February 28, 2017

Sohrab's Last Story

Anirban Sen

It was one sunny afternoon when Sohrab slit his wrist with the nib of his favourite pen that he discovered the colour of his blood was indigo blue, and not dark red like the colour of his handwriting.

The strangeness of this situation started to dawn on him, excruciatingly slowly, clearing itself through the thick fog of processing an impossible reality.

A sharp pain overtook his brain and swallowed him whole. His brain switched into military combat mode and immediately ordered a curfew on any kind of sense or feeling. Sohrab’s mind obeyed the command, and without hesitation, went numb.

He looked down at his notepad and noticed the blood-red colour of the letters of every word of the story he was writing. No two letters were alike and all differed in thickness and vitality. Some letters were thick dabs of paint that seemed deliberated upon and some letters were airier in their brushstrokes that made his prose nimble.

Each letter was a confident brushstroke that had been practiced to perfection over the years, and each stood out for itself in its own pride of existence and profound personal ambition. And yet as they journeyed through the page every letter stitched itself with the next one in a languid friendship to weave out a rich ornate design.

Two minutes into his numbness, he realized without thinking that, for once in his life, he wasn’t scanning through his writing and neither was he reading any words. Instead, he found himself staring at the most beautiful intricate design his handwriting had ever created. It looked like a work of outstanding artistry.

It occurred to him that the design had much more beauty and meaning than all the chapters and paragraphs in the story that he was writing. A few minutes later into his numbness, he understood that the design was a visual message sent to him across a vast distance. But that distance didn’t seem to measure itself in kilometers or miles.

He couldn’t decipher the message but he knew it was in his own handwriting, and therefore the message had to be from none other than himself.

And he remembered himself. He remembered his face in the mirror from a few minutes before, on that very afternoon just before he slashed his wrist.

He remembered being surprised how old he had grown. He realized now, all these years, even though he stood in front of the mirror every day, he had never really looked at himself. His faraway eyes were always lost in tunnels of thought, mining out words and stories, and his gaze always looked beyond his reflection and focused on an imaginary place where he actually lived. He would give his reflection just a cursory glance for a brief second as if to feel reassured that the man in the mirror was still himself. That’s how he marked his attendance of each day of his life.

He remembered the weather-beaten cheeks that were caving in gently and silently like giant tectonic plates. He remembered his wrinkles that dug themselves long canyons across his face from the sides of his eyes. They were like tributaries of a river but they travelled horizontally with the slow anguish of a poem written in a deep calligraphic handwriting. But the tributaries were dry and inkless, and he thought maybe it was because tears could only flow downwards.

And he remembered his eyes. The glint of his eyes was tender and kind, and yet it had a fiendishly sinister shine. That shine was the only clue that betrayed the existence of the deep and dark passages inside his brain that formed complex tunnels of thought, carefully excavated out of the fertile terrain of his mind. He explored these inky black labyrinths day and night with a flaming torch, and it was this light from the torch that made his eyes twinkle.

He searched tirelessly for strange and unusual adventures and plots of stories inside these tunnels that crisscrossed to form an endless maze. Some stories oozed out of him from the tip of his fingers through his handwriting that did eventually make him an accomplished author. Some stories were never documented and remained etched on the walls of the tunnels, delicious in their dark secrecy, far out of reach of time’s judgment.

The tunnels reminded Sohrab of his wrinkles.

His understood then, after a lifetime, that his face was a mirror. The wrinkles were a reflection of the labyrinths in his mind, perfect in in their imitation and profound in their wisdom, and they left behind trails that recorded in minute detail the journey of his life and kept it safe, deep inside their folds.

It was not his face anymore; the wrinkles had transformed his face into a notebook containing a thousand scribbled stories. Ten minutes into his numbness, it struck Sohrab that the wrinkles on his face were not a result of the decay of time. But they were someone’s handwriting.

Somebody had been writing on his face. He recalled his shriveled up face and recounted his wrinkles that mapped his face in deep gashes that looked like battle wounds. That afternoon, before deciding to take his life, he had really looked at himself for the first time after thirty years. He was unsure if he would recognize himself.

At first, his reflection was the face of a stranger he had never met. But he knew it was himself, not because he was looking into a mirror. He recognized himself because of the wrinkles that scarred his face. The lines narrated his life in meticulous detail and he recognized the story. It was his story.

The writing had no arrogant flair of a writer yet it was remarkably lucid in its language and heart wrenchingly poetic in its portrayal. The handwriting had no ink. But every chapter was visible, each page was numbered, and there was a sense of finality engraved in the tone that made Sohrab feel that the book was, at long last, ready to go into print.

There was also a sense of haunting embedded in the handwriting of his wrinkles. Cuneiform and hollow, the writing seemed to be an echo of ancient whispers; the memory of the wind that had painstakingly chiseled out the tales of his life in longhand.

