By Anirudh Kala
The twenty-fourth floor apartment was a strange penthouse, way too open, having just one bed-room, an endless sitting room as vast and almost as sparsely furnished as a tennis court, with windows opening in all possible directions. The design was his personal rebellion.
When the site was just a stretch of a paddy farm five years before, the promoter had agreed to confer on him the future top floor as his fee for designing the whole condo complex. At that time, he did not know that he was going to live there alone and had accepted. Before he came to designing the inner walls, a year later, he knew for sure. With his fear of any space bigger than a mid -sized wash-room, it was an act of defiance. His therapist in Japan, whom he had been seeing as a student, and who had introduced him to the term ‘agoraphobia’, would have been proud of him. “Consider it opposite to claustrophobia, although it would be dumbing it down,” she had said.
The sun was right where it was supposed to be on a late afternoon in early April, at the plumb centre of the lower middle window in the western wall of the sprawling sitting room. Exactly, as his drawings of years before had predicted. He remembered telling her, the sun has a different trajectory in winter than in summer and he would be placing the building at such an angle on the ground, that only in winters the sun rays would enter their master bedroom. That particular conversation had happened when the most natural future was that they would be together in that particular room, and was in the context of her seasonal hives being triggered by sun. The exchange had in effect occurred through slips of paper at the back of a seminar room. She had dragged him there to attend a symposium on resettlement of displaced in central Africa, so that, later, the two could go to a movie running at a nearby theatre. He had promptly regretted coming and started scribbling on the seminar pad. He recalled her reply and smiled, “Screw the sun. I want moon in the bed room. Every night.”
He picked off the soft hat from its peg in the hallway and the slim walking cane from its dainty rack. The cane, he pretended, was more to keep the dogs away on the walk. In real fact, with its ivory cap and the intricate engraving, it added to his nattiness, which was his hallmark and which he knew made mothers in the park downstairs nudge each other, even today. That, and the crazy penthouse, he suspected, although very few people had actually seen that.
The spherical glass elevator was designed remotely by his onetime Belgian class-fellow in Kyoto, as a belated compensation for having jilted him, when both of them were twenty two. Why he is considered such a good cast-aside material, mawkishly he wondered. It must have been the spring, since self- pity was very uncharacteristic of our rather flamboyant architect.
The elevator glided into view, large and empty like a hall in the morning, since it was the last floor and he hardly ever had a visitor. He could see through the ceiling high glass, which existed since you could touch it, lush green farms of the agricultural university, stretched for miles and sprinkled sparsely with red-brick buildings. Sheer openness of the horizon and the abrupt sinking of the elevator, produced a familiar tug in the pit of his stomach and he leant against the glass to let the moment pass.
And then rose into view, gleaming arc of the brand new metro rail, majestically spanning the horizon from one end to the other with the five-forty-five darting along it. He had named the trains by the time they entered the view from the lift from either end. As he crossed the tenth floor, the train was at the same level and had slowed for some reason. He could see colourful shirts and scarves of the lively holiday crowd. It was a long weekend ahead, he remembered with dread. A pair of teenage girls in plum tops, probably twins, waved at him, as they saw him to their amusement, suspended mid-air in a glass bowl. A girl with reading glasses, sitting next to a window, pushed the specs down with the tip of her finger and smiled at somebody sitting across. He could not have made out what she was reading, but so much did she resemble her, that he thought the book had a picture of ‘Faiz’ on the cover. In fact, all girls with reading glasses had been her for the last five years and all books had Faiz on the cover.
As the lift crossed the eighth floor, he could make out, in the park which went around the building, the spread of deep green, covered with a flimsy layer of dropped leaves.
He looked with pride, as the lift passed the sixth floor, kaleidoscopic top of traffic streams on the eight lane highway, four rushing East and the other four West. Minimum speed allowed was a hundred kilometre an hour on the elevated part of the motorway to prevent vehicles clogging up the vast bridge. He had insisted on that.
He was part of the group which crafted the layout of the railway system, but the city part of the motor-way was his personal feat. A doctorate in rapid traffic systems from a famous Japanese university, he was a sought-after specialist even if lately he had been finicky in taking up projects. The ennui that permeated him baffled the doctors, each of whom ironically ended up advising long walks which any way had been hard wired in his routine for years.
