Saturday, February 25, 2012
Sitting crouched in a white Maruti van, five of us are heading towards Amritsar. A pall of silence hangs inside, separating us. The van is racing on ahead, as though involuntarily, very much like an unregulated life winding down the path of destiny. A dark, tarmac road lies ahead, stretching out like the unending hours of grief. With one milestone blowing into another, the trees are falling in and out of view like long-forgotten, distant memories. Appalled at the prospect of going to school in my worn-out, over-repaired shoes, as a twelve-year-old, I had, once, presented him with a sudden demand for a new pair. Of my secret childhood fascination with shoes, he was least aware. He hadn’t the faintest of notions of how I spent hours together polishing my shoes every evening. Polishing shoes and combing hair were the only two obsessions I had. It was simply unthinkable for me to go to school wearing leather chappals, something he had suggested merely to put me off. It was almost like asking me to step out of the house, with my hair all crumpled. But he had no patience for my pleas. Dismissing them all with an inflexible ‘no,’ he had walked out of the house in a huff, shutting the door behind. Though I was known to be quite a docile child, a sudden frenzy had overtaken me. Rushing towards the main door and finding it bolted from outside, I had simply shot my hand through the glass pane. Crashing into a splintered heap around my feet, it had left a deep gnash on my left wrist, which had taken several days to heal. The sudden stab of pain, I had felt then, was still fresh in my mind. As fresh perhaps as was the unexpected, secret joy I had experienced years later, when dragging me to the market, he had compelled me to pick up an expensive suit length for myself, something I didn’t really have any felt need for. In his characteristic style, he had announced his intention of having made up his mind to gift me a suit length the day I was awarded a doctoral degree. Now, I wasn’t a child of twelve any longer. Well past my thirty-two years, I was already a much-married man with two little children of my own. For me, it was only natural to have reservations about accepting an offer of such an expensive gift from him. But I knew the futility of resisting him just as well. He had made it abundantly clear, he wouldn’t take a ‘no’ for an answer, only allow me a choice of colour. This time round, there was no need for me to bang my hand into the glass pane. Unmindful of my weak protestations, he had simply gone ahead and bought me something I could have very well done without.
Such a man was he, one who always spoke very little, his actions speaking louder than his words. Though he always chose his moment, even manner of action, he never felt troubled by any special need to find reasons for his actions or deeds. Even if he did find the reasons, the urge to share them with others was not necessarily the strongest of all the urges he had. His reasons always lay deep inside his heart, wrapped in impenetrable silence. Looking out of the window now as I sit holding the back of the front seat, suddenly his face is hovering before my bleary eyes. Broad forehead, well cut, chiselled features, aquiline nose, a strong, angular jawbone and thin, white hair, blown back. Everything was just the way I had seen it, the last time, except that the dark circles around the eyes have darkened and the cheeks have cut hollows much deeper. Seeing the dark circles and sunken hollows, I burst into a sudden cry, “Oh! Why did it have to happen?” And each time my wife hears me repeat this, her hand reaches out mine, reassuringly, resting upon it awhile, withdrawing slowly, her eyes still moist. Once in a while, when I burst into uncontrollable, hysterical sobs, Anurag, who is sitting in the front, next to the driver, reminds me, without so much as turning around, “Get hold of yourself. You should think of mother. Right now, we need only think of her.” Amazing that even in this moment, when we are heading to participate in his last rites, Anurag is refusing to think of father. His thoughts have always been for mother; right from his early days, he has felt a strong, irresistible pull towards her. Even as a child of ten, he often used to sell stickers in school to be able to make little money so as to buy mother sugarcane slivers she loved to eat. Mother hadn’t been keeping too well. She would stay up nights; persistent, asthmatic cough and loud, rasping breath racking her whole being. As she had to take a heavy dose of medicines, she had developed a craving for sugar-cane slivers. She rarely ever had any money she could either call her own or spend the way she wished. All four of us knew this, but only Anurag had the ingenuity to help mother through. Only he had the better sense to intuit little needs of mother, which often went unexpressed, also unattended. Once he had even fought with father for his refusal to provide pin money to mother. Anurag had learnt to play the provider much before he actually became one.
