Blue bird and Black bird, one perched on the faucet the other on a bucket rim argued with Mr Sen the colliery chief in the lavatory in silence. The moments spent on the pot were meant to be private, reserved for the self, for unrequited emotions but this summer evening was turning out to be different. It had been a clumsy day at the office and the city grime had shaded his fair carefully-shaven face grey.
‘What was I supposed to do? I had been dictated to over the phone from the capital to “take good care of them”,’ said Sen, his exasperation showing.
‘What then are you upset about?’ Blue questioned.
‘They’re bad people, they have ill in mind,’ he replied.
‘You were doing what you’d been asked to. You haven’t done anything wrong, stop worrying!’ Black said in response.
But he couldn’t stop worrying. Three men had barged into his office on the second floor at ten in the morning. The boss among them (elegantly dressed and thoroughly foul-mouthed) had harangued him into signing documents which permitted the night’s use of two company trucks and one of the godowns for an undisclosed ‘special purpose’. Sen could see, as his ballpoint tip grazed the fresh-smelling paper, the angular protrusions on the waists of the duo accompanying the boss; he could easily imagine the revolvers beneath their cotton t-shirts.
He had smiled his wry smile that was met with unresponsive faces.
It was the same smile he had smiled to Dodo the class bully who had stripped him in the bathroom and made him polish his shoes. The quality of the shine was traded for the covering of his nudity. He had shined them well and the sparkle on their tips had fused together to become a permanent black stain on the canvas of his memory.
Black clouds are gathering in the sky, calling to each other, joining each other becoming a larger whole.
Sen feels feverish and tells his wife so, almost fawning; he wants to avoid going to the supermarket but he isn’t lying. He knows what’s going on inside him; he is used to pink eruptions and patches on his throat growing in size to red globules and then if left untreated to a painful white squishy thing. He’s known the condition from childhood – pharyngitis. His wife in the eight-and-half month of pregnancy is sly. ‘Paracetamol,’ she says, her manner clarifying to him that there’s empathy but no escape. Blue and Black bird accompany him to the market.
The supermarket is called Homeland. There’s something about it – the feel of the place with the cold air, garish stacks, staff in orange-black uniform (pinstriped tie) too eager to help, solemn customers carefully putting things into their baskets, fifty-one varieties of assorted cookies, refrigerated cauliflowers and tomatoes (as if groomed for exhibition), stamped Bangladeshi mangoes and fish and perfunctory announcements in unnatural accents that intimidate Sen, worry and nauseate him and run a current of heat through his body. He focuses, without purpose, on the muddy red ominous eyes of the sardines. And the red colour makes him imagine the pharyngitis eruptions growing into tentacles writhing to the piano tune playing on the amplifiers in between announcements.
‘Was the boss ugly?’ asks Blue.
‘Yes he was,’ says Sen. Bushy eyebrows, an unkempt patch for moustache and thick unsexy pouting lips delineated his uncouth nature.
‘And the duo?’ asks Black.
‘They were buffoons, I could tell from their faces,’ Sen says. Goons hired at five-fifty rupees each.
Standing in the cashier’s queue Sen notices a teenage couple. The boy ties the girl’s shoelace, which has got untied somehow. The girl is dressed in a black miniskirt and blue shirt, the boy in black shirt and blue denim pants. The girl is looking at the boy serenely; the boy is unabashed and determined.
Sen wanted to marry Aditi, the Marwari beauty in college who taught him to undress with grace. But Sen Sr had married him to Dipti the sly Bengali cow absolutely against his wishes because ‘Baba knows just the best thing for you and you’ve always been the best possible son’. He wanted to be the best possible husband only to Aditi. ‘That’s a nice name,’ he had told her on their first date. ‘What’s so nice about it?’ she had demanded with a dominating smile. She was right thought Sen – there was nothing particularly nice about her name except for the last one-and-half syllable iti which means ‘finish’ in Bangla.
Sen is driving back home on his scooter; the birds sit on his shoulders and whisper in succession into his ears: Why are you tense? Are you hiding something? What evil are they up to? How powerful are they? Isn’t it the government’s lookout? What can you do singlehandedly? Remember your mask?
The last question found him shivering. He turned his gaze across the highway to tame his thoughts. The black clouds overhead have swelled and an entire battalion is wading up to join in from far west. There was a huge dark reptile, forming still, pasted against the light sky. Sen felt sandpapering in his throat. The red dots must have stood up he thought. The glare of a headlight opposite brought back the image of inspecting his throat with a torch in the mirror after every session of saline-water gargling; his childhood, teenage years and adolescence carried infinite facsimile copies of this one image. Seeing the red-capped soldiers shrinking in size, melting down and smearing over the throat was one of the choicest moments of his pre-twenties life. However, right now, he was sick. The infection’s epicentre was his throat and it was soaking up strength from the rest of his body.
By the time he reached home (he had stopped midway to suck on a cigarette and to wait an additional ten minutes for the odour to scatter away) his temperature had risen over hundred. The internal enemy was raging a battle; its strategy could only be felt and guessed because it was happening inside, beyond the vision of the eye.
