Wednesday, October 14, 2009


A baby cried in the dead of night. Insistent, in waves, as if repeatedly waking from nightmares. His thoughts turned to the poor lot of the dwellers of the houses right below his. Thatched houses covered with tin and iron sheets, almost every labourer’s house in the neighbourhood similarly shielded from the elements. Canopy of brotherhood, mark of decrepitude. Progress. Progress, and television. It had started a long while back; maybe fifteen years back, when he’d started not to notice these things. But then he noticed that the sound came from the side, and not from the back of his house. This was probably the same baby who’d cried two hours before, only now it was more desperate, and it did not stop for the next fifteen minutes. Perhaps the baby was ill.

He’d been reading for a while and it was the second time he’d been relieving himself. He felt good afterward, and he wondered what he’d eaten to deserve such a wonderful release. He could only recall the hot spicy food he had almost close to midnight. And then it jolted him to reality; his arse was hurting, it was now the turn of the hotness to find painful release. Yet he was happy.

And then he recalled the equanimity with which she went about her daily rounds. She was among the locals, but she was not a local. She’d come here a while back, five years back, and she was very young then. Young, and highly qualified, with possibly more qualifications than anyone would care to even remember—and she’d grown old among them, living a solitary life. And, after a while, no one even bothered to inquire about what she was doing. She went about the business quietly, and all was well.

But he knew at least some of the reasons. It didn’t change anything, no. The same things he had spelt out in his long corpus of literary leavings, she had silently acted out, not to the letter but certainly true to the spirit. And it was this: this here is the world, and the best we can do in it is to live—live consciously. She was doing exactly that. He knew that she loved her work but not to distraction, it was not an absolute, she could keep away from it for long stretches. But she never gave cause for alarm, when her juniors needed her most she was always there. He knew also that this sort of attachment—at times amounting to brinkmanship—came from an immense sense of detachment. It was as if she was listening to the background noise for the telltale cry of a baby.

She had her share of everything, and she had lovers. But the joke wears thin in a few years, and as long as one kept it out of the news and gossip, it was not going to hurt. She knew. It was easy for her because the little town needed a healer, and minded its business otherwise. To make things a little easier, she had no interests in that town at all. From eight to six, she was there, body and soul. She needed a little rest, and she slept only five hours. She occasionally watched a film, but liked to spend her time with interesting people. And she loved driving—and often went out for no particular reason.

Nothing was really missing from this picture if you followed her around daily. From eight to six she was at the Sanatorium; in between her work and rounds and refreshments, she also read for a few hours, researched a bit, and talked a bit with her colleagues. She lived ten miles away, a safe distance from the town. And then she met up with her friend, with whom she’d put up for the night, and often spend a long night just talking or watching a movie or listening to music. She never gave much thought to cooking, which wasn’t a problem because she was single.


And I’m just living. I could be pompous and assume that I am reinventing it all, the first man to do so. But I could also be humble and recognise that billions have felt the same way before, and probably billions will, in future. Whatever work I leave behind, will be subjected to scrutiny, and will merely become (if they are worth enough to be well-known in my day or become fashionable enough some time in the future) the tools for criticism. These will become fodder for new industries or solo efforts meant to embellish an otherwise dull career. But the fact remains—once dead, I will either be forgotten (which doesn’t terrify me) or severely used. I’ll more likely be forgotten or be used rather than otherwise. But all of these possibilities mean nothing to me, as it does not change the way I live each of my days. These are the merely theoretical, theological, textual considerations which a common man doesn’t get himself entangled in. In short—these are ideas which are better termed luxurious.

The alternative, of course, is to simply realise that you’re living. It’s like the obsession to take photographs. You do it for some purpose. You can do it for personal ends, and mostly it is for personal ends. But if you really love the subject of your photograph, you wouldn’t care much about turning him or her or it or that into a fossil. You’d watch it thrive, watch her smile, watch the life, and watch it flowing, unbroken, unspoilt.

I loved to take photographs. Or rather, I thought I did. But I didn’t have very good equipment. I made up for it by taking a lot many, most of them irrelevant, some even irreverent. And then, I got this wonderful gift, which really made all my excuses look shameful. And I started taking beautiful photographs for a while. As my technique improved, as it inevitably must, I started realising an immense emptiness within the body of my work, growing like a silent tumour, unseen, hollow, as if burrowing from within, bloating it. Interestingly, I started getting better and better responses for my ‘work,’ most of which used to cause me much shame.

