Tuesday 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, Featured Writer Debasish Mishra

The Insane Talisman

Whenever I travel back in time – sauntering through the lanes of my past, while standing leisurely in the balcony with a cup of coffee in hand – a strange kind of happiness overwhelms me. A smile prevails over my dry lips. The memories of that man flashes before my inner eye, uninterruptedly, as clear as a whistle.  Here was a man who was by no means extraordinary; a man who was, in fact, a tad less than ordinary; a man who was a foe to his own fate; a man who was probably ignored by his own family. Queer yet cute. Silent yet eloquent. They called him the insane talisman. Yes, the insane talisman of Srabanpur!
Overburdened with the irritation of long hours of study, we sneaked out of the hostel, surreptitiously cleaving through the broken window and jumping over the not-so-high brick walls, and landed at the railway station, almost every night. Farhan – my best friend and my roommate in the New Hostel of Richardson University - always accompanied me in such dark adventures. The night view of the station portrayed the vivid panorama of life and refreshed our spirits. The to-and-fro of men signified the incessant and undying journey of life. Bodies sleeping helplessly in the platforms indicated the abject plight of poverty.  Just outside the station, a few vendors – mostly selling tea, tobacco and cigarettes – waited sleeplessly in the pursuit of a customer, in the quest of some profit. They were a tad better financially in comparison to those who were sleeping inside. The big streetlights – there were just a few – sprawled their light to this obscure world in a bid to kill the darkness. 
The crowd – only comprising of the night-travellers and the persons who were there to see them off, and a few insomniacs like us – was largely unsatisfactory from a businessman’s point of view. Yet, for most of the vendors, it was the extension of their hereditary profession or, in some cases, a lone source of livelihood. Some of them took up the business because they probably had nothing else to do. As a matter of fact, we rejuvenated ourselves with hot but insipid tea amid this trifling traffic, whenever we visited the station.  On one such occasion, we came across a lunatic who speechlessly stood in a dark corner – in the mid of a dozen irate dogs - without even the slightest change of expression in his face; and who, after sometime, wobbled unsteadily from one point of the largely vacant  area to another. The only constant agility that we saw in him was the endless flutter of his right hand, as though he was flying an invisible kite in the dark sky. Maybe, it was our first encounter with him.

Alternatively, maybe, we had never focused on this innocuous creature before, like the hundreds of passersby who passed him inadvertently as if he did not exist in their universe. After the hilarious discovery, we rummaged for him every night – strolling through the length and breadth of the area outside the station, waiting for him in the teashop, swilling two teas instead of one, and throwing a hundred questions about him to the tea-vendor who was hardly busy.  Initially, the lunatic was an element of fun and humour for us. We laughed at his deadpan face, his unchanged dirty clothes, his torn and discoloured slippers, his dishevelled hair, his untrimmed beard, his shaking hand, his uncanny gait, his speechlessness….and, almost, at everything about him. Gradually, however, we were fond of him, as though our clandestine journeys to the station were meant to culminate with a glimpse of his countenance. We passed more of our time outside the station, either looking for him or, on the other hand, looking at him.

The vendors treated the lunatic with great love and affection. The owner of the teashop, a slender middle-aged man, occasionally handed a plastic glass of tea, which the lunatic promptly picked with his left hand, while his right hand continued to flutter like a flag dancing in the tunes of the breeze. The panwallah often tucked a paan in his mouth as soon as the tea was over. He chewed the paan rhythmically pouring out red spit in regular intervals. We stared at the indifference on his face – that never changed even by the slightest degree. There was neither a gesture of gratitude in return of a favour nor a grimace of dislike when someone threw a caustic remark.

“Is he always speechless?” I asked the tea-vendor, one night.
“He never says a word. Some say he is dumb by birth. Some believe that he was shaken by some incident, or accident, that had robbed him of his sanity and voice. I have never heard him producing any sound. Not even when the tea lacks sugar”, he laughed.
“Who is he, by the way?” Farhan asked with some seriousness.
“Nobody knows about him. He has no name to be specific. He comes out of the dark every night. Nobody has ever seen him in the day. He comes to this place only after midnight, stays here for an hour or two, and then, retreats to the same obscurity”, he delineated, while his eyes continued to search for a potential customer.

