Categories
Stories

Pagol Diaries

By Indrasish Banerjee

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I never knew Maa had developed such a filial attachment with Pagol* until I found her diary the other day. Probably to dispel her loneliness, Maa had started maintaining a diary. The diary had all the usual entries recording her day-to-day activities. Some about daily humdrum activities. “Today Anita came late again…the third day in a row….” Some on past recollections trigged by something with a tinge of melancholy. “Today morning the big glass jar slipped from my hand, raced to the floor and shattered. It was an antique dear to Gogol’s father.”

What took me by a pleasant surprise were Maa’s diary entries on Pagol. In Sweden those days lot of experiments were being carried out with robots. Robots were gradually replacing humans in various jobs. People were both excited and worried about them. Robots were being seen as a solution to many human problems as well as a threat to human existence. People felt the time when robots would completely take over humans was not very far.

Like many, I used to read a lot on the latest advancements happening in the world of robotics on my phone. One day I received an advertisement alert on my phone about a robot exhibition happening in the city. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I visited the exhibition.

It was a noisy place. There were kiosks of companies from different parts of the world. Salesmen were demonstrating robots of different kinds to curious visitors and answering their questions. Most were basic robots which could perform singular tasks, and some were not for domestic use but meant for factories. They hardly looked like humans; in fact, some resembled snakes and even zombies of different shapes and sizes depending on the purpose they were made for. This disappointed many visitors, particularly children who had a very romantic notion about robots acquired from sci-fi comic books, TV serials and movies that were becoming very popular with youngsters.

It had been a few years since Baba had passed away when I finally left India, taking a job abroad. I had spent a few years in the West, in Germany, when Baba worked there. Since we returned to India, I always had a yearning to go back to the West. After working in India for some years, finally when I got a job abroad, Maa’s happiness was dampened by a trace of melancholy. I was the only son, after all. Initially I had plans to take Maa with me after I had settled down a bit, but it never came to pass.

When a Japanese kiosk drew my attention, a wave of euphoria gripped me. A boy was demonstrating a robot to some onlookers. The robot looked very close to an actual boy not much older than the demonstrator. The robot could have basic conversation with humans and perform basic tasks to assist elderly people. When one of the listeners referred to the contraption as robot, however, the boy immediately corrected him: “It’s a humanoid, sir.” I was familiar with the term, roughly meaning a combination of robot and human.

I tentatively approached the demonstrator, probably in his early twenties, and asked if I could take it to India. “We can completely dismantle it and put it in a suitcase for you, Sir.”  After some deliberation, I purchased the humanoid.

Later that month, I would travel to India and surprise Maa with it.

Gogol called from Sweden today. He will come to Calcutta next week. He said someone is going to come with him. He didn’t reveal anything about the person. I didn’t insist.

This morning Gogol arrived from Sweden. The first sight of him suggested he had lost some weight since he visited last time but when I complained he said he had actually put on weight and has to drop some. Apart from his usual paraphernalia, he had a metallic suitcase in hand. Once the initial euphoria was over, I asked him about the other person he had talked about on phone. He didn’t reply but I realised he was thinking about something and didn’t repeat the question. Gogol is a very absentminded boy especially when his mind is on something.  It could be the new company he has joined which is a little smaller than his last one, but he has more responsibilities, he said. Later in the day he had a telephonic meeting with his boss and immediately after the meeting his sat down to work – and remained with his laptop the rest of the day.

Today the whole day the suitcase lay in a corner of his room next to a book rack. My mild enquires about the content of the mysterious case, which looks a little unlike normal suitcases, failed to make me any wiser.

Last night, sleep arrived a little late and until it did the suitcase kept me worried. It felt like a trivial matter but somehow, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It is an unusual looking suitcase. A modern-day version of our old-day trunk, a little smaller and stouter of course with big knob-like pins lining its sides, giving it a tough and impregnable appearance. Is it a memsahib Gogol is hiding inside? I didn’t bring up the topic at the breakfast table. We discussed humdrum things.

This afternoon, Anita came running to the kitchen when I was frying fish Gogol likes to eat with rice and daal. Panting, Anita mumbled something unintelligibly looking at our dining table. I held her arms and then leaned to check what it was. My heart missed a beat. A boy was standing in the passage. It had a very un-humanly chiseled looks – everything was too perfect as if it had walked out of some fairy tale book. But what would have scared Anita took me by surprise, too: its lifeless eyes, its gaze fixed in one direction. It looked like a human, but it wasn’t quite. When I stepped out of the kitchen, the boy robotically moved towards me: “Good afternoon, Maa.”

