Where should I begin? The signs of my birth were absent. I came, plonk! and the nurse was surprised. It is possible that her mind was briefly distracted into attention by this entity shaped like a peanut. At once she must have thought about weakness. Something so magical for the parents; so dull to her that her mind was almost at once back to some boy or the other, and nail polish, or the evening.
Also, nobody cares about things that have no signs (except signs themselves which seldom have signs, and if they do, to propose that these signs had signs too would be stretching any reasonable rights to speculate. A sign of a sign is utter confusion: Imagine a road with an infinite regression of signs. Where will they end? Or rather, where will they begin? These are questions worth asking.).
And speaking of this, there must be some connection with our lives, some hints, some clues of uniqueness, or blessing. Maybe, in the old, black, round-bum Fiat, many weeks before my slimy, unmiraculous birth, Amma said, tapping Appoos’s shoulder and pointing towards the sky, “Look, Kamran, that cloud looks like a boy!” And father replied: “All the clouds or just that one?” And mother said, “Shtap, no. You always make fun of me. But see, it can be a sign.”
These things are fun: The stars wait quietly in their silent formation; nothingness heaves a deep sigh; and time is released like a river of red confetti into the darkness of space, like a trumpet of victory for every unique, human peanut occasion; and thus forming the universe itself. And like this every day, universe after universe is born and then dies. These are the stuffings of excitement, and I’ve been told – there are many who make it their business to do so – that I rip the stuffings out of excitement wherever I go. This is my fate: To not only be a blanket soaked in some universal ether of grimness, but to rip the stuffing out of whatever kind of exciting mattress is being used in that particular venue.
I have been called many things – fun isn’t one of them. In fact, here is another lie – I have never been called anything but my one name.
Perhaps, this is a sign of a miserable life: I am the one-headed, one- brained, monkey-eared, one-named, one. And in the event that you are still hoping for magic and mystery: No there were no signs of my birth, and allied to tedium and every expectation, I wasn’t born any time even close to midnight.
My mother had a nice face, a nice ear; the other ear not so nice and quite normal. She was nice – a deceptively small word that is exactly as simple as it sounds – and never yelled at any servant, and even refused to call them that. Sometimes she had two baths a day. Father, father deluded, was mad as a flag in a storm, was rocking crazy and fun in his own crazy way. He went nuts shortly after my birth, and nobody seemed to know why. But is there a why to these things? And I sometimes wonder if I am going to go mad too sometime in the dim future (the future is always dim). Thus I had no father, or no fatherly father, thus no father, and fatherless I found my own patrons.
There was Nooby, the wise, old, sexually excited ant; Frauntfraunty, a cancer-stricken housemouseelf (“Metastasized master, metastasized,” he used to say); BringOverMarty, the once popular sitcom star from one of those United States who now managed a dhobi ghat and spoke in riddles (“I wring- a-wring-a rose dress, bring-a-bring-a coal-grey dress. Is this yours? Is this yours? Is this yours?”) which weren’t really riddles but possessed a manner of rhythm and tune; and finally, Shaktidas Murali Broom, a retired besom with an unusually straight back who understood the deep, complex problems of life but alas, could never articulate himself (“God make naise too much, he not ther. Man make noise too much, he ther, but aalvays he try disafeer. Naat nice.”).
Amma, with her nice, oval face and tiny height, survived. Sometimes, and even Darwin said, survival is a matter of fitness, yet mother was never fit – though her hair was remarkably black and neat. She was Hindu by birth (or so she was told), nothing by choice, then Buddhist by choice and songbird by next birth – this is what she believed.
Amma, shortly after father went mad, went quietly sane, saner than she had ever been, and forgot her dreams of being reborn as a songbird. She was a quiet, sane woman after that, never looking at clouds.
Sometimes I recall her nice face, through the steamed lens of childhood by my bedside, as Shaktidas Murali Broom sat, straight-backed, listening (he never interrupted – this is a sign of a good friend). She spoke for hours softly. I don’t remember much – the past is dim – yet I remember her hands contained in her lap and her mouth moving slowly; her sad, neat mouth and her very white, clean teeth.
