(A novelette first written on March 28, 2018)
“Without Music, life would be a mistake”Friedrich Nietzsche
From my earliest memories, I have had this curiosity regarding how people with physical disabilities experience the world differs when compared to others. Does a person who has been blind all his or her life know what colors are? How do we define the concept to them? And if that is not possible, what pangs they must feel when we talk about colors and physical beauty of things? Or does the person who has been deaf all his or her life understand the concept of music? And what about someone like Helen Keller! how lonely a life hers must have been, with nothing but touch and smell to make her conscious of other person’s presence?
If you ask me, verbal conversations are only the most deliberate way in which we feel the presence of other people and enjoy their company; but it is hardly the strongest (that place goes to touch) or most common (which is a sight). In the presence of the right kind of company, words aren’t necessary to hold a conversation – in fact, the best of conversations are often held in silence and words are superficial. Perhaps that is why it seems to me nothing absurd that Keller’s best friend was an inanimate tree and, also, the dialogues in dramas and literature aren’t most effective when realistic – they can only cover a marginal part of the human experience. A slight gesture or a touch on a shoulder might be worth a million words in times of distress.
Perhaps this – the fact that our experience of the world is not limited to conversations and use of one or two senses, this is what saves the lives of people with physical disabilities from going completely dry. In fact, one often hears it said that the disability of one sense is often compensated for to a great extent by other senses becoming more sensitive. This is how I explain to myself, why Helen Keller, despite her misfortunes, seemed so beautifully alive in her autobiography. But even she was lucky (comparatively) to be born in a well to do family in a country like the USA where her family could afford her a personal tutor if she was born in a poor family, she might not have been as lucky.
I guess it is these are kind of thoughts which brought Khamoshi to me as if in a sort of dream. She never met me and was a deaf-mute anyway – and yet there she was in the back of my mind demanding that her story should be told. And perhaps I would have made the excuse of being too busy if I couldn’t already see her dead – her dead body hanging with the ceiling fan. Except for her mother, no one in her family cried – though they might have felt guilt at not being able to feel the grief.
To me personally, the image of her corpse hanging there seemed to be going well with the rest of the room – dark and silent like a void, a black hole in the universe and, you must not look at it directly, not for too long for fear of being sucked in.
Like the light coming from the sun, there are darknesses that must not be seen directly. Perhaps that is why people often call those with physical disabilities ‘especially gifted’. Me? Such kind of well-intended, politically correct hypocrisy (I don’t know though how it is compassionate for the one with the disabilities) is not something I am good at assuming. Despite the harmful effects, I am incapable of not giving in to the vertigo of looking directly at darkness.
Another reason that compels me to write her story is that it is the only way she can be remembered. There are no pictures of her (or that of choko) – it never occurred to anyone to click one, busy as they were with ignoring her and she herself had held a rather low opinion of photos and images finding them devoid of soul. A story is the only way she can be remembered, and it is probably the way she would have preferred the most.
So here it goes…
She was born a deaf-mute and her physical disability – forgive me once again if I lack the necessary hypocrisy to call it ‘special ability’ or call her ‘specially gifted’ or ‘differently gifted’ …. her physical disability went along well with her name, Khamoshi (which literally means ‘silence’), which was decided upon by her feminist mother, Sneha, before her birth – as a statement on the silence the women in the country are forced to live in.
That might seem a weird name to some but in a country where parents continue to name their children Kaafi (literally meaning ‘enough’ – because they had enough of girl child already) and Maafi (literally meaning ‘forgiveness’ – forgiving the god for giving them another girl) and such girls feel lucky because they were not killed in the womb, the word ‘weird’ losses all its meaning. Moreover, the word ‘Khamoshi’ has a feminine gender, as if that subconscious process by which society creates language can’t keep the concept of silence and women apart.
And how was Sneha to know that fate can have a cruel sense of humor? When she saw the silence that was to greet the life of her daughter, she was filled with guilt – believing she had brought it on her daughter by deciding upon the cursed name.
Like everyone else, her family too used the words for her physical disabilities that could mention them without actually making them look like disabilities. Except for her mother, the rest of her family – her father, elder brother, and sister, more or less abandoned her – showing none of the loved one naturally feels for infants. The father would have left her at some orphanage or something but for Sneha ‘s protests. Some of the sympathizing folks were vulgar enough to use the word ‘specially gifted’ – but Sneha who lived near her every waking hour couldn’t keep from admitting the truth to herself for too long.
Her daughter wasn’t especially gifted – Sneha had learned sign language to be able to teach the same to her daughter when the later would be old enough to learn. When the time came, Khamoshi didn’t show any aptitude for the sign language or lip reading or in games or handicrafts her mother tried to interest her in. Sneha realized – as much as like any other mother, she could have wished her child to be gifted with special talents, that wasn’t the case with Khamoshi. Khamoshi wasn’t even generally gifted. Leave alone her inability to hear and speak, she turned out to be skinny enough to be called undernourished, with coal black skin color and uneven features – she wasn’t going to be gifted with what people with their limited imagination call ‘feminine beauty’. No, Sneha told herself, she is not especially gifted but she IS special and I am going to make sure she knows it.
Khamoshi might have gone to school and have had a social life if only because of her mother’s desperate efforts to give her one but the trajectory of her life was set by an incident which was soon forgotten by most of the actors in it.
Her mother had taken her to a community park in the neighborhood. She was aged three, she had not had such outings before. Her Mother had made her wear a frock that was quite heavy for her undernourished body and braided her hair in a way that made the unevenness of her features more prominent. In the park, Sneha asked the children there to let Khamoshi play too.
Kids tried their best to tell her what she was supposed to do through gestures of hands and one of them took her by arm and led her to the place where she should stand (when pointing to the spot didn’t prove enough). But she didn’t catch that round thing (which she didn’t know was called ‘ball’ and was meant to be caught).
They let the mistake go by at first, only telling her again from where they were standing what she was supposed to be doing – through spoken words, having no patience to try doing it again by gestures. She wasn’t even looking at them when they were talking to her and so had no idea that anything was said to her. She failed to catch the ball again and again and this agitated her team who very soon lost the match.
And so they gathered around her again – first angry at her and then making jokes at her expense. Khamoshi couldn’t hear the jokes and had no precedent by which to know what was happening to her, but their way of pointing at her by hands when they laughed with that malicious expression on their faces made her feel humiliated.
Khamoshi ran to her home, her room crying and never left her house again despite the pleas by her mother and siblings (the father never showed much interest in her life to plead) over the next few months. She refused to let her mother console her and lied in her bed, trembling for hours till she fell asleep – she even naively put on sheets once when she thought she was shivering because of cold only to remove them when she started sweating too.
All children must discover the injustices inherited in the world someday and lose their innocence but Khamoshi was one of those unfortunate ones who had not yet developed memories of pure happiness that can only be developed in that innocence and that are our only salvage from those times.
Since she won’t leave the house again, her parents couldn’t send her to school – neither to normal one, nor to one for those with physical disabilities (for she seemed to get panic attacks as soon as they tried to force her out of the house) – soon they gave up, her father wasn’t much interested anyway and her mother loved her too much to see her in such condition.
To help her pass time, Sneha gave her a personal television kept in Khamoshi’s own room which later used only to watch the cartoons (cartoons made little use of voices and didn’t include humans whom she didn’t want to see) but then same cartoon series would repeat again and again and it would bore her – so by the time of her fifth birthday, she had developed a new obsession.
She would carry anything with words written on it – the wrapping papers, newspapers, her mother’s novels, father’s office files, siblings’ textbooks, currency notes, coins, labels, etc to her room. It was their interest in such things that made her curious – for you use clothes to wear, soap to wash, comb for your hair, food for your stomach and make those weird mouth movements to speak (Something she had realized she can’t and had accepted) but what did people do with all those things they create on paper? And why were those things (letters of the alphabet) on everything? They weren’t exactly pictures, why were they so much liked? Her father (or rather ‘that man in the house’, she had not developed the concept of relations) for example, spent his morning staring at those symbols on the paper that arrived every morning (newspaper). What did he see in them?
Though their importance was a mystery to her – and no amount of staring helped her see the value in them, she would collect these objects thinking they must be precious things (or why else would people look at them all the time?) and she must preserve them. The way people just left them lying about would not do.
When these things started going missing, there would be arguments among other members of her family. In the end, her brother saw her carrying a book to her room. Her theft was discovered (if it may be called theft, for she hadn’t yet developed concept of property either) and her father gave her a cruel beating – which Khamoshi took not knowing what she wasn’t beaten for (or that this violence was for a specific reason) and not knowing where to hide, for she was already in her room, the only place she thought she could be fearless in.
