Sometimes I want to know how you are.
When I go to sleep, when I wake up, when I drive at ninety miles an hour, when the weight of time suddenly drops after a few quick vodkas and brandies.
Dawn breaks, night falls; dawn again, night again. The same way, day after day. Sometimes it feels as though something will happen. Nothing does. Day after day.
Believe it or not, I look at myself in the mirror at times. When I shave? No, I think of other things then. But sometimes, alone in the room, after a bath, or before going to bed eventually, I stand face-to-face with myself, eyeball-to-eyeball. Just me, without adornment; a lump of flesh, flab and filth. Completely bald, blunt nose, bags under the eyes, a broad hairy chest, the spitting image of a powerful, aged baboon after removing the glittering false teeth. I enjoy taking off my dentures and making faces, balling up my fists – like two wild beasts poised for battle – when I open my mouth wide the darkness seems to be the road to hell.
– How? I don’t even know where you are.
Come, let me introduce the rest of you – this aged baboon you see is Abanish Ghoshal, with engineering degrees from Glasgow and Berlin, learnt the ropes at Ford’s factory in Detroit, now engaged in making steel at Pippalgarh. His monthly income is five thousand rupees, more or less, he has been around the entire world thrice at his company’s expense, he has to visit Japan or Germany or Sweden or Russia or America once a year. In other words, this aged baboon is a very important person.
But actually I am someone else.
Alas, there’s so much ugliness that the tailor can hide, so much pus that formidable degrees can conceal blandly. Fame, honour, riches, influence – all of it may have been achieved, but after that? What lies behind, covered, within?
Was there really a ritual in Athens where young women would emerge naked after bathing in the sea for the ancients to select the most beautiful among them that year? But how else can beauty be judged? All we consider are the adornments. Degrees, learning, ‘qualifications’. Everyone wants to know what I can do, no one knows what I am.
You know. Do you?
The population of Pippalgarh is fifty thousand, everyone’s livelihood is this steel factory, their lives too, in fact. We are building the new India; creating wealth for the people, earning foreign exchange for the country, with four hundred million by our side, we are marching ahead, marching ahead. Can we ever say that the people involved in such a gigantic endeavour are not successful?
But I remember you from time to time.
Pippalgarh has a reputation around the country of being progressive. We have delivered radios to the homes of the workers; we have swept out cholera and small-pox; our huge cooperative store is a veritable showpiece. We have a school, a library, clubs at different levels and of different kinds, doctors, nurses, a free hospital, even a contraception clinic adjacent to the maternity home. Everyone here is happy; they work with healthy bodies, with resolve in their minds and with hope in their hearts: work goes on round the clock, smoothly; our productivity is the highest in India. We affirm life here.
Do you remember that morning – those dewdrops on the grass, and the soft, tender, pink sunshine?
There are hills in the distance here, a sea of earth lies grey beyond the town. There is only emptiness in the vast expanse stretching to the horizon, nothing but emptiness either in the enormous sky above. Nothing at all happens – the sun rises, the sun sets, nothing happens at all.
Everyone says Mr Ghoshal works like a demon. They don’t lie; I feel no fatigue when it comes to work, I do not have the ability to rest. My routine stretches from eight to eight; I fell the day with a single blow. Yet the victory does not seem to be complete; sometimes I go back late at night – where the huge fires burn furiously, I walk around supervising things, when I come out I find the darkness thinning. There’s no need, of course, there are people specifically for this task – but this is what I enjoy. I like to think that something is happening – this pit of fire, this fierce sound, the mechanical movements of the factory-workers – all of these help me forget that I am actually someone else. And I can be seen at almost each of the innumerable parties that are thrown here in Pippalgarh – I always make an appearance, even if only for ten minutes – and if ever I feel like “letting myself go” I can put away one-and-a-half bottles of Scotch and still continue with my measured smiles, my conversation, my flirtations with the women, without breaking my stride. I am on cordial terms with everyone, but none of them means anything to me. That’s the way I like it.
Like it? That’s incorrect. There’s no question of liking or disliking anything. I work – since I have nothing else. I go to parties – since I have nothing else. Nothing else. I do not have the one thing that would have meant having everything. So I have nothing.
But is it even possible that I am the only one who has come to know this, but no one else has? Is it even possible that I am the only one among this fifty thousand who wonders how you are?
