Jan 28, 2020

SHORTCUT - The Crescent Smile (Version 2.0)

Cobalt blue eyes. I knew they were black but somehow I felt blue – dark cobalt blue. He was sitting inside a bright yellow taxi, next to the driver’s seat – his eyes staring at me, piercing through me – daring me to dance – in that cold cloudy night.

“Kahaan jaana hai?” he asked.

I could hear him but almost could not. I was somewhere else – lost in the bustle of man-made machinery, interrupted by strange honks, punctuated with desperate curses of a child’s distant cry, captivated by moving laser lights. The lights; they were sometimes white, sometimes red and most often an unidentifiable blue that looked like the arctic cold.  But if you go too close to it, you will feel wounded by its unnatural heat. They’re all moving. Faster and more ferocious than any creature God has put on earth.

I could see insects, all kinds of insects, crawling in lines – straight lines, crooked lines, broken lines – all kinds of lines. I do not know what they feed on but they are so big they might defeat you in a wrestle. Some of them are refugees running in a loop from one shelter to another in a no-man’s-land, pushed and shoved with hollow begging bowls up their starving mouths. Yet some wander alone without caring about any of these lines. They walk alone – a very few of them, and you can hardly notice them in the struggle of all these lines. Maybe they are the bugs, bugged down by the histrionics of this Machiavellian machine that they find themselves stuck in. Maybe, I too am just one of them – another immigrant bug hopelessly searching for refuge in the conundrums of this alien civilization.

In the confusion of this loud and flashing bright circus of man-made marvels, I looked up at the Prussian blue sky. It had a faint crescent shape and was dotted with a few spare stars, dazzling like diamond studs on a beautiful black face. The faintness of the moon was not because of the few strands of hovering rain clouds, but the clouds formed by exhaust pipes of the circus. I could see them again – the insects – only this time they were wearing Louis Vuitton shades, carrying Armani bags as they walked in lines in their Gucci shoes, soaking up the chimney clouds. The neon board across the road displayed ‘Elixir of Achievement’. And I was lost again.

A sudden gush of cool breeze woke me up from my amnesia and made me realise that I was on my way to where I came from. It was getting late. I looked back at the yellow taxi and those hypnotic cobalt blue eyes which had caught a grey hue by now. Like a spider web getting dense and denser.

Haldiram’s”, I said and stared back trying to clamber my way through the web, to the core of its nest, to find out what the spider was thinking. I tried scratching on the hard surface of his emotional veneer but I couldn’t read a thing. Maybe the spider did not understand my language. Maybe, I had not yet mastered spider-tongue to perfection. He kept staring at me as I opened the back door and sat right behind, without waiting for him to say anything.

He turned his head back, like an owl, with a small earthen cup in his left hand that exhumed fumes of hot tea and kept staring at me. Not into my eyes, but into me – as if he wanted to know what I was – man or maggot, where I came from – mars or moon, what I really ate – meat or mite. For a split second, I felt stupid by this stupefying scene. And I decided to interrupt the silence.

Haldiram’s pata hai naa? Airport ke paas?”

He said nothing and kept staring blank at me. There was this emptiness and the crawling spider in it. The void continued.

“Chalenge kya?”

This question to my relief cut the numbness. And he finally spoke.

“Nahi sir, main chala nahi sakta. Woh aa raha hain”.

The man’s voice sounded gross. Like the grunt of a pig. The kind of grunt you don’t hear but feel in your spine. Or maybe, like the rotten engine roar of a vintage car, just to sound better. I was reminded of Mr. Jigsaw from a movie series where he killed people in the most psychotic ways, using machines he designed just for the purpose. He kept his victims in chambers, and tied them, and clamped them, and stitched them to those machines and yet gave them an option to live, only through an ordeal of excruciating pain and plunder.

Somehow, I felt relief in the pig’s grunt. As he turned in front, still holding the cup in his left hand, I noticed something. His right hand was not there. It was cut off from the blade of his shoulder. And the right sleeve of his shirt was folded till the elbow. A few answers to my questions started gathering and immediately I was transported to one of Jigsaw’s chambers, with rotting rats spilled like the vomit of an addict, stinking like the foul burp of a cannibal, sweating like mating snakes. And there was this pig, chained down in the centre, clamped to an iron chair. This time Jigsaw had his victim’s right hand stitched to a part of the chair. And the pig yelled and shrieked and cried grunting for help. But his only option was to cut his right hand so that he could live – and be free. He could, but he could not. He could not, but he had to. At this moment Jigsaw enters, and the other door crunches open.

The driver stepped inside with one of his legs jostling for some space underneath the steering wheel when the man grunted again. “Haldiram", looking at the driver with one of his eyebrows arched in a curious question.

The driver, with half his body still outside, turned his head to look at me. A look to decide which family of maggots I belonged to. Or, which city of moon I came from. Or which part of the mite I liked the best. This time, I said nothing and waited. He sat behind the wheel, revved up the engine and the car slowly started to roll.  I saw a picture of goddess Kali, half the size of my palm, stuck in the middle of the dashboard. It had fluorescent light bulbs twinkling all around. This driver must be in his mid-thirties. With a rough beard glued all over his face. I couldn’t decipher his partner’s age though.  Maybe he was in his late thirties or perhaps, easily more than forty-five. I couldn’t care anymore.

