Wednesday, 12 October 2011

If you swallow the seeds, a tree will grow in your belly.

The boy's parents, like all Bangali parents, had repeatedly warned him about this. It is a common fable told to children who are old enough to start eating on their own, but not old enough to understand the complexities of the digestive process. Bangali parents have a stock of such stories to explain physiological change. Thus, mice steal away babies' milk teeth when they aren't looking, and swallowing fruit seeds will make a tree grow inside you.

The boy looked thoughtfully at the orange segment. He sucked thoughtfully at the soft, sweetsour pulp. His tongue located the bed of seeds secreted in the flesh, and he swallowed them, deliberately, one by one, chasing them down with a gulp of water. He was nearly five years old, and quite a curious boy.

It became a habit almost without his knowing it. Biting into a cool chunk of watermelon on a hot day, he forgot to spit out some of the smooth black seeds. He learnt how to tear open the skin of a taut pomegranate with his teeth and swallow each of the ruby grains whole. He reduced green apples to slender cores supporting nothing but the stalk and a few slivers of peel. He consumed indiscriminately the pips of summer grapes, strawberries, kaalo jaam, and caused his mother an anxious hour after innocently swallowing a couple of cherry stones and refusing to display any adverse symptoms. Often the maid would find him in the tyre swing with the season's first mango, sucking the last dribble of sweetness from the seed with a doggedness almost unbecoming in a child of his age.

The trees grew as promised. In the depths of moist bowels, seedlings took root. As the boy slept, moonlight coaxed up young shoots from the dark, mysterious places between muscle and bone. Paper-thin tendrils clung to arteries like vines. A wilderness flourished in the hollows of stomach, liver and spleen, covering their nakedness with moss. A garden grew, sheltered from the sun, in the fresh swampy wetness of the human core. Air, water and the pale light of the moon which always shone brought forth tender bark on stems and dark, glossy leaves. In a dream that he could not remember later, the boy clearly saw the blossoming of the first fruit on the first tree. A green-gold, perfect orange.

The boy was a strange boy, given to mellow silences and long aimless wanderings. He persisted in remaining as thin as a young sapling despite the 'nutritious' diets his grandmother tried to enforce. He grew a little taller every year until he was sixteen, reluctantly surpassing almost every boy in his class. His favourite time of the year was the last leg of the monsoons. During this month he would go out walking every day and never carry an umbrella. The family grew used to it after a while, if never fully satisfied. He had clear earthbrown skin, and a smile like sudden summer. At certain times, a branching network of veins formed ridges on both his forearms, like a tree growing from elbow to fingertips. The first girl he ever kissed confided to her girlfriends that his breath smelled of fresh apples.

He was seventeen. A pulse in his forehead was pounding in time to the heavy music. The only light in the room came from the dimly glowing cigarette butts overflowing the ashtray. It was a new moon night. On the dark terrace someone was whooping with laughter; he heard the sounds of glass breaking and slurred cursing. Tightly entwined couples had claimed most available sofa surfaces. His date was looking at him with narrowed eyes, one leg crossed over the other, arms folded.

Sour liquid churned in his belly. He tried to hold it back but it was rushing up his windpipe, forcing itself out between his lips and spattering on his lap, on the floor. Someone was shouting again. His head hurt. The song on the stereo changed, although he couldn't be certain. A door was slamming, he was being pulled to his feet. Then cold water was being flushed through his mouth, rinsing like a flood. His stomach felt empty. He coughed into the porcelain bowl, gasped and coughed without stopping. With the torrent of sick came ancient groves that had been splintered into matchsticks, and a mash of rotten fruit. The boy looked at the unfamiliar face weaving at him from the bathroom mirror and, like Adam before him, wished he could cover its nakedness.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Friendship Day

The first week of August was always a busy one for thirteen-year-old schoolgirls. Each brought her own supply of coloured wool and thread, and through tiffin break, through math class, through the few lax minutes before the Bangla teacher showed up, she would work. The desk lid or a cooperative friend holding one end of three strings, she braids the other in a neverceasing pattern, with the practiced air of a woman who entertains while she knits. Imagine a whole class doing this. Forty-two young people. Now imagine, a week later (a rainy Monday in early August, srabon, coinciding with or just after the deathday of the Kobiguru) all forty-two of those girls proudly sporting on both arms, from elbow to wrist, the fruits of their collective labour.

Friendship Day, we called it. And friendship bands were what we made. I don't know who or what started the tradition, but it is something all of us have fallen in line with, if only for a year. I remember my year. It was Class 6 or earlier because Moni was still visiting us and we hadn't moved to the new house. Our art projects were always innovative, and one day Moni suggested we make friendship bands. She bought boxes of anchor thread and showed me how to combine two colours, double the length of thread, put one loop over your extended big toe, and begin to twist. You twisted till the whole length of thread looked like a tightly wound spring, then you doubled it again, at which it would coil into itself and look like what is called 'gold braid' on uniforms, though it wasn't braid at all. I was pleased, both with the process, and with the pile of very unique looking friendship bands I soon had. I liked them so much I didn't really want to give them away. It was maybe the first time I'd done that sort of thing.

