HAMLET’S WORLD A Blog Novel

How stand I then,

That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,

Excitements of my reason and my blood,

And let all sleep?

Hamlet. Act IV, Scene IV.

 

PART ONE

 

1

 

FEAR OF DARKNESS

 

Hamlet Damodaran faced the new day with the dregs of unrelished sleep hanging like used tea bags from the bottom of his reddened eyes. The day was less oppressive than the night of fear. He welcomed it with a sigh.

As he dug his knuckles into his eyes to rub out the dregs of sleep, he  remembered the lion-tailed macaque at the zoo he had visited as a school boy. What he liked about the monkey was its digging-the-knuckles-into-the-eye more than its white-bearded black face or its lion’s tail.

He lifted the latch of the nearby window without getting up from his bed. The wooden door opened letting in cool air and sunlight. Outside he saw the branches of the neelam mango tree laden with green, raw mangoes, shaped like the breasts of young girls. He could see the low compound wall whose plaster had fallen off showing the rough surfaces of the red bricks and mortar inside. Beyond it there was a paddy field, as big as two basket ball courts, laid to waste, where during monsoon, rainwater made a two-foot deep pool, and frogs conducted an orchestra of mating calls. Three coconut trees stood in this erstwhile paddy field like cacti in a lonely desert.

Hamlet ruminated on the night’s dreams. They were nightmares, dreams germinating from the black soil of the fear of darkness. He tried to resist them counting the mangoes on the branches he could see, but they stalked him like a rabid dog.

He remembered that he had gone to sleep with the bedroom lamp on; darkness was unbearble to him. Yet, as usual, the thought of the dark world outside began to crawl over him like so many ants with venomous stings . . .

In the dreams he had grown into a platypus in an aquatic blue world. The moonlight filtering down the miasma of sweat illuminated its depths. The platypus sweat a viscous keel as black as darkness. When he opened his mouth to speak, a half bird’s inchoate sounds emanated. He had regressed down the ladder of evolution; he was part human, part fish and part bird. His hands had fins and long nails. His face had a protuberant beak. The faint remembrance of a mission he had undertaken began to grow into a tidal wave of anxiety that bulldozed his heart.

“This is the way you should take if you want to reach the land of socialism,” a voice told him. He searched for the one who spoke the words, without turning his head. He had a spherical vision. Behind him he saw the  rump of a galloping black horse disappearing at a turning. He looked at the direction hinted by the voice. There lay a desert of red sand. He viewed the distance he had to cover before he could reach his destination – the land of the oxen with sawed off horns, and foreheads branded with the mark of the sickle and hammer. Darkness swallowed him as he crept wagging his tail across the desert. The desert spread as a sea at night under a blood-dripping moon. He was by  now a complete platypus, small, dumb and clumsy.

Now, the brush he held against a black canvas began to spit a gob of green spittle on his face. The ice-cold spittle burned out his eyes. Darkness spilled from the canvas onto his face, mouth and hands. As he began to hear ants talk, and the flowers unfold, a terrible sound of charging rhinocerous hooves began to close in on him. He yelled for help.

“Did I scream in my sleep?” Hamlet asked his mother who was shaking him with her thin fingers.

“No.”

“Why did you wake me up?” he asked, remembering that he had woken up earlier and opened the window. Maybe I dozed off

“Do you still have your dreams? I thought you said they don’t bother you these days.”

“I asked why you woke me up.”

“You asked me to wake you up at 8 in the morning before you went to sleep yesterday.”

“When did I tell you that I don’t have dreams? They are always there.”

His mother stared at him, her head mildly shaking with Parkinson’s. The whiteness of her hair was invaded by a creamy yellow. Though she was only 65, her hoary hair and shaking head gave her an air of senility. But her mind was agile, too agile and restless to leave her sleepless most of the night.

“I know,” she said after a few seconds.

“What?” Hamlet asked turning on his side as he still lay on the bed. His mother stood near him.

“That you have dreams. I can hear the sounds you make in your sleep.”

“Insomniac,” he said.

“What?” she turned around with curious eyes, stopping on her way out of the room.

She thinks I accused her of something.

“What?”

“You said something, Hamlet.”

“I said ‘insomniac.’”

“What is that? Don’t speak your big English words to me.”

He hid his head under the pillow.

“You don’t have to go to the office today?” she asked.

He pulled the pillow from over his head and looked at her as if she had said something shocking. He liked to play the child with her.

And I am 33, the age Christ died on the Cross.

She was standing at the door looking at him, waiting for his answer.

“Come and have your tea. Do you know it is Patra’s birthday today? She is 36.”

Hamlet raised himself and sat on the bed.

Cleopatra has turned 36 today. I haven’t found her a husband still.

“And what about Juliet?  How old is she?”

His mother gave him a smouldering look before she left.

Juliet is 39. This is a house of spinsters.

 

2

 

THE HOUSE OF NON-HAPPENINGS

 

His house was a haven of non-happenings. The only momentous thing that happened there was death, his father’s gruesome death, and that was a long time ago, a time when people had still believed in ideals like the glory of laying down their lives for the cause of making a just society. Comrade Damodaran’s death was too horrid; red flesh hung from it with the blood drained out. It set a ball, with thorns sticking out of it, rolling inside his stomach to think of his father’s murder.

I wanted to puke on every fucking face with the ball rolling inside me.

Hamlet would push the memories of that lone ‘happening’ down the nook of his mind and bury it under all the sensations and thoughts he could summon for the purpose. But they would still surface like gas through the minutest crevices of his resolve. It seemed that his father’s ghost inhabited every atom of the house.

The little house with its unplastered walls wore the look of a scurvy patient. It stood in a small patch of land that was bought by Comrade Damodaran after donating his legacy of two acres of land to the Party in the late 1960s. That was a time when Party members had been demonstrating their selfless will to sacrifice their personal properties for building up the  labourer’s party.

It was a house of non-happenings. The building of the house, its body, was like a foetus whose growth was stunted halfway. His father, a High School teacher of English, had died before the building was completed. It was built with the housing loan Damodaran had taken from the State Bank of Travancore. When he died, the bank declined to lend the remaining portion of the loan for it saw that no other member of Comrade Damodaran’s family was in a position to repay it. The family had had only one adult member, Damodaran’s wife, the unemployed Madhavi. The amount that was lent was partly recovered from Damodaran’s life insurance policy, death gratuity and whatever meagre savings the school teacher had hoarded up in his bank account. His comrades raised a fund, “Comrade Damodaran Family Welfare Fund,” to save the half-grown house-foetus from being aborted by the bank.

The raising of the Fund was a tsunami of activity for the members of the Party. They went from house to house collecting money with receipt books on which “Comrade Damodaran Family Welfare Fund” was printed in bold letters.  The meeting convened on a sultry evening in October 1985 to handover the Fund to the State Bank manager, three months after Comrade Damodaran was “martyred by communalist fascist forces,” had worn the look of a festival.

The Library maidan, the rectangular ground in front of the “Municipal Library and Reading Room,” the venue of the function, became a “red sea.” “Red sea” was a  fond metaphor of the Party’s leaders to describe the setting of its public meetings . The “red sea” owed its material basis to the red of the pennons hanging from lines drawn high overhead of the audience, and to the scores of red banners and flags with the sickle-and-hammer emblem fluttering in the wind. The Red Sea of the martyrs’ blood.

At the maidan, conical loudspeakers fixed high on the trunks of coconut trees blew the  reevolutionary songs from the dramas of the Kerala People’s Art Club.

Bali kudeerangale, bali kudeerangale
Smaranakalirambum rana smaarakangale
Ivide janakodikal chaarthunnu ningalil
Samara pulakangalthan sindoora maalakal

(Tombs of sacrifice, tombs of sacrifice

Memorials of battles where memories rage

Here crores of people put on you

Vermillion-garlands of the thrills of struggle.)

At the nearby junction, about a 100 metres away, the Congress Party was meeting to observe the first death anniversary of Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister who was assassinated the previous year by her bodyguards. From there, strains of patriotic songs glorifying the Mahatma Gandhi-led Independence movement wafted in and mixed with the red songs of revolution in a cacophony of political sentiments.

Hamlet remembered sitting on his mother’s lap between Juliet and Cleopatra on the stage – the victims of communalism and fascism. The memory of the pitying eyes of the audience would not leave him for a long time.

         

*

Volga, his unfinished house, brought to his mind Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘House of Usher,’ the ancient house of the hyperaesthetic, photophobic Roderick Usher and his cataleptic sister Madeline. The fissure that ran down Usher’s house from to top to bottom was visible in the late Comrade Damodaran’s Volga too. Maybe, a day would come when the half-born structure would crumble and sink into the earth as in “Fall of the House of Usher”.

“You want me to believe this is the falling Soviet Union?” Gurdas’s mocking eyes searched his face. He was studying Hamlet’s acryllic on canvas, the representation of a dilapidated house. It was titled “Volga”.

Gurudas fished out a ganja bidi from his jooba pocket. He fingers shook as he lit it. He called himself a ‘mystic painter’ in the tradition of the tantrics. Gurudas, an alumni of the Fine Arts College, was a regular visitor there. He said he came there to churn the young aspirants’ conscience. He was there to rebuke and correct the artists who lived in the Utopia of absent muses. He wanted to weed out bogus artists from the student world of the College, and set them running “with their tails stuck between their stinking hind-parts.” He called them “chrome buggers”.

“I wonder if you are in the queue to chrome buggerdom!” Gurudas said, releasing a ring of putrid cannibis smoke. It expanded and dissolved in air, leaving behind a pungent smell of dry dung. He spat on the ground.

“This is my house of non-happenings Guru. The house half built by late Comrade Damodaran . . .”

“Oh, the martyr of communalism and fascism! Tell me Hamy, did you happen to read Poe’s story?”

Hamlet smiled.

“I guessed from this “fissure.” How dare you bluff me! If you got your Poe from the college library, on page 106, on the margin of the story “Ligeia”, you can find my sketch of the gonads.”

Hamlet checked it out and found it was true. Intelligent bastard.

“You will reach nowhere with your derivative ideas,” Gurudas cursed him.

The painting still lay in a dusty role somewhere in the little shed behind his room in Volga’s narrow backyard.

 

*

 

“Happy birthday Cleopatra, queen of Caesar and Antony.”

The queen of 36 gave him a faint smile and continued with the task of working out problems on a note book. After ten years of service as an upper-primary school teacher, she still laboured anxiously on the day’s classes.

“Amma, is there no birthday party?” Hamlet called out to his mother. She was in the kitchen.

Mortar stuck out unevenly between the bricks of the walls of Volga. Its sight spelled a gloom in him. He looked for the earliest opportunity to get out of the house.

“There will be a milk payasam if you come for lunch. How can I let my child’s birthday go unnoticed!” Madhavi said putting a glass of tea in front of him. She stroked Patra’s hair, gazing at her work with her shaking head.

Juliet had to leave early. She was a saleswoman in a textile shop. She came by and stood beside Patra and stroked her cheeks.

“Why don’t you wish her?” Hamlet taunted Juliet.

“We wake up earlier than you Hamlet,” Juliet quipped, her eyes lingering disapprovingly on him. He watched the streaks of grey invading the sides of her head.

          She works from 9 am to 8 pm, standing all the while behind the spreading table. She works for a pittance.

“What about your varicose veins? Giving pain?” he asked.

Juliet grimaced in response and began to eat her breakfast of idlis and chutney. She had been complaining of the pain from  the bulging varicose veins on her shanks for quite some time. Standing throughout the day made them worse.

They look like blue snakes mating in a yellow desert. 

“Comrade Damodaran’s child works for ten hours a day.”

“Ask him to come out of his grave and lead a strike, Hamlet,” Juliet said munching. “Like the one they had in Chicago for an 8 hour day. Damu had such revolutionary dreams, I remember. ”

Twenty eight years after his death, the Comrade had become a clownish character to his children. They called him Damu, the way his friends used to call him.

Hamlet watched Juliet as she rushed out with her bag. She was wearing a faded blue sari. There was something still attractive about her. There was a time when she was praised for her beauty. Hamlet remembered the way the women of the family used to admire her looks. They used to claim that she had inherited the chiselled features of Damu. They said that the younger one, Cleopatra, was more on the mother’s side, dark and with a bulbous nose.

“Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”  

Hamlet smiled.

          The heroes that adorned the walls of Volga smiled back at him as he gazed at them one after the other, as had been his wont from his childhood. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, E.M.S Namboodirippad, A.K.Gopalan, P. Krishna Pillai. On the wall of the narrow drawing room of the house, the heroes of revolutionary thought and practice hung motionless in frozen time. At the end of the row there was the faded black and white of Hamlet’s father too.

“He would not have allowed to put his photo beside the others’,” Hamlet’s mother would say. “He had such respect for them.”

To be put alongside of the heroes of revolution would have meant to be too presumptuous for Comrade Damodaran.

These photos belonged to Damodaran’s collection; he had wanted them to be hung on the walls of the house he was building, the house he would never live to live in. When he “attained martyrdom,” before completing the house, his comrades decided that the unfinished run-down house where his family would live shall display its continuing loyalty to the Party by hanging those photos at a place where everyone could see them and get revolutionarily inspired . . .

Cleopatra finished her homework and left the room carrying her books. Hamlet followed her with his eyes till she disappeared into the bedroom. The thought that his sisters had passed the normal age of marriage grew into a thorn and drew a burning line across his mind. The line sprouted droplets of blood. He knew that the invisible mind of the society held him responsible, in part or in whole, for Juliet’s and Patra’s continuing spinsterhood.

Because I am the male of the family.

           

*

 

Walking around the house Hamlet halted at its corner for a minute watching the leaves of the neelam mango tree waving in the breeze. He then reached the closed shed at the little backyard where he kept the relics of his past as a painter – a dusty easel, a few sculptures in terracotta and cement of human busts and heads, scores of canvases lying rolled-up on the ground and some leaning against the wall, palettes and a box of brushes. After raking among the canvases he picked up and unrolled “Volga,” his old painting of the house. As he studied it for the umpteenth time, a nauseating sense of futility started gnawing at the walls of his stomach.

He took a long time to  realize that the practice of his art spelt only expenses and no income, that it only meant squeezing his poor sisters for money to live out his illusions of grandeur. That was when he stooped to exploit some of his dead father’s goodwill. He was received as an illustrator by the Panorama group of publications for its periodical Sargam, because Comrade Damodaran was a friend of Panorama’s founder, the late S.V. Iyengar.

I became a mercenary.

 

3

                                                                

                 THE ARTIST’S HOME

 

Gurudas’s house, The Cave, had nothing in it that resembled a cave. Viewed from the point of its large iron gate, it looked like a medieval European castle. Its red-brick walls made its countenance at once grim and soothing. Hamlet used to visit The Cave whenever Gurudas came there for a break from Mumbai. Each time Hamlet went there, it was his wont to laze through the vast compound around the house. Gurudas wanted to steep his house in a psychedelic atmosphere where the artist could encounter objects transformed by deviant light and darkness. To this effect he had surrounded The Cave with a variety of plants, from exotic orchids to common flower plants like rose and dalia.

 On his first visit there, Gurudas had taken him on a tour along the premises. He was wearing a brown jooba of coarse material that reached his knees, and mundu. This was the attire worn by painters and artists of all sorts who preferred to don a popular ‘artist of the people’ image. Hamlet wondered how Gurudas who had been a rebel to the core in the past and would dress in the most maverick manner in printed T- shirts and baggies could now squeeze himself into this stereotype.

“I see you can’t take your eyes off my dress,” Gurudas said to him as if he read his mind. “Boy, I’ve learnt a lesson or two. Nothing comes from playing the rebel. The age doesn’t need it anymore and it doesn’t sell. That period was over with your father Comrade Damodaran’s generation. With the kind of things I am doing here” Gurudas said winking, “I can’t be without the support of the locals, you know, who like to play the moral police. These common scum slobber after you as long as you make them believe you are one among them and give donations for their petty loudspeaker-hollering political and so-called cultural activities. My artist and connoisseur friends, men and women, who come here for some wild, quality time shouldn’t be repressed from acting out their fancies, right Hamy? If these local nosy buggers with their high moralist tomfoolery are not kept under my wings with this kind of populist dress shows and acts they will take The Cave into the storm of a scandal.”

As cunnning and stinkingly clever as ever.

Gurudas took him along the narrow winding path between the various garden plants in the compound shaded by jackfruit and mango trees. He showed him the orchids that would bloom only once in a year, and an array of plants whose bright yellow flowers emitted a fragrance that raised the atmosphere of The Cave at night to the threshold of paradise. In a pool amongst the thick of grass and plants there were water lilies floating on the cradles of large round green leaves. Inhaling the cool smell of leaves, flowers and wet soil, Hamlet was lost in a reverie of inchoate memories and longing  that brought a lump of pain in his throat and tears in his eyes.

 

*

 

Hamlet entered the sit-out of the house through the porch where Gurudas’s white Honda City was parked. He stood before the arched entrance of The Cave and contemplated the annual rings on the double door made of teak wood. There was a built-in brass lock of ornate design, it resembled an octopus, on the door. A glossy brass plate, with the name The Cave etched on it in black italic letters, was nailed on the wall on the right side of the entrance. Hamlet tried to push the door open, but it was locked. He rang the calling bell that was hanging from a hook on the roof by pulling the string attached to it. It let out rich ringing  peals of a brassy gong. After a few seconds Hamlet heard footsteps approaching from within.

The African woman who opened the door should have been in her late twenties. She was almost of his height. Her thick black lips spread into a courtesy smile as she looked enquiringly into his eyes. She had black springy hair that formed an aura around her head. He struggled to keep his eyes off the long, deep cleavage between her ample bosom which was only half enclosed in a green, low-neck blouse. She was wearing khakhi shorts that covered only half her thighs. Her plump knees and shanks were of a chocolate colour. He saw snatches of paint on her shorts. He guessed she was one of Gurudas’s artist friends who might have been engaged in painting.

She stood at the door blocking it with a certain authority. Hamlet, for a moment, fancied that Gurudas had married and that she was the lady of the house. He stood there dumbly looking over her curly head to see if he might catch a glimpse of Gurudas. He was not used to speaking to foreigners. Like most Malayalis who had not ventured out of Kerala, he felt nervous and diffident at the prospect of having to speak in English to her.

“May I know who it is?” the woman asked. Her head jutted out on her neck, loosely like a bird’s, as she asked the question.

How her lips curl and flatten like a wave!

“I . . . I am Gurudas’s friend.”

“Oh I see. Please excuse me for a minute,” she said closing the door.

Hamlet stood feeling unwanted; a feeling he had never had before at Gurudas’s house. It was Hamlet’s habit to get in without knocking during the Sundays he visited him. This was the first time he was encountering a stranger there. He had known all the while that Gurudas had friends visiting him from various parts of India and abroad. He wondered who else could be with him. The familiar churning began to make its presence felt in Hamlet’s stomach. He heard peels of laughter coming from behind the house where Gurudas had his outdoor studio.

It was Gurudas himself who opened the door. He had tonsured his head. It now had a thin layer of black hair with grey sprinkled all over.

“Ah, Hamy!”

“Was that your wife?”

“Ha ha. Maybe. Wait and see.”

He ushered Hamlet through the house.

“I have a group of three artists here,” he explained as they passed the drawing room laid with sofas and chairs. “Two girls and a guy. The girls are South Africans, and he is from Zimbabwe. It is a Commonwealth exchange programme. I am playing host to them. They have come to learn from me. You can teach them too, or learn from them” he said patting Hamlet.

His first impulse was to stop and say, “Hey Guru, I think I’d better leave.”

“No,” said Gurudas and took his hand.

 

***

 

At the studio Hamlet found the African woman engrossed in doing a pencil sketch. She was sitting in a cane chair with the drawing board on her lap. A streak of the sun fell on her neck through a creak on the roof to make a bright round spot where her dark skin glistened like black pearl. She looked up as she heard their footsteps. She smiled at Gurudas and turned her beaming face to Hamlet. Her lips parted as her  smile grew showing an array of neat white teeth. She set the drawing board leaning  against the chair and stood up to greet Hamlet with an earnestness that filled him with happiness.

“This is Susara,” Gurudas introduced her to Hamlet.

“And this is my friend Hamlet.”

“Hamlet? Interesting name. A famous name,” said Susara as she shook his hand.

Her hand is moist and spongy.

His name had made an impression as usual. Susara’s eyes lingered on his face for a couple of moments filling him with a sweet unease.

“Are you a professional painter?” she asked Hamlet.

“No . . .”

“He’s now illustrating for a magazine. He’ll soon come back to painting,” Gurudas said winking at both of them. He could have meant it ironically, Hamlet thought.

“Oh, that’s great. I too illustrate sometimes when they give me an assignment. I do it for money,” Susara said resuming her seat. She was drawing the view of the garden from where she was sitting. The images included the coconut trees and the arcanut trees in between. She wet her index finger at her mouth and rubbed the pencil strokes with it to spread it for enhancing the shade.

“What is the name of your magazine?” she asked.

Sargam.”

“What does it mean?”

Her voice is that of a hen calling for its mate.

“It means . . . it means creativity.” Hamlet looked at Gurudas for approval. He nodded.

“You are a professional painter?” Hamlet ventured to ask.

“I think so,” Susara smiled, this time not exposing her teeth. Hamlet sat in a chair beside her and watched her work. She seemed to have forgotten his presence.

“Where are the others?” Gurudas asked. He was standing behind Susara gazing at her work. He passed his fingers through her curls. They disappeared in her woolly hair. She gave out a shrieky laugh.

“Ahhh Guru . . .”

A love moan . . .

Hamlet turned away and studied the patterns the sunlight and leaves were making on the ground outside the shed.

“Where are Nicole and Brian?” Gurudas asked. His voice was a little tremulous.

The bastard is aroused.

“No idea. Having a shower maybe,” she said. She was rocking her head gently to the movement of Gurudas’s fingers on her scalp.

“They bathe together,” Gurudas said to Hamlet with a mischievous expression.

“They do everything together,” said Susara without raising her head.

Hamlet forced a smile as Gurudas and Susara laughed like two conspirators.

Brian and Nicole appeared around the corner of the house, dragging with them a lazy laughter. Both were whites and in their early twenties. Brian, the Zimbabwean, was over six foot tall with a brown pointed beard on an oval face.  A green lungi was poised precariously around his waist. Hamlet felt that it might ease down anytime leaving him naked. He had long brown hair flowing down to his bare shoulders. Hamlet was impressed by his broad bony frame and muscular arms. He was dripping wet. So was Nicole who had covered her torso with a yellow turkey towel. She was of medium height, a little plump, with her blond hair cut at the shoulders. Her cheeks glowed red in the sunshine. The towel mostly exposed her round thighs. As she raised her arms to pass fingers through her dripping hair, Hamlet glanced at her armpits where coppery wet hair stuck like moss. She seemed to be perfectly at ease letting the world watch her hairy underarms.

As Brian and Nicole entered the studio laughing, Susara and Gurudas joined them with more boisterous laughter. Hamlet realized that the laughter was privy to some joke to which he was a stranger. He didn’t know where to look or how to react.

Gurudas had taken his hands off Susara’s head and dropped them further down on her huge breasts. Hamlet felt his throat go dry. Gurudas’s fingers were drawing circles around her nipples that were protruding through her elastic top.

“Oh stop Guru, you are making me wet,” Susara cooed. She tried to give Hamlet a faint smile as she put her pencil and the drawing board on her lap giving in to Gurudas’s manoeverings.

Don’t these fuckers know I am here. Am I dead!

Brian slapped Nicole on her behind and both burst into a coarse laughter. They were eyeing Hamlet with the gleam of friendliness, but would not venture to speak as there had not been any introduction yet. Hamlet knew that Gurudas was putting up that amorous show for his benefit.

“How was the watery love session?” Gurudas asked staring at Nicole from top to bottom.

“A little too short,” she said giving Brian a teasing push.

“Hey . . .” he pointed a long pink finger at her and shook it up and down. More laughter from all . . .

“Did you see who we have here? This is Hamlet Damodaran, my friend from my student days at the Fine Arts College,” Gurudas said to the couple coming forward and standing between Hamlet and them. He turned to Hamlet saying, “And these are Nicole from Durban and Brian from Harare.”

Hamlet stood up to shake hands. Nicole’s hand was small and soft. It couched limply in his grasp. She searched his eyes intently. Hamlet couldn’t return the gaze for long. He was at a loss. Was it the way they greeted strangers, looking deeply into their eyes? Or was it Niclole’s way? Or was she passing a message to him, a sensual one?

Brian shook his hand vigorously with the vivacity of youth.

“How do you do Hamlet?”

“How are you Brian?”

Nicole and Brian moved around in their half nakedness, their hair and bodies still dripping wet. They seemed to have been making love under the shower for a long time. Gurudas told Hamlet that they were finding the heat quite disturbing and took a shower every now and then.

“They take a shower whenever they are in heat,” said Susara laughing. Nicole pretended to be offended. She put her hands around Susara’s neck and seemed to strangle her. The women scuffled making the noise of cats engaged in a fight. During the tussle, Nicole’s towel parted from her thighs revealing her pubic mound. With a pleasurable unease spreading around his loins Hamlet wrested his eyes from the black and the white women and set them on the heads of the coconut trees. He sighed.. Gurudas put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “They are a different species Hamy. You will get used to them,” he whispered bending down to him.

Nicole’s towel fell down when she got up from Susara’s lap after the game, leaving her fully exposed for a moment.  Susara and Brian vied with each other for dominance in the laughter that followed. Strangely, Gurudas remained silent. Hamlet didn’t look up at him, but imagined his face beaming with an indulgent smile whose sarcasm would be perceptible to only those who closely knew him. He studied Susara’s drawing for a pretext for being immune to the goings on. He heard Nicole moving into the house. Brian shouted her to wait and followed her.

“How is it?” Susara asked Hamlet.

“Good.”

“What medium do you use for illustration?”

“Pencils. Sometimes charcoal or pen and ink.”

“Hmm. I like to work with charcoal too,” Susara smiled.

“Why don’t you show him the work you did here?” Gurudas asked Susara.

“Good idea,” Susara got up requesting Hamlet to excuse her for a moment.

“They are all very dedicated to their work. They don’t bother about the consequences. They paint and fuck for the heck of it. You can learn from them Hamlet,” Gurudas said watching the blue sky. Hamlet had none else to blame for  his failure except himself, his surrendering to defeat.

 

4

 

THE DROPOUT

 

In 1999, during Hamlet’s second year there as a student, Gurudas was a regular visitor at the Fine Arts College. He had found it impossible to say good bye to the campus, which had become an indivisible part of his being. He was one among those in whom its setting exerted an indelible impression. He had found his greatest inspiration as a painter in the ambience of his alma mater, in its arborial shades amidst the sounds wafting in from the classrooms or the busy city road outside. He went there daily even if none of his batch mates would be there; they had all left the city after the course. Most of his friends had come to study there from other parts of the state or the country. And those few who had their homes in the city didn’t share his inclination to stick on to the place; they had, most of them, already embarked on their careers.

Gurudas had fallen into a deep attachment, a love of a most intense degree, with the building and the campus of the FAC, ever since he had joined there as a student. The college built in the Indo Saracenic style towards the end of the nineteenth century by a Travancore king with its sloping, tiled roof, triangular, grilled ventilators, arches painted white on the top of red-bricked walls, and its spacious, windy corridors and huge, wooden doors had burnt into Gurudas’s imagination. He had been content just to roam around in the campus. It had appealed to him as a little island of meditative stillness amidst the turbulent city. Besides, Gurudas went there because he liked to intellectually dominate the young students. He was tall with broad shoulders and had the aura of winning the Lalitkala Academy Award for his painting shortly after his graduation. He had won it sidelining many senior artists, among whom were his own masters at the college. He inspired awe in the tyros of the college. To them he was a bearded messiah, offering them criticism and advice. He had striven to secure acceptability among students by making himself a cult figure with a following that was strong enough to stand by him in case his alien presence in the campus was to be questioned by the management.

His drug habit too had been a ploy to prop up the cult of the bohemian artist, the outsider to conventional society. He projected the image of the grass-taking artist, a rebel who dwelled in the world of surreal imagination. He had established contact with the ganja pedlars in the city, who could be identified by the emblem of cannabis leaves stuck somewhere on their body or their vehicles.  The emblem might be fixed inconspicuously behind the collar of the shirt, or on the carrier of the bicycle. The pedlars would approach the buyer – they had a knack for identifying their customers – and ask them if they wanted the ‘thing.’ Or the regular buyer may go to the pedlar and ask if he had the ‘thing.’ If they met the wrong person, either as buyer or pedlar, they would know that instantly from the other’s puzzled reaction, and just walk off without further ado.

During his soirees in the campus, Gurudas would dig out from the deep pocket of his jooba a ‘ganga bidi’, light it, and take a few, deep pulls. Then he would rest his head against a wall and seem to go into a reverie, his yellow-tinged eyes still and open. This manoeuvre seemed to make a strong impression on the aspirants to the image of the artist. There was a good enough number of boys crowded around him to listen to his lectures on modern art, on Jamini Roy, K.C.S. Panicker, Amrita Shergil, Paul Klee or Max Ernst. They were amused by the flippancy with which he castigated these idols. He would call K.C.S. Panicker the ‘dog artist’ after his major painting “The Dog,” which he preferred to downsize as a tricky painting standing on frail legs. His followers would engage him in debates upon such disrespectful inroads on their idols, and they always felt him to be very cunning in his arguments.

Gurudas had told Hamlet that there was something riveting about his painting “Volga” though he had made fun of it. He had noticed Hamlet to be different from the others because of his reading and perceptive nature. Besides, his being the son of Comrade Damodaran added to Gurudas’s interest in him. Only Gurudas knew about it in the college.  Hamlet had kept the fact of his being the controversial Comrade’s son to himself.  He didn’t want to be dragged into campus politics in the name of his father.

It was during Hamlet’s second year at the college that Bhasan took admission in Applied Arts. He was a boy of average height, but thickly built with brawny arms and shoulders. He had a dark, pimpled face with a perpetual scowl that stopped people from provoking him. He wore a vermillion mark on his forehead, the acknowledged sign of political affiliation to the ABVP. It came out soon that he had been less an artist than a representative of the far-right students’ organization. He had taken admission to trigger up its activities in the college. There used to be such recruits for the Leftist organization also. The SFI, owing allegiance to the Party, had enjoyed monopoly over the campus politics for a long time, and they used to intimidate other organizations when they showed signs of activism. With the arrival of Bhasan, the far-right group reunited and began a membership campaign. Quite a number joined them. They began conducting unit meetings and demonstrations in the campus. Its members had accepted the leadership of the fresher Bhasan. The Leftists tried their old tactics of attacking them. But Bhasan seemed to be of sterner stuff.  He faced the attack by himself. His unflinching courage spurred the other members of his union too to enter the skirmish. Bhasan was good enough to tackle three boys at a time. The blows they gave him did not seem to affect him at all, but the ones they received from him were staggering. At a certain juncture, he drew out a knife from his belt, a knife with a jagged end. He brandished it, after making a small cut on his own left arm like a mad man,  letting blood. The sight of blood and the ghastly expression on his face set the Leftists running for life. Bhasan shouted the Mother India-hailing slogan of his party, Bolo Bharat Mata Ki Jai. The same year he was elected as University Union Councillor, the most prestigious office of the students’ union, in the College Union elections in which the Leftists lost some of their long-held seats.

The win of the far-right ruffled Gurudas, and the contempt he had shown to politics gave way to a tirade of the far-right. He avoided criticising the Leftists, and trained his censure on Bhasan, who he said was not an artist, but a thug. He said that all the political activists that he had hitherto seen in the FAC had been primarily artists. But Bhasan had not an iota of sensibility or talent; he probably got admission to the course through some malpractice. He said what the far-right, under Bhasan, was trying to do was to segregate students in terms of religion.

As Gurudas’s criticism became more and more resounding, Bhasan lodged a complaint with the Principal against Gurudas, accusing him of his outsider’s presence in the  campus and his use of drugs. But Gurudas was only mildly warned by the Principal as he was well liked by most of the faculty. He continued visiting of the campus.

It was Gurudas’s idea that Hamlet should be wielded as the Leftist’s candidate for Chairmanship  in the college union elections. He believed that there was a fair chance of Bhasan and his party winning, and that it had to be prevented. Gurudas broke his promise to Hamlet and revealed to others that he was the son of the communist martyr. This instantly made Hamlet a cynosure, including that of the faculty. They’d stare at him as though he were an exotic animal that had escaped from the zoo. Girls would go to him in small groups of three or four and ask him about the circumstances of his father’s death. They wanted to know why he had kept the fact about his parentage a secret. He was cross with Gurudas for what he had done. After setting the ball rolling Gurudas had withdrawn into his usual posture of a visionary artist who was least affected by mundane events like elections. The Leftists forced Hamlet to accept the candidature. He was in his final year, and there were only a few more months for the course to finish.

Gurudas enjoyed the show with a cynical smile from his perch in the lone shades of the campus. The Leftists dug up the history of Comrade Damodaran and compared him to great revolutionaries like Lenin and Che Guevara. From their speeches it seemed that Hamlet was the sole heir to the glory of the revolutionary past of the Party. Hamlet, being not a speaker, was only required to be present at the head of the electioneering wearing the red-ribbon garland.  At the end of the campaign, it was felt by all sides that the Leftists stood a higher chance of winning. This was judged from the number of students who followed the Leftists’ demonstration, wearing the ‘Hamlet badge.’

On the day before the election Hamlet and Gurudas were sitting under the tamarind tree, Gurudas’s favorite spot behind the college building. It was late evening, and most of the students had left, and those few present were scattered at various corners of the campus. Bhasan and two outsiders emerged from the  backyard and began to hit them. They shouted abuse at Gurudas  asking him to get out of the campus.  Hamlet fell on receiving blows on his ribs and cheeks. He saw Gurudas holding a knife and keeping Bhasan at bay with his left hand on his neck. The other two were waiting to fall on him, but being deterred by his knife. Gurudas’s face had become unrecognizable, his eyes popping out like two balls, the muscles stretched to their limits. His lips were twitching, so was the knife in his right hand that was raised over his head. He towered over Bhasan who was half foot shorter than him. Despite his powerful built, Bhasan found Gurudas’s clutch on his neck insurmountable. He was making muffled sounds, asking the others to help him. The knife looked menacing; it occurred to Hamlet that it might plunge into Bhasan’s chest with the least hesitation. Hamlet dashed at Gurudas, screaming to stop. He clung on his right hand and wrenched the knife from him. Gurudas’s hold on Bhasan loosened and he freed himself. His heavy blows began to land on Gurudas. Bhasan tried to snatch the knife from Hamlet, but he didn’t let go of it. In the scuffle, the knife plunged into Bhasan’s thigh; it penetrated the flesh a good two inches, and as Hamlet drew it back, blood shot out first like a jet, and then in spurts. Seeing the blood, Bhasan’s associates fled. Bhasan pressed a hand over the wound and hurried away with a limp. Hamlet stood statued with the knife still in his hand.

 

*

Hamlet and Bhasan were suspended. The elections cancelled. The case was reported to the police. Bhasan didn’t press any complaint against Hamlet and Gurudas, and the case was not taken to the court on condition that Gurudas never came to the campus anymore. Gurudas no more returned to FAC. Nor did Hamlet. He had quit his studies.

 

5

 

THE NIGHT AT ‘THE CAVE’

 

Hamlet sat at the beach as the others frolicked in the sea. It was Gurudas’s idea that they should spend their afternoon bathing at the sea. They came there in his car.

Earlier at The Cave, Hamlet had enough time to get to know the foreigners a little more closely. Susara brought a few canvases mounted on frames from the house and leaned them against the half wall of the studio for Hamlet to see.

“We’ve done it all in acrylic,” she said to Hamlet.

“I told them that our climate doesn’t favour working in oil,” Gurudas said.

There were five paintings, all of them landscapes. Two of the paintings were similar in choice of colours and lines. They had violet and black in varying shades. They showed a deliberately effected childishness in the execution of the strokes with their edges infirm.

“Susara Hughes,” Hamlet read the name scribbled at the right bottom of the paintings.

She walked towards him, and as she did so her breasts bounced inside her green top. There was a thin film of sweat on her bare shoulders and neck. As she reached Hamlet’s side he got a whiff of her body. He remembered for no reason the neelam mango tree at the backyard of his house.

Susara smells like neelam mangoes. She is a black mango. 

She stood near him and watched her own paintings intently.

“I am trying to look at them through your eyes Hamlet.”

He liked the way she pronounced his name with the ‘l’ darkened. Her voice had a bass that was not common among the women Hamlet knew.

“Say something Hamlet. Why are you so silent?” Susara touched his shoulders. Her breast touched his elbow.

“Hamlet has always been reserved. He is a man of few words,” Gurudas said.

“That is not fair Hamlet.”

“What?” he asked looking down into Susara’s eyes. His sound felt unfamiliar to his own ears.

“What do you think of these?” she asked pointing at her work.

He studied them for a few seconds. She had given violet to the sky. He could discern shapes that gave a hint of the heads of coconut trees, and other densely drawn forms that he surmised to be the flora Susara might have seen in Kerala.

He remembered how difficult it had been for him to comment on paintings. He had envied those friends who could articulate their feelings fluently upon seeing a painting. They would draw comparisons, find points of merit and fault, suggest improvements and pronounce judgements.

“I liked them. I think you have painted a Kerala landscape” he managed to say.

Susara fixed him in a gaze with a smile against which Hamlet tried to hold up with a precarious expression of calm; it’d have crumbled had Gurudas or Susara poked a dig at it.

“You are close to it. It was Philippines I had in mind. I was trying to abstract some weird shapes with the image of a seashore I had seen while at Philippines,” Susara said.

He stood watching the remaining three paintings. One had a fish with a horrid expression of fear emanating from its protruding eyes. The fish was done in ashen white against a background of yellow and brown rocks. There was the hint of a black sky.

“That is mine,” Nicole’s voice came from behind him. He hadn’t noticed her come from the house. Brian was standing near Gurudas.

“The other two are Brian’s,” Hamlet said looking straight.

“They are abstracts and hence could be interpreted according to the fancy of the viewer,” Nicole said teasing Brian.

They wanted to have a discussion on Gurudas’s tantric art. That was when he suggested that they spend the afternoon at the beach. That was typical of him, thought Hamlet.

So they were now there at the beach. Hamlet had found the shade of a tree on the shore, a lonely coconut tree, while his friends swam at the sea.

He had refused to get into the sea with the others. He wondered why he did that as he had always enjoyed bathing at the sea. Of course, he was shy to be in the company of bikini-wearing foreign girls, but not too shy to plunge into the sea with them. Something else held him back.

Hamlet could hear the sounds of sporting coming from Gurudas and the others.  They were standing in a circle holding their hands and jumping with each huge wave that came with the high tide at noon.  There were also many other foreigners, mostly whites, walking along the beach or swimming at the sea.

The beach was a famous location for the post-funeral rituals of Hindus. In its long stretch Hamlet could see many families engaged in the act of throwing earthen pots containing the bones and ashes of the dead ones into the sea and then take a dip in it. There were priests available all the time to officiate the rituals. The family members of the dead performed these rituals during their death anniversaries too.

Hamlet felt as if he was a ghost sitting in an island, unable to interact with the living. He could only watch his friends from a distance, never being a part of the company. Gurudas’s gaunt figure, whose more advanced age stood out among the youthfulness of Brian and the girls, was agile and cheerful. He had some way of keeping the drug addict’s lassitude and tremors under check. Or was the story of his drug addiction a hoax? Had he been putting up only a show of smoking ganja? Was it only a couple of exhibitionist puffs to impress the college tyros, only so much so that he gave out a whiff of cannabis on his breath and clothes? Was it just a ploy to whip up an image of the rebel?

Hamlet knew that it was not true; Gurudas certainly had had truck with ganja during the college days. He could still remember how Gurudas used to doze off sitting on the ground behind the library, leaning against its wall, when the world was engaged in its busiest hours. Budding artists would go there to watch the drugged master sitting steeped in trance.  However, looking at him now playing at the sea, Hamlet wondered if it was all a lie. He should have long back quit drugs, maybe while at Mumbai, and was now ashamed to admit it.

The fun at the sea went on till the evening. They hit the shore only after the sun went down. Hamlet had nothing else to do but wait. Over the years, he had become an expert in waiting. His life had become a waiting for things that had no relevance in his life.

The Cave stood steeped in the milky glow of moonlight as the car rolled into the compound passing through the path flanked by coconut trees. Gurudas switched off the headlights and continued sitting behind the wheel. He rolled down the window glasses and let in the moist air and the thousand little sounds of night.

