What should be the right kind of expression when you speak about death and unclaimed dead bodies? Looking at the artist and the researcher who were making a joint presentation on unclaimed dead bodies against the backdrop of a huge building that had a specially created facade with rusted iron sheets, in an evening that was hot enough to feel suffocated, I was thinking about the facial expressions of the people who generally talked about death. The expressions of those presenters looked more pleasant than the subject demanded though their voices imparted the required gravity and depth of the subject.
In the dimly lit courtyard the adaptation of the Brancussi head by the artist looked ominous. The lower light casted long shadows of the speakers on the brick wall behind them, reminding the audience of all spirits that still hovered around as they invoked issue of the unclaimed dead bodies. The artist, a good orator himself, talked about death the way he talked about life. The beautiful researcher with her shiny fair skin looked a small piece of paper in which she had written small little cues that helped her to articulate her thoughts.
Each sentence was punctuated by a silence but I thought that the silence was lightened by a lingering smile on the lips of the presenters. I must have been imagining that smile there because the gravity of death was so strong that I needed something to lighten up my already troubled mind. Don’t misunderstand me. I was not troubled by any memories of unclaimed bodies. In fact I was troubled by unclaimed memories. Memories are such flecks of past events that shower on us like snow filings and cover our being with a thin layer of melancholy. Even happy memories have a melancholic side to it as we try to re-live them in our imagination and become aware of the fact that such moments cannot be re-lived with the same intensity any more. Melancholy does not need a reason to manifest. If you are human being, there are always more than enough reasons to be melancholic. Memories just trigger it.
Both of them wore black clothes; the artist in a pair of black jeans and a full sleeved black shirt, and the researcher, a black executive pants, black T-shirt and a black pull over. I listened to them intensely and each word sunk into my being like unclaimed words. A minimal audience sat enthralled by the information and data about unclaimed dead bodies and I was sure that each person in the audience was thinking about himself or herself as a dead body which they sincerely wanted to be claimed by someone. It is a huge weight on anybody who chances upon thinking about death and imagines the possibility of being unclaimed by somebody.
After the presentation most of us gathered there did not want to talk much. We came out of the courtyard, stood at the steps, smoked and those who wanted to talk at all, talked in hushed tones as if there were a few unclaimed dead bodies were lying there in our midst. A friend had organized a post-presentation party at her home. A flamboyant and outspoken lady, an artist herself and an art collector in her own right had invited me also to her home. At her home she stood in front of each painting that she had collected over a period of time and explained the reasons for her to collect each of those works. Her reasons were convincing enough like an array of liquor bottles with recognizable and covetable brands arranged at the desk of her private bar. I thought the people turned up for the party, including the artist and the researcher had forgotten the topic that they had been talking and discussing a couple of hours before.
I am not a sociable person. I do not do smooth talking. I prefer silence to eloquence. Perhaps, that is one reason why I spend a lot of time at my desk and write all those unsaid words piled up in my mind. I try to avoid parties and if at all I attend some unavoidable gatherings I choose to be a good listener, which often puts me into trouble. People who do not find anyone to talk to, find me for sure and come up with some issues which I do not want to listen or have any interest. Party talkers can talk on any issues authentically and in most of their talks they are the heroes and in the incidents that they narrate they are always the winners. Often self-centric talks slip over to gossips which would definitely tarnish the identity and personality of some people who are absent there and sitting elsewhere absolutely unaware of the dung that is being hurled at them from some corner of the world.
Luckily the post-presentation party was less crowded and I counted the number of people, both males and females and was satisfied by the more or less parity proportion between them. I was sure that each male would find a female for alcohol induced conversation. And there are some conversationalists always in such parties who generally hold the attention of the majority thereby saving uninteresting people like me from losing grace. You just need to be an absent minded listener around such people and nod your head in regular intervals. Your eyes would glitter in such a way that a seasoned observer of people like me could say for sure that the glitter in your eyes is just a curtain behind which you hide an immense land of imagination and self absorption.
The researcher, a beautiful lady from the US walked up to me after sometime. She might have noticed my reticence and aloofness or she might have been tired of the gravity of the topic she had been researching for a number of years. Imagine someone coming from a far away country, doing research on the unclaimed bodies in a different country, spending endless hours in morgues, government offices and eating with sanitized hands that still carry the smell of unclaimed death. It is horrible. I looked at her face from a corner as she was coming to me with the same smile that I had seen when she was presenting at the courtyard.