As my thoughts begin to wander off, I twist around to look at the faces of my daughters, who are sitting huddled together, holding on to my wife for support. Fear lurking in their large, innocent eyes, they are looking at their mother’s face, bewildered. Too young to understand the significance of what has transpired! How can I tell them what it is to lose him when I don’t quite know the real nature of the loss myself? The only thought that is returning somewhat insistently to me now is that I’d never be able to use the word ‘Papa’ ever again. It is as if this word has slipped out of my ‘dictionary’ forever, unseen and unnoticed. Now it exists only as a noun, not as person for me. Often, the loss of a dear one is experienced in or through language much before it becomes a real, material fact or is experienced as an actual event. And this is something my daughters can’t be expected to grasp even if I try hard enough to explain, which I don’t quite feel up to, anyway.
The van jerks to a sudden halt, throwing me back upon myself. An interminably long row of cars, buses, trucks and other vehicles stand on ahead. We have pulled up at a railway crossing. Sensing that the train may be long in coming, the driver has lit a cigarette to distract himself. And then leaning against his seat, he is now dragging at it. I don’t really know what it is, his relaxed demeanour or the curls of smoke rising up; suddenly I’m feeling rather edgy, even angry. Father had refused to heed to the repeated injunctions of the doctor against his smoking habits. He had been warned that smoking may ultimately claim his life as well, but did he care? Of late, he had taken to smoking on the sly. It was only on going into the toilet, one day, immediately after he vacated it that I had rushed out, coughing rather badly. The toilet lay choked with cigarette smoke. When I confronted him, later, he had initially demurred, only to concede rather hesitantly, soon after, how he had begun smoking a cigarette or two a day, all over again. With a thousand questions hammering inside my head, my patience was running down, slowly but surely. Could he have saved his life by giving up cigarettes altogether? Despite an awareness of his condition, why did he persist in smoking? What was it, smoking or something else that had ultimately proved to be his undoing? The realisation that all such questions shall now remain unanswered has only sharpened my agony, manifold. I can’t understand why the train is taking so long to arrive? Or why we are stranded in the middle of nowhere? Silently, I even curse the government for not showing enough initiative for building overbridges. Or just about anything we could have used right now to go across, without prolonging our wait, unnecessarily. It is as though this sudden halt, this arrested flow of speed, has left me shaken deep inside. Nothing could have been more disconcerting than this forced halt, this temporary stillness; not even the thought of my father dragging away at his smoke. With each passing moment, my desperation is rising to a pitch and so is my helplessness. Finally, the screaming whistles of the train far in the distance bring a sudden relief to my agitated mind.
It was a morning, just like any other. Smriti was busy getting the children ready for school. I was still lazing around, my morning cup of tea tilting dangerously over the newspaper. I had already scanned the columns of the local daily for the day’s predictions, which is what I did, every morning, as soon as I laid my hands upon the paper. It hadn’t made any startling predictions about the day that awaited me. Another day, teeming with little worries, another day, announcing its ordinariness, its predictable rounds of diurnal cycle. I hadn’t quite made up my mind on how to meet this challenge of ordinariness when the doorbell rang, all of a sudden. It had the shrillness of a dog howling at night. On peeping from my second-storey balcony, I found Punnu uncle standing outside, looking up. With a wave of his hand, as he always did, he had motioned me to come down, saying, “Well, there’s a call for you.” I had rushed down the flight of stairs, breathless. He had taken me inside, his hand resting upon my shoulder. After making me sit down upon a chair opposite his, he had finally broken the news, “This morning, there was a call for you from Amritsar. I think, your neighbour was on the line. He left a message saying that your father wasn’t well and so you must reach immediately. Then, a little while ago, another one came saying, he’s no more.” I had kept looking at him, my mouth wide-open. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I should burst into tears instantaneously. A numbness that had been in my veins for the past several weeks had crawled back, unseen, leaving me transfixed. So much so, Punnu uncle had to shake my shoulders, saying, “What’re you thinking of now. There’s no time to be lost. You must leave immediately.” That’s when something had stirred deep inside, thawing my frozen tears. But there was no time to shed them as so much was still to be done. I had to call up Anurag and inform him, fix up a taxi and, of course, inform my office that I was going out of town. It is strange, this insistence of the service rules that an employee must always plan out when to leave the town, especially when life itself is so unpredictable! While sipping tea in the morning, did I know that I’d have to rush to Amritsar to participate in his final journey? We know so little about our beginnings and our departures, and yet we insist upon framing our lives neatly, as if the order isn’t just there but works as well.
