Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013 Shortlist, Jose Varghese

Ronnie Lives

It started with two dreams. In the first one Ronnie saw himself in a wheelchair. He was perhaps ten years older than he was, in his mid forties. He sat on the chair with a contented look, an open book on his lap and the fingers of his right hand over them. His left hand rested on the stump where his left thigh ended. There was no sense of discomfort in his mind. It all seemed convenient. It seemed as if the missing part of his left leg had stopped bothering him long time back. It was perhaps the full right leg that has become an encumbrance, he thought, in his dream.

The second dream was even more vivid, and involved an entire incident from his childhood, when he was seven or eight years old. It was just one among the many incidents out of his life, and he even wondered why a real incident from the past could occur as a dream. Perhaps it could be seen as an incident that was representative of many similar ones that left him flustered. And this time in his dream, he was outside his mind, though not entirely. He watched it as if it unfurled on a movie screen, but at the same time, he was able to get into the young Ronnie’s mind whenever he wished. It was in a flash-back mode as well, and went on like this:
“Beat me up if you believe I did that”, Ronnie’s eyes glistened on the verge of insanity as his Dad approached him. But Dad was a gentle creature, and was only trying to find out the truth. That infuriated Ronnie more. Why can’t he be convinced of my genuineness? – he thought.
It all happened over a confusion at school. Two boys with the same names. Ronnie was not a good boy all the time, but he was never into bullying the little boys. The other Ronnie was. And he even hit his victim on the chin when things didn’t go his way. There was blood, and tears. Things got really mixed up. The headmaster was after the Ronnie who did it, but circumstances were against the Ronnie who didn’t do it. The latter was found playing with the victim just minutes before he was hit and was bleeding and crying uselessly, unable to even speak a word. The Ronnie who did it had escaped. No one knew where he was.
The headmaster questioned him. He was embarrassed to be accused of what he hadn’t done, but tried to recount the whole story. “I was playing with the boy. He is from our neighbourhood and we know each other. Then I had a headache and went to the washroom. When i walked back to class I saw a crowd near the place where we were playing. I didn’t know what was happening...”
 “That’s a smart way of avoiding reality. I got the report that Ronnie Jacob did this. And you are Ronnie Jacob – right?”
     “Yes I am’ – he wished he was not, but the truth had to be told. If only truth was accepted in its entirety!
     “So, what kind of headaches do you get usually? Are they always the kind that makes you say ‘I didn’t know what was happening’?”
     “No sir. My headaches are related to my eyes. They are just aches. They don’t make me do things I don’t usually do.”
     “So you know what I am talking about, don’t you?”

The headmaster took his cane from the table and without waiting for more responses, started beating him. He thought the beating would stop after the third one – that was customary. But it went on. He just counted them in his mind, to divert himself from the pain and shame.

