Story: Mounted Stentor

By: Prosenjit Dey Chaudhury

mounted stento

On at least one Sunday of each month, a house up the street used to hold a lot of attraction for a number of people. On that side of the street ran a slow, thick stream with leafy trees; beyond its sloping bank were the houses. The stream was crossed by bridges of varying pedigree, from arching spans of timber with decaying, classical railings to wide stretches of saplings that rested upon stilts in the water. The houses spread along the bank in groups that were separated by little streets leading from the bridges; each street had a strip of fraying macadam in the midst of the broader dust on either side.

The house currently in question stood at the corner of one of these slightly metaled paths and a bare leveled track that ran along the bank at its height. The dwellings in this group were one-storied with sloping tin roofs and wide porches to which one ascended by stepping up platforms upon which the houses were built. The platforms or, alternatively, broad pedestals gave the unfailing impression of having borne many homes in their lifetimes. The compounds of the houses were many times larger than their floor spaces, and although each compound was of uniform size it was separated from its neighbors by wattle fences that were not similar in density, height and painted dabbing.

This house at the corner had a fencing that was higher at the side of the street that ran from the bridge than toward the path skirting the bank of the stream. The close-knit stakes on the side of the stream came up to the level of the neck of a person of average height in that town. The people who gathered at that fence on a Sunday of a month were not crowded to break into the grounds; they were happy to stand outside and watch proceedings of a human turn in the front yard.

The Sundays in that town were a lazy affair from start to finish. From the rising in the morning to the retirement at night, every normal function of life would invariably be retarded. The midday meal would be postponed often till the mid-afternoon; thereafter, a siesta would resume that would be interrupted in the early evening with a family outing to the parks and the maidans. More cups of tea for the most informal chattering were made on Sundays than any other day of the week. It was generally the children with less burden of homework who were most active through the day, followed by the youths who were unemployed or who took a break from their trades. Anything that came by way of diversion on the dominical day was pretty much a sight for sore eyes and for sore minds that yearned for a captivating change from time to time.

*

Mr. Radhakamal came from a distinguished family of retainers to the erstwhile maharajas of the state, a family that rendered unfailing service to the kings as they succeeded each other on the throne and that was in turn rewarded handsomely with, among other things, royal patronage of the education of its children. The family told tales to its members of the many moments when a luminary of the royal household took one of the retainers into his or her confidence on a sensitive matter and even besought advice on how to negotiate a particular situation that was usually of the interpersonal kind. Quite a few of the Radhakamal family made up the number of liveried attendants in the palace. In time, some of those who had retired from the king’s service chose to write their memoirs within the close walls of the family house. A number of clothbound volumes with handwritten pages lined the dim shelves of glass-fronted almirahs in that house.

Mr. Radhakamal spent much of his adolescence leafing desultorily through those memoirs, thereby acquiring plenty of insight into the running of the kingdom through many centuries. Those reminiscences and reflections would in course of time form part of the collection of the state museum, and rich histories would be written with their help. During the time of Mr. Radhakamal’s passage into manhood, however, their existence was not known to more than a few people, and the state government was organizing itself for political and developmental work before it could give proper scrutiny to the needs of the arts. The country was passing through the first decade of independence and the rule of the state maharajas was over. Most of them were handsomely pensioned off but a large proportion of their retainers and dependents found themselves out of work for the first time in living memory.

While the kings were around the Radhakamals made due use of royal patronage to render themselves well lettered up to a certain point. Mr. Radhakamal did not drop out before the first two years of college but went on to take the examinations and clear them. At this time he should have been inducted into the legion of royal retainers, but the kings had gone out of business not long before and he was left to find a living for himself. He would fain have fulfilled his desire to learn further in one of the physical sciences, finding an endless fascination for chemical formulae, chemical reactions and their products, all of which seemed to lead on to further complexity such as to resemble an architectural marvel in which he wished to play a chiseling hand.