“Some people say he was a worker in some industry. The flutter of his hand bears testimony to that. After the industry ceased to exist, probably due to bankruptcy or enormous losses, this man was filled with utter disbelief. He had no idea what he would do. The sudden withdrawal of his bread and butter maddened him”, he added with a feeling of pity. 
“Oh my God! Is it true?” I questioned with shock, as though my heart was coming out through my mouth. We had never imagined, not even in the wildest of our dreams, that the exhibition of humour had such a story of horror beneath it.
“They are several conjectures that I’ve come across.  This is just one”, he quipped with a smile, probably directed at the passersby in a bid to impress them.

“What do the other versions say?” quizzed Farhan.
“Some people reckon that he is mad by birth and the movement of the hand is natural to him.  Some reckon that he is a victim of one-sided love. Some others say that the destruction of life and property in the super cyclone obliterated his heart. He lost all his kith and kin and the house where he lived. This resulted in his madness.”
Before Farhan could put up the subsequent question, I gestured him to be quiet.
Too much of inquisition could have irritated the tea-vendor, just like the killing of the hen in the quest of the golden eggs as quoted in the famous fable.

I remember that incident when a drunkard – who was out of his senses – pelted a stone at the lunatic.
“Say something, you blackguard”, he yelled angrily.

The lunatic maintained his usual quietude, the flinging of his right hand to the air and the consequent dragging back continued. The face remained unchanged as though he was destined to swallow all the sorrow of the world without showing even the slightest expression of pain or discomfort.
Before the frail drunkard could hurl another stone – a little bigger one – we intervened.
Farhan held his wrinkled neck in the grasp of his palm and shoved him vehemently. He fell down like a broken branch. Despite the intoxication, he did not dare to meddle with us. He lurched towards the other side of the road, muttered incoherent abuses, and dissolved in the darkness. The receding noise of abuses dwindled with every step and, finally, melted with the silence.
The lunatic stared blankly as usual…but in the blankness of his face, we deciphered an unuttered ‘thank you’.

We accepted him as our friend. From that day onwards, we made it a habit to buy him a glass of tea and a paan whenever we chanced to see him. It was a strange kind of bond, which thrived on our one-sided-efforts to find him and please him as though he was the solace that we sought for, the panacea for our tedium.

As months passed, the hostel was renovated. The broken window was repaired. Security outside the hostel was beefed up in the wake of some untoward incidents that threatened the law and order of the university. A few guys had jumped into the ladies’ hostel in the night, on one occasion, and shouted extremely derogatory comments. In this regard, police-vans patrolled within the campus in a bid to nab the miscreants, especially the ones who broke free in the night. In a situation like this, our liberty, which previously extended to the station, was limited. Our trips to meet our speechless friend were hindered. We missed him a lot. Sleep evaded our eyes. Studies did not amuse us after twelve. The clock seemed to lose pace...its reluctant hands wobbled sluggishly. The nights appeared relatively longer. We were helpless.  Unable to contain our impatience, we searched for the lunatic during daytime. Much to our distress, we garnered no clue at all as though he disappeared in the day, as though he was allergic to sunlight. Life without him became a boring entity. It is hard to believe how an insane fellow influenced our lives so much – defying logic, rationality and conviction.

Sometimes, the opportunity one craves for comes with the news of a tragedy. My desire to travel to the station was bestowed with a valid reason, though I would have never wanted the opportunity in the bargain of such a huge loss.
Farhan received a phone call just before midnight. He was petrified. The phone fell from his hand. I shrugged him. Tears trickled endlessly as if there was a painful leak, somewhere, inside him.
“What happened, buddy?” I asked.

