Out, Short Stories, Wonder World

The Cuckoo and the Lorry Driver: by Sunil Gangopadhyay

I looked around furtively. Had anyone seen me?

Many people had, obviously, but no one I knew. The left sleeve of my shirt had been completely ripped off, attracting several curious glances.

I stood for a couple of minutes, my hands on the Curzon Park railing. A light vapour of pique clouded by heart. Pique against whom? Against the lorry driver? Was it possible to have a relationship involving pique with someone I didn’t know, someone who didn’t know me either? Many people don’t know God, God has forgotten people too for a long time now, but still they have relationships involving misunderstanding and weeping.

The feet of the brass idol are flooded with tears. But God is not a lorry driver.

I saw a young woman in motion next to a young man. First her face, then, successively, her breasts, a slice of her waist, the rhythm of her movement, and again her breasts. And then the young man. Once more the young woman’s waist, breasts and face. A brief sigh. She didn’t belong to me. And yet a forbidden envy remained. The desire amassed over seven hundred and fifty thousand years, sparked by the sight of a lovely woman, has still not disappeared.

It was not just my sleeve that had been been ripped off, I had a gash on my arm too. A long, thin line, its mind not yet made up on whether to bleed or not, similar to the hour between afternoon and twilight. I caressed my left arm very lightly.

I had many things to do, many places to go to. I was no longer the person who could have stood indolently a decade ago, his hands on the Curzon Park railing, as long as he liked. Those tattered clothes, that unshaven face, that freedom to wander around. The world had changed him.

There are no rajahs in Raj Bhavan. The trees in the garden are huge. An invisible cuckoo sang in the garden, startling me. I don’t much care for the voice of the cuckoo, it’s far too sweet. But in response to that song another I hummed the octave very softly. ‘The cuckoo sings the F note,’ goes the poem. Does the cuckoo really hit F? It seemed more like F sharp to me.

I should have directed my pique at the cuckoo. Because, as I crossed the road absent-mindedly, that dreadful road on which every vehicle was a demon, where the path was not for walking, a lorry came and…

Shibram Chakraborty would have written of having no truck with trucks. But it isn’t funny. Because a man with a salary of two hundred and forty five rupees had raised his arm, the truck was waiting demurely, just like the other cars, at the junction of three roads. I took the opportunity to slip through. But my shirt-sleeve was impaled on a hook protruding from the lorry, and the man at the crossing with the raised arm lowered it at that very moment. As soon as the lorry started moving, I thought I would be dragged along with it. The fear of death for a moment or two. My sleeve came off with a ripping sound at the sudden jerk, I fell on my face on the road, that the car behind did not run over me was out of sheer magnanimity. Jumping to my feet at once, I loped like an orang-utan towards the Curzon Park railing.

I couldn’t roll my sleeve up either, for it had been ripped off from the shoulder. Still I thought of the cuckoo. F sharp, wasn’t it?

I had many things to do, several places to go to. I could take a taxi home to change my shirt. It would delay me but it wouldn’t turn the world upside down. But my pique mounted. Why did the cuckoo in this Raj Bhavan without a rajah or the lorry driver for that matter leave me in the lurch this way? I hadn’t even seen their faces – neither the cuckoo, nor the lorry driver’s.

This had happened to me earlier too. Once, a Hindustani milkman – it wasn’t yet forbidden for milkmen to board buses with their pails of milk, the transport system was not as advanced yet – had burst the pimple bulging with white pain on my forehead with his elbow. The milkman was as well-built and handsome as the idol of Mahishashur to be seen at the Durga Puja organised by the Simla Bayam Samiti, as he raised his elbow unknowingly, the blood began to flow all over my shirt. I forgave the milkman, for having a pimple on my forehead was in fact my misdeed. If it was wrong to board a bus with a pail of milk, it was equally wrong to get into a crowded bus with a pimple ripe for bursting.

Another time, when I was on my way to Goabagan for a funeral, an unmarried woman of twenty-one years and three months in a yellow sari had spat paan juice on my dhoti and kurta from the cantilevered first floor balcony of a house the colour of gunpowder, turning them blood red. On spotting me and her recent handiwork, she had run back into the house. It was an unpardonable error on her part. But I did not ring the bell and complain. On the contrary, when I sought assistance at a paan-shop on the corner, three young men loitering there laughed at me, while the shopkeeper made things much worse by pouring a pitcher of water on my clothes.

For three year straight after that I followed the young woman like a shadow. I never spoke to her. She recognised me and came to know me. Sometimes she looked at me with pathetic, pleading, silent eyes. I smiled back, but not in a way that demanded an actual exchange. A thin, narrow smile, the kind that vanishes in thin air. Then after intimate and violent love-making with her in the bathroom (in my imagination) I released her. She was to get married in five days. It was true that I had never actually been angry with her, for in fact she had offered me a pretext not to go to the funeral that day. Who wants to go to a funeral?

But late on this afternoon, on what grounds would I pardon the cuckoo and lorry driver? Let the cuckoo sing away to itself, but why should it hit a false note? And a hook protruding from a lorry? And yet, the problem was that neither of these could be followed.

