Thursday, August 16, 2007

Vice - Versa

‘A broom is drearily sweeping,
Up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life,
Somewhere a Queen is weeping,
And somewhere a King has no wife…’

The wind cries Mary / Jimi Hendrix

In the ward lay silence. It was no ordinary quiet but a quiescence that had managed to slaughter timbres and tones and hustle and bustle, till examples of smaller life – the touristy moths on the walls and the mosquitoes drunkenly circling the bulbs – studied in wonder, their larger, much larger, silent counterparts that lay beneath: the patients.

Jenna Cook, sat on her bed and looked out at the rationed view that the tiny windows provided, her legs wrapped into themselves like those of a yogi. On her side-table lay a cold, untouched, bowl of porridge and keeping it company was a digital clock that said the time – 4:20. Everyone else in the ward was asleep; all twelve of them. A month she had spent here in their company, in the specialist Eating Disorders unit at the Bowden House Clinic but the time wasn’t so much spent as it was bought.

The apple of her daddy’s eye, his eyes couldn’t take in the sight of his prize apple turning plump. Sixteen stone she weighed on her sweet-sixteen and showed no signs of stopping. Her mother would weep and tell her that she was digging her grave with a fork and then there would be more crying, harsher exchanges, followed by an eventual sympathetic fry-up that could feed entire nations. Her father, fed up with the daily sight of his daughter’s indulgence, consulted Dieticians and people whose business it was to make bodies habitable and sent her packing to the clinic so she could return at least as presentable as Giles Rower’s spawn across the street.
So here she was.
Daily, the nurses would bring her a tray of tiny-assortments; usually a dry sandwich with lettuce, a fruit and a microcosm of yoghurt. If she was lucky and her cravings subtle enough to pass for indifference, she would be rewarded with a meal that almost delighted her palate. But lucky or not, there were always pills of all colours and shapes that she had to swallow. At first, she would pretend that they were M&Ms, her favourite, but the fantasy would break when she chewed upon them and unleashed the foul satire of chemicals upon her ever expectant tongue.
And then there was the exercise.

She was never one for the hurry of the world. The one thing that she had worked out during the occasional work-out was that she didn’t like working out. As a result her body wasn’t so much a Temple as it was a Mecca of devout calories. During the compulsory exercise hour, she would look at her companions logging up on the tread-mill, like hamsters on wheels, and then she would look at herself in the mirror and see her own waves of fat rolling up and down. She had been of the opinion once that a beautiful woman should break her mirror early but the cruel world she inhabited now, in mind and body, had thrust enough womandatory mirrors before her to make her realize that shying away from reflections would be cowardice. The world would never pay her attention again, not like when she was young and innocent and when her chubbiness was a harmless sign of health, until she made repairs and appeared before their eyes with a BEFORE/AFTER transformation. It made all the difference in the world. It would not rest till she was some Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe, Kate Moss even, and appear before their eyes like a duckling that had had a temporary ugly streak. But, to have a body to die for and actually dying for a body were quite different things, as she was learning. The stigma alone of being told to reassess her youth was a blow to her ego or whatever was left of it. However, she was no stranger to ridicule.

The politics of the playground are enough to bring tears to any Higher Power that cares to watch; it is where everything is dissected for it is under the disguise of childhood. A venomous human education which is much darker than a classroom blackboard and more, more, slapdash is exercised in the open battlefield of the playground. It is where innocence, seeing an abundance of itself, decides to turn into scorn. However, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, no matter the age. Perhaps, like wine, she can develop sweetness with age but once fresh anger is harvested in a young woman, she writes off many a heart.

