Govindan had always loved solitude.
He loved waking up and lingering in bed by himself; gargling leisurely after brushing his teeth; sitting on the toilet seat and flying Dream Airlines while ejecting stale memories out of his mind’s airplane; he enjoyed eating alone, deliberating on each morsel of food as it coursed through his body; walking long stretches; thinking; being a speck in the crowd; being alone in the office, drafting letters on paper almost as if he were planting paddy seeds; losing himself in steady sleep...oh, Govindan embraced all the many different ways he could be alone.
If he were asked to choose between solitude and great honour, he would choose solitude every time and walk away before the question could be completed.
Govindan was a creature of moderation, even during his time in service. Always careful about his budget, he owned only two pairs of clothes. He travelled to work in the clammy wombs of the government bus, and when he had to go to other offices, he fell back on the option of “Nataraja-service” – walking down the road with his arms and legs stretched free.
Colleagues used to joke that his life was a wholesale business of greed. Not a single word did he utter unnecessarily. Govindan’s gestures and nods told others much of what he intended to say. Even the smile on his face never lasted more than a second.
When he retired from government service six years ago, he told his wife and two children: “I’m done with this life. I am tired of meeting human beings. I’m not going out anymore.”
Govindan and his family lived in a two-story building carved into the hill slope at the end of the curving road that edged the town. On the gate hung a nameplate – Govindan Nambiar, Sub-Registrar – in keeping with the times.
After that day, Govindan retreated into his room upstairs, curled up like a tortoise that had forgotten all about the race. He was reluctant to come down to eat and when he did, it was after his wife Sarala had called out many times, waiting at the foot of the staircase, her head tipped towards the balcony.
His days were spent reading. He read history, mythology, memoirs, and pornography. He enjoyed autobiographies, including those in which the author waxed eloquent about themselves, and those that were more modest and tender. He read these books with the same enthusiasm with which he had once read revenue documents and registration titles sealed with thumb prints and signatures.
At times Govindan became philosophical and scribbled down his thoughts. Many of them morphed into stories and poems, which were later published in small magazines. He was mostly unaware of these or never saw them in print.
Whenever he could not read or write, he would close his eyes and lose himself in meditative solitude.
This was when he would allow his thoughts to roam free through his head. His private musings would meander, looking for new avenues, like a new driver taking the car out for the first time. Many thoughts came to a screeching halt without provocation, making the car jump, rattling him.Others were like online romances, making him covet fruitlessly, giving him nothing in return.
At that point, if his wife Sarala or daughter Suvarna happened to come upstairs with a cup of tea, Govindan would shout:
“Damn! Leave it there and be gone now. Just when someone is thinking seriously she has to bring her darned tea!”
He could not bear to see anyone disturb his solitude, not even with a cup of tea.
He no longer ventured out and had stopped meeting people and attending weddings, funerals and everything in between.
It had been aeons since Govindan had spoken more than a few words to his son Prabhakaran, a policeman, or his daughter Suvarna.
Sarala often chided Suvarna’s ten-year-old twins, Jithesh and Jitha, when they hesitated nervously on the first step of the staircase, wondering if they should scale the mountain:
“Why would you want to go up there and make Grandpa explode like a theyyam? Let him live as a hermit. Go outside and play.”
At that, the twins would retreat anxiously. Though they were extremely curious to get to know the enigma that was their Achachan, they did not fancy seeing him as a raging theyyam. They had once seen Govindan in the throes of a fiery performance in front of his wife, who had offered him no provocation whatsoever.
When they bothered Suvarna and Sarala with questions like “Is Achachan crazy? Is that why he sits alone in the attic room, Amme? Is it so, Ammamme...?” the women would press a forefinger to their lips. Lowering their voices, they would warn the children: “Shh…shut up…If Achachan were to hear you, he would pulverise you both…”
Even in the early days of their marriage, Sarala had felt that Govindan had a screw loose in his head. On their wedding night, he had demanded to know the marks she had scored in every subject in her tenth standard.
Sarala had thanked her stars for not having studied a pre-degree or degree course. Or else he would have made her spend the whole night going through her various mark-lists.
Over the course of their life together, with their inevitable rough and slippery conflicts, Sarala tried to get to know her husband better and failed miserably.
