Translation: Periyamma’s Words

(Translation of Jeyamohan’s short story பெரியம்மாவின் சொற்கள்.
This story won Asymptote magazine’s 2017 Close Approximations translation fiction prize, as judged by David Bellos)
Come, go, stop, food, clothes, son, daughter, road, house, sky, earth, night, day—these words came rather easily to her. If I said those words in Tamil, Periyamma would reply with the corresponding English words. It was only when Periyamma jumped to say ‘cat’ before I could say poo– that I realized I was quizzing her in order. So I changed the order. But then Periyamma started saying the English words just by looking at my eyes. So I pointed at different animals and asked what they were. Periyamma said naaipoonaikozhi in Tamil and then translated them—‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘hen.’ It was only after Periyamma had mastered a hundred basic words—she would say them even before I could ask—that I moved on to concepts. That was when all hell broke loose.

Periyamma was not my periy-amma, big-mother, a name usually reserved for one’s maternal aunt. But everybody in our town called her that. Her house, they called the Big House. Situated in the town centre, that bungalow was built by Periyamma’s grandfather Thiruvadiya Pillai a hundred and fifty years ago. The word about town is that when it was built, the glass for the house sailed in from Belgium, the teak came from Burma, the marble from Italy, and the iron from England. The people who came to grind limestone for its walls stayed on permanently in our town, and as a result our town acquired a Lime Street. Our carpenters also moved in during that period. Periyamma’s wedding took place in that bungalow. That was the first time a mottaar came to our town. The newlyweds were paraded about town in that Ford motor car. Periyamma was not to step foot into that car ever again.

It has been forty years since Periyamma’s husband passed away. Her only son Arumugam Pillai had been a lawyer in Madurai, and he died there. His four sons were variously placed in Chennai and Delhi and Calcutta. None of them are alive now. A daughter of the oldest grandson is a doctor in America. She is the only person who has some semblance of a relationship to Periyamma. Periyamma went on living in that town, an ancient relic in the eyes of its fourth-generation inhabitants. In the olden days their family had six thousand acres of land to their name. Over the years, it had shrunk in various ways to a hundred acres. Those hundred acres had been neatly partitioned and sold over thirty years ago. In the end, all that was left over for Periyamma was that house, two acres of land around it, a good sum in the bank, and her jewelry. But that was more than enough for her to live in state.

Ever since my mother could remember, Periyamma lived in that bungalow with three servants, but alone otherwise. Even as the day dawned, she could be found standing in her courtyard and ordering her servants around in a loud voice. Every evening there would be a recitation session from the epics at the little wooden temple in her house. Muthusamy Pulavar would specially come to recite the verses for Periyamma. Earlier, his father used to do the honours. Following this session, there was usually a bhajanai, a vociferous group-singing session with much clapping of hands. Finally, there was the distribution of eats as sacred offering—the savoury sundal, the sweet sarkkarai pongal, bananas, puffed rice. I did not miss a single day of this when I was a kid.

Their house was built on a plinth so high that it rose well above the head of a standing man. There were eight huge steps carved in stone in the front and rear of the house. Once when Periyamma went to the backyard to wash her hands, she got dizzy, fainted, fell, injured herself, and lay in bed for eight months. Her great-granddaughter in America arranged for doctors to visit her regularly. Though she had begun to limp back to health, it was clear that things couldn’t go on as before. That sickbed changed Periyamma’s heart. The woman who had declared that she would never leave her house for all those years prepared herself to go and live in America with her great-granddaughter.

However, the great-granddaughter’s husband was a white American. All four of her children, two boys, two girls, were white. The great-granddaughter did not speak Tamil herself. I had an M.A. in English Literature—obtained through a distance-learning “correspondence” course—and was working in the town as a teacher and office assistant in a small school. The great-granddaughter emailed me, asking me if I could teach Periyamma some basic English. I was the only person from my town who was in touch with her. Buyers were coming with brokers to buy the house and break it up for sale. Arrangements for the visa were being made.

I was given three months. Within the first two months, I was able to teach Periyamma many words. Periyamma was astonished by the fact that the tiny kosu was a terrifying species called a ‘mosquito’ in English. She thought that the utterly feminine madhulampazham in Tamil turned robust and manly when it became ‘pomegranate’ in English. But she liked ‘umbrella’ more than kudai. This was because, lest she forget umbrella, I had told her the story of Cinderella. ‘Banana’ was like a question to her (bana-na?), mango seemed to be a word of welcome (mango!), and potato was like a muttered grumble (potato . . . !). In anticipation of these little puffs of surprise, Periyamma, after an early bath, waited for my arrival at eight o’clock every day, clad in nothing but a plain white saree and stripes of sacred ash on her forehead and her bare, blouseless shoulders.

Her English lessons were turning out to be the greatest delights of her life. This was because Periyamma had never gone to school. She did not know how to read or write even in Tamil. In those days, it was considered disgraceful, almost a sacrilege, for highborn women to learn anything: akin to throwing their doors open, walking out, and standing in front of their houses for all to see. It was only when her husband died and she donned the white saree that she began to listen to recitations of the epics. She now knew the epics well enough to fish out an apt story for any situation. In addition, she created her own stories too. Once she had made up a story and narrated it, it became part of the epics for her; the next time she would say it, she would really believe that it was a story that had flowed down the ages to reach her.

I did not necessarily plan to teach her abstract concepts. However, when Periyamma knew enough words and tried to use them in a sentence, she needed them. “See this naayi . . . dog. We say that it has nanni. What is English for nanni?” she asked. I said, “Obedient.” She knew to add ‘is.’ After dutifully repeating “Dog is obedient,” she asked, “So obedient means nanni, yes?” I said, “Well, no, obedient means panivu— humble, docile.” “Dratted fool! When has this ever been panivu, eh? I call out to it, and it sits just like that for five minutes before it deigns to turn and give me so much as a look . . . you call this animal panivu?”

I looked at Vettumani. She was right. You could see from its movements that Vettumani considered itself a venerable monarch. “Faithful,” I proposed. When I explained what “faithful” meant, “Right. Like you could leave a piece of fish unguarded with this one around. The other day I had some dried fish brought in and before I could take it inside, he had stolen it. He’s a real rogue!” I thought some more and said that perhaps one could use the word ‘domestic.’ “What’s that?” I explained. “Really? Have you gone mad? This one here comes home only to eat . . . ” I had no idea what to say. Could you say ‘thankful’? Are dogs thankful? Or grateful? But do these words describe dogs? I employ those words only in my job application letters.