“Abba is no more”, he muttered amid unending bouts of sobs.
Friendship is really a strange bond. My eyes became wet too in response as though I lost someone. I had never seen him in person, never talked with him over telephone. In fact, even Farhan talked excessively less with him. He was one of those persons whom we consider a man of few words.  As we proceeded towards the railway station, a few policemen stopped us. Despite the moisture in the eyes of Farhan, and to some extent in my eyes too, they interrogated us, asked us for evidence, and hurled a hundred irrelevant questions. Farhan, against his usual demanour, joined his hands and implored them to cooperate. Before the impatience could lead to audacious intrepidness, another policeman, probably an inspector, intervened.

“Don’t harass them. Allow them to go”, he benevolently ordered. The other policemen saluted him at first and then agreed to his order. We thanked him and sped away.
As we reached the station, the tea-vendor announced in joy to the lunatic, “Your chums have come”.
The insane fellow wobbled towards us with a faintly changed expression, as though he was ecstatic to see us after a month or more. In contrast to our tear-smeared-faces, his face beamed under the huge streetlights that strove to kill the darkness. It was not exactly a smile but a little stretch of the lips forming a semi-curve. His right hand continued to swing in the air like an unstoppable pendulum.
The train towards Patna – the hometown of Farhan – arrived in Platform No. 3.

As the lunatic tried to come to our way, possibly beseeching for a glass of tea and a paan, Farhan pushed him aside. He fell on the ground. Perhaps, a tiny drop trickled from his eye. But we had no time to stop for him. The lake that sheltered in Farhan’s eyes outweighed that lone drop, even if it existed. Catching the train was far more important for us than lifting the lunatic.
We ran. Farhan quickly climbed the moving train – without a ticket though – as I waved my hands in the air, as though it was an endeavour from my side to efface the pain that choked his interior. The train melted into the distance…in the darkness. The sound of the wheels grinding the rails gradually died. The smokes disappeared. I came outside the station after some time.
“What happened, babu?” the tea-vendor asked caringly.
“My friend’s father has expired”, I expressed with a feeling of sorrow.
“I understood the fact that something must be wrong. Otherwise, you may not have pushed the lunatic,” he enunciated. 

I gawked at the lunatic who stood at a fair distance from me, amid the throng of dogs who licked his dark legs and pulled his trousers with their teeth. His eyes were fixed on the opposite direction, and his right hand swung as usual. I ambled to him with a glass of tea. As I extended the glass to his left hand, he deliberately dropped it. I could see the clouds of tears in his eyes, the bruises in his elbow. But the feeling of sympathy was somehow smothered by the sentiment of fury.
“What is wrong with you? Do not you see that I am aggrieved? My friend’s father has expired! What kind of human being you are?” I fumed with rage.
The  panwallah came to me and handed a  paan.
“Give it to him, Sir. May be, he is not interested to have tea”, he said with his typical smile. Here was a man who had a smile for every occasion. Praise him and he will smile. Abuse him and he will smile more.
After receiving the paan, I tried to tuck it inside the untidy mouth of the lunatic. The lunatic spat it instantly with the same blank expression on his face.
“What the hell is this?” the  panwallah barked with ire. I pacified him.

After sipping my tea, and watching his endless actions for some time, I retreated to my hostel. The tearful face of Farhan occupied the canvas of my memory. In addition to that, the weird demeanour and the undying diffidence of the lunatic filled my thoughts. I felt as if sleep eluded my eyes.  When I tried my best to dispel the thoughts, they sprang back even more prominently. I missed Farhan. His grief was my grief. I missed his Abba. I tried to imagine how he looked because I had never seen him. I framed an imaginary picture within my mind. On the other hand, the lunatic, whom I regarded as my friend, showed some sense and sensibility for the first time. It seemed as if his repulsion to take the tea and paan was a reaction to the blunt push that Farhan had resorted to before hurrying for the train.  Farhan….His Abba….The lunatic. Amid the various divergent thoughts and the migraine that followed, my eyes succumbed to slumber.

