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"Of What Once Was"
by Samantak Bhadra
The momentary swallowing of pride made him toss and turn in his bed for hours on end. It was nearing dawn. The light peered through the gaps in the curtain lending a strange red glow on the walls of the room. It was an unnatural feeling. The world was real. The people were real. He was not. The blood in his veins seemed to turn into mud, refusing to move forward. His heart beat slowly. Maybe it realized the futility of it all. There was not a drop of sweat on his weary limbs.
He felt a strange feeling of peace course through his body. He could not stop it. He wanted to feel shocked. Instead, he felt happy. He could feel the weight of his body sink comfortably into the softness of the bed. In spite of it all, he lay wide awake pondering about it like a broken record playing on an infinite loop.
Shy streaks gave way to proud harsh beams of sunlight, rudely awakening him from the shallow slumber he was immersed in. He felt lighter and buoyant, probably for the first time in his life, even though it was the dreaded Monday. His disheveled hair gave perfect company to the smell of empty liquor bottles lurking at the corner of the room. He had forgotten to turn off the laptop last night, not that it really mattered. There were three new messages. Two of them were related to the office chores of the day and the third was the usual stern mail from his boss. He browsed through them nonchalantly. He was running late already. Reluctantly, he dragged himself around the room with a bid to getting ready for office.
He was three hours late. The maniacal movement of the hands and the utterance of piercing insults by his boss failed to stimulate the desired reaction in him. He could not hear or comprehend much of it. Not that he cared to. It was as if an invisible protective veil had sprouted its roots all around him, thrusting him into an impenetrable cocoon of positivity. The stifling cubicle did not feel stifling anymore. He could see the kid sitting on the desk in front of him, swinging his legs playfully. “It’s good to meet you again”, he said. The kid looked up at him, smiled and said “Tell me about it!”
There was a sudden banging of fists on the desk. He looked up startled and saw that repulsive scowl on the face of the boss.
“Look at me while you’re standing in front of me, Mr. Banerjee!”
“You’re shameless, man! How dare you keep on smiling while I’m shouting at you?”
“I’m sorry, Sir. I didn’t mean to smile. “
“Do you realize the gravity of the situation, you twit? Your job is probably at stake here. You’re more unproductive than your sorry ass! …and all you can do is stand there and smile like an imbecile!”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly agree to the comparison with my buttocks but yes judging from the hard facts placed in front of me, I wouldn’t dispute the latter part of your comment.”
“Eh? Trying to be a smart aleck now, are you eh?”
“Not exactly, Sir. I believe I’m a dumb duck.”
“You echo my sentiments, boy!”
“I’m gratified to know that, Sir.”
That was the last time he entered his boss’ chamber. Walking out of that door, he felt like he was shedding a foul-smelling mutated skin. As the distance from the door increased, he could feel the new smell envelop his body. It grew more and more prominent with every passing moment. The expressionless cubicles gaped at him and murmured in hushed undertones. His steps grew lighter as he approached his cubicle. Gathering up his things, he could not help but grin a little. He felt pity for everybody else in the office while everybody else felt pity for him. The world was indeed based on cosmic balances. He felt guilty of not being able to betray a stray feeling of remorse as he walked out of that place for the last time in his life. Yes, tears were being shed inside and a void had been created. Strangely enough, he did not feel as morose as he should have felt nor did he feel like basking in the sympathy showered on him by his co-workers. He felt a surge of freedom run havoc in the vast meadows of his mind. As he walked out on to the pavement, his eyes fell on the kid, leaning casually on a wall belonging to that majestic building from which he had only just emerged, patiently waiting for him all this while. They smiled at each other.