She asked me what I was drinking. I looked at my glass and then at her glass. She was holding some white wine in a very sleek crystal glass. For the first time I noticed that she was wearing a bangle studded with white sparkling stones. I could not make out whether it was diamonds or some other precious stones. Her facial skin was smooth but her fingers showed some signs of tiredness as if they were threatening her with some impending wrinkling. I told her that I was drinking some Black Label whiskey. She said she enjoyed drinking whiskey but as she was flying back to the US by early morning she preferred to drink only wine. I smiled at her. I thought she would wake up with a heavy head and some hangover and her flight would be horrible. She read my thoughts and told me that she was a frequent flyer. And we smiled into the space which was there in the form of a rectangle half filled with light and half with darkness.
Soon a few more people came around us and the corner was not enough to accommodate too many people so we moved to the dining table. There were eight chairs and we all sat and I realized that apart from the seven people who were sitting and were having a serious conversation about some serious matter out there at the garden, there were eight more people in the party. The hostess hovered over us asking what we wanted and prodding us to taste some exotic culinary experiments that she had recently learned while travelling in Europe. And old man servant quietly came in regular intervals and filled in the bowls and platters with several forms of fish, chicken, cashew nuts, pea nuts, fried peas, sushis and innumerable varieties of other munchies that I found like a strange people in a strange street who had made a strong impression on me even if I had seen them in a fleeting glance. I could have remembered their faces in any other land at any other time but I did not remember their names or identities.
You should tell us a story, the researcher told me. I was taken aback initially and I mumbled at her why she wanted a story from me. I tried to joke saying that I was a person with no interesting stories. But parties are such events that where even if someone asks you to stand upside down for the heck of it there would be at least five people to join that chorus of demand. So now all of them were asking me to tell a story. I thought that this American lady did not know me or she knew me as a friend of her friend or she might have read some stuff that I had written somewhere. But the rest of the seven people knew me well. They knew me as one of the uninteresting persons in the crowd. But now they were also demanding a story to be told by me.
Story telling is always a cathartic experience. The moment you embark on telling a story, the you realize that you are not only narrating the core incident that holds the story as a story but you keep inventing incidents that would substantiate the core of it. Events and people come into it as you go on telling a story and they independently take positions within the narration and at times take the whole course of recounting into some other direction. It is very difficult to snatch these characters back to the thread of telling. A good story teller is one who let the characters move on their own but knows when they should be pulled back so that digressions and straying would not mar the gripping quality of the story being told. While telling a story you purge yourself of those untold words, you whet your silence and you become eloquent in a strange fashion. A story teller is like a very coy bride who shows her sexual prowess in bed putting the bridegroom into a delirium of happiness and desire, and goes back to her coyness and shyness once the act is performed.
In fact I did not have a story to tell at that time. First of all I was not a story teller. As a journalist who had been writing about culture I had started having an aversion to anything that came with culture, including the people. But sometimes it is like that you get into a karmic relationship with what you do. You become very impulsive and however you try you go around and report on cultural developments. I keep an objective distance with the subject that I treat in my reports, articles and essays but at times it becomes very difficult to treat a subject like an object. You tend to probe a little more and get into the skin of the subject that you write about. May be that is one reason like people still call me for events and parties. They must be feeling that here is a person who could make a report out of nothing and write about people who are not particularly anything or anybody. In fact, when I look back, I too feel that I always liked people who are just nobodys. I always think that those people who are not anybodys or we think that are just plain and ordinary have more depth in them. They are like loose sand. If you just step on them, they might suck you in.
Please tell, she insisted. I did not know why she wanted to hear a story from me at all. Then I thought she was playing a practical joke on me. After that I imagined her asking the same thing to uninteresting people like me in whichever parties she attended as a way to add data to her research. Or was a party thing that generally these people played, making someone to tell a story? I thought it was a bit weird. But then there are people who tell stories and listen to others’ stories in order to purge themselves and the listeners of their sins. Story telling is a confession, may be; a confession of those hidden secrets that never get an audience and die with the person who hold those secrets. Isn’t it quite sad that people come to this earth, live a life of consequence or no-consequence, gather a lot of experience, commit the acts of piety and sin alike, keep so many unsaid words and secrets in their minds and then exist without leaving any trace?
I felt something similar between the unclaimed bodies and the untold stories. She was persuading with that same smile and same enthusiasm. The chorus was cheering her up and coaxing me because they did not have anything else to do than what they were doing. So I decided to tell a story that I had heard from someone whom I happened to meet in a train journey.
