Vivekanand writes short stories, poems and is interested in theatre. He is from Tamil Nadu, where he pursued a degree in medicine but never practiced. He is now training to be a diplomat. He believes that a writer could change the world, at least inside his head and also that this mad hope is something that keeps the world going.
It was the last train out of the city and I had just missed the station I was supposed to get down, thinking about the events of that strange day which had changed my life forever. It was incredible. Once again, I remembered the nightmare I had had that morning. May be I thought it innocuous immediately after getting up, because then, all I ever recall thinking about was to race down the curves of my wife’s naked body. Whenever I looked at her asleep, I used to wonder if she was having an adventure down there in her dreams. May be she was climbing up the Mount Everest or diving down into the Mariana trench. Whatever it was that she was doing that morning, her breasts that had attracted the couple of sun rays entering our bedroom also attracted me and I obliged by cupping it from behind. I planted kisses on her back and traced my life down the median line till it disappeared at her bottoms. She moaned in her sleep and whistled sleepily to ‘stop it’. I mouthed her words on her mound not knowing the volcano waiting to happen to me.
For when I woke up that day, I did not know that I had woken up in a world that had erased all its thoughts of me. I did not comprehend that I could actually be deleted from the memories of all those people who had known me since my birth forty two years ago.
You might think I am kidding. I am not. Why would I be traveling on this last train out of the city not knowing where I am headed to and who I would be living with? When my wife opened her eyes, thanks to my rummaging through her sleeping body for secrets she would not like to confess, she instinctively covered her open body with a blanket and shouted like a soprano in an opera. After a couple of minutes, the entire house was in our bedroom. My son, my daughter and my mother who had come with my sister on a vacation. All of them looked at me as if I were an intruder and asked, “Who is this guy? How did he come in to the house and what is he doing in the bedroom?
My wife pleaded innocence for sleeping with a stranger and told them that she did not know how this man,( pointing to me), had ever entered the house nor had she seen him (me) before. I watched the drama unfolding before my eyes. What was happening?
In the beginning, I thought it was a joke. But that did not make sense. Even if it was intended as a joke, it could only qualify as a perversion my family was incapable of. Something in their eyes scared me. It was the unmistakable gaze of not recognizing. A gaze we reserve only for strangers. It was the same look I would later evoke from my neighborhood that had gathered in solidarity with my family members when I left my home later that day unable to convince either of them about my identity. Marlene aunt who knew me from my childhood could be heard mentioning to her son, “Who is this loafer who has entered that house? Do you even understand whatever is happening nowadays?”
Another neighbor, my college friend, would be telling his wife, “This guy claimed he was Leela’s husband, it seems. The nerve of these impostors.” I never imagined I would be made to feel guilty for no crime other than my existence. In my own neighborhood and in front of my own family.
No amount of reason worked. I confronted them with certain basic questions. For example, I had asked my wife if she did not know me and that if I were not her husband, did she at least acknowledge her marital status. How could she explain her son and daughter otherwise?
Obviously, She was taken aback at the prospect of having mothered children who would not know their father.
“Of course, I am married. Yes I am”. She moved backwards clutching the white blanket wrapped around her body as if trying to remember something, and then in a moment of epiphany, took out her marital thread and showed me.
“See this”, she paraded it very excitedly.
“So, you have a husband. He must have a name, I presume”
At this, she was perplexed as if I had asked her to prove the Einstein’s theory of relativity mathematically.
“Perhaps, you have forgotten his name?” I added sarcastically.
And then, as if to heighten the drama of the moment, I extended the question to my other family members.
“Tell me, my little ones, do you not remember your father? Do you not remember who took you to school every day in his car?” I asked my children as they scurried away like rabbits unable to face the existential crises that had set in their little lives.
“Tell me, ma, do you not have a son or are you going to deny that too. If you don’t have one, why are you here? Whose house is this?” And my mother did not have an answer.
And then looking at my sister, I said, “well, what do you think, Rekha? Who else knows about your boyfriend other than me?”
Rekha froze in her tracks and shifted a little, very embarrassed.
While I was trying to stir the hornet’s nest that was their memory, I suddenly remembered the nightmare for the first time that day.
I travel in a space ship with my family. We are pointing out at the stars that pass us by at the speed of light. I do not know how, but I realize I have slipped out of the spaceship and fallen through into the outer space, my hands trying to reach the module and I scream out aloud for help. Nobody, however listens to me. I don’t know why. My wife watches the stars in fascination while I am gradually becoming one of them. I scream again before finally tumbling and rolling into the space like an unseen rock.
I realized at that moment that my nightmare had come true. They could not hear my scream. On the contrary, my presence had become a reminder of the unanswerable void their lives suddenly seemed to hold. They could neither explain my presence nor could they answer my questions. Something was wrong but they did not know what it was. And they did not know the man who claimed to have lived with them all his life as husband, son, brother and father. I had become dead to them while I was still alive. My place had been taken by a fiction that would explain their present. Sometimes their forgetfulness would become that fiction, but certainly not my real presence. Their memory had died a sad death when it came to me and they could not revive it, no matter what. I was just screaming from outer space while they watched on, with curiosity but with no real feeling.
