A Night in Kumartali

11 min read


One humid Kolkata night, as the remnants of the previous night’s bottle found itself depleting, I walked out to the neighbourhood bootlegger.
The setting of the area seemed to be an unvarying one – the endless alternating between the dim light and the tranquil darkness, the shuffling footsteps, the limp figures seeking darker shades in the night and pairs of half open eyes.
I bought myself a bottle of cheap whiskey. The bootlegger’s old wife, now the bootlegger, showed no expression of having recognized me from the other night. I took the flat bodied bottle and pocketed it in my trousers. The dim light evaporated from my face and I turned around to leave but I found myself not wanting to leave; not that I wanted to remain there as one of its many fixed installations and neither did I want to return to the wasteful solitude of my rented apartment. I just wanted to wander around, to linger on, to transfigure from one state to another, to pass from nothing to nothing, to be bridged between gaps.
No sooner than I had turned around, a squatting shadow rose to its feet and emerged from the duskier tones of the night. He staggered, but staggered confidently towards me. When he reached closer I saw that he was an old man with few thin strands of white hair running from temple to temple, failing in their attempt to opacity.
“You like, haanh?” – he asked amusedly, raising his bottle and waving it before me. The uninhibited volume of his voice and the almost English sentence was an unusual occurrence in that place. I heard the crooked door clap open behind me and when the thin line of yellow light fell on the old man I wondered how it was that he was even alive. He was frail with no flesh on his bones and he was fragile – the bones in his skeletal system scrawnier than the beedi that sat wedged at the top of his ear.
“No trouble here! Now go!” – the bootlegger hissed from behind. The old man promptly shot back – “What are you doing? Don’t you have a man to keep happy?” The door clapped back shut and the stream of light vaporized, leaving us darker than before.
“Old hag!” – he yelled at the closed door and instantaneously turning focus to me, repeated himself, smilingly and softly – “Sooo…you like, haanh?”
“It works” – I said in the local dialect and his eyes behind the square metal rimmed spectacles popped open wide for a brief moment before succumbing back to the deadweight of the drinks that had been consumed. He seemed overtly pleased as the short white bristles of his patchy stubble began pointing upwards.
“Good. Good. You speak good..” – he began saying and I cut him off, explaining to him in his regional language as to why it was that I could speak that language. It put him off. He was disinterested and no longer cared whether I liked the sticker less bottles with the transparent liquid inside or not. He fell silent when I had completed. Assuming that that was the end of my encounter with him, I walked out through the gullies and when I reached the tar blanketed main road, I paused. The City of Joy, the listless sentinel peered into my soul with its black and yellow eyes and I peered into the despondency of its insomnia. I saw flakes of dying dreams, forfeited hope, relinquished perception that arises from a deeper insight, the apathy in acquiescence, the emptiness in being whole; I saw a memory, I saw all that was forgotten. Everywhere to go and Kolkata had nowhere to lead me and I had nowhere to ensue. I was there and yet so distant, so afar from all that was.
“No home?”. I turned my head back. It was the old man. He was coming up to me in his confident stagger. I said nothing and continued to look at him. He wore an overused and undersized vest that clung to his feeble frame as if holding it together. His trousers were tattered and had been snipped at the bottom around the calves and he walked barefoot.
“No sleep?” – he asked.
“We are all sleeping with our eyes open” – I said. It delighted him and he laughed wildly, in his vile manner. He stood beside me and looked at the apathy that lay before us. He took the beedi from his ear and putting it between his thin black lips he said – “Dying yet living. Dead yet alive. A clot, stagnating in its own self held belief of lies.”
Blowing an orb of smoke from his mouth, he continued – “Killing one’s own self, slowly, unknowingly, happily, allowingly, greedily. Living. Dying. Life. It is all about death.”
I looked at the short old man with new found admiration. He intrigued me and waving my bottle easily, I said – “So you like haanhh..” He laughed wildly again.
“Let us go. My place is around the corner. Sit down, drink and die”- he said and started walking. I found it funny – his self-confidence; the way he didn’t think it necessary to offer me an invitation or if that was his invitation then to wait for my acceptance or dismissal of it or the way he already knew that I would follow.
As we walked he put his lips to his bottle and glugged mouthfuls and when he was done offered the bottle to me. I showed him my bottle but he said – “Don’t trust yet die. Trust and die” so I took his bottle and downed a couple of swigs myself. We walked in silence; only the zooming of random cars seizing the opportunities that lay on empty roads in distant and different parts of the city would ascend from nothing and then fade into nothing – that and the turning open of a cap and the flowing of liquid against glass and flesh and the turning close of a cap and the obtuse yet stirring sounds of our own footsteps.