I was hitting walls everywhere. Finally, I came to a decision. I told her the story from The Odyssey where Ulysses comes home after an epic voyage of twenty years. Ulysses returns, diseased, thin, and frail as a beggar. His best friend, even his beloved wife, fail to recognize him. But his fine dog Argos recognizes him immediately and frenetically wags its tail to welcome him; it dies right there. On seeing that, Ulysses is moved to tears. Everyone realizes that the newcomer is Ulysses. He rejoins his wife and children and regains his kingdom.

Tears were flowing down Periyamma’s cheeks. “That’s fate for you! Even if you slather oil all over yourself and roll on the ground, only the earth that’s meant to stick on to you will stick to you, yes?” Then she continued, “Remember how when the emperor Dharumaru went to heaven, a dog went with him?” In the epic Mahabharata, Dharuman walks up the Himalayan mountains to heaven with his four brothers and wife Paanjaali. Somewhere along the way, a dog joins them. While the others drop to the ground one after another in sheer exhaustion, Dharuman walks on with unflinching determination, not looking back even for an instant. The dog goes with him. They approach the peak. A celestial chariot comes down for them. Dharuman is asked to get into the chariot. Dharuman says that the dog who accompanied him all that way should get into the chariot too. He is told that dogs don’t have heaven. Then I don’t need heaven either, replies Dharuman. I will not abandon a dog that followed me all this way, he says. The dog transforms into Dharmadevan, the god of righteousness, and stands before him. I was just testing your sense of right and wrong, says Dharmadevan, and brings Dharuman’s brothers and Paanjaali back to life, and takes them all, including the dog, to heaven.

Periyamma wiped her tears. “That’s called nanni. That animal had nanni, didn’t it? It went all the way with him, no? It’s not right to leave it behind and go on, yes? That’s why Dharumaru did not abandon it; he is Dharumadevaruhimself, isn’t he?” I came back to the word nanni. “I was talking about the feeling Ulysses’ dog had for him,” I said. “Then what about Dharumaru’s feeling for the dog?” she said. Both of us sunk into thought. “Well, his nanniwas a reciprocation of its nanni, no?” said Periyamma. I agreed. But can two people reciprocate each other’s thankfulness or faithfulness or obedience? I asked whether we could call it ‘kindness.’ What does it mean, she asked. It is what the two of them showed to each other, back and forth, I said. Periyamma agreed. I said, “Dog is kind.” Periyamma said, “Dharumaru is kind.”

The next day, Periyamma was in high spirits. She pointed me to the kind rooster, the kind crow, the kind servant girl Kunjamma, the kind coconut-man Arunjunai Nadar, and the kind green-turbaned fakir who came to seek alms. It was a cloudy day, there was no sun. There were little drops of rain in the cool air. She asked me whether you could call the skies kind. Maybe, but not toomuch, I said. I thought about the right word for it and came up with ‘beautiful.’ What does that mean, she asked. Then she asked in a very, very hesitant voice whether she could call the rooster and crow and Kunjamma and Arunjunai Nadar and the fakir ‘beautiful.’ I hesitated even more before saying, “Yes.” Once we had made it to that word, the two of us sat for a while, enveloped in rapture, looking at the dark clouds rimmed with light. Then we came to the conclusion that we could as well call the skies “kind.”

In the next few days, we started understanding many words easily by trading stories. “Hey, what would you call the arul of Thiruchendur Murugan?” asked Periyamma. I did not know whether the Tamil deity Murugan could profess arul in English. So I recounted the story of Jesus turning water into wine. Periyamma cupped her chin in her hands in astonishment, at a loss for words. I called Jesus’s act ‘compassion.’ When I explained what that was, she objected. “Even humans show compassion, no? Look, I was talking about arul.” Then I proposed ‘grace.’ “That’s different. I’m talking about arulArul is Murugan’s karunai, no?” Karunai, karunai, karunai, I muttered to myself before settling on ‘mercy.’ “That’s our Yesuvadimai’s daughter’s name! That girl is a nurse, yes?” When I explained what that meant, “You blooming idiot, that’s erakkam. What sort of dratted god-worship you do, I don’t know. See, what the policemen show towards us is erakkam. Condescending pity. What Murugan shows is karunai. That’s what we call arul.”

In a very soft voice, I said, “Love.” Periyamma looked at me suspiciously. I avoided looking at her. “Then what about the lavvu cinema that our Chellammai’s daughter talks about?” she asked. “That’s a different lavvu,” I said. The old woman grew furious. “Stinking carcass! I’ll tan your hide with a broom!” I was almost in tears by now. “There’s another story,” I said. “Okay, tell me.” She seemed to have relented a little. I told her the story of the ascetic Sabari from the Valmiki Ramayanam who wished to offer the tastiest fruits to Raman who comes to her forest; she first bit into each fruit to make sure they were sweet before offering it to him, even though it was now tainted with her saliva. After telling her the story I was a little confused about why I had told her that story in the first place. Both stories are about food, I consoled myself.

Periyamma peered at me with her wizened eyes. I could tell her brain was on overdrive. “But it was the poor to whom he offered wine,” she said. “Yes, Periyamma. But Raman was also a poor man when he came to the forest, no? He would have also been thirsty, yes?” Periyamma accepted that that was true. I went on, “The god Krishnaru also did the same thing, didn’t he? When he went to Paanjaali’s house to eat, there was no food left, but he filled his stomach on a single speck of spinach that was stuck to the vessel!” I said. Periyamma broke into a broad smile. “Yes,” she said. She thought some more and said, “What we offer the gods, they give back to us. Right!”

Immediately I said, “Bond.” “What’s that,” she asked, knitting her brows. “Bandham . . . you know, that thing that binds god with us? Neither can let go of the other, yes?” I said. The old woman beamed. “You are a learned one, child,” she said. So we settled on that word. I was a little relieved when we decided to use that word for everything god-related, from bhakti to worship to bhajanai to prayer to the savoury sundal.

The great-granddaughter Gomathi periodically got in touch with me from America to ask how Periyamma’s education was progressing. “It’s going great, Goms. She’s learning a lot.” “Really?” she asked apprehensively. Then, “Could you also teach her some manners and niceties?” “Sure,” I said, and then diplomatically conveyed that that would cost a bit extra. She didn’t promise anything. “Let’s see.” Periyamma’s visa formalities were getting wrapped up. The trouble was that her name was variously Chellathaayi, Vellakutty, and Kanthimathi Ammal in various documents. In addition, her husband had a sum total of four different names—Eragam Pannaiyar, Azhagiya Nambiyaa Pillai, Vaduga Pillai, Sorimuthu Appu.