One evening as she left my room, Shaktidas said in my ear, “Human bean many sadness. Heavy, heavy harat.” And Nooby, who was hiding in the closet, stuck his head out and added, “Dude, you have a very beautiful mother; if I had little more strength...and in this old age...difficult to move. But I would really give it to her right in the...” And BringOverMarty appearing suddenly beside my thin legs cut him short. “Quiet ant, stupid ant, lingers over things. Quiet boy, bright boy, what’s your heart think?” he sang. And I said to myself, “One day I will make my mother a machine that will listen to her stories and give her high fives.” Nobody laughed and everything was quiet. Quietness occupied a large part of my childhood.
Amma was, above all things, one who avoided conflict and everything, like herself and her room, was clean and she believed in not talking about things. Conflict – that pins-and-needles feeling that comes with every position a man takes for too long – was quite efficiently swept under rugs and other warm things like caramel pudding. And everyone knows spiky things must never be swept under rugs: Often, when it was least expected, these things pierced through and slowly tearing apart, exploded into the quiet living room space.
Appoos was mad after all, and one couldn’t sustain a fight too long, as it collapsed over the weakness of one party to maintain a point over the course of even one sentence; so the shouting faded only to be replaced with a strained and tight peace in the air, a volatile mixture that was set-off at the least signs of trouble. It followed that there was not much talking in our home lest this strange peace was disturbed and I spent my days in this or that world. Amma also often did things to make herself feel better regardless of the final product, which was counter-productive because it was the final product, usually, that affected her.
Her husband, Appoos – called Kamran by everyone other than his son; once a stout and upright guy with an impressively maintained moustache and hard, thick arms, but now a shrivelled and fluttery fellow who rarely stood up – was harmlessly schizophrenic, and was good company when there was nothing serious to discuss. But when critical topics were brought up, there was only that laugh; that merciless, non-discriminatory laugh; and this tore up Amma, who was trying to take life seriously. There was no place for humour in Amma’s life: Her wounds were too grave for laughter to be any kind of medicine.
In those days, when she was patient, and when Appoos and her ate together (later he ate alone, and watched something through the window), she would quietly tell him to pay attention, to quiet down, to be normal, as if his madness was just another state of his annoying mind that could be reasoned with, to be told off and controlled by words.
He was terrified – of what we didn’t know – and I felt scared too. The table at meals was always cold with an unspoken tension. Sometimes, when Appoos had an episode, it was like our quotidian family dinner was interrupted by a rakshasa in work clothing, all ready to kill, but disguised as an office man (and if you looked carefully, the blood glinted red in the white of the light under his perfect length blazer-sleeve), and mother’s jaw would clench and something inside her would begin to swell and make her hands shake. Then, like she normally did, when things began to explode, she would leave. I wondered if everything would be better if my mother did just hit him. That poor woman – maybe she needed the violence, the licence for violence. Maybe violence can save lives. And is there anything worse than people happy for no reason? I mostly hated mental Appoos but pretended not to – that’s the truth; I swear on my father.
Appoos had good days and bad, but this was what he said and we all knew most days were bad though this wasn’t really his fault and came down usually to the net amount of seriousness in the universe. I, little coward, was never around; usually in my room trying to get rid of seriousness, and bad things, by swatting at them like one would do against flies and other motley creatures with wings; distractedly dodging and swiping at these bad things that I somehow sensed in the world but could never explain, or articulate.
I don’t really remember much of a small, conveniently close school, perhaps because my mind had driven out the stuff that made it untidy, a nervous mess, but I remember a cane and a sharp pain, but nothing more and nobody’s face to put it to. Often it is just a kind of sharp, painful fog, somewhere in the space of my mind, the rest of which tries its best to forget those smoggy days.
I was told much later that one day, there was a mark on my arm. Amma saw it while changing my shirt and she screamed and cried and I screamed and cried and the next morning there was no school, and I was overjoyed, running up and down the stairs.
What I remember is, I came back every evening from that school, before mother made a fuss and took me out, and there was a tune. It went like this. Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na. Shaktidas liked it, even though he said he didn’t, but I knew it moved him, like it moved me. It moved something deep inside me, physically and solidly. I felt something shift inside, in the unknowable spaces between thoughts and ideas, feelings and actions. The tune came from a piano in a corner, from lonely hands somewhere in the neighbourhood. But then one day it was gone (I have found that things usually do). And then I relied on Shaktidas; I would say to him, “Hey, Broom (this annoyed him). Sing that song, na.” And he would sing, na na na na na na, but it was over much too fast, much too swiftly. These are the things that really annoy me: the good things that get over too soon and perhaps the bad ones that linger.
Excerpted with permission from Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction, Roshan Ali, Penguin Random House India.