making me more sick. My throat had become dry and I could hardly sleep as chickens kept shuffling their wings and disturbed the peace. The door opened, the landlady peeped out , saw everyone asleep, went inside quietly and put of the lantern. Ramesh must have tried to get up once or twice but John kep pulling him down saying ," just sleep man". I did manage to doze off as a cool breeze swept through the verandah.
I got up with a heavy head brushed my teeth, had a cup of tea and we soon began our return journey after profusely thanking the family.
I finshed reading the pages without a pause.. I was not very much disappointed with what I read but I could not figure out why I took the trouble to jot down these events on a piece of paper. I read it once again. Did I have a premonition that I would forget the adventure and therefore made detailed notes ? But there were no grisly details that Amolik was expecting . Yes, Ramesh did go inside and tired to sntach some onions and a knife from the girl but there was nothing outrageous about it . In fact, the incident was hilarious and perhaps slipped from my mind as time went by.
Over a glass of beer, I had narrated my impressions and memories of Paud to Amolik. It was full of brightly lit skies with stars, sheep with diamond -like eyes, there was a recitation of poems and all that stuff which made the event very memorable. But when I read the notes, I do not find any mention of immemorable impressions of Paud. What I did recall the trip to Amolik, did I romanticize it and talk about hills, farms, sky and sheep? Strangely, I had not remembered Ramesh's lecture, his encroachment in kitchen, and the nauseating smells and sounds. Only common to both memories was the verandah , a mystic church building, the simple hardworking landlady and good food. It was as if my memory provided a long shot while the notes written down on a piece of paper were a closer look from a microscope.
What is reality and what is illusion. ? I kept on staring at the paper and tried to recall my hostel days. But at the end , I was not sure whether I remembered everything, even after reading the notes. I do not now remember how the landlady looked except the way she had wrapped herself in a nine-yard sari and covered her head with its pallu. I did not look at her while leaving her house
. " Come back again , boys ," she had said. Much before her invitation, I had decided not to get involved in such party as I was feeling uneasy and uncomfortable with a reeling and aching head. It was like floating on thin air and then dropping down like a rock.
What ugly incident was Amolik referring to ?. Did it really happen or was it a figment of fertile imagination ? Surely it was a case of rumour mongering and nothing more . However, after reading the points I jotted down, I am quite unsure of myself Did my mind erase unpleasant memories ?
There was one more fellow along with John, Ramesh and Gupta but I have forgotten his name, nor he is mentioned in the points I had noted down. I don't even remember his face. John was the more sober amongst us . If I meet him again he may be able to throw some light.
( 1) Mirror
Prakash Bal Joshi
As soon as I was born, the haze like reddish darkness faded and my eyes opened into a void where no light entered. I could only feel an encircling emptiness surrounding and sheathing me.
I went on peering in to the void until blank sight was replaced by an unknown sensation. I felt someone thumping my back. Suddenly all sorts of strange noises, feeble as well as loud, attacked my consciousness. As shadows began swirling around me and unknown odours assaulted my senses, the warm and much familiar smell receded and retreated into the recent and yet unfamiliar past.
I saw her. She was all in white except for jet black eyes .The startling whiteness was unsettling and frightened me but the dark eyes held me in a spell. Its whirlpool depths bewitched and transfixed me into submission.
I could feel her but she seemed unaware of my fresh consciousness. She went on patting my back, thumping me, swaying me back and forth and looking at me with great concern. The darkness of her eyes was filled with worry.
She wanted me to look at myself first before I looked out at the unknown world.
“Sister”, somebody bellowed. She hurriedly opened her purse and her slender fingers moved about so quickly and delicately that I was mesmerized and held spellbound. She slipped out a small mirror from her purse like easing a baby from a recalcitrant womb.
But before she could place the mirror before my face I had already discovered myself .Her jet black eyes were so clear and reflective that I had seen myself as well as my identification badge. Unaware of my discovery, she went on polishing the mirror and soon after the mirror was clear enough, she held it in front of me. I was however still captivated by the darkness of the eyes and realizing that I was still not looking at the mirror. She hushed, “ Look, have a look, before you see anything else.”
I could barely understand her. What I looked at was the image of a premature infant about a minute old with embryonic liquid still clinging onto a pink feather soft face. This image looked down possessively at me from the mirror.
