Monthly Archives: March 2021

Of Men, Women and Other Creatures

A little book available at themabooks@yahoo.com

Excerpt from the first story —

And then one day Maganlal Magicwallah disappeared himself. Not because he wished to perform a disappearing trick ...

Contents

Maganlal Magicwallah

Debu-da: Large Man in a Larger World

A Flat Atop the New Market

Girls Vanish

The Dog and I

Of Crows and Men

Jr March 26, 2021 — Gangajal, or One Day in the Life of an Unknown Indian

This had happened well before the arrival of Covid. However, as is my custom, it invaded my stream of consciousness only this morning. I rarely know why I think about what I think about. For I have nothing much to think about to tell you frankly. Unless of course it is Descartes who pushes me to the edge of the ragged hilltop threatening me to think and think alone, simply to prove to myself and the rest of the world that my existence is not a dreadful illusion. I mean that is that … err … I am. I had better tell you about the matter, or else I could cease to be … well whatever that means … I could cease to be that “am” thing.

Well, you see, I had gone and joined the tail end of the serpentine queue leading up to the Speed Post counter at the post office. I really do not know why I did this. But I am sure that I did commit the act. The queue was long and spilled over to the pavement. Not that I wasn’t mentally prepared. I was armed with earphones to help me concentrate in peaceful boredom on my smart phone playing out the audio version of the Economist. I listened to the pros and cons of Germany’s trade surplus, Donald Trump’s latest spell of insanity, Cornelis’ prize-winning vegetables in Ngabang, Mr. Hapilon’s shelter in Marawi and so on and so forth.

Peace, however, was disturbed unexpectedly. “Non-peace” had arrived in the shape of a youngish bozo. He was snarling at me I observed, but strangely enough I couldn’t hear a word he said. I wondered for a split second if I was in the midst of a surrealistic dream. You know, the sort of dream sequences that great film makers, such as Fellini or Bergman, weave into their movies for the sole purpose of making you feel insecure about your intelligence.

I stared at him open mouthed till I realised that the earphones had turned me deaf to happenings within close range even as I was hearing about events occurring in remote South China Sea, both loudly and clearly. I removed my hearing hurdles therefore and switched my attention to the young man’s grievances.

“You have taken up my place,” he accused.

I looked behind me and found that I was still the solitary person guarding the rear of the queue. “But I am at the end of the queue! How could I have possibly usurped you?”

“You have,” he replied haughtily. “I was the last person in the queue and now you have taken up my place.”

He sounded as though he was trying to establish a territorial right and not his last position in the waiting list. Being peace loving, I moved back a few inches to accommodate him. He warned me not to disturb the order. “You are behind me,” he hissed. “Remember this.” Saying so, he disappeared wherever he had appeared from. I continued to guard the rear, quickly closing up the gap I had created for his use. But I was uncomfortably conscious that the rear that I appeared to be guarding was not exactly the rear that I was meant to guard. Which rear was invisible at the moment, but could pay surprise visits whenever it wished.

I plugged back my earphones. A woman with a perfect British accent greeted me with news about sex workers in Colombia. I decided to switch gear and shift over to YouTube to listen to the Schubert Serenade as I watched the faces that I faced inside the post office.

One in particular caught my attention. He sported a sparsely vegetated, large round head and rushed around a matching round table, clockwise at times and anti-clockwise at others. A mound of timeworn papers lay on the table and he took short breaks to feverishly sort them out. A grumbling crowd chased him, some clockwise and the rest anti-clockwise. I tried to figure out without success what the round chap was doing for his followers around the round table. It occurred to me, not without a tinge of jealousy, that I had never been sought after this way. And then I noticed posters on the walls. One said that you needed to link your postal savings bank account to your Aadhaar number, or else unknown things could happen to you. I happily recalled that I possessed no such account. The round man and the round table could well have a connection with the said savings accounts. He was probably an Aadhar distributor for the hapless Aadhar-denied. My jealousy rapidly disappeared. I had never wished to be chased by violent Aadhar seekers.

Yet another poster on the wall said that it was the Speed Post service that was keeping the country together, but that it wouldn’t remain open after 3 PM. This was disconcerting, I mean the possibility that the country was getting ready to fall apart after 3 PM. Schubert took leave as this new piece of intelligence invaded my mind. Worriedly, I checked my watch. It was ten past one. Life has its pleasant surprises too I thought. I still had close to two hours left on earth. Peace returned along with Schubert, since I forgot to ask where Speed Post parcels were likely to be delivered once the earth ceased to exist. I live in a fool’s paradise I suppose.