I was reading a book of tarot cards, which I had picked up from the railway station. I could have chosen any other book but I thought that I could check out tarot cards for two reasons; one, the journey was short enough to read a full length novel and long enough to read magazines that carried nonsense under various titles and various names. I knew the trade very well so I preferred not to pick up any magazines or weeklies. Two, I had never read a tarot card book before. I thought of knowing my past, present and future when I travelled between two stations. When I opened the book and flipped through a few pages I realized that I was not interested in any of those things discussed in the book. However, I kept on reading because I thought the most ordinary and uninteresting things might be holding some hidden truths or secrets for me.
From the next stop this lady came and sat opposite to me. She was a dark lady with beautiful eyes. From behind the book I observed her for a few moments. I noticed that she took not more than a few seconds to settle down in her seat. She had a strange sense of calmness on her face. Her eyes were distant in its gaze but still they had a sort of focus somewhere beyond. With one single glance she assessed the people who were sitting in that compartment and as she was doing it for a moment our gazes got locked and with an unseen key she opened the lock immediately and viewed the passing landscape outside the window. I looked at her long fingers and found that her nails were discoloured or coloured by some stains. I thought she was working in some factories or something. But soon I corrected myself as I could make out from her personality that she was not a working woman. But it was not good to strike up a conversation with a woman who had just come into the compartment and I thought that would give a bad impression.
I did not know why and how, after a few minutes the book fell down from my hand. I realized with jerk that I was sleeping. I bent down to pick up the book and I found the book was not there. Here it is, said the lady. At her right hand extended towards me was the book of tarot cards. It fell off from your hand as you were gloriously dozing off, said she with a smile that I thought she was not capable enough to smile. She was more like an unreal person to me because her gaze was unsettling. The only real thing about her was the stains on her nails. It is quite surprising that you reached the Grim Reaper and you fell asleep, she continued with a smile. I looked at the page where she had inserted her index finger while handing the book over to me. I recognized the page though I did not recognize the Grim Reaper stuff in there. It is the card of death, she said as if she were reading my thoughts. She was seriously frightening me then.
Are you a tarot card reader? I asked her with some sort of hesitation. No, said she. But I am interested, she added. What do you do? I probed her as I had recovered from that initial shock of imagining her reading my thoughts. I am a painter, she answered with such a confidence that I had never seen in too many woman artists. Oh, that’s great, I said and I realized that the stains at her nails were the remnants of the paint that she had used for her latest painting. Immediately I started wondering what that painting would be looking like. What do you do? She asked. I told her that I was a journalist who reported culture. She gave me a smile of understanding. Suddenly I felt that our conversation was ended then and there because she, unlike other artists who used to cling on you the moment they heard that you were a journalist who reported culture, showed a clear aversion to my profession.
I commute in this line almost every day. May be I sit in the same seat every day, she told me without asking. I thought she was helping me to come out of my confusion. And what about you? She asked me. No, I don’t. I travel by autos as I live and work in town. And I am on an assignment to this place. Now it was my turn to spill more information without asking. Somehow I felt that I should have asked her about Grim Reaper, the death card. Are you thinking about asking me about Grim Reaper, she asked me and a shiver passed through my spine. I looked around to make sure that I was sitting in a second class compartment of a local train that ran between two cities twice in a day and there were other people in it. Yes, I was in a real time and I was not in a fantasy world though this lady who was a painter now sitting in front of me sounded and behaved a bit unreal.
No, I was not thinking in those lines but anyway as you asked let me repeat why you particularly spoke about Grim Reaper, I tried to hide my embarrassment and astonishment in some kind of journalistic objectivity. Her eyes and lips, and the twitching of her cheeks told me that she knew well that I was lying. Death is something very revealing, she told me looking straight into my eyes. I nodded my head partly in belief and partly in doubt. Death is something that assures of our very existence. Death also at times surprises, not with its arrival but with deliberate hiding of its arrival. I am not talking about death coming in the form of an accident, illness or heart attack. Healthy people die without any ailment and we are shocked and surprised. But death at times plays pranks with you by holding the information about the death of a close friend of yours for a long time. It is not unusual. What is unusual about such deaths is that all these while, when that person is dead and gone, you imagine that he or she is alive, and you feel hatred for him or her because he or she has not been contacting you for a long time and you feel ditched because he or she was supposed to do something wonderful for you. But you feel further irritated on that person who is already dead and gone but you believe that he or she is alive, does not pick up your call because he or she just does not want to be with you. And one fine morning you come to know that he or she is dead for almost a year and you did not know about it at all. What do you think about that person or his or her death is not so important at that time. What is important at that moment is the realization that you were living with a dead person all these while and keeping him or her alive by your own hatred or love. Suddenly you feel that you had been carrying an unclaimed dead body in your soul and some unclaimed memories. Death leaves a trace but what about that death which puts you into a sense of guilt about a crime that you have never committed, she asked me without flinching even for a moment.