Upon reaching the end of the street he turned into a lane and led me through a sequence of bifurcations till we reached a shed made of bamboo canes and straw. He lifted a sheet of tin roof that leaned against the wall weaved from split bamboo ends and revealed the entrance to his abode. I followed him inside and stood still while he scoured the wall for something in the darkness with his palms and when he found it he clicked it and the light flashed on.
The shack ran straight with no divisions and it looked longer and taller when inside. Three equally spaced bulbs hung along the centerline venting cones of grainy yellow light. The flooring was hard natural earth and between the ceiling and the base stood rows of grey sculptures with multi arms stretched out in circles standing on one legs or astride lions on elevated pedestals along the length of the shed with narrow walking gaps in between. There were dead men too; demons, dying with their eyes open and in fear. The focal characters were mostly female and each varied from the other in depiction and stance.
The sculptures began at the top with gravity defying hair that flowed freely as if each strand were under the influence of its own independent minds. The pear shaped faces were the segments that had despite being mere plain lines demanded the most delicacy off the sculptor. Unblemished skin that wrapped tightly across the perfectly cast skull, a thin sharp nose and petite lips – curved faintly at the ends to project the enlightened smile in some and split wide apart in others, to make way for the sight of the chin-touching tongue and the shrill triumphant battle cry that invokes menacing terror that is silence in the physical observance of the sculpted goddess but anything in a mind powered by imagination. Some of the slender hands firmly grasped spears and swords while some gently buoyed weighted flowers and some were engaged in modeling delicate mudras while some were clutching the blood dripping skulls of the freshly beheaded demons that stood not a chance against Her. The figures had been granted svelte frames and well-rounded bosoms and a polished poise that glowed even under the depleted shimmer of the dim light bulbs. I kicked off my shoes and walked around admiring the works of the short old man, feeling the softness and the hardness of earth on my heels. Each figure was intricate in its detailing and it left me in awe of the craftsman for each sculpture had been injected with blood, his sweat, his life, his soul through the invisible pores on the tips of his fingers and thus, each completed work would have excavated something off its creator – unearthing something pure from him or something evil, but deserting him, leaving him with something lesser.
The tall sculptures looking down upon you, under the bland composition of coarse light and the night that peeped in through gashes in the thatched roof was a daunting sight. The seeing eyes, the unheard shriek, the unfurled arms, the pointed weapons, the roaring lions, the petrified demon yelling in death – they were all self-imposing. I had seen statues and sculptures and busts before but not in this way, in this state. I had always seen only the final product; that what was meant for me to see, the structure covered by inconsequence, the truth drowning in lies. The sculptures that stood before me in the old man’s shack stood naked. They were the truth, raw and crude and natural and honest; they were something just as they would be when clothed and decorated in their eventual something; they were the process, they were life, alive.
“Over here!” – the old man called. I walked into a corner at the end of the shack beyond the scope of the last light bulb. A small space had been cordoned off by the absence of any sculptures to fit in a cot and a small table fan that sat on the ground and looked up to the old man as would a loyal dog to its master. The old man collapsed onto the cot and lay there breathing deeply and I sat down on the ground folding my legs. He asked me to light a cigarette for him and he was silent till he finished smoking it. Disposing the stubbed butt onto the earth beneath the cot he asked me to hand him his bottle which he then emptied in continuous gulps and lay on the cot doing nothing, saying nothing, thinking, unthinking, eyes opening, eyes shutting, breathing, silence, breathing. I undid my bottle and glugged down. Quiet. The old man turned on his side, looked at me and ripped out a gentle sneer.
“Why did you get me here?” – I asked him.
“Why did you come here?” This peeved me. If I wanted to talk in puzzles and question riddles, I had myself for that. I got to drinking up my bottle and leaving when he asked me – “Are you religious?”
“No.”
“Then what is it that you believe in?” His voice was now calm and he spoke as if he knew something that I did not. What did I believe in? The old man’s question was as difficult as it was easy. It got me thinking and I found myself flowing through the irregularities that nature gifts canyons and gorges with. I saw the answers everywhere. They were there – floating, drifting, running, fleeing – I just failed to grasp onto any one of them. I saw words and I saw phrases, I saw emotions and I saw knowledge, I saw the universe and I saw the atom, I saw heaven as it has been painted and I saw heaven as has been illustrated by men who disbelieve its existence, I saw different, I saw same, I saw belief and disbelief. They came flooding into the valleys of my mind, as if rising from its chasms, surging through; they were there and they were gone, vaporizing as I looked on from one vision to another, one idea to another, one word to another. I felt stupid – worse than stupid, I felt weak, I felt insufficient, I felt forsaken, I felt self-pity and it led me to wonder if I was a lie.
