Short Story: From the hyper-real to real

starry_night_full
Painting: ‘Starry Night’ by Vincent Van Gogh

By Sunil Sharma

If there had been no power cut, there would be no starry night!

Was it a coincidence? Or, destiny? He had no idea. Just happened like that only. He was busy searching the net – Facebook was down – when light blinked and lo, it was gone!

He got mad. Then, madder. Life without FB? Unthinkable. He was wired into the cyber-world. Facebook, FB in short, was/is the fix for the post-modern guys. Twitter and others follow next –at least for him. I am a junkie – of the cyberspace! That is the “about” on his FB page.

***

On Sundays, when three becomes a big crowd in a two bed-room Indian suburban home, Rajesh sits in front of his screen, meditating pose, eyes fixed, fingers drumming  on the keyboard, mind drained of worldly thoughts, attention not even diverted by a fire! “Lost!” Wife would say of her 35-year-old husband, “This guy is permanently wedded to the machines only. I am just an expendable fixture. Disposable human.” Her old fat mother would not understand. “Get him attracted to you, dear,” she would say, on phone, on such occasions, when they talked of him rather than the boring trivia, her dad and sisters-in-law, latest sarees, bangles, films, TV soaps, neighbours…“Impossible! When he is sitting before the computer, he is transfixed. TRANSFIXED! He is totally deaf! Yes. Deaf. A total deaf. Bring an army band and ask them to play. Full band. But he will not react to the loud sound. Yes. Not REACT. That is how he works…on holidays, Sundays, late nights.”

“What? Even in late nights?” Her mother was horrified. “Is he a real man or machine? Married two years ago to a lovely lady and nights, pounding the computer keys!” The shock waves were intense. “Your dad still does not spare me at this age!” And mother laughed gleefully.

 “Yours is different age! Married for thirty-five years! Your grandchildren will not believe. Fiction! That will be pure fiction to them.”

“So when can I play with mine?” Asked the lady. “Two years now! How long should I – we –wait?”

“Unless you bring me a de-addiction programme,” said the young thing and hung up out of sheer frustration at the banality of this predictable, recurring conversation of last few months. She always thinks of babies only. I have to look after my slim figure – at least for few more years. Who likes a cow?

***

Is there a life beyond cyberspace?”

That was the question. They were having lunch. His colleague had posed this fundamental question to him over the hot Thai food in a South Delhi restaurant. Nerd! They called him. Justifiable also. Diminutive. French beard. Rimless specs on a pudgy nose. Hair chaotic, like snakes fleeing a forest-fire! The Jawaharlal Nehru University postgraduate would cite Camus and Sartre and test their ignorance by further asking about these long-dead gentlemen with exotic names and backgrounds. “Stop this JNU crap. We hate leftists!” The senior-most colleague would yell. The nerd would smile and puff away lustily on his cigarette – and cough badly afterwards. 

He has come up with this poser now!

***

“Do you want me to eat and enjoy this F-food?” Asked Rajesh. “This joint is so pricey!”

“I am adding spice to your bland life.” Said the Nerd, supremely composed, in control, his fork poised delicately over the basil chicken stir-fry, steamed jasmine rice, mushrooms, tofu and cold beer. Others laughed. “Answer.” Challenged the Nerd, eyes dancing like sunrays off a gleaming car windshield.

“Hmm! I give up!” Said Rajesh and attacked the chicken with the ferocity of a Viking attacking a subdued victim in the 870-England.

“Every age has got its own basic questions. First, it was to be or not to be for some prince. Now, it is to be in the cyberspace or out of it?” Said the Nerd with the calm profundity of a TV news anchor.

“Let’s answer it, mate,” replied the red-eyed Kishan, protruding belly resting on the left hand, the right holding a piece of the chicken on his fork, the beer glass nestling the joint of his thick hand, in the five-star hotel where lights are soft and conversations rambling and clientele discussing business with the overseas clients.

The consensus was: NO.

Life sans cyberspace is widowhood or, a passbook sans any bulging balance. It was just UNTHINKABLE!

***

But God had different plans for the senior executive that day – or, night, to be precise. And they began unraveling fast. Here is the how of it for you, dear reader, if you are still around for this strange tale!