 I screamed. Gogol was standing next to the door of his room wickedly smiling as if sadistically observing what was going on and congratulating himself for his prescience.

 “Is it your surprise?” I asked now a little calmer realising that if Gogol was smiling the way he was it was part of his design.

“Yes, Maa. And now onwards it’s your companion. You have to give it a name, Maa.”

“Name? What name? What is it in the first place? Is it a live human?”

“It’s a humanoid which can do several things to assist you. It will make you feel less lonely when I am not around, Maa.”

Maa named the robot Pagol rhyming with my name, Gogol.  Until Maa became used to Pagol, there was a stiff carefulness. She had dealt with high technology in the past, particularly when we were in Germany, but not without close supervision of Baba until she became quite sure she could handle it herself. Anita learnt how to operate the robot very quickly and once she became comfortable Maa learnt things from her.

There wasn’t much to learn, though. Pagol was a fully automated robot with the intelligence of a two-year-old kid which helped it learn things by seeing them and then perform them with some basic assistance. It could perform four to five household chores, like reminding Maa of her daily medicines at the time she had to have them, bringing a tray to her with anything of moderate weight placed on it and having a basic conversation.

Slowly I’m forgetting Pagol is a robot. When Gogol visited me the next time, from Sweden, he did some tinkering to Pagol to make him more responsive to our needs and idiosyncrasies – and seeing me upset with him when he took Pagol apart to work on him, Gogol said: “Maa, you have become emotionally attached with Pagol. It’s only a contraption.” But it’s not the technological aspect of Pagol which has got me used to him but the fact that he has filled up a void in my life, one that had been left behind not so much by Gogol’s father’s sudden death in a road accident in Poland because there was Gogol to be brought up and other challenges that his passing way exposed me to, to be handled; as much by Gogol’s leaving India. Of course, Gogol does his bit to minimise the loneliness by phoning frequently and there is Anita, but the bouts of loneliness return nonetheless. I have fewer of those nowadays, thanks to Pagol.

You may find it strange that someone can develop emotions around a robot — a machine. Pagol is not many things that a normal human is. He can speak in, as Gogol calls them, preprogrammed scripts but you can’t have a conversation with Pagol. Nor can Pagol do things that come so naturally to us, like making meaningful eye contact or, say, a spontaneous chuckle or laugh or smile. But then doesn’t emotion, like beauty, lie in the eyes of the beholder?

But to Anita, Pagol was always a robot. Anita used to take care of all the mechanic needs of Pagol, setting the robot up on its charging station once every three days, calling me up in Sweden whenever Pagol needed technical attention.

But that wasn’t to be for too long.

                                                              *

When Maa called me in Sweden and very affectionately described how Pagol had ‘hit’ her gently, as if it had made the robot more endearing to her if anything, it reminded me of Edda. She had expressed her misgivings when I had told her that I was going to gift Maa an assistive robot. “There are lot of ethical concerns around these robots,” she had warned me. The concept of assistive robots for elderly people was widely known by then and so were the concerns about them. The popular concerns partly owed themselves to the sci-fi films and children’s books exaggerating these but also some incidents that had been reported widely in the media. Thanks to them, people saw robots as having a sinister side to them. What if a robot hit the elderly person it was assisting! Worse still, what if its functionality was sinisterly tweaked by someone to do so? Such were the concerns.

But Edda being a studious type was not the one to be swayed by popular beliefs. When she warned me, she had the real incidents reported in the media in mind. In one of them, an assistive robot helped an elderly person from his hospital bed to the balcony by holding his arms suddenly left the old man’s arms leaving the old man to himself and the old man, who couldn’t walk steadily without assistance, lost his balance, wobbled and fell down on a table injuring himself. 

On another occasion, an assistive robot had locked a bathroom door from outside locking an old woman in….And it took a long time for human help to arrive. The elderly woman was found in a state of panic and profusely sweating.

                                                         *

But we had to finally get rid of Pagol for entirely different reasons.

For a few days Pagol seems to have developed human qualities, a will of his own. He does things without being told to do them. This started since Gogol installed a new program in him to improve his cognitive abilities. I haven’t told it to Gogol because he would get worried and doing anything from so far is difficult anyway.

But since what Pagol did the other day, I have been a little concerned. Before Anita leaves for the day, which is generally late evening, she switches off Pagol and places him on his battery stand. It means Pagol is completely dysfunctional at night. That day I had dozed off while reading a Sunil Gangapadhay novel. After sometime, I woke up and realised I had slept off without switching off the lights and taking my medicines. I got up, finished my rituals, I retired for the day.

