For more than thirty years, I had been a linguistic chameleon. Till my teens, I lived in Southeast Asia and spoke fluent Malay. Then, displaced to India, I had to learn English, Malayalam and Hindi, at the same time. That trauma left me barely literate. In the nomadic years that followed, I picked up the vernacular out of necessity or love or survival. Language aids communication, but it is more potent as a weapon for power, to form clubs, to exclude. In business meetings or social groups, I tried not to be offended when the language switched over to that of the majority. I did my best to fit in with them, but I took the hint when the level was notched up above my level of comprehension. I too have played that game, that easy, sick game.
While being that chameleon, I realised that I could forget a language just as easily as I could learn one. I began to toy with the idea that language, and speech, must be irrelevant. Berlin seemed ideal for this experiment, and I decided to live there, not as a tourist with a return ticket, but as a resident. But for years, I refused to learn German.
At work, I had to talk but only rarely since it is not a job requirement for a theoretical physicist. I could not speak in the train, supermarket, street-side café or beer-garden; not in the museum, cinema, opera house or library; not even in the police station or the foreign office where I renewed my residence permit every year. It wasn’t straightforward but there were nice people ready to understand what I wanted to communicate.
My barber was one of those people. The salon was a few blocks from my apartment, and in my third month I mustered enough courage to go inside for a much-delayed haircut. The proprietor and chief-friseur was a German, in her mid-thirties, with a friendly but strict smile, buxom and rather unapproachable. She took measure of my hirsute mess and assigned my unappealing case to her junior.
The junior-friseur was not a German and more amenable to try improvised sign-lingo with me. I managed to register for the combo of hair-wash and haircut. She stood behind me, and handled my head gently. I felt her long fingers massaging my scalp. I kept my eyes closed during the washing, shampooing, rinsing and drying. Once that was done, she adjusted the chair. She stood close, in front of me. She held my hair in the front, between her forefinger and thumb. Using her eyes and fingers, she enquired about the required length. I indicated my preference with my little finger. She expressed doubts about my fashion sense with a varying pout of her lovely full lips. I gave up and signalled that she could do anything with my head. She smiled.
I guessed that she was East-European, in her early twenties. She was slim, athletic, one or two inches shorter than me if I stood on my toes. On that first day, she wore a black t-shirt and low-slung jeans. The t-shirt went well with her fair skin, her black eyes with tinges of blue and specks of brown, and the Celtic butterfly tattoo on the lower back.
The haircut went as well as the hair-wash, in spirit if not in deed. She took her time, using just one pair of hairdressing scissors and a comb. She used her fingers to measure and trim, to smooth and set. She moved effortlessly from front to back, left to right. We looked at each other once in a while, face to face or in the many mirrors, smiling shyly, slyly but only when the chief-friseur was engaged elsewhere.
The hair-wash and haircut lasted twenty minutes, every three weeks, on a Saturday morning. On one of those days, we exchanged names like a talisman, or a memento. Hers is Delia.
We met outside that salon only twice.
The first time, around lunchtime, on a winter Saturday afternoon, I met her at the Spar supermarket adjacent to my apartment block. I was trying to count the exact change. The nice lady at the counter was familiar with my dumb ways and waited patiently with a comfortable grandmotherly smile. I gave her my usual apologetic look and my best smile and, also directed the same at the person behind me in the queue. It took me a moment or two for me to realise that it was Delia standing behind me. I paid my bill, collected my bags of shopping and waited outside. When she came out and saw me waiting, she smiled. I did not know what to do. Either the confusion in my mind or the rumble in my tummy made me gesture to her about eating at the Korean restaurant next to the supermarket. She nodded in agreement. We shared soup, kimchi, noodles and bulgogi.
I have wondered since then about what we would have talked about if we could have. I would have described my State; green hills, lush plains carpeted by coconut trees, languid backwaters, sunny beaches; boasted about excellent education and healthcare; Onam, wonderful cuisine, communists and liquor; the secular culture and maybe, even my large extended family.
She would have told me about the Orthodox Church, the influence of Moslem culture, the great years of communism; caviar, liquor, science and the great academies; ballet, the great masters of art, authors, painters, composers; family gatherings at Christmas and Easter; the land rich with natural resources, the entrepreneurs, the calm plains and the beautiful lakes; and, holidays at the Black Sea or the Mediterranean.