Being the only son, Farhan was entrusted to look after his father’s business. He, in fact, never returned to the hostel. I was puzzled at his decision.
“What kind of wisdom is this?” I queried indignantly, when we talked over telephone after almost a month of his departure.
“My mother is alone. It is not possible for her to look after everything, you know!” he said. 
“I understand… but leaving your studies in between does not seem apt”, I added.
“Even I realize that…but anyway, I was always expected to succeed my father. I do not have a way out. I cannot escape this”, he elucidated.
“Okay! It is your life. But do remember lesser mortals like us”, I implored.
“Jatin, I will at least miss these two persons from Srabanpur”, he added with a sudden diversion of topic.

“Who are those lucky fellows?” I asked.
“You are one, you nuts!” he coaxed with a smile.
I was flattered. “And the other one?”
“The lunatic of course”, he chortled.
We both laughed for sometime sharing some unforgettable memories of the insane creature. I told him how his blunt push had aggrieved the lunatic and the latter denied receiving tea and paan from me. He felt sorry for the incident and asked me to apologize to the lunatic on his behalf.
“The next time when I visit Srabanpur, I will bring a gift for him. Tell him,” he said.

I had no idea what “the next time” denoted. Maybe, it meant after eons of time. The departure of Farhan accentuated my loneliness. Amid all this stress and mental instability, my examinations were ruined. When sleepless nights and solitude precede a paper, the outcome is often predictable. It is awful.

After a few days, the issue of insecurity in the university seemed to dwindle. The presence of the police personnel within the campus was done away with. It is a common thing in our society. Seriousness often fades with time, and erupts back only when a mishap occurs. Sustained activities are rare in the world. There are only a few examples like the unstoppable right hand of the lunatic. I often wondered if his hand rested when he was asleep. The other question that perplexed me – did he ever sleep? The lunatic lingered in my subconscious mind too. Maybe, I missed him more after the departure of Farhan. In order to counter the loneliness that filled my room and my heart, the migraine that occupied me like a sprite, and the psychological imbalance, I went to the station – the place that promised solace to a jaded soul like mine.

The tea-vendor welcomed me with an affable smile.
“Where had you been, babu?” he asked.
“I was a bit busy in my life”, I replied.
A few moments of silence followed.
“The lunatic? I mean, where is the lunatic?” I questioned.
The tea-vendor stared at my face and pointed a finger to a distant corner where the glow of the streetlights struggled to reach.
“Ever since your last visit, he stands there solitarily with those dogs, denying to take tea or paan”, he informed with a pensive voice.
I was utterly scandalized.

“Yes, babu. The last time you were here, you saw how awkwardly he behaved. The rejection of tea and paan was extremely bizarre. We thought he was somehow affected by your blunt push. But then, we expected him to behave normally from the following day. Alas! He is damn diffident.”
I went to the lunatic, caressed his head by running my fingers through the bushes of his hair, patted his cheeks and asked, “What is wrong, dear?”
He speechlessly stared at my face and continued to move his right hand.
Tears poured out from his dark and unclean eyes. I took out my hanky and wiped them.
For the first time, I saw the manifestation of human emotions in the face of the lunatic.
I gently dragged him out of the vistas of darkness and catered him with a glass of tea and a bun cake.  Later, I tucked a paan in his mouth. Along with the red spit, he possibly threw the anger that he carried within him.

My room was akin to hell as it inundated with silence and loneliness. Thus, I visited the station regularly. On many occasions, I ambled to the station with a book in hand. I turned the pages of my book under the big streetlights while the lunatic swivelled his hand. There was a strange kind of symphony, a connection in the events. Under his influence, I, unexpectedly, did well in my last semester examinations and qualified for a post graduation degree in the Delhi University.
My last day in Srabanpur was an emotional one. Looking at my luggage, the lunatic probably gauged that I would be leaving the town. In his speechlessness, I heard the story of unbearable agony. In me, he had found that rare friend. I gave him a pair of clothes – a blue full-sleeved cotton shirt and a black trouser – and said, “This will suit you. Change your stinking clothes.”
Refusing to accept my farewell gift, he walked away, with his unsteady gait, to the same abandoned area of obscurity where even the streetlights could not reach. I followed him sheepishly. Maybe, he felt like crying,”Please don’t go!”

