Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Death of a Friend Retold

In our lives, at times we all derive pleasure from playing silly pranks on others. Irrespective of our age and status, we indulge in these simple acts of fooling others, mainly to make certain moments memorable and pleasurable. And as people with certain level of dignity we avoid such jokes that would obviously hurt others’ sentiments. It is an unsaid rule that one should not mention somebody’s mental and physical shortcomings in order to create jokes. Mimicry artists, who intend social critique through their public performances, however resort to blasphemy in terms of mental and physical shapes of others. We enjoy such public acts of ‘positive defaming’ of people only because the intention behind such acts is transcendental and meant for the common good of a society.

Portraying someone as ‘dead’ is one of the prohibited areas in the field of jokes. Death, though heralds a new beginning in the ‘life’ of a person, considering ‘death’ as the end of the physical existence, is not often taken as the subject of a palatable joke. Though, Martin Heidegger says that one is born with death as its natural outcome, we are not that philosophically elevated people to ‘enjoy’ someone’s death by considering it as his deliverance and the moment of re-birth. We ‘enjoy’ somebody’s death only in this sense that we heave a sigh of relief by the knowledge that it is not ‘we’ who are dead, but someone else.

Death is a subject, which has always interested and intrigued me all these years. However, I cannot take a friend’s death with a sort of philosophical or aesthetic detachment. Perhaps, aesthetic representation of death is one of the ways that the artists have developed through which they can make the most horrifying experience of life into something that is worth contemplating with a sense of philosophical detachment. But a prank played with a ‘news’ that contains the information of a friend’s death, however aesthetically conveyed, is not a joke, but a brutal encroachment into the vulnerable fortresses of somebody’s emotions and sentiments.

On the April Fool day of this year, someone came to my chat box and conveyed the ‘news’ of a close friend’s untimely death. My first reaction was a sort of denouncement of that someone who conveyed this news. I was not considering it as a prank as I was not particularly conscious of that day’s peculiar nature. For me every day is a fool’s day because people don’t behave intelligently on the rest of the days throughout a year. They get fooled whether it is 1st April or 28th of February. Hence, I wrote some expletives starting with the famous ‘f’ word, which was only to express my incredulity. Then I used the general ‘W’ questions. When, where, why, how?

The person on the other side gave me cold answers and as you know, words can express a sense of mourning with the change of a context. A chat box, which is often used for friendly verbal exchanges, can become a gloomy room, in the middle of where the coffin of a close friend is kept. What I did next was to call a few friends and ask to verify this news. Verifying was important not because I was thinking that it could have been a joke, but because I thought my supposedly ‘dead’ friend was exceptionally healthy, sporty and full of life.

In a minute’s time, my friends gave me the happy news. My ‘dead’ friend was alive and he was using very selective expletives for the one who was sending the message of his death not only to me, but to many amongst the circle of immediate friends. I hated the person who sent me such a thoughtless and insensitive message to poke me, play pranks on me or to ‘fool’ me on that particular day.

Though, I am not interested to listen the news of death, I see dead people coming alive and communicating with me quite often. Yesterday night, a close friend of mine who had committed suicide almost eight years back came to me. I was strolling in the courtyard of home, trying to push away the heat waves embracing me from all the sides. The tropical night with a clear sky and the standstill greenery around must be a beautiful scene to imagine or see in a picture post card. But obviously not for someone who is sweating profusely and gasping for some cold air go into the lungs. One positive feeling this suffocating atmosphere could evoke in me was the image of an old colonel lying in his hammock, fighting heat and mosquitoes swarming around him. I started imagining that I was in Columbia.

But I was in my village. Around my house, there are lot of plants and trees. At night, tall banana trees stand like armed sci-fi characters with laser lights beaming out of their eyes. These red laser lights are the eyes of the bats that hang upside down from the bunches of bananas and drink honey from the half opened banana flowers. It is said that banana plantains make some sort of eerie sounds at night. If the winds pass through the dried leaves, they flutter as if they were the hands of a dead man coming out of grave. And in villages, every plot has at least two graves. The water laden pods of the banana tree trunks screech open at night as if the souls of dead people were trying to escape from the layers of green memories, still oozing the sticky zap of unfulfilled desires.