“This is the real beauty of Kerala. Enjoy,” he said.

Susara, who was sitting next to Hamlet in the rear seat, caught his face in her hand and planted a kiss on his lips. Her breath had the intense smell of the toddy they had drunk during dinner on their way back at a toddy bar, where they served chilled toddy in glass bottles with boiled tapioca and fish curry. Her warm tongue parted Hamlet’s lips and whirled inside his mouth a couple of times before she withdrew from him. Nobody seemed to have noticed it.

Later as they sat in the courtyard near the pond in cane chairs put in a circle, Gurudas asked if they liked to smoke a joint. The youngsters welcomed it. Hamlet had disliked it for some time now.

“Susara, how is it you feel living in South Africa now as a black?” Hamlet asked what he had wanted to ask since the morning.

Susara took a deep pull on the cannabis joint before she answered.

“Now, I feel at home there. It may be more meaningful to ask Nicole how she feels as a white in SA.”

Nicole was silent for a few moments. Nobody ventured to talk. Brian was looking at the sky throwing his head on the backrest of the chair. Gurudas’s eyes rested unnervingly on Hamlet. He wondered if he had asked something unwarranted.

“Well, as whites in the post-apartheid times we had difficulties at first. There were things like delaying justice, but now . . .”

“Now too the whites have most of the land and money. So  . . .” Susara shook her head.

“Why did you stop painting?” Brian asked Hamlet relieving them of the tension that had begun to be felt in the air. Gurudas gave a deep sigh. It was he who answered Brian’s question:

“He says he lost conviction.”

“Conviction? What’s that? Is it what Hamlet says in the play – what a piece of work is man and  yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust,” Brian guffawed.

Hamlet had known his namesake play inside out. He was impressed. He smiled into the darkness.

“Won’t you explain your loss of conviction?”

Hamlet wanted to say that he had stopped painting for the simple reason that no one wanted to buy his works. That he no more wanted to waste his time on a useless pursuit. That after a time art that has no takers will meet with its natural death. But this reason, for its very simplicity and truth, looked discredited. He remembered what Gurudas had said in the morning, that these foreigners painted for the heck of it, disregardful of the consequences. Maybe he was emphasising the statement for Hamlet’s benefit. Gurudas had also said that Hamlet might learn a lesson from them.

“I have lost conviction in the social usefulness of my work,” Hamlet said bowing his head, conscious of the lie.

No one reacted to it. In the darkness, the light of the joint glowed and dimmed at each pull. It was reaching its end. Gurudas drew the past puff.

“Hamlet is the son of a martyr, a Communist martyr,” Gurudas said with a grandiloquent gesture of his arms that cut an arc in the air. Hamlet regretted that it was mentioned at all. But the connotations of martyrdom went over the head of the young foreigners. Hamlet felt relieved that he was not dragged into tracing the course of his father’s walk to martyrdom for the hundredth time in his life. The little crowd had entered a high.

Nicole went into the house on tipsy feet. Brian had gone deep into his watching of the skies. He may probably sit in that cannabis-induced position for hours together flying on the wings of the herb.

Gurudas started walking into the house with Susara hanging on his shoulder.

“Make yourself at home,” he said to Hamlet while passing his hand around her waist. Later he heard a door shut. He touched his lips where Susara had kissed. Like martyrdom, the kiss too didn’t have any meaning in the vocabulary of Gurudas’ friends.

A giant wave of loneliness swept over Hamlet. The garden all on a sudden lost its familiarity. It looked like a forest at night with the oppressive smell of moist foliage. The still form of Brian had the appearance of a white corpse. In the darkness, it gradually metamorphosed into a white skeleton. A familar thumping of heart began to burden Hamlet’s chest. The garden forest began to quake in rhythm with his heartbeats. His ears let off a steam.

Hamlet moved towards Brian and bent down to look at his face. An array of white teeth appeared on the skull. The sky was now dark as pitch. When did the moon get behind the clouds? It was dark absolutely.

Where am I?

Hamlet found the door of the house locked. He couldn’t remember any names to call. Where am I?

A picture of his mother, Juliet and Cleopatra floated in front of his blindness.

Oh yes, that is where I belong to, the house of non-happenings.

The fear of darkness tugged at his feet as he ran along the ridge between the paddy fields. He slipped on the sod and fell twice. Something told him that he was going  along the right path. He tried to ward off the devils of imagination that were closing in on him. A face covered in blood rose in front of Hamlet. The blood was flowing out of a deep gash that ran across it from the left temple down to the lips. It hung in the air ahead of him as long as he reached the highway and the headlight of vehicles fell on his face.

 

 6

 

THE ATTACK OF THE BANAL

 

Hamlet’s working space at Panorama was a rectangular room with three tables and chairs, and two windows. He shared the room with the photographers of the film tabloid and the political weekly. There was another illustrator when Hamlet joined the firm two years back. When he died of a heart attack, the management found it better not to fill the vacancy. The dead man’s assignments now found their home on Hamlet’s table.

“Hamlet, the work load has increased a little, right?” V.K. Iyengar, the Managing Editor asked Hamlet.

Hamlet smiled a gave a little nod..

“Well, please adjust man. You are young and energetic. You know, our sales are not doing well of late. People are losing interest in printed stuff with Internet and all that at the fingertips,” he said, as his bulk floated past Hamlet like an iceberg.

Since then Hamlet’s table overflowed with proofs of poems and stories for the nine magazines Panorama produced including Sargam. They targeted the spectrum of readers including women, children, and buffs of politics, literature, humour, astrology, cinema, science and travel. He was also allowed to use the dead man’s table to put the stuff to be worked on.

“Hello Hamlet, wish you happy days ahead man,” Harikrishnan, the editor of Sargam said, with the bird’s paws of sarcasm narrowing his eyes.

Hamlet raised his eyes from his drawing.

“The ship is sinking man. Can’t you hear the music of waters overflowing the deck?”

Hamlet observed a stubborn silence.

“There are not going to be any more appointments. The boss has come to know about globalization’s mantra of multi-tasking. You will all multi-task from now on. You can work for the dead man too with no change in pay, mind you.”

Hamlet smiled at his editor. The redness of the betel stain on his lips seemed to spread on his angry face. He looked peeved at Hamlet’s nonchalance.

“Hey, aren’t you the son of Comrade Damodaran? Is there no spark in your blood? Since when did the morality of the slave pollute your genes man?”

Hamlet guffawed. Harikrishnan felt slighted. He came towards him.

“Work slave, work. Work till you are sucked dry by them. See, I don’t have much service left and nobody is going to use me okay? I stay only because I don’t want to leave the firm on a bad note. I shall die a natural death here. But you young chickens are going to suffer unless you shed your lassitude.”

Harikrishnan left leaving behind him the smell of betel juice in the air. Hamlet looked across the window at the view of the tiled roofs of the old buildings standing on either sides of the dirty canal that flowed cutting the town into two. The buildings were vestiges of that ancient town famous for trade with Asian and European coutries in the distant past. Even as the other parts of the town developed with the coming of roads, malls, super markets, hotels, apartments and office complexes, that area neighbouring the canal refused to change. It housed some of the shops that were owned by the traditionally rich families of the town. Panorama’s three-storied building with a concrete roof stood out as an odd man amidst those old dwarfish single or two storied structures with tiled roofs. They were all built over a hundred years ago during the times of the rule of Travancore kings. So was the canal dug under the behest of the Travancore King Marthanda Varma in the eighteenth century to facilitate transport of goods. These objects that came into Hamlet’s view from the high perch of his office were the things he contemplated to get ideas of forms while drawing for Panorama’s periodicals.

The stuff that he got to work on were earlier directed to him from Sargam’s editorial office headed by Harikrishnan. But now they came from the offices of the other Panorama publications too. Each day the mailman brought a bunch of envelopes. The mailman had been trained by Harikrishnan to put the envelopes in a neat pile on the corner of his bureau. Hamlet didn’t know how the other editors went about their job. The envelopes contained the creative endeavours of lesser and less aspiring writers in the language, for none of Panorama’s magazines enjoyed high rating among the elite readership, and hence none of the leading writers in Malayalam sent their works to them.

So what Hamlet had to illustrate were banalities wraped in the guise of stories, novels and poems. He read a poem which glossed, in the romantic style of the 60s, on the sky and the moon. He then took a look at the roof tiles and the tip of a branch of the tamarind tree that stood behind a kerosene wholesaler’s shop and transferred on the white sheet in black ink a most ordinary sketch of clouds and a moon that half peeped out of them. There was no need to reconsider the image. He knew, like the others in Panorama, that Sargam for which he did the sketch was not taken seriously by anyone. It faced no competition in the field and was retained in the market only as a vestige of the great legacy of its founder S.V Iyengar.

 

*

 

He imagined that he was a bird that fell in its flight. Something broke its wings. Something drew a hole into its feathers; it could no more carry its body against the wind. There was no more resistance against the wind of reality.

There he was drawing pictures the way it happened to his mind to accompany stuff no good reader was going to read. His work was not going to be put to the test of artistic scrutiny; it was not going to be appreciated or criticized. No rewards were on its way. Its path was destined to lead to the grave of oblivion.

Hamlet wondered if a miracle had always been lurking in the darkness of the future for all who made it to success. Can talent and hard work alone carry someone to it? Isn’t talent itself a miracle?  But then it seemed to hang in the air waiting for the wind of a chance happening, a miracle, to lift it to the sky where it became visible to the world.

 

Hamlet would often ruminate over what Gurudas said about that turning point in his life. He would strain to believe that such things do happen in people’s life. Like a stranger buying an obscure and driven-to-the-point-of-committing-suicide artist’s painting for five thousand rupees in cash and forty five thousand rupees in a cheque. Yes, that was what Gurudas would want him to believe. That on that evening when he was about to abandon his paintings and his life a mysterious woman intervened like divinity and saved him from both death and obscurity by buying his work in cash and cheque. That, she ever since became his harbinger in the art world of Mumbai by arranging his exhibitions and introducing him to the best collectors, connoisseurs and art critics in the city, so that from the following day onwards the sun of Gurudas would start rising to its zenith and would ever remain there shedding light on his art. Hamlet would search in his surroundings, his long narrow office room at Panorama, for signs of some miraculous secret presence that lay in waiting to emerge into his life.  He would then remember the condition that Gurudas laid down for the miracle to happen, the condition that one should reach the end of his tether, the point of final doom, the personal apocalypse, before it happened . . . .

 

*

 

He picked a story by an unheard of author about a watch repairer. Hamlet settled into a more comfortable position leaning back on his chair. This had been for him the most congenial position to concentrate on the reading.

The story was titled “The Mind of Time,” and as Hamlet started, as usual, to read with a contemptuous smile overshadowing his face, the story started gripping his attention earnestly with a vigorous originality of language and theme. Borges, yes, he was reminded of Borges’ style. The writer is a young man who has read Borges, Hamlet thought. Like Borges, he had sought to entangle the story of a young watch repairer with that of his dead father who repaired a time machine in some extra terrestrial world. The attempt was to juxtapose earthly time with an elastic time of the other world that was capable of stretching irregularly, so that the father of the protagonist struggled to set his clock in a rhythm suitable for it. The son, on the other hand, was driven by a dream of designing a clock that was always erratic in a regular manner. Hamlet smiled at the ambitious idea of the story writer. An inspiration he had rarely had in Panorama came over him and he drew an abstract of columns and triangles with digits and needles criss-crossing one another. He put pencil shades lavishly across the dial that filled the page. At the end of his effort, he enjoyed it holding it at different angles. He then pressed the buzzer for the peon and sent the drawing to the editor.  In five minutes the intercom on his table rang.

“Hey Hamlet, draw something people will understand, okay? We are not publishing for artists and intellectuals you know that. I took that highbrow story only because the boss wants it to be put in. It is by some friend’s son, damn it.” The peon was back with the drawing, a red line cutting across it.

The bastard could have at least spared cutting it in red.

            For Hamlet there was no respite from banality. He drew a nervy son and a bald father engaged in repairing watches.

 

7

 

MONEY MATTERS

 

It was payday at Panorama. Hamlet looked at the face of Padmini who just then turned from the accountant’s table with the currency notes in her hand after signing the aquittance. She was the sub-editor of Manka, the women’s magazine. At thirty she was a widow and mother of a girl. He had known from his student days at the Fine Arts College. She was doing a course in jounalism and their ways sometimes crossed at the Public Library where they were members. Their aquaintance had never gone beyond exchanging a nod and a smile. They were delightfully surprised when they met at Panorama after many years. The ten years that intervened had dug furrows on her tired face.

Hamlet gave her a nod as she went past him sticking the notes in her bag. Did he read worry on her face. Was she worrying how she would  pass the month with that amount? Hamlet felt a sudden surge of sympathy for her as she drew the zip of her bag staring at some spot outside the door. She had her mother ailing from cancer at home.

Since he joined Panorama he had looked at money not as a satisfier of needs, but as a sad reminder of them. He gave half of his salary to his mother for family expenses. It was just enough to buy provisions. With the sums his sisters chipped in, the institution seemed to run smoothly as long as it didn’t have to face any out of the way expenditure. He knew how a situation of emergency could crop up all on a sudden belittling their financial capabilities. It could force them to surrender even the last remnants of their pride to the condescending financial sources. He had known for a long time how fragile was the dignity their economic situation provided them.

He had realized the power money exerted on life by its absence the day his mother broke her ankle in a fall at the cashew factory where she worked. He was only fifteen at that time. The onus of finding the means to tide over the situation was on Juliet since she was the eldest of the late Comrade Damodaran’s offspring. Madhavi had to be operated. She was the only earning member of the family. Charity, disguised as loan, was the only way out of the maze. Madhavi guided Juliet to some men who were her late husband’s comrades in the Party. Juliet got the help, but only at a cost.

“Before giving the money he said he knew he won’t get it back. He said Comrade Damodaran was a nice man. You are like my own daughter, he said, and pressed my . . .” Hamlet overheard Juliet telling Madhavi one evening when he came back home from school. Madhavi was back home from the hospital.

“Oh moley, did he . . . did you . . .” Madhavi asked, words sticking in her throat.

Juliet was silent for some moments, while Hamlet imagined ways to avenge the molestation of his sister. Images of a dagger  plunging down to the hilt on the stomach of the villain paraded before his tearful eyes. How impotent was anyone to act against the powerful leader whose posters were all over the place! Juliet broke her silence only with a deluge of sobs. Madhavi cursed their fate and the treachery of her husband’s friend. She cried her eyes out over her utter loneliness, her and her children’s total desolation. She cried that she didn’t even have God to help her. Before his departure as a maimed corpse, Damodaran had washed away the last dregs of faith from her mind with his discourses on rationalism. Their children were born into a godless world.

 

*

 

As he tucked the money into his pocket and strolled out into the Saturday evening, he was aware that the majority of the human race living on the planet was in worse condition than himself. He only had to look at the homeless who took refuge under the flyovers. The plight of the homeless filled Hamlet with horror. To lie down at nights without a roof over one’s head, to bear the brunt of the cold and the needles of rains, to be a field for the pitiless winds of the night to rage around, to be an unprotected fort where the beasts of the dark can enter freely . . .

To think of his wants, his desires, filled him with guilt.

 

*

 

“Hello Hamlet,” Mathew greeted him with a salam. “Like to have a paan?” He pointed at the young Bihari’s makeshift kiosk on wheels with the caption “Ratan Singh Paan Shop” on its little awning. Mathew put his hand across Hamlet’s shoulders and gently proded him to go with him across the road to the paanwallah’s.

“Why not?” Hamlet followed him.

Mathew, a circulation manager with Panorama and a Local Committee Secretary of the Party, was a fat man in his late forties with a bald head. He was always seen with a black bag under his arm. Mathew sported a beard like many of the Party’s younger cadre, and scratched it casting thoughtful glances around while speaking.

They stood silently watching the Bihari with brownish hair and eyes perform  the rhythmic action of smoothing out the wet betel leaf and smearing it with an aromatic pink lime paste, putting over it doses of scented arecanut granules and a few other spices in quick succession, folding it into a roll, and pinning it with a bud of grampoo before holding it to them. The paanwallah had an innocent smile of achievement for he knew that the Malayalis were intently observing his manoueverings.

“Where to? Going home right away?” asked Mathew, his lips reddened with betel juice.

Hamlet would go home only late after roaming in the city. But he wouldn’t tell that to Mathew.

“Well . . .”

“Do you mind if we walk together for some distance Hamlet?”

“Not at all.”

They walked crossing the narrow Stone Bridge over the canal and headed towards the east where the heart of the city lay.

“How did you get this name man?” there was a chuckle in Mathew’s question.

“My father was an admirer of Shakespeare,” Hamlet said with a faint smile. He had faced that question a thousand times in his life.

“Oh. Comrade Damodaran was an admirer of Shakespeare!” Mathew said with a ring of contempt in his tone. He didn’t bluff any further on Shakespeare as his resources were meagre on that subject. Instead, he directed his onslaught from a different angle.

“How is work at the office?”

“It is a little too heavy,” conceded Hamlet.

“How come?” Mathew feigned ignorance. Hamlet prepared to play the game.

‘Were you on a foreign tour?”

He looked sideways at Hamlet in surprise. Seeing Hamlet wink his eyes he guffawed to hide his dullness.

“So you are now doing the work of two for the same pay.”

Hamlet didn’t react. He watched the luxury cars plying the narrow guttered road.

“Did you think about what I told you the other day?”

Mathew was aggrieved that there was no union for the employees at Panorama. He had been canvassing them for some time to form a union affiliated to the Party.

“Well . . .”

“This is a management that pays the least. It is high time we organized and bargained.”

Hamlet observed silence and walked enjoying his paan. He chewed the betel leaf, arecanut, tobacco and lime into a pulp. Its combined aromatic juice mixed with saliva filled his mouth, spreading a pleasurable inflammation in his head.  It seemed incredible to Mathew that Hamlet, the son of the martyr Damodaran, should behave like a wet blanket when it came to revolutionary talk.

“We need a union at Panorama to fight for our rights. If I have the great martyr Comrade Damodaran’s son’s support it will be very easy to add others. You will be its President. What do you say?”

Hamlet walked now a little faster. Mathew’s round figure trundled heavily along. His panting fell on Hamlet’s ears.

“Revolution is too slow a thing to keep pace with the world,” Hamlet said walking faster. “And the strikes and agitations led even by the Party are now blowing up in the face.”

“Your apolitical attitude is not acceptable. It is even dangerous. It will take us back to the days of colonialism,” Mathew said stopping  dead in his tracks. They had reached the crossroads at the Big Bazar.

“Will you at least take membership if we stack up an association?” he asked, desperately.

“Let me see . . .” Hamlet turned left and made for the beach, his favorite haunt where he liked to spend a lonely evening before going home at nightfall.

That evening, the beach gave Hamlet something that would spin his little world upside down.

 

PART TWO

 

8

 

THE SOLILOQUY OF THE HAUNTED

 

What is the vacuum into which I fall? Like a star sucked into a black hole? A stupor, an ice cave envelops me. As I look at the black waves, my heart beats with a rhythm that regularly misses beats.

What is it that ties me down? What clips my wings? What bleeds my precious energy, pins me to the ground? Why this desire to soar into the white clouds even as a mighty weight holds me down to the very core of the earth?

The night is falling and the beach will soon become deserted like a page from which the letters have walked out. I will remain, a period that lost its desire to move with the other letters. I will remain to meet with the demons of my nature. The demons wait to emerge when I am as timid as a cat rescued from a well.

As I look into the crimson distances of the horizon the face of my father crystallises in the clouds. I can’t retrieve it from a memory whose edges drip sepia. Are you the one who arrested the flow of my life? Is it the burden of being the son of a martyr that stunted my growth? What is it that took from me the drive to achieve; what makes me a cold immutable rock under the incessant flow of time?

Each pore on my skin spews a green liquid that mixes with the black of the sea. A numbness begins to pierce its needles on a hundred points along my legs. The needles jab agonizingly at the soles as if I am standing on a board of nails. My flight from the demons of darkness is fated to be an ordeal of pain.

The sun is a fistful of red radiance. It is fast sinking in the horizon. In a few seconds it is gone. Now the the purple twilight eats up the orange of the afterglow. Now is the moment when they would rise from the crevices of existence. The ones with long canines and breath redolent of rotten flesh. They would race me across the night along the lonely lanes of an unknown world that emerges freshly with each new step I take. The whole night becomes a strenuous run along narrow lanes flanked by walls graffitied with abuses and caricatures of human genitalia. The female with exaggerated clefts and the male with hyperbolic size. The clandestine satirists have, at places, focused entirely on prairies of pubic hair.

The night falls. The stars declare their luminosity with greater boldness. I wait for the inevitable to happen. The wind is colder; it falls on the body with the acidic heat of the saline spray.

A rectangular piece of red cloth floats in the air. It has the smell of iron tonic the doctor prescribes to anaemic children. It had come riding the crust of a wave before it was tossed into the breeze. The cloth wafted in the air like a song reminiscent of sorrowful happenings. It disappeared into the sea just as it came, riding a wave. The water swelled into a wave under my gaze. I think I can will the water to rise into a wave. I am right.

I proved this to myself, watching all the while if anyone was observing me. I did it hastily so that I might finish it before the chase began. There was a burning point in the sea where I fixed my eyes. That was a piece of red-hot coal shining in the black water. I gazed at it with all my mind and willed it to rise narrowing my eyes into an aperture of aim. The water rose with it to the height of a coconut tree and started its course to the land. Before it could hit the shore I drove the burning spot at the top of the crust down to the sea. The wave deflated by spreading on either side and fell with a plop on the very spot from where it had grown.

The demons have seen this. I can’t hide even my thoughts from them.

My flight takes me down a lane that leads to a house whose plastering has fallen exposing its red-bricks. I enter the house having no other way to escape. Behind me, close on my heels are the demons.

The door is kept ajar. It is a wooden frame crisscrossed with brown planks. I run in and fall headlong into a pit. The house has no floor. It is a house built around a chasm leading to immeasurable depths.

It is a flight down the seemingly endless abyss. I fall like a parachute jumper down the airless void, with no resistance to prop my fall. Each moment accelerates the speed of my flight towards the centre of the earth. My eyes are wide open as there is no air to disturb them during the descend. The walls of the chasm move backwards with the force of a waterfall. The walls are of the colour of intestines, and I fall through a massive cascade of entrails.

Gradually the movement begins to slow down and I start to feel a certain resistance to my downward motion. It is as though I am a magnet that is being repelled by its opposite pole. A green roof comes to my view as I open my eyes. I realize that I have landed on a ground that is moist and warm. My head is resting on a slightly elevated floor, and the angle allows me the view of an extremely bright red sky. My body has grown so heavy that it might weigh a tonne. I wonder how I landed without killing myself with such a heavy body. I can’t even lift my hand; it seems an anchor weighs it down. I lie there supine for a long time, all the while falling asleep and waking up with starts.

Some time later I feel a touch on my temple, a cold tremulous touch. My body has grown light again. I get up from the floor with a swift motion pushing my torso up, supporting the whole body on the heels. The lightness is so joyful that I burst into tears. The force of gravity is certainly lower where I am now. I could as well be on the moon. With a cry of bliss I jump; I rise easily up to four feet from the ground and land as light as a leaf. With an excitement not yet experienced, I repeat this manoeuvre for a few more times.

It is only after this that I start walking around and begin to see the surroundings. It is a cave-like structure with a circular opening through which I had seen the bright red sky earlier. I walk towards the opening, and as I do that I begin to remember my flight from the beach and the rapid footsteps of the demons of fear.

Again a cold palm with shivering fingers rests on my left shoulder. I see no one on my left. When I turn right I see a half-naked man wearing mundu standing about fifty feet away from me. He has turned his back on me. I walk towards him; the back of a head with greying hair, the nape and the broad back of a man of about fifty years of age come closer to my view. I make a sound as if to clear my throat. Then I say hello and take a couple of steps towards him. He still stands in the same position, showing no recognition of my presence. I walk past him to his front and when I look at him he has still his back back turned against me. The man terrifies me. My body begins to show signs of panic. My temples begin to pound and sweat starts flowing down my sideburns. My feet are rooted on the moist ground incapable to move.

“Son, I am your father,” he says.

It lowers the cloth on its waist. A two inch long gash appears on the left of the spinal column just above the buttock from which, as I keep looking, blood shoots like a fountain. It is a gash a dagger has made as it passed through the kidney, liver and the entrails, drawing precious life out with it as it withdrew.

“Stop the blood son. You shall know no rest until the blood stops.”

The figure begins to walk, the blood making a trail behind it on the floor in a zigzag line. Father, father . . . but why. . .?

“Follow the blood of your father and you will be freed . . .”

We reach outside the cave and are submerged in a red light. The man now turns towards me. I eagerly look at his face, but where his face should be I see a sickle and hammer. Blood drips from the edges of the sickle. Red pennons are hanging from all over his stretched arms. A wind blows making the pennons shiver producing a sibilant sound.

I think of Volga, the half-made house in which we have been trapped all our life because of father. I think of the shame of childhood dumped in poverty, my mother’s travails. I think of Juliet’s shame. I think of the pity father’s memory has caused us; the fame of being the martyred comrade’s son. I think of the expectations I could never fulfil.

“I got what I didn’t deserve, martyrdom. I never wanted it. I wanted to live like any of them and enjoy the fruits of our action. And more fruits and more, like the rest of them.”

“Am I what I am because of you. Do I hate myself because of you?” I ask.

His answer comes from the gap between the sickle and the hammer. It seems to have no bearing on my question: “It was Pluto the dark whom I never saw.”

The words “Pluto the dark” ring in my ears, first like a twang arising from a metallic gong, and then like a bomb blast whose repercussions cause tremors on the earth. Then there is a blackout. A decomposotion sets in. I corrode. I become nothing.

 

9

 

IN THE RAVINES OF THE MIND

 

Three months had passed since that night in which two constables had brought Hamlet home in a police jeep. The sight of the khaki of their uniform sent a shock wave through Madhavi’s abdomen. It was intermixed with some of the most painful memories in her life. It evoked the ghosts of narrow, dingy cells of interrogation in the vilest language, the ploppy sound made by fists falling on raw flesh and the groans of men subjected to arm twisting and caning on the soles. For a moment, the creases of pain and humiliation on the blood-stained face of her dead husband rose in front of her inner eye when she saw the khaki men standing in front of her door at midnight. Shaking herself out of the mental picture she enquired:

“What’s it sir? What happened?”

“Is this Hamlet’s house?” asked the constable wielding a lathi. Another policeman, a younger one, was standing in the little courtyard behind the questioner.

“Yes. What happened to my son?” Madhavi asked with a cold shiver running down her spine.

“Come to the jeep and see if it is your son,” the constable stepped back and gestured her to follow him.

The sounds had woken up Juliet and Cleopatra. They fell in behind their mother. She asked them to stay in the house; she still thought they were nubile girls prone to be deflowered even by the night wind.

The smell of jasmine filled the little courtyard. A cold breeze passed through it pricking Madhavi’s body with so many needles. The fall of the policemen’s boots were resurrecting the spectres she had struggled all her widowed life to keep in their graves. What happened to Hamlet? Is he dead? Madhavi’s heart missed several beats.

A police van was parked at the roadside. Three or four men stood behind it looking at something inside. The road wore a deserted look in the white street light of neon lamps. The ghostly howl of the sea cut through the silence of the town at night. Solitary honks of buses and trucks coming from the distant highway were the only sounds to break the calm of the night.

Madhavi felt a weakening at her knees as she followed the police to the rear of the van. She held Juliet’s hand as she reached there.

Inside the van Hamlet was sitting with folded hands looking down on the floor between his feet.

“Hamlet. What happened son?” Madhavi shook him, clutching at his shoulders.

The constable said that they had picked him from the beach where the fishermen had suspected him to be a dead body washed ashore.

“He showed all the signs of a dead body,” the constable spoke pointing at Hamlet as if he was the carcass of a sperm whale the fishermen had caught from the sea.

“Why don’t you keep such lunatics chained at home?” the constable asked, fishing out a paper from the dashboard cabin of the van. He was a man of medium height and massive  arms, exuding resentment for the inconveniences of his job. Cleopatra noticed that he had no moustache and had the face of an overgrown child. He held the paper to Madhavi and asked her to put her signature on it. Hamlet was still sitting inside the van with his head lowered, seemingly oblivious of what was going on around him.

“What is it sir?” Madhavi asked as she took the paper in her hand. The constable held a pen towards her. She passed the letter to Cleopatra as her sight didn’t permit her to read in the dim light of the street. Madhavi had learned from her husband that she should never sign a paper without properly reading the statement and ensuring that it was acceptable. The constable didn’t appreciate her gesture. He said he was not trying to cheat her out of her property. Sarcasm. Madhavi signed the paper after her daughter said that it was a statement regarding the receipt of Hamlet who was “found lost at the beach in a mentally challenged condition.”

The policemen reached the back of the van, their boots making a grating sound on the tarred road. The mobile phone rang a doleful tune from the pocket  of the junior constable. He picked it up with a curse and spoke in a tone of feigned respect. He said that they had found the house, and the ‘party’s’ mother had identified the party and owned him. He cursed the lunatic and the family for snatching away their peace of mind while helping Hamlet to get out of the van. The senior stood aloof from this manoeuvre.

Hamlet’s jeans and shirt were wet. There was beach sand in his hair. He stepped out of the van with the uncertainty of an obedient child who was being taken to a new school. Once he was out, the policemen climbed into the van and left.

“What happened to you son?” Madhavi’s voice wavered as Hamlet started sauntering towards the house supported by Juliet and Cleopatra.

“It was I who recognized him at the hospital,” said the man in the group assembled at the roadside. Madhavi paused to look at him with a question shadowing her face. The man had familiar features.  He told her that he was a member of the Party and had known Comrade Damodaran.

“Oh,” said Madhavi and waited for him to complete his say.

“I was at the hospital today when I saw your son running out of the casualty followed by the policemen. He fell on the ground begging the policemen not to arrest him. He was crying that he had not killed anyone. I came to know that he was found unconscious at the seashore and brought to the hospital, and that upon coming to his senses he had become horrified to see the police and had run out. That was when I saw him. I told the police men that I knew the young man and asked them if he had done any wrong. I was prepared to report to the Party and arrange bail for Comrade’s son,” he said with a voice softened by the emotion of loyalty.

“Hamlet did some wrong? Did he do any harm?”

“No sister, it was only his ravings. Your son is not in a normal state of mind. He is imagining things. The policemen told me this and asked me to show them the way here.”

Madhavi thanked him. He said that he was only doing his duty to the family of the late Comrade who had martyred himself for the movement. Madhavi stood speechlessly watching him walk into the night. ‘He is here, Comrade is here,’ she murmured as she walked towards the house dragging her right leg. It was aching at the knee.

 

*

 

It was three months since that night. Hamlet had not left the house all these days. He had stopped going to Sargam. Hamlet was debilitated.

He was all the time travelling in his mind to reach that cave where he had met with his father. He wanted to clarify doubts he was unable to feel at that time. He wanted to ask who was Pluto the dark and why such a name had not been heard by anyone all these years. He wanted to learn from his father why he said that he didn’t deserve martyrdom, or why he had not wanted it. Hamlet, during those days of solitary meditations, determined to plunge into the search for Pluto and the meanings of martyrdom.

There is a received history and a history that awaits to be born in the house of imagination where darkness holds the foetuses of existence. There is one foetus that is to grow into the history of Comrade Damodaran’s life and martyrdom. Yes ‘martyrdom,’ for Hamlet had not heard anyone speaking about the Comrade’s ‘death.’ It had always been martyrdom, an honour that was lavishly ordained on the blood-drained body that was brought home. Hamlet had seen that face on which there were the purple stains of blood visible in the moonlight like spots on the inside of the eyes held shut towards the sun.

“Mother, have you heard of Pluto the dark?” Hamlet would ask Madhavi. “He was the one who pushed Comrade Damodaran into martyrdom.”

Each day Hamlet began his activities by setting on a journey in search of Pluto. He set on his foot because he decided that his search has to be done not by adopting the speed of motors but by the natural speed of the body. His journeys took him along national highways that always deviated into ghat roads that went past abysmal ravines and waterfalls. He always carried a book with him, a notebook on which he would write the thoughts that emerged in his mind as he passed along the unknown paths. The pages of the book got filled with ejaculations that he hoped would show him the formula to unlock the riddles of his life.

He wrote: Relations are to be sought in the greenness of leaves. They fester without the aid of the wind of solitude. Look, I have come to carry the burden of search. I am looking for the knife that wrote martyrdom on the back of the comrade . . .

He walked along the lane through which the red flags of revolution had walked under cover of the moon-sprinkled darkness of nights. As he walked he waved the torch of history glowing with a blue flame, giving out a light whose edges were dark. He ate rice porridge that was cooled off by time with the lemon pickles that were stored in bottles of terracotta in the homes of parayas. ‘Paraya’  . . . what does it mean? He asked the hooded man who went past him with a red flag. The figure grunted before giving him a slap on the face . . .

And thus passed Hamlet’s days . . .

 

*

 

Madhavi would watch her son walking in circles in his room from morning till night when the strain of the days circumambulation would make him flop on his bed to enter a night without sleep. She would hear him talk to himself almost through the entire night. It was difficult for her to accept that her son had gone mad. To her and anyone who talked to him he gave sensible reactions. Only on scrutiny could one suspect the presence of a mind gone haywire.

“Hamlet, let us go and see a doctor,” she would tell him. Hamlet would stare at her, unable to understand what or whom she was referring to. She didn’t know how to make him accept his condition as an aberration; he seemed to believe that he was doing a search which, as she understood, had something to do with his father’s death.

Juliet and Cleopatra would stare at Hamlet’s activities whenever they were free from their chores. They regarded their brother as a spelling mistake in the erratic sentence of their life.

“Doesn’t he say something about Pluto?” asked Juliet.

“Yes. He was in the habit of reading Greek myths when he was at school, don’t you remember?” asked Cleopatra.

None of them had any idea about the course of action they were to take. They had been used to the maladies of want, but the case of Hamlet was something they were not prepared for. They were not decided on whether Hamlet was passing through madness, or if it was a case of the temporary derailment of an imaginative mind. Hamlet used to tell them that they were not of his kind and that they would never understand his problems. He had so ostracised them from his world that Madhavi and her daughters had yielded to his suggestion that he belonged to a species different from theirs and that it was futile for them to try to know him in any real sense.

So they carried on with the sad business of living; each entrenched in her routine. Every now and then Madhavi went to her son’s room and gently pushed the door open. She did this each time she heard a sound coming from his room. Hamlet seemed to have no sleep during the nights. Madhavi knew that insomnia of that proportion was going to be of grave harm to her son’s health; his mind was going to suffer serious damage if it went on like that. She would stand at the door and call him. He may or may not turn towards her. If he acknowledged her call he would give her a lingering look as if to let her know that he didn’t recognize her or that her presence was a nuisance to him. Sometimes she would be intruding him in his writing which he did standing near the window or while he walked around the room with his head cast down. In the mornings, when  Madhavi brought him a cup of tea, he would sit staring at her without stirring. Madhavi would burst into tears.

“What happened to you son? You had no problem that day. You had gone to the office as usual after eating your breakfast. Wasn’t that you did every day since you started working at Iyengar’s office? There was nothing to disturb you. Then what happened to you? How did you fall in the sea? Did you jump into it? Were you trying to leave your mother and sisters alone in this world? Hadn’t I told you no more to worry about your family, your sisters or their marriage, or about earning for us? Hadn’t I told you long back to live for your own happiness and contentment? Hadn’t I accepted that you were an outsider as you claimed yourself to be and allowed that your life was to be lived according to your own needs and desires? What more could I have done? Hadn’t I told you that what I wanted until I died was only to have all of you with me in this house and to see you live engaged in some work that gave you means to live independently? I didn’t want you to provide even for me? I have my little pension . . . Then what brought you to this state Hamlet?”

Juliet, being the eldest of the children and nearing forty, was like a surrogate mother to Hamlet. She would take her mother out of Hamlet’s room whenever Madhavi broke down. She would return to him and try to make him speak. He had not spoken at all after that night, except a few words to his mother. She entreated him to speak to  her about anything that came to his mind, for she believed that speaking would cure him.

Cleopatra was the worst hit by Hamlet’s change. There was a similarity between hers and Hamlet’s natures in that they were vulnerable to the uncanny. They had minds burdened with an imagination that worked best to wreak havoc with their equanimity. Cleopatra too lost sleep when exposed to the madness in the order of things. She was only seven when her father died, but had retained all her life the memory of the maimed body she had seen in the moonlight. This picture of horror had been deeply engrained in her; in a nearby corner of her mind she had always borne a discomfort potent enough to tumble her down into the ravines of depression. She, however, was of stronger stuff, and was not the one to totter under the pressure of emotional turbulences. The spectres released by her imagination were not as mighty as the ones that tortured Hamlet.

She too tried to talk him out of his silence. She observed him as he sat staring out the window at the branches of the neelam mango tree. She searched in him for a reason to explain his abrupt change. She reclined alongside him and tried to look at the world from his angle. She saw the patch of a blue sky and a white cloud. She was overcome by an unbearable sense of despair. She hugged Hamlet and sobbed violently. She caressed his shrubby face and cried, “Paint Hamlet, paint.Take the brush and paint if you can’t talk.”

 

10

 

THE VORTEX OF MEMORY

 

Madhavi felt that her son’s withdrawal was somehow connected to her husband’s death.  She refused to call it derangement. No. Comrade Damodaran’s son, was made of sterner stuff.

Everyday after her daughters left for work, she watched Hamlet from the door of his narrow room. It had been several weeks since was like that, completely withdrawn and showing no signs of reaction. He showed no signs of a mental illness either. Except for the report given by the man about what had happened at the hospital, there had been no evidence of panic in him.

She and her daughters were at a loss as to what to be done. They tried to persuade him to go with them to consult a doctor. Madhavi knew that the doctor in his case meant a psychiatrist and she felt averse to it. Taking him once to a psychiatrist would brand him as a lunatic. People had a notion that anyone who was taken to a psychiatrist was a lunatic. They would treat him like a mad man for the rest of his life. She didn’t want to add such an injustice to her son’s existence; life had already punished her children with a bitter childhood and unhappy lives. Madhavi hoped that her son would go back to his painting, reading and job, when he had naturally recovered from his condition.

 

*

 

Madhavi mused – it had been twenty eight years since Comrade Damodaran died. No one seemed to remember the gory past of his death. The political face of Kerala had evolved a lot since those days. It was a different time when Damodaran had plunged into the torrent of the Party movement.  Those were times of idealism; times when members prided in giving their valuables to the Party for its growth. They contributed their money, land and gold to the Party’s fund and waited for the day of the workers’ revolution that would liberate the country as it did in Russia. Comrade Damodaran too proved his commitment by donating his land and anscestral house to the Party. He then started building Volga in a small piece of land he purchased taking loans, and died before completing it.

Now, outside Volga, the world played on in a different note. Old buildings were being demolished and replaced by luxury apartments. Vacant lots were vanishing at a rapid pace. The younger generation were getting lucrative placements. She watched developments  that entailed displacement and uprooting of the poor. Amidst these, Madhavi searched  for the frruits of the sacrifice of her husband and his like, the ones who drained their lives for the good of society. And as she looked at Hamlet she became aware of the contrast between  the world outside and the stagnant lives in her house. She sighed as she was drawn into the vortex of memory.

 

*

 

When their first child was born in 1974 Damodaran told her that they should give the girl a name that defied religious and caste identity. The name had to be secular. They should give her a name that would not proclaim her Hindu identity. The bane of India, he taught her, was that its people’s identities were determined by the religion and caste they were born in. The name of a person was designed in such a way that it proclaimed his caste and religion. It fixed his place in the society.

“By giving her a different name can we change the attitude of people?” asked Madhavi.

“I believe it will be a small step towards a change,” Damodaran said caressing the downy hair on the infant’s head. “I differ with Shakespeare only in this respect. He says that a rose will smell as sweet even it is called by another name.”

Madhavi had felt that the English man was right. A rose would smell the same even if it was called mullappoo or jamanthi.  She told what she thought to her husband. “Aren’t all the leaders of the Party having their caste names tagged to their names?” she asked.

He was silent for some time. He sat staring at his little daughter. There were streaks of grey on his hair. He was forty.

“The leaders of the Party are old. They were brought up in a different time when caste was very powerful. There was a limit to the freedom they could achieve from their upbringing. In their deepest heart they are still influenced by the caste and religious factor. But ours is a newer generation; a generation that has grown from the very beginning on revolutionary ideas. We can do what the leaders could only preach,” Damodaran smiled saying. She liked to watch his extra canine peeping out when he smiled.

