Live Encounters Magazine July 2021.
Poet, novelist, artist, teacher and playwright, Randhir Khare moves from role to role effortlessly, reinventing himself, expressing the modern-day spirit of the Renaissance through his creative work which has garnered numerous awards and accolades. He has published thirty-six volumes of poetry, fiction, essays and translations and has had seven solo exhibitions of his art. His new book of poems Travelling Light and memoir The Flood & After is soon to be published. Apart from his numerous public commitments and his own creative pursuits he is a professional mentor to children, young people, young adults and emerging artists and writers, encouraging them to find their own voice through the arts. https://randhirkhare.in/
I am told that 70 is not old. It is an age when people are still running half marathons and cross-country races and cycling from here to eternity and back and trekking deserts and climbing impossibly high mountains and pumping iron thrice a day besides a host of other frantically physical feats. I am also told that it’s a time when people take to kicking up their heels for the last big time and buzz and flit around socially, on or offline, so as to catch up on lost time. And others continue to chase big bucks or hoard them or throw them to the winds of chance. They say it is also the time when some finally take to the mountains or the sea and fade into the sunset. Dogs are great companions at this time. They take their keepers for a walk and patiently listen to them talking to themselves and sharing secrets that even they hadn’t been aware of until then. Each to his own.
As I near 70, nothing seems to have changed, except of course the reality that though my spirit is alive and kicking, my body has taken a beating and occasionally wobbles unexpectedly when I break into a brisk walk. But what has changed meaningfully is that I am beginning to consider more intimately the journey that I have travelled so far, not in its entirety but in each moment that I still remember. Surprisingly, I don’t need to make an effort to remember because I have been gifted with the memory of an elephant and moments rise effortlessly from somewhere inside, reach the surface and float on the skin of the water. They drift around me and demand to be noticed. I acknowledge them, experience them, bless them and let them go. But hardly have they drifted away into the shade when others take their place and wait to be acknowledged, experienced, blest and set free. It has been an unending process which has helped me to understand and accept where I have come from and what I have experienced, however sordid, turbulent, humiliating and unsettling.
This understanding and acceptance has encouraged me to become increasingly lighter and more detached, helping my journey onwards. Of course, I will still struggle with regret, guilt, attachment, expectation and secret ambitions but I can’t eliminate that and will have to deal with each in their own way.
Although I have lived through dangerously exciting times which have been fraught with intensely personal successes and failures and have witnessed wars, riots, terrorism at its worst and moments of unbelievable tenderness, I have never wanted to write ‘my story’ because my story is my story and not intended to be hung up like dirty linen in public. As Yevgeny Yevtushenko writes, “In any man who dies there dies with him, his first snow and kiss and fight. It goes with him.”
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to share with the sordid, never before told, story of my hidden life. I want to share with you the book that changed my life and brought me to where I am today.
That moment was embedded in my life nearly fifty years ago at a time when I lived in Calcutta. I had just gone into my twenties and was already on the way to living a so-called settled life with stable employment, on-going higher educational opportunities and a flourishing output of creative work. Inside, my life had become used, battered and repetitive, outside I presented an emerging public persona. Nobody knew who I really was. In fact, I myself didn’t have a clue.
I knew deep inside me that I had to do something – to touch life around me and set it afire for the better. How on earth could I do that if my own personal life was in such a shamble? I was in a dilemma. I would have to take one drastic step if I wanted to break out and leave everything behind and travel light and far and discover for myself what I had to do with my life.
Was it really possible for me to that? Dump my job and walk out? On the other hand, how long could I remain an artificial Jesus Christ and get nailed to the cross every other day with no hope for resurrection? The struggle continued, each time dragging me deeper and deeper into a blind well.
I remember that day…It had rained heavily all week, dark purple and black clouds rested their bellies on Calcutta’s rooftops and leaked out sheets of water that exploded on the streets in great slushy gasps like the downpour of bombs in nearby Bangladesh only a few years before. The air hissed and heaved with the splutter of stranded traffic, human invectives and the clatter and clunk of hand pulled rickshaw wheels as half-dead, near naked, men yanked their carts along, heroically bounding through murky waters thick with refuse.
