Sentinels of the Night
By Sunil Sharma
The dead wake him up.
Nights are scary: Sleep deprivation; involuntary memories; an irksome inability to recall names, mostly of the famous dead.
“Putting names to books or persons can be nerve-racking. You try hard but fail.” He pauses. “Like… not recognizing friends in a crowded room!”
In emergencies, he calls me up. I am his as a memory-keeper because “nobody else remembers these famous names.”
True. Erasure. The Insta-generation. Instant coffee, noodles, foods, messages, romance, divorce. Everything moves around an instant. Sixty seconds. Somebody once remarked wryly. Afterwards, it is deleted. Assigned to the dustbin. Oblivion.
“Soon, the dead will be truly dead,” he forecasts.
Cynics can be right.
“Recollection is painful,” he rambles. “The names evade. The very gesture of recall becomes torture.”
I understand. At 50, I suffer his fate at 85 – a general sense of social and cultural amnesia. I also forget. Names cause the greatest problem. Most nights, I try to remember.
“Solitude! Nights are unique, so is their solitude.”
As with insomniacs, I too enjoy a special relationship with the night.
“We are the sentinels of night!” Once he had observed, defining an urban condition. “We guard the night. A constant vigil. We get solitude in return.”
Nightly solitude can be a boon or a bane.
The night sounds hammer: Unnecessary horns; whistles of watchmen; barks; some drunken songs. As night lengthens and silence rules temporarily, you realize the full impact of the solitude. Moonless nights enhance that Robinson Crusoe-moment. Marooned.
Like my long-distance caller, I dread the nights. While the world snores, I remain wakeful. Bathed in sodium vapour light, glistening in monsoons, dried-up otherwise, the black-golden-grey street appears as a tired harlequin after a comic performance. Strange melancholia overwhelms such a nightly station and observer. The world is dead. I am the only one alive. Detached from the comatose people, I stand, alone, a sentinel of night; a reluctant witness to the subtle changes in the shades of colours in the sky.
At one point, all sounds cease and terrifying solitude envelopes.
At that unearthly hour, the dead rise up and provide willing company to the awake. It instantly becomes a surreal world.
He calls the dead the floating voices from the past. “I can hear them clearly. Deeper the silence, louder the voices.”
I have similar experiences.
“There is a link between active brain, memory and night,” he says. “Solitude facilitates that strange linkage and accelerates the seamless recall of random events that took place fifty-sixty years ago in all their lucidity and sharp contours. I see those events and hear the conversations separated otherwise by the physicality of half a century. Odd! But true. I am back in those moments. While my peers cannot, I have this ability, this uncanny capacity, to slide back into those lapsed years. I see the dead parents, the absent ones in such rewinding. Old scenes getting resurrected in a tiny recess of mind. Frightening! Well, it might be. The past clinging to you can be disconcerting for some. For me, it is comforting. I guess there is some deep underlying interconnection in the very act of randomness. Why select some memories? Why not others?”
I wish I were a neuroscientist.
“Perhaps, some links between the dynamics of time and space; night and brain; present and past; randomness of memories and the unconscious; messages and the shifting settings; relevance, irrelevance and permanence of some recalled events, conversations and implied messages. Is there some part that refuses to fade? Age? Are these memories of books and films and other random events a drawbridge to your past? Are you following me?”
Yes, I do.
“Why do we remember clearly in the solitude of the night? Events long buried. Why do they re-surface? What do these old memories signify for those living in the present?”
I have no clue to such a complexity.
“For example, why do I need a Plato as my unbidden companion for the night?” He asks but does not wait for answer. He keeps on unloading this heavy stuff on me because nobody will ever listen to him talking like an ageing and bewildered Mr. Sammler. I listen to him patiently.
“Is it because of the solitude?” he continues. “The stillness in the long night unleashes the ghosts. Why me? Can I not erase my past like others? Is it a failing? Or a virtue? Tell me, my boy. I know you understand me better. Nobody else can talk about these issues. They have no sense of these references. No idea about a Kant or Neruda. You were brought up on them by your father as a special diet back in the 1970s India.”
I say, yes. Thanks to a father who read a lot – and most crucial, discussed it with me growing up in a poor house otherwise rich in books.