I knew the reason very well. Only a few of my patrons were regulars; the others were merely being introduced to my style and they liked it. But at every new place there were so many! It was designed to be impressive, to have the maximum impact. It was much like the logic of the one-off bestseller. I knew it well but I also knew well not to recall it often to my detriment. I thus became an established name. With all my limitations, knowing my limitations, perpetrating a heinous crime on humanity and human dignity, I sold myself out. In other words, even within the locus I had set myself, it was possible for me to be lavish about myself, be arrogant, and browbeat people.

Yet, it inevitably comes to this. I knew. And the instant she looked at me I knew that she knew. Our masks were torn in an instant, yet she smiled an innocent smile. We had each our independent ways. I wondered then how it was possible. Her attire, her bearing, and that halting smile which suddenly broke out like moonshine. And when she first talked to me, her voice was cracked, and she cleared a lump in her throat. But it was to no avail; he eyes occasionally shone and her cover was blown.

Yet I knew how she’d done it; it was so easy. Like a face-meter, spotting a face and prompting for recognition, her eyes flitted here and there for an instant before gauging the depth of my pepper-coloured hair which revealed both my ancestry as well as my main bad habit. But how did I recognise her? To this day it is a mystery to me and I have not forced it. By an invisible submission, she seemed to agree to my conclusion that we were similarly placed on the boat of sinners.

And, like stones dropped in the mud, we both sank forthwith, to the bottom.’


Perhaps it was not by chance that I came across his note. I knew him to be a collector of all sorts of things—books, magazines, CDs, everything. His dwelling was like a big portmanteau—and he had a huge collection of different suitcases and bags. But that was perhaps what I really liked; it was all so different, and he was trapped like a fish in its bowl. And then, like an eighth wonder, I chanced upon this book placed under a lot many others in a house full of books.

From the tone of it, a personal note, perhaps to commemorate what had been a rather pleasant acquaintance. Of course, it was about me. He was easy to maintain, I guess, but so am I. The first evening was like an immense teenage visual rubdown in a decrepit coffee house over nothing but a pot of coffee. But what coffee! I felt, stuck in an immensely dreary interlude, that he’d sprinkled schnapps into it. He had relapsed into one of those moods so essential after mush idealism. (—Men!) But somehow he’d got wind of what was coming, so he fixed up the coffee real strong. It stung at that precise moment I felt almost detached from the company of his words. And it saved the day.

And now, to answer the enigma: what was it that made him realise I was a fellow-sinner. He speaks of having noted the glint in my eye as a mark of my tacit approval of his identification of our position. And he is right about what I noted him from the first which gave him away. But I am betting my last penny on my getup as the giveaway. (He must also have noted the impeccable shade of my hair. He must also have noticed, I’m sure, that I was out of the sanatorium and in my ‘free time.’ So he must have immediately placed my black-and-white ethnic chic with a smattering of tribal jewellery—crappy silverware if worn otherwise—as due to a rather ancient expertise in the profession.

To his credit, it must be said that his survey—which I’m forced, noting the enormity of the accusations he levels against people and their motives as also against himself—his survey must have been pretty thorough, and immensely swift. Whatever the reason, whatever it was that ‘gave me away’ (I for one don’t consider it as a gift of anything), he came to that conclusion pretty soon and was knocking with his back turned to the clock. It had never happened that way in my life. Most of the time I met up with folks that wanted to flog their stuff or peddle their stories and they were interesting in a way. But this time around, it was a felon, same as me, and he came with nothing, and declared nothing except a blind and mad profession of the depths to which he had sunk. For once, it felt happy to be down there in the depths with him—especially as he did almost all the talking, and we did all the eating and drinking from casseroles and carafes.

As he’s a stickler for details, I’m afraid I must excuse myself from furthering my little explanation (which will hopefully go unread). This is only a provisional explanation that should serve its purpose, and also mark the fact that his accidental personal note, perhaps meant never to be read by anyone else, was read, digested, and carefully forgotten with this similarly accidental reply note which should similarly go unread.

[To Raphael, the story; & to Edmund Leach, the themes]

[1952; 77’, three sittings]

[Written 0158 – 0315, Oct 14, 2009, after a telephonic conversation. This is merely a fictionalized transcript of what we talked, leaving out the details. I hope you can recognise the threads, but of course it’s all there in order in my head, and perhaps only in my head, which is why you’d probably find this not too boring.]


No comments: