Story: Autumn Winds
By: Saheli Khastagir
She is wearing a red saree. Maroon, really. There are little white spots, possibly flowers, or maybe leaves printed on the entire length. It’s not clear, maybe because of the little wrinkles spread out on it, blurring the designs, or maybe because one doesn’t really look at the saree when one looks at her, just the vague feeling of redness like the light spreading from that tube-light in your room. You don’t really look at the tube-light when you enter the room, do you; just a vague knowledge that it is there.
Is she beautiful?
Well, she is definitely nice to look at. Your eyes stop at her face for a moment, for you are suddenly struck by the life in it. Like the only live fish fluttering for breath among the dead ones laid out in front of the fisherman’s wife sitting in the market to make some money. The life attracts you.
It’s never boring, her face. Never still. There’s always some activity, some disquiet, always something. That’s what had held him, with his quiet clean face and eyes like two drops of water (streamlined), like it had held many others, but for quite different reasons. He did not fall head over heels on her feet, there were more important concerns to be dealt with first, a world to save, a nation to change, his heart thumping with impatience. He is young, he is intelligent, he is different, his brain never silent, but what was he going to make of it? He has been cut out to be different, he will succeed wherever he goes, so where will he go? What’s the point of being special, of the genius head sitting on his young body, if he couldn’t make something worthwhile out of it? And he was restless to share his ideas with someone, a kindred soul who understands, he didn’t want the applause and the awe that he got from everyone else, but someone who will climb up to the pedestal he has been put up at and share, understand, think. He wanted more than just a rebel spirit (there are plenty of those!), the rebel streak fizzling with time; he wanted vision, patience, thoughtful-courage, not recklessness bordering on stupidity.
And he saw more than just the life in her eyes. He saw the intelligence; he saw a window…a window to a sharp mind. Her tongue used to be as sharp as her mind then, she keeps it gloved now, knitted with age.
And when they met, they met like two sparks, joining into a giant fire, burning burning, they walked through the University lands in a trance, burning, without a break, his brain and hers, his heart and hers joining, burning shining spreading blinding others; but they were impervious to the damage and the light they were spreading, so engrossed they were in feeding each others’ fires, they were lost in each others’ hunger. Their minds stretched their hands to the world, they thought and wrote and discussed important things, very important things, about the universe, the minorities and the majorities, the philosophers, the thinkers, the poor, the downtrodden, the politicians, the artists, the academia, the cosmos, the slums, and yet their eyes saw none, so lost they were in their own and the other’s heads and the products that kindled in their fire.
They talked about poverty, sitting on the roadside, drinking chai in earthen-cups that the 10 year old boy brought them. (The 10 year old can’t go to school; he has to support his family of nine, so he helps in the tea-shop run by his older brother (of the matured age of 14). His name is Sanjay, but is universally called Chhote.)
They didn’t know Chhote, but they knew poverty.
They went to art galleries and watched foreign movies (with subtitles).
They discussed important things, very important things. There was always a sense of importance about them. Not a second to waste, not a minute to rest.
They talked about the environment, but didn’t waste a moment admiring the trees lining the roads in the University area. They were not dreamers, they were visionaries.
When they came, everyone felt their presence. They were quiet, they were simple, and yet the life in them was so strong, and so brazenly glowing, that you didn’t have to turn your head, to feel the heat tingling your skin.
“I am ordering”, she said, crumpling the saree falling along her arms on top of her shoulders in a hurried sweep, and without waiting for a reply, she picks up her wallet from the table and takes quick steps to the counter.
Always the hurry, the unconcern with her appearance. That has remained. There are some changes though, a few folds of skin on her belly showing below the red blouse. She is still thin, still the bony shoulders and the bony hands, the small face, but age reminding its presence in the middle, a matured hip, the pain in her knees. She remembers to eat now, she always did forget about food, but after lying in the hospital with ulcers, her memory has adjusted itself to food. (She can’t afford to lay ill; one sick person in a house is quite enough if you ask her!)
She goes up and makes the order. She knows what he wants. It’s always the same. Black Coffee…and Camomile tea if they come in the evening. He was always simple and predictable like that, in everything he does, except his ideas; he saved his innovation for his thoughts, his words. She got something different each day, the weather, the mood, the day deciding the drink. Which is why, she always made the order, an unspoken arrangement they have with each other.