Someone behind me patted my shoulder. I looked around in mild alarm. He was a shortish chap, once again pretty young, but not snarling. Obligingly, I removed my earphones. Schubert, feeling neglected, began to vibrate inside my trouser pocket in agony as the man who didn’t snarl, actually smiled at me. I smiled back too with an amiable “Ah! How are you today!” expression, but had no idea who he might be. He responded audibly. “I am behind you,” he observed. This fresh new “behind” related allegation made me lose a heartbeat, for there was no room for doubt concerning his assertion. Before I could agree with him though, he too disappeared with an “I will be back here later” message. This undoubtedly meant that should anyone else come and stand behind me, I was in charge of explaining to her or him that she or he was in fact not standing behind me.

I don’t think I had found myself sandwiched between two persons ever before in my life, both of whom were invisible. It was a case of disappearing front and behind in Perry Mason language. The situation was unenviable. I went back to Schubert, however, and continued to watch the visible waves of perspiring humanity once again. There were wooden benches where people were dozing. I had no idea why you needed to walk over all the way to the post office to enjoy your siesta. I vaguely recognized one of them. I stared at him trying to recall where I had seen him in the recent past. The man returned my gaze and smiled. The smile was unmistakably familiar. Who could it be?

The man was helpful. “I am behind you,” he reminded me. The man behind me, even though not visible behind me, was not exactly invisible either. He was riding a bench, under a rickety fan, while I, his trusted lieutenant in the infantry, was holding the fort at the end of the queue.

In the meantime, the queue moved forward along with me immersed in the Schubert serenade. It was around 2.15 PM when I found myself to be the third person from the counter, not counting the invisible man behind whom I stood. He materialized though by the time I had moved up to the second position and taken out the earphones, ready to confabulate with the girl at the counter.

“You are behind me,” he snarled. As with the other man, I had no recollection of his face, but I recognized his trademark snarl. I let him squeeze in without a murmur. I am a peaceful person. I think I have already said that.

Soon, he faced the girl seated on the other side of the counter in a violet shirt and black trousers. Quite pretty in fact. She weighed his envelope and told him that the charge was Rs. 53. He produced Rs. 60 from his pocket, which the girl refused to accept.

“Sorry, no change available,” said Girlie.

“Where do I get three rupees from?” replied Snarlie, somewhat unsnarling.

“Go out and get the change from nearby shops,” replied Girlie.

“But there are no shops nearby,” Snarlie had rapidly melted and was close to whimpering now.

The invisible man behind me, the one who smiled, had now turned visible behind me and he began to offer his opinion as well. “Don’t delay us, come tomorrow with the change,” suggested Smilie.

Snarlie snarled at Smilie. Girlie though didn’t budge. I looked at my watch. It was half past two. I was getting fidgety, when divine help intervened. Like oil in Arabia, I struck coins inside my trouser pocket. In my left pocket to be precise. With an exclamation of hallelujah, I extracted them and offered three rupees worth of coins to Snarlie in broad daylight. Plenty of witnesses.

After this, the matter was settled in a jiffy. Snarly disappeared soon after as was his wont. Before he did so, however, he looked back at me and produced a mixture of a growl and a grunt. In appreciation I think.

This brought me face to face with Girlie. Except that it didn’t. When I turned my face from the disappearing Snarlie towards the counter, I found much to my horror that Girlie too had disappeared. The day was reserved for vanishing people. I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes to three and the counter still empty. I stood there dumbfounded as the seconds ticked away. Schubert too was angrily protesting inside my pocket. The right pocket, for if you remember, the left pocket was where coins tinkled.

I looked everywhere. No girlie alas. I noticed instead a middle aged woman sitting inside a kiosk that said “Stamps” in bold red letters. Did people buy stamps anymore these days to post letters? What strange commodity was the woman selling? A closer look at the window resolved the mystery. A typed notice was pasted there. “Gangajal,” it announced. In two sizes, 200 litres and 500 litres. Not Bisleri mind you, but Gangajal! To wash away your mortal sins. A postal route to Heaven?

I began to pray. Sweet God, I will offer you a 200 litre bottle of Gangajal to make Girlie reappear.

The prayer was answered instantaneously. She walked out of the adjacent room from behind a curtain that had last been washed around the time of the Sepoy Mutiny, accompanied by two zealous male colleagues. “What medicine did you consume?” one of them queried. She whispered a reply. The other one reacted, “That’s the last tablet you should have tried. It makes you feel sleepy.”

Absolutely correct, I thought to myself, when super-potent Gangajal was easily available. Postal employees might even be offered a discount.

I didn’t have to wait much longer. Girlie handed over the receipt to me somnolently and I rushed towards the Gangajal kiosk to stick to my promise to God, only to discover that the lady in charge of Gangajal had vanished as well! The lights in the kiosk had been switched off, its door was locked and a Sold Out notice snickered!

In the meantime 3 PM had arrived and left, with not a drop of Gangajal available in the vicinity to hold back cataclysms. And if you are wondering how come you are still alive, I have a simple question for you to consider.

