in the head - 2
“Buy the cassettes! For fuck’s sake, man, I need the cash. My whole collection for three hundred rupees only. Come on dude! Buy the friggin’ cassettes…”
I didn’t say no. I had bought all five audio cassettes from the drunk American who barged into my nursing home six months ago. I didn’t ask him what kind of music it was. I didn’t care. I wanted him out of my nursing home. He was making my nervous customers (a young couple) even more nervous. It happens all the time: cash-starved foreign tourists randomly barge into places of business in Colaba to sell their personal belongings.
After the couple left, I examined the cassettes I had been forced to buy. They had bizarre covers with outlandish words written on them. Nirvana, Radiohead, Secret Samadhi and so on. English music, unfortunately.
It was the last day of Ramazan. The next day was to be Eid. I was to put on laundered clothes and go to the mosque for the morning namaaz. At the mosque, no one was to give me the three congratulatory hugs that Muslim men are meant to exchange on auspicious occasions. I was to come back home with a dry mouth, jerk my wife out of her sleep, open the cabinet in my hall, insert one of the English cassettes into my old player and rewind it all the way to the beginning. I was to press the play button.
I didn’t know I was to rattle with sorrow for the next thirty minutes.
I did. Like a laboratory skeleton dangling in an earthquake. Like a sceptic to whom a saint had revealed his sainthood. I shook and wept tearlessly. The music that bled from the speakers matched the cacophony of unborn-baby voices in my head. Discordant and raw and numbing.
A single baby’s voice is beautiful. The collective googoos and gagas of a hundred children is grotesque. But concentrate on these hundred voices long enough and you’ll realise the beauty of each infantile voice. So it was with the music bleeding from the speakers. It consisted of singular strands of guitars so exquisite that they unfolded your leaden heart inside out and scraped away the pain and rage coagulating on its inner walls.
But these singular strands weren’t what overwhelmed me. Beauty stopped seeming beautiful to me a long time ago. It was the collective noise of ten, hundred, millions of strands of guitars playing together that made my body convulse and my gaze still. Afsana, my wife, stood in a corner of the hall and watched me. Side A reached its end and the player bled silence.
I haven’t played any of those English cassettes again. It was enough that I had come across an analogue to the unborn-baby voices. I wasn’t going to allow a new cacophony to compete with them. It was the least I could do for my dead mother, whose aural imprints are part of the unborn-baby voices in my head.
And the least I can do for my father? To let him be. He threw out Afsana and me the day Ma’s death washed up on our jagged beach. Having never opposed my occupation until then, he had called me a bastard abortionist and told us to vacate in an hour. My wife and I now live in a building nearby. I haven’t spoken to my father since.
I see him often. He too works in Colaba. Has been a salesman in a shoe-shop for fifteen years. Sometimes, we take the same train to work. If we spot each other on the platform, we wordlessly board the same compartment and wade toward each other through the working-class crowd. Our actions would seem comic to an acquaintance. A father and son going through all this trouble to be near each other in a packed Harbour Line train, only to not exchange a single word. Like sulky kids.
I want to show him how the circles around my eyes have started invading my cheeks and forehead, making me darker every day. How on the sides of my neck I have started developing raisin-like moles that could prove to be cancerous or could end up as rubbery playthings for my curious grandchildren. My father has remained the same. This is what he wants to display. Black hair. Still a mouthful of teeth. No shrinkage even at 65.
The Harbour Line has slums on either side. Every morning, male slum-dwellers shit on the railway tracks. There’s no point hating them for their shamelessness. The route is a busy one, with trains going to and fro every two minutes. For privacy, a slum-dweller would have to wait until nightfall. Only women can bear the wait.
One morning, post Ma, my estranged father and I were on our way to work. The train was nearing our destination — Victoria Terminus. We moved towards the same exit and fought our way to the front. The signal turned red. The train stopped. My eyes wandered and landed on a woman squatting between two railway tracks. She was facing our train. Her left hand was covering her face. Her right hand was struggling to hide her exposed parts.
The train didn’t move for four minutes that morning. The woman remained frozen. She would’ve been a forgotten freak sight had the train moved on. But with each passing minute, her presence turned piercing, painful like the sun. I craved to watch her as one would a rare animal trapped by a hunter. But her will hurt my eyes and I looked away. My father was standing behind me.
Our fellow-commuters turned restless. In the vast urban landscape visible from the train, this singular sight of a beggarly woman struggling to maintain her modesty took on monumental proportions. Someone from the adjoining First Class compartment flung a full Bisleri bottle at her. It struck her shoulder with a deep thuck. A bone had been hit. She toppled over like a bowling pin. But her left hand was still hiding her face. Her right hand was still clutching at her exposed parts. My father winced on the woman’s behalf. As he and a few others started abusing the First Class compartment, the train set into motion, its steely innards groaning at the futility of it all. The beggar woman lay there like a fallen queen of the gutter.
That’s my father. Taking offence on behalf of others. Feeling free to continually offend his own.
There’s no relief in my life. No relief. I can’t offer you any. It’s one thing to read about a life like mine. It’s another thing to live it… every relentless day. Why don’t I change my occupation? Just shake off this life leeching away at my being. I could easily shut down my nursing home. I’d save on the nurse’s wages and the monthly packet of bribes I have to pass on to all those poor Municipal officials. Afsana would start fulfilling her wife’s role willingly. And all this pain, rage, and congestion of unborn-baby voices in my head would be out from my system. But people like me, rational, responsible, sane, level-headed, careful, thinking, always thinking, can never take such rash steps.
I’d need a careless fuck-you attitude towards everything around me, including my own body, to throw away everything I have. Or else a greedy, gigantic embrace of everything life has to offer and spend my time doing, getting, doing, getting, getting, getting, getting…
No, people like me get the rawest of deals. We do our jobs. Live moderate, upright lives. Don’t drink. Don’t stone ourselves on bits of paper dipped in hallucinogenic acids. Have no burning ambitions.
People like me preserve our minds and bodies by living tepid, languid lives. Just to end up as cold, brittle artefacts. Like life-sized cut-outs pinned to the floor by the worst of memories. And like ink from a leaking pen, we let the past blot our shining futures. Continually.
p. 1 p. 2
Altaf Tyrewala is the author of the novel 'No God In Sight' (Penguin India, 2005).
He lives in Bombay. This was his first published story (2001)