The Ghost in the Machine

Yet again, you find yourself slowly immersing in B/W cinema. It’s more like floating than sinking. Less watching and more being watched. It is a background score with raw screeches for music. The walls are full of shadows. Shadows that are more than contours until the head turns to confront with a reflection you’ve searched in vain in-between exhaustive specks of red and green and blue.
It all started with Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Daren. When I was young, I used to sit idly on terraces and simply watch clouds passing by. It was perhaps the ease in the transmission of clouds from sanguine, buoyant shapes dissolving into disparate entities on the verge of disappearing with time.
fig2
Like Maya Daren. And the clouds. And us.

Tales from the Hinterland

It is the month of April. I’m travelling through narrow passes over valleys encrusted with thick layers of ice. An occasional stream rolls by its cusps; its course resounding with whispers of a gale through leaves and intermittent rain. Pines loom over the horizon as the fog cuts through the edges of slopes – the fog is dense, it sheathes the depths of the valleys; the fog is sparse, it drifts through thick branches and perishes against boughs dipping under rain; the fog is smoke, it slithers formless leaving its trail in the wind; the fog is an array of clouds, enshrouding and preserving the mysteries of these hills from our intent gazes – until it dissipates, exposing its sovereign magnificence with a warm breath and a drizzle chilling to the bone.

The market on the meadow. Grey clouds above are illuminated at their contours by streaks of light that sliver through branches of trees at the horizon. It is believed that a meteor once struck the region millions of years ago forming a crater upon which I now stand. It is covered in thick grass; there is a lake at the centre and a forest looms on all sides. A couple of decades ago, a Swiss diplomat found the territory having resemblance to his homeland and christened it ‘Mini Switzerland’. The locals do not mind as it harbours tourism and currency. As the sky begins to clear after recurring phases of clouds flowing in from both sides into the plateau, cloaking the sun, the trees and the peaks until they fall down as rain, a swarm of people begin to appear from the many hotels that have flourished in the last decade. Rabbits are brought forth in baskets with flowers and pretty cushions, a professional camera slung on the carrier’s neck. Folk costumes – ornate and heavy – of the type worn by locals at least five decades ago are rented out by hawkers on foot for the sake of photographs. An incessant sound of clicking of shutters ensues as people pose individually and in groups. Their gazes are fixed on the lenses in front of them, their thoughts on their own face, skin and body. Once snapped, they move a few steps for a different background, a different pose, a different self.  ‘’We have arrived in Switzerland.” “Who says this is mini Switzerland. This is Switzerland only!” As I walk past them briskly to find myself a quiet space empty of tourists, I am reminded of Thoreau and his retreat to the woods: ‘Trade curses everything it handles.’1. It is still pouring sporadically. An old man with an umbrella approaches a young couple standing a few steps ahead of me. He offers them a horse ride to a distant peak beyond the apple orchards. The woman seems keen but there appears a thin line of doubt on the young man’s face. The horseman goes on to describe the place with adjectival superlatives but the man doesn’t seem impressed. Eventually, he asks, ‘Can we not take our cars over there?’ The old man is silent; he doesn’t seem to understand what this young man is saying. Neither do I. His look astonishes me and I’m filled with dismay. Filthy images of the city stream through my mind – cars stuck in long queues at the traffic light, their engines radiating murk and grime, glossy sheets of advertisements staring out from every inch of the sky, rivers choked with garbage dumps and the corrosive dents our ways of life have marked upon itself. But I cannot let that feeling overtake me; I want to shake him by the shoulders, ask him what the fuck is wrong him or tell him politely that the best places are where your cars can’t go, that you’re not an engine stuck on wheels, that you have legs and blood running in your veins and on and on, but the futility of any possible means of communication with like folks becomes apparent when he pulls out his cell phone and begins to take pictures of his wife and himself, with the old man standing delirious behind them. They seem to be content, nestled in their comfort bubbles even while traversing the wilderness which is no more than a mere background to them – a scenic beauty. At this point, I realise, I have to leave. I have to leave right away. It comes to me as a revelation – I’ve found standing in front of me someone I have been looking for all this while without knowing it. I put my arm around the old man and tug on his shoulder attempting to shake him off his desolation; let’s go, I say.