As Rajesh was roaming the limitless cyberspace, the first disaster happened. The FB, as we told you, was down! Then, the light blinked and was gone. Nothing surprising in both. Light was often gone for hours in their new neighbourhood. The Indian capital was no exception to power cuts in other states and countryside. There was inverter. But not connected with his computer-terminal. And Blackberry was a poor substitute to the desktop or laptop. No TV. Weekend evening. Wife was at her mom’s place. Expected late. Tried a couple of numbers. Some, unreachable. Some, busy.

Damn it!

Alone, lonely, the senior executive – a bit bloated, suffering from permanent flatulence due to hurried junk and Vodka/rum/beer/smoking and no exercise for years together – decided his extremely-limited options: Reading. Well, out of question. Last book he had read was seven years ago – a self-help book on remaining committed in a relationship in a world where fashion and relations got changed by the hour. Music? No. He found it all loud noise. Nothing pleasing. Newspapers? Well, all reported the same things with minor alterations: Murders, rapes, terror attacks, recession. He used papers to clean his after-lunch desk in the cubicle only. Then, most reluctantly, claustrophobic in his little fancy cage, he decided to go to the top of the building and breathe some fresh air – if lucky to get one in the smog. As he had the duplicate keys, he opened the doors of the roof…and walked into a forgotten world.

The roof was sunk in mild gloom. Deserted. Dish antenna dominated the tiled roof. Dodging the cable network, the MBA-qualified engineer looked up and was STUNNED!

It was marvelous sight! Divine. Stars strung out in an infinity ordinarily called sky. Glittering. Luminous. Blue alternating with tiny white. Sparkling dots tucked away in the vault above. Serene sky. A soothing moon beaming down. A gentle wind sprang up – it was mid-March and the winds are so romantic in Delhi at this time, caressing, invigorating, hugging, playful like your friend! There was stillness – absolute! What else, at the 18th floor? The neighbourhood lay beneath his feet – an oasis of black-n-dim light. A strong wind started blowing mysteriously –God’s Will – and he got carried on its broad shoulders to a different realm…his own childhood when being young was magical. He heard a band playing the most enthralling music for his ears only. He saw elves and cherubs playing violins and harps, dancing in the ethereal, lighter beings, all white. The stars beckoned, as only the old friends can do. He was bewitched. Pure milk flooded the empyrean heights and it calmed his fevered mind in a quiet way – no opiate ever did that!

***

What are they?

They are the jewels.

In the sky?

Yes.

How that can be grandpa?

They are tucked there.

By?

God, my child. It is His creation.

He had gaped at the clear summer sky. The village sky. So different. Grandpa had pointed out the stars from his cot. It was magic for the nine-year-old. Spending nights on the roof with grandpa opened up new doors…always.

Does God exist?
Yes.

Where?

Everywhere.

In the stars?
Yes. He lives in us also.

In us?

Yes, child. Listen to your heart. He speaks through that.

Grandpa! Just superb! Patient. Kind. Caring. Despite his ferocious moustache, wide nostrils, bushy eyebrows, he looked so kind. Dad was opposite. Always irritated, angry.

Can I talk to God?
Yes.

How?

When in doubt, call out his name. He will call back. Promised grandpa. He never told lies, grandpa. Even to-night, Rajesh could clearly hear his gentle tone across the wide gulf that separates living from the dead.

God? He said. God. This time, louder. A wind blew and stronger and the stars twinkled bright in the sky and he heard a clear voice booming across the universe: Yes, my child! The moon smiled. God’s benign face appeared in the moon. Venerable! He looked like his grandpa. Striking resemblance. Kindness oozing. Small eyes that shut automatically, when in mirth!

You called me out? Rich baritone asked, befitting the Creator.

Yes, God. Adult Rajesh, reduced to an awe-struck child, said.

Tell me. The voice boomed. Want anything from me?

Although his whole life revolved around ceaseless wants only that seemed to multiply by the minute, Rajesh felt, strangely, a cessation of all desires!

NO! He said. God smiled.

After how many years, you are watching stars and the sky? Asked the God.

I watched the stars and the sky with my grandpa only. In urban centers, no. There are no open courtyards. No open places. Sky is a fiction!

God smiled: Blessed are those that watch a star-studded sky!

Go, reclaim the wonderful world!

