PUN CHRONICLES 11 – DOUBLE DATE

As Charity skipped excitedly to the edge of the cliff, striking a yoga-inspired-pose with perfect form, Shubham sighed, raising her Canon DSLR to his eyes for what seemed like the 100th time.

“Try and see if you can get the sun placed between my palms in the picture,” she said, holding her hands above her head in the shape of a lotus.

Behind the camera, Shubham rolled his eyes, but did as he was told, nevertheless.

He was not particularly enjoying his first date.

It was Charity’s idea, just like everything else they did. They had first spoken on Tinder one week ago. Shubham had seemed like an exotic choice to her, something her whimsical mind always loved. She had never dated an Indian before and was interested in seeing what they had to offer. Shubham, on the other hand, had never matched with anyone before Charity on Tinder, and was therefore not in a position to really exercise any form of choice.

Charity was significantly more attractive than he was, and she had immediately taken command of the conversation and before Shubham knew it, he had agreed to a 6-hour trek amongst the boreal forests of Canada.

And so, he found himself on a Saturday morning, hours away from civilization and his beloved television, walking a forest trail with no prospect of a rest anytime soon.

“So, what’s the story behind your name?” he asked, prying his mind away from the trail.

“Well, my family has always believed in working for the betterment of the community. Philanthropy is our family business, you could say,” she said, her pristine teeth flashing a dazzling smile at him.

“So, you work for an Non-profit?” he asked.

“No, no, I just got done with my Arts Major. I decided I wanted to take a break before I start working in earnest, so this year I have just been travelling and seeking new experiences. I feel it is very important to witness first-hand the troubles that people all over the world face. It teaches you to not take what you have for granted. Don’t you agree?”

Shubham smiled and nodded.

Coming from a country that overflowed with such “troubles” and never having had the luxury of taking a “break year”, he could not really bring himself to see her viewpoint. But he did not see the value in pointing this out to her.

And what the hell kind of a name is Charity?

“How much longer before we turn back?” Shubham asked.

Charity looked back at him, slightly bemused.

“It’s only been an hour and a half, we have a long walk ahead of us. Are you getting tired already?” she asked.

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” he lied, “I just like knowing what’s ahead of me so I am prepared mentally.”

“Ah, well, we have another 45 minutes of walking along this trail, which is level all the way and so shouldn’t be much trouble. Then comes the hard part. We have approximately an hour’s climb up the side of this mountain that is slightly rough going, and then it’s down the other side and looping back to the road, and we’ll be just dandy.”

“All right,” he said, defeated.

For the next hour, Shubham did not speak much. Charity did not notice it, she was used to dominating conversations and spent the entire time regaling him with tales designed to move all sympathetic beings to tears. Shubham proved largely impervious to her tragic stories, however, limiting his reactions to grunts and nods.

As they reached the foot of the mountain they were to climb for the next leg of their trek, the skies, as if reflecting Shubham’s inner state of mind, clouded over. He immediately felt the temperature drop and the world grow noticeably greyer. The breeze picked up, and Shubham thanked the Gods that he remembered to pack a sweater for himself.

Ten minutes into the climb, the first pitter patter of rain reached Shubham’s ears, bringing with it dread and fear akin to the Nazgul’s cry.

“Uh-oh, it’s beginning to rain. I hope you brought a raincoat,” Charity trilled, pulling hers out from her rucksack.

Shubham stared at her, hoping that her half-joking tone was an accurate appraisal of the seriousness of the situation if he hadn’t, in fact, brought a raincoat.

It began to rain in earnest, and Shubham’s weary muscles now had new foes to contend with. The wind now struck wet clothes, making the cold much more severe than he had accounted for. The rain had turned the trail to slush, making the uphill trudge slow and slippery. Shubham fell often, and every time his fingers touched the ice-cold rocks, his hands seemed to drop five degrees in temperature and never recover.

Even Charity’s spirits, which had tolerated no drop in levels of joviality until now, appeared to be dampened somewhat by this unseasonal downpour. She had meant for this trek to be relaxing and rejuvenating, not a battle against the elements.

“Shubham, you better get out that raincoat, these storms can get pretty harsh in these parts.”

“I don’t have a fucking raincoat,” Shubham snapped, shivering.

“What? Why would you come trekking without a raincoat?”

“I don’t know, I have almost no experience with this kind of stuff. I’ve lived in cities all my life. And tropical cities at that!”

“You told me you had been trekking before,” she retorted. The abrupt change from cheerful chirping to fearful interrogation did not go unnoticed by Shubham.

“Yes, I have. But not like this. I went for walks into the hills around a hill station lodge, I haven’t climbed mountains in the Canadian wilderness.”

They both stared at each other, Charity pale with worry, and Shubham panting heavily, with his hands turning noticeably purple in the cold. The wind was verging on storm levels now, and the intensification in the aforementioned pitter patter alerted Charity to the fact that they were now also in a hailstorm.

“Okay,” she said, “There’s nothing to be done now, we just have to push through. Let’s stay calm and just plod away, it’s gonna be all right. The storm will pass.”

Shubham stared up at the climb before him and internally asked his legs if they had it in them. The answer was a resounding “No!”

“No, he echoed to Charity, “I’m done freezing my ass off. I’m going back.”

“Okay, wait. Have some of this, first,” she said, pulling out her flask.

“What is that?”

“Brandy. It will warm you right up.”

“I don’t drink.”

“It’s all right, it’s to warm you up, it isn’t going to get you drunk.”

“No, you don’t understand. I don’t drink. I am forbidden to do so by my religion.”

Charity stared at him, wondering if he was being serious or just being an asshole.

“Okay, at least have a sandwich, something to keep you going. You look half dead.”

“What’s in the sandwich, Charity?” he asked, wearily.

“What?”

“What is in the sandwich?”

“Ham and cheese.”

Shubham turned away in disgust and starting making his way back down the slope.

“What? What’s your problem?” Charity asked.

“I don’t eat meat. I’m a Jain.”

“Is that like a vegetarian?” she asked.

“A more extreme form of that, yes.”

“But you need to have something, you’re too weak right now.”

“I…don’t…eat…meat!”

——————————————————————————————–

I need some meat.

The lynx slinked along, slithering silently between the trees and through the foliage. He had a pronounced limp, one that signaled the beginning of the end for a predator. Sure enough, this lynx, once majestic and in command of prime territory, had now been relegated to the foothills of the Canadian rockies, where prey was sparse. The fact that one of his legs was pretty much non-functional merely added to the difficulty he faced in getting himself a meal.

It had been three long days since he had had anything to eat, and he saw no reason for his fortune to turn favourable. He had begun to notice prey standing brazenly in his vicinity, no longer afraid of his predatorial abilities. His limp pronounced the absence of a threat loud and clear to animals all around him. There were even traces of lynxes from neighbouring territories making inroads into his territory, sensing the weakening of its owner.

As he stared at his crumbling empire, sullenly, drenched in the rain, his ears picked up a commotion. Loud, aggressive voices reached him over the sound of the brewing storm. Every instinct told him to flee, but these were desperate times. Even the hint of a meal warranted an investigation.

He picked his way through the brush, moving, as felines always do, in complete silence. He circled around the source and came up from behind it. He saw two bipedal creatures stumbling down the face of the mountain. He saw, with a hunter’s eye, weakness. One of them seemed sturdy, resolute and calm. The other, of darker skin and more appetizing scent, was in no condition to live.

Humans were familiar to the lynx. In his heyday, he had watched many a human walk these very paths, while he remained unseen in the undergrowth. His instinct had always taught him not to interfere with larger creatures and he left humans well alone. But this was a question of life or death. He needed that meal.

The choice was a no-brainer. The weaker one would be the target. The lynx could smell the fear in him. He would make an easier prey.

Poised as all felines are when ready to pounce, the lynx felt the rush of the hunt return to him. His rear legs jettisoned him into the air and he let out a menacing snarl as he lunged for the throat of his prey.

———————————————————————————————–

Shubham’s weary walk down the trail was interrupted by a snarl coming from right behind him. He snapped his head around, arms raised, to see what new abomination fate had in store for him. He immediately felt a searing pain in his arms as he felt a set of teeth sink into his flesh. Squealing with terror, he flailed his legs and arms desperately in an attempt to deter the attacker. He looked around to his companion for help just in time to see her fleeing into the distance.

Around them, the storm came into its own and the wind howled through the trees, mocking the screams of the dying man.

The lynx let go and lunged for his throat once again. Shubham tucked his chin into his chest, and this time he felt the teeth clamp onto his face. All the while, the lynx’s claws sliced his clothes and then his skin to shreds on his torso, shoulders and head.

The agony he felt had was unparalleled, but it also woke him up. His muscles forgot their weariness, his skin forgot what it is to be cold, and his brain forgot the feeling of fear. His entire body geared itself to aid him in surviving this attack.

