Friday 15 September 2017

Short Story 2017, Featured Writer, Gautam Banerjee

Head in the clouds

While trying to save a dog running across the street Vinay swerved his car, braked immediately but lost control and crashed into a shack of paste boards and leaflets. A man cooking inside the shack was badly hit by the car. Writhing in pain, his head bleeding profusely, the man passed out. Vinay’s heart began pounding against his ribcage and he felt his mouth going dry. The kerosene stove was knocked over and immediately burst into flames. Fuel spilled and the half cooked food scattered. It wouldn’t be long before a few books, note books and paper cuttings- lying too close- caught fire. Smell of spices, blended with a strong, nauseating smell of kerosene, diffused in the stagnant air. 

Angry people gathered from nowhere and began hurling a tirade of abuse at Vinay. Sympathy for the victim flooded the place. “Our scientist is dead! Look at the blood all around!”
A few dashed to douse the flames. “The whole place is on fire!”

Suddenly the irate mob began beating up Vinay and vandalizing his car without bothering to listen to his pleas.

When the police finally intervened, the man lying in the pool of his blood was found to be alive. An ambulance was summoned to hospitalize him immediately. Vinay, also in need of medical attention, was taken into police custody. The crowd dispersed. The show was over.
Vinay’s damaged car was towed away from the accident site.
A few evening dailies and television channels reported the incident. ‘Avani Dam, the self-proclaimed astronomer and a proponent of geocentric model of the universe, meets with a severe accident!’

Vinay called his wife Aishi who immediately rushed to the police station. Seeing his battered face and torn clothes she stood completely dazed and helpless, trying hard to muffle her resentments.
The following afternoon Vinay was granted a bail after being reprimanded by a judge for rash driving. Vinay wanted to explain. It was an accident none could have averted, but thought better of it. 

The day had been long and grueling. His body ached and his bruises and wounds began drawing attention from passersby. Hungry and thirsty, he wanted to leave the court premises and hurry back home. So did Aishi.
Hailing a taxi Vinay sat back with his head resting on a window. The city life sped past as some fresh air lulled him. 

“Do you know that Avani is an astronomer?” Vinay turned towards Aishi.
Aishi nodded. “I saw the news at night. He believes that the earth is the center of the universe with the sun and other planets revolving around it.”
“Isn’t it surprising that an astronomer lives on a pavement?” Vinay asked, as if to himself. “Instead of working in an observatory why was this man cooking in the dull lights of his shack?”
Recalling the incident momentarily he said, “I feel so upset! I could have killed him!”
Vinay suddenly re-routed the taxi, as if on an impulse. Aishi looked up in surprise.
“I want to show you something.” Vinay told her.

As the taxi neared the accident spot he asked the driver to pull it to a stop. “See that roughly built shack almost razed to the footpath? That’s what I have done to Avani’s place!”
The dwelling had stood on one end of a pavement in South Calcutta. The walls, instead of tarpaulin, were made of paste boards joined to one another. Many of them were gutted. They contained freehand astronomical figures, writings and leaflets that proclaimed Avani’s theory. People caught up in their work brushed by Avani’s place, hardly taking any notice of the revolutionary pieces that dared to challenge Copernicus and Kepler.

“Has he been able to prove his theory?” Aishi asked.
“Can’t say. In our daily life words like geocentric or heliocentric hardly matter” Vinay breathed out slowly. “But this man lives within the four walls of his idea. And that’s very important.” 

He tapped the driver to roll.

“A case has been registered in your name and immediate release of your car is out of question.” The Inspector-in-charge at the police station, a man with a bushy moustache and salt-and-pepper hair, told Vinay flatly.
A couple of days after his bail Vinay had gone to the police station to enquire about his car. It was parked in an open area adjacent to the station-building. He took a few minutes to assess its damage and shook his head in disgust. A tough time with the insurance adjuster awaited him. Slowly Vinay walked into the IC’s chamber.

“Your case is being decided at court.” The IC sipped from his hot cup of tea. “You are in trouble if the scientist presses charges against you.” He warned in a cold voice. “It’s better if you settle the case outside the court. It will save time, money and a lot of trouble.”
“Can you please tell me the name of the hospital he has been taken to?” Vinay smiled ruefully. “Before raising the issue of any settlement I should be decent enough to apologize for causing him so much pain and trouble. Though, unintentionally.” 

Pulling a wry face the IC gave the name of the Hospital.