Nevertheless, the royal patronage was gone and he was in his early twenties, the time to plight the troth for men in that time. His numerous brothers had been married off and everyone could not stay under the same roof as before owing to the intolerable expense of feeding many mouths from frail or absent livelihoods in the new times. It took some time to find a wife for Mr. Radhakamal, but when she arrived she exceeded him in height by a few marks above a couple of inches. Rumor had it that in the mutual private audience just prior to marriage that was an enlightened feature of some of the domestic arrangements of that region, Mr. Radhakamal promised to his future spouse not ever to make trouble for her in return for a commitment on her part not to use her elevated station to browbeat him.

The couple took up abode in that house on the corner at the bridge. Mr. Radhakamal found a job as a superintendent with the stores and provisions section of the department of civil supplies in the fledgling state government. The department made routine disbursements of grain and other essential commodities to the ration shops that had been established in the principal towns of the state. Mr. Radhakamal had a grand designation but he was required no more than to keep an eye on the level of stocks in the government granaries, alerting the requisitioning functionaries when the commodities seemed to be diminishing more than anticipated. He certainly did not think that his task did due honor to his talents but he could not strike out for a more dignified living in those times of uncertainty.

The months and the years passed rapidly without change in rhythm, color or substance; and the marriage to all appearances was a tranquil one, perhaps a little too tranquil for the standards by which a normal connubial partnership might be reckoned. A daughter was born to the couple after eight years, an event that testifies to a very long period of gestation in which frigid relations between the two were gradually giving way to moments of intimacy. It might be said with reasonable warrant that Mr. Radhakamal was the one who chose to keep aloof from his wife either from brooding discontentment over the nature of his profession or from the awe of her that clung to him from the time he first set eyes upon her. She, for her part, did not appear to resent the course of their marriage in those years, fulfilling her uxorial chores quietly and smoothly in the manner of countless other women, not giving the least cause to him that his fears about her high-handedness were being realized. Two years after the birth of the daughter the couple brought into the world a son. Not long after, Mr. Radhakamal found a change in working station that was more to his liking, and it was a few years from this date that the tranquility of the marriage appeared to have sheered radically in another direction.

Mr. Radhakamal’s new function was again that of superintendent but he was now making observations of a large bubble chamber in a chemical works set up by a joint venture between a domestic enterprise and a foreign company. It was becoming the trend to invite foreign know-how and skill in varying proportions in order to expedite the attainment of targets laid down in the economic plans, especially in respect of mass upliftment in health and consumption. This particular concern was required to manufacture a brand of slender foam that would make an appropriate inside lining for containers carrying granulated health food priced within the reach of an ordinary budget. Mr. Radhakamal spent his whole day within a big room in which the complicated chemical process reached its culmination inside the bubble chamber with the production of a series of frothing globules in a liquid of a dark, exotic color. The big room indeed was the single room of the largest of a series of white huts interlinked with funnels and tubing and making up the tidy factory complex.

He sat before a solid transparent mass of roller-coaster piping that was regulated at every bend with stopcocks, siphons and adjutages; its contents were constantly in turbulence or in placid flow. Where the apparatus blew out its bubble chamber Mr. Radhakamal sat close with a board on his lap to which sheets of foolscap spaced with carbon paper were fastened with a heavy metallic clamp. He recorded his studies of the gas bubbles signaling the production of foam and, while he was for the most part alone in that room, from time to time technically competent foreign engineers paced the floor in the sun that shone through a ventilating gap in a high wall.

Six years of production went without a hitch but lately there had been a lot of variability in the materialization of the foam, as a result of which Mr. Radhakamal was obliged to stand up closer to scrutinize the bubble chamber, at times opening some of the valves to sniff for the distinctive odor that presaged the desired result. His recordings showed a more complex pattern of events in the chamber, which led the engineers to pace the floor even longer and wonder how processes might be brought back to regularity.