The horseman and the hermit. As we move away from the hub and further into the forest, I notice his face becoming placid, voice assured and gait erect. He speaks only when there is something he wants me to see. While it has stopped showering, we are moving under a canopy of trees with fat drops of water falling from one leaf down to many then down upon us. Sunlight comes in shafts with floating speckles of air through thick verdure. I ride on Shaan, he is a six year old stallion, white with patches of brown. While on our way, I suddenly recall my first school which I bunked every Wednesday with Amir when I didn’t even know what bunking meant. It hadn’t occurred to me in years or perhaps, a decade but now on a horseback, I could recall every detail of our Wednesday rides; Wednesdays as everyone was too dazed by the middle of the week to notice our absence and also because it was on this day that the crowd was less and so, we could heckle the horsemen to give us a cheap ride. He was smart at this; he knew the bus numbers and timings, which horse to choose and the rates. We would slide past the school gates while the guard had gone for his breakfast and take a creaking red bus that’d pass by the famed Botanical Gardens, cross the eminent Hooghly Bridge (officially known as Vidyasagar Setu: a wide, clean cable-stayed bridge, occasionally congested and windy even in the most humid temperatures; it stands over the sacred yet neglected and abused Hooghly river) and swerve along the arc of Race Course before stopping at Victoria Memorial whereupon after counting our scrambled notes and coins we would heckle with several horsemen there up for business. Cricket and football was a rage among boys of our age (including us) and they’d pour to these grounds from different schools, quarters and mohallas from across the city and shamble along the boundary lines seeking the attention of older ones until they included them in their teams. However, our time there was reserved for horses when our feet couldn’t even reach the metal straps lying along their bellies. Eventually, one of the horsemen – a friendly, mustachioed man – took a liking to us and allowed us to ride until he found another customer. It lasted until my class teacher called my guardians up and told them I was loitering around the city with a Muslim kid. Heck, more than a decade has passed and I don’t know yet what exactly she meant. It was the end of the academic year and I never saw much of Amir again for soon, I was put on the train to Delhi to my parents who had moved to the capital a couple of years ago. It was the end of my stay in the city which incidentally marked the beginning of a partly nostalgic yearning that is certain never to be relinquished.

‘This is the tree shaped into a deer. Here is the Hanuman Temple. These are the acacias in full bloom. Over there is a mosque. Down that path is the village where the locals who work at the market stay.’ I grin at his use of the word ‘market’.  The central location has indeed become one, encroaching further with time into the meadow. He nods at me and says, ‘You folks don’t know anything. You come so far, glimpse everything from outside and return. The complacency and the self assurance appall me. Anyway, here is a tree shaped into a bear. Go ahead, take your pictures.’

I’m amused by his sly bitterness and tell him so. He says, ‘In old age, a man could either pity himself or curse the world, and I’m no man who’d pity myself!’ I laugh while he tries to reassure me, ‘Don’t worry, son, I’ll be friendlier up at the peak’. I encourage him, tell him that this world is no world not to be cursed and keen to know ever since he mentioned, ask him who has shaped these trees into animals.

Enormous clouds begin to envelop the valley beyond the pine trees standing tall by our narrow path. The breeze is cold but tender on the skin as it whistles past through the leaves. The only other sounds are that of rain drops dripping into puddles of water, the splash of our horses’ hoofs on it and the intricate music of free birds as the downhill slope is slowly being dissolved from sight.370

‘A Slovakian.’ he says, ‘who cuts a path wherever he travels. He is an artist who knows how to leave subtle traces behind.’

The sense of familiarity with which the horseman recalls the man insinuates a strange bond between them. He says, ‘I have seen him twice or thrice, at best, I no longer recall. We don’t understand each other’s languages but if there’s someone who has understood me the most after my old dead horse, it has to be this foreigner from a distant land.’ He is smiling to himself, almost like a child, taking great pride in talking about him. ‘Does he think so too?’ I prod him. At this, he chuckles and continues after a long pause: ‘I’d like to think so. But does it really matter? What I do know is that he has a brilliant mind; I know how it works and I know these hills. What it means is that I can tell you – without knowing it yet – with near certainty, where he may be found tonight.’

We have tied up our horses to opposite sides of a clump. As I follow my guide through paths further narrowing, the pines have given place to oaks with gnarled branches and the oaks finally to short apple trees. Their stems are thin yet sturdy. The light blue of the sky can be seen slowly diminishing into a denser grey-white below.