The girls at school, observing the blatant changes in her structure had always talked behind her large back and label her: Piggy, Hubba-Blubba, Whopper, McBarbie and so on. Jenna didn’t mind because she had written these peers off as whores who wouldn’t stop at anything to get their self-esteem up. Just once things got out of hand when, in the playground, she was continuously heckled by a group of girls as they repeatedly asked, ‘Hey, Miss Cook…what are you COOKING?’
She lost it.
Walking up to them, she gave them a stare on which one could have fried kebabs and followed them to their homes for a week, always at a safe distance away. Safety for them, really, not for herself. She was only afraid that if she got too close her vexations would disobey her restraint and do something daft. She could snap their fragile bones like Kit-Kats but didn’t get to go that far. One of the girls, getting that sense of being stared at, searched her out. There was no more trouble from them once they realized that the huge body they poked fun at could poke them back with something much sharper. Their vicious sorority would subsequently focus its material on outcast overweight girls, outcast fat boys and outcast boys who wore black and mascara; they would twitter at anyone seemingly lower than their posse and get support from like minded male airheads. As flies are to wanton boys. There is no shortage of prey because great minds think alike but so do rubbish ones.

So Jenna found a new hobby, a new passion; she began to tape food and snack adverts. She would record advertisements by KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. She would quiver with ecstasy when the TV broadcasted pieces of chicken dipped in honey or an even bigger Big Mac or pizzas smothered with mozzarella cheese and she would be ecstatic still with the knowledge that this paradise of gastro-porn was hers for playing over and over and over again in her privacy. Then, getting a little tired of the tedium of longing, her attention sought out shows on which the protagonists were dishes: cooking shows; a showcase for gluttony. Sometimes she would watch MTV videos and she would see with bleak clarity, the Poltergeist’s zeitgeist that she was a part of. Girls her age were too busy mirroring the wavy and jerky dance routines they would see effortlessly being presented by famous bodies. From Jennifer Lopez’s omnipresent ‘booty’ to Fergie’s ‘lady lumps’, pop videos were increasingly trespassing into the perception of teenagers everywhere and rendering the once Blind Love with a 20:20 eyesight.

She did want love but saw it slipping more and more away from her. She had lost a lot of weight here but it only made her feel worse, not better. She felt naked, like someone on one of those horrible plastic-surgery shows, baring themselves and losing themselves under the knife, inviting the scrutiny of the whole planet just so they could fit in.

She remembered times when everyone was out of the house, no one home, she would stroll to the fridge with an endless hunger and munch and munch and munch. Without anything or anyone to distract her dangerous pleasure, she would stuff herself silly and think of no tomorrow, only the satisfied today.
And now, so far from home.
So far from refrigerators.
So alone.
Closed for repairs.


After wasting twenty-two summers, carefully, in Assam, doing nothing, he finally decided that he wasn’t going to be a frog anymore, in a pond that is, and took the Rajdhani Express to Calcutta. There had been nothing in the village, nothing at all. No life, no money and no dreams. The radio, the only medium of mass communication, would tell tall tales of a different India, of an India getting taller. There were jobs in the city and they said, he never knew who but they were always saying, that a young man could change his destiny there with enough hard-work. He had spent his childhood in the company of banyan trees and lethargic cows, and old men grumbling about their India of simple Gandhian principles having been whisked away from under their feet, as if a country of such gigantic proportions and million portions was like some Kasmiri rug. He had allowed his infancy a chuckle but for his youth he had planned a finale of a last laugh. This laugh had to be delayed when he set foot in Calcutta.

When the train rattled and rolled past the world famous Howrah Bridge, he had looked up with a majestic wonder at this landmark of his new life, of his new beginning, like immigrants from all over the world had once stared at the statue of Liberty. Calcutta is no New York or London, mind. Rome may not have been built in a day but Calcutta gives the impression of being built in a couple of hours by architects who never grew out of their LEGO days.

