It wasn’t the fact that he was lying in a open casket, his skin cold to the touch and his heart still that bugged Amal. Neither was it the fact that a mouse scurried over his chest, it’s nose pressed down to his body as though it was trying to sniff out an opening. He could even forgive the black tux they had his carcass wear- a lifelong believer in the idea of ‘Take it easy’, he shouldn’t be departing from the surface of the earth in something so formal.
No, what gets to Amal is none of these factors.
Rather, it was the fact that the church appeared empty that annoyed him-more than annoyed actually. Except for the pigeons that made a permanent home in the sills of the church’s high windows, there was no living soul in there.
No one has bothered turning up at my funeral.
The thought slashed through his brain like a knife through butter, sending a signal of pain which was the wake-up-call for his body.
Amal Davidson, aged 49 with a bald head and eyes the droopiness of which was more a permanent feature these days than the effect of a bad night’s sleep opened his eyes to the harsh glare of the sun. The sun looked down at him like an accusing eye through the window.
He sat up in the bed, trying his best to rub off the remnants of the nightmare from his eyes. Once his head was (reasonably) clear, the first thought that struck him was, “What am I going to do today?”
Of course, the question was merely a rhetoric.
For he knew very well what he was going to do- the routine is pretty much the same on any day when he doesn’t have to go to work-his so called work. He would go see a few small businessmen, pitch them for an advertising deal, try to impress them with his showreel and his photographs.
The businessmen would all be appreciative of his ‘artwork’ as he likes to call them, but they would also tell him that they are not in want of an advertising agency at the moment. But the moment when they do need one, Amal would be the first to get a call -the elderly man with oversized teeth would grin and tell him, looking at the visiting card which Amal has presented him at the start of the meeting(For some reason, it was always elderly men with oversized teeth who were in charge of PR in small business firms, or so Amal felt).
And of course, they never called back. Not even if he religiously follow up, which he always does.
“Goodbye, papa!” Charan kissed his father – a quick peck on the cheek before any of his friends may see this action. At 10 years of age, he knew he was too old to be kissing his papa goodbye before exiting the car but as the English teacher has taught them in one of her lessons, Old habits die hard.
Besides, Charan loved his father-how many fathers would share their kids’ enthusiasm for ‘Jack the Giantslayer’? Sometimes, Charan even felt that his father was a greater fan of Jack than himself.
“See you in the evening. Make sure you eat all the lunch that mom packed!” Amal called out after the retreating figure. Without looking back, the kid raised an arm in the air, palm upwards as though saluting the sky which Amal took to be the gesture of assent as kids see it these days.
Amal sat looking at his son.
The other day, Selena had found more than half the food still in his tiffin when he came back home. Though he said that he skipped lunch because he was feeling sickly, there was something in his voice which gave him away- mothers are extra sensitive like that. It took a bit of questioning to uncover the fact that he has been skipping lunch with an alarming regularity.
“All the kids call me fat! I want to lose weight, and lunch is the only thing that I can skip. You never let me not eat anything when I am at home!” Amal had heard him tell his mother. Amal- having nothing better to do but go through the papers was in the bedroom at the time and didn’t know whether to smile at what he heard. The child was the couple’s solace, their hope and dream. Though Amal occasionally reminded Selena that she shouldn’t feed the child so much, she simply wouldn’t listen. “I want to spoil him!” she would say in the best sense of the phrase. Amal wouldn’t protest. Couldn’t. It was one of the few ways in which the couple could spoil him, and he felt sad for it.
Sitting in the car he watched his son trotting up the steps which led him to the assembly ground. To the left of the ground was the building which housed class 5A- Charan’s class. Even after the child had disappeared from view, Amal didn’t start the car. A few students ran past the car towards their classes- it was almost 9, the time when the bell rang and classes began. Maybe it was just his imagination but Amal felt that the kids who just ran past looked more cheerful than his son ever does, as though they could see the cheerful part of life which was blocked to his son-like a child growing up in a windowless room wouldn’t know anything of the sun.
What did the boy do in his past life to be born to me? Amal thought, not for the first time.
The devout Catholic that he was, he didn’t really believe in multiple incarnations of the soul but at times, he could find no other explanation- the first ten years of one’s life-a time that should be joyful but one which his son found himself living under the shadow of money-less depression which was his father’s lifestyle(you could say)…how else could he look at things?
At the thought, Amal laughed out loud.
There was no one around and he was thankful for that, or else he should have been afraid they might think him mad. It could be a parent of a child who might see him like this.
You know, that Amal’s father? I saw him the other day, parked outside the school, laughing to himself. No,no, no, I am fairly certain that he wasn’t talking on the phone, he had that peculiar gleam in his eyes which is the sign of the mentally unstable. Or maybe he’s doing some sort of drugs. I don’t know what exactly he does for a living but I know that he’s in some creative industry. And isn’t the creative type more likely to use drugs than the rest of the population?,he could hear the words in his mind.
Oh, yes, he was thankful there was no one around.
Feeling like a thief who just stole a valuable object from a stranger’s house, Amal brought the car to life. And as he did so, he thought of one more explanation as to the reason why his son has to suffer the injustice of having someone like Amal for father-this one was an idea that he has only recently begun to entertain- he didn’t give him a proper Christian name: David or Joseph or something of that sort.