“Didn’t you realize that sound does not travel in space?” a voice intruded my thought. Until then, I had not paid attention to the man who was sitting next to me on the train. He was dressed in a formal suit but without a tie. His hair was combed back and his face looked paler than death.
“They could not have possibly heard you, it was not their mistake. Nor could they be blamed if you had been flushed out of their memory” he continued. He looked straight ahead while talking to me but it was as if he were addressing a space. I was bewildered.
“How could you possibly know that?” the pain of leaving my city , unknown and unknowable to anybody was , for a moment being pushed under the rug by a curiosity that was still somehow alive even after the beating it got from the most bizarre day of my life.
He remained silent as if he did not hear me. I asked him again. He did not respond. Now, I got a little annoyed and shouted at him, “Could you please answer me,?” Again, no answer. I sensed a layer of mocking emanate from his person and cover my face like a polythene cover. Suddenly, I was unable to breathe. “Who is this man”, I muttered to myself and held his shoulder, with a certain interrogative touch. The same silence.
Enraged, I shook him with all my might but he continued to sit like a stone. Suddenly, I felt as if all the people in the train were looking at me. It was then that I noticed the train properly. There were only a few passengers as the last station was approaching. The silence was ghastly and reflected off the metal insides of the metro compartment. The light was a dull yellow and the shadows of the passengers looked as if they were real people themselves. Perhaps out of the terror that the moment evoked in me, I got up from my seat and inched towards the door. The recorded female voice announced the next station was approaching.
Sadly, I realized that in a world that had totally abandoned me on the shores of an amnesiac ocean, this recorded voice was the only familiarity. I smiled to myself. The time was 11. What after getting down? I had no answer. But I was sure about one thing. I had to get out of the city. I had lived there all my life and now that the city doesn’t remember me, I was about to return the favor. One can always start as a stranger in a new place and hope he will be remembered. Well, if I should be optimistic, how could I look at this? Of course, this was a calamity that had befallen me but ideally the consequence was what would happen to a criminal on the run. Like the movies, you know. In fact, I had the advantage of being unidentifiable. Perhaps, this was my chance at a new life. The new life all mankind searches for till it grows too old. Not that bizarre, after all. Such things do happen to people, I consoled myself.
The last station of Mobius town was approaching. A few more lights came on now. This was one of the outposts of the city from where one got buses to everywhere else in the world. The previous station would have been a much better vantage point, but then I had missed it. Three passengers were standing in front of the gates before me as I ensured my wallet was in place and instinctively looked back at that weird clairvoyant man who had shocked me some time back. He did not seem to get up from his seat. Was he not getting down? God, this was the last station.
As if responding to me, he turned his head and smiled at me. I avoided his sight. Meanwhile, the gates had opened and the three men in front of me got out one by one. The monotonous music inside the metro train began to dwindle and was about to stop but as if by magic, suddenly changed tune and played Purcell’s ‘funeral of queen Mary’. And then just when I was about to get down, the gates closed and the train started again with me still inside it . I banged my hands on the door as the train sped away. What was happening? Damn it, open the door, I shouted as if the automated vehicle had a heart of its own and would stop on hearing my cries. Suddenly, the train fell silent. The music had stopped.
“Some people do not seem to be able to get out of the train, Mr V,” the man said.
“Why doesn’t the train stop, isn’t this the last station?,” I cried frantically.
“I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. All I know is that this train doesn’t stop”
“But this is the last station. Where could it go?. And why did you not try to get down?”
“I told you, Mr. V. Some people do not seem to be able to get out of the train. ”
He continued, “Besides, I don’t know where the train goes. It has always been like this. It never stops even past the last station.”
I had no choice but to resign myself to these absurd things happening to me from the morning, I felt. I sat down opposite to the man and it struck me that I did not know his name.
“By the way, I am Vivekanand “, I extended my hand.
“I know that “, he said as if I was an indulgent child who needed to be taken care of.
“Well,” I dragged expecting him to introduce himself and then after some time , I understood that he expects me to say it, “ I guess you haven’t introduced yourself . I don’t even know your name”.
A strange expression flickered on his face like a candle light suddenly swaying in the wind. He laughed loudly.
“If I had known that, wouldn’t I have introduced myself to you, Mr. V?. The truth is I don’t seem to remember who I am.” The sound of the train through the night echoed inside the compartment and I felt as if I was falling through open space.
“What do you mean? What can you possibly mean?”
“Yes, Mr. V. as you might have noticed, I can read your thoughts, know everything about everyone but I don’t seem to remember who I am or to put it better, who I was.”
