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Stories from the fractured times of a writer who never returned

Chinki Sinha
Chinki SinhaJul 06, 2017 | 19:26

Stories from the fractured times of a writer who never returned

'Your place was at my side,

and you were proud of this.

But, sitting with your arm on the steering wheel

you said, “I can’t go on. I must stay here, alone.”

If you remain in this provincial village you’ll fall into a trap.

We all do. I don’t know how or when but you will.

The years that comprise a life vanish in an instant.'

— Pier Paolo Pasolini: Eight poems for Ninetto 

I have come to look for black roses in a distant town. In this provincial town where he has returned to the crumbling edifice of memories, an 18th century mansion with many empty rooms, he tells me that he must stay here. That’s his destiny, he says. Is it the point of closure? When do we decide to return home?

At 11 in the night, the streets are empty. Almost. There is a blue cinema theatre here. 

I study his face as he drives the car. His father had said his features were too beautiful, almost perfect. He is a near-poet. So far, we have spoken in a language that perhaps makes no sense in the daytime.

author_070617070309.jpgSwadesh Deepak (Credit: Soumitra Mohan)

I have read his story about his father, the noted writer Swadesh Deepak. In 2006, the writer, who struggled with bipolar disorder, went for a walk and never returned. Years later, his son wrote a merciless account of the loss of a loved one to a mental disorder. Called Papa, Elsewhere in A Book Of Light by Jerry Pinto, the story begins with an unsentimental gaze where he says they almost celebrated the fact that he had gone away. 

I have come to open the rooms, trunks, etc. I call it a chance encounter. But Sukant Deepak says he knew I would come. 

'He would plead, 'Hit me on the head with a rod. I know you keep one under your bed. I know you can do it'. Each time, I would tell him to get lost. I would treat him like the dog we never had.'

The last sentence hit me. I am no stranger to mental illness. But I can’t look back with such courage. I am interested in his story. He told me he plants roses. His father, when he had come back from the psychiatric ward, had looked at the garden and said at least they could have watered the roses. Does he grow these roses in his memory? Why am I here?

I don’t refuse invitations. This story belongs to him. I have only read some of his father’s work. But in those pages in the last anthology of stories in a book called Bagugoshey, he had already made the confessions. Fiction is us. I have come to write in an unstructured manner about an encounter with a writer and his son. I remember the sentences from the pages in no particular order. Like these.

“Whether a man lives on the moon or on earth, he will get hardships and pain.”

“Kaka is there, something which still has a grip over you. Say something, speak something.” 'How should I tell of something which is invisible! Which is always with me and cannot be seen? How should I tell? There is no language of dire misfortune. I have each and every distinctive mark. A small, fair ear which has a black mole on the backside. I don’t even know the name of that femme fatale.'

'...I am in the habit of observing pain from an ambush.'

The one that makes me smile is the one where he writes he is in the habit of observing pain from an ambush. That’s me, too. I want to know more. Perhaps that’s the only reason. 

***

We drive through deserted streets. In Ambala Cantonment area, there are Army men in their military fatigues and guns. We drink milky tea and we pack some food. Some nights, we both know, can stretch into eternity. On the Mall Road, there are beautiful bungalows and in the middle, there’s an old wall with a sign. He turns into it. We drive in silence. At the end of it, there’s a little turn again. And then, an oasis emerges amidst the ruins. He once told me he wanted to go see the ruins in Hampi. He said he might be quiet over there, but he must make the journey. 

From outside the iron gate, which isn’t locked, I see him enter the house. I remember a line from TS Eliot’s The Four Quartets, The Dry Salvages

“The future is a faded song, a Royal rose…”

There is great density in this house. This is his hiding place. This separates him from cities and people. 

This is a place where he has suffered from solitude and where he has come to make amends with the dead and the departed. Is time unredeemable? The house reminds me of a house from my childhood. Madness, loneliness, wooden beams, cracks on the walls, peeling paint, old furniture and then a peculiar smell as if the present was wrestling with the past. A faded lingering smell. I fill my lungs with it. 

room_070617060051.jpgThe yellow lights cast strange shadows in the room that he occupies. The rest belong to the merciful cover of darkness.

Many rooms are lost and gone, but the fact remains that once the father had lived there. Too many empty rooms, I repeat. I am delirious. There are rooms where the ceilings have collapsed. The little road leads up to a part that he has painted in white and blue. Roses bloom. But even here, the other rooms remain suspended in darkness. The yellow lights cast strange shadows in the room that he occupies. The rest belong to the merciful cover of darkness.

Only in the morning, you see the cracks in the walls. Daylight is unsparing. In its recklessness, it reveals the crevices, the peeling paint, the dampness. The house weeps, he says.