Sleep was hard to come by. I looked at the rafters thinking desultory thoughts until gradually the sleep god relented. Suddenly I felt the presence of another person in the room. When I looked up, I was startled. Two bright eyes were looking at me. For a moment I was paralyzed by fear, then I recognised the eyes — they were Pagol’s. I turned on the lights. I was right: Pagol was standing facing me. “Maa, you have not taken your medicines today,” he said.

But how did Pagol know this? During the day, when it is time for my medicines, he brings them to me on a tray. But at night, I take my medicines myself. And in any case Anita had put him to sleep for the night.

“What are doing here, Pagol? Didn’t Anita Di put you to sleep for night?” Pagol can respond to such simple questions nowadays, but he remained quiet, looking at me. Trying to move him to a corner of the room would be futile — Pagol was too heavy for that. The sudden surprise had dispelled my sleep. But, after sometime, I dozed off.

Next morning another surprise awaited me. When I got up, I didn’t see Pagol in the room. I rushed to the place where Anita keeps Pagol before leaving for the day — he was there exactly how Anita left him the previous day.

Today Pagol dropped a glass jar from his hand. He had taken the glass jar in his hand of his own volition; no one asked him to do it. When the glass slipped from his hand to the floor, Anita and I rushed to the kitchen. We were surprised. Not so much by the shattered jar as much by the expression of guilt on Pagol’s face. Anita shouted at Pagol: “Who asked you to play with that jar?” Later Anita saw Pagol standing in the balcony, looking at the lane below as if thinking something.

I knew very little about all this until I received a call from Anita one day. “Dada, lately Pagol has started acting strangely. It does things you don’t expect a robot to do.” She told me about the glass jar incident and what Maa had told her about finding Pagol standing in the middle of the room in the middle of night.

I was worried but I didn’t know what to do. I searched the net and found some short stories on robots developing human agencies. Finally, I mailed the Japanese company I had purchased Pagol from. After a few days, I received a response from a Japanese person by the name of Akinari, a robot engineer as per his mail signature.

Akinari said he had received similar complaints from customers before and had asked them to keep the robots under observation for some time to find out if there was any error of judgment on their part. He said he remembered almost everyone responding and confirming his doubt: that the complaints were the figment of imagination of the elderly persons receiving assistance from the robots.

I replied:

‘The robot assists my mother, and she is the person it spends most of its time with apart from Anita who takes care of my mother. It’s Anita who told me about the robot’s exploits. She wasn’t privy to some of them. She heard them from my mother, so I reluctantly ascribe some of the activities to my mother’s figment of imagination or error of judgement but Anita herself was witness to the other things the robot did.’

I want to mainly check with you if the robot can harm its benefactor.

Akinari wrote back:

‘I discussed it with other experts. Ordinarily we would have dismissed it as we have never heard anything like this before. But since you seem to be sure that your people back home have closely observed the robot for some time and are quite sure it is displaying behavior it is not programmed to, we would like to commission a special study of the robot in our lab.’

A week later a Japanese man visited our Calcutta house. Assisted by Anita, he dismantled the robot and took it with him.

The final entry on Pagol in Maa’s diary read:

It’s been six months since Pagol went missing one morning. He has not returned since. Anita assures me he will. The silly girl doesn’t seem to understand I know what they did to Pagol.

*

I never heard about Pagol again. I wrote to Akinari a few years after he sent a person to collect Pagol from our Calcutta home. But I didn’t get any reply from him. Did they completely dismantle him, and then dump his remains in a yard located somewhere in a third world country to add to the mounting pile of discarded gadgets abandoned because their utility to humankind had expired? I read on the net the other day that discarded robots are being recycled, also being used as fertilizer in some parts of the world. So, has Pagol ended up nourishing the food on the plate of someone?

I had expected Maa to react to Pagol’s sudden disappearance with the delirium of a mother who has suddenly lost her child. I had asked Anita to keep a tab on Maa in the days, weeks and months that followed Pagol’s sudden disappearance. But Maa never said anything about Pagol again. She continued with her life as if nothing had happened. Did she internalise the grief not expressing it lest it was trivialised by others? Or did she finally make peace with the fact that Pagol was a machine, after all.

After so many years I can only guess.

*Pagol in Bengali means mad or crazy.

Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

The Return of a Ghost

By Sunil Sharma

A Dhaba or roadside eatery. Courtesy: Creative commons

“Ghosts are required for the post-industrial society!”

“Why?”

“Like the spectres of art, philosophy and heritage. Great artists continue to survive mortality. In ideas. Via ideas. Clothed in them.”