It was already afternoon and a red dim melancholy had captured the imagination of the sky. The sleepy atmosphere was rudely awakened by the thunderous gurgles emanating from the heavens. The sporadic orchestral performances gave way to crystalline drops of water which clung lazily to the rusted window grill for a short period of time, after which they hesitantly dragged themselves down to the bottom edge of the boundary of the window. The unlucky passer-by, with the lower part of his pants adorned with patches of muddy water, darted across the street all the while engrossed in deep thought while the auto-rickshaw driver moved about lazily, unrolling the patchwork curtains meant to act as a barricade against the rain pervading the inner sanctum of the vehicle. Slowly, the intensity of the downpour increased and the streets grew empty. The rapturous silence that had descended upon the street was broken only by the sound of the incessant rain.
Mr. Banerjee was restless today. He looked at his watch. The minute-hand moved ever so slightly as if to taunt and tease him, reminding him of all those empty years. He had weathered many a storm and today, standing underneath a makeshift battered canopy, he waited for his son to come back into his life again. The steaming cup of tea coursed through his body, filling it up with a passing surge of warmth. Opposites come together in an unheralded random manner. The warmth of the liquid coupled with the cold damp day transformed reality, for a moment, into a blurry ethereal vision. It was like an orgasmic pleasure that blended in and forced its way into the dark cobwebs of the mind, purifying it and cajoling it and thus catapulting it into a momentary heightened state of eternal happiness. It helped him to, perhaps, remember and forget his past as he stood there letting the rain take its own course through the gutters, flowing in a beautifully random fashion down the middle of the road.
After a point of time, the rain subsided. It reminded him of the day when he had quit his job, fifty years back. He had started off with a bag supersaturated with enthusiasm and exuberance much like the beginning of the shower. The young energetic lad wanted to fulfill his dreams. As days passed by, the indomitable spirit had to put up with an endless struggle against the rigid machineries of the institution. Finally, unknown to him, he lost himself. Just like the boisterous rain gave way to the stolid rays of the sun, his spirit too made way for the monster jaws of the machine. He missed the kid and he missed his son too. If only…
He was startled by a gentle pat on his shoulder. Surprised, he turned around to see a handsome man grinning at him. Deeply engrossed in his thoughts, he had failed to see the tall dark well-built man approach him from the other side of the road. For a moment, father and son had nothing to say to each other. An awkward hug ensued, followed by a slow stream of tears. His son had finally returned home after the war.
He remembered the day his son faded into the horizon as the last compartment of the train rattled away into the horizon. They had fought that day. It was a veritable tsunami of emotional exchanges. He could vividly picture his handsome chest turn around and walk away at a brisk pace. He wanted to call out to him, beckon him and hold him once more in a warm and pure embrace. Ego is a powerful force, a strong wind that blows out the warmth of the hearth, leaving a cold melancholy in its wake. The kid ran after the train, the blisters on his feet admonishing the stark dust particles that hung on to them shamelessly and stoically. Soon enough, it became a lonely run as the shaking membranes of the railroad reminded him of the son who had faded into the atmosphere of his thoughts. As he stood at the station, he saw the kid turn around and look at him. The kid’s teary eyes found his and, for a second, they spoke of betrayal.
It had been a very long time indeed. Mr. Banerjee remembered the day he had walked away from the comfort and luxury of a job that gave him more than he could ever wish for. He remembered the young man striding past the cubicles with an unchiselled vigour that would see him through the polluted mazes of the urban life. He remembered the kid and the glow on his skin as they walked past the office building with a steely determination and the wind in his hair blowing through the gaps in a state of ecstatic happiness. He remembered setting up the store and the carpenters working away day in and day out patiently putting up one row after the other. The space smelled of new wood and beautiful promises. Soon enough, the empty space gave way to a little bookstore replete with shelves and a small coffee shop for the languid soul. The passionate embraces of the smell of plywood and the discordant aroma of coffee beans lent goose bumps to the unsuspecting customers who walked into the store. He had been able to create a paradise in a sea of grey, a place to be slow in while the world rushed by in hyper-speed. In short, he had brought to life his wish, a Shangri-La to connect with the human buried under several layers of reality.
