House out of Time

This extract is from a novel called House out of Time. This is part of Chapter 6.

6.     The Pigeon among the Cats

When Mr Shah came to, he perceived a few people gathered around him, while most others carried on with their hurried movement hither and fro. His office bag with the tiffin case containing his lunch was beside him on the floor. It took him a couple of minutes to figure out where he was. He was on the floor of a Metro platform. He was on his back because…

Ah, yes. He must have fainted. That’s why all these people are here, looking concerned and asking questions.

Yes, I’m fine, thank you. I’m getting late for office.

Nothing happened. The blood just rushed to my head. It’s just that I’m epileptic. In fact, my fits are quite regular, often turning very violent. As a matter of fact, I’m mad. I’ve received electric shocks in insane asylums and that’s why I faint from time to time on the Metro platforms. Can I go now, having given you all my psycho-medical history?

So cursing all solicitous enquiries along such ungrateful, sarcastic lines, but maintaining a perfectly polite and courteous exterior, Mr Shah pushed along on his way to office.

The day was as regular as his sleep and his snoring (and his wife’s nagging him about it). He was fortunate enough to have regular hours despite working in a group of publications. He worked almost like one of the administrative staff and felt out of the league of the people employed in the journalistic and editorial departments. He was in fact neither here nor there. Not many people noticed him, and certainly they were too busy competing with each other to take into account someone who did not even look like he had it in him to compete. It was almost like a government job for Mr Shah, in its monotony, regularity and reassurance. While many people around him rushed and whirled and danced and whistled to the tune of daily affairs, Mr Shah remained content to simply comment with pen and pencil on these affairs in the manner in which he had been specifically directed. If his illustrations were rejected, he drew other ones. He had no attachment left to them. And if these too were rejected, he could always draw still other ones. Eventually, someone would get tired or impatient and accept them. In fact, most of his time in office went into doodling. He had a computer to work on, too, but he rarely used it. He had been directed to surf the internet for ideas, for ‘fresh, creative concepts’, but he had yet to open even an email account other than the one the company had opened for him. It was as if he was stubbornly trying to hang on to a time that had gone by, and to which he had not even belonged.

When the markets opened up, and the globalised world rushed into India in the early 1990s – in the form of foreign-made cars, satellite television and Pepsi cola (in the indigenised guise of ‘Lehar Pepsi’) – Mr Shah and Mrs Shah were in their mid-twenties. The change caught them by surprise. Suddenly there were more movies on television than you could possibly watch, whereas earlier they had to wait for a week in order to get one. Suddenly they were able to see slickly-made television shows in English, whereas earlier their diet was restricted to a home-made fare set in a world that was fast vanishing, at least from the cities. Suddenly there were more eating joints, more shopping joints, more drinking joints, more amusement joints, than there had ever been or could have been imagined. Suddenly there were jobs of a nature and pay not witnessed before. People began to grow out of their ambition to join the government service. Money became important to an extent that had been previously inconceivable. Possessing money and showing it off became important in a way that they had simply not been used to. Their world changed and they kept pace with it to the extent that they duly changed their clothes with it. But as for their mental habits, they simply could not transform into creatures of obsessive, compulsive and conspicuous consumption. They were left out, or rather they dropped out of the radar of the social class they were in. The middle-class now quite openly respected only wealth and its symbols, whereas earlier there had been a sense of sleaze attached to the overt display of wealth. The Shahs purchased a car when they could afford it but they did not think of it beyond its functional purposes. In this they were both alike. It simply did not enter their imagination to seek happiness through the exhibition of symbols of wealth. They did not understand the minutiae and rules of this symbolic economy.

But nor were they radicals, sympathetic of the socialist or communist points of view, their hearts bleeding for the poor and the deprived. They did not read the latest theories and they did not participate in protest marches and dharnas. They were simply middle-class, in a way the middle-class had now ceased to be. They were relics of a bygone age, outwardly conforming to the ethos of the new economy (clothes, house, car), but inwardly not sure what place they had in the social spectrum any more. They were drop-outs without being failures, they had bought the prescribed new clothes but still wore the old ones underneath them.

Their salaries had increased and they had let them increase without consciously pursuing the growth. They had stuck to the jobs they knew, not even acknowledging the new temptations to jump ship for a better pay packet elsewhere. They were efficient without being brilliant or extraordinary in the way it was now thought requisite in order to ‘grow’. They did not compete, but plodded. They represented the presumed solidity of a middle-class that was melting away. They were in the new world, but not of it.

This had quite a few implications for their work-lives. Since they could not cut throats, they were misfits, and out of the mainstream of office politics. And yet, they were valued in an unacknowledged way because they were loyal, committed and dedicated. So they stayed on in their respective organisations but they did not belong. Both of them secretly dreaded promotions and the prospect of coming into positions of authority. And since they did not want them, they did not get them. They were like the pillars of a building that had collapsed.

Mr Shah was the most peculiar creature in his organisation. Even the peons and helpers displayed more eagerness to get ahead than he did. Consequently, he did not have many friends. In fact, he had none. He was a dreamy fellow, content to pass the day lost in his thoughts. He did just the amount of work he was required to do, trying to maintain his composure and wakefulness the most he could, especially when interacting with others or attending meetings. In all the office meetings for ‘creative brainstorming’, which they had every other day, Mr Shah looked forward to the tea and jam biscuits. He made no suggestions at these meetings, nor was he ever asked for them, but he was always required to come, as part of the ‘creative team’, to eat the jam biscuits he supposed. During the routine work-day, he sat in his little corner near the window and often snored. Even this, when noticed, was overlooked, since he did not matter. He was there, like the floor, or like furniture, performing his functions.