“Well, you might have injured your head or something, I guess. I have heard about your condition. However, I am not able to explain your clairvoyance”, I tried to take the side of reason and science as much as I could.
“You don’t have to try, V The truth is I don’t know and I can’t possibly know. I am a strange case. Just like you have become the man who was forgotten, I am the man who has forgotten.”
I felt myself like a ball of thread lost inside a labyrinth with nobody to pick it up as the train sped across the uncharted night, never stopping or slowing down.
“When I see people, I know all about them. Where they are from, where they are going to or even what they are thinking, but I would not know who I am to them even if I am actually related to them. Tomorrow if I meet my parents, I would know about them, everything about them. But I would not know if their son I am. I can empathize but I wouldn’t know from where to look at.”
“Do you understand, V, there is no relativity in my life. My mind operates in the absolute as if I were a cloud and all the world passes below me.”
He kept on speaking as if he had been waiting for me all his life. “Sometimes, it strikes me that I can be anything to a person. A son, a father, a daughter, a grandfather, wife, husband. While I realize that, I also feel I can’t know the difference. Actually, as somebody who can still remember, do you know the difference, Mr.V? Is there a difference between the love you feel for a person as her husband, as her father or as her son. I am talking about the intrinsic emotion that is universal to the relationships. I don’t know if you indeed, understand”
“How long have you been on this train?” I asked him, suddenly realizing he should have been on the train for a very long time to have known so well about it.
“I don’t know. All I know is now; Your speaking to me, This train speeding past, I won’t be able to recall anything else. Or remember. Even if I had been on the train all life I wouldn’t know about it. I just know and I don’t know how I know, I just know I won’t be able to get out of it.”
I got up from the seat, making up my mind.” are you sure?”
I walked across to the red chain and looked at him, “Are you sure?”
He nodded gravely.
I pulled hard at it. The train seemed to slow down. It came to a grinding halt and the gates opened. I looked at that mad man once more and walked towards the door. But the gates closed again, once I went near it.
The lights flickered and the train started again.” Why can’t I get down?” I sat on the floor, shoulders hunched , head on my hands and asked aloud.
“I told you, Mr. V, some people just don’t seem like they could get down.”
I looked up in alarm, because the voice had become someone else’s. Someone I knew. It was a woman’s voice.
Where the man was sitting, there was my wife.
“Leela,, Leela, was it you all along?” I cried and crawled towards her feet.
“Oh , I don’t know, Mr .V. I am not able to remember who I am. But I presume Leela must be your wife. Am I your wife, Mr.V?”
Before I could answer, the lights flickered again and my wife had become my son.
“Rohan, Rohan” , I sobbed and put my arms around him.
“Is Rohan not your son’s name. Should I call you as ‘ Dad’, Mr. V?”
Before I could answer, he had become my daughter, then my grandfather, my father, my colleague and my friend. He was morphing, as if he would never stop.
It was a tour de force. Notwithstanding the plague of forgetfulness that had set in among my people and my orphaned life, a cyclotron was now taking me on a painful fantasy ride through a lifetime of memories.
I rolled on the floor, numb with exhaustion as if I had lived my life again in those few seconds. He was now my best friend and looking at me with the same expression he had always carried on his pale ghostly face.
By then, I was in tears. I whispered in angst, “Stop it, stop it. Please stop these games. Who are you? Who are you.?”
“I told you Mr.V. I don’t remember who I am. ”
I slowly moved away from him in pain and reached the other corner.
Was he playing with me, to prove some point? Or was his creation designed like this? May be, he was some kind of a vessel where all the souls of the universe just fill and drain from moment to moment. May be he was not a man.
I turned to look at him. A cloud floated above his head as his body continued to transform. The air-conditioned metro suddenly felt warmer.
After a short pause, my father said, “Don’t you think all existence is after all memory, Mr .V?”
Somehow, I thought that the mystery man was genuine and did not mean harm to me or anything. He talked and behaved the same way all the time and it was me who saw those visions. May be all was not right with me. May be all of this was my illusion. I still had a job at hand. I needed to get out of the train. Wise as this man sounded, I would not spend my life, no, not even one night, with somebody who could not remember who he was. Gathering my strength, I got up and snatched the hammer from the fire alarm box and rushed at the glass doors.
I was thrown back with the same speed and fell spreadeagled on the floor.
“Why am I not able to get out of this train? And where does it stop?”
I asked him softly, giving up all effort and looking at the ceiling.
When he answered me, he had morphed again. How did I not expect this? It was the logical final vision. I was looking at me , sitting in the same place where my father had been, where my wife, son, daughter, sister, colleague and that strange man had all been and I said to me, in a voice I have always heard speak from within and without,“I don’t know, Mr V. This train doesn’t seem to stop anywhere. And even if it does, some people do not seem to be able to get down”. I spoke slowly as the train descended further into the still of the night.
Illustration: Sanghita Sanyal