Khamoshi stopped stealing (after her mother finally managed to tell her with a lot of efforts through hand gestures she was poor in understanding why she had got beaten) and from that day on, the concept of ‘property’, which she still understood only partially, haunted her everywhere for next few months – she would pick an object and show it to her mother, asking her whether it was somebody’s property. It was only with time she learned that only things she could use with full liberty were those in her room.
As far as she was concerned, from now on, the relationship between her and her father became that of a pecking order of sorts – a kind of animal relationship in which she felt forced to submit to his dominance and wishes simply because of his brute strength. This law of jungle enforced itself on her way of looking at their relationship from her first beating now when she understood very little of the world and she would never lose it.
This was also the beginning of insomnia that would haunt this little girl in irregular bursts lasting a few days to a few months broken by equally irregular bursts of sleepiness. You might claim she forced herself to develop insomnia to avoid having the recurrent nightmare that she started having after the beating. She would dream of a very vague image of a face wrinkled in anger staring at her the way a torturer looks at his subject and she would tremble in the dream, causing a jerk in her real-life body which would wake her up.
It was easier to stay up than go to sleep making oneself vulnerable to the scary nightmares. Thus Khamoshi would have long, boring nights in which even her mother was asleep and so she has very little to do. This is perhaps the hardest part of her life for me to describe. She would spend hours literally doing nothing.
Television helped but only so far. Most of these months she spent in some space even smaller than her room. She would jump into her almirah and lie in the laundry or go below her bed. She would hours observing the two lizards that so often visited her room. In her mind, they had a sort of personality.
Over time, the nightmare became less recurrent but the insomnia stayed – and it was good that it stayed as for someone as sensitive as she was, one nightmare could only be replaced another.
However this period of monotonous awakeness last only a month or two before she learned how to write.
You see the incident of the beating wasn’t without its good effects though. For her mother had discovered that she showed interest in those written things. She started teaching her – first the alphabet, but the days spent on teaching her Roman alphabet directly proved useless for the letters of the alphabet were as devoid of meaning as the rest of the world for her. But then one day Sneha drew an apple and wrote its name beside and did so with a few other things, the Eureka! the moment hit Khamoshi and she had learned the concept of names – words that associate themselves with things. it was unbelievable, amazing!
Since the same signs (letters of the alphabet) were repeated in these names, she now retreated to learn the alphabet which meaningless in themselves combine to form meaningful words. Such beautiful words!
Two days later, Khamoshi would make yet another discovery as Sneha wrote her name, showed it to her and pointed to her (just as she had pointed to apple previously) and Khamoshi’s excitement reached new levels when she discovered her own name. Later when her mother was gone, she would stare at her own name for several minutes every now and then for the whole day – that was her name written there. It disturbed her in some strange manner – she existed. Just like the apple and everything else, she had a name too and it meant that she existed – in the same fashion as those other things.
All of sudden the world seemed a lot more approachable, she wasn’t something ‘unnatural’ – not someone who just floats above the universe unattached and without able to communicated it (that was how she felt, though she never could have described it even if she could use words) – oh no, she existed. She had a name like other things, it seemed something solid. Something to hold on to. This feeling filled her with both joy and a sort of fear. She no longer merely unconsciously went from one moment to other, suddenly she was conscious of her own being as much as she was conscious of the existence of others – and it felt like a burden. A heavy responsibility.
But there was also a sort of joy she felt. The world seemed far more approachable to her as she realized that anyone who knows how to read will if he or she looks at it, think of her. It felt like magic (another expression I must give her, she had no concept of magic either). Later she would have the same feeling when reading Dan Brown novels – as if she was learning some sort of secrets and being initiated in some sort of important society who have their code in form of those Roman symbols.
This feeling that she was initiated into the secrets of the world, extended time available at her disposal due to insomnia and perhaps the fact that she understood she could experience more of the world in written language (newspapers, her elder siblings’ books – anything with a roman script on it she would love to read) compared to sign language which she could only use with her mother seemed to excite her passion to master the art of written language – and so, despite her low intelligence, she learned it fast. To take one example to consider the fact that for children with physical disabilities, the idea of abstract nouns is often harder to understand but Khamoshi made that discovery by herself.
Devoid of spoken words, she was more dependent upon face expressions of others – which seemed to define her mood state too easily – and thus when a lot of efforts she asked Sneha why she was so happy when she identified the word ‘sheets’ her mother wrote the word ‘happiness’, she understood happiness is something to be desired. And Khamoshi tried asking whether kissing her at eyebrow like Sneha did every night made her happy too and upon seeing her nod, she understood happiness to be what one wishes for in the world. From then on, there was no stopping Khamoshi. Her mother got the idea of giving her comic books which accelerated her learning further.
For sometime after the infamous beating. she would still come down for meals but then – seeing her father whom she had learned to fear ever since and looking at the faces of her family members talking amongst themselves while not caring to include her in any way and the inability to drive any meaning from the whole experience of being among the people; it all so depressed her that she ended up refusing to leave her room at all.
Sneha would bring her meals thrice a day and carry back empty dishes. She cleaned her room once a week and carried back the laundry and would bring back the washed clothes the next day (Khamoshi didn’t like being disturbed any more frequently than that.) In fact, the very idea of an ‘outside’ was disturbing to her. And so she ordered that the windows of her room at first floor be shut down too – not wanting even the light from the outside world to ever enter the room.
By this time the siblings had long given up on her – first one then the other. Her father could have simply forgotten her – already she was like a suppressed memory for him. He felt guilty for being so careless and cruel towards her. He knew the beating he had given her wasn’t only for her theft and supposed mischievousness/stupidity but also included his frustration at the knowledge that he can’t make his daughter happy, that he was repelled by mere sight of her and at her disabilities and the realization that he was struck with her all his life. He felt sorry but he would never acknowledge it. It was just easy to get her out of his mind.
Sneha lasted far longer in her efforts to get her out but, in the end, she too was scared away by the idea of having another violent shake of Khamoshi’s head with that terrified expression on it which greeted all such efforts.
When Sneha could not make her come out of her room she ended up instead gifting her all the books she had and those old textbooks of her siblings which they no longer needed. She had soon finished her mother’s collection and so later would have to bring new ones every week. After some time, Sneha got her a laptop (she very quickly learned how to operate it) and now Khamoshi could simply download the books of her choice.
What disappointed her mother was the fact that she didn’t show much interest in maths and sciences and still was scared at the mere idea of leaving her room and so there was no hope of anything at all being accomplished through private tutoring. English and Literature were what interested her the most. And if only the studies were limited to that, she would have done her masters before her siblings were finished with their middle school.
Moreover, Khamoshi refused to keep to any routines that might permit any such studies and she refused to have a clock in her room which, like calendars or any such timekeeping devices or events (her birthday anniversaries which Sneha stopped celebrating after seeing how vexed they made her), she found to be a disgusting invention. They seemed to her like dictators wanting to decide what she should do each and every moment of her life. After a while for some reasons that we shall be soon discussing Khamoshi won’t even allow Daylight into her room and so electric lights were needed all the time whether day or light. As such, there was nothing to tell her whether it was day or night and more often than not her mother would just have to leave her food on the table in her room because she was sleeping or too much lost in her books.
So little changed in that room from one day to another that sometimes she got the impression that the room and its occupant seemed to be forgotten by Time itself.
Now that she felt confident in her understanding of the concept of property, she felt quite safe inside her room and often was even happy. When one was alone, it was easier to forget things one is deprived of. But not always. Sometimes the anguish of what one doesn’t have would strike her in all its force even in the safety of solitude. That was what happened when she understood the concept of music.
She was still young – we are talking about when she was only eight, so naturally, she didn’t understand a lot of things, words, etc of what she read during those young years and she would often skip past them to parts she could understand. But when a word she didn’t know kept getting repeated, she would google it.
Her vivid imagination failed repeatedly to find confines of reality when she read writers talk about Mozart or Beethoven and tried to imagine for herself what the music was like. She could understand the praises for songs with words ( she would search the lyrics of songs which seemed to her like poems) but how could something devoid of words, the sound produced through some sort of machinery (that was what musical instruments seemed to her when she googled on them and saw their pictures) and, that was nothing like human voice, should prompt in one feelings that Proust talks about so lovingly about and that Tolstoy scorns?
Searching further, she discovered the only books that came closest to contain the mystery of music in written language were those that tried to teach people how to play instruments. She discovered symbols for recording musical notation and tried to study them but the very things they denoted like pitch, tempo, meter, duration, articulation, etc were things associated with the unknown world of sounds.