The contentment showed on his face and the way he carried himself in his day to day dealings with his customers. As a result, the bookstore flourished and he started gaining regular customers who simply came to the store because of the magical vibes it exuded. One of the regular visitors happened to be his son who would gladly skip school at the attractive option of being able to tuck himself away in a secluded corner of the store with a book in his lap. Mr. Banerjee, while being extremely busy during the daytime, would throw in a loving glance at the corner and see his son buried in the pages of a classic. Sitting right beside him, as if on cue, would be the kid. He, too, would be reading the same classic. Two kids, one corner and no morsel of care in the world – Mr. Banerjee was reassured of how complete his life had grown to be in the present. The kid, too, had a perennial smile plastered on his face it seemed.
Day in and day out, the kid was always found waiting in front of the shop when Mr. Banerjee came by in the morning to start off the day’s business, if it could ever be called so. The kid had a wide-eyed exuberance in which Mr. Banerjee saw the tiniest of stars and a whirlpool of galaxies swimming about in a state of trance, waiting to be engulfed by the sea of words. Every single day saw Mr. Banerjee either behind the cash counter or walking among the customers and engaging them in conversations that ranged from the hearty to the intellectual with generous splashes of opinionated candour that made him a favourite among all ages.
His son grew up steadily and with a confidence highly reminiscent of his father in his younger days. He went through life with a stride that beckoned others to listen to him and respect him. He did not shy away from a discussion and he despised the machinations of the babudom that had gripped the halls of the rotting government buildings of the day. He saw rot everywhere he looked. Coupled with the negativity all around him was a repressed anger and desire to cause change. He simmered beneath his skin day in and day out as he read the newspapers filled with an over-helping of news screaming out loud tales of misfortune, distress, unhappiness and loss. That, in turn, led him to question the system and with further questioning he felt more and more attracted at the prospect of leaving the sheltered confines of his father’s bookstore in order to get his hands dirty and cause a positive change.
“Dad! I want to join the military.” said his son one fine morning in September.
Mr. Banerjee, by the time having witnessed the slow death of his hairline and the ravages of the skin that follow the whims of Time, looked up from the cash counter and said “The military?”
“Yes father. I’ve thought about it for quite some time now. I know that’s my calling.”
“I see. And what do you think you’d achieve by joining the military? The country is in a convoluted mess, my son. It does not know what is best for itself and this ignorance causes it to squabble over petty issues, conveniently keeping at bay the larger problems for another day. This is how it was and this is how it always shall be. What do you think you can do by joining the military, my son?”
“I don’t really know. I feel that, even though the machinery has failed us time and again, the military has always been the guardians looking after the children of the nation and being the ever-important adhesive that is called upon to fix matters of critical importance on the ground. The army embodies the true nationalist spirit and what it means to be a son of the soil. By being a part of it, I would have the satisfaction of knowing that I have contributed in some way towards the wellbeing of our country. And that is all that matters to me.”
“What about us, your parents? What if something happens to you out there? You know how risky this profession is. Your intentions might be noble but there is no place for such pure emotions in this world. You have to be rational and think about a lot of things before you jump into a Utopian ocean of righteousness and duty.”
“Dad I’ve thought about it enough and this is what I want to do. I shall keep myself safe because I want to come back home but not before I’ve done something worthwhile out there. I need to know I can get things done, dad. I need to know I’m capable of causing change. I cannot do that in this bookshop.”
“So my bookshop is an unworthy place in your eyes now? You think I’ve wasted my life on this?”
His son looked into his eyes, came up close to him, smiled and said “This bookstore is peaceful and happy. I hope, someday, the country can transform into this bookstore.”
“I don’t bloody care about your idealistic opinions! You know nothing about how the world works. It’s a bad world out there and I only want the best for you!”
“You should let me go if you want the best for me!”
“You think you’re really smart eh?”
“I’m going whether you like it or not!”