The car was moving now and as the world outside the window started to blur, I thought I should ask him how he had cut his hand. Maybe he would say by an accident or from birth or by the Jigsaw.  But the truth was I didn’t want to hear that grunt any more.

As the cab started gaining speed, three of us were the only souls who were still. And everything else passed by like lightning. As I looked outside the window, the laser lights streaked past - sometimes white, sometimes red and most often an unidentifiable blue. Insects, lines, bugs, everything came back. I shuddered at the sight and almost compulsively brought myself to the dark blue sky, which was calm and quiet. The cool breeze of this darkness was feathering my face. There weren’t many stars left by now, and the moon looked like a dusty relic kept inside a forgotten museum. This relic, you can’t hold, nor can you keep. You can only see it and feel good about it, or at the most feel ancient with it. The few strands of rain clouds had by now collected in a bunch, and it looked like it would rain. My lips followed the crescent shape and I smiled.

I remembered a shortcut underneath a flyover, which would save me some notes. An insignificant amount may be, but I preferred that route. It was through a dingy slum. There were no glittering lights there to advertise the poverty – only the reds, blues and greens of some uncultured, unscripted, vulgar emotions. There were no lines of insects, only some leftover carcasses of their dilapidated dreams. There were no loud honks, but an eerie silence of sanity. It’s dingy and it’s a slum – with no addresses, no names written on any of the unsettled walls. I liked taking this route. I liked seeing what most people won’t see. I liked being what most people would never want to be.

“Yaha se right le lijiye. Shortcut padega”, I called out to the driver as I saw the flyover approaching.

“Right nahi le sakta saab, road kharaab hai aur light bhi nahi hain”, the driver shot back.

The driver sounded quite normal, much unlike his partner. So I decided to persist. And I did. But he insisted back.

“Election time hai saab. Mohammedan area – total basti - bohut lafda chal raha hai. Safe rehna hi accha hai. Mussalmaan refugee log aapko pata hai na saheb? Bhagwaan jaane keedo ke jaise kaha kaha se aa jate hain? Aap samajh rahe hai na?”

I  did not understand. Strangely perplexed, I did not want to understand. I felt a sting. I do not know where. And I thought I should say something, but the sting made me reluctant and I forgot what to say. The sting hopped, skipped and jumped somewhere deep inside.

“I hope someday you will understand”, I mumbled to myself.

The car kept moving. I just stared at the back of his head. I could see a pair of invisible eyes. I know they are not there. But I want them. I want the spider. I want to snatch it. I want to crush it between my teeth. I want to gulp it down with a bottle of poison. So that it’s dead for sure, and it never comes back.

I looked outside the window to feel the breeze. But I couldn’t feel it. All I could see or feel was something very different, something very difficult – the sting. It hopped, skipped and jumped still inside. The outside seemed like movie reels, moving faster than before – they come and they go. Before I could realise they were gone. Something else came again. I couldn’t make out. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t think. My mind was clogged. I couldn’t breathe and I searched for the calm. I searched for the Prussian blue, and the diamond studs, and the crescent shape. But everything was hazy, unclear, faded and lost - except for the sting. It hopped, skipped and jumped. Incessant still, it stung. And free from this sting is what I want to be. I had learned, rather taught myself a truth – freedom is only another word for control over the self.

The car turned right on the main-road crossing and things started slowing down. The sting was in control, for now. The window frame and everything outside it started making sense again and I relaxed a bit. I knew that it was the final leg of my journey and I wanted to feel the cool breeze for one last time.

I could see two coconut trees, standing tall like two siblings – dark and handsome. It must have been decades for them standing by the high-road, watching laser lights and smelling man made clouds. I saw two kids – a boy and a girl. They were playing badminton under a halogen lamp-post with two broken rackets and a crushed paper ball. It was about to rain but they didn’t care. I saw an old, old woman. She was walking at a right angle, with a stick to balance the extra weight and a head full of snow white hair. One of the bugs may be, I thought to myself.  I saw a banyan tree standing like a dead man trying to cross a busy road to the other side. There were no leaves, only the crooked branches waiting to catch the moon in an embrace. It had stopped watching laser lights, and stopped smelling man made clouds, and stopped feeling sick about it. I could see another person hugging the trunk of that naked tree. I do not know what state he was in, but I could see him find solace in love.

The car pulled over just opposite Haldiram’s as instructed and the moving pictures stopped to a pause. Suddenly everything became still. Did I feel the breeze? Yes. I did. I smiled and took out a note written 50 rupees from my wallet. I handed it over to the driver and opened my door. Before stepping out, I turned to him and said,

“Main aapko kuch kehna chahta hoon...”

I got out and shut the door. Both partners were by now bending over in their own ways to listen to what I had to say. I leaned a little forward so that my eyes were in line with that of my pig and the dead spider.

“Main bhi Mussalmaan hoon”, I said. “Keeda nahi, insaan hoon.” – Like the clouds and the birds, the rivers and the breeze, the moon that floats with us as we sleep in the coffers of a new day. I am like the raindrops that will soon drizzle upon us.

The cobalt blue eyes looked blank for a moment, perhaps in shame.

As I walked away searching for the Prussian blue, it rained. I took a deep whiff of my wet earth, smiled to my sting and kept walking in the pouring rain.