But they have a pact. After his mother's death and his father's disappearance, the house had come to him in its full glory. Why does he live here? No, he isn't waiting for his father. 

He suffers with insomnia. In the night, he returns to the rooms. But I am only telling the story from my point of view. I am yet to enter rooms that are sacrosanct. He says the dead live in these rooms. 

In the rose garden of the martyrs is the title of a book I once read about Iran, the eternal place of mourning. I sit in a blue room, his father’s. From here, I can see the garden. It is dark.

Hafez, the poet, wrote on roses, the thorns and the blooms...

Golab, they say, is for washing the graves.

rose_070617060211.jpgGolab, they say, is for washing the graves.

'Is it our destiny to turn into light itself?' Hafez asked. 

In my childhood, I put ink in the soil to turn roses blue. That was my secret. As per mythology, Marilena who Hades loved and she had loved him in return had worn a black gown as her love grew darker because a mortal had said they didn’t need her and had burned down her temple.

In her fury, she had said that she had been taken advantage of far too long. The crimson roses that had dominated her could turn black. But then, in the end the villages the goddess had watched over came to be known as a 'Land of Roses'. She had returned to wearing her crimson skirt after Hades presented her with a red rose and asked her to stop her tyranny. The black roses wilted and the petals turned a pastel pink and then to deep crimson.

Isn’t every story about love? His father had angered a woman. He called her Maya. She wore the shakha pola, the white and red bangles made of conch shell and red corals as Bengali women do.

In 1991 he had written a Hindi play called Court Martial and it was during the play’s first show in Calcutta that he met a woman whom he called “Mayavani”. He had said she shouldn’t be hated.

Mayavani: the seductress of illusion, Sukant says.

The father said he suffered because he had not been able to reciprocate her love. To the son, he said he should never refuse the love of a woman. 

***

I begin by opening a trunk. Rusted and sacrosanct in what it contains, it feels like an intrusion at first and in the dark storeroom where a lone bulb cast shadows on old whitewashed walls, I look at him. His eyelashes are long. I again remember what your father had said about him. 

In the old trunks that have dust from 10,000 years ago, there is an incomplete story. It is called Samay Khand (We can amplify time/distance. Seconds can be light years).

A story in ink. 

box_070617060542.jpgIn the old trunks that have dust from 10,000 years ago, there is an incomplete story.

I put it back.

An intruder must observe manners. I look around. On the white walls outside, lizards are preying on insects. The cycle of life. It is night.

We discuss if it could be translated as 'fractured time' or 'fragment of time'. Can anything be translated in its full scope? But I don't know these answers. In between the literal and the metaphorical, a lot of history lies. He says 'fractured' is more apt. I nod. I can't counter his inheritance. 

Fragment is almost a delicate word. His father, who was a writer in a very Manto-esque way and used language in its raw form to tell stories that make us uncomfortable, wouldn't have wanted a delicate world to hold a story. The son knows. He still keeps the iron rod under the bed. He tells me he isn’t waiting for his father. Can we assume the missing as dead? 

Yes, because without lithium, he would be miserable, he says. 

He hasn’t opened the trunks in a long while. He is happy with his “20-year-old mistresses' - an Enfield and a Yamaha. 

***

“I have heard voices say:

“He is conscious of his life”.”

— David Cooper

Of all the flowers and a man had once promised me white lilies in yet another place of mourning, a city of snow and Chinar leaves, the promise of black roses is what brings me to a house with broken walls and a mutilated past. 

This is how the story begins. 

Nights have bled into the soil it seems. 

Is it all a conspiracy?

Is it a seduction of an illusion? He would later tell me the story of Mayavani, whose black mole behind an ear lobe is eternalised in a story the writer, his father, wrote as part of an anthology of stories. Is Maya still around? Yes, maybe, he says. Swadesh Deepak was under medication for depression since 1990s and even documented those years which was published in Kathadesh, and later as a book named, Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha

book-cover_070617062951.jpgIn the last anthology of stories in a book called Babugoshe, he had already made the confessions.

'Maybe you should go to Mandu with her?' I suggest.

The son has never hated Maya. The father had refused to go to Mandu, a lover's spot in Madhya Pradesh, with her. Mandu, a ruined city, still echoes with the love story of the poet-prince Baz Bahadur for Rani Roopmati with the songs of the balladeers of Malwa. 

Perhaps that refusal is what made him go away and never return. He had asked the doctor that Maya should never be hated. Is Maya a real person? Yes, the son tells me. In his characteristic unsentimental way and then, he says he had once thought of meeting her. But he was unsure about how she would feel. Besides, nobody knows who she was or where she lives. 

'I am not my father,' the son says. 

Is it the ink with which stories are written — merciless tales of damnation — that give the night flowers their colour?