A fully-grown adult male lay in the shade of a drumstick tree inside Curzon Park. I turned away after a quick glance at him.

A few shreds of fabric hung from the left sleeve. I ripped them off. It was a clean job now. The right sleeve was intact, the left sleeve was missing. Was it possible to visit anyone this way? A film company’s office, for instance? Where signing seven sheets of paper – in original and duplicate – fourteen times would yield quite some money. Would they laugh? Would they try to lower the price on grounds of lunacy?

But why couldn’t I go this way? I could easily start a fashion involving one intact sleeve and another missing one. If I could have myself photographed right now and have the picture sent to Jean-Pierre de Boram at France’s La Figaro magazine, he would definitely grab it and make this trend popular all over the world.

I took another look at the man lying beneath the drumstick tree in the park.

I had many things to go, several places to go to.

I had a girl to call my own, I had friends. I had places I frequented regularly, I had a family at home. And besides all this, I had raging dissatisfaction. Greed. Since the car behind the lorry had not run over me, I intended to enjoy a great many more things in life. I would gulp down power. I would put my hand on a woman’s hips. It did not suit me to pass my time leaning on a park railing late in the afternoon. That right belonged to a young man a decade ago.

A tall man walked past me. His shoulder blades were high and slightly curved, his skin looked oily, the nose on his thin face was excessively long, his lips reflected annoyance. He was on his way back from office. I was not like this man. He seemed to have nothing more to get from life, he had given up hope. There is a certain kind of person like this, moving about with his eyes wide open but seeing nothing. Stories and novels are written about such people. But they never read them. Rilke’s rose – had any rose bush on earth even read the poem about the rose?

Then another identical man passed. Not as tall, his face was round, but still the same. Then another. And another. Such people were the majority late in the afternoon.

The man lying beneath the drumstick tree had covered his eyes with his hand. Because of the sun. But he did not know that the sun wasn’t strong any more, he was asleep.

Now the roads were full of people on their way back from office. Many of them were homebound, and then again, many were on their way from their homes to the riverside. Those who were bound for home did not pay any attention to me, some of those who were walking in the opposite direction glanced at me, a few smiled, a few whispered to each other. One or two may have recognised me. Some people in this city do know me.

My watch was on the wrist without the sleeve. I was like a naked man in socks. Taking off the watch, I put it in the pocket of my trousers. Six past ten. I was supposed to have been there at six, the place that I had to go to.

How long had it been, ten years, twelve, maybe even longer since I had last lain down alone on the grass in a park. When I had nothing to do, nowhere to go to. When I simply had plenty of time on my hands.

The man sleeping beneath the drumstick tree was dressed in a sleeveless shirt. How could he sleep so peacefully as the evening lengthened?

A couple was out on a stroll, accompanied by three infant girls and dog on a leash. Both the husband and wife were unsmiling, perhaps they had quarrelled today, although they had still come out on their stroll. The dog sniffed at the sleeping man’s face.

I had lots of things to do, many places to go to. Not to a funeral today. First to the film company’s office, then to the newspaper office, and finally to a routine party at the German consulate. There was a rat-race here, in which I was deeply involved. Weren’t there hoards of rats once in this corner of Curzon Park? People would gather to watch, some of the would toss breadcrumbs to make the rats dance. All those rats had been killed, the cactus was quite healthy now, there were lots of flowers next to it.

People in sleeveless shirts were probably happier than those in one-sleeved shirts. My grandfather used to wear them, there is no reason for me to doubt that he was happier than my father.

What if it had been the collar at my neck rather than my sleeve that had been impaled by the hook? Would it have been ripped as easily? The lorry would have picked me up like a newborn kitten and carried me along, dangling from the hook. I would have flailed my arms and legs, screaming, and everyone on the road… even the thought made by bristle with anger. Blasted cuckoo!

As soon as I held my right sleeve between the fingertips of my left hand and tugged hard, some of the fabric tore with a ripping sound. The shirt was obviously very old. Some old clothes are often favourites. Besides, I had probably bought this one at a discount sale. But it was very beautiful, I really like the colour blue.

If I ripped this sleeve off too, I would have a nice sleeveless shirt. With a collar. But if only things turned out the way I wanted them to. Thanks to too much of tugging, a portion of the fabric near my chest was also ripped off.

You cannot stand on the road ripping the shirt off your own back as you please. You cannot stand on the road lighting all the matches in a matchbox one after the other. You cannot stand by yourself and smile without any reason. At most you can kneel to tie your shoelaces. All these are the rules of the road.

I vaulted over the railing into the park. Everything changed at once. There was no relationship between the road and the park, this was a completely different world. A man could lie on his back even in the late afternoon.

I tore the ripped shirt off my back. Taking the money, pen and cigarettes out of the pocket, I threw them into a bush. Nobody objected. I felt a strange taste of freedom. The ripped shirt had been sticking to me like an embodiment of discomfort. Was it a shirt or a straitjacket?

Now I could settle down at ease on the grass and smoke a cigarette in peace. Daylight had disappeared suddenly, darkness swooping down. The film production office must have shut shop by now. I needn’t worry about it any more, at least one of the destinations could be removed from the list.