“Juliet,” he cried, “that is the name for my little girl. Juliet. We will give names of Shakespeare’s great characters to our children.” Madhavi was amused by what he said -“children.” How many more would she have to bear!

“Isn’t it a Christian name?” she asked.

“Maybe. But when we are giving it to our child, it is a conscious choice by which we are defying our religious compulsion. A Hindu giving his child a Christian name is revolutionary. There will not be the Nair caste-tag also, because I already gave it up.”

Then he went on to tell her about the story of Premalekhanam, a famous love story in Malayalam by Basheer in which there was a similar situation where the hero wants to give his new-born child a secular name that would have no semblance of any religious or caste identity.

Akasamittayi – Sky  Toffee – is the name he coins. Funny, isn’t it? Only Basheer can have such ideas!”

“Anyway I don’t want my little pearl to have such funny names. She will be Juliet,” he said rocking the infant in his hands.

 

*

 

Madhavi knew what it meant to be born in a low caste, or what it was like to live without caste or religion, in a way not experienced by her husband. For she had grown up as an orphan in the house of a toddy tapper, whom she called Maman, uncle.  Her origins were unknown to anyone, except that she was given birth by a woman some night in front of Maman’s hut. She was told that her mother had died shortly afterwards in the house of the naattuvaidyan, the local apothecary.

“You must be the product of a rape or an elopement after which your mother was ditched by her man,” Maman’s wife, her Mami, would tell her. Mami had constructed the whole story of her birth in her imagination whose highlights were the feigned love of an upper caste man to a pulaya woman, and his forsaking her upon her getting pregnant. “Your mother ran away from her home afraid of dishonour when she got it in her stomach, and gave birth to her bundle of sin in front of my house.” It was said that the placenta and the marks of the uterine fluids lay there. Mami had to clean it up. She had never forgiven Madhavi’s mother for making her do that.

Maman and Mami had the largeness of mind to take the child into their family. Maman was a heavy drinker; he always reeked of arrack. But he was good enough not to forsake the infant that was born at his doorstep. Mami was suckling her seventh child at that time. Maman told her to spare a little of her milk to feed the orphan too. Madhavi used to conjure up the suffering of her unknown mother in giving birth to her with no assistance in front of a stranger’s hut. It should have been a night with no stars and the moon. She might have been the result of love or brutal lust; the mating of her parents might have taken place  in the hideouts in rubber estates or behind haystacks or in  high-grown paddy fields or in the ruins of abandoned brick kilns or tile factories or in the solitary expanses of coconut groves or in the narrowness of the deserted interiors of the tharavads of Nairs or Namboodiri’s or in the kitchen of some rich mappila’s household.  Her mother could have been a woman who ran away from her home fearing disgrace or a wife that was abandoned by her man or a beggar woman living in the streets impregnated by any of the faceless aggressors of the night. Madhavi had no exact notion of her birth, nor did Maman and Mami. Madhavi had always wondered at the magnanimity they had shown in taking her into their family just because she had been born in front of their house. In all probability, she would have been thrown into the street by anyone else, especially if they were, like Maman and Mami, already burdened with a large family.

Maman and Mami had seven children, three girls and four boys. Madhavi’s arrival put an end to the chain of childbirths. Maman sent his children to the Government Lower Primary School, even though four of them had outgrown the school age. They were sent to school because children got free lunch at schools. However, he didn’t send Madhavi to school. She was left back home to take care of the two cocks and eight hens that Maman had been tending for eggs. She was taught to cook rice porridge and tapioca, their staple food. While Mami went to work in the paddy field, Maman worked on top of the coconut trees tapping toddy in the groves of the Nair and Christian land owners. Thus began Madhavi’s life as a worker first in the house of Maman and later as she grew up, at Parvathy Cashew Factory. The year was 1962, when Madhavi , aged 13, she started life as a cashew peeler.

 

 

*

 

Their second child was born in 1978 after the Emergency, and after Damodaran’s imprisonment of two years. Damodaran was arrested during Emergency from Wayanad, the northern hill district of Kerala, where the Naxalites had their haunt. Naxalites were a group of Communist ultras who had split from the official Communist parties. Madhavi had no idea how her husband happened to be clubbed with them. He was not in the habit of discussing his political activities with her. There was nothing in his behaviour that made her suspect he had left the Party and joined the rebels. He had been attending his job at the school as usual, making his lesson plans, writing articles for the papers and letters to friends, and reading his books and magazines. He came late in the evenings with files and sheaves of paper in his hand, all of which had appeared to Madhavi as signs of his Party work. On weekends it was his wont to travel to attend Party committees. These meetings were held at different places in the state. She knew that her husband was a member of some important committees of the Party; it made it necessary for him to be present at such meetings. She had never raised any objection to his absences at home; she never complained about his not spending any time with her or the child. She knew that his greatest joy was in his social activities, and that for him living for his ideas was more crucial than anything else. She had wanted it to be that way too. The very life he had given her had been the consequence of his commitment to his ideals.

The police came to her house one night in search of her husband. The year was 1976. She knew that Damodaran had earlier served terms in the jails as a political prisoner. That was before their marriage. She knew that the police had always been an impending reality in her husband’s life. But she never had any first hand experience of it until then. Now they were standing in front of her, four khaki-clad men wearing the terrifying pointed caps of the Kerala Police of those times, with bloodshot eyes glowering with suppressed rage and lewdness.

“Where is your husband?” the head constable, an elderly man with a big paunch and drawn-up moustache, asked addressing her with the appellation of disrespect, edi.

“He is not here. He went away last Friday,” she said with folded hands.

“Where did he go?” another one asked pointing his lathi at her stomach.

She said she was ignorant about his whereabouts. Her legs were shaking. Two-year old Juliet was on her hip. She felt that her sphincters would give away and that she would pass urine right there out of fear. She had never felt as weak as that in all her life, even when Maman used to beat Mami and the children in his drunken fits using whatever that came handy. He even used a half-burnt piece of firewood once to beat them with. The scar of burn Madhavi sustained on her left upper arm had been there for over a year.

The policemen were not satisfied with her explanation. They wanted to search the house. It was a small house under a tiled roof, with a drawing room, a bedroom, a study and a kitchen. They slept on straw mats which they kept folded in rolls against the corner of the room during day. The small study was where Damodaran had a writing table and a chair, a shelf filled with books and back issues of Malayalam periodicals and newspapers. The policemen entered the house brushing her aside. The elderly constable seemed deliberate in pressing himself against her breasts as he went past her crossing the door at which she was standing.

The four policemen prowled about the house like a pack of sniffers. They stayed there for half an hour throwing things down, uttering expletives. For her, the silent night seemed like eternity. The images of the search and the police men would be etched in her memory for the rest of her life. Other than the paunchy head constable, the three men in the company were young, lean and tall. Their pyramid-shaped caps with red conical tops would almost touch the low ceiling of the house. All wore a formidable moustache as a rule. They would squeeze its ends between their thumb and index finger while scowling at her. They wore khaki shirts and shorts that reached just above their knees exposing brawny calves and hairy thighs. Their hobnailed boots grated over the floor.

They poked their lathis into the stacks of clothes and utensils, tumbling them down hurting the silence of the night. They threw down all the books from the shelf.

“Look for diaries and notebooks. See if he has stowed his fucking notes between the pages. Take all the files into custody. You may find formulas for making bombs and plans to kill people. The sons of bitches . . . ” the Head Constable growled glancing at her breasts and thighs. The subordinates were only eager to obey his command. They attacked the books and papers with a vengeance, as though they had been waiting for that all their lives. They assaulted the objects with the ferocity of blood hounds. The thought of how they would treat Damodaran if he fell in their hands shattered her. For a moment she believed that she would never see her husband again. She had known about the Emergency from the newpaper; she had learned about the arrests and jailings that were going on in the country.

The police walked out with some files and notebooks. The neighbours had assembled in the courtyard.  The Head Constable brandished his lathi at the poor folk  and ordered them to clear off. The women in lungis and blouses hid behind their half-naked men. They were illiterate working-class people who used to come to Damodaran seeking diverse help. He used to help them fill application forms or draft petitions. He also used to teach them to read and write. They watched the police leave in terrified silence.

All on a sudden, Juliet, who was until then perched silently on Madhavi’s hip, began to scream. Trigerred by this Madhavi too burst into tears. The women ran to the mother and child and hugged them. The men started cursing the Emergency and narrating instances of arrests without warrants and the torturing of comrades in jails. That was their way of consoling Madhavi; they were suggesting that she was not alone in having her husband spotted by the police. The women scolded their men for their insensitivity and strove to console Madhavi in the only way they knew, by invoking God’s mercy and hoping that no harm would come to Comrade Damodaran who has done only good in his life. They spent the whole night sitting around her, taking turns in putting Juliet to sleep on their lap, a silence enveloping them which they seemed afraid of breaking. The men stuck around the courtyard and the lane outside smoking bidis and discussing politics for an hour and left for their homes to sleep. They were men were physical labourers. They were tillers and head-load workers. They couldn’t afford to lose a whole night’s sleep on the night before a working day.

 

11

 

DEEPER DOWN THE VORTEX

 

Damodaran was incarcerated during the whole of the Emergency at different police camps of the Kerala police set up to deal with the Naxalites. He came back one day as an emaciated man, wearing a torn mundu and the same light blue shirt he had worn on the day he left. His had a salt and pepper beard; he was reduced to half his size. He had bruises and scars on his back, buttocks and shanks. She cried asking him about the details of his torture. But his answers were evasive; he disliked describing his experience at the prison. He would only say that the torture was painful.

Damodaran was hungry for sex. He would have her two or three times every day without uttering a single word. He would do it with a self abandonment that seemed to banish Madhavi from his consciuosness. She was taken aback by his urgency to copulate, his aggressiveness unlike his usual shy manner. They did it sometimes even when little Juliet was awake and playing with her toys in the other room. His moans seemed of pain rather than of pleasure. Occasionally, he cried “No” or “Don’t” during his climaxes. He would give nervous starts when Madhavi touched his naked shoulder while he reclined like a dead man after the intercourse. Madhavi reckoned that her husband was trying to tell her the suffering he had had in a wordless manner.

Damodaran’s post-prison days were also the days of his unemployment. He was not allowed to join his teaching job at the school, though he was only under preventive detention and not convicted in any case. He had to fight a case against the managemnent of his school before he would be reinstated in his job after a year. They had no visitors or help from the Party during these days. Later, she would know that he had left the Party during Emergency. He raised a small sum giving tuitions to school students. Life once again became happy for Madhavi. She had learnt all her life how to be happy with the least means . . .

 

*

Damodaran chose the name Cleopatra for his second child. The year was 1978. He said that Cleopatra was the name of a queen of Egypt, but her name was made famous by a drama of Shakespeare. He would not talk politics to Madhavi; it was the stories in the books that he shared with her. Cleopatra was a beautiful woman who committed suicide for the sake of love and also for fear of capture and disgrace. He told her the story of Antony and Cleopatra; she made him repeat the last moments of Cleopatra’s death. He told her, in some detail,  about the way Cleopatra killed herself by putting the poisonous asp of the African jungles on her breast as though she were nursing it. Somehow the imagined moments of Cleopatra’s death caught Madhavi’s fancy, and she wished she were able to read like her husband. The literacy she had gained recently had not made her capable to read books yet.

 

 

*

 

Damodaran was her teacher before he became her husband. The Party had assigned him as instructor for the illiterate workers at the Parvathy Cashew Factory. It was one evening in 1967, when she was eighteen, that a man taller than all the other men she had seen stood outside the gate of the factory, wearing a white shirt and mundu and with a black bag stuck under his arm. He was in his early thirties with the hairline receding a little. He wore a scarcely perceptible smile as he regarded the gathering. There was the Unit Secretary of the Cashew Workers’ Union, Comrade Unni, whom they called Unniyannan, standing with him under the tamarind tree at the roadside. When the workers, mostly women working as cashew peelers, came out of the gate after the day’s work, Unniyannan, a bald man in his fifties beckoned them waving both his hands. They gathered in front of him as was their practice in the case of a general body meeting of the union or before they embarked on a jatha, a procession holding the Union’s red flags and shouting slogans praising the martyrs or boasting about the bravery of the comrades. Comrade Unni spoke to the women and men sitting in front of him on the bear ground, as vehicles plied the high way.

“Comrades, this is Comrade Damodaran, a member of the Party. He is sent to us by the Party to teach us to read and write. He is a High School teacher. He will also give us classes on the Party’s policies and many things of the world. This is a great opportunity for us who have been denied by this unjust society our right to education. We have been forced into this labour from our childhood because of poverty, much before Comrade Mundasserry Master passed the Education Bill in the Assembly, a law that makes education compulsory for children. But there is no meaning crying over lost chances or misfortunes. What we have to do is to make use of whatever means we have to empower ourselves and strive for a better future of the workers. And literacy is the most powerful weapon we can have. So my dear comrades, I welcome Comrade Damodaran to our unit as our instructor and promise him on your behalf that all our members will attend his classes regularly and benefit from his presence among us.”

All the workers greeted Comrade Unni’s words shouting “Comrade Unni Zindabad, Comrade Damodaran Zindabad, Cashew Workers’ Union Zindabad.” They clapped their hands vigorously forgetting the fatigue of the day’s labour as Unniyannan put a garland of red ribbon on Comrade Damodaran in the traditional way in which Comrades were honoured at Party meetings. In his turn, Comrade Damodaran explained the need of education. He told them that he would be visiting them three times a week. He would give them lessons in reading and writing. They should practice  their lessons during their free time at night or on Sundays. There were about twenty of them for the class, mostly women. Men, except for Unniyannan and a couple of others, were too shy to learn in their advanced years. Some even said that learning would be useless to them in that late period of their lives and that their children would make fun of them. Those who joined for the class were all given slates and pencils by the Party. Madhavi blushed when Comrade Damodaran chose her, the youngest member, to inaugurate the class.

“Who is Madhavi?” he asked looking at the list of their names.

“ Here, here,” the other women cried pointing at her. They poked her on her sides and asked her to stand up. She stood up, her legs shaking.

“Come here Madhavi,” said the master.

“Podi, podi” said her mates, thrilled. Some of the older women were so tickled at the prospect of a young good-looking man calling the young girl towards him. They put their hands on their eyes and shook themselves chuckling. Madhavi passed through the workers, balancing herself putting her hand on their shoulders, careful not to trip and fall. When she reached near the Comrade she wouldn’t raise her eyes to look at him. She stood with her head bowed looking at the stone-strewn ground. She felt a tremor pass through her whole body; her knees were going weak and her fingers trembling. Then a sudden silence invaded the meeting as everyone waited eagerly to see what the Comrade master was going to do with their mate.

Madhavi saw his hairy hand reaching for the slate she was holding. She noticed that his arm was fairer than hers and made a contrast with her darker skin. Her eyes stuck for a moment on his long fingers; she hadn’t seen fingers that looked as graceful as those. The skin on them was smooth and glowing in the evening light, unlike hers or her friends’ which were rough and shrivelled from shelling cashew kernels and washing vessels and clothes, brooming, woodcutting, or husking coconuts.

“Madhavi, you are going to inaugurate our class,” Comrade Damodaran said in a loud voice. She heard the voice as though it came from somewhere far above her. He was about a foot taller than her. The meeting clapped their hands and howled in encouragement.

“Look here Madhavi,” she heard him say. She would only look at the slate in his hand and not into his eyes. She was crumbling with shyness. Her ears and cheeks burned. “Hold the slate like this,” he said showing the gathering how to hold the slate in the left hand. “Have you understood?” he asked. She nodded in the faintest way.

Then Comrade Damodaran did something Madhavi had least expected: he stepped behind her, seized her right hand in which she was holding the slate pencil and made her write on it the Malayalam letter “A.”  The crowd seethed in excitement. It was a rare sight for the simple people of the village where men and women always kept the distance between themselves in the public. They had seen men and women touching one another only in the films they watched in the unholy darkness of Beena Talkies, the only cinema in the village whose thatched roof leaked profusely during rains.

 

From that day onwards Comrade Damodaran visited them on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. He took classes in the thatched shed they had built on the side of the road in front of the factory. The twenty students could just fit themselves into the little space. The master would sit on a foldable chair and teach them to read and write the alphabets. He would use textbooks he brought with him to show them printed words and illustrations. For the younger members learning was very easy, while the elderly struggled to hold the pencils betweeen fingers. They kept on mistaking one letter for another and each time they read a word wrongly it gave rise to jokes, teasing and laughter. Damodaran spent some time at the end of the class to speak on “socialism.” He spoke of Marx, Angels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, all foreigners, who had written and acted for the liberation of the workers. He said that the aim of socialism was to have a society in which all were equal, and where wealth was equally distributed, where there was no difference in status between the muthalali and the thozhilali, the capitalist and the labourer, because the state itself was the owner of property. He went on to speak about how the owners of factories, agricultural lands, and businesses were exploiting them and snatching from them what should have been rightfully theirs. He would say that only through a revolution could they seize the power to build a socialist society in which the future generations could live without suffering the bane of inequality. There are countries like Soviet Russia and Communist China where such revolutions had taken place and a new world of socialism had been established.

When his speech climaxed, the poor worker levitated. When their heads touched the sky they looked down on their thatched huts and filthy backyards from threshold of the heavenly world of socialism.

The comrade master was not stingy in praising Madhavi. He declared her to be the fastest learner. He would hold Madhavi’s slate up for everyone to see and ask them to emulate her. It was Madhavi he chose every time to read aloud words and sentences from the books and newspapers. Madhavi could discern a twinkle of affection in his eyes whenever he looked at her or spoke to her.  Her friends never lost an opportunity to make jokes connecting her and the young teacher. They would call them Sathyan and Sheela, the famous hero and heroine of Malayalam films. Whenever the comrade complimented her, they poked each other and chuckled putting their hands on their lips. Even Comrade Unni had a mischievous smile on his lips when he spoke about the master in Madhavi’s presence. She had begun to enjoy such teasing, and had by then become adept at ignoring them.

One day in 1970, during lunch break, Comrade Unni called Madhavi to his side and told her without beating about the bush that the Party wished to see Comrade Damodaran and Madhavi married. The Local Committee of the Party had discussed the matter and they had entrusted him to know her mind. She blushed and stood paralysed, unable to lift her head or speak. Others seemed to get the smell of things. There was a sudden quiet around.

“I don’t know. Ask Maman,” she said in a voice only she and Unniyannan could hear.  Unniyannan seemed to enjoy his mission. He said he wanted to know only her decision because it was about her life and not her surrogate father’s. He asked her to tell him if she was willing to marry the “Comrade Master,” and leave everything else to him. She covered her face with both her hands and ran like a hare to her elderly friend Ammini and hid behind her. She would not budge from there for half an hour till the end of lunch break. She clutched Ammini with both her hands and wouldn’t allow her to move exposing her to the teasing laughter of the others. Unniyannan’s laughter was the loudest of all.

Maman was apprehensive because Comrade Damodaran belonged to the upper Nair caste, while he was a pulaya, an erstwhile untouchable.  He was afraid he would be beaten up by the Nairs and would lose his toddy tapping assignments at Nair households.  Madhavi didn’t know how Unniyannan and the Party convinced him; anyway Maman seemed to have given his permission for the marriage on condition that he wouldn’t spend any money on her.

The marriage was registered at the Sub-Registrar’s Office. The workers of the Parvathy Cashew Factory and Comrade Damodaran’s friends were present. The District Secretary of the Party passed them the red-flower garland, which they put on each other’s necks. Then they were asked to sign the register. Madhavi wrote her name in Malayalam with a shaking hand. At the nearby Party office all were served tea and vada.

 

*

 

The two girls of Comrade Damodaran were known in the neighbourhood for their weird names. He capped his venture by naming his third child born in 1980, this time a boy, Hamlet.

“Is this too a name in some book by that white man?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Damodaran with a giggle. “Hamlet is the most famous character of Shakespeare. Hamlet Damodaran will be the name that will make my son famous,” he said planting a kiss on the infant’s plump cheek. Madhavi asked him to tell her the story of Hamlet. This time she expected that her husband would have a happy story with a happy ending.

But it turned out to be the most bizarre story she heard in her life, one of a brother killing a brother for his wife and kingdom. The wife of the dead man , the queen of the place, was only too eager to marry her brother-in-law. The killer, thus, became the king of the country. Then the dead man’s ghost appeared to his son Hamlet  and told him how he was killed by his brother and ordered him to take revenge on his father’s killer. Hamlet for a long time was not able to kill his uncle. He started acting mad to check whether his father’s ghosts’ words were true and finally got positive evidence. At times he seemed to be really mad.

Damodaran said that it was a long story that ended in disaster. Such dramas were called tragedies. Hamlet killed his uncle, but in the end,  he too died along with his mother and many other characters in the story.

“The stories of Juliet and Cleopatra also ended in the same way. In death and sadness,” Madhavi said.

“Yes. They too are tragedies.”

“Why did you choose the names of people who died young for our children?”

Her husband regarded her for a moment as if he hadn’t expected such a question. It seemed that such an ominous thought hadn’t occurred to him.

“Why do you connect the stories with the life of our children? In that case all men who are called Rama will have to go to jungles or throw away their wives as in his story or anyone called Mary will have to see her son killed on the cross,” he said laughing.

That reasoning was sound, Madhavi thought and smiled approvingly. Her husband always thought the right things.

12

 

A FRIEND RECALLS

 

V.K. Iyengar, Managing Editor of Panorama, was a seventy-five year old man dressed in white shirt and mundu. He had long, white hair, thick for his age. It fell on his shoulders like a dancer’s. His dark face sported no mustache. The U-shaped mark drawn with sandalwood paste and vermillion, the usual religious sign worn by Iyengar Brahmins, was missing. Cleopatra and Juliet found him sitting at a large, wooden office bureau with plenty of carvings and drawers on either side. The tabletop was empty, except for a newpaper and two files neatly kept at one end. He was reading a typescript as they approached him. They had to wait for a minute before he raised his head and gave them a grave look. He seemed to wait for them to begin. He offered them no seat.

It was Cleopatra who spoke. She cleared her throat as was her wont when she was nervous. Juliet viewed the room; it had little furniture other than the five chairs laid in front of the boss. It was air conditioned; the large window behind Iyengar had a French curtain drawn on it.

Cleopatra introduced themselves as Hamlet’s sisters and straight away said that they had come to apply leave of absence for Hamlet. Iyengar appeared not to comprehend what Cleopatra was referring to.  She repeated what she said, this time mentioning Hamlet as the “illustrator” of Sargam. Understanding dawned on his face. He regarded the two women with a glint of affection in his eyes, and asked them to sit with a motion of his hand. Both of them sat at the edge of the seats only after Iyengar repeated his request.

“Your father was a great friend of my father. Hope you know about that.”

“Yes sir, we know. Mother has told us,” Cleopatra said putting her arms on the table and leaning forward as if she were facing an interview.

“It was a big tragedy that fell on Comrade. God knows who did that. You see, he was not that ordinary type, you know what I mean, the cantankerous Communist type, the quarrelsome trade unionist, no never. He belonged to that dignified type of the enlightened men I mean, like AKG or EMS, of course he didn’t reach any big position like them, but that was the stuff he was made of. What shall I say, yes, the intellectual type, you know, who read a lot, and thought a lot, and also wrote occasionally. We had published his articles in our Janasabdam, well studied essays, political of course. I used to read all of them and we would have discussions. He was more attached to my father though we were of almost the same age,” laughed Iyengar passing his right hand through his hair. He seemed to be very relaxed and in no hurry to wind up the meeting.

Cleopatra and Juliet plunged into a state of pensiveness.

“You see it was natural. My father, even if he was a capitalist, a publisher with a thriving business, was quite sympathetic to their ideology, maybe because he was a self-made man, a man who knew what it was to be poor and downtrodden from his own first-hand experience,” he stopped for a moment and played with a paper weight for a few seconds. Then he lifted his eyes towards the women and continued:

“So communists like your father had contacts with him. He helped them in various ways sponsoring their programmes, contributing money, and publishing pro-communist articles in our magazines. We had raids here during Emergency, and our political weekly was under censorship.

“Well, I feel sad still about what happened to Comrade Damodaran. Men like him should have lived longer. You see, he was the thinking type, and had his problems. Too honest for the cut-throat world of politics. That is how I saw his stepping into that extremist track and all that suffering in the jail during Emergency. And then that going back to the Party, probably begging to be taken back again. Sorry ladies, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” Iyengar stopped hit by his own words.

“No problem sir,” it was Juliet who said that.

Iyengar nodded with a smile and said that men like Comrade Damodaran were public individuals who could not survive without being part of a social group or movement. The few communists who had become Naxalites in the nineteen sixties and seventies, when they became disillusioned with extremism, had not gone back to the Party. Damodaran was an exception. Iyengar said that their father’s death, his so-called martyrdom, being a mystery that had never never been solved, still disturbed him. His family had also been indebted to Comrade Damodaran because he had donated blood to his mother during an operation, a hysterectomy.

“You know, your father had a rare group, AB Negative?” asked Iyengar to the sisters who wore a look of wonderment. They had never known or thought about such a thing. “Of course, you were all so young when he died,” he said perceiving their confusion. “It was your father who became my mother’s saviour on that crucial hour. That was in 1968, probably before you ladies were born.”

He then broke into a silence. Juliet and Cleopatra too were drawn into the whirlpool of a past they had been used to being evoked whenever their father had become the topic of discussion. But unlike those instances when they were bored by the repetition of known facts, the piece of the past that Iyengar disclosed touched them deeply. The memory he evoked had a biological warmth; it seemed to restore before them the picture of their father whose features had been long back made indecipherable by time. He was after all a real man and not just a word in the recounting of the past or a picture in the faded pages of decades-old newspapers.

When they shrugged themselves out of the spell of memories and revelations, Cleopatra introduced the purpose of their visit. Iyengar wanted to know what exactly had happened to Hamlet, because he had attended his job as usual that day. Juliet said he had been silent and depressed since that evening and had not spoken anything about it. Iyengar searched her face for a moment and fell silent.

“Mother has asked us to request you to give him leave of absence till he is able to join work,” Cleopatra said.

The MD was amused by what she said. The next moment they noticed a sudden change in his expression. It took on a business-like coldness, betraying no trace of affection and sympathy anymore.

“See Cleopatra, that is not the way to apply for leave. You should know that being a teacher, don’t you?”

Cleopatra was silenced. She sat with an apologetic smile and cursed herself for being thoughtless.

Iyengar’s intention, however, was not to snub them, for he entered into a monologue on the shortage of staff. It was impossible to run the magazines without illustrations. Hamlet was the only illustrator they had, and when he absented from work they had a crisis. The printing of two of their issues had been delayed, and they had such a hard time finding another guy to do the illustration. He said that he would always have a place left for Comrade Damodaran’s son in his firm; he was a man who couldn’t forget the past, and that they may not find many people like him. He said that he could afford to have only one illustrator, so if Hamlet came back he would have to be satisfied with freelance assignments till the firm was capable enough to make him permanent again. . . .

 

*

 

You have lost your job brother – Juliet shouted without opening her mouth or uttering a sound. The goodwill for Comrade Damodaran is not strong enough to make them sacrifice profit. Hamlet sat staring at the empty canvas that looked wilted like impotence. She placed a hand on his shoulder. How wasted have you become Hamlet! she whispered.

13

 

JULIET

 

She had followed him like a zombie when he asked her to go with him into the room upstairs. He said he wanted to show her a keepsake of her father.

*

 

She had spent three sleepless nights at the District Hospital with her mother who was admitted there with a broken her leg. Somebody from the cashew factory had telephoned at the Aiswarya Textiles where she worked and informed the reception about the accident and wanted her to take charge of her mother. She had got the news at noon when they were having lunch. Her manager wouldn’t allow her to go because two “wedding parties” were coming to purchase dress materials. Her mother’s face loomed before her as she mechanically catered to the demands of the customers, spreading the stocks out on the table for another two hours before she got permission to leave.

 

*

 

As he led her to the upper floor of his house, she told to him in a faint voice that her mother was alone at the hospital, and that the medicines were to be bought before the doctor came for the rounds. “You can go soon moley,” he said. “I may not get another chance to show you this,” he said as he placed a hand on her shoulder.

 

*

 

Her mother’s operation was done only on the second day of the fall because the anaesthesiologist was on leave. The bone-specialist had given the knee and ankle of her left leg a temporary bandage. They gave her a bed in the general ward of  twenty beds. There were no facilities for the bystanders; they had to sleep either sitting on the patient’s bed or find space on the floor between beds. She spent the whole night on the first day sitting beside her mother without sleeping a wink.  On the second day, her mother was laid after the surgery in the post-operative ward. That night she had to remain awake and vigilant outside the ward, waiting for the calls of nurses whenever they needed things like water or food. They also called  for medicines. The government hospitals were often ill-equipped with medicines; they had to be purchased from private medical stores.

She sat on one of the wooden benches meant for bystanders in front of the post surgical ward, leaning her head against the wall behind her. There were a few men and women in the corridor, some engaged in talking, some sitting on benches alone like her, staring at the ceiling or the floor, lost in an inner world where they probably engaged in a futile dialogue with the amorphous spectre of fate. Her eyes began to lose their focus; images doubled as the burden of sleep pulled a veil over her vision. She dozed her way into a dream in that forlorn night in the hospital where the hapless poor of the land sought refuge from the horrors of the body.

 

*

 

The stairs that led to the upper floor seemed endless. In her fogged mind, she could think only about getting the medicine, the injection ampules before the doctor came for the rounds at eleven in the morning. She needed the money he had agreed to give her. Hers and her mother’s measly income from the cashew factory and the textile shop was no match to meet such contingencies.

At the upper floor he led her to a room with shelves of books. Its walls had the pictures of Marx and Angels mounted high on them. On one side of the room there was a neatly made bed. He asked her to sit on it. When she didn’t, he gently pressed her shoulders and lowered her on to the bed. “Sit, daughter,” he said.  Then he proceeded to a cupboard and started searching for something. That was when she realized that they were alone in the house.

 

*

 

In her dream she was a little girl, so little that she could ride an ant, which she did. The ant walked along a river that was full with red water. It could as well have been a river of blood. She was now walking along the river. The ant was gone. As she walked, she found that the heads of coconut trees were touching her shoulders. She had grown taller than the coconut trees. But she was still wearing her school uniform, a green skirt and cream shirt; she had her school bag sliding on her back. She sat on a stone by the riverside and started reading a book she had fished out of her bag. She had grown so big by then that she could see the whole town around her. She saw the sea and the light house, the furnaces of tile factories, the lake, canal, bridges, schools, hospitals, courts, temples, churches, mosques and the markets. Then she saw her mother walking towards her from a distance. Her mother had a small packet in her hand, and she knew what was there in it. As she reached closer, the smell of plantain fries hit her nostrils. There wasn’t anything tastier than the plantain fries her mother brought her in the evenings when she came back from the cashew factory. She was averse to sharing it with her sister and brother, but did that only grudgingly. She ran to her mother throwing away her book, and as she ran she began to grow smaller. When she snatched the packet from her mother, she was only as big as herself. Then she tugged at the twine with which the packet was bound, her mouth watering all the time, the aroma of the fries emanating from the packet. The knot would never give away, nor would the twine break. The struggle to open the packet continued with no end. The packet could not yet be opened . . .

 

*

 

The year was 1994. She was twenty. Cleopatra was eighteen doing her Pre-degree Course at the college and Hamlet was at his school-final. When her mother was brought back to the ward, she broke into tears falling on her mother’s chest. She whispered in her ear that there wasn’t money left for anything, even to buy rice. All that was left was finished taking her X-rays and buying medicines and dressing materials. She herself was to lose her pay as she was absenting from work. Her mother fell silent, tears cutting streams on the sides of her face. She lay staring at the spider webs on the ceiling. Then she asked her daughter to meet Narayananchettan . He was a close friend of her father.

“Ask him for five hundred rupees and say that your mother shall return the money in three months,” she said. “Tell him that your mother is in the hospital and not able to work.”

 

*

 

 

Narayanan’s house, when she reached it passing through a labyrinth of lanes and sub lanes, asking for direction that people in the neighbourhood were eager to give her, was like a little chicken cage. It had two side by side little rooms and a window with horizontal wooden bars covering the whole front. The house with a slanting roof of tiles stood in a little compound surrounded by a broken hedge-fence. There were similar houses around it, all too closely set like the huts of fishermen at the seashore, close enough that even the sighs could be heard by the neighbour. She wondered if her mother had made the wrong choice to seek help from. And her apprehension had not been unfounded, for when the man came out after she had called his name and knocked at the wooden door several times, was a wreck. He  could have passed for a beggar. She regretted having come there. But she had no other choice but to tell him the reason of her visit. She introduced herself as the daughter of the late Comrade Damodaran and told him why she had come. He listened to her till she finished, without ever asking anything, regarding her with a watery film in his eyes in which she saw two deep oceans lying still beneath their calm surface, deep oceans of the memories of love and trust that were invoked to life by the mention of her father’s name. His silent countenance seemed to recount the days of camaraderie propelled by the dream of a utopia for whose unlocking he had fought with her father and lost everything that was dear in the name of that beautiful notion called sacrifice. For a few moments he was speechless. He did not invite her into the house, where there were no furniture except a wooden stool that lay close to the wall. When he spoke, his voice was like the growl of a hungry lion. He told her that he had nothing to help her with, but that she might approach Comrade Secretary with a letter he would give her. He would certainly do some help.

 

*

 

She watched the Comrade Secretary, sitting at the edge of the bed, as he groped inside the almirah. He was a man in his fifties with his hair dyed black. He was wearing a lungi, his torso was naked. He came back to her with a smile. He held a few currency notes in one hand and an album in the other. As he approached her with disrobing eyes, she made an attempt to rise triggered  by an inner warning.

“What is the hurry moley?” he asked. “Here, take the money you asked. I can’t forget Comrade Damodaran’s family, can I?”

He thrust the money in her hand as he sat beside her on the bed. A smell of sweat assailed her nostrils. Why don’t I scream? Why don’t I run away?

“Your father was a nice man. He was like an elder brother to me. You are like my daughter,”  he said putting his arm again on her shoulder and pulling her closer to him.

“I want to go. Mother is alone at the hospital.”

“You can go soon. I don’t even want the money back. It is a gift from uncle. Only give me a little company. See how lonely I am here!”

He opened the album and showed her some black and white photographs in which he and her father were speaking at some function. She felt his hand cupping her breast.

“I want to go,” she said in a weak voice, surprised by what was happening.

“You can go soon dear. I shall take you to the hospital myself in the car,” he said as his lips fell on hers. She tried to push him apart, but her strength was too insufficient for that. He clung to her like a vice and slowly laid her on to the bed. By now his face and hand were all over her in a frenzy. He was muttering the dead Comrade’s name. Words like socialism, dream and love came incoherently from him, to which were mixed her own stifled cries. She felt his entire weight falling on her. She felt a tearing pain between her thighs; a lightning snaked across her eyes. As the whole world quaked madly, she saw the pale faces of her mother, Cleopatra and Hamlet pass before her in platters carried by hooded figures dressed in black.

14

 

THE DAY OF HEALING

 

And then wanderlust seized Hamlet one morning. He rose from his three-month long stupor and strolled into the outer world. He wafted like a shadow, entered the the road that skirted the house, and got mixed with the flux of the city life. As he walked, the muscles of his limbs began to release an energy; he had to suppress the urge to jump and shout in exhilaration. His steps fell on the tarred road with the firmness of an athlete; he raised the momentum of his walk to spend the force that was now overwhelming him.

Ht looked around like a man who had just reached his homeland after a long spell of exile. He looked at the roads and  the buildings on their either side with the  curiosity  of a man who had only seen them in pictures. They were steeped in a familiarity that still had an aura of strangeness. It was as though he had been in all of those buildings of varying sizes, shapes and hues: restaurants, internet cafes, hotels, houses and shops wearing antiquated as well as futuristic looks, the Government offices whose names were painted in white on black boards – “Wakf   Board” “Office of the District Educational Officer,” “Sub-Registrar’s Office,” “Office of the Circle Inspector of Police,” “Office of the Deputy Director of Collegiate Education,” “Taluk Office,” “Office of the District Supply Officer.” The small stones on the roads lay in familiar patterns. He took the road to the Civil Station, the three storied building that housed a bevy of Government offices. From there he turned left to the east and made for the main road  that would lead him across the Iron Bridge and to the side of the lake.

On reaching the Iron Bridge, he stopped to gaze down the canal. The traffic passed behind him raising clouds of smoke and the din of honking. The bridge, a relic of the British colonial reign, shook each time a heavy vehicle passed across it. Hamlet leaned on the parapet and studied the scenario. The  morning sun was getting warmer and warmer sending trickles of sweat down his back and sides wetting his shirt in patches. Below him he saw the canal covered dark green algae. It flowed into the lake. The canal lay empty and forsaken by the people, by the administration. The water touching the banks was blackened by the filth from the shanties on its sides.

A bus driver threw him an expletive and asked him to get out of the bridge without causing inconvenience to the vehicles. He was standing on the pedestrian bridge, and not on the main bridge meant for the traffic; the expletive from the driver was probably thrown not at him. The driver might have been using him to vent his anger at things in general, an anger that had no specific target, but the inchoate frustration man felt about his impotence in the face of things.

The lake was blue under the sun; the mangroves on its banks added a blacker aspect to its edges. Hamlet walked alongside the lake with an empty mind, searching for thoughts. A speed boat with some young men dashed along the lake; the men raised piercing cries of excitement as the boat sped splashing water, cutting furrows of foam in it. Their cries triggered in him images of a hundred faces he had known but had forgotten during a long journey  that had taken him to places populated by beings rising from chasms. As he watched the huge houseboats moored in a row in the jetty on the other side of the lake, he sensed a gradual falling away of an encrustation that had long covered his consciousness, darkening and dulling its processes.

 

*

 

Padmini was alone in her trip to visit Hamlet. Other workers at Panorama had earlier paid their visit to Volga. The visits began only after a month since Hamlet had stopped going to work, when the staff started taking seriously the news of “something wrong” having befallen him. Then curiosity began to get the better of people; they wanted to know what actually was the problem with the young man. Those who went to visit him were all convinced that he had gone mentally ill. He would not care to greet them, but just stare out the window lying on his bed. His mother told them that he hadn’t been talking to anybody since that day, but other than his withdrawal he had no other problems. Mathew and company offered her all help to take him to a “mental doctor,” which she politely turned down.

Padmini had not joined the editorial group that went to visit Hamlet. She had always preferred to be alone. She had not been part of the talks on Hamlet and his family that took its rounds in the office in recent times. Though she had no much acquaintance of Hamlet, she had felt a sense of silent rapport with him. Their fathers were smitten by the same dreams that had spewed agony to the ones bound to them. They were victims of the incurable romanticism of Communism, and as their children, Padmini believed, she and Hamlet had been fishes in the same ocean of sorrows.

The auto-rickshaw rode along the roads that have recently been repaired after the rains. During the monsoons, the weakly laid bitumen gave away, and roads in the city developed gutters of varying circumferences and depths, making journey over them on smaller vehicles like three-wheelers and two-wheelers a bone rattling exercise. The driver was a dark fat man who was also most probably a tall man, for he was crammed in the driver’s seat with his head jammed against the roof of the vehicle. He filled almost its entire breadth. He was whistling a snatch of a song from a recent Malayalam film. Padmini always liked to watch the posters drivers used to stick on the inner walls of the auto-rickshaw. Keenly observing these posters was a habit she engaged in to while away time during an auto-rickshaw ride. In most occasions she had been enamoured by the wisdom and poetry of the logos on the posters. One had the picture of a broad waterfall that cascaded down through green hills on either side. It fell on rocks from where a stream ran further downwards. On the side of the picture was given a quotation from Albert Einstein: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Padmini was more amused by the poster on her left, which had the blown up picture of a European child, a girl with blonde curls, blue eyes, rosy lips and chubby cheeks. The quote was from Sigmund Freud: “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” She looked at the driver; he was blissfully engaged in his job, whistling his tune and negotiating the little vehicle through the crisscrossing traffic, ignorant of the men whose words adorned the walls of his ‘auto,’ words that penetrated her in a strange way that signalled to her that she shall never forget them for the rest of her life.

 

*

 

Padmini studied Comrade Damodaran’s house for a few moments. It wore an unfinished look; its walls were not plastered, the red bricks and mortar were exposed like flesh from which skin was torn. A true symbol of the half-born project for which these men lived or died, she thought as she stepped into the little courtyard opening the gate. There were flowerpots with rose plants, five or six of them, with red and white flowers in full bloom. The rose plants were drawn into the stillness that engulfed the house. A woman in her sixties opened the door, a brown-skinned woman with a crown of hoary hair on an oval face that had two large eyes slanting downwards, two black pupils floating in moist whites.

