Hippolytus: Do you see my plight, Queen, stricken as I am?
Artemis: I see, but my eyes are not permitted to shed tears.— Euripides
I had been released from hospital. I have to visit PGI, Chandigarh once a week to consult Dr Pratap Sharan. He is one of the most learned men of his discipline; from Patna, he speaks so softly that you might imagine it is Agyeya you are sitting next to. A source of unlimited support. The carnivorous butterfly still visits my room but not every day. When she comes after a few days, she says:
– Good girls keep their promises.
She said: Aap bahut sharaarati ho gaye hain. (You’ve become very mischievous.)
I: If you’re going to call me mischievous, perhaps you should use “tum” instead of “aap”.
She would come to the hospital when my elder sister was dozing and the doctors were on lunch break. At those times the difference between darkness and death would be a single step. Now she would begin to feel regret, for her punishment had far exceeded my crime.
– I cannot stop.
– Because I cannot.
That day she left, giving me no encouragement. I had become a mixed metaphor. I am still afraid of crying. When they release me from the hospital, I will go with her on a picnic. To the Sunderbans.
It was the beginning of my illness. I had stopped reading the newspapers. In the morning, I would sit in the verandah. Geeta put a cup of tea on the table. She picked up the newspaper from the gate. She walked towards the kitchen. And stopped.
– Why don’t you read the papers?
– I don’t understand them.
– After twenty-five years of being a professor of English, he doesn’t understand the papers. Nonsense. Please try at least.
In order to try, I picked up the paper. On the front page was a photograph of a political leader. Slowly his tongue began to extrude and he turned into a lizard. I took off my coloured pyjamas and began to turn into a Lukman Ali and vanish. But I did not have my disciple with me. To whom could I tell my ghost stories?
Languages were slipping out of my head. Telepathy was with me still. I could talk to people who live in distant cities at will. But to speak to people close at hand, you need language.
Once I asked Piyush Dahiya in Udaipur:
– How is god doing these days?
After a pause, he said:
– How are you doing these days?
Now I will not talk to Piyush. He can sniff out the truth. Now whom can I ask whether God will allow a bargain to be driven? What if I bury my corpse deep, full fathoms five? Now everyone speaks to me in an abstruse language. Nothing is the matter with you. Listen to bhajans. Take a deep breath and chant Om in your heart. Drink four glasses of water first thing in the morning. What easy remedies people have.
The sparrows come visiting, hopping between the garden plants. The brown “seven sisters” come too, always demanding their share of food. On the wind, the sound of their nibbling. A huge bird dives like a fighter plane. Its wings do not move. It comes to rest on the highest branch. Like a tyrannical king, it looks around.
The sparrows and the “seven sisters” fly off, shrilling insistent warnings.
THE CREMATORIUM BIRD
I remembered what my mother said. A frightening bird like that means someone will die.
I was very happy. Who could it be but me? My death wish was dominant – I would try three times. But this crematorium bird would save me. For itself.
Where do I want to go?
I want to go in another direction. Perhaps there is no other direction. My body is evidence of my regret. But these days Mayavini speaks in French.
She does not know Hindi nor does she speak it. Coleridge sits by me to tell me news of myself.
Weave a circle around him thrice.— 'Kubla Khan'
And close your eyes with holy dread.
When, as a child, I was in pain, my mother would advise: “Be strong, Kaka.”
How much longer must your Kaka be strong? He has been bedridden for a year.
MORE ON THE CREMATORIUM BIRD
My refusal to bathe causes daily disputes.
– Why won’t you bathe?
– What if I drown in the bucket?
– Why won’t you change your clothes?
– If these tear, what will I wear?
– There are ten sets of kurta-pyjamas in your cupboard.
But you won’t change. You want people to think I don’t give you clothes to wear.
Swadesh silent. His son Sukant, sitting next to him, silent. He is in the eighth standard. Incensed, Geeta grabs the edge of the kurta. One jerk and she will tear it off me.
Sukant: Mummy, behave yourself.
She walks off inside, her steps hurried.
Sukant asks: What is wrong with you?
It’s been a year and he does not know what’s wrong. He went off for tuitions. My family has stopped sitting with me. My food is placed before me. I eat it.
I lose weight rapidly. I was always lean. My clothes loosen. They hang on me.
I suddenly thought of Mirza. Mirza, who wandered the streets and lanes in memory of Saahibaan. His wife and children would curse him. No one fears a disarmed warrior. Mirza, ruler of the dead.
My misfortune is that I cannot take the name of my Saahibaan, nor even that of her city. People would mock me. Sorrow introduced me to her and then sealed our friendship. And I was convicted.
Moments of happiness and gentleness vanished. I stopped writing. The wind would never again be cold for me, nor wet; it had turned to fire. I remembered the one-eared dog. It was in his city that I met her. When I am awake, I begin to doze. When I try to sleep, I find myself awake. Is she always at full strength? She is.
For extraordinarily beautiful women do not dream. Thus sorrow does not so much as touch them. Thus every mother’s son is driven mad.
Sukant returns from tuitions in the night. I am surprised that he comes to see me. Normally he avoids me.
– The Deputy Inspector-General’s daughter is in my tuition class.
I look at him.
– I told her yesterday that you don’t bathe. She talked to her father.
What will he say now?
– Her father said the police arrest anyone who doesn’t bathe.
If a DIG said it, it must be true. The senior officers know the law.
I stood up
– I will bathe.
– Bathe in the morning.
– No. I want to bathe now.
My wife took out a clean pair of kurta-pyjamas
– Should I bathe you? How will you soap your back?
– Do you think I can’t take a bloody bath myself?
She was shocked. Where had my anger returned from? Is he recovering...? As I bathed, I thought: What great laws our police have! If you don’t bathe, they arrest you.
I am alone up to two PM. Geeta is at work, Sukant at school. It is winter now.
Solitude has its own pale beauty, its own peculiar happiness. From the wooden cupboard, I take out an old photo album. I am shocked to see that I am smiling in every photograph. Who took those smiles from me? Where have they gone, those days when I was happy? Now time is like the summer sun: merciless. I have nothing to do with the sweep of seasons. They do not register, neither in my mind nor in my body.
On frigid winter mornings, I sit outside in a banian. I begin to become a sanyaasi. Or a mental cripple. She has cast her spell over my heart and turned it into a stone. Non-stop pills. Some of my loved ones say—Your eyes are those of a saint. Your eyes are the eyes of a drunk. Things begin to move from their places. I will not go to the mountains.
That year, in her city, in her house, near her, she said:
– Swadeshji, we have guesthouses in Manali, Dharamshala, Mussoorie, Nainital. Let me know when you want to write and I’ll phone the manager.
– I do not like the mountains.
Her eyes fill with surprise. Writers are supposed to like mountains.
– Mountains are stupid. Dumb and static. What can one say to a mountain?
– Call me to you when you’re there. Then you’ll like them.
– And everyone will know why we’re there.
She began to laugh and kept on laughing. I noticed for the first time that her eyes get smaller when she laughs. The religious texts in her room grow angry with her. She stops laughing. The stream dries up. She takes a breath and says:
– I thought of that phrase: ‘Aapke moonh mein ghee-shakkar’ (Your words are sweet as honey stored).
A borrowed happiness and a borrowed address cannot last long.
I returned home in a flash.
A heart upon which a spell has been cast turns to stone. Then the order of things is disrupted. And Robert Browning’s words come back—I want this woman.
Excerpted with permission from I Have Not Seen Mandu: A Fractured Soul-Memoir, Swadesh Deepak, translated from the Hindi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger.
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