Shubham, face still clasped firmly in the lynx’s jaw, felt about for a decent sized rock with one hand, while punching the lynx and pulling at its fur with the other. He managed to get hold of an oblong rock about the size of a brick and jammed it into the lynx’s skull with all his strength. The ploy was successful, as the lynx let out a roar and let go of his head.

The next time the lynx lunged, Shubham was ready. His vision was blurred by the blood streaming down from his scalp and the tears from the sheer pain he was experiencing, but his adrenaline pulled him through and he swung at the lynx while it was mid air and knocked it to the ground. He then let out a primal scream and, raising the rock above his head with both hands, pummeled it into the lynx’s skull again and again until nothing but a red pulp remained.

Shubham’s mind was overwhelmed with emotion and, in a final insult to the once-might lynx, he picked up a piece of flesh from its brain and began to chew on it.

The storm abated, the rain slowed to a drizzle, and Shubham, kneeling in a pool of human and lynx blood and rainwater combined, stared up the mountain face into the sky.

Silhouetted against the grey clouds was the blood-curdling figure of another lynx.

Shubham blinked, sure he was hallucinating. But there was no mistaking it.
Before he had time to contemplate what he had done to deserve his luck, the second lynx, a hunter just coming into its prime, pounced.

This time there was no struggle, this time there was no fight. The prey had lost its will.

Shubham’s clothes were found hours later by a search party that had been alerted by one Charity Faye.

The spokesperson for Canadian tourism warned the public that though lynxes were known to be reclusive, they posed a threat nevertheless and thus warranted caution.

Using the example of Shubham, a life lost to bad preparation and bad luck, she said, “Please remember, a Jain is only as strong as the weakest lynx.”

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Pun Chronicles 10 – It’s Not Cricket

1904 – Congo

Shiva had lead a most peculiar life. Having travelled widely in Africa, he had seen sights so outlandish, so outrageously beautiful that even his patriotic heart had to accept that this strange land was prettier than his own. After a while, however, even the unimaginable becomes mundane, and Shiva found his heart yearning for the monotony of his home. India, enslaved though it was, still figured in all his fondest dreams. He was not suited to the harshness of this continent.

Shiva used to be an intimidating sight. Though not overly tall, he was as stout as they came, and had immensely broad shoulders and burly arms. However, his recent travels had seen him fall victim to various forms of diseases, and, though he survived them all, he did not make it through unscathed.

He had lost his former stockiness, his body having shrivelled up into a much tinier frame due to weakness. His skin had a jaundiced tone which lent him a slight radiance, but a sickly one. His muscles could no longer bear the strain of the soldier’s life, and he had been allowed to leave the forces, provided he aid the soldiers in other ways, doing odd jobs around the camp. This allowed him some time to himself, and he used it to roam the wildlands and soak in all he could before he set off on his journey back home.

It was on one of these meandering walks that Shiva met the man that would unwittingly change his life. Walking leisurely through the tall grass, Shiva heard the unmistakable sound of a man running at full pelt. The intermittent prayers being offered up in the local dialect and the absolute abandon with which he ran told Shiva that this was a flight for survival.

Moving towards the sound, he intercepted the man, a petrified looking local, and asked him if he could be of any help.

“A spirit!” he gasped, “An evil spirit is come.”

He continued in this vein for many minutes before Shiva could calm him down. From his incoherent mutterings, Shiva gleaned that some beast was on the prowl. There seemed to be a lot more to the tale than that, but it was beyond Shiva’s ability to comprehend the rest.

Armed with his rifle and the confidence of his days as a soldier, Shiva undertook to seek out this beast, if only for the thrill of hunting and the gratitude of the locals. Crawling through the undergrowth, he came upon a clearing within which a little round hut sat, drawing attention to itself by means of the plumes of smoke emanating from it.

A menacing growl reached Shiva’s ears, one of a large cat partaking of its victuals. Crawling sideways to get a better look at it, Shiva espied the lion tearing into a woman’s corpse.

The lion was a majestic specimen, its coat without a blemish, its fangs glistening red. A shudder ran down Shiva’s spine, one that was an admixture of fear and awe. He sat there for who knows how long, contemplating the clash of civilization and the unabashed brutality of nature that the spectacle before him presented. However, as he watched on, Shiva’s eye was caught by a protuberance on the lion’s forehead. At first glance, it looked like the beast possessed a third eye. It’s positioning and otherworldly appearance fell right in line with the many mythologies Shiva had acquainted himself with regarding this very characteristic. It was only on more careful and considered examination that he realized that it was merely a tumour, or an overgrown wart.

The ramblings of the local man now made much more sense to Shiva. The mere appearance of a wild beast in these parts was no anomaly and would not command such fear. That man must have fallen prey to the same sleight-of-mind that had at first attempted to take Shiva in. A supernatural being in the form of a lion with three eyes is a matter that would legitimately warrant widespread panic, especially when the beast set about attacking the population in broad daylight, with nary a care for the consequences.

A cunning plan began to form itself in Shiva’s head. He had scoured the plains of Africa for many a long year searching for something that would break the monotony of his life. He had given up hope of returning to his homeland with anything resembling a fortune that would allow him to live out the rest of his days in a restful vein. But here was providence dropping just such a fortune into his lap.
With just a little prep and some inspired marketing, he could charge people for the experience of witnessing the all-wise, all-seeing, three-eyed-lion that he, Shiva, had risked his life capturing alive.

If he could get this creature back to India, somehow… But there were far too many obstacles in the way for him to be thinking of that just now.

With his adrenaline pumping, Shiva’s thoughts were all action. He fashioned a trap similar to the kind the locals used when they wished to capture a wild beast. The trap was simple, involving a carcass, some primitive, natural tranquilizers and a cage. Within a couple of hours, the three-eyed-lion was unconscious, in the cage, and at Shiva’s mercy.

The next few weeks were spent making arrangements. First, he obtained permission to return to India. He cited health reasons that were all too well-known to his superiors. He then set about bribing the various officials that he would encounter if he wished to take the beast with him.

Being a lowly soldier, he did not have much in the way of wealth, but he drained most of what he had put away, knowing that if this gamble paid off, the influx of wealth would far surpass his wildest dreams.

The rest of his savings went into arranging for the maintenance of the lion for the long trip ahead. It would not do to have a malnourished, mangy lion when the whole point was to dupe the public into thinking this was a supernatural beast. The beast had to be fed, cleaned and kept in luxury so that, on arrival, it still possessed the aura that had sent the local man scurrying in terror.

The terror was key. Fear kept people at a safe distance. Far enough away that they would not see through the makeup and the ruse.

At long last, Shiva found himself approaching the shores of his country. The very air seemed to wrap itself around him, welcoming him into his new life of comfort and luxury. No longer did his eyes catch the misery of the common man, trampled underfoot as the British Empire wreaked its havoc. No longer did he see in his neighbour’s eyes the vestiges of dreams crushed by colonial rule. Shiva had eyes only for the opulence of princes and the magnificence of the many castles. He snorted in contempt at those who accepted their lowly state and stagnated while they were ruled by the white man. He would show them how one breaks free from chains.

With these thoughts and others akin to these flowing swiftly and nobly through his head, he set foot on his beloved nation’s soil and breathed a lungful of air.

It was to be his last breath as a free man.

Immediately, he was accosted by a group of guards. A large, white man dressed impeccably in a military outfit watched on as Shiva struggled to free himself from their grasp. When they succeeded in finally subduing him, he approached Shiva, somehow seeming aloof while obviously orchestrating the entire episode.

“What is the meaning of this ruckus?” he asked, “Why are you resisting arrest?”

“What have I done, sahib?” Shiva asked, nearly in tears at this point.

“You have been charged with dereliction of military duty, illegal smuggling of animals, bribing members of the army, falsifying reasons to leave military service and a whole bunch of other crimes of which you shall be duly noted in court.”

Shiva’s ears turned red, his breath came in short bursts and his face drained of all its colour as he saw his visions of vulgar excesses turn to dust before his very eyes. Half blinded by the tears now openly streaming down his cheeks, he turned to the imperious white man one last time.

In a broken voice, he asked,

“And what will become of my beast?”

The white man smiled and said, simply,

“The lion belongs to the Empire.”

The Internet as a Saviour of the Absurd

We have had innumerable chances. We have lived through monarchies, oligarchies, communism and capitalism. We have built empires and watched them crumble, raised conquerers to the status of Gods and then stabbed them in the back, crucified our saviours and deified our tyrants. Every age has seen its follies reveal themselves just when the collective human hubris was at its peak. And yet, every age that followed would inevitably follow the same path, making the same errors, albeit under new guises. Our only consistent system of ruling has been hypocrisy.

It is hard, when reading history, to not see societies evolve and devolve in cycles. It is hard to ignore the inevitable feeling that all we read will come to pass again. Or at least, it used to be hard. What has changed my mind today? Just one Goliath of a phenomenon — The internet.