Who told you that you were still alive?

Descartes perhaps? Don’t trust him. Unless you wish to be known as a gullible person. I know of course that I am one of those myself.

Jr 23 March, 2021–Paper and Pastry

I can’t quite recall when I woke up this morning. Nor am I sure if I looked forward to my day ahead. In fact, I am a habituated non-forward looker. I see nothing much blooming ahead of me, except of course the final day. But there is a great deal that forces me to recede back into the past.

As soon as my brain began to whisper early in the morning therefore, I travelled back to January and ruminated over a tryst I had with destiny. Some call it a bank. My account there had been hacked. Most of its contents, otherwise known as money, had disappeared in less than 15 seconds, as I stared in wonder at my phone and admired the finesse with which the job was accomplished. By someone, who amongst other things, was quite invisible. Frankly his skill impressed me to no end and, had he not insisted on remaining invisible, I might have even agreed to pay him the rest of my money in the bank simply to watch him perform. But he was not visible. So I rushed to the bank, panting under my covid mask. The bank in turn prodded me to rush further to the police station and then rush back to the bank to tell it what the police had to say. The police actually had not said much. But one policeman gave me a number to be handed over to the bank. Which I did, not knowing what the bank needed it for. As I had correctly surmised, the bank didn’t know what to do with it either. But it did store that secret number in a secret enclosure and forgot about the matter.

Since there was not much point hanging around, I travelled further back in time to recall one of my favourite Beatles songs. This is the way the song ran — You never give me your money/You only give me your funny paper/And in the middle of investigations/You break down. For those who are over-inquisitive, here’s the link .

That’s the way I spent the last two months. Forcing my vocal chords to crow this song in my inimitable soprano or whatever. My neighbours complained probably, but I remained blissfully immersed in my money music. For two whole months! There were intermissions of course. Vaccination for one and the time wasted in the vaccination centre, all because a large number of people had forgotten that each one of them will need to die some day or the other, some way or the other. I was at peace with myself though. Nothing to complain about, till a certain Saturday arrived. On that sacred day, at 7 in the evening, I was delivered a digital message by the bank that, in accordance with my request, my account had been completely deactivated.

After an agonising Sunday wait, when banks, like God, take rest, I huffed and puffed back one more time to the bank to find out when I had made the said deactivation request. And the guy said he didn’t know. Upon which, I produced for him the message I had received and inquired what seemed natural to me. Didn’t the bank send it? His reply was a confident “yes”. And as far as the reason underlying the bank’s decision to excommunicate me went, he was equally clear. “I don’t know,” said he with supreme confidence. He appeared to be an honest idiot. Honest, since he didn’t disown the note. Stupid, because he had no idea why the note had surfaced in the first place.

Alternatively, he could have been an existentialist philosopher, drawing my attention to the absurdity of existence itself. I stopped singing my Beatles song therefore and sighed. He sighed too, sympathy oozing out of his eyes. He stuck doggedly nonetheless to the principle he had enunciated at the very beginning of his speech, viz. “yes it is, but no it is not”. As far as a resolution of the problem went, like our mutual sighs, the guy stared at me for a while and I stared back at him simultaneously. Both avoiding speech as a means of communication. Which is when my brain waves brought up a new question and I found back my speech. “If you didn’t send this message, but it went from your machine all the same, could it be possible that someone who’s not you, but who’s you at the same time (somewhat resembling the “yes but no” theorem) walked into your office and shot the ‘arrows of outrageous fortune’ at me? Or, does it have something to do with that fateful number?”

“What number,” asked he, visibly shaken. “Your bank account number?” “No,” said I, “the one that the police guy gave me to pass on to you.” He was taken aback. He had no idea that a number had once played a role in the drama, however nebulous. And that was the end of the episode more or less. I searched the wall behind him just in case the mystery number was lurking there under the paint. Without success, needless to say. Those Beatles guys were super intelligent. They knew that a chap never gave away his number, creating thereby a breakdown. The mention of a number had a debilitating impact on the “yes-no” man. He collapsed in his chair and since I didn’t wish to accompany him to a hospital, I quietly left the bank in search of the rest of the day.

And during that search, I remembered Ashim all of a sudden, who lived next door during my youth in Jatin Das Road. Hard to avoid this. The past invariably keeps landing me there. Well, it so happened that Ashim had managed to arm himself with a pocketful of money and offer me a treat in Tiger theatre (it no longer exists) on Chowringhee Road (now Jawaharlal Nehru Road).