“Hmm!”

“Skeptical.”

“I am a born skeptical.”

“Well, in that case, I can tell you about the return of a ghost.”

“Return of a ghost! That must be the province of Hollywood!”

“No, not at all!”

“Then?”

“It happened in India. In my own town.”

“Hmm!”

They were sitting in a corner of a popular dhaba called New Delhi Café, off the national highway NH 24. The golden fields of ripe wheat lay stretched before them on this lazy afternoon, other side of the road.

A thin boy served them thick-milk tea in kulhads, along with fried pakodas.

“When will the van arrive?” the female asked.

“In an hour,” the male said.

“What should I do here?”

“Enjoy the scenery,” the male said. “The ambience. Feel of the country.”

“Hmm. OK. Tell me the tale.”

“Which one?”

“Of the return of the ghost…”

“Well, I will tell you about the spectre of Surendra.”

“Who was he?” she asked, watching the heavy traffic.

“I will give you the back story first. Here it goes like this. Surendra was a man who had come to claim in the evening of his life that he represented democracy, nation and the republic.”

“What?!”

“Yes. You heard right.”

“How is it possible, yaar! Preposterous!” she exclaimed, while munching the pakodas.

The male smiled. Sipping the tea, he replied, “Indeed! The people were shocked initially. The cops came and took him away, the well-read man from his village to some place, considering the old man as a threat…”

“Oh! So common!”

“Yes.”

“What happened then?”

“He was not to be seen afterwards. His family vanished from their ancestral home.”

“Sad! Is it not?”

“Yes, it is. Entire family suddenly uprooted. Honest lives disrupted.”

“Go on.”

“Well. After a few months, Surendra’s ghost was seen…”

“Is it?”

“Yes. Seen by some. The ghost quoted Gogol!”

“Gogol!”

“Yes, Gogol.”

“Must be a learned man.”

“He was a good reader and aware of his rights. He wanted to make fellow villagers aware that they, too, were like him – representatives of a democracy and the republic but the majority scorned this idea, while others supported the prophet of a dumb age!”

“Correct!”

“After few sightings, the cops said these were rumours.”

“They might be right.”

“No. They were not.”

“How?”

“Because I met the ghost of Surendra.”

“What?!” Her kulhad slipped down her dainty hand, eyes wide in shock.

He smiled. Lit up his cigar. Drew in the smoke, rolled it in his mouth and then expelled the rich smoke.

The duo, sitting on the cots, watched the highway. Overloaded trucks were moving in a slow line. There was chill in the breeze.

After a long silence, the male resumed, “Here, it goes…the encounter with the spirit on that memorable early evening, few miles down this highway, near the river; an unusual event in a liminal space, experienced by few mortals…”

The man had materialised suddenly and stood beside the man with the camera taking pictures of the quiet countryside, and a shrunken river meandering down, as a thin strip of dull silver, towards the railway bridge in the distance. He stood near the photographer and watched the sun set from the motor bridge, like an old companion. The photographer paid no attention to the stranger who looked a bit pale and odd in appearance. A dog barked somewhere in a field nearby, as the vehicles passed over the long bridge. But the latter was used to such silent visitors—country folks being outgoing and friendly, even chatty. He took shots of a passing train; the rising fires from the crude camp of nomads, near the right bank.

It was a bleak scene.

But sun sets and rivers fascinated him. He often got down from his bike for taking pictures. Preserving some Instagram moments!

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” The stranger said, talking in general.

“That is Seneca!” the photographer exclaimed, now looking closely at this rustic man of indeterminate age and hollow voice.

“Yes, Seneca.”

“How do you know the Stoic?” the photographer asked. “Seneca in this rural area?”

The stranger coughed. A muffled voice came out, “Not every villager is illiterate. You will find fools in educated cities.”

His voice came as hollow, something metallic that echoed on the stale air.

“I did not mean to offend you, sir. Just curious.”

The stranger nodded. “Sharing thoughts with a man who carries his Seneca in the backpack. I, too, loved On the Shortness of Life.”

The photographer was floored. “Great! Nice meeting you, Mr…?”

“Surendra Kumar.”
“Hi! I am Daniel.” He offered his hand but Surendra did a Namaste.

They stood there watching the sun plunge down into the waters of a choked river. A song wafted forth from the camp of the gypsies—a rich male voice lamenting the passing of youth and a love unrequited. The dholak, bansuri and dhak could be clearly heard in the open-air mehfil there–fascinating concert! The riverside. Gathering dusk. Cool breeze of early November. Pungent smells of food being cooked on earthen stoves there and a tribe of nomads, taunting the civilization and its materialistic possessions, by its unsettled ways of living on the outskirts of cities for centuries.