Everyone else gets a small stand with a number printed on it to put on their table when they make an order; this helps the waiters to keep a track of them. She, however, gets none. She is old here, they don’t need a number to keep track of her order; the pretty-faced boy behind the counter gives her a familiar smile.
She sits back down and takes out the answer papers; he continues reading unstirred.
Unlike many other professors, she quite enjoys going through answer papers, every batch comes with new ideas, new perspectives, new questions to the same issues. And that vibrant energy and careless disregard for repercussions that only young can have, and because the young are so unaware of the sword lying in wait outside, they jump, and they jump without worrying about the fall, and sometimes, some of them…well, some of them land. And that was always a delight. Oh, such a delight.
She reads them, with that frown on her head. That frown is not really a frown; it’s a thought, like a physical effort that her body seems to make to form every thought in her head.
Her eyes run through the lines, and then stops. She looks up. He is leaning back against the wide-backed-low-chair in his white-striped light-green cotton kurta over loose white pyjamas, with his book open in his right hand resting over one hand-rest, and his left hand wound around the other, his legs comfortably stretched in front of him along both sides of the small round table. His eyes are on the page, but he is not here, he is floating up, very high, she can’t reach him. She waits for him to get back on land and only then speaks.
“Look at this.” she says pointing at a paragraph of small springly letters in black ink.
He takes the paper from her and reads the lines she pointed at. His eyes don’t race through the page, it’s slow, it hardly moves. (While her eyes are open windows, his are curtained, draped, not consciously, or with effort, but in a careless manner.) But he reads the lines in a jiffy. (She used to be amazed at how quickly he can read a book; he has to for there are far too many out there to drink in.)
He looks up, his chin and lower lips folding up in appreciation.
“This is the guy whose father passed away last year and he almost left the University.” she explains.
He nods in remembrance.
“Such a great mind.” she continues.
“You can ask him to write some for the magazine.” he says thoughtfully.
They have still continued with their magazine. It’s not quite what it used to be, not even the name, it’s not really underground anymore either.
“Hmmm…I’ve thought about it. Not yet. He is just learning to think on his own, let him develop it some more.”
She goes back to correcting the paper. He, however, still mulls over it some more. (He could never switch on and off his train of thoughts like she does.)
He goes back to his book after a while.
Aditi did not develop the love for reading that he has, despite being surrounded by books all her life or maybe because of it. She was three when her parents died, and he became a father by default, not by choice. She always tried to remember that, but the expectations still creeps in, and the disappointments that come with it.
He would never have had a child if he had the choice. She knew that and he didn’t correct her.
There was nothing to complain really. He was gentle, he was fair, he was sincere, he was soft-spoken, he was generous. And he loved her, didn’t he? Yes he did. In the same way that he loved his students, his colleagues, the country, the world, his neighbours, the dogs on his street, the dying environment, the dwindling rivers, the endangered animals, the eunuchs, the criminals. He loved them all. It was not fierce, not possessive. It was soft, like a hug which swept everything in. It didn’t have the incredible heights, the colours, nor the deep cuts, the falls. He never raises his voice. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t hate. No matter how much she tried, how many parent-teacher meetings he is called in for, how many times she is suspended, how many times she comes home late, how many times she embarrasses him in front of his ‘important’ friends. He doesn’t hate her. And that hurts almost as much as everything else.
In a different world, where her parents are alive, he would have been the lost-intellectual uncle whose visits she looks forward to. She might even have loved reading, and been doing her post-graduation from JNU in Sociology maybe, discussing important things with her intellectual friends over coffee and cigarettes.
But that is a different world, so different.
(But didn’t it affect him a little bit? Just a little..? Doesn’t his hair seem thinner, his face older, after her last suicide attempt? Doesn’t it? And that tired expression that comes into his eyes sometimes now..? Isn’t there a sadness that envelops him sometimes quite suddenly? Not the kind of sadness that he had before, but a more…more personal one..? Is it possible then that in the middle of his book, his debates with his friends, when his eyes wonder off, and there is that gloom that darkens his features (that Aditi has become quite efficient at noticing), is it possible then that he might be thinking about her, about the blood that he found her in, and that shudder of his shoulders (wasn’t there a shudder?) was because of his imagining the worst, the terrible fate if he didn’t happen to come home early that evening? Is it possible?).