I first read up on manners and etiquette on Wikipedia. I came to the understanding that white folks were really somewhat particular about manners. I explained to Periyamma that to have good manners was to be a cultured, sophisticated person. “At this age do you want me to strut about with a silukku saree and a shiny parasol? Go on with you!” she said dismissively. Gently, I told her that it was not silk sarees and parasols that I was talking about. Perhaps I could tell her what constituted good manners, I thought. “First, one should not speak loudly,” I said. “So they make the deaf-mutes gentlemen over there, is it?” she asked. I said that one should always welcome the guests politely. “These are things one knows if they are born in a good family . . . we already have that, don’t we?”

I wasn’t sure what else to say. I felt that manners were nothing more than knowing to say the appropriate English words at the right times. I taught Periyamma eight such words—thanks, very kind of you, please, and so on. Her ‘excuse me’ was only an indistinguishable hiss from her toothless mouth. “How am I ever going to remember all these words? Just teach me one word to say instead of all this,” she said. I thought for a bit and taught her to say the word “Sorry.” If she appended the word to anything she said, that would become good manners. What does it mean, she asked. Sadness, sorrow, I said. “So one should always be sad . . . yes?” she asked bemusedly. “Periyamma, now Seethai was always sad, wasn’t she?”

Periyamma understood everything in an instant. “Seethai . . . now, she was a great lady, wasn’t she? A princess, but what a gentlewoman! How unassuming! She measured her words . . . never wasted them . . . ” she said. “Poor thing, her ill-fated life was what it was.” I jumped to say, “Yes, that’s what I mean. Seethai, she had manners . . . ” before I realized something else. “But the women over there, they are not like Seethai, Periyamma . . . ” I said. “Then? You just said that they were . . . ” “Well, like Seethai. But they do not have karpu like Seethai,” I said pointedly. “Then?” she asked. “They have something else. Like karpu. But a little different.”

“What’s that?” she asked. I could tell that Periyamma’s mind had already tied itself into knots. How do I say it? “Chastity,” I said. I tried crawling closer to the meaning, “Piety.” The meaning did not sit right. “It’s their country’s karpu,” I said. Periyamma’s eyes looked lost. So I reached for a story again. “Like Seethai, they have an epic there too,” I said. “Tell me that first, instead of going around in circles like this . . . ”

I narrated Helen of Troy’s story. Periyamma was appreciative of the fact that she was the daughter of Zeus. “A divine princess!” she remarked, hand on chin. “Periyamma, she was the most beautiful woman in all their stories over there,” I said. “Of course she would be . . . she is an ethereal maiden, isn’t she!” she said. When I came to the part where she gets married to the King of Sparta, Menelaus, I felt a bit apprehensive. I related how she saw Paris, the prince of Troy, and fell in love with him, and how she went away with him to Troy. Periyamma must have been absorbed in the story; she did not seem to object.

I could feel my own excitement rise as I narrated how the Mycenaean kings set out and laid siege on Troy and how the war took place under the leadership of Achilles and Agamemnon. “This Achilleesu is just like our Archunan!” said Periyamma with wonder. Hector’s death was received by Periyamma with tears. “Like how our Karnan died,” she mumbled. When I finally told her about how Troy was won by deception using the Trojan horse, Periyamma sat in silence for some time and then said, “The Pandavas killed Bhismaru by using this Shikhandi fellow, no? War is always like that. ‘He gets things done, the one with good hands; but the one with a ready tongue, wins all the lands,’” she quoted.

Now I felt that I had come to the crux of the matter. “Remember that king who was originally married to her? He brought her back and made her queen again.” Periyamma nodded. “Periyamma, women like these are like our Seethai for them,” I said. She glanced at me. “Not like Seethai, you mad fellow, she’s like Paanjaali. Paanjaali is also a pathini, yes?”

I sighed heavily and relaxed a little. “Your great-granddaughter is like Paanjaali too. Just one less.” “What?” asked Periyamma. “The man she is living with now is her fourth husband. She has four children in total from the first three marriages,” I said. Periyamma said, “She is from over there, isn’t she? Those women marry the men they like and live proudly with honor and happiness.” Resting heavily on her palms, she rose, slowly straightened her back, mumbled the names of her gods, and said, “But we have that here too. Kunthi had six husbands, no?”

To be honest, I was a little disappointed. Periyamma asked again, “What do they call it, their women?” “Karpu,” I said. “You wretch, not that.” “No, no, Periyamma, women and men . . . they have—they each have this thing no? That,” I said. No more words came to my mind. “We say—maleness—the quality of being a man—don’t we? Like that, the quality of being a woman—the femaleness,” I said. “Yes, that’s right. What does the white man call it?” I groped about for a word, and said, “thinking.” “You are always thing-ing,” she brushed aside my hesitant suggestion royally. ‘Think’ sounded to her like thingu—eat. I thought a bit more and said, “Brave.” Even I thought that was an idiotic suggestion. I had an impulse to say ‘virginity,’ but I suppressed it.

“Periyamma, it’s that feeling that makes you say, hey, I’m also a person just like you,” I said. “What the Malayalee fellows call thandredam?” asked Periyamma. I got the right word. Than—edam. My—place. Not quite right. Why place? “My” is enough. I said “Self.” “That’s in the cupboard, no?” she asked. “That’s different. That’s a ‘she-lf.’ This is ‘se-lf.’” “Oh,” said Periyamma, and then slowly said “se-lf” to herself. Then she looked at me. “We should speak softly, yes?” she asked. “Yes.” Periyamma soundlessly moved her lips to say the word. “These young girls, they use a feathery flowery thing to dab paduwer on their cheeks, what’s that?” “That’s a puff!” I said. “Self,” said Periyamma to herself again.

I taught Periyamma English through stories for another six weeks. I could do nothing to dispel Periyamma’s suspicions that the word ‘love’ was somehow inherently perverted. Hence we decided to replace that word with ‘dear.’ The next day, I observed Periyamma changing that to ‘near.’ I did not have time to correct it. The visa had arrived. The lands and the house and been sold. I had to escort Periyamma to obtain her medical insurance papers, her prescriptions, and her medicines.

In the midst of all this madness, I realized to my panic that there was so much more that she did not know, and decided to use a shortcut. A single word for many concepts, I decided. Not necessary, I don’t understand, I don’t know, could all be collapsed into ‘nice’; happy, good, great could all be ‘calm’; that would be easy for her, I reasoned. Anything she did not agree to could be countered with ‘well.’ In another week, we had crammed another forty concepts into twelve words.

It was I who went with Periyamma to the airport at Chennai to see her off. She was travelling all by herself. At the time of parting, she was excited and was trembling gently. When the wheelchair assistant from the airline was about to wheel her away, she called me to her side, and said, “You is bond.” I took her palms in my hands and touched them to my eyes. “You is kind,” I said. She placed her hand on her heart, said “Self,” and departed with a smile.