“Simple folks, often demonized by the urban imagination.” Surendra remarked in a raspy voice.

Daniel nodded. “You are right! We try to demonize everyone that does not fit into our limited and relative ways of looking at the wider things.”

“Woes of civilization!” Surendra said. “A faulty civilization that outlaws those who are defaulters. The ones that prefer to be non-compliant with its codes.”

Daniel was surprised. “Amazing! Where do you live? Nearby?”

Surendra smiled. The yellow face cracked a bit. “In a village, some fifty miles away from this place.”

“Here, visiting?”

The frail figure croaked, “Often I haunt the highway.”
“Oh! Poetic!” Daniel remarked. “How do you travel from your village?”

“Astral paths are many and open for spirits!”

Daniel laughed. “You write poetry?”

“No but I know the provinces travelled by the poetic minds, my friend.”

“Impressed! I am impressed.” Daniel replied.

“Come, let us sit on the bank for some time.” Surendra spoke in his hollow voice.

Must be a terrible smoker, thought Daniel. They went down the bridge and sat on the bench, few feet away from the river. The promenade was deserted at this hour.

Across the turgid waters, a pyre crackled ferociously. Few mourners there, some leaving slowly the burning ghat.

“Death! What a grim reality!” Daniel exclaimed. “Total cessation. Nothing left. Except some bones and dust!”

Surendra seemed not to agree, “There are realms beyond the reach of the yellow fingers of death, my friend!”

“Now you sound a true philosopher, sir! I am enjoying.”

Surendra was silent. Then: “Death is not final destination! Ask Orpheus. Or Lazarus!”

“Then what happens? Where do we go from here?”

“Well…there are spaces where this and that world meet to cohabit.”
“Is it so?”

“Yes.”
“How do you know for sure?”
“Because, my friend, I am a denizen of such realms.”

“Is it? Daniel laughed. “Funny man!”
“I speak the truth. There are few takers for truth these days!”
“Right. Absolutely right. Nice talking to somebody bright, after such a long time!”

“Certain encounters are destined.”
“Oh! Yeah. Absolutely.”
“Like Hamlet the King meeting Hamlet, the Prince.”
“Oh, my God! You are full of cultural references and profundity.”

Surendra replied, “Friends are chosen by fate. You are one of the chosen.”
“How?”
“To listen to the message from the other side of reality…”

“And what is that message?” Daniel played along. “All ears!”

“Certain dimensions lie beyond the physical. Once shed the mortal coil, the other dimensions come into the play…”
“What are these dimensions?”
“When you are dead, yet alive.”

“No. Not possible!”

“Mere transformation of energy. From one form to another. You continue to live beyond the daily prison of your body…”
“How can it be?”

“It is like ideas. Ideas continue to operate beyond their originators. Seneca dies yet lives!”
“A paradox!”
“Yes. The paradox of a civilisation obsessed with the real, the tangible, the objective,” continued Surendra. “As said by the Bard: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’  Remember the famous lines?”

“Sure! Your high-school Shakespeare! Well, I will say, it is getting curiouser and curiouser!”

“There are things that an eye cannot see. Transcendental things. Truths that reside in the non-physical states. Only artists, mystics and philosophers can comprehend.”

“It is heavy-duty stuff for me.” Daniel chuckled.

“Not at all, Daniel,” the man observed, while strays barked a mile down the embankment, as the shadows thickened.  The gypsy singer broke into another throaty song, the snatches heard over the wind:

The hungry skies have
Devoured the full moon.
Go back to the camp early!
The dark harbours dangers
On the way, maiden fair
and the
Dead may visit tonight!

“We tend to live on forever in our words and legacies, dear Daniel. When I hear a Ghalib being recited with a full heart, on a full moon night, in a corner room, the poet comes alive for me. Yes, get resurrected in a shadowy form. Real presence evoked through words or visuals or film! That is the power of the cultural things to summon the dead and make them re-born, for few minutes, for you!”

Daniel nodded, distracted by the song:

Beware, innocent girl!
The ghosts are around
The night is dark.
Do not trust the shadows, 
O, pure one!
The dead want to talk to a fair maiden
And steal her gypsy heart!

The music increased in tempo and other singers joined, a few males danced, while some women clapped and also sang—a happy group. Daniel smiled…

“What happened afterwards?” asked the female. They were travelling in the van. The highway was crawling with cars headed towards Delhi. Soft music played on in the interiors smelling of new holster and tobacco. The young driver was humming along.