‘Soon, the branches will be laden with ripe apples. The sky will be clear and allow us to gaze into the heart of the valley. The clouds are gathering again, we should hurry,’ he informs me.

A few huts pass by at a distance. I reckon this is the last village we are going to come across on this cliff.  A couple of dogs are padding around without care and a woman is picking coriander leaves from her garden while her two boys try to lift a log from outside their house, its roof having been completely damaged. It must have been the storm last night. The old man shouts out that he’ll be right back but I’m already on my way. As we help pull the log aside, instructing each other, I feel the same old joy of doing and belonging in togetherness that did previously while pulling the fishermen’s net one dawn in Pondicherry, pitching the tent for a brave single mother from Israel and her 10 year old daughter in Kheerganga or pressing down rocks on a street to fix the potholes on a calm purple hillock in Bir. Once we have cleared the ground, we sit at the porch to sip warm tea that the woman has brought out for us in earthen cups and share our experiences of the wrath of nature. She seems completely unperturbed by the wreck and simply grateful for having us around for a chat on a rainy morning.

‘Is that how you’ve met him more than once?’ I ask him once we have taken our leave of the woman, the boys and the dogs.

‘The Slovakian. By conjecturing where he might be?’

It was more than a year ago, but he recalls it distinctly. His sons had gone down to the town to establish a trade; they found the life hard on the hills, the passage of time excruciatingly slow. It had been a month since he had met the wandering hermit so he tried to figure out where he could find him in the vast forests by guessing how many days he would have spent at a place and how many trees he would have shaped into wild animals. The hermit would never return to a place, the old man knew. Nor would he stay in a place for more than three nights. So he gathered a few necessary things and went in 439search for him. ‘Finding the hermit was an excuse,’ he tells me now. ‘Of course, I wanted to meet him but I didn’t even know what I’d say to him or how I’d be greeted! Such folks could be quite dangerous when disturbed.’ For the first two days, he trekked endlessly and slept at nights in huts with villagers he knew from the treks in his youth. They welcomed him in their houses, provided him food and shelter. With his old horse and wife long dead and now his children gone, he had to move on and cut out the numbness that grew on his feet with age. Without saying a word, the Slovakian had taught him the old lesson all over again. Ever since his youth, he had believed there was no purpose to life and any possibility of existence lied in movement, in exploration, in endless learning, in stretching out a hand to others and letting them do the same for you without malice, pity or greed.

We have now reached our destination, perched by the edge of the precipice, our feet and palms lying loose on the grass.  In front of us lies a misty white vacuum of space that is growing denser by the moment. The wind has gathered a current; it is blowing the fallen leaves higher in the air, craning the necks of many a tree, cutting through the clouds, and allowing us every now and then a glimpse of the verdant green valley surrounded on all sides by majestic mountains older than all forms of life.

‘It was a sort of pilgrimage; one that lasted a year until I bought Shaan; now, it has become my vocation.’

A wide smile curves across his face as he looks away from me; his eyes screwed, he then shouts against the wind, ‘I don’t keep still anymore,’ as we stare ahead in silence, humbled by the effervescent yet eternal presence of our surroundings and our own vulnerability in the face of it.

Flower children. Right off the bus, I start walking briskly avoiding the bustle of the small town. Down the slope, I notice a young man looking expectantly at me. I nod at him and ask him without stopping:  ‘Is there snow at Khajjiar?’ He stops me, says he doesn’t know and asks with much caution where he can score some weed. His hesitation and alarm seem funny. I say I have been carrying some from the city (just in case) but it’d be better if we get a taste of the mountain soil.

He is a painter. Back in Russia, he tells me, he used to create abstract art: ‘Lines, curves and other silly illusions’. He seems shy at first – too cautious, too formal – while the girl, who looks quite older than both of us, is frank and confident. These days he finds pleasure in painting Hindu idols on the domes of local temples and their courtyards. The priests, I’m told, are more than happy having them around. Endless hotels and shops line the slopes of Dalhousie filled to the brim with all sorts of garbage. We are looking for a quiet place, an unobliterated view of what we’re here for. After strolling about for half an hour or so, we find some steps off the road leading to the back of the houses in front of the ice-clad Dhauladhar range. The houses seem empty so we descend the steps, perch upon the last one and make do with what I have. A few drags on, Seva becomes ecstatic; he has been longing to see the hills ever since he has come and spent a couple of months in the South Indian coast of Gokarna. He is from the hills of Russia while Natalya is from St. Petersberg.