No one can say how it exactly began but at this juncture the extreme conjugal calmness that had characterized Mr. Radhakamal and his wife underwent a ripple that grew into a familiar pattern of disturbance. After almost two decades she seemed to have finally wearied of both his contented indifference and apparent meekness, while he began to give himself up to profound reveries and longer hours out of doors. After work he returned home late and thereby often brought the fish for dinner late, so that the family’s prandial timings began to be pushed back progressively. Whereas earlier as a superintendent of stores he spent the Saturdays within domestic walls, now he not only worked on those days but seemed to enjoy his functions enough to stretch the half working day into a full one.

In little time, one Sunday in a succession of seemingly unruffled ones began to render the Radhakamal household notorious for a considerable section of the neighborhood. Late in the morning of such a Sunday, the passer by on that track along the bank of the stream would hear a pronounced matronly voice coming from the Radhakamal home, a voice that was continually rising in pitch and volume and declaiming with a spontaneous momentum that was interrupted only for the briefest of pauses. He would hear no other voice but if he stopped out of curiosity or habit to regard the house, he would be likely to see the paterfamilias rushing out of the front door and coming into the spacious yard with a pair of shears. Dressed in a typical indoor suit of long starched shirt and matching pajamas, Mr. Radhakamal would proceed to lop the nearest botanical objects in sight irrespective of their growth while appearing to mutter furiously to himself. This would go on for about fifteen minutes and then he would climb a tree while keeping the shears balanced on his chest with one hand; stretching himself on a limb of the tree, he would look satisfied with himself.

Less than a couple of minutes later Mrs. Radhakamal would make her appearance on the porch. Advancing to the edge of the platform, she would appear to be screaming out to him the active deeds of her ancestors and her own accomplishments while he would remain on the limb, keep his eyes closed and speak with an atypically loud voice in turn of his lineage and his attainments. In the ordinary sense of the word, theirs was not what could reasonably be termed a quarrel; it was more a laboring of redeeming points on each side such as had not been performed with cathartic purpose for too long a time. Mrs. Radhakamal’s remarks would exhibit no change in content and duration though she could, if she wished, stretch each point to its limit, while her husband’s antistrophe ranged over subjects and historical epochs with the most carefree flexibility.

For at least an hour, the yard of their home and a significant part of the exterior would ring to the intonations of their lexical volleys, drawing onlookers who would crowd close to the fence that came up to their necks; the shorter ones would cluster on the section of the bridge that arched over the stream to give a view of the Radhakamal grounds. The spectator who had watched the spectacle before would be none the wiser as to its purport or cause, but a spectacle it was and one that set the feet racing to the venue in anticipation of a promised thrill that made the glory of an otherwise routine holiday. Mrs. Radhakamal would, after the passage of the hour, go back into the house while her spouse would remain on the angled bough and, still shutting his eyes, go on speaking volubly, attempting to make the sky hear his words. After a while he would begin to snore to the same harmony as his words but it would not appear that he was fast asleep, for he would now and then again claim the attention of the sky to what he had to say. At a certain point in the already advanced afternoon a pressure cooker inside the house would sound its prolonged and relieved hiss. After ten minutes Mr. Radhakamal would disembark from the tree and enter his house to partake of a late lunch. That would be the signal for the onlookers to return to their own homes and sit down to their own delayed Sunday repast.

The front yard of the Radhakamal home, as seen from the bridge, was in its own distinctive way a largely untended plot that bore some respectable horticultural specimens, but which at the same time encouraged the profusion of weeds and creepers that had the mark of novelty in every season. The house itself sat in the farthest corner and a bare path lined with buried bricks led up to it from a gate in the fencing on the asphalted road. At the steps that went up to the platform two magnolia plants stood on each side, their large and firm leaves interweaving to create a bushy look that was somehow kept within bounds. They grew at the edge of a desiccated bed that must have once held flowers and they were about the only gardening specimens that had been made to conform to an aesthetic rule. In some places, nevertheless, flowers of dahlia and marigold raised their jumbled heads. There was shrubbery in places of the kind that is wild but tolerable.