“The end was equally fascinating!” the male said.

“Tell me…a long journey ahead!” insisted the female.

“The gypsies!”

“Yes. The gypsies there…”

“They are the Original People.”

“What is that?” asked Daniel. “Come, let us see their dance.”

Surendra walked along lightly. “These are the wanderers who could see the other worlds.”
“Like?”

“The ghosts, the gods, the realms intangible discussed in arts but now lost.”

“Absolutely!”
“These tribes straddle an innocent age and the post-industrial age as a bridge.”
“Excellent!” Daniel remarked.

“As certain peoples can still see the elves, these diminishing tribes can see the fairies and spirits–the other universe.”

“Right. I agree.”

As the duo approached the camp on a rising ground, off the dirt road, facing the river, their dogs barked furiously and then became quiet. The dancers kept on dancing before the rude bonfires.

“Daniel, remember, certain ghosts are necessary. The unredeemed souls, ideas. They continue to guide the present. If exorcised and finally forgotten by collective amnesia, then that civilization is doomed to die soon…”

As Daniel entered the outer ring of the camp, an elder beckoned him inside the circle. The gypsies welcomed him as one of their home. He sat down on the cot and watched them sing and dance.

Then he remembered his companion. “Where is my friend?”

The elder said, “There was nobody with you, Babu!”

Daniel just stared around.

No trace of Surendra. A mild mist swirling around…

“So how did you know that he was Surendra?” the female asked.

“Because, next day I came across a news item on an online site about Surendra and his haunting in that area. It was titled: The Ghost of a Democrat Citizen!”

“Ha, ha-ha!” the female laughed. “You must be fictionalising again Daniel.”

“No, darling! I am not a writer.”

“That is precisely the point. A writer can be dismissed for using fiction. However — not those who do not write but produce fantastic tales!”

Daniel smiled but did not reply…

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Sunil Sharma is an Indian academic and writer with 22 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. Currently based in MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

The Chained Man Who Wished to be Free

By Sunil Sharma

Prometheus Bound, charcoal by Christian Schussele. Courtesy: Creative Commons

When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

— Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

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Surendra was firm.

So were they.

“You are mistaken,” said Raghu.

“No. I am not.” Surendra replied. “You are mistaken.”

“You are free! Free to move around and visit any place of your choice. Nobody can stop you. Nobody is stopping you. Inside or outside. Doors are open. Go for a stroll. You will realise this freedom. Why do you keep on saying this, father,” said the eldest son, while others listened and nodded.

“No, I am not free here—elsewhere. This is the truth. I am in chains. I carry them as a heavy burden, everywhere.”
“Why do you say that dear brother?” asked Mukesh. “Your son is trying to make you understand that there are no chains around you. But you are adamant…and wrong.”

“Where am I wrong, Mukesh? You know me better.”

“Sorry, bro! But you are wrong.”

“How?”

“You say you are chained.” Mukesh replied patiently. “There are no chains. Look around — no chains. It is your illusion only.”

“It is a fact, Mukesh. I am in chains. Trust me, please,” said Surendra calmly. “I mean it. Every word. You know I never tell lies.”

A collective sigh!

Surendra was his usual composed self. Tall and dignified, he sat on the edge of the bed, in a meditating pose. A subtle aura made him appear otherworldly, a sage, among the philistines.

They sat for long. The distant forest could be glimpsed from an open window, a mass of soft shadows.

Raghu bent a look at his uncle.

“What nonsense, bro! You are totally free. I assure you. Absolutely free.” Mukesh broke the stalemate. “You are a well-read man. Why are you tormenting yourself and the rest of us? Please stop believing this wrong notion. You have always been logical. Now, come on. Walk with me to the nearest hotel on the highway. Nobody will stop you from moving around. I repeat, it is a free country!”

“Uncle is right. For the last three hours, we have been trying to prove the simple fact that you are not in chains. It is only a delusion! Come out of that, please, father and spare us this stressful drama.” Raghu pleaded with folded hands.

Surendra was unmoved: “That is the sad part!”

“What?”

“That my chains cannot be seen by my own son!”

“Please! Do not start again this argument now. It is a democracy in which all of us are free. That is it. Final! I do not want to argue on a given. Period.”
“You are a fool. You are in chains, too, invisible chains but you don’t realize that, right now, like the silent majority. Living under the greatest illusion. That is it.”

Raghu gave his father a resigned look, “No point in talking further about this. Nobody can convince you. I am done.”

Raghu got up to leave.

“Fool! You will realize this fact soon.”  Surendra said quietly. “It took me all these years to understand this simple and fundamental truth! We are all in chains in a free country! That is the biggest irony of human condition globally!”

