Tapu's father used to say, stories never end. There comes a page where the writer gives up writing. The end product of every story is the picture of an exhausted artist. The story wins but the writer flunks. Flunking is essential, for when you flunk you get to see the bigger picture. Tapu's father was a class apart. He was strange and his words were hardly comprehensible then.
Tapu was a daddy's boy. He used to listen to his father silently without questioning or without getting bored. Many times he told me that he cannot comprehend his father at all but he never disappointed him by asking questions or simply by ignoring him like everyone else. Tapu’s father passed away, it has been a decade now. Last week, I saw Tapu near the cemetery gates waiting for someone. He was wearing a white dhoti and a kurta. He was clean shaved and was flaunting his long curly hair. It was difficult to make out whether it was Tapu standing there or his father. The resemblance was uncanny. I was surprised to see him in dhoti and kurta. Though there's no harm in wearing a dhoti and kurta but our generation does not wear it on regular days. It is only during occasions we wear such ethnic garments. So, I asked him, 'What’s the occasion Tapu?’ It seemed he wasn't very happy to see me there. He replied, 'It is December 14th dear.’ I asked him, ‘Could you please let me know what the significance of December 14th is? I am ignorant.’ Tapu smiled at me and said, ‘I will explain it to you some other day friend but for now could you please leave me alone! I am waiting for someone important.’
That was rude indeed. We don't expect something like that from an old friend. I felt humiliated and angry, so I stalked away without asking him any further questions. While walking down the road, I realized that's how his father was; rude, straight forward, private and unsocial. People used to laugh at him behind his back for his ways and I remember my grand mom used to call him jinxed and foul-mouthed. But that's a matter of the past now.
Tapu and me used to be very good friends during our school days. After schooling Tapu went to Australia to study medicines. After completing his studies, he started practising in Australia itself. For almost twelve years we were not in touch. He never came back after he went to Australia. His father passed away ten years ago, but he was not available at his funeral. His sister got married five years ago, but he didn’t turn up. Six months ago, he returned to home. Now he stays alone in his ancestral place. The halo of our childhood friendship faded long time ago when we were studying in two different countries.
After his return, I went to his place to meet him once but our meeting was very formal. It wasn't like the reunion of two friends but two known faces. We talked about our lives that day. He told me that he was very successful as a doctor in Australia but he returned to his country, for he wants to spend some time alone. He was happy to know that I am a medical representative. He also told me that he married a girl from Australia but they don't stay together anymore. I felt sad for him. The warmth of meeting an old friend was not there. I invited him to my house but he never turned up. Whenever we meet (accidentally) on the road or near the tea stall, I always start up the conversation but he shows no interest. I know he is no longer the old friend of mine; with time we all change. I don't think about all these anymore but last week’s incident was rather epiphanic. Tapu has transformed into something I know. It is a kind of scary metamorphosis. The person I saw last week near the cemetery gates was not my old friend, or one Australia-based doctor but the father of my old friend.
It is easy to forget humiliation for a man who is used to working for a private firm. It is a part of my daily job. They train us in the best possible way. It is like putting a man inside a gas chamber and then asking him to smile. If he smiles he is fit for the job and if he doesn’t then put more gas inside his chamber, eventually he will learn to smile. That’s me, self-loathing and honest, so it is not a big deal for me to forget the humiliation coming from a known face (at least) but it is not easy to forget the incident for many other things. Curiosity digs deep like a rabbit, What was Tapu doing near the cemetery gates? Why was he dressed differently? What is the significance of December 14th? What is the identity of that important person for whom he was waiting? Moreover, I had a strange feeling that it was not Tapu but his father. Is Tapu possessed? Or it’s just an act of his hyperactive genes!
The next morning I saw Tapu again near the tea stall, sipping on his cup whilst reading the newspaper. I was in no mood to start up the conversation that day. I asked the chaiwala for a cup of tea and some cookies pretending I haven’t noticed Tapu. He was sitting on a chair on the other side of the stall. While the vendor was preparing my preferred lemon tea, I puffed on my cigarette. Tapu was lost inside the newspaper just like his father used to get lost inside newspapers. He wasn’t even aware of my presence there. The chaiwala offered me the cup of tea and asked Tapu, ‘Sir would you like to repeat another cup?’ Tapu stared back at him and said ‘Yes.’ He noticed me, but right away he went back to the pages. After a while, I heard him saying:
‘Ours is a developing nation or an underdeveloped! What do you think?’ He wasn’t looking at me or anyone else. There were few people there but no one paid any heed to his question. Again he asked, ‘What do you think?’ Surprisingly the chaiwala replied, ‘We are developed.’