The same day, I wrote a rather decisive email to Goms and made sure I got paid immediately. I was certain that by next week, I would receive an email from her saying that none of them are able to make head or tail of anything that Periyamma says. 

(Thanks – Asymptote)

Short story – Just a Dream

The best part was that I knew it was a dream, through and through. The car ride. The mountain. The mounds of sand. I was even able to remember details, strange for a dream. I was able to recall the strong smell of the diesel in the car, the heat shimmering from the sand. I was able to taste the bile in my mouth. I was able to feel the sweat breaking out on my forehead.

It started in a room. A room with whitewashed walls. Red files neatly stacked in a shelf near where we sat. It was ‘we’, I knew so much. At least in that room. The flat tube-light with its stark white light and faintly pink edges.

The car now. We are in the car. Who is ‘we’? I can sense that a woman with bobbed hair is driving the car. She is ‘Mother’. That is what I call her. Not mine, but ‘Mother’ nevertheless. The red Wagon R moves slowly between the arches created by the leafless branches of the birch trees. Down the path, the leafless path. It is threatening to pour with rain any moment. Mother talks, volubly, like never before. He answers her. I chip in occasionally, monosyllabically. My mind is elsewhere. I have to go, I know, even if it is just a dream. But where?

I am driving now. Alone. That old white Fiat we had, once upon a time. MCZ 4129. Forty-one twenty-nine. The car I learnt to drive in. I am driving and there is a mountain visible in the distance. If I cross the mountain, everything will be OK. But will I cross it? Will I? There is sand on all sides. I drive. Like a maniac, I drive through the sand. The oppressive heat gets to me. Bright sun. Hot. Hot.

A stone. My windshield has a beautiful crack on it. Like a spider web. Another one. The third is a sharp one, ripping the front tire. Car skids to a halt. I know I have to get out, yet I stay in. I am shaking. Like a peepal leaf, I am shaking. The next stone finds the window next to where I am sitting. I open the door, shaking. “It is just a dream” I tell myself. “Just a dream.” My words of reason do not stop me from trembling.

The man who I knew was waiting outside is still half buried in the sand. I take tottering steps towards him. His matted hair hangs in strands around his bloodshot eyes and he white hair on his bare body is mixed with the wet sand. How can he be like this in this place, I wonder. I know I am afraid. Fear makes my tongue go dry, my eyes pop out.

However, the most frightening thing about his appearance is the vague familiarity of his face. I cannot place him, yet I know that I know him. The hot afternoon sun rains upon this strange scene. As I walk towards him, he pushes himself out of the sand and looks at me. There is an ironic smile on his face. He shakes the sand out of his air. I can read the promise in his eyes, and it scares me out of my wits. “Just a dream,” I tell myself. “Just a dream.” I close my eyes to the brightness.

I wipe the bead of sweat from my brow. I open my eyes with a start. Darkness. Finally, thankfully, darkness. I’m shaking so much that I almost can’t feel the hand holding mine and the other hand stroking my head. “That was just a dream. Just a dream.” The voice is thankfully familiar, thankfully soothing. Holding on to a finger from the hands, just one, I blink back the sleepy tears and go to sleep.

In the morning, I wake up when the sun pierces through the chinks in the closed curtains. Another day. I fold the blanket, my blanket, and move into the bathroom. I reach out for the toothbrush in the rack overhead, brush my teeth and place the brush back it the empty stand. I open the curtains to allow light into my room, my room with the long bed, the solitary table, the chair that goes with it. I open the closet, filled with clothes, mine, to pick out something to wear for the day. I walk into the kitchen. I make a single mug of coffee, and get the day’s newspaper. Sitting alone in my balcony, reading the news, sipping the coffee, I tell myself, “Just a dream.”

தாமரையின் முக்தி.

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நான் சேற்றில் மலர்ந்த வெண்தாமரைப்பூ.

வெட்கி நாணிக் கோணி சிவந்து தலை குனியும் என் தோழிகளுக்கு நடுவிலே பளபளப்பாக வெண்ணிறத்தில் தோன்றும் நான், ஒரு கரும்புள்ளி.

நான் மட்டும் ஏன் இப்படிப் பிறந்தேன்? சிலர் சொல்கிறார்கள், சூரியனுக்கு என் மீது வெறுப்பு என்று. என் பக்கம் அவன் பார்க்கவே மட்டேன் என்கிறானாம். அதான் எனக்கு இந்த நிறக்குறையாம். நான் உங்களுக்கு உண்மையைச் சொல்கிறேன். எனக்குத் தான் அவன் மீது வெறுப்பு. அவன் என்ன தான் என்னைப் பார்த்து பல்லைக் காட்டி இளித்தாலும், நான் மசிய மாட்டேன். என் வெண்மையும் பெண்மையும் யாருக்கும் விட்டுத்தர மாட்டேன். அவனை வேண்டும் என்றால் என் தோழிகளிடம் சென்று பேச்சு கொடுக்கச்சொல்லுங்கள். இல்லையென்றால் இருக்கவே இருக்கிறாள் சூரியகாந்தி. காத்திருக்கும் கன்னி.

“இதுவா பேசும் முறை?” தாய் என்னை அதட்டுகிறாள். அவளுக்கு அடிக்கத்தெரியாது. இதமாகத் தடவி கொடுக்கிறாள். என் மீது அவள் ஸ்பரிசம் அலை அலையாக தழுவிச்சென்றது. “உனக்குத் தலை கனம்!” அந்தக் குரல் என் சிந்தனையை சிதறடித்தது. சிரித்தேன். “ஒரு நாள் இல்லை ஒரு நாள் என்னை விட்டுப் போக வேண்டியவள் தானே நீ.” அம்மாவின் பாசம், மறுபடியும். அலை அலையாய்.

நான் போய்த்தான் ஆக வேண்டுமா? அப்படியே இருக்கட்டும். என்னை இங்கேயே
வாட விட்டு விடாதீர்கள். ஆனால் ஒரு விண்ணப்பம்.

போகும் போது என்னை ஒரு குடம் நீரில் ஏந்தி எடுத்துச்செல்லுங்கள். அம்மாவைப் பிரிய அவ்வளவு எளிதாக மனம் வரவில்லை.

உங்கள் வீதிகளில் என்னை விலை பேசி விற்று விடாதீர்கள், கல்யாண சந்தைகளில் உங்கள் பெண்களை பேசுவதுபோல். என் நிறத்துக்கும் நறுமணத்திற்கும் மதிப்பு இல்லை; அது என்னுடன் வரும் இலவச இணைப்பு. எனக்கு விலை கிடையாது.