The mid-day sun shone bright and harsh. Since visiting hours of the hospital were in the afternoon, Vinay decided to drop by his office. The shock of the accident had drained off his energy and all his work were getting neglected. His office was calling him frantically over the last two days. But he wanted to set things right before returning to his daily activities. Only he couldn’t figure how. 

Without a visitor’s card Vinay had to coax the gatekeeper at the entrance of the Hospital, offering him a fifty rupee note. The General Ward was crammed with patients and their visitors. The air was heavy, smelling of medicines and disinfectants. 

No one had come to visit Avani Dam. Put on a saline drip he lay with his eyes closed. His head was bandaged, his pain clear and obvious from his facial droop. With a few days’ stubble on his chin, Avani’s face seemed to have lost all color. But he had a decent built, despite his age.

“He’s recovering, but slowly,” a nurse told Vinay when she came to check the drip. She expressed her dissatisfaction over Avani’s treatment. “He can’t afford the medicines to be purchased from outside. Doesn’t have any money, he says. And, reluctant to divulge any information regarding his family, he’s making things difficult for everyone of us at the hospital. Are you a family member or...”
She felt silent midsentence as Avani opened his eyes. His gaze was initially blank and unfocussed but finally settled on Vinay. He didn’t recognize the young man before him. Vinay walked a few steps towards Avani.

“Are you the reporter from ‘The Telegraph’, Calcutta?” Avani asked in a faint voice.

Vinay shook his head, indecisive of telling the truth.
“A reporter was supposed to call on me. Wanted to write a feature on my theory.” Avani was barely audible. “But for this accident the interview would have materialized by now. For the last thirty years of my life I have been trying to establish that the sun goes around the earth. Do you know anything about my work?”
“No, I don’t. But I would certainly want to.”
“What happened to your face?”

Running his fingers over an affected area Vinay replied. “A few bruises. Nothing serious.”
Avani closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. “Our earth is surrounded by infinity. Vast, empty and beautiful. The golden sun, draped in its warmth and radiance, approaches the earth and then moves away.” 

His face glowed with a sense of self-satisfaction. “Leaping gently into space I participate in the cosmic dance of the celestial bodies revolving around the earth. The earth! What an awe and reverence it evokes! A blue sphere, quiet and calm, gracefully rotating on its axis with a spiritual aura about it. As if an ascetic. Aloof and taciturn. A tremendous spectacle!”
Avani was already short of breath. Vinay curtly advised him to rest. Avani opened his eyes, as if jolted from his reverie.
“I live on a pavement. Be my guest when I get well. I’ll explain my findings.”
Then he frowned. “You haven’t told me anything about you!”

Vinay smiled. Holding Avani’s hands he said, “Some other day, I promise.”
Vinay bought the medicines Avani couldn’t afford and, depositing them with the nurse, slowly walked out of the Hospital gate. He felt light at heart- a lot relieved. A cool, gentle, autumn breeze blew over the city. It was evening. A heavy traffic inched its way. Vinay looked up to see the dark canopy studded with silver trinkets. He wondered how Avani made his observations in this beautiful yet chaotic darkness one calls space.
Finding Vinay Google-searching Avani, Aishi could no longer keep her calm. “You are stretching this thing too far, Vinay! Why aren’t you able to come to terms with an accident?” She sounded rude. “Buying medicines for someone playing a hoax on others!”
“How do you know?” Vinay argued.

“A half-witted eccentric drawing diagrams of planetary configurations on the walls of the city. Heliocentric universe is flawed, his graffiti proclaims with his signature below. No acceptance otherwise. Why waste your time, energy and money on this crack-brain!”
“Certain things are missing from this man’s life and I am intrigued to know about them.” Vinay tried to reason with her. “Why does he live on a pavement? What made him conclude that the earth is still? Why doesn’t he want to talk about his wife or children?”
“You are obsessed!” Aishi complained.
“Look, I am helping this man because I feel I should. Even if it was an accident, he’s in the hospital because of me. I feel responsible for him!” 

Vinay switched on his laptop again but only after Aishi had gone to bed. He linked to a newspaper article on Avani in search of some additional facts. Avani Dam was from Midnapore, a district about 45 miles south of Calcutta. While serving in the army he was posted in the Siachen for three months where, he claimed, he had begun rudimentary sky gazing. It took his mind off the harsh climatic conditions and kept him busy. Returning to the plains he started talking to people about his views and conclusions. He self-published his theory and arguments. An interview with a paper cost him his job as interviews are against the Indian Army regulations. Hardly deterred by the adversities he continues to propagate his theory. He has a family, a wife and two children, with whom he has severed all connections. 