“After all, a man has to believe in something, doesn’t he?” – the old man said and when I replied with no words, he continued with a poke – “I know you believe in death. So life, you must not believe in?” His voice was resuming its natural volume and the eyes were now awake.
“I believe in life, but just not in the living. Not in the way we are doing it.”
“I know you…the likes of you. The misery lies in the fact that you cannot be helped. I can tell you and I can tell you so many things and everything, but this…this thing is something that one can never see until he discovers it, stumbles upon it, finds it on his own. We stand before walls of glasses. Some of us see through it, beyond it, the distorted truth, the clear lies but wiry images that owe its existence to reality whatsoever. Some of us, we see a haze; anemic reflections of something that too owes its existence to the existence of something else. Most men live this way – in blurred sight, thinking it to be the perfect view. Some men find that wall of glass and smash it to see lucidly but they never see a reflection again. Few men, see only the obscurity and they never find that wall of glass either.”
“What are you implying?” Utter gibberish, I thought. Sounded profound but made no sense.
“That there is no right. There is no wrong. Only different people. Different perspectives. Some believe in this, others in that. Everybody is right. Everybody is wrong. But what are you? And when you know the answer to that question, it will no longer matter to know what you are.”
He had had enough to drink and the disparity in his rants verified his drunkenness. “So, am I the one who will never find the wall of glass?” – I said, in way of a jest.
“No. You? You, you are the wall of glass.”
I smirked. I could not stop it. I also had had enough to drink that night. “And….you can say that because..?”
“Do you know about enlightenment? About, the opening of the third eye?”
“So you have attained enlightenment? How?” – I asked with a wry smile.
“Seclusion. Sleepless nights spent in silent thought. The same as these sculptures. They stand. They wait. They allow freedom in their minds, fracturing all barricades imposed. They do not move but move. They seek a tranquil rhythm. All fog, all mist, all clouds dissolve. A sense of clarity exists – without reason. And only then, is painted the all seeing, all knowing third eye on to their foreheads. And then, they exist.”
“Is that the only way? Continuous meditation?”
“No. There is an easier way.”
“What is that?”
“Living.”
“And what does death impart?”
“Freedom. From existence.”
It was quiet again. We shared a cigarette and I watched him as he drew in slow drags. He was a strange old man. “What is the purpose of it all? Of us? Of being? Here? Everything? Every breath?” – I asked him.
“Meaning? Reason? You want reason? The reason is that there is no reason. There is no meaning to life. No reason to the reason why you are here. Apart from the one that is the only known truth – the copulation of your parents. That is why you are here. But no purpose. Man is not supposed to have purposes that will fulfill him. Man is just meant to be. You do not need a purpose to exist. You do not need a direction to live. You do not need to feel that need to prosper, to better, to defeat. All you need is nothing. An empty void, a blank space. And that is the ultimate precipice of enlightenment. ‘To have everything, one needs nothing’.”
“What is your purpose?”
“I have none. Look around you. This is me. Do I look like someone bearing that insecurity that would bait me into feeling the need to be wanted, to be appreciated or as you say the need to have a purpose? Do I?”
“Then what is it that you believe in?”
“This” – he said raising his empty bottle.
“Every man has got to believe in something. You do not seem to be very fond of living. So…death? Is that what you believe in?” He laughed again.
“I believe in being without being” – he replied.
“But what about this? All this? Your craft? Don’t you believe in it? It is something that would be fuelled by a passion and you do seem to be exceptionally good at it. Don’t you believe in what you do?”
“This is my work. This is to put two breads and a lump of leaves into my stomach. This is not something that I believe in. This is to be fed.”
“Doesn’t that then make this the purpose of your life?”
“No. This. This is what I do to eat and drink. This is not the sole reason that I am here. It is not the beginning nor is it the end. This is not my purpose because my purpose doesn’t exist.”
I nodded. He smiled approvingly. I looked around at where I was and I wondered if this was me, if I was him. The man with no idea. The man with nothing and everything. The man whose existence was nonexistent. The insignificant. The forgotten.
I got up to leave and he said nothing. He just took off his spectacles and placed them beside him and shut his eyes and rolled over to sleep. I admired the sculptures one final time and then, walked out.

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