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Taposh October 25, 2009

Posted by K in Fiction.

Taposhda had called me to a coffee shop in the middle of nowhere.

“Hullo, Sandip, how are you. There is an atrocious structure that has come up in-. Come there at three, we shall mock it together.” That was his style; abrupt, unexpected and assured.

I was surprised to hear from him after so long. The last I had seen of him was in college, an eccentric senior given to sporadic flashes of brilliance. We were in the same department, but it wasn’t until the last term of his final year that we spoke. He came up to me in the library, put his feet up on a chair and asked me what I thought of Godot.
“It defines my life, you know,” he said, not waiting for a reply. “Come to the window, I want to smoke.”

I had complied, because he clearly expected me to. From Godot, he went on to air his opinions on television, street lights and public transport.

“Oh, I’m out of smokes. See you around, I’m Taposh.” That was it. He left as abruptly as he had entered, and from that day on, he seemed to lay a sort of claim on me. It wasn’t exactly a friendship; it was more of a symbiotic relationship that we had. He liked bouncing ideas off me, he said, because I was such a good listener. On my part, I liked him and the shape my thoughts took after every session with him.

Taposhda graduated with top honours and disappeared off the scene. Some said he had gone off to study theatre in London, others claimed he was on a tour of the country. I would get an occasional cryptic message from him, on my phone or sometimes via email. ‘I am looking for my Mountain of the Moon,’ said one. ‘What do you think of education? Does it make sense to get another degree?’ asked another. In a few years, even those messages stopped. There was no way of getting in touch with him, wherever he was, he evidently did not have a cell phone of his own, nor did he ever reply to an email.

I finished my graduation, and then my post-graduation, and Taposhda faded to a memory.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my phone beeped that day and I read his message. Typically of him, it was unsigned. However, as nobody else called me Sandip (with good reason, for Sandip was not my name), I knew at once it was him. I debated my reply, for I was at the other end of nowhere, and with a disposable income that vanished sooner than I could make it meet my ends.

It was Taposhda, however, and I hadn’t seen him in four years. So there I was, sitting in a glass house, drinking filter coffee and waiting for him to arrive. He was late, even by his standards. I was one of three patrons, each sitting at a round mahogany table, watching people outside. It is not easy being an observer when all the walls are made of glass. For every person I fixed my eyes on, three others turned to look at me. I was surprised at how crowded it was. Each plane of the hexagonal structure was obscured by the people who constantly moved to and fro outside of it. Growing slightly claustrophobic, I decided to train my eyes on the ceiling, also made of glass but thankfully free of motion. It didn’t really help; I felt those eyes continue to bore into me.

The staff seemed impervious to the heightened visibility. They were all impeccably dressed and courteous to the point of being obsequious. One of them now came towards me with my sixth coffee in an exquisite cup made of bone china. I looked at it nervously as he lowered it off the tray onto the table. Do you have anything that is less easy to break, I wanted to ask, but he smiled, said enjoy your coffee and gracefully walked away. Rather on the edge, because of the eyes, Taposhda and all that caffeine in me, I jerked the coffee clumsily, and nearly dropped the saucer. For no reason that I could fathom, my cheeks grew hot and I surreptitious looked around to see if my awkwardness had been spotted. The waiters were at their stations, polishing other elegant cups, and my fellow coffee drinkers did not look my way. I was about to sigh with relief when my eyes shot to the wall on my right. A little girl with straggly brown hair stood grinning, her feet apart and her hands on her waist. I recognised her; she had offered to sell me a pen with a torch, ten rupees only!, as I came in.

“Sandip!” came a voice, just as I was about to push back my chair and leave that horrible place. It was Taposhda, and four years or not, I was furious with him.

“What kind of a place is this? “I began.

“I know! Delightful, isn’t it?” He chuckled as he slid into a chair and looked expectantly at me. I looked at him incredulously, and pointedly shifted my coat to my other arm.

“You’re wearing woollens? Is it winter? No wonder my feet feel cold!”

We both looked at his feet. Taposhda was wearing a dhoti in peak winter. I laughed and sat down again. It was Taposhda, what did one expect?

“Are you having that coffee? Thanks, I don’t mind one.” He pulled out a biscuit from the pocket of his shirt and looked at me. His smile was warm, and as I watched him drink from that exquisite cup, I ran my eyes over him. He looked much older than when I last saw him and I told him so.

“Wiser, too, do you think?” He asked, and pulled out a pipe. “This is how I burn my tobacco now. Much more aesthetic, don’t you think?”

“I like the concept of a pipe, more than the execution of the concept,” I said.

