His stomach let out a protesting groan. He ignored it. Checking how much time he had left to catch the bus to college, Usman calculated whether he had time for a shower.
Shrugging nonchalantly, he brushed his teeth and sprayed himself with an extra spray of deodorant. This act of benevolence always made him feel like a good Samaritan.
With the tiresome formalities out of the way, he began the part of the day he really relished. His mind finally felt awake and primed. He opened his book cabinet and surveyed the vast treasure he had amassed, searching for the book that would keep him company for the next few days. The book would determine whether he spent the next week in silent awe or disgruntled disappointment.
As it were, Fate had bigger plans for him. He chose Freud.
Putting on his oversized headphones, turning the music’s volume to the maximum, he walked with his smooth, practiced, rhythmic gait down to the bus stop, moving his feet in sync with Metallica’s drum beat. The bright Pune sun shone down on a wide, dusty street. The heat was getting oppressive and the populace was divided into two large groups on either side of the road, clustered in the shade of the trees.
Usman waited calmly, pretending not to notice the stares his appearance drew. With his large frame and thick beard, he was used to drawing the fearful glances of middle aged women and the open curiosity of school kids. The rest of them stared as well, but were practiced in the art of subtlety.
The bus came, he threw himself into the inevitable jostle to get on in time and allowed the wave of people to carry him along. Once inside the bus, he used his size to push through the crowd to get to the empty seats first. It was a tactic he had perfected over years of commuting by bus.
Once in the seat, he turned his attention away from the populace once again, letting his mind drown in the dark melodies of Erik Satie. He would not rise from his self induced reverie until he reached his destination. His college.
On reaching, he took his customary diversion from the college route to smoke a cigarette. With the combination of tobacco and music, and an ever-present bottle of Thums up, Usman trundled down the college gravel path in a tranquil state of mind, whistling and swaying to the music.
Walking into his classroom, his eyes immediately searched for that vast expanse of curly hair and fair skin that constituted his best friend. On locating her, he made his way through the maze of benches, nodding awkwardly at his classmates on the way, ignoring the teacher, who was busy spouting misinterpretations of the works of the best writers to have lived.
Usman sat down beside her, and without speaking a word, pulled out his new book and showed it off to her, gleaming with pride, with a goofy smile on his face. She smiled back, shaking her head at his childish glee. She then turned her attention back to the teacher, religiously taking notes, as he continued to behave as if the teacher did not exist and opened his book to read.
Right there, two friends, sitting right beside each other, became residents of two separate worlds.
She occupied reality, making the best of substandard teachers, taking notes knowing full well that most of her friends group depended on her for providing them with reading material for the exams. She asked questions, answered questions, compared notes, cracked jokes, laughed, yawned and sighed.
Not even a meter to her right, Usman had travelled into another world. He knew of no classroom, he hardly knew of himself. He was in the world of Sigmund Freud, immersed in cases of neuroses. Despite everyone telling him to read Freud with a pinch of salt, knowing full well that many of his theories have been disproven, Usman continued to feel that there was much more wisdom in Freud than he was given credit for.
While his teacher droned on, spewing forth from rote memory the meanings of allegories and metaphors and symbolisms, Usman’s mind pondered the immense, uncharted areas of the mind that still held so many enigmas. It always seemed to him mankind was much more comfortable exploring outwards than inwards. They’d pierce the very depths of space to uncover the universe’s secrets, but would stutter and stammer at the doorway to their own minds.
And he really could not blame them. Whatever he knew of the subconscious made it sound like a malicious entity, out of reach, out of harm’s way, and yet wreaking havoc with the world.
Usman had always had a mind for theorizing. He could never just read about a thought without implementing it and living out its implications and consequences in his mind. He was a bright boy and had read widely, and this habit of mind testing everything he read had led him to a more or less concrete view on life and living. Much more concrete and cocksure than a 23-year-old ought to be.
The bell rang, startling him out of his musings. He immediately turned to his friend, excitedly telling him of Freud’s findings and theories. She would always listen to him with a proud, almost maternal smile on her face, but today her face clouded over. Her luminous skin seemed darkened by a veil of grey fear. It disconcerted him to see her like this.
“What happened?” he asked, worried.
She shook her head, breathed a deep sigh, squeezed his hand and changed the topic.
In his classic non confrontational manner, Usman let it go as something insignificant.
With no further lectures scheduled, they made their way to the cafeteria, cracked the usual jokes, ate the usual snacks and prepared to leave their separate ways. Usman and his constant companion trouped together singing and laughing raucously till the college gate. They hugged goodbye, and Usman felt that she held on for a little longer than usual. Her behaviour in the classroom came back to him. Once again he shrugged it off, shouldering his eternal knapsack and making his way to the bus stop.
He checked the time, he had twenty minutes to kill before his bus arrived. He seated himself upon a high wall near the bus stop from where he could see the numbers of the approaching buses, pulled out his headphones, made himself comfortable, and drowned himself in the world of psychoanalysis once again.