Never before has so varied a mass of populace been privy to such a vast treasure trove of information. Never before has the news of the world been at one’s fingertips, no longer discriminating against you based on your financial or social position. Of course, humans still being a flawed species, it does not prevent us from misusing this power: The internet is famous for being a cesspool of hate and vindictive bigotry. However, even from the fumes of this depravity, an unexpected solace arises.

Absurdism.

In earlier times, it was the unknown that gave us hope. We did not know enough about the flaws inherent in whatever system we chose to believe in, whether political or religious, and thus had no reason to douse the flames of our fervour. This fervent belief kept absurdism at bay and limited it to a fringe movement at best. We worked with gusto and lived with an eye to the future, because we believed in a future. We believed in our ability to build a wonderful world with inexhaustible resources and overall satiety. We birthed children by the dozen, hoping that their acumen would be of some use to this utopia-to-be. This was an age where one was taught that, with the right attitude and the right effort, anything was within reach. Many a kid set forth into this world with the fire of imagination burning bright. And, before the internet took over our world, many of those kids died without ever knowing what killed their dreams. Perhaps many blamed themselves for their shortcomings, perhaps some of them were right. But always there was an ever-present, malevolent force at work.

But now, you would be hard pressed to find idealism in such abundance. There are vestiges of it still, for sure. But these are mere fragments, mere spectres. Amongst the younger generation at least, absurdism rules. And the internet was the battering ram that broke through the fortress of our sheltered existence and introduced us to its invading horde.

The cardinal rule revealed to us in this age of free flow of information (somewhat), is that every endeavour, no matter how nobly undertaken, and no matter how pure the intentions, contains within itself its own bane. And its collapse is not probable, but inevitable. A system even now is judged by how long it sustained itself before self-destructing, which tells us that we already knew better than to expect an eternal solution. Perhaps it is fitting that everything has an expiry date. Perhaps it is an unwritten rule that our very universe follows, and therefore, everything in it as well.
But full acceptance of this fact had never been so wilfully embraced as it has by this generation.

Now, to switch things around, let us take a look at the world through the lens of the much- maligned millennial. As one grows, one learns both by observing and by means of access to events worldwide that, essentially, everything has gone to shit. There is no room for anyone, no food for most, no distribution of wealth. We have endangered our existence by totally destroying our environmental well-being, by running through resources way faster than they can replenish themselves and by a blatant disregard for any form of a pragmatist reigning in of our splurges. Children are expected to study much more than any previous generation ever did, but are also expected to start working much earlier, and compete for worse positions. We are the most over-qualified generation to be unemployed and no, it cannot all be put down to millennial incompetence.

We no longer live in a world where people believe that they can turn to the government for help. At best, they hope to survive what the government puts them through. Corporations are the only escape from abject poverty to most, but they are soul-sucking machines that turn people into grey-lifeless blobs.

So, a child growing up now has the choice between being a penniless individual, or a decently well-off slave. Not exactly salivating prospects, either of them.

And so, what can we expect of this child who, wherever he looks, sees only rivers of shit through which he must wade, without the solace of a reward on the other side? Why do we feign surprise at his unwillingness to break his back working for the future of our planet? Why do we shudder when he displays pride in his dark humour and cynicism? What else have we left him?
Nothing.

So far, we examined the destructive element of the internet. We had a glimpse at the crippling effect it had on an entire generation by giving them a too unadulterated view of the world they live in. A microscope powerful enough, pointed in any direction, will reveal only chaos.

But here, the internet comes into its own. When all is nonsensical, when all is absurd, then none may challenge the supremacy of the internet. A casual browse-through of even the most mainstream of social networking sites will reveal to anyone, no matter how ignorant, the identity of our prophet: Memes.

Originally, the word was, at least in appearance, much more profound in meaning. But, and fittingly so, the internet adopted it, corrupted it, deformed it, and created from it a phenomenon that cannot be controlled.

The internet offered anonymity, the meme offered ease of access and creation, and the collective frustration of the new generation did the rest.

When nothing makes sense, then there tend not to be too many subjects that are sacred. And nowhere has this rule been followed more religiously (oh, the irony) than on the internet. There have been incessant attempts to control the content on the internet, to ban certain words, sites, images or forms of jokes. But the internet blew every attempt at impeding it out of the water, and effortlessly at that. Its power is only now being recognised, but by now the seething, sprawling, flourishing underbelly that is the human network on the internet has grown so immense that it is all one can do to even partially regulate it.

And now this power lies in the hands of every man, woman or child, anywhere on earth. A meme allows one, from one’s basement, to poke fun at the institutions or people that were formerly irreproachable. Sarcasm and dark humour have revealed themselves as the primary weapons of internet humour, and they are terrifying weapons when aptly used. There is no comments section on any platform on the internet that does not, before long, deteriorate into a pun-fest, or a reference war or simply a concoction of absurd, layered, internet inside-jokes. It takes extraordinary strength of will for a regular user of the internet to still take things too seriously. And most of us do not bother to make that effort, we do not see the point. The meteoric rise of irreverence and the complete abandonment of ideals that were held aloft for millennia before us is the only logical consequence of this phenomenon.

On the internet, you cannot be too pedantic, but you also daren’t be inaccurate. And even if you, by some miracle, say something completely accurate, you must also be interesting and witty, or else you were better off having spent your time elsewhere. The same comment, whether true or false, could incite polar opposite reactions depending on whether you gauged the underlying mood of the conversation correctly or incorrectly.

Whole communities of strangers will band together with no prior planning, just to ridicule a person who trespassed any one of the countless unwritten internet rules. And once you have been handed over to the internet for purposes of ridicule, then there is no hope of escape. Some persons have become so adept at satirising artists or celebrities that they have outshone their victims and become celebrities in their own right.

It is a vicious, unforgiving and, above all, nonsensical alternate world that we live and flourish in.

Digging under the surface a bit, it may appear that the internet and its brand of humour is a coping mechanism, the only means of expression left to a generation that has been strangled before it had a chance to breathe. A futile show of resilience and resistance in the face of overwhelming woe.

We choose, however to see it another way.

If, through despair and hopelessness, despite itself, we can create this beautiful global culture, this magnificent middle finger to the world; this untamed, unbridled, unmanageable deluge that makes a mockery of any attempt at sensibility… If that is to be our legacy, then let us embrace it and ensure that, at least in destruction of meaning, none were ever our match.

Let the absurd be the only true modern art.

Pun Chronicles 9 – Infernal Visions

Dante fled through the streets of Florence, his gaunt figure stumbling along, leaving chaos in its wake. And fittingly so, for Dante’s magnificent brain had begun to crumble. The very brain that gave birth to the poetry that was to captivate minds all over the world for centuries to come with its protagonist’s odyssey through hell, today used its fearsome abilities to bring hell to Dante’s own doorstep.

Wherever he looked, he saw evidence of the nine infernal circles crystallise before him.  Florence was no paragon of virtue and nobility, but even so, Dante’s visions bore such extreme elements of ghastliness that he was forced to admit that even humankind was not capable of this, and this hell came not from without, but from his own mind.

It is a terrible fate for great minds to descend into insanity, but that fate is rendered infinitely worse when one is aware of it, but helpless to avoid it. And this was the fate the Gods had reserved for this king amongst writers.

Before his very eyes, his beloved city was transformed into a seething pit of despair. Red-cheeked children no longer frolicked on the pavements, but in their place, goblins crept out of the ground, foaming at the mouth, slobbering with ravenous glee, feasting on excrement. Proud men and soldiers graced no more the street with their presence, but hideous abominations, humanoid only in the broadest sense of the word, stalked back and forth, sullying every inch of the street with their filth, tearing each other to shreds in a wrathful frenzy. He saw no sign of the heavenly beauty that Beatrice wielded, but the hidden nooks and crannies of the streets were chock full of malformed whores choking on the entrails that the Wrathful left behind. The city itself had taken on a visage that would deter the stoutest of men from lingering. Dante’s constitution could not bear the strain.

With a primal cry, he ran at full pelt, vowing not to stop until the city was behind him. Around him, the goblins gawked, the abominations glared, and the whores tut-tutted at this unseemly behaviour, only adding to the surrealistic anguish that was being inflicted on Dante. Where was his Florence, his beloved, sophisticated Florence, his refuge from the vulgarity of life? Not even in his darkest moments had he ever imagined that he would see it like this.

As he approached the outskirts of the city, the Chianti mountains rose before him, still pristine and majestic. Certain that the mountains were his salvation, Dante made straight for them, unsure of how exactly they were going to help, and yet overwhelmingly sure of the fact that they were to be his saviours.

Nearing the woods near the base of the mountains, Dante’s feeling of dread deepened with every step. The mountain he was making for was surrounded on all sides by a forest, one that Dante had frequented in his youth, whiling away the days reading poetry under its boughs. Now it stood shrouded in mist, with the howls of fell beasts and the smell of putrified flesh the only evidence of its existence. He knew better than to expect an easy passage to his salvation, but he was beginning to feel he did not possess the strength to stand this test.