In the tenderness of the handwriting, Sohrab detected love. Through the years the wrinkles had relentlessly carved out ravines and gorges across his face, but Sohrab realized he had never ever felt any jab of pain. The wrinkles were so gentle that even as they etched the stories, their touch was imperceptible and silent, and that rendered the handwriting invisible for years, even after they had started to show.

Our wrinkles are reminders of the approaching of our life’s final deadline. But that sunny afternoon Sohrab felt his wrinkles were not warnings but were handwritten letters of love. And they were written every day with a longing and a heart full of ache for countless years, and now they were finally ready to be posted.

Thirty minutes had passed and Sohrab’s numbness had begun to ebb. He began to feel immeasurably grateful for his life. The feeling came to him in waves from an endless ocean that was stretched itself to unfathomable distances.

He was still overwhelmed with the sense of gratitude when his numbness withered and died and he began to feel alive. His room came back into focus, the couch and the electric teapot, the smear of the coffee stain on the table, and he was suddenly acutely aware of that sharp pain in his wrist. His eyes travelled to the blood still gushing out of his fatal wound, and he smiled. It was the final stroke of his story in his own handwriting, and he felt a last sliver of pain from the wound that was ready to define him.

Forty-two minutes later, as the glint of his eyes began to fade with weariness, he heard the thud of the final full stop. Along with the sound he took his last breath, the last sigh of farewell as the ink ran out.

It was a moment after he was dead, when he deciphered his message to himself that was scrawled all over his notebook. All his life Sohrab had loved the stories he had created with the immensity of a parent. He remembered each of them from the time they were born, fresh in his own handwriting, borrowed from the underground labyrinths inside his head. Each of them was his labour of love, his signature that he would leave behind.

Then his face flashed for one last time. And he realized he had been wrong all his life.

As his face flashed for the last time, he noticed only his wrinkles. Some lines were deep and ambitious and some lines were just whispers but as they journeyed through his face, they crisscrossed each other and at times even stitched themselves with another line in a languid friendship to weave out a rich ornate design.

The design looked familiar. And then he knew. It was the exactly the same design on his notebook that he had first noticed before the dizziness took over.

It was then that he realized it was not him who had been writing his stories all his life. In fact, it was the opposite. All through his life it was his stories that were writing him.

His face was now serene and calm, and his indigo blue blood was wet and fresh, much like the ink of his handwriting right after he had completed a story. He looked like a work of outstanding artistry.

He looked ready to be published.

About the Author: Anirban Sen likes Jim Beam at the end of the day. Before that time comes, he does what he does well – advertising. He has a Cannes for Happydent. He enjoys traveling, scouring forests and trekking on mountains. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, while with Jim Beam, he writes stories. 

February 1, 2017

Blackie, the Dog with One Ear

Desmond Macedo

Fortunately, the wife didn’t see him urinate on the boxes containing our household belongings else he may never have become part of our lives.

‘How do you allow a dog that urinated on your belongings to be part of your home’ is one of those questions that human beings are likely to ask. I being of a specie somewhere in between a human being and a dog, somewhat felt that such dog behaviour and human attitude is not unusual.

We had just moved into our new cottage in Lohagaon, near Pune airport, when he strolled into the house with what is nowadays called 'swag', sniffed some of the boxes, and did his job. I watched him, nervous, hoping wife would not turn around. She didn’t. And I firmed up my plan to adopt him.

Unlike most stray dogs, he didn’t wag his tail a lot. He did the opposite – he snarled if you went near him, exposing those two long, pointed teeth in front like Christopher Lee had. Even his growl sounded fierce, or perhaps, a black dog is more frightening than a dog of any other colour. Still, I decided to be careful with him.

Good height, well built, though lean from irregular food that strays are like, and with a long snout, he looked like a wolf and just as stately. Being black, the locals called him Kalia. He had two brown marks above the eyebrows that someone told me was a Rottweiler sign, so he could be a cross between a Rottweiler and a stray. And that breed is dangerous.

I believed the Rottweiler tie-up or liked to believe it. If I was going to look after him, I didn’t want a dog always wagging its tail when it sees me, fawning like an obsequious sycophant, sycophant being someone who fawns, and is obsequious, so two of those three words were redundant, but not redundant enough for me to under-stress their use as I found all three disgusting. I had just quit advertising, or was on my way out, where, off and on, I had seen for twenty-odd years people fawning over each other, so I wasn’t going to be pleased with a dog also from advertising.

We settled into our new home while he would come around the gate now and then and peep in, when we would feed him chicken pieces. In between now and then, he was running after females. Five years later, we were running with him to the vet and back in an autorickshaw, treating him for venereal granuloma, a skin disease that strays sometimes pick up from indiscriminate mating. Listening to the vet, I thought that would be enviable disease to get.

In one of those fights with other male strays over females he got his left ear torn away and dangling from his head. In a few days the wound was festering, flies hovering around it, and maggots crawling around inside. He was running aimlessly, squirming achingly from the scratchiness that maggots cause, crawling on naked flesh. When he shook his head, as he frequently did, wife could see maggots tossed in the air.

