Fiction Park

SATURDAY

  • To take things easy, one should not fight against the ebbs and ethos of life, but flow with it; give way to it—that was what all humans needed
- BIBEK ADHIKARI

Dec 16, 2018-

His eyes followed the thread of the lines, lingered at some stanza breaks, and retraced its path from the end to the beginning. None of these words made sense—his eyes had obviously missed the meaning lingering around the shadowy ink since a black crow, hung on the telephone wire outside the house, cawed continuously for a good twenty minutes. It was a language nobody understood, unless for a sparrow, hung on the other side of the road, that gave out her intermittent chirrups upon the October air with pleasing persistence.

Pranjal, a man of twenty-six, of medium height and slender build, was unable to read Keats with any degree of comfort and hence got up with an expression of disgust. He walked down the lane and across the narrow street, which connected gable-roofed houses, one with the other. “That crow had no right to make all the noises he wished,” he thought, and stopped before the door of the tea shop, next to the main building of Pulchowk Campus. Seating himself on a wooden bench, he got glued to Keats. The day was Saturday, the book was old with yellowing pages. He was already familiar with Lamia, and he glanced restlessly over To Autumn, which he had not had time to read before.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless,

With fruit vines that round the thatch-eves run.

Once in a while, he withdrew his glance from the book and looked around. There was more noise than ever inside the hut. The chattering crows were still outside—he could hear them. He could even feel them in his nerves. The tea shop owner, a plump little woman, bustled in and out, giving orders in a high key to a rickety boy.

He finally lit a cigarette and began to smoke, letting the book idly drag from his hand.

He fixed his gaze upon the silvery sun-shades that kept advancing to the hut from the Campus. They came inside, with a meditative air of thoughtfulness, and melted dreamily into the semi-darkness of the hut. Laughter and raucous noises filled in.

“So, you’re all set for that girl, then?” One of the sun-shades asked in his typical sluggish voice—the kind of voice you have when you had just woken up and your mouth still felt heavy and dull. He’s pretending: he’s wide awake. 

“Close to digging your nails into her buttocks, right?” Another silhouette smirked and looked around. 

“It’s your life, you gotta do what you think is right.” A shadow spoke, toying with his cell phone. 

“That little slut! Who does she think she is?” Resting a fingertip on each of his closed eyelids, a phantom with a goatee spoke from the darkness within.

Laughter descended like meteors. “This city where I am living is a magnificent magnet that has attracted more than three million lost iron fillings,” Pranjal thought. Nearly four million at the last census? Every year, the city kept attracting more and more lost souls. That didn’t surprise him. These souls had, in fact, two passions: talking and making love. He wondered what the future generation would think of us. Probably a single sentence to summarise the fate of postmodern humans: they talked and made love—without any heart to it.

He tried to get everything out of his head. He forgot where he was; even who he was. Once his mind got total blank, things started to resurface. Over and over again, he had played this stuff out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Something inside of him was disturbed. Closing his eyes, he felt, there were no voices, no shadows, and no sense of time. Just fine verses swirling up into the sky.

Enough of this imagination!

He realised he couldn’t read here anymore. He yawned and stretched himself. He got up, saying to himself that he had half a mind to go over Nava Durga eatery for the morning meal. But he did not know; perhaps he would not eat today, and perhaps he would read Keats all day long. He laughed a short laugh at this thought, and nodded goodbye to himself.

It was eleven o’ clock when he sat down on the stairs of Pasa Yard. He was in high spirits and from his trousers pockets he took a fistful of dried raisins and chewed them greedily.

The verses of Keats materialised out of the air and clouded his vision.

To bend with apples that moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more.

A dog came and sniffed at his feet. He tried to shoo this poor thing off, but he knew that it wouldn’t go. He shouted at the dog and made sudden, threatening gestures. The dog, in rage, barked and snapped. So, it had come, the day of testing. With little warning and no fanfare, it was here—for a man who was always afraid of dogs, especially stray ones—and now he was in the middle of this mayhem. His heart hammered so hard that it too, in a dumb way, must knew what was coming. How would they stand up to the testing, he and his heart?

He gave the dog a push. The dog stumbled back and landed heavily, its face placid, without a trace of anger. It was merely a job he was doing: saving himself. If it involved hitting the dog with a brick, he would do it; hit it as many times as was necessary, if necessary, break the brick too. 

The dog growled and barked louder. He shivered. A dangerous duel. The barking of the dog grew louder again, more excited. In anguish, he got up and ran as fast his feet could. Ran across the yard, down the road, took a wide turn on the left, and ventured inside the lawn of Patan Campus. Gasping for breath, he stopped and looked behind. Not a single soul. Only empty lanes frowned on either side of the buildings in the unaccustomed solitude of a bright midday.  

Inside the premises of the campus, pigeons sat on the eaves, their feathers floated dreamily through the air, their droppings splattered against the brick pavement below. Pranjal strutted, weary and frazzled, muttering under his breath. His myopic eyes glared behind his spectacles. Sitting on the lawn, he looked out upon the shimmering heat of the afternoon as if a tray with tea and glucose biscuits would emerge and come flying out of it—to his respite. With increasing impatience, he chewed some raisins and opened his book.

An old Newar came and sat beside him. “Studying, eh?” The old man remarked. Without paying much heed to what the old man asked, he sought solace in the yellowing papers. 

“I studied day and night,” continued the old man, “day and night. During exams, I cut off my eyelashes. Then, whenever my eyes shut, they would prick me, and I would wake up so I could read more. Those were the days, fuchche.” The old man laughed, showing the betel-stained teeth beneath the small bristling mustache he wore.

Pranjal paid no attention.