He had that same gloom on his face now, and the lost eyes. Sadhna-Sargam has noticed those too, has noticed the darkness darkening and the wandering eyes wandering farther with every year, but it will reach somewhere, she told herself, so she waits silently to watch where he lands this time round.
(Oh, didn’t I mention? Sadhna- Sargam is the woman in the red-saree, (or maroon) with the life in her eyes, the frown on her head, and her restless face. Her mother thought having both ‘sadhna’ and ‘sargam’ in her name would guarantee her life in music. Sadhna, however, had different plans. But although she did not spend a day practicing her ‘sargam’ after she grew out of the well-meaning dictatorial shade of her mother, she sings quite well when no one is around, and sometimes when nothing else works, she sings to her mother, for it calms her down like no other medicine can.)
“Saadh!” he cries, he has landed somewhere. Somewhere. And now he is lost for although his voice is just a whisper, it has desperation of a scream, of a child, lost in a crowd, in a foreign crowd, and he looks up at the only familiar face with wide frightened eyes and cries for help.
She always loved the way he says it (not the desperation with which he says it now of course, that she will fix just about now, just like she fixes every cracked broken stuck haggard machinery in his system), the way his voice doesn’t stop at ‘dh’ in a full stop but stretches it out there like a ribbon, a silk ribbon, soft like his voice, waiting for her to reach it, catch it. She never shared this with him obviously (strange isn’t it, how even after a friendship of 25 years, they should have secrets? but it’s only these little insignificant things really, rest he knows; well…most of it at least. She is a woman after all! Just like they express more than a man, they hide more too, don’t they?).
“Saadh”, he calls again. “Do you think it matters? This…this…all this..? I mean, it’s all a cycle isn’t it..?”
(Now he talks not in his paused patient manner, but in a hurry, in impatience, like a patient writhing in pain, who can’t stand the antiseptic quietness of the doctor who expects him to give long descriptions of his pain- where, how much, since when; he wants quick relief. Give the damn injection!)
“Destruction is inevitable isn’t it?”, he continues, completely tangent to the book he was reading, the paper they were discussing, or any other thing they were talking about before, not bothering to explain how and why he was going where he was going, for he knows, a part of them is always strolling on the same lane. No matter which street they are marching on individually, a tiny part of them continues, undisturbed on the same road, watching the same trees.
“Things have to break for the new to come!” he goes on, “It’s nature! To create obstructions in this is playing with nature, Saadh! The Renaissance was inevitable, right? It had to happen! The tyranny of the church had reached to such a head-on, it was stifling. Science had to emerge, and the Romanticism, the Arts, individuality, creativity, innovation, and even immorality. It had to be. And then Science became such a despot, it has to come down too. And so here we are. This new concern with Environment, with Humanity, with Spirituality. It’s growing, it’s growing. Science will soon be thrown on the ground on its head. Just like…just like…Feminism. It was destined to happen, woman had to rise. The bullying by men could not continue forever. And now already, we see some woman taking advantage of their power, doing exactly those things that their ancestors had blamed the men for. It’s all a cycle. It’s all a cycle. It has to happen. It will happen. You can’t stop it. War, destruction, inhumanity will happen. Power is an addiction. You can’t escape it. And every time one group gets some power, they want more, and more, until they are trampling the skulls of the other groups under their feet. And then the trampled, the downtrodden rise. And the cycle continues. It’s like…like…like Autumn Saadh. Just like autumn. You can’t skip it. And those yellowing leaves, falling under your feet…they have their beauty too right? War, along with destruction and immorality, also brings out the most courageous of souls, the purest of beings, the highest of consciousness. It gives love and compassion a whole new colour, which is brighter…yes, brighter and purer, than what it becomes after a few decades, when the dust of habit and taken-for-granted-ness makes it hazy and dull. It’s all a cycle. We cannot do anything about it. Every age brings people like us…you and me…everyone thinks we are great, special…how wrong they are! How wrong! Ha! Special! We are the most useless of all! What are we doing Saadh? Like trying to straighten the tail of a dog, or trying to find the starting point of a circle. We are running running, shouting screaming, writing articles, giving lectures, for what? We can’t stop it. The immorality, the materialism, the shallowness of our age is inevitable. Just like the dawn of tomorrow is. We cannot bring tomorrow faster than it intends to come. So what do we do? We play our parts. Yes, our parts. We all have our parts. We run our own individual cycles, our own races. We all have our roles right? I have to take care of my students, my health…and Aditi. God, Aditi! And