Monday, January 22, 2018

LOU: A SHORT STORY



My mentor in philosophy was the third Earl of Kingston, Bertie Russell, born  circa 1872, died 1970 oblivious of the ardent affiliation of mine. What he once wrote is relevant to our story here-“..between Theology and Science there lies a No Man’s Land…that’s Philosophy. Almost all questions of most interest to the speculative mind are such as Science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer sound convincing...” The only improvement I have made upon his words consists in the capitalisation of initials of some important words that are carriers of significant concepts…

It was in bleak December, and Kong Beloris, my dear friend, and I  were lounging at Swish, Shillong’s most ancient café, waiting for the dense Meghalaya fog to run its course. Inside, it was 4 in the evening, and outside, a dark freezing midnight. Bah Tito Syiem, the Café Manager, carefully purring on a hot coffee while trotting back and forth, waited patiently for the fog and the two remaining occupants of the café to disperse. Kong Dr Beloris Lapang, D.Phil and I were sitting at our usual corner table, debating the longevity of Philosophy, the subject Kong taught at Shillong’s excellent University, NEHU, and Bah and Kong are not Khasi names, but merely honorifics sans which gentlemen and ladies respectively may not be addressed by you.

Kong Beloris was lamenting the exponential decline in admissions to her faculty, seeking comfort in her approaching retirement from service. It was here that I dusted and delivered the quote that forms the substance of our first para. Kong, said I, theology and it’s surrogate, religion, are in retreat, their territory contracting by the day. Simultaneously the canvas of science expands as she conquers territory after territory. The scope for Philosophy is therefore that much less. That is why philosophy as a discipline has lost fecundity and vigour. A day has to come when the sum of annual admissions in your departments all over the country equates itself with the sum of retirements…only replacement demand would remain! That was certainly a prospect Kong failed to relish. I don’t expect such negative vibes about my subject from you, Carl, she said… pinching me in fun..

The to-and-fro metronome movement of Bah Tito had continued in the background.  All of a sudden Bah halted in his tracks, turned around, placed his coffee mug on the mantelpiece of the fireplace which hosted a crackling fire, rubbed his palms vigorously at the fringes of the fire, and thus replenished with warmth, approached our corner with his Lajong mug.  Do you mind if I joined you, asked Bah, and upon our nodding cordial assent, pulled a heavy teakwood chair.

Khublei shibun, said he, I was listening to your conversation with some attention, an act of mine which deserves your indulgence, for the mention of the word Philosophy floods my mind with the memories of the delicate Lenore, Lou for short, and Philosophy is the world where I seek solace when I try to come to terms with her existence. Is it some kind of third-party-existentialism I felt like asking, but the sun-and-shade of emotions that flitted across Bah Tito’s thick brow compelled me and Kong to let Bah continue uninterrupted. Umm.. he said, in that sense Philosophy which is perhaps a matter of theory for you, is for me an article or a contrivance of daily use, like a bed-spread or a fishing-rod you may say…Nevertheless, Bah Carl’s definition deals me a strange relief today, how and why, I shall presently explain…

Umm I can’t help but begin with Lou’s eyes, said Bah Tito, for they had- note the had- had a special sparkle that lent a peculiar glow to her beautiful face, which again, being a Khasi face, had a measure of strangeness in proportion that Blaise Pascal would have commended- or was it Poe, or umm Poe quoting someone in...Eleonora?  Lou’s face had a high recall quotient on account of her special eyes, and like beams of light emanating from a car’s headlight they shone.  She was my youngest sister, 15 years in between, and when I went to fetch her, as a little girl, from the Laitumkrah bus-drop, I would locate her easily in the cramped Loreto school-van from a mischievous gleam of eyes sitting in a corner, brimming with joie de verve and an irrepressible curiosity about the world in general..