 

*

 

Sitting under the green canopy of the banyan tree in the park at the lakeside, Hamlet began to experience a coming back, a return to the familiar world. It was a world that had vanished some time before, without leaving a trace, throwing him into a vacuum. First he remembered himself. Like the light that comes to the consciousness after a pain coma, he saw himself as an image  growing to its fullness, an image on the shaky surface of water  that grew to clarity as the water calmed.  I am Hamlet, son of Comrade Damodaran and Madhavi, owner of a failed life. Then he remembered Juliet and Cleopatra, and then Volga the house of non-happenings. Why am I here, he asked himself. He rubbed his eyes to clear his memory. He watched the lake; it looked like an expansive canvas laid across the ground for artists to paint. He got up and walked around. The park, with its cool shades of tamarind, banyan, and mahogany trees excited him. He wanted to caper about like a mad man. I am not mad. The park initiated in him into a going back to what he had been.  Memories rushed in; in a few moments Hamlet had regained himself in his fullness.

He lay on the green grass surrendering himself to the surge of images and words. The ground beneath him was moist from previous night’s  summer rain. Above him, the blue sky appeared in little patches through the branches of a tamarind tree. As he closed his eyes he remembered the night at the beach. Ruminating the experience he lay for a long time in the deserted park; in the noon he dozed off in the pleasure of the retrieved memory.  He woke up only in the evening when young lovers began to giggle their way into the park. Then Hamlet got up and started walking to the beach.

 

*

 

“Hamlet’s amma?” Padmini asked her. A smile strove to surface on her sad face; her lips spread a little, then quivered and resumed their original position.

She barely nodded, and receded opening the door further for Padmini to enter. She asked her to sit. Padmini put her bag on the teapoy and sank in one of the four cane-chairs that were set on either side of the teapoy. It was a narrow, grim drawing room. The walls, like the ones outside, were not plastered. She spent a silent moment scanning the surroundings. The photos of the dead leaders of the Party and of its foreign ideologues fixed high on the walls gave her a sense of dejavu. These pictures had once surrounded her too, at her home.

“I am Padmini. I am coming from Panorama.”

“Ah, moley. I have heard of you. You are Bodhisatwan’s daughter, yes?” Madhavi spoke, standing by the door that opened to an inner room. Her voice was husky with a quiver. It suggested the long suffering of an emotion which was familiar to Padmini.

Padmini nodded and stared at the floor for a moment before she spoke, “Yes. I came to see Hamlet. How is he? I couldn’t come earlier, amma,” Padmini softened her voice to be apologetic. “I am alone at the desk of Manka. There is staff shortage now and there is no time.”

“I know Padmini. They have done this always. Make you work to your limits. I know,” she still spoke standing. Padmini wished Hamlet’s mother had taken a seat. It was awkward for her to sit while the elderly lady was standing. But that was the habit of the old generation women of the lower and middle classes. Her own mother was not different; they would not sit in front of guests.

“Sit, amma.”

“It’s all right moley. How are you and all at home? How is your child? In which class is she now? How is your mother?”

Padmini played with the end of her sari and wondered which query she should answer first. “She is six years old amma. She is in her first standard. Mother is on treatment.”

A silence fell between the two women during which Madhavi remembered that though Comrade Bodhisatwan was her husband’s senior in age, his daughter was the same age as Hamlet. She remembered Bodhisatwan’s transformation after the Emergency when he was released from jail, and how his joining a godman’s ashram had thrown her husband into an intellectual turmoil that had lasted a long time, and how he had told her that the torture he had had at the police camp had not upset him as much as Bodhisatwan’s action. Till his end, her husband could not come to grips with Bodhisatwan’s change from Communism to spiritualism. Then she remembered the news about the death of Padmini’s husband in some accident. She found that she was at a loss of words. It was Padmini who resumed the conversation. She enquired after Hamlet’s sisters.

“Can I see Hamlet?” she asked.

“He went out today morning without telling anybody. Didn’t even eat anything,” she said casting her eyes out the door on the road. It looked like an action she had been doing all her life, to search the roads for men who left without telling anybody at home, without telling the women who had no other way but to wait for their return. Padmini was not new to that situation too. She sighed in response.

“He had not stepped out of the room for three months. This morning he was missing. He will come back, won’t he moley?” Madhavi asked looking into Padmini’s eyes.

“Please sit for some time, amma,” Padmini said going to Madhavi and leading her to a chair putting a hand on her shoulder. Madhavi wiped her eyes. Padmini took the seat opposite her.

“He will come back amma. It is a good sign that he has come out of the room. He will be all right soon.”

“What will people say if he does something strange out there moley!”

“Nothing like that will happen amma. He will come back safe. Let him be out there a little. It will help him to relax.”

“Yes, relax. You children of these too too sincere comrades, you have all suffered. You have all borne the burden of a past that is still after you, a past that was not of your making, a past that now looks like a fantastic story. I know you will understand all this moley. I know you will understand Hamlet.”
The image of Hamlet flicked across her memory.  She had not spoken except a few words to him during the last couple of years he had been working at Sargam. He would give her a smile, and she would smile in return. She would fancy his large imaginative eyes and Jesus-like face with a thick beard. His face had appealed to her as that of an intelligent man. There was a sea of experience that they shared between them. Between them there was a bridge of understanding. She had felt an urge to seek Hamlet’s company at the office, which she had consciously suppressed. If a silence existed between her and Hamlet it could have been because of the the reticence of both their natures.

“Hamlet will come back in the evening when he gets tired amma. Even my father has come back home after twenty five years. I don’t know if he means to stay.”

“What? Comrade Bodhisatwan has come back?”

“Comrade? That sounds funny now amma. He is now a sanyasi. He sits in meditation, and at other times he goes for walks. He wouldn’t allow my daughter to call him grandpa. He wants us to call him swami. But I would call him only achan, and mother calls him nothing.”

“So he has come back? Why? Why has he come back after all these years leaving you to your own means, going away just like that? I have always wanted to ask this question to all of them, to the men, who threw away everything for their ideas, for their perverse happiness.”

“But Hamlet’s father didn’t do any such thing amma.”

“Well, he . . .” Madhavi looked around as if to say that the answer to Padmini’s question was the house or hers and her children’s life in it. She fell silent.

“Tell Hamlet to come and visit my father amma. I somehow feel that it will do him good,” Padmini said as she rose to leave. “My father said he would like to speak to Hamlet when I told him everything about him.”

“What did you tell Boshisatwan about Hamlet moley?”

Padmini didn’t know how to answer that question. Her father had left home when she was too small to remember him. After that she had known about him only through the words of others. She had read about him in some stray articles on the past of Communism in Kerala. She had known him to be residing at an ashram somewhere in north India. And now he had come as a old man of eighty in search of his family, maybe as a visitor, maybe to live with them for the rest of his life. She had not asked. He was there as a half stranger, around whom clung the aura of a past whose adventurism still lent it some glamour that occasionally attracted journalists who visited him for interviews. She too could speak to him only like a journalist, asking him to narrate his past, ask him about the legendary leaders he had known personally. She had spoken to him also about Comrade Damodaran’s son who was her colleague, and who was now passing through a difficult time. Her father had, in fact, said that he would like to meet Damu’s son.

“I told him that Hamlet had become withdrawn and that he had stopped coming to the office. Achan seemed to understand . . .”

“Yes, they will understand. No need to explain to men like Bodhisatwan.”

 

*

The sun had grown full and red just over the sealine as Hamlet reached the beach. There was a good crowd spread over it. Families sat in circles, men and women with little children running around them laughing, gambolling. Some kids, boys especially, were at digging holes on the loose yellow sand. Some made caves with it; some others buried their friends in the sand leaving out only their heads. Groups of young and old men sat on the ground staring at the sea talking, the breeze carrying away their laughter. Vendors of ground nuts and ice cream planted their makeshift kiosks at random on the beach maintaining a safe distance among themselves so as not hinder each other’s trade. The kites boys flew spotted the grey sky; there were dozens of them in a host of colours.

Hamlet slumped on the wet shore where the sea had cast itself in a big wave and just withdrawn. As he hit the floor the memory of the last night he spent there rushed back like another wave. It seemed he had reached the end of the circle he had started circumferencing three months before. His memory waxed as the sun waned and finally stood aglow as the sun vanished.

He remembered how he had lain on the beach for a long while  that night watching the starry sky, watching the constellations of Orion, Scorpio and the Seven Sisters. The beach had grown empty and he had lost all sense of time. He remembered that the whole world had converged on that sky. At that moment a grief had overcome him, a grief for all the hapless creatures of the world, a grief for all who suffered from hunger, thirst, homelessness, exile, loss of dear ones, disease, want, handicaps, humiliation, oppression, unemployment, unreal dreams, obsessions, fear. It grew by the moment, so a time came when he could no longer bear it. Tears began flowing down the corners of his eyes, trickling down his ears, falling on the sand; a lump of pain sprouted in his throat and became a ball of red-hot iron.

Then as the night wore out he began to experience a black out; the surroundings melted and withdrew into himself. Only he existed. The grief he had felt earlier shed its impersonal character and assumed a very personal shape. The grief became his, only his, as if its cause was rooted in his own life. In a moment, the lump of grief-pain in his throat had become unbearable; he had to close his eyes in an effort to swallow the gob of spittle accumulated in his mouth. On the screen of his closed eyelids he saw in an image dark men carry a lifeless body in the dark of night. Blood soaked the white shroud and clotted in the wounds on its face. And as he stared at the sight he realized that the face was his father’s. His father lay before him like a lump of flesh speckled all over with large patches of purple blood. Then as he opened his eyes there was light again on the beach.

He had a dream after this where he met his dead father. His father was bleeding profusely from a knife wound. His father said that it was Pluto who had killed him.

Later he had found himself lying on the hospital bed all drenched and covered in seasand. He had made an attempt to run away upon seeing the police men. It was not he who had wanted to escape, but someone else from a different age living within him. He remembered how the police took him home that night, and how his mother and sisters received him in front of Volga.

Now as he watched the sunset and the multitude of colours it spilled all over the horizon he felt a sense of healing. Fresh and wholesome tissues began to spread out over the wound in his being. With it dawned an insight into the shackles that had kept him chained all his life – the drives that had set him into the world like a rudderless ship in a directionless sea. It had to do with the death of his father and the myriad ways in which it had affected him. It had made him a victim of the fear of darkness and a severe lack of desire to exist. The unresolved horror of the image of his father’s death had been, in the years that followed, a festering wound in the intractable recesses of his memory. The dream-experience at the beach seemed to effect a purgation of hidden pains and a healing. It threw light on a secret that was buried with his father. He believed that the name Pluto was not just a figment of his fancy; it was a code encapsulating a truth. He had been entrusted to uncode it, for his own eventual recovery if for nothing else . . .

Then he felt terribly hungry, his stomach caved in and growled. He hadn’t eaten a thing the whole day. He had left his house in the morning before anyone else had woken up. He had forgotten about his hunger; it was waiting in the wings of his mind. Now it rose in its full magnitude and hit Hamlet with the force of a storm. He made for his house. He had no other way, but to walk. Hamlet recovered all the roads and bridges he had walked earlier that day. An inner unity overwhelmed him, a coming together of his disintegrated energies. It elated him amidst his fatigue. As he reached the gate of Volga, he had only two desires left, two desires that were as big  as the Himalayas – to eat and to paint.

 

*

 

Volga was steeped in silence. As they saw him coming his mother and sisters rose in unison from their chairs. Their faces exuded a mixture of anxiety, suspiscion and fear. He gave them a smile, and said,

“I am hungry, amma.”

“Where were you Hamlet? Do you know how much amma and we were worried about you?” Juliet asked in a voice louder than she intended. Hamlet noticed the strand of grey that crossed the side of her head towards her left ear. Cleopatra was watching him intently; the concentration of her gaze made him smile, and then guffaw.

“I am sorry, amma. I am all right. I am fine now. I am going to work tomorrow. I am normal, you know Patra? I am back to being Hamlet.”

He was not sure if his sisters believed his words. His mother seemed to accept him as he was. She, as usual, was patient, never scolding him whenever she knew that the nature of  his fault was not ordinary. She caressed his head, ran her fingers over his long locks. His hair reached his shoulders, he hadn’t cut it for a long time. He must have looked like a monk.

“Come and eat your rice, son,” she said walking into the kitchen.

“Did you eat anything today?”

“ No amma,” he said as he followed her into the house.

He gorged the rice in large mouthfuls. The women sat around him at the table watching him. His mother kept replenishing his plate. He asked them if they had any idea about the condition of his job. His sisters told him about their meeting with Iyengar.

 

15

 

THE PEON

 

            In the morning, the first thought that passed his mind was that he had not been working for a long time. The four walls of his room had constituted his world. He had been roaming there in search of some rare thing that could be identified only upon finding it out. He sprang up from his bed, and with an energy that he had rarely enjoyed in the past went through his toilet.

Juliet who was rushing through cooking. She was not yet dressed  to leave for her job, though it was time for it. Still dressed in her housecoat, she was plucking the idlis out of their moulds and putting them into a bowl.

“Mother is not well. She has pain in her abdomen,” she told him.

Madhavi was lying with her eyes closed, a hand resting on her forehead, as Hamlet went into the small room. Three beds lay flush to the three walls of the grim room. Madhavi opened her eyes hearing his footsteps. Hamlet felt like the boy who used to go to his mother for her words of assurance before he went to write his exams. She moved a little to make him space to sit beside her on the bed. He sat.

“What happened amma? Juliet says you are not well.”

It was not Madhavi’s wont to stay put in bed after sunrise. She had always been a busy bee; her children had seldom seen her inert in the house, neither when she had been a working woman at the cashew factory, nor after she took retirement when her children had grown up. Her three children grew restive and upset at the unfamiliar sight of her being ill and inactive.

Madhavi, instead of answering his question, asked him how he was feeling and where he was going that morning. Then without waiting for his answer, she told him that he was now all right, and that what had happened to him in the past three months was only to lead him to something better. Hamlet smiled at the prophetic tone in his mother’s words. It was her way of assuring him, without sounding theistic, and thus still being loyal to the atheism her husband had ingrained in her mind. She had survived all her life falling back on a belief in the goodness underlying everything that happened. In her darkest moments she had clung on to this optimism which had always appealed to Hamlet as laughable. But he didn’t laugh or tease his mother; he nodded his consent to her. Her eyes welled and tears flowed down the corner of her eyes. Hamlet stared at the floor. He said, “Yes, maybe. It was the memory of father. It was a dream. He wanted me to find the truth of his death.”

There was silence for a couple of minutes. Only the occasional drone of a car or a truck moveing along the road outside broke it.

“Padmini came looking for you yesterday,” Madhavi said.

“Oh. I see.”

“Nice girl,” Madhavi sighed as she said that. Hamlet knew that the sigh was meant as an expression of sympathy for Padmini’s widowhood at a young age. The news of her coming to see him made him happy.

“You know, her father and your father were friends in the Party.”

Hamlet nodded. Hamlet said with a contemptuous smile that he also knew what Bodhisatwan had done after he left politics. He had worn saffron robe and become the follower of some godman. Madhavi caressed Hamlet on his arm. She said that each man sought his own solace. Who are we to decide what is right or wrong! Hamlet didn’t want to argue. He had realized the futility of arguments, that truth was relative and personal.

“Padmini was saying that her father is back home.”

“Bodhisatwan is back?”

“Yes son. She said he wished to meet you.”

“Oh.”

Madhavi asked him to eat well before he left, and aired a wish that he got his job back.

 

*

 

Iyengar spoke to him succinctly on the condition of the business, with the introduction that as the top boss of Panorama he was not, in fact, obliged to give any explanation to an ordinary employee like Hamlet. He did that out of respect for Comrade Damodaran, his father’s memory.

“The business is dull, as you know, print media is not doing well with these e-magazines and all. We appointed another guy in your absence and can’t afford to have two of you. By the way, I hope you are okay now, aren’t you? The stories that were circulating about you . . . well, I don’t care young man. Such derailments can happen to us in our youth. But as someone who is your father’s age I tell you to quit it if you have any drug habits, ok?” The boss waited for Hamlet’s response. Hamlet summarized his response in a smile. He wished Gurudas were there to offer him a pull at the joint; he missed an occasional high.

“ Anyway, I can’t send you away empty handed, can I?” he asked staring at Hamlet with no expression on his face.

“See Hamlet . . . oh what a name! I believe it was Damu who gave you this name, right? Only he would do that. He had such notions about things. Well Hamlet, I know it is not being fair to an artist, but I have no other way to place you here right now. What I am saying is, the peon girl in Manka’s editorial section has gone on maternity leave. You can get in in that vacancy, but I can put you there only as a casual labourer, you know, on a temporary basis. You can stick in till you find something better. You can also do the illustration when the artist is on leave as a freelancer. What do you say?”

 

*

 

Hamlet accepted Iyengar’s proposal without a wink. Yes sir, he said. I accept it. Iyengar appreciated his spirit and lack of false pride. He told him not to regret, because these were times in which even post-graduates were doing the peon’s job in Government offices. Iyengar asked him to join right away and to report to Mrs. Padmini Mohan, senior sub-editor of Manka. On his way to Manka, he stepped in to meet Harikrishnan at Sargam’s office. He was speaking into the phone. He gestured Hamlet to sit, but Hamlet didn’t. He knew it was not proper for a peon to sit in front of a senior editor; his status had changed. Harikrishnan flared up when he heard about Hamlet’s demotion. He went into a tirade of Iyengar and his ‘conscienceless’ profit-mongering that wouldn’t allow him to have one more artist even though Panorama had always had the tradition of having two artists from S. V. Iyengar’s days until this man put an end to it. At the end of it he spat a gob of saliva reddened with betel juice onto the wall outside the window with a ‘ththoo’ that bore the bitterness of his hatred. He said he was helpless, and asked Hamlet to quit at the earliest, and not to kill himself in the peon’s job.

I killed myself the day I started drawing for your fucking stories.

At the office of Manka, Padmini welcomed him with a worried face. Iyengar had probably informed her about the appointment.  He wished she gave him one of her beautiful smiles that put a dimple on her left cheek. He took his seat, a stool that was meant for the peon, at the entrance of the office, and smiled at her. It was a small room in which the three staff of the women’s magazine worked. Besides Padmini, there were two young girls in their twenties, the sub-editor trainees, who were on the editorial staff of Manka. They were  there on a stipend, and would be replaced by a fresh couple of trainees at the end of the year. That was yet another way the firm ensured labour at a cheap cost.

“Hamlet, I feel very bad,” Padmini said. Only she was present in the office. The trainee girls were out on field work.

“Please don’t,” he said.

Padmini was his age. She had done her diploma in journalism at the Press Club in Trivandrum, somewhat around the same time as he had been doing his BFA at Fine Arts College in the late nineties. They had known each other in absentia, as the children of Communist fathers.

Padmini was in a state of embarrassment to have Hamlet as her menial help. His job would be to carry files and materials to the editor, the press or to the other sections. It would be to bring the staff tea and snacks in the evening, to attend phone calls in their absence. It would be to go out to buy office material or to the courier or post office to collect parcels and mails or to post them. The job was menial. But Hamlet was there, equanimous, waiting to do anything she ordered him to. In front of his readiness, she knew, her feeling of discomfort would only amount to a betrayal of the idea of the dignity of labour.

“You should try for something better,” she ventured to say.

He shrugged his shoulders. She knew that it was meaningless to give him a lecture on higher options, when there were probably none. His smile meant what she knew, that the only skill he had was to draw, and in the absence of an artist’s job any other made no difference.

“Amma said you came home yesterday,” Hamlet told her. He noted the sadness that surrounded her smile.

“It is nice to see you back.”

“You said your father is back? He wanted to see me?”

Padmini nodded, lifting her eyes from the screen of the computer on which she was typing a text. She looked attractive in her lack of makeup and her apparent want of care in dressing. She wore a chocolate-brown khadar kurtha and a white pajama; she put up her hair into a careless tuft held together by a band behind her ahead. She had the vast forehead of an intellectual.  She was known for her activism as a feminist, and Hamlet had always maintained a safe distance from her out of a certain awe that was inspired by her dignified bearing.

“What were you doing these three months shut up in your room?” she asked.

After a moment’s consideration he said, “Thanks for asking directly, I mean, without any indirection.”

She seemed to like his response.The dimple showed on her left cheek when she smiled.

“I was searching for my father’s killer.”

“Ha ha ha,” Padmini guffawed. They stared at each other for a brief moment as if they were sharing thoughts telepathically.

“Isn’t he a martyr? Didn’t he achieve immortality? He didn’t, after all, run after some mountebank in search of a higher reality!”

“Like Bodhisatwan?”

She didn’t respond. She gave him a blank look.

“My father said to me that he didn’t want any martyrdom. That he was thrown into it.”

“What? When did he say that?”

“Well . . . ,” Hamlet fell silent with a smile.

“Why don’t you come home and see my father. Before he leaves, that is.”

“He is leaving?”
“Who can say?  He doesn’t belong there, anyway.”

She gave him a printout and asked him to inaugurate his new job by taking it to the editor. Thus resumed Hamlet’s days at Panorama.

16

 

THE ARTIST’S BLOCK

 

It was during one of the days of his withdrawal that Hamlet had mounted the framed canvas on the easel. It still  remained empty. Its whiteness enticed him everyday to it, only to frustrate him at his impotence, his incapacity to conceive images. Instead of images, it was muddled thoughts that emerged in his mind when he attempted to paint.

He had not been painting for some time. Ever since he joined Sargam as illustrator, his own art had suffered. He had lost faith in the possibility of making a name as an artist. Yet, painting in itself had not been impossible for him; he only had to take his position in front of the canvas, and forms would take shape in his mind’s eye. This faculty had vanished now. His father’s bleeding figure rose before him like a spectre in smoke as soon as he attempted to work. He had grown every day of his life with his father’s memory in the atmosphere around him. But the issues behind his death had not affected him earlier as it did  now. For him his father’s death was martyrdom, a glorious death; that was what he and his sisters were taught to believe. To call it a murder would have been blasphemy.

His father died when Hamlet was a boy of four, and by the time he had grown up enough to discern things, they had stopped thinking about it. They said that he had been killed by a  group of Hindu fundamentalists in an attack on a meeting in which he was speaking. The Party had told the story of Comrade Damodaran’s martyrdom with  such astuteness that it had never occurred to him to take a different look at it. He and his family had been so well entrenched in the Party’s version that the aura of Comrade Damodaran’s martyrdom, the glory of his laying down his life for upholding the grand ideals of secularism and socialism, had always given them a reason to be proud of him in the  midst of the miseries his untimely death had caused them. It had never occurred to him to doubt the rightness of the path chosen by his father. He had been convinced of the futility of raking the past for truths; he never felt it necessary to do that. But the dream he had at the beach, had upset this indifference. In the dream, his father had said to him something different about his death; he had mentioned a name. And Hamlet had made no attempt to enquire into it. The memory of the dream was festering in him. He knew that now or later he would have to confront the truth.

The need to paint had now become acute, since the job at Panorama had nothing to do with art. The six days of the week at Panorama went at snail’s pace. Hamlet soon realized the relative nature of time; that each work made time felt in a different way. He had had no time to think of time while working as illustrator. It was only his bodily needs, his hunger, thirst and the urge to excrete that reminded him of the passage of time. But the peon’s job, by pinning him to mindless machanical activites, made time felt like an anchor hung on his neck. He soon found that his job was to attend to all the editorial sections of the eleven publications of Panorama. Time sat on his head like a sack of wet sand and made his passage through the office chores  a miserable ordeal. On the first day of his appointment at Padmini’s office, he had fancied that the job would afford him a lot of time to get closer to her; engage her in discussions of politics, art or literature. He had wondered if he might tell her about the weird dream of his father and the fantastic purpose of finding out the truth behind his death. But this was not to be. He seldom got opportunity to be at Manka’s office.

“Hamlet, isn’t there anyway for you to make a living other than doing this job? Why are doing this to yourself? Why do you undersell yourself like this?” Padmini asked him. She had noticed that the gracefulness of his bearing, the meditative light in his eyes, had diminished

He wanted to say that he was doing it as an atonement for the sins of his laxity, his lack of total commitment to his art. He wanted to say that he had no regret in doing a job that was not half as tedious or menial as the one his mother had done at the cashew factory. That a dropout from the college could not expect anything better in this country. Or that he was only undergoing the punishment for having stuck to serious art the better part of his youth, instead of training himself in commercial skills like designing or advertising. But that would amount to self pitying. He found that he had nothing to tell her. He smiled in answer, and wondered if he might have appealed to her as a moron.

“You need to go back to your painting, Hamlet.”

“I think so.”

“Do you paint now? I remember seeing your work at the exhibition in Trivandrum. When was it? 2000?”

“1999. It was my second year at FAC.”

“Yes, and I was doing my diploma in journalism.”

“I can’t paint now.”

“Why? You have to. At least to be yourself, not to kill yourself in this job,” she said with a quiver of emotion in her voice.

“I don’t know . . . I am assailed by thoughts that I am not sure about.”

“What thoughts Hamlet?”

“Thoughts about my father’s death.”

“What disturbs you about it after all these years?”

Hamlet didn’t reply.

“Don’t you have any contact with your artist friends? Being in company may help,” Padmini said with a smile. Hamlet wondered why he shouldn’t fall in love with her!

He remembered Gurudas and thought what Padmini said was true. He hadn’t seen Gurudas for several months now. He was not in Kerala, and he had no contact with him. That had been the nature of their friendship. There would be long gaps of months or years, then Gurudas would appear all on a sudden and Hamlet would feel that he had been with him all the time.

“Children of fathers who cling to them as ghosts,” Padmini said looking into Hamlet’s eyes.

How beautiful you are, Padmini.

 

17

 

A LOOKING BACK AT THE CAVE

 

Gurudas materialized one Sunday at Volga when Hamlet and Cleopatra were preparing to take Madhavi to the hospital. She had complained in the morning about heaviness in her chest. Hamlet was coming out of the gate of Volga in search of an auto rickshaw, when a black Volkswagen floated towards him. Gurudas emerged from the driver’s seat and stared at Hamlet as if he were a sculpture he considered purchasing.

Hamlet stood statued by the unexpected appearance of his friend.

Gurudas had trounced his head and sported a goatee. With his long, downflowing locks gone, he looked like an actor who had removed only half his makeup. He was wearing a loose, orange cotton shirt with small, white butterflies stamped all over it, and slim-fit cotton pants that accentuated his height. He walked with a verve towards Hamlet, his steps slightly bounced by his sports shoes. Hamlet could not find words to greet him; he was overwhelmed by feelings of rapport. He said to Gurudas that his mother was not well, and that he was about to take her to the hospital. Gurudas asked him to bring his mother to the car.

At the hospital they had to wait for an hour for the physician who was on rounds. As it was Sunday, there was no out-patient session for the doctor; he had only come to check the in-patients. Madhavi’s turn to appear before the doctor came after an hour’s wait. Hamlet and Cleopatra went in with their mother to the doctor’s room, while Gurudas waited in the portico. The physician was a young, bald man of thirty with a squint that made it difficult for others to understand at whom he was looking. He went through the procedure of diagnosis with a smile. He  pronounced that Madhavi had a heart problem after studying the ECG. Her pulse was irregular. He prescribed her some pills and told them to consult the cardiologist after a couple of weeks.

Gurudas drove them back to the house. The family was silent; the doctor’s finding weighed on them. They were not used to Madhavi being ill. The only occasion she had been in the hospital earlier was when her leg broke. But that had nothing to do with her general health.

“You are coming with me to The Cave,” Gurudas told Hamlet as they reached Volga.

 

*

 

They were sitting in the grove outside The Cave. Gurudas had no visitors this time. He had switched off all the lights. The house and its premises stood in darkness. Hamlet had a brief moment of anxiety. Will the fear of darkness raise its head? But what came to him were the memories of the carousals Gurudas and his friends had had there; he felt their laughter hit his ears.

“I had a state of derangement for three months,” Hamlet said staring at Gurudas’s figure opposite him in the night. They had not broached the topic during the hours they had been together since morning. He could see the silhouette of Gurudas’s figure, his round head. He was sitting on an easy chair throwing his legs up on a stool.

Whiskey with cold soda creeped down Hamlet’s throat. The bottles of the liquor and soda, and a plate of cashewnuts rested on the ground. They drank in conical glasses whose shape Hamlet fancied.

“I heard something about that. What do mean by derangement? Madness?”

There was mockery in Gurudas’s tone. He had never been a man to be easily surprised or interested. The cool liquor crept down Hamlet’s inside with the teasing fizziness of the soda, easing him down, unwinding the tautness that was native to him when it came to sharing his most private experiences. He remained silent scanning the pitch dark sky strewn with stars. Then he narrated to Gurudas the events of the night at the beach and what happened in the following months.

“Fine,” said Gurudas, when Hamlet came to an end. He spoke nothing further. He poured his second peg and lit a cigarette, and stared at Hamlet in the darkness to which their eyes were now accustomed. They could see each other’s figures, though their faces were obscure. Hamlet found this advantageous. Speaking in light would have been inhibiting in that occasion.  His embarrassment would have been insurmountable.

“So, Hamlet, what is your point?” Gurudas asked, exhaling the smoke with a hiss.

“Well Guru . . . What do you think happened to me that day at the beach, and later? You know me very well to make a guess.”

“Hamy, it was good that you didn’t go to a paychiatrist. You would have ended up in a mental hospital,” Gurudas said sipping. He picked up Hamlet’s glass and checked its contents. He put it back as it was half-full.

“But who am I to say anything about what happened to you? Am I a specialist or what?”

“You are intelligent. What I want is only a layman’s point of view coming from experience and observation,” Hamlet said.

“To put it simply, you fainted while you were sitting at the beach. This could have happened because of a few reasons. You might have fainted because of sleeplessness. You have been insomniac, right? Or it could be because of some sudden fright you took as a result of your so called fear of darkness. You fainted maybe because of stress; you were doing the work of two at your fucking Panorama pulp-fiction factory for a long time, weren’t you?” Gurudas paused to let Hamlet appreciate his scorn. “Your nerves were probably at their breaking point. Who knows! Excess work can make nuts of a man.”

“Okay?”

“You said you had some paan before that? Could it be it had some drug in it? But it is unlikely. Those Bihari buggers won’t let such a thing pass into it for nothing.”

“No there wasn’t. I had the paan with Mathew, a moron from the circulation wing. He had no problem at all.”

Hamlet tried to recollect the incidents of that evening again, concentrating on every detail he could garner from his memory. He remembered having gone to the beach after giving an evasive answer to Mathew’s invitation  to be part of the employees’ union. At the beach he had taken his usual seat near the point where the seawall started. But he couldn’t remember when he had slipped into the weird dream.

“Guru,” he said, “the dream is clutching me like a crab. I feel it has something more to it than an hallucination. For three months I couldn’t distinguish between my reality from the dream. It was surrounding me all the time. My memory would admit nothing other than it, especially its last part. My father’s words denouncing his martyrdom, and the name Pluto . . . why should such things arise in a dream? I can’t brush it away as a, what do you call it, Freudian projection or whatever . . .    ”

“So you think that Hamlet the senior’s ghost has beckoned Hamlet the junior to take revenge,” Gurudas said without laughing. Hamlet didn’t mind Gurudas’s mockery; he was used to it. He knew that Gurudas was the only person to whom he could have spoken about it.

“I think your father, the great Comrade Damodaran, had every reason to say that he had not wanted to be a martyr. Martyrdom is one big turd of shit that politicos have cooked up to legitimize their foolish deaths at the hands of their enemies.”

“Guru, will you listen to me?”

“What else am I doing boss?” he asked gulping down the drink. “Finish your glass. Stop drinking like a bird.”

Hamlet took a small sip while Gurudas refilled his own glass and sat back waiting for him to resume. The wind made a hushed sound among the unseen leaves in the darkness. The smell of the wet soil filled the moist air. The howl of breakers wafted in from the faraway seashore.

“You know how being Comrade Damodaran’s family affected our life. We have always been marked as the family of the martyr, of the one who had met with a bloody but glorious end. My father’s death gave me this fear of darkness. This dream  has now showed me the reason of this fear. In one of these days I hit on it. It comes from the memory of my father’s dead body. I was only four and had gone cold with fear at the sight of his deformed face. The body was brought home on a dark night.” Hamlet stopped for a moment chilled by the picture of his father’s gashed face.

“There is a clear Freudian case for you and the surrealists.” Hamlet paused for his remark to sink into his friend. Gurudas showed no sign of appreciation.

“It seems I had repressed the memory of his face. It had deep, fresh scars over it, with clotted blood. I had totally forgotten that night, that scene of unveiling his mauled body covered with a blood-stained sheet. It seems I had been carrying that image buried in me all these years. Now it has come out. Now I remember how I had felt then. Now I see how the fear begins and from where,” Hamlet said looking into darkness. Suddenly the fear took over him. His glass shook in his hand and the drink spilled. Hamlet gasped for breath.

“Hey Hamy, are you all right?” Gurudas asked.

Hamlet was silent. The sensations were overcoming him one after another. His hands shivered like leaves in a storm. His body grew cold, his legs felt heavy, his teeth clattered. He felt two arms around him and his head pressed to a warm body. “Hamy, come on man. You will be out of it today. The fear will no more come to you. This is the last you will have. It is over, man.”

Hamlet rested his head limply on his friend’s hip. Gurudas was statnding beside him. His voice was tender and reassuring. Hamlet was tempted to believe in Gurudas’s words, that he would be free from the fear of darkness from now on. He remained in his arms for a minute, the spasmodic shiver continuing, panting. Then the aberration waned and passed; his body resumed its composure.

“I am fine now. It’s over,” Hamlet said, his voice still shaky. Gurudas stood near him for a few more seconds, assuring himself that Hamlet was all right.

“It’s really bad when it comes, no?” Gurudas asked walking to his chair.

The darkness had lessened, a glow now permeated the sky. “Go on, Hamy. Tell me the rest,” he said. Hamlet took some time before he spoke. He emptied his glass at one go, refilled it and mixed soda. The cashewnut was crispy. It broke in his mouth like footfalls on gravel.

“Our lives had always been in the shadow of my father’s choices as a Communist,” Hamlet continued. His hands were stable now, his heart no more raised, fatigue left his limbs. He wasn’t sweating anymore. Gurudas was watching him. Hamlet felt reassured in the meditative stillness of his friend.

“It starts with the house we are living in. He called it Volga after the Russian river. He wanted his house to be a humble one, not much bigger than one in which a “worker” might have lived in the late seventies. Also, he wouldn’t have afforded to build a better house, since he had no financial support other than the loan he had taken from the bank. He was, like many of the early leaders of the Party, born in an upper class Nair family, and had inherited a big landed property. But he donated all his wealth to the Party sometime in the late nineteen sixties, before he married my mother. Such actions were fashionable in the Party. Some top men of the Party had done it. Many of them had become ministers. There is a photo in which Comrade Damodaran can be seen handing over the document of his inherited land to the Party’s District Secretary. Thus he shed his aristocratic past to become a true worker of the poor man’s party. So, Volga was to be a working class man’s dwelling. But he died before he could finish it. Volga stood like a half grown foetus that was prematurely born. When he died, we had no other go but to live there, in that unfinished house, and we, after all these years, have never been able to complete it. He had left us nothing, with all his service benefits as a teacher going into repaying the loan from the bank. My mother had to go back to her job of shelling nuts at the cashew factory from where my father had picked her up.”

Gurudas lit a cigarette. The light spread a red glow on his features for a brief instant. His eyes were fixed on Hamlet.

“We were really poor after his death, our only income was mother’s wages at the cashew factory. For her, it was only a return to a life she was used to. But not so with us. While father was alive we were decently fed and clothed. But all that stopped in an instant with the Comrade’s martyrdom. Our poverty was undeserved.

“Somehow, we children couldn’t absolve our father from the fault of throwing us into that hole of a house to live in want. Poverty was ugly. Juliet had to stop her education after school and go to work as a sales girl. She still works for a meagre income, standing throughout the nine working hours a day at a textiles shop. She is forty and unmarried. Who is going to marry a dowryless woman here? Juliet was the real martyr in the family. She is the one who suffered the most on account of the Comrade’s martyrdom. She was once . . .”

Hamlet stopped, perplexed. He considered whether he should proceed.

“She was once . . . ?”

“Well Guru, how can I say that? It is a secret that has smelled in the family like a dead rat.

“Once my mother sent Juliet to a comrade friend of my father for some money. I think he raped her.”

“What?” Gurudas seemed shocked.

“I was a school boy then. So the women never told me what had actually happened. Or to what extent. But Guru, I suspect that in all possibility. Juliet was raped.”

“Oh . . .”

“We were all dumb and powerless. And you know how our people take such issues. They will put things upside down. The girl will become an outcast for the rest of life. Mother chose not to speak of it ever since. The martyr’s wife and children swallowed their shame in silence.”

Gurudas rose from his chair. He fixed his gaze on Hamlet who was sitting with his head bowed. A wave of sympathy washed over him. He knew how painful it could be for a man to speak such things. He put a hand on Hamlet’s shoulder and asked him to get up. He led him along the unlit pathway on a stroll to ease his pain. He remembered that he had never shown any gesture of kindness to Hamlet, despite knowing that a little sympathy was what Hamlet had always wanted from him.

Their walk took them to the open-air studio. Hamlet thought of the time he had spent there with the foreigners during his previous visit, which now seemed far removed from the present. Gurudas switched on the lights, and Hamlet saw a mounted canvas on the easel on which only the first inchoate markings of a brush were discernible. He stood close before the canvas and inhaled the smell of the acrylic. On a table beside numerous tubes and brushes lay scattered. Gurudas was earnestly at work, he guessed. He said to Hamlet that he had come there a week before and had been working since.  He was working on a series of paintings, which were to be exhibited at the Biennale. He had finished two, and had started this one, when he decided to meet him. Hamlet stood awe-struck. He struggled to come to grips with the fact that he was in the company of an international figure in arts. He remembered his own present station in life; he remembered his peon’s stool that lay at the entrance of Manka’s editorial office; he remembered his daily routine of carrying papers and parcels from section to section, and bringing tea and snacks to the staff at the desk. He wondered if he would ever come out of that self-annihilating quagmire he had fallen in, and pursue the life he was cut to live! Gurudas seemed to read his mind.

“Hamlet, you will get out of that hell, that publication sweatshop. Sure you will. And you are going to paint. But before that you have to get yourself free from those inner resistances that have chained your spirits down. I think you will be out of them soon. You know, I have become an incurable optimist now. It is literally true that if one has that spark within, like the one you have, it will eventually grow into a fire. I speak out of experience. But before it happens, there is this hell to pass through. The purgatory of the self. You are now passing through it Hamy, and out you will come. So get on with your unburdening while I am here listening to you. It is Guru, your man, that speaks.”

Hamlet was carried away by that sudden spurt of eloquence. He had seen Gurudas getting into such spells while he was high on cannabis. But now Gurudas was quite sober, and his countenance showed that the interest he evinced in Hamlet was genuine. However, his optimism was not infectious enough to touch Hamlet. He sat on floor of the studio and picked up the loose threads of his narrative.

“Still, it was Comrade Damodaran’s martyrdom that distinguished all of us in the outside world. That gave us pass in times of need, though in a humble way. He was after all not a state or national leader. Just a local comrade, who emulated the big ones without making anything they made. It was because of being his wife that mother got her job at the cashew factory back. It was because of being his children that we got our jobs. There was always some influential Party man to put a word on our behalf.”

Hamlet weighed his thoughts before he continued. He saw that he was at the most difficult part of his story.

“So, you see, his martyrdom, his so-called sacrifice of his life for upholding the great ideals of secularism and socialism, was after all something we had to be grateful to. It had saved us from starvation and unemployment,” he said with a sardonic smile. Gurudas’s nod was scarcely perceptible. He sank in a chair, stretched his legs and caressed his trounced head with both his hands.

“There is this known history of Comrade Damodaran’s death, which happened when I was only four. I learnt about it only later from others. He was speaking at a meeting of the Malayala Shastra Yukthi Prasthanam, that popular science movement. It had the silent backing of the Party. It would conduct processions throughout Kerala, as you know, with skits and songs that taught science, secularism and socialist ideas to the people. On that day, father was a speaker during one of its meetings. The function was at night. The story goes that the lights went off in the middle of the meeting and there was an attack on the speakers by armed men. Later, Comrade Damodaran’s wounded body was found a little away from the place of meeting. The post mortem detected 22 wounds from his head to foot. The primary cause of the death was bleeding from a deep wound in his back. He died on way to the hospital.”