In fact, Mr Shah was beginning to suspect that he did not have a personality at all. He did not conceive that dreaminess could also be a personality trait – to that extent he had unquestioningly imbibed the new culture’s values, which said that dreams without utility, purpose or possibility of pursuit were of no importance and did not count. Mr Shah himself thought that he did not count, and was therefore equal to a cipher – without a personality, hope, or a ‘future’. When he wondered about himself, Mr Shah would not get very far because he would get lost in a dream before he even reached stage two of self-analysis. In his personality-less self-conception, he was like an amoeba, or a blob, who could acquire any shape at any time, without having a fundamental shape to call his own. This gently distressed and consoled him at the same time. Distress because he felt the force of the new culture’s ideological pressure to have a recognisable shape and pattern of growth. And consolation because he felt that in the final analysis, unlike others, he could do without it, and this made him free – that he was different, that he was irredeemable and beyond hope, that perhaps he wasn’t even there! This provided him with a strange sense of freedom.

If he wasn’t there what pressure could there be on him to have a shape and a form? Or a pattern of growth or chart of evolution? Or a graph of progress? He was here – and yet, perhaps he wasn’t.

Perhaps his job was no-job. Perhaps his marriage was no-marriage. Perhaps his life was no-life. Lost in these thoughts Mr Shah exited from his office at 6 pm, as always, and wandered about randomly on the streets in the failing light. His feet were the masters of his direction, and since he had no shape nor path, he could afford to let them lead him where they would.

He was in no hurry to get home. He could always tell Mrs Shah there was extra work at office. He had resisted buying a mobile phone till now, and he was quite thankful for it. He could be lost, and not found. It was strange that Mr Shah had these fantasies of getting lost, which many normally have as children, at this stage of his life. Perhaps we have forgotten what it was like to feel that way – the urgent pressure and need to escape! To have another world to get lost in and be lost in. To be somewhere away, other than here, where one could never be found. Perhaps it was the urge to re-imagine ourselves that made us feel that way as kids – we did not like what we had been made out to be, and we knew that there was a wonderland out there somewhere, and we could be its Alice. As kids, at some age, we have that intense urge to escape. It returns in adolescence, but by then it has taken other, more corrupt, forms. Peer pressure and cultural paradigms determine the prescribed and accepted modes of escape, and therefore there is very little possibility of a freely imagined wonderland any more. All inhabit the same wasteland. By the time we are adults, our lives have become an escape, no matter how hard we try to run away from them, and we are unable to escape from the escape.

At 41, Mr Shah frequently lapsed into fantasies that were extremely hazy, and which therefore he could avoid labelling fantasies. Thus he devised his escape from having to chastise himself by his culture’s standards for having impractical dreams. A dreamer without a dream, he was lost in a haze. A mist, that clouded everything, but which also comforted and reassured him. It was like the crowd in the Metro. That, too, was a cloud of unknowing. If ignorance was bliss, Mr Shah was doing his best to lapse into it.

Perhaps he did not want to become an ‘adult’ in the sense that everyone around  him understood it. If it meant accepting the wheels in motion of the train of society, being driven by its values, it was a task simply beyond Mr Shah. Perhaps what he really needed was a woman’s ample bosom to sink into, and revert to primal childhood.

Mrs Shah did not provide that comforting bosom. She was a woman whose jaw had set harder and stronger with age. If she could not accept certain things or live by them, she could not close her eyes to them either, like Mr Shah perennially attempted to do. This is what irritated them most about each other – their quite different responses to the same dilemma. Mrs Shah saw no way out of it, and condemned escape for what it was – escape. While she did not feel tempted to get lost in the culture of consumption and distraction, she could not accept losing herself in infantile fantasy either. Life was there to be lived – and who could say why? When she was despairing, she believed in God. And when she was not, she believed in fortitude and endurance. There was no other trick to bearing with life. One just bore it as best one could, with the tools one had been given, and eyes open. The open eyes were extremely important to her. They signified the only bit of her humanity she still found precious. At the same time, they did not mean a questioning or interrogation, for that felt to her like an endless, spinning, vertiginous dark hole, leading who knew where, probably nowhere, a whirling vortex that made her lose ground and feel dizzy and disoriented. It was in this that her husband disoriented her, and that was a feeling she disliked. She wanted to slap him in the face like she would a child and tell him to wake up and get on with it! But he was her husband, not her child, and so she could not slap him.

They did not have a child. Perhaps it was just as well. It wasn’t planned, nor was it unplanned. They had always had sex in their youth, but never with the explicit intention of having children, and a child had never been conceived to them. And then, one day, they simply stopped having sex as well. Mr Shah was annoyed with the game of life and did not want an additional, unknown element in it; Mrs Shah was scared of having a child and therefore a deeper engagement with life, with all its dilemmas and questions. She was afraid of losing her equanimity, the little of it that she had managed to gather, which kept her going through the daily routine of life without thinking about it much. She was convinced it could not bear much thinking about.

Meanwhile Mr Shah, in search of an escape or some reason, wandered the endless streets of old Delhi. There are numberless narrow lanes and bylanes in the old town, buzzing with crowds, shops, movement and activity. Manouevring space is an art, which almost everyone has mastered. Cycle-rickshaws, bicycles, two-wheelers, hand-pulled carts with cargo, pedestrians, hawkers, street vendors, and at some places even cars – all dissolve into this mobile labyrinth of activity, each managing their own little space, occasionally bumping into the other but always taking care never to hurt or be hurt. It required a surface alertness on the part of Mr Shah to constantly manoeuvre in these crowded spaces. But it also allowed him at a deeper level to get lost. He liked this subtle dichotomy of alertness and being lost. It reflected the way he had always lived his life. ...