All he ever wanted was a start. He had been born to parents who lived a happy life, struggling, existing day to day, hand to mouth, running with the hares, hunting with the hounds in the roller coaster rigmarole of life. He had seen something else. He had seen the life where his rubber slippers were looked at first, before his shining eyes and the confidence that they exuded. He was always asked questions as to whether he had eaten, than about his thoughts on the ongoing elections. When he spoke, people listened to him curiously, the curiosity that always disguised a surprise.
And then, he never got a start. He had seen people changing from a single room house to a sprawling bungalow in a mere five year period. He had seen his own relatives go from sweeping floors, teetering on the precipice of existence, to owning office complexes in a mere decade. He was witness, perched on the dilapidated concrete roof of his rented house in a lower middle class complex, to the roaring successes of the other half of the city that got more and more crowded as the years went by, while he stayed behind to count it all. He had always pined for a clean pair of sneakers and a classy leather strapped watch and somehow they always eluded him. He kept himself immaculately odorless, for his sense of picking out the faintest bad smell was legendary among those who knew him well. He could go empty for a night, but would shudder at the mere thought of going out without smearing the jasmine scented powder on his chest and his arm pits. His well-off cousins always donated their used denims and t-shirts that he wore everywhere except to places where the donors could be expected to be present.
He got his bicycle when the rest of the world had already graduated to motorized bikes. He got his second hand two-stroke motor bike, when as a concept, they were banned for the pollution they spewed from their exhaust pipes. He somehow always was the last person that remained to shift heavy furniture in or out of a relative’s house. He was the one whom ladies always sent for medicine, no matter relatively how young or old those ladies were to him. He was the one who arranged buses for marriage travels for his friends and relatives. He was the one who had to hold an umbrella in the time of need and he was the one who had to make an emergency errand for somebody, anybody, everybody. And his own life ambled through utterly mundane inevitabilities, lagging in almost every conceivable aspect. Yet, through it all, sadly enough, he always knew what was happening to him, inside him and outside him. God had made a terrible mistake of injecting a superfine consciousness that understood everything while that everything almost always thumbed its nose at him.
The utter neglect that he faced from fate was reciprocated in fine form – he simply ignored, nay, neglected, all the non-starting endeavors, all the debacles, all the failures and moved on just fine.
And then, one night it happened. He had been sleeping soundly. Of late, his wife had started to complain of his snoring. And in his usual, boisterously confident manner, he always denied that he snored. As he slept belly up on the floor, for the heat was unforgiving that summer, and the semi-urban locality he lived in often faced power shortages, he was having a disturbing sort of dream. In the dream, he was among a horde of cows in a large, thatched cowshed, awash with cow dung. He wore a white silk shirt, a white silk dhoti and white slippers that shone brightly in the sun that peeped through the holes in the walls of the shed. He was aware of having worn heavy gold chains around the neck and around the wrists. His fingers were adorned with rings embellished with bright multi-colored precious stones. The Cows were looking at him lazily and he was transfixed to the spot while all the cows defecated in harmony. He had to preserve his fine clothes from getting soiled, but the falling dung spluttered on to his dhoti.
Surprisingly, though he couldn’t move, all the dung just fell on his clothes and slid down without leaving a mark. In the dream, he was thinking that he felt very thirsty and he had to do something so that he could drink some water and be somewhere else. His wife rocked him awake and said “can you let me sleep. Snore quietly please”. It was then that it hit him like a bolt. He felt his life was changed forever.
The next night, he had exactly the same dream with the same consequence. This times, there were a few buffaloes and a king sized cock. He was again woken up by a noise of a falling utensil in the kitchen.
His wife again admonished him, asking him to sleep sideways. He again felt his life was changed forever.
When he dreamt of the exact same dream the following night, he knew. It was a signal. He was supposed to do something about it. He had to take some action. However much he tried, he couldn’t fathom the dream. Nothing struck him to consciously act in any particular way. He remained in the same state of ambling through everyday life throughout the day.
And then he forgot all about it.