That training is no longer there.
He goes on: “The brain goes hyper after midnight. When others sleep, I remain awake. In trance. Physically in the present, mentally in retrospect. Surprising, what nights can do to human brain!”
There he is – bang on the target.
Nights can be wondrous for some, dreadful for others.
“Son, everybody is capable of remembering. What is important is what you tend to remember in the solitude of your soul. The quality of things remembered defines what kind of guy you are.” His nightly companions are odd.
Last night it was the venerable Hegel.
A guy getting agitated just because of a book?
Well, I will now tell you about this interesting conversation.
Last night, he called up, desperate. The voice cracked up due to bad connection.
“Beta, who wrote the Phenomenology of Mind?”
It is 2 am. I am floored. I am having customary blues. Downsized, on the point of divorce, searching for a decent job and true love in a teeming mega city like Mumbai where you are not lucky enough to get both.
Here is this ancient revising history.
I am patient for certain reasons.
I tolerate his queries, eccentricities, odd-hour calls simply because he is a link to a dad who keeps on haunting, despite his death some thirty-five years ago in a north Indian town. The caller provides a tenuous sense of personal history and family in a mass society where everything is neatly labelled, packaged and sold on the market, including emotions and a largely defunct family in attractive colours, cards, cakes and flowers. Just dial, everything gets delivered. In such market-driven, inauthentic culture, Babu Uncle provides a humane touch. He is genuine, old-fashioned, calls me son, cares. Even offers some money saved from pension as a senior railway clerk.
I see in him a father who died early. Although abandoned by his own sons, he finds comfort in an old age home and these long-distance calls from Ghaziabad, once my native town, now no longer mine, overtaken by glitzy malls and commerce.
I call him Uncle. And I respect him for his overall simplicity and authenticity.
There are other similarities.
Babu Uncle has lost the sense of time. So have I. Time has got no meaning for a downsized man. Every hour drags. Nights follow days ceaselessly. Both fail to bring joy. His calls bring some cheer, semblance of sanity and normalcy to the cooped-up life of a loner. Employed friends avoid him. Married friends rarely invite him for dinners. Neighbours smirk. The threat of a messy divorce hangs heavy. Life, well-regulated, turns topsy-turvy. No job. No wife. Dwindling bank savings. Siblings becoming cold. You tend to lose any sense of self-worth. Embrace the solitude.
Any call is welcome in this enforced isolation. Time no longer counts. A mere series of a loud tick-tick of the wall clock. No place to go. No deadlines to meet. No conferences. No client presentations. Nothing. An idleness that saps and benumbs.
Babu Uncle calls up at different hours, forgetting the clock, guided more by the urgency of his hysterical search. I have come to like these calls. They make me human, setting up a connection with an outside world, howsoever ugly.
So I take the calls even at unreasonable hours and encourage him for a long conversation. The voice reassures.
“Who is the author of that book?” He asks gently.
“It is Hegel,” I say.
His relief is palpable. “I was tormented for the last three hours! Can you believe? Not getting the name correctly. Got busted. Thought it began with H. Holmes? Hardy? Homer? Hess? It disoriented me. Thank God, there is somebody who can still remember Hegel!”
We fall silent. A bit of the moon’s silvery overspill in the bedroom lights up a square patch of the dirty floor. I can hear his laboured breathing at the other end. Stuck for words?
“Of all the guys, why Hegel?” I ask, amused. “Why on such a lonely night?”
He ponders. “I told you, na? The famous dead keep on calling me. They wake me up. Even otherwise I sleep light. Last time, it was Proust.”
I am impressed. “Uncle, this is a mystery. At this age, you keep on remembering these names. Do they serve any practical purpose? Hegel. Proust. Marx. Nobody cares for them. Very few guys these days know them. Why this exercise?”
He laughs. “I thought you understood.”
I say nothing. Somewhere, a few streets away, a bike backfires. I see some phantoms on a left-hand side street far away – beings inhabiting the grey region between light and dark.
“Nobody understands!” He exclaims.
“They are a part of me. These great people. Part of my heritage.”
“Did you read all of them?”
“I salute you!”