In school, it was simple quid pro quo. Anybody you gave a friendship band to would give you one; anybody who gave you one you would have to give one to, no matter how strange or not-a-friend that girl was. Who knows what motivated girls to give away what they had made to other girls whom they didn't even much care about. But you had to, you were bound to, respect that arbitrary choice. So some of my beautiful bands ended up with people I didn't want to give them to, and I worried privately about whether they would really appreciate the craftsmanship. The genius of the whole system, though, was that at the end of the day, you would end up with exactly the same number of friendship bands as you'd initially made, from a wide spectrum of classmates-friends-acquaintances. They'd be knotted hastily around your wrist, your forearm, sometimes around fingers, and some girls had the remarkable ability to remember which came from whom. Purple-and-black from so-and-so, red-and-green-Chrismassy from the-other, lemon-yellow-sky-blue-white from what's-her-name. At home, the knots would be hard to unravel, and sometimes you'd have to get a pair of scissors and cut through the most obstinate ones. I regretted having to do that. I'd put the jumble of brilliant silk, wool, thread on my bed and patiently work through them, tying them into long chains that would either decorate my bag zippers until they became filthy and grey, or the desk in my room, hung like technicolour cobwebs from corner to corner.

We were too young to know about the commercialisation of friendship. No one in their right mind bought Hallmark cards. One or two of the maroos would inevitably give out store-bought rakhi-hybrid bands made of silk and sparkly beads, but we would look on these specimens with gracious pity and give them one of ours in return anyway. The thought behind the tradition wasn't very profound either. As I've said, we gave away friendship bands to girls we didn't really know, or like, to weird girls who had once maybe shared a bite of tiffin with you, or sat behind you in Third Language Hindi. It was just something you did. We didn't overrate the abstraction of friendship, or try to understand its complexities. Instead, we admired each others' forearms in Assembly behind the backs of the Prefects. Peacock would be a wet blanket about the no-accessories-that-aren't-a-part-of-school-uniform rule, but most of the teachers turned a blind eye. Because, it was just so pretty. The messy riot of colours on our arms were a subtle, brilliant rebellion against the stark white nurse uniforms. And no teacher, except perhaps T. Basu and those of her ilk, would seriously ask you to remove yours. There was usually a telltale row of coloured bands decorating their arms between wristwatch and blouse sleeve too. A conspiracy it was. A day of bending the rules for the sake of something pretty and useless. Friendship was a bright, thoughtless thing.

Friendship Day is something we are supposed to have grown out of. Now that we know about Hallmark and Archies and the big bad capitalist machine. And to an extent, we have. It is because I am more aware of how loaded the word 'friendship' is that I feel awkward when people send me the inevitable Happy-Friendship-Day texts and tag me in pictures of heart-bearing animals on Facebook. They haven't outgrown school, we think, and shake our heads. But the truth is, they have. And I have. Outgrown. We were, all of us, sitting around the table in the Wendy House once, friends and acquaintances and the weird girls from Hindi class alike, and someone must have slipped us a piece of Alice's cake because we sprouted up like beanstalks, smashing the roof and walls like towering infernos. Today we are gigantically awkward and stupid things, and the ones who remember Friendship Day are the ones with their feet still among the wreckage of the tea party. The rest of us loom outside, wondering how we'd ever been little enough to fit in there to begin with. A little sad, a little glad. A little wiser, but maybe in a way that wasn't necessary at all.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Power of Flight

"Remember, my son, to take the middle path. Do not go too high for the sun will scorch you. Venture too low and the surf will drench you. Remember that we are mortal men, and man was not made to fly. Do not tempt the gods. They kill us for their sport."

Father and son stood in the square stone cell and the old man's hands hovered once again over the complex apparatus strapped to the boy's back. He was frowning. The boy wondered why, but he knew better than to ask. Abruptly, the old man turned away, climbed on to the narrow casement and, hesitating a moment before that patch of infinite blue, threw himself forward and disappeared. The boy waited. Almost immediately, the familiar silhouette reappeared, the wings unfurled to catch a current. The man dipped in a low arc and began to fly west, away from the island. The boy had been prepared for this. He crouched on the ledge, looking down at rocks sharp enough to tear a man's flesh. He was falling, dreaming that he was falling, falling, and then-

He was dreaming. He was weightless, a bubble of air and light halfway between the sky and the sea. His eyes were gilded with light. He was not real. Where were his human hands, his human feet, his ungainly human bones? All he was conscious of were the muscles between his shoulder blades flexing instinctively, their dormant power bearing him along on the crest of the wind. The wings, larger than his body from tip to tip, were real, compellingly alive.

His wings. He remembered- the evenings spent at the work table, the bloodless feathers and wax. But, they were his wings. They had been growing there on his body down all the ages of man. I'm flying, the boy told himself. I'm flying, he announced to the sun and the impassive sea. I'm flying! he cried aloud, and there was no one to see or hear.