She could figure that they denote a sort of order but she could not ‘see’ the harmony of that order. In her way of looking at things, order only made sense if it had a harmony to it, harmony being the beauty (the ability to produce joy) found in an arrangement of things. Here was an arrangement of things but it seemed so random, what was she missing? She just had to accept the internet’s verdict on the same. These symbols stood for sounds (unlike words that were symbols for things) which were forever beyond her reach and so she just had to give up on the mystery of music
She went back to passages she had read in praises of music. Without listening to tones themselves, she could, through compassion, feel what these writers feel when they talked about their feelings in the books. And she could not help being curious about the primary source of her feelings. Thus, when she realized that the secret of music would always be denied to her, she cried. And she would cry again when she would read Nietzsche ‘Without music, life would be a mistake’. It was far easier to accept she can’t hear till she didn’t know about music.
Appearances, she thought, were nasty things. And it had nothing to do with her own looks. When she looked at pictures of things described as beautiful – Eiffel towers or Tajmahals, leaves, grasses, animals or flowers or teddy bears (she googled these things when she came across them during her reading and saw their pictures) all such things seemed to gave her no joy. Was Keats lying then, when he said ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’? She didn’t want to believe that and so it was illogical (that is how her reasoning went).
No, she told herself, she is missing something. Why wasn’t, the picture of Elizabeth Bennet drawn on book cover beautiful to her? For she was surely described to be beautiful and had the same features as one could see in the picture. Yet, she drove no joy from looking at the picture. It seemed to hold that joy from her like a secret, like a tease – but why only from her? The rest of the world surely saw it and took joy in it. Was it to be like music then? Another thing praised so heavily in books that she should be derived from. She tore the cover to parts.
And she started hating looking at things – things that were supposed to beautiful because they were supposed to be shaped or colored in a particular way were detestable to her eyes. Though she loved reading about them since she still wanted to experience the world incompleteness and even feel the joy, if only at distance and from empathy with a fictional character (the way she had done with music), which those things gave; but she refused with a scorn to look at the pictures which teased her with the idea of visual aesthetic feeling she didn’t feel any longer
She was deaf-blind from birth, it seemed she was now deliberately developing a sort of color blindness. It started with book covers, then came her refusal to watch television at all. Comics or books with pictures were next to go, being replaced by her mother’s novels. She put on a dark theme for her laptop and all its software. In the end, it became so bad she asked her mother (they now communicated by writing on a notepad, which proved far more comfortable for them both – her English was becoming more and more Elizabethian due to time spent in reading English classics which were her first love) that the television, as well as the mirror in the room, be taken away. There was a time she had loved television, but there always had been something odd about that face in the mirror which she barely recognized as her own. She sometimes googled things but learned to completely ignore the pictures most of the times.
And so, now Khamoshi had reduced her world to black and white pages of her books for the most part. The only things she could ‘rest’ her eyes upon, except pages with Roman alphabet were pale pink walls, the pair of lizards on them (whose life no longer interested her), the brownish white roof of her room and pale yellow ceiling fan – all the rest including the sight of her mother, the sight of food she must eat to survive disturbed her eyes (incidentally, she never spared thought about sense of ‘taste’. Food tasted delicious when she was in good mood, terrible when she was in a bad mood, it didn’t have a taste of its own.)
The hatred she had developed for ‘talks’ or conversations early on in her life even when they were with her mother (she didn’t even try talking to others) because she must use sign language for them, had persisted even now when she could use written language. She even started disliking being hugged or kissed by her mother and only let her do those things because she knew it gave later happiness. As far Khmaoshi was concerned, those gestures have started appearing so artificial to her – the whole thing. There seemed to such a distance between them that no hugs or kisses could ever fill.
What Khmoshi didn’t realize was that this difference arose from the fact that there was so much in her that needed to be said and it was this that has rendered all that her mother says with those kisses and hugs seem superficial. Even if Khamoshi had realized it, she would have been at a loss to know what it was that needed to be put in words and effort to put it all in writing would have been too much for her anyway.
Anyway, she lacked time for it, busy as she was swallowing the whole of the world – one book at a time. Talking to her was like talking to silence, and it is never easy. Soon, Sneha gave up trying to indulge her in any conversations at all. Her biggest adventure would be a book that would fill her with unmanageable emotion or gave her things to think over. She sometimes cried from reading about a tragic character – but it was a different sort of grief, she enjoyed feeling that grief.
That black and white world she had created for herself perhaps explains why her dreams, that were already soundless, were also becoming colorless. Her dreams like her world were formed of words occurring in somewhat random phrases (she didn’t dream their images, just their meanings – there were no images) having no order of sentences – chaotic but not chaotic enough to become nightmares. Her dreams could make nice James Joyce styled stream of consciousness.
While the material of her dreams were these phrases, the themes comprised of scenes in which she was an invisible, passive presence in a fictional scene (much like Harry Potter when he would visit memories of Dumbledore) inspired from the book she had read or, and this perhaps shows the most her need to talk, she would be holding conversations with one of the characters from such books (so, ‘tell me, Mr. Hamlet, did you make the right choice in the end?’). Sometimes, on waking up, she would write these conversations (of course making amendments according to her liking) on her computer.
One day, such a conversation occurred to her when she was awake and reading Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ (which if it was not for the innocence of its protagonist she would have hated because it claimed beauty would save the world when talking about a painting). She took her laptop out and wrote down the conversation believing that she had ‘day-dreamed’ the conversation. It would only be first of many such day dreams
From these daydreams it was just a step to day dreams of other sort where she would write alternative endings of the book. Hedwig didn’t die in her version.
And from that, it was just one more step, before she could put the character in a new, different setting, (Emma Bovary in the twenty-first century took divorce from her husband, though they stayed friends and both had a happy life) even sometimes changing the qualities of character according to her wishes (Despite his angst, Heathcliff couldn’t bring himself to take his revenge by tormenting the next generation and took good care of the children).
She kept on having all those dreams and these daydreams she captured in her writings (unfortunately deleted by her sister who inherited the laptop after her death) – some of them were so far removed from the source of inspiration that it needed only a change of names of characters for them to be labeled as highly original work. And what a joy she would have derived from the fact that she was not only inspired but creating something new! That, so bless me, she was an artist! I wish I could go back to the past and tell her this somehow. But like you, I must stand and watch her live her life in the belief that she was nothing.
Khamoshi’s attitude towards the world was of intellectual curiosity. Her writings were to her merely sort of ‘toy-ideas’ (a word she coined for ideas conceived merely for her playful musings and having no other value, which was supposed to be read ‘toyida’- same way as Toyota) with which she entertained herself and entertaining herself was the highest virtue a thing could possess. And she didn’t mind doing those things, for the most part, from a distance – through compassion for a character who was feeling it. Even when she sought to feel the things the way other people do – it was because that is the only way one can understand the feelings.
God was one of the concepts that suffered this book-thinking, rationalistic view. When people in the books kept talking about Him, she googled about him one day, read arguments in favor of and against believing in God and decided she was an atheist. Later when she developed a taste for swearing – and here is another example of how she played with her toy-ideas, she very consciously developed a habit of swearing by names of writers – ‘by Woolf’, ‘Oh my Flaubert’ and so on.
Another of her toy-ideas was new words. She loved creating new words – so when she read and fan-girled Virginia Woolf, she was a Woolf-vrin, when she got smitten with Proust’s books, she got Proust-bite, the very word ‘toy-idea’ was another such example, while her lust for books was a sort of Book-kink.
A lot of feelings and values that affect people’s actions didn’t make sense to her book-tunneled perspective. Religion had already got the verdict of being stupid after the five minute long research she made into concept of God.
Morality was another such thing. What was to tell whether something was good or bad? The only values, that mattered, in her opinions were – interesting (desirable) or boring (undesirable) and things that gave happiness without causing sufferings to others (desirable) and things that didn’t (undesirable). To her, the biggest sin a thing could do was becoming boring to her. After all in her own way of looking at things, all the world was a stage and a play or some extra large book – and she alone the audience or reader. What could be the point of the world if it could not entertain her?
Again, such emotional motivations as avarice, jealousy, vanity, competitiveness, etc just won’t make sense to her. Why would people let themselves suffer from such emotions? And the most inexplicable of these demons was amorous love, which was. for some reason, praised rather than criticized by poets as well as writers.