He laughs. “Nothing unusual in it.”
“It is,” I continue desultorily. “Reading them is one thing. Retaining them over five decades is another. And talking about them at this stage of life is really remarkable!”
He does not say anything.
“If Hegel torments an octogenarian in the middle of the night, I guess it is a haunting very odd. No other 85-year-old man will make an effort to remember the author of the Phenomenology of Mind, an abstract tome of philosophy, a summit of the Western intellectual-speculative traditions.”
He hums softly.
“I can daresay that in today’s post-modern world, there will be only be a handful readers of Hegel left.”
“No, no. It is not that.” He protests; his modesty is genuine.
“It is a sad fact of contemporary culture,” I continue, “I am not talking of the departments of History, Philosophy, Aesthetics or Economics. It is their academic compulsion. They get promoted by arranging seminars for the select elite; they write tomes nobody reads outside their charmed circles in Europe and America. Hegel is crucial for their jobs and promotions. I am talking of general readers like you who read Hegel or Proust for the mere pleasure of reading. Texts consecrated by Time. They have no hidden agenda. They have no stakes. It is a pure personal choice.”
He becomes animated. “You are right. That was a different middle-class India. The 70s and 80s were liberal and radical. Our small homes were open to big ideas from all corners of the world. Every literate house subscribed to the Illustrated Weekly of India edited by Khushwant Singh. Reader’s Digest was a staple. We listened to Mehdi Hassan of Pakistan. We read Ghalib and Neruda. We went to New Delhi for watching The Bicycle Thief in a screening arranged by a film club there. We discussed and debated ideas among close friends including your dad who was a very well-read person. It was fun. We borrowed books from the libraries, hunted bookstores, attended symposia, wrote letters to newspaper editors…and never neglected our office or family.”
Suddenly the past starts opening up, undocumented so far by the cultural critics and theorists. “Uncle, that kind of fervour is missing. That élan. That eagerness for dialogue. That desire to talk about things besides the latest smart phone and new car.”
“Right. I miss all that. Your father raised his family, being the eldest, after the death of his father. Shankar became an overnight adult at the age of 18. He worked very hard. But Shankar never complained. He was full of life and energy. Led a simple life. His only vice? Buying books. We all were like him. No smoking, drinking, cinema or outings. Our meetings over tea and long walks gave us a high!”
Such a contrarian world! “That idealism is dead.” My tone is bitter. “We are atoms now!”
Somewhere a street dog yelps.
“That India is dead! For me Hegel counts. I cannot erase him. These thinkers shaped my liberal personality.”
“My only worry is my small collection. Nobody wants that. Shankar was lucky in you!”
“Send them to a library.”
“Even libraries refuse, citing space crunch. They store pulp fiction, best sellers, management and computer books only.”
I chuckle. “Hunting Regis Debray in bookstores is like talking of chastity in a red-light area!”
He laughs. “Well, you might get killed. They no longer store serious writers. Everybody wants a best-seller. It is about profits.”
“Talking of Porsche is cooler than talking Proust. We talk of pay packages, pricey tablets, high-end homes but not books that can change. We talk of fancy food joints rather than new writers, painters and film-makers.” I sound pessimistic.
“Hence, the poverty in the midst of plenty!” Babu Uncle declares.
“Right. Our lifelines have changed.”
“Do not worry, son. They will bury the dead again but…”
“But?” I ask.
“They cannot keep down the famous dead for long. The dead will return, marking the end of a blind society!”
I have no wish to contradict this scenario. The line goes dead.
As the night advances, sleep still not an immediate possibility, I watch the street below. I maintain the vigil. And, in the deafening solitude, I hear somebody walking on tiptoe. It is Hegel.
Yes, the venerable Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
And he is smiling.
Mumbai-based, Sunil Sharma, a college principal, is also widely-published Indian critic, poet, literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist and fiction writer. He has already published three collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction, one novel and co-edited five books so far. His six short stories and the novel Minotaur were recently prescribed for the undergraduate classes under the Post-colonial Studies, Clayton University, Georgia, USA. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award, 2012.
He edits online journal Episteme:
Some recent literary interviews done by him can be viewed on these links:
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.