(That’s how he had conducted his life all these years. Epiphanies were made to feel as common and useless as dusty old road signals with all the characters peeled off. His elder sisters always called him irresponsible)
One day, a strange thing happened to him while he had parked his motorbike near a road side coffee shop. He was stopping by to have a coffee on his way to the office to pick up the color catalog for the leather factory. A car drove by, a glitzy, shining Mercedes, and stopped right by him. The black car was spotless, its windows tainted, its steel insignia shining blindingly in the hot sun. While he looked at the car, the window shutter came down slowly, and a man wearing a white shirt and a crew cut looked at him and beckoned him. Coffee in one hand and a local newspaper in the other, he hesitated a bit.
After a while, putting down the newspaper on the stool nearby, he walked slowly towards the car. He noticed that the one who called him was wearing a pair of gorgeous designer shades. His heart, all of 53 years old, skipped a beat just looking at them. The man in shades asked him if he would like to go for a ride. Our man was at first amused. He knew a lot of these things were pretty common nowadays, but a nearly greyed out, short, drab fellow like himself, potentially being asked to perform criminal or sexual favors for rich perverts was a bit confounding. In a mélange of feelings, he looked at both of them quizzically.
As he approached the car, the man in designer shades opened the door, but didn’t get down. He took off his shades and signaled with his eyes towards the rear seat. When he looked at where he was pointed to, what he saw stunned him. There, seated behind, occupying almost three quarters of the big car’s rear seat, was a dark woman of enormous size. Her face was so puffed that her eyes appeared to be a pair of small sized marbles. What stunned him was the fact that she wore jewelry all over her body just as they showed in the devotional movies. She was dressed like a goddess. She had a crown, ear rings, nose rings, a few sets of hefty neck laces with and without medals attached to them, more than a dozen pairs of bangles, ornaments around her waist, her arms, and what more, she had rings around all toes. She sat there smiling, and he felt, among many emotions, that he could put his face to her lap and sob.
Better sense prevailed and he backed off. The man in the designer shades eyed him intensely. The driver just looked straight ahead without ever turning his head. The lady in the back kept her calm, bejeweled demeanor intact. Our man though, was sweating profusely. He instinctively thought of ignoring the whole thing as if nothing happened and run away into the slum that lay just a few meters below the high way. He could just go, there, pass a couple of hours and return to get his vehicle. He could tell the office about an emergency, any emergency and that will be it. This would have been the way he responded to any of life’s challenges.
He remembered often with a tinge of remorse that when his youngest sister was dying not all that long ago, all he had to do was to take her to the hospital by some means or get a doctor, any doctor to treat her with some medicine. However, there was a general strike on the day and he just sat there watching his sister just pass away in a mist of unconsciousness. He just shut down and convinced himself that it was the fault of the strike that his sister died. He displayed no sense of proportionality of importance and meaning attached to things. His other sisters knew about this and they were weary of him and his unpredictable nature. Seeking to get a start in life, his sisters opined, he most certainly closed all avenues that would become a start. Curiously enough, he also knew of this about himself.
Now, he could just disappear in the inscrutable maze of the slum beneath. Yet he did not. He stood motionlessly, rooted to the ground. The man eyeing him, opened his mouth. “Come. I have something for you”.
Our man, squinting under to the hot sun upstairs, wiped the sweat off his brow and asked “What.. what?”.
“Let’s go for a ride”
“No. I have work. I have to go to the office, and then to the leather factory”.
“We will see to that”
“What if you hurt me?”
“Why would we hurt you?”
“I don’t know.. Some sacrifice for some deity…or something sexual.. To kill somebody. Or whatever.. I don’t know.. I don’t know you.. And what I see there is not normal.. at all.. “
“Are you a moron? What are you talking about?”
The man in designer shades had put his designer shades on again. He looked at our man intensely again and looked at the driver and muttered something. The driver nodded and the door and the windows of the car closed. In a smooth Segway maneuver, the Mercedes drove away starting silently and with a roaring acceleration as it hit the tarmac.