The gong of bells down below. A ship. Men scurried on the deck, straining in the galleys, hoisting sails, seagulls circling the main mast. Their shrieks and the splash of oars drifted up to the boy across the chasm of air and distance. It was a hot day. The men did not look up. They did not see the dark shape soaring against the white cloudbank, calling to them in vain. The boy was confused. These were men, men like him, and yet not like him. They struggled with their wooden tubs and sweated and cursed, while he flew and danced and dreamed in a world of silken blue sky and living air. He called, but no one heard him, except the youngest lad on board who was on duty in the crow's nest and looked up with a feeling he tried to explain to the other sailors but could not.

The boy flew on. The everchanging waves, tipped with foam, rolled below him. The sky was calm, with only mild gusts that kept him on a steady course. Patches of island appeared where they should; sea birds darted at fish and went about their business. The boy watched them squabbling for morsels, preening their feathers, hardly sparing him a glance. And he knew then that his father had been wrong. He was a mortal man, not a bird, and mortal men were meant to fly. He was not a beast of the air like the gull or the carrion fowl who flew to scramble after fish and worms. He was a man. He could feel. Joy and fear and wonder. The thrill of creating history. Man, more than any other creature, was born to fly because only He could understand the beauty of it. And he was living evidence of this hidden truth. But it could not, it must not stay hidden. The secret had to be shared. He knew that he had been chosen by history to make the start.

The boy did not know it, but his thoughts had not gone unnoticed. High on cold Olympus, the pantheon was in an uproar.

"We can't have this!" shouted Zeus, silencing the hubbub with a thump from his mighty hand. "Who is he? Where did he come from? And... how dare he? Why did no one stop him?"

"His name is Icarus," volunteered Hermes. "Son of Daedalus the artificer. Cretan, male, sixteen years of age. The Fates had predicted that father and son would make their escape from Minos' prison by flight. Artificial wings, wood, wax and feathers. Very elementary. But," he hesitated, "I confess, no one quite foresaw this."

"The humans are becoming impossible," broke in Apollo through the panicked outcry. "We allow them miracles once in a while and see what happens. His cheek! And all these fancies about the beauty and romance of flight. It doesn't mean a thing. The boy's mad."

"He's in love," said Aphrodite firmly, looking at her reflection in a crystal mirror. "He's in love with flying and he wants other men to love it too. How interesting. It's very romantic, really. Icarus," she mused, smiling, "Such a romantic name."

"It's unacceptable," Zeus glared at his daughter. "He's a mortal. We can't have the riffraff thinking above their station. Where does that leave us? The last thing we need is another uprising!" He shuddered inwardly, remembering the last skirmish with the Titans.

"Teach him a lesson, Father," said Apollo virtuously. "I've always maintained you need to be firm with this lot."

"Just a moment," demurred Hermes. "If I may be so bold, striking him down with lightning would be too... messy. Too obvious." Certain that all eyes were upon him, he continued. "Phoebus is right, the humans are forgetting themselves. We need to make them afraid again. Not of us. They won't fear us forever. They must fear themselves."

"What do you mean?" Zeus frowned.

"Father, killing Icarus would make him a martyr. He must not become a hero. He must be a fool. A warning. A moral for children's stories. The humans will fear him and never dare this again for several thousand years."

"So you would have him live?" sneered Apollo.

"Oh no," said Hermes softly. "I will need your assistance, Phoebus. It will require a subtle touch, but don't worry. In the end, he will die."

As he passed the islands of Samos and Delos, Icarus was unaware that an invisible companion had joined him. Hermes, silent and swift on winged feet, conjured a powerful wind. The boy felt a sudden pressure on his wings, bearing him higher and higher off his course. He tried to rein himself in, but his slight arms and shoulders were tiring. A puff from a giant's mouth pushed him upwards, harder, relentlessly. The wind became a gale, breaking the frail wooden rigging of his wings, ripping out feathers. He was being beaten and buffeted like a drift of eiderdown, all the while being carried inexorably higher. His skin glowed with drops of sweat. A burning pain down his back told him that the wax holding his wings together was melting. The boy looked up, only to be blinded. Phoebus Apollo had rent apart the clouds and was shining down from his solar chariot in all his terrible glory. The air was hot, choking. Icarus felt faint. His wings continued to beat feebly but they were coming apart, now smaller than his torso. His head was light. He was dreaming again, and all he could see was the sun, as malevolent as the eye of some vengeful god, boring into his own.

No one saw him fall, arms upraised in a last futile gesture. Fishes found his smooth white body and picked the bones clean. The mass of rotting wood and feathers drifted for days in the slow green shallows that today bear his name. An old man waited on an alien shore, searching with anguished eyes. The gods ruled on Olympus. Ships sailed, cattle grazed, birds flew. Man laboured on the earth, unknowing, unseeing. And another story was born. This was not it.