Aashish Kaul: Phantom Days

Cian Dayrit, from Spectacles of the Third World, 2015. Source: tin-aw.com

in this world, beauty is so common

— Jorge Luis Borges

Again I wake up with the sound of drums in my ears, the mattress hard under me. I bury my face in the crook of my arm that is on the pillow, while with the other hand I search for the watch. The drums seem nearer now; their beats ruffle the hair on the back of my head and slide down into my ears, but sleep has not left me entirely and it is with difficulty that I lift my head to check the time. It is not yet eight and I have already twice repeated these movements in the last twenty minutes, which could well be three hours. Then all at once the beating of drums ceases. The company has concluded its morning march. A bugle is heard three times. After that all is silent, though I now become aware of another sound, that of the old fan rotating above. Fighting the urge to fall back to sleep I turn around and rub my eye with a finger. I can think of nothing as I follow the movements of the fan through the mosquito net that closes on me from all sides – like a room within a room. In my sleep I recall feeling the warmth of a body. But here I lie alone, ignoring the discomfort of a full bladder. I see the road that passes through the forest, its trees yellowish-brown skeletons, their branches bare and rising willy-nilly towards a sky which is white with heat; the earth as far as you can look is covered with dead leaves. It is a landscape at the end of time.

At last I rise from the bed and go over to the bathroom. The floor tiles are dirty with shoe marks. I spot a lizard trying to escape through a hole in the roof. Back in the room, I greedily gulp down all the water in the bottle on the table. Next to it is a flask from which I pour coffee in one of the two cups in the tray – a sweet milky syrup that I can’t bear to finish. Through the window comes a breeze that is cool, but outside the meadows are dry and dusty, and would resemble a desert were it not for the pines that break the monotony here and there – of a green that makes them look like silhouettes. It has not rained in two years. I try to think of my last visit, but the view is so desolate that no memories come to mind. Instead a sudden dizziness rises to my head.

The door is not bolted. I step into the gallery (that circumscribes this L-shaped, single-storey building), and instinctively look around for monkeys. There are two kinds of them in this place. Those with a silver fur and black faces are quite well-behaved, my friend often feeds them chickpeas from his hand. The other ones are pink-bottomed rogues, not afraid to bite or claw on the flimsiest of pretexts. For some reason neither is present today. Wind that rises now and then curls the branches of the trees in the yard, and pushes the leaves on the ground first to one side and then to the other, forming and eroding strange continents. I sit down on the steps at the edge of the gallery, my arms on my knees. The sun is getting stronger and warms my shins that ache slightly from all the walking. It will be another hot day even though this town of all but ten thousand is a hill resort in the middle of the country, for these hills are old and low, content to merely watch over the forests stretching in all directions, never rising to mighty heights.

Sounds on the tiled roof make me stand. A mischievous one jumps from the edge of the roof on to the iron gate and in two leaps is already on the other side of the mud path where it quickly climbs up a mango tree. A stone swishes past me and hits the trunk. My friend appears from the other end of the yard, swinging, to my surprise, a slingshot on a finger. He is back from his morning run; all these days he has been regular about it. Running helps him keep his asthma in control, he says, yet at home he can do so only on weekends, morning being the only time when he reads his court briefs. When only a few steps away, he tosses the slingshot at me. I manage to catch it with one hand and, for a moment just as he is entering the room, stare at the back of his t-shirt which is damp with sweat. In the past week we have become accustomed to the silence of this place and, though we talk for hours sometimes, we have learnt to do without courtesies.

A slingshot. I do not know how to use it. Like all else it requires a certain skill in handling, and I am not particularly good at cultivating skills. In school, we often rolled bits of paper into pellets and hit each other using a rubber band stretched between the thumb and the index finger as a slingshot. Even at that I fared poorly. However, this is a more sophisticated instrument. I observe it closely – the fork is a perfect Y made of solid wood and the sling is of soft leather, two blue rubber tubes making the connexion – but then I get bored and decide to practice my aim. Picking up a few pebbles, I shoot them in air. At first the stones travel only a short distance, but with the seventh or eighth one I manage to clear the yard and lose it in the branches of a tree where it releases a dry crackle. I see a monkey watch me from behind the iron gate, perhaps the same one which had earlier climbed the tree. I play at taking aim but even before I can steady the pebble it has bounded off.

