He stood at the entrance of the train watching the representative and his friend disappear behind the crowd and then turned away with a sigh. For him it marked the return to his loneliness, or rather, to himself after a brief spell of hectic activity, which helped him to suppress the emptiness at least for sometime. Now it returned to him again, with a heaviness and an inward pull in the stomach, accompanied by the thought that it might be a mistake, after all, to set out at the present state of affairs. He recalled his father's objections. He recalled the foreboding of the moment. He recalled the alien faces occupying the numerous little houses in the premises of his house. (That was the price paid for his migration documents supposed to be resting in peace in some agent's files.) If the decision to go still prevailed, was it not because he wanted to escape from something, to shake himself off something he couldn't cope with? Perhaps, he was then under the spell of distant swish of sand dunes and riotous yell of the waves- determined in an uncertain way.
When the whistle blew in the distance he still couldn't suppress or answer the question, 'why I am here?' that sprouted its forked tongue menacingly. There was the tumultuous station, the people at the edge of the platform bowing as if attracted by some mysterious magnetism, the porters shouting and rushing alone and with lumbering luggage trolleys in the weak glow of the dust-browned incandescent lamps and amidst them, the traveler, his mind probing in the star light of bedimmed ambitions and dreams. The train clattered over the rails drowning the human voices, at the same time raising the activity on the platform to its zenith. Blind masses of people cluttered against the doors. Beneath them the wheels rolled slowly. He had to shake off the small circle of lantern light and the shadows dancing around it to the rhythm of footsteps on the pebble covered country road. He had to spur himself to action in order to find his compartment that was some distance away as the train came to a halt.
Oddly enough, the compartment was almost empty like a returning goods wagon. Opposite him sat a man, somehow forsaken, with a vacant stare set at infinity. He seemed to be engaged to another environment, another rhythm. But the expression on his face didn't betray any association with anything at all. He simply happened to be there.
Shortly after the departure signal was given, the representative and his friend came running.' Others are in the next compartment', they shouted to him. The traveler responded with a start of surprise that was as much due to the sight of the representative (for somehow he didn't expect to see them again) as due to the sudden revelation that there were other compartments and people partaking the same trail of destiny like him.
By then the engine had jerked into motion, simultaneously kicking off an unprecedented activity in his brain. Suddenly pyres began to blaze up amidst a bush of smoke clouding the grave, tear swollen faces around- some were weeping, some trying hard to suppress a sob gushing out in overwhelming spurts. For others the sobs cracked up against the throat finding no voice at all. All the while the flames rattled, split and flared against the dome of night. He stared into the fire swarming over the fresh wood in dark grim lines like troops of ants.
'I am still living', he said to himself thinking of the life that flourished with him and ended up in the pale yellow smoke that rose up amidst the quivering flames.
He took out a woolen rug from his trunk and spread on the berth. For some moments he toyed with the idea of going through his papers contained in the trunk, but gave it up at once. He closed it, pushed it to one end and was going to lie down when his eyes fell on his neighbor glancing him in the unchanging, antique way of a stuffed collection in the moth eaten shelf of an abandoned laboratory. Soon he felt he too was bearing the same expression. The distortion of the moment hung on till he fell back into the womb like enclosure, into the clasp of his inmate to swim in the dense colloidal atmosphere.
One, two, three, four, five ' He began to count, trying to attract sleep. But what came was the sputtering of the flames; huge branches of mango tree-the same one at the backyard from which his twin brother hanged himself-thudding down and heaving themselves into the burning funeral pyre. Hundred and twenty three, twenty four, twenty five '
'I am coming. Don't hasten me so. You, in that chariot of night with wings extending to eternities, you enchant me, you enthrall my very being when you come in the broad moonlight of September. My heart pounds pit a pat'. Pages of his brother's diary skipped across his mind.' At last I am coming without fail ' 'Five thirty one, thirty two, thirty three ' There! The flames again! Leaping up and devouring dresses, photographs and books-Marx, Engels, Freud, Upanishads Nietzsche '
'Oh, don't father, please don't. At least let me keep those diaries'
'No, no, no. Let them all go. To hell with them'
'How could you, father, you who yearned to see his face once again as the flames licked up the sides of the pyre! And we blanketed the fire on one side so that you could see his face again once for all.'
As he woke up early in that night he thought his father was not in the bed.
'Yes, my boy. I am here. Do you think I too will go after him? Never!'
Eleven seventy four, seventy five, seventy six '
He could still feel his brother's breath against his face lying side by side on the eve of the disaster. Moonlight flooded in all its splendor investing the night with a heavenly throb. The hibiscus flowers were in full bloom. Their dark red had turned black like blood clot in the moonlight. Morning came with footsteps and screams. People began to pour in from all places. Only the hibiscus flowers were the same. They had regained their color in the day light...
He lost the count. For sometime he tried to trace the broken end in vain and started all over again ' one, two, three, four ' taking deep breathe to cool down the scorching thoughts.
It was then that the descend began. He was falling freely through the sky. He tried to clutch at the clouds. The fluffy stuff melted in his hands and he fell sprawling in the air. He spinned and slipped through the vast expanse, utterly breathless, his body caving in to the glassy bottom of a boundless sphere. After an interminable voyage he touched the bottom with an explosion of air rushing in. And he woke up.