உங்கள் தெய்வங்களுக்கு என்னைக் காணிக்கை ஆக்காதீர்கள். நான் அழுதுவிடுவேன். கல்லுடன் எனக்குப் பேசவும் சிரிக்கவும் தெரியாது, அது தெய்வக்கலே ஆனாலும். சாம்பிராணி புகை எனக்கு ஒத்துக்கொள்ளாது; நான் சீக்கிரம் வாடிவிடுவேன். ’பிரசாதம்’, என்று பெண்கள் என் இதழ்களைச் சுருட்டிக்கொண்டு தலையில் சொருகிக்கொள்வார்கள். ஈருக்கும் பேனுக்குமா நான் முத்தம் கொடுப்பது? கோவில் வேண்டாம்; எனக்கு அப்படி ஒரு சமாதியும் வேண்டாம்.

கலைமகளுக்கு உட்கார்ந்து வீணை வாசிக்க வேறு இடமா கிடைக்கவில்லை? மடி வலிக்கிறது. கலைமகளை மடியில் சுமத்தி, என்னை அவளுக்கே தாய் ஆக்காதீர்கள்.  நான் சிறுமி.

உங்கள் பெண்கள் கூந்தலுக்கு நான் அலங்கார பொருளாக இருக்க முடியாது. அங்கு நான் இருந்தாலும், நீங்கள் “உன் கூந்தல் அழகு” என்று அவளைத்தான் புகழ்வீர்கள். ஒரு பெண்ணின் முன்னால், இன்னொரு பெண்ணின் அழகை பாடிப் புகழ்வது அநாகரீகம்; உங்களை அந்த அநாகரீகத்துக்கு உட்படுத்த நான் விரும்பவில்லை.

பின் என்னைப் போன்ற அடங்காப் பெண்ணை என்ன செய்வது என்று கேட்கிறீர்களா? என்னை உங்கள் ஊர்க் கவிஞன் ஒருவனிடம் அறிமுகப்படுத்துங்கள். அவன் கண்ணுக்குள்ளே ஒரு நொடியாவது நான் இருக்க வேண்டும். அவன் கவிதைகள் என்னைப் புகழ்ந்தாலும், இகழ்ந்தாலும், கண்டுகொள்ளாமல் இருக்காது.

அது போதும், என் முக்தி.

(14-08-2008)

Fiction: The Kurukshetra Premier League

1

Lord Vinayaka, the elephant-headed god, the destroyer of evil, was reclining comfortably on his sofa on Mount Kailash after a heavy afternoon meal. After all, people insisted on treating him every single day with everything from coconuts to kozhukattais. No wonder, he mused, that Dr. Dhanvantri kept telling him to get more exercise on the treadmill. “But each to their own…no one will recognize me if I develop six pack abs” Vinayaka could not help laughing out loud at the imagined sight. He did ride a mouse for all his bulk, but somehow he could not imagine mice running down his arms as he flexed them!

Veda Vyasa was huffing and puffing as he approached Vinayaka. “O pot-bellied one, I bow to thee,” said Vyasa, starting with the customary greeting. Vinayaka smothered a grin, and patting his belly contentedly with the end of his trunk, bade Vyasa to sit down. “Tsk tsk. Vyasa, you are always out of breath. You need some regular exercise. Now, the treadmill…” he said impishly.

Vyasa did not hear him. “My lord, there is a small cause for concern,” started Vyasa without preamble. “You remember the time you out wrote out the Mahabharata for me?”

How can I forget?” muttered Vinayaka. “Tongue twisting poetry, almost broke my fingers, and my last instalment of pay never really reached me…yes, sire, I do remember it. What about it now?”

“The thing is, those humans have unearthed some recent archeological evidence that actually goes to prove that the war at Kurukshetra never really happened.”

“What? So do you mean to say you made the whole story up?”

“No, no, my lord, back then those were facts.  But now, in the light of the new evidence, something to do with Secularization of  Historical Facts or some such thing we have to write it out again to pull in the new facts. Yesterday’s facts are today’s mythology, you know. Our old version gets support only from the VHP, and a half-hearted nod from the BJP.  But now in the light of the election results, it looks like they need a new secular epic now, to accommodate the fresh, ah, evidence. I really don’t understand modern Indian politics or history. It looks like historical evidence can now be conveniently arranged for, just like votes. The bottomline is that we have to make a revision of the epic. Soon.”

“So?”

“Well, I was wondering if you could be my scribe again. We have a really good rapport. And with my beautiful poetry and distinctive phraseology and deep metaphorical allusions and character delineation, and with your…aah…tusk, we made up a good team the last time around.”

“All right, cut the crap and tell me what you would be paying this time around. I am not a mere copywriter any more, and I use my broken tusk only to decorate my hallway. I use a computer, complete with pirated Microsoft software, and I hope your dictation is as fast as my typing speed. And you would have to correct the typographical errors. I don’t do that anymore.”

 “Sure, sure, whatever, your terms. We have to get this done. We will receive funding from the Department of Religious Endowments and also from the Department of Correction of Historical Inaccuracies. And think of the fame…once we are done writing we can have a proper book release, with an evening tea, complete with those tiny biscuits with topping on them and champagne. All the Page Three glitterati would be there, and you might actually get a picture of yourself in the next morning’s Mites of India surrounded by beautiful ladies. I can almost see the headline … ‘The Elephant God’s Animal Magnetism.’ And the media watchdogs…they’d love the buzz you would create…remember the hype over the time you supposedly drank milk in some temple?  You’ll have all these ‘Breaking News’ updates just to yourself. Think, think of all that,” Vyasa was at the edge of his seat now. He could see that Vinayaka was almost sold.

“Welllllll….” drawled Vinayaka. “I’ll do it. But mind you, I want half the pay upfront and the rest before I give you the final version.”  

“Alright, fine. Like I have any other option. So let’s get this rolling right away, what say?”

“Alright, give me the one-liner. How is this going?”

“Well, the basics are pretty much the same. The Pandavas, the Kauravas, rival gangs, hate each other… anyway, the Pandavas are at Indraprastha when the Kauravas invite them over for a game of poker.”

“Poker?”

 “Yeah, the recent evidence shows that the ancient Indians invented poker.”

“Eh? You’re not kidding? Well, I’m just the scribe. Ok, game of poker. And?”

“Well, Yudhishtira as we know is one preachy face; he cannot play the game, and he cannot say ‘no’ either. So he plays, pledges every damn thing he owns, or thinks he owns, and loses.”

“OK, and they go to the forest next?”

“Yeah, the thirteen year banishment.”