Gurudas was caught in a stillness. His restless spirit was averse to long spells of inactive listening. The studio was steeped in darkness; only the diaphanous light of the stars seeped into it. Hamlet wondered when Gurudas had switched off the lights.

“It looked as if the attack was on him rather than on the meeting of the MSYP, though two of its leaders too were seriously wounded. It was believed to be done by a communalist group in protest against the skits that were insulting Hindu gods. Some men were arrested. The case went on for years before the court sentenced three men to a few years in jail. But all of them were later set free by an upper court for lack of conclusive evidence. The case was not proceeded any further by the aggrieved, the Party or MSYP.”

“And nobody had any regret about acquitting the killers of Comrade Damodaran, right?” Gurudas asked, his voice recovering its cynicism.

“It seems so. I don’t know everything in detail. First, I was still a boy when these judgements came; secondly, I have never wanted to know anything about all that. I abhorred the memory of father’s death and everything associated with it. It is now, after all these thirty years, that I am talking about them out of my own will.

“My experience at the beach has made me recollect these things. I don’t know what use it will have now, but you see Guru, I feel that I will not be able to do anything worthwhile without going back to the past, digging it up, and seeing things as they really were, and not as they were given to us. You know, I have been sitting in front of a canvas for over two months. Nothing happens. I can’t even hold the brush. Each time I try, the man in the dream appears denouncing his martyrdom and chanting the name “Pluto”. It is all so insane. But I think I will have no escape from it.”

A weakness came over Hamlet again, this time out of sheer fatigue.

“I want to flop down. I want some rest, Guru.”

 

18

 

DREAM

 

It was a few months now since Hamlet had started working at the office of Manka. One Sunday, in its early hours before dawn, he had a long dream, a dream that stuck his memory during the whole of the morning after he woke up with the tenacity of a limpet. The dream was set in the office room of Manka with a window behind Padmini’s seat through which Hamlet could see the green-leafed branches of the jackfruit tree in the nearby compound. The distance between him and Padmini seemed shortened; there was hardly a metre between them. The breeze coming through the window smelled of jasmine. She was speaking to him, her dimpled smile caressing him all over with the softness of swan’s down. Her voice made a whirlpool licking his body with a thousand tongues. She was steeped in the freshness  of snowy peaks and misty valleys. Then the scene changed. He and Padmini were now sitting face to face in a train running at a reckless speed, rocking them to a staccato rhythm. They were leaning towards each other in their effort to be audible. Her proximity multiplied the clarity and sensuousness of her features; her moving lips had become more shiny and succulent, her eyes blacker and the lashes darker and velvety; her brown skin emitted an oily glow. She was wearing a white cotton top with light yellow flowers strewn over it. Her dainty arms flowed down in ripples into hands that had plump conical fingers with polished nails. The movement of the train brought their knees into occasional contact. They were accidental touches for which both of them waited eagerly. The scene again shifted, now to a boat moving zig zag across the lake. They were the only passengers in a house-boat with open sides and no operator. They were sitting next to each other. It was moving at a lazy speed. The motor made no sound; there was only the sound of the water splashing at the sides of  the boat. The sun was up in the sky, but the heat was moderate, even pleasant against the moist wind that blew from all sides. The heads of coconut trees on the distant shores on either side of the lake seemed to be sensate, watching Padmini and him, as if they constituted the only sight the world offered them. There was no distance now between him and Padmini. Their bodies were pressed to each other, hers on his left side, and his on her right. He absorbed her warmth like a blotting paper absorbing ink; his life seemed to hang on that thermal sustenance he drew from her. He could feel the softness of her upper arm pressed against him with a pressure that varied in accordance with the swings of the boat. She was not talking to him anymore, but was looking intently into his eyes with a yearning he wanted to fathom by going to its utmost depths. Her face was now so close to his that he could discern its creases and hairs. Her lips loomed like a fleshy apple cleft in the middle from which fresh juice was beginning to ooze. Her strands of hair the wind blew up fell on his face and stuck there caught in his bristles. She emitted an aroma of a forest of thick dark shades, where the heavy fragrance of jasmine hung in the air. Hamlet felt her fingers crawling upwards on his thigh. They were no more sitting in the boat, but were floating in the air on a magic mat. The clouds passed by; they only had to stretch their arms to touch them. Padmini was lying supine on the mat without a stitch on her. Her naked body glistened in the yellow sun. She had lifted her arms towards him, inviting him to take her. Hamlet was naked too and with an aching erection.

He woke up with an unpleasant sensation. He had had a wet dream.

 

*

 

There was no more trace of sleep left in him. It was dark yet, the night was hardly over. He got up and groped for the switch on the wall. He looked at the clock; it was only four thirty. He switched off the light and drank a few gulps of water from the bottle on the table. The moist stickiness on his lungi discomfited him. He threw it on the floor and lay naked.

He lay with his eyes open. Padmini’s image hung before him in the dark, illuminated by the brilliant sun, as it had been in the dream. He squeezed his eyes to wipe it off , but it persisted. She lay suspended in the space above him under the roof, defenceless and inviting with both hands raised towards him, her hair splashed around her head, and her face a vortex of desire. The image appeared real and three dimensional; he could even sense her jasmine smell.

Hamlet tried to shun the fantasy by rationalizing the dream. It should have occurred because of the desire he had for Padmini. It seemed that the attaraction he felt towards her had its roots in the positive vibes he received from her. He had caught her many a time watching him. He had noticed that there had been a lessening in the native melancholy of her countenance in the last few months since he had joined her section. She seemed to enjoy talking to him when they were alone in the office, when the trainee girls were out on assignments. In the beginning, she had confined the subject of their conversation to the stuff she would be working on for the women’s magazine. She would make fun of the pulp fiction, the romantic short stories and novels the magazine carried; she would read out to him passages from them that bordered on crass sentimentalism and whimsical plots. She would tell him that there was a large readership for such stuff, much larger than the one for good literature, the kind that won awards and recognition. She would read out to him excerpts from the fan mail that the writers of pulp fiction received. She would say that the circulation of Manka largely depended on those fiction writers, so Iyengar had given her strict instruction that only such stuff be published in the magazine, and never to think of putting in “your serious literature.” The other mainstay of Manka had been the articles on sex issues of women, which were penned actually by her and the trainee girls, and published under false names of psychologists and gynaecologists. They cooked up their stuff by thieving from international magazines on the internet and then reshaping them to suit the taste and understanding of their readers. She asked him if he knew that it were men who read her magazine more than women, and laughed so heartily that he felt she had transformed into someone else he was seeing for the first time. She said that she had joined the profession of journalism with the high ideal of reaching truthful information and interpretation of events to the society, and to be part of the best in culture. He asked her why she didn’t join a better publication or a newspaper, where she would have got a better job situation. She said that every media group had vested business interests, and made their staff compromise on their principles to conform to the firm’s policies. There was tough competition for jobs in leading firms, and she had been sidelined in interviews in such places. Besides, Padmini said, she would have had to migrate to some distant city and face regular transfers, and be in unfamiliar places. She preferred her daughter to have her schooling in their hometown. And now that her mother was ill, moving away from her home had become even more unfeasible.       From then on their conversation began to touch on the personal, and Hamlet could discern the distance between them shortening. He could feel in himself an eagerness to be in her company, to keep watching her person, her movements, her expressions and her talk. On days she took leave, he felt a big vacuum at the centre of his being, a vacuum that had previously existed, and recently been filled in by an inchoate presence. She obliged to tell him the reason for her leave, which made him feel special and wanted. It was mostly to take her mother to the Regional Cancer Centre, where she underwent radiation and chemotherapy for lungs. Padmini used to say that the visit to the RCC shattered her spirits and filled her memory with images of horror. Occasionally, she took leave for attending to some needs of her child. He never asked her about her husband or his death, and she never spoke about it. Nor did they broach the topic of her father who had returned after a long period of absence. She once asked him why he didn’t get married, and he told her that he had never thought about it. He confessed to her the worries his mother had about the spinsterhood of his sisters, and the guilt he himself had suffered in not having fulfilled his responsibility as the male of the family in getting his sisters married off. He said that he hated the society which was founded on the custom of dowry-bound arranged marriage, and had several times experienced a rigorous wish to put an end to his life for having failed to raise money for the dowry to get his sisters married. He said that such feelings had subsided years before, and it seemed that Juliet and Cleopatra were resigned to their spinsterhood.

He had found himself in a state of  disbelief to think that he had spoken to Padmini things that he had never said to anyone else. A unacknowledged bond had formed between them.

 

*

 

The light of daybreak seeped in through the ventilators. He saw his lungi on the floor and became aware of his nakedness. He helped himself into a fresh lungi, and threw the soiled one into the wash tub. His desire stirred again when the memory of the dream returned; he diverted his attention from it by opening the window to take a look out. In the grey light of the dawn he saw the neelam mango tree laden with raw green mangoes. It was May, and the season of mangoes was in full swing. He held his gaze on the three bunches he could see through the window. The sight of the unripe mangoes on the boughs brought back the memory of Padmini’s breasts in the dream. Was he being teased by his own nature, his long repressed sexual desires. He had had sex only once in the past, and that was years back, after he had left FAC and started his unsuccessful career as painter. He had gone on a tour to Chennai to visit the Cholamandal Artist village. He and a friend were staying in a cheap lodge in Kodambakkam, and at night the room boy asked if they would like to have women. A prostitute knocked at the room some time later in the night. She was a dark woman of about thirty five, a good ten years older than he, with a lot of odourless red flowers fixed behind her head. She undressed without speaking in the dark and would not allow him to switch on the light. She seemed to be in a hurry and asked him not to waste time fooling around as he sat at the edge of the bed with the nervousness of a beginner. It was she herself who initiated him into sex after taking care to put a condom on him, which she had fished out of her bag in the darkness. He was finished in no time and was filled with disgust when he put the money in her hand, the precious money his sisters had given to aid his tour, the money they had made by the sweat of their toil. His first sexual encounter had taken less than five minutes. He had vowed to himself never to go whoring again.

 

PART THREE

 

 19

 

MEETING THE REVOLUTIONARY

 

The following Sunday Hamlet went to Padmini’s house. It had occurred to him that a meeting with Bodhisatwan, her father, might give him some clue about the truth behind his father’s murder. He had been postponing his urges to plunge into the search for “Pluto,” the mysterious word uttered by his father in his dream. Pluto had become, for him, a byword for the hidden truth behind Comrade Damodaran’s murder. But this alternate history of the three-decade-old murder had been only the product of a dream, an hallucination. He had no healthy reason to believe in it. To take a dream for its face value was absurd. But none of his attempts to reason Pluto out had succeeded. The obsession manifested in his inability to practice his art. Earlier he used to paint as a means of maintaining his grasp on existence; painting had been a peg on which he had clung to the line of life. He had always had a mounted canvas in his room on which he used to enter strokes whenever he got time and the mood. That exercise had served him to keep his equanimity, to keep the door of depression locked. The stagnant life at home and his profession had always verged on the possibility of pushing him down into the pit of depression. His art had been his only solace, the little space where he enjoyed freedom from his demons. It was this little realm of peace that was upset by Pluto, the germ of a different reality hinted to him by his own inner most being, his unconscious. Unless he unearthed this germ of truth about his father’s death he would have no rest; all the springs of his existence would dry up, and what would be left for him would be a life of insanity or a deliberate courting of his own end.

The moment of decision to embark on the journey in search of Pluto had occurred on that Sunday, when Hamlet had stood in front of the canvas with Padmini’s naked image still floating before him. And as he tried to focus on it, the images from the dream at the beach clouded his vision, and the name ‘Pluto’ began to thunder in his inner ear. He put the palette down and made for Padmini’s house. He would meet Bodhisatwan.

 

*

 

Bodhisatwan was a well known Communist during the 1950s and 60s. He was one of the most influential leaders in the district, and Hamlet’s father and his generation of comrades had seen him as a mentor. He was a few years senior to his father. His mother had told Hamlet that it was Bodhisatwan who had given the Party membership to his father in 1960. When the Party split in 1964 into the right and the left factions, Bodhisatwan and his father had moved on to the left. Bodhisatwan quit the Party in 1967 to join the Naxalites, the Maoist-extremist group, who were dissatisfied with the Party’s parliamentary ambitions, and believed that it had diverted from its commitment to the cause of socialist revolution. The Naxals believed in armed rebellion, and set about waging attacks on landlords, the class enemy of the peasant workers, and the police, who they considered as the repressive arm of the capitalists. Bodhisatwan, along with a few others, was arrested for killing a landlord, a year later. He was sentenced to six years rigorous imprisonment. He came out of the jail as a transformed man, and went into obscurity. Nothing was known about him for some years. Some time in the 1980s, a journalist reported spotting him at a monastery in Tamil Nadu. People were surprised to know about the change that had come over the firebrand revolutionary. He later gave some interviews from his ashram, denouncing violence and bloody revolution. He had become a spiritualist, a sanyasi, renouncing worldly life, politics, and his family.

Hamlet had never seen any picture of Bodhisatwan. Maybe he could be found in the few sepias from his father’s youthful days as a Party cadre that his mother had with her.

 

*

 

Hamlet took a bus to Padmini’s place. He got a window seat. After half an hour running along the tortuous city roads at snail’s pace, negotiating traffic and signals, after taking in passengers who had been waiting in small crowds at each major stop in the city, the bus passed into its outskirts. Here, the highway widened to its full measure, and became much less busy, steeped in a certain solitude to which the passengers, who sat and stood in varying postures, reacted with a sudden quietness. The ride jolted them as the wheels fell into gutters formed on the roads by the heavy rains. The rains had darkened the greenery; the grass and bushes on the sides of the highway had grown tall and dense. The soil was a deep brown. The moisture remained below the surface of the earth for quite some time, even after the rains had receded, giving it a chocolate hue.

The air blew on Hamlet’s face as the bus gathered speed after each stop. It was moist even if the sun was high up, as though it had secret pockets where it held rainwater to cool itself as it blew along.

During the ride, Hamlet wondered if the purpose of his journey was, in fact, to meet the retired revolutionary, or if it was to satisfy his urge to be with Padmini. At least for the present, Padmini pervaded his mind as much as Pluto. Pluto was a pain biting him from his insides for the last few months, while Padmini was like a gentle caress, a balm applied on this ache to let it cool off, and make it somewhat bearable. Being with her gave him solace, even without discussing his problems, simply because of the attention she gave him. Her sheer looks lifted his senses to realms of delight.

It was with an amalgam of worry and pleasure that he had resolved to visit Padmini’s house. He fretted that Bodhisatwan might have left his home. He remembered that Padmini had not mentioned anything about her father in the near past. Though Bodhisatwan had not been a frequent point of discussion between them, she used to drop a mention of him at random. He surmised that it had been her way of enlivening his interest in meeting her father, and blamed himself for not visiting her house earlier. He could have telephoned her and checked if he was still there. But he didn’t want to lose the excuse of visiting her, should her answer be negative. So he had decided to pay her a cold call. He had taken some care about his looks. He had pruned his beard, and after a cold bath applied some cream on his hair. He combed it neatly, and wore a clean, white, cotton full-sleeve shirt and a slim-fit, faded-blue denim jeans. He had stood before the mirror contemplating his slim, five-foot-ten figure. He thought he liked it.

 

*

 

Hamlet was going there for the first time, but locating Bodhisatwan’s house wouldn’t be difficult. It was a semi rural area where people knew each other and were eager to help strangers find their way out. Padmini had told him that she was happy with the obscure location of her house in the village, and had never wanted to live in the dusty din of the city despite its conveniences.

Hamlet got down at the stop on the highway and surveyed the scene. He had passed through that area umpteen times on bus, but had not been on the ground. The place looked deserted except for the three shops on the roadside. It being a Sunday, the traffic was less; there were long gaps between the vehicles that raced along the highway. The sun was very hot; Hamlet felt sweat trickling down his back. He had no idea about the direction he was to take. He regretted not asking Padmini the way to her house; such rustic areas could be confusing to strangers with their thousand twists and turns. Hamlet crossed the road and walked towards the shops. One was a bakery displaying bread, cakes and sweetmeats, the second one a fruit stall and the third one a little departmental store selling provisions, cold drinks, bananas, milk, office stationery, periodicals, sweets, make-up items, imitation ornaments and many other things.

Hamlet’s notion that Bodhisatwan it would be easy to locate the famous Bodhisatwan’s house was disproved, for none of the shop owners had any idea who that was. Hamlet realized soon how awkward it was to recount to them the history of the Party, its split, the splinter group that turned to extremism, and of Bodhisatwan’s arrest and transformation to spiritualism.

“His daughter is working at Panorama,” Hamlet tried now differently, eyeing the copy of Manka lying on the cash counter, which the bakery man was probably reading.  That clicked, for the bakery man knew Padmini; she seemed to have been his regular customer. Hamlet walked along the path the bakery man had elaborately described. He should have walked for about fifteen minutes along a narrow road filled with small and big gutters, and with houses on either side located in vast coconut groves. The walk was pleasant as the area was cool with the shades of trees growing at the roadside.  He reached a walled compound after walking for over a kilometre from the highway.

 

*

 

It was a single-storied house, painted white, with a concrete roof and a veranda with a few cane chairs. The compound surrounding the house was fairly vast as that of the other houses in the village. There were quite a few coconut trees in the courtyard. A small pathway paved with terracotta tiles lay from the gate to the house passing through a nicely kept garden of flower pots. A huge mango tree stood on the farther side of the compound spreading a cool shade and strewing it with its yellow leaves. The air was redolent with the rotting, bat-eaten ripe mangoes fallen on the ground. The flowers in bloom were of a great variety. Hamlet passed his eyes fondly over them. There was the rose bush in all its variety. The rose, pink, yellow and white roses were lush with blossoms; they waved their heads in the gentle breeze. There were also pink and orange dahlias, the yellow jamanthi and certain other varieties of flowers of strange shapes and hues that Hamlet presumed to be orchids.

He stepped into the veranda of the house and rang the calling bell. As he waited, he fancied hearing the shriek of a child from somewhere far behind the house. For a moment he regretted not informing Padmini of his visit, and fell doubting if he was intruding into her engagements. He wondered if she and her father were at home at all. Could they have gone out for the day?

He was relieved to see Padmini at the door, and happy when her face beamed into a full, robust smile, not the wan one she usually wore at the office. She asked him to come into the house and seated him on a sofa in the drawing room, and sank herself opposite him into a chair. She was wearing a white churidar and yellow kurta. Her half-wet hair fell loosely around her head. She had probably just come out of her bath. Hamlet furtively glanced at his watch to see if was too early in the morning for a visit. It was fifteen minutes to eleven; there was nothing wrong with his timing.

“What a surprise Hamlet? At last, Hamlet the Dane has come out of his indecision,” she said, with a smile that accentuated the dimple on her cheek.

“I am sorry I didn’t tell you in advance. I felt I shouldn’t postpone it anymore and came straight away.”

“Typical of you,” she said, her eyes lingering over his with a gentle warmth. For a moment, he was at a loss for words.

He complimented her on the peaceful and cool ambience of the house and the beautiful garden. She told him that the house was constructed eight years ago, before her marriage. It stood in her ancestral property from her mother’s side. Her husband had died two years since in a car crash.

To change the grim topic he asked if her father was still at home, or if he had returned to his ashram. Bodhisatwan was still at home, she said.

“I thought you came to see me,” she said winking. Hamlet remembered that morning’s dream, and felt a gentle wave of pleasure pass over his body as if it was being caressed by a fan of feathers. He felt a dryness at his throat when he said that meeting her too was his main purpose. She guffawed in response; she was only kidding.

“You look very nice with your hair let loose like this,” Hamlet said instinctively, and immediately wondered if he had said anything improper. But his remark seemed to have an instant effect on Padmini, for she blushed, and tried to laugh it away thanking him. She went in for a few minutes, saying that she would bring him something to drink.

The room had two cushioned sofas facing each other and two chairs on their either side. There was a teapoy between the sofas on which lay newspapers, both Malayalam and English. A few English magazines were piled on one side of the teapoy.

Padmini came back with a tray ladened with two glasses of cold lemon juice and a plate of ripe mango slices. Hamlet took a few sips of the juice. Its sweet coldness crept down his throat like a snake. She said that the mangoes were from their own grove. A few minutes passed in silence during which they drank the juice. Hamlet tasted a few slices of mango. They were very sweet and juicy. He enquired her of her mother, and she got up asking him to follow her.

She said that her mother was in the secondary stage of lung cancer, and had had chemotherapy. The doctors had given her not more than half an year of life. They passed through the living room where there was a divan and a couple of wooden chairs of teak that should have been a century old. He guessed they should have been heirlooms from her mother’s old family house. The living room also had a TV. Padmini led him to an inner room from there. The room had its windows closed. It exuded a smell of stagnant air and the synthetic odour of medicines. On a bed that lay flush to the wall he saw the emaciated figure of an old woman, with sparse grey hair, lying with her eyes wide open. They were two turbulent oceans of anxiety. Her mother’s hair had fallen off as a result of the chemotherapy.

Padmini introduced Hamlet to her mother as the son of Comrade Damodaran. Something like a deep sorrow twitched her lips on hearing Comrade’s name. She didn’t speak anything, but kept staring at Hamlet.

“Amma has become emotional. Anything about that painful past upsets her,” Padmini said. She spoke as though her mother could not hear her.

“You need not have mentioned my father’s name.”

“I did it purposely,” she said passing her hand over the ailing woman’s bald head. “I wanted her to know who you really are. I think she has a right to know,” she said without looking at him, and wiping away the thin film of sweat that had formed on her mother’s forehead.

“She was very distressed the day father showed up. She has asked me not to let him into the room. I asked him to leave as mother didn’t want him here, but he begged me to allow him to stay here for some time. How can a daughter reject that request?” Padmini said as they moved out of the room.

She started walking into the house. Hamlet followed. They passed the room where lay a dining table with six chairs around it.

“Bodhisatwan left us to ourselves and vanished when I was only two-years old. We survived because my mother had this property to her name, and her brothers to take care of us. I know it was different in your case,” she said looking up at him with a serious face. He was amused by the way she referred to her father using his name.

She paused as they reached a door that Hamlet guessed would lead to the backyard of the house, and he was not mistaken. The backyard  was expansive. It had a few huge trees. A jackfruit tree, a couple of teaks, a mango tree, and a number of coconut trees stood at random, laying on the earth their cool shades. A mingled smell of fallen fruits, leaves and moist earth greeted Hamlet’s senses. He stood devouring the ambience, absorbing the images and sensations.

“Is the artist inspired?” Padmini asked standing close to him, her arm faintly touching his. He wanted to take her in his arms.

She walked forward, and as he followed her he noticed an outhouse with tiled roof between the trees standing near the compound wall. She walked towards it. As they reached the outhouse, the playful scream of a child came out of it.

“Bodhisatwan is entertaining my kid. This is his den,” Padmini said. “This was a part of the old tharavad, mother’s ancestral house. It was dismantled. This is where I read and write. He said he would live in this outhouse without disturbing us.”

“What do you write?”

“Nothing. Just self-indulgent doodles,” she said with a shy smile and walked in.

 

*

 

The outhouse had no veranda. A couple of low steps led to the low door typical of old-generation homes. They walked, Padmini first and Hamlet after her, into the small structure, lowering their heads to pass through the door. Hamlet saw a man of about eighty with a bald head and luxuriant white beard yellowing at its edges sitting on the floor with a little girl. The beard did not seem to have been trimmed for a long time; it flowed down till the middle of his stomach. He wore only a mundu, a white cloth that had lost its sheen, around his waist, leaving his torso exposed. Though age had shrivelled his brown body, Hamlet could discern in his sagging biceps, drooping round shoulders and the broad neck the ruins of a once powerful body.

Boadhisatwan was sitting on the floor on a straw mat playing “Snakes and Ladders” with Padmini’s daughter, a little girl of six or seven, who was wearing a blue frock with white flowers all over it. The girl smiled at Padmini, but upon seeing Hamlet grew serious and ran towards her mother and stood hugging her. She had her mother’s eyes and smile. He regretted not having brought some sweets for the child.

“This is Hamlet,” Padmini introduced him to her father. “Comrade Damodaran’s son.”

A smile spread over Bodhisatwan’s face as he regarded Hamlet from head to foot. On closer look, Hamlet realized that the smile came from his eyes rather than from a spreading of his lips. Looking at him, Hamlet thought of the killing with which  his name was associated. He couldn’t believe that the smiling, half-naked old man sitting on the floor in front of him was associated with a murder that had sent shock waves across the state.

“Hamlet, you can sit here on the floor if it is fine with you, or on that chair,” he said, pointing to the lone chair that lay in front of a small writing table kept close to the wall. It was a long rectangular room which could have made a dormitory for five beds put in a row, with plenty of room in between. It had no other furniture than the table and the chair. The table had a few tomes neatly arranged on them; they looked like spiritual books. There was also a kooja, an earthen pot for keeping water, and a glass on the table. On one corner a straw mat was kept rolled; it was evidently the one on which Bodhisatwan, the ascetic, slept on the floor. The room was lit by the light coming from the backyard through the two windows and the door.

“I shall sit here,” Hamlet said sitting cross-legged on the mat near the old man. Bodhisatwan moved a little to make more room on the mat and to get a better perspective of the young man sitting beside him. He seemed to have good eye sight; he wore no spectacles.

Padmini introduced her daughter to Hamlet. Her name was Mohini. She was so shy that she hid behind her mother without facing the stranger. Padmini said to her father that Hamlet had come to meet him, and that he had many things to know from him. She excused herself and left with the child, saying she would join them later.

 

20

 

THE MEMORY LANE

 

“Tell me Hamlet, how are your mother and sisters?”

Hamlet gave him a quick report on himself, his mother, her recent heart problem, and his sisters’ jobs. His words made no impact on the old man. He probably knew these things, or was he just indifferent to the matters of the world, being an ascetic who had renounced material connections?

Before an embarrassing silence crept between them, Hamlet asked him how he had felt after being part of the murder for which he was imprisoned. Why had he changed his path and become a spiritualist, quite the opposite of being a communist? Hamlet wondered if his questions sounded too formal and journalistic. However, there was nothing he could do now but wait for his response. Bodhisatwan placed his right foot over his left thigh to adopt the half-lotus posture considered by yogis as suitable for mental concentration. He gave Hamlet a kind look that clashed in Hamlet’s mind with the image of the ferocious revolutionary he had had of this man. He took his time to make himself comfortable massaging his head and temples, passing his fingers through his long beard, sitting still resting his hands on his knees, and closing his eyes for a few moments. He grew still like a statue, the rise and fall of his chest being the only palpable movement in him. His round face with the hoary beard and overgrown eyebrows took on a grave expression. Bodhisatwan could have well suited for the role of a classical Greek philosopher, a Socrates, in a drama, Hamlet mused.

Opening his eyes, Bodhisatwan said that the two questions Hamlet asked him had been asked to him several times before at many places. People had put these questions to him at the shelters where they used to hide during the days of the communist purges of Nehru’s and Indira Gandhi’s times,  or at the police stations where he was questioned and tortured, or at the courts where he was tried, or at the Himalayas where he had wandered as a nomad, or at the jails where had been imprisoned, or at the ashrams where he had lived later. People like the present and ex comrades, journalists, monks, ordinary people, politicians of all hues, atheists, religious fundamentalists, academics, research scholars, artists, and even his wife and daughter have asked them to him, so that answering them had become something he did not cherish. He said that he had gone down the history as a romantic revolutionary who went berserk killing people, and then forsook his ideology, betrayed the revolution to which he had pledged his life, and sought the lazy solace of a bogus spirituality in the solitary corners of ashrams.

“But since you asked, and since I don’t want to disappoint you, let me say that while I was part of it, I mean the killing of the feudal lord in a Malabar village who was ill paying the tribal peasants and abusing their nubile girls, I had experienced a great satisfaction. There was no sense of guilt or fear of retribution. What we had done was the apt thing, which was to kill the feudal tyrant, seize his wealth and distribute it among the poor, without wasting time vainly hoping for the day when socialism would come through the ballot to save those poor peasants, the illiterate adivasis, from his clutches. Through that act I had felt an organic connection, a blood relationship, with the great revolutionaries of the West like Robespierre, Lenin, Che, the ones who were part of the French, Russian, Cuban revolutions. Oh, that was quite romantic, wasn’t it?”

Bodhisatwan was very grave when he threw that question at Hamlet. For his age, his voice exuded a remarkable energy. His facial wrinkles, his snow-white beard and his slumpy muscles could not have led one to believe that this robust voice belonged to that body.

“I felt superior to the Party’s so-called revolutionaries who were straining their crooked minds to device means to get votes and win elections to grab a share of the bourgeois’ power. But this elation didn’t last. After the arrest, the torture, the trial and the jail, when I came out after the long years of confinement, I found that what we had done had no effect on anyone or anything. Nothing remained of the armed revolution we had conducted. Nobody followed up our action. The political and social system of exploitation of the poor, against which we had rebelled, continued intact. What our action had achieved was to give pain to a very few wrong doers, and perhaps more so, to their women and children who had done no wrong, and without gain to anyone. Those like us, who had thrown away everything valuable in life to bring down the heaven of socialism to earth, had only made ourselves fools even in the eyes of those poor for whom we had struggled. We were denounced by all quarters. It took me long years to reset my thinking, to free myself of the dross of the bloody thoughts of revolution and the anger against social injustice, an impersonal emotion which you may not comprehend, son,” Bodhisatwan paused with a smile.

The old man’s yellowish eyes pierced Hamlet’s with the steadiness of a look turned inwards. His brownish pupils were encased in blue circles.

“I became so restless. The very air of this place, this state with its long culture of casteism, superstitions and lethargy, even the so-called Communists were not free of it, suffocated me,” Bodhisatwan continued looking out the door at the backyard, where the high sun dripped down through the cool shade of foliage. His long beard gently waved in the light breeze that wafted into the room. “My socialist dream still remained, but I could not put my faith in any plan of action formed by all those who claimed to believe in Marx’s ideology. The great social change I and my comrades had wanted, like the one where a small minority will not live in luxury at the cost of the majority’s labour, where all will have sufficient means to live well with self-respect and the leisure to develop themselves, looked to be an impossible prospect. It seemed to me that even the Party secretly wished, behind its revolutionary mask, that the exploitation of the poor may continue, so that they could always bank on their votes by giving them promises of change in each election. I saw that communism was there only in the names of those organizations. In fact, there wasn’t, or couldn’t be much difference between the right and the left. What I am saying is that,” he said taking a deep breath, “I was totally disillusioned at that time, coming out of prison. Our extremist experiment had failed, and I had realized its futility in a state like ours, which was infected by the germ of peaceable revolution through democracy. There was no question of going back to the Party either, because it was the same as it had been when we repudiated it.”

Bodhisatwan scratched his cheek plunging his fingers in his beard. He caressed his chest, looking at the roof, lost in thought. His shoulders heaved as he took a deep sigh. He asked Hamlet in a barely audible voice to give him some water from the earthen pot on the table. While filling the glass, Hamlet noticed the books. One was the Bhagavad Gita, one the Kathopanishad, and another one a copy of Budha by Karen Armstrong.

The water had the pleasant odour of ramacham, a medicinal root, floating in it. He had a gulp of the cool, refreshing water straight from the pot before taking the glass to Bodhisatwan. His veined hands shook as he took the glass and had a few sips. Contrary to the first impression of vitality he had made on Hamlet, now his shaking hands and heaving body bespoke weakness of age. Hamlet wondered how much of his physical vulnerability could be the result of the lasting impact of the torture he might have suffered at the hands of the police.

“That was when I left Kerala for a long travel across the country. I travelled with no money and with no more possessions than the clothes I was wearing. I travelled with no tickets in trains in the unreserved compartments. When I was caught by the Ticket Examiner and thrown out, I waited at the station and got into another train that headed for some other place. I had no food for long stretches of time; I lived on water from street taps or wayside wells. I ate occasionally at places where they gave food to the poor as part of religious rituals or funerals. I began visiting temples where the poor always had a chance of getting a little grub, even sumptuous meals, when a rich man made an offering. Sometimes I worked to earn my bread. I did little jobs like washing dishes, or carrying loads, or tilling the ground, jobs I did on a temporary basis so as not to get into long-standing commitments. I would work for a day, get my pay, and then the next day I would have left for some other place. Thus I lived in all the states in the south, east, north and west of this country. I saw and experienced their cultures. I leaned how their histories were determined by their culture. I saw how insignificant was the ideology for which I had lived to most people of the country. I saw how negligible was the presence of rational thought, and how steeped was the country in religion, caste and superstition.”

“Was that why you chose to become a sanyasi, a monk?” Hamlet asked with a stern look.

Bodhisatwan was silent for a minute. He sat gazing at the floor, as if he was listening to the conversation between two invisible ants. “That is what people have come to think about what I did. As a relinquishing of political activity and family for a religious life. It is obvious that I left politics and my family. But what I went into was not religion in the ordinary sense, it was a space that is beyond conventional religion, where all identities merge into the one identity of the human. Terms like ‘sanyasi’ and ‘monk’ are laden with religious connotation. I am neither, though people won’t accept that. I just live alone, like any man who has chosen to live alone, and I live in places where no one enquires after your past. I still have my activities with the society. I try to liberate people, though in a different way, from the invisible chains they carry in them. I hope you will understand this better than anyone else, won’t you son?”

His words surprised Hamlet. Bodhisatwan had touched a chord in him.

“Invisible chains?” he asked.

“Yes, chains that bind people from within, blocking their freedom. Like fears, for instance, irrespective of whether you are rich, middle class or poor, that arrest your capacity to act. Or sorrows that won’t leave you at peace, or shame or guilt.”

“You mean to say you are a psychological counsellor?”

“In a way. I give them the light of knowledge that has come down to us through the centuries, in a language they understand. It seems to help them overcome their problems. In this society driven by differences, I have lost faith in the efficacy of collective action. It will be always infested with vested interests, and ultimately lead to violence in one form or the other, to bloodshed and murder. My life has taught me the futility and horror of violence. I abhor it. I see that only compassion has the power to change man, and maybe society.”

“Is the knowledge you mentioned, the one contained in the scriptures?” Hamlet asked eyeing the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishad on the table. “If so, what is wrong in saying that you have left communism to become a monk?”

“I use these texts also, for people who are developed enough to understand the concepts therein. To others, and they are the majority, I speak simply from experience, trying to make them appreciate what they have instead of longing for the grapes hanging at unattainable heights.” He paused to gauge Hamlet’s reaction, and seeing a shadow of resistance in his smirk, continued, “Religion is bound by rituals. They are the very fibre of religions. Rituals bind every aspect of religion. They are founded on repetitive actions and visible symbols that are given the status of the sacred. It is the difference in the nature of rituals that give birth to different religions. The rituals have certain beliefs associated with them. They are just baseless beliefs. Like the existence of heaven or hell or a soul that lives after death. The scriptures, if properly understood, are not about any such beliefs. What they contain is a logic and justification for living this life. I practice or profess no rituals. I am not religious. I take ideas from all philosophies, even Marxism, to help people break the chains of the mind and start living. ”

Bodhisatwan stopped and took a sip of water from the glass. Hamlet sat with his head lowered. He had not come there to know about Bodhisatwan’s life or engage him in a debate on political or philosophical thought. But unwittingly, he had made him say all these things. And not all things he said had been convincing to Hamlet either, especially the account of his celebrated change to spirituality. He mentioned this to him. He gave Hamlet an enigmatic smile and said, “Maybe some day it will become clear to you.”

However, Hamlet had no inclination to go into a dispute with him. Instead, he was assailed by the thoughts of his father and his death, along with the insinuations of the dream  at the beach. Pluto leaped from the wings of the memory and made an ugly face.

“But these were not the things you had come here to speak to me. Am I right, Hamlet?” Bodisatwan asked as if he read Hamlet’s mind. He waited for Hamlet to speak, stroking his beard. Sitting thus in his half-lotus, contemplative posture, he looked like one of those ancient rishis, the sages of the mythic past, whose pictures could be seen in Hindu calendars and mythological comics.

After a brief interval Hamlet recounted to him the dream he had had at the beach, and what had happened to him afterwards. He said to him that the possibility of a hidden truth behind his father’s death was now eating into his being, and snatching away his ability to concentrate or paint. The reference to Pluto as the cause of his father’s death had ever since haunted him. He told him that the aura of martyrdom bestowed on his father by the Party appealed to him as only a big blanket to hide a demon of truth that went by the name Pluto.

“But I am shaken by the fact that the only basis to my obsession is nothing other than a weird dream or a hallucination,” Hamlet concluded.

Bodhisatwan listened to Hamlet, caught in an absolute stillness, sitting like a rock, without a blink. Hamlet’s words seemed to enter him as if into a recorder. When Hamlet came to an end, Bodhisatwan closed his eyes like a yogi in meditation, as he did at the beginning of their meeting. After a few seconds, he spoke.

“How long did that spell of disorientation last after that beach experience?”

“About three months. I can’t remember much of that period. I was all the time in my room. I only remember that images from the dream were in front of my eyes most of the time filling me with horror. I have also had, since my childhood, a fear of darkness. It seems to be connected with the shock of seeing my father’s mangled body in the dark.”

“Son, your case sounds very extraordinary to me. But it is not unreal. You are an artist, a man with a strong imagination. Your art may not have come up to the level of that imagination, capable of finding the right forms for the signals it gave you, but I am sure it will soon hit the mark.”

Hamlet nodded with a wan smile. The old man’s words were comforting to him only like an astrologer’s to a rationalist. But he could discern his sincerity behind them, and in an uncanny way, the weight of his knowledge.

“Imagination is a journey from the known to the unknown, and it can enter the unknown only by shedding the chains of reason. Reason applies only to known things, things that have been observed, and whose cause and effect relations have been proved. This is how a doctor reasons out his diagnosis, going from the known to the known. So when you go to him with a persistent headache, he would think of all the known causes of headache in his science, and proceed with his tests to decide which of them is causing yours. But if none of the known causes applies to your headache, the doctor is at a loss. But there can never be a headache without a cause, or a truth behind it. Nor is your headache unreal, because your pain is very much real to you. But reality here lies hidden or unknown, and it becomes observable only when, somehow, it is brought out of its hiding, discovered. When it is brought to the daylight, it serves as a link for reason to connect many things that hitherto lay unconnected.  But it does not manifest itself in the light of the known. It needs a different light to be seen. Imagination is this light, the faculty that helps discover the unknown. But imagination is also a part of this body, and a manifestation of its biochemical reactions. We think, out of our pride in our conscious reason, that we hold in our hands the reigns of our imagination. It is true that most often we have control over our imagination. In fact, it is best kept under the check of reason. Because everything imagination suggests need not be true.  But, Hamlet, how much of our bodily functions is within our conscious control? We know that the body has a way of switching off the light of consciousness, without asking permission of the consciousness, when it enters certain extreme states, usually of suffering, physical, as well as mental. In such states, those endowed with the power of imagination  may sometimes have it activated, and thus see aspects of reality that are not perceivable to the senses or easily explainable in the language of critical reason,” Bodhisatwan paused to allow his ideas to sink into Hamlet, as he reversed his posture, putting down the right leg from his left thigh, and shifting the left foot to his right thigh. Hamlet gave a gentle nod of understanding. The senior man continued:

“Son, I think what happened to you at the beach was an opening of the eye of imagination,” he said, touching  Hamlet’s knee with a wavering hand. The touch had a soothing effect on him. It seemed to pass an energy into him that was empowering in a mysterious way. “I think that your fear of darkness must have risen that day to an unbearable height, that your reason might have switched off itself, opening your eye of imagination, for a desperate search of the cause of your malady, which had its root, according to you, in the death of your father. The dream had been probably suggesting that what haunts you about that death is the mystery that shrouds it.”

“Mystery?”

“Yes. Because as you know, nobody was found guilty in that murder. The five men convicted and punished by the lower court were set free by the upper court for lack of evidence. So, Damodaran’s murder went down the history as a mystery, right? The cause of his death is lurking in the darkness of the unknown.”

Hamlet was surprised by this way of looking at his father’s death. It had never occurred to him that his father’s death was a mystery. He and his family had always thought that his father was killed by religious fundamentalists who escaped from punishment through the loopholes of the law. Everyone he met in his life had the same thing to say about Comrade Damodaran’s death. The Party’s narrative of his martyrdom had been so convincing that even when they, his family, despised him for his untimely death in the name of ideals, they had lived for the last three decades with a secret pride in being the wife and children of a martyr.

“So, are you saying that my dream was actually the unknown seen by my imagination? That it had revealed to me the truth regarding the cause of my father’s death?”