“True, true,” he nodded absently, as he held it between his teeth. We sat in silence for a while. I was never much of a talker, and Taposhda seemed busy admiring his smoke rings. Suddenly he sat up.

“Three hundred people died yesterday.” He said, and lapsed back into a brief silence.

“If a bomb went off right now, what do you think will happen?” he asked.

“What kind of an answer are you looking for?” I returned.

“I don’t know!” He cried. This was an unfamiliar Taposhda. The one of old never said I don’t know, and never looked anxious or uncertain.

“What have you been doing?” he asked abruptly, in a customary way, jumping from one topic to another.

“Playing.” I replied. “Still trying to make sense of my education. Working a job, as I wait for my eureka moment.”

“Ah. I never did get another degree, you know. My papers will always say-Taposh. B.A. (Honours) only. Traveller.”

“That’s exactly what I am. That is all that I am.” He said this with some violence.

“After my graduation, I decided I needed the bigger picture, and hopped onto a train. I’ve been everywhere since then, but what sense have I made of anything? I can’t seem to get off that train. What use am I?”

“Sandip, if a bomb were to go off right this minute, if six bombs were to go off right this minute, can you imagine what will happen? The blast will take place outside. We will see the flames, we will see the dead, and because it has all happened before, we will go on drinking coffee. We will crook our fingers around the stems of these ridiculous cups and make ridiculous small talk. We will occasionally glance outside, casual eyes will move from one writhing figure to another. And then we will look at our coffee and discuss its origin. Or perhaps we will push back our chairs in fright and run outside to help. We will ferry a few bloodied men and women to hospitals, but in effect we go on drinking our coffee. This ridiculous glass house, my dear Sandip, is an exaggeration of many things. You and I, we are on the inside.”

I scratched my head. On my right, the girl with the straggly hair was back. She stuck her tongue out at me and gave me the finger. My jaw dropped open.

Taposh jumped up and my eyes swivelled back to him. I have to go pee, he said, and disappeared. That was the last I saw of him.

Two days later, I received a short note. Sorry, I forgot I left you waiting, it said. I ran into Collector Cama on the way, and he had something new for me. I am not a bleeding heart liberal. What do you think of Godot?

What did I think of Godot? I wasn’t sure now, and I wasn’t sure all those years back either, whether he wanted my thoughts on the play or the character. It didn’t matter, because we were never to continue that conversation.

Some months later, my door bell rang. I was in the middle of a project, and let it ring a second time before I went to answer it. It was the postman.

“I have a package for Sandip, Madam. D 4/63.”

I stared at him. Taposhda again.

“That would be for me,” I said.

“But Madam, it says Sandip…”

“Yes, the person who sent it is mad.”

The postman remained suspicious, but there was little he could do; the addresses matched, even if the gender didn’t. I took the parcel and felt for its contents. This was a little out of our method of communication. Or rather, his method of reaching me.

There was a note inside, and an old diary I recognized from his college days.

My Dear Sandip,

If you are reading this, it means I have succumbed to the foolish thought of finishing our conversations through a letter. It doesn’t matter that this is not the library, or even that hideous coffee shop; our pattern remains the same. I talk, I ramble, and you listen. I leave every such conversation with a new idea in my head, my jumbled thoughts organising into some form of coherence. I am not going to thank you for that, I am sure my august company must have more than compensated for any hardships thus endured.

This is my diary. Oh, that sentence was a joke, by the way. I have many diaries, but this one will best serve our purpose. Read it, if you will.

I found my Mountain of the Moon.


P.S.- I withdraw my statement about the aesthetic appeal of the pipe. Nothing beats the raw beauty of a beedi.

I re-opened the newspaper before I opened his diary. One of the first few pages had a small article about five dead Naxals. The reporter did not name them; by now nobody cared to know. Taposh was right, beyond a point, we just go on drinking our coffee. And now, instinct told me, Taposh was dead. It is hard to substantiate the certainty I felt. I had no occasion to believe that the brilliant, if eccentric, student would take to arms to express his reaction to the circumstances that existed around him.

I try to imagine what it must have been like. Someone would have kept a gun in front of him. A toy gun, that merely asked a question. Would you use me to force away a world that is clawing away at everything you believe in? Taposh would pause, and remember all those places he had been to, an impotent traveller of ideas. He would come to a sudden decision, laugh, and edit his bio data to read- Taposh. B.A. (Honours). Violent traveller only. And then he would ask them what they thought of Godot.

What plans would they have had for him? How did he feel when he first pulled the trigger? Why did he have his diary sent to me? I couldn’t bring myself to read it, not as yet. I kept trying to reconcile the dhoti-clad, curly haired young man who had aged in the four years he left college, to the nameless five who were squeezed in between articles on the Ambani brothers and BT Brinjal.