Nevertheless, seeing no other path open to him, he plunged into the forest, keeping his eyes low to the ground, determined not to let his surroundings add fuel to his fears. That resolution held for all of five minutes, however, as a vicious snarl set Dante quivering uncontrollably and caused his eyes to search frantically for their source. The source was a leopard. A massively oversized leopard was seen thrashing around in the thick foliage, seemingly struggling with another, smaller leopard. Dante, to his immense horror, saw that the oversized leopard wielded genitalia of unnatural proportions and the deadly struggle was caused by the smaller leopard doing everything it could to avoid being impaled upon it.

Quickly averting his eyes, Dante managed to avoid seeing the finale of this grisly performance, with only the anguished wail of the smaller leopard bearing testament to the victory of the larger.

Dante hurried on, still shuddering from what he had witnessed. There was to be no respite, however, as he was soon brought to a standstill once again, this time by a lion. In contrast to the unrelenting gruesomeness that Dante had been subjected to, the vision of the lion’s perfect coat and full mane of hair was a welcome tonic to his eyes. Its strength and vitality on full display, the lion itself seemed to know its perfection, and walked the floor of the forest with an appropriately condescending strut.

Mesmerised by the graceful motion of the lion’s muscular legs, Dante’s eyes happened upon what seemed to be a carpet of living mass. Looking closer, he realised that the carpet consisted of lion cubs, each writhing and wriggling, attempting to claw its way out of its predicament. Each held in its place by its neighbours trying the same. With every step, the lion stamped down upon one of the cubs, crushing its skull beyond recognition, accompanied by the inimitable wail of a dying child.

Dante waited no more, and, his stomach dangerously close to emptying its contents, he fled further in, hoping to God that there was no more in store for him. But there was to be one last obstacle. Right in his path stood a she-wolf, her paw victoriously perched upon a buck’s corpse. As Dante approached, the she-wolf began to chew through the buck’s flesh at a ferocious pace. In a matter of minutes, the buck’s corpse was all but gone and then, without missing a beat, the she-wolf began to chew on its own leg, still chomping with the same gusto. Its roars of pain punctuated with growls of extreme satiety. Watching this morbid spectacle, Dante’s stomach gave up the fight, and his flight up the face of the mountain was intermittently patched with bouts of vomiting.

Dante was, with the help of the trauma brought on by his visions and due to his recent spate of vomiting, dangerously dehydrated and exhausted. Climbing up the face of a mountain, never an easy task, was rendered even less so by these unfavourable circumstances. His head began to swim and his vision began to narrow, and he knew he needed a rest and began wildly casting his eyes about in search of a shelter. A few metres up the mountain, he espied a cave. Muttering blessings gratefully, he entered the cave, descending lower and lower until the light from the sun outside was all but extinguished. After all the horrors his eyes had been forced to witness, the darkness was a much needed balm, and Dante went ever deeper into the heart of the mountain, hoping to snuff any chance of a return of his visions.

By this time, Dante was trusting to the sureness of his feet, his eyes had been rendered completely useless by the dark. He had been going downhill for a while, but suddenly felt a steep rise in the path. Having climbed some ten steps, his eleventh found no ground beneath it and sent Dante falling headlong into the darkness.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a huge fall, and Dante found himself on a flat floor, and, walking along the wall, Dante gathered that he stood in a cozy, cuboid room. His back to the wall he had just fallen down, he felt before him another wall rise up, with  similar walls on either side closing him in. It occurred to him that he was trapped, but for the moment that comforted him instead of alarming him. He convinced himself that those visions could not reach him here and in this enclosure, deprived of sight, he was at the very least, safe from his own mind.

Time, always deceptive, gave no inkling of its passing to Dante, who was unsure whether he had been there for minutes, hours or even days. His stomach, emptied on the way to the cave, made its emptiness known by emitting growls that echoed in the dark, sounding uncomfortably like Dante’s experiences in the forest.

And then, almost imperceptibly at first, and then unmistakably, he began to see a light. It was not from a visibly discernible source. It certainly wasn’t sunlight. Its flickering told Dante that it emanated from a flame. His first instinct was to call out to the wielder of the flame. However, almost instantly, he remembered what sort of creatures his company had consisted of in recent memory, and the horrors he had witnessed in their presence, and that killed his voice as effectively as was possible. The flame, being the only source of light Dante’s eyes had been exposed to in a while, seemed to come from behind the wall, with the result that Dante still could not see himself or his surroundings. The only thing that had been leant visibility was the wall directly in front of him.

He saw it to be a remarkably smooth wall, and he wondered whether it was naturally so, or if it had been hewn by man. and if man were the architect, then it begged the question of why anyone would choose to wield his craft in the heart of a mountain where no natural light was accessible.

Even as he thought along these lines, he realised that the smoothness of the wall, coupled with the absolute darkness of everything else had leant to the room the aura of a platform wherein a performance was to be staged.

And what a performance it was to be!

Shadows began to dance on the wall before him. At first, they just seemed a menagerie of odd shapes and sizes, but soon he began to spot familiar shapes amongst the crowd. One figure, slightly hunched over, with a noticeable protuberance delineating an aquiline nose, Dante recognised as himself. Using himself as the focal point, all the other shapes now began to become recognisable and make sense. There were politicians and the Pope and there was Beatrice and there were his contemporary poets and writers and there stood his wife and his kids and an assortment of other acquaintances. Each shadow interacted with his own, showing in shadow art, a perfect representation of his life in short summation. All the key moments, some forgotten to Dante himself, were displayed to him now with unerring accuracy. As the performance rolled on, Dante found himself forgetting that he existed in corporeal form, and found himself gazing at the shadows as reality itself.

Suddenly the shadows shifted from humanoid shapes to ghastlier forms, and Dante realised with a shudder that they were replaying the events of the past day, a depiction of his own visions. He saw the goblins, the abominations and the whores. He saw the leopard, the lion and the she-wolf. And, as the last of the visions left the stage, he saw his own hunched figure contort and split in twain. Entranced, he watched with morbid curiosity as, from the depths of his own being, another humanoid shape emerged. Standing with all the grace and dignity of a nobleman, Dante did not need telling that this was the poet, Virgil.

The embodiment of Reason in his masterpiece, Virgil was now being depicted as leaving Dante’s body, an implication that needed no further explanation.

As Virgil exited left, the lights were extinguished, and Dante found himself plunged back into the dark, alone with his mind, such as it was, forever.

And thus ended The Alighieri of the Cave.

I Fear the Light

I fear the light.

It is not a crippling fear. It is the kind of fear that has the tendency to spur one on to actions far greater than one’s potential. It is a fear that dictates one’s life, almost insidiously, and permeates its very essence, rather than a fear that restricts it. Moreover, it is not an irrational fear, one that crumbles under any form of examination. No, my fear is steeped in reason. It is a fear I cherish, for it bears the mark of verity. I fear the light, and whoever is forced to encounter it should be afraid of it as well.

“Why?” the reader thinks to himself.

What does light do? What is its most basic functionality? It illumines.
It brings forth from oblivion and nothingness the entire universe so that our eyes, those menial, insignificant organs of observations, can behold it. It allows no secrets. The only way light could ever conceal anything is if it shone with such exuberance that it blinded the observer. But this bedazzling variety of concealment has more to do with the weakness of the optic organ that is the recipient, rather than with an innate characteristic of light itself.

And so, what light does, essentially, is reveal.

“Fantastic,” says the reader, “All the better to see the world with.”

That is true, and therein lies the problem.

If we were residents of a perfect world, a beautiful world with beautiful people and beautiful monuments to beautiful deeds, then light would be our deity. If we found that the more we learnt of ourselves, the deeper we fell in love with ourselves, then light would be our religion, our tool that constantly reminded us to love. If delving into the labyrinthine, chimerical treasure chests of knowledge yielded pride and gave rise to feelings of harmony and unity, then light would be our identity, our source of self-respect.

Alas, it is not so.

What it is, is the perfect weapon. A weapon that lays bare every imperfection, retardation, aborted attempt, botched idea and failed endeavor that our species, or even life in general has ever had the misfortune of inflicting upon itself and this world.

There is a biological reason for humans sleeping better in the dark. That reason is well known. But for me, there is an addendum. When my senses are not inundated with images of futility, of the malformed fetuses of once noble ideas that populated our world, of the false equanimity that we project onto ourselves to hide the crumbling facade of society underneath, when I am free of this deluge of filth, only then can my mind know rest. While there is light, there is only disgust.

Primitive man feared the dark, because he did not know what it concealed. Fear of the unknown makes sense, it is a good, healthy fear. But if once revealed, the revelation turns out to be even worse than our fear of the unknown, then perhaps we were not so badly off when we hid in our caves trembling at the prospect of imagined monsters and ghouls hidden by the dark.