I was in Mumbai when she called me. I pleaded, ‘Get him to hospital.’ In my anxiety, I did not distinguish a hospital from a veterinary, though, I knew quite a few dogs that should've been treated at hospitals and human beings who should’ve been treated at veterinaries.

Wife got on the phone to Blue Cross that day. An official arrived with a tempo and dog chain, but without the nerve to approach Kalia. He figured the dog was ferocious. He spent an hour outside the house wondering how to get the chain on the dog, then left.

Next morning, wife had the number of another animal caretaker, a girl, who was attached to Blue Cross.

Meanwhile, Kalia, chased by locals because he didn’t have the usual reputation a dog should have - wag its tail when addressed by a human - ran up the staircase of a single-storey building nearby. He stood in the centre of the terrace, with the locals at the head of the staircase carrying lathis, and tin and plywood sheets to barricade him from running away. Their plan was to put his lights out.

But Kalia’s lights were not about to go out with two determined women stepping in between. The crowds parted, more from curiosity at how two unarmed women had the courage to walk up to a ferocious dog, and calmly put a chain around its neck. The girl was carrying biscuits; dogs also know tone of human voice; and the dog was slightly acquainted with wife.

The girl had a powder insecticide for the maggots, which she applied, dusting off the maggots. Then she covered and bound the wound with a cloth. Wife described to me how calm he was and how funny he looked with a bandage around his head.

By now, Kalia had become Blackie.

He spent six months at Blue Cross. Nearly died there because the wound wouldn’t heal. The girl liked him, though we never knew why. She cared for him personally. We heard her mother advised her against marriage: How will you look after stray dogs as well as a husband and a home?

And by the time he returned home in a tempo, we were ready to adopt him. Blue Cross did a fine job – they released him well fed, stout, and in a shining black coat. He bounced around, happy to meet us, or happy to be out of the dog pound. And he had one ear.

I began to feed him chicken ‘curry pieces,’ which I bought from Kirkee Cantonment bazaar once a week, where I also met an old friend for cigarettes, tea and conversation. He had a dog himself, so he knew where to get good pieces.

Blackie loved playing with us but he used to snip us playfully and the pinch was painful. Dogs, stray dogs or domestic dogs have a territory of a maximum 250 meters. He could go beyond 2 kms without any dog interfering with him. Perhaps dogs knew breeds.

At the vet, the doctor couldn’t administer the injection for venereal granuloma. His platelet count was very low. The vet put him on herbal extracts – papaya – to raise the count. Something else showed up in the blood tests – tick fever – which can be worrisome if not treated.

The papaya extract worked. The count rose. The vet was able to give him two injections stretched over ten days. He told me, the injections were actually a chemotherapy. Venereal Granuloma is a benign tumor, but again, it has to be treated. And the tick fever was contained.

And this is where I need to change the tense of this story to present, as obituaries are usually written in past tense.

Blackie is old and mellow. Off and on we'd try to figure his age from locals who remember him. He is somewhere between 13 and 15 years.

Before Blue Cross, with both ears 

Recently, a female came snuggling up to him. He jumped up from that whiff, forgetting he had just got over venereal granuloma. Normally, the males go around sniffing the females to find out if any is ready to mate. This one came up to him to announce it. Not one young male could interfere in their liaison. He spent the next three days a few inches away from her, but he couldn’t mate. Blackie, whom I now suspected being of a specie somewhere in between a dog and a human, frowned upon the word 'mate'.' 'If only they knew the rumbustious pleasure of getting one's tiddlywinks locked into a female, they wouldn't use 'mate,' a word grossly under-descriptive of how dogs shag,' he thought.

After Blue Cross, right ear gone. 

Our neighbor in Lohagaon recently sold his house and left. The new owners arrived a few days later and entered their gate. Blackie, lying on the road leading to their gate, got up and barked at them. He knew the previous owners; he didn’t know these. They called out to his name, then he went back to dozing in the sun.

But he must’ve thought, ‘It’s especially nice when you don’t know people but they know you.’

‘Well, if you keep the company of wolves you learn how to howl, so if you keep the company of humans you learn how to brag,’ I thought on his behalf again, because, by now, it was confirmed he was of a specie somewhere in between a dog and a human being.

Children on their way to school in the morning say, ‘Blackie, come here.’ He doesn’t move. Once again, louder, firmly, ‘Blackie, pay attention, come here.’ He gets up and walks away. An idiosyncrasy, perhaps - he doesn’t like children.

 We have some friends in Thane who come down for a break on long weekends. While getting ready to drive down, their 4-year old asks, ‘Mama, we going to Blackie’s house?’ ‘Yes.’ The little fella grins.

Nice name, so I’ve thought of naming our cottage, ‘Blackie’s House,’ done on a little board, prominently displayed.

For a dog that didn’t have a home, there will be one named after him.