Unbidden, my thoughts turned to that little girl who sold pens and looked into glass houses to give coffee drinkers the finger. They were both outsiders, even though Taposh was, by default, inside.

In the brief moment before his death, did he feel he had finally got off the train? Would that little girl give him the finger too?

Slowly I reached for the notebook, and turning to the first page, I began to read.


The Present October 9, 2009

Posted by K in Fiction.

The silver wrapping paper lay like a rejected nightmare in the dustbin. What was Koli to do with it? Ma had told her, take no gifts, we are not beggars, but how could she resist? When the uncle came on his scooter and asked her to confirm the name that lay on the tag, her eyes shone with the promise of what she knew lay in there. The basket.

He lifted the lid, and gingerly drew out a cylindrical container, gift wrapped and shiny. She knew she should have said no, and then delivered the speech Maman had made her practise, but the crackle of the wrapping paper was too much. In a daze she brought the packet in. She wanted to see what lay inside, but decided to postpone the moment so she could share it with her mother.

Maman was not like other mothers, and she had not brought up Koli like other children. Her life had been a battle and she was preparing to send her daughter in as her second. Maman didn’t have long to live, which made her long to live even more fiercely. Koli knew the doctors had found a cyst in her mother’s brain, but she was as yet too young to grasp the full implication of the find.

Maman was alone in the world, physically and emotionally. No, not quite alone; she had Koli. All the same, Maman was alone.

When she came back with a daughter, hushed voices and whispered conversations followed her. When she found a job, the hushed conversations increased. She never gave an account of Koli or her past life, and eventually the whispers became a part of the background noise. Much like the drone and chug-chug of a washing machine, as you sat down to eat, or watch television.

Maman was not that old, but her youthful features stood at odds with her grave demeanour. Koli would tell the neighbours how Maman joked that she was an eighty year old stuck in the body of a twenty seven year old person. Ofcourse they never believed her; Maman couldn’t joke.

Koli wished her mother would go to school parties like other mothers, but from a very young age she understood that Maman was different. Sometimes she would ask her mother questions, but nobody ever knew the answers because Koli wouldn’t share.

Maman hated the festival season. Too many people pretending to be what they were not, spending money on unnecessary things. If there was one thing Maman hated, it was spending on unnecessary trifles. Money was hard enough to come by without blowing it up on things that often lasted only an hour.

Diwalis were the worst. Maman had no friends, she told Koli. And only gifts given by friends are worth keeping. You know then that the gifts were picked especially for you, with nothing but your happiness in mind.

Maman would pause then, her eyes lost in thought. But, she would add soon enough, I have no friends, Koli; so don’t you ever accept any gift. Koli knew Maman hated the time when the next-door aunty had wrapped her old aqua-guard and gifted it to her mother because she had upgraded to a newer system. Maman had gone deathly still. For two days she sat at home looking like someone had skinned her alive. Koli had quietly hidden the gift and slowly Maman had become her usual self.

Now Koli looked at the silver wrapping paper and trembled. Unable to bear the wait, she had ripped off the first layer to find another wrapping paper with a card on it. Koli did not dare proceed further.

When Maman came in, Koli’s eyes went involuntarily to the dustbin, but Maman’s eyes were fixed on the cylindrical package. She glanced at Koli, and slowly approached it. The card seemed to pierce her concentration; she couldn’t look away. With an uncertain hand she plucked it off the surface and began to read it. Koli’s eyes anxiously searched her mother’s face, but Maman’s eyes were un-readable. She took the package to her room, and for the first time in Koli’s memory, she locked the door to keep herself in.

Koli never found out what was in the package, but Maman took her shopping. For the first time in her life, Koli heard her mother encouraging her to buy fanciful things. Maman’s eyes no longer looked like a shop with downed shutters, and sometimes Koli was sure she saw the shadowy image of a person in there. Maman had changed, Koli knew, but it was hard to figure out how. She would still scold if Koli threw a tantrum for a toy; they would still read wonderful stories at bedtime. No, it was something else. Maman suddenly looked as if she were not alone; when she looked into the horizon, she was looking at a far-away image of herself. And Maman had a friend, Koli was pretty sure of that. The mirror image of her inside, reflected from a distance. Piercing beams of light bouncing off, creating a connection, stronger for its absence. Maman was still Maman, but one day the kitchen wall was suddenly seen to sport an old, weathered aqua-guard.

“Will you come with me, Koli?” Maman asked, smiling. “It is time I thanked aunty for her present.”