Light has always held a privileged place in human history. Our language and mythology reflects that almost ceaselessly. But once again, this makes sense only when seen in its historical context. If one were to objectively study this phenomenon now, there would be no justification for this reverence. But we, as a species, have always been lazy to correct our linguistic errors. We categorize or name things erroneously, and then obstinately stick by our error until habit and dreaded tradition takes over and then it is far too late to do anything about it. And so we still refer to a pleasant conversation as “a light-hearted” one and to embarrassments as “the black sheep” of a given family.

The only justification I can find for this continued infatuation with light is masochism. That same, morbid pleasure we feel when slowing down to ogle at a motorcyclist’s brains strewn across the road probably also derives its pleasure from delving into the bilge that is our existence. We enjoy seeing ourselves falter, stumble and ultimately fail, all the while aspiring to the noblest ideals. Oh, we may cloak it in many garbs. We point fun at others, not ourselves. We find the same faults unforgivable in strangers that we ignore or accept in loved ones. We are very careful that this window through which we peek when we masturbate does not turn into a mirror. But that is merely a lie that we have kept up so that our kinks are not revealed in all their perverse glory.

Nature provided us with eyes that work best at medium distances and at medium sizes. We were not meant to look at things that were too far away or too nearby, too large or too small. We are smack bang in the Goldilocks zone of eyesight, and we should take the hint. Close examination of anything, even with an intellect as botched and insufficient as our own, will still reveal to us far too much of the absurdism of the world we inhabit and far too little to arouse our reverence for existence. If anything, the entire universe exists to tell us we don’t matter, and the closer we look, the more bluntly it is put to us. Nature tells us to remain at an arm’s distance, but we hold forth with lust in our eyes, blindly groping, fondling, accosting whatever we can, wallowing in pleasurable humiliation.

And so, light is a weapon. It enables and encourages your masochism, it drains life of meaning and sophistication. It is garish, crude, brash, vulgar, libidinal. It is a device of shaming, of exposure and scandal, of mob mentality. Nothing remains sacred, nothing remains private, nothing retains value.

It is good to fear the light.
Light is nihilism incarnate.

The Hunt of the Red-eyed Monster

This story is loosely based on true events

Man:

He ran.

Tripping over exposed roots of trees, slipping on mossy stones, trying, at the same time, to avoid stepping on the innumerable colonies of ants that walked the same path he was flying along, he ran.
His eye, infected now, as it had been for a few days, was water-logged to the point of blindness. He could only use his left eye, his right was gone for all money. His ankle bled from one of the many falls he suffered while tearing through the forests of Meghalaya. He cursed the decision he made that morning to wear slippers instead of his shoes. Slippers were no help at top speed, much less downhill.

And yet, as fast as he ran, endangering his life as he did so, he never stopped looking over his shoulder. His face, unused to expressiveness even in moments of heightened emotion, betrayed on its countenance a rare flicker of fear. This was not irrational paranoia. This was a flight for survival.

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Beast:

My life had been lethargic, comfortable, secure. There was no animosity to contend with, there was no obstacle to overcome, no challenge to my abilities. As often happens to one faced with luxury and comfort, I stagnated. I allowed my instincts to grow dull, I dropped my guard, I became complacent.

In my defense, not even the most diabolical creature of my species (canine) would have dreamt of what transpired. The uncouthness, the unabashed vulgarity, the pure, putrified evil implicit in the horrific act that was to become the single most traumatic experience of my life was beyond the intellectual capabilities of even the foulest minds that roamed the earth. Not all the morbid legends or folk tales on earth would have prepared me for this ordeal. And, drowned as I was in a dazed stupor, the act affected my unprepared mind far more adversely than it would otherwise have.

It happened so suddenly. There was no premonition of doom, no feelings of foreboding, no hint of the malaise that my life was thenceforth to be stricken by. I was lounging under the shade of a tree, protecting myself from the ferocity of a sun that made its appearance only rarely, but sizzled with a  vengeance when it did so. Next to the tree stood an old shack. Not big, by any stretch of the imagination, but sufficient for its purpose. Around me, a couple of hens went about their business with their customary energy. Such was the languor everpresent in the canines present in the area, that the hens did not even glance my way, comfortable in the knowledge that it was more probable for hell to freeze over than for me to voluntarily exert myself in pursuit of food.

I, too, did not pay them much heed, but, tongue lolling out, continued to doze the afternoon away. Vaguely, my ears detected unfamiliar voices in the house above. They appeared to be visitors. Tourists, probably. Their voices, sounding tired, yet exhilarated, subdued into the silence that the appearance of food tends to impose on famished humans. The silence, in combination with the oppressive heat, succeeded in lulling me to sleep, and I had just begun to view those primitive manifestations of our unconscious that represent canine dreams, when the fateful deed took place.

I was awoken, rudely and abruptly, by a splash accompanied by the discomfort and disgust that naturally comes along with sticky liquid being spilt over you. Jumping up, I glanced back at my body and saw, to my horror, a red, gooey liquid splashed across my back, and dripping down my fur. My first thought was that I was bleeding, and I bolted, squealing in fear. However, the absence of pain (except for mental anguish) made me reconsider. I checked again, and saw that it was some devilish concoction that had come straight from the Devil himself.

Nay, friends, I do not exaggerate for the purpose of drama. On that day, I looked the devil in the eye. Standing nonchalantly at the balcony of the old house, stood a man of terrible mien. His hair, damp and greasy, clung to his face on both sides. His arm contained satanic artistry, some paganistic representation of the antichrist, I suspect. To me, it just seemed like a geometric pattern, but then I am not well versed in the language of Satan. The black tongue may well hide its foulness beneath the beautiful and distracting shapes of Geometry. It would be typical of its deceit.

A coarse brush of hair also adorned his face. Not an intimidating beard in any way, but it served to deepen the feeling of unease that I felt on regarding that face. And then I noticed the aspect that was to convince me that this was no act of innocence that was perpetrated because of an unfortunate coincidence, but a premeditated act of evil, performed in cold blood. That aspect was his eyes.

One eye was completely normal, one may have mistaken it for a human eye, but the second one was evil manifest. It was engorged, bloodshot, throbbing with the energy of unknown parasites and pestilences. Overall, one word loomed large in my head as I regarded this specimen that tried to pass itself off as human.

Diabolique.

Frantic, I turned away and ran, lest from prolonged exposure I get tainted by the smell of hell. Seeking out my comrades, I happened upon them while they were in the middle of their monthly ritual sacrifice. Canines are a superstitious species at the best of times, but the effect of my dramatic entrance, drenched in a mysterious, bloodlike substance, while spouting incoherent half sentences about a Devil’s spit and the Satanic Eye took on exaggeratedly demonic overtones in the eyes of even the most stolid of my brethren. Immediately, I saw the circle of friends and family retreat from me in horror. My own mother looked at me, her gaze slightly askew, as if the mark of red had corrupted her son and turned him onto something less than canine. Suddenly, I regretted my candid admission and saw the naivete of my confession. The wise course would have been to remove all vestiges of evidence of the episode and to cope with it as best as I could. But it was too late to turn back now. I was in the deep end and had to see it through, for better or for worse.

Suddenly a cloud smothered the might of the sun within its wooly depths. The clearing turned gloomy, like a Manchester evening. The gang, already suspicious, took this omen to heart. A growl arose around him, one that sent chills down my spine.

“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Thus chanted those whose company and fraternity I had cherished all my life. Thus castigated I found myself by virtue of a single abdominal occurrence, one over which I had no control.

Before I knew it, I was surrounded and being escorted to the place every dog dreaded even looking at. And I knew my ordeal was not to be that of a spectator’s. Something much worse was in store for me.

The waterfall loomed large, a gargantuan 550-ft cascade that did not know the meaning of relenting. The tonnes of water gushing forth every second pummeled down onto a flat rock, a rock that may well have been beautifully spherical originally, but bowed to the might of the waterfall and, over thousands of years, molded its shape into that of a receptacle, submissively bearing the ceaseless onslaught from above. No dog had ever reached that rock and lived to tell the tale. Legends told of a mighty ancestor who was half-wolf, and braved the rapids and stood unbowed on the rock, cubic litres of water notwithstanding. But I knew better than to attribute much truth to these tales. I had little to no hope of coming out of this alive. And I knew my kind too well to try to plead my way out of it. Since the beginning of time, when a dog was rendered impure for whatever reason, this was the stipulated rite of cleansing. If the dog died, as it invariably did, the tribe accepted that the sin was too great to be cleansed, and so the spirit had to be recalled to the Great One, that it may become pure again. Countless canines had thus been cleansed.

The saccharine approach of death, manifested as it was in the spray emanating from the waterfall, took on a spiritual significance for me, and still does today. My mother accompanied me to the edge of the rapids and, without so much as a whispered blessing, left me to my fate and rejoined the clan.

At this point, a seismic shift took place within me, psychologically speaking. I resolved, even in the face of these incredibly skewed odds, not to give in to despair. I resolved not to die, to live, as Alice in Chains sang, long enough to repay all who caused strife. I had resolved, with nothing to aid my but vengeful fury, to avenge myself on Satan himself.

