(A short story
first written on March 4, 2019)
His clothes were as black as the background. The place was marked by a complete lack of landmarks – trees, walls etc. Nothing but the darkness and, in it, that ugly man visible. but the darkness in the place wasn’t just a lack of light it seemed to have a material presence, it surrounded the place like a black fog and you could look in all direction without seeing far because of it. This fog like effect was produced by a lack of a visible source of the dim light that circumscribes one’s vision. This man whom he saw only in profile seemed so ugly to Manoj that he thought it won’t be an exaggeration to deny him humanity and call him a monster. The ‘monster’ was very heavy about his stomach, had a crooked nose and an almost albino skin shade with ugly black wrinkles spouting in the face. He smiled showing deformed, yellowish teeth. His eyes were of that undefined colour which Manoj quickly read as the colour of greed.
The very sight of this man made a shiver ran down Manoj’s neck whose disgust was combined by an ambiguous sense of guilt and an absurdly strong feeling of fear and it was this shiver which woke him up from the nightmare. Unlike in movies, the nightmare didn’t make him sit up, he lied there in bed, though the shiver had made his body make a violent turn in bed.
He tried to get the nightmare out of his mind. It took him a few moments to stop thinking about the strange monster. As he laid there trying to stop thinking of the monster, he realised he had a really dry throat and a strong need to piss. While satisfying these needs he began wondering how completely we abandon our body when we sleep, completely unaware of any of its needs during the time. The vulnerability to which we subject ourselves struck him when we sleep as odd. Instinctively, he thanked God for making his bladder strong enough to hold piss so that he won’t humiliate himself (especially in front of his wife) by peeing in bed. A moment later, he realised what an absurd thing it was to thank God for.
He laid there in bed and tried to fall back to sleep but couldn’t. The sleep seemed all gone at the moment and then the image of that ugly monster keep occurring in his mind, the image had gone blur now and he was no longer able to make out the features as clearly as before. What he remembered far more clearly was the strange feeling he got on seeing the monster. It didn’t scare him anymore now that he was awake but it was hardly a sort of thing one wants to have at the back of one’s mind. And so he woke his wife, Diksha, and quietly made moves for sex. Diksha was upset upon being woken up like that in the middle of the night but she tried hiding it. She didn’t manage to do a very good job and Manoj could see her unwillingness but was not bothered by it. After all, what other need he had for this woman in the house?
Being used to his eight hours of sleep, Manoj was grumpy the next day. He observed a number of faults in his breakfast and, after taking a break from fault-finding, to kiss his dear daughter goodbye before leaving for factory, he was soon finding faults with the drivers of the vehicles on the road who were all slow enough or fast enough to make him declare that they were fucking their mothers and sisters. These observations about incestual relations were even more frequently made by him about workers working under him at the factory.
The factory, which for fear of being sued by its owners I can’t identify by name, created a tool which weighed 80 kilograms that we shall call ABC. This ABC tool was created by workers in a machine where they would load iron sheets and from the other end would come out the final product. This ABC product was then placed in a trolley. There were two such trolleys for every one of 15 machines in the factory – one of them was always getting loaded and other was getting unloaded in the space that was marked as store.
The store had several exits that opened out to place where trucks were filled them so that they could be taken out to the customers. This is where Manoj came in. His duty was at these exits as a supervisor who made sure that the workers who were employed there for the sole purpose of loading these tools into trucks would do so in minimum time. He had got this job solely because the owner of the factory, Rajesh (name changed) was his college friend who had offered him this job after the sudden death of his father (his mother was dead in his infancy).
Seven years later, he was one of the most trusted hands and there were, in fact, talks of promoting him to the position of production of manager as Mr Sharma who presently held the job was retiring.
He was only 29 years old and there were many senior managers in the factory. The reason why he was being considered so seriously was his radical idea which had done so much to reduce the production costs.
Like we mentioned the tool produced by factory weighed 80 kilograms and it was shaped such that it was nearly impossible for most of the men alone (the factory owners didn’t even consider employing women for this job even in old days). Thus two workers were employed at every exit to pick it up and place it in the trucks. Manoj’s simple solution was to make one worker do the job of two. This age-old wisdom of managers who often delude themselves as gods didn’t seem physically possible at first but Manoj backed his solution with two additional suggestions. First that the workers selected for the job be physically stronger and healthier thus they should be able to barely carry the weight of the tool. The factory already had enough of such workers and some to spare, you just needed to pick and choose them well. Second, that to silent any protests from the workers the wages of those employed for the job should be increased by twenty per cent. Some simple mathematics would show a reduction in total wages paid for that particular task by 40 per cent. Of course, if one dug deeper, one finds that even a healthier worker who, attracted by money on offer, might take the job would have an impact on his health in long term because of such heavy weight lifting. Since the workers were not organised, permanent labour; the management need not worry about their long term health.
This twenty per cent increase in wages had another advantage in that it was an instrument of control in the hands of Manoj (or whoever might take his place in future). Manoj was quick to remind any worker requesting leave and wanting some rest or complaining that it was the time for a lunch break that the factory hadn’t been paying him additional wages for procrastinating about. Of course, the workers – and most of them were intelligent enough to know it, could not say that for a mere one-fifth rise in wages, their work has been doubled. Hypocrisy is imposed in such conditions on the oppressed because he is too afraid to call the hypocrisy of oppressor by its true name.
But didn’t Manoj saw through the hypocrisy of his ways? Yes, he did but it seemed to have it that we are all here as mere actors. Some chose to play the master, others choose to play the victim. And together they conspire to create this ugly game. Manoj had learned not to think too much about it. It was a sort of belief system that people who are not too introspective develop unconsciously. The workers seemed to him a kind of people, a race, in whose best interest it was to get perished.