Mr. Banerjee had always wanted his son to take after him and take forward the bookstore to new heights. He had wanted him to go on to become an intellectualist and, preferably, an educator. He had seen how greedily his son used to devour words, ideas and stories and he felt that this path was destined for him in the long run. Mr. Banerjee, himself, loved the cocoon he had created for himself and his son had slowly become a part of that cocoon that helped him to draw strength as age took his dynamism away. He had never realized that that was diametrically opposite to what his son wanted out of his own life. While the father wanted his son to embrace the cocoon and devote himself more to his books, the son wanted to break free and take the ideals of the bookstore onto a larger platform. He felt that the best and most efficient platform for accomplishing such a feat was the military and, as soon as the thought was born in his mind, he did not waste time in finding out as much as possible about wars, their effects and connections with mankind and change in general. The more he read, the more he felt restless. The more he consumed, the more he felt helpless until one day he decided to take the plunge and dive headlong into the decision he had been building up slowly in his mind all these past days.
As was inevitable, the relations between father and son soured quite drastically. They wanted to be closer but without letting go of their own egos. All efforts at reconciliation ended up increasing the distance between them until one day it was time for the son to leave and Mr. Banerjee to watch him fade into the horizon.
The kid walked towards him. As he stood at the station looking into the distance, he heard the kid float a question through the still air – “When did you change?” That was the last time he saw the kid.
As Mr. Banerjee stood there embracing his son over and over again, time stopped and the sharp rays of the setting sun settled on the ripples of the puddles on the street. He had missed him as much as he had missed the kid. The son smiled and as he did so he transformed into the very shape of a man his father had always imagined him to be. He was no more the little guy tucked away in a corner of the bookstore. He had grown to be tough and mature. As he spoke, Mr. Banerjee noticed the calm in the voice, the serenity and the
assurance oozing out of every syllable and the countenance that was remarkably confident of itself. He learnt of the travails and the emotions that his son had waded through. He had missed home terribly. He had missed the bookstore and not one day had gone by without him wishing he could have made matters right with his father on the day he boarded the train. His sound, his voice, the arm with the scar and the smart chin that stood upright when he smiled crashed upon Mr. Banerjee like a voluptuous wave that wanted to rejoin the sea sooner than it had left it with a bid of smelling the sky.
A fresh taste of air came floating past the weeping canopy of the tea stall as the tea singed his hand.
“Sir! Please don’t spill it on the bench!”
Mr. Banerjee stood up and hurriedly apologized to the owner of the stall.
Somewhere in the spilt tea lay a tear, sparkling through with all its might. And as Mr. Banerjee looked at it, he saw the kid looking back at him through the star-shaped tear as it sometimes transformed slowly, floating whimsically and, on a few occasions, stayed still as if to catch some breath.
“I’m sorry, you know!”
“You know I am you. Why would you doubt me?”
“My mind was too clouded. I paid for it.”
“It’s okay. You learnt.”
“I was so sure of everything. I just don’t know what happened.”
“I was there with you all along! You should have listened to me. You should have listened to him.”
“How can you blame a father for being so?”
“Do you remember who you were? Do you even remember who you were? He was being just like you used to be. How could you not understand? ..Either way, he’s happy now, I believe.”
“I lost you along with him. What am I but an empty shell knocking on dead walls?”
“You’ll be fine without me now. You’ve gone through enough. I’ll be with him till the train brings you here. See you around!”
The fresh downpour took the spilt tea away with it and as Mr. Banerjee stood there dissolving into himself, scattered drops of thoughts crowded around him demanding to be remembered. And as he let himself get soaked to the bone as he walked down the lane, he became one with the honking of cars and the shouting of peddlers and the occasional bark of the many dogs that resonated through the many labyrinthine streets of the city.
Samantak Bhadra is currently a management student at Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune. He hails from Kolkata, India, and has worked in the Information Technology industry for two and a half years in Bangalore as a software engineer. Besides that, he is a writer, a musician, a public speaking trainer, an entrepreneur and an ex-journalist. His writings have been published in journals, anthologies, websites and newspapers from countries like the USA, Canada, India, Romania, France and Ireland. He has also worked on conceptualizing and co-hosting a monthly experimental poetry show in Bangalore called Let Poetry Be and has performed his poetry at different venues in the city. Some of his writings can be accessed at www.samantakbhadra.com