Love! It got the same treatment from her as God. She considered advantages and disadvantages of falling in love (she could not find a Wikipedia page that talked about them but there were lots of examples in the literature to analyze and drive your lessons from) and, decided she could not imagine why people bother so much about it. It, as well as the desire for it, was just the source of anguish, jealousies, misunderstandings as anyone could see who has read Brontë sisters.
It was too alien a feeling for her, she could not know that such feelings like love and jealousy struck one without any involvement of conscious choice (she never got the logic behind the symbolism of Cupid’s arrow) and, perhaps, because it was not portrayed as such pure source of joy by writers as music was (Tolstoy excepted), it didn’t make her curious or yearn for it as she did for music. It’s a lack in her life didn’t make her feel deprived.
She could not ever imagined loving anyone. And in the unconscious depths of her mind, it only seemed to be sensible to avoid such a feeling that makes one miserable and stupid. How lucky she felt for not having any prospect of finding love!
She just found love too overrated. To her mind, it was not so much different from other harmful feelings like jealousy, anger, competitiveness, etc that were all caused by people living close or near each other.
And if she had a slight aversion to it when compared to those other harmful feelings, it was not because of some ‘bitter grapes’ syndrome. It was because found it overrated it irritating how it kept showing up in almost every book. Just for once, she would love to see about a character who wasn’t handicapped by God, love and other such silly things.
At the age of nine, she had already learned about sex. A few novels she had read were very explicit with their descriptions. So, that was what amorous love was all about! But it raised as many questions as it answered. It might make sense to want children but all the wildness that surrounded the act seemed ridiculous.
There was in fact a time when she had conceived the idea, having lived so far only in the innocence of books like Stendhal’s so-called realist work ‘The Red and Black’ that merely things like holding hands, kissing or sleeping together (whenever she had read the phrase ‘sleeping together’, she did not think it was a sexual euphemism, but simple sleeping on same bed) could make women pregnant. But then one day she thought of going into details and took her doubts to the great god ‘Google’. A simple search of ‘How do girls get pregnant?’ (she only had to search words ‘how do girls’ – the Google competed for the question) and there were some obscure words. But once she had made sense of them – bang! The world grew stupider than it already was.
Stll, she wondered, was this at the root of everything? So many times she had thought she had understood the world (it was one of her toy-ideas) and so many times she had been proven wrong – first she thought it was property, then she thought it was happiness, then for a while it seemed God whom they praise so much in the world, and when her ten minutes of internet surfing had turned her into an atheist, there was a vacancy which was then filled by love – another thing so greatly admired by poets and now …. now it was this ‘sex’ thingy because surely sexual intercourse is what love leads to. Was then this that described the root of all motivations of the world? By Wharton, it was stupid enough to be that. It just looked like people to go after something stupid, so that they could do something stupider and achieve something stupider still.
And when she had googled for even more on the subject, the description of male sex organ tempted her and she made one of few compromises with her self-imposed censorship regarding seeing anything not Roman alphabet to see what it looked like. The picture disgusted her and she told herself that maybe it is because she couldn’t find the Keatsian joy in beautiful things. But the disgust was enough for her to thank her disabilities which will keep her from coming across such an ugly thing.
Perhaps it was too much the impact of reading some modern works like Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ but one day she was imagining herself to be a character in a book. What if she was the protagonist of the book? Anyone who would pick that book and start reading it would be reading about her, would have access to all her thoughts – even this very thought where she imagines herself to be a character in a novel. And she shuddered for a moment already feeling the gaze of readers on her entire existence – not only her physical body, but everything from her childhood to the present moment, all her thoughts and feelings, everything could at this very moment be gazed and scrutinized by the eye of the readers who, themselves, are immune to any such reverse scrutiny from her. Oh Proust! what if the author was someone as indiscreet as James Joyce in Ulysses and was to decide to share her bowel movements!
Or … or… what if she was just a character in a book about someone else? What if she still existed only behind the scenes only waiting till some chance would bring in the life of the protagonist and only then readers would know about it?
Even when she had recovered this first horror of the possibility that she might just be a fictional character, she would continue to analyze it. It struck her as odd how immodestly, and without any moral scruples we read about the most private moments of fictional characters. How granted readers – even she, who only had fictional characters as friends and so should have known better, take for granted this power to know most intimate memories and secrets of their lives! As if they do not have feelings just because they were imagined! Perhaps classic authors like Stendhal obscured the most private details of their characters of the same fellow feeling … that is what reading too many books does to people and that is why I advise people to avoid them.
Later, this imagining herself as a fictional character became one of her new toy-ideas – For example sometime she would wonder what would be the name of the book based on her life? The Girl Who Never Left the Room? The Life and Opinions of Khamoshi Jindal? The Secret Girl? The Silence of the Books? The Perks of being a Deaf-Mute? Or just a book sharing her own name – just the first name ‘Khamoshi’ of the full name ‘Khamoshi Jindal’. Oh! Oh! She would love that! It had the whole ‘Jane Eyre’ feel – one of her favorite books.
At other times she would talk to her ‘dear reader’ in, yes you guessed it, Jane Eyre style – ‘I am flattered by your attention, dear reader’, ‘Dear reader, I can’t tell you how eagerly I am waiting for the next installment of Game of Thrones!’ ‘Oh dear reader! I never quite liked the whole cores of bathing, brushing teeth, dressing, etc.’ She never really imagined a reader, so this grew old very soon. Moreover, nothing happened most of the days of her life, and so once it was old, there seemed little point in addressing the poor imagined readers.
Over time, she realized that she had started looking at this idea of book of her life as if she had already read it fully – each time she considered it, she would act as if she had just ended the last chapter – if she was happy at that moment, she could call it a book with happy ending and when she was going through an anxiety attack she would think of it a tragic story – when the book, much like her life, just went on and on. This was a fallacious way of looking at things but also ‘intellectually’ interesting.
She started applying this end-of-the-worlds perspective to the books she read – considering all chapters to be the last chapters of the book. At any given point, she would stop and ask herself what if the book was to end here? And so there were so many different books she could create out of just one book. Wuthering Heights might have a good ending with death of Elizabeth – and one could speculate that Heathcliff changed afterward, Harry Potter might have ended just with the moment of Harry leaves for school with Hagrid (among a thousand other endings), ‘The Age of Innocence’ could end with Newland proposing to Ellen and one could think they did get married or Anna Karenina would end with her getting eloped with Vronsky. Whoever said the stories need to have a proper ending?
And one could apply the reverse logic too – may be the last chapters were not really last chapters but only middle chapters, maybe the story does go on beyond them to places where – Scarlett O’Hara is finally able to make Rhett Butler forgive her, where the great expectations of Pip do come true by some unexpected turn in the fortune and Edward Rochester could die a few years into marriage dooming Jane to loneliness she had been doomed for long.
It seemed a matter of choice to her where you wish to end (or for that matter begin) the story and, one of the first traits of a good storyteller, to know which beginnings and ends should offer most aesthetic pleasure. But you need not always take their verdict on it and could form your own choices.
The Wrong Side of Window
It was perhaps because of such musings, love for books and toy-ideas, that she didn’t realize how lonely she had made herself during those few years of ever-increasing solitude. It was only the age of twelve and a half, that it hit her when she made the error of reading Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. She loved the book because there were almost no conversations, nor too many interactions (verbal, physical or even visual). Most of the time, the narrator talked about himself only and his loneliness but it seemed to her that he was talking about her though unlike him, she never went to work. Yet whenever he talked about his loneliness, he seemed to be describing what she was feeling most of the time, though it had never occurred to her to give words for her own feelings, or to her daydreams, except when they came in relation to book characters whom she wrote about.
This realisation hit her all at once and in all its completeness and she felt a pain in the middle of her chest, some sort of heaviness in her throat (the throat that was so often cursed by her father for not being able to produce voice- curses which she, fortunately, never heard) and she knew that she was having an anxiety attack, much like the ones she was used to by now. Her disability meant she couldn’t call anybody but she would have stayed silent even if she had suddenly learned speaking – she had long given up on the world.
This anxiety always left her with a feeling that she must be missing on something – what? she didn’t know and had no way of defining but it was as if life was passing away, oh! so very fast, and she was missing on that… that thing. What thing? She had no idea. How was she to know about it? Had others felt that way too? She knew from her reading of Dickens, Austen, and Brontes – that people in England didn’t feel that way (unless they have gone mad like in Shakespearean plays). Their most violent passions (love, arts, patriotism, and love for god) seemed to come from outside sources – and since she, herself, was away from each one of them (except books) she knew she need not worry about personally suffering from the fury of such passions. Until now, she tried not to think too much about anxiety attacks (‘Oh for love of Goethe!’ she could tell herself, ‘Don’t Bronte-fy it’) and distract herself by reading a book. But now the book itself was about loneliness. It was the distraction itself she wanted a distraction from.