Homebound, I watched the city dissolve in a haze of helplessness. I didn’t feel safe or privileged in any way, sitting indoors whilst the city drowned. I was drowning inside. My own world was slowly collapsing like the great hunks of earth that gave way to the Hooghly’s waters and allowed it to denude the shore. My shoreline was dissolving and I watched with growing terror as my life rapidly shrank.
People around me at that time said that I lived a ‘lucky’ life. For someone as young as me in those difficult times of unemployment, I was doing very well – both materially and socially. I was respected as a newly arrived poet and the plays I wrote, directed, produced and performed in were being received very well. I had three entirely different circles of friends and switched from one to the other when I got tired or bored, a horde of acquaintances and ‘fans’, a so-called ‘best friend’ who walked with me for an hour every evening across the city down by-lanes, across the maidan, along the river discussing poetry and aesthetics, I had the intimate company of a beautiful athlete and sportswoman and an incredibly intelligent stage actress and of course I was a young executive well settled in one of Calcutta’s sprawling corporate houses. What else could I ask for? The cornucopia was overflowing.
Sitting at home whilst a deluge rocked the city, something snapped inside.
For the first time in my life, I threw my all-pervasive misplaced sense of responsibility out of the window and decided not to even try and make it to work. Instead, I got myself together for a walk in the floods. I took out my battered Duck Back raincoat, the one with a hood that nearly obscured my view, climbed into my rubber boots and headed out into the turbulent waters that swirled down the streets. I didn’t ask myself why I needed to do that. Looking back now, it seems that I was finally setting out to face what I had been avoiding all my life till then. Myself.
I had hardly waded for a few minutes through the flooded waters when my boots quickly filled with water. This made them so heavy that I had to drag my feet as I went along, slipping into potholes, hauling myself out and then soldiering on. When I was finally at the end of the tramline broken body of Elliot Road and I had reached a higher patch of pavement, I emptied the water and garbage out of my boots and headed down Wellesley Street towards Park Street. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do once I reached Park Street, but it wasn’t relevant at the time. I was walking somewhere – that was important. Thoughts strayed through my mind like the windblown pigeons that were swept across the rainy sky overhead.
Suddenly I tried to get a hold of myself. I had to ‘do’ something. Thought of dropping in on one of my many friends, have a beer and talk theatre. Or call in on Shaila to see if she would like to share poetry, or music or her bed. Perfect day for that. Or maybe check out Dreamland one of my chai haunts to see if they were brave enough to keep open and sizzle their spicy triangular singharas. I tried valiantly to stop my feet from taking over. Husain Bhai was busy beavering away on his worn- out sewing machine. What brings you out on a day when even the angels are at home asleep? He asked.
In that filthy water?
Yes, was all I could reply.
And now you need to use my phone. Am I right?
You are out walking, so walking you should be doing, not phoning. He hauled himself out of his chair, stood at the threshold of his shop and launched a rocket of paan juice that arched into the rainy air, then landed on the brown swirling water, floated along for a while and then dissolved. Your generation can’t sit still. See me, I can sit at my machine for an entire lifetime and feel comfortable. Do you ever find my shop closed? No. Even on days like these.
When the angels are at home asleep. I quickly added.
I said that. Yes. Even when the angels are asleep. He winked at me. So you are telephoning your angel?
The instrument was in my hand. I had dialled Shaila’s number and I could already hear her voice on the line. Hullo. Who is this? Hullo.
I listened but I couldn’t go through with it. I had nothing to say to her. Her husky voice which could dissolve an ingot of steel now seemed impersonal, distant, strangely alien. I looked at the receiver like a dead bird in my hand, put it down, paid and left, wading through the flood waters.
When you meet the angel, give her my greetings, the old man called out after me.
I hit Park Street a few moments later and headed towards Chowringhee. Then a thunder shower stopped me dead in my tracks opposite Sky Room and washed me into a small half open second-hand bookshop.
Not for rain shelter fellow, snapped the owner. I raised my palm in self-defence, I’m going in a few minutes.
He looked out at the incredible downpour that had broken loose and drowned the streets, when the rain stops, you go. Ok?
But the rain didn’t stop, it increased in its volume and velocity. The flood waters rose and poured into his shop, rushing around the base of the metal shelves and carrying away old magazines. Fortunately, the books were stacked two feet off the ground upwards.
Help me, he squealed excitedly, as if he was enjoying the spectacle.
