A momentary lapse of reason
AMAN SETHI'S short story won the first prize in the recent Writers' Circle Prize 2005 contest held by the British Council, Chennai.
THERE was no possibility of taking a walk that day; it was raining much too hard. Instead, Das took the bus home. As he came to a standstill, Das reminded himself that he was lucky to be alive. The bus had been moving faster than he had assumed, and the ground was wet and slippery.
As he hit the ground running, Das barely kept his balance. He stood panting at the bus stop and squirmed under the gaze of his fellow passengers. Evening bus travellers were an exceedingly bored lot, second only to high school teachers, night chowkidars, and government clerks. Anything vaguely eventful a passenger dropping a bag off the bus, a ticketless traveller, or a rowdy eve-teaser, immediately caught their attention. It happened all the time, and he had been guilty of it himself.
Das' mishap was potentially life threatening he could have slipped under the bus' wheels but the chances of that happening were slim. He could just as easily have died of a severe case of food poisoning. "Most things in life are potentially life threatening," he noted glumly, and so began the ritual that was to stay with Das for a long time to come.
Every morning Das woke up at the crack of dawn, brushed, bathed, clothed himself and sat down at his table. He spent the next hour planning out the activities of the day, assessing the risks involved in each of them. He was not paranoid, not at all. Das looked at the whole exercise with a cold business-like eye, backed by an energetic belief in fatalism.
He had not always been so unemotional about the issue; but one day, after about a year into the exercise, he had spontaneously declared himself dead. From that day on, every additional day was a gift from a benevolent god.
Like an accountant totalling up his balance sheets, Das calculated the chances he had of living through the day. Meticulously, he incorporated factors like fatigue, boredom, and weather conditions, and as the months went by, his model became more and more refined. Pretty soon, he reached a stage where any further additions would require the services of a computer, and possessing neither a computer nor the necessary skills, Das refrained from developing it further.
One morning, on August 17, Das awoke unusually early. As he had time to spare, he went about his usual chores in a leisurely fashion, and sat down to his daily calculations. Life and death stared him in the face as he played his engrossing game of numbers. Absolute silence reigned; interrupted only by the sound of Das' breathing, the clicking of the keys of his calculator, and the scratching of pencil on paper. And then the unthinkable happened! The weather, auto strike, his sore throat, misplaced spectacles and a host of other factors added up to give him an unusually slim ratio. Shiv Kumar Das, 41, son of Rajinder Kumar Das would die today!
A brief, uneventful life had not prepared him for the shock and terror of seeing those numbers; nor had the whimsical assumption that he was dead. Here was death staring him in the face, and it wasn't a frightening ogre, or a sinister shadow it was a mathematical expression written out at the bottom of an A4 size sheet of paper. 70-30 it said.
As soon as he got over the initial shock, which took some time, Das hastily re-checked his calculations, and re-checked the re-checked ones. Again and again he pounded the keys of his aging calculator, willing the ratio to change. Nothing changed. He tried to think of other factors he could incorporate, and thereby improve his chances of survival, but nothing came to mind. He then realised that he had omitted the most important factor of all the effect of his morning ritual on his psyche and powers of concentration. Would the knowledge of his impending death improve his concentration and make him more cautious? Or would it make him preoccupied and hence, more prone to mistakes? Das' mind raced, looped, spun and finally gave up. He put down his pen and slowly arose from his chair. He arranged his terror-struck features into a blank mask. Heroically he packed his tiffin of aloo parathas and, making sure everything in the house was in order, he stepped out into the morning calm. As he stood at the doorstep, Das reflected on how easy it was to simply go back into the house and spend the day in bed. That would certainly create conditions that were most conducive to survival. But then he fell for the trap that we all so often set for ourselves he felt it was his duty to go out that day and tempt fate.
Humankind is, perhaps, the most self-destructive of all species. Significant proportions of us die every year on the flimsiest of pretexts. We drive our cars too fast, we dare each other to jump chasms, we climb mountains unsupported, and jump off bridges with rubber bands attached to our feet. We call it "The return to our natural state" and excitedly describe the raw energy that rips through our body when we tempt fate.
While we might be correct about the adrenaline rush, we are quite wrong about "the return to our natural state". The return to our natural state would involve an almost paranoid concern with self-preservation. No, tempting fate is our celebration of the unnatural. It is the declaration that we are now advanced enough as a species to take our lives into our own hands. The declaration in itself is more or less harmless; the danger creeps in when it is laced with ego.
Unfortunately, a large amount of literature of the more contrived (and popular) kind, deals with what can be termed - "A defining moment". A "defining moment" is, as the name suggests, a point in all our lives, where we must prove our unnaturalness and join in the celebration of the human ego. Men, being more prone to egotism than women, regularly find themselves in situations where they must "prove that they are men after all" and not "women in men's clothing". Hence the sexist phrase "A man's got to do, what a man's got to do."
Thus our poor misguided Das, driven by a misplaced sense of duty, felt that today was his defining moment, the day he would prove himself to be a man, a master of his destiny and captain of his ship. He might even have recited "Invictus" to himself.
Das walked down to the bus stop. Recalling the sequence of events mentioned in most cheap paperbacks, he began to take notice of "all the little things" the ember that crumbles, the opening flower, the bittersweet smell of rotting garbage.
He reached the office without incident and sat down to work. He attempted to make sense of the paperwork in front of him, but his mind was somewhere else. All that crossed his mind was "When will it come? How will it come? Please let it be painless."
Mid-afternoon found Das alive and increasingly twitchy. He twiddled nervously with his pencil and, at the same time, tried to attract as little attention to himself as possible. He felt positively sick. Time and again he rushed to the washroom, shivering and bathed in sweat.
By evening he was a wreck. Somehow he stumbled out of office and began to walk rapidly down the street, mumbling incoherently to himself. His breath came in short gasps as he walked on and on, driven by an insane energy, till he finally reached the riverside. Exhausted, he sat down on a stone bench, lit a cigarette, and gazed at the river.
Bit by bit, Das felt his muscles relax. His hysteria subsided, his mind cleared. An hour later, he got up from the bench. His face calm and business like, Shiv Kumar Das walked straight towards the river and plunged into its stormy depths.
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