The caretaker arrives with our breakfast. It consists of toasts and eggs and tea brewed with ginger flakes in it. He is a small fellow with a childlike smile that never leaves his face and puts a twinkle in his eyes, his short hair covers his head like a mat. I ask him to bring a pitcher of cold water.

Inside, my friend has pulled up the mosquito net from his part of the bed and is sitting cross-legged smearing butter on his toast. I sit there sipping the tea that leaves a delicious gingery sting on the palate, and ask him if he was able to make the call. No, he tells me, the kiosk hadn’t yet opened for the day. The caretaker enters carrying the pitcher of water, asks what he should prepare for lunch. My friend asks him to repeat the menu of the day before – curry, yellow lentils, and rice, but I feel little appetite for lunch.

After breakfast, my friend picks up the slingshot that is lying on the table and goes out into the yard to shoot stones. I lie down in bed and stare at the teak wood ceiling painted a deep brown. Sleep hovers in the room, but I have learnt a few tricks to avoid it, one of them being not to read while lying down. So instead I think of the past.

My friend comes in, says it will rain, pointing, beyond the roof, at the cliff which is partly in shadow. Indeed clouds have flown over the sun and the wind has freshened. But they look nothing like rain clouds to me. All the same it is good weather to be in the open. So we carry a chair each from the room and put them under the tree that has a cement platform round its trunk.

The wind strokes me in a million places, enfolds me. The chair next to me is empty; the book he has been reading is lying upside down on it. He is up on the platform, walking in half circles round the tree. The way he walks – slight tilt of the head, a deliberate swing in the arms, measured step – I know he has become excited with some idea. He looks at me and then looks away, saying nothing. He is taking his time.

“In times like these, those who don’t take a stand – politically, I mean – must be shot,” he blurts out at last and pushes his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. I say nothing. Perhaps he, too, does not expect a response, for he is walking on the platform, much in the same way as before, without looking at me. Is he talking to himself? All the same this is an opportunity to broach a subject I have avoided previously. So I say: “A bit harsh, no?”

“Oh, you find it harsh? Really?” I have misjudged him. He wants the conversation as much as I do, a tiring affair, but little can now be done about it. “On the other side of these forests,” he continues, “why, at their very centre, at various places along the river, people are suffering. Countless homes flooded, countless displaced. Why? Because we want only wastelands! And what is better, we’re all for progress. Some progress this! Now ask yourself who pays the price for this progress? Not you and me, for sure. Not yet. Genuine people’s movements to save their homes, to protect themselves are crushed or ridiculed as propaganda. Big money changes hands. Voices are stifled, and there are many ways to do that. And amid all this we happily go about our business. And what business! The practice of law! Something we don’t give a damn about. Thankfully, I may be only accused of this.” He has fallen silent, no, he is anticipating my question and preparing a response. Already the talk is turning into a game. A mere battle of wits. Will it ever rise above that?

“And what else is to be my blame?” I humour him.

“You’re a writer, too, and you care about that.” Finally he is looking at me. “Yet all you want to write about is Proust and Mendelssohn, Paris and chess. Books plotted like games. Stories with musical variations. Esoteric, surely. Imaginative and timeless and dead.”

“That and more,” I reply. “Melancholy, for instance.” I cannot think of much else. He has summarized it well.

“Yes, what about it?” he asks.

“Nothing at all, now that I think. But then people write for several reasons. For instance, you may find language a living thing, throbbing with life. You may like fondling it, squeezing it even. That may become your only concern. Or you may busy yourself in forming a world superior to this one, even as it borrows, here and there, a gesture, a glance, a mote of dust, the colour of sky – a world that hasn’t vanished the next moment because the growing randomness has thrown everything into disarray.”

“Yes, yes, metaphors, exercises in style. Imagination surmounting reality. Isn’t that what you say? But I tell you, that rarefied air you breathe rises from this very ground. For what, after all, makes a thing imaginary or real? I’ve seen children displaced from their homes, walking in the dark, frail and hungry and fearful – there’s nothing real in their faces.”

“We reach the absurd through different ways,” I say resignedly.

At this he nods. He understands what I mean. We are silent now. A cow is grazing on tufts of wild grass on the other side of the hedge, a bell tinkling with each movement of its head. The clouds have flown away leaving a streak of white in the sky. The heat is rising. My friend asks me if we should return to the room.