“So what next? The war, right?”

“That’s where there’s a change. Now listen closely. We Indians are supposed to be a peaceful race. Having a war that killed so many innocent people as a part of our mythology supposedly gives us this bad image on the world scale. Well anyway, they have unearthed new evidence now. What actually happened is this.”

Vyasa paused.

“Because of the huge casualties involved in war, Krishna and Bhishma chalked out a plan. They decided to replace war… with a game of cricket. A really short one at that. Only 20 overs. The team that wins the game gets the empire. The team that loses has to retire ignominiously into the forest, loses all right to hold a credit card, claim insurance and appear on reality TV shows. End of all civilized life!”

Vinayaka’s trunk dropped.

“Well?” asked Vyasa, pleased with the effect he had created.

“Well, what? First poker, now cricket? Mahabharata was in the post-Vedic Age. Cricket was invented by the Englishmen in the 12th century AD. And besides, if we release this book, Ashutosh Gowarikar is going to sue us.”

“No, no, no…that’s where you are wrong. Cricket was not invented by the British, it was invented by the Indians in the Vedic period. Later, it was carried to Europe by the nomads along the Silk Route. That’s what the new evidence says. ”

“Isn’t this, well … too much to swallow?”

“That’s where we come in, my lord. We have to convince them with our story,” Vyasa pumped his fist into the air. “Yeah!”

Vinayaka rolled his beady eyes. “Why do I ever let myself get talked into these things?” His large ears twitched.

2

Vinayaka opened his laptop, and started reading a few pages from his newly written manuscript to Vyasa.

Draupadi sat on the window sill, her hair hanging around her shoulders, chin cupped in her hands, staring out of the window. There was a peculiar expression of irritation on her face; the reader might imagine the physiognomy of Impedimenta in the Asterix comics as an approximation.

Yudhishtira, not really unlike Vitastatistix , walked to her, and asked her, “Is that brother of yours here yet?”

“If he were here, we would know, wouldn’t we? What kind of a question is that?” she snapped back irritably.

“Alright, alright, alright, I know you are still angry about what happened…but now that there’s the cricket match coming up, we will clobber them for good.”

“That’s exactly what you said when you were putting your last stake on the table. Fool that you are, you could not see a straight flush when it stares up at you in your face”

“Er…oh, here he is. Hel-lo Drishtadymna!”

Drishtadyumna came in, impeccably dressed in a conservative blue suit with a striped tie, laptop bag in one hand.”

“Hey, brother, howdy. I have the perfect strategy devised to clobber the Kauravas for good.”

“Humph!” said Draupadi, turning away. “Men!”

“Hey, hey, sis, your big brother is a management consultant. Straight out of IIM Ahmedabad!”

He winked, and Yudhishtra rolled his eyes. How many times did he have to be reminded? “Don’t you worry, we will chalk out the most perfect plan to wreck revenge on those evil cousins of yours.”

Yudhishtira said, “Fine, let’s get started. They want a cricket match now?”

“20-20.” said Drishtadyumna with smug satisfaction. “It’s called Kurukshetra Premier League. KPL for short.”

“Us against them, huh?”

“Yes and no. We are supposed to make up a team of eleven comprising players from all our allies, give it a name, find a brand ambassador, arrange for cheerleaders, advertise our team, appear in as many branded ads as possible, appear on TV and be interviewed by that hot newscaster on TenDTV, slander some member of the other team, if possible, slap him before the match, and in general, be as popular as possible. It matters, the ratings.”

“And…play the match?”

“Yeah. That too. Eventually. But what’s more important is the pre-match strategizing. You are lucky to have a management consultant, don’t you? Straight out of…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that bit. So what is the Kaurava team calling itself?” 

“Well, they are called Hastinapur Headhunters.”

“Hastinapur…Headhunters? That’s… not really a name now, is it?”

“It is, and apparently it is supposed to instill fear into our hearts.”

“Right. I’m trembling in my shoes. So, what are we calling ourselves?”

“Indraprastha Indefagitables”

“Eh??? You out of your mind? What kind of a name is that? Indefagitables? What next? Vegetables? Card tables? No, no, no,  Draupadi dear, I’m not saying anything about playing cards now…that was just an expression…” after an apologetic nod to his wife who was looking daggers at him, he hissed to Drishtadyumna “How did you come up with a name like that?”

“Well, sire, according to KPL protocol the names of the teams must alliterate; it does not help matters that Veda Vyasa who designed the protocol is a poet. We cannot call ourselves Indraprastha Super Kings even if we are real super-duper kings. And, I flicked through the dictionary for a suitable adjective.” Drishtadyumna shrugged his shoulders. “If you would rather have it Indraprastha Incorrigibles or Indraprastha Inebriated, I don’t have a problem.”

“Humph! Technically we don’t own Indraprastha or any bit of land for that matter. We belong to Nowhere.”

“Well, if you want we can call ourselves the Nowhere Nondescripts or the Nowhere Nutcrackers…”

“I’ll crack yours if you give me any more of those dumb names…well, with a name like Drishtadyumna you would want revenge, but don’t wreck it on my team.” Yudhishtira was incensed. This is the last time I am hiring a management consultant, and this is the absolute last time that I am hiring a brother-in-law. “Seeing that we are nearly penniless, who is sponsoring us?”

“Lord Indra. I got all the papers drawn up, all that is required is for the two of you to sign. Just a small issue…” Drishtadyumna paused. “Being Arjuna’s father, he wants Arjuna to captain the team.”

Before Yudhishtra could say a word, Draupadi chimed in with “Finally! Someone sane at the helm!”

Yudhishtra gave her a glare, and said “Well…so long as we get our funding straight. And who is funding the Kauravas? The…ah…Headhunters?”

“They approached Lord Kubera first. But he wanted the team to call themselves the Queenfishers after his…um…distilled foods plant.”

“Queen-fishers?”

“Why not? If one can fish for kings, why not queens? He’s a feminist, you know.”

“So what happened to the deal with Kubera?”

“It’s off. Some issue about the selection of players. You know how bull headed Duryodhana can get.”

“So who’s their ambassador now?”

“Varuna Deva, the god of water and rain. Nobody else was remotely interested.”

“Hmm… whatever. So when’s the match?”

“In a couple of weeks from now. At the Kurukshetra stadium. But we need to get all the publicity shots in before then.”

“Is our team line up decided?”

“Oh yes.” Drishtadyumna booted up his laptop to open a powerpoint presentation. “Arjuna is captaining, opening batsmen are Arjuna and myself. You can have a look for yourself. Bhima’s our principal bowling attack, with Ghatotkacha supporting. Abhimanyu in the middle order. You are the wicket keeper.”