Well, umm, Lou was the beloved of the household, and as you must have guessed, she was the family’s khadduh- the youngest daughter, the inheritor of the family’s wealth. Ka khadduh, amongst Khasis, is the family darling, not for any motive, but it is a fact, simply stated, that ka khadduh is the recipient of much inquisitiveness and adoration, and Lou was such a source of delight!

She grew like the phases of the moon, blossoming into an exquisite beauty, tall, delicate, and boys would sway when she walked down the undulating streets of Shillong, on her high stilettos as only a Khasi girl can. Bright at school, she was, and the Shillong Choir would sound incomplete without her. In short, a daughter or sister to treasure, cynosure of all eyes wherever she went! A beautiful and fulfilling future awaited her expectantly...

She had just turned 18 when that year’s Nongkrem arrived, the Khasi thanksgiving festival celebrated at Smit in early winter, after the harvest, where the sacrificial goats are offered to the Gods, and where Khasi virgins and boys congregate, to dance in the steppe-like fields, scattering the golden hue of pure Khasi gold ornaments and crowns to the skies, to the entrancing accompaniment of drums and pipes...

Then it happened. We lost Lou. She disappeared...simply vanished from the face of this earth as it were, leaving no physical token of existence! Her friends saw her last at the altar of Ka Pah Syntiew, on the fifth day of the festival. Frantic messages went out to the head-men, the Lyngdohs, the Syiems...We combed the whole of Khasi hills for her, from the heights of the Nohkalikai Falls, to the depths of Dawki, to the wilderness of the Mawplang forest, where for 2 whole days in a feverish trance we negotiated the arms of the castanopsises and the pinus kasia, swaying and whistling wildly to the angry winds, side-stepping the poisonous cobra-lilies, ferns and pipers that inhabit Lou’s beloved sacred forest. We then remembered her obsession with Nohkalikai…

Here I blurted out something which I quickly realised was wholly misplaced, even as I intoned my last word.. “ but what did the police..welll.. say”? Bah Tito gaped at me, his mouth struck open and the only word there spoken by Kong was the whispered word “Carl”, Kong Beloris looking at me half in disbelief, half in amusement…a Khasi will rarely, if ever, approach the  police force over family matters unless he’s sure that an outsider was involved...

..and..continued Bah without allowing the sombreness of the narrative to flag...do you know how the tallest waterfall in the world got it’s name? Poor Ka Likai had jumped in anger and grief from the Sohra hill- that’s where the Noh comes from- when she saw the severed fingers of her child! So..I even checked the green plunge-pool half a mile below for our girl, to rule out the possibility of Likai having permeated Lou’s mind..umm..

Now you know Sir what it is to try to come to terms with someone’s existence! One day my dear child occupied the whole length and breadth of my world, and the next day she was gone! Mamma and Papa were of course disconsolate. They waited in vain all the time watching from our terrace the winding road that leads from Laitumkrah to our abode in Lummawrie. Umm..Mamma visited various churches and must have sacrificed at the very least a hundred roosters. Mamma  hosted many a Khasi ritual, the chief being the Egg Oracle, where the priest invokes the supreme God U Blei Nongthaw, breaks an egg, and from the way the shell crumbles tries to divine His command. By all indications she was very much alive and happy, so they said! How could she be happy away from her family..duh...!Much as I wanted to share my parents’ plebeian hopes, in the heart of hearts I feared the worst, though I must confess I would see the likeness of Lou in every girl approaching from a distance. Philosophy was my only succour and solace. Why did Lou go away? Ka tyrut? Khasi philosophy never attributes a mortal departure to the will of God- the machinations of the vicious spirit ka tyrut are believed to be behind every mortal event...and...

Umm.. Bah Tito paused, apparently in order to compose his philosophical interpretation of the events, and also to allow the lump in his throat to retreat....

”Strange are the ways of fate” I mused absently.