It now seemed a mistake to leave India, USA, and England alone and try European Literature. Of all the books she had read, only Passoa’s characters seemed to be feeling anything of the sort and then analyze it in such detail. A desperate sadness without reason. She knew if she was to try to look at herself from some stranger’s point of view (her mother for example) she would put the cause of this sadness to her physical inability, social and emotional alienation … and maybe (assuming the stranger was to be informed of the same) her inability to find joy in anything beautiful. True, these once bothered her, but surely she has made her peace with the same.
Before ‘Book of Disquiet’ happened, her favorite character had been Sydney Carton from ‘A Tale of two cities’ – and it wasn’t his big sacrifice toward the end that attracted her, but how in one of the chapters, he just came home and cried himself to sleep. What kind of sadness had made him do so? He carried this melancholy attitude throughout the story. How he just ‘knew’ that he wasn’t worthy of Lucy? Another thing that Khamoshi didn’t understand was what he saw in Lucy. Did her beauty give him the same Keatsian joy which had been elusive for her so far? But … but, she had felt it in herself that desperation – she had felt a strange kinship with him. Didn’t she felt the same attraction to the book world (the world she met in books)? The same passionate love, wish to see it her whole life even if she can’t enter in it herself? And Like Carter, she had made peace with merely thinking about the thing of her passion. But why did Carter wept? Why? Why wasn’t Dickens clear on that subject?
Now she knew. Carter himself didn’t know. Like hers, it was a desperate sadness without reason. Perhaps Dickens didn’t either.
So perhaps the peace she had made with her misfortunes wasn’t perfect. And even as those anxiety attacks grew frequent, she had to deal with another kind of problem. For she would nowadays (at age of thirteen) suddenly catch herself daydreaming a sort of conversation, oblivious to the book she was reading, the words her eyes had run on and pages she had turned absentmindedly, clueless as to what happened in the book world. A conversation …. yes, she was conversing but a conversation with whom? For it was not with any of the book characters. And so it must be someone real. But there was no real person around and she was conversing – not talking through sign language, she couldn’t imagine enjoying that, but not conversing by writing on notepad either – all those mediums seemed more of obstacles; the conversation she was carrying out was … telepathic? She would wonder trying to remember who that other person in her daydream was. ‘With somebody or other.’ She answered herself with a shrug of the shoulder. A man, perhaps because she wanted a change from having to see only a woman (her mother) in life. A man who understands. Yes, that. Someone who would listen to her when she riddles this… this whatever it was that made her anxious in that way. And the man must be patient too for this conversation might take hours, days …. who knows? Years before what needs to be said could be said. And though she would be the one doing most of the talking, he must show he has understood her perfectly. Because … that seemed to be the decisive thing …. that is exactly the point of her wanting to be saying anything, right? To be understood. To have something like Jane Eyre had with Edward, “To be together meant for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay in the company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking.”
She knew she won’t ever find anyone like that… Nah won’t even try to find such a person and that such a person didn’t exist in first place …. and even if he did, and if by some impossible chance he fell her way, such a conversation would still be impossible … the notepad will always be there between them and it would be too tiring. She also understood the obstacles aren’t limited to mediums, and finding appropriate persons but go even further … for both of them must be in the right state of mind simultaneously and long enough for the purpose of conversation to be reached. ‘Maybe’, she wondered with a smile, ‘I would show him my writings, that should help’ …. But the very next moment, the smile died on her face, for a strange fear struck her on the prospect of a stranger should see something as intimate as her writings …. And she recoiled from the thought. Maybe his being a man wasn’t important. Maybe her mother could do just as fine and though there was notepad involved, maybe with a bit … correction, lots of more effort, she might make her mother play the role. Sneha had the advantage of a head-start on anyone else for being the only person, aside from Khamoshi herself, who knew her at all, even if only a little.
An idea occurred to her to write a long letter or a series of letters to her mother and hope that the later will understand. But she discarded it already even when she hadn’t yet picked up pen and paper for same realizing that she was already losing the wish to do the same. She felt as if that just isn’t her – wanting to talk. She had long defined it as one of the essential aspects of her personality… why should it change now.
That perhaps is what is perfect loneliness – there are people wanting to be there with you only a few steps away, but you still do not want to go the distance; you won’t be able to say what must be said to kill loneliness – for no words are enough, and what is worst is that what makes you lonely is the very essence of your personality. ‘As long as I am myself’ She thought, ‘I am lonely. And as soon as I break this loneliness, I become someone else. So where is the cure of it all? Is it even worth trying at all?’
This new way of looking at conversations continued to raise new curiosities to her mind, the interest in which could take her mind away from her own sufferings.
Did being able to carry a spoken conversation made it easier or at least just probably easy enough for not having to give up hope for the same? Was that why people, whether real or fictional, spoke that much? Speaking seemed to be most frequently indulged voluntary activity – for while one may also see or listen all the time but most of the time those activities are involuntarily done. And even the relatively quiet characters that she had come across in the world of her books were those that seemed to have given up on ever being able to find that perfect conversation. But maybe they would never are able to manage their goals for they all did all talk so much unnecessarily on the most superficial subjects like weather or politics.
At times, she also wondered whether it was anxiety attacks that had caused this need to be born or whether it was this need that was causing those anxiety attacks. And that – the idea that finding such a person could save her from those states (she didn’t call them anxiety attacks) might perhaps be why she continued to daydream about that person. What he would be like – about the tranquility that will follow the revelation of her first confession (confession of what she didn’t know but it would be something). She will always have that person by herself – and wish to do something in return for what his taking the confession would do to her. But what if she could do nothing in return? what if, the way it happened in so many novels, he was to leave her? Sometimes daydreams ended up sadly.
But mostly it was the happier version of events she would daydream about – they would have a lot to talk, but they will also somehow know when one of them wished to be left alone and they will share everything with each other – perhaps not everything. Perhaps some things will always be too dark or difficult to reveal – but they will be easier to carry because of tranquility the presence of such a person will give.
None of these musings and daydreams saddened her for too long. It is what they call heart in the literature (even though the blood pumping organ was not the seat of emotions in the human body) that daydreams – and it is slow and so takes some time to realize what brain always knew – that she won’t ever find such a person. But she was patient and waited for her heart to catch up, even taking it all in intellectual wonderment – including the realization that her wish for that perfect conversation won’t ever be fulfilled. Except for during the anxiety attacks, she was almost completely stoic about it all.
Because in the next few days it became more and more difficult to be indifferent to this need which seemed to grow stronger every day now that it got her attention.
It was around this time she mensurated the first time. Her mother had tried telling her about it in advance only to discover she had already (no points for guessing) read about it. She was quirky and could have thrown flower vase or something on the wall in frustration if she had one in the room. She was unable to read, unable to focus on books – she didn’t feel like sleeping and was too exhausted to do anything else. And she didn’t know what to do when she wasn’t reading or sleeping. She tried indulging herself into rearranging the books on her shelf but lost the courage halfway.
She realized that for the first time in years, she didn’t want read and she definitely did not want to look at the walls, lizards, and roof of her room. She hated her body – having to maintain it, brushing, bathing, eating; all those activities were highly monotonous to her; especially when she could have spent the time reading. And now… this. If her body was a book (she remembered her old games), it could be the most monotonous book ever produced. And she was forced to read it again and again.
Monotony! ever since she had learned to read, she had not suffered from and so had for the most part forgotten the feel of one thing that torments all children, but that had tormented her more than others before the discovery of books – boredom. But ever since she had learned reading …. how could one be bored with so many books around? If one book (David Copperfield) does not interest one, then surely you can pick a second (Dostoevsky) or a third (Proust) or a fourth (Goethe). There was something about starting a new book that was adventurous and relaxing at the same time since she never read introduction or summaries or reviews, she would have no idea what the book was about beforehand and, thus, would start a book with the thrill of entering a new world… But now for the first time in all these years, she didn’t even feel like starting a new book – what was this that was happening to her?
The pain was keeping her from reading. She knew that the pain won’t last long, so she decided she must just wait it out. But wait it out how? Oh! How long before the three days of agony should be over? …. And thus she grew conscious of time, of how time was ruling over her, even though she had thrown such shackles of time like clock and calendar out of her room, she realized how easily life could be a perpetual war against boredom.