The lobby was a beehive with people returning from work, mothers having gathered their kids from crèches nearby and from maids in the park, some men checking their mail boxes and girls from the maintenance, aloft ladders stretching a dazzling banner for the Baisakhi carnival. There were people with shopping bags waiting in front of the elevator bank, as he got out, smiling at the faces he knew, which was almost everybody.
The road from the condo complex to the rear gate of the university passed below the motorway and the passage was nice and cool with flower sellers already having set up their carts on both sides. There were sweeping rows of bright dahlias, the size of saucers, camellias, and dark pink and even peachy roses on both sides of the passage.
For five years, he had been walking around like a concussed man in a prolonged state of perplexity. She had the temerity to say that their love would stay but she would not. What sort of sense was that supposed to make? What was he expected to do with love? Hang it on a wall and light incense sticks around it.
That it was abrupt was not wholly true though. She had got a crucial promotion and had spent couple of months in Congo on an assignment. Then there was some talk about her being given even more responsibility. Unable to wait till the dinner afterwards, she had whispered to him proudly, expecting a hallelujah of sorts, drawing the ire of people sitting behind them. Instead he had left the concert midway, pretending headache, leaving her sitting forlorn among strangers in a cold hall, the Carnatic music suddenly jarring.
“You haven’t’ grown beyond JNU. You are supposed to, you know, referring to her famous alma-mater, which had an unabashed egalitarian image. You can do all the volunteerism that you want to do, right here. This is a poor country for God’s sake,” he had almost shouted, stirring spoon in his tea, when both of them met a week later at a coffee shop in Khan Market.
He knew what was bothering him even more than what she had said. His father had told him eons ago, when he had come to visit him one rare weekend at his boarding in Kasauli. They were sitting on the low church-wall and a gaggle of frolicking bridesmaids had just flitted in. Men in dark suits, women in lively saris and youngsters in jeans and sweaters thronged the lawn. A flustered aunt was trying to spruce up her drunk husband. His father had clasped his small damp hand in his and he had known right away that it was bad news.
It was in a coffee shop in Khan Market that his mother had told his father that she wanted a divorce. Probably not the same shop but certainly the same market and his hands were sweaty, like that morning in Kasauli.
“At least, put some sugar before stirring,” she had said sweetly, “I do not want to do charity which housewives, with nothing else to do, do. I have a vocation which I singled out, studied and worked for and now that there is this dream job, I am not going to refuse simply because it is Africa.”
“Not even for Us?” He had asked looking at the Hussain print framed on the wall above her, remembering his having asked his Japanese therapist, who had a similar painting in her office about the reason, painters were fixated about horses.
“Probably, because horses are a phallic symbol,” she had answered tentatively.
“Like your bullet trains?” he had joked. For the first time in months he had not felt a hint of panic even after roaming around alone in the wide open and near empty Kyoto roads, that day having been a national holiday of some sort, probably the Emperor’s birthday.
“Bullet trains are barely symbolic,” she had replied in the same spirit noting his relaxed mannerism.
“For the sake of argument, if our places were reversed, would you have refused, even for us?” she asked rather atypically, being normally averse to confrontations.
“I would have taken you with me, no? You know it of course.” He sounded rather lame, as he said it, even to himself.
“So, allow me to take you with me. I will love it more than anything in the whole world, and you know that. It is not Kyoto, but it is not too wild either. Besides, Congo needs architects after decades of fighting. The pay would be basic, though. And I am getting a house right next to a shimmering lake.” She looked at him for long, eyes locked and face tilted in mock anticipation.
“It is not the money. My work is here. I do urban traffic; fast, state-of-the-art urban traffic. They need basic roads and bridges. Anybody can do that.” And, playing the quintessential poor- me, “When did you apply there? I did not even know. One deserves a warning.” He had complained, remembering very well that she had tried to tell him.
The architect nodded at the gateman as the young man from the hills, quickly snuffed his biri and managed to click a smart salute. The road narrowed as it entered the two hundred acres of the university campus. The fields on each side were an enormous matrix of experimental crops, each block flagged with laminated labels, with botanical details, nailed to bamboo splits.