you, Saadh? Why didn’t you marry Saadh? Why didn’t you? What are we doing? What have we done? Instead of running our own races, we stopped and started putting banners for the entire game to stop, and run according to our rules? The game won’t stop, Saadh! It was running from before our times and it will go on till after our ashes have stopped flying into the eyes of the passersby. But our teams, our people, those people who are dependent on us, they are falling! Oh, what have we done?! And all those people who are not here because of us? Have you thought of children Saadh? If you had a child! All this beauty, this spark that you have, you will go taking it with you, when you could have had a child, or more! Plural! Imagine! And they would have carried your spark and spread it and then given it to their children. I always thought you would have made a great mother. Did I ever tell you that? A great mother. Very…different. I would want to be your child. That would have been your contribution. That, would have been our contribution. And your mother, Saadh? Your mother…that is your responsibility. What have we done? What have we done? This is foolish. So foolish! All our lives gone, for what? What have we done? Imagine if one of our body parts…our kidney…our liver…suddenly stops working and starts protesting against the way we are running the body? They will be completely justified probably in their protest. I really need to stop smoking for one. But we will be dead before we can take heed to their protest. They will be going against nature, and instead of reforming our system, they will be killing it. And we…we Saadh…you and I…are like a protesting kidney in the body of the world…killing it…killing our people. And Aditi. It was so close. So close. And she is just a child. What have I done?!
She is quiet. Thinking. Of her mother maybe, lying on the bed in a paralysed heap. Dying. She has been ‘dying’ for the last 13 years. Continuous tense.
Or maybe the child she could have had. For although her eyes are far and distant, isn’t that a smile her lips are almost curling into? Almost!
He is waiting. She has to say something. He is troubled. And she has to fix it. She understands it. Oh, how she understands it! Like a childhood pain, a birth-mark. That’s how she knows the ache that he is in now. But she didn’t have the medicine. If only. Isn’t that why they have stuck together all these years? Like the Asians stick to each other in the West, clinging to their tradition, their culture, those things that suddenly start making more sense, seeming more beautiful in an alien land. Like your reflection. You know it, but can you cure it? For, it’s your own image! You cannot change it. But she has to say something.
“I don’t know Anirudh! I don’t know. When you say it like that…you can say the exact opposite thing right now and convince me about it. What do I say? You are right obviously. Our own parts…roles…our own cycles. But I don’t know. Are the likes of us really that useless?! When you say it like that, it sure seems like it. But…but…yes, destruction has to happen, for the new to be formed. But can it form in the air Ani? Automatically? I mean…won’t it be because of the foundations that we in our little ways are laying, that the new will emerge. Think Anirudh! Sure, we cannot bring tomorrow’s morning to come earlier than it wishes to come. But will it come at all, if we weren’t already making way for it? I don’t know…I sound so presumptuous, don’t I? I can never argue like you. It makes sense in my head you know? I mean…I don’t know…maybe things will happen with or without us. But will it, Ani? Feminism came later. Earlier, when the male-tyranny was the natural order of things, there were few invisible…maybe just a handful…men and women…who were thinking differently. They probably felt completely useless too. Couldn’t shake a leaf! But the tree is uprooted now! Would it have been possible if those handfuls hadn’t already started shaking it? I don’t know really. Showing our backs to our duties sure seems like a cowardly thing to do. Do you think that’s what we are doing? That what we are really doing is taking the easier way out? Because criticising a book is always easier than writing it. But really, Anirudh…I don’t know. Isn’t this important too?”
“And Aditi? Isn’t she important Saadh? Who gave us the right to sit here and decide who and what is important over whom?”
Saadh looks at him helplessly. This is the argument that will never end, that neither can win and that they will keep having. They might change roles, but the words, the sentiments will be the same. It’s like a nausea that they alternate between them, and every time it seems like an unbearable pain, and the anticipation like the bile rising, the hope for the final climax, a change, a new turn of events, a new light shedding on everything, a sudden meaning to everything, and every time the other waits on for it to subside. For it does subside. Like their own personal night, their own Autumn that they exchange between them. But as they grow older, they both wonder sometimes now…secretly, not acknowledging it…but they wonder if the so called Spring that comes is really all that worth it, for the flowers are losing their fragrance, the fruits their sweetness. Or are they? Maybe, this too will subside?