Next morning Vinay called the newspaper office and contacted the article writer. Vinay asked if he knew the name of the village Avani came from. The writer couldn’t remember it instantly but promised to get back once he found time to rummage through his notes. 

Vinay typed Siachen in his search engine and began reading about the 46- mile- long glacier in the Eastern Karakoram Range of the Himalayas. Siachen is where India, Pakistan and China meet. It’s a slowly moving mass of compacted snow and ice, on an average height of 15000 feet above the sea level. Based on the talk of a cartographic aggression, the Indian army set up a number of military posts along the glacier in 1983. Pakistan responded by putting a parallel line of posts. The glacier costs India millions of US dollars. Money, which could buy a new cooking stove or a bicycle for almost every household. 

Aishi had just brought Vinay a hot cup of tea when his cell phone buzzed. The call was from the newspaper office. She saw Vinay writing Danton, Midnapore. Seeing an inquisitive frown on her face Vinay mouthed the words Avani’s village. Aishi glared at Vinay and left the room in disgust.

“My husband was sent to Siachen in 1985. He was in his late thirties then.” Sitting in a well-furnished living room Vinay was talking to Meera, Avani’s wife. It was a sun-dappled morning. The air was fresh and cool. He sat beside a window overlooking a small and beautiful garden with colorful flowers in bloom. An aroma of incense filled the room. Taking an early morning train to Midnapore Vinay had arrived at Avani’s house, unannounced. Even Aishi was unaware of his plans. But Meera seemed used to strangers enquiring about her husband. Vinay needn’t excuse himself, she had assured. 

Though in her early sixties, Meera looked older with her grey hair and wrinkles. She took Vinay to be a reporter and started talking the usual way she did with others. This gave Vinay some time before he disclosed the news of the accident.

“My husband didn’t volunteer to be posted at Siachen. We are plains-people and snow doesn’t play any part in our lives.” Meera began her story. “Soldiers have to make their way across the glacier on foot to reach their posts. My husband had to walk twenty days to reach his.”
Meera brought a box in which she had preserved her husband’s letters. Rummaging through them she picked out one and gave it to Vinay.

10/6/85 Dear Meera,                                                                       Hope you and the children are well. After a grueling three- month stay at my post I am finally back in my base camp. The terrain was our principal adversary, not the enemy action. Temperatures dipped to -50ÂșC with piercing wind blowing at high velocities. We crammed in tents. Kerosene stoves were kept going all night and all day to provide heat. A foul smell always filled the tents. A grimy soot worked itself slowly into our clothes, hair, eyes and nostrils. Gradually we became blackened. I wish you saw me then! But soldiers have to hang on. National prestige.
Vinay looked up from the letter. Meera was lost, staring into space, perhaps struggling with her feelings. 

On some nights the weather was clear. We found ourselves under the starry sky, freezing amidst an ocean of white. On one such clear night I was drawn to the Pole Star. I began thinking that if the earth moved, would we see the Pole Star in the same position as we do everyday?
“Dementia afflict those who live on the glacier.” Meera sighed while offering Vinay a hot cup of tea. “The Headmaster of our village school had told me.”
Once Avani had confronted the Geography Teacher of the school. “What you’re teaching from the textbooks is incorrect. But that’s what my children and others will have to write to pass their exams.”  

Vinay sipped his tea carefully lest the sound disturbed her.
 “After Siachen he was posted in Rajasthan.” Meera continued. “He started publicizing his theory. Because of an interview with a newspaper he was dismissed from the military.”
Unfazed, Avani returned to Danton and began writing books. The books were just stapled photocopied leaflets that tried to explain his theory.

“He went to Calcutta and hawked them in buses and trams.” Meera’s face fell while talking about those days. “When the response wasn’t good enough he started investing his retirement money to print leaflets and buy black and white paints for graffiti. He began covering walls and lampposts of Calcutta with his scribbling.”
 “Black and white make a contrast between truth and false. Yes or no.” An enthusiastic Avani had told his wife. “I just want people to take notice. Even if they don’t care now, they will flock in thousands the day I am proven correct.”
Unfortunately, people called it a cock-and-bull theory. 

“Once a few students, along with their professor, had abused and chased my husband. He ran, shouting for help. Lucky for him to have found a police station where he took refuge.”
Thirty years had elapsed and Avani was still unsuccessful in establishing himself in the science fraternity. 