He stood under the hot sun squinting and blinking for a long time. He didn’t know whether what he did or said was appropriate or even meant anything at all.
Then he slowly moved to the coffee shop, paid for the coffee and looked at his bike.
He roamed around in the narrow lanes of the slum for an hour, not going anywhere in particular. The lanes were smelly and to his keen olfactory sense, it was overwhelming. The confused smells of onions, garlic, cooking food, raw sewage, feces, burnt plastic covers, flowers, burning incense and, fermented food waste was quite too much for him. It was unusually hot and he was sweating like a pig. Yet on that day, in the aftermath of what had happened with him, his head was swirling in thoughts that were amorphous with no definite shape.
Had he done the right thing? What if he had sat beside the lady? Was there really a bejeweled lady there? Was there a Mercedes after all? Was it all real or not? No no.. There was a car.. But the lady.. Was it my hallucination? No.. I felt profoundly that I could bury my head in her lap and weep. She can’t be unreal. Then why was she dressed so? Why did they ask him for a drive? What if he had gone along? What was the worst? No use in speculating. I must call my wife.. no.. I am late for office.. let me go to the office and maybe take a leave and go home.
Even at 53, he had no diseases whatsoever and all his brother-in-laws who were chronically hyper tensed, diabetic, arthritic, secretly and bitterly envied him for his health.
When he told his wife what happened, she laughed it off saying that he was watching too much TV. Even the dreams he had had were induced by the TV images that linger on in our subconscious, morphing themselves grotesquely to suit our life’s circumstances, she said. She was a high school teacher and was going to take up her Masters exam in six months’ time. He just grunted and said, too much psychology wasn’t much help and only he knew what had happened.
And then it happened again. Two days after the Mercedes incident, he had another dream. This time, the same cows were chewing cud while defecating and his Teflon-like silk dhoti repelled all the dung. He was as usually transfixed thinking he was thirsty and had to be somewhere else. The buffaloes and the cock were still there in some corner. The thatched shed now was an air-conditioned, artificially lit office. Light bulbs hung from the false ceiling, while giant ventilators opened on the side walls. There was a red Mercedes with three tires missing in the midst of the shed, while the cows carried on without a care for the swanky car. Then a bejeweled buffalo came charging by, shaking its crown, necklaces and waist band, all shining gold. A panic ran through him as he stood their unable to move, but the buffalo stopped and sat on its sides. In a swift and instinctive motion, he sat down and buried his head in its enormous belly and started sobbing.
His wife shook him awake as he was sobbing uncontrollably. When he was sufficiently awake, after drinking some water, he said “There was no smell. I didn’t smell anything!”
His wife looked at him in mild annoyance that turned into sympathy and said “I am beginning to worry for you”.
He said “No, I mean, with all that potentially super odorous stuff in the dream.. tell me, in dreams do we smell?”
“I don’t know.. I never thought about it”.
“Well think about it. Why would we see things, hear things, but can’t smell? I don’t know”
And his wife slept well. He thought for a long time before dozing off.
They hadn’t had any children. They had a still-born child in the third year of their marriage, after which he didn’t show any interest in having anything to do with that sort of thing anymore, and his wife was inevitably and devastatingly made aware of the realities of her husband. Moreover, she knew her life would be unlike many others’ going forward, and to remain sane and peaceful, she had to navigate her life in a very different way. She was a wise woman, while our man whined and complained about not having a start, a break, a lucky chance, he remained absolutely relaxed and slept beautifully at night.. like a child. When he slept like a child without a worry or care in the world, she slept well and barring the fact that they counted low among their relatives, they led a more contended life than most of them.
So he thought, in his own concocted rationality that was incomprehensible to almost everybody, that his life was going on as a second-to-second accumulation of results of evaluation of effective living and since he always felt great about himself and his life, notwithstanding his constant complaints of not getting a start, he thought he led an objectively successful life. Yet, whenever mosquitoes bit him, and on power-cut days when the cool wind didn’t blow, his complaints overtook his sense of success.