“Next you will recite Faiz to me,” he had said caustically, “the one about, ‘Ask me not for that fervour, my beloved, for there are joys other than love’s rapture and sorrows other than lovers’ separation’”. His hurt had made him improvise, “There are bodies covered with dust and sickness in Congo with fresh challenges and you, sweet-heart, are a too well-known entity sans excitement and I must move on. How convenient?! But wasn’t the protagonist a ruddy man here? A man, upon whom it had suddenly dawned that there were unfortunate women, being traded in the alleys, as if for the first time. And the messiah must desert his beloved. She, whose beauty lends permanence to the spring, must now be sacrificed, for a greater good. I mean, what about her. Why doesn’t’ the feminist in you rebel at the very idea? Instead you just alter the gender arrangement and do the same thing yourself! You have been mentored well by your poet, I must say!”
The entry into the campus was restricted to just over one hundred people who were given special passes. It was not a public park, the university vice-chancellor had reminded the municipal authorities at a meeting. When a minister eager for votes had tried to pull rank, the vice-chancellor had quietened him with, “Too many people carrying all sorts of infections will alter the experimental conditions and kill the unborn seeds.” The argument was not true at all but the minister did not know that as the scientist had correctly guessed.
The agri-meteorology department had a symbolic weather-cock on the top of a hundred feet tower on a vaulted roof. At the moment, it was revolving furiously. There was a vast electronic screen on the wall, which displayed weather forecast for next two weeks, along with advisory for the farmers. The information was shown several times a day by the local television station.
A modern auditorium, an open-air theatre, a massive hostel, a seeds outlet were all part of the extension education arm which organised fetes for the farmers. On the other side of the road and on the paths, which criss-crossed the main road, were laboratories run by bio-technology, genetics, soil conditions, and others departments, the names of which even he did not know, conducting cutting edge research.
The rain earlier in the day had left puddles on the road and he raised his cane to warn an oncoming car not to cause a splash. Instead, the car slowed and the glass slid down. It was the gorgeous Climate Change assistant professor, who insisted on giving him a lift. It took some effort on his part to convince her that he was walking as a choice. As she was driving away, a miniscule diamond in her ear clasp glinted for a moment in the rays of the setting sun, and he remembered a line from what she had recited to him one after-noon while on a hike near Chail. She would translate painstakingly from Urdu, whenever she noticed his perplexed expression, which was often, “Who knows, if in the dark shadow of her lush hair, that pearl still glints or not.” He remembered and actually wondered for the first time.
He had reached the midpoint of his walk, which was the ornate entrance of the massive library building. Young couples thronged the out-door cafe. A motely group of students were trying to organise a procession. A few held aloft posters with inane generalities like “Long live the revolution” and “Dictators shall be overthrown”. It was a rather disinterested bunch of revolutionaries he thought. She could have taught them a thing or two and probably won the ‘revolution’ singlehandedly for them, whatever the heck, it was, he thought with a rare sense of proprietorship over what he had then called her anarchic activities. He cursed himself again for his corny mushiness. April was indeed a month for fools. For god’s sake, this is what he had taunted her with, for not having grown out of her JNU adolescence.
The wheat fields, which meant most of the farm area not under experimental farming, were like an undulating sea of golden brown on both sides of the road till the canal. This was where he turned back after tapping the library wall with the point of his cane, a ritual which she used to tease him about, as his OCD.
It was almost dark and there was silhouette of a man far ahead walking along with his bicycle. Must be a punctured tyre, there is not much else that can go wrong with a cycle, he thought. He was a bit surprised at how quickly he reached the man, considering both of them were walking. As he caught up, he realised that the other person, a dark frail man in a shabby shirt and pyjama, was almost stationary, but then not completely so.
And there was nothing wrong with the cycle, even if it looked rather rickety. The man was using it as a moving crutch, his left hand clasping the handle and the right holding the saddle. Facing west, while walking south, he slid one foot to join the other and then moved the other foot, without lifting it from the ground. Clamped on the cycle carrier was the gardeners’ trade mark, a wood-handled weed cutter. The smudged photo-ID slung around his neck meant that he worked in the university and was going home after a day’s work.
Alone, neither the man nor the cycle could have stood on its own, least of all, move but together the freak man-machine combo managed to lug itself, inch by gruelling inch.