Raghu did not engage with him. He exited, along with others, into the courtyard.

Ma waited there.

“Wastage of time and energy. Refuses to listen to reason. Stubborn as usual. He has never listened to me anyway. The fact is that he does not want to see reason. If not insane, he is not sane, either!”

Ma nodded. “I knew it from the beginning. Married to a top-class nut. Told you also many times. You never believed. Now face it.”

“He was a graduate, first in the community. Mad guys do not finish a B.Com with a first class,” replied Mukesh agitatedly. “Our mother said you drove him crazy. He was an intelligent man who did a lot to the extended family but you and your constant nagging made him mad.”

Ma retorted, “Defending the elder brother, as usual. You all gang up on me — mother-in-law, five brothers-in-law and two nasty sisters-in-law, all these years.”

The brother glowered. Ma glowered back. Mukesh muttered something and left in a huff.

Raghu and others met again, late night, to discuss ways of avoiding a possible public embarrassment of a rational, law-abiding, articulate man going mad in the autumn of his life, for no apparent reason.

It was a big mystery — his absurd claim of being in chains.

They discussed, debated but were unable to figure out the apparent trigger for such an odd behavior of the patriarch.

“We must act fast. The village should not learn that he has lost his mind,” Raghu said. “It will be great shame!”

They agreed to take him to the mental hospital the next afternoon on some ruse.

The gods willed it otherwise.

The village learnt about Surendra’s madness, very next morning, in a most dramatic manner. The author of this revelation was none other than a composed Surendra announcing it in the morning in the public square.

.

“You all are chained! Listen to me. Break your chains, you fools!”

Surendra shouted at the top of his voice.

People came out and watched, curious by the sudden transformation of a much-lauded supervisor in a textile factory in Kolkata, who had moved to Delhi, after the textile mills had closed down and driven taxi and finally owned three, in the Capital for two decades—saved money in the process, raised a large family and returned home in the village in Bihar to spend remaining years in the shadow of his ancestors. Surendra had renovated his old property in the village still mired in poverty. He taught children from the low-income families English and Math. A well-respected son of the soil who was not claimed by the city, like many others, and had returned to his roots.

At the moment, he appeared the usual self– calm, composed, dressed in simple cotton shirt and trousers, all white, and a pair of sandals. He wore a white Gandhi cap and spoke in measured tones.

As more crowd gathered near him, with children jostling for space and better view, he climbed a pile of crates, outside a grocer’s shop and addressed the audience in his familiar baritone: “Hear the truth! Be liberated!”

An old man asked lightly, “Okay. Give us the truth.”

Surendra smiled and said, “You ready for the shock?”

“Yes. We are.” The old man said. “Nothing surprises us anymore.”

Others chorused a big yes.

“Listen then, old man. This will surprise you a lot…” here he trailed off, building up suspense. Surendra surveyed the crowd and exhaled.

They waited for the fun.

Surendra looked again at the assembly of friends and neighbours and declared loudly: “Listen! The Truth. You are all shackled. All in chains!”

The old man was taken aback. “What? Are you drunk?”

Surendra laughed. “The drunk do not tell the truth. They spill secrets, after a peg too many.”

“That is also the truth,” countered the old farmer who had once stood for local elections. “The drunken truth. It also reveals things.”

“Truth is much higher than the alcohol-induced revelation.”

A murmur went around. Some youngsters jeered at the pompous man standing atop his perch, like a self-appointed guru.

“Fools! I give you the truth and you laugh at me!”

They laughed more.

“There is more.”

“What is that?” the old farmer demanded. “More truths!”

“I am the republic!” declared Surendra. “I am the democracy.”

This made the crowd laugh uproariously.

“He is out of mind,” said a neighbor. “How can a common citizen be the republic and democracy?”

“He always thought in grand terms,” said a school chum. “Treated himself as superior to rest of us!”

They laughed and some repeated derisively, “Hey, Republic! Hey, Democracy!”

“Tomorrow he will say he is the President of the Great Banana Republic!” said the chum.

“And day after, he will be the God!” observed the old farmer.

Surendra did not flinch. “Fools! You do not understand. You, too, are the republic and the democracy.”

They jeered again. “He is the Government.”

“Yes. I am the government.” Surendra shouted at the top of his voice. “I am a citizen — and everything. The basic unit. The fuel that keeps the system going.”

The crowd began enjoying the show.

“You are the government?” They asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“Then solve the problem of poverty, my government.” The farmer mocked.