When Suvarna and later Prabhakaran were born, Sarala felt she had conceived them by some magic. A man who spoke nothing but figures and rules and communicated mostly through gestures hardly found time to share her bed.
After a while, Sarala let him be.She was completely at ease once she consoled herself with the help of rustic logic: Much like a cow that leaves its cowshed to graze during the day and finds its way home by dusk, her husband left for office during the day and returned to the house at night. The rest of her life was spent looking after her daughter Suvarna, her son-in-law Subhash, who lived in the Gulf, their twin children and her policeman son, Prabhakaran. There was no point dreaming of fresh air and green leaves when all she experienced was arid earth.
Govindan woke up earlier than usual that day. A dream he just had still held him firm in its scorpion grip. Lifting himself from bed, he drank a glass of hot water from a flask to rouse himself to wakefulness.
He got up on trembling legs, pranced to the easy chair and fell back into it.
Moments ago, he had dreamt of a film spanning over three different time-periods. All the important events in Govindan’s life had been captured by the reels. The ten-year-old mischievous boy Govindan; twenty-year-old Govindan with a worm of a moustache; a newly married Govindan in his thirties; and Govindan in his forties and fifties; they had all played a role. It was like reading his own autobiography. Govindan experienced his life as if for the very first time.
At the end of it all, guilt, spilled over from many years, permeated his body like a ghost.
“The way I have been living till now is not right!”
His mind groaned silently, and he realised he had behaved badly with his wife and children. He had to atone for all this. The perception of “Govinda” in their minds must be changed: “The real Govindan Nambiar is yet to be born.”
After he bathed and dressed, Govindan stepped out of the house, taking care to close the clattering iron gate as silently as it allowed him to. His plan was to go into town, buy some clothes and confectionery and get back home before Sarala and the children had woken up, so that he could surprise them.
While he was locking the gate, he looked sympathetically at the old name plate hanging to one side, suspended on a single wire. As he yanked it off and shoved it into the gutter outside the house, his heart was touched by a strange joy as well as great self-loathing.
“This is a changed Govindan, man... there’re so many things you are yet to see...” he said casually, passing his left hand lightly over his body to stroke the heart beneath.
Govindan was surprised when no bus arrived, even though he had been waiting at the bus stop for a long time. During his service days, he used to wake up regularly at 5:30 to the sound of “Little Star” bus plying on the road in front of his house. But the outside world and its mechanical sounds had lost all significance in the anthill life he had confined himself to from the day his tenure ended until last night.
As he looked up at the dawn sky, Govindan wondered if he should start walking. It was the usual sunrise of every morning, scattered with pictures of flying birds, the edges of horizon flushed with the ink of dawn. The sun was just emerging, raising its head from a lazy blanket.
Govindan Nambiar began walking, his legs outstretched. He was resuming his old Natraja-service.
He was walking briskly, enjoying the curtain of light descending slowly from the canopy overhead, when a police jeep braked loudly before it came to a stop ahead of him.
The tyres screeching to a sudden halt sounded like a loud curse and nearly blew off his ears.
The jeep reversed to where he was standing.
“Hey man, where are you off to so early...”
The sub-inspector alighted from the front seat.
Even in the cold morning, Govindan’s panic crawled down his broad forehead, his sweat like hot worms.
“Where’s your mask?” The SI, who had raised his hand to strike him, looked at his grey, mouldy head and changed the tone of his voice: “How old are you?”
“Past sixty-two,” he said, his voice barely audible.
“Pfha!” The slap came swift and loud, landing straight on his face.“Son of a bitch, and you are still roaming around…?”
A childhood memory of accompanying his father Kelappan Nambiar to the field to collect honey came rushing back to Govindan. All around him was a roar, thicker than rain. He remembered the drizzle of wings, the darkness pervading his body in the flash of a moment. He saw and heard the same buzzing rush again. Staggering, he collapsed on the ground.
That’s when the Head Constable, Illyas, got out of the jeep.
“Oh lord, isn’t this our Govindan Nambiar saar…the retired Registrar...?” Illyas exclaimed, bending down to examine him. Illyas was familiar with Govindan Nambiar in connection with an important land deal in the past.
Extending a hand to help Nambiar to his feet, Illyas looked at the SI: “Saare, didn’t you crack one too soon, before giving him the chance to even blink? I’m worried his teeth have come loose…”
Illyas held Govindan straight and made a show of wiping the dirt off his shirt. Like a tea stain, it only spread.