The train has sped past, whistling away. The barriers at the railway crossing have already lifted. The vehicles in the front have begun to crawl across the railway line. So stubbing out his cigarette, the van driver turns the key in, lurching on ahead, his eyes fixed upon the road, straight and clear. Far into the distance, smoke is rising above the wheat crop, drenched in the golden hue of the afternoon sun. Ripening to a fullness, the shoots are swaying in the hot breeze, unmindful of the tyranny of Baisakh, less than a fortnight away, when, falling under the farmer’s scythe, they would ultimately be flattened to the ground. Balancing a bundle of hay upon her head, a woman is rushing along a narrow pathway running through the fields, her elongated pale, grey shadow falling across. It was the month of April and I was laid up with a bad attack of asthma. For several years, now, this was something that had begun to happen with almost an unfailing sense of regularity. As soon as the harvest season began, my asthma would surface, leaving me debilitated for weeks together. I had had a particularly bad night, as the attack had continued right through, without much reprieve. Though it was afternoon, I was still in the bed, hunched over my stomach, gasping for breath and fighting back my tears. Suddenly, he had come into my room. I had looked into his eyes, pleading for mercy and compassion. I don’t know whether or not he had read the expression in my eyes, but throwing one quick glance at me, he had simply said, “Why don’t you go, kill yourself?” and walked out of the room, slamming the door shut. Hearing him speak in this manner, it was as though the floodgates had been thrown open. I had cried my heart out, sobbing bitterly, wishing death upon myself a hundred times over. But death doesn’t ever come, when solicited; it can neither be wished upon oneself nor anyone else. As a child, I had heard him talk of death several times over, as though it were some familiar story he often told the four of us, as we sat around in a circle, our eyes popping out in a dazed wonder. I must have been around nine when he had called me over to his room, once and after bolting it from inside, thrown open the personal closet, he always kept locked for some reason I could never fathom. Then pulling out a neatly tied up bundle of papers from under a pile of clothes, he had said, “You must open this when I die. This is how you’ll get to know the real story of my life.” Hearing him speak of death with such unconcern, I had almost become hysterical. Unmindful of my tears, he had continued in the same vein, “You’ve another brother, older than you. He’ll come back one day to claim his share. Just do exactly as you find written in this document.” For several days thereafter, I had suffered from an undying curiosity to sneak into his room in his absence, turn the key into the lock, open his closet and take out the bundle. I had even toyed with the idea of growing up overnight in the childlike belief that as an adult nothing could possibly prevent me from gaining an easy access to that mysterious pack of papers. Now rushing towards Amritsar, my mind is suddenly beginning to untie the knots that lie encircling the bundle I haven’t even seen for several years now. Who knows, whether or not those mysterious papers would ever be found? So much has happened in the intervening years; we have moved in and out of so many houses, the bundle, too, must have changed so many cupboards, and it is difficult to say whether it is still in the safe custody of one of them or has quietly slipped out and got lost in one of those uncertain moments of transit. Suddenly I’m seized with a desire to lay my hands upon that bundle, whose existence is a mystery to me now. Suddenly, it has become a sort of filial obligation for me to unlock its dark secrets, as though all the silences of his heart lie neatly wrapped inside, waiting to scream out.
On getting off the van, we don’t hear any shrill cries or wild, uncontrollable screams the way we had expected. The house lies shrouded in a strange, elusive stillness. Its white colour smudged into a dull greyness. We walk up to the main door in a file, our heads bowed, guiltily. With trembling hands, I push the door open. There he lies upon the floor, covered in a white sheet. Seeing us enter, mother gets up, her eyes already glazed with tears. Throwing her frail arms around me, she bursts into hysterical sobs. And then, by turns, she hugs each of one of us, just as we move from one relative to another, sobbing and wailing, involuntarily, helplessly. All this while, he lies there, as quiet as ever. When I finally remove the sheet off his face for his last darshana, I’m struck by the way his lips lie strangely curled up, as though waiting to say something. All these years, I waited for these pursed lips to open, waited for the silence to flesh itself out into words; silence that lay behind them, inviolate and pure. But now, when he can no longer incarnate his silence into words, this strange curling up of his lips has left me completely shaken. The well-knit scowl that defined his face in life has now suddenly disappeared, leaving a strange calm on his furrowed face. Somewhere behind those creases lies the serenity of Casablanca, my childhood hero, whose story he loved to tell each time we pestered him for one. The boy who had stood on the burning deck, stock-still, in deference to the wishes of his father, waiting to be claimed by him from among the engulfing flames, rising sky-high. Often on reaching this point in the story, my father used to go into a trance, as though the ship had sailed too close to the harbour, as though he could now easily trade places with Casablanca. It was one of those few stories he would never tire of repeating to us, and each time he did so, we found ourselves surging with a desire to respond to every call of duty, a desire which lasted