Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Perchance to dream


Character: Young karate whiz

Place: Theater

Mood: Grief

Object: Sandwich

"Nothing to be done."

Two men stood on an empty stage. One tugged at his old, ratty boot and the other stood by him, doing nothing. They began to talk, apparently bored and unsure of what they were doing there. To young Arko Bose, none of this made any sense. He began to lose interest, and gazed instead at the sandwich he had sneaked into the auditorium. It was a salami sandwich with a delicious layer of cheese. Strictly speaking, he was not meant to be eating while watching a play. He was 13 years old, and should of course behave like one. He knew that. But he was bored. In the first place, this was not his idea of fun. Watching this nonsense play where nothing seemed to be happening. But his mother thought it would be good to take the mind off things, and she was tired of taking him to see animated films. And karate class was over for the day. She forced a smile, as she sat next to him, and squeezed his hand once. I guess this is fun for old people, he thought, watching as the man with the hat stared stupidly into its depths. Looking down at the sandwich, he noticed how the slice of meat was sticking out and hanging limply. Pink and faintly dotted, it protruded out like a tongue.

An image flashed through his mind, and he felt sick- his father's tongue, sticking out of his mouth as he lay dying on the bathroom floor. His mouth open, and his face pressed into the pool of blood and vomit he had regurgitated during the stroke, the smashed door of the bathroom and the shameful nakedness of his father, lying helpless and prostrate on the bathroom floor. For a few minutes, it was all he could think about. After all, only 3 weeks had passed. His father, dead. Baba, old guy, dead. They had carried him out while he was muttering incoherently, touching his stomach and his forehead as if to indicate pain. Then the ride to the hospital… The familiar train of images began to tumble through the boy's mind again. Like a series of bizarre dreams they were; haunting, and impossible to make sense of. Stop, stop. He had to stop himself. This doesn’t help, remember?

He had worked out a defense mechanism. It didn’t always work, but it was necessary. He forced himself to look at the stage, at the actors, at the stupid tree made of paper on stage, at anything. Stoically, he took another bite of the sandwich.

“What is it?” said the actor with the boot. “I don’t know. A willow”, came the mechanical reply. “Where are the leaves?” asked Boot. “It must be dead”, said Hat. “No more weeping.”

It was impossible. The bloody play was prodding him back to 30th August. No more weeping. Funny. The afternoon his father had died, Arko had not shed a tear. His aunt Rita had wept her eyes out and howled. It irritated him, seeing her. She hadn’t given a fig leaf about Ranjan Bose when he was alive. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t cry at first. Arko was not one for histrionics. But the truth was, he didn’t know what to do. They took the body to the ghat, and a grotesque string of rituals followed. Ghee and rice, and white pastes. Incense and some burning wood. Mukh-agni, it was called, and it made him sick. Just a shell, the body is just a shell, someone whispered in his ears. It made him angry. Up to that point, he could still feel anger.

His mother stroked his hair gently, in the theatre hall. For a moment he snapped back to reality, and the mockery of it taking place on stage. They just didn’t understand, did they, these writers and actors, how bloody real life can be? His mother’s fingers in his hair brought back another memory. His father used to stroke his hair every morning, to wake him up from sleep, before the school bus came. He was too gentle a man to shout and be rough. He would sit next to the bed and run his fingers through his son’s hair, calling gently, “Shona, ebaar uthe por”. Why did he have to die? Why? He had so much to live for. He was perfectly healthy. Why? Arko gritted his teeth and clenched his fist. The sandwich lay forgotten. A tear ran down his cheek and he lapsed back to 30th August.

He hadn’t cried until they hoisted the body up on a conveyer belt. As the hideous mouth of the electric furnace opened, it all came crashing down on him. He would never see his father again. Never again. Never see his face, never see his kind eyes, never hear his voice, and never hear the jingle of the keys outside the door that meant he had come home. It all came crashing down on him, as the body disappeared towards the crackling yellow flames. And he howled like he had never howled before. He tore his hair out and wept, he screamed with the wild rage of a child who has been hurt. Hurt so deep inside, so deep inside, in a place where you couldn’t even look and you couldn’t even imagine and could never feel, because you are old and hard and cold and he was just a little, little boy, with the shining joy of 13 years dashed into pieces in the space of 2 hours. He closed his eyes and he howled, hurling his little fists against the hands that held him back from the furnace. Anger, wild, mad, unreasonable, bubbled up within in. Raw sorrow cut into him, making it hard to breathe, hard to swallow, hard to think. He clutched at the bier where the body lay, refusing to let go. He wouldn’t, he wouldn’t, he could not let go. It was his father. His father, dear God, and he didn’t want that fire to turn him into ash. But they tore him away; they pushed him into his mother’s arms. They wept together, helplessly. The door of the furnace closed. That was all.

“Don’t tell me!” someone bellowed on stage. After a moment of silence,

“Who am I to tell my private nightmares to if I can't tell them to you?”

“Let them remain private.”

Arko looked at his mother. Her eyes shone in the darkness. Perhaps she was thinking about his father too. Perhaps not. She was a hard woman, and strong. He loved her for that. I must be strong, he told himself. There’s so much to do. To take my mind off. It was true. There was his karate, for one. At 13 years of age, and already a brown-belt, Arko was something of a prodigy. His father had always encouraged his talents. He had just come back from a very satisfying karate class. He loved the peace it gave him. He always had. The silent flow of muscles and the calmness of mind that came with it, the sweat that trickled down the nape of his neck, the silent striving that numbed his mind. It was the only time when he no longer felt his thoughts gnawing at him.

Suddenly, someone on stage shouted excitedly, “An erection!” This broke into his thoughts with sudden sharpness. He thought guiltily about how he had been masturbating in the toilet, just the other day. What would his father have thought? It had only been about 3 weeks and he was already thinking about naked girls again, and looking at dirty pictures on the Internet. Something shriveled up inside him in self-loathing. But then, he reasoned with himself, what was wrong with it? It was natural, right? And besides, it helped him survive. Whatever helped him to fight it out was good for him, he told himself. He must be strong and move on.

It was all part of Arko’s plan. To run. Run away. That’s what he would do. He would never face reality. There was so much beauty in the world to dive into, like a deep blue ocean strewn with coral and fish. There were the books he loved, Harry Potter’s fabulous world of magic, Middle Earth, where good was good and evil was clothed in black. Poems, endless and beautiful. Video games, he loved those. Diablo 2 and Metal Gear Solid. Shoot ‘em ups and racers. He could lose himself in these worlds for days on end, and not think. Not remember. Why think, why think at all? It would be better to just forget. Just forget and move on.

Stoically, Arko took another bite of his now dwindling sandwich. He forced himself to be interested in the bare floorboards of the stage. “Nothing to be done”, said Boot again.

'Oh to sail away, To sandy lands and other days
Oh to touch the dream, Hides inside and never seen.'

- Led Zeppelin - Achilles Last Stand


Opaline said...

Liked very much.

RBC said...

It's even better when he reads it.
@ Elendil: you might want to clean up a few grammar and spelling errors.

Elendil said...

Thanks, both.

I'll look into the errors. In places, it's intentional.

Shaapla said...

I really liked reading this. It's so well written, I feel like this could actually happen to someone real.