He named his son after one of his favourite comic book characters- Charan Singh.
But is God’s that fickle a personality? Especially a God who upheld forgiveness as the highest ideal above all else?
I wouldn’t know, would I?,Amal thought as he shifted the gear on his car.
The man shifted the pages with the carefulness of an Egyptologist handling a set of scrolls that was recently uncovered from an archaeological site. He looked closely at the pictures in the portfolio, at one point he raised the book in his hands, as gently as if he held not a thick bound volume but a baby, and pointing out an image said, “This one is really lovely!”
Amal looked at the image he was shown. It depicted a turtle on a beach, it’s hard shell glistening in the sunlight, it’s round wide eyes fixed on some distant point which was way off camera, and perhaps no device of human invention could ever capture-the kind of look that sometimes a pet dog might give- the one that hinted that there was someone in the room which no mortal eye could see but its own.
Amal remembered taking the picture last summer. As the sun’s glare indicated, it was a hot day, excruciatingly so. He had taken Charan to see the turtles laying eggs on the Marina beach when the family had went to visit Selena’s parents in Chennai where they lived. There wasn’t much pleasant about visiting the parents anymore, they were too concerned about what went on(or didn’t) in the lives of Amal and his wife and their 10 year old child for the conversations to be easy.
‘The atmosphere is tense like a potboiler’ is how Amal jokingly explains such situation. Whether Selena found any amusement in such sayings or not was anybody’s guess.
“Thank you, sir!” said Amal to the man.
The man placed the book back on the table. Though about half of the book was yet to be perused, he didn’t bother looking at the rest of it. Amal wondered if, notwithstanding the accolades he has been heaping on him these last few minutes, he was disappointed with the pictures.
As though reading his mind, the man said, “I don’t need to see any more to know that your knack for getting the right images is impeccable. And as for your showreel, it’s quite evident that you have creativity running through your veins. I would say some 50% of your DNA is made of it.” He laughed at his own joke. Amal joined in politely.
As far as PR heads went, this person was different from the kind you usually came across , thought Amal. The words they would speak about would usually include ‘return on investment’ and ‘sales figures.’ DNA rarely featured in the conversations. What more, this wasn’t an elderly man with oversized teeth. He looked to be in his early thirties and whenever he grinned, his teeth would show-white and of normal size.
Not cannibal teeth, which is how Amal has come to see the oversized teeth of PR execs.
But Amal had a feeling that the man was about to say something not to his liking. He has made enough pitches to know such things with the precision of a sharp sixth sense.
And wrong he was not.
Above the sound of the whirring ceiling fan which send a heavy draft of wind to all corners of the small office, he heard the man say the words almost exactly as he anticipated them: “But there are very few branded works in your portfolio. Most of them are ad hoc projects or works done for smaller clients. Now, I am pretty certain that you know how these things work..Even though managers and PR heads like myself exist, it’s almost always the top guy himself who takes the final call on these things. And it takes a bit of convincing to bring them on board. And in our case it’s not one top guy but four key shareholders we will have to convince.”
It was after much efforts and following up which lasted months that Amal had finally managed to land this appointment-tired of getting the cold shoulders from smaller businesses who cited lack of funds as a frequent reason, he has once again tried for a bigger client- a textile firm with multiple branches in Bangalore, one who was all set to begin a new outlet in Hosur.
As per insider reports, the outlet in Hosur was going to be the precursor to more number in Tamil Nadu. If any business required fresh perspective on their advertising, it was a business that was spearing its wings to newer territories.
The downside of going after such bigger prospective clients was more number of people to convince.
Amal only half listened to the rest of what the PR head said, like on especially dark nights he would listen to some old record- Miles Davis’ ‘Bitch’s brew’ or The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’- music that he has heard so many times they were part of the rhythm of his thoughts, he could just close his eyes and half-listen to them, and his brain would fill in the other half from memory.
Only, what this man said didn’t sound nearly as enjoyable as a long-sustained tenor of Miles.
“To convince them, you need at least one solid client’s work. And if it’s one of the major textile players, all the better. I see that your credentials are great-you worked for O&M, Mumbai, that too at the heights of the creative advertising revolution in India. Oh, I do know these things from my student days as a Mass Communication major. And if it were solely in my own control, I would sign you up without a second thought. But as it is..yadda, yadda…”
Amal’s first clear impression after that is standing outside the prospective client’s office, the dust stirred up by the unceasing Bangalore traffic(unceasing and unmoving, as he thought sometimes when he was driving)revolving around him like swarms of tiny drones honing in for the kill. What he had amassed in the past hour is yet another promise. “You just land one major client and then I will convince the higher ups, no doubt! Here’s my card. Call me once you have your portfolio expanded.”
The man may not have been elderly but he surely knows how to sound like one.
Amal got into his car which was parked beside a trashcan which he hadn’t seen when earlier-maybe a reminder of how things are in my life, he thought. As if I need a reminder.
The PR man was just in his early thirties but the conversation was so much like an elder man talking down(politely, ever so politely) to a less experienced person.
“Oh, he doesn’t know the kind of things that one goes through in a near decade of not having enough money to pay the rent or send your child to school! He has no idea what it feels like to see your wife-who stood by you even when everyone else was against his idea of leaving a well-paying job for the unseen future of life as an entrepreneur, break down and cry when she sees how all her peers were moving on in life when she, along with her son was caught in a perpetual spiral of the same thing-wanting, always wanting to make ends meet. You don’t know any of that!” Amal didn’t know that he has spoken out loud until he saw the emaciated old lady who was emptying the trash looking at him-an insignia on her green uniform spelled the name of the building which housed the office of the prospective client. And was that a grin that he saw on her face? One that said, “Losers like you sit and blabber in your shiny car but people like us-people with regular jobs went about their business, keeping the world moving, and a little more clear of debris!”
He rolled up the window which he had rolled down just a moment ago. He had hoped to save petrol by not using the AC.
Without looking at the woman’s face or bothering to see if she was still looking at the crazy man in the car or not, he pulled out of the parking lot. He had one more stop to make before going home.
And how he dreaded it!
It was his friend’s wife who opened the front door- a woman in her mid thirties, black spots on her face, her hair looking slightly disheveled, wearing a thin and surprising smile as though she wasn’t aware that Amal was coming-Amal could only imagine the rows that the couple went through due to him.
“Why do you keep giving him money?” the wife would yell. “I can’t just turn him away, can I? Especially when he says how some months he couldn’t even afford his son’s school fee…After all we grew up together.” That would be the reply, at least as Amal imagined it.
But the wife wouldn’t be placated by such arguments. At least, not completely.
And the forced smile on her face didn’t do anything to make him change that opinion, the kind of smile that said, “If I had my way, I would shut this door right at your face!”
“Tarun is not in,” she said, and without missing a beat, added, “Wait just a minute.”
Amal looked at the woman’s behind as she walked away. She was Tarun’s second wife, and much lovelier looking than his first wife. He could see her rump slightly wobbling beneath the thin cloth of the maxi, he imagined the stripes on it as prison bars which kept in check all that mass of sensual flesh.
He imagined living in such a bungalow as this, having a wife more than 10 years younger to you. His eyes strayed to the sofa with plush red upholstery which looked ever so inviting. ‘Yes, that would be a good place to screw her,’ he thought.
When she came back, she had an envelope in her hand, but the smile was still there- empty as the inside of a hollow tube. “Tarun is rarely here anymore,” she said as she handed the envelope to him. “He is having some issues with the business. To be candid, he is having a whole lot of troubles with the business. I wouldn’t say this to you if you weren’t this close to him…I have a feeling that we are going to go into a rough phase in our life. I am planning a month-long pilgrimage next month. You know what they say, there’s nothing more powerful in this world than a prayer.”
Though Amal has interacted more with Tarun than with either of his wives(the previous one wasn’t this meddling in his economic affairs, as far as he knew) he has talked enough with this woman to know that she wasn’t of a religious inclination. At least, not when he last checked.
“In fact, I was about to get ready to go to the temple now,” she said.
Amal could be accused of being someone who misses his chances in life but he couldn’t be accused of missing his cue in social situations. He got his cue now, loud and clear. “Of course, I would be leaving. Thank you,” he said, raising the envelope with the money in it.
“Oh, and it’s a thousand rupees lesser than what you asked,” she called after him as he walked away. “As I said, these are tough times.”
Without stopping, Amal turned to look at her and nodded, even forced a smile onto his face though internally, what he was thinking was just one thing: “Bitch, didn’t even invited me in!”
As he climbed the stairs down from the porch he wondered if Selena would have been this bitchy if like his friend, he had also become a successful entrepreneur-someone for whom buying a holiday villa was his idea of gifting on his wife’s birthday.
“No, my Selena is better than that,” he muttered as he stepped out to be greeted by the harsh sun again, and once more he found himself wishing for the comforts of the plush sofa in Tarun’s living room. He felt the sting of tears behind his eyes.
“Fuck!” he exclaimed as soon as he got back in the car and shut the door. Throwing the envelope on the passenger seat he looked at it like it were some vile creature. Necessary but oh, it’s killing me! He thought. This begging…he didn’t know what else to call it. This was the fourth time that he was borrowing from Tarun. All the other acquaintances or friends from whom he could possibly borrow have washed their hands off him. Not that he could blame them. They all helped as many times as they could.
But seven years is too long a dry spell for anyone to remain helpful.
And now, he didn’t think he could bring himself to ask any more times from Tarun-not after the expressions of piety that his wife just sprouted.
“Fuck!” Rubbing the tears from his face, he looked at the envelope. The money in the packet would help him cover the house rent and a few essential expenses for a couple of weeks. After that, he would have to ask for a pay advance at the film school where he worked as a visiting faculty in the screen-writing department. The pay was lousy, but that’s all he could find.
“Fuck!” This time, there was no one around to see Amal venting his frustration within the car. ‘This is fast becoming my let-go vehicle!’ thought Amal. He laughed, wondered if that’s what he should be doing-just letting himself go as he approached some intersection, allowing the steel of the vehicle to be crushed by the force of an impact from another moving body on the road.
At least, the family would get the insurance money.
Amal waved to the security guard at the gate who saluted him as he drove out of Tarun’s compund. He couldn’t remember when was the last time someone had shown him respect like that.
The light was remaining red for an inordinately long time-or so Amal felt.
Even the Rolling Stones singing “19th nervous breakdown” from the stereo wasn’t helping his agitation at the fact that he was immobile- the simple act of motion would soothe his nerves, somewhat.
To keep himself from going crazy, he took out his cell phone and dialed Selena. Her voice was something else which would bring solace to him. But she didn’t pick the call.
‘Fuck!” he shouted again. The rolled up windows trapped the sound within-like an aberrant presence in the confined space. Though the AC was on, the heat was quite stifling. Amal unbuttoned the top two buttons on his shirt. But even that didn’t help matters much.
Of course, I am burning inside, how can a blast of cold machine wind be of help?
That word used to be an exclamation of joy back in his younger days when things looked significantly brighter. He used the word in situations ranging from when he would taste a soda after a long trek to enjoying the sensual pleasures of a good lay. But of late, the only times he used the word tended to be not so positive.
And here, sitting in his car, immobile before the traffic signal at the Adugodi circle, like a meek animal petrified by the sight of a predator that stood in front of it, the word also brought in its wake images of its literal interpretation: and the person whom he fucked in his mind was Tarun’s wife. In his imagination, he was going at her from behind. They were on the couch, the woman with her broad rump raised towards him, he enjoying the joy of physicality, thrusting wildly, beating her ass cheeks hard.
Red splotches bloomed on the pale white skin that wrapped the woman’s body.
A sudden burst of honking brought him back. The signal had changed and the ticking timer beside it said there was an interval of 50 seconds for the vehicles to move out of the trap which was the traffic signal. After what felt like an eternity of waiting, just 50 seconds, he thought.
Without being completely conscious of it, instead of going straight ahead towards the Forum Mall from where he should take a right to reach home to Selena who would be waiting for him so they could have lunch together, he took a U turn.
Though he didn’t look at it, he was acutely aware of the presence of his trusted old camera on the back seat. The images of him having sex with Tarun’s wife was still fresh in his mind. And he didn’t wished to go home to Selena in such a state of mind.
Yes, sex would be such a relief. He and Selena hasn’t had sex in a while. For how long now, 4 weeks? Two months? He couldn’t be sure. The shared stress that they were under didn’t make for a great climate for copulation.
So, no wonder sex is on my mind a lot, he thought.
But I must get a hold of myself-clear my mind of such filth. An adulterer-even in mind, is not someone who could be termed as God’s child.
Taking photographs-focusing on visuals, manipulating the device to get the right image, ensuring that he didn’t miss any of the interesting things that happened around him-these were things that helped calm his mind, a methodical approach with the positive end result of a beautiful image at.
And he knew just where to go for that.
Soon as he entered the park he called his wife and told her not to wait for him for lunch. “I will be a little late. Got one more appointment.” He cancelled the call without prolonging, before she could identify something in his voice-he was a terrible liar.
The Cubbon Park was cool enough-though the afternoon was terribly hot. Thanking the giant trees that made the park so pleasant he walked on. At places he was reminded of the times when they would come here-he and Selen,a all too frequently during the early years of their marriage. They would find themselves a nice spot, have lunch that she had prepared, lie down on the grass and dream about the future. He would be vocal about his ideas and she was an excellent listener.
Amal used to work as an ad creative before he decided to start his own agency-backed by the confidence of two clients, one of whom was also a close friend of his: Tarun. Tarun ran a firm that produced nature-friendly materials which would go into the making of ecoproducts including bags, T-shirts and slippers. Now, such materials are usually quite expensive to make but thanks to an alliance with a Bulgarian scientist whom Tarun came in touch with during one of his overseas trips(he loved travelling-especially to exotic holiday places), the company could produce the materials at half the price at which the competitors did.
Savvy as he was with networking, it didn’t take him long to attract funding for the company. The burst of interest from investors saw one major retailer eyeing the firm. They came forward with a proposal that would enable Tarun’s firm to not just design products but also bring the finished goods to the market.
The switch from B2B to B2C platform meant that the company’s advertising needs now leaped. Good news for Amal whose company(CrazyJump Advertising Solutions Inc.) was handling the advertising and communication for Tarun.
Only, it didn’t turn out to be all that happy for Amal.
“Amal, I am under a lot of stress, man! You might think that moving to the next stage in my business would make me happy-and it did, only it has made me more stressful than happy. You know the reason why? I will tell you why. Because I am answerable to a whole lot of people now. And you know how I never was much good at being under authority figures-remember the time I spat at the teacher’s face in school when she beat me for not doing the homework? Ha,ha, ha..those were the good old days, weren’t they? Alas, time passes and we end up in different circumstances, now I am no more able to spit in the authority’s face…and these people, all they care about is bigness. How big this is, or how big that is-“
“Tarun, are you saying that you cannot retain my agency anymore?” Amal tried to keep the panic out of his voice.
They were seated at the terrace of a plush hotel atop the 31st floor. The evening was lovely, with a gentle breeze, a jazz band playing some old classics-peppy stuff ideal for the bros’ day out, and the smell that wafted up from the open kitchen was all too delectable.
It was Tarun who invited Amal on an impromptu meeting at the place.
Amal had delivered the question more as a joke than any serious query, but seeing the expression on his friend’s face, Amal gently lowered the glass of martini in his hand.
After a long sigh Tarun said, “Yes, I am afraid that has to be done. The investors want a bigger agency on our case-“
“But Tarun,” Amal cut in, “You know how bigger isn’t necessarily the equivalent of better. And there’s rarely any more creative-led companies working in the field anymore. And you want your communication to stand out, don’t you?” Amal wasn’t liking the note of pleading in his voice but he wasn’t too bothered by the downturn anymore.
The thing was, Tarun’s brand was the major client for his agency and losing it at this point would be bad. Real bad. The only other client he had was a small textile firm whose communication necessities were limited to the odd discount notice and the once-in-a-blue-moon quarter page front page ad they ran in one of the lesser circulated newspapers.
Raising both his hands in a placating gesture, Tarun said, “Once you land a major client, I can present your case to the investors. Until then, I am afraid my hands are tied.”
“Oh.” When someone puts things so curtly, there’s rarely a better response.
“This is just an unforeseen bad phase, we will get over this soon. We will find other clients,” Amal assured Selena when he broke the news to her.
Other clients were not so forthcoming as he had hoped. He did landed the odd jobs- a product brochure or a 10 second TV spot. But those were too far and in between to keep the household running smoothly. It wasn’t long before he had to let go of his sole employee- a 21 year old graphic designer whose eyes were perennially half-closed from smoking ganja but whose work rocked nonetheless.
“All the best,” it was the employee who said that to the employer at the parting.
Many were the prospective clients whom he approached but luck was no more a part of the orbit in which he traversed. Some of the friends and his professional acquaintances whom he had hoped would help him turned their palms upwards. The dry spell continued. Familial pressures built. At one point Amal resorted to drinking hoping he could pull down the curtains on the macabre dance which his life has become(a dance to earn money which no one would give him). But the drinking only made his mental state even darker.
It was after chucking the bottle that he decided to swallow his pride and go back to working for someone-if someone would give him a job.
By now, 5 years had passed since his last job. Five years in which he didn’t do much beyond what could be accomplished in a few days’ times. This meant that his CV invariably attracted the statement: “The gap of 5 years is a problem.”
The only place where he wasn’t presented that statement was at the Screenvalley Film School. He had applied there just for the sake of it, his only credentials the hours he spent every day watching movies. And of course, the jottings he made when he didn’t have anything better to do(and he was having more and more time like that)-which showed that he could write.
But the visiting faculty gig was a joke-he had to spend some 10 hours each week there, and teaching a class of 20 odd enthusiastic film buffs was a strain on his resources to put it lightly. Amal would gladly have put in the effort if only they paid him decently. As it is, it only covered his petrol expenses and a little more. Then, there was the matter of religious politics. The institution was run by an upper-caste, a Brahmin who favoured people from his own community when it came to promotions and pay rise. It took a while for Amal to see the pattern but once he saw how blatantly religion was being used as a measure to discriminate, he himself began clinging more and more to his own religion (he was a Latin Catholic who still said his rosaries every evening-just as his parents reared him).
He continued looking for a job, and prospective clients. And both continued evading him.
“Hey, throw it my way!”
Amal was brought back from his reveries by the sound of children playing, throwing frisbees in the park. He took a snap. He noticed how the three children-two girls and a boy were standing at a place near a small boulder where he and Selena would usually throw their picnic spread. He smiled wistfully, wondering where all the happiness had gone.
That was when his eyes fell on the man in black.
The man was at least 6 feet 2- his slightly hunched shoulders made it hard for Amal to accurately judge his height. The fact that he was walking on a lane which was at a slightly elevated plateau from where Amal stood didn’t make things easy either.
But Amal’s eyes were attracted by the man nonetheless. More than attracted actually; he felt fascinated.
The man’s body was bulky which was in keeping to his tall stature.
But it wasn’t the man’s bulk or his stooped posture which gave him the odd appearance that captivated Amal’s fancy. Rather, it was the indefinable aura which hung around him, and aura of loneliness.
It felt to Amal as though the man hasn’t interacted with a fellow human being in ages. And not because of a dearth of wanting but because the man had an impenetrable sheath around him, as inherent to his being as those dark wide pupils in his eyes.
Hoping that he could capture some of that sense of isolation in pictures, he followed his subject around the park. The subject walked briskly. Though his pace never approached what could be termed as “fast” for an old man, he certainly maintained his pace. More intriguing in Amal’s eyes was the fact that the man never stopped but continued walking-for more than 45 minutes, his eyes almost always fixed in the ground he trod, every now and then pushing back a lock of hair that fell over his forehead.
It was as though the world around him didn’t existed, as if his only preoccupation was the breaths that he took and the steps he put behind him.
Aside from the isolation, Amal felt something else in the man- contentment. A dark sort of contentment. For all the self-absorption with which he walked, it wasn’t selfishness or aloofness from the world that he could see in him but a type of contentment which brooding though it was was something Amal could long for.
The man was passing in front of the Court house which was adjacent to the park when the battery died in Amal’s camera. He had the camera pointed at the unsuspecting man when this happened-he thought that the man juxtaposed with the house of law would make for a great image- for the man had an eerie individuality which was in contrast to the idea of society-in which individuals had to compromise for the sake of others. That would make it a dramatic image, or so he hoped.
He pulled out a fresh battery from his camera bag, pushed it in and locking the panel he checked if the battery actually had power-he sometimes forget to keep them charged. (And sometimes, he feels too disheartened with the way things are going in his life to be feeling like doing anything of the sort even if he felt like it).
To his relief, he saw the battery icon blinking green with ‘80%’ shown right beside it.
“Awesome!” For the first time in days, he felt something approaching genuine happiness welling up inside him.
That’s the beauty of photography, keeping your mind focused on a subject is akin to meditation, it helps clear your mind. This sort of clearing helps the joy underneath to surface. It also-
His train of thoughts was broken at the sudden appearance of the man in black beside him. He hadn’t heard him approach, so he was somewhat startled. And though the man grinned, the sense of isolation still clung to him like the broad brimmed hat that he was wearing.
“Hello,” said the man. His voice was silky smooth but his tenor was high. It was as though the sound came out through vocal cords more broadened than what’s normally possible with a human being.
“Hello,” said Amal, sounding a little foolish in his own ears, like a child who has been caught doing something wrong.
“I see that you have been taking my pictures for a while!” the man said, eyeing the camera which hung limply around Amal’s neck.
Amal looked down at the device and then back at the man in black. His hooked nose was just a few centimeters away from his face, the grin exposing some extra-ordinarily white teeth.
“Yes, I was not going to use it for any commercial project,” Amal said.
Once, when he was here with his wife, a young couple who were sitting under a tree smooching were driven out by the cops. Amal happened to have the camera with him and with a photographer’s instinct had taken pictures of the entire proceedings- from the young ones smooching to the arrival of the cop with his lathi and the subsequent ‘evacuation.’ He was not going to use those images anywhere, it was just the instinct of capturing something interesting that made him raise his camera and click, even as Selena suggested maybe he shouldn’t do that.
But the young couple-kids, really saw him take the pictures. And they approached him, once they were sure the cop was nowhere nearby and asked him not to have the pictures published anywhere. Seeing how worried the two of them looked, Amal had deleted all the pictures from his camera in front of them.
The man in black didn’t look nearly as worried as those kids. Neither was there any animosity in his eyes, only the flame of a strange curiosity.
“I… I wasn’t intending on publishing them..I was just taking pictures as a practice..” When the man didn’t say anything in response, Amal added, “Of course, I will delete the pictures if you have any issues.” The last thing he wanted now was to grapple with an issue with some random stranger.
The man, in response, only patted on Amal’s shoulder amicably.
“Nothing like that,” he said. “It’s just that I was curious to see someone taking so many pictures of me. It’s been a long time since anyone has shown so much interest in me. Ha,ha,ha!”
Oh, shit!, though Amal. He is a homosexual and thinks that I am interested in him! If that were the case, he would much rather have the man having issue at taking his photographs.
But the elderly man removed his arm from his shoulder and began strolling. Amal was slightly surprised to see his own legs moving, closely following the man.
“I can understand why someone would like to take pictures,” said the old man. “Taking pictures is an attempt at capturing eternity, isn’t it? And eternity is what all humans secretly long for. And happiness..happiness is something that distracts us from the fact that we cannot have eternity. Which is why we aim for happiness in the first place,” he added wistfully.
Just five minutes ago, Amal hadn’t thought that the man would be someone with so much depth- he just looked like a lonely old man with nothing better to do than take a walk in the park. But he kept that opinion to himself.
“You don’t mind walking, do you?” the old man asked suddenly. When Amal said it’s cool, he added, “I didn’t think you would. After all, you would usually come walk in this park- for a long long time, even when you aren’t taking pictures, just so that you could be all by yourself. Being home reminds you of all the responsibilities that you are unable to take care of.”
Amal stopped in his tracks. The man in black turned around and smiled at him. A knowing smile if ever there was one.
‘What are you talking about?’ was the question that Amal framed in his mind but “How do you know me?” was what came out.
“Oh, I know you, Mr. Amal Davidson, I know anyone who ‘is walking in the shadows,’ so to speak. And you have been walking in the shadows for a long time, haven’t you?”
It felt suddenly hot to Amal. The fact that none of the leaves on the trees around them so much as stirred felt odd. It was as though everything has quietened down so that he could hear the man’s next words clearly:
“I will not beat around the bush, Amal. I am the Devil. Yes, the one they mention in the Bible. And I am here with a proposal. Something that has the potential to free yourself from the predicament that you are in.”
The only thing that was keeping Amal from laughing out loud was what the man said last. He was desperate enough to look for any way out of his ‘predicament’ as the man put it- no matter how preposterous it sounded.
“My proposal is simple, Amal. Your life will be…rearranged, let’s say. You will have a better life, in plainer words. All you have to do for that is give me your son. Now before you say anything, let me add that this is not me asking for your son’s soul or anything of the sort. This is just my way of empathizing with someone who walks in the shadows. For whether they worship me or not, all such people, I consider mine- I am sure you feel my presence in the shadows. However, unlike the god in heaven, I am someone who comes to help you even if you don’t pray to me. So, here I am, offering you a better life. And all I ask in return is your son, who would have another life- a good life at that, but as the child of some other man and woman. What say you?”
For a few seconds Amal’s jaws worked erratically as though he were a fish out of water. And when he was able to find his words, he said, “ But that’s preposterous!”
The man in black merely smiled, as though accepting Amal’s judgement graciously. But he said, “You needn’t take a call now. You can think about it. If you think it is an acceptable idea and you want to convey it to me, you just come straight here. I would be waiting-I like the Cubbon Park a lot.” Looking around the tranquil park, the man added, “Mankind’s fascination with the garden of Eden never truly wears off!” And with those words, he was there no more.
Amal looked around and saw people going about their different businesses in the park-sleeping on a bench, playing throw, strolling, laughing..It was as though the man in black was never there at all.
That night, Amal made love to Selena.
“Wow, what happened to you tonight. You were so..so…powerful tonight!” Selena said for want of a better word.
In response, he just kissed her once more. He whispered in her ear, “You know I love you and Charan!”
Selena nodded, smiled and kissed him back.
Love, as anyone with a reasonable IQ would know isn’t what makes the world go round. It’s money. And just two days after that day at Cubbon Park when Amnal met the Devil in the flesh, he had the lesson taught to him by life(once again) when Charan came down with a fever that quickly escalated to a pneumonia. The kid took the next few days to recuperate. The medical expenses, even though not exorbitant by conventional standards was still enough to make Amal ask for money from someone he thought he would never ask money from anymore.
That was enough to make him feel as though an extra load of weight was placed in his heart, enough to put him under stress to make him lose control when he had a row with Selena- she was asking him to borrow money from her parents, that was what led to the row. He hit her hard on the cheek, the force spun her around on her feet.
It was the first time he raised his arm on her in a marriage of 16 years.
Though he didn’t feel remorse at the fact that he beat her- in his eyes, she shouldn’t have pushed him to ask money from her parents. Not when swallowing his pride, he had gone and got the money from someone else.
But the incident pushed him further down the path of shadows, as the Devil may have put it.
Another month of struggle with raising enough money to pay the rent and the school fee came and went. ( the school fee could be paid either bi-yearly or monthly. Amal had opted for the latter-he couldn’t raise enough money to pay for 6 months upfront)
And the month after that, he heard his son screaming at him-another first in his domestic life, “You are a bad dad! You never take me out anywhere like my friends’ dads and you don’t even take me to a movie. Not even a Star Wars movie!” The latest in George Lucas’s big ass franchise was out and his son-just 10 years though he was had a geek’s enthusiasm in deciphering the science behind it- not that Amal could see much science in what he saw as a largely fantasy movie.
The trouble- aside from the fact that he didn’t have the stomach to sit through 2 hours of a story at the center of which is a vacuum like the space in which it’s set was that a multiplex ticket costed above 500 bucks. For three persons, that came around ‘More than what I would comfortably spend’ in Amal’s book.
But the kid bellowed at him- the fact that he couldn’t go to the theme park tour as part of a two day school outing last month also was nagging him. It irritated him to hear his father say that he would “take you places when I get some money!”
“But you never get any money!” he screamed now. And Amal flung his arm and slapped him hard on the cheek. Blood trickled down the kid’s nostril.
In every life there comes moments of clarity when life presents its raw aspects without added sugar- Amal had one when he slapped Charan- the one he loved more than anything else in the world. He was losing it, that was the untainted fact which life presented him in the sharp clarity of his mind. And as time went by and the demands of his family increased- how much would education cost when his son was in college?, things would get progressively worse, he would snap at the least of problems, making life even more of a hell than it is. For everyone involved.
That night, he sat at Charan’s bed, looking down at the young one’s sleeping face for a long time, waiting for the tears that never came.
Cubbon Park was practically deserted. If it wasn’t for the sound of the not-too-distant traffic Amal could have easily believed that he was in an island situated somewhere closer to the edge of the earth. A few birds sang from the trees but when he looked for them, he couldn’t find them.
“Good afternoon, Amal!”
He wasn’t startled by the Devil’s voice though he did find some amusement in seeing the Evil One sitting there on a bench, enjoying a corn cob like an ordinary man. “Good afternoon!” called out Amal as he walked up closer to the Devil.
“I see that you haven’t changed much!” Amal’s attempt at a joke(not all that great, he would admit) was met with the haziest of the smiles.
“I see that you have changed, though,” said the Devil.
“I reckon,” said Amal after just the briefest of hesitation. “ I am-“
Before he could continue, the Devil raised a hand- the calloused skin of which looked not much different from the bark of many a tree that stood around them. Ancient, thought Amal. Timeless, maybe. He felt a shiver of thrill pass through his body-in some corner of his mind he felt an intense devotion rising for the person who has offered him a way out.
“Before you say anything more,” said the Devil. “Let me say something.” He halted as though waiting for Amal’s approval. Amal nodded, wondering what the Devil was going to say.
“I had actually expected you to be here before this. Way before. I am quite surprised that it took you more than two months to see the light in my offer. And to be frank, I am a little disappointed in the delay. One might think that immortal beings wouldn’t think two months to be too much. But that’s not how immortality works, I am afraid. In fact, the more you realize that you are eternal, you always live in the now- and now is when you want everything! I hope you follow.”
Amal wasn’t entirely sure that he did. “What exactly do you mean?”
The Devil stood up and dusted the seat of his pants, walked to a nearby dustbin into which he dropped the spent corn cob.
“I mean that you have to pay a fine for the delay,” he said while still nibbling on a corn seed. “And I know exactly what you can pay.”
On the drive back home Amal felt calm. He was afraid that he might lose his newfound peace the closer he got to home. And to delay reaching home, he stopped on the way at his favorite Shawrama stop(Khan’s Shwarma.Est.2001) and had one thick juicy shawarma followed by a mint lemon juice to wash it down. He wasn’t hungry at all, so he took his time eating it, putting off the moment of arriving home by as much as he could.
The fine that the Devil asked for didn’t sound unreasonable to him, which is why he had no qualms agreeing to it. In fact, as soon as the proposal was made, it sounded like the most logical thing in the world- of course, he must lose his wife too.
The Devil-or one of his many incarnations would be the woman’s husband- they would have the occasional skirmishes without which no married relation proceeded but she would be well-taken care of. They would never be pressed for money. They would even go to Switzerland for their honeymoon, the Devil had promised. Amal had never taken his wife anywhere farther than Goa.
Of course, it made sense!
“Yes, but do take care of her!” Amal had said, his eyes slightly lowered but relieved nonetheless to see that his deal with the Devil would have both his wife and son living better lives. Reality was going to be altered because of this deal, but what’s coming was a better reality for all involved.
He itched to hear some Miles Davis-his favorite artist. He could simply get lost in those long held notes which he would play late into the night. But not of late; of late his mind has been too agitated for simple pleasures like music. He didn’t have Miles in his phone though, so he would have to wait until he reached home to dig Bitches Brew.
He reached home soon enough- on this strange day, not only was the Cubbon Park deserted, the usually busy streets of Bangalore were too.
He wasn’t sure if he was happy or not at seeing his rented apartment remaining the same- it wasn’t to a plush bungalow that he was returning to. The Devil hadn’t said when exactly the deal would take effect(he had promised a better life “for all involved”). He got out of the car, pushed the gate open, got back into his vehicle and drove it in to the lawn on either side of which stood flowers in bloom tended so carefully by Selena.
The sight of the flowers brought tears to his eyes.
After locking up the car, he shut the gate and got into the house. Though the front door was open, neither Selena nor Charan was anywhere to be found-this being a Sunday, Charan should be home in the afternoon, usually watching the tele.
Thinking that his son would be in the bedroom asleep, he went there-only to be greeted by the vision of himself tying up a noose which extended down from the ceiling fan.
His protests fell on deaf ears as he saw another reality-one which he was powerless to change taking place right in front of him. He saw his linbs shaking before going stiff. Before that he saw how in his death throes, he clawed on his own thighs, breaking the skin and making them bleed. The frozen grimace on his dead face looked like a expression of mockery. The somewhat bloated tongue which pushed out of his mouth was like a middle finger raised at the notion of perseverance.
Amal felt as though someone put a dead weight in his stomach. He felt like he was going to go sick. Crouching down, he was ready to throw up when, all of a sudden he found the surroundings blurred-everything from the cloth stand from which hung one of Serena’s shawls to the dressing table and the bed lamp with the pictures of Egyptian mummies which was more Charan’s choice than his mother’s-everything blurring out of view like overexposed film..
..only to come back in sharp relief.
Only this time he was sitting up on the bed, having come awake from sleep.
Later that day, after dropping Charan at school, he went to meet a prospective client, their office off Lavelle Road.
“This one is lovely!” the man- a young man for a change unlike the elderly gents you come across in charge of PR, was pointing to the picture of the turtle which Amal had taken in the Marina beach last summer.
About half an hour later, he was walking back to the car which was parked beside a trashcan-something he had missed earlier. An emaciated old woman was cleaning out the trash.
Meanwhile, at Cubbon Park, no one felt anything odd about the old man who sat on the steps staring at his hand. There was as faint smile on his face but even that wasn’t all that odd- he must surely be looking at some PDA.
But the Devil had no need of any palm held device to see what’s going on in the lives of the ones who “walk in the shadows,” The ones whom fate had demarcated for him, whether they like it or not-for to maintain balance in the universe, there has to be some for God and some for the one below.
And the latter certainly got his kicks from watching the fates that he perpetrated on them.
Like the endless loop in which he had put this one-named Amal Davidson. A man without much prospects in the world, drifting through the days as if living through a nightmare, endlessly repeating the cycle of waking up to face the horrors of every day life and then meeting him-The Devil, only to act on his proposal a full two months later, when he could see absolutely no other hope. And hope regained, he would drive back home, stopping for a shawarma and a mint lime juice on the way, only to come home and see another reality-probably the ‘real’ reality: of himself committing suicide because he could see no other way.
Only to come awake and the cycle to continue endlessly..
On the calloused skin of his palm which looked so much like the bark of ancient trees, the Devil saw Amal in his car, muttering to himself, being watched by an emaciated old lady clearing a nearby trashcan.
He would soon be here. The smile broadened on the Devil’s face.