I embraced him with abundant love just to be withdrawn by the faint announcement of the arrival of my train. I promised him that I would meet him whenever I visited my home. I turned and walked towards the station and never looked back, leaving him with the dogs, his timeless friends. I gave the new pair of clothes to the tea-vendor and requested, “Please see that he wears these clothes in lieu of his stinking attire.” He responded with a desultory nod. I entered into the train. A coolie helped me to lift the luggage. Slowly, the train left the station. I craned my neck out of the door as long as the last glimpse of the station was visible. I imagined how the lunatic would look with the new pair of clothes and smiled. The relentless grinding of the wheels continued, the smokes overflew, and I lay in the upper birth, eyes gaping at the metal ceiling, heart meditating on the mist of memories – that I left behind in Srabanpur.

I went to Delhi for my higher studies. New place. New people. New friends.
I was engrossed in the aura of academics. I used to spend many hours in the library – going through fat yellow books that were withered with time, wrinkled in the corners. I turned to a typical research scholar, alienating fun and frolic from my life. I became a slave to my routine. I never realized when my post-graduation transformed to a PhD.  However, to lift my spirits, I now had someone. She was Ananya – my colleague, an alumnus of the Jadavpur University from Kolkata. After her arrival in my life, the loneliness, which usually ushered in memories of my family, Farhan as well as the lunatic, disappeared.  Longer hours of study did not disinterest me.  Infact, studies enchanted me.  We often met in the evenings. Unlike the other couples, we talked of Shakespheare, Keats and Elliot. We expressed our adulation to each other in the form of Shakespherean dialogues or Keats’ sensuous verses. Our friends called us ‘the crazy couple’. Amid the busy schedule and the new-found-company, the memories of Srabanpur moved to oblivion.

One day, I received a phone call from an unknown number.
“You have completely forgotten me”, the voice grumbled.
It took a moment to comprehend that the speaker was Farhan.
I did not realize that we had not met in the last six years.
“How can I forget you, buddy?” I asked emotionally.
“You have changed your number. But you are too busy to call me or message me, even once”, he whimpered.
“Not at all… I lost my phone. Some bastard stole it from me in the Metro,” I defended myself.
I waited for him to respond but the silence lingered in between us.
“I bought a new number along with a new phone. Thus, I lost your contact”, I added, hoping to convince him.
“Leave it now. By the way, when are we meeting? You owe me a treat.”
“Treat?” I asked in a voice gravid with confusion.
“I saw the picture of your fiancĂ© Ananya in a social networking site. You both are getting married if I am not mistaken,” he gushed.
I was embarrassed. He was a close friend, a best friend. He deserved to hear those announcements directly from me before anyone else would know. He had the first rights to listen to my secrets… But Fate had spread the cobweb of distance.

“Why not fix a meeting somewhere?” I asked, in a bid to overcome the feeling of guilt.
“Hmmm… If you really mean it, we can catch up at Srabanpur. By this way, we will refresh our memories”, he said, “and if fortune favours us, we can catch a glimpse of the insane talisman too”.
 “Sure”, I smiled back, as my eyes twinkled with the myriad memories associated with the place.
“Done. We are meeting next month, by hook or by crook,” he observed with an air of sanguine desperation. As per our scheduled plan, I arrived in the Srabanpur railway station at around ten in the night after almost a month. The train – going by the changeless attribute of the railways – was late by three hours. However, amid the huddle of the population – comprising of fatigued travellers, their receivers, a few coolies and possibly some pickpockets – I came across this gentleman who sported an elegant strip of beard to complement his well-combed burgundy hair. Six years of adroit professionalism had transformed Farhan from a meek college-chaff to a complete businessman. He was a clear contrast to me in appearance. Unlike him, I wore a loose black T-shirt with blue denims. My unkempt hair, untrimmed beard and sweaty countenance bore testimony to the world where I belonged. Most of the onlookers must have identified me as a research scholar. To the other illiterate ones, I was more like a lunatic.  I hugged him instantly, unable to contain the effluence of emotions. We walked out while exchanging the anecdotes and travails of each other’s lives.