The sky is turquoise with sparring grey clouds. I am already drenched in the rain and the wind feels cold. He speaks of a distinct feeling that the hills reserve for its inhabitants.

‘The hills are the same everywhere, aren’t they?’ I say.

His eyes lost in the distance, he adds, ‘Except here, they are gigantic,’

833‘The flowers and the mountains – together they suggest the opposite ends on the scale nature works. At one extreme operate the vast, apocalyptic forces that created the mountains: at the other, the intricate subtleties that produced a perfect flower: the first beyond man’s capacity to control: the second beyond his present capacity to comprehend. But both equally deserving of his awe.’

– Nigel Nicholson, The Himalayas

 

The sun hasn’t shined in the last couple of months in this region while the rest of the country seethes under its heat. Leaving the hotels and shops behind, we pass by several abandoned cottages; moss grows on their earthen floor, their furniture is left unadorned. Flower pots hang from the porch of a sprawling house with blue doors. In its green courtyard, stand three marble statues: a child holding a basket on his head looking down at a dog sitting close by his legs, Hesiod Atlas holding the weight of the world on his shoulders and the third I can’t quite recall. I lag behind thinking about its inhabitants; upon getting no response after knocking on the door, I circle around the house, peering shamelessly through the windows, hoping for some relic to catch my eye. All I notice is a sepia toned photograph framed by a wide bookshelf: they are standing on a narrow path with maize fields on both sides; a full bearded man in a stiff kurta looking sideways at the dainty woman alongside him– her hair flowing in the wind; she is dressed in a sweater and a dapper frock, gazing upwards – apparently startled by a paraglider – captured at the top right corner as a tiny speck in the vast, clear sky – closing in to land.

When I finally move ahead, I find Natalya smiling at me with a tulip planted in her hair and a chrysanthemum in a locket along her neck. She laughs at the sound of their English names. On a tinted mirror of a backstreet cottage, I see the flower on her head and our haggard faces with the mountains in the background.We are at peace with ourselves here, having found our righteous place somewhere in between a flower and a mountain range.

She is mostly silent, walking ahead while Seva and I are indulged in now sombre now humorous discussions. In rare159 moments, she suddenly looks deep in my eyes (conveying meaning that differences in our languages curtail), draws me close by the elbow and pours her thoughts out in broken English, bobbing her head passionately to the rhythm of the wind. She finds it enigmatic how while travelling, in a train or a bus or now walking along these unknown slopes, we inhabit a microcosm of the world, ending up sharing our whole lives in a matter of few hours. He frequently uses the words ‘truth’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ and the like. Over the years, I’ve nourished a habit of stopping myself before uttering such words, discarding them from my vocabulary for the language we use define who we are (especially the words ‘God’ and ‘humanity’; they may never go well together in a single sentence); words conveying ideas I can no longer believe in or am certain about; ideas that encourage submission of the intellect into mere abstraction, or dogma. In order to survive and find meaning, we all have to find our own myths and beliefs, and somehow make do with our conflicts and their absurdity. Maybe this – a resigned silence or indifference, call it what you will – is not the best way to deal with it but I’m yet to come across any other.

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Sitting at my desk, I now wonder how we forget everyday things that mean the world to us as time slithers by. Yet I see her uncontrollably laughing in the woods, her head on my shoulders, our arms entangled; I see him joyously leaping over rocks up a waterfall; his sadness for the world back home upon seeing a ceremonial tank; her joy while playing with a stray dog and the manifold subtle nuances that characterise their every gesture deep in the heart of the mountains. I see them walking down a slope and I shall leave them there.  