Nearer the fence at which the onlookers made their standing camp a couple of coconut trees grew tall and straight, their naked trunks marked with an embossed ring at intervals; smaller, more fecund coconut palms occupied positions in the yard in no determined manner, their own annulated trunks sagging out their flesh from the burden of many years of parturition. With increasing distance from the path leading to the front steps, the couch-grass became less disciplined in company with nondescript but uberous runners and weeds.

In a straight line with the nearest edge of the house platform rose a not easily recognizable tree that never bore any fruit but which gave off many wide limbs from its bole, encompassing them in a cover of hanging foliage that was neither too thick to offer concealment nor too meager to shield the rays of the sun from the skin. It was this tree that Mr. Radhakamal mounted of a particular Sunday to vindicate himself in the role of stentor which he had discovered for himself only recently.

For almost a year the Radhakamal house was the draw for a dedicated band of gentry and rabble from late middle age to early childhood, who at the beginning of each Sunday morning longed to witness the crackling tableau of the front yard later in the day. This was a drama that could not be missed—a drama with two parts to the chorus but with no precedent and no aftermath. If the beginning of the chorus was simple and repetitive the same did not hold for the countering stroke, for Mr. Radhakamal would make use of all his learning in the ancient volumes of his ancestral house to bellow forth the names of kings and their faithful retainers through a succession of centuries. He would seem to place special emphasis, albeit without a clear connecting thread, on achievements and deeds that served to exalt him in his own eyes, if not that of his wife. This definitely raised him, without his knowledge, in the eyes of the beholders at the fence and on the bridge. For then the character of theater was unmistakably stamped on the spectacle as, on the one hand, a sense of antiquity filled the air and, on the other, a certain awe descended on the heart at the recount of the glorious actions that had unrolled in that land.

To the devoted fans, the Sunday production in the Radhakamal yard was the closest thing to a free substitute for some of the movies that came to the town after making the circuit of the rest of the country. A year went by and the Sunday matinee always turned up even after a string of dry Sundays. The speeches of the two players did not alter in tone and tenor though the actor seemed able to improvise his parts skillfully at the expense of the actress. The number of fans showed no noticeable increase though the repute of the Radhakamals kept on spreading. Remarkably, their children appeared to give not the least interest in the proceedings out of doors, in such stunning contrast to the fixed attention and gaping aspect of the watchers. Mr. Radhakamal was climbing to taller limbs of the tree with the utmost felicity, giving the lie to the mark of age upon an increasingly depilated crown adorned with no more than a diminishing circle of hair close to the ears. The head itself was prognathic and seemed to be strikingly bent on uplifting its well varnished surface; more truthfully perhaps, the agitated contents of the brain were prodding about and crying to find a vent.

On a fateful Sunday Mr. Radhakamal again came out of the house with his shears and, after leaving a number of stalks and stems poorer in height by some inches, mounted rapidly to the most superior limb of the sheltering tree. He laid himself full length well above the heads of the audience and, as was his practice, placed the shears on his chest with their long rounded grips pointing toward him. In all the times of his relaxation on the tree, even when his nose was reverberating and his eyes shut, he always kept his fingers on the handles and made sure that the force neither of his lungs nor his nose could dislodge the shears from his chest.

Mrs. Radhakamal came to the platform edge and told him that she had at all times been fruitfully active in her life in the manner of one of her eminent ancestors who constantly found new ways to do old things as joiner by royal appointment in the reign of one of the illustrious kings of the realm. She went on to create variations on this motif in the accustomed hourly discourse that followed, adducing the names of other forefathers who never were content to rest on their successes in a range of occupations. Mr. Radhakamal rose to the occasion and delivered himself of the millennial histories of a number of resourceful attendants of the king to whom he was bound by the purity of his blood. His voice on this occasion was moving to higher and higher harmonic ranges, and one might have said that he was beseeching, almost imploring, an impartial mediator to declare conclusively in his favor. When Mrs. Radhakamal went inside the house he reversed the shears on his chest, placing his neck between the fine blades and tightening his fists on the handles. He tilted his face to the side and began to snore; if his face should hang a little farther, there was a good chance of the blades biting into the flesh of his throat. He did not apostrophize the sky this time but was content to recline in that position and give the impression that his arms were shaking with an itch to bring the handles closer to each other.