Inside, I quickly slip through the mosquito net and lie down on my back, my arms crossed under my head. My friend not without some difficulty has taken his favourite place on the mantlepiece, the area behind his legs a garish pink in colour, the hearth clean and awaiting winter. He has put on weight. To me, though, he often says that I remain thin as a snake. Comfortably settled, he resumes the talk from his vantage point: “All those movements in art that emerged from the war – be it Dadaism, Surrealism or the Nouveaux Réalistes – were a protest against something, no? Against the bourgeois sensibilities and imperialist interests that had made art opaque and insensitive to the suffering of people. You take that essence out of those movements – what in fact ultimately happened – and all you’re left with is chaos.”

The thought comes to me that his language is becoming all too familiar.

“Yes, chaos,” I murmur. “The curse of expecting art to do things it isn’t meant to do. Today, it’s become the province of mostly those who should be the farthest from it.”

“What can it not do?”

“For instance, poems written and recited in binary codes. At a reading to which I persuaded myself to go out of sheer boredom. Now how does that express the suffering of people?”

“That is shit. It expresses nothing.”

“And how does a landscape express this suffering?”

“I don’t know.”

“So should we do away with landscapes altogether?”

“You cunning bastard.”

“Maybe with any luck,” I say, “we may have what you call a ‘civilized society’ in another thousand years. Let’s assume there’ll be little or no suffering of the kind you speak. Yet other forms of suffering will survive. I’m simply doing my bit to keep that part alive. Good luck to others who’re doing the rest.”

“You cunning bastard.” Laughter is forming in his throat. It rises and rises until it issues forth from his lips and spreads across the room and escapes through the chimney. I am smiling too. All is square between us once more.

“Tell me about the book you were speaking of the other day. That novel by Bioy Casares,” he says suddenly. I ask him if he would rather not read it himself. If I reveal the ingenious plot what will remain! “No, go ahead. Who knows when I’ll get a chance.”

He is still perched on the mantle when I finish. He releases a low whistle. It has taken me little over four minutes to tell the story. He admits he has never heard something like it. “Now, there you’ve a book that’ll survive a thousand years,” he says at last, whether in earnest or not, I cannot tell. A knock, and the caretaker enters, which can only mean that lunch is ready. It is only quarter past noon. This place is full of time, it never seems to run out. How will I learn again to live in a city where time is as nimble as a cat.

Later, after the meal, we saunter through the gallery towards our room. At the bend, we stand and observe the church spire that rises above the trees in the distance. “We should look it up before we leave tomorrow,” I say to him.

I am the first to wake up. It is only half past three in the afternoon. My friend is lightly snoring. A bee slips through the ventilator, hovers above the fan, then takes a sudden dip with a buzzing sound and hits the floor. There it crawls, striving not to forget that skill, rises again and settles in some crevice where it finally falls quiet. I have been reading for an hour when he stirs and asks, as if talking in his sleep, if we can go to the waterfall. The heat has passed and the wind has picked up again. We take turns in the shower and in about forty minutes are walking on the road that skirts the meadows before it bends to the right to leave behind this town for faraway places. About a hundred yards from the bend eucalyptuses, standing in a series of hemicycles converging into one another, do their best to obstruct the view of the governor’s cottage. Somewhere near is the mud-trail that cuts through the forest and descends into the depths. A tin board affixed to the trunk of a pine points in the direction of the trail: it is two miles to the falls.

Hills seem to get taller and taller as we approach the falls. The leaves of trees that grow in these shadowy parts are of a pale green silhouetted against a sky, blue and full of light, where a half moon is already beginning to show. The trees are unusually silent, there are no birds or animals visible to the eye. My friend finds a second trail that saves us some walking and I am tempted to try. Halfway, we slip over dry leaves and it is only a miracle that we manage to come up on both legs on the other side. My sight falls on a kitten tearing apart a mouse in a cleft along the trail. We continue to walk, and soon we begin to hear the plash of water. Crossing a wooden bridge, which looks as if it will not see another summer, we go down a few steps cut into the hill, and find ourselves standing at the edge of the pool into which water is falling in narrow streams over the rocks on the other side: this is all that remains of the waterfall. We wash our faces and, removing our shoes, dip our legs in the pool. Its coolness makes us light and cheerful. Two boys emerge from under the waterfall, their brown skins glisten as they run naked towards the brush where they have left their clothes. Taking turns rubbing each other with a rag brought for that purpose, they talk in a language we cannot understand.

