By Sunil Sharma
The Modern Odysseus
While travelling in the vast, vertical country buried in a grey-bluish haze in the post-modern hi-tech jungle, he saw bizarre and illogical things and recorded strange happenings in his notebook for a later recall. Some of the amazing things he noted during the course of this journey across an unfamiliar landscape are listed below in his diary.
— An unusual place. Folks are crazy. Do things non-natives cannot understand. For example: Reading the novels backwards. It is the fad picked up fast. One guy in a subway began this, somebody caught it on Smartphone and the two-second clip went viral. Since then, every decent guy doing it, as an in-thing. No rationale behind this act of reading! Just caught the fancy of the public. The Epilogue is big thing, because it contains everything — that is the fuzzy logic here! Like, eating the dessert first — skipping the main course in a fancy joint.
— Or, strange enough: Men buying bulky novels and not reading them. Saw a man tearing the fine art paper from the novel and using it as a tissue paper to wipe his low receding forehead that reminded viewers of his ancestors — the Neanderthals. Contemporary kin in designer suits and designer beards — minus the clubs! Next bus, everybody tearing the same art paper and wiping faces, sweat or no sweat!
— Other odd things. I saw a band of stiff musicians playing before a deaf audience who sat through the public performance with blank faces. Looking like regimented soldiers. The notes were discordant. There was no melody or harmony. Yet, after regular intervals, the deaf would all clap, on cue from an invisible prompter, the kind found in TV studios. Neither music nor audience connected or made sense. Yet, both parties continued the charade perfectly well. And yes, the five-star ambience and food were standard but folks were busy binge-drinking and eating only — music was mere noise in the background.
— In another part of the vertical city, I found a painter showing his paintings to completely blind persons in the antiseptic art district. The canvases were all bare. No colours, nothing. Some people were bored. Others were praising the experimental painter. Some rich were buying those large bare canvases. Art was in the air. Art in the form of emptiness, void — not visible but as understood by a mad visitor babbling around the long museum, where they were discussing money as the new erotica.
— A poet recited his long poem to empty chairs in an air-conditioned auditorium in an upscale wire-free section. After every pause, a round of applause was heard from the empty auditorium. The blind poet assumed it was packed with his admirers. I peered around but saw nobody but distinctly heard the claps — loud and clear. Strange! Maybe, somebody playing a recording somewhere!
— Writers wrote fantastic accounts of exotic journeys and sharing with each other in groups that had no memory cells intact, as their memories were all of the immediate instances that were there and then, lapsed forever, swallowed up in the gurgling mists of Time. They read, nodded and immediately forgot what they had read. Nobody could recall a single line, yet they talked books with aplomb!
— Entertainment stars walked the city as the new royalty and behaved like kings and queens. Their song/ scriptwriters begged on the indifferent streets filled with the hopefuls trying to be like them. Nobody bothered about them. They were fixated on the stars and their doings in closets and hotels. Trivia was sacred. Paparazzi, serious occupation. Star gossip magazines, roaring business! I saw poverty walking the glitzy roads—invisible!
— Publishers published books with blank pages. Yes. Like unwritten notebooks! Only the covers carried the titles; no authors’ names. They sold these to the public and school libraries.
— I saw awards ceremonies. They were giving awards to the ones who said they had not done anything. For example, the state award for literature to a lab attendant who never read anything literary except soft porn. Or, to an ageing illiterate porter for bringing new perspectives and voices. Nobody questioned. The crowds hardly checked. Busy buying things in the mall during the discount seasons there!
— A long line of desperate poets, along with their collections of poems, ready to commit suicide by jumping into the ocean. I saw a couple of nutty ones — bearded and thin and mumbling — jump into the choppy sea waters also. One of them shouted at the amused spectators with their camcorders ready to film the event for their entertainment, “Better to die than live in an airless society that has banned poetry.”
— I saw huge mansions, gleaming offices and gardens and buildings but no living breathing beings, only dim shadows flitting about. I could see no figures, only mere outlines passing by the windows and disappearing in a second. It was strange! Unnerving. No presences. Only the ghostly voices that were hardly heard or understood by the other fleeting shadows. Only the soft whispers heard in passages or corridors dim and gloomy.
— Outside the metro limits, I saw a vast undulating plain called ‘The Forest’. There I saw paper trees and flowers planted everywhere. The real ones were all missing! The cut-outs and fakes were everywhere, bearing the names of 2000 trees that once grew in that country. A little stream was called Amazon. The hills were also fake. Miniature models representing huge hills. It was all manufactured. The kind seen in Hollywood. A studio set at a gigantic scale to replace the real that was extinct. It was scary scenario. The verisimilitude. The simulated reality. Although created artistically and with high fidelity to truth, the gnarled trees and green boughs and red flowers or pink could not fool me, the one who has, in a previous birth, visited many places and encountered many real adventures and even met the Cyclops and other strange creatures. The simulated version was disgusting and un-real!
— In the cities and the country, I saw only marching armies of synchronized machines with set timers and automatic expressions. It was hyper-reality and I desperately wanted to exit this nightmare…
— And I see mourners not mourning the dead but laughing at a funeral. In fact, on closer inspection, I see them neither crying nor laughing but completely blanch and dull, a void, the sound of laughter is coming from a chip in a micro-gadget strapped to their coats. It is recorded sound given by an actor! Nobody delivers farewell. They sit as a well-coordinated pack of automatons in grey suits and black ties, listening to the sounds of violin being played outside the funeral parlour by an old musician.
— The most frightening moment: I do not know if I am awake or sleepy; living or dead; real or fake; in present or past; writing or listening; watching the reality or being watched; an image or copy or genuine being in this strange land.
Am I sane or mad?
Sunil Sharma is an academic and writer with 23 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu.
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