The viscous slowness was against everything that our architect had studied, trained, worked, and lived for. And every pore of his being desperately needed to reach at the root of the issue around this ungodly tardiness.
“Why don’t you ride the bicycle?” he asked the stranger irritably. “The cycle looks alright. The tyres are filled tight with air.”
The man smiled indulgently at him showing off a few broken teeth, as if he had been in a bad fight years back, although he did not look at all, the sort, who get into fights.
“The cycle is alright. I am not. The cycle is my walker.” He had sensed that the utter sluggishness was upsetting the fashionably dressed man but he seemed to enjoy his consternation. When the inevitable question came from the man with the funny hat, he supplied the information about the small black car, which had come zigzagging out of nowhere, and about the doctors and the paralysis, without any show of emotion, since after thousands of telling and ten years later, the affect had long rubbed off the tale.
“Which department, do you work in?” the architect asked looking at the ID around his neck.
“Entomology. The science of insects, the things which crawl like I do, like we do,” the gardener tapped the saddle, relishing the expression on the stranger’s face.
“And why haven’t I seen you before? I come here every evening for my walk.” He asked as if it was the gardener’s fault, as if he had deliberately rendered himself invisible till that April evening.
“I do not know why you have not seen me. I see you every day, I can even tell the design of the carving on your cane,” the gardener replied looking thoroughly amused.
Also inevitable were the questions which followed the pattern, the first being, “Why don’t you use a wheel chair?”
The gardener from the Entomology department, which studied insects friendly and unfriendly to crops, explained patiently as he must have to hundreds of people in ten years, “Because, with my not so strong arms, I would not be able to push it up that slope on my way back in the evening, even if it would be fun in the morning.”
The architect looked hard at the two hundred yards of the last bit of road till the rear gate. At first, even his trained eye did not see it but then he did make out the imperceptible slope, which during his years of everyday walk, his body had never sensed it to be there.
“It is back-breaking for us. In the evening it takes us one hour to reach here and half-an-hour to walk just these two hundred yards.” He insisted on the plural, since he had sensed that it particularly irritated the fancy man.
And here comes the next and hopefully the last question, the gardener thought, “There are motorised three wheeler cycles.”
As if rehearsed, he replied, “I know. I cannot afford one. Besides nobody makes those any longer, except on order, which makes it even costlier.”
The architect heard the distant sound of the seven-twenty superfast and looked up at the traffic lights on the flyover welded into a scintillating column of light like a runaway galaxy. The swishing sound of the fast cars was soon drowned in powerful sound of the train hurtling above the motorway.
The two men, faces turned up, as if in supplication, looked at the scene for long, one with awe and the other with germinal doubt of an incipient atheist.
After she left, he had stopped drinking even at parties. He had built up a wall of hyper-vigilance around his being and drinking even while alone would be letting the guard down. Particularly when alone, in fact. That April night almost five years to the day, he looked around for alcohol and managed to unearth a bottle which had managed to sneak itself with his stuff from the earlier house.
He cursed himself for the hundredth time. He had passed by that man almost every day for years, near enough for him to know the engravings on his cane. And he had been blind not to have noticed him and his freaking mumbo-jumbo moving along the road, so absorbed had he been with his work on the fast lanes. State of the art urban traffic indeed! “You have huge blind spots,” she had diagnosed and she had been right.
He pulled a table and stood on it to take down a world atlas from the top shelf in his study corner. And located East Congo.
At the airport, while waiting for his boarding, he remembered what she had said when they had parted at that coffee-shop in Khan Market, with him standing and her still sitting, her beads strewn “jhola” bag on the table, “I find it un-necessary but it has to be said that I love you. If that changes, I will let you know. Ditto, if I change my job. If I die, somebody will tell you. Short of that, I would be gone. Take care of yourself.”
Anirudh Kala is a psychiatrist based in Ludhiana, who writes in spare time. An anthology of short stories, Partitioning Madness is awaiting publication. Two of his short stories, “Idiot Savant” and “Mr. Haq” were published in Muse India. A feature, “Psychiatrists’ Partition”, appeared in Himal.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.
A wonderful take on Faiz’s nazm !
I enjoyed reading this very much. Not to miss, “You haven’t’ grown beyond JNU…”