Everyone is happy at Pippalgarh, but the happiest are the women – meaning, the wives of those “sahibs” who earn more than two thousand rupees a month. There’s a separate club for them – meaning, the “memsahibs”. There they can attempt self-improvement without the company of men: swimming, sports, hair-dressing, manicure – nothing’s missing from the arrangements. Coffee-party at ten-thirty, gimlets around one, back home for lunch, a nap in an air-conditioned room, tea after the nap, after the evening cocktail – if there’s nothing else to do – dinner at the Cosmopolitan Club, and perhaps an hour of dancing after dinner… at least three days a week can easily be passed this way. They’re safe for the other four days too: there are different kinds of invitations and events to attend, adorning their bodies, adorning their homes, the responsibility of being graceful hostesses at their own parties, the responsibility of being eye-catching embellishments in this land of coarse soil and steel. Their children? They spend their infancy in their nurses’ laps, public-school as soon as they turn five, missionary schools – in Darjeeling, in Dehra Dun, in Ernakulam. The mothers have no time – their lives are busy, happy, fulfilled.
Ah time, cruel time, how ferocious the battle between you and man! Escaping you, avoiding you, defeating you is his objective, his only objective, his only concern. He continuously creates so many unusual, extraordinary, extreme ways to do it, but still no one wins in the final round. Year month week day hour minute; morning noon afternoon evening night morning. And again the dawn, and again the night. Endless. Such torment!
Beasts don’t worry about all this. Nor do the gods. What if there really is a god somewhere? Is it entirely impossible?
Don’t look at me doubtfully; I have not forgotten I am a very important person, an aged baboon, a beastly lump of flab, flesh and filth.
But actually I am someone else.
You were in the garden that morning. The dew, the grass, the soft tender pink sunlight, the fresh green tender scent in the air. You were brimming over at sixteen, slim, fair – the goddess Saraswati to my adolescent mind. Your blouse was a deep red, wrapped in a white saree with a red border; you were like light, you were light, you lit up the world.
How did it turn out that I don’t know where you are now?
My wife’s style is different, she has become a social worker. Adult education among the workers, teaching hygiene to their wives, there are no such things as ghosts and the milk of cows is more beneficial than liquor – imparting such wisdom, along with her disciples, is what she spends her day on. Not just that, she also runs two or three – what’s the right word? – cultural societies for those housewives whose husbands earn only between five hundred and fifteen hundred a month. The membership of the women’s society in Pippalgarh numbers five thousand, it has its own office, built at company expense; it’s calendar is packed with the events it organizes; playback-singing stars, award-winning writers, fiery orators are invited to its annual festivals; the subjects of the monthly lectures it organizes range from the Upanishads to Sputnik. The director of all these activities is my wife – Milu – Urmila. Everyone says it is a worthy match; they are not wrong. Milu has the same capacity for work that I do, she is as indefatigable as I am; but if someone were to force the issue, at least I have the excuse of needing an income, but hers is pure unpaid labour. Noble Milu.
But does Milu know who her enemy is?
Milu is not callous about anything; she writes two letters a week to our son in Chicago, who is a doctor, spends a few days every year with our daughter and son-in-law in Rome, and she does go to all the parties with me. She has to; it is the rule in Pippalgarh for high-valued ‘sahibs’ to appear at parties as a couple. This gives me an opportunity to meet Milu sometimes. We meet, but we don’t talk much – what is there to talk about? And things have come to a point where we are either dining at someone else’s house or entertaining guests at our own almost every evening; if we have to unexpectedly dine together at home by ourselves, both of us try our utmost to suppress our unease. No, I don’t see much of Milu any more. It is we who are Pippalgarh’s “ideal couple”, both of us have been profusely honoured.
Alas, our achievements conceal so many failures; people’s respect is a shroud for such ruthless emptiness.
On my way to and from parties, when I drive with Milu by my side, sometimes I think of you.
And how are you?
When did I see you last? Was it forty years ago? Ten? Three or four? Yesterday? I don’t quite remember. After visiting so many different countries over and over again, I am confused by places, I am confused by time. Was it in Manila or in Capri that I had seen the sunset from the balcony of the bungalow on the hilltop? Where was that inn with the blazing log fire, the sparse, old-fashioned furniture, the plain but delicious food, the pleasant wine, and the snowy night outside, the exhaled frost in the forest? Was it in Tyrol? In Denmark? Or in Big Sur? And that other time when I saw you when travelling by car – was it on the road to Ootacamund from Mysore, or in Canada, or in Scotland? It must have been some such place – or perhaps somewhere else altogether. I was in a car, there was another one alongside. It was a bright day, there were tall trees on either side, the play of light and shade on the road. A blue Italian Fiat, with you in it. A handsome young man next to you, his luxurious moustache made him look like an airline pilot, or perhaps a famous sportsman. You were brimming over at sixteen, the red blouse was like light on your body, you lit up the day. I looked at you for a long time, then the blue Fiat took a turn into another road.