A quarter of an hour passed in which the crowd below waited with tense expectation for an outcome to a spectacle that for the first time occasioned some alarm. In the last few instances of the show, the vendor in the town who sold fried grams tinged appetizingly with lemon had stopped his pushcart on the track adjoining the stream and made business with the crowd of onlookers before plying his trade elsewhere; on this day he stayed back to watch the drama in the yard. Mrs. Radhakamal was then seen to come out of the front door; her face bore the look of grim resolution and she had likely spent some time in reflecting on a course of action. She ran to the foot of the tree as fast as the drapery of her sari could allow; looking up at her spouse, she told him to dismount.

“By whose authority?” he was heard to say.

“In the name of reason,” she replied.

“Reason calls for justice.”

“We are not in need of justice. Come down”

He still would not budge. He let his face tilt a little more. Mrs. Radhakamal held the venerable trunk of the tree with her hands and would in all likelihood have shaken him out of that branch if she had possessed the strength.

“Come down in the name of _,” she said in a firmer voice, reciting the names of five gods, two goddesses and three saints.

“Not until the Kaliyug is over.”

“Oh, you foolish creature, what have you to gain above when you have everything below?” Here she took away her hands from the tree and thrust them in his direction, holding them up for all to see.

Mr. Radhakamal raised his head and looked down at his wife. A change seemed to have come over him and he was trying to make up his mind.

“Come down for high heaven’s sake,” she repeated, making her upright arms stiff in a clearly embracing gesture.

Mr. Radhakamal climbed down the tree to be received at the foot by his wife in the closest imitation of a hug that would not shock the morals of a still restrictive age present in the guise of the speechless observers at the fence.

The Sunday shows in the yard stopped thereafter, but it was quite some time before people accepted as routine the sight of the couple coming back in the evening from the market with the wife leading an apparently feeble husband over the loose planks of the bridge to their home. She did not let him out of her sight beyond the hours he spent in the factory and made sure that all his excursions were joint ones. She had need no longer to counter him in word or deed; he appeared to give in to her entirely and not form a fractious will of his own.

One morning it was announced that the chemical works would be stopping production and that the employees would be given equally remunerative positions in the flourishing fertilizer industry. Critics had long maintained that the manufacture of lining foam was unnecessary and no more than an instance of squandermania on the part of the government. More significantly, it was discovered that the room of the bubble chamber was not ventilated well enough to let out the fumes and aroma swirling from the concoction inside the tubes. Prolonged exposure to these gases was known to be responsible for a debilitating influence on the nerves that, if not checked in time, could result in atrophy of some tissues in the cerebrum. Mr. Radhakamal was particularly vulnerable in this regard but a thorough medical examination funded by the state and some charitable agencies found no abnormality in his functions. The opinion of Mrs. Radhakamal was not consulted in the final report on the case. In time the Radhakamal household became a peaceful and tranquil one to the point of anonymity, and the Radhakamal children grew up to ponder on their stations in life.

END

In North America, Prosenjit Dey Chaudhury has published his fiction and nonfiction with the Maple Tree Literary Supplement, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Empty Sink Publishing, Ray’s Road Review, and other journals. Although holding a doctorate in economics, he is more concerned with literary adventures for the moment. In 2009, the opening chapter of a first novel was selected by the Union of Writers of Quebec (UNEQ) for a mentorship program. He plans to publish this novel at a later time.

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