Fiction: Phantasma

Deepak Sharma

Author: Deepak Sharma

Translation from Hindi by Madhu B Joshi

'My Eyes Make Pictures When They Are Shut.' Said Coleridge.

Of what period would those pictures have been?

Of the past?

Or of the ongoing present?

Or of the future still in the making?

Or were they just phantasma? With no basis in reality? Having no existence? Only invoked by the imagination?

Or were they dreams thrown up by some unremembered incident imprinted in the mind?

According to yoga, there are five states of mind: kshipt, moodh, vikshipt, ekagr, and niruddh (hurtful, stupefied, crazed, intent, and blocked, respectively). I know not what stage my mind is at these days. What I do know is, in this eighty seventh year of my existence, life is dragging its feet with me...

I know it will also place the period mark when it is time to...

It will punctuate my sip, my puff, my morsel, my breath, and carry me to that valley of no memory where time is not accounted for … where the points on a line can roam back and forth, in fact they do roam ...

'The parapet had not been here then...'

Was it the wind whistling? Or was it the swish of jai's silk gharara?

Seventy-five years later, after trying to solve it millions of times, this riddle has kept the answer from me ...

It sits tortuously coiled in my mind ...

"Gokulnath," on that afternoon of 1928 my father called out from the courtyard of the third floor; a five by five square feet grid of steel rods in the middle of the ceiling allows us to talk to others even though we are on different floors….

"Yes Babuji," nowadays, because of this smallpox infection I have, I am quartered here in this room built along the fourth-floor staircase. A window of the room opens two feet away from the grid in the terrace of this four-storey building. Conversation with a person in the third floor courtyard is clear and comfortable ....

"How are you today?"

"Alright."

"Have fever?"

"I wouldn't know. Vaidyaji checks my pulse in the afternoon and decides whether I have fever... "

Vaidyaji will not be able to come today. There is disturbance outside...a big procession on the road. "

Those with an interest in modern History of India would know that in November 1927 the Conservative British cabinet led by Stanley Baldwin commissioned a report on the working of the Indian Constitution established by the Government of India Act of 1919. Known as the Simon Commission, the seven member commission set up to give the report had four members from the Conservative Party, two from the Labor Party and one from the Liberal Party. It had two chairmen: Sir John Simon and Clement Attlee (who later served as the Prime Minister of Britain). The commission visited India to study the situation on the ground, but faced strong opposition from Indian political parties, including the Indian National Congress, on the grounds that it did not have a single Indian member. Wherever the commission went, it was welcomed with black flags and chants of- ' Simon, go back!'

That day the commission had come to our town, Kasbapur...

"As you say Babuji ..."

"No matter how much noise, how much of a hullaballoo, you are not to step near the parapet...the police might throw grenades, release teargas, even shoot to disperse the crowd…. ”

"Yes, Babuji ..."

"Vaidyaji has sent a dose of medicine for you. Khilavan is bringing it to you. Dissolve it in water and drink it up…"

Those days, food too was sent for me on the fourth floor through Khilavan. I had had to move out of my first floor room on account of my having contracted smallpox. My father was a wholesaler of fabrics. He had his shop in the front half of the ground floor and the warehouse in the back half. On the first floor were the drawing room, the temple, my grandfather's room and mine. The kitchen and guest rooms had been on the second floor. The third floor was occupied by my step-mother and her five daughters. Fearing contagion, she had evicted me from my room. I was fed under the supervision of Khilavan. Initially I had insisted he just place the food in the room and go. But Khilavan shook his head, "Those are not my orders. Bahuji says I have to stand near you while you eat." Of course, it did not matter to him how much I ate or didn't eat at all. Soon as I pushed my plate towards him, he would take it and go.

Just as I was going to lie on the bed after taking my medicine an uproar rose from the road below...

Ignoring my father’s instructions I rush to the parapet…

'Go Back! Simon, go back,' slogans rent the air...

Then a cloudburst comes roaring... swirling madly around me…

Making water accumulate beyond my eyes ...

The eleven day old, tender pox blisters drip with piercing pain.

The blisters on my face are flowing like my eyes ...

I sit behind the carved stone set into the parapet...

'Go back, Go back ...'

A blue scarf with tiny silver dots begins to flutter in front of my eyes….

Lightning flashes on the roof...

It comes to me ...

'Go back, Go back ...'

This parapet had not been around then...

Startled, I blink my eyes ...

Seven years ago, when my father had married for the second time, my stepmother's moneylender father had placed just one condition to the match-first get a four feet high parapet on the roof of your house.

'Go back...Go back,' is this an echo from the crowd below?

Whose are the steps thumping up the stairs?

'If you could not handle the girl, why did you have to take her along?' My father is yelling...

Is this the same shouting I heard seven years ago? That afternoon when my jai fell off the roof which had no parapet...

It had been a festival day at the temple and we had gone to worship the Goddess. I, jai and my sister were quickly engulfed by a rush of devotees. Jai tightly held our hands, but someone wrested my sister’s hand free from jai’s hold...Jai and I went around peeping into vestibules, through open doors, avoiding several bowing heads and beseeching hands, colliding with shoulders and knees...but we could not find my sister...

I try to grab jai’s dupatta ….

But I have been slammed to the ground...

Jai's fluttering dupatta and garara have diffused in the distance...

"Jai ... Jai ... Jai,"

I'm screaming...

With my leaking blisters ...

With my dripping eyes...

Sound of steps thumping up the stairs….

"Khilavan," my father hisses, "carry bhaiyaji to his room here. At once."

"Why did you throw jai from the roof, Babuji?" I whimper...

"Bandage the boy's mouth, Khilavan," father orders. "The fever is acting up..."

"This is the effect of Mother Shitala’s (the goddess of all poxes) touch Lalaji," Khilavan is Vaidyaji’s nephew and like him, does not mince words around my father, "That is what is pushing Bhaiyaji towards violent thoughts and mischief."

“Take my advice Lalaji, make an offering at the Shitala temple…”

"You get your uncle here first. Let him try… ”

I never asked my father again.

I have been asking myself. From time to time.

On that afternoon in nineteen twenty-eight, was it my jai on the roof? Come to reveal the secret of her death?

Or had the enigma that my terror had pushed behind some layer of my mind seven years ago suddenly stood facing me that afternoon?

The way it happens in the movies?

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