Now she understood why people loved clocks so much… To make sure that the time passed at its due speed, that it didn’t cheat them by making them living through their boring lives more than they had to. She herself felt the need to measure the time that she had to spend in pain, unfortunately, she never learned to watch clock (not even the digital ones). If only life was a bit more like a novel, and one just move from one interesting chapter to another, while boring, dull bits would exist only in summarised versions, or better still, slip out through the abysses in between chapters!
Perhaps it is because I am deprived of music, but there must surely be some other things that stir one’s heart and rescues one from boredom. Books talked about love stirring hearts but that, as we have mentioned before, didn’t interest her either.
Till now, she had felt blessed for the disabilities that saved herself from the company of others around whom one constantly runs the risk of falling in love, feeling envious, etc. Now, though, she thought, she could take love and other such demons over boredom any day.
Khamoshi had long forgotten how long exactly a day is (she knew it was twenty-four hours but didn’t how long exactly it felt). And so, when what felt like a really long time had passed and she had continued to suffer from pain, she thought three days must already have been over (it was slightly less than two days yet).
No longer able to keep in bed and, unable because of her disability, to moan (inexpressibly worse is the suffering of those who suffer and can’t give voice to their sufferings), she did something that might have become a sort of physical impossibility.
After about seven years, she opened the window of her room to look out – it took strong pushes from both her hands to open the window which had rusted into the habit of being shut that way. It was evening time, and cool wind and light of spring came running into the room where they had been censored for years when the door was opened with her last push.
She felt a bit of strain on her eyes when the daylight fell on them, so she turns her head sideways for a moment to let them adjust. Now she looked out and saw birds dancing around their nest on a tree nearby and they were …. beautiful, yes. Yes, yes, yes. they were beautiful, beautiful, beautiful… they filled her with joy, Keatsian joy ….. was it … was it possible? But it had to, wasn’t it? Her mind wondered, struggling to accept the idea – so long used to the idea that beautiful things were not for her. Yes, I am enjoying. There is no way to deny it. Perhaps pictures are not enough, one must be in the physical presence of a thing to get the joy. Of course. Of course. And people who do get any joy from pictures surely get it by remembering (or imagining using their previous memories of similar things) the original, rather than from the sight of pictures themselves.
After the initial excitement, she settled down to have as much joy as possible from things outside. The blades of grass, leaves, even the earth seemed to fill her with joy. And beauty wasn’t merely confined to nature – even the faces and clothes of people walking on the street were beautiful. Oh, all these days I had thought that beautiful things were out of my reach when all I had to do was just open the window!
But already merely opening the window wasn’t enough. She felt a strong desire to touch them – birds, grass, soil. The puppy in the street. Oh! she could love to kidnap him – already forgetting the beating which had taught her the concept of property. She remembered that those things weren’t beautiful when she was a kid and did still go out, ‘but perhaps back then I still hadn’t learned how to look at things.’
And so it was that she would open her window frequently over the next few days. Sometimes it was sunny and hot, sometimes it was the evening time and one could see more living beings out on roads and sometimes it was raining – the rain greeted her only four times during those months but those were some of the most beautiful memories – everything seemed just so far more beautiful – rain seemed to be nature’s way of beautifying itself and even though there were no humans at least no grown-ups in the streets, life in general – the dogs in street, the birds with their nest on trees, etc and even inanimate forms of life like trees, grass, etc, they all seemed to be so far happier and there were a few poor children (she knew they were poor from description of clothing of poor children of India she had read about in books, and which could describe these children, she didn’t know they begged in a temple nearby) who were too pleased to be out getting wet in the rain and made paper boats they floated in rainwater. Paper boats! from now on, if Khamoshi was asked to imagine an idea of a painting for the concept of beauty – she could imagine an image or some rain, a poor badly dressed child – wet with rains, with a smile on her face and a paper boat.
But the best part about rain was that it made her feel included – unforgotten, she didn’t want to admit it to herself but she loved it when rain shower intruded in her room through the window and tickled on her skin. She had always hated bathing and had no idea that a touch of water could fill one with such spontaneous joy. So many poets she had rad had admired rains but Khamoshi had always thought it can’t be much different from a shower in your bathroom, which she didn’t much like. But rainwater, it must have some different chemical composition for all one knows. It gave her a delightful feeling. At least, for a while, it lifted her above the tiniest consciousness of loneliness she had got used to be. It was as if nature was telling her that she had no other option – but to come out and live. Play. Like an active character, and not just some passive audience. To stop being on the wrong side of the window. No more of your book-kinks. A suggestion the attraction toward which she refused to admit to herself.
She also loved it when it was a deep dark night because it meant that her mother would be asleep and she could look out without being afraid of disturbed for hours. At times, it could get boring though as nothing whatsoever walked, ran or crawled in the parts of the street lit by the electric pole lamp – and at those times she would think that it was lack of visible life in darkness that made it so scary to people – rather than presence of some evil creatures (which she knew most people won’t even believe in). But that is where her vivid imagination helped for she herself had lived so long in darkness, that she could not help sometimes compromise on truth and bookish rationalism for sake of aesthetic pleasure and imagine the existence of some other lonely beings in the darkness just beyond the circumference of light created by that lamp.
And it is perhaps their loneliness that was akin to hers but if at that instant, she had her voice back, she could call to them to come out so that she could chat with them. Maybe they could relate to her, her who had lived all her life on the wrong side of the window. And she was sure they won’t scare her – like everything else they would be beautiful.
It was amazing how everything was beautiful!
She did notice that she found Keatsian joy even in looking at things that others would not consider beautiful, might even consider ugly. And then she remembered some sentence or some phrase from… Perhaps Dostoevsky of Dickens or somebody like that, or perhaps ….anyway it didn’t matter. Point is perhaps she found everything beautiful because, having lived most of her life away from the world, she could still see it with a child’s eyes. Who knows perhaps growing up was just losing the sense of beauty in things to the contempt that long familiarity with them so often breeds. That could explain why so many poets dry out over the years. It scared her for the first time, the prospect of growing old because now it meant she would gradually lose the Keatsian joy she had discovered after yearning for same for so long.
…. Or perhaps it was her long isolation that had rendered things beautiful to her. That could explain both why other people didn’t find them beautiful and she didn’t either when she was a child.
One day, she saw her brother whom she hadn’t seen for years and could barely recognize. He was just starting to play some boyish game with other boys of her age (friends?) and one of these boys attracted her attention. Intellectually of course. At first. The curiosity was about her own feeling, her heart beating so fast and her throat going dry. Were those symptoms of love or was it another kind of anxiety attack? Maybe the first – for she opened her windows, again and again, one evening after the other and wanted to live those ‘symptoms’ again and again … something that never happened with anxiety attacks.
All kind of funny ideas occurred to her during these days. Dreams started having colors, shapes – often that of a very specific boy. Though not struck by moral confusions that could bother some other girl of her age from a conservative Indian middle-class family, Khamoshi had different kind of doubts that kept her from enjoying this sweet anguish.
What about her own definition of herself? Wasn’t she feeling these strong urges to draw his attention? She to whom all the world was a stage … nah, a book and she alone its audience or reader. If that definition was to stay true than her wanting to draw his attention was as absurd as someone from the audience trying to draw the attention of an actor … nah, that seemed a trick a postmodern dramatist would play. More exactly it was as absurd as if a reader of a novel was to try to engage one of its characters – and, so to say, should suddenly feel the urge to write herself into the book. No, the idea of her being involved in any such interaction with anyone at all (even with her mother, the conversation was limited to her everyday needs) was absurd. No, this urge must be suppressed.
But… but, the desperation in her argued back to that cold reasoning, you have done that. You have written pieces in which you interact with fictional characters – and all those pieces are still in your laptop. What about them?
Yes, it might be so. But those are fictional characters – a well-defined quantity, easy to know as they are limited to be between the first and last words of the books. One can know them perfectly, even modify them as per once desire’s by rewriting passages of the book – and once that is done, one’s own passages are as good as that of the author. The newly modified characters are just as real …. nah more real for me than the ones the author created. One can … so to say, own those characters. But how does one own the boy in the blue shirt (if she remembered the name of color right) or what she felt ….. because what she was feeling seemed real separate entity … something so well defined (though the definition is unknown to her) rather than some abstract need of who-knows-what that may never be defined. One can’t just write and give him a new personality for he would still be there, more real than anything one might write just because he happened to have that skin or bones. So unfair! And every time I look at him, for a look at him I must, I will remember that what I have written is fictional.