only so long as the story did, never beyond. Now looking at his eyes, with eyelids carefully drawn over them, I’m suddenly reminded of an intense, blazing expression that lies masked. Over the years, the crow’s feet around his eyes have deepened, giving a false sense of gaiety to his sombre, almost a studied expression. The tip of his nose is still as sharp as ever, now pointing skywards, mocking the world. His thin, white hair lie strangely ruffled, bald patches shining through the red streaks of blood congealed at the back of his head. In early hours of the morning, as he stood in the kitchen, preparing a cup of tea for himself, something he occasionally did, he had simply collapsed into a heap, never to rise again. His fall had left marks of injury strangely hidden from the naked eye and certainly not so clearly visible as were its telltale signs. Pulling the sheet back over his face, I wonder if the telltale signs would ever live to tell their tale, of injuries congealed behind his head or bundled inside his heart. Human heart is like a dark cave, rarely ever illumined for those who look at it from outside. Unable to penetrate the depths of its silences, often we only get to see nothing but the fleeting shadows, falling across its dumb walls. It’s a measure of our ignorance that what we take to be the real, substantial things ultimately turn out to have a mere ghostly presence, neither confirmed nor denied. Thousands of ghosts dance within the secret walls of this cave, a territory, which appears strangely familiar but is forever out of bounds, forever elusive. And yet, for centuries now, journeymen have continued to walk through its vast, unending deserts, puzzling over the silence of the Sphinx, little knowing that the promise of a hidden treasure is often not the same thing as stumbling upon the real one.
Right in the heart of a sprawling, six-acre complex, carefully fortified by red brick walls, stands an old peepul tree, majestic in its impenetrable loneliness. Twisted into myriad shapes, its gnarled roots lie hanging off the stolid branches, eager to touch the ground. A brick platform runs all around, encircling it. Beyond the platform lie vast stretches of uncultivated fields, opening out in all four directions. The factory, which has, since long ceased belching out thick clouds of smoke, now stands apart, almost apologetic about its intrusive, concrete presence. Initially, when the design of the factory was being drawn up, it was decided that the tree shouldn’t be allowed to stand in way of the factory’s construction. But when the labour, working on the site, had refused to axe the tree, defying the clear instructions of the contractor, the engineer had sat up nights, re-drawing the plans. Living in the village close by, people had come to believe that it was sacrosanct to preserve the exclusive privacy of the peepul. It was rumoured that the tree had survived from those times in antiquity when the village had not yet acquired either its present name or its habitation. Someone even recounted how this tree, which once stood in the middle of nowhere, had at some distant point in time, served as a haven for highway robbers and fugitives. Often, at night, they would assemble under its protective canopy, either for dividing among themselves their daily loot or for dumping stolen goods or valuables, including precious gold coins and ornaments in the nearby fields. Another one talked of how, for a long time, this peepul had been a haunt of a pir, who had suddenly disappeared one day, leaving a trail of mystery behind. Over the years, the tree has turned into a hallowed spot, a small structure of bricks raised beside it. Even now, I’m told, every Thursday of the week, someone or the other does make it a point to visit this spot, lighting an earthen lamp on a makeshift ledge. And though the inmates of this vast, sprawling complex have now long since moved out, the weekly ritual, still alive and vibrant, continues, undisturbed.
I do remember father telling me how he, once, had a strange dream about this very tree, which, incidentally, was much before I was born, while he was still a young man, unmarried. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the government had taken recourse to some stringent forms of taxation, both personal and collective. Heavy taxation had sent the family fortunes into a tailspin, slowly grinding all business to an unexpected halt. Most of the liquidity had either gone towards the payment of the taxes or had been used up in misdirected litigation. With the capital constantly in a short supply, it had become nearly impossible to run the factory at its existing capacity, and much less think of pushing through any pre-war plans of future expansion. Such was the situation, when, one night, he had dreamt of the unlimited treasure lying buried underneath the peepul tree. A particularly vivid dream, in which he not only saw caskets overflowing with pearls, gems and diamonds but also a black cobra guarding the treasure, hissing menacingly, its fangs spread wide apart. Haunted by this dream for a long time, he had often debated with himself the possibility of sharing it with the other members of the family but then, for some inexplicable reason, had refrained from doing so. When the dream had begun to surface again and again, repeating itself with an unnerving regularity, he had simply gone ahead and hired the labour to get the digging-in started off. Going against the popular opinion, he had used his initiative, hoping to unearth the unlimited treasure that lay entombed. They had hardly been at the job a few hours, and perhaps cut only marginal digs around the peepul roots, when one of workers suddenly developed convulsions and later died, within a span of few weeks. That was the only time father supervised any attempt at a treasure hunt, which had to be aborted prematurely, abandoned much before it could actually begin.
