Saturday, July 26, 2014

DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction: TANUJ SOLANKI

The Sad Unknowability of Dilip Singh
Tanuj Solanki

The never-to-be-famous writer Dilip Singh died of his own hand in the winter of two thousand and six. He was twenty-nine. His mother returned from her grocery rounds on the unfortunate day of his death and found him hanging from the ceiling fan, one of her plain widow’s saris wrapped tightly around his strained neck. In the hope that her son still had some life in him, she drew a chair (the same chair that Dilip had toppled earlier) beneath his feet and mounted another to untie the noose. Failing to do that, she noticed the loosened plaster around the hook that held the ceiling fan, and in her panic she began to pull the body downward. Some plaster and cement fell on her face, but the body could not be set free. It never occurred to her that had she managed to free it, the heavy ceiling fan, which was from an era when it was made of metal, would have crushed them both.

Dilip’s choice wasn’t something that the circumstances, or my understanding of them, added up to. To say that he was a writer is not to say much, for the label is a problematic one. He had started writing when he was twenty-three. He wrote poems initially, and the only people who ever read or heard these were his close friends, who did so only reluctantly, for the poems spoke of a coming apocalypse or a love long lost or the inescapable misery of life, and Dilip’s friends, all as young as he was, could not find in them anything to connect with. The more sensitive ones liked to point out that Dilip’s poems were dishonest, for he had himself never experienced anything traumatic, and so when he talked of ‘grey skies that gave out a grey piss’, or of ‘love’s half-life’, or of ‘a beggar’s prayers for no rains that season’, he sounded phony. I was a friend of Dilip’s, probably closer to him than the others, and I too had similar feelings about his early poetry. In one-to-one conversations I would ask him where he was getting his ideas from. His answers were never satisfactory. He would say that a poet’s primary condition is to be ever-sentient of death, or that a poet who doesn’t know love’s loss is not a poet, or that misery is the automobile that rams us into the wall of death, et cetera. With hindsight, I have come to understand that phase as one where he was struggling to find his feet in the quagmire that is literature. I also suspect that it was all under the duress of some broken love affair that none of his friends had ever been aware of.

But Dilip and his work changed. Between two thousand and one and four he was excited about writing prose poems of the sort where a collection of seemingly disparate paragraphs hint at an elusive core (these might be his words), and although he continued to write of death and misery and betrayal, his work now combined a sense of privacy with all that. The prose poems registered in one’s heart as having been written by a suffering individual. They had in them the scratches of defeat, a defeat not felt or read or imagined, but a defeat experienced in the real. Perhaps this is an effect that he created by simply turning to a first person voice that was more nuanced than his earlier voices. For example, the grey sky did not give out a grey piss any more. It went like this: ‘After it rained, I walked on the road looking down, but the vision didn’t change even if I looked up to the sky. Everything was the colour of my mind.’

The reasons of this apparent melancholy still escaped me. I tried to talk about it, which was easier now as Dilip was far less obnoxious than he had been earlier. We sat on the seafront at Marine Drive on many occasions, where he would read his latest work to me. Even though the subject of his writing was almost always too serious, I assumed he was happy, for he did give off a certain confidence that stemmed from the improvement in his writing. Conversely, he told me that the grave nature of what he wrote about surprised him as well, and might just be a by-product of the grave voices of the writers that he was reading in those days. I remember how this statement had calmed me, and also how honest it had seemed to me, simply because it had in it the elements of a confession. Whether his work of that time could be called original or not, I do not know. Although I do feel sad that no one will ever be able to give an authoritative answer. The little that I have quoted is from what I have remembered over the years.

And then, almost as if out of a perverse logic, Dilip was struck by real pain: his father died of a massive heart failure. I and other friends went to Dilip’s house to express our condolences. There I saw Dilip, standing in a corner of the living room where he would eventually end his life. He looked stunned rather than distraught. He did not utter a single word to any of us, and so we all considered it better to leave and allow the family to grieve for their loss.

Two weeks later I received a phone call from him. He sounded excited, which confused me. He told me that he had written a large prose poem that a magazine of national circulation had decided to publish in their upcoming issue. The impropriety of such a reaction only two weeks after losing a father bothered me, but I nevertheless congratulated Dilip wholeheartedly. He wanted me to meet him at Marine Drive the next day, so that he could read this poem to me. I agreed.

