By the Southern Shore

by Manoshij Banerjee

I. A priori engagement*

Baby wants to write a story.

You are a character being concocted by Baby with a particular motive in his mind. And I imagine, laden with obligation for being given a moment of existence, you will behave well, a faithful marionette in Baby’s hands. You should further take note the least you can do is to allow him carve a story out of you, for which you should be taken to places and through situations and done things to; you might have brief relaxing spells in the course when you’ll be left to yourself, but dare not presume you are excused confinement during those for they as well are a part of the game albeit offstage. To leave a troubled character by itself in misery is ineffable fun. See you will be minorly fashioned after Baby’s mom, who has finally paused, because she’s the animus here.

That inertia from his mom enduring bodily dysfunction and associated distress, he thought was going to plunge him into a violent emotional upheaval, a phase tempestuous and tempting, and would have him oozing with words which would fit only correctly in the jigsaw of a splendid story. But nothing of the sort happened. So his woes, he has come to realise were fabricated, weren’t as solid as the annoyance of getting shat upon at once by a bunch of crows doing their 5am ritual.

Story-writing you must understand is forced synchronisation of all available faculties and being forced is anti-liberty, is making a budding cosmologist searching for alien trails take compulsory Palaeontology tests. Ergo both of you are in equal turmoil- in him is the tension of the puppeteer’s hand, continuous maneuvering guided by the hope of proper placement and you like the components of breadboard circuitry will have to undergo plantation and uprooting very often. But if both of you (i.e. Baby and you) abiding by the principles of labour, selfishness and tact, end up unifying, what could luckily be produced is a nice story.

*None of this is necessarily true.

II. Decay

On the moist alley, a pair of calloused hands sprinkles vermilion on and around a camphor cube (rested against the obtuse protrusion of a tar lump) and lights it to immediate blaze. The emanating fume rising up to the fourth floor of the Aurobindo Residence (in Pondicherry) and beyond resembles in the abrupt quality of its perfume a bunch of Mongolian children (aged 9 to 12) making hullabaloo, groping (small fingers in periscopic motion), locked inside a small dark cabinet.

 

A bougainvillea plant, healthy and dense, curling carefully around the rusted pipeline, reaches your third-floor window and blooms at you its triple-edged purple flowers (a quadruple of white grains arising out of slim stalks from each centre.) Through this lush disorganised mess, some of which circumventing the iron lattice is happening to take space in your room, you watch the sea.

The sea from your window is a straight shimmering stretch lapping against strong black rocks with shiny tops. An edgy blotch of a ship noticeable only with sufficiently strained eyes slips on water, ungradually disappearing; in the basement of it over smoke and liquor fresh dockyard recruits uniformed neatly in blue-white play Bridge. The Queen of Hearts, squiggles from endless card-bending having manipulated her sneer to a sheepish grin, lies supine on the table which they slap in identical non-rhythmic thuds after every round to supplement their titter; Queen of Hearts during these tremors jiggles in her two inch frame, anxious to step out in her posh filigree-embellished gown, leaving the Hearts behind- but her twin pulls her back in, tying her to their common fate.

Fate, the concept of it messes up your mind by evoking the visual of infinite feathered ants squirming about in the orange of that lamppost twelve yards from your window, causing the light from it to behave as jelly in continuous distortion, and crows anting (or feeding) on them, swooping excitedly with opened bills through this lively hotchpotch. Your metaphorical sense has been through fierce perversion over the year. Even last August fate to you was voyage, becoming, transmuting, transcendence, romance, laughter, gin, photography and vintage car exhibitions, oriental embroidery, modernist poetry and more things of such fascinating ilk; you were (to some extent you still are) the deity-darling embodiment to the ashramites, a yellow ceramic flower perennially in bloom onstage.

The recent months Baby understands have been sad, lazy and wet. Something of numbness has touched upon you, an enervating echo has travelled every day and every night through a hollowness newly shaped within- like the cascading waters of the Beadon falls surging narrowly through emptiness- green and mystic and vast; it was however Beadon’s twin called Bishop falls whose ‘viewing-point’ you reached climbing down sixty ruining cement steps swirling to the mossy canopied platform with flourishing ferns around where amidst warm oral exercise, flung into passion, you considered marrying Bok (who your Baba thought was a pig) and thirteen days after your twenty-sixth birthday the following year, you did. That’s a frozen snippet twenty-one year old, from the foggy rainy hilly years you spent in Shillong.