“Saar, do come this side...” He took Govindan by the hand and seated him in the back of the jeep. Immediately, Govindan felt he was hurtling through another dimension of time. His face ached badly. He was stricken by grief. Seated inside the jeep, he started rubbing his swelling face.
Meanwhile, Head Constable Illyas drew the SI aside: “What have you done, saar? Whatever it is, you needn’t have hit him like that. All said and done, he is our former Registrar! Besides, his youngest is one of us, PC Prabhakaran. He’s posted at Kasaba station. Anyway, what’s the point of saying all this now. Isn’t that what we police folk do, burst the crackers before asking for the matches…That’s what happened, I guess. Let it be.I will talk to him and get it settled…”
When the unusual wail of the calling bell rang in the morning, Sarala’s sleepy eyes struggled to focus on Govindan, who had been left on the road by Illyas and the police jeep.His bright clothes were splattered with mud. Her mouth remained open as she kept looking at him as though he were one of the wonders of the world.
She had to rub her eyes to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.
Just as she was about to ask him what had happened, he held both her hands and started sobbing. In no time, he was weeping like a baby.
After tea, Jitha and Jitesh lingered around Achachan’s chair.Govindan wrapped his grandchildren around him like a treasure he had just discovered. They felt just as precious. “I’m going to make a special payasam today for Achan... Suvarna called out from the kitchen.
He understood everything. On TV, he saw that the whole world was in dread of an illness called Covid, that the number of those infected and dying was rising by the day. Some of this was explained to him by the children themselves.
He had not known any of this because he had been living in a world sans newspapers, television, and human contact. Still, this had not made him unhappy.
“Achachaa…can Achachan tell us a story now?” After lunch and payasam was over, Jitha and Jitesh circled him again. They were loath to let go of their Achachan.
“Achachan is writing a story, little ones. Shall I tell you after I finish?”
“See what we kept safe for Achachan all this time...But Achachan did not even speak to us...” said the grandchildren, holding out a plastic bag towards him. “This is the advance for the story that Achachan is to tell us tomorrow...” Their bodies shook with glee.
Without another word, he took the bag from them and went upstairs to his den.
That night, when everyone was asleep, Govindan turned on the table lamp and started writing in his diary.
I still like loneliness.
He wrote in his neat, rounded handwriting, perfected from the tender age of eighteen from writing countless adhaar registration documents.
But this is not my loneliness. This was not my plan. God has ruined my plan.
Along with the ink, his words were turning dry with frustration.
Shaking the pen to allow the ink to flow freely into the nib, he continued:
My plan was to be on my own for a while and then enter public life. For that, I put a lot aside. I had planned to find old friends and have tea with them. It was something I had dreamt of doing some day. That loneliness was a habit I could have broken any time I wanted. But this is unbearable. This loneliness belongs to someone else. It is determined by someone else...
He shut the diary.
Outside, darkness began to spread eerily. Even the crickets seemed to be resisting, with silence. Govindan searched the skies to see if any star could be spotted. The sky remained kohl dark.
He closed the door and opened the plastic bag the children had given him earlier that day.
Inside the bag were masks of many colours and shapes that they had collected for Achachan. Govindan went into the bathroom, washed the masks one by one, and hung them to dry on the clothesline in the balcony.
He stayed up all night, leaning back in his easy chair, not sleeping a wink. For the first time in his life, he worried about the future.
In those long hours, Govindan ruminated over all that he had lived for and read so far. Suddenly, he was jolted by a thought that rushed into him and exploded in his head.
I haven’t read anything! Not even this short life...
Again, he was taken over by a heavy sorrow.
When the cold breeze wafted in, announcing the new dawn, his eyes began to glaze over with sleep.
The morning was ushering in the sun’s light. As a gentle breeze blew giddily through the distant trees on the hill, the masks fluttered in a dance on the clothesline. From time to time they assumed some kind of strange human form. As Govindan watched the dance, his eyes fell closed slowly in a trance.
VH Nishad is a freelance journalist and the editor of Kathayude Page, a tri-monthly journal for fiction. The Malayalam original, ‘Maskkukalude Nrutham’, is to be published shortly by Malayalam.Indian Express.com.
Fathima EV is a Crossword Award-winning translator.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.