Just look at the mistakes I make. Can you possibly be sixteen still? By now you must be… wait… let me calculate…
But is it even possible that you too have grown old? You too, who is charm herself?
Milu had been sitting next to me that day. When I could no longer see you I looked at her. A sudden suspicion sprang up in my mind. Milu was not you, was she? Or was it possible that Milu – Urmila – the famous Mrs Ghoshal of Pippalgarh – was in fact you?
Sometimes my mind cries out for rest. No work to be done – nothing – I’m sitting on a cane chair in a verandah somewhere, the blue sea before me. The blue green indigo turbulent water, wave after wave, white birds, white sunshine, the hazy distance. I’m in a cane chair, gazing at all this. Holiday, rest; forgetting all the things that make up life. Why don’t I? Let me tell all of you the truth, do not laugh, do not look at me suspiciously. How lengthy the day will be when it holds no work to be done. How enormous the weight of that lightness that holds nothing but holidays. Will I be able to bear it? I don’t know, I am afraid. We are allowed a month’s leave every year; I don’t take it. I could take continuous leave for a year-and-a-half right now if I wanted to; I don’t. I am afraid.
My health? Don’t worry about it. In our hospital in Pippalgarh we have doctors with degrees from Vienna, modern equipment; everything except the soul is examined there at regular intervals; we’re eating, or not eating, scientifically; walking, exercising, or giving up exercising; ‘feeling poorly’ is a term unfamiliar to us. Besides, remember, Milu and I make the ideal couple; although we do not meet very frequently we look after each other flawlessly, although we converse very little we never quarrel. We are beyond annoyances like unhappiness, surliness, differences of opinion, arguments. I remind Milu that she should visit the dentist; in her desire to save me from death Milu encourages me to give up smoking. Apart from such things, each of us is in our own world, engrossed in our own work. We are not dependent on each other, life goes on the same way even without each other; but we are mercilessly imprisoned by the announcement that we are husband and wife. This is the ideal arrangement in Pippalgarh for the ‘sahibs’.
I like the discipline of Pippalgarh, its conflict-less class differences, and its unwritten laws which dispel worries. The people here are divided into three classes: “workers”, “officers” and “sahibs”. The workers drink hooch, the sahibs, Scotch, and the officers down their deconstipating potions and go to sleep with their wives. The workers are allowed to get drunk at times, there’s no objection to their raising a ruckus and getting into fights; but the ‘sahibs’ are forbidden from losing their poise. The officers are permitted to be devoted to their wives and children (they’re “domesticated creatures”, after all); but the “sahibs'” offspring must be either invisible or non-existent, and what their conjugal life must have is not intimacy but faithfulness beyond doubt. They shall make their appearances, as far as possible, as a couple – even if they’re merely taking a stroll in front of their house it is unseemly to abandon each other. But if it ever comes out that they enjoy each other’s company, that is completely unworthy of approval. If there is attraction, forminng an attachment is very easy; but what is what is expected of the ‘sahibs’ is that they will adhere to the rules, beyond likes and dislikes, in other words. That does not mean they have to be deprived of tasty morsels of their choice; laughing and joking at parties with women or men of equal rank is their duty – it is a failing not to be capable of this; but you must know where to draw the line. You must not go too far with anything, things just need to be touched upon, you have to float briefly in the shallows, deep-diving is illegal. You must be able to express an opinion on any subject at once, but too much attention to a subject is not in good taste. The existence of the “sahibs” is in these two worlds of “social life” – that is what we call it – and, of course, of work, and those who are equally adept at both enjoy the benefit of unimpeded ascent. I, too, am one of those chosen ones.
And yet I am actually someone else.
Did I say something to you when there was dew on the grass, fragrance in the air, and a pink sunshine spread over the face of dawn? Did you say something to me? Do you remember? You don’t? You came and stood on the stairs, the morning-sun-coloured dawn was face to face with you – and there I was gazing at you, the touch of dew on my feet, the euphoria of daybreak in my body. You were slim, fair, your hair blue and indigo in the tender sunlight. Your blouse was a deep red, wrapped in a white safer with a red border. Like light you lit up the universe, it was your fragrance that pervaded the fresh green air. My light, my life, my soul, how did it come to pass that I lost you?