I saw a grin on Tapu’s face (a sarcastic one) and he turned towards me. He asked me ‘What do you think?’ I was actually at a loss of words. I wasn’t anticipating him to start up a conversation. I said, ‘We are a developing nation.’ He smiled and asked me, ‘Do you get time to read the newspaper?’ I said, ‘No I read it occasionally.’ There was a notorious smile on his face. I was aware that he was humiliating me in a subtle way. That’s how his father used to humiliate people. His words were like riddles of thorns. That’s why people used to hate him, laugh at him and call him jinxed and foul-mouthed.
I thought before he goes any further with economics and politics I must ask him about the significance of December 14th. So I said to him, ‘Tapu I’m still curious about the significance of December 14th.’ He raised his eyebrows, as if I asked him to donate me his eyes. ‘Curious’ he repeated with infinite amusement. His attitude of superiority rendered me speechless for a moment. I was like a chicken in front of him. The weight of his voice and confidence created an aura of dominance. For a moment I got carried away by my thoughts like in a reverie and pictured slaves being beaten up by rulers and goats being beaten up in a circus tent by the ringmaster. The bleating was so loud and cacophonic.
But somehow my curiosity convinced me and asked me not to give up. I asked him directly, ‘What were you doing near the cemetery gates? What was the occasion?’
Tapu replied, ‘Nothing much, I was waiting for someone important.’ It was clear that the conversation was falling off the edge as I was behaving like an immature inquisitive kid. But I was in no mood to give up. So I asked him again, this time more directly, that I am really curious about the significance of December 14th and I found the entire incident very mysterious and odd. Tapu, looked straight into my eyes and said, ‘I will tell you a story, and you should find it for yourself.’ I agreed.
He went on to tell his story:
Once there was a conjurer. He used to put up his magic tent in a village. He wasn’t very successful. He used to show the usual tricks of vanishing a pigeon inside a hat and pulling out rabbits from mud and turning origami parrots into real just by covering them with his handkerchief. With the passage of time his tricks became monotonous and boring. There was nothing new for him to offer. There was no thrill as the kids were already aware of all his tricks. People stopped visiting his magic show. He had no friends and used to be a loner. No one talked to him and kids were not allowed to go in front of his house, for many village woman believed that he was a messenger of Satan and he will cast a spell on their kids.
The conjurer was poor and had no one to take care of him. He used to cry all night long. One day the conjurer came out on the street, late in the evening. Everyone saw him standing with rabbits and pigeons and origami parrots on the street. They thought the conjurer has gone mad and he will turn everyone into rabbits. Rumors travelled faster than light and everyone ran away. People went inside their shanties and locked their doors and the windows. Mothers and kids prayed to god to save their village from the hands of the satanic conjurer. The conjurer shouted out loud, ‘Come! Come all, I will show you a new trick, a trick you haven’t seen before, come for once and evermore.’ But no one came out of their doors. The conjurer shouted again, ‘Come! Come all, I will show you a new trick, a trick you haven’t seen before, come for once and evermore.’ But again no one came out.
The conjurer was disappointed. He said, ‘Okay I will perform my trick, for once and evermore.’ And then he performed his masterpiece. But no one saw, what that trick was. It was performed on the evening of December 14th.
After that night, no one saw the conjurer again.
Tapu paid his bills and went away. I was rendered speechless as usual. Thoughts of Tapu’s father overwhelmed my conflicting emotions. He was indeed a class apart. I realized he was the writer of the story, he was the exhausted artist. He flunked both mentally and physically but his story won the innings in the shape of Tapu.
Arindam Banerjee: "I was born in West Bengal, India. After finishing post graduate work at the University of Calcutta, I avoided one metropolis (Kolkata) by choosing another (Delhi). I am unmarried with no regrets. I settled on an apartment in Delhi 3 years ago and at present I am working in the publishing industry as a Project Manager. I write because of the bugs that keep biting me from within. My poems and micro fictions have appeared in many journals and anthologies. I have a phobia that one day I will reach the edge of the Earth and fall off."