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The Persistence of Memory

By Vedant Srinivas

Despite rolling the window firmly shut, Dhruv could still feel the dust swivel inside the car and settle on his skin. He could smell the combined whiff of fried pakodas mixed with rotting trash, as if the transparent glass pane was no barrier for the hazardous environment outside to which he had once belonged. Sweat rolled down in beads and collected at the nape of his neck, and he wiped it with a crumpled handkerchief. Small apartment blocks came into view on both sides, with cycle rickshaws parked on either side of the gate. Rusted clotheslines jutted out from the balcony on each floor. They were hung with clothes of varied shapes and colours. A car honked twice, and someone yelled in return.

He eyed the outside proceedings with a strange fervour, his eyes taking in the action that seemed already imprinted in the depths of his memory. It wasn’t so much perception as re-creation; he had, after all, spent his childhood roaming the same streets of north-west Delhi. Remembrances swept to the shore of his mind, summoning up something buried and forgotten inside him. He distracted himself with more practical concerns. What was he to say to Digant’s father? Would he recognise him?

The taxi took meandering turns down narrow lanes. “They all look the same,” the driver remarked, his tall figure bent as he struggled to look through the windshield. Indeed, the roads did look the same — row after row of vehicles were parked in every inch of space available. Yawning over them were emaciated trees providing respite from the excessively harsh sun. Two boys with long rakish hair zoomed past on a motorcycle, their sunburnt faces exuding joy.

The car took a right turn and came upon an apartment gate populated by people in white. Some were on the phone while others were standing together in groups, waiting for instructions to be given. Dhruv paid the taxi and stepped out, smoothening the creases on his white kurta. He felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach. He had, since he received the news, thrust it in the back of his mind, refusing to engage with it, and had himself been vaguely surprised by his stoic reaction. Now it was bubbling in his gut, threatening to spill over.

Dhruv exchanged handshakes and condolences with people he assumed were family, and was shown directions to the flat on the first floor. The door was open, and smoke billowed out from the narrow entrance, wafting in tune with the pandit’s recitations. Some of the furniture had been moved and replaced by threaded mats to accommodate the shraddh ceremony ( funeral rites). There was an air of forced busyness inside the flat; people scurried about carrying various things, whispering quietly to each other or into their phones, as if stillness would collapse the facade that had so painstakingly been constructed by everyone present. Without this structured pretence, reality itself would lose its consistency, and make them confront that which perhaps lacked definition.

In one corner of the room, some women sat huddled together, rocking to and fro. Dhruv recognised Digant’s mother amongst them. Her eyes were red and puffy, and her distant gaze seemed to pierce through the opposite wall. A ceiling fan turned lugubriously near to where she sat. Mr. Singh, Digant’s father, sat next to the officiating priest, his fingers locked tightly together as he tried to follow the priest’s sharp intonations. His eyes were glued to the body that lay in front. The flicker of recognition in his eyes upon seeing Dhruv soon transformed into a dull glaze.

 Dhruv moved closer, his hands folded in a namaste-like posture. It was wrapped in a white shroud, with cotton buds placed in the nose. There were dark pouches under the eyes. The skin too had aged; the glowing white of ten years ago had now turned into a sickly yellow. He peered hard at what had once been Digant. Try as he might, Dhruv ​​couldn’t muster anything as complete and engulfing as grief. The pinch of bereavement he felt was for a life snuffed out, a death that had taken place, utterly devoid of particularities.

Dhruv had received the news last night through the school group. More details had emerged, once the initial outpouring of shock and concern had subsided. The rope had been tied to the ceiling fan, and the door locked from inside. No note had been found and no foul play suspected, though he had been known to lead a rough life.

Dhruv glanced around the room and spotted a familiar face at the end of the passage. He walked towards Rohit and they hugged awkwardly, putting one arm sideways around the other’s shoulder. Rohit had been in Digant’s section, and had also been part of the football team with Dhruv. His hair had already started greying; a paunch of considerable size jutted out from his middle. Standing next to him were two other schoolmates whose faces he recognised but whose names he couldn’t recall. They politely nodded at each other. It felt odd to meet under such circumstances.