“I am suggesting a possibility from my intuitions. I trust my intuitions, and the trust is the result of the experiences of my eventful life. I claim this with no pride, son,” Bodshisatwan said looking at a point on Hamlet’s chest.

“Well . . .” Hamlet murmured, passing a hand over his chest.

“Truth in the realm of the unknown is not always revealed to imagination in reasonable, logical terms. That is why the great revelations in many scriptures are in symbolic terms. Symbols are images of objects embodying hidden truths. What I said was that your imagination might have projected images of truth about your father’s death, the truth that has long lain waiting to be revealed and taken care of.”

“Taken care of?”

“Yes. Truth is realized for a purpose. There is nothing like a neutral truth. When it manifests it demands a reaction, a shift in the lay of things. Some truth, that was unknown, regarding your father’s death was revealed to you. But the revelation was in the form of symbolic imagery. But it was truth all the same, and it has been demanding ever since to be taken care of. Its demand has disabled you at your most vital area, your art, perhaps to provoke you into action. An act like a murder can’t go unpunished. It seems to be a rule of the world. Of course, there could be exceptions . . .”

“So what the father figure said in the dream, that it was “Pluto” who killed him, refers to a reality? A different reality from the known? Do you think that there is someone called Pluto whom I am supposed to punish? Take revenge against?” Hamlet asked.

“Is it becoming something like Shakespeare’s drama!” Bodhisatwan laughed at his own joke. Hamlet too was puzzled by the way the situation now resembled his namesake’s in the famous drama. The prospect of taking revenge appealed even to him as funny.

“I believe it is so,” Bodhisatwan answered his own question. “I have no idea who Pluto is, but it seems that he or she or it is out there waiting to be found out and acted upon by you. It’s high time you did it. Until you do that, your artistic powers will be  in limbo.”

The last word Bodhisatwan spoke, “limbo,” reverberated in Hamlet’s ears during the few minutes of silence that now encroached upon them. He felt that “limbo” accurately denoted the state of his art. He had talent, but he had not been able to make anything worthwhile out of it. It was as though his inspiration refused to blossom on the canvas; as though some sinister force strangled it midway out of  existence, so that what he received was its corpse.

In the silence, he also became aware of the time. They had been talking for more than two hours now. He decided that he should be going soon, lest he outstayed his welcome during his very first visit to Padmini’s. As a final question, he asked Bodhisatwan what he knew about Comrade Damodaran.

“We had a long association,” he said, sighing. Outside, the sun had grown brighter and hotter. “We were almost of the same age; maybe I was a couple of years older, that’s all. I was in a superior position in the Party. He had been for some time with the students’ wing of the Party, because he was doing his college education in the 1950s. I became a full time Party worker very early in life; I never went to college. I was poor, while Damu was, as you know, from a well-to-do family. So I got full membership of the Party very early, and by the time Damu became eligible for it through committed work for some years, I was in some high position.”

“You were the one who gave father his membership in 1960. You were the District Secretary then, mother has told me.”

“Oh, I see,” he paused as if to recall the past, and straightened himself as a gleam of remembrance came over his face. “Damu was driven by a passion for justice, and a great impatience for irrational and oppressive things like caste and religion. He did everything possible for justice. His donating his ancestral property to the Party, and his intercaste marriage with Madhavi, a Dalit woman, his giving you, his children, your peculiar names, were all part of his campaign. His was a feudal family, and he thought that the wealth he inherited from it actually belonged to the peasants; so he gave it away to the Party which was claiming to be the peasants’ party. The Party was his weakness. He was like one of those who can’t sleep, unless they are in the middle of a crowd. He couldn’t think or act except in the collective space of the Party. I left the Party in 1967 to go with my own madness, Damu stuck to it, believing that only the Party with its massive strength could bring revolution, and that ultimately the Party will get absolute power through the democratic process to bring about the revolution.

“But gradually, he seemed to get disillusioned with the Party. It was farther and farther getting away from its original ideals, its anti-capitalistic, anti-private sector, pro-poor, secularist, anti-luxury ideals, and pawning its identity for electoral gains by sharing seats with religion and caste-based parties, supporting the private sector, and getting rich. The leaders were leading comfortable lives in big houses, travelling in cars and flights. Damu was disillusioned to the point of breaking with the Party, and around the Emergency he did break with it. He tried to attach with the movement I had left, the Naxalites, but couldn’t accept its policy of killing the class enemy, even when he approved its revolutionary spirit and fight against injustice. He tried to support it intellectually, publishing articles. It was for this he was taken into custody during Emergency. He was alone, part of no group, and he must have felt like a fish out of water. After his term in jail, he continued for a few more years independently. He used to visit me whenever I was in Kerala. But then he did the expected. He went to the Party and begged to be taken back. They took him, downgrading him as an ordinary member for the rest of his life. He would not be given any leadership roles in the Party; he would not be part of any committee. But he believed that he had got back the platform from where he may still do something towards the achievement of his ideals. Maybe the Party just tolerated him . . .” he broke off with a grimace and sat staring at his own palm, his say having ended.

What was the weapon he had held in this palm when he killed the landlord? Did this palm soak in the man’s blood? Where did he wash away that blood? 

Padmini came to say that it was time for lunch. That was when Hamlet noticed that the time was 1.30. He felt embarrassed to have overstayed and caused Padmini the trouble of offering him lunch. He tried to politely reject her offer, and say that he had to hurry back. But she would not let him go without having the lunch. Bodshisatwan watched their dialogue with a gentle smile of amusement. Hamlet had to yield to her. She left telling Hamlet to be at the dining room as soon as possible. Bodhisatwan asked him to proceed as he himself was on a fast, and would be skipping lunch. As Hamlet thanked him and began to take his leave Bodhisatwan said,

“Truth may be where you least expect it.”

 

21

 

THE FIRST MOVE

           

In June, the rains were robust; the monsoon fell on the day and the night like an unending orchestra. The crescendo and glissando of the wind and shower filled the air, with occasional intervals for the world to stretch its limbs and reset its position before its next spell. Sitting in front of his easel with the mounted canvas on the rainy, Sunday morning, Hamlet looked out the window at the grey film of rain falling through the branches of the neelam mango tree. A moist wind crept in; the curtains waved with it as it did the rounds, ruffling the poise of things. A rejuvenating coolness filled the air as the water hissed like mating snakes.

Hamlet loved the  rains. With its drumming on the roof, leaves and the ground, the rains used to create the best ambience to enliven his brush. But those days were no more. His artist’s block gaped at him. The blank canvas made faces at him. Not a single idea crossed his mind. Not one image showed up in form and colour. Only an unpleasant restlessness gripped him, when inspiration should have set the brush moving. Even if he had given up his dreams of being a successful painter, he had never stopped painting. He used to paint, if only for orienting himself, to justify his being alive. But now, even the last remnants of his powers had deserted him.

A couple of weeks had passed since his meeting with Bodhisatwan. The memory of the visit to Padmini’s house stuck to the fringes of his consciousness, producing mixed sensations of sweetness and anxiety. He wanted to believe that the warmth with which she had treated him could have sprung only from her interest in him. Her eyes had lingered over his, each time they met, as though she was searching there for something she had lost. She had treated him to a simple but tasty lunch of rice, dal curry, a dish of chopped beans heated and mixed with grated coconuts, mustard seeds and coconut oil, and a fish curry. She had had her lunch with him. Her girl seemed to have had hers earlier. She had asked him about his meeting with Bodshisatwan, and he had given her a brief account of it.

Bodhisatwan’s views on his problem had discomfited Hamlet, for Bodhisatwan seemed to assume a materiality to the contents of his dream; he tended to give it a realistic status instead of taking it as symbolic. Hamlet had hitherto only toyed with the idea of Pluto being real; he had more or less considered his experience as an aberration of his mind. But Bodhisatwan’s view that the dream was in fact a pointer to a truth that albeit had been revealed in a disguised manner, and that it was his onus to decode and take care of it, had made him edgy.

During the days that followed Hamlet fell into a stasis. He didn’t know what to do about the truth that demanded “to be taken care of, ” a truth that was separated by almost a quarter of a century from the present. The years that had gone by had never given them occasion to think about it in terms contrary to the publicly accepted version. It had happened when he was just a boy of four. By the time he had grown up into an individual, he had got used to the story of his father’s martyrdom. He found no reason to think about its truth from any other angle. That the reality of the murder had been lying in a matrix of unresolved mystery threw Hamlet into a state of paralysis of thought and action.

Now the rains had come refreshing everything, pumping juice into the world desiccated by the summer, washing it clean of the dross of torpor. Even if the rains didn’t restore Hamlet’s creativity, it helped him, with its cool hands, to pull himself out of his indecision. He came to a resolve that morning to start his search.  As a first step he decided to have a talk with his mother. She, afterall, was the nearest person available who had a mature memory of the event of his father’s death.

Madhavi had been diagnosed as having ischemic heart disease; she was now on a regimen of medicines and diet. She had lost a few kilos.  She was not used to restrictions in her day to day activities as a home-maker and found it depressing not to lift weights or climb steps or not to eat pickles and fries. She was resting on an easy chair when Hamlet went to her room. Juliet was on her Sunday duty, which came once in a few weeks by turn. Cleopatra  had gone out on some errand with an umbrella; she had never missed an opportunity to walk in the rains. Volga was steeped in a stillness; only the rain that engulfed the house gave proof to the movement of time.

“What’s it son?” she asked, as he sat on Juliet’s bed, one of the three beds that lay against the walls of the room. The room was plunged in a half darkness only a morning of heavy monsoon rains could create. A frail light entered it through the open door, passing the narrow drawing room. A moist air spread through it, an air when inhaled deeply by a healthy body transmitted to it ineffable signals of physical well being. But to the sick ones, the same air gave corrosive stress to the lungs. Madhavi had huddled on the chair with a blanket around her.  At sixty-four years of age, she looked over seventy, shrunk and fragile, with her Parkinson’s head faintly shaking. Hamlet fancied in the grim light that his mother’s features had changed; on closer observation he found that it was only a false feeling.

He told her about his visit to Bodhisatwan and what they spoke, in a simple language she could follow. He told her what Bodhisatwan had said about a possible alternate history of his father’s death. He recounted to her his experience at the beach; he had not spoken about it in detail to her. He said to her that ‘Pluto’ could be a sign that pointed at some reality that was in hiding. He told her about his decision to search for it, and that he believed he would never be able to paint anymore unless he found it out.

His words didn’t elicit much of a reaction from her. He couldn’t discern the shiver that passed over her body at the mention of the incident that hit her life, decades back, like an asteroid from the space. She became utterly immobile, staring at Hamlet, making him feel uneasy under her gaze.

“Are you okay amma? Feeling any discomfort?” he asked going up to her, touching her shoulder. She waved her hand mildly to mean she was fine. He resumed his seat. His mother, like his sisters and himself, had avoided discussing the topic of the murder. They had touched upon it only rarely, when it became unavoidable, as when they had to answer the queries of people, or of authorities. They had avoided it because of the sheer pain it gave them. So Hamlet committed himself to pare down the dialogue to the minimum. He would push off on getting the information he needed, as soon as possible.

“Amma, do you remember the names of the people involved in that incident?” he referred to it indirectly, as “that incident,” as they always did, to blunt the sting of memory. Madhavi shifted in her chair, adjusted the blanket and spent a whole minute watching the translucent wall of the rain.

Rain falls on the glass of her face.  

“Leave it son. What’s the use of going after it now? We had decided to forget it, hadn’t we?”

“Amma please,” Hamlet said, peering at his mother through the dim light. Did he discern a reluctance in her voice? Did it have to do with anything other than the agony of a bitter memory?

“You will be all right soon and begin to paint. You will also become famous some day. I am sure. This is only a passing stage. You will get to a much better position in life,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

He had to know things. He felt ashamed of himself for not knowing the details of Comrade Damodaran’s death. He realized how tactfully they, the whole family of the dead man, had buried the memory of the catastrophe in their middle, so deeply that it had become almost irretrievable now.

Hamlet sat at his mother’s foot and put his head on her lap, a gesture he used to do while he was a school boy apprehensive of his examinations. She caressed his head, passing her slender fingers, fingers that had worn out shelling cashew nuts at the factory for bringing up her children, through his hair, tremulous with the soft care of love. He begged her to tell him the names of the men she remembered, men who were injured in the incident, as well as those who were apprehended.

“It is a bad world Hamlet. Leave the past alone. Think of the life ahead,” Madhavi said, now visibly agitated. She shook her head a couple of times, as if she was denying something to an invisible person in front of her. A shiver passed through her entire body, a wave of reaction that shook her frail frame. Hamlet gave a start; the thought that Madhavi was having a heart attack petrified him for a moment. But the reaction subsided as soon as it had started, and she leaned back on the chair exhausted. Hamlet decided that it was not wise to tax his mother any further, considering the condition of her heart. He understood that her inner resistance was too strong for her to overcome. He told her not to bother about what he had asked. She wanted him to give her some water.

In the kitchen, he put a vessel with water on the burner and lit the stove. The water heated up, with bubbles as small as mustard seeds beginning to sprout at its bottom and moving up to the surface to burst. Hamlet nodded to himself, as he poured the hot water into a glass and took it to Madhavi.

 

*

 

Hamlet waited for the rain to subside and for Cleopatra to return. He did not want to go out leaving his mother alone at home in such a weather. Her condition was not assuring of her health. He stood at the door of the house watching the rain fall. It was one of those rains that visited Kerala during June and July, the peak time of the monsoon. It lasted for whole days with no respite, but only varying in its intensity. Sometimes it fell heavy enough to form an opaque wall of water, at other times it danced curvaceously in slender threads to the santoor strains of the breeze.

Buses and cars prowled on the street wading through the brown pools on the road, splashing water on either side. Two-wheelers moved cautiously over the slippery road carrying raincoat-clad men and women. It being a Sunday, the traffic was low-key.

After half an hour the rain abated to a drizzle. Cleopatra opened the gate and hurried in holding an umbrella. Her sari was all wet.

 

*

 

Hamlet walked to the nearby junction in the drizzle, exposing himself to the raindrops. He had never liked to hold an umbrella. He made for the telephone booth as he didn’t want to make the call from his house so as to perturb his mother again. He got into the cabin, took the receiver, and as he dialled the number wondered for a moment what kind of impression he would make asking what he was going to ask.

“Hello,” Harikrishnan croaked at the other side.

“Sir, this is Hamlet.”

“Good morning Prince of Denmark. When did you get out of your grave?”

Hamlet guffawed, loudly enough, to register his appreciation of the senior’s stale joke.

“Sorry to disturb you sir. I wanted to know something. It may sound odd.”

“Cut the intro man. Come to the point.”

“It is about my father’s death,” Hamlet paused to search for the apt words. Harikrishnan waited silently. Outside, the rain began to gather momentum again.

“Do you remember the people involved in the incident? Can I get to meet any of them?”

Silence. Hamlet pressed the receiver harder against his ear and waited. The hushed sound of the traffic and the rain outside filtered into the closed cabin. Harikrishnan didn’t speak for a few seconds. Hamlet assumed that he was either raking his memory, or completing some task he was engaged in.

“What a question to ask on a rainy Sunday morning!”

“Sir, sorry. I couldn’t think of anyone else to ask. My mother gets upset with this topic.”

“Why this curiosity after all these years? Haven’t you thought about this ever before? Quite odd . . .”

“Well . . . ,” it was Hamlet who fell silent now. That he had not bothered to know about the people involved in the incident all these years was incredible. How odd it would be to explain to Harikrishnan about the silence his family had maintained on his father’s death!

“I think there were two or three thugs. Who remembers their names! The types that won’t think twice before they strike. They were supposed to be Hindu fundees  They all went scot-free in the end, as you know. Well, I know only things that came in the newspapers.”

Hamlet set his eyes on the floor of the cabin where he saw the muddy imprints of the soles of footwears. Would he get anything worthwhile from this man?

“I remember going to your house to take a look at Damu’s body . . . There was a fresh wound across his face . . . Sorry man. But why are you asking . . .”

“Weren’t there some others who got injured?” Hamlet asked, trying to shake off the memory that had gripped him like a crab all his life. He saw a bus, painted stark red, dash along the road honking, splashing muddy water all around. A passerby, drenched by the bus’s stunt, spewed abuse at the unseeable driver.

“Ah ! Yes. Wait. Let me see . . . I remember one guy . . . what was his name . . . he used to come to our office with reports of their programmes. You know, Damu was speaking at their meeting when the attack took place, this rationalist group, what’s its name . . . they are lying low now . . . MSYP. Yea, Viswanathan, T.K. Viswanathan, TKV he was called. He was something of a state figure of that organization. He was injured I think. Yes, he was.”

“Is he still around?”

“You mean if he is still alive?” Harikrishnan asked, cackling.

“Yes. Can I meet him?”

“No idea Hamlet. I haven’t heard about him for a long time.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Harikrishnan hung up. He was not the one to wait on ceremonies.

 

22

 

A MILD RAIN FALLING ON A LOST TIME

 

The next evening, after work, Hamlet searched the Telephone Directory at Manka’s office for T.K. Viswanathan. There were three men by the same name; he noted down the numbers of all the three. Then he looked for the organization, Malayala Sastra Yukthi Prasthanam, MSYP and spotted its District Committee Offic’s number. He made the calls  from a public call office. It turned out that none of the three T.K. Viswanathans was the man he was looking for. A male voice answered when he called the office of MSYP. Hamlet asked if he could know where he might find TKV. He referred to the man using his initials, the way he was popular among his associates; that could create an impression of familiarity. The person on the other side, whose tender voice indicated a youngster of about twenty, didn’t seem know TKV. Shortly afterwards, the hoarse, mature voice of a man in his fifties came on line. He wanted to know who was speaking and why he was enquiring about TKV. There was a tinge of hostility in the voice. Hamlet said that he was speaking on behalf of an uncle of his living in the States who happened to be an old friend of TKV. The said uncle wanted to meet TKV during his oncoming visit to Kerala.

“TKV is living in Trivandrum with his son.”

“Could I get his address or phone number?”

“His son is a section officer at the Secretariat. His name is Sreekumar. We don’t have any more information.”

“Isn’t TKV active now in MYSP?” Hamlet ventured to ask.

The phone banged on the other side.

 

*

 

The train was late by fifteen minutes. When it came, Hamlet could find a window seat without any struggle; it was mostly empty. It was an express train coming from Mumbai, with Trivandrum as its final destination. It was a seventy-minute journey to his destination. The rain fell heavily ten minutes after the train started, splashing against the glass shutters of the windows. Hamlet closed his eyes resting his head against the window pane. He thought about the person he was going to meet. He had no knowledge of TKV, except the little he had come to know from Harikrishnan. TKV was an active worker of the MSYP He had been injured in the attack in which Comrade Damodaran was killed. MSYP was an NGO whose main concerns were rationalism and environmentalism. It took up issues like the exploitation of believers by god men, the ones who claimed to be incarnations of God. It was against nuclear reactors, deforestation and privatisation, and published periodicals carrying articles on such issues.

Hamlet focused his mind on the picture of the Secretariat building, where he had to go to meet TKV’s son for his address. He slipped into a dream in which he was walking through a corridor. He entered an office room on its left and asked for Sreekumar, TKV’s son. A lady in a green sari came from the side and pushed him out into the rain. He got drenched soon; his clothes stuck to him. He tried to get into the building, but each time he tripped and fell. Hamlet woke up with a start. The train was slowing down. He sighed in relief.

There was a let up in the rain shortly before the train hit the station. Hamlet had a tea from the canteen on the platform and waited for the rush at the exit point to ease. Getting out of the station, he walked the short distance to the Secretariat.

A guard stopped him at the gate and told him that visitors were not allowed. He was a sturdy man of about twenty-five wearing a khaki raincoat, with a lathi in one hand and a walkie talkie in the other. Hamlet tried to reason with the guard that he had urgent business and would not need much time. The guard explained to him that his orders were strict. Somebody touched Hamlet on his shoulder. It was an old hostel mate who happened to be working at the Secretariat. After the exclamations of surprise at the chance meeting, Hamlet told him the purpose of his visit. The friend checked the contacts in his mobile and gave Sreekumar’s number to Hamlet. Hamlet thanked him, and made for the nearest telephone booth.

TKV’s son was cordial and gave Hamlet his address. He said, to Hamlet’s great relief, that his father was at home. He took a bus to the place.

 

*

 

It was high-rise condo, an eight-storey building on the roadside. It could have had about thirty apartments in it. Clothes were spread on the railings of balconies for drying. Hamlet didn’t take the lift; he climbed the steps to the second-floor apartment. As he rang te bell, he wondered about the kind of reaction he would elicit from TKV when he broached the topic. After a few seconds the door opened.

He was a dark man in his seventies, dark like charcoal, with closely cropped snow-white hair and a cascading moustache. He had not shaved and had a white stubble on his face. The contrast made by his dark face and white hair reminded Hamlet of the negatives of black-and-white films. He was of average height with a paunch protruding from his blue T-shirt. His lungi flowed down to his ankles. He regarded Hamlet with a smile in his eyes. They twinkled him a welcome.

“ Sir, you are TKV, I hope. I have come to meet you. I got the address from your son Mr. Sreekumar.”

“Yes, I am,” he said in a mild voice making way for Hamlet to get in. He seemed to be used to welcoming strangers; Hamlet’s visit didn’t come to him as a surprise. TKV asked him to take a chair and sat opposite him on a sofa. The room had a television on the wall and a ceiling fan. A dim, pleasant light came in through the window. Somewhere outside, the rain drummed on a tin-like surface.

TKV’s face beamed when Hamlet told him who he was. He studied Hamlet with a drop of light in his eyes. His eyes twinkle like glass balls. Hamlet allowed himself to be observed like a model sitting before a sculptor; he sat still, looking at the old man. He was drawn towards TKV’s eyes; their pupils seemed to have dilated into big, round holes, like those of a cat in darkness.

“I am hearing about Comrade Damodaran after a long time. I had almost stopped thinking about those days,” he said, without taking his eyes off Hamlet.

“I remember you as a little boy,” he said, the glass balls rolling up and down over Hamlet. “There is no need to say you are Comrade Damodaran’s son. His likeness is etched all over you. Maybe you are a little taller, right?”

Hamlet smiled, shrugging.

TKV nodded with his lips curling downwards and fell silent. Hamlet waited for him to speak, listening to the rhythm of the raindrops. A moist breeze made the curtains and papers flutter.

He wanted to know more about Hamlet. He seemed to be impressed by Hamlet’s being a painter, and embarked on a talk of his liking for paintings. He said he was stuck with the likes of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Monet and the surrealists Dali and Ernst. He disliked the Cubists; he could never bring himself to like Picasso. Still, he had gone to Mumbai to see the exhibition of Picasso at the National Gallery of Modern Arts in 2002. Among the Indians, he admired Jamini Roy, Amrita Shergil, Satish Gujral and many others. He didn’t like M.F. Hussain, and wondered about the secret behind his colossal success.

Hamlet reckoned that TKV had a distaste for abstracts, and was enticed by strong colours and sensuous curves. But he didn’t give his opinion, thinking that it would take the conversation too much into the subject of arts, leaving no room for him to broach the subject which he had come to talk about. TKV spoke about Irving Stone’s novel on Van Gogh, Lust for Life. It was the reading of that book as a young man that had converted him into a lover of paintings. He wanted Hamlet never to let the passion for painting fritter away. Whatever be his job, he should find some time to engage in his art. Getting recognition was only a matter of time to the one who perseveres. Hamlet, for once, didn’t feel like brushing away that comment as a platitude.

Hamlet told TKV about the purpose of his visit. He nodded as if to say that he had guessed it from the very beginning. He wondered if he might have anything new to say on the subject. He looked at the ceiling, narrowing his eyes, seemingly organizing his thoughts and memory. Hamlet waited.

 

*

 

“As you know, the Party used to support the activities of the MSYP. Many of its activists  were members of the Party too. We had also had the active involvement of the leaders of all progressive political parties in our public meetings. What we were doing in the early 1980’s was to propagate the need for scientific temper. Our main targets were the superstitions of the people. We exposed the deceptions of human gods and faith healers. We  demonstrated how they performed their miracles to win the faith of the people; how the astrologers used their pseudo science to amass wealth by making people perform expensive rituals. We promoted literacy and reading among fishermen, toddy tappers, factory workers, manual labourers. We tried to build awareness of the need for sending their children to school, instead of forcing them into labour. We taught them the dangers of drinking and smoking.”

“Was my father active in your organization,” Hamlet interrupted.

He asked Hamlet to follow him into the house. Hamlet followed him into the dining room and sat at the dining table. TKV went into the into the kitchen. He said he’d be alone at home on working days, as his son and daughter-in-law went to work, and the grand children went to school. He spoke nothing about his wife. The dining room had a large window giving a view of the grim sky and the heads a few buildings. It was not raining now.

Hamlet could see him making tea in the kitchen, a small square room with cabinets mounted on the walls. His motions were sure and fast. He poured milk and water in a vessel, put it on the burner and lit the stove. He waited, hands akimbo, for the liquid to boil and then put spoonfuls of tea dust in it. He filtered the potion into two glasses using a sieve, added sugar and stirred it with a spoon berfore handing over the glass to Hamlet with a smile.

“Thank you,” he said. The tea was good.

“Comrade Damodaran was not involved in our activities. But he used to support us writing articles in our magazine, or speaking at our seminars. He used to write about the  superstitions prevailing in various parts of the world,” he said as he led Hamlet back to the drawing room.

“I haven’t seen anything written by father,” Hamlet said, an earnest regret softening his voice.

“I am sorry I don’t have any of the issues with me here. I lost all of them while shifting houses,” TKV said, a little cloud passing over the glass balls. “You may find them in the archives of the state committee office of MSYP, if you are lucky enough.”

“I see. . . .”

“Anyway, Comrade Damodaran used to write boldly, unmindful of the consequences. Around that time, we had published an article in which he claimed that the Makarajyoti, the star that appeared on the sky of the famous Sabarimala hill temple during the annual festival, was actually a humanly-lighted flame. He was perhaps the first to lay this claim. And you know, it is an issue that is still debated. Our mainstream newspapers didn’t give publicity to Damodaran’s claim. They were afraid to rake up a controversy since the faith of millions of people was at stake. It was read only by the small readership of our magazine. It is this article which seems to have provoked the fundis, though MSYP had been their target for propagating rationalism.”

This was news to Hamlet. He had never heard of this article that provoked the attack. He leaned forward to listen more keenly to TKV. He finished the tea, and put the glass on the teapoy.

“We were conducting our yukthi jatha, you know, the “rationality march,” presenting our ideas to the people through skits, songs and classes. Our local units would organize our programmes at various points, mostly pockets where people were less educated. In 1984, it was shortly after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. I was the captain of the march. The jatha attracted a good number of people, and the effects of our work were beginning to show. We had exposed frauds centering places of worship and certain godmen’s ashrams.

“The jatha was welcomed formally at each point by holding meetings felicitating it. That day, the jatha was very late when it reached the venue. It was around ten thirty at night. We decided to cut short the welcome session for lack of time. Only Comrade Damodaran would speak on the MSYP’s mission, felicitating the jatha on behalf of the Party. It was a small junction in a rural area. Comrade Damodaran was a good speaker, and nobody wanted him to stop soon. I and Ramesh, the local secretary of MSYP, were standing near him. The members of the jatha team were waiting among the audience. Suddenly all the lights went out, and we heard men shouting slogans hailing the name of a Hindu god. They also shouted “kill them, kill them.” The people started running in panic. It was pitch dark around. I was rooted on the spot, shocked and unable to move. Soon after, I felt a sharp object cutting through me. It was like being hit by a lightning. I lost consciousness, and when I came to I was in the ICU, with tubes and bandages on me.”

He told Hamlet that he had sustained three serious injuries and a few minor ones.  TKV slid his T-shirt down his right shoulder to show Hamlet a deep keloid scar near his neck. “It was close to the jugular vein,” he said, the glass balls glittering.

“I still can’t lift my arm above shoulder level,” he said, lifting his right arm. It stopped at ninety degrees against his body, like a Nazi salute, and wouldn’t move further upwards.  “Another one here,” he said, rolling up the sleeve of his shirt on his left arm. There was a four-inch scar there, a shining, dark caterpillar, creeping upwards along his biceps. “It was out of sheer luck that I didn’t lose my limbs,” he said, now parting the lungi over his right thigh where another keloid perched like a worm.  “It seems they had used butcher swords to chop us.”

TKV said that other than him, Ramesh, the local secretary of MSYP too was injured. He had received a chopping wound on his back, but not a deep one.

“Ramesh is now working in the Gulf. He was only twenty at that time.”

It was only a few days later that he was told about Comrade Damodaran’s death, he said, taking the last sip of the tea and placing the glass on the floor near the sofa.

“I was told that Comrade’s body was found a little away from the venue, in a lane. Maybe he had tried to escape that way after receiving the wounds and then fallen there exhausted. Anyway . . . it seems he had died before reaching the hospital.”

During the silence that followed, Hamlet looked out the window at the sky, where clouds were darkening for another onslaught. TKV stared at the wall opposite him, scratching his unshaved chin, reliving the gory events of that night.

“Sir, what do you know about those who did this?”

“Nobody saw anybody. It was darkness everywhere. They came, did their job, and got away. The police arrested three men belonging to the Hindu fundamentalist group. They were Chanthu, Reghu and Prabhakaran. It seems that some locals had noted these strangers in the village on the day of the incident. They were all from different parts of the district, and connected to this group. Some locally made weapons were found from their homes.

“It seems that these men were earlier involved in feuds with the Party members. The enmity between the Party and this group was quite old. So it was assumed that the attack was primarily  provoked by Comrade Damodaran’s article on the temple. They chose MSYP’s venue for the attack because they wanted to give us a warning, since the article was published in our magazine.

“They were young men in their early twenties. They persisted in claiming their innocence. Their group engaged good lawyers to plead for them. The sessions court sentenced them for a brief period of rigorous imprisonment for illegal possession of weapons. That was the only substantial charge against them. The upper court condoned even that and set them free.”

Hamlet thought of Pluto and made a last effort.

“Sir, do you think these were the men who really did it. I mean, did my father die because of their attack?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation. The glass balls twinkled as he grimaced and continued:

“Something remarkable happened much later, about fifteen years after that incident. I was coming in a car from Coimbatore to Palakkad. It was night. At a turning, we saw a man lying on the roadside. Only my friend and I were in the car. We stopped to check and found that he was unconscious. He was a clean-shaved man in his late thirties, wearing trousers and shirt. He was bleeding at the head. It looked like he was hit by a speeding vehicle. We took him to a hospital at Palakkad. Blood had to be given and the hospital was not equipped for it. Fortunately, our bloods were found to be matching with his. We gave it and the man survived.

“I was working with a bank at Palakkad at that time. I went to the hospital to visit the man the next day. He was in the ICU. His wife, a young woman, and a little boy came over and thanked me with a lot of tears. The doctors had told her that if her husband were to bleed any longer he might have died. He had survived only because of my timely help.

“I was permitted into the ICU. The man was conscious. He had no other injury than the one on the head, but his left side was paralysed. He started weeping after gazing at my face for a moment when his wife introduced me to him.

“A couple of months later, this man came to my house. He had to walk dragging his left leg. His left hand was still not fully functional. It looked atrophied, and hung limply on his side. The bandages on his head were gone. Now with a full view of his face, he appeared quite familiar to me. He began to weep violently holding my hands. I was puzzled and tried to calm him down.

“He said that he was the one who had struck me in the attack in 1984. Now I could make him out. I had seen him at the court a few times. He used to have thick, long hair, which he would keep clipped behind his head in a pony tail. Now the hair was all gone.

“He made a full confession of the event. He said that the attack was pre-planned, and it was to take revenge on Comrade Damodaran and MSYP for their anti-religious stands. But they had no plan to kill anybody. Damodaran’s death was a casualty they had not intended. The police were right in apprehending them, but they had cleverly managed to come out unscathed. He tried to convince me that it was God’s punishment that he was suffering now. And that God had wanted to bring him to my feet. He surprised me saying that if I wanted to reopen the case he was willing to confess before the court . . .”

“What did you do?” Hamlet asked. TKV watched him for a moment.

“What would you have done, Hamlet?”

“I don’t know,” Hamlet said.

“Well, I too was at a loss. I felt no hostility towards that crippled man, standing with flowing eyes before me. Besides, all those ideals for which we, your father and I, had struggled appeared totally futile now. The superstitions against which we had fought were still being celebrated by the society, even with greater vigour. Everything we did appeared vain to me. I had stopped being a member of MSYP by then.

“The Party was not interested in taking your father’s case to higher courts even back then. It was happy to have got a martyr” he said, stressing the word ‘martyr.’ “I think they had made much use of your father’s death to create a sympathy wave for the Party during the elections that followed shortly after in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s death.”

TKV stopped to take a deep breath. The glass balls rested on Hamlet’s face, but they were turned inwards.

“I looked at this man, unable to speak. Then I led him to a chair. I made a tea for him. He started weeping again like a child as I passed the tea to him. When he subsided, I told him that we would try to forget what had happened. I asked him not to meet me anymore, and wished him speedy recovery.”

There wasn’t anything more that Hamlet might know from TKV. His version, more or less, agreed with the official version of the events. He rose to leave. TKV accompanied him to the door with a smile, the glass balls reflecting a mild rain falling on a lost time.

 

  23

 

THE FLOWERING

 

Padmini’s mother died in September. She had rung up Hamlet early in the morning to pass on the news. The telephone nudged him out of an uneasy dream in which he was being sucked into a whirlpool.

“Please inform the office,” she told him in a tremulous voice. She chooses him as the only person to tell the news. A very comforting thought, Hamlet mused.

“When did this happen?” he asked, overwhelmed by an emotion laden with the fragrance of jasmine.

“She was not responding early in the morning when I went to give her medicine. A doctor confirmed it just now.”

She told him that the cremation would be at eleven in the morning at the compound of her house. That was the system in the rural areas, where there were no public grounds for burial.

It was only six thirty in the morning. The sound of the rain water dripping from leaves and roofs filled the air. The empty canvas mounted on the easel grimaced at Hamlet. He had stopped attempting to paint now. He gazed at its white surface for a long time expecting a form to emerge from its inchoate depths. It was a futile exercise.

After an hour, Hamlet informed Harikrishnan and Mathew of the situation.

The funeral was attended by a small crowd, mostly of the local people. Harikrishnan placed a floral wreath on the body on behalf of the Panorama establishment. A few other members of the staff were present with Mathew at the lead.

Bodhisatwan was absent. He had left the house some time back, as inconspicuously as he had come. His present whereabouts were unknown.

 

*

 

Days later, when Padmini joined duty, she related to Hamlet how lonely she had felt on that night after her mother’s death. The child clung to her all the time afraid to be alone. The house was steeped in the nauseating smell of the incense burnt during the wake. The child couldn’t sleep till late at night. Her own sleep evaded her the whole of the night. Through the window she could see the embers on the pyre. They glowed like eyes of cats when the breeze blew on them. The embers seemed to tell her to brace herself up for a life of loneliness.

“My mother was not a talkative person. But her silent presence was the something that had filled my emptiness,” she said. Hamlet looked into her eyes and wished to kiss them. Outside, the evening was cool. The slanting rays of the sun crept in and snuggled over the files and papers in the editorial office. The rains were taking their leave.

The next day was a holiday. Hamlet trimmed his beard, bathed, wore his favourite black jeans and a well pressed blue shirt, and made for Padmini’s house. He didn’t know what the purpose of his visit was. He knew that he was being led only by a desire to meet her, to be in her presence.

Padmini was surprised to see him. They sat facing each other, and then a chasm of silence intervened. Hamlet wondered if he had made a mistake in coming to her house without any reason. She was a widow, now living alone, and the society was of such mores that it looked askance at such meetings. Was her silence a sign of the same worry? During his earlier visit the situation was different. Her mother was at home. So was Bodhisatwan. But now things had changed.

“Where is Mohini?” Hamlet asked breaking the silence. This time he had brought with him a big packet of chocolates for the child. “This is for her,” he said setting the packet on the teapoy.

“She has gone to a friend’s house. A birthday party,” Padmini said, visibly relieved at the silence being broken.

“I wonder if it was proper for me to come here today.”

“Why?”

“Well . . . I don’t know.”

“You know I don’t care if what you have in mind is the public opinion” she said looking into his eyes. “I am too happy that you came.”

“Yes, I know. You are a feminist,” he said with a chuckle. She waved his comment away with a laugh. Then they fell silent again.

She went into the house, and a moment later called him from within to come to the dining room. He went in and found her waiting for him with a plate of banana chips and a cup of tea on the table.

As he stood near her, a whiff of her perfume touched his nostrils. Hamlet wanted to tell her what was seething in his mind, but the words would not pass his lips. She seemed to be waiting for the birth of something to which Hamlet would be the conduit, looking up at him, her face aglow with subdued passion. Hamlet heard the breeze catching on the branches and leaves of the trees. He heard the chirping of the birds and the cawing of the crows.

Then he abandoned the words, the desire to speak of something that lay in the ocean of the unspeakable. He held his hand towards her, his palm up, as if he was asking for alms. As he looked at her eyes, he felt the warmth of her hand softly perching in his. She had lowered her eyes. Hamlet took a step towards her and held her close to him. He felt the world dissolve into the sole sensation of Padmini’s touch as she put both her arms around him.Then as she held her face up to him, he pressed his lips on hers.

A moonlight, cool like the inside of an igloo and limpid like the blue ocean at noon, fell across Hamlet’s life since that day. The earth seemed to have lost some of its gravitational force, for he felt light in body. The unbearable lightness of being – he thought of the name of a novel he had read. Yes, there is such a state as that happens when the self encapsulates itself in the cocoon of joy. The name of that cocoon was Padmini. If only he could lose himself for good in the weightless world of Padmini! It was like a return to the womb, where the self, the scaffold of suffering, melts into the nothingness of being. He could want, now, nothing other than being in the arms of Padmini. Nothing seemed more alluring than the scent her body emitted when she entered the delirious state of desire. When he entered her, when they were rocked by a rhythm whose inventors they were not, but were only instruments for its occurrence, Hamlet realized that the platform of their congress was the suffering engendered by loneliness and insecurity. For him, it arose from a fatherless childhood; for her from an absent father and a dead husband. Their union dismantled the walls of loneliness. Their mutual embrace thawed the ice of insecurity.

They met at her house and made love in the following weeks too. Hamlet seemed to lose his foothold on the world, and float on a feather-bed of ecstasy. The sight of the empty canvas ceased to worry him. He felt fulfilled in conjuring up the image of Padmini. She filled every nook and corner of his imagination. Like a passionate cartographer, he ruminated over every plain, plateau, uplift, depression and chasm of her body.

Hamlet was now experiencing a freedom from the shackles of emotions that had bound him all his life. He didn’t want to attenuate its intensity by any means.

 

24

 

TERMINATED

 

The fear of darkness raised its talons when Hamlet had least expected it. The initial stimulus was the familiar palpitation, the drumming of the heart, while he was walking home at night, along the road flanked by wasted paddy fields. A whirl wind began to howl in his ears, and in no time he was running like a game in distress. It was Cleopatra who opened the door of the house. She watched him in wonderment as he staggered into his room, shivering and sweating all over. She heard him fall on the bed with a thud.

Some time later at midnight the shivering subsided and the heart’s fluttering normalized. As he lay expecting sleep, his awareness dulled, and he slipped his foot. He fell into a ravine where the hills on either side had sprouted stalagmites. They loomed large and looked like the jaws of a gargantuan dinosaur. A red sun hung on the horizon on a glowing orange sky.  He was in a valley strewn with human skulls. Every skull had the word “martyr” in red letters stuck on its forehead. He couldn’t walk except by stepping on the skulls, and they screamed each time he stepped on them. He was caught by a terrible  thirst; he had to find some water. A few steps took him to where Bodhisatwan stood like a statue pointing his finger at a direction. His attempts to make him speak ended in vain. Hamlet walked in the direction he pointed at. The ground now began to stick. It took on a purple hue, and the stench of dead matter hit at his nostrils. He vomited, supporting himself against a stalagmite. It was blood that was making the ground sticky.

Two feet that looked identical to his own came into his view as he was sitting with his head bent down, surveying the ground. He saw his father looking down at him, in the same attitude as he had been in his previous appearance, half naked and forlorn. His burning, coal-red eyes made a silent questioning of Hamlet’s unfulfilled task. “Why?” the figure asked with a gesture of its hand. “Why haven’t you unveiled the mystery of my death? It’s in your knowledge of the truth that my deliverance lies. Until then, I’ll have to wallow in this valley of branded martyrs.” The figure then turned its back to him, and he saw blood jetting from the deep gash just above the waist. The blood which soaked the entire valley had issued from that wound. All on a sudden, the skulls began to move their jaws chanting “Pluto, Pluto Pluto . . .”

