— When a 45-year old man with a beautiful wife and two teenaged kids still needs to watch gruesome violent videos all by himself every damn night to sleep well, you know there’s a glitch growing somewhere!
Two cigarette smoke-curls were blending lazily over the bench where the men sat. The traffic across the street was getting busier with the falling hours. The car-horns were getting shriller, scooping spaces that were thinning fast. The December dusk of Kolkata waited for the streetlights to glow. The Friday evening was beginning to spread with the hopes of happier weekends. It was the time between two light-zones at Park Street Crossing where waves ran into what did not move.
— Glitch! You sound as if I’m some camera shutter conked out. It’s not a snag you see, it’s a pattern, and one I stick to as it’s become a ritual over the months. Just like brushing your teeth after a meal. It’s not that I’m not embarrassed about it as I don’t really enjoy it. No more than you enjoy brushing your teeth every night!
Both men were 45, both balding at the obvious places in their heads, both weary with the weight of the over-wrought; colleagues at the sales section of Panacea, a massive medicine company that manufactured painkillers that claimed to kill pain in less than 10 minutes. All kinds of pain. Panacea: the giant killer of pain. It sought to spread its branches across Kolkata, a city where the high-rises had to be rudely removed from the sounds that sank.
— Pattern or ritual, the fact stands that you cannot sleep till you watch people torturing each other every night. You lock yourself in the bedroom on Sunday afternoons watching throats being slit when the rest of your family watches sitcom in TV. You’re 45. It’s sick and almost funny!
— It certainly is! And that’s the real part you know. I mean we’ll both be really sick going by the way we’re headed now. Ten hours’ work a day, golden fried prawns at dinner parties where our wives wear dresses we can’t afford. Logically we ought to get our first stroke in three years and be dead in a decade. When I watch gory violence it’s not because I want to get a horny high or because I’m depressed . . . you know . . . It’s about something else. It’s about the ritual of seeing rituals break. It’s about seeing strangers scream in meaningless violence. It’s my own private hell. It’s someway real . . . you see . . . A real hell. And I need it to manage meanings in all the fake heavens around me.
The voice paused after having hurled the words out in one breath. Too many cigarettes had lessened him already. All things around were lessening together in different degrees of decadence. The brief silence between the two men was slapped by the swishes and shouts as the evening began to eat the big buildings. The Friday dusk at Park Street carried a colour thickened by the smell of fries from various fast food joints that sell fast. The big restaurants with dark windows began to get dolled up for the Friday footfalls. At the appointed hour the billboards glowed up, as did the street lamps and neon signs. A small man with big balloons walked before the big music store that played John Lennon’s Imagine inside the cold glasses. One of the two men in the bench stared at the balloons. Different colors tied together in strings that looked the same: blue, yellow, red, green. The balloons floated gently, with the waves of air and sound around. Everything was mixing painlessly. Along the slanting lights. Through the camera lens.
— That’s phony and lame . . . I mean it’s normal for a man of your condition to be bored, to go for drinks and see several women, we know many who bang around other people’s wives and still more who weekend with whores. That’s normal enough you see. But being compulsively dependent on violence for sleep is downright pathetic! You may as well watch porn! Get yourself a woman if you’re bored with your family. I can help you with that!
The small balloon man still stood before the music store. He looked smaller with the growing crowd of people who crossed him like waves of car horns. He wasn’t selling anything. The blue, red and yellow balloons kept floating gently, swirling to the sound waves around. Not very far away a group of teenaged kids was heading for a pub, pushing against the crowd of people headed the other way, towards the Park Street metro station. Their words flicked the sweaty shirts of the tired workers hurrying for home.
— When my dad tried to act tough on me last night, I smiled at him knowingly. I mean it’s so damn obvious he’s sleeping out with someone, that filthy bastard. Guess mom knows it too but she doesn’t care. And why should she? She’s got her own life to live and enjoy. This morning as I was leaving dad called me and handed me a couple of grand in a tender voice. No lecturing, no big speeches. Nothing. A neat two grand. Guess he’s paying me to shut up. Not to make an emotional fuss about it. As if I cared!
— It’s good to have guilty parents. We all know that! My mom’s a whore. She’s been cheating on dad for over three years now. She starts seeing her friends whenever dad’s away on office tours. Where’s the goddam lighter gone?
— What do you care? All you need is their signs across your application to a US university after the bloody GRE scores appear! And don’t worry they’ll be guilty enough to keep sending you money while you’re boozing away in the States!
The evening lights were spreading out fast, with the breaths around shrinking in faster, the cars honking harder, the words getting wearier. The beggar children were out there by now, hoping to get little scraps and changes from the rich people’s plates and purses, hoping to find someone guilty enough to part a little. The boys in tattered shirts, the girls in torn frocks with new-born infants on their waists walked down the Park Street Crossing whenever the cars stopped at the red, hoping to arouse some sympathy; the only sentiment the richer Kolkatans had at this time of the day on their drive down from guilt and promises. Sometimes some hands held out some coins and leftovers from hastily rolled down windows. Most often nothing happened.