The warmth of darkness. Walking one sunset in Dalhousie, beyond the last house at the end of a path, I sit down on the grass with Nietzsche for company under a pale sky streaked with layers of amber. As it starts getting darker, I shut my paperback and gaze idly at the distance until a shadow of a man approaches me. He is the father of the children who had peeked out a couple of times from the door of the house and upon being noticed, quickly rushed back in. A spiral fence around the wall of rocks on one side cuts into the patch of green around me. Perching down, he introduces himself as a legal serviceman with the government. I don’t really like to talk about my job when I’m out so I lie, partly in order to convince myself, I say I work with books. A while later, he introduces his children – the girl at eight is cheeky and curious, she tires me with her questions about my beard, the book I am holding, what I am doing there and whatnot; the boy at 10, extremely shy, holds out a quivering hand and waits for an opportunity to slink out from our view. Having refused his offer of tea, dinner or water, I realise we do not have much to talk about so we start walking toward the market from where he’ll get some groceries while I’ll walk ahead and get to some other place.

Night has fallen. As he begins to puff on a beedi, I offer him a half-burnt rolled cigarette. A few drags on, he seems to enjoy its smoothness. As a matter of fact, he appreciates this small gesture so much that he feels the need to return the favour and tells me that he has something special in store for me. I feel like going back to my room and lying down, perhaps get back to Nietzsche for I am exhausted and can no longer recall when I last slept but what follows is a few hours of carousing at an unlicensed bar – just a burning stove, a few tables and benches on a rooftop –followed with conversations on just about everything and laughter and dogs. He tells me he is shifting house a couple of hours away from this place just the next day. I tell him that I believe he is very fortunate to have such a beautiful and quiet house; and ask why he is moving out. Perhaps, he doesn’t understand me. ‘You must have noticed monkeys on the path we came from,’ he says, looking a little perturbed. ‘The kids don’t like it here; they say the monkeys harass them while they return from school. Well, something has to be done.’

Our mightiest hills and the valleys are so far consumed by the night that what appears to me like a distant planet in the sky turns out (as an old guard in a corner informs, without looking at us) to be the glow of a lamp high up a slope; one that was beside me throughout the day as I trekked uphill; one I stopped every once in a while to rest my gaze upon, one that stands as a resolute certainty every morning and completely disappears at the brink of the night.

As we resume our walks through streets of night, he says, ‘I am a foreigner, Aman. Do you know who a foreigner is?’

The only sound is that of horseflies swirling around and beating against the hood of a lamp post crowned with branches of a sal tree.

He then tells me he is from a village 200 miles away but has lived all his life in the hills. Once when he was posted to Bangalore city, his most horrid experience was not watching the cars or the traffic or the lack of trees, it was the ground. Every evening, for the past 40 years or so, he would go out for a walk; on the first day there, he couldn’t stop laughing to himself standing by a market square.

‘You couldn’t believe my incredulity, Aman bhai. The ground was all flat. Sapaat!’

On the third day, he sent in a letter pleading to be shifted back.

‘Aren’t we all foreigners most of our lives?’ I say but he doesn’t listen or seem to bother much about it.

I ask him how he’s going to prepare a meal in such a sloshed condition. He tells me his son will cook; I say he is too young at 10; he says he is grown now – old, old enough.

In my travels across the countryside – our countryside – I’ve acquainted and made friends with folks more liberal than I regularly meet in the city. The same folks who pride on being above all forms of discrimination are the first ones who stereotype and shelf people on just about any possible points of difference – class, colour, gender, pictures, shoes, clothes, hair, shit if they can see them. This is to speak of the city clock and the expected need to live by the law of power unrecognizant of any borders of conscient or moral thought, simply for the sake of its access and exploitation, but perhaps, I am using words too generic to preserve any meaning.

Over the years I have realised that only by travelling alone one truly gets to know a place and its people. It allows one to leisure of exploring it at one’s own beat unaffected by the perception or stance of a partner on just about anything; also, it might possibly re-instill one’s faith in the fundamental friendliness of an individual.

The sun has finally shined this morning after months of incessant rain. I see him sipping tea by the market square. The night is forgotten as it is supposed to be as the city seeps into the town in its own distinct ways. He stretches out a hand and I stretch out mine awkwardly, before we part.

Leaving it all behind, I wonder how our conversations at night – our whispers and bellows and laughter and howls – shrivel to irate small talk in the morning; our coherence ravaged to hackneyed expressions.