He woke up to the deep rumbling of the wheels that aroused a feeling of rustic happiness. The moonlit earth seemed to be snow-clad. He felt light, released from the shell of existence. For a moment he didn't know where he was. Then suddenly the grim cavernous world from which he was running away surrounded him with evermore intensity and he curled up in pain in the sweat-wet rug. He got up and walked towards the toilet. The heavy door closed slowly behind him.
Feverish vibrations rocked his brain accompanied by the devil-dance of Octopussian shapes before him. He felt himself drawn into those shapes joining in their eerie unnerving rhythm. A huge cobweb had caught his entire face in it. He swept it off from his face and stood outside, sweating profusely and panting. When the excitement died down he opened the door and urinated in the moonlight coming through the window.
Back in his seat he could still see the antique look of the man opposite though now his eyes were hollowed by the moonlight.
Outside, day broke out over the whirling earth unraveling a pageantry of weird forms and figures and meaningless sounds fleeting past in a jumble of light and shade while the steady beat of the train tried in vain to infuse a sense of order into the medley rout. After many hours he found himself out of the cocoon of the compartment, pushing through another crowd in another station of his life.
He scurried through the entrails of the city with an endless train of events and memories trailing up behind him. He struggled with them, tried to break away from them. But they followed him inevitably.
It seemed to him that anybody could quit this world at any moment on his own. He tried to recapture in his mind the many faces in his life-close friends, relatives, neighbors, classmates, the man who came to sell lemons, the priest who dined with them on birthdays and many others scrutinizing them closely for any shades or blemishes. Soon he realized that it was futile. His own brother's face had waxed so clear even during the years of ruminations before the final assault. That too in such a pre-planned and precisely calculated way!
That part of the city, fast asleep with huge buildings looming large in darkness in spite of the electric bulbs here and there, seemed to be the remains of a prehistoric civilization excavated from the earth. The streets were completely deserted. He plodded on with determination to find some human dwelling and some rest. All of a sudden a horn blew out continuously. He thought the city was screaming awake from a nightmare. Some distance away a car drew up to a stop. The driver jumped out, opened the bonnet and put off the horn. Soon it sped past him.
After long walk he was so tired that he couldn't go on any further. He paused on the broad concrete pavement in front of a skyscraper. Undressing himself he was going to lie down flat on the ground, half-naked and hungry when a factory bus stopped nearby and a man walked towards him.
'Who are you?' (Wasn't it your brother who committed suicide?' 'No, it was me!')
When he explained the situation in as few words as possible, the man said, 'come with me.'
In a second it simplified everything for him. He walked behind the man like a child without a care in the world as if he had transferred his existence to the man authorizing him to do whatever he wanted with it. They went through many alleys and cross roads before entering a bleary three storied building. The fusty subterranean smell accosted him long before the sight of humanity hibernating like tubers deep down in the earth in a clutter of dirty clothes uniforms, old boots and papers bathed in dust. The air was impregnated with the smell of stale sweat mingled with the smell of old bedclothes. An old dusty table fan did what it could by stirring up the hot air to the point of suffocation. There were about eight berths in that single room. Before he could count his companion pointed to a vacant berth and climbed up to his own. With some difficulty he clambered up and lay sprawled out in the bed trying to guess the figure of its usual occupant. This time he could ward off the hounding memories and the gaunt feeling of being amidst strangers. He slept well.
The next morning his guess was substantiated by a huge hairy man shaking him up. This abrupt, violent waking up sent a tremor of anger through him. But at once he sized up the situation. The man was blabbing madly, obscenities to be sure, though the tongue was completely alien to him. His disheveled hair and sleepless eyes gave him a ruffian look. Before anything could have happened his friend woke up and interfered. The man went straight to bed without any change of expression as if that talking part was suddenly switched off.
As he went down the street in the blazing sun shimmering along the farthest line in the panorama of buildings packed together like an open electronic equipment, the decision was slowly forming up in him-to be always happy! In spite of the countless maelstroms of despair closing in around him, in spite of the incessant march of defeats, in spite of himself. He looked at the lifeless sky, blotted out by the blazing sun and the mad rout of pre-programmed lives and machines around him and wondered whether there was any place for shining fringes of hope between the parting clouds. To his surprise he discovered that he could still dream '
About his heaven; about Arabian deserts; about money and money-fetched heavens.
Everybody needs a heaven for his survival here. Luckily there are as many heavens as there are human beings on earth. His brother's heaven had been the ecstasy of nothingness; his would be the cheap money-fetched one. And he was more than satisfied.
He must have gone a long way through the crowd sharing its swells and heaves when at last he found out his destination, the threshold of his millennium. At the end of a long queue he could read the words in huge letters-Horizon Agencies. He settled to the queue peacefully seeing nothing other than the movements of the man standing before him, lost in the low chirps and murmurs of distant dreams.
He was the last man in the queue. The evening was well advanced when it crawled up to the office and the young man behind the large table was in a hurry to leave. He was sitting upright in a big throne-like upholstered chair with a cigarette on his lips, uneasy and a tint of tiredness around his eyes. He went up to him and handed his papers. The young man glanced through them and then went through the stacks of files in a tall open cupboard. After a few minutes he turned round in a restless air.
'There is something wrong. We have no information about you. Are you absolutely sure this is the agency you are seeking?'
'Wait a minute,' he said seeing the changing color in the visitor's face and went through the papers and files once again. 'Sorry, I can't say, but there is something really wrong. We are helpless.'
The visitor turned away, saying nothing, with a dryness in his nostrils at the thought of repeating scenes and events, like a man going once again through his past. Then, in the distance, the bells rang out their heavy chimes.