“Let’s hope he keeps at least that well” muttered Draupadi.

“Hang on.” said Yudhishtira, looking at a slide showing eleven people lined up like Ceaser’s army. “What do these slides show? Who are those people?”

“Why, it is yourself and your revered brothers, sire.”

“And why is it that we cannot recognize ourselves?”

“You have been given a virtual makeover. That is how you are going to play. Once you okay this, we are going to get the make-up artistes from the sets of Dasavatharam to get it rolling.”

“What else?” asked Yudhishtira sarcastically.

“Well, I have booked four interviews, and we need to get the hoardings done. Plus the meeting with the cheerleaders. Arjuna’s getting a lot of offers for modelling, but we have to be selective and exclusive, haven’t we?”

“Right. So when do we practice?”

“Practice? Um…my schedule does not really have any provision for it, but I am sure we can fit it in somewhere in between.”

Yudhishtra raised his head to the heavens. “With friends like this, who needs the Kauravas?”

3

Vinayaka paused reading and said, “That’s how far I have got. How’s it?”

“Not bad at all” said Vyasa, effusively. “That modern Indian newspaper reader will love it.”

“So, tell me, what happens next? I’m looking forward to being a sports writer!”

“Oh, that’s bad. You see, the match did not take place.”

“Eh? But why?”

“Called off due to incessant rain. A couple of days before the match, Indra and Varuna got into a spat over a drink. Something about an ad that Arjuna was modeling for; Varuna made a rather unparliamentary comment about it, but Arjuna did model for a fairness cream for men”

“And?”

“There was a huge fight. Indra and Varuna trying to outdo the other. Varuna rained so hard that the Ganga and Krishna and Kaveri flowed together; the entire land was inundated. Indra responded with such fierce thunderbolts that the entire armory…er…playing equipments of both teams were destroyed. Even the bloodthirsty Kauravas were horrified at the extent of damage these two, alone, caused. So, they decided to call the match off.”

“And what about the partitioning of the land?”

“What land? It was completely a water mass. Took centuries to drain. Nobody wanted it any more.”

“So what are the Pandavas doing now?’

“Arjuna is a professional cricketer now, highest bid-for player on the IPL, the modern version of KPL. Bhima is a top notch star at the WWE, only he calls himself Mincemeat Pulpsquisher. Nakula, with his impeccable good looks, made a career for himself in Bollywood. He’s even got his own blog now where he clarifies points about his racy-pacey past. Sahadeva, the intelligent one, went to engineering school and management school, but quit his job to become a writer of alternative mythology. He’s a best-selling author now. Draupadi has a personalized fashion line; she writes 15,000-word posts on her Instagram saree page about how buying her sarees will make you a feminist.

“And Yudhishtra?”

“Well, he’s the one commissioning the writing of this book. He’s the Prime Minister of the country.”

Lines on the back of a peepal leaf

It was under the blue sky, yes, the same blue sky that roofs yourself and myself, the blue sky under which we have spent so many happy hours unmindful of its very existence, it was right under the blue sky that I got your message written on the peepal leaf scroll.

I was in the brown walled courtyard opening up to the sky, and I found your scroll when the wind put it into my arms. What I was doing there, why I was given the scroll, how I knew it was from you, I cannot say. I am describing a dream, you know. Like it is the way with all the dreams and the nightmares, the details are tweezed out with almost a cruel perfection, leaving only a blur at the edges. And the blur is perhaps the only reason that the essence is embossed upon the memory, and haunts the living daylights out of one. Which is why I attempt to capture the essence in the poorly shaped container of words…like trying to trap a gas in a liquid.

The peepal leaves I held in my hand were brown, fading, but almost perfect in its state of preservation. As if they had been curled and born on the bark and died and withered and windswept into your arms, just to bear this message you had to write to me. Stitched on one end, the broad upper curves. Stitched neatly too. You never told me you could stitch? But then there is so much more that you never told me. Not that I ever asked, of course. It was an original idea, I agree, making scrolls out of peepal leaves. You know I like leaves and trees and earth and soil and such abstractions. Was it why you had chosen to write that last message of farewell on leaves and give it to me? So that when the leaves fade, my memory of you would fade too? Or when the leaves wither into the everything-ness (as opposed to nothingness) of the earth as we know it, my memory of you would also move, expand and fill the earth with itself? So that there would be no memories left with me, I would bequeath them to everything and everywhere?

Don’t make me laugh, please, I am trying hard to cry over you. When the Sun torments the Earth, it is best that the Rain comes in to quench the pain. For whatever I may say about the nature of things being such and such, it is the Sun’s nature to burn merrily, and the Earth’s to bear with patience and fortitude, that there is peace in that, I am afraid that we may be taking things too far. Even the sharp reality of the dream only succeeded in making my heart, yes, Heart, heavy, heavier than I have ever known, but I could not weep and grieve, either for you or for me. Your calm denouncement of your Death, the suicide of our ‘I’, my sense of having ‘lost’ you, only gives me a profound sense of Destiny, of heavy rivers swelling and taking their course, bypassing the long roots from the wayside trees dipping into it, drinking from it. Not a thought does the river spare for the bystanders!

But then why does your water sweep the leaves off my arms and take them downstream to show them the salty oceans and the sunsets there? Is it on one of these leaves that you write your message of farewell and send them over, from wherever it is that you are? So that it is a double punch…one message of eternal farewell with the words in the letter, and another in the leaf, my leaf that bears the message, now returned to me? So that I cannot even deceive myself any further with illusions of you having them as a keepsake? 

You know me. You know that I cannot dream of denying you the right to your Life, the right to a lack of it, if only you wish it. You also know that you cannot deny me a right to mine. Whatever interaction we have had, whatever relationship we share, whatever prompted you to write a message of ‘farewell’ to me because you have gone away, forever, is all based on this unspoken fundamental. With such an understanding, what is the meaning of the lines you write to me, on the back of a peepal leaf? What farewell are you referring to? I know that you always fare me well, but must you underscore that in red ink on the back of a peepal leaf and let it flutter across the courtyard, under our blue sky, just because your Life as you know it is lost to you? Are you telling me, trying to tell me, that is, that you are forever lost to me and I to you, just because you are dead? Don’t I still have you, here, with me, now and forever, whether you live or die or hang between heaven and earth?

I do. And now, now, I realize what the farewell was all about. Maybe it was not that you were bidding farewell to me at all. You are just taking leave of that part of you that you have left behind in me. And when I let this peepal leaf flutter back with the wind, telling Him to take it where it wills, I am saying goodbye too, another goodbye, to the part of me that shall forever be yours. We are characterized by the losses we have suffered, only my loss is not you, it is myself. And with that loss, that goodbye, I welcome a new Me in me. The Me with the permanent citizen, You. Welcome, friend.