“One, two, three, four...on the left leg and five, six, seven, eight...on the right. The pain came back immediately and his hands couldn’t be controlled. They went to the red marks and moved over them as if the limbs were having a secret conversation, a pair of them wailing, and another pair of them consoling.
He just couldn’t believe that something like that could happen, to him. He didn’t really know what had happened to the boy who was injured and wondered why he didn’t speak out, and just sat on a chair, sobbing and looking at the wall as he was punished. He wondered why he couldn’t speak out more, in a convincing manner, and why an adult could not trust a child’s words. He didn’t know it then, but he was beginning to feel lost, in a world which didn’t care for the truth.
The fact that it was the other Ronnie who did it was revealed soon afterwards. But no one had the courage, or goodwill, to report it to the headmaster.
Even he saw the other, crouched in his chair in his not so violent mood. In fact, he looked scared. It was up to him now to take things further and clarify everything. But he didn’t have the energy for that. It was already too much for him that his words didn’t have any effect on the headmaster. And even if the one who did it was to be punished, was it going to take away the red marks from his legs? It was his mother who found out those marks and told his Dad about them, despite his futile attempt, the second one, to speak about the truth. And when his third attempt failed, as his Dad looked at him with suspicion, he lost his temper.
“You can chop off my legs if you want”, he shouted. His Dad stood next to him, looked downwards, and said, “Ronnie, you must calm down. This is not the time for another tantrum.”
The second dream stopped there, abruptly. Unperturbed by both dreams that happened a week ago, Ronnie sat on a bench by the small railway station. A few sparrows had gathered around his feet. He was now typing a quick email to his doctor. He knew that it would be read immediately. There was just enough time to make the final arrangements. He could trust only one man now.
The doctor was not just a surgeon in a government hospital for him.  He had become something like a therapist.  Ronnie was lucky to have found him; there were no good clinical psychologists outside India’s big cities.  Ronnie let the sparrows come closer to his shoes by not moving his feet. He always seemed to be making space for others.
Ronnie felt ashamed of his inability to communicate; but he was also angry that other people lacked the insight to see how much he was suffering.  His friends told him he thought too much.   He certainly considered himself an intellectual.  He believed that what he thought of as truth didn’t exist in the world in which he lived.  No one could understand the person he wanted to be.   It would even be blasphemous to live the life he wanted. None of the religions he knew could condone his strange desire.
He wanted to get rid of words.    But words were important in his life.  Words flowed out of him, scribbled on books and typed on his computer. He had written one hundred and sixty two poems altogether, which no one else had seen or read. He wrote stories as well, but only a few among them could be finished.   The trouble was, there were too many words.  He knew he needed to go beyond them.
Ronnie took a deep breath. There was a little more time and he wanted to use it productively. He opened his journal and began to write:
A few house sparrows have settled near my feet. I wonder what I would look like to someone who passes by. But no one usually comes this way.  I am sitting on a damaged concrete bench by a nearly abandoned train station. Trains just pass through this station and only the local and slow ones stop here. And I am waiting for the Bangalore Express. Eyes fixed to my old Notebook’s screen, fingers moving undecidedly over alphabets that try to be truthful to what the web of neurons signal to my system. 
Me and my Notebook, against the dust particles that fly and fall down on my shoes. We are denied free will, even of the transitory nature. We obey commands, the existence of which we don’t even realize at times. We try to be smart but make a mess of everything by our uninformed inventiveness. We rebel occasionally, only in attempts to get rid of that which we think invade us.
The bench carries the weight of a man’s thoughts and a machine’s heat. The man out of Dionysian dreams about to plunge into some unknown sphere of existence. The machine with its helpless Apollonian rationality about to witness, and play a significant part in, what follows. Nature keeps a knowing, watchful eye.
     What if I fail?                                                                                                    
Despite all my preparations, I can lose my life in this attempt. That would defeat the purpose of my perseverance. What I need to gain is life, with certain things altered.
It is not easy to be alone in a quest for identity, when the meaning itself of identity has been ripped off by essentialists. My friend who studied in some big Western university thinks these are the golden times of communities. He thinks there cannot be anyone left out with individual existential angst. When he saw me reading Kafka once, he laughed at the anachronism of a Third World citizen stuck in the drainpipes of European thoughts at the wake of Twenty First Century. He thought Gregor Samsa, a.k.a. Kafka, might be howling slogans in a Gay Parade or dancing in a nightclub if he lived to see this world now. How can he waste his time having apple-fights with his father and crying over his ‘metamorphosis’ behind a closed door? Try to imagine the guy in a Marilyn Monroe wig dancing to deejayed hiphop, and you will lose your appetite for grim books, he said.
I was silenced. I wanted to tell him that I would be happier with less, not more. But he wouldn’t have understood a word of what I had to say, lost in his newly-found all-knowing stupidity. His teenage wisdom told him that the art of life was to learn to live with, and make the most of, what we had in us.
I know that in a few minutes, others would think of me as a real fool. I need to roll up the left trouser leg. I need it to live with me, so I will roll it up just above my knee where I had tied some cloth tightly, just in case. My message might have reached the doctor by now, and he will come soon after the train passes by. But I am being cautious. I am almost sure that I will pass out, and I need to avoid fatal blood loss.
I am a bit worried about losing the part of leg I need, and of losing life as well, but the good doctor had explained a few things to me and showed me the way I have to keep the leg on the track. He knows the exact part from where I need to loose it, and he can look after that once I become his patient legally.
It was very kind of him. I was really surprised that he understood me. But he is the one who made full use of his years around the world. I respect him for his discerning mind which recognizes human misery. He thinks beyond stereotyped identity crises, and believes in an individual’s right to choose the life he needs. I choose life without my right leg from just above the knee.

     I can imagine the initial hardships and financial constraints. Not to talk of social stigma, though the fools will never know why I put my leg under a speeding train. Despite all that, I can foresee my happiness if I succeed in this attempt. An end to my agony that was beyond any analyst or therapist. A pragmatic solution to the darkness that took birth with me in the form of an unwanted limb. It won’t be heaven, but I know that it would be a lesser hell for me.

     I don’t think much of the invented new-age categories – Devotees, Amputees, Wannabees… I am going to live in a society which hasn’t heard of amputees by choice. I do not wish to partake in any of the thoughtless exploitation of mutual feelings through community building.
I hear a vibration over the rail-track that resonates with my senses swollen in anticipation.  
The bums who could not even find a tree branch strong enough to hang themselves…The semi-crack who waited for death lying on a rail track as the train passed through some other track…A few people who tore off their genital organs in religious frenzy and threw them in the air…An old man who dreamt of an orgy before starting a trip of life and death in search of a boy his grandson’s age…
My resolve is not a fragile branch of tree. There is only one rail track in front of me. I am not misguided by mob psychology. I am not an old man in his death bed, tormented by late realizations.
My search for difference, a rare identity, leads me here. Sometimes, I feel like a character out of my stories.

Either way, this act serves a purpose. It proves something. It brings some change to an eventless life. Ronnie looked at his watch, shut down his Notebook, put it back on his bag and laid it on the bench. He walked towards the railway track.  The train would be passing soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment