Virtual Realities, page 1
The author of three previous works of fiction, Neelum Saran Gour has also been a book critic, a humour columnist, and writer-in-residence at the University of Kent. She lives with her husband and two sons in Allahabad, where she teaches at Allahabad University.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Grey Pigeon and Other Stories
Speaking of ’62
Neelum Saran Gour
Dedicated to the great storytellers in my family
who never wrote a line
Ponds like panes of glass set in the paddy fields. Polished pools of a laminated jade. In the mist of the mornings, under the musty palms, they turn into bowls of smoke. In the afternoons their dark liquor brews brackish light.
The road, where it is metalled, curves like the blade of a sickle, steel-sharp with sun. At noon the State Transport bus from Narendrapur brays down it, crunching pebbles under its wheels. Vendors walk, baskets on their heads, to the weekly market at Vishvakarmagram. Sometimes a lone rickshaw utters a sharp honk as it careers round the mildewed wooden bridge. But by sundown all is quiet and the surface of the pond brims over with slick sky-gloss. This is the hour when the house seems a-sail.
It is a landscape carved with a sharp scalpel, washed in a slurp of wet, glowing green. Powdered in early mist and then suddenly, an hour later, bristling with chill sun.
Amalendu sits upon his string cot, brooding. Watching the ducks paddle across the pond, cleaving a furrow across its dense treacle. Cutting through the thin scum of shade that has settled on its face.
He stopped, read over the paragraph he’d completed. Those lines needed to be combed out. Thinned. He didn’t like those tiny knots between the sentences. Needed a bit of lubrication to make the lines flow. Maybe if he broke up each line … And Amalendu still had to be visualized clearly. A wizened man, sour before his time.
Footsteps on the landing. Then a soft thud in his mailbox. Three letters arrived together, one an innocuous-looking inland, one a large brown official envelope, the third a dog-eared postcard.
He tore open the inland first. He was used to hate mail, so it made no dent on his composure. But this man’s handwriting rattled him. Had done so for years. He remembered entire days laid waste by the sight of this spidery hand. There was no attempt at anonymity, even if the letter was always unsigned. Obviously written in a state of advanced intoxication. Seething with an old and confirmed rage, thought Sravan as he tore it into small pieces. Banishing the disturbance from his head by an effort of will, he opened the second letter, the official one, and scanned the contents with satisfaction. He decided not to break the news to anyone yet.
The postcard was from Buddhoo. Undated, postmark smudged, handwriting cranky. As though the words had been shaken out of a salt shaker and had landed, skittering, on the card. ‘Arriving Thursday, 5th, Kalka, seeyouthen!’ Dot, dot, dash. Buddhoo’s brisk wireless. Sravan cursed the bastard. He hadn’t mentioned which Kalka! There were two, one from Delhi and the other from Howrah.
The latter, as it turned out. Running two hours late, it disgorged Buddhoo’s dishevelled, grinning face and faded shoulder bag on to Platform One. Buddhoo’s raucous greeting floated across to Sravan: ‘Arré, saala, what you done to yourself? You’re thin as a sugarcane stick. Your face has sat down, man!’ He’d always loved shocking Sravan with his most outrageous Indianisms.
When people remarked upon Sravan’s attractive trimness, he’d usually shrug and answer: ‘It’s because my life’s got just the right blend of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.’ But he didn’t dare throw that line at Buddhoo.
Now Buddhoo lolled on the divan in Sravan’s sitting room, rolled rum round his mouth like mouthwash and observed airily: ‘Bilingual author, wah! Mutlub, sort of a hermaphrodite, na?’ He followed it up with a double-decker axiom: ‘Fools build houses and wise men live in them. And fools write books and wise men sit back and read them!’
‘I thought you were into writing, too.’
‘Ah, that was when I was a fool. Wiser now. I’d much rather read a first-rate book by you than write a third-rate book myself.’ He paused, smiling engagingly.
Buddhoo all over. He could tease and please in the same breath. No trace of ridicule in his banter, no formal flattery in his compliments. None of that undertow of delicate jibing that characterized Sravan’s current companionships. Good to see the blighter again.
‘Besides,’ went on Buddhoo, ‘I can’t speak this furr-furr English like you.’ He made a fluttering sound like the flurry of wings in a staircase. ‘My stomach won’t fill, bhai, with these saltless English words. I won’t let myself turn into the bania in the old saying, the guy who went up to Kabul and learnt so much Persian that he began saying aab for plain homely water and forgot the word paani. Know what happened? Fellow died crying out for “aab” and no one knew what the fuck he wanted and he couldn’t for the life of him reach out to the pitcher of water at his bedside!’
‘Oh, I know all about you, Buddhoo,’ was Pragya’s breezy welcome. ‘Sravan’s told me fabulous tales of your escapades.’
‘Actually, I almost met you at your wedding,’ said Buddhoo.
‘Almost?’ Pragya was mystified.
‘Buddhoo organized a gents’ sangeet a day before the wedding,’ Sravan said. ‘Complete with harmoniums and drums. Lewd songs and booze—a riot it was. Buddhoo spent the wedding itself horizontal on the carpet in the hotel room.’
‘Really?’ Pragya smiled at Buddhoo. ‘Sravan didn’t tell me. I’d have gone to the hotel for your autograph! You’re such a celebrity prankster.’
The guest cocked a rakish eyebrow. ‘Sravan? You mean this bloke? I quite forgot his name’s Sravan. To me he’s always been Ravan.’ Buddhoo settled himself snugly against a silk bolster. ‘Personally, I’m always a bit staggered seeing his name on books. Sravan Nishit, wah, bhai, wah! To me he’s always been Ravan Shit. Or don’t you know this one? He hasn’t told you? Let me tell you how the name stuck. In the old days, when we shared a room at the Jai Ma Kali Students’ Lodge in Morrisgunj, Ravan here was writing his first book. Up to his teeth in it he was. Had it coming out of his ears. He’d worried himself sick. Wanted a poetic pen name and a suitable title. We had lots of damn serious discussions. Like, he’d say to me: “Something refreshing. New-minted. The pundit says it’s got to begin with the letter f.” I’d say: “Yaar, don’t make me laugh.” He’d persist. I’d search my head and suggest: Fractions and Frictions. Or Factions and Fictions. Or something like An Infictious Disease. He’d demand: “What’s infictious?” I’d answer discursively: “Infictious means to infect with fiction. Infuction means to infect fiction with fuction. Fuction means the action of …” He’d shout, “Oh, fuck it, saala! I’ve though of something else. What d’you say to Briefs and Blueprints?” I’d crack my sides with laughing. Say, “Yaar, don’t give me ideas. I’m getting visions of pretty blue-flowered underwear!” ’
Pragya laughed politely, a little out of her depth.
‘The search for a pen name was funnier still,’ continued Buddhoo. ‘The urf. Sort of a capsule to hold the essential quality of the guy. We ran through tanha and parishan and saaz and alfaz and I suggested pyaaz—he used to stink of onions then—and a few more profane ones, but nothing clicked. So he stuck to his own name.’
‘And you abbreviated it to Ravan Shit?’
‘In still crazier circumstances.’ Buddhoo took a long, sussurating sip. ‘There was this sleazy bar we were fond of. What was it called?’
‘Right. The Somnath. I scratched his name
OMNISEX CHAMP SRAVAN NISHIT
PASSIVE / ACTIVE / MEN / LADIES
ALL AGES AND PREFERENCES WELCOME
SPECIAL 20% DIWALI DISCOUNT
—that sort of thing. Sravan went in to piss and was aghast. Spluttering with fury he was! Tried frantically to scratch it out, but could only scratch out three letters. And there you have it—Ravan Shit.’
‘Were there any phone calls?’ Pragya wanted to know.
‘If there were, we weren’t informed.’
‘You’d hardly expect the college office to taken down and deliver the message. But it proved a historic inscription.’
‘Yes, and Buddhoo’s called me Ravan Shit ever since. As for me, I keep forgetting he’s called Prabuddha. To me he’s always been Buddhoo.’
‘Buddhoo!’ exclaimed Pragya. ‘What a name to carry all your life.’
‘Actually,’ confessed Buddhoo, ‘I rather like it. Think of it. Prabuddha means “wise” and Buddhoo means “fool”. It isn’t everyone who has the privilege of enjoying wisdom and folly at the same time—eh? Mutlub, a transcendental name, na?’
Pragya’s laugh this time was one of genuine delight, and Sravan was relieved. He’d been a little apprehensive about Buddhoo’s reception in his home; now he knew he needn’t have worried. Trust the rogue to charm his way into any sort of company.
‘How did you come to acquire such an interesting nickname?’ Pragya asked.
‘Long story,’ sighed Buddhoo, pouring himself another drink. ‘That was just after I went into the design biz.’
‘I was in shirts.’
‘Aren’t we all?’
‘No, I was designing shirts. You know—the famous Pissitoire Collection. Harlem Shirts. I almost had an ad campaign—macho model with hatchet raised—a strong sexual message. Alas, it fizzled out. I was also the author of Buddy’s Signature Exclusive Animalwear. That was just before my portable-automobile venture and my Jug-Mug Animal Restaurant.’
‘Tell you later about that one. Plenty of time. In between creative ventures I had a dose of social-upliftment fever. Thought of opening a school back in my native Etawah. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a progressive city, and I had noble plans of community welfare. Get the idea? Research and development, the works!’
Pragya nodded, amused.
‘It had to be a convent and it had to be named after a saint. The Pauls and Peters and Josephs and Xaviers held no attraction for me: I wanted something original. I finally hit upon calling it Saint Buddha’s Convent. Nice, what? Considering that my name’s Prabuddha. And a good, guaranteed, respectable, international Indian saint, too. Alas, the public went one better. They disfigured it to Saint Buddhoo’s Convent! Hardly the sort of name to encourage right-thinking parents to send their kids. There were also some speculations about my saintliness …’
‘Once,’ interrupted Sravan, ‘in a small English village, I came across a school with an abbreviated name of the same sort. Saint Dunce, for Dunstan.’
‘Ofo! Did you find out how many kids it had, that school? No, after one small foray into the education racket, it was a stint at law college for me.’
‘Which came to a similar entertaining end. But what then? What were you up to after you disappeared some years back? Someone told me you’d been in jail.’
‘Crime,’ said Buddhoo sedately. ‘An interesting case of imposture.’
‘Let’s hear it.’
‘Ah, well,’ sighed Buddhoo. ‘It was like this: hectic night on the Jhansi Road. Drunken driver, red Maruti van and drunken self. Sab daru ka khel, if you know what I mean. It all began as a daredevil proposal from the driver. “Sir,” he drawled, “I know the VIP signal well. Bet you I can stop all the lorries on this road.” In the beginning I took no notice. But then, you know how these ideas grow on you. “Bet you, sahib,” whispered that voice of Shaitan, “that I can even pass you off as the regional transport officer.” “Listen, you fucker,” I swore, “when does the RTO ever travel in a Maruti van? It’s always a jeep, or maybe one of these obese white official Ambassadors, for the likes of him.” “I bet you, sir, they won’t know the difference,” he drawled, grinning from ear to ear. So the fellow braked and parked the Maruti slantwise across the highway and got down to doing his stuff. So what happens? The VIP signal—get the idea? Eh, shabash! The lorries began stopping! One, two, three, five, a long row. I sat, face hidden behind a newspaper, cursing. Then I saw what the son-of-a-bitch was up to, the double-crossing cur! Saala! He was actually extracting money from the drivers on behalf of me, the fake RTO! God knows how many hundreds he raked in from those poor suckers! Coolly examining their papers, hectoring them in police-station bluster. And he wasn’t even sporting a constable’s moustache or uniform, the haramzada! At last, along came this UP State Transport bus. The fellow smelt a rat. Grew as meek as you please and drove off. And reported me at the next police chowki!’
‘I heard some such thing,’ remarked Sravan when the laughter in the room was under control. ‘Actually, in another version of your adventure, the real RTO was riding in the bus …’
‘Ha! Damn lies! Trust the rascally lot to make up the tale! Well, one thing led to another. By now the situation was out of my control, and what does a man say when that happens? Goli maro, yaar, what must be must be. High words passing between cops and self. What with this and that, I’d become convinced that my rights as a citizen were being buggered by the Indian police and I was wrathful and self-righteous. Rhetorical, too. Arguing points of protocol between the transport department and the police department. Ready to fight anyone who challenged my word.’
‘So what followed was inevitable.’
Buddhoo nodded sadly. ‘Naturally. Was handcuffed, hauled off and clapped in jail. And this is where the real fun begins.’
‘Oh, dear, there’s more?’ giggled Pragya.
‘If you knew Buddhoo, you wouldn’t ask that.’
‘Now, after all this I was in no mood to compromise my dignity. Fortunately something happened to make a deep impression on the bastards. They went through my pockets, whacked my wallet and found my pocket diary. Now, my diary is full of the addresses and phone numbers of VIPs—DMs, commissioners of income tax, ministers past, present and aspiring, notorious student leaders of five state universities … Those cops paled at my collection.’ He took a slurp from his brimming glass and smacked his lips.
‘Returned your wallet?’ kidded Sravan.
Buddhoo threw him a reproachful grimace. ‘With each flick of the page they grew more respectful, until halfway through my diary they were positively fawning. I was carrying my angina papers and was pronounced medically unfit and consigned to the jail’s hospital ward. Best holiday of my life. The jailor turned out to be from Etawah, too, and a Thakur like me. That was it! Sahib! Hot puris and spicy vegetables from his house. I tell you, it was rigorous hospitality! Transistor radio, portable TV, India Today, Filmfare, Sportsweek, novels by Ranu and Mastram and Shobha Dé for timepass. I lay back and had a fantastic time. The other fellows in detention were mostly from my part of the world, too, and took a kindly interest in my well-being. Etawah ke ho lala? they enquired courteously. And when they learnt that I came from the same district and belonged to the same caste, they threw themselves on to the reception committee with great gusto. No son-in-law was ever more spoilt! They washed my clothes, they pressed my feet, they massaged my scalp with scented oil and even filled my chillum, which came courtesy of the warder, fags being unavailable.’
‘All good things in life must end,’ said Buddhoo with a sigh. ‘My father came and bailed me out and hauled me home by the scruff of my neck.’
Sravan took a sip and smirked significantly, allowing the dramatic pressure of his impending verdi
‘Eh?’ Buddhoo leaned across the table.
‘That bit about the fags being unavailable when so much else was,’ declared Sravan triumphantly. ‘I don’t know if village thanas have hospitals. Also, sitting there in your Maruti van, exactly what were you doing with your face hidden behind a newspaper? It was night, I thought you said. Were you reading in the dark?’
Buddhoo leapt to his feet, lunged across and fetched Sravan a resounding clap on the shoulder blade. The glass of army rum teetered on its perch and crashed to the ground, splattering its contents on Pragya’s Kashmiri carpet.
‘Arré! Sorry, yaar!’ exclaimed Buddhoo.
‘I’ll get it cleaned,’ said Pragya in a strained voice. She rose to call the maid.
‘You’ve just tested my wife’s patience to its limits,’ chortled Sravan. ‘She’s a stickler for good housekeeping. I warn you, if you want to stay on her right side you’d better watch your step. None of your chillums and bidis and Bohemian mess here.’
‘As for this adventure of yours, I don’t believe a word of it. What you’ve just narrated is the finest yarn of your life.’
Buddhoo’s face broke into a slow, conspiratorial beam. ‘Not the finest,’ he protested. ‘There’ve been some finer ones.’
Lolling against the bolster, his grimy feet stretched in front of him, Buddhoo began to laugh, swallowing big gulps of laughter like draughts of a delightful fizzy drink. Soda laughter, thought Sravan. He looked at Buddhoo’s uncut toenails, so out of place among Pragya’s elegant raw-silk cushions.
‘Still living by yarns—your old game,’ he remarked.
‘Living by my wits—that and the credulity of the world,’ said Buddhoo. ‘Didn’t work with you—you know me too well. And are in a same-to-same dhandha yourself.’ He guffawed.