The two men were still sitting on the bench before the neon-glow that came from a chicken chain. There were posters of a new vampire movie along the walls of the restaurants on either side of Park Street. A vampire who would suck away the blood of his lovers to grow richer till he comes to own almost all the world’s banks. All the people he had sucked out of would become vampires and bring in more money in their turn, till there would be a great chain of vampires with their blood banks and currency traffics. At the end the main vampire turns into a massive bird and merges away into the sky when the tanks are hauled to shoot him down. The movie was a smashing hit already. It was reported to have had a record opening at the box office. It had received rave reviews from the critics and the audiences loved its 3-D stunt sequences. Its posters filled Park Street walls.
— My father was a writer you know. He used to write secretly at nights after his days in a private insurance company office.
— What? Oh! What’s that got to do with anything? Did he advise you to turn to violent videos in order to be free from a mid-life-crisis?
— He once wrote a story, this very strange story that he never published. He read it out to me when I was 13 . . . I remember the day also because I had . . . first . . . masturbated . . . that afternoon; crouched under the rusty iron water tank in our terrace . . . It must have been sweaty with the broken antennae rods and lizard hisses along the cracked walls . . . but I felt a coldness climbing along me after a while. . . with the heaviness between my palms . . . it was like holding something which had not been a part of me till then . . . the quick tremor that pushed me into a tightness inside myself . . . the suddenness of what gushed out . . . change happened . . . I grew under the rusty tank staring at the sight of my white blood. I may have sat like that for an hour . . . numbed after the tears had dried . . . till I climbed down the stairs . . . suddenly older . . . with the smell of my new born skin . . . I don’t know if my father found out. He called me later in the evening and asked me if I wanted to hear a story he had written when he was nineteen, a story that he never sent to be published. It was about a time when some people who grow enormously rich and powerful become surrounded by machines, so eaten up by gadgets that they forget to breathe. Instead they tick . . . They all tick away till they turn to explosives. Something like time-bombs tied to a watch somewhere. And then they explode. First softly, inside, and then gradually louder. The world as we know it becomes filled with men who explode away till there are dust rains in the end. . . . And all the beggar children sing in the rain . . . they dance in the falling dust, rubbing it in their faces like the fancy powder they see in TV . . . I thought that was all an insane rant.
— As indeed it was! Your father must have been a loony! Some egghead communist who dreamt of rosy revolutions.
— Maybe he was. But he may have had a point. And I see it when I watch violent videos at night when everyone in the right senses sleep . . . We’re . . . we’re all ticking away you see, too tired to breathe, still too weak to explode . . . The violence . . . it’s meaningless. And it does not give me a high. But it shows strangers who may explode at some point when they’re too tired to tick away. Everyone is a stranger there, most so the man watching it. Everyone swells, screams and stifles in choreographic acts of violence. It shows me what . . . what we may look like if we come close to exploding someday.
— You know what; you’re . . . you’re a sick bastard . . . I mean . . . I’m just wasting my time here with a pervert who has fancy ideas for his silly sickness. I mean . . . Time-bombs ticking away! Wish I could shove one up your backside!
The music store was filling in with people browsing and buying different DVD-s. Park Street was beginning to glow now, with the after-Christmas air that was still sweet, still festive enough to forget the dead and what was dying quietly. The building that was burnt down a few years ago was standing tall now, painted again and almost habitable.
Although some scars still stayed. Despite the fresh coats of yellow and green.
Some windows were still red.
The big hoarding promising change streamed across its corner with the new faces that mattered now.
Everything will change, the hoarding promised, Kolkata will turn into a glorious metropolis, more people will have more paying jobs, healthcare will be top notch, power cuts will be cut down.
Farmer-suicides will be forced to disappear. En masse.
The dreamy dawn of an era of change from thirty four years of pain, the people had been promised. Almost everyone agreed. Almost everyone had nodded to the new.
Three beggar-children stood before the vampire poster, seemingly amused by the colours and bloody faces on it. For a few moments they forgot to beg from the people stepping out of the massive chicken chain. Stepping out with juicy boneless meat bought with cold cash and colder cards. Finger-lickin’-good.
The man with the balloons still had not sold anything. He just stood there somehow cut off from the streams of people around him. He seemed to grow smaller with the passing hours. The balloons still floated softly. One of the two men in the bench stared again at the balloon man. He seemed to see something he was not sure of but which made him increasingly uneasy. He looked at the balloons again. Blue, red, yellow, green.All together, all stringed. Then the crowd of busy heads cut him off from the view.
— Maybe you were right at the beginning. Maybe there is a glitch growing somewhere. In me, in you, in this shrinking city which is trying to stretch its limbs every way . . . There is a glitch ticking away. It needs to explode. We all . . . need to explode someway. You have your women, your drink . . . your next big step in the ladder. It’s all a cover-up. Little noises that drown the real sound inside. You’re rotting away. We all are. We all sell. Lovely lies. Our painkillers. Those numbing nuggets. And we’re spreading it. Across this city. Across those kids out there . . . Across our own. That balloon man. Someday he’ll have a headache too. When he’s lied enough. And he’ll buy Panacea. That lovely lie. That numbing capsule. We’ll get him as well. We’ll rob him of his pain.