Baba had said he should write back letters and inform him of his developments and Maa, she said nothing at all and simply sobbed. The young idiot had never been out of her sight for more than a day and now this sudden departure to a strange city! He had reassured her that he would be back soon, with money, with loads of rupaya-paisa, wealth, so that no Buragohain would ever have to work again. He had wanted to make sure that Leela, his younger sister, would have a grand wedding that the folk of Dibrugarh had never seen to show her that he was a Brother. He wanted to return to the village with a wife in hand so that he could show Manu and Lal and Raja that he was a Man. And then he had wanted to take his parents to vilayat, abroad, to ‘Amaarika’ or ‘Landun’ so that he could show them that he was a Son.
Hundreds of thousands of simple-minded folk like him came to Calcutta with the same pipe dreams, building castles in the air that had no foundation save hope. California was almost entirely built by illegal Mexicans and India is entirely built by illegal Indians. For, India is divided. Under the cloak of its democracy and secularism, life for the Common Man, for the ideal Indian that Gandhi had in mind, is indeed quite difficult. India is a bedlam of identity so dense that an Indian has to keep in account his race, language, line of work, religion, etc, etc, etc before he can get to the square root of his self. India practices a demented capitalism and a schizophrenic democracy.
He was without work for sometime but soon found a job as a rickshaw-hawker. However, while writing back home, his postcards were full of white lies that promised that he was well off now and making a mark on the world when it was clearly the other way round. Within a month of his arrival, his body had shrunk like an apple gone bad. He became skin and bones; his wrists soon became like cricket wickets, his cheeks hollow like the Ajanta caves and his lips got parched and cracked like a piece of land that hasn’t seen rain for ages. People would stare at him as he pulled overweight Memsahibs, rich women, to the bazaars for shopping. His frail body would not, could not, handle the weight sometimes but if faith can move mountains, then, so can hunger. So he walked through Chowringhee Street, the longest road in Calcutta, with the world on his shoulders.
In Rajarhat, where he lived for some time, the council building was infamous for housing fifty-thousand people. Fifty-thousand people! That was the population of his whole village! In a building. Inside, a daily crazy circus existed for the rooms were small. One can never judge a man without being in his shoe; one can never judge a man without living in the shoe-box in which he lives. The rooms here were not small, they were tiny. Some of the rooms accommodated twelve to fifteen people; most of them illegal residents. Sometimes three generations of a family would live together in the same apartment; children sleeping on the dining table, their parents under it; grandparents on rough mattresses and the rest on tablecloths or towels spread all across the flat. In the day everyone was out and in their own individual worlds but in the nights they were close enough to trespass into each other’s dreams, and nightmares; the only difference between them and the lizards on the walls being that they paid rent.
He was thrown out by the landlord when he couldn’t pay the rent. If one thinks no one cares if one lives or dies then perhaps one should skip rent for a month; one would find otherwise. So he packed up his belongings (two pair of trousers, three shirts, a towel, a pair of chappals [sandals], toothbrush, toothpaste and eighty-four rupees) and set on the road like some fakir. Work was nowhere to be found and slipped away with the haste of an ex-girlfriend. Everywhere he went, he was either too late or too early. No one wanted to employ a bag of bones such as him. His eyes had infinite tiredness and hunger manifested in them and no one would meet his eyes without feeling glad, in comparison, of their own healthy bodies. His spirit was so broken that it seemed impossible to repair.

Sometimes he would sleep near the Ghats, the banks of the Ganges, and listen to it murmur and gurgle and flow. The holiness of the river had been long discredited by the sane, it being full of dead bodies, human excrement and industrial waste now. Still, the same waters ran down to Varanasi, a pious city in Northern India, where devout people came from far and wide to bathe in the holy Ganges, unaware that any epiphany they may have could be an allergic reaction to chemical waste. Once, he decided to take a swim in the thirsty river only to get tangled up with a dead man floating by. He had shuddered for a week. Families from the slums couldn’t afford a decent burial or cremation for a member and had to make do with placing a dead kin on a stray car tyre or a life-jacket, the irony, and set them off into the current of one of the longest rivers in the world.
Weeks passed; like they always do.
The good thing about Calcutta is that one can always settle in somehow. The huge population makes it impossible for anyone to be alone because there are people everywhere. You go to the local shop at six in the morning and there is a crowd of tea-heads discussing cricket, you return in the noon and there’s a cricket match being played on a footpath by twenty-two mysterious urchins, in the evening there are more people still; all around you a sea of faces. Everyday a million faces you have never seen, everyday a million lives you can only see, not touch. The restaurants full, the cinemas full, the taxis full, the trams full, the bars full, the offices full, the apartments full, everything full, full, full. Full of life.
He remembered a conversation he had once with a fellow rickshaw-man. At the time, he had been outside a temple and a rich seth, businessman, was distributing food to beggars. Not having had a morsel for three days, he put on a towel on himself and fell in line. As it happened, when his turn came there was nothing much left so the temple assistants gave him a portion of sathu, a sweet cake, on the condition that he share it with the man behind him. The man behind him turned out to be cunning as a fox. When he cut the cake with his knife, he took the bigger piece. Sharanga complained.