There were no tricks here – she must draw his attention, and it was like the opening of a pandora box – suddenly she wanted all those things which everybody wants – good looks, money, ability to talk or listen; not for herself but to be attractive to him, on an off-chance he might see her … but she had no mirrors in her room; so she looked at her reflection in the glass of the window and discovered a face she barely recognized from not having seen it for a lot of time. She found it disturbing – unkept hair, unwashed face with that dark color (which didn’t seem ugly to her but which she knew from books was considered ugly), clumsy pajamas and t-shirt – both of which she had grown a bit too tall for and both had their colors fading as they had grown old; nothing like anything described as beautiful in books.
And then there came another anxiety attack by the end of which she was already determined that he can’t be allowed to know of her ugly existence.
No, he won’t know she exists. And she won’t ever know him by touch but at least she will have her fill through her eyes every day.
It is difficult for me to tell what she saw in this boy who wasn’t particularly handsome. But the science of attraction is hardly my strongest pursuit. It seems to me that people often fall in love – not so much because they have found someone deserving love but because they happened to be in a state of mind that made them fall in love without bothering about logic, rationality, and profitability of the undertaking. What I do know for sure is that as far as Khamoshi was concerned, it falsified Kepler’s laws since the whole universe could not help but revolve around this boy in her locality, the biggest source of Keatsian joy.
It never occurred to her to compare her condition to girls in love she had read about in books and frowned at; girls who had shown similar emotions to nothing-special-about-them boys. Her entire energy was devoted to making it sure she won’t daydream of him having qualities that she wasn’t sure of his processing that he stayed just another pretty thing she saw from her window. The energy devoted in this direction was of course wasted since his heart was making the effort with several times more force in exactly the opposite direction.
She didn’t read a lot during those days. Besides this battle between her heart and mind, the day and night dreams, the anxiety attacks and the love attacks, a lot of energy was also consumed in hiding the fact of her opening window from her mother. Hiding about it from her mother was a particular bother on days rainwater had intruded the room, she would snap at her mother when asked about it and thus dodged the question. She wanted to make sure that her mother never discovered how much joy she found in looking out of the window. She knew Sneha had a slightly religious bent of mind and was afraid that, like all religious folks, will consider something so joy-giving a sin.
Moreover, she was at an age where some people have that conscious or unconscious desire to run away from the place of her upbringing – like a birdling who on developing wings want to fly away and her mother, stood for her, a symbol of the nest from which she wanted to fly away. It was mostly an unconscious feeling which only showed itself in that increasing irritation whenever her mother was in her room. She had started feeling that way a long time ago and her infatuation for the boy had only made it worse.
Anyway, she didn’t get to look at the boy for too long. For one day, her brother noticed her staring at the boy like that and complained to her father. In the years of Khamoshi’s self-imposed room arrest, the world had conveniently forgotten her – redundant as it found her. In fact, except for her birth certificate and a tally mark in the last population census, there was no official proof of her existence. Many of the neighbors who weren’t living in the neighborhood last decade won’t have heard of her existence. Many who did, would have only vague memories of ‘the younger daughter of Jindals’.
And her own family, with the sole exception of Sneha, was no different. Her room upstairs was avoided as if it was haunted or like the disgraceful memory which in her father’s opinion lived in it. And it was easy to forget it. For her siblings, it was an uncomfortable subject like many others which their youthful spirits could easily avoid and so they did. For the father, it was something worse and so it was far more convenient to not think about it. And it helped that no noise left the room. She couldn’t speak or listen to music. Even when she was young and watched television, it was always at mute.
If someone, for example, a relative or a family friend (who too never found about her – because they didn’t care to find out what was in that room) – if some such person invited to dinner was to try, really, really try to listen for some voice from the room – then they could listen to the silence; mind you not ‘hear nothing’ but listen to the silence, a silence that; once the outsider has listened to it, also becomes like an almost visible shadow that seemed to engulf the four members of the family sitting on the dinner table.
And the outsider could notice this silence because he or she was not used to it. The family members were long used to this disquieted silence and it was nothing but some background noise for them.
But now this silence was broken first for her brother and then for her father. And her father had long stopped not giving into his famous anger – her looking out at the boy was a mere excuse, the real reason was that the silence, disquieting as it was, was broken and he was once again conscious of her existence, her miseries and his inability to shield her from them. He ordered that the window be permanently shut off while creating a scene in her room.
She, who was already too scared of him, again stayed in a corner all the time and didn’t dare come near the window again all her life. Opening the window may as well have become the physical impossibility once again.
What was perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the whole thing was that the scene was redundant. If her father was to make Sneha a go-between and let Khamoshi know her to wish, Khamoshi, for whom nothing of knowledge of human rights, etc that she had gained from her books had changed the archetypal perspective of relationship with her father she had developed from her childhood – in which he was a strong animal and she a weak one and rules of jungle dictated their relationship, would have given up opening the window – and accepted it without any reproach the way we accept injustices of gravity that keep us from flying.
She wept herself to sleep for days before she was able to make peace with this and could often wake up in terror of nightmares in which she had the feeling of an animal that was about to be hunted. Only worse. For an animal could run. But she could not move and had to just wait for the hunter to arrive at the scene.
On days she didn’t have the nightmare, she would dream of the boy. Later, the dream of the boy grew rarer, but melancholy stuck around. The boy, as well as the other beautiful things on the other side of the window, continued to be beautiful but each time she had attempted to embrace the world has crushed her spirits through humiliations and beatings, now she just didn’t have the courage to make another attempt. She didn’t even bother with her mother’s explanations regarding what had made that man she barely recognized as her father angry with her.
Her brother had never thought that his complaint to father would provoke such a reaction from him. He felt guilty and to make up for it, he saved pocket money for a few months and then using them to buy a puppy for her and that was how Choco entered her life.
I am a bad writer and, am afraid, have made the most amateurish mistake of waiting for long before opening the most important episode because of which this story has been written. This started as a short story which should have been long over but it is only now I am reaching the point where the most important events of the story take place. I never intended to write a biography of Khamoshi though unfortunately, it has taken that form. It was not supposed to be a story of a deaf-mute girl, rather it was supposed a story of a relationship – a silent relationship between a deaf-mute girl and a dog but it is only now that the second protagonist of this piece of writing has made it to the stage. Forgive me for this delay.
I hope you, my readers, will be indulgent enough to put particular stress on these next few chapters when at the end of the story, you take the complete measure of things. Because all that has happened till now was just a long prelude.
On her son’s request (who himself didn’t want to face the awkwardness of the situation ), Sneha introduced Chocko to Khamoshi and told her that the puppy with chocolate furs was hers now. Initially, Khamoshi was suspicious but it scratched below its ear with its hindfoot and Oh Beckett! how can you stay away from that? Khamoshi wrestled it from her mother though later had already offered it to her. The joy in beautiful things! she could bet Keats must have owned a dog.
There thus started the most beautiful chapter of Khamoshi’s life, the happiest days of her life. A new color was added to the room, a color her eyes loved. Only for two hours, Sneha would take it away from her for a walk, one hour in the morning and one in the evening, outside and so that its other fans (Khamoshi’s siblings, etc) could meet it but except for that, it spent the rest of the day with her.
A ball was bought so that Khamoshi could play with him -‘thump ‘thump’ the sound of this ball hitting a wall of the room would be heard downstairs for an hour or so three times a day like sound of a heart who had suddenly sprung back to life and resumed the old chore of keeping things alive. Sometimes one could hear excited barks as, with a newly acquired mischievousness, she had learned to tease the dog about the ball.
Khamoshi’s little world was alive now – initially excited at every little thing the dog might do. Steadily they got used to each other. Khamoshi got used to being woken up by him (as he licked her face). She realized that now, she smiled more before she has opened her eyes upon being thus woken then she previously did all day.
And Choco (the name was mostly for the rest of the world, they were too close to each other to need names for one other) managed to force her into a kind of routine by asking her attention at the exact same times every day. She must give Chocko its food at times – her mother brought it to her room along with her own food, but she insisted on being the one who fed it.
When Choco would return back from walks, it would jump into bed and lick Khamoshi’s cheeks and ear. Its tongue in her ear made her laugh – of course silently, but also with a particular delight that made her feel that her ears were not really all that useless.
The next time when Khamoshi had an anxiety attack, Chocko looking worried leaped into her bed and she, not being able to see the worried expression in its face, took it in her arms and spooned it. It set its head on one of her arms and looked at her with melancholy eyes. Khamoshi, on the other hand, discovered that anxious though she still was, she was no longer shivering the way she had in previous attacks. Now she had something to hold tight on to so as to make it sure she won’t get blown away.