Taking a deep breath, I launched myself to the right of the rock, so as to compensate for the strength of the current. Ten desperate seconds later, clinging to life with every ounce of my strength, I found myself crushed against the rock by an almighty force. Another fifteen seconds and I was now on the rock, rendered prone by the majestic power of the fall. It was wonderfall.

Amidst the jubilant howls of my brethren, I felt Nature work its magic. All the stigma, all the filth that had seeped into my being, I felt its purgation. My very pores reveled in their freshness, the way a new leaf revels in the sparkling sunlight after a prolonged shower.

The rest of it was easy. The return to the riverside, the wild celebrations of my clan, the look of guilt-ridden jubilation on my mother’s face, all these visions flitted before my eyes with a surrealist feel to them. I felt detached, removed. My mind, up until now so overloaded with shame, fear and confusion, was now serene and focused. All the menial squabbles receded into the distant horizons of his mind, and the image of the red-eyed monster filled my head.

Extricating myself from the crowd, I cast my nose into the air, scouring the breeze for the scent of evil. It was not hard to find. The stench of that red filth is one I would never be able to forget.

Setting off at a brisk pace, I began the chase. I did not really have a plan of action in mind, I just trusted my instinct. These paths were made for small people, much smaller in stature than the Evil One. He could not have gotten too far. I was confident I’d catch him in an hour or so.

Man:

His face dripping with sweat, muscles on the verge of giving in to the agony they had been subjected to for the past two hours, the man’s eyes (both the read and the white) bulged from his head, making a grotesque image of his face. And yet, as much as he would love a rest, he could hear the steady rustling of leaves drawing ever closer as the beast that chased him refused to slow down.

Finally, climbing over a large-ish boulder, realizing that his legs no longer had the strength to carry out the task he asked of them, the man collapsed in a heap at the side of the path, resigned to meet whatever his future held for him. Lying on the grass, out of breath, he did not find in him even the strength to swat away the ants that were making meals of his legs.

The ants were soon forgotten, however, as presently he heard a menacing growl from above the boulder he had just cast himself off. The growl was an admixture of anger, anticipation and a terrible sense of relish.

The man raised his head and saw, hurtling through the air, a beast with bared claws and teeth and an expression of the purest fury.

—————————————————————————————————————–

Two weeks later: In U.P.

The man lay on his threadbare mattress, legs stretched out before him. His eyes were covered by his arm, which he had draped across his face. The snores were interrupted by grunts of pain whenever the sleeping man attempted a change of position. Closer inspection would reveal the man was missing two fingers, and his torso was heavily bandages. On moving his arm from his face, one could also see a bandage covering the whole of one eye. The surviving eye was white and quite average looking.

The man reflected on his misfortunes, his red-stained mouth was turned downwards at the sides in an expression of constant grief. And yet, the deadpan face still held much of its characteristic reserve and determination. The man knew that to be alive at all, being what he had been through, was something he should cherish. Even if he had lost an eye and a few fingers. The beast had lost much more. It had lost its life.

Smiling contemptuously at the memory of the squeals of pain the canine had emitted in its last moments before it succumbed to its undignified death, the man turned onto his side and, mind at ease, tried to go back to sleep.

And then, over the sound of his ceiling fan and the paan sellers outside his house, he heard a sound that was to ensure he would never sleep easy again. He heard the same, spine-chilling growl that had precipitated his battle a fortnight ago. Frantically looking about him, he saw a shape outside the window. Training his solitary eye onto the shape, he discerned the beast. There were no two ways about it, it was the same one he thought he had killed. Or, at least, in most respects it was. There were just a couple of differences that only served to deepen the feeling of impending doom he felt creep upon him.

The beast, baring its fangs, was frothing. Foam spilled between the crevices of its teeth and dripped down the sides of its mouth. And, though the lighting was not the best, the man could have sworn that the foam was red. The same doubt crept into his mind with regard to the beast’s eye. Staring back at him from the window were two canine eyes. One of them white, and one decidedly red.

Pun Chronicles 8 – Words of Encouragement

“Pa…”

That single syllable was the first to leave Sreeraj’s lips, and its subject was to dominate his entire adolescent life. A neat summary of his existence up until the present day could be summed up neatly in the phrase “Unrequited Love.”

But his yearning was not romantically inclined. His yearning harkened back to one of the oldest instincts that we, as slightly neurotic animals, are bound to fall prey to. The need for paternal affection.

His father, a business tycoon, self-made, brimful of pride and vitality, overwhelmingly defined to Sreeraj what a man could be and must be. Sreeraj’s earliest memories consisted of feelings of inadequacy and vulgarity in the face of his father’s relentless façade of stoic reserve and apparent inability to budge.
He may well have loved Sreeraj in his own way, but he would not afford to let it be shown. And Sreeraj, being of a member of a slightly lower strata of grey matter, could never fathom this. For him, it was always a case of trying to impress a man who had achieved everything he had set out to achieve. It was proving to be no easy task, and his attempts had descended from their initial optimistic form of setting out to impress him, into the vulgar attempts at getting his father’s attention. With the help of the perennial motto of the rebel adolescent, “Any attention is better than no attention”, he began to walk down the path less traveled. He began exploring the unexplored, the dark underworld that is only a few scratches under this flimsy exterior normalcy that our society attempts to exude.

And yet, his efforts to get his father’s attention never ceased as is shown in the conversation, shut down before it got going, recorded below:

Sreeraj: “Pa, where is our family originally from?”

Pa: “Many places.”

————————————————————–

And again:

Sreeraj: “Pa, who do you think is better, Dante or Shakespeare?”

Pa: “Yes.”

————————————————————–

And again:

Sreeraj: “I just found a whole new world of the most fantastic movies. They’re completely experimental and totally underground.”
Pa: “I worked my entire life to keep our family’s head above ground. Don’t pull us under.”

————————————————————–

This conversational reticence on the part of his father convinced Sreeraj that he was not wanted, and perhaps justifiably so. But, and some credit must go to the lad in this regard, he never gave up.

He craved the smallest reward. Just a word of encouragement, of support, of love. Every time he took up a task, no matter how arduous and fraught with obstacles, his father would look on with an air of expectancy, and yet it would show no emotion. None, that is, until Sreeraj failed. Then the expression of disappointment would be etched on his father’s face with a clarity that none could misread.

As he turned 18, he tried his hand at being an adult, and found that too, beyond him. On every occasion that life demanded that he show his strength, Sreeraj succumbed. At first to Tuberculosis, and later to Hypochondriasis. As a result, his many initial attempts to kickstart his career fell flat. Of one thing Sreeraj was certain. He would never impress his father by following in his footsteps. He did not have the same persona and air of domination, and so he would necessarily fall short by every scale of measurement. His only hope was to go in the opposite direction, and manage to achieve something his father never would. And so his father’s many offers to set his son up with a comfortable position in his own burgeoning company fell on deaf ears.

Now, at the age of 24, by which time his father had already begun to have serious doubts about his son’s capabilities to cope with life, Sreeraj hit upon a masterplan.

“Ma, I want to learn how to make pizzas.”

His mother, long accustomed to Sreeraj’s many queer whims, took this one in stride.

“Very well, boy.”

And so he was off. Immersing himself in a world of flour, cheese, meat and the art of aromatizing his creations, Sreeraj found himself, for the first time in his life, at home. The craft seemed innate and natural to him, his mind thought out fanciful innovations, some of them positively scandalous, but in praxis they always flourished. After three years of strenuous graft and endeavor, Sreeraj graduated top of the academy with his self-esteem soaring. The path before him was now clear.

His father, however, had no inkling of his son’s activities. Sreeraj had begged his mother to keep this fact away from his father. By the time he graduated, his father had mentally resigned himself to the fact that his son would never amount to anything.

Sreeraj, graduating as he did with flying colors, received many offers from reputed restaurants across the country, offering him positions most would kill for. However, they did not fit in with his plan. He applied to his mother again, this time with a bolder request.

“Ma, I need funding.”

“How much?”

“Quite a bit. I want to open my own pizzeria.”

His mother, straightened up with visible alarm. This sort of ambition was not characteristic of her son. She eyed him nervously.

“By yourself?”

“Yes, Ma.”

His mother sighed.

“Very well, boy.”

——————————————————————————

And thus it was, Sreeraj Pizza Bar came into existence. A quaint little café with plush seating, a quiet ambience, and an unassuming countenance overall. People passing by were impressed by its understated assurance of quality, and those acquainted with the elites of the food industry were curious to see what the latest prodigy from the famed academy could conjure up in his first ever restaurant.

The opening was set for the 18th of September, the anniversary of the only day his father had smiled at him. Sreeraj had arranged for his mother to bring his father along. The best table in the house was reserved for them. The rest were already full. His reputation had ensured that, barring some catastrophe, his opening would be a success.