Quite elated, I accompanied him to the theatre where we purchased 2 matinee show tickets and waited outside the auditorium for the show to begin. In the meantime, Ashim felt hungry at the sight of rich cream layered pastries on sale right next to the entrance to the theatre. The large hearted chap offered to buy me a pastry too and I readily agreed. Unfortunately though, as he was getting rid of his money in exchange of the pastries, my attention was attracted by a poster showing Audrey Hepburn at her loveliest best. It was an ad for the next movie to be shown at the theatre.

Well, when Audrey Hepburn captures the attention of a teenager, he cannot be blamed I suppose for dismissing pastries to the realm of oblivion. Only Ashim had not noticed the poster and went on to procure the pastries in question and came back and stood next to me. “Here’s your pastry,” he said merrily I think. But at that particular moment, it was Audrey Hepburn whom my heart desired in helpless agony. So, I hardly knew what Ashim had said. I ignored him completely and concentrated back on Audrey Hepburn, forgetting alas the long tested wisdom underlying the proverb that a bird in hand is worth a million or so in the bush. Ashim repeated his offer. I hardly understood him and merely muttered, “Oh, I see! Keep it in your pocket!” I must have confused the pastry for his money and forgotten completely that the money had found its way into the vendor’s pocket and Ashim’s pockets were not exactly suited to store cream layered pastries. Then suddenly the bell rang, announcing the beginning of the show that we had gone there to watch. I turned around and caught the expression on Ashim’s face as he was trying desperately to push into his pocket the pastry of contention. He bore an expression on his face that appeared to be precariously balanced on a razor’s edge separating rage from homicide. It took me less than a moment to realise the blunder I had committed and I quickly retrieved the pastry peeking out of his trouser pocket. I am not sure if I consumed it finally, but I remember distinctly the cream smeared gooey state to which his pocket had descended.

Ashim didn’t speak to me for several days following that event. But finally we managed to make up, though he often reminded me that he liked my brother more than me. And Audrey Hepburn never spoke to me at all. Her picture merely ensured that Ashim lost his money, in those deep, dark prehistoric days. Long before digital money was born. But then, money was invented by humanity with the sole intention of losing it. Wasn’t it?

Jr 17 March, 2021

Frankly, this covid thing never really bothered me. I was not even planning to be vaccinated. Till of course they said that I was too old not to be vaccinated. And that meant I had to visit the clinic along with my wife. Which I did, my wife grumbling all the way, since she is a science hater. I think she thought I was planning to have her murdered by the vaccine.

Well we went through the motions. People were waiting there to be vaccinated. All as old as me, some even older. I was surprised to see them, because till today I thought I was the oldest man on earth. And I was amazed to see so many old people congregating to make sure that they don’t die too soon. There were endlessly many of them. I never even suspected that there were so many old people on earth who were not willing to die.

Anyway, this guy injected the venom into my arm, but I didn’t feel this happening. I was even suspicious that he had actually not even vaccinated me, but merely charged me for the service. What worried me even more was the fact that I didn’t develop any reaction at all till 24 hours later and that too was a mild pain in my arm. So, my fear increased. I would have probably died without the vaccine. But now the probability looked like a certainty. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as though I am not willing to die. But I don’t want the vaccine to kill me.

And then this morning, the newspaper announced that scientists in Britain and elsewhere believe that this variant of the vaccine can produce blood clots. I have no idea what blood clots do to you, but I distinctly recall that the clinic asked me if I was on blood thinners. I wasn’t and assumed that the vaccine might turn my blood thinner than it is. But it appears now that it doesn’t thin the blood, but coagulates it. That’s not a happy thought. I mean the idea of turning into a man whose blood, instead of flowing, actually coagulates. Worse, if I don’t die in the course of the next 4 weeks, they will give me yet another dose of coagulator. I think coagulated blood cannot be pumped by your heart to your lungs or whatever. Besides, my lungs enjoy consuming liquid stuff more than semi-solid things. I learnt this in junior school. I am likely to die therefore 4 weeks from now.

All because I gave in to the vaccinator guy.

No other thoughts as I stare blankly at the monitor. Except of course for the thought that I have no other thoughts worth recording. Nothing much happens these days. But there used to be happenings way back in the past. Such as the rainy days. Torrential rains that refused to relent. A frog had somehow found a secret passage through which it visited our living room. My older brother and I were the only people at home. I have no idea where my parents had disappeared. I think Naren was there too. Naren was a servant employed by my mother’s brother, who didn’t live far away. That was Jatin Das Road too, but not the tributary where we lived.

The frog began to hop. It took mighty leaps and I was scared that it might attack me. My brother too must have thought similarly. For he began to jump as well. Perhaps he thought that the jumping frog would imagine him to be a jumping frog as well and leave him alone. I can’t recall what Naren was doing, except that he was yelling at the frog.

Well the frog finally disappeared into thin air and the rain stopped. If it didn’t stop, it might have continued to rain till this day and the frog would have grown old like me and accompanied me to the vaccine centre.