Well well, strictly speaking, we Khasis don’t believe in the way the Christian religion treats the concept of Fate, Carl, said Kong Beloris, looking kind of askance at me. Bah Tito nodded vigorously, for none other than NEHU’s Philosophy department seemed to be certifying his world-view..ka kambhah kambynta we call it, said Kong..and before she could elaborate, Bah, being better prepared thanks to Lou, jumped the gun..Ka kambhah kambynta said Bah Tito defines the way Fate is supposed to operate. The unborn child in her mother’s womb is confronted by ka Lei Synshar, our equivalent of the Hindi Brahma, with various kinds of fate and the embryo has to choose one, failing which she or he will remain still-born. How and why had Lou chosen to disappear? That was the question which we asked ourselves...

…Outside Swish the weather was worsening, as further reinforcements of fog arrived from the heights of Laitkor...Bah Tito’s mystery took on further lease of life..

Umm..said Bah years passed, the world went on and did what Father Marbaniang pompously says- is it not ‘ tempus edax rerum’  Kong? Tempus edax rerum...to be sure..Time heals, but when..?

Umm…about three years after the unfortunate events, I happened to be in Calcutta. All said and done, in spite of the emergence of Gauhati, Calcutta still remains the umbilical cord that connects the north-east to the mainland...Umm…I had gone to have a look at a second-hand frigidaire..there it lies in the corner... the skies were overcast just like today, I had taken a morning-walk  in the Maidan and was crossing the main-road near Grand, when I saw a well-dressed girl emerge from the Hotel, and she..was it Lou...? I missed a thousand heart-beats- the same stiletto-balancing walk, the same profile and...”Lou” I yelled in spite of myself, keeping my best manners under animated suspension. The girl froze, turned around, yes she was Lou indeed, the same shining eyes, the same tall forehead, same garden-fresh complexion...a bit taller…she had in the meantime covered her cheeks with her two palms like the figure in that scream painting and exclaimed, to my surprise, “Dada”, which is how they address an elder brother in Bengal. She regarded me most cordially and with affection, as the whole of Chowringhee spun around me, and conscious of the explosive potential of the situation, she hurriedly came across, held my hand, and promised to explain to me everything once we reached her home in Behala.

We clambered onto a rumbling tram, found seating easily, moving as we were against the morning traffic, and looking out of the window I sat, the montage of the past three years playing fitfully before me like an old movie print. Calcutta was the only place in the world where such dénouement could have unfolded…I consoled myself..

Umm..Lou was shaking nervously. We alighted at the Behala Chowrasta and reached her home, on the second floor of a decorous building behind the Museum. There was no one inside, seemed she stayed alone. The ambience bore the stamp of style and affluence, to my great relief. It was unusually cold for Calcutta and Lou was shivering. Bah Tito she asked, of course you have not given up smoking, let me get a pack of cigarettes for you, there is a pan-shop across the street, she picked up her purse and slid into the winding staircase.

I looked around the small house , it was neatly kept, as could be expected of Lou. The memorabilia in the showcase evidenced a trip to South East Asia, with those merlions and red-dragon images. A guitar hung beside the dresser in her bed-room. Good, there was a picture of the Christ, which bore uncanny likeness to the one back in our Shillong home, how this thing called habit works, I mused. I ventured into the little balcony. It overlooked the pan-shop Lou spoke about. I looked around but failed to spot our Lou wearing the red T-shirt with the number 10 on the back I had noticed when I last saw her hurry down the stairs…

And that was also the last I had seen of her. The elements had again played truant, and Lou had vanished. She never came back with the promised pack of Four Square.

We sat in stunned silence, I and possibly Kong, trying in our minds to apportion blame for the lost resurrection. I sighed, and just to relieve Bah Tito of the sheer burden of misery that overtook his weather-beaten face, reminded him of his resolve to explain the relevance of our Quote here, how it could provide poetic relief to him.

Umm.. said Bah Tito, you talked about the no-man’s- land between religion and science, did you not? As I realise, the hand of dark-forces stands ruled out by the fact of Lou’s reappearance. The territory of the known expands thereby, and thence I derive peace and quiet…but Philosophy will always be there for me…my bed and fishing-rod!

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