However, he was soon distracted by a commotion on the street in front of him. There was a massive traffic jam, spanning the entire length of the street, which was normal for this time of the day. However the commotion was all concentrated at a point directly in front of Usman. An ambulance was stuck right in the center of the jam, with its siren wailing out a hopeless lament, pleading the cars in front to allow it room to pass. A man lay inside, his life depending on whether the traffic could and would do so. People from the street frantically ran up and down shouting at cars to go this way or that, adding to the confusion. Every man in the jam wanted to get out of the way, but there was simply no room. This would take a good twenty minutes under the best of circumstances, and the desperation of the ambulance driver made it clear that the patient did not have that much time.
Buses went by unnoticed by mortified onlookers as they saw a man’s life drain out along with the sands of time before their very eyes. A mother clamped her child to herself, turning his eyes away from the spectacle. A college girl broke into hysterical tears. Men hurriedly formed mini gatherings, trying to think up some solution to this mishap waiting to happen.
Everywhere, humanity united in its dismay to solve this problem, and the more they willed its solution in unity, the more convoluted and confused their actions got. Twenty minutes later some of the traffic had moved, but the throngs that had gathered were still obstructing traffic in their attempts to help.
Usman saw all this without moving a muscle. He felt unaffected, unperturbed, calm. He saw the self created chaos of the crowd trying to “Do the right thing”, and the complete ineffectiveness of their endeavours, the hopelessness of it all. He saw the man driving the ambulance, face drenched in sweat, screaming and gesturing frantically to save this stranger’s life. He would soon be transporting his corpse. He saw all this and he began to giggle.
His reaction surprised himself, but on reflection it made sense to him. Everything in life was, after all, a farce, wasn’t it? Life was one long Theatre of the Absurd. He had read somewhere that life is tragic for those who feel and comic for those who think. He could not have agreed more. Viewed in a larger context, every single action becomes insignificant, meaningless, purposeless. There are no ideals, no goals, no objectives, everything is merely on its way to annihilation.
The farce was exacerbated by the fact that everyone around him had the absolute opposite reaction. Whilst they experienced horror, panic and dismay, Usman chuckled. His chuckle grew louder and louder and pretty soon he was laughing so hard that it began ringing in his own ears. He paused to catch his breath, but it continued to echo in him, sounding strange and foreign to himself and yet also somewhat familiar. It was then that he realized he was not alone. Just a couple of meters to his left he saw a man looking on the same spectacle with an identical reaction. That man too, was in fits of laughter at the predicament of the ambulance.
As Usman took in the man’s appearance, the laughter froze on his face and then slowly replaced itself with a look of wonderment mingled with fear. The man was one of the many homeless people who roam the streets of Pune. His hair was dishevelled and matted with dust. His face was covered with soot and made his teeth seem all the more garishly yellow in contrast as he wildly cackled. His clothes were in tatters, carelessly strewn over his body as on a man who no longer has society in his sphere of priorities. His emaciated structure underlined the squalor that he spent his life in. He wore a long, torn robe that he had left untied and was held together by mere strands. He wore nothing underneath, leaving diseased genitals open for the world to view. However, none of this was what shocked Usman. What stopped his laughter dead in its tracks was that this man was clinically insane.
Suddenly a flurry of words, conversations, moments, indications and forebodings flooded his brain. He remembered being bemused at the fact that two of his favourite authors had ended up in asylums. He remembered identifying with the Duchess of Malfi when she exclaimed that only through insanity could she feel sane in this insane world. He remembered feeling a weird alienation and reaction contrary to whatever the majority of mankind was exhibiting. He always felt like he was struggling against the current, and often wondered what would happen if he let go. After all, he may one day decide the struggle is too hard.
Freud’s words rang back to him. “Everybody is neurotic”.
Looking at the insane man, he noticed how the man’s unkempt attire was merely an exaggeration, an extreme example of his own kind of thinking. His own shabby sense of dressing came from a similar disregard of what society thought of him. The mad man’s laughter too, seemed like a mere exaggeration of the chuckle that had started from the depths of Usman’s belly.
The echoing of laughter in his ear, and the familiarity of his laugh now struck home.
Suddenly, the secret behind his friends’ concerned expression earlier in class today, the cause of the darkness behind her concern became clear to him. She could see what he was seeing now. She could see the path that he was walking and where it led to. She knew what lay in store if he continued viewing the world through his morbidity stained goggles.
Even as he thought of that moment, his friend passed before his eyes.
She was driving her car, looking radiant, smiling to herself about something, driving, oblivious to him mere feet away from her.
And here he sat, contemplating his own ruin. Seeing his future being played out before himself, and being mortified by what he saw, and yet no less determined to follow the self same path nonetheless.
Once again, separated by a mere nothingness in terms of space, Usman felt that his friend and he lived in separate, perhaps parallel universes.
And as he saw her drive past, it seemed to him that there was a glow, a halo, an aura of whiteness around her. It was as if she dropped a little sunshine wherever she went. The world seemed fairer, cleaner, brighter, more conducive to hope and dreaming, just when she passed by. But then she was gone and the darkness closed back in again.
She turned a corner and was gone. Usman looked at the madman, then looked at himself.
Deep in his belly, another uncontrollable chuckle began to rumble as the manic tunes of Beethoven raged into his ears.