As I came out of the station, I turned my head to take a cursory glance of the outside view. The station glowed like a palace when seen through the entrance. It had grown in stature and grandeur. I then looked around at the array of small shops located beside the gigantic streetlights, which had now grown in number.  The place seemed organized and well managed. The entire cluster of vendors had changed faces. However, the tea-vendor still existed in an obscure corner, possibly pushed by government officials or mighty men of his trade, with enormous deformities in his appearance. Every inch of his visible skin was smeared with wrinkles. Black specks had filled his face. His hair had become grey, his eyes looked subdued and his lips convulsed incessantly. I then realized that five years actually meant a long time.

When we reached his small shop – which boasted of no other security other than the plastic roof above him that was held tightly by four bamboo-sticks of unequal sizes – he asked indifferently, “Tea?”
We nodded our heads in unison hoping to garner his recognition.
When the old man showed no signs of recognizing us, I volunteered, “Don’t you remember us?”
He looked at our faces with clinical scrutiny and shook his head in denial.
“We used to come to this place before five-six years. We were studying in the Richardson University”, Farhan spoke with a softened voice, possibly trying to undo the effects of aging.
He was still confused or, maybe, irritated because we were eating his time.
“We were friends of the insane talisman”, I said with a sudden stroke of memory.
A smile flashed in his flappy face as the toothless mouth was wide open.
“Oh! Where were you since such a long time?” he queried with vibrant enthusiasm.
“Well, we were busy in our lives. This gentleman is doing his research in Delhi and I am looking after my business in Patna”, Farhan expressed with an air of pride.
“I am so happy that you people have come here”, he gushed with a genial smile.
“Where is the insane talisman?” I asked instantly.       
The old man stayed mum. His smile was hijacked by a sinister frown. It seemed as if his mind meandered through the tunnels of sorrowful memory.

We looked at each other in utter dismay.
Farhan repeated the query.
The old man, after a few moments of silence, said:
“Nobody knows where he has gone. There are so many rumours regarding him. Someone said that he has regained his sanity. He has returned to his village to lead his life with normalcy.”
This inference induced smiles in our cheeks. We were happy for him even if it implied his absence in our world forever.

However, our smiles were soon challenged by the several other conjectures of the tea-vendor.
“Some people also believe that the lunatic has left this town and fled to some other place. Some say he has been crushed by a truck or something,” he said before asking, “Whom will you believe?”
We hushed as though silence was the best answer for the question.
“We can only hope that God will take care of him no matter where he is”, the tea-vendor added with a profound thought.
I nodded my head in approval.
“How is your business going on?” Farhan asked, probably in a bid to drag the conversation to a different topic.
“Don’t say babu! He was our lucky charm. Our talisman. After his departure, our businesses have been doomed. Not only me but also the entire queue of vendors have been affected. All my compatriots have switched to other jobs, other places. But I have a deep sense of affinity for this place, this profession. At times, I doubt if he was a God in disguise and we, somehow, displeased him.”

Farhan and I looked into each other wistfully as we recollected the idiosyncrasies of the lunatic. His departure, just like the story of his arrival, remained a mystery. Infact, the lunatic was himself a mystery. Sorry, he was not an ordinary lunatic. He was the insane talisman!
We left the place, moved to a hotel, shared wine and memories, and recollected the golden days of our graduation. After a couple of days, we returned to our respective worlds. Even in his absence, the talisman helped us to bridge our differences…
Standing in my balcony, when I gaze at the distance with a cup of coffee in hand, there are no streetlights, no dogs, and no vendors. But I can clearly see the insane talisman donned in the new pair of clothes – with his deadpan expression – swinging his arm with unending intensity and staring at me through the corridors of my memory.

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