Let me not meet him.

I’ve long had this feeling, let me not meet him. The need was mine, the person I was to meet could help me in many ways. Still I had felt, when near his home, that perhaps he was not in, it would be good if he wasn’t. If he had indeed been out, I had breathed a sigh of relief. When I used to go looking for jobs, so many times I had…!

I was beneath another tree, at some distance from the sleeping man. The road was visible from this spot too, the crowds on the road, there were more happy people now than tired people.

That left the newspaper office and the party at the consulate. There was still a way out. I could take a taxi home in a jiffy and put on a fresh shirt. My family would be surprised to see me in only a vest, but they wouldn’t disbelieve me if I said a man on the road blew his nose on my shirt, which I took off out of disgust. This was entirely possible. So the vest stood in the way. As long as I had it on, I could go home whenever I liked, after which everything would become normal again.

I’d wasted enough time, this is what I should do now. Go home. I had lots of do and in particular I couldn’t forget the rat-race, could I? Only the jobless and the pessimist could behave this way. Why should I force myself to be like them?

I was about to rise after finishing my cigarette and stretching when I remembered something else. It could turn out that I would rush home only to find it locked. Everyone had gone out. It was possible, wasn’t it? I wasn’t supposed to return before midnight, after all. Where would I go in that case? To a friend’s house? Which of my friends was likely to be home in the evening? One wasn’t home, visit a second, or a third – this is what enterprising men did.

Or, suppose I visited a friend at home since mine was locked. He wasn’t home either, but his wife was. I would tell my friend’s wife, give me a shirt at once, quickly. Give me, give me a shirt, I need one desperately, I have to join the rat race.

So the vest was coming in the way. Taking it off in a flash, I tossed it away. It didn’t travel very far. Therefore, rising to my feet to fetch it, I threw into the road after some hesitation from where I stood by the railing in the darkness. Perfect, there was no telling now where it would end up under people’s feet.

Now what? I couldn’t go home bare-bodied. I could offer no logic for returning home in the middle of evening after abandoning both shirt and vest. Besides, would a taxi let in a bare-bodied passenger? I didn’t even have enough money to buy a new short. Why should I, wasn’t I supposed to have got several thousand today? Just for a cuckoo and lorry-driver it had… Or maybe they’d have given a cheque? Or they might have changed their mind. This had happened several times in the past. If they were interested they would approach me again.

For that matter, of all the people in this city, why had I chosen the man beneath the drumstick tree to envy? No, maybe it wasn’t envy but kinship.

The sound of trams on tramlines can grate at times. The silence after a couple of trams have passed is delightful. I used the gap to sharpen my hearing to the utmost, in case the cuckoo could be heard again from Raj Bhavan across the road. It could not. Darkness had fallen, the cuckoo wouldn’t sing any more, it was not a night bird. My pique rose.

Suddenly awaking with a start, the man beneath the drumstick tree called out as soon as he sat up, tea, hey, tea.

A vendor was indeed passing with tea in a brass pot, I had neither noticed him nor heard his cry, but the sleeping man had. He drank a pot of tea. Taking a tin out of his pocket, he counted out the payment, the tin also yielded a bidi, giving the tea-seller one, he lit one himself.

A little later, the tea-seller and the man disappeared in different directions.

How could the man go off so suddenly? How strange. How can you just vanish without a word? So he didn’t see me at all? Surely everything needs a sense of proportion.

It was my turn now. Here in the middle of the busiest part of this busy city, there simply had to be at least one person lying back without a care in the world. Else there would be grave danger. There might be a horrible noise and everything might explode.

Taking my shoes and socks off, I lay down. The park wasn’t particularly crowded now – some people were wandering around, here and there shadowy couples sat side by side, a couple of women without male companions passed by slowly, looking from side to side. It was quite dark where I was. No one asked why I was bare-bodied. Or no one saw. No one wanted to look.

I saw the sky through a gap in the trees. The moon wasn’t up yet, one or two stars and some floating clouds were scattered about. I was supposed to have been at the newspaper office now. I would have been surrounded by clusters of sizzling and exciting news from around the world. There was no news here. The cars whizzing along the road by the park were all carrying news of some sort. All the people passing on foot, too, had news of one kind or another. I didn’t belong to them. I didn’t belong to this city, I was just a human being lying back in the darkness without a care.

Where are you now, lorry driver? He must be on the highway to Howrah or Delhi or Bombay by now. The road was pitch black, the truck roared through it with its headlights on, the deadly hook dangled from the back, swinging, swinging…

Go wherever you want to, lorry-driver. I shall be lying here. I am seven hundred and fifty thousand years old, I used to lie beneath a tree like this on the horizon somewhere. So many walls of brick and wood had come up around me, so many tram lines, so many cars and trucks, hooks dangling at the back. There were so many garments to smother my greed and my desire. Today I was liberated, free.

To be even more liberated, even freer, I took off my belt, trousers and underwear, nudging them away with my foot. Anyone who saw me would think I was mad, insane. No one comes near a madman.

Seven hundred and fifty thousand years ago we were all insane, after all.

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