You’re a hill animal brought by those little compulsory twists to the sea. The moment your foot touched this sandy salty ground, a wave erupted in you carrying on its back an obvious conundrum: the catch between the swift subtle sly slaving in the hills and the languor (compounded by cheapest hard liquor) at this sea-level. This confusion resulting from altitude-difference did keep you in fix for awhile but then you kicked its shin and turned your pointed nose (an object of vanity back in Shillong amongst pug-noses) away from it, scornfully. That wave died down without noise. You’ve always dealt with ‘problems’ along this stratagem- approaching it like a ferocious yak and impaling horns into its heart. Jeez, how you memorised even geometry theorems in high school or danced madly with horribly aching heels and swelled blistered arches!

Now, it’s changed, significantly. You are deeply worried about your body (and why not.) You lately have begun to measure your movements before making them- even simple things like getting off bed, putting slippers on and turning the doorknob need mental rehearsal. You think something has gone rotten there and needs repair (or removal.) Previous to previous Thursday, sipping cappuccino at the Indian Coffee House, you were taken aback in hysterics when suddenly without any signal tremendous fluid leaked from you, colouring your buttocks and thighs pale red (thankfully your kameez was maroon and it was raining heavy outside.) The frailty of your body (every body) which was a distant un-distinct feature (like that slipping ship) has perched on you with the weight of the happy times when lethargy drowned and vanished in itself and you were a steel bodied robot with a godly tinge, perpetually labouring.

Previous Thursday afternoon you shuffled yourself to Fenn Gynae Lab on Rue Dupuy with a large pink umbrella overhead. Warm quivering flesh in contact with air-conditioned air developed goose pimples. Your positioning with respect to narrow mouthed tubular structures coated in steel or synthetic spanned at least a seventy-five deg arc (from reclining to a terrible midriff-jam held by muscles flexed too hard); a gelatinous something smelling of fountain ink was smeared over the lower belly (the brownish jam sticking to the nurse’s glove seemed like a rubber adhesive your Baba fed between your mom’s gapped rain-tolerant rubber boot soles every Sunday) before a cute heavy plastic-handled metal plate was held and circled in a minute radius over it; remember you pressed the iron more against the moistened collars and cuffs of Bok’s shirts to smell the steam it gave out. ‘It is a very ordinary condition post forty-five but you need to do some more tests to be on the safer side,’ said Dr. Baker Fenn while his shapely manicured hand wrote a prescription (alphanumeric noodle) and recommended further consultation at Vellore.

Today’s another Thursday (the bus to Vellore leaves at 1pm) and these restless oscillations between the yore and now have become more erratic, spontaneous and barbaric than ever. You are right now a bead packaged with nostalgia in a hermetic capsule. Being-dragged-back is not an action you much admire but every damn slice of the present from the whiteness of cuticle after fresh nail clipping to that of the roadside baking under the bright noon sun spanks up your memory instilling a psychic flurry you cannot handle easily. Btw what does ‘spanking’ remind you of? (Don’t shy- tell Baby about all the leather-smelling-happy-groaning dominatrix fun you had through the first five years you spent here. Nice thing, really: adopting neo sex-ethos to melt down the kinks from a killed marriage was a brave move. Why did you have to give it up that early?)