*

11 in the morning, I’m at Khajjiar and the mist is too thick to afford any visibility. I pad around the field, my eyes stuck at my feet which soon disappear into the clouds or the fog or the smoke, I cannot tell anymore. There is no sound, sight or smell. My senses have been revoked, my mind and skin benumbed as I walk into the unknown, diminished or should I say reclaimed, rendered invisible (as we truly are in this face of the magnanimous) as I walk into this coveted sphere, overwhelmed by the sense of the sublime.

————————————-

Notes:

  1. Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau.
  1. The Himalayas by Nigel Nicholson and the editors of Time-Life books.

Also published in Footloose Magazine

Marigolds for fifty, Bougainvillea hundred

First showers had fallen after months of torpid heat. It was 9 in the morning on a weekend. She was surrounded by a few drivers and early joggers, tea-sellers and fruit – hawkers. The kid cried, uncomprehending. “Saw it from my own eyes: these eyes”…She was running with a bag tightly clutched under her arms, shouting, “I have nothing on me. I have nothing on me”… The lanky gardener ducked behind flowers clinging to the handles of his wooden trolley.  Two men on a bike zipped through the wide-empty street. A pistol glinted for a moment, took shape and disappeared behind the shirt of the one riding pillion. “It was when he took out the pistol”… She ran and the kid was nowhere to be seen. “I have nothing on me” …“Since when did tulips begin to bloom in March?”… “It was when he took out the pistol”.

Portrait

It happened in Sector – 18. That’s one busy street. Buses ply on either route to every corner of the city. Few even cross the highway to the capital.

I used to sit by a table selling tobacco and they had come from the other side. It was a make-shift stand; I was from the village and had little money. Two guys came from the wrong side, smacked below the neck and disappeared grabbing her chain the early morning fog. Here, the fog is mostly dust from the constructions.

Right away I wound up the stall. The police would come, I knew. Ask questions. Hooking on just about whoever they find. I went to my room, cleaned it up for the first time having nothing else to do and didn’t get out until evening when the dust had settled.

When the sea comes to you

We move from cubicles to cubicles, insulated in condos whose roofs hide the sky, trying to accommodate a face for everybody and it just takes an odd rain in March and the transient yet eternal wind, unperturbed by the specks of dust that we are, to present itself; wavered by its breath, we cease to be still.

I can but won’t go

At Kivarli, under a yellow bulb outside the stone house, a boy runs. Behind him, a cracker explodes. There are no houses in the distance.

*

A bell hangs at the centre of the platform. As the train moves, a middle-aged mustachioed man sits upright on his desk. Behind him, dials with needles flicker, and red and yellow lights blink against the stillness of the night. Not half as many stars are seen from Delhi.

*

‘You speak of it as a small country. Go to Dhaka. You’d want to kiss the streets.’

It was his first day driving an auto in the city. He wore a checkered shirt and grey trousers exuding priceless, ordinary warmth that makes one direly long for the homeland in this deserted capital.

*

‘Jete padi kintu jabo na’

*

On the unpaved path up the water tank, sitting by a rock, I lit a joint. On a bench outside the canteen, a group of kids licked candies, throwing the wrappers around, restless to go somewhere, anywhere.

An elderly man spoke in the native tongue, ‘Dabba ma naakhi de.’

The kid replied, ‘Dabbo gyo aeni baen ne chodava’

It is sunny. Too hot for October in a little town off the western coast of Gujarat. Seems like June. There are small outgrowths around. Maize and cacti, mostly.

*

The coach attendant refuses the lone cigarette and asks for mava over the rattling sound of the goods train speeding outside. He’s from Bavangarh, he mentions without being asked.

*

At the boundary of a field in Beaver, a dog fed on a dead cow, half skeleton.

*

‘Pluck the blood: my words will echo thus, at the sunset, by the ivy, but to what purpose?’*

——–

Note:

* from The Pastoral, Agha Shahid Ali

Portrait

Under a thatch roof by the bend uphill, he sat across an acquaintance made a while ago by dint of the colour of his skin. A group of guys from Delhi sprawled on the next table fixing a chillum every now and then. Mirek had been sitting there since dawn. When one of them asked him to share some of his hash, he fished out an ornate, little box and gave them a stick.

After so many years, I still do not trust people, he said. It’s too fleeting a trust on myself I cling onto.