– That one time I saw you suddenly in the lift in the hotel in Amsterdam. You were dressed in slacks, a bright-red woollen cardigan, joy in your face as sixteen brimmed over. Lighting up the grey of the cloudy day spread out outside, you woman came and stood there. You recognized me, you smiled; you responded at once in German to some trivial observation of mine. You got off the lift before I did; I didn’t see you again.
Was I mistaken? Perhaps – yes, definitely mistaken. You cannot have remained sixteen so many years later. And if it was indeed you, why was your hair golden? Why would you talk to me in German even after recognizing me? But if that woman was not you, then where are you? Tell me, answer me.
– Where? I don’t even know whether you still live.
But is it even possible that you have died? You too, celestial beauty?
Yet Pippalgarh runs smoothly. How strange, how terrible, how unbelievable that not one of these fifthy thousand people except me wonders whether you are still alive or not. But this is the only thing that is real, important. Yet everyone is happy living by the rules.
Everyone? Who knows whether it’s everyone.
To tell the truth, following the rules without demur is quite difficult. Some of the “sahibs” do have a fall, sometimes literally on the floor of the club, sometimes in the form of some other weakness. Some people actually get friendly at a party – instead of frolicking with everyone they spend the entire evening in the company of a single person – that is a big mistake. Others earn infamy by bringing up serious subjects for discussion. Someone may display signs of excessive attention towards someone else’s wife, taking an axe to the root of their prospects in the company. I’ve even seen one or two people who do not go to parties, reading books of their choice instead when they go back home in the evening – their behaviour is considered illegitimate too. This may not harm anyone, but we term them undependable; the wise principle of Pippalgarh is that those who are personally moved, or want to nurture a part of themselves in private, are – even though they are morally innocent – not worthy of being given important responsibilities. But I wonder, why do these people fall? Did they ever see you – and were not able to forget you since then? Like me, do they also wonder where you are?
However, things that are difficult for many people come easily to me. I am very clever: I do not allow anyone to even guess that I am actually someone else; even though they see me round the year they never suspect that I have known you for ten thousand years. Everyone knows, thinks, believes, that I am only a very important person – an aged baboon. And indeed that is what I am, indeed. Once you can be an aged baboon, there’s nothing more comfortable; I am fortunate to have reached that stage.
Milu? Does Milu suspect anything? No, not even Milu. But what if the truth is that Milu is indeed you? Is that not possible? I do remember a time dimly when Milu was – who knows if she was almost like you. But if that is so, then it must be accepted that Milu does not exist any more. And if Milu does not, nor do I. Is that possible? Certainly. Definitely possible.
But Milu, I – we are nothing. We may exist, or we may not. It does not matter. But the real, important, critical question is: do you exist or not.
Tell me, answer me. Say something.
To please Milu I had once been to one of her women’s society events. The speaker was a renowned professor from Calcutta. Happiness does not make man happy, pleasures do not bring joy, what man needs is ambrosia – he stated this eternal truth in different ways, taking a long time over it. He spouted a great deal of Sanskrit; words like ‘love’, ‘beauty’, ‘infinite’ and ‘immortal’ were heard over and over again. Why was he saying all this – it suddenly struck me – these were just words, just shells, just envelopes, had he ever wondered whether they held anything within them? Had he not heard of you yet, if he had then why all this noise? All those words of his – if they did hold any meaning, any substance, an abstract, an essence, then it is you! You – you are everything: but if you are indeed everything then how can there be a question mark over whether you are alive or not?
One day I will take that holiday – I will have to. I will go away from this place – or, I will have to. I will sit in a cane chair on a verandah somewhere, the sea before me. The blue-green indigo turbulent water, wave after wave, the hazy distance. No work, I am idle; no worries, I am idle; no thoughts, I am idle; and yet I do not fear the morning, the afternoon, the evening. I want to go somewhere where there is no work, and because there is no work there is no fatigue either. I want to go somewhere where there is always time, but where I do not have to wage a war against time. Where is that land, that sea, that blueness? It is where you are. You are brimming over with sixteen, your body smells of the dew, your face glows in the pink sunlight, like light, you light up this universe. You just sat down by my side.
– But what if it turns out that you do not exist?
Sometimes I want to know how you are.