I guess we would not have talked about why we chose to be away from those places we called home.
We had a long lunch without a word or a touch. When we looked at each other, we searched each other’s face and eyes. The other senses tend to work better when one is speechless. We shared the bill. Before we parted outside, she held my hand for a long while. I wanted to hold her tight and never let go.
One hot summer Saturday, I found the shop was being refurbished for some other business. I walked back home and did not leave the apartment that weekend. I felt lost without my hairdresser. Or maybe, I was just disappointed that I had to find a new one.
In mid-winter, I was on leave on a Thursday. I had planned to visit a photography exhibition that afternoon and attend a concert later that night. The exhibition was not exceptional and I got out early. It was getting dark and I had couple of hours to kill before the concert.
I walked to a cemetery. Usually, I went around noon, when there were other visitors clearing leaves or checking the stories etched on gravestones. On that day, the place was deserted. I saw my friseur outside the shop, behind one of those handsome gravestones.
Delia looked weak and scared. Even in the fading light, I could see that her lovely lips had a nasty cut, and her left cheek was bruised. Dishabille and clearly distraught, she looked like a discarded doll. She had a small backpack with her. She leaned towards me and I held her. She did not smile or cry. She said weakly, ‘Hilfe, bitte.’
I knew those words. How unnecessary those words were at that time. I knew that she needed help but of what kind I was not sure other than to know that I was not the one she really needed. I suggested the police but Delia seemed reluctant.
I decided to approach Susannah, a friendly colleague who treated me to home-cooked feasts quite often. She herself was an armchair liberal and quite useless with practical matters; but her partner Gudrun who was involved with various human rights groups seemed to be the right person for Delia.
Susannah and Gudrun lived about two kilometres from Wannsee station, and I calculated that we could reach there in about thirty minutes on the S-Bahn. I tried to call the couple from a public phone booth but they didn’t answer. I checked my wallet. I did not have enough for a taxi, even if I knew where to get one. We waited in the cemetery till it was dark before leaving for the nearest station. We tried to be inconspicuous but not even darkness can provide adequate cover for a dark-skinned guy walking around with a dishevelled beautiful fair lady. In the train, we took the bogey right behind the driver, supposedly the most secure one.
We reached Wannsee around six. We walked fast, eager to reach the safety of my colleague’s house. The road was deserted. We were a kilometre from the house when a car overtook us, and stopped a few metres in front. Two men got out and approached us. One was holding something that looked like a gun. I would have suggested running if I thought it would be of any use. Anyway, Delia looked spent, defeated and she just crumpled on to the sidewalk.
The two men walked casually towards me. I remembered those movies in which the good guy puts up a jolly street-fight for the damsel in distress. I was tougher and fitter then. I lasted half a minute on my feet. One man moved quickly and I tried to follow him. The other came behind me and immobilised me with a chokehold. The first hit me on the solar plexus leaving me breathless. By reflex, I raised my hands, which were guarding my groin. Predictably, the next kick was to the groin. I nearly lost consciousness but I was still standing. After a few more well-aimed punches to my sides, I slipped to the ground. They kicked me a few times as an afterthought.
Those guys were not mere street fighters. They did not leave any visible injury. From that foetal position, I watched one of them drag Delia to the car. The other leaned towards me, roughly grabbed my hair and whispered in my ear, ‘Talk … kill.’ I knew those words too.
I did talk to Gudrun and Susannah. Through them, I talked to the police. But, the talking did little good; rarely does. Maybe, those men were Delia’s husband and some relative, the police suggested weakly. They hinted at the bitter truth too. There’s too much traffic of that kind, Gudrun explained. Even today, I hope to see my friseur on some street, amongst cheerleaders, in resorts, at air terminals, ports and railway stations. But, we never see such cheap profitable cargo, do we? Those screams are always in some alien lingo.
Sreejith Sukumaran’s short story Another Dull Day was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2012. He posts his short stories on a personal blog using the avatar ‘New Nonentities’. In earlier avatars, he tried to be creative in theoretical physics and risk management in investment banks.