The poem was about a ten year old boy who had a world of his own, a lush strange world full of the most esoteric notions. It was difficult to understand, not merely because of the complexities of language. Then there came a revelatory passage, in which the child watches his father hit his mother with a rod, and then a sequence where the mother shows the mark of that violence to the child. The details of the mother baring her thigh to the child to show him the mark were unnerving. Without a doubt, this was a personal experience, although the end, where the child buries that rod under a tree, might have been fabricated. Initially, after Dilip had finished reading, I was hesitant to show any reaction at all. But then I told him that what he had written seemed to me like something that had happened to him. Dilip grew silent and stared at the horizon for what seemed a long time. When we resumed talking it was on an entirely different topic, and then we got up and went to a nearby café to have some cold coffee. The poem was deliberately forgotten. Although I remember how in the taxi ride back home that day, I had thought of it as a veritable masterpiece.

Dilip called me a couple of days later. It was quite late in the night, and I could only hear an incoherent blabbering from the other side. It was as if he was heavily intoxicated, which was strange because I knew that Dilip never drank. I could not think of anything better to do than to cut the call and reach out to him later. Next morning, when I visited Dilip’s house on my way to work, his mother told me that he had left the previous night. He has gone to the Himalayas for some time, she said, and also added something about how disturbed he had been since his father’s demise. I was confused, but then I shrugged my shoulders and got on with my life. What else could I do?

I did, of course, retain some interest in my friend, and so the next month I got a copy of the magazine where his work should have been published. It was not there! My confusion regarding him was now mixed with guilt, for I thought that maybe he chose not to publish the poem because I had found it to be so personal. I rang his house, but his mother told me that he had still not returned. She had no contact number or address, and had no clue about the poem due to be published in the magazine. For a while I wondered if Dilip had lied to me about being accepted for publication. But why would he do that? To make me view his poem with respect, with approval? It made me ask questions of myself: had I thought of the poem as a masterpiece because it was due for publication? This would mean that Dilip had conned me, and that I had conned myself too. Now I wasn’t even sure if his father had really hit his mother with an iron rod. And if that wasn’t true, was the poem then a masterpiece because it had appeared so real and personal?

It was six more months before Dilip finally returned to Bombay – with a large beard and webby eyes. He had decided to be jobless, he told me on our first meeting; apparently his father had left behind a large sum of insurance money. We got into the habit of meeting at Marine Drive every Saturday evening, where he would read some of his writings to me. I kept my distance emotionally and never broached the topic of the unpublished poem. He was writing short stories now, short stories that seldom had more than two characters who met each other for the first and the last time inside the story. Either he never sought publication or was never accepted by anyone. I felt that he didn’t have anything substantial to write about, and was therefore writing about the transitory nature of human encounters, how we grow intimate with strangers and then part without much ado. While this template persisted in general, the settings and the tones and the timelines changed dramatically from story to story, and the intensity of the connection that the two characters felt for each other also varied substantially. Sometimes there would be a third party, or an object or an idea that was important to both the characters. As weeks passed, as those weeks became months, September October November, as life settled into a routine for me and probably also for Dilip, I began to enjoy these weekly rendezvous and came to be excited about knowing the identities of the two strangers that my friend would set in a story next. And then that Friday morning in late December – I was at work, probably toiling on a presentation or a spreadsheet. There was a tiny suicide note, in which he blamed himself and nobody else. In the days that followed, I took it upon myself to comfort his mother as much as I could. I would visit her every other day. It was in one of these meetings that she narrated her struggle with Dilip’s strangulated body. She eventually came to tell me that Dilip had burnt all his writing before hanging himself. She told me that she had noticed flakes of ash drifting on the living room floor before she had looked up to find her son. Then she cried, and then I cried, and the crying went on till it exhausted itself, at which point the silence became so oppressive that I ran out of the house.

Tanuj Solanki is a fiction writer based in Bombay, India. His work has been published in large and small magazine, such as The CaravanOut of Print, netherelimae, and others. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and one of his stories featured in wigleaf magazine's list of best online fiction 2012. You can write to him at . His twitter handle is @tanujsolanki .

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