I was looking for an answer as if I were a student in front of a teacher who had just asked a question which did not have an answer at all or the question itself was the answer. She knew my thinking and this time I was a bit bolder. So I asked her whether she was recounting a personal experience. She said yes and continued. I don’t run behind galleries or critics or even journalists like you. I paint and show it whenever I get an opportunity. Importantly, I realize the fact that there are many people like me who paint but do not have options to show or sell their works. It could be out of hesitation or lack of drive. I am not a victim of neither. I do not have hesitation nor do I lack an inner drive. But I choose not to run a race. What I do instead is that I look for artists who are like me. And over I period of time I could get a few artists to work with me to organize shows of unclaimed artists, saying this she laughed. First time I saw her teeth. They were small and white. She held her teeth tight while laughed.
Then I met this artist, she continued and I listened. Her name was Varuni Sen. She had been living in the city for almost fifteen years, painting while home making and home making while painting. I met her in small group show where she had one work hanging on the wall. I liked it. And I liked her. And when I told her that I was going to do a show by the next year, she held my hands and said that I could count her in. Then for a few months we were sharing the progress of our works though we were not meeting that often. Then one day, she stopped picking up my calls. I was counting her more than a participating artist in my show. I was sad and the sadness turned into bitterness. I was thinking ill about her. I continued calling her. Each time I called her someone cut her phone. Then after some days they said, ‘the number no longer in use’. I sent her emails. No reply came from her. I was forgetting her. It happens like that. Someone fades into your memory when they fail to keep the contact.
Then one day, the Grim Reaper came with his sickle and delivered a message. I had opened my show with a few fellow artists in a small gallery in the city. I went there and sat throughout the day. I did not expect too many people to come in or the collectors to throng up to buy the works. I enjoyed sitting there and chatting up with some occasional visitor. Some proved interesting and some utterly boring. But then it is the part of all games. You need to put up with different kinds of people. And one day a common friend of mine and Varuni Sen walked in. The forgotten memories came alive and I was furious. I fumed at her for the callousness of Varuni who never replied my calls. My friend hugged me and stood in silence for a long time. I could not make out why she showed this sudden display of affection. I freed myself from her grips and held her at my arms length and looked at her face. She was crying. What happened? I asked her.
Varuni had called her that day and told her that she was going to meet me as agreed upon between us at the same cafe. I was waiting. In the meanwhile, in her car she realized that she had forgotten packet of colours that she had brought me from her recent visit in Paris with her husband. She had called my friend to say that she was waiting down stairs and the driver had gone upstairs to pick up the packet for me which was kept on the table itself. But driver did not come down for a long time. Irritated and enraged on the laziness of driver she went back to home. She knew that the driver had some soft corner for the maid servant who was already married to a plumber. Varuni walked into the house and found some strangers there. The maid and her plumber husband were standing there with some confused look in their eyes which turned menacingly cruel in a few minutes. To her shock she found the driver lying dead on the floor. Soon they jumped over her and strangulated her, my friend was still weeping. At that moment I stood there face to face with the hooded man with a sickle; the Grim Reaper. Varuni was living in my bitterness while she was brutally killed and gone. Her memories were lying unclaimed in me as I decided to forget her when she stopped picking up my calls. Today I was trying to reclaim her but she was gone.
I looked at her. She was not crying. She was not looking shocked either. Her gaze was distant and focus was beyond me. Suddenly she smiled. I did not know what to tell her. I wanted to ask her a lot of questions and I was numbering them in mind with the same journalistic verve I often carry with me like armour. The train slowed down and with the same enigmatic smile she got up and said, that’s how we reclaim the unclaimed memories, quite unexpectedly and accidently. Death is way of doing it. Saying this she walked out of the compartment. I looked around to see whether I was still in a fantasy world or in reality. It was real, the people, the compartment and the woman who just left the place. People sat involved in their worlds or in their mundane conversations as if I did not exist in their reality.
You did not ask her name? Asked the researcher when I finished my story. I said no. Why? I wanted to but was not able to. There was a silence in the room. Eight people sat in deep silence as if we were caught in a prism of time or frozen inside a large ice cube of that room’s size. And I was sure that each one of them was reclaiming an unclaimed body in their minds.