Waking up, he remembered a light dream that he dreamed just before he woke up in which he was dead, his body covered in white sheets, and his cheerful wife very efficiently tidying up the house for the guests to arrive. Strangely, he felt, that his mood was also very cheerful, during the dream and when he was wide awake.
One week after that, evening of the salary day, both of them went to a mall with upscale eateries and shops. After eating well, they went into the newly opened groceries store. They noticed that they had never shopped in a big shop with aisles and aisles of well stacked stuff in glitzy packaging. As they picked up stuff and stood in the line to pay, he noticed that the cashier was a very heavy set lady wearing a drab overall blue uniform shirt and pant. As they moved closer and closer, a chill ran up his spine when he saw the face of the cashier. As she busily swiped the stuff on the barcode reader, he looked at her tiny eyes set in an enormous face and what does he see? There she was.. the very same lady he had seen in the backseat of the Mercedes. He said something to his wife that he forgot something and without waiting for her reply, departed the line.
When he met his wife outside, she noticed that his face was ashen.
He hadn’t spoken the entire evening and she repeatedly asked him what had happened. He resisted until he couldn’t anymore. He said, the cashier was the same as the bejeweled lady he had seen a week or so ago. His wife, didn’t respond. She took his hand and said, “you need help”.
It takes an enormous amount of leap of faith to make an Indian man go and seek for psychiatric help. So, when his wife, through his connections to higher class people than themselves who had more psychiatric issues, got hold of an appointment with one, he resisted. He said he was not hallucinating and he was not seeing visions and that what he had seen was real. At last, he agreed.
Three days after the incident at the mall, both of them dressed as well as they ever could, and went to wait half an hour before the appointment, in the verandah of the psychiatrist’s house. The house was very well maintained, with a lot of ornamental plants and flowers all over the place arranged neatly and groomed well. The swing in the small garden suggested to him a well lived life that he was never going to have. And that gave him a pang in his heart. It inevitably faded away, as his wife started giving him suggestions as to how to conduct with the Doctor and how to tell everything that is on his mind.
As they waited, a ferocious looking German Shepherd appeared at the curtained opening of the house. Always the one to hate animals due to their perceived lack of hygiene, he winced. As the dog handler tugged at it, the Dog led him through the verandah and came straight towards the couple. It growled at the other people waiting there. As it came near the couple, and as he looked at it in careful weariness, the Dog wagged its tail, opened its mouth and let its long tongue hang in front of him. It tilted its face, looked him in the eyes and almost begged something of him. He, in his anxiety just smiled at the dog handler who pulled at the enormous Dog until he barked a low, but menacing bark at its handler. The Dog sat down, wagging its tail, in the path that led to the Doctor’s consultation room. A fear that was uncharacteristic and that was unrecognisable surged in his heart for some unknown reason.
Luckily, the Doctor appeared and seeing a mild commotion in the verandah ordered the Dog to go to him. The Dog reluctantly got up and went to the Doctor, upon which the Doctor smiled at the couple and said “He chooses his friends!”.
As he lifted his hands to greet the Doctor, he felt he had seen that face somewhere in the recent past. The Doctor was bespectacled in thickset glasses. And his hair was completely and conspicuously dyed and the face was clean shaven. He was tall and wore a beige colored t-shirt and green gabardine, and house slippers.
Our man, got up smiling, and said to his wife that he had to take a nature break and waved to the Doctor and wore his slippers. As all of them watched him, he started walking briskly towards the gate. Seeing this, his wife got up and went behind him and called him by his name. He turned his ghostly face to her and started to run. His wife now trying to be in talking distance with him, asked what the matter was.
“What is the matter? It is him. It is him” he shouted as he started the motorbike parked by the road side and fled away.
Opening his eyes, he could see the white ceiling and instantly he smelled the smell of Hospital around him. He was still semi-conscious, as his wife called for the nurse “He opened his eyes”. The nurse came running to him. Immediately, she made some signals at his face and as he moved his eyes in recognition, she said “Its ok. We are good”.