As all the customers patiently waited for service to begin, something Sreeraj refused to consider beginning before his father arrived, Sreeraj set about rehearsing what he would say to his father.
He was convinced that today, of all days, he would show his father enough of his capabilities that he would elicit from his reluctant lips those words of support that he had waited 27 years for.

He saw his father’s car pull into the parking space that Sreeraj ensured would be left free. He signaled to his head waiter and the entire work force sprang into action.

He noted, with a chuckle, his father’s bemused expression at the name of the pizzeria. He still did not suspect it was his own son who created this place. Walking in, he was greeted by the head waiter graciously, and seated at the table.

His wife perused the menu for a while and then handed it to him, he refused. A voice spoke behind him.

“Would you prefer a white flour base for your pizza, sir, or a whole wheat base?”

Recognizing the voice, he turned to see his son, smartly dressed, holding out the menu towards him. His bewilderment prevented him from speaking.

“Yes, father. I own this place. This is my restaurant. I want you to be the recipient of the first dish that this kitchen creates. It would be my honor. And so I ask you again, father. Would you prefer a white flour base for your pizza, sir, or a whole wheat base?”

On finding his father to be just as bewildered as before, Sreeraj began to panic. What if his father did not approve? What if his years of toil and excellence would be reduced to naught by a single dismissive gesture by his father’s hand? What then?

His mother, being of the perceptive gender, realized what was puzzling his father.

“He is asking whether you want your pizza with maida or atta,” she asked, in the local language.

Tears welled into Sreeraj’s father’s eyes as he looked back at his son and said, voice cracking with emotion, “Atta, boy.”

The Pun Chronicles #8 – The Schema of Emphysema

Sooraj walked into the apartment complex with his customary smile plastered across his face. This smile was not necessarily a reflection of his mood, but simply a necessity. He was a well-known figure in this area. Every person he encountered knew him, and in return, he knew them or someone closely related to them as well. This was what necessitated the smile. Acquaintances tend to expect you to be happy to see them, and take it personally if your expression is anything short of mirthful, even if they are not the cause of your mirthlessness.

Greeting all the passersbys by their first name, stopping every few steps to greet yet another acquaintance, it took him a while to get to the elevator, where he finally was allowed to gather his thoughts to himself again. He stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor, and approached the apartment at the end of the corridor and rang the bell.

A woman, with the miserable countenance common to those of the lower strata of society, opened the door and sighed. Sooraj stepped inside, bowing to the maid, and requesting to meet the master of the house.

“Hi, Ramma. Is Jake in?” he asked.

“Yes, Mister,” she spoke, her voice sounding muted, melancholic.

He entered Jake’s room, staring enviously at the bed. Sooraj’s own room had no such luxuries, merely a mattress. Jake lay prone across the very same bed, deeply in the throes of slumber, mouth slightly open, breathing lightly. To Sooraj’s ears, Jake’s breathing sounded a bit ragged, and his skin seemed a bit pale,  but he couldn’t be sure, since there was hardly any light in the room.

He walked back outside, looking for Ramma. He found her squatting near an empty vegetable crate, her shoulders silently shaking as she cried. Hearing Sooraj approach, she composed herself and turned to face him.

“Is Jake ill? He looks extremely weak,” Sooraj asked.

Ramma’s lower lip trembled as she spoke, “Yes, Mister. He has been getting worse every day.”

“Every day? How long has he been ill?”

“He has been ill for more than a fortnight now, Mister. Ever since Mr. Chandra came over.”

The alarm bells sounded for the first time within Sooraj’s head. Something was off here.

“What happened when Mr. Chandra was here?”

“Well, Mister, he came over three weeks ago. He refused to eat anything I cooked. They both stopped stocking up the vegetables. There is no rice, no flour, nothing for me to cook. Mr. Chandra ordered food for himself, but then would find the food not so much to his liking and give it to Jake. Every day the same routine. I saw it happen before my eyes, but they never listen to me.“

What was Chandra up to?

Sooraj knew Chandra well, having studied in the same class as Chandra’s father. He also knew the owner of the restaurant that Chandra was habituated to ordering from. Neither of these facts brought much comfort to his mind. In fact, it discomfited him no end. He had never considered Chandra to be of much consequence. In the areas that mattered, Chandra had always been a pawn.

But this situation seemed to be exactly the kind Chandra thrived in. He may have been only a pawn, but this was a pawnsy scheme.

Hesitating no longer, convinced that Jake had been poisoned, Sooraj pulled out his stash of homeopathic medicine. Feeling the vibes emanating from each of the bottles, he chose the one that exuded the purest vibes, and handed the bottle to Ramma, directing her towards Jake.

“Listen carefully, Ramma, you must feed Jake five of these tablets. Exactly five, no more and no less. That is imperative. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mister.”

Approaching her Master’s bed, Ramma’s hands shook. The gravity of the situation, coming as it did at the tail end of a stressful fortnight, was taking its toll on her nerves. Tilting the bottle over Jake’s mouth, she counted as the pills fell in.

One.
Two.
Three.
Four.
Five.

She stepped back, relieved at the completion of the task. Sooraj, too, breathed a sigh of relief.

Suddenly, Jake awoke.

“What the fuck…” were the words of erudition to first emanate from his mouth.

Sooraj and Ramma chuckled, but their joy was short-lived. Jake had bent over the side of his luxurious bed, and was now retching and puking violently. Rushing to his side, Ramma noticed blood all over the floor, and shrieked in horror. Looking around to Sooraj for guidance, she saw the room was empty. She ran through the house, searched every corner, but he had vanished without a trace.

All the while, the sound of Jake disgorging the contents of his intestine impelled her to act faster and more decisively.
Quickly grabbing her cell phone, she called up the resident doctor, trying, between hysterical bouts of crying, to explain what happened to him. The doctor did not understand much, but understood immediate attention was needed. Showing up at the apartment, minutes later, he rang the bell, and was greeted by Ramma, almost on the verge of lunacy by now.

“Hello, Ramma,” he said, trying to introduce some calm into the situation, “What seems to be the issue?”

Ramma set off on another convoluted attempt at bringing him up to speed, but the Doctor was unable to make head or tail of what she said.

“Ramma! I need you to calm down and explain to me what happened. The quicker you calm down, the faster I can help you.”

The wisdom of his words seemed to register belatedly in Ramma’s mind. She visibly calmed down and, taking a deep breath, gave a brief, but concise synopsis of the situation.

“Doctor, Jake ill, and Mister hide.”

Jonathan Swift – A Masterclass in Satire

Jonathan Swift, with A Modest Proposal, unleashes a scathing attack on the state of affairs in Ireland, at society’s inaction to improve the deplorable state and at the Government for what he perceived to be willful inaction.

Ireland was suffering, at this point, from a host of problems including overpopulation, unemployment, severe poverty, disease, and starvation. Swift saw this all too clearly, and his keen insight brought him only frustration as he recognized both the severity of the issues that faced society and their unwillingness to do anything about it.

Wielding his sharp, morbid satire to bring the farce into the limelight, Jonathan Swift plays the part of a good Samaritan trying to find a solution to the most pressing issues that plagued Ireland at his time. A Modest Proposal starts out seriously enough and transitions far too comfortably into its satirical tone. The transition is so seamless that the reader is left fidgeting at the introduction of Swift’s solutions because he is not entirely sure how much is spoken in jest.

Swift’s reasoning runs thus: Ireland, being a Christian country, frowned upon abortion or foeticide. A woman, once pregnant, was expected to go through with the pregnancy and rear the baby no matter what the consequences. This often led to women of the lower classes being encumbered with unwanted pregnancies and then slogging the rest of their lives to provide for a child who was surplus to their requirements or wishes. This had the knock-on effect of miring them even further in the depths of poverty, resulting in the child being brought up amongst squalor and meagreness.

Swift, using faultless logic, shows how there are no positive outcomes to this scenario. The mother’s adult life is consumed in trying to keep up with the additional expenses. The unwanted pregnancy, usually out of wedlock, results in ostracization of the family from society. The child, out of desperation or poverty, often turns to a life of crime. There are no winners. Moreover, all the while the populace stares on, disenchanted and unperturbed, as family after family is dragged into the mud.

But here, Swift steps in. Surely, says he, there is a better way of going about this. Surely a nation as enterprising as Ireland must not bow in subjection to a problem as small as this. Swift’s pride and patriotism shine through and cannot be concealed even by the heavy sarcasm that liberally coats the text. And so he sets the platform for his proposed solution.

A child was suckled for close to a year before it is weaned off the mother’s milk and fed solid food. The provision of solid food to a growing child is what proves to be the greatest drain on a parent’s finances. Swift reasons that it is at this point that the mothers need to make a change.

His “Modest Proposal” is that when the child has reached the age of one, he/she should be sold to the aristocracy as a delicacy to be consumed. A simple solution, the positive repercussions of which affect every segment of society.