 

*

 

Hamlet woke up from the dream with a shiver that quaked his entire body. He ran a fever; his limbs were  numb and cold. He lay the rest of the night in that condition. In the morning, Madhavi found him ill in bed. The illness continued for three days. The sisters wanted to take him to a doctor. He dissuaded them saying he would be all right.

Hamlet told his mother about his latest dream, when he regained some of his vigour.

“People will say I am mad. Maybe, even you think I am mad. But to me it seems that I will not get any peace until I come to know the truth about father’s death.”

Madhavi looked agitated, as usual, when Hamlet spoke about his father’s death.

 

*

Padmini called him up on the fourth day. His fever had subsided; his fatigue almost gone. With the coming back of his energies, his morbid thoughts too had lost their hold on him. Padmini had again grown into a cool shade in the desert of his mind.

“Hamlet, what happened? How are you?” she asked over the phone.

“I had one of those spells of fear of darkness. It is the first since that episode at beach.”

“I see.”

“Later at night there was a recurrence of that dream. The bleeding figure demanding to discover the truth . . .”

“Oh!”

There was silence for a brief moment. Hamlet watched a calendar flapping in the breeze. The images of the valley of skulls, the burning coal-eyed figure and the stream of blood flowing down from wound on its back paraded before his eyes. He felt sick.

“Hamlet, there is a problem here” Padmini said.

“Problem?”

“The girl against whose leave you were appointed has joined.”

Hamlet couldn’t grasp her immediately, but then remembered that his appointment had been temporary, and against the maternity-leave vacancy of some female staff. Padmini was saying that his contract had expired.

“I am with you,” Padmini said in a moist voice.

I am unemployed.

Hamlet didn’t know what to say. The new situation meant that he would be without income and bereft of his opportunity to see Padmini. He would again be a dependent of his sisters. Once again a wastrel of thirty three, with no skill to make a living other than the one that had abandoned him. He looked at the canvas that was poised on the easel. Its blankness mocked him. A devastating sense of impotence swept over him as he stood, receiver in hand. Over the phone, Padmini’s breathing kissed his earlobe.

 

*

 

Once again, ‘Volga’ with its unfinished structure and unplastered walls entrapped Hamlet in its barren womb. He spent his time gazing at the canvas, or attempting to read.  But his mind roved like a mad dog. When the sun was down in the mornings and the evenings, he walked along the roads, crossing bridges, visiting parks and contemplating the waves at the beach. He searched for inspiration in the infinite atmospheres, hues, light and shades of the town. He searched the lives of people for a concept to sow in his imagination; he scanned the plant and the animal world for forms to set on the canvas – all in vain.

After a week of unemployment, Hamlet stepped into an internet booth and sent Gurudas an email.

Guru,

I have no one else to turn to than you. I have lost my job at Panorama. My posting there was against a leave vacancy. The peon’s post there was not permanent. I am left with no means to live. I will have to leech again on Juliet and Cleopatra, what a shame!

The issue of “Pluto” is still plaguing me. Last week I had another dream, with the bleeding father-figure begging me to deliver him from the hell of martyrdom. The dream is a fiend that sucks me dry. It got me ill with fever. I wish it is just my madness, but the plea appeals too real to me. It stalls my attempts to paint. It seems I am cursed to be creatively impotent as long as ‘Pluto’ is not discovered. I know you would laugh at this. I have been digging the past. I met two old men who were connected with father. But they have not yielded much.

No idea what to do.

Hamlet

 

*

Padmini asked him to live with her. She didn’t mince her words. She asked him, looking straight into his face, to live with her. She said he wouldn’t have to worry about making a living. She would support him. He would only have to work on his painting.

“Our society doesn’t allow living together. They may spare you with some abuse, but I will be beaten to a pulp, or even killed” Hamlet said with a chuckle. Padmini drew circles on his beard with the nails of her long fingers. He liked the tickling it caused. She was lying beside him, her head resting on his shoulder.

“I thought you would have more balls,” she said, poking a finger into his cheek.

Hamlet held his peace.

“Then marry me,” she said.

“Marriage? You will marry a good-for-nothing?”

“I know how good you are,” she said, putting a hand on his crotch.

He had never thought of marriage. The picture of his unmarried sisters loomed before him. A brother marrying while his sisters remained unmarried! The idea was revolting.

“I shall love you always,” he said.

She stared at him in silence.

“What about Mohini? How will she react if she gets to know about this relationship?

“She knows and she likes you,” Padmini said. “I have spoken to her.”

Hamlet turned down to look at her. He could read no expression there, except the blankness of resignation. He admitted to himself that women were infinitely stronger than men.

He was standing on crossroads; he would have to take a decision now. It should be either to live a life with Padmini, or to leave her. He couldn’t expect her to be his mistress of convenience.

“I want you and I’ll be with you, but . . .” he paused.

“I understand Hamlet,” Padmini said. “I took you into my life without any conditions. I can have you too with no conditions. I was only dreaming of an ideal situation.”

His lips searched hers and found them only too willing. He felt ashamed of himself.

He said, “We’ll live together Padmini, just give me a little more time.”

“You can take all your time, Hamy.”

A distant siren went off plaintively, reminding Hamlet of his school days, when the siren blowing from the cashew factory at six in the evening made Juliet, Cleopatra and himself wait for their mother to return from work. They waited impatiently for the packet of banana  fritters she would bring them. They were hungry all the time.

“Why don’t you conduct an exhibition, a solo?” Padmini asked.

“Exhibition? With what?”
“You have some work with you, haven’t you? The ones you made earlier?”
“They aren’t up to the mark.”

“Did anyone tell you so?”

“No,” he said. I haven’t shown them to anyone. But I know they are not good enough.”

“That could be a wrong judgement. A inferiority feeling-induced fallacy.”

“Do you think if I put a price tag, say one lakh rupees each, and exhibit them, they will sell like cakes?”

My love doesn’t know with what contempt people look at the prize tags put on the paintings of obscure artists.

“I love to see you more as a penniless artist than as a peon in the office of Panorama,” she said, pressing her breasts against his chest, and covering his face with hers.

“Bodhisatwan said I would be rid of my artist’s block only on finding the truth behind my father’s murder. I have two problems here. One, I have no solid ground to base my quest; I have only the promptings of an absurd dream.

“Two, TKV, the only witness of the incident I could meet, is sure that the official story is true – that the attack was made by the fundies who had no intention to kill, but only to warn them against tampering with people’s faiths.”

“Bodhisatwan won’t say anything with no reason,” Padmini said.

Hamlet looked at her in surprise. She was uncurling a lock of hair.

“You have the eyes of a clairvoyant,” he said.

“Nonsense. My father’s life has dark, unlit corners. When he says something, I have felt that the words come from an underground tunnel, passing many unrevealed things. He speaks out only a tip of what he knows.”

Hamlet remembered that he too had felt the same when he was speaking to Bodhisatwan.

“You should take him seriously, Hamlet.”

“But where shall I seek further? There are no more leads.”

“Something might turn up, let’s hope” she said.

 

*

 

Hamy,

Wish you well with your sleuthing. I have nothing to say on this except that you can call me up if there is anything I can do to give you a leg-up.

About your unemployment – if you come to Mumbai, we can find you an illustrator’s job, or some other job, definitely a cut above a peon’s. But you have been a family-bound bum. Your tether won’t allow you to stray  beyond your town. So fuck the idea!

Here is another offer. You do some simple calendar-style works of Kerala landscapes in acrylic or water colour. Pencil sketches too will do. I can find  market for you – for interior decoration. Good money in it.

I am at Amsterdam right now, in a group exhibition of SAARC artists. To be back to Mumbai next week. See you.

Guru

 

Gurudas’s mail was matter of fact, as usual.

 

25

 

THE MOTHER OPENS UP

 

“Who is Hamlet?” a fat, short, middle-aged nurse asked, stepping out of the Coronary ICU. She stood holding the door half open, with a countenance bespeaking urgency. A dozen bystanders gazed at Hamlet as he got up and went towards the nurse. A brilliant lightning illuminated the night outside. A string of thunders followed. The rain fell steadily. A cold breeze wafted across the lobby of the Government Hospital.

“This time thulavarsham is a bit too strong,” Hamlet heard an old man commenting on the return of the monsoon in the month of Thulam in the Malayalam Era. These rains always fell in the evenings and nights accompanied by lightning and thunder.

The nurse made room for Hamlet to pass by, holding the spring-door open. “Leave your sandals out, please.”

It was very cold inside the Intensive Care Unit. The low drone of the air-conditioner filled the long rectangular room. There were a dozen beds, all occupied by patients from whom tubes extended out like tentacles. Hamlet looked around to see where his mother was lying. He found her in a bed at the far end of the room, with a tube running out of her nostril, and a drip stuck in her arm. Wires of the ECG were stuck on her chest; its monitor set displayed a dancing graph. She was looking at him.

She had developed a pain in the chest in the evening while she was in the kitchen, and was hospitalized immediately.

The nurse led him to a corner where the doctor was sitting at a table, writing on paper pad. He was a bespectacled man in his late forties, wearing a white coat, and a stethoscope around his neck.

“Patient Madhavi’s bystander,” the nurse introduced him to the doctor.

“How are you related to the patient?” the doctor asked raising his head.

“I am her son.”

“Okay. She has had a mild attack. There is nothing to worry right now,” the doctor said, putting his pen down on the table. “She needs an angiogram. We will do it tomorrow at eight in the morning.”

Hamlet looked at his mother. He said nothing.

“See, your mother seems to be worried about something and says she wants to speak to you. She is emotionally stressed. So I have put her on a mild sedation. It won’t be good for her to speak in this situation.”

“I see,” Hamlet said, anxiously searching his mother’s face. From that distance, he couldn’t read her expression. She seemed to be gazing at the ceiling.

“Don’t worry. She will speak to you day after tomorrow. Is that okay?” the doctor asked with a faint smile.  Hamlet nodded.

Hamlet kept his eyes on Madhavi as he was led out by the nurse. He sat in the lobby, at the same place where he was sitting earlier, and watched the night. The rain had grown mild, but the thunder and lightning continued. It shook the walls of the building, and rattled the windowpanes.The screaming of a child cut through the din of the weather.

Hamlet wondered what his mother wanted to tell him. A strange premonition gripped him. A painful numbness began to creep up from his soles, spread across his body. He felt a cramp in his stomach. He had a sleepless night ahead.

 

*

 

The first thing Madhavi asked when she was brought to the ward was for Hamlet. It was the general ward of the cardiology wing, a medium-sized room with four beds. When Madhavi was shifted there in the afternoon, there was only one patient in it, a man in his fifties who was looked after by a middle-aged woman, probably his wife. Madhavi was brought in a stretcher pulled by two attenders, and put in a bed that lay flush with the wall.

“Where is my son?” she asked rolling her head, as soon as she was stretched on the bed.

“I am here, Amma,” Hamlet said, moving forward to stand in front of her.

“Oh!” she sighed, with relief. It seemed she had feared she would never see him again. She looked emaciated; the wrinkles on her face had grown deeper. Her lips curved down, as if she was suppressing an urge to weep. She had had an angioplasty. The drowsiness of the anaesthesia still lingered in her eyes.

Madhavi stretched out her arm towards Hamlet. A canula was stuck on her shaking hand. Hamlet grasped it and sat beside her on the bed. The silence of the dull, soporific afternoon permeated the ward. The other patient, the middle-aged man, was sleeping with his back turned to them. His wife was sitting on a stool near the window, reading a magazine.

“I wanted to tell you something son, but they didn’t allow me to speak. I thought I’d die before I said that to you,” Madhavi said, her eyes beginning to well up and flow down their corners.

“Speaking will put strain on the heart. So it’s better not to speak too much till you get better, Amma,” Hamlet said, caressing her hand. It lay limp like an injured kitten in his hand.

“I shall speak. Doctor gave me the permission to speak keeping my voice as low as possible, she said. Her voice was so low that Hamlet had to bend down to hear her.

“ I have been carrying it with me for so long. It won’t be right if I held it back any more, Maybe it will lessen your burden” she said, running her hand over Hamlet’s head.

“I don’t know if it will make any sense. I had decided not to speak of it to any one, because I hadn’t given it much importance after your father died. But son, I saw you crying sitting in front of the empty canvas. That was when I decided to tell you.

“You have this belief that your dead father wants you to find out who killed him, and that you won’t be able to paint till you find it. You think there is something unknown about his murder.

“Maybe, there is a different truth behind his death. When I think about certain things, I feel your doubt couldn’t be baseless. I shall tell what I had known, though it had not helped me to come to any conclusion.

“In his last days, maybe for a month before he died, your father was a very sad man. In fact, he had never been his old self since his imprisonment during Emergency. He never used to discuss his political activities with me, though he would tell me sometimes about his views on social problems. He spoke to me always like a teacher, making sure I understood him. He probably felt that I was not intelligent enough to share his thoughts. He had never told me that he had resigned from the Party before Emergency. I came to know about it only much later. Also, I had no idea that later he had rejoined the Party, until I was told by someone else.

“Yes, your father was growing very silent and sad in the house. He seemed to be worried. He had lost interest in his reading and writing. He spent most of the time lying down, lost in thought. I felt that he was not active in the Party as he used to be. I asked him if anything was wrong. He never gave me any reply.

“But one night I was woken up by some sound. In the dim light of the bedroom lamp I saw your father sitting up in the bed. His back was shaking as if he was weeping. I switched on the light. I was not mistaken. Your father was weeping.

“ “What happened?” I asked him. I was so upset to see him in that state. I had never seen him weeping in all our life. He asked me to switch off the light. He was ashamed to be seen with tears.

“He didn’t speak a word for some time. I could see him wiping the tears now and again. It seemed the tears would never stop. I too was crying with my head on his shoulder.

“Don’t cry,” he told me in a weak sound.

“Please tell me what happened,” I said.

“Well . . . today the Local Committee Secretary slapped me on my face,” he said.

I couldn’t believe that Comrade Damodaran was slapped by the young secretary.

“And the committee members just looked on. The Party hates me Madhavi. It seems my life had been a waste,” he said, his body again shaking in distress.

“But why should it hate you. You have been a sincere worker . . ..” I tried to get it out of him. But he wouldn’t tell me anything more, except that the Party was changed and that it was no more tolerant to idealists like him.”

Madhavi stopped and asked Hamlet for some water. Hamlet poured warm water into a glass from the thermo flask and held it to her lips. She sipped little quantities pouting her quivering lips.

Her account of his father being slapped by the Party man gnawed at his innards. He was beginning to feel strange hunches.

“Did he ever tell you why this happened mother?”

“No,” she said, wiping her mouth with a towel. She looked out of the window at the sky  for a moment before she resumed.

“Once, I think a few weeks after your father’s death, Unniyannan, you know, my old colleague at the cashew factory, came to our house. He had always been like an elder brother to me till he died many years later. Unniyannan asked me if Comrade Damodaran had told me anything unnecessary about the Party.”

“Unnecessary?” Hamlet asked frowning.

“Yes, that was the word he used.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said no. I didn’t want to create any problem with the Party, now that there was no one to protect us.”

Hamlet regarded his mother silently. A mighty wave of sympathy swept his heart. The memory of the days during which his mother had toiled to keep them alive and going choked him. He turned his head away to hide his tears.

“Unniyannan told me that as long as Comrade Damodaran was a martyr the Party would protect us. “So if Damu had said anything unnecessary to you it will be better to forget it,” he said with a sternness I had not seen in him before.”

Hamlet sat looking into her eyes, where he saw questions fluttering like kites in a stormy sky.

 

26

 

THE VITAL MEETING

 

Hamlet was lying on the beach when a massive wave hit the shore. It ran over the people sitting on the shore, wetting, exciting them. It was a lonely wave. It swept Hamlet a few feet up the shore singing a marvellous tune. Hamlet allowed himself to be rocked by the wave, savoring its coolness and bouyancy.  While being pulled along by the receding wave, the thought occurred to him:“Who was with him when he died?” It was as though the receding waters had whispered the question in his ears. It struck him odd that he had never thought about the actual event of his father’s death. Everyone had talked, all his life, to him of the incidents that surrounded the murder of Comrade Damodaran. None had ever mentioned the moments of the actual death. Even TKV, the only witness he had met, had nothing to say about it. All accounts he had heard of his father’s death said that Comrade  Damodaran was brought dead to the hospital.

He should find out who had brought him there. The First Information Report on his father’s death would have the answer to that question.

 

*

 

The copy of the FIR was served to him by the police station under whose jurisdiction was the place where Comrade Damodaran was attacked. He had submitted his application for it in accordance with the Right to Information Act, which made it mandatory for the authorities to provide any information demanded by the public.

The FIR was a chaotic text in Malayalam written in weird sentences. The twenty-eight year old document was handwritten in childishly rotund characters. Hamlet read in it a familiar narrative and was soon bored. He skimmed through it to for the information he wanted and found it on page four. Comrade Damodaran was brought to the “Casualty” of the District Government Hospital at 12.15 A.M in a police jeep by two constables, namely M. K. Pillai and A. Yunus.

The Report had no record of his father’s dying declaration. Still, he found a ray of hope in meeting Pillai and Yunus, the men who had taken him to the hospital. Padmini helped him, using her contacts, to know the whereabouts of these men. Constable Pillai had died ten years ago while still in service; Constable Yunus had retired five years back from a station in Kannur to where he was tranferred in 1990.

“Go to Kannur and find Yunus out. Speak to him,” Padmini told him sticking a few currency notes into his hands when they met in the evening near the Municipal Park. “There is money for the expenses.” Hamlet stood uncertain with downcast eyes.

“You have lost weight Hamy,” she said. “Aren’t you eating properly?”

He gave her a wan smile.

“I have come to this. I’ve become a beggar,” he said, holding the money she gave him up to her.

“Don’t play a tragic hero,” she reproached. “Go to Kannur tonight itself, and speak to this Yunus. I am sure you will get some very important lead from him.”

“What makes you so sure? Who knows if he is alive or dead!”

“I don’t know. I feel so. Somehow.”

“I love you,” he said.

*

 

He left his home at nightfall with a little bag stuffed with a set of dress. He didn’t tell his mother and sisters about the true purpose of his trip. He told them he was visiting an old friend who was ill. They didn’t ask anything further. His mother wanted to know if he had money for the journey. He nodded.

The train was crowded. It was ten in the night when it pulled into the platform. As the bogies were trundling before him to their halt, he could see passengers sleeping on their  berths in the reserved compartments. He had no reservation as it was an unplanned trip. Hamlet had a tough time getting into an unreserved compartment. He stood poised among men who were standing in the aisle. The seats were all filled mostly by men, and a few women. Men were sitting crosslegged over the luggage stands too. Those who were on the seats dozed off, happily oblivious of the misery of the standers who fought fatigue, jostling against one another as the train pulled fast along the uneven tracks. Hamlet got a seat after three hours when the train reached Ernakulam.

He was fast asleep as the train arrived at Kannur at seven in the morning. He woke up when somebody nudged him to make room for a seat.  He rushed to the exit and climbed down to the platform, all in a daze. “No need to run. The train will be here for ten minutes,” he heard someone tell.

He walked along the road in front of the railway station and chose a lodge that looked cheap enough for him. It was a little room with a neat bed and a ceiling fan. He flopped on the bed and fell asleep immediately. During the sleep he had a dream in which the father-figure sat beside him on the bed, staring at him. It wore a benign expression, a scarcely perceptible smile. Hamlet attempted to get up, but his body was too heavy to rise. The figure caressed Hamlet’s hair with its fingers; it was so comforting that he fell into a deep slumber. When he woke up after two hours he had the feeling that he had been watching himself sleep. He shook his head to brush away the thought.

 

*

 

In the bus Hamlet sat at a window seat absorbing the landscape of Malabar. It was studded with the old fashioned two-storeyed Muslim houses with tiled roofs. Paddy fields appeared on the roadsides, where the ears of the grown paddy waved in the breeze. The coconut trees appeared shorter than the ones in the south, but with richer yield.  The roads were narrower, and had pools of muddy water in the gutters. The bus shook as it plunged in the potholes throwing the passengers off their seats. They sat clutching at the iron bars on the backrests of the seats.

A man on the road showed Hamlet the way to the police station. It was only a ten-minute walk from the bus stop. Originally a house of some traditionally rich family, it had wooden pillars, a verandah and a large patio. It was an old building situated in a large compound with shady trees. There was a cool atmosphere redolent of wet leaves in the compound. Hamlet felt uneasy, as he always used to feel, in the presence of the police. He walked towards the steps that led to the patio where a young policeman stood at ease with a rifle at his side. Hamlet approached him, feeling reassured by his youth. He was taller than Hamlet and was staring at the sky.

“I am coming from the south,” Hamlet said.

The policeman nodded.

“I have come for the address of Yunus sir. He had retired from this station five years back.”

“Why do you want it?”

“He was my father’s friend while he was working at Kollam in the early 80s.”

“I see,” a faint smile spread over the young man’s face. Hamlet appreciated himself for the ingenuity with which he lied.

“Come,” he said and walked into the house leaving his position. Hamlet followed.

The policeman stopped at the door and spoke to someone inside putting his head in. “Sir, someone is here for Yunusikka’s address.”

Yunus seems to be popular here, Hamlet thought. The young policeman had referred to him as “ikka,” a Muslim way of addressing an elder brother.

“Send him in,” a hoarse voice from within said. The policeman gestured Hamlet to go in and walked back to the patio to resume his position.

An elderly policeman was sitting at a desk writing on a file. A few red-taped files were piled on one side of the table. The policeman’s cap was kept on the other side. A lathi was leaning against the wall behind him. He searched Hamlet’s face with blood-shot eyes and raised his eyebrows. It meant, “What do you want?”

“I came to know where I could meet Yunus sir.”
“Where are you coming from?”

 “Kollam.”

“Why do you want to meet Yunus sir?”

“We knew him when he worked at Kollam.”

“I see,” he looked satisfied.

“He retired some years back.”

Hamlet nodded

The policeman told him the name of the place. “You can take an autorickshaw from the nearby junction. Get down at the place and anyone will show you the way to Yunusikka’s house.”

Hamlet left thanking him.

*

 

Yunus was a dark man who exuded strength like an aging bull. He was over six foot tall, and had muscular arms and shoulders; his stomach was flat. Only his bald head with grey hair at the back, a salt and pepper moustsache, and bags under the eyes betrayed his age. He was breaking clods around a coconut tree when Hamlet showed up. He wore only a lungi; sweat was glistening on his chest and shoulders.

He put the shovel on the ground and studied Hamlet’s face with a serenity that couldn’t be expected in a policeman. He had large eyes whose whites made a sharp contrast with his dark face.

“Are you any way related to Comrade Damodaran?” he asked, narrowing his eyes like a clairvoyant.

“I am his son. And I have come . . .”

“I know. I have been expecting you all these years.”

He led Hamlet towards the house putting a hand on his shoulder. Hamlet could feel the power of Yunus’s body as he walked past him with firm steps. He showed Hamlet a chair and called his wife. A fat woman in a black purdah came out. Yunus asked her to serve some refreshment to Hamlet. He excused himself saying he would be back soon after taking a bath. A few minutes later the woman came out with a cup of tea and biscuits on a platter. She placed it on the small table in front of Hamlet. She invited him to have it speaking in the Malabar dialect, using a plural inflection for the verb. She then withdrew, leaving him alone in the sitout.

 

*

 

“I have expected this meeting all these years. I was only worried if it wouldn’t happen after all. It has been twenty-eight years . . .” said Yunus, the retired policeman.

It was a very cool coconut grove, with patches of sunlight falling in irregular patterns among the shades. Yunus and Hamlet sat in chairs facing each other. Hamlet had least expected, when the senior man started speaking, that in the narrative that followed he would have answers to all his questions.

 

            27

 

THE TRUTH

 

 

 

“I knew Comrade Damodaran personally.” Yunus spoke looking at the heads of the coconut trees. They were rich with yield; raw, green, wholesome coconuts hung from them in large bunches. Hamlet leaned forward, sharpening his ears.

“ He had helped me a year before his death to get admission for my son in a school at Kollam. I had got a transfer there from Kannur to be with my wife who was appointed as a nurse at the District hospital. It was in the middle of the school year when admissions were all closed. I never liked requesting for help to my superior officers in the police department. I was active in the Party before getting my police job, and had connections with some leaders. I contacted the local unit of the Party there for help and somebody asked me to meet Comrade Damodaran. I was thrilled to meet him. We had heard about him during the Emergency.

“Your father was a nice man, always willing to help. A man with some sense of humour, a quality not always seen in people holding revolutionary views. He was known for his Naxalite sympathies, and I knew that the Intelligence Department was closely watching his moves, though he was back into the Party. When I met him, he teased me saying he was afraid of policemen. He told me how he was tortured in police camps during the Emergency.  He said it was not good for me to have any truck with men like him, that personal relations may come in the way of my job. He did help me anyway. He managed to get admission for my son in a school. It was not the school where he was teaching. His relations with his management were not good.

“On the evening the incident took place, the police force of the district was centered in the town as some big politicians from Delhi were addressing a rally. Sometime during the function, my Sub Inspector ordered me and three other constables to take a jeep and rush to the rural spot where the MYSP jatha was attacked. I had no idea that Comrade Damodaran was involved in the incident. It took us half an hour to reach there, and by that time the two MYSP men who were injured in the attack were shifted to the hospital by the local people.

“Some men told us what had happened. Nobody saw who made the attack, as the lights had gone off before it while Comrade Damodaran was speaking. We came to know that the Comrade was not seen after the attack, so we started searching the area for him. We found him lying in a narrow lane in the dark. It was at the back of the venue of the meeting, about a hundred metres from there. He seemed to have tried to escape that way and fallen unconscious. In the flashlight we saw that his face was covered in blood. He had probably received a blow on the head. I asked the few local men who cooperated with us why they hadn’t searched for the Comrade earlier. They said they were busy transporting the injured men to the hospital.

“My hands got sticky with blood as we tried to lift him off the ground. He should have bled a lot. It was almost an hour after the attack. I held my hand against his nose and checked if he was breathing. He was.

“We carried him to the police jeep. As there were only four of us, the senior Constable ordered me and Pillai to take Comrade to the hospital. He decided that he and the other policeman would stick around making enquiries. I sat in the rear of the jeep with the Comrade’s body crammed on the floor. Pillai drove the jeep. I leaned forward and held Comrade’s head in my hand to prevent it from jolting as the roads were bumpy. A heavy rain had begun to fall.”

Yunus stopped and took a deep sigh. Hamlet peered into his eyes as if to check if there were any remnants of the images of his father’s last moments in them. Yunus gave him a sad smile. It seemed to reflect on the strange vicissitudes of life that made him narrate that old incident to Hamlet. He continued:

“The jeep was heading for the District Hospital. It had to be a half-an-hour drive, with the rain and darkness slowing down our progress. Maybe about fifteen minutes after we had  started, I felt a cold hand gripping my arm. I peered down at the floor of the jeep in the darkness. Yes, the Comrade was gripping my arm. I leaned forward and lifted his head further up towards me, and held my ear close to his face.

““Comrade, do you have anything to say? Do you know who did this to you? Do you know why you were attacked?” I asked. I concentrated, with my eyes closed, to grasp the faintest sound he made. All around me the noise of the jeep and the rain pervaded.

“I didn’t hear anything from him for some time, though his grip on my arm didn’t weaken. Then as I lost hope and began to straighten up, it seemed that I heard a sound, a syllable, that rose like a moan from him. I leaned forward again and urged him to speak.

““Pluto . . . it was Pluto,” he said.

“I knew that I was becoming the sole witness to the dying declaration of Comrade Damodaran. Seeing the way he was bleeding, I knew that the chances of his being saved were low.

““Pluto? Who’s that? Why did he attack you?”

“He didn’t react for some time. The jeep gathered momentum as it entered the good road of the national highway from the country roads. The rain continued pelting the roof of the jeep. Then he whispered again.

““Party wants hospital . . . . the paddy fields . . . farmers . . .” Comrade Damodaran said under his breath. Those were his last words

“I lowered him on the floor of the jeep. He still had his grip on my arm. It had grown cold. I loosened it with my free hand. It seemed  that his grip had a life of its own. It was reluctant to loosen and let go of my arm.”

Yunus caressed his left arm involuntarily, as if it still smarted where the dying man had tightened his grasp.

“I didn’t wish to tell Pillai about the Comrade’s dying word. I didn’t trust him as he was known to have been a mole in the department, smuggling out details of police investigation and secrets to lawyers and journalists. I smelled danger in Pillai knowing about this; I felt that might bring harm to me as I was the only witness.

“We reached the hospital and took Comrade to the casualty. Shortly after, the doctor on duty declared him as dead. The Party used its influence to get the post-mortem done immediately. The following day the Party buried Comrade Damodaran with all the honours due to a martyr. Its leadership stated that he was killed by communalists for upholding secularism and denouncing superstitions.”

There was a lone thunder at first before the sky began to darken. Then there was a string of thunders. Hamlet felt a strange thrill as he looked up at the sky. It seemed as though he was nearing an unknown destination. A stray rain drop fell on his forehead. A strong breeze blew through Yunus’s compound setting dry leaves flying off the ground. Yunus said it might not rain after all as the breeze would carry away the clouds. He got on with the narration.

“I reported to the Deputy Superintendent of Police who had the charge of the investigation on what had happened in the jeep. He asked me not to divulge the information to anyone else. He was apprehensive of taking it as evidence because there wasn’t any other witness to support my claim. The Dy.SP said that he suspected Comrade Damodaran was the victim of some high political conspiracy. He was afraid that my life would   be endangered if I became a lone witness in the case. He ensured me that he would use the lead during the course of the investigation. So the First Information Report was filed without my statement regarding Comrade’s last words. Those words still live with me.

“But the confession I made to my superior didn’t seem to throw any fresh light on the investigation. The DySP was soon transferred to some other district; the case fell in some other hands. The investigation took no radical turn. The case, as you know, was eventually settled. The apprehended men, the members of the fundamentalist organization, were awarded brief terms of imprisonment by the Sessions Court for possession of illegal weapons. The murder attempt was not proved, though the motivations behind the attack were established beyond doubt – that it was to take revenge on Comrade Damodaran and the MYSP for hurting religious sentiments. The High Court condoned this sentence and acquitted the men of all charges for want of proper evidence. The case was not pursued any further.

“The whole legal process took a few years.

“I had soon realized that the reality behind Comrade Damodaran’s murder should be a different one. So, after the DySP’s transfer, I decided to do an investigation on my own. This was about six months after the incident. Not that I had any expertise in undertaking such a job, or that I had any great hope of succeeding. I was being pushed into it by an inner force. Conscience? Maybe. Comrade’s last words kept ringing in my ears like howls emerging from a haunted cave. I lost sleep. If I slept, I would get up with starts in the middle of the night. I would feel the cold grip of Comrade Damodaran’s fingers around my arm in the darkness. The grip would be so real that I could feel the skin of my arm smarting. I had prided in my being a rationalist, but the experiences I was having pushed me into a state of irrational fear. I had begun to feel a touch of the other world, a nearness of Comrade Damodaran’s presence always around me, his last words weighing on me with a moral urgency for action.

“I had been mulling over those words – “Pluto,” “Party wants hospital,” “paddy fields,” “farmers.” None of them had anything that might be connected with the attack on the MYSP programme. The involvement of the fundies was beyond doubt. They had enough motivation; they were seeking to give a warning to MYSP and Comrade against their attempt to desacralize the custom at the Hill Temple. Comrade’s article in the MYSP magazine alleging as hoax the sighting of the divine star during the annual festival at the Hill Temple had created quite a flutter among the faithful during those times.

“The wounds sustained by Comrade were similar to the ones received by the other two MYSP men, except for the one he had on his back, the fatal one according to the autopsy  report. It was a deep stab injury, made by thrusting something like a long knife, while all the others were hacking injuries. Could this be enough reason to suspect an unknown factor, an anonymous assassin in the murder? Couldn’t it be that one among the fundies had used a knife instead of a chopper?

“Who was Pluto? I searched the list of the Known Depredators and criminals in the district and the state. I could find no one by that name. I started wondering if Pluto was a concept or a code name. How was it connected to the Party, some hospital, paddy fields and farmers?

“I was alone. I didn’t have power. I was only a low-rung policeman. I didn’t belong to your place, so I had no contacts among the local people. But I was determined to go to the bottom of it.  I had a moral responsibility to the dead man.

“Everybody knew that Comrade Damodaran had been out of the Party during the Emergency, and had later rejoined it. He had been demoted to the lowest status of an ordinary member. It was highly probable that he was dissatisfied with the Party’s leaders in his locality, who could have been his juniors. I decided to take a peep into the Party’s inner circle.

“Before joining the police service I had connections with the Party as a student activist here, at Kannur. I had one Party member there at Kollam, whom I had known from my student days. I restablished contact with him. He had become a leader of the Party’s youth wing. We had some common interest in sports. I was young at that time, and I went to play badminton with this guy, just to get along with him. I would try to engage him in talks related to the Party’s activities. In the beginning he was not forthcoming, but then he began to open up by and by. I gained his confidence by judiciously divulging police secrets to him. I could sense him warming up more and more towards me, and beginning to answer my casual queries regarding the Party’s lesser known inner affairs. He began to share with me the gossips running in the Party’s inner circles. Still, I couldn’t worm out anything from him that could give me some clue.

“One day there came an announcement of the building of a hospital at the Party’s initiative. It reminded me of Comrade’s words. Soon everything seemed to fall into an invisible line. This was just about a year after Comrade’s murder. I visited the site of the construction. The foundation work for a big hospital was progressing on the side of the highway upon the land of an erstwhile paddy field. It was a large field of about fifty acres, of which the proposed hospital had appropriated almost half. From the locals I gathered that the remaining land of the paddy field was bought by a builder for constructing villas.

“When I met my young friend I asked him if the Party wasn’t against levelling of paddy fields for developmental purposes. I had known that it was the official line of the Party. He was evasive, like all politicians, when it came to defending their parties against their own faults. He said that the hospital was the need of the hour, since there were no good hospitals in that rural area. It was going to be a hospital that gave low-cost treatment to the working class. I had come to know that the Party had acquired the land at a low price from the owners who had lost interest in cultivating it. A private investor had acquired the other half at a high price when the prospective hospital raised the land value.

“How can the Party protest against this investor if he levelled the land for a profit-making enterprise?” I asked my friend.  The young man could only shrug his shoulders.

“I asked him if the Party members were unanimous about the change in the policy. He said that almost all of them agreed to it. I pressed this subject further upon him on a different occasion, for I didn’t want to raise suspicion in him. He said there was only one instance of a dissent at the early stages of its deliberations.

““When was it?”

““About a couple of years back. Maybe less.”

““Who was the dissenter, if I may ask? There seem to be always some dissent when there is an imminent change. Some people don’t like change, right?”

““Yes. Some sticklers to dry ideology. The types who don’t want to evolve with the times.”

““Who was it anyway? Is it someone I know?”

““Yes. You know him very much.”

““Really?”

““Yes.”

““How come?”

““Because you were the one who carried his body to the hospital.”

““What? You don’t say . . .”

““Yes. Comrade Damodaran was the only member to voice a dissent. He did it in a general body meeting of the branch.”

““I see. What was his point?”

““The usual one of the old school, anti-capitalist, anti-progressive etc. Clinging on to primitive communism, as though man only needs food to live.”

““I don’t get you. Isn’t the Party anti-capitalist?”

““Yes, but now it realizes that capital is needed for people’s own good. And that there is no wrong in a judicious investment of private capital in modern developmental undertakings, because it is practically impossible for all investment to be done by the state in a country like ours. The Party has done it in some places in Malabar where it has hospitals and small-scale industries. Can’t you see that in our country the proletariat is mainly employed in capitalist firms. Then what is the big issue?”

““Very well. I was only curious to know. I have long stopped learning the Party ideology. Anyway, what happened to Damodaran’s dissent?”

““Well, he was after all a much respected fellow, as you know, despite his demotion and all. A thorough-going intellectual of the old school. It was not easy to overcome the strong offensive he was raising against the plan for the hospital. He claimed that it would create a bad precedent all over the State if the Party were to be part of levelling of paddy fields for construction purposes. The private sector would jump at the opportunity it offers them, and agricultural land all over the State would be endangered. He was saying that the Party would no more have a moral voice to protest in such an occasions.”

“The young man didn’t know anything more about the consequences of Comrade’s dissent. In fact, he had only heard about the incident from someone else. But the little information I had squeezed out of him helped me. I could now see what Comrade had wanted to tell me when he died. He was sympathising with the farmers whose livelihood would be messed up in case the Party’s plans worked. He was concerned, I guessed, that if he died there’d be no one left to resist this move.

Now, what was left was the crucial point – “Pluto.” Comrade had said, “it was Pluto.” What was I to make out of this in the light of what I had known by then? Did he mean to say that he was killed by Pluto? Did “Pluto” have anything to do with the Party? Or was Pluto something related to his rationalist campaign; his debunking of the annual miracle at the Hill Temple? Pluto, after all, is a satellite, a phenomenon of the space, and it could be that Comrade had something related to his research in his mind.

“A couple of years went by again without my getting any further. The construction of the hospital was completed. It was inaugurated at a grand function. As usual, the people who lay their lives for the Party, the martyrs, were commemorated. Comrade Damodarann was especially mentioned in the occasion for his sacrifices for the movement. During this time, the men arrested for the attack on MYSP were awarded punishment for possessing weapons by the lower court. The convicts moved the High Court.”

Yunus paused as his wife came with tea. She said lunch would be ready in an hour. Hamlet took a sip of the tea. It was hot, strong and of an inviting flavour. Yunus stared at the cup he held in his hand and resumed.

“My wife had now begun to insist on me to try for a transfer back home to Kannur. She had been moving her higher-ups for a transfer, and it was almost certain that she would soon get it. I had no solid reason to delay my efforts to go back to my native place. After all, we had no roots at Kollam, and had been sojourning there only because of our jobs. I tendered my request for transfer to Malabar.

“I had not told my wife or anyone about the burden of Comrade’s words I was carrying. Its agony was taking its toll on my health. I had long lost my capacity for peaceful sleep. The feeling of a cold grip on my arm haunted my nights.

“I have seen truth buried in the deepest bowels of earth emerge in the landslides of time. So it happened here too about a couple of months later.

“A few men were arrested in connection with a clash between the Party and a Hindutwa group. I saw them as they were brought to the police station for questioning. Among them one man struck my attention. He was shortish, less than five foot tall, and extremely dark in his complexion. He was lean but wiry, and seemed to possess tremendous strength in his limbs despite his little figure. His eyes had a perpetual colouring of red, as though they were floating in pools of blood. When he fixed them on me, I could sense in him a person who had unlimited capacity for cruelty. He seemed to hook me with a vengeance which had no personal base, for I was not a member of the police party who had taken him into custody. I observed that he had the same demeanour to everybody.  All of them were granted bail by the magistrate the next day.

“The shortish man stuck to my thoughts with an uncanny persistence. I enquired about him to a fellow policeman who was part of the questioning. He told me that this man had been a local thug with connections to the Party. But the Party had denied having to do anything with him. He was not its member, though he had fought on the side of the Party members. His name was Pavi.

“One evening I asked my young Party friend about his comments on the recent clash between the Party and the fundies. He said that it had been only one among several clashes that have been taking place between the left and the extreme right.

““Was the attack on MYSP in which Comrade Damodaran was killed one such?”

““Could be. After all MYSP has the blessings of the Party, and is almost like its cultural wing. These fundies have been our most consistent enemies, more than any other bourgeois party for quite some time. They are against our secularist, socialist and rationalist agenda.”

“I asked him about Pavi, the dark, little fellow.

““Oh, he is a thug, this Pavi. He is a drug addict too, you know, going high on ganja. The police nabs him now and then for selling ganja.”

““But he was fighting alongside your Party comrades against the other group!”

““This guy is a sympathiser of the Party. I’ve heard that his father was an old Party worker. Pavi too seems to have been a member for some time. But he was later expelled because of his wayward life. Anyway, he comes handy to the Party when it wants to flex its muscles,” he said with a wink.

““Something like a goonda?”

“He smiled.

““Do you know anyone by the name Pluto?”

“He said that he didn’t. But after a few moments the young man said the name rang a bell, but couldn’t place it in his memory.