‘Hey, you can’t do that!’
‘Do what?’
‘Why take the bigger piece for yourself. Are you that greedy?’
‘Do you want the bigger piece?’
‘No, I would have given it to you myself. Still.’
‘Then what are you complaining about? You got exactly what you wanted. Piss off.’
This simple conversation showed him how life really was in the city. Gestures and manners were abandoned to take shortcuts to what one wanted. There was no time for foreplay, only action. If you snooze, which he couldn’t anyway, you lose, which he somehow always managed to.
On extreme nights of hunger, he would get urges to commit crime; to snatch from the old and the young. His genteel hands, however, wouldn’t come up to the task. He would often stand near restaurant tables and when someone would waste food, he would sweep by the table like a vulture and pick up the food before the waiters got to it. Failing this, he would rummage through the garbage cans in search of any leftovers that the restaurants could have sent out packing. Terrible.
His health was depreciating at a regular rate because of the lack of food, his pockets always empty, his dreams now as lacklustre as TV-reruns. Oh, there was nothing left. Nothing left at all. He would kneel before the sleepy Gods in temples and pray for a way out. His sister was set to get married and his parents, fooled by his albino lies, were expecting a lot of money from him after being informed of his cars, his great job and his band of servants. Such hopelessness as washed over him could make a grown man cry; fortunately no one was around to see his tears, for, he had cried. And how. Who knows what loneliness is, not the word but the naked terror? Solitude is one thing, loneliness is another.
He couldn’t live. He couldn’t die.
He contemplated death like some contemplate life. It was certainly cheaper to simply die and not face the daily embarrassment of living in his shoes. He would stand on the Howrah Bridge and think of jumping, he would watch coconut-sellers chip their fruit with machetes and think if they could be used otherwise, he would cross roads and think of simply pausing in between and get hit by vehicles. Even though he lacked the bravery, or cowardice, to commit suicide, the option haunted his mind. He could take it or leave it if he pleased, but dirty noises: the splash of his body hitting the icy Ganges, the sirrup of his veins being slit, the screech of cars braking on his bones...these noises would echo in his brain all day, everyday. In the end he came to the conclusion that even ending it all wouldn’t solve a thing. His mother would suffer a shattered heart and his father an endless headache and no parent deserves this permanent misery just because their child was temporarily unlucky.
So he decided to live.
His depression would disappear awhile when sometimes, in the million faces, he would come across some that reminded him of his romantic ideas before coming to the wretched city. While sitting on choking streets, he would watch beautiful girls in jeans and salvar-kameez passing by, their beauty highlighted by vermillion and make-up. He would go hungry some days and celebrate his fantasies by watching the latest movies playing in the talkies; whistling like a madman when Madhuri Dixit or Aishwarya Rai would strictly come dancing, their hips conversing with a million men like him, men who couldn’t touch these apsaras, angels, in this lifetime. He would flirt with some girls but they would take one look at him and shoo him away like he was a dog. Some would laugh and some would go to the extreme of raising an alarm that saw him get a good beating.
And when he would return to the Ganges or to the Maidan and try to sleep, he would look up at stars that came up at night like municipal street-lights, and in his solitary freedom he would remember something from a long, long, time back. When he was only eleven or so, his mother would sing a Hindi song while doing the laundry, beating clothes with a cricket-bat:
Rajah ki ayegi baraat, rangeeli hogi raat, aur mein nachoongi...
My little King will be married, it will be a colourful night, and I’ll be dancing...’

He had never seen his mother dance and something told him that he would never. An utter defeat would console him as he realized that at least things couldn’t get any worse than they already were. All he could do as he lied down in the dry grass was think of a colourful night in a seemingly distant future, where everything was fine; a parallel universe where he was happily married to a girl who would love him and feed him, who would fill him up with the passion of her cooking and repair his body and soul.
And then he would fall asleep.
And wake up, repaired, ready to do it all over again.