Saturday, September 04, 2010

Through a Glass, Darkly

OR the return of Chintu Master

Word Prompt: Prisoner
Word Count: Greatly in excess of the prescribed limit.


There was a boy in the basement but Ronnie was not allowed to play with him. He had never spoken to the boy – Chintan, his name was Chintan Kumar Singh – but every once in a while Ronnie wondered; particularly in the course of going through the pile of old comic books for the hundredth time, or bouncing cork balls endlessly off the gulmohar tree in the courtyard through the pitiless afternoons of a summer vacation that seemed to stretch on till eternity. There was no other child in the compound. There was no other house in the vicinity except for the village fifteen kilometres down the dirt track where the maid and the khansama hailed from, and presumably there were children, but Ronnie had never met them. It wasn’t safe, Dad said, and besides Ronnie would never get along with the children in the village. They did not go to school at Panchgani, did not speak English and few of them even knew about cricket. People in this part of the world barely managed to survive. They were in the darkest heartland of the country – far beyond internet, TV or even telephone receptivity; where the only electricity came from giant generators installed outside the house – in the desolate underbelly of civilisation itself.

The reason why they had holed up in this nowhere land had to do with Dad’s work, and Dad’s work, currently, concerned that boy in the basement. Ronnie’s father was a scientist although Ronnie knew he wasn’t the kind of scientist as the father of Jatin from his class, who was a physicist at the Bhabha Institute. No, Ronnie’s father was a genius charting a lonely course; his work was more groundbreaking, more important… more sinister? It was the kind of work that required they only travel by army helicopters after sundown, never have any neighbour, and keep that small boy handcuffed to his chair in the basement. Ronnie had occasionally watched the boy through the glass wall of his father’s laboratory downstairs: barely older than himself, a piteous bundle with bony arms and legs and a glazed expression in his eyes. The boy was some kind of a retard too. His lips were forever slightly parted and a thin trickle of drool came down his mouth, which Dad wiped off with a towel every few minutes. The boy was treated well, almost too well at times, causing Ronnie to be secretly jealous. He ate the same food as they did, which Dad spooned carefully into his mouth four times a day. Dad washed and changed him daily; and when he slept his chair could be swung back into a comfortable divan, not for once requiring the removal of the handcuffs and the helmet that always restrained him.

The handcuffs and the helmet were important, Dad had told Ronnie over dinner one night, although Dad had been increasingly reluctant to discuss his work ever since they’d moved to this godforsaken place. That was yet another thing Ronnie resented. Back when they lived in Calcutta he would enjoy coming home for vacations: Dad and he would go to museums and workshops and have a great time together. Sometimes Dad took him to the Centre where he researched and explained how things worked; and although Ronnie didn’t always understand he enjoyed being told and shown around; and Dad’s colleagues in white overcoats always kept chocolates or comic books aside for him. But the Centre and the city were a thing of the past. This summer Ronnie had been sent from school to this terrible exile; to a father who was sullen, overworked and had no patience for him – for the work that occupied him was of utmost national importance. More than once the army helicopter arrived at night and Dad would promptly leave, not to return before the next evening. And this constant buzz of urgency centred on that boy – that scrawny little retard drooling and dozing in the basement – who was, Dad had hastily explained, apparently one of the most dangerous psychic criminals in the country. There were others like him all over the world, no one knew how many; but he was the only one to ever have been intercepted.

Dad had halted in mid-sentence several times during the conversation, fidgeted, withheld information and whatever he had said made no sense to Ronnie, though he had mulled over it many a long, lonely evening. The boy in the basement seemed to him barely a kind of desolate animal. Dad had insinuated that his speciality was his brain but that did not explain the cruelty of confining him forever to the chair. The boy showed no sign of violence; and indeed what could he do with those skinny arms that would snap like twigs at the slightest pressure? If he escaped, somehow beguiling the Black Cat commandos who surrounded the compound like furtive predators; his bandied legs would not even support him to the nearest village. Psychic criminal! The unexplained term thrilled and mystified Ronnie; he longed to go down to the basement laboratory and talk to the boy, offer him a chocolate bar of friendship, challenge his twisted genius to a game of chess. Especially on these evenings when Dad disappeared so brusquely, lying on his back in his room and ticking the hours away Ronnie could not help feeling a growing kinship with the other boy. Each of them in his private prison was like a bird snared mercilessly out of the unassuming sky: one already fallen, the other spiralling down, down, down.

