Devashish Makhija is an extremely prolific writer with working ranging from Black Friday, Bunty aur Babli, hoomi, Doga, Occupying Silence, been featured in the short story anthologies ‘Mumbai Noir’, ‘Penguin First Proof 7’, ‘Eid stories’ and ‘Being boys’ and recently directed the full length feature film ‘Oonga’. This particular piece has been taken from a Harper-Collins collection of short stories. The rest of him, they say, is currently under construction.
Jyoti got herself a gas connection today. Three men invaded her home wearing blue overalls with identical large yellow letters embroidered on their chests that made their names immaterial. They couldn’t get the regulator to fit properly. Jyoti can’t sleep now. She smells gas with every fourth breath and her heart freezes in fear. She imagines the smell though. The same way she imagines the person she wants but cannot touch each night, and chokes a small breath with the fantasy. That, by the way, doesn’t help in her battle for sleep either.
Abhijit can make calls but no one can call him. He says it’s strange but he has lost the incoming facility. Not possible, I said to him, and secretly envied him for being able to access the world on his own terms. I remember Abhijit as a doped out shadow in the jagged darkness of the McCann Erickson office, using Photoshop to marry his photograph with that of the girl he had loved for six years. He had a folder full of such pictures that she had never seen. He discovered how to ‘hide’ a folder on the iMac and used to keep this folder hidden. So well hidden that once he couldn’t find it himself. Last month, I heard he married her. It might have been good but I still don’t know if she married him back. I don’t get definite answers from him because his ‘incoming’ is on the blink.
Once, during the year that he had slipped out from under advertising’s plastic door, he had called me from a six-digit rural phone number, and told me of the fitful sleep that visited him on the farm. He had taken up animal husbandry. Somewhere in between the goat fodder and cow dung, he used to sit under an explosion of stars and scribble Bengali verse. The words smelt of fresh earth. In the snatches of breath between the lines I could hear the corn turn their ears as if to hear him more clearly.
A village girl taught him folk songs. He called her ‘Kuhu’, the sound a koyal makes, he explained, and whistled like one. At night they’d cycle into the tall grass fields. He’d put the cycle up on its stand and pedal furiously to keep the small headlight lit on the dynamo attached to the rear wheel. In the slim shaft of yellow light, she’d dance like a tree spirit to the rhythmic clinking of the cycle chain. In a little while, said Abhijit, the distant crickets and owls would pick up her beat and the shadows of the paddy fields would sway with her. On those nights, his legs never got tired of cycling. His incoming was defunct even then, but he didn’t know it.
Soon, his animals died. The floods hit Midnapore with an unforeseen fury that year. Abhijit climbed back into that worn out chair in front of the ‘raspberry’ iMac, and opened that hidden folder of married pictures. He started to imagine that life he used to imagine before. He’d have a flat near the bypass. The girl he had loved before would probably agree to live with him. At some point they’d find their secret recipe and sign up for a gas connection.
Jyoti takes lots of pictures. They’re for her blog, she says, but they could be because she’s afraid of forgetting. She photographs her friends, the statues she likes, pretty chairs, the stray migratory heron, even the goat tethered outside the old furniture shop in Jogeshwari. She clicks them with a masked desperation; so she has proof in case they turn their backs on her someday. She’ll know for sure that they were hers for at least those few moments she spent framing them.
Jyoti is new to Bombay. Her marriage is now buried under a pile of raddi, like a forgotten headline. Her second surname drags in the dust behind her, still attached to her by a single frail thread. She takes sharp turns sometimes, hoping the thread will snag on something and snap. The city she left is now a closet of memories. The closet is locked, the memories debris, the dust settled.
But she has photographs.
She watches a housefly now in her strange new house and wonders if it can teach her to take wing too. And then she wonders if she’s losing her mind. The failed gas connection, the fungus on the damp walls, a defective curtain rod, a bed she got overcharged for, the dying plant outside her window, the irregularity in the Goregaon water supply, her rebelling stomach and the realization that she’s alone in the knowledge of all of this makes her want to cry. There’s solace to be had in tears, I want to tell her, but I know those are mere words, and words cannot hold a hand or run lightly along a bare shoulder leaving a trail of goose-bumps.
But then neither can a photograph.
In Calcutta, Abhijit sits before his phone, hoping to be remembered by somebody, anybody. There are voices at the windows and the door but they aren’t voices Abhijit recognizes. He wants to hear one that will make him cry. But he can’t. He has no ‘incoming’.