Then I saw him, sitting on the top of the boundary wall, just above my father’s grave. I used to call this dead friend, ‘Charles Lindberg’. That was almost thirty years back. Lindberg was a pilot who flew across the Atlantic Ocean in his single engine aircraft. The art of flying was not perfected then. It was a very daring feat for Charles Lindberg. The day our teacher recounted Lindberg’s story from a moth-eaten text book, my friend ran out of the class room, expanding his short and fragile hands horizontally, made his body slant forty five degrees, pouting lips making the whirring sound of an engine. Teacher ran behind him, followed by the rest of the students. The boy ran across the ground, thinking that it was the Atlantic Ocean. After a round he safely landed himself at the other end of the ground and started giggling like a fool.

This juvenile insanity, however doubled my admiration for him as a friend. I started calling him ‘Charles’, which he thoroughly disliked but did not make much efforts to dissuade me from calling him by that name. However, whenever any other boys tried to emulate me, he became so violent that they never dared to call him ‘Charles’ again. Basking under the glory of this friend, I grew up but I noticed him becoming recluse and once prodded and provoked, becoming too violent to control.

We went to the same college and after a few weeks, he decided to drop out. Then, in the village, he became the leader of a group of young and violent guys, who all practiced martial arts. They called their gang, ‘The Company of Eighteen’. I did not know then, whether the name was based on the number of members in the gang or it referred to their/our age.

The name and fame of the Company grew within the village as my Charles could defeat a few of the established goons of the village. The old generation of thugs was replaced by this new gang. As his name became synonymous to that of ‘Gabbar’, he started getting assignments from the neighboring villages; at times to settle a property dispute, to defeat rival gangs, to bring back a girl who had eloped with her boy friend, to teach a lesson to the boy friends and so on. In the process, one gang member lost a couple of teeth, one of them lost a finger and most of them often had bruises and bandages all over, which they flaunted like war trophies before the not-so-impressed village elders. Each boy in the village secretly aspired to become a member in that gang.

I had this special privilege to boss over Charles as he considered me ‘educated’ than the rest of the boys in the village. I used to go and spent time with them in their hide outs. Sitting amongst the young thugs and their crude weapons that ranged from long bamboo sticks to shining swords, nanchuks, brass and steel knuckles, gave me a sort of creepy feeling, though I used to enjoy the kind of ‘power’ they emanated within the village. Girls used to admire them secretly and each thug thought he was a wronged lover. Most of the time, these boys fought with the boys from the neighboring villages in the name of protecting the girls from our village, who, they thought, were in love with them.

Years passed by and in the meanwhile, I witnessed another generation of local thugs declaring wars against the ‘Company of Eighteen’. Many of the members had gone to gulf countries to eke out a living. Many were imprisoned for serious offences. Charles too lived between police lock-ups, jails and village junctions. He also went to Dubai for a while where he was arrested and imprisoned for bootlegging. With nothing in hand, he came to back to the village only to witness a different generation of boys who copied music in CDs and sold them to their classmates and neighbors. They were not interested in street fights. They fought and showed their prowess in simulated war games in computers.

Charles was a disillusioned man when I met him last. His marriage was in trouble. Eight years back, when I was visiting my village, I met him at the main junction. There was a power cut at that time. We stood there in darkness and smoked cigarettes and tried to remember the day he flew his imaginary flight across the play ground. I had stopped him calling ‘Charles’ for long time. That moment I held his hands and called him, ‘Charles’. Even in the darkness I could see a sad smile flashing across his face and I saw his eyes gleaming. “I lost it, my friend,” he murmured. “Hey, come on, you have not lost anything? What are you talking about?” sensing his trouble I tried to pep him up with some ‘urban centric’ self-help tips. “You don’t understand,” he smiled again.

Next morning, someone came to my home and told me that Charles was no more. “He hung himself yesterday night,” the messenger said.

I did not go for his funeral. But that evening I went to the spot where we stood and talked on that fateful night. I tried to feel him. But he was gone.

Yesterday I saw him again, behind the banana plantains, over the boundary wall and above my father’s grave, Charles was sitting and smiling at me.

“You could have told me then. Why did you do that?” I asked him.

“That night you called me, ‘Charles’ again. I could see all my life spent and wasted, at that moment. I wanted to become that Charles again, the one who flew an imaginary flight across an imaginary Atlantic Ocean. I went home and wanted to fly again and hanging myself was the only way to do that again……,” he said.

“You are a fool,” said I.

But he was not there to listen to my words. He had vanished into the thin air, without leaving the grandiloquence of a wronged king or the sly smile of an ugly cat.

Fooled by knowledge, I walked back to my room. I could hear the souls sprouting from the banana trunks.

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