And maybe you can even spot a white unicorn kissing the blue roses on a night when stars have given up on shining because the night has finally bled into the earth so that the flowers of damnation — black roses of Marilena bloom in the rose garden of the martyrs, I write to him, the one who waits and invites destruction as he waters the soil with his imagination and waits for the night and the murderer. 

Nirupama Dutt, a friend, an admirer of Swadesh Deepak, and a writer, writes in her Author Lost and Found in His Last Stories that in Bagugoshey, the book with eight stories, she can almost taste the juice of the pears. 

“The writer calls himself a citizen of the ‘Dead-Letter Office or the prisoner of a dark room in which no negative can turn positive... One saves oneself by suicide: It is an act of self-defence’,” Dutt writes.

verandah_070617070502.jpgHe is happy with his '20-year-old mistresses' — an Enfield and a Yamaha.

Madness is in all of us. My uncle, a brilliant doctor suffered with schizophrenia and eventually died/killed himself in his 40s. 

For many years, I have tried to understand madness.

The son keeps anxiety pills in his wallet. I have one sleeping pill for “just in case” situations. We both have never taken these, but you know it is a calming thought that it is there, just in case. 

In his The Language of Madness, David Cooper says the madness he is writing about is “more or less present in each one of us and not only the madness that gets the 'psychiatric baptism' by diagnosis of 'schizophrenia' or some other label invented by the specialised psycho-police agents of final phase capitalist society'.

Cooper says that 'language of madness' means the way that this universal madness is expressed not only in uttered, audible words, but in a type of action, running across experience, that is 'mad discourse'. 

Haven’t we all heard voices in our heads? 

And Cooper says, “The prevalent romanticisation of madness has no future. The politicisation of madness is indispensable if we would create a future.'

All madmen are political dissidents and that’s evident in Swadesh Deepak’s stories like Hunger

And “that of which one cannot speak, one should be silent” and therefore the “unsayable and unspeakable” must be expressed in mad and poetic discourse. 

We have both seen madness at close quarters. We know it is painful. We know the guilt of not understanding. It is all fine. 

***

They say you must surrender like Dante did — all his doubts before he entered the gates of hell.

'I am the way into the city of woe.

I am the way to a forsaken people.

I am the way into eternal sorrow.

Sacred justice moved my architect.

I was raised here by divine omnipotence,

Primordial love and ultimate intellect.

Only those elements time cannot wear

Were made before me, and beyond time I stand.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...

This is the place I told you to expect.

Here you shall pass among the fallen people.'

But I have gathered my soul against all cowardice before I entered this house where he says he has a pact with the house itself. It weeps sometimes, he says. 

As I step into a time warp, a black hole with no time zones, I take notes. I never knew the father. I had read a few stories. 

I have brought a rose petal from the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya for him. He had once thought of writing to me 'take me to the dargah”.

An amulet, a charm or a talisman to protect the son from the gaze of empty rooms. Is that what is - the fragile rose petal?The crude walls, the windows that open into other rooms, an old black fireplace, a blue room, a yellow room and books of all colours.

A lizard navigates the distances between rooms. On the beams I see a dead lizard hanging. He says it is a wire. We decide to wait until morning. Yellow lights are tricky. We both believe in magic.

A delicate house where walls shed skin to make dust permanent, you say. Is anything permanent? He says we are tragic people with butcher's hands and gentle souls.

I haven't seen the black roses yet. He says they grow in winters. Is that another invitation?

How do we make sense of people?

Can we?

An empty notebook lies on the mantle. I ask if I can see it. You nod. But we both know the power of silence. The empty pages are silent.

Some stories are written in invisible ink.

The incense that burns, the Chiragh that dispels some of the darkness, the house that goes on, the writer that waits...

Everything holds dust here. In defiance of the onslaught of the past.

On the bedside, there is a portrait of Agha Shahid Ali. He is smiling.

image_070717125636.jpgA portrait of Agha Shahid Ali.

'Mad heart, be brave.'

I remember his lines. Can a poet be a prophet?

***

I tell him to keep the lights on in the outside room during the nights. It is never good to offer oneself to darkness willingly. I am always looking for signs. At the house, he shows me a book by Pasolini. It is an old one. It is when the poet and filmmaker had come to India with Moravia. He says he wanted to send it to me.

I take the book and in the semi-darkness, open a random page. Page 19. I read the last line. I put faith in the sign. The rest of it will be dictated by that single line.

'Something has already begun.'

The black and white portrait of Agha Shahid Ali is what cuts the yellow diffused light in the room.Pasolini and Shahid. The signs.

'Again, the festival of blossoms: first, the almonds, those ancestors of paisleys. And then? Hold your breath for the naricissi, the magnolias, the roses, the gladioli…,' Agha Shahid Ali once wrote.

Last updated: July 07, 2017 | 12:57
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