What do you want me to do?
Take all these old magazines here floating around and throw them out.
Out where? I wanted to know.
In the waters outside.
Just like that?
Don’t ask so many questions. You want to stay out of the rain, right? So, you have to help me. Anyway, those magazines are useless now.
But they’ll collect in the streets. I cautioned.
No they won’t. Look at the current that’s rushing off towards Chowringhee, they’ll float down. Another heavy shower and they’ll be off again and land up in the Fort William moat and when that gets filled up, they will float off and land in the Hooghly and when the tide goes out, they’ll go like a big barge to the sea.
The fellow went on and on elaborating on the journey of the drenched unwanted magazines. I wasn’t sure whether he was serious or joking. It had happened so long ago that I hardly remember all the details. What I do remember is the look in his eyes. It was like those of a child who was expecting a couple of sweets but landed up with an enormous chocolate cake. I don’t want those papers and magazines. That’s old stuff. Even the raddi chap won’t take them, they’re smelling.
Then you should have thrown them out a long time ago. I replied.
Now you don’t tell me what to do. This is my shop.
But I’m spending my time here like a jamadaar, helping you to clean up this place which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for centuries. My irritation had turned to sarcasm.
So you think you are smart, eh? He walked up to me menacingly, drawing his diminutive frame to its fullest.
I backed off. Okay then, you take care of your shop. This is your business, not mine. I am going.
He stood there in the swamp of dead paper, helplessly watching me put on my raincoat. I searched for my boots but they weren’t anywhere around. They just went out of the door, the straight line of his lips turning into a grin.
What? I scrambled out of the shop and splashed after my boots as they bobbed along on their way down the road. I caught up with them at Flury’s corner. A drowned mouse was entombed in one of them and in the other there was a sanitary napkin.
What did you catch in them? A passing wader called out. A fish? In this sort of flood, you could find almost anything.
I ignored the fellow and stood there at the crossroads, water everywhere, flocks of drenched kites hovering in the air above me and the foul-smelling stench of Calcutta’s guts enveloping me. I decided to return to the bookshop.
Hey where were you going fellow?
Later I found myself in his shop, helping him to dispose of the floating mass of paper. Even for a moment I didn’t look out on to the street to attempt wishing the growing raft bon voyage. Instead I continued helping him to clear the floor of his shop. The deeper I sank into the experience of the task the more I began to enjoy the confusion. I stripped off the raincoat, got out of my boots, rolled up my trouser ends and shirt sleeves and laboured on like a galley slave.
There’s a lot of porn stuff here. You want me to throw that out too? Or will you dry them out later? I called out.
I don’t know how that got here.
Ah, I said, trying to help him out of the embarrassment. Maybe your assistant was doing a side business.
I don’t have an assistant.
Your son maybe.
Why do you say ‘son’? You think only guys are into this porn stuff? Anyway, I don’t have either a son or a daughter. I have a wife but she’s living with another fellow. Why are you asking me all these questions? It’s really none of your business.
Sorry, I was only asking about these magazines.
Throw them all out, will you. His lips quivered. Shit. Throw them all out.
I wasn’t upset with the man. There was something so sad about him that I started feeling sorry for him.
In a while, there was not a scrap of paper left floating in the muddy water whose level had receded with the ebbing flood outside. I picked up a battered bucket lying in a corner of the room and started baling out the water. It made me feel like I was in the belly of sailing vessel out at sea. Not a fancy one but a pretty big one. The crew had been washed away and only the two of us remained, heaving out water so that we could stay afloat. My imagination ran riot.
That’s the way I am. Come on now, he changed the direction of the conversation, grab a seat.
Sit up there, he shouted, pointing to an empty steel desk in the corner. I have some hot tea in a flask, share some with me.
We drank two small glasses of tea each, he smacked his lips and chortled, the shop is tip top now. Thanks, you worked hardly, very much hardly. Put your hand into that cash box and take whatever you want from it. In that drawer there. Take it and go.
I’m not doing this for money. I replied.
But you helped me, you worked so hardly. Take it and go. There in that drawer there.
I flipped back the lid of the battered black cash box. There were a few coins inside. That’s a lot of money you have in there. Don’t you think you should have put this in a bank? What if someone breaks in and steals all this? What will you do?