Across the edge loom green hills of the Parvati Valley warm under the afternoon sun. Lapos is still far away. The breeze is cold but pleasant; the kettle constantly on the boil. Wafts of smoke surround them. Every now and then, a shepherd or a cow herder passes them headed toward a small village a few hours along the trek. Horses carry grocery supplies to the seasonal tents at the top of the hill who charge the travelers three, or often, four times the price.

‘This is a beautiful country with the most abhorrent people. But it’s different in the hills. The hills don’t retain any traces.’

What to speak of this nomadic existence dimmed by years of trawling through distant lands, returning seemingly to inhabit the same vacuous space one could not call home?

His head bowed towards his feet, he says, ‘I have changed, I believe I have. But people just don’t see it.’

A Hundred Deaths A Day

The sheet of the abominable dark clouds curtained the luminous, spotless sky with a ferocity that prepared the Sumarian soldier to wait for his final blow.

Lying on his haunches now with a bullet deposited right above his left knee, Nedvoi, crying blood as black as his skin was alarmed at how the pleasant evening back in the barracks had transformed into a ruthless demon in the forests just a mile away as darkness pervaded the sky, split open in a flash by the scathing strokes of light, every now and then. Nedvoi, made anxious more by the sudden and thunderous change in the weather than by the inflicted pain, made indecipherable cackling sounds from his jaw – which now hung loose peeled off its flesh, in a desperate measure just to move from that wretched place and position. He was not to realise that it was not the weather but the treacherous condition his mind and body were subjected to that made him accuse instead the former and fear it. Dragging his body now, with still an astonishing, striving strength he managed to scurry down a few feet and find shelter under a tropical, thick, wild Banyan. He was breathing heavily and with every breath he inhaled, he felt the catabolism within his bulky frame, like in a clock-tower machine start working, the wheels rolling, energy being yielded and everything stagnant being rejuvenated before being knocked out to a sudden pause – little molecules of energy busted awaiting another breath. At this point in time, Nedvoi didn’t bear any particular thought or even multiple ones of his past confusing him, weakening him. He knew that it’d be anytime then when he’d lose himself but still couldn’t think of devising a plan to somehow escape. He was betrayed by his mechanism, deprived of energy and he kept babbling while panting heavily, awaiting his final blow.

*

Currently, displaced extensively in space and time, his body lies in a small, dingy room of an apartment in the second and top floor of a building stocked between two others of same size, shape and colour; opposite a bustling street lined on either sides with boisterous fruit and vegetable sellers and their respective stalls. The rain lashes down in a sharp file clanking down on the tin roofs, in short rattling bursts. The traffic has been blocked and rendered a snail’s pace making one believe that life has suddenly made to boom in here in an instant and people, as if on a fierce command, are deliriously and cynically rushing to do what they have to do. Despite of all, the clamour of the small town of Irlington fails to permeate or even diffuse through the shut wooden door of the room beyond which the psyche of Nedvoi Nesunk lay.

*

Nothing, it seems, has moved in here for a long time. The green bulb clinging to the damp walls fails to even tell the colour of the chipped-off paint. Pieces of it hang in there, half suspended in the air, refusing to fall down. The fan dangling from the ceiling sways noiselessly. There is no ventilation except for a high window; a translucent glass pried half open; no perceptible sound except of a distant rain. There applies no contrivance of time to this room, not even the pernicious tik-tok of it in the back of the mind.  Somebody is sitting upright on a wicker chair with eyes fuming, heart rigorously pumping blood and lungs clean of grime– a body of a seven year old girl, lying still, apart from the regular but slight twitching of the skin.

She suddenly jerks her head, conscious of a presence and starts talking, crying, apologizing, arguing, commanding and fearing a blue-eyed rabid, vicious animal staring her right in the face and in the end gives up, panting heavily awaiting her final blow.

*

In the stillness of the night, a knob turns to let a shadow glide over the walls. As droplets of water dribble down his coat, the man smiles watching his daughter fast asleep; smiles and reassures himself that she is quick recovering.