“Who is the government?” A burly inspector asked in a husky voice. He had joined the crowd few seconds earlier. The crowd made way for the new arrival, haughty and walking with a swagger.

“This old villager says he is the new government,” said the school chum sarcastically.

“And the republic and democracy.” Added the old farmer with glee. “See his arrogance, audacity, a common man claiming to be the government!”

The inspector was amused. “Did you say that, old man?”

Surendra showed no fear. “Yes, I did.”

“What did you say?” the inspector asked. “Say it again.”

“I am a citizen.”

“Right.”

“I am the republic.”

“Wrong.”

“Why?”

“Because I am saying that — the police officer who is the real government. My word is last.”

“You are a mere pawn in the power game.”

“Let it be but I am the real government of this area.”

Surendra was patient and then said quietly, “Let it be. Anyway, I repeat, I am a citizen, the republic, the democracy and the government.”

The crowd laughed. They were enjoying the show now.

The inspector was amazed by the bold assertion. “How dare you?’

“Dare what?”

“How dare you call yourself the democracy, the republic and the government?” blazed the inspector.

“And why not? Why cannot I claim that?” persisted Surendra.

“A puny citizen! A low-life — that is what you are — nothing else.”

“Why low-life, inspector? I am the basic unit, like you, of the democracy.”

“So you say you are the government?” the cop jeered.

“Yes. I am. Part of the elected government.”

The crowd clapped for the puny man facing the cop.

The inspector replied, “That is going too far. I have to arrest you…”

“For what crime?”

“For anti-government stand. Being a grave threat.”

Surendra laughed. “Do I look like a threat? An old man standing in the square? How do I constitute a threat to the mighty state?”

The inspector scratched his bald head, pondered and then said, “I say so. I am the authority to decide that.”

“Then you are abusing your office,” replied Surendra.

Surendra’s statement surprised the fat officer. He thought and then said, “Enough! You are proving to be a danger to the security of the country. You are a public enemy number one. I arrest you for inciting people.”

He clapped the handcuffs on Surendra who said nothing.

People mocked him: “The new government goes in handcuffs!”

Surendra smiled and declared, “Fools! If truth leads to arbitrary arrest, you too, are under threat. I am ready to die for my convictions, my truth, which is the universal truth. The real government is always the public!”

Now few youngsters began shouting, “He is right. We are the real power, the voters. He is right!”

A carload of tourist was passing by. They stopped and filmed the scene. There was a local journalist and a lawyer who demanded an explanation from the cop: “How can you arrest a citizen for claiming that he is the legit democracy?”

The crowd was split into two camps: pro- and anti-police.

The seasoned cop understood the gravity of the situation and the volatile mood of the frustrated masses. He was one pitted again a crowd that might question his ways.

The man in khaki dialed a number desperately. Soon two jeeps arrived and took the disruptor to the police station, 10 miles away, followed by a large crowd and the carload of tourists. Within hours, the video began circulating and became viral. Foreign press caught on. Then the national press arrived and parked itself outside the police station.

The inspector refused to budge. “He is a public enemy number one, out to destroy the general peace and to incite people against the state by his bizarre claims of being the State, Democracy and Republic. A real danger to the legitimacy of an elected government. He needs to be kept behind the bars for the sake of peace and order.”

As the “Free Surendra, the Citizen” drive spread within 24 hours, the cops secreted him away to some other place, and, he was never seen again.

Some said he died due to torture. Others said Surendra was put in a maximum security jail in an island. Others claimed he was offered money and land by an opposition party to run on a ticket against the ruling party member.

The opinion was divided: Surendra, the Mad vs. Surendra, the Prophet: The former challenged the status quo and the latter revealed the plain truth to an unbelieving public!

Meanwhile, Surendra’s joint family had gone underground.

As happens in such viral cases, public memory being short, the world soon forgot Surendra  and moved on with other viral videos about crazy dancers, weddings and stars spotted in the public.

Videos that excited the popular imagination.

Surendra and his disappearance no longer mattered.

After all, he was nothing — a zero.

Add zeros — and you become millions! He had once declared.

Sadly, he was ignored.

The thing did not end so tragically, however.

…on moonless cold nights, the ghost of Surendra could be seen in many locations, breaking his big chains and occasionally heard muttering — some said — two Russian names: Akaky Akakiyevich Bashmachkin and  Gogol. After such sightings, the witnesses too, began mimicking his action and wanted to break out of their chains.

But who knows? These can be urban legends.

Fiction.

Or truth. In these days of doctored versions, it is difficult to decide on such matters…

.

Sunil Sharma is an Indian academic and writer with 22 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. Currently based in MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region).

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