Cautiously Ronnie climbed down the spiral staircase to the basement, halting for a second to catch his breath before he unlocked the glass door of the laboratory and stepped in. The boy was asleep on his chair. His head lolled against the inside of his helmet; his chin was slippery with drool that hadn’t been wiped since Dad had left. The sound of Ronnie’s entry had awakened the boy. He stood in front of the young captive, waiting for his eyes to gradually focus and take him in. Then Ronnie smiled.

‘Hello, my name is Ronnie. You must be Chintan. You’ve seen me before but we have never spoken.’

For a few long seconds the boy in handcuffs observed him fearfully; then he uttered a soft whimper and stiffly nodded. His face immediately distorted into a mask of pain as his forehead hit against the wall of the helmet. Ronnie observed the set-up gravely: the helmet encased the upper half of the boy’s head – a large half-globe of transparent fibre with wires connecting it to the rest of Dad’s workstation. But his father had switched off the system before he’d left, and now the helmet was merely a dead weight preventing the boy from moving his head about. Surely Dad took off the helmet every now and then or the boy’s neck would have developed a permanent cramp; and Ronnie knew that was not allowed to happen. It was vital that the boy did not incur any physical damage from the experiments performed on him. And at least, as long as his hands were secured, he could scarcely move from his position. Ronnie reached out to check the strength of the handcuffs. Satisfied, he proceeded to lift the helmet off the boy’s head. The boy’s dripping mouth curved into a smile of relief as he did, and his alert eyes unfocused a little.

Immediately there was a disturbance in the air of the laboratory, above their heads, and then something hit Ronnie forcefully on the forehead, between the eyes. As he reeled under the invisible blow and fell to his knees, Ronnie thought it had felt improbably like a kick except that no foot could exist at that height in the air. The helmet flew off his hands and shattered as it hit the floor: it appeared to have been made of glass, not resistant fibre as he’d imagined before. Clutching his throbbing head, Ronnie stared with panic as the glass door of the laboratory rushed open and then swung back by itself. He looked for the boy on the chair! – but there he sat still, unaffected and nonchalant; limp arms clasped in handcuffs, a tiny smile on his face, his eyes filmed over and distant.  

Getting up on his feet Ronnie tried to shake the boy – gently at first, then violently – out of his reverie. But the boy would not listen; would not look; not a muscle in his wretched little body twitched in response to Ronnie’s violent efforts… and second by second, realisation settled in. The boy in the handcuffs was gone. Ronnie was alone in the laboratory in the basement, the only one alive and awake in that dreadful fortress, save for the ineffectual Black Cats who prowled the bushes outside in darkness. Whoever – whatever – they were meant to contain had evaded them, escaped their clutches, plunged into the still night air and was gone. Ronnie still did not understand it, but the deafening silence that was closing in around the two small, sagging bodies in the basement laboratory left no doubt in his mind. His isolation was complete.

And tomorrow, tomorrow Dad would be back; and he would have to stand in front of him – all alone – the son who at a moment’s indiscretion wrecked the life’s work of his father, affected many other lives and institutions in ways he would never learn; the boy with no excuse nor respite. And then, presumably, there would be other places, other things to do – the anticipation provided no promise for pleasure – but at least, Ronnie knew, they would take him away from here.  And for the long stretch of hours that seemed hungering ahead to swallow him up whole, that was all that mattered.

Monidipa Mondal

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