“Something about this little fellow kindled in me an urge to follow him; to dig into his life. I started stalking him. He was living in a shanty town located at an area siphoned off by the government for a housing project for the poor. Such places were called ‘colony’ by the inhabitants. These colonies also have been the breeding ground for young criminals, professional goons who undertook assignments of attack, extortion and even murder from the needy rich customers who wanted to anonymously settle scores with their enemies.

“The ‘colony’ where Pavi lived was not within the area of jurisdiction of the police station where I had been posted. So I was not known to the people in the locality, as I had never been put on duty there. This, along with my not being a native of Kollam, gave me a secure anonymity as I spread the web of my search around Pavi. I was being propelled just by a hunch.

“ I found that he was an orphan, living alone in a small tin-roofed hovel in the colony. He moved alone, and did nothing, in my observation, that would fetch him wages. He spent time loitering and drinking at arrack shops. He smoked grass sitting among the boulders of the seawall at the sea shore. What struck me most was his solitary nature, something that was unusual among the members of his class. But where did all that money for drinking and grass come from? Since I couldn’t have all my time to shadow him, it took a few weeks to get the answer to that question. It only ratified what I had heard about him – that he was a drug-peddler. I found that on certain days he would remain very late at a deserted part on the sea shore near the ruins of the Portuguese fort. People would approach him, in singles and groups of two or three, and have brief talks with him. He would pass to them packets from a carry bag he kept hidden among the boulders of the seawall. He was dealing in ganja. His customers were mostly young men.

“Still, I had no evidence to link him to the strange suspicions I have been carrying in my mind.

“One day as we were engaged in our game of badminton, my comrade friend asked me,

““Hey Yunus, didn’t you ask me once something about Pluto? Why did you want to know?”

“I was taken aback by that unexpected question. I had not thought about an excuse. How could I tell him the truth! I eluded saying I didn’t remember why I had asked him.

““Man, it is that thug Pavi.”

“It was the most extraordinary moment in my life.

““But how?” I asked not bothering to hide my excitement.

““Someone had given him that nickname long back, when he was in the Party, maybe because of his dark colour and small size – you know, like the planet Pluto, because he revolves around the Party like a dark planet from a long distance,”said my friend beaming at his own ingenuity.

““Or maybe because he is as dark as Pluto, king of the underworld,” I said. But my allusion to mythology seemed to go over my friend’s head. He just gave me an idiotic smile. Anyway, I had got my most clinching link between Comrade Damodaran’s revelation and a solid reality.”

“Now what was left for me was to interrogate Pluto and get to the core of Comrade’s murder. I had none to rely on for help. I knew that I should go about this risky action on my own, without the aid of the police force. I thought about the danger I was inviting to myself and my family. I also knew that I had no escape from the inner compulsion to seek the truth; I could still feel the Comrade’s cold grip on my arm.

“I waited for the right opportunity to corner Pavi alias Pluto. It wasn’t to happen soon because I could shadow him only during my free hours, and these didn’t always coincide with his availability. There were long stretches of time, sometimes several weeks, during which I had no scent of him. I would wonder if he had left the place. But then he would surface again in front of some arrack shop or at some streetside or walking with a rally of the Party. I had decided that if at all I captured and grilled him, it would be at some deserted corner of the sea shore where he peddled his drugs. So, during all my free evenings I went to that seashore prepared for an encounter and watched from a safe distance for the tiny dark figure emerging from among the rocks of the seawall.

“After a seemingly endless wait, one evening, as I stood at an obscure corner behind a coconut tree and watched, I sighted two teenagers slouching towards the area behind the ruins of the fort. After disappearing behind the rocks for a little while, they came up and traced back their way. A few men repeated this act intermittently. A group of three boys, after coming out of the rocks, sat at the seashore in a circle and smoked the grass they had just purchased. I needed no more evidence of Pavi’s presence there. I was sure that he was sitting hidden among the rocks and plying his trade.

“As the day wore out, I moved a little closer to the spot behind which he was hiding. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity by letting him get away unnoticed. In the darkness, his diminutive dark figure could be imperceptible. So I kept my ears and eyes wide open and waited for the slightest sound or movement that could signal Pluto’s activity. I waited for a time, that felt like eternity, for the darkness to set in. A deep solitude engrossed the seashore, which stretched ahead of me in the marble glow of the moon. There was no sound except for the doleful breaking of the waves. I reckoned that there wouldn’t be any more druggies coming in search of Pluto. It was over an hour since the last customers had come.

“So, by about 7.30 or 8 in the evening, I decided to launch my action. I walked on the loose sand and reached the the seawall. I climbed the rocks to its top and scanned the surroundings. It was dark, except for the pale moonlight. There were no electric lamps in the vicinity. I stood stupefied looking at the desolate rocky coast on which the waves broke raising a cloud of foam. There was no sign of any living being there. I grew desperate at the thought of having let Pluto slide away from me. I didn’t give up for I was sure that he should be somewhere around. After a while, a tiny speck of fire caught my attention. It got bright and dim at intervals. There he was, smoking in the darkness. I advanced to the spot slowly, watching my steps so as not to trip on the slippery boulders.

““Who’s there?” the man’s voice rose from the hiding. It was a hoarse and loud voice that hardly matched with his little figure.

““I want a packet,” I ventured, faking the certitude of a confirmed druggie.

““It’s twenty-five for a roll. No bargaining,” said the voice.

““Okay, I want five,” I said, moving towards him. I saw Pluto’s little figure getting up. I was a little apprehensive that he’d recognize me, though I was in mufti wearing a shirt and mundu. I had tucked up the mundu revealing my legs up to my knees. I scratched the back of my thigh lifting the cloth, imitating the irreverent demeanour of thugs. It seemed my manoeuvres had won Pluto’s confidence.

““I have only three packs left,” he said, emerging in full view. I moved towards him, showing no urgency, making a show of groping in my pocket for the money. I didn’t want to put him on alert before I closed in on him.

“He was holding the packets in his hand and regarding me keenly as I reached out for them. I didn’t want to waste any more time on this drama. He was only half my size; I was sure of overpowering him. “So you are Pluto,” I said, clutching at his shirt collar and lifting him off the ground in one swift motion.

“He struggled in my arms like a dog that got the scent of death. He drew a knife from his waist belt and started brandishing. I had to let go of my grasp to defend myself. He yelled expletives at me, and cried that I would go from there only as a corpse. It seemed that he wanted to kill me on the spot, so instead of getting away he opted to fight me. I got a scratch from his knife on my left arm; in turn I gave a kick on his abdomen that sent him tumbling down. He lay on the slippery rocks of the seawall, struggling in vain to get up, moaning with pain. He should have broken his ribs. His fall was that violent.

““What do you want? Who are you?” he asked me,

“My eyes had now grown accustomed to the moonlit night. Pluto was wearing a full-sleeve white shirt and a lungi. In the milky light of the moon, his fallen figure looked like that of a sheep laid out for sacrifice. I made no attempt to help him get up, but resolved to make use of his pain to elicit a confession from him.

““Why did you kill Comrade Damodaran?” I asked, standing over him.

““I haven’t killed anybody,” he said, as expected.

““I know you have. It’s better you tell me everything, or you may die here, or even worse, live like a corpse for the rest of your life.”

““I don’t know what you are saying,” he said attempting to get up, but falling back again groaning.

“I kicked him lightly on his shoulder so as to overturn his body and get the injured part of his torso exposed. Then I set my foot on his ribs and pressed it, gradually increasing pressure. Pluto began to writhe in agony clutching at my foot, whining like a dog. It was clear that he had a couple of ribs broken. I repeated my question. This time my efforts began to yield results.

“ “I killed him because he got me thrown out of the Party.”

““Why did he do that?”

““Maybe because I sold ganja.”

““I see. When did this happen?”

““Four years back.”

““I know that can’t be the reason for killing Comrade,” I said, letting my foot go deeper on his ribs.

““Please, please don’t do that” he cried, curling around my foot.

““Answer my question.”

“He told me that he was offered money by an unknown man to kill Comrade Damodaran. He insisted he didn’t know who it was. I asked him why he was trying to protect the ones who made him do it. “If you tell me the whole story I shall help you save yourself from a whole life in the jail,” I baited him. “You know me. We have met before at the police station.”

“He stared at me for a few moments, panting with his mouth open. I still had my foot on his ribs. “Make it short,” I said picking his knife from the ground. It was a long knife.

““This is the knife you used for stabbing Comrade, right?”

“He nodded.

““How did you do it?” I asked leaning forward.  The sea broke rhythmically on the rocks raising a curtain of spray.

““I had got hint of the attack planned by the Hindu group. So I waited at the venue of the MYSP meeting, watching Damodaran’s movements. That was when the sudden attack came.  I followed him as he ran out of the site. He was limping as he ran. I saw that no one was following us. And when Damodaran had covered some distance I stabbed him from behind.”

““Did he know that it was you?”

““When he fell I told him it was my payback for kicking me out of the Party.”

““But it was not just your revenge . . .”

“He fell silent. I kicked him. His grip tightened on my ankles; he begged me not to hurt him.

““How much did they pay you?”

““Five thousand.”

““You killed Comrade Damodaran for five thousand rupees?”

““I was prepared to kill him even otherwise.”

““I see. For what? Just for recommending the dismissal of a drug peddler?”

“Silence.

““Who gave you the money?” I asked.

““Some guy from the Company that has purchased the land near the site for our hospital.”

““Our hospital?”

““Party’s hospital.”

““Why did the Company want the Comrade killed?”

““How could I know?” he shouted in anger. I lost my temper and kicked him hard on the ribs. He rolled on the rocks roaring with pain. It was a remote corner far removed from the settlement of fishermen. The distance coupled with the roar of the sea ensured that no sound of our encounter would reach the ears of people.

““Answer me,” I said. I pressed the tip of the knife on his genital area. “Don’t you want to live like a man?” I asked, gently rubbing the sharp edge of the weapon on his bulge.

““Please, please don’t,” his sound was faint like a cat’s. He was termbling all over.

““Speak.”

““Maybe because Damodaran was raising a resistance against the Company for doing construction on the paddy fields.”

““So you killed a committed Party comrade for serving the interest of a capitalist,” I said hoping that the reference to ideology would only run over his head. But he surprised me.

““Damodaran was a pain in the Party’s neck. He was against the Party building the hospital in the paddy field. He was going to leave the Party and make his own party with the support of the farmers and peasants and fight against the construction of the hospital.”

“I was taken aback by so much information coming from him.

““Are you saying that the Party is aware of your deed?”

“He fell silent again, but kept staring at the knife whose cold edge I still held pressed on his most vulnerable part.

““I got a phone from the Secretary asking me to do as I liked.”
““As you liked what?”

““As I liked with the Company’s offer.”

“I stared at Pluto’s dark little figure still lying on its side curled like a foetus with pain. I had nothing more to ask him.

“I sat exhausted on a rock and looked at the sea of night. The breakers were continually hitting the seawall and raising foam. The sky was black, studded with innumerable stars. In that magnificent scheme of nature, Pluto’s tiny, injured figure looked so pathetic and indefensible. I thought of Comrade Damodaran’s last words, his deep worry over the fate of the farmers. But by now Comrade’s fears had become true. The paddy fields were converted into a hospital and villas.

“I weighed my options with regard to Pluto. I could get him arrested, but there were high chances of his being guarded against conviction because big guns were involved. There was, after all, no evidence to corroborate Pluto’s involvement in the crime. He could deny everything that he confessed to me, and claim that I had assaulted him for no reason. My story regarding Comrade’s dying words would hold no water after the lapse of all that time. A charge could be built up against me for keeping them to myself.

“I knew that your family was now being protected by the Party.” Yunus said regarding Hamlet with watery eyes. Hamlet was holding his head in his hands, as if it had become too heavy with knowledge.

“ You had the aura of being the children of a great martyr, who had laid his life for the sake of the Party’s great ideals. Comrade’s martyrdom was the only savings that he had left for you to fall back on, and if because of my intervention the Party had to stand accused in his death, his martyrdom would be at stake.

“Looking at the black foamy sea, my thoughts grew crystal clear. I felt that I had fulfilled my moral obligation of unveiling the reality behind Comrade’s murder, if only to myself. I decided that it would be best to bury the truth in me in the better interest of Comrade’s family, until some day the time to excavate it would come. In fact, I had no other choices too.

“So, dear Hamlet, I am giving you this knife of Pluto. It has seen your father’s blood. All these years I had kept it as a souvenir of that black episode in our lives. Now you may decide what to do with it.”

Hamlet held the cold steel in his hands, and caressed its wooden hilt. It was a cheap knife, with no carvings. The blade was half a foot long, with a jagged edge. He held it to his nose and inhaled deeply.

Does it smell the blood of my father?

It reeked only of iron and the years of its hibernation. 

 

PART IV

 

THE REST IS SILENCE

 

Dear Guru,

A great burden has fallen off me. I feel as light as the air of this night. I search it for its demons. But they have vanished causing in me a strange longing for the enemy with whom I have lived long. But this is only a perverse feeling. In truth, the darkness of the night has become as soothing as the kiss of my love. In the place of fear, the night presses me now with a thousand-petalled flower of fondness. I enjoy the incomparable relief of cure, the expurgation of a life-long pain from the text of my life. I know verily, that the fear of darkness has left me for good. It has fallen off with my father’s chain of martyrdom. His soul, if there is one, is now restored to its freedom from the chains of martyrdom. His memory rejoices in me over the banality of the truth of his death; his was just a planned murder by his own comrades.

What was I to do, after becoming privy to the truth behind my father’s murder?  To take revenge?

To think that the killer of my father was living just five kilometres away from me all these years !

I met Pavi alias Pluto the other day in front of a cinema. He was in the act of selling  lottery tickets, repeating endlessly the lottery’s name, prize and date of lot. However, no one was buying tickets from him. He looked like he was seventy. Yes, a pitch-dark elfish old man with a hoary head. He was scrawny, maybe out of poverty; he was wearing rags, a threadbare red shirt torn at the armpits and a lungi in tatters. He solicited me with the lottery tickets. I stared him in his eyes, and tried to conjure up the countenance of hate he wore at the time of stabbing my father. I saw his right eye narrowing and his cheeks twitching  as he drove the long knife into my father’s waist. Looking into him, I could hear the tearing of my father’s flesh and the gurgling of his blood.

“I am Hamlet, son of Comrade Damodaran,” I told him bending myself to reach his ear. He gave me an idiotic smile of non-recognition, bearing his toothless gums, and told me that the lot would be drawn that evening. He said that the first prize was a Maruti car and a million rupees. Looking into his bleary eyes, I felt only a strange pity; a sense of kinship in the game into which we were thrown by the faceless dinosaur called the Party. Still, I wanted to get some assurance from him, some reaction upon the mention of a crucial fact from our past.

I led him, putting my arm on his shoulder, to a remote corner of the street. He followed me like a child, all the time repeating like a parrot the slogan of the lottery.

“I am the son of Comrade Damodaran,” I said to him, this time loudly and assertively. He stopped his chanting and looked straight into my eyes, his head shaking perceptibly like that of a Parkinosnian. He didn’t speak a word. I brought out the knife and held it under his eyes.

“Do you remember this knife, Pluto?”

He seemed to get alert at the mention of his nickname. He took the knife from me, his gnarled fingers firmly grasping the handle. He raised it to his nose eagerly, and took its scent deeply into his nostrils.

“What?” he asked, his face darkening like a cloudy night.

“Does it smell like something? I asked.

“It smells the blood of a revisionist.”

“Revisionist? Who was a revisionist? Someone who wanted the Party to stand by the interests of the peasants?”

“The Party knows best.”

“I see. So what did the Party give you? What has it made of you” I asked, wrenching the knife from his shaky hand.

The imbecile smile returned on his face, which then waned into a weak grimace. I put the knife back under my belt and stood staring at his hand, the hand that had plunged it into my father, into a history of sorts.

“Son, will you buy me something to eat? I haven’t eaten for two days” he asked me putting a hand on his caved stomach.

I felt a lump in my throat.

I took him to a restaurant, and ordered him a meal. As he  took the morsels with shaky fingers to his mouth, I noticed the bunch of lottery tickets he had put by his side on the table. The date of the lot printed on them was last year’s. The man was out of his mind.

I paid for the meal and left taking a last look at my father’s murderer. He never raised his head once from his plate.

 

Yours truly

Hamlet

 

*

 

Madhavi told him that despite what had become now revealed, she would still hold the Party in high regard. The Party was to her like a father that loved and protected. Though it might err in its judgement, it would want only the good of its children, the have-nots.

“Whatever your father did or wanted to do with the Party, I am sure, would have only meant for the Party’s good. The Party was his only God, to whom he turned for his well being, and with whom he quarrelled like an obstinate child. He saw the Party as something larger than the individuals who controlled it. He never blamed the Party for the errors of its members. So, he would only have absolved it of the wrong it did him. He would still have loved it. And if he had left it to resist its wrong, it would still have been with the good intention of correcting it.”

May your faith save you, mother. 

 

*

 

It was as though invisible fingers were holding Hamlet’s brush-wielding hand. He had forgotten when he had last done a portrait. However, it was a portrait that took shape under his brush, after years of creative arrest. It was morbid, but his hand was being led to trace the lines and contours of a face that he had last seen as a child during a dark night in the light of a dim lamp. It was the face of his father’s corpse; it had a deep purple scar running diagonally across it. Hamlet kept his father’s eyes open, revising the face in his memory which had its eyes half closed, showing the whites that had gone lightly bluish. This was the face that haunted him with its half-closed eyes during all his fleeing of the darkness. He realized that it was now that he was meditating on it for the first time, looking straight at the image.

The painting came out with an alarming verisimilitude, with a fire of conviction glowing in its eyes. Looking at the painting, his mother half fainted. Juliet and Cleopatra helped her to a chair, while their eyes were still glued to the work.

Hamlet removed the portraits that his father had used to adorn the walls of Volga – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, A.K. Gopalan, E.M.S Namboodirippad, P. Krishna Pillai, B. T. Rana Dive. Then he mounted his painting of Comrade Damodaran on the empty wall.

            Turning to his mother and sisters he said, “In truth, Comrade Damodaran was a real martyr, who gave his life for the true ideals of a true Party, which had never been.”

 

*

 

Padmini walked into the platform of the railway station to where Hamlet was standing waving to her. The train to Mumbai was due in half an hour.

“Aren’t you happy now?” she asked.

“I don’t know what it means,” he said.

“That’s is what you might have felt when you did all those paintings in the last three months. That’s what you might have felt when they were bought by Guru’s friends in Mumbai.”

“Oh,” he smiled.

The air between them got dense with silence. He took her hand into his and held it for a few seconds, before she drew it back, her cheeks flushed.

“So the artist has finally found his haven.”

“My mother and sisters have freed me from the web of relation. ‘You have always been free,’ that’s what Cleopatra said. She is right. I’ve always been free. Only I hadn’t wanted it.”

“Guru has arranged for your stay? Will you have a good place to work?”

“I don’t care. If he hasn’t, I’ll find my own place. ”

Padmini gave him a thumbs-up.

The train was being announced.

“Padmini, when are you coming with me?” Hamlet asked.

“When you take me with you,” she said, with a wan smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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That Dog Is a Poet

 

 

See the way he stands on his lean legs

motionless, forgetting his dogness,

only musing about barking,

talking to the sea.

His paws dig deep into the wet sand

as he watches the silky blue rippling blanket,

the sea, it’s so calm and silent today.

He’s a poet out and out.

See he wouldn’t wag his tail

to his master sporting sun-glasses

but would rather contemplate the lone boat

floating over the eastern side of the sea.

There is only one boat today;

where are the others!

He’d like to think about the others;

The others seem to have crept under his skin.

He carries an ache for the others

Even in his wakeless sleep –

And what a dog is he!

Stillness is all that he is.

While the whole world is in motion

reaching for each other’s throats

baring the teeth, tongues dangling,

that dog is all stillness

as though he knows, you see,

as though he knows.

You might even catch in his unblinking eyes

the hint of a contemptuous smile.

 

 

India and the ‘art’ of public asset maintenance

 

Our indifference to maintenance of public property outwits the very concept of rationality. Indians have scant regard for the proverbial truth, “Do it now and you’ll need one stitch. Do it later and you’ll need 9 stitches!” In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert M. Pirsig says, “ . . . maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.” His statement on motorcycle maintenance holds good to ‘maintenance’ in general. He would say, “The motorcycle [maintenance] is primarily a mental phenomenon.” As a corollary, one might deduce that distortion of that mental phenomenon by one’s nature may adversely affect its realization too.  Put otherwise, an apathetic man would either make a mess of maintenance, or simply push the very idea under the carpet of his apathy. And if the man is the specimen of a society, then, he is a citizen of the land of apathy. One might wonder whether Indians’ apathy to the maintenance of their public assets is endemic to their nature!

Now look at the condition of our public roads, toilets, parks, conveyance and waste disposal. Though there has been a bevy of self-criticism in this regard down the years, nothing seems to have transpired. Public funds siphoned off for maintenance disappear through unseen drains. “Indian roads” have become a metaphor for impassable roads to the extent that automobile companies specially design vehicles with the power to endure them. We engage in the travesty of their annual repair only to have their bones bared in the next monsoon. Our parks are amply littered. Our public comfort stations are famed for their ‘aroma’ which their users seem to cherish with no complaints. We are happily used to shaky seats and torn berths in our public buses and railway coaches. Since this a geographically vast country, waste disposal is not an issue at all as long as the public roadsides are available for them. We would scarcely care to throw waste in a dustbin posted for it, just because we think “what is the difference!” We have no worries about our poor children studying under leaking roofs, or relieving themselves behind bushes because of  clogged toilets at the school. After all, aren’t we also known for our stoicism!

Recently, the photograph of a couple of European tourists engaged in picking waste from roadside appeared in the newspapers. It also had in its frame wayfarers taking snaps of this mysterious act. I am sure these clicks had gone viral over social media, scoffing the conspiratorial act of the foreigners. We were always sure that the “white man’s burden” had been an imperialist strategy.

Romila Thapar’s The Public Intellectual in India

Thapar, Romila et al. The Public Intellectual in India. Ed. Chandra Chari and Uma Iyengar. New Delhi: Aleph, 2015. Pp. 170.

“People’s suffering must never be allowed to remain the silent residue of politics,” Foucault said in a press statement in 1981. It was his call to the citizens of the world to  confront governments who, through their deeds, are responsible for the suffering of the people. The people’s suffering are the outcome of human rights violation and exploitation by vested interests. But in what capacity does Foucault and his like keep calling upon societies and governments to rethink their positions and priorities? What gives his statement its ethical authority? The answer is, his being a public intellectual. All the same, upon second thought we may also realize that the concept of a public intellectual  is more taken for granted than closely delved into. India, with its rampant communal sectarianism and corruption-driven politics, is a country where ‘public intellectual’ is little understood and given heed to. Romila Thapar’s book The Public Intellectual in India is an admirable attempt to bridge this lacuna in the public consciousness of the country.

It is a compilation of seven essays on the eponymous theme by seven writers including Thapar, along with her “Introduction” and “Conclusion”. The six essays following Thapar’s are responses to the propositions she makes in hers, and each one is moored on a particular point of view. In the “Introduction” Thapar anguishes about the diminishing space of the public intellectual in present-day India. As a corollary, she also explores the change that has come over the public intellectual’s role because of the changed zeitgeist and attitudes of the power centres. She states, “Initially [the public intellectuals’] concerns were with establishing democratic functioning and respect for citizenship, ensuring human rights and social justice, and protecting the underprivileged and those on and below the line of poverty. Today the focus is shifting to questions of religious identity and assertions of those that form the majority community, deepening the demarcation between communities and weakening social justice and the institutions that sustain society” (xiii). The intolerance free thought and expression meet with these days from Hindutva forces is the major cause of her concern. According to her, the basis of the ideology of Hindutva is a by-product of the colonial project. However, this fact has been glossed over by its ideologues. She points to the growing cases of banning books and films in India in recent times. Many public intellectuals have succumbed to such intolerance manifesting in threats, and withdrawn into the silence of self-censorship.

In her essay “To question or not to question? That is the question” Thapar’s objective is to define the concept and function of the public intellectual: “Public intellectuals frequently concern themselves with issues related to human rights and to the functioning of society, such that it ensures the primacy of social justice” (1). A public intellectual would be a person who has a “recognized professional stature” and seeks “explanations for public actions from those in authority” (8). She takes an overview of the European ancestry of public intellectuals and then comes to the Indian referring to people from Socrates to Emile Zola and Buddha to Bulleh Shah of Punjab, till E.V. Ramasami Periyar of the modern times. She elaborates on the issue of intimidation coming from Hindutva groups and the consequent narrowing of the liberal space citing several instances. With reference to the eponymous theme of her essay, she argues that the important task of the public intellectual now is to enlarge the liberal space, non-violently overcoming the repression unleashed by reactionary powers.

Sundar Sarukkai, a Manipal University-based philosopher in his essay “To question and not to question: That is the answer,” explores the philosophical dimensions of Thapar’s poser. He links the faculty of questioning as well as of not questioning to that of the habit of doubting or not doubting. Sarukkai explores the history of doubt in the philosophy of foreign and Indian schools of thought. Methodical questioning is an attitude that is difficult to sustain because of the large amount energy required for it. Therefore, in order to live without having to raise questions on each and every doubt, we take recourse to the intellectual habit of taking for granted certain foundational beliefs in order to reach an understanding of things. Therefore, the public intellectual shall most effectively function in critically probing into such foundational beliefs that enable questioning as well as non-questioning, because such beliefs have the danger of turning into the bases of authority of all sorts.

Dhruv Raina, a JNU Professor of Physics, in an article titled “Science and Democracy,” focuses on the “institutional transformation of science over the last couple of decades”. This has changed the relation between science and the public and also the critical discourse on science and society. Present-day scientific research is dependent on large scale funding and consequently has become subservient to the interests of the funding agencies which are capitalistic. This has shorn science of its erstwhile commitment to democracy and social welfare, and has thus “muted its critical voice”.

“Living between thought and action,” the fourth article in the book by Peter Ronald Desouza, probes into two of Thapar’s criteria for being a public intellectual, viz. her being an ‘autonomous thinker’ and her being an ‘advocate of social justice’. For this professor at CSDS, there exists a creative tension between these two entities. While the former is intellectual in nature the latter is ethical and proactive, and the public intellectual needs to maintain a precarious balance between the two. He examines his proposition in the light of the cases of three persons – Priya Pillai, a Green Peace activist, Yeshyahu Leibovitz, an Israeli professor, and Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi blogger killed recently by religious extremists. These are instances of public intellectuals who were put to severe tests regarding the two callings of a public intellectual referred to by Desouza. However, he laments the dwindling number of such people during these days of fundamentalist revival. There are many potential public intellectuals who have succumbed to its violent intolerance and withdrawn into silence.

Neeladri Bhattacharya, a professor of history at JNU, takes exception of Thapar’s tendency to celebrate the public intellectuals of the past who had been courageous enough to defy authority. In his “Framing a question: Questioning a frame” he argues for a critical reconsideration of the past instead of its celebration leading to a despairing over the ‘dismal present’. The last essay in the book “The Indian intellectual and the Hindu-Muslim trap” by the journalist Javed Naqvi suggests that the public intellectuals of present-day India should come out their trait of the ‘romanticizing of victimhood’. He also points out that because of the Indian dependency on the Hindu/Muslim binary, the graver social issue of the discrimination against the Dalits is sidelined.

The mind is dreaming

sky

 

The mind is dreaming
Poor thing
It only knows that dream
Is the breath of life
The last cord of life
It’s clinging to
Clinging to
As if to a self-eating vice.
The pastures of the earth
Have dried out,
Its wells and springs
Have sunk and parched.
Like a man neck-deep in ice water
Seeking warmth from distant fires
To ward off death
It clings to dream.
It has learnt now to forget
Fears of loss and pains of want.
It has habituated itself
To the deserts of disillusion.
The mind is dreaming now
Poor thing
It only knows that dream
Is its last breath of life.

 

On dying  

I shall regret only one thing;

The books I could have read.

It means the birds I could have flown with,

The planets I could  have landed on,

The chasms I could have fallen in,

The lights I could have seen by.

I shall regret only one thing;

The places I could have visited.

It means the woods I could have slept in,

The cities I could have drunk about,

The faces I could have talked into,

The airs I could have flown through.

I shall regret only one thing;

The words I couldn’t have spoken.

It means the books I could have unwritten,

The truths I could have unbelied,

The thoughts I could have unlearned,

The dreams I could have undisbelieved.

I shall regret only one thing  . . .

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman: How good is it as a novel?

How good is Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (Madhorubhagan, 2010)) as a novel? Considering the amount of energy spent on the controversy it originated, this question may occur as redundant. Why take heed of a novel, even if to take moral offence of its propositions, if it is not good enough for serious consideration! Underground or substandard literatures abound in severer heresies and blasphemies. But who cares! So, Murugan’s novel’s claim to significance is undisputable, also given that even the learned judges of Madras High Court have attested to its noteworthiness in their eloquent judgement. Its literary merit has been endorsed earlier by the awards it had won during the time before the controversy erupted. That Penguin chose to publish its translation in English itself is enough to authenticate its merit. Therefore the original question might be discussed only on the slippery grounds of critical impressionism, and the bailout would only be the claim that all judgements are primarily cradled on personal impressions.

A critical judgement on a novel’s generic “goodness” would be conditioned by the reader’s aesthetic expectations and also by his/her criterion of its significance. I shall base my judgement here on Murugan’s novel in the light of two criteria, one aesthetic and the other, its significance.  I limit my aesthetic criterion to its unity of impression or effect, and my criterion of significance to the  relevance of its theme.

I believe that One Part Woman is an instance of technical failure. That is, it would have been much palatable aesthetically had the author chosen to weed out its redundant and fortuitous passages. Because of their presence the novel reads as disorganized and insufficiently processed. Its readers would have felt impatient with the digressions he resorts to from the moment Ponna begins her fatal journey to the temple at Chapter 22 till the narration of the ‘climax’ she and the novel reaches at Chapter 32 with her falling head over heels for her god/paramour. This journey is the turning point in her as well as the novel’s life, and the novel has reached this point after convincingly building upon the circumstances that have led her to this juncture of moral compromise. This is when the spectre of logorrhoea possesses Murugan; it seems that his need to increase word count overcomes his sense of narrative economy. This malady grips him at a time when he has pushed the reader to the acme of suspense so much so that his/her yearning for relief from its tension is at its peak. Now, the only thing the reader would want to know is if she actually succumbs to the call to mate with a stranger. But Murugan makes you feel as if having to stand waiting in front of the loo for the insider to get out (and it seems he would never) with your bladder full to the point of bursting. Or was Murugan just yielding his sense of proportions to the market needs of the publisher? I prefer to believe in the latter reason. Thus, the novel falls short of delivering its aesthetic promise because of this avoidable clumsiness of craft. Its translated version cannot be evidenced for the quality of Murugan’s language, though Anirudhan Vasudevan, the translator, needs to be appreciated for encasing it well into the English idiom. Murugan’s eye for the details of agrarian rural life and culture is commendable and happens to be the saving grace of the novel.

Murugan’s motivation to write the novel seems to have been more to cash in on the sensational ritual that had supposedly existed at the Tiruchengode Ardhanareeswara temple  than on representing the existential agonies of childlessness. The latter, though a universal theme and has caused agony of varying kind and degree contingent on its socio-cultural context, is clichéd as a subject for a contemporary novel unless some peculiar effects of its validates its selection for novelistic treatment in the present. Thus, for instance, it may be evoked to consider the problems of asexual surrogacy which is a contemporary reality in the wake of scientific invention. This factual base in reality is necessary for treating a social subject in a novel that makes no claims of being a fantasy like Harry Potter. Therefore, the thematic significance of One Part Woman should be grounded on the historicity of the said orgiastic ritual that licenses Ponna’s deviation into adultery. Murugan had reportedly written a preface to its original version in Tamil claiming that he possessed documentary evidence of the said ritual. (Interestingly, Penguin did not include this preface in the English translation.) However, he failed to produce the evidence at the peace meeting initiated by government officials at Thiruchengode consequent on the agitations against the novel. The judgement of the High Court assumes that Murugan was coerced into making an apology at the meeting by the violence taking place because of him. However, there is no denying the fact that the practice at the temple in which childless women mated with strangers for begetting child had not existed in the modern times. It has been anachronistically thrusted on the fictive events located in the 1940s in the novel. That which provoked the protests is the author’s unsubstantiated claim regarding the practice’s existence in the novelistic time of 1940s. This might be compared to a situation in which a novel claims within a realistic framework that sati (banned in 1861) was being practised in the mid twentieth-century Kerala or Tamil Nadu with public sanction. Only Murugan’s claim is worse considering the slur it castes on women’s morality. It would have been a greater artistic challenge for him to frame the ritual in his novel within  its original historical context. But he chose the easier way by cheating on the reader’s trust in his claims.

 

Reality continues to ruin my life

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“Reality continues to ruin my life.” The picture of a little girl in a pink frock opening her bulky school-bag had carried this caption. And it felt as if no other caption would have suited the littlun’s plight better than it. The oppressive school-bag loaded with A4-size texts and note books was, no doubt, the nemesis of the girl’s otherwise idyllic life. Without its burden on her tender spine, as she trundled along the dusty road to school, life would have been as good as a sweet dream for her despite the daily grind of the school. But reality will have its way. No avoiding it, even in early childhood. And ruin life it will, not only for the little children, but to the children of all ages. To me, to you and to all the citizens of the world of latent dodgers of reality who carry within them the dream of a peaceful, uterine existence.

Reality is that burden we carry on our backs, destined to carry, on the road of life. Anything that feels as a burden, something we would like to get rid of at the earliest opportunity, may be called reality. Only its form changes, its weighty nature remains. Always in life we have the feeling of having a burden on our back. Burden may materialize as too little wealth or too much of it, or pain, disease, failure, fear, want, dissatisfaction or whatnot. Hence, even if the little girl’s books have been replaced by a little pc tablet, she might still have the burden of examinations, marks and the anxiety of not getting covetable rewards contingent on the outcome of examinations, to carry on her back. Which would be a more critical burden as things stand.

But if everyone were licensed to withdraw into their little homes of burdenless comfort, what will come to the world? Who will till the soil and sow seeds and reap the grains that make our grub? Well, how at all will we grab our share of the means for existence in a world of competition (another reality!) unless we too justify our share by sharing also the burden of toil that takes to make it? So, isn’t the school-bag a symbol of the equipment we all have to carry to till the soil and reap the grains of existence! There seems to be no space for doubt. Man, you have been celestially cursed to live by the sweat of thy brows. No escaping that weight that will wring precious brine out of your scorched bodies.

So what will come to our dreams? Will we never have it except in death? Gloomy thoughts. But no. There is a career in being a hardcore professional dreamer. You will not have to carry any burden (read as work). Actually, your only action will be a public demonstration of your happy, burdenless existence, which may be achieved by performing dances of happiness or meditations or simply not sticking on to anything the way burden-carriers live their lives. And pave the way for poor reality buffs to attain some vicarious weightlessness through their primal propensities to mimic you. That is, be a Buddha or an Osho, or a Krishnamurthy, not to name any living gurus or market-savvy godhumans. Not all will have to die on cross. The only happy challenge for such a one will be to never deviate into a craving for the burden of reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julio Cortazar’s “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”

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Argentine writer Julio Cortazar’s story “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” evinces his genius for unveiling the hidden order and connections between things. As you go on reading, magical realism would throw little, delightful surprises at you. At the end, you realize that its finely knit embroidery is a shroud spread on a saddening tragedy of life.

The story is a letter the caretaker of a house in Buenos Aires writes to its landlady called Andrea, who is on a sojourn in Paris. He seems to be too guilt-ridden about intruding “on a compact order, built even to the finest nets of air” the house exudes. He is too reluctant to change even the position of a tray on the dining table to make it more convenient for his personal use, out of fear of disturbing that order. But soon he reveals that, however, the purpose of the letter is not to share this feeling, but to tell her about “the rabbits.”

The rabbits are not what Andrea (or you the reader) might expect. They are the tiny rabbits the letter-writer is wont to vomit now and again. He had been facing this problem for some time. But he had hitherto kept it as a secret. At his own house he had a set up in the balcony to keep them in flowerpots nourished with cloves, hidden from the eyes of the others.  He would leave them there, one at a time for he vomited a rabbit only once in a month or so, and would go about with his normal life. When the rabbit grew up, he would make a present of it to a certain friend of his, who believed that growing rabbits had been his hobby. But at Andrea’s house the event grew more frequent, and in a short period he had about eleven little rabbits at hand. In order to hide them from Sara, the maid and only other person living at the house, he kept them closed inside a wardrobe in Andrea’s bedroom which he had been using for himself. He fed them with cloves, and let them out in the room only during nights when Sara was asleep in her room. At dawn he put them back in the wardrobe. But, at the time he was writing the letter, the issue had gone out of his hand. The bunnies had by then grown too big to be contained in the wardrobe; they had eaten up or destroyed all the valuable books inside the wardrobe and also the chair-covers, the rugs and whatnot. He ends the ‘fatal’ letter disclosing that he had been now driven to take the ultimate step to get rid of them for good. But that can’t be done without also getting rid of himself, right? Therefore he says that the following morning people at the street below the balcony would be busy removing the body other than those of the rabbits, which too would be lying scattered around but not much noticed.

Yes, the story is a puzzle thrown at your face, however delightful it is. It may not take much time for you to solve it with the most easily available key of a symbolic interpretation – that the bunnies represent the skeleton every man keeps guarded in his cupboard of civilization. But would that suffice? Doesn’t the story point at something that defies interpretation, an ever-evasive déjàvu? Isn’t the tragic feeling at the end evocative of a cruel sneer at the puniness of human existence? Or would it only merit a mischievous chuckle of yours?

 

Peter Matthiessen’s Absent Snow Leopard

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A reading of Peter Matthiessen’s famed travelogue The Snow Leopard  (1978) impresses an overwhelming sense of the absence of the known. His journey through the snowy terrains of the Himalayas seems to have been to see the snow leopard. But, he never encounters a real snow leopard. However, his friend George Schaller, a naturalist and partner in his journey, gets a glimpse of the evasive cat. A glimpse, yes, just in order to attest the reality of this animal in its habitat. Schaller is an acclaimed zoologist, so his identification of the glimpsed animal cannot be erratic. The snow leopard exists after all, but does it for Matthiessen? For him, the eponymous creature is a phenomenon of thought, a ‘thought leopard.’ Like the impending presence of the mythical creature Yeti, the snow leopard too lurks in the unknown waiting for that accidental time when it would make its glorious appearance. But that never happens.

Ergo, what is most remarkable of this book are its thoughts. Thoughts fill the vacuum present. The throbbing silence and snowy vastness of the mountains engulf the narrator as well as the reader. I feel the coldness of the rocks; my hands and feet go numb. The blood faces the horror of coagulating in the cold. The very sky becomes a layered roof of translucent ice. Could physical reality be so utterly motionless! Only the warmth of thoughts can set in a thaw upon the frozen mind. The meditative stillness of the Dolpa region on the Tibetan plateau becomes an ‘objective correlative’ for the cogitative existence of the snow leopard.

And Matthiessen’s thoughts are the true springs of life energy. He has been a Zen Buddhist by choice and had come to Tibet in search of his distant metaphysical home, the places were Buddhism had taken roots and flourished. He is not entirely unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire. He reaches his destination, the Crystal Monastery at Shey Gompa in Dolpa and meets its Lama Tupjuk. But did be actually find his home there? No, because the home he has been searching was, in truth, a home of the mind; an ideal home nowhere to exist but only in the mind. So he contemplates incessantly on his religion, its history and philosophy. Buddha is not out there, but in the chant Om Mani Padme Hum he frequently spells or refers to; the chant itself being the ephemeral self he seeks to find upon the road of his faith.

Throughout the trek, Matthiessen is assailed by the painful thouhts about the tragic end of his wife Deborah Love. She had died recently of cancer, and he had been at her bedside when she breathed her last. The solitude of the altitudes does not free him from the thoughts of his once bitter-sweet love/Love. They used to seek together for highs on drugs; now on the Himalayas, he prods among the frozen bushes for shoots of cannabis. He would drowse his aching memories in a glass of country arrack.

Peter, how lonely you have been over the snow-drenched rocks with Deborah’s specter dogging your steps. She haunted your mind every now and then pushing you into the throny alleys of guilt; your relations had soured towards her last healthy days. Memories of your children and home in distant America overcame you consequently, unleashing your spirit which you wanted to tie down to your spiritual pursuits. Wasn’t it from her spirit that you were fleeing into the folds of the Himalayas? Wasn’t it she you have been searching in your perilous journey across the chasms of the peaks. Wasn’t she your snow leopard, your absent known?