— Get yourself a drink. Get a life! You need medical help. I’ll leave you now. Don’t want to waste my Friday evening. Bye now!
The man was alone in the bench now, with a stone monkey wearing a yellow stone cap holding out a bin beside him. Right beside the massive chicken chain. It’s an environment-friendly franchise. There were many stone monkeys along the pavement. Grinning in their yellow caps and brown bins. After a while the man peered into the bin beside him to see its inside. Largely empty.Mostly scattered paper plates along the pavement. He looked back and stared at the café behind him. A lovely glass window with painted shades.
Inside it were young boys and girls sipping together and looking happy. Somewhere somehow some colours were beginning to eat up the others.
A lot can happen over coffee.
Suddenly there was a commotion in the middle of the road. A big van was failing to re-start and was blocking the many cars behind it. The signal had turned green and the cars were beginning to honk. Many ‘motherfuckers’ in Bengali floated assiduously in the dusty evening air. Screeches, screams, swear-words, threats; all cooked up a cacophony that cut across the evening lights of Park Street. The group of students heading for the pub stood for a minute watching it before moving on with their unique words of sarcasm. The state was going to the dogs, they all agreed, shaking their goatees and coloured hairdos, before passing on the specially rolled fag they were smoking together, moving on with their guitar-strapped backs, bitching about their parents who fed them fat money not to think of the childhood they never had. Lying mothers who slept with rich men they called uncles. Fat fathers who went on too many office tours. Lively lies and lying lives. The ever-thickening traffic of known secrets they were paid to forget.
There were fruitful rewards though. Apples and Blackberries.
Brands and parties. Promise of the Star World afterlife when the time in India ends.
The camera saw them walking away . . . till they became one black hole.
Three policemen were making their way into the crowd that had gathered in the middle. The man at the bench sat staring at it all till his eyes fell on the balloon-man on the other side of the street, still standing before the music store, still silent, still unmoved, the yellow, red, blue and green balloons still floating gently in the breeze. He seemed to be looking at the man in the bench as well, cutting right across the crowd that had gathered before the van that refused to start. The three beggar-children who had stood before the vampire were in the middle of the street too, just standing together without begging. The five pairs of eyes seemed to meet across a straight line, for a moment, maybe two, till they seemed to nod together.
The vampires in the posters were grinning away. The music shop was beginning to play Kurt Cobain’s Pain . . . in a silver disc . . . the balloon man suddenly seemed very tall through the lens.
The first explosion burst into the sound that was already drooling along the street. It broke the massive window of the music store immediately, smashing the glass pieces across the pavement where the men lost a beat or two in their hearts. The second explosion struck right before the screams began to set in and the stampede started. It ripped three light posts off the side of the street right away and smashed the roofs of the many cars parked along the pavement. The cries that started at that point were too scared to turn to a roar. Instead it all turned into a series of scattered screams that did not know any word to dig into. Men, women and young college kids were running along like water puddles in rain, three steps on the right . . . two on the left. Jerky movements across the shrieks.
Nobody knew where to go, where to run into. The right and the left both seemed equally eerie and slippery. Suddenly the lights seemed to be out as well. Suddenly the strangers across the streets were tied together in the same scream, trapped between the walls on either side with countless vampires floating with their grinning faces. They looked like choreographed acts of violence, in the camera held somewhere above that had been taking everything in.
The lens that had rolled out and throbbed. Between the sweaty palms. The blood looked white from above.
The third explosion was the strongest for it smashed the glasses of all the cars around it. Everything around shook like cardboard boxes rattling away in rain. It was raining dust, glass, limbs and bricks. The billboards of change had blown away, the faces that had promised torn down, as the stars slung low over Park Street.
Amidst the cries, cars and fireballs, three balloons had somehow managed to fly up. Red, green and blue. They went softly in high air, flying away from any man or string, above the vampires that floated too. For a while they looked like the face of freedom, looking down upon all that was dying beneath. The bench had been blown away, the stone monkeys smashed to smithereens, an enormous amount of non-recyclable plastic strewn all across the pavements on either side.
The police jeeps and media vans were screeching in with their walkie-talkies and satellite discs. The 8pm bulletin was breaking in. This will be massive news and the channels must bite it in before it’s too stale.
The bloody vampires were floating over the toxic plastic and the smashed stone monkeys. The big billboards had been brought down. The promises littered the pavements. Some beggar-children were dancing in the dust rain, rubbing their faces in the powdery dust. The silver disc had long stopped playing Kurt Cobain’s Pain.
The three balloons were still floating up. The red, green and blue still looked free.
The camera had been rolled in. The vampires laughed with the monkeys.
Avishek Parui, poet and writer, is completing doctoral studies at the Department of English, The University of Durham.