The old man peeked into the book. “English, eh?” He inquired. “That bloody cow-eater’s language! What do you think you are? Khaire, eh? Forgetting your own language, you swine?” The old man poked Pranjal with his cane. 

Agitated and infuriated, Pranjal got up and walked out of the campus premises. He became lethargic and loitered in the dark alleys of Mangal Bazaar for half an hour or so until he reached Krishna Mandir.

Sitting on the stone paved plinth of the temple, he slouched back, looking around at the busy people. His eyes were half closed, a little smile touching the corner of his lips. And then, he saw, or thought he saw, something distinctly inspiring about the place, the chiming of bells, the slow, soft murmurs of passers-by, and the shrill tone of the vendors. A shadow of raptness grew inside his eyes—right in their centres, two small, slow sparks of shrewdness burned. 

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

A small, somewhat aging pundit in tattered clothes walked briskly around the edge of the temple. He walked quickly with little bouncing strides. He stopped beside Pranjal and smiled, showing two rows of very small, uneven teeth, slightly tarnished. 

Pranjal didn’t smile back. 

“Uff! What a day!” The pundit said, sat down and crossed his legs. He rummaged in his pockets and produced a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He offered one to Pranjal, but he refused to smoke. Putting a cigarette between his lips, the pundit raised the top of the lighter with his thumb, and again with the thumb he gave the wheel a sharp flick. The flint flashed, the wick caught fire and burned with a small yellow flame. Cupping the cigarette with his one hand, he brought the flame nearer as if cold wind like blades of ice-cubes were blowing in that dry day of summer.

Taking a deep drag, he spoke: “All right. Can we make a bet, boy? If you can smoke all these cigarettes that I have at once, you can have all the temples and this land to your name, but if you lose, you have to give me some small thing you can afford to give away, and if you did happen to lose it, you would not feel too bad. Right? Hmm ... Let me think, err, perhaps, how about the little finger on your left hand—I’ll chop it off. Right?” Having said this, the pundit flashed a sly smile.

Pranjal said nothing.

“So, you ready, boy? You can have all this property to your name. You can sell it, make a lot of money, right?” 

“Would you mind keeping your mouth shut, old man? I am trying to read here.” 

“Reading? What good is this reading? Look, I am offering you a good sum of money. The whole lot of temples!” The pundit made an arch with his right hand showing the richness of the place and added: “Look, even if you lose you have nothing to lose. Just a little finger! What will you do with that finger anyway?”

And then the pundit produced a set of razors and a roll of thread and grinned. There was something sinister about his smile, Pranjal thought, and a wave of terror enveloped him.

Without giving a second thought, panic-stricken and nauseous, he jumped to his feet and ran across the street.

Walking down the snaking alleys of Patan, he thought that a nice cup of tea and glucose biscuits would restore energy inside his cells to devour more of those yellowing pages. It was six o’clock in the evening and was getting fairly dark.

“There’s nothing more tantalising,” he thought, “than a thing like these verses which linger just outside the borders of one’s memory.”

Back in his room, he lit himself a cigarette and took a puff and laid the cigarette in the ashtray. Reading a page more, he lifted the cigarette and inhaled another puff deeply, and blowing it out in the clouds all over the room, all he could see was the wonky furniture through the smoke. All that furniture looked huge and wrought-up in a defiant manner. 

“There was a way to live,” he thought, “carelessly, recklessly, losing yourself in the abyss of oblivion. To take things easy, one should not fight against the ebbs and ethos of life, but flow with it; give way to it—that was what all humans needed. And every morning, so fresh and fair, lounging along the streets and laughing at the beauty of everyday things, life itself seemed to whisper: to live is to live. However, it was not always possible to soar up in the sky like a goldfinch when time and circumstances held one as a hostage.”

Now as he had read a few stanzas aloud, there came a rapping on his door; first it felt like a gentle tapping, but then it was this earsplitting rapping, a rapping much alike thunderstorm.

“Reading, huh? Exam coming? When was the last time you paid the rent?” This was the landlord. A boisterous man in his mid-forties who had an uncanny sense when it came to money.  “Do you think you can live all your life here without paying a single rupee?” 

Pranjal remained silent. His silence was deafening. It’s the silence of the primordial forest, threatening and defiant. Like the Cro-Magnon man lodged in the forest of Raniban. He, at times, certainly felt out of his element. With his doubtful disposition and an unusual quietness, it was quite difficult to discuss anything that was not related to his work—which was reading a book now.

Judging the oppressive heaviness of Pranjal’s silence, the landlord at last spoke with a great discomfort: “This is the last time. Tomorrow morning, I come and you give me the money. Else, out of my house! Okay?”

Disturbed from his reading, he lethargically looked around. Fortunately, there was gin, the singlegleam of light in this pitch-dark

darkness. With the warmth of gin, he could feel the golden, copper-coloured light burn in him. Making his head swim somewhat in the ocean of poetry, he dreamt or talked to himself endlessly. With his fourth peg, he turned blue with cold. He ached all over; it was as though someone was wringing the blood out of his body.

It was then past midnight. The lights of the neighbourhood houses had already blinked out, and the whole city seemed to be sleeping a peaceful sleep. A single faint light gleamed out from his room. There was no sound abroad, expect for the shrill hooting of an old owl in the top of the peepal tree, and the everlasting voice of the wind—a woeful serenade upon the night.

He was overcome with sleep, and blowing out the candle, which he had left burning, he sank deep beneath the covers. The mosquitoes made joyous noises over him, biting his thin arms and nipping at his bare insteps. But he slept a sound sleep and he knew that the following morning, he had to be up before the dogs woke up, and go to the other end of the city to work, and he would not read Keats till next Saturday.

Published: 16-12-2018 08:01

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