Leaning against a wall, Dhruv and Rohit observed the proceedings, with hands clasped respectfully at the front. The priest was pouring ghee into the crackling fire while chanting archaic mantras. Their eyes smarted from the smoke of fiery oblations; tears of grief freely mingled with those produced by the stinging fire. Dhruv found his mind wandering. He wondered what view tradition accorded to such an event, and whether the rites would be different in this case. There was an uneasiness in the room that belied even the genuine concern he could see entrenched on faces and eyes. Rohit turned to Dhruv, put a hand around his shoulder, and said in a caressing voice, “I can’t even begin to imagine what you are going through. After all, you guys were best friends.”

Dhruv started, his feet almost giving away under him. Suddenly thirsty, he stumbled towards the kitchen, wading through the ever-increasing number of people. More than concern, it felt like an unbidden accusation. Surely calling them as best friends would be going too far? Yes, they had spent some important years of their childhood together, but that was true for everyone who had lived in the locality and gone to their school. It felt intrusive to think that someone else had formed such an important opinion without bothering to consult him or the facts.

The water filter beeped a faint red as water began to drip out of the nozzle. Flashes of the distant past, sieved through his memory, came upon Dhruv — bunking school and spending the day playing pool at one of the shady centers in Pitampura, the regular fights they’d get into, alcohol, rustication… Image after image played successively in the recesses of his mind; he was unable to think of a single school memory that didn’t have Digant in it.

Dhruv suddenly felt swamped by unreality. His current existence — his job as an advertising filmmaker, his daughter and wife back in Bangalore — had nothing to do with the memories that now assuaged him from all sides. He had lost touch with everyone as soon as he entered college, and had somehow managed to do well for himself, despite the odds, proving everyone — including his parents — wrong. He was now fully wedded to a life of ‘upward mobility’ and the sophistication that came with it. Indeed, his entire childhood, including Rohit and the others lounging outside, seemed now like a mythology that had been invented from scratch. To think that he had grown up in this grimy locality of corruption and crime, sharing secrets and confessions, shouting songs of friendship and love, with the same people whom he could barely recognise seemed to him a fiction of the highest order. 

The kitchen window was blowing wind like a furnace, and he found it difficult to breathe. Stepping out, he made his way to the bathroom and locked the fledgling door. The drain cover had mounds of wet hair stuck to it. Sitting on the commode, another hazy image assuaged him, sending shudders through his body. A drunken reverie, teenage angst, him and Digant, valiant and masculine, proclaiming their allegiance to the famous 27 club as a revolt against life, their deaths too enshrined in history …

Later, at the crematorium, the men listlessly shifted their weight and scratched their faces as they stood huddled around the burning pyre. Dhruv had helped with the preparations and now, standing at a distance, watched plumes of smoke merge with the blinding sky. Bereft of its materiality, Digant again existed as he had before, as a submerged and fleeting reminiscence. Dhruv suddenly felt tired and nauseous. A vague feeling of inertia hit him. The present moment curdled in the heat of the afternoon, and he was confronted with lumps of empty time as it stretched across the burial ground, shimmering and undulating like the funeral fire. Unable to stand it, he nudged Rohit on the shoulder and whispered into his ear if he wanted to go have a beer afterwards.

 *

Years later, while directing some extras for an advertising shoot in Himachal, Dhruv would spot a local theatre performer — a dot on the camera monitor — struggling to master the sequence. In exasperation, he would yell out, “Digant, keep to your mark and don’t stray out of the circle.” Non-plussed faces would stare back at him, unsure of who he was talking to. The words that had come crashing out would be swallowed back just as soon, followed by a long period of silence. For the rest of the day, he would walk around in a reeling daze, and try not to stare at the young man who had unwittingly, instantaneously reminded him of what had once been.

Vedant Srinivas studied Philosophy and went on to do a diploma in Filmmaking. His interests fall in the interstices of literature, anthropology, cinema, and poetry.

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