Necker cube

Once upon a time – don’t ask me why all stories have to have taken place at some definite time in the past – my story is timeless, I think. Still, for the sake of tradition, I say ‘once upon a time’. To resume, once upon a time, there was a woman, not unlike a certain person who refers to someone she knows as a ‘certain person’ while writing her little stories. I cannot tell you what she was like, for I don’t know it myself, and do we ever really know? But I know one small titbit from the history that her life was, and that is what I am going to recount to you.

This woman, one evening, was in conversation with her brothers. In the course of their exchanges, the girl happened to ask her brothers how long they would be around for her. The wise men knew, if not the exact answer, what answer they should not give, what hopes they should not stoke, what facts they could not hide. They spoke the truth, in a matter of fact voice, like they always did.

The woman heard the answer spoken, and asked her next natural question. She wanted to know whether there would be anyone with her till she was.

Her brothers knew the answer, because they had heard men who knew speak about it. They tried telling their sister what they knew, but she refused to believe it, because she saw that the voices of her brothers lacked conviction, and thought if their words were so flimsy that they could not believe it themselves, then why she should do it.

The brothers wanted to prove to the sister the truth of their words, and the sister wanted to know the truth. So they decided to approach a man who was known to know a lot of answers. They would take their question to him, they thought, and see whether he had the answer in his bag-of-answers.

It would be difficult to approach this man, though. He was and exceedingly busy man. His schedule was completely packed for most of the day, and he was constantly meeting people, mostly new ones, every single day. His mind would be filled with the details of all these people, and the bits of information they chose to bring to him, and all that he chose to take in. No, our people were not sure if they would get an appointment. For the appointment of a recluse, is the most difficult appointment to obtain.

Nevertheless, they managed to get five minutes of his time, and the woman put forth her question to him.

“Is there anyone on earth who will be with me forever?”

The great man thought for a moment, and replied, almost instantaneously: “No”

“But I am afraid to go on with so much uncertainty. When there is no definite end to anything, then why should I do what I do? Nothing matters anyway, not me, nor you. And this kind of apathy scares me. Can you please tell me why?”

“It was never meant to be that way. We were born alone and we go alone. It is a law of nature. What is there to fear?”

“The fact that everything seems so important, but nothing really is. Then, why should we do anything? What is the need, what is the desire, what is the will? There is a huge ‘why’ that looms above me. And that ‘why’ seems pointless.”

The great man then said, “It looks like you have not yet learnt to live with detachment. Your fear is but a consequence of that. I’ll give you a proposition. You be my secretary for the next month, live with me, and see what I do. I am sure you will get your answers by the end of the month.”

And so, the brothers left their sister with the man, secretly relieved.

The woman began her internship with her mentor. Her work involved making his schedule for each day, a week in advance, and making sure he stuck to his schedule. Added to this, she had to make sure that he took his meals at regularly spaced times every day, was on time for his insulin shots and was not disturbed when spoke with his wife for fifteen minutes, every morning, the only time of the day he spoke to her. For all this, she was paid in his time; she got an hour to talk to him at the end of every day. However, she hardly made use of this time for actually talking, and let him use his leisure hour as he usually used it.

No, her lessons were from observation. She saw the enormous number of people who spoke to this man every day. She made memorandums of their lives, as they told it to her, to be passed on to him. She got down names and addresses and other ways and means to contact all these people. She saw her mentor engrossed in the affairs of these people, twenty four by seven, learning about everyday horrors, yet eating his food with relish at the end of the day as if he had been born for the sole purpose of finishing that single meal.

She saw him address an old woman he had never set his eyes on before, and his eldest son, with the same warmth, the same equanimity. She saw him impervious to the circumstances of birth and death, of the vagaries of bonds and estrangement.

That night (it was almost three weeks since she had first come there) she addressed him during the one hour he had given to her: “How are you able to be that way? Don’t you feel pride when those people greet you and wish you and adore you? Don’t you feel joy when you speak to your wife and son? Don’t you feel dread when you know that all this is fleeting, and will soon be gone? Don’t you think of what you will do then, how you will sit and think back and feel everything all over again, only it will all be a memory, a have-been? How are you able to create all this, knowing well that it has to definitely go someday?”

The man replied: “Why is it that you have not spoken a word to me, about what you seek me about, all this time, but do so now?”

“I was biding my time. I was observing. There is more sense in silent observation and then talking than in empty talk.”

“Ah! That is exactly what I am doing. I am observing as well, except on a much grander scale.”

The woman said nothing, but looked back, waiting.

“You ask me,” resumed the man. “You ask me about joys and sorrows which are momentary and elusive. But then, is anything not elusive? No, as I told you on the first day you were here. You ask me what sense there is in creating something that is going to go. I ask you, when you know everything, everything, is going to go, what is there to lose?  There is equal chance for everything to go on the rocks, which seems to be their ultimate fate. So why not have it and enjoy it while it lasts?”

He paused.

“To me, everything I see is like an experiment. I have to account for the results, only to myself. So, I observe. I see what happens, I see what does not happen. It’s a poor hobby maybe, but it answers, for me, the questions that you ask.”

“But what about people? Why are they there? Is there any sense in allowing them to be there when you know that they will not be there always? Why this deception?”

The man laughed.

“People? All your people are all you. What you see of your people are what you see, nothing more, nothing less. So, does it not figure that so long as you are around they will be too?”

He continued: “You may wonder at the fact that I spend so little time with my family, that I am continually obsessed with the random lives of random people, including yours. Does this mean I don’t like them, that they mean nothing to me? Of course not. But don’t you realise, it’s all to do with me? Does it matter where they are, what they do and what they think, so long as I have their image with me?”

The woman said, “You care, don’t you?”

“Who said I don’t care? I perhaps care more than anyone else, and that is the reason why I am able to speak this way.”

“So nobody is definitely going to be around for me, for me, till I am here, except myself?”

“Nobody. Or everybody. Depends on how you see it.”

“A perfect Necker cube.” She laughed.

“Exactly.”

*

The woman’s internship was over, and she packed her bags to return, if not with all the answers, at least with the means to find them. Which was good enough.

She thanked her mentor for his help, and set out to leave.

After she had gone, the man sat back down.

He thought about the past month, the silent efficiency of the woman, her keen observatory powers that he had observed, and her persistence in fulfilling the goal with which she had come to him. His schedules had been run smoothly for the past month. He had enjoyed having her around.

And now she was gone.

He gave a short laugh, and returned to his work.