That day, while returning home from school, Hemant and I had missed the bus. In those days of erratic bus services, it always took more than an ordinary effort to reach the school or return home on time. Often, only a few buses plied on this route, connecting that part of the town where the school was and our village where we lived in a white mansion, surrounded by the red brick walls. And whenever we missed the bus, either way, it meant a wait of no less than an hour and a half, even two, at times. So we had decided to walk across to the petrol pump, some distance off, from where it was always possible to hire a tonga, something we usually did, each time the bus packed up on us. But that day, tonga-ride had turned out to be somewhat different, much more than a pleasurable ride back home. As all the seats were occupied, Hemant and I had positioned ourselves on the two opposite poles that jutted out of the tonga frame, supporting the saddle. Sitting right next to the tonga driver, I was constantly trying to balance my weight upon the pole, fearing that a sudden trot of the horse might send me hurtling down, unexpectedly. But the horse was moving apace, as though it had been trained not to fall out of rhythm. Suddenly, directing his attention towards us, one of the passengers shot a question, “Oye mundeo, where do you live?”
“Across the railway line.” I was quick to reply.
“Where exactly in the village?”
“No, it isn’t inside the village. It’s a little distance short of. …”
Before I could say a word more, another passenger spoke up, “Sardara, you don’t know them? They’re the grandsons of Lala Kishan Chand.”
That very moment, a sudden hush fell across the tonga, and nothing could be heard except the rat-a-tat of the horses’ hooves. Even those passengers, who were engrossed in their own gossip, paying only scant attention to our conversation, suddenly fell silent. I had felt rather uncomfortable, even embarrassed at having been denied this opportunity of introducing myself. I was still making up my mind on how to react when someone, sitting in the rear seat, chirped rather merrily, “Oh, these Lalas! Who doesn’t know them? They’re the ones who own that factory. It’s perhaps one of the oldest in the area, too.”
“Yes, I know, my father used to work for them. He would often tell me all kinds of stories,” the tonga-driver, too, jumped in, cracking his whip on the horse. Now, this was enough to raise eyebrows, all around. Forgetting all about our existence, the passengers’ had started edging closer to the tonga-driver, their curiosity peaking into wide-eyed, mysterious smiles. Perhaps, this kind of prompting was about all that the tonga-driver needed. Rattling his whip across the wheel of the tonga, signalling the horse to fall into a quicker stride, he started off, “They say, this factory actually belonged to a French Saab. He had come to India before the war started. All the machinery was imported from France. Thousands of workers used to work for him. He was very kind and generous. Always at hand to help his workers out of their problems. They say, once, one of his workers lost his arm in an accident on a machine. The Saab somehow got to know that the poor fellow was the only breadwinner in his family. He had offered him a very handsome compensation, apart from a peon’s job in the office. He really had a heart of gold.”
“But then, how did these Lalas get the ownership of this factory?” queried one of the younger passengers. Throwing one quick glance at both of us, the tonga-driver resumed his story, “I don’t know how far it is true. But they say Lala Kishan Chand was only a minor partner. After the war started, it became extremely difficult for the French Saab to continue operating his business from India. He was forced to return to France. Some say that before leaving, he sold off all his shares to these Lalas...” At this point, the tonga-driver suddenly pulled the reins, bringing the tonga to a halt. A passenger got off, paid his money and went his way, and when the tonga lurched into motion, once again, the driver’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Some also say that the elder Lala hired goons and got the French Saab killed. This is how ownership of the factory changed hands.” With these words, the tonga-driver had fallen silent, whipping up a storm within, which had continued to explode inside me for the rest of the journey. Though I had remained tight-lipped, exchanging an occasional helpless, guilty expression with Hemant, I had not been able to lift my head again to meet the gaze of other passengers. Most of them were perhaps glaring at me as though I wasn’t just another normal-looking, school going child but a malformed Asthavakra, a freak who had no right to be where he was.
That day, on returning home, I had sat by the window of my room for hours together, looking out. In the evening, when the sun was about to set, its crimson light had suddenly set the red bricks of the boundary wall aflame. I don’t know what it was, the effect of the tears rising in my eyes or the light shimmering upon the wall, at least, momentarily, it felt as though blood was dripping off the crevices of red bricks.