And He vanished. The words lingered – the after-effects of a thunderbolt, reverberating in a small wooded valley.

***

In a trance, lighter, buoyant, the remote descendent of the Homo sapiens, finally emerged from his cave. And found a rugged world so many light years away from his IT-enabled, Wi-Fi world!

Outside the gated community, guarded ferociously by few small starved security guys with nothing but a visitors’ book, lay stretched the other half – one-thirds? – of the deprived population in homes called slums in Asia or shanty-towns in Brazil and elsewhere. From one wired, secured, hi-tech ghetto to another impoverished one, the journey was hardly of few brisk long steps for him. The sights, sounds and colours – not so visible in the soft black of the power-cut – amazed him, the one with poor eyesight! Travelling in his low-end car, he hardly noticed these poor creatures of God living in extreme degradation and poverty that excited so many overseas writers and film directors bent on poverty tourism and showcased it for the Hollywood addicts on the wide-screen multiplexes globally…but the same remained elusive to the middle-class Indians, immune to such daily sights in a teeming metro. There were little shops where real people sat in candle-light or battery-powered light. In the shimmering darkness, outside homes that looked hovels on the outside for the high-rise residents, children played and grizzled seniors sat and talked animatedly.

In groups!

Children, barefoot, ran and danced in the dusty open ground. Merry fires burnt in the open, where women cooked, the migrant workers. Some young students smoked and chatted on their cell phones. Rajesh took the left turn and ambled randomly along the noisy street. The roadside hawkers were plying their trades. Vegetable sellers were selling their wares. Haggling was on. Juice stalls, bangle-sellers, fruits vendors, shoe-menders, dosa-makers – it was a microscopic urban India – cheerful, robust, full of camaraderie, positive, smiling and struggling to survive in most tough circumstances. The sights and sounds – unmanageable traffic, loud horns, blinding lights, men talking on phones – were so amazing for this cave-dweller that he paused and watched the struggling humanity pass by in slow motion.

And suddenly he got reconnected.

His childhood. His early youth, stuggles, commutes, fights, the joy of being young and alive in a nation emerging from a long history of colonial exploitation and trying to find out a way up in the globalised world. He smiled at an old man – his first genuine smile in years – sitting on a culvert alone; smiled at the private security that he treated as his subjects and decided to visit the Malhotras, his next-door neighbours.

“Yes?” Asked a surprised Malhotra, a stout Punjabi gentleman, living a retired life with his ailing wife and three cats.

“May I come in, please?” He said affably and slid in, without waiting for a formal oral invitation. Malhotra’s eyes dilated from beneath his bifocals – life has got some surprises still left for him.

“I have here to say SORRY!”  Said the executive in a mild tone, smiling.

“For?” His old neighbor, hard of hearing, asked, after adjusting his ear-piece, face still surprised.

“I fought with you over wandering cats. It was…so mean…,” said the young one, smile intact.

Malhotra was speechless.

“I am so S-O-R-R-Y for that act of rudeness and arrogance.”

The old man said nothing. He slumped down with relief over a faded couch.

Then: “I thought you were here to assault me…us.” Blurted the old man, voice pathetic, hands trembling.

“WHAT!” It was Rajesh’s turn to be surprised.

“We are old people dying slowly…everybody treats us so badly, family, neighbours, and relatives. We are weak. Vulnerable. Anybody can hit us. Last time, a goon hit me in the road. I had bumped into him. Accidentally. He slapped me hard and punched me. Nobody came to help me.”

Rajesh was stunned! Such mindless violence!

“I always saw my own son in you, Rajesh,” Revealed the old man, voice trailing. “Your eyes reminded me of him.”

“Where is he?”

“Where else? USA.”

“Never comes?”

“Never.”

“Talks on phone?”

“No.”

And Malhorta started crying like a neglected baby. Tears came unbidden and grew into big sobs wetting his stained shirt. “I MISS him so much. I see him in YOU.”

And Rajesh also began crying, suddenly, sans any warning, his mind unlocking scenes suppressed in a locker there, and saw his own father in that handsome broad face and he stood up and clasped the crying old man to his heart and said, “You are like my dad…”

Bio:
Sunil Sharma, a senior academic and author-critic-poet-freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some jointly authored, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu. For more details of publications, please look up here.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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