My friend is now telling me about his trip into the interiors with a tribal leader during his election campaign last winter: “Thick clouds had covered the moon. But on either side of the road, sleeping in the open, were countless people who had walked long distances through the forest to see their leader. People caught in the war between the government and the guerrillas. Uprooted and fearing for their lives. The guerrillas in the forests prodded them every now and then to join in their war, while the state was doing all it could to make them soldiers in a very special kind of ‘civil resistance’ – note the irony – by promising each of them a self-loading rifle and a paltry allowance. Moving them to camps set up for this purpose alone. Forcibly removing people from their homes and disrupting their peaceful existence to help the state fight the guerrillas. And when they tired of all this fighting they could always be useful to the industries in the region. What a scheme! Isn’t it incredible? And we still have a real beauty of that book with all the world’s protections against abuse of civil liberties.

“A snake. A long, red snake melting into the horizon. That’s how I first saw all those people patiently walking to the assembly, to listen to their leader, to pledge support. I felt there was some point in all this.” My friend has fallen silent, the way he does when he is confused or simply unwilling to waste more words.

I know what happened. I have heard it before. I have felt it before. You can taste the success on your lips, but it is only a word spiralling in your head. It never comes. Something else comes in its place. Failure. Disappointment. I do not say any of this to him. Instead I tell him we are, in our separate ways, in the lonely business of rolling dice and dealing cards. We may learn tricks on the way, but that is about all we can do.

It is getting dark and we have a long climb ahead. By the time we cross the battered bridge, the light has left the sky; it is weightless, rising higher and higher until stars puncture its fabric. In a hut, just where the climb begins, a solitary man has kindled a fire and is playing a flute. Gloom fills my heart and mercifully ejects all fears of the dark, of animals and phantoms. But my friend walks fast, and every now and then lights a match, perhaps to scare away creatures hiding in the trees or in the rocks. Breeze that is by turn cool and warm flows over us, taking away the drops of sweat on our faces and necks. We stop only twice to get our wind back. We reach the road in less than a quarter of an hour. My fingers are swollen, I move them like apes do to make them thin and long again.

My friend has to make a call, and I need a sip of water. So we walk along the road that cuts across the meadows to the kiosk where we take turns drinking from a bottle before he goes into one of the phone booths. I want to call her. But I know there is little point; the pit of despair separates us. A beating of drums lures me out of the kiosk. I find locals arrive in small groups and assemble in a nearby ground where a strange rite has commenced – men and women, joined to one another in chain-like formations, perform some sort of a tap dance around an effigy, their feet churning dust to the beat of the drums. I grab a boy from the shoulder and ask about the ceremony. From whatever little I gather it is to commemorate the recent death of one of their kin. To me it sounds nothing like the music of grief, and maybe it is not. I do not realise when my friend joins me. We watch until clouds of dust have completely filled the ground and only the beating of drums can be heard.

For dinner we eat a local form of spaghetti cooked in a red sauce. Before I fall asleep, just as I close my eyes, I see the words “SHOOT TO KILL” painted in white on the cliff that towers above the shooting range inside the cantonment.

Next morning we walk towards the church under a sky low and grey with clouds. There are pines around it, but the grounds look pale and unkept. Under a few trees, stone benches gather dust, awaiting visitors. The church is over a century old though it appears much older, like a medieval chapel in some Scottish village. It is open now, and you can see people sitting in the pews listening to the vicar who is making most of this opportunity, reciting in an animated voice and a language I can barely understand something to do with a tussle between Christ and Lucifer. Outside, several shoes and slippers are stacked in pairs next to the front wall: harmless temple practices brought over to other doorsills. While my friend busies himself with observing the stonework, I drift towards a bench where a little girl is sitting, absorbed in a game of marbles she is playing with herself. The sound of my approaching step makes her look up. Her small arms and legs are coated with dust, her hair unwashed and her frock dirty and torn in places; the skin of her face is parched and scabrous. Yet her eyes are alive, deep dark pools that will drown anything that falls into them. And with these liquid eyes, she smiles at me, and the smile enters me, fills me.


This story is part of A Dream of Horses, published by Roundfire Books in 2014