The reports from Fenn’s lab lie on your table inside large white envelopes (the slanted circumscribed F laser-printed in red and cursive at the centre yells ‘fuck!’ at you): as if wipers dipped in calcite were made to brush against the windshield of your Baba’s old Fiat. White truncated conics pasted on absolute darkness and a creamy slurry of miscellaneous shit spilled over. Those are your organs photographed while asleep. They look nothing like textbook diagrams delineated in different inks, neatly spaced. A clear mental voice whispers with good enunciation your latest revelation: ‘we are curry within- no demarcations- our interiors are an adept mishmash of soft stuff- what ultimately happens on the pyre is the meeting of the ugliness inside and the pretension of aloe vera enriched skin.’ Listen, right now you’re also very unhappy (philosophising unadvisable). ‘It’s risky and fatal, but worry not,’ Baker Fenn phoned to tell you sweetly. Enlarged spleen, bulky uterus and endometrial polyp (measuring OMG 15mm by 8mm!) form the sorry Trinity (bulleted under an ‘impression’ tag) italicized in bold toward the base of the report-sheet. Like cloud-bursts in Cherrapunjee, your bosom belched palpitations out at the prospect of an oxymoronic happening -cancer germination on infertile ground (Baby thinks ‘polyp’ is like a painfully choking lollipop stuck in the throat.) An auto honks on the street, shaking you out of stupor, and you in yellow salwar and black kameez walk downstairs, slowly, for a ride to the bus depot. All your briefcase contains is your medical profile and a special black Patiala gown (posh and filigree-embellished).  

TNSTC tin cuboid is steered in clean sharp angles through grim and dusty alleyways, accelerating on the highway, emerging in shudders after mild immersion in water-logged craters, tiptoeing shakily through the woods (local bypasses to avoid toll-booths). Undressing last night, having been gripped by a sudden want you contorted into a strange crescent to stare at and touch your cunt. It winked at you like that old suffering friend in college who lost her little toe in an accident (poise was marred by limp). Afternoon bleeds heat that flows in through the window, while the bus catches pace, and seeps into your bones. The passing scenery fluctuates through shades between the extremes of green and ochre. You think of a creepy cobblestone-headed chameleon, its head sticking out more than usual, gaping into space, blinking peacefully, drawing its anterior closer and farther from the grass bed it’s standing on. To and fro, within and without. A thread of sunlight curving in through the blinds, illuminating dust, shines off your armlet to touch your eyes but fails for you’re moving, in unison with a body of disgrace atop, far hairier than yours. That body is a variable. Its anatomical configuration, vocal tautness and style melts from one into another seamlessly- the months and seasons change as well, quietly, as if pages of a fairytale being flipped through. You imagine brown horses cantering up to the Laitkor peak, getting flanked by the polished wellingtons of military people, and walking up-hill four miles with your mother through dark swivelling lanes, exchanging with her the weight of kerosene containers every half-mile. You pant exhaling cold white smoke, and warm breath falls on the chest of your man. You bite, thrash, roll, toss and twitch, and your shrieks travel up to the moon with the intensity of throwing a fishing line (to catch one swampy moment) and return as the muffled voice of tiredness. Animalism feigns sophistication. Sheets are pulled and souls like long wet flannel frills left against the breeze to dry. You were but the victor, the unbeatable picador, an Olympus everybody (one lover from each zodiac) wanted to pursue to nibble at the flower of fornication. Alas, sweet angel, alas, the jamboree spirit had to fizz out, like a bird stuck high up in an air vortex, unable to cut through, has to gather in its wings and take descent. The bus crawls into the Old Vellore terminus and brakes into a hard forward-thrusting jerk.

From the balcony of the ashram-booked Income Tax Guesthouse, the eastern facade of the Vellore Fort glimmers yellow amidst heavy downpour. Wearing the look of an ancient lover making obeisance, it stands in water, punished with fettered ankles and abandonment. A burn takes birth in your nostrils and climbs up the tissues to nudge at your ducts. A moment of restrain precedes the gushing out of multifarious sentiments which have spent so much time in futility wanting to coalesce into something soluble. To Baby, your crying is like strange cold laughter coming from the darkness of distant caverns, reaching first for his heart, churning up its contents and then falling on his ears, setting him up with himself in a moral fight thereby fuelling an internal disaster. You weep watching the fort until your tears become crystals clinging to your eyelashes, through which this city of sickness looks like a fine mesh of innumerate neon scintillations. Your stomach cramps, you heave and sweet pewter coloured phlegm precipitates in your mouth. On the street below, a grimacing mom ties the muddy shoelace of her son (an umbrella held between the chasm of stiff tilted neck and shoulder) who clutches at her dupatta, looks lost and sucks untidily on an ice-cream. The ice-cream melts dripping along the cone’s wafer and hardens into that single lonely blue stilt jutting out longishly from the centre of blue Borapani Lake, cupped up by blue hills, shrouded in the shadows of blue clouds. Their blue dissolves in you like sugar dissolves in steaming tea and appears when you close your eyes. You’ll sob through the night (leaving the pillowslip wet, the way it felt throughout the year up there in the mountains), Baby knows, to befriend the ostracism from regular moribund life that fate had kept for you. Infinite feathered ants squirm about in the distorted blue light of your mind. Sleep off now, tomorrow is an important day, you have an appointment fixed at CMC in the afternoon.