He finds Dipti planted on the sofa slurping stew soup and occasionally resting her insouciant palm on the eight-and-half month old bulge. ‘Honey, water please,’ requests Dipti and Sen obliges. After an hour they have a quiet dinner and half-an-hour later Dipti is put to bed, her coyness gleaming, somewhat charming Sen.
Left to himself, Sen sits in a pensive posture in his room; the birds are by his side. The heat of the fever is punishing but he’s trying to make sense of it; he wants the heat of the fever to destroy pharyngitis; let one enemy kill another he thinks. So he doesn’t take medicine.
Unfortunately that doesn’t happen (his proclivity to rely on magic had always failed him.) His body is like a mess on the stove – fever one-o-four. He wants to pull himself together and sleep but all he manages is to rest his arms on the table (a chill runs through his skin) and place his head in the hollow of his crossed arms.
Blue and Black grimace; they whisper into his ears, ‘It’s time you confront the questions, please.’ His head turned down into the black of the hollow, he considers the questions, one at a time and decides to be as precise as possible.
The reptile of black clouds roars as if it had been choked for too long and electric jolts are seen playing hide-n-seek in the sky.
‘Why are you tense?’
Because it has been a life of acquiescence; I’ve always chosen to remain indecisive and get swayed by others, for that I thought would lessen confusion.
‘Did it lessen confusion?’
You think? I’m a thirty-one year old rock laid beneath the debris of son-hood, husband-hood and in the offing, fatherhood.
‘Are you hiding something?’
Yes I am. I have an inkling of the ‘special purpose’ and it’s absolutely horrifying.
They are going to unload weaponry from helicopters at a place not far from the office and the trucks will carry them to the company godown.
‘Who are they? What evil are they up to? How powerful are they?’
I am not sure but the ugly boss is just a cog in this gigantic anti-state machinery. They are up to killing and bloodshed. What other use can you make of rifles and explosives? They are very powerful people; their connections are far-reaching and they have money.
‘Isn’t it the government’s lookout?’
Yes, maybe, I’m not sure.
‘What can you do singlehandedly?’
Nothing – they are powerful people, they have money.
The black clouds burst into rain. It pours heavily accompanied by tremendous thundering. The sound of the water falling to the earth is sonorous. The cool breeze comes in and wakes Sen. He is sweating profusely. He puts his head back between his arms and awaits one final question. His face has gone placid; his fever is unremitting.
‘Remember your mask?’
Blue and red stripes flutter in the darkness of his shut eyes. He is too afraid to answer. Of course he remembers his mask; his mask is the sum of all that he wanted to but couldn’t be; he was told in school that ‘dream’ is an abstract noun but his dream was wooden and concrete and opaque and touchable. It was hard to have a dream resting on ones palm and be unable to curl ones fingers around to clench it.
The day Dodo had bullied him he detoured to Kajol Kaka’s carpentry shop before returning home. From the waste pile on the backyard he picked up a maroon plywood wafer and cut it out in the approximate shape of his face; he took it home and with a kitchen knife made in it disproportionate places for his eyes and nose and little holes on the sides through which he dragged elastic strands pulled out of a discarded pair of underpants.
Sen is squirming with the heat within. Some sort of indignation causes him to stand up and with heavy steps shuffle toward the storeroom. Blue and Black flap their wings and hover around him. ‘Attaboy,’ they say in unison (a rare moment, that).
Every night before going to sleep with all fervour he could summon he injected into his mask what he called the power of his soul by means of prayers. He wanted to mask his face, the face of cowardice, the face of submission, weakness, deprivation and the face of un-being with his mask of power and confrontation and strength and overcoming; the mask was the antidote to his limitations, it was the howling answer to the juggernaut of hesitation that kept him from clubbing Dodo in the bathroom.
The storeroom smells moist. Rummaging through piles of photo albums and invitation cards, broken kitchenware, defunct electronic equipment, shoe-boxes and official papers Sen finds the blue velvet necklace box. He push opens the clips and stares at a mask. It has blue and red synthetic stripes tied in small knots to the holes on the sides (these stripes were cut out from Aditi’s wedding card two years ago in moments of intense unrest.) ‘It’s emitting light!’ Sen says to himself squinting his eyes. ‘Yes, the power of your soul,’ the birds whisper. ‘One final thing,’ Sen says, proceeding to the adjoining bedroom.
On the bed, Dipti is spread-eagled, sound asleep. A masked face moves as close as possible to her belly and mumbles; from the two poorly shaped adjacent holes on the mask trickle tears which fall on Dipti’s belly but don’t reach her skin for they soak into the fabric of her nightwear. Sen leaves the room in silence but the birds remain seated on the bedstead.
And then into the heaviest rain and the violent storm a masked Sen vanishes on his scooter.
The night he left us nine years ago, my father said to me, ‘Son, I am leaving with you an avian couple to guide you along the strange roads ahead. I am gifting you my most precious adversary, my fountain of confusion, my motivation to kill and get killed, the force buried in my defeat, my talisman.’
Manoshij Banerji is twenty-one and pursuing a Masters Degree in Physics at Pondicherry University and hopes to take up creative writing as his profession. He has been published in Muse India, ink sweat and tears and Southlit. He loves reading Kafka, Rushdie and Kundera as much as Hemingway and Bellow.