The parent, being paid more for the child than its upbringing would have cost in a year’s time, would make a profit and avoid all the required expenses, hence alleviating their poverty to some extent. The measure will discourage abortions, which would be seen as a positive in a Christian society. And the aristocrats will have a new delicacy to fawn over. Swift suggests marketing the new dish to the upper classes as an exclusive experience that is reserved for only those residing on the uppermost rungs of the societal ladder. The aura that accompanies such exclusivity will result in the prices always being comfortably high so as to guarantee the parents of the child do not get the raw end of the deal. And, as Swift so succinctly puts it, the aristocrats have made a habit of feeding off the lifeblood of the masses in any case, and so a chance to literally feed on them will not be taken amiss.

And finally, as if we needed any more convincing, Swift brings to our notice the amount of attention, and as a result, the tourism, that will be attracted to Ireland by this practice. People all over the world will flock to Ireland to witness this never-seen-before industrialized consumption of infant meat. Swift even conjectures that this may be the beginning of a worldwide phenomenon, of which Irish pioneering thought would be the fountainhead.

This, then, was Swift’s modest proposal to solve Ireland’s various issues. It may be seen as a classic of the genre of satire, from one of its best ever writers. But more importantly, it is a reminder that bears much relevance even today. This book was Jonathan Swift’s way of telling us that if we continue turning a blind eye to societal evils, and let the status quo dig us deeper into our grave, then it is only through drastic and disturbing measures that we will be able to salvage anything as a species. The eating of the infants is a delicious use of symbolism by Swift, signifying the depraved world that we are leaving our children in. The world where dog-eat-dog is considered pragmatic and wise, and altruism holds no place in reality.

Reclaiming My Family Name

A few years ago, I sent my passport in for renewal. I filled in all the forms, checked and double-checked all the details, using my trained editors’ eyes to their fullest capacity. I can, with utmost confidence, claim to have submitted a perfect form. However, things like that rarely ever matter when it comes to dealing with the Government. Some underpaid, overworked employee somewhere managed to omit my surname from the new passport, and just like that, I was transformed. From Haji Mohammed Usman, I became Mohammed Usman. I could, as the reader will point out, have applied for a correction, but the red tape I had to navigate to get my passport at all had been such a dreadful ordeal, I decided my surname was the lesser sacrifice to make.

At that moment, it was a simple decision, borne out of laziness and a reluctance to deal with bureaucracy. However, as often happens with these things, the true significance of my actions (or lack of) came to me quite some time later. How was it, I wondered to myself, that an irritable, nitpicky guy like myself had no qualms giving up something that was so integral to my identity? How was I lounging nonchalantly in my bedroom, knowing full well that the incompetence of a nameless employee had robbed me of my familial name? Did it mean that I did not value my family? Did it mean I had already severed ties with them mentally, and this accident was only a happy coincidence?

On reflection, the case appeared to me to be the very opposite. It did not bother me to lose my surname on paper, because to me, a Haji was not a title, or a surname, or an identity, but a way of living. A way of being. A weltanschauung.

I was never one for identity labels. I never found the solace of communal harmony in being called a Muslim or a Kashmiri or an Indian or even a human being. I never tried to hide my origins, I am not ashamed of them in the least, but I never wore them as badges either. They were circumstances, not defining traits. My surname was another title, a label, one that mattered only as far as official records go. What mattered to me was how I felt, and no passport would change that. That was the reason behind my equanimity. It did not matter whether my name officially contained the word “Haji”. What mattered was that I felt like one. As a person, I live as Hajis live.

This train of thought naturally led me to consider what Haji-ness actually means in my book. I have tried to capture it as faithfully as I can. It is never easy to describe what is felt innately. And I have never felt anything more naturally and unconsciously than my own Haji-ness.

As a rule, our over-riding trait is stubbornness. As is usually the case, extremes of any trait usually cause as many problems as they bring benefits, and this case is no different. If a Haji is convinced that it is right that he try and get a boulder to the top of the mountain, then the eternal nature of the Sisyphean task is no longer an absurdity, but simply the logical outcome of his stubbornness. The image of Andy Dufresne chipping away at the prison wall for nineteen years is one a Haji will feel quite at home with, provided he have the conviction in the worth of the endeavor.

There are the usual cons to this behavior. A Haji can seem pig-headed, obdurate, obstinate and all the usual adjectives that apply. It is easier to convince a lioness to give up her cubs than to convince a Haji to concede a point. But this stubbornness does not exist as an anomaly, all by itself. It is carefully fostered, from the very beginning of our lives, in tandem with our other over-riding trait: Confidence.

When I think back to my earliest memories, it is clear to me that even then, as a bumbling, clumsy, forgetful, stupid little child, there were not too many feats that I considered to be beyond my capability. And this was not something I was born with, but something that permeated the very essence of the way I was brought up. And the living examples of my paternal grandfather, my father, and my sisters waltzing through achievement after achievement without a fuss only served to reinforce that self-belief. However, I do not use the term “self-belief” in the manner that it is commonly understood. The construct of my self-confidence has a bit of a military feel to it. Individually speaking, at core, I was and still am more prone to self-doubt than self-confidence. However, there is an external wall, a shield of confidence, not in myself, but in my breeding, so to speak.

In case that was not clear, allow me to elaborate. When faced with the prospect of a task I am not accustomed to, I face two thoughts, one internal and personal, and the second almost imposed upon me, as if by a disembodied superego.

My first and personal thought would be along the lines of, “I don’t think I can do this.”

And almost immediately, the external thought follows, “You’re a Haji, you’ll manage just fine.”

It is this confidence, often bordering on arrogance, that propels me daily to do things I would shrink from, had I been born to different parents. And this confidence extends to the entire clan. The expectation of excellence prevails whenever any member of my paternal side of the family is in the equation. It is almost an assumption.

Another offshoot of this confidence, one that has since been pointed out to me, is the need to strive for extremes. The application of this dictum is felt in the littlest things. If it is considered normal to eat half a pizza, a Haji will try to eat two or abstain completely (Hades forbid). If a task is assumed to take two days, a Haji will try to finish it in half, or not do it at all. If a man normally sleeps for eight hours, a Haji will sleep for either two, or sixteen. There is an aversion to the golden mean. It is always all or nothing. This is viewed sometimes as a need for attention, however, personally, it has more to do with a constant fight to find my limits. To push and push till I have reached the edge. One could almost call it a result of morbid curiosity.

And, naturally progressing from the above two traits, the third trait is pride. Every Haji has a supreme sense of self-worth, which allows them the ability to stare down the entire world if need be, without batting an eyelid. Our family is diverse; my immediate family is almost unbelievably so. No two people are even remotely alike, and yet there exists a mutual respect and confidence that each has the capability to forge their path with the customary Haji flamboyance. We may disagree on the very fundamentals of what we are as people, but I cannot recall a single instance where I felt afraid that a particular situation was too much for a member of my family to take.  That elementary fear of their basic survival somehow being threatened is completely absent. Even against the most incredible odds, I am always upheld by this feeling that they will pull through, and with style, at that.

Of the other traits, less pronounced and more prone to variations, Hajis tend to be reactionaries. Every generation, there is not just an evolution, but a right obliteration of the principles and values set forth by the previous generation. This makes for great drama, but also guarantees exceptional individualism. Because their stances tend to be reactionary, they are constantly challenged in their choices, and forced to justify it and defend it over and over again, which has no other effect than to steep it ever more firmly into their psyche. Ideological trench warfare is a constant battle. It has no victors, but both parties become hardened veterans in the art of justification.

The forming of judgements and opinions is a deeply rooted tradition, and one that has seen no decline in favor, despite public trends making it almost criminal to judge anyone on anything. A Haji will, with an absolutely clear conscience, judge people on any criteria whatsoever. They will later gladly admit they were wrong if they happened to be mistaken in any case, but this never deters them from making the original judgement. You’d be hard pressed to find a topic a Haji doesn’t have an opinion on.

And lastly, a trait shared by Hajis the world over is a sense of detached harmony with one another. There is a marked absence of emotional intimacy between Hajis. There is mutual respect, general affection and silent support, but none of the expressiveness of other, more emotionally evolved families. Our language of love is sarcasm, our encouragement takes the form of banter, and our constructive criticism can only be viewed as constructive by people whose skins are as thick as ours.
This often makes an outsider, or an initiate into our family, think that we are cold-hearted or emotionless. I, personally think it is just a difference in modes of expression. When you are reared with the inability to crumble, then superficial niceties do not need to be observed in expression of feelings anymore. Hajis can be, and usually are, scathing. But threaten one, and you have a formidable host staring you down.

Personally, when my exposure to the non-Haji world was limited, I never quite realized how much I valued it. Adulthood and separation from the family home brought to light the easy brilliance of Haji wit and its relative scarcity in others. I had often wondered where my need for a crowd that most would consider “brutal” came from. I wondered why I could never gel with the “nice” crowd. It took me a while to make the connection. In essence, I am a Haji looking for home away from home.

And so, though my passport may tell you otherwise, I reclaim for myself Haji-ness.

I am a Haji.