“His theory has only met with hostility.” Meera whimpered.
Avani’s children didn’t want to talk about their father. Meera had taken over his pension account once she saw that Avani’s obsession was driving him crazy and the family was about to fall on hard times financially.
Dabbing her moist eyes with one end of her saree she said, “There wasn’t a murmur of protest from him.”
“Now I can dedicate my whole time to my cause,” Avani had told his wife and left without even saying a goodbye.
She hadn’t seen him since then.

“Do you know where he lives? How he survives?” Vinay asked.
She nodded. She had read articles about her husband.
“He has had an accident.” Vinay finally broke the news.
A startled Meera scanned his face for something worse, the news filling her with alarm. But Vinay assured her. “Avani is recovering. And I’ve come to ask you to meet him once.”
Meera was ill at ease at the unexpected suggestion. “That’s not possible.” She said finally, weighing her words while she spoke. “Years of separation have made me reticent. I won’t even be able to look into his eyes and say hello!” 

Her eyes welled up.
“What about your children?”
“They think he should be put in an asylum.” Meera blew her nose into her saree. “They are extremely ashamed of their father meaninglessly propagating a theory discarded hundreds of years ago.”

“I wrote to NASA quite a number of times but they replied that the Copernican system worked perfectly for them.”

Sitting before this bundle of irrepressible energy and optimism called Avani, Vinay couldn’t help but marvel. This was his second visit at the hospital, a few days after returning from Avani’s native place. Avani talked while munching some fruits Vinay had brought for him. His bandage had been removed and he was no longer on drip. Doctors would discharge him soon.
“What is your source of sustenance?” Vinay couldn’t help asking.
“My books and writings. They fetch me about 1000 rupees a month.”

Not even 35 rupees a day! Less than what Vinay had bribed the gatekeeper of the hospital with.
“And my dedication and tenacity. People of science rebuke me. A school dropout daring to understand the cosmos, what an audacity!” Avani smiles. “I feel belittled, but I don’t relent!”
“There can be an alternate explanation to your observations on the pole star.” Vinay curtly pointed out. “Copernicus said that the pole star is so far-away from the earth that it appears still even if the earth moves.” 

“That’s a theory I hold with contempt.” Avani looked indignantly. “My calculations show that the pole star will appear still irrespective of its distance from the earth. It’s because the earth is still.”
“To people like us,” Vinay interrupted, “Does it really matter whether the earth or the sun is still?”
Vinay felt a bit ashamed of his impudence though Avani didn’t reply immediately. Instead, he looked dreamily at Vinay for sometime.

“Discovering the truth is important and a constant human endeavor. No matter how hard I try I may fail in this life. But I know that my work will eventually be recognized.”
A bell sounded. Visiting time being almost over, the crowd was thinning out.
Vinay looked around. He felt it was time he confessed. Bracing himself he said, “It was my car that hit you the other day.” His voice sounded guilty and hesitant as he narrated the events of the fateful day.
But Avani received the news indifferently. As if unconcerned.
“I am ready to pay compensations but we really need to settle this outside the court.” Holding Avani’s hands Vinay pleaded.

“It wasn’t your fault.” Avani shook his head. “And I don’t want your money.” 
“Calcutta has changed over the years, Avani. Graffiti is no longer permissible here and there. The city is being beautified. You need a different kind of publicity. The money can help.”
But Avani was adamant.
“I’ll sell my books. Many people express their interest in my works. Some even argue with me. I shall automatically propagate my theory while explaining things to them. But I won’t accept your money.”
Vinay fell silent for a few moments. Then he nodded and smiled. It was time to say good-bye. They shook hands before parting. Avani thanked him for everything and said, “You know where to find me.”

Was it Avani’s perseverance that attracted Vinay? His doggedness to stick to his belief even if his surroundings collapsed? Or was it Avani’s life, so different- while Vinay spent his days and nights stuck in a rut? Didn’t Avani provide him a welcome diversion when Vinay thought he was buried deep in monotony? When he felt all his energy had been sucked out of him by the reality he had created and was living in? Wasn’t Avani an entity Vinay craved for at times? His incompleteness he dared not think about? 

Many a time Vinay had thought of these. And, despite their differences, a strange bond had gradually developed between the two. Avani became Vinay’s friend. A friend who was strange, even weird at times, but who always played straight and held his head in the clouds.

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