III. Cartoon

Something more is wrong with you, apart from what’s already wrong. You have been in haze since morning. And a certain unfamiliar hot impulse is brewing inside you. You have this unknown feeling of fire gushing through you which is causing terrific restlessness, a massive perturbation as if some bizarre radioactive expulsion has been engineered to tamper with your metabolism. CMC’s a funny place. Similar-looking spectacled people in glass cubicles hunch over their computers issuing tickets in the form of multi-coloured wristbands which patients collect patiently standing in curling queues. Everybody is smiling somewhat grotesquely- this is the residue of school-taught moral science lessons shining on their faces.

You are being taken to the Gynaecology and Obstetrics Dept. in the elevator. Robots dressed in white enter and exit trundling their trolleys while young nurses giggle undoing their buns. An old electric music rings in your ears which you identify as the one Bok played on the orchestra’s guitar on your wedding night. Everything is so silent all around you feel. Every single person seems to have been programmed, doing just the right things, giving scripted performance. The lights are shining over-brightly, neat white fluorescent tubes dazzling up your way (which still looks horrifically hazy to you) into your doc’s cabin. On the way you see a couple snuggled up waiting outside the Plastic Surgery workhouse (the lady probably needs to adjust the tic of her nose by stuffing around its muscles some extra flesh from elsewhere.) You also pass by a child in green netted bandana, her scalp visible through it, having a mangle of plastic wires transferring fluid on her, most of them end injecting into her skin, a few go in her nostrils. Your doc is a beautiful woman with sexy pouting lips. Her face vanishes as you stare into her. What remains is a pair of luscious chattering lips producing sounds which you cannot arrange into meaning. Your reports are put in the light of an analyser (which grows in luminescence under your stare) and your doc asks you to strip. You are again a specimen. And you will be told what’s wrong with you. And they think obviously they understand what your problem is. Tell them you are searching for a new symmetry, a new sort of puzzle-formation; because the right to create has been unjustly snatched from you, you are concentrating on its alter ego called ‘construction’. 

As you sit naked on cold leather, overwrought from having to handle such an enormous shift in mood, tense because your vision and state-of-perception don’t make sense to you- you cannot figure out its mutation, you notice a small monitor giving out changing fluorescent colours, placed diagonally upward to you playing The Addams Family: Thing beckons you to a spooky Victorian bungalow while Lunch plays that characteristic piano tune which lessens the noise of confusion in you. And then you get to see the best woman in the world: Morticia Addams! Dark Princess, happy princess, strange princess, powerful, strong, magic princess, tamer-of-fate princess, maker-of-gold princess, sexy, witty, wild princess, a Princess teetering on the knife of womanhood and selfhood. A Princess who has mastered the art of un-becoming which is not just perennially blooming like a yellow ceramic flower but metamorphosing from flower to a golden butterfly and flying, and high, reflecting bright yellow during flight. She takes your breath away. There’s nothing on the monitor now apart from a wonderful princess in her flowing black dress- not a gown, not a robe, no hobble shit, nothing- it as unique a piece of clothing as herself; it is not a component separate from her, it is also her. She’s carrying an idea, the idea of pushing roots through the earth, and cultivating them long and strong, penetrating into things, such that a violent reverse pressure evolves down in the south heading north with the peace of the sea and fury of the storm. She looks at you with eyes of longing. At that particular moment, you un-become, as if your machinery was waiting for that push of a button to dive into motion. Uncle Fester helps by shooting electric charges at you.