He chose not to notice my sarcasm. Take it all, he sniffed. All of it. I’ll manage…and as a bonus, you can pick up any book from that shelf there. Any one, just one.
I hopped off the desk and walked over to the high metal shelf. How does one get to a book on the topmost shelf? I asked.
Just shake the bookrack and the books will come down and you can choose the one you want. Ha, haa.
Okay man, I said to myself, a joke for a joke, now let’s see where this one takes him.
He was still laughing when I rattled the shelf. A solitary book got dislodged and plunged down and whacked me on the head. I grabbed it before it hit the damp floor. He stopped laughing and stood there staring at me with his mouth open. I looked down at the book in my hands. It was Fruits Of The Earth by Andre Gide, an author I had not heard of until then.
There’s just one left. And I’m okay with him crashing down, he said.
Not sure I want this book.
Suit yourself. But don’t shake the shelf again. Take any other book lower down.
Do you know what books you have here?
So you think I don’t? He asked. Of course I know the books I have here in this shop. I own this bookshop. I know all the books I have here.
So do you know which book fell on my head?
Of course I do, Fruits Of The Earth by a French writer who loved pretty boys.
Is that what the book is about?
Gide wasn’t like Genet.
So what’s the book about? I persisted.
Read it and find out for yourself. You are behaving as if I don’t know my own books. Look at those shelves, go on, look at them. I can tell you the names of all the important books on each shelf…row by row. That one there, third shelf up – there’s Harold Pinter’s Dumbwaiter, Buchner’s Danton’s Death…
Ok, sorry. I backed off.
Aren’t you rather stuck up for your age? He took off his spectacles and wiped the lenses with his kerchief.
What makes you ask that?
I think you’ve got two distinct selves running around in there, he peered at me over the top of his spectacles, one is the fellow who baled out all that water and worked like a horse. Someone real. And the other is a bit of a stuck up one.
And how many fellows do you have in there? I reacted.
I’ve seen a lot of them come and go. There’s only one left and I’m okay with him.
And what sort of a fellow is he? There was an edge in my voice and that appeared to amuse him.
What you see, he said quietly but firmly.
Evening had settled on the waters outside. There was no traffic. A gang of urchins were trying to swim in the middle of the road – jumping and splashing and wiggling around. The river had levelled all. There was no big, no small – just one almost seamless flow of life. I instinctively put on my raincoat and climbed into my boots.
I have another flask behind the shelf here. A hip flask. Neat vodka.
It’s getting late. I mumbled.
For what? Your yacht hasn’t arrived as yet.
I felt the overpowering urge to leave. I’m going.
You’re going no where until you’ve read the opening pages of this book between sips of vodka. This book changed my life. It may change your life too.
As I flipped through the book, I stumbled upon the pencil marked lines – I devoted three years of travel to forgetting all that I had learned with my head. This unlearning was slow and difficult; it was of more use to me than all the learning imposed by men, and was really the beginning of an education.
Was I weighed down by all I had learnt? Yes, I was. And not just that. I was also weighed down by all that I had experienced and felt. I hadn’t learnt how to travel light. I hoarded memories like a hermit crab and they had weighed me down, filled my life with an overload of every damned thing that I had gathered on the way. This constant gathering and hoarding was a compulsive disorder. I was actually out of sync with the world and my own life so I had created a protective shell around me, inside me. Memory helped me to create this shell. I was an elephant. A white elephant. This wasn’t a gift; it was a burden. I had turned myself into a prisoner. A man condemned by the fullness of his own life, chained down by memory, unable to move down the corridor because my kurta sleeve was wedged in the door behind me.
Fruits Of The Earth kept speaking to me. All choice, when one comes to think of it, is terrifying; liberty, when there is no duty to guide it, terrifying. The path that has to be chosen lies through a wholly unexplored country, where each one makes his own discoveries, and – note this – for himself alone.
For the very first time in my life I felt a churning inside. Change. Change. I had to change. I had to rediscover myself, my purpose, myself.
I walked out of shop without my boots, wading through receding waters of the flood. I read in the glow of streetlights, in chai shops and on the dimly lit staircase of our apartment block. It was turning me inside out so violently that I couldn’t climb the stairs and fell asleep half way up…..my journey had begun.
© Randhir Khare