She also realized by the time attack ended, that she was already far ahead in that conversation which she had long wanted to hold with someone. Only she held it with a dog. But it needed no effort from her as she thought she would if it was a person…. correction, a human; for surely Choco was a person. It definitely had a personality of its own.
It, the bond, the communication seemed to come naturally and it continued to be that way from then on. The noises rest of her family heard downstairs were the result of only a minor part of their intimacy – for most of their life.
As Choco grew mature, it tried less and less to draw her attention wanting to be played with – and rather enjoyed silences. Only sometimes, it would brush its back with her legs, wanting to be petted. For the most part, though it would sit near her – stealing occasional glances at her face. She had started sitting on the floor more and more to be closer to him (unless they were both sitting on the bed) – to have the feel of its fur on her skin.
Frequently while reading her book, when she found something interesting or remember something that needed talking about, she would look up from the book, towards it and see in its face that understanding – as if she had already said everything she wished to say and he had heard and understood it. And with a smile on her face, she would return to her book.
She started believing that they were both actually talking. The written language she used with her mother paled in comparison to this language of shared silences. Chocko was the only creature she had met all her short life who made her feel comfortable and happy enough to make her want to and actually kiss him. Oh! she would so often think, there should be more books with dogs in them!
There were a number of acts Choko did – it’s spinning around, trying to catch its tail, the way the hair on its spine stood when it barked – probably hearing a strange sound from outside the room, inaudible to her (seeing it doing so first few times reminded her of the forgotten world outside the walls of her room but later it stopped reminding her of anything and was just yet another thing she adored in it), the way it loved ice cream so much (a treat Sneha served it weekly and on special occasions), the way sometimes in winters it would dig its nose in its paws or blanket or the way it would stand on its hind paws, while putting the front ones on one of her shoulder – its way of asking for a hug. All of these would come to her as pleasant surprises occasionally distracting her from her books every now and then to remind her that she owes the world a smile, and making her quickly pay the accrued.
The most intimate thing she felt all her life was its heartbeat – she could put her fingertips on its chest and feel its heartbeat – as if its heart was tapping the fingers saying ‘hi’ to her. She was often conscious of her own heart beat. And listening to Chock’s heartbeat now reminded her of times when she was little, she had felt against her mother’s skin, later’s heartbeat when she would pick her up in her arms but she didn’t give those times much importance back then. This rememory did bring with itself another memory – when at those very same times, she could also feel the vibration in her mother’s throat when later was speaking. In a much similar way, she would occasionally put a hand on the dog’s throat and ‘feel’ it bark.
It was the heartbeat of the dog though, which she would often feel to know the feeling that was perfect opposite of loneliness. None of the words like companionship, friendship, love could perfectly define that feeling. She vaguely remembers having felt her mother’s heartbeat as a child when Sneha would pick it up in her arms and put next to her chest. Khamoshi never had much thought about her mother’s beat. Choko’s heartbeat though was different. It filled her with a brilliant, though for her absurd, feeling of security.
But far more than all those little surprises, there was something so very unique in her love for dog and satisfaction she derived from its company which can’t be imagined merely from what normal pet owners feel for their pets. For a pet, their owner is their whole world, entire life but for the owner, the pet is only a small part of the world – a low priority that comes only after children, family, lovers, friends, etc and remembered, at an average, no more than one or two hours a day for a few years. In the case of Khamoshi though, Choko was really her world. Sneha was just a background detail (as parents often are for teenagers), someone whose periodic presence she tolerated but, Choko, she would wait for, desperately during the times it was on its walks.
When it would come back, they would meet in excitement, the dog licking her face and she would sit on the ground holding it in her arms for several minutes. What they communicated through this touch of hug and kisses I don’t know, but it was far more interesting to Khamoshi then everything in books. Now she knew what the book of her life would be called – ‘Choko and Khamoshi’ – yep, that is it. Perhaps there is something wrong with that title. But who cares? it is her book.
Choko, too, preferred and loved to be around her rather than out with others. It won’t eat anything that wasn’t offered by Khamoshi’s very hands, Sneha had noticed how it didn’t like staying away from Khamoshi a moment longer than it was used to. Its tale would wag each time its eyes meet that of Khamoshi, something that happened very frequently.
Mere its presence in the room was not enough. Even when reading, she would sit holding it in her lap and later, when it was too big to be contained in her lap, with its mouth in her lap; running her fingers over its fur.
How I wish I could end this story with this image!
Sometimes I hate my art, you see, just because I write fiction, you would think I have control over what I write, that it is I who make things come up. I wish I could end this story with that image of them two enjoying each other’s company. But the stories, at least the better ones, come to me with ugly force of truth (ugly, not because truth is always ugly, only but because when it is not ugly, it is without force and so rarely makes a story worth writing) and I have no more control over what I write then your mundane press reporter who must stick to mechanical narration of truth’s dictates. Believe me, if I was a better writer, I would have been writing fairy tales.
Dogs, like all things beautiful, have a short life. Had Sneha not been too happy from the sight of the smiles which now so often frequented her daughter, she might have told her not to love Choko so much, might have prayed for choko’s long life just as she did for the long life of her children. She too loved the dog for brightening her daughter’s life. How happy can two creatures be in each other’s company? Sneha stood firm against her husband wanting to get rid of dog complaining that it makes too much noise. No, she was resolved, to keep them together. Nothing short of death could have separated them.
Khamoshi woke up late one morning (a couple of years after Chocko’s arrival) and it struck her that Choco had not woken her up. It lied there on her bed near her foot – looking at her with its sad eyes and refusing to show excitement when she called him near herself, as she always did, with the gesture of her hands, only wagging its tail to acknowledge her presence. Her heart was already beating fast and she started panicking when it refused to eat her food too.
When it refused to touch lunch either, Sneha finally called the vet. And this vet became the third person after Chocko and Sneha, with whom Khamoshi ever tried to converse since she had been humiliated by the teens and since she had no patience to describe her doubts and questions on her notepad – she had to return to language of gestures (not sign language which she had never learned properly in first place but gestures of hands and arms) and depend on her mother to interpret the desperate movements of her hands to vet. At first, the vat did try to reply in kind through gestures but she herself was not well versed with such gestures that even people gifted with the ability to speak might sometimes use (she won’t know that a show of palm was supposed to mean ‘calm down’).
While carrying on this conversation, Sneha thanked her gods that her husband wasn’t in here for Khamoshi’s pajama was tied a bit low on her hips (she was just too careless about her clothes) showing a bit of her lower waist, something her father won’t approve of.
Khamoshi sternly refused with an obvious disgust any suggestions regarding dignified deaths for animals.
The father and the siblings disagreed – for while still alive, he had started smelling like a corpse which resulted in daily quarrels but no one, not even the father, showed courage to snatch away the dog from Khamoshi.
Khamoshi didn’t read in the two months Chocko was sick – she spent the time looking after him, even took it to rooftop in afternoons and early nights (it was okay with her father because no one was in streets during afternoons or nights) to let it breathe in fresh air now that it couldn’t walk (and thus no one took him to walks). And even if she wasn’t doing anything for him like feeding him – one morsel at a time or cleaning its shit or pee or giving him a bath. She would just sit silently looking at its face in her lap.
She had waited for it for years, just now, they had met just now ….. and already it was leaving. It was cruel, too cruel. But she made peace with her fate, the way she always did. And she was going to make most of the time they had left. There was so much to talk about and they were running out of the time.
It was once while sitting thus under the light of stars and moon which she hadn’t seen for years before Chocko fell sick , the dog suddenly made an effort to raise its face, wagging its tail slowly, and look towards her face, she was quickly attentive and moved her own head closer to his as if to let it whisper something in her useless ear, its tongue came out to leak her face perhaps but before it reached the face, the head fell back.
Khamoshi touched its chest to check for a heartbeat but already knew and was weeping silently. Too weak to stay sitting, she fell backward, weeping silently and got greeted by the brutal silence of the stars.
Her mother found her absent in her room, came checking on the rooftop and finding her lying thus and the dog dead, called the rest of her family. The brother took the copse away – stealing only a single look at his sister, finding no words to console her.
Khamoshi, who herself smelled a little the way the sick dog had, didn’t show any sentiment other than tears she already had in her eyes when the corpse was taken away. Sneha took her by arm to the room and tried to make her eat which she refused. After failing to console her over next few minutes, Sneha put her under the sheets – kissing her forehead as later looked at the ceiling fan.
Next morning her dead body was found hanging on the same ceiling fan – like, I said, it seemed to go perfectly with room’s mournful silence.