His wife came near him and he moved his hand to take hers. She was weeping and held his head in her hands and kissed his forehead. The head was still bandaged, as it had banged against a heavy metal post on the road on the day he fled from the Psychiatrist’s house. As he raced away in fear, confusion and an unknown sense of dread, while his wife was left dangling the helmet that could have averted the accident. He had taken a left turn towards a small road. He had been blind sighted by the color of the electrical metal post that stood right on the road and the color of which matched exactly the rusty background of the corrugated walls of the nearby factory. He had some fractures to his leg too. The Doctors were a bit hesitant to say anything until he regained consciousness, which he did now.
Their family savings were all washed away in treating the head and leg injuries due to this accident.
For a few weeks, his head hurt tremendously. He could see characters swimming and talking in his head.
Sometimes, they chattered around endlessly, pointing to all the mistakes he ever committed in his life. They always used an accusatory tone and that annoyed him. He yelled “shut up” “shut up” as he lay wasted on the bed, his office having relieved him of his duty due to prolonged absence. They had paid a small amount towards his treatment, but that was it.
His wife looked after him very well when she was around, but afternoons were terrible. The heat and the houseflies made him mad. The sun beat down directly through the western window facing the small apartment. No amount of covering it could dim the bright mid-summer light. The air was usually hot, and he had to be resting all the time to have his legs heal their fractures. His wife would make sure before she went to the school that everything that he would need throughout the day was arranged at an arm’s length by his side.
After a month or so, his sisters visited him, and chided him for being irresponsible. Why hadn’t worn the helmet? Did he think he was a college going teenager to ride around on his motorbikes through the city? Look at the wife, she has to take care of everything now. They were sympathetic to the extent that they lent him some money, but warned him that it was only a loan and not for free. He smiled weakly and accepted it. His wife wasn’t too happy to have his sisters come and lord over them in that manner, but the money on offer was genuinely needed.
That night, he dreamt of his cow shed dream again. The cows continued their chewing cud and defecating and he was transfixed as usually to the same spot. Only, now instead of his legs, his lower portion was a single metal post that was rooted to the ground. As he looked in horror knowing that he could never move to quench his thirst, the cows started beating him on his head one by one. The beatings mingled with the throbbing headache and a sharp pain in the leg woke him up.
And then, one day while going through this hellish ordeal, constantly moving to avoid the sun beating down the window, he felt a sudden shooting pain in the base of his neck. He writhed in intense pain for a few minutes and passed out. When he woke up, he was lying on the ground, a few drops of urine making a small puddle by the side. He felt disgusted. He then got up to his legs with the help of his crutches and laboriously started to clean himself and the puddle.
Slowly he clutched at his crutches, and walked to the bathroom that lay 15 paces from the living room. He then leaned on to the side of the wall, kept his crutches by the side, and in agonizingly slow movements, opened his zipper and got the pants down. Avoiding the pants getting wet, he carefully and painfully moved his legs while holding on to the side of the door. Then he opened his underpants and similarly got them out of the bathroom. He handled the soap, and cleaned after himself waist down and then felt stupid that he hadn’d brought the towel. Dripping, and naked, he slowly came out of the bathroom on crutches and inched towards the room and pulled out a towel and dried himself. After that, he put on his underpants and pants slowly and got about cleaning up the puddle. Once he wiped them clean, he sat down on the floor.
He felt peaceful. Through the shooting pain in the leg, and the headache, he felt a peace that he had never felt. He hadn’t felt anything like this, while he cleaned himself and did every single bit of the work, there was absolutely no pain, or hurt or ignorance. He suddenly felt that all his pain was gone. The pain was there, but the pain was a part of him now. He was not going to “suffer” it, he said. It was himself.
In the evening, when his wife came, beat, tired, sweating and sunburnt, he offered her a glass of water. And once she had freshened up, he slowly asked her “I want to go and meet that cashier in the mall and that Psychiatrist sometime”.
She smiled a weak, but meaningful smile.