Satisfied, she slowly put me down. My eyes however clung to her as she rummaged through her purse again, fished out a thick pencil, held the mirror in front of her face and applied the pencil onto her rather conspicuous lips. The lips started glowing red.
Quickly, she lowered her face. Now her lips were more prominent than her eyes and planted a hurried kiss on my cheek. I started crying, for the first time I think.
My crying was terrifying even to myself. It was completely different from the noises that I had been accustomed to. A reassuring pat fell on my back. It was my mother, trying to calm me but I went on bawling because I wanted to listen to this new exciting sound this went on till some new presence came up to me.
I was again startled by whiteness though of different kind. Mother said he is my father. Daddy had a strong broad face with a bluish tinge in his eyes. Bushy eyebrows gave him a fearsome look. He had put on a white dhoti, white full sleeved shirt, white cap, representative of Indian freedom struggle. The cap, I was to learn later also ensured a quick escalation on the power ladder after independence from British rule..
His obsession with white was all pervasive. Except for his eyes and dark bushy eyebrows, he was a white man. His stern look stopped my howling. He winked and smiled a typical half smile, which failed to arouse any confidence in me, and I continued sobbing.
A black crow, settled on the branch of a peepal tree, was visible from where I was lying. It suddenly opened its long beak and loudly crowed. I again started howling, my father dashed to the window and closed it with a bang. My mother tried to calm me down and asked father to open the window. He refused to do so. How could he allow his son to look at a black crow, the bearer of bad tidings. Moreover, it was totally black opposed to his sense of pristine whiteness.
It was a huge mansion with many rooms and spacious hall. At the entrance, my father, a busy and influential man, would often meet people at home. He would allow visitors to enter the hall only after they had washed hands and feet at the entrance. All this trouble, I was told was, on behalf of a large mirror, a family heirloom, had been handed down for at least four generations and father wanted to keep it absolutely clean and pure.
Often he would peep inside, while discussing serious matters with visitors just to find out what I was up to. In addition, repeatedly, he would say, go and wash your hands, they are dirty. Look at your feet, go away first. These instructions would be repeated like a litany everyday.
Let me see your hands, wash them first
Let me see your hands, good
Let me see your feet, wash them first
Let me see your feet, good.
Wash your hands, wash your feet
Wash your face, good
And mother’s task was to keep strict watch on me. I should not play with urchins, I should not play with clay or I would become dirty. I used to wonder how he kept himself so clean despite meeting so many dirty fellows everyday in the hall.
I could not understand why I was not allowed to play what if my hands and feet got dirty, I could always wash then before I entered the hall so that the family mirror remain uncontaminated. How could I not touch and play with mother earth. I desperately wanted to mould clay into beautiful images and idols. But I dare not, not with my father anxiously hovering about in the background.
The commandments of “ thou shalt not “ became too much to bear. One day I simply went out, used the water meant for washing hands and feet for softening clay and clumsily began making various idols.
When I returned home, mother was sitting in a corner with a forehead clean like a slate. Strangely, she did not say a word about my dirty hands and feet. I did not notice that there was no Kum Kum Tilak on her forehead.
I looked at the mirror in the hall. It was cracked as if somebody had thrown a stone. My face was also divided on the lines of the splintered glass surface. Suddenly, I realized why the mirror had cracked.
I had been telling my father not to try and enter into the mirror. How could one wash images? In the far corner of the mirror, I could see bits and pieces of forms I had created from mud.
Observations about "Mirror"
by Prof Arun Bhagwat ,Pune University
It is really short but conveys a great deal.
It is about the interplay of power and creativity experienced by our generation, born in the twilight of independence.I think the story forms a prelude to the autobiography of our generation.
May I expect a narrative on the subsequent events -esp what happens to the creative urge of the narrator? How does he cope with the paradox of creating images from the clay that soiles hands? The father is sterile-he hopes to 'cleanse' his material before handling it: the son does not shun contact with the material but then soils his hands -and as layers of material form on his fingers they lose the tactile sensitivity which is the very soul of the sculpturing art. If the father is unable to resolve the problem of stand- offish politics the son faces the problem of say, cling -onnish art.?
And the womenfolk? They would have played a more positive role in the narrator's shaping but for the father's intrevention. Do they have a role in his later ife?