Wreck

The road was blocked by an electric wire hung loosely over a treetop on one end and tied to a cone on the other. A bike was parked in the middle of it. There were two men standing atop the carriage, hooking bags of cement with an iron rod and jutting them on the ground. A couple of policemen directed the traffic. One talked on the phone walking the barren patch amid the colourful cacophony at the junction where masked faces and screened eyes from the bikes turned. The ones in cars looked everywhere but at the wreck at the early hour of a Monday trying to squeeze it across to another stoplight. Inside the truck turned on its flank with its wheels off, a few clothes still hung from the night before. The windscreen was intact; the front hinged like a door while being half hedged across the divider. On the other side, two wheels lay flicked around a narrow, golden black stream that trickled its course seeping through the cracks on the road. One side of the bus had been hollowed out and its windows fringed around the head of the truck like a splintered crown hovering over an immense void.

bastard.

You carry the kid on your back, his arms tied around your shoulders, his bulky head dead on your neck, as you stoop to collect the mines Brother deactivates. He’s a cripple; you’ve got to be his hands. At nights in dark rooms, sometimes while sleeping, he utters things which come true and kill a newborn, heal the sick and devastate a whole village. You look at him when he’s asleep, waiting, hoping to hear about good things. The kid puts an arm around your waist but you turn around. The rope around his ankle is undone. He’ll go walk down the roads while you sleep. You turn around. How old are you really? They don’t know. You support your two brothers, they think. Your parents were killed by the army in your village which was once green. Where is that village now? The muddy paths are lost forever.

During the days, you work with the children. Orphans, they are all. For a while, you sit to rest and gaze vacantly toward the skies, the dust caked on your arms and legs. The kid walks away and doesn’t look back. He looks a bit deranged with his eyes crossed and tongue always clucking but such is the manner of all kids, one cannot suppose. Somewhere far, he breaks down and calls for his father who doesn’t come. Brother does and whispers something in your ear. It’s going to be a truck this time; they should leave. The orphans are told; it could be anytime now. The place is evacuated; Brother finds the kid and looks at you with eyes, distant and burning. You turn your face and walk away. How old are you really? Too young, too ignorant.

He sleeps in the room, fed enough from your tired hands, when you slink away and far with the kid and the rope. In a field with mines, you leave him, tying his rope to the bark of a tree you know he cannot untie. You leave him in the field full of mines and you leave the rope slackened. He calls out to you several times, trying to see through the darkness with his eyes closed. Who is blind now? ‘Mother,’ he cries, he knows. ‘Mother,’ you hear and turn around, your young face disguised, your heart bloated. Still, you walk away. How old are you really? You cannot be.

The dawn fades out. In the afternoon, on waking up, you see the kid back, sitting beside Brother, who stares hard at you leaning against a wall, his eyes swelling, lips sealed. You sit up, your delicate fingers pulling at your hair and ask, ‘When do we leave?’  One orphan, their leader, lost a leg to the explosion, but the kid was miraculously saved. ‘When do we leave?’ you ask blankly and say, ‘The kid can’t come along.’

You thrash him that night, with your weak, delicate arms until the kid begins to bleed profusely. It must have taken hours. Your arms lose all their strength mid-way but you continue until Brother turns up. ‘Why do you always save him? When do we leave?’ He takes him away, crying, spitting out ‘Why can’t you accept him!’

A still silence dissolves the shout as soon as it surfaces and billows. It comes from some place deep embedded in time, on your command, every piece of furniture, clothing, paint, food and earthen water pots, resounding it at the same moment. You lay dead. It’s not you. Your eyes burn in those strong vivid memories that slide and bulge and shrink in rapid succession, the images that still possess everything you had until they came, until they desecrated every possession of yours, every single part of you, one by one and together, everything: your adolescence, your childhood, your breath; impregnating a beast within you which must come out and remind and stifle you every single moment with its crossed eyes and a clucking tongue. It’s not you. You lay there, almost silent.

‘He’s a bastard!’

The sound of it still echoes and like wisps of smoke permeates the air and shall lie thus for years to come – like dust on bricks, blood stains on grass, the smell of all the travellers’ feet on stones, long dead – forever eminent in their obscurity.

How old are you really? You were young, truly young.

Leap, child, leap. I see your feet upon the brown, rough surface of the edge. You look at the skies and your toes twitch. Sleep, child. You’ve seen enough. Close your eyes. You drowned the kid tying his leg to a boulder and he’s gone and now, you must leap, high and clear. Leap toward the blue of the skies. Leap high and let them open up and embrace you and soothe your skin down with their tenderness, swallow and cradle your being in its arms to your grave.