The black Patiala gown unpacks itself and fits on you. And you rise and start sailing. You are sailing, Baby deduces, because your feet are not seen, covered by that special flowing Patiala gown and you move like Morticia slides. Everybody around is taken aback. They present themselves in the manner of people breaking away from a bad spell. You move on, now having raised yourself at least a foot from the ground. You now have a motive: to go to the sea. It’s raining heavily and you raise your speed, slipping on the highway, the long lower filigree-stitched frills creating golden sparks rubbing against the ground, the upper ones fluttering and stretching across the width of the highway. You are returning to your place with the rage of the west wind, the place you made your own, the place of strange rains and storms sweeping through the year, the place dreaming all the time, the place where you had become, a place called Pondicherry in the narrow lanes and dim-lit boutiques of which you have dreamed of flight, of Morticia whom you know from your college days as the mystic charmer appearing in your dreams, playing a pied-piper tune that gave you the sensation of wobbling in sleep. You change your course from the highway into an arc westwards. You move through crowd, lanes, by-lanes, ditches, pools, high-rises, colonies, markets, pastures and also a lake where migratory birds have flown in thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of you. Finally, you have the sea at your footstep. Enormous southern sea spread at your feet, countless undulations seen in the distance. You begin your voyage on the sea with the spirit that had forced you fourteen years ago to decide in a moment about coming to the shores- it was two-weeks after Bok had died from a bad disease. You glide on the sea, without splashing the water a bit. You move like a confident bull and realise that in this game, the picador and the bull is the same person. You imagine the shores of Pondicherry thronging with young talented lovers loving, completely oblivious that they are strolling or sitting by the southern shore where silence and calm and inexorable energy have exchanged their roles. The southern shore understands that logic was invented while its inventor sat on a rock in Egypt. And you therefore understand that logic can be altered sitting on those strong black rocks which shine as go to sleep gazing at them every afternoon. And it is the spectacle of a lifetime, Baby thinks, as he watches you, a slender beautiful shadow of a woman sailing homeward with the craving that skin and touch share between them.

It’s twilight and the dying sunshine in Pondicherry must have slanted into the little places there which tell stories and show dreams after dark. A torrent of clouds must have accumulated over the city. It loves getting drenched. Moist Pondicherry, rainy, wet, lazy, sleepy, queer, green, green and wet, wet and clean, clean and green, green and hard, hard and love- that’s the image your mind creates when you think of it as your shrink into a black velvety dot playing in levitation over the orange waves. You might catch up with the ship with new recruits playing Bridge inside.  Queen-of-Hearts might need you.

IV. City of Joy

Right now, Baby having written the story he wanted to write, is wondering about love. He is weed-high and sad. His and his character’s fears are convoluted in some way he has discovered. There’s some interstellar ether that he has begun to manufacture in himself, that sticks around him all the time. He wrestles with it but since it’s malleable it always wins. Baby was taken on a rollercoaster ride recently. He and the girl he loves. It was a strange ride you know. At the pinnacle the engine collapsed. And after a hazy moment, he was left alone. He was scared. He no longer had the girl he loves around. And everything beneath was dark. A blue trolley with Baby in it at the crest of a track-knot, that’s all you would see from a distance. Baby wants to hold on to that moment of extreme anxiety. The shear in his heart from that fateful moment reminds Baby how much he loves her. She loves him too he thinks. But he is not at all too sure.

And more and more, when large black crows, in millions, fly across the sky visible from his window and shroud his hopes, he feels like a cartoon. Much of what he does these days is to assure himself that an equal gesture of love is waiting for him miles across these waters. And that a haze is beginning to grow for him as well and when the time comes he will have fibres emerging out of his heart painlessly, lengthening into roots and travelling two thousand miles to fumble around the city of joy (with small fingers in periscopic motion) painted in grey, where she is planted, far away from him.  He understands he’s writing a story collecting nuggets from here and there, but look, he has recognised that that is the only way to seek closure-for he knows and not without frustration, that he also, is being written.

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