“Dr. Chattopaddhyay? Dr. Chattopadhyay!”
Anirudh looks up at the bespectacled man, in his late 30s probably. He doesn’t recognize him, but he gave him a familiar smile anyway. He is known to forget faces.
“I am sorry. Am I interrupting? I’ll just take a minute. I saw you and I had to say Hi. I have to leave too…Oh no, please don’t get up…No, no I won’t sit, like I said I am just leaving. See that man outside? …He is waiting for me. You don’t know me of course. My friend Ranbeer used to be in your class. He was in the ’94 batch of the Political Science department. Do you remember him? Yes yes, of course it’s been long. And Ranbeer is a common name isn’t it? But he remembers you. We all do. You used to be very famous amongst us then. Even in our Sociology department. We had a few of your articles in the last semester I think. And you know Professor Milind Bhatnagar? He used to quote you a lot! I used to read your magazine too. You were such a celebrity. You filled us with so much excitement, so much fire. But not all of us can be like you, right? We can only get excited and spend a few minutes despairing! You used to come in this cafe then as well, didn’t you? Haha, but I am talking nonsense, and my friend is waiting. You know I attended your talk in Bangalore. I live in Bangalore you see. I am here now to attend a wedding. But that’s not important and you are busy and I just don’t get to the point do I? Anyway so, I attended your talk on the ‘Need for a new Pedagogy’. I took my wife along too. She still doesn’t know what is good and what is bad. Discriminative appreciation, remember you used to say? Oh no Ma’am I won’t sit, I really am just leaving. Anyway, what I wanted to say was that talk filled me with some of that college days’ fever again. And without wasting much time I got my younger son admitted to your school, Anand-Alay!”
(Anirudh, along with three others got together 9 years ago to conceptualize the blueprint of a new pedagogy, a more holistic pedagogy, one that relied on the ancient wisdom of India as well as the new research findings in the field of education and child rearing, one that protected the childhood of the child and watered his ties on the roots, while constantly showing him the new developments, the new heights being touched every day as well. After a year of discussions and writings, and then more than two years of concretizing their ideas into the practicality of a school (which has to follow certain guidelines of the government), and then further time spent on scouring for funds (mainly from the conscience-stricken NRI well-wishers!), the school finally saw the light of day three years back. And it was called Anand-Alay. It is still in the experimental stage, under the sceptical gaze of the…well…sceptics.)
“I have two sons you see. Oh yes, I am not that young sir. We were in the ’94 batch as I told you. Anyway I really have to go, and my friend outside is getting impatient, and so what I was saying was, my older one is in his third class now, and the younger one just turned three, and we were looking for a school for him around the time of your talk. You know how difficult it is to get a child into a school nowadays! It’s a war! It’s ridiculous! A nightmare! Anyway…see how I keep getting off-track? Anyway…so I had heard of Anand–Alay before of course. Never paid much attention to it until I heard you that day. And I got Nipun admitted that very week! Nipun is the younger one…the older one is Nikhil! The wife was very upset…but I was adamant. She is not bad you see. Just…simple. And now when I saw you I just had to share it with you. I took a lot more than two minutes didn’t I? …And you are standing again. Why are you standing, sir? Please do sit down. I really shouldn’t have interrupted you, but I just…you see sir, we are common men, we can’t be like you. Oh no, please don’t look at me like that. I mean it. So…so…these small things are just what we can do. I can’t think of the children of the world. But I can think of my own child, you know. And…and..I should go. I am done, really. I just…if my son could be even a tenth of the vision that you have for the children of tomorrow…I’ll, you know…I’ll feel like I have…Yes! Yes! I am coming! I am coming! Look, my friend is calling. I told you he was waiting. I took a lot of your time, and I don’t even know if I made any sense. Imagine coming and blabbering like this and you don’t even know me! I really should leave…Oh, Ma’am why do you look at me like that? Are you crying? Oh…oh…Please don’t…I…Oh no, of course you’re not! It must be the light. I really must leave…I shouldn’t have interrupted you…Oh sir please do sit down…”