And it was not that Manoj needed this weapon to make his workers work like slaves. He would swear and curse his workers constantly in order to make sure they work to the fullest of their capacity during the time they paid for.
On his first day at work, Rajesh had adviced him to keep his distance from his subordinates if he wishes to do his job properly. Manoj wasn’t the cursing type when he took the job. He even allowed some concessions and some generous leaves during his first couple of months – a practise which earned him a threat of being fired from the job from his boss, Rajesh ‘s father. Manoj, whose only possession in the world at that time was the house he inherited from his father, knew he would have no future without this job. And so he learned his lesson – If he didn’t act cruel, he would be one of the victims of cruelty.
After that, he did his best to ensure that no workers approach him with requests for concessions. The very fact that he felt he was exploiting his workers made him feel angry at them, and this anger made him operate with an unconscious assumption that the workers somehow deserved this behaviour. How else was one to make these shitheads work?
When looking in the mirror at features of his face which had grown sharper over the years, he realised he was a much more handsome man now – so far better looking than when his father had died and he was just a goody two shoes. It mirrored in his development of philosophy, a view of life, that though he won’t be able to phrase in so many words (he never was good with the words) could be summed up like this: Cruelty is what makes us beautiful. Tigers are far more adored by us than deer ever will be. Of course, he never would put it in so many words, he would never philosophise but it was the pattern along which his mind worked.
And thus he considered workers ugly because they seemed so passive. Their bodies seemed to degenerate before time (he didn’t realise at the same time that it was because of oppression of people like him) and they seemed to have a sort of stink about them that repelled him. A stink of stupidity.
The same ugly dream as before. The same monstrous man again with his pale skin, crooked nose and fingers, a pot belly etc. Only this time, Manoj was a little less shocked and a bit more curious about this monster and so the nightmare persisted a little longer. Manoj observed how the monster had a whip in his left hand with which he was now whipping two girls who were kneeling near him – both naked, both scared of him. Manoj’s heart went out to these girls
The girls, he guessed, seemed to be in early teens given the formation of their body. Their breasts were still sprouting but there was no freshness of a young body in them. Instead, they suggested a stink, much similar to that of workers under Manoj, and their bodies were so undernourished, the shoulder weak, the arms were pencil thin, there were black scratches and marks all over the body.
The monstrous man whipped them and they cried and shrieked in pain and afterwards seemed to offer him food (which showed up out of nowhere). Manoj, who observed them while himself being unobserved by them, already knew that after his meal, the monster would return to whipping them again. He felt sorry for them and wanted to help them. But he was himself scared of this monster, scared of even being seen by him.
As he wondered about it and decided too big a coward to interfere, the girls turned toward him and looked at him with a kind of hostility in their eyes as if it was he who had whipped them. But as recoiled in this terror, yet another horror got him, surely the monster too now …. yes, the mysterious man had followed the gaze of the girls and was to look at him …… the combination of these two horrors was enough to wake him up.
The recurrence of the nightmare itself was bothering him but what bothered him still more was the hostility in the eyes of girls. Being a modern man, he wasn’t of the kind to look for meanings in his dreams. Modern Psychology was only for mad people while the religious interpretation of dreams was for superstitious. He did felt amused though by the realisation that there won’t any Hindu book talking about things contained in his dream.
The question that seemed to bother him most was why the girls hated him? What harm had he done to them? It was this question that won’t let him sleep. He had actually felt sorry for the girls, nothing disgusted him as violence, especially violence against children – he himself had a father who had beaten him a lot (though he remembered how it was humiliation of having to apologise afterwards that had often bothered him more than the actual beating) and, in turn, he won’t punish or let his wife punish his four-year-old daughter in anything other than scoldings. And that was another reason why his dream bothered him so much.
He found himself turning around in his bed and being unable to sleep he looked for distraction. Again he woke Diksha up, who grumbled a little but not too much, too scared to make her husband angry. She had a strong aversion to arguments and could go to great heights to avoid one.
She had never thought much of sex and except for a couple of times when their arrange marriage was still fresh never enjoyed it much. It seemed to her just another sort of duty one does for one’s husband. She tried her best to hide her reluctance but it showed on her face and that only made Manoj go at it in a much rougher way. If only he knew violence has more meanings than mere physical beatings!
His bad moods went into the day. He sarcastically complimented his wife over her ability to make the food more and more tasteless
And today he was even cursing their workers when they were doing better than the norm. His mood remains sour even when Rajesh came to his desk to tell him that he is to work as an assistant to the production manager learning his job from next month so that he could replace him a month later. The news seemed to leave him so unimpressed that his friend suggests that he need some refreshment “if you know what I mean”. Manoj knew exactly what he meant but that would cost a lot, perhaps some other day.
The same dream only this time the monstrous man is wearing the suit and the dream goes further than before. The man has turned his head toward him, still chewing on the food given by girls – a morsel shows in his mouth, making Manoj feel like throw up. But Manoj’s terror takes a new height when the monster looks at him. The expression in the face is of a friend ….. oh no! not a friend, it is ….. absurd! it was flirtatious. The man seemed to look at him the way one looks at a lover.
Again Manoj wakes up the middle of the night. Three nights in a row he hadn’t been able to sleep well. He looked toward his wife but was struck by a strong sense of exhaustion. No, he won’t be able to do it again. He stood up and got himself a glass of water but water burnt on his dry throat, angry, he threw the glass on the floor, it broke with a sound which woke his wife.
”What happened?” it was a somewhat general question, asking about the reason behind the change in his behaviour in the past few days. And, she regretted asking it as soon as it was out.
“Nothing,” Manoj said in a tone which suggested she had asked something which she, an inferior, had no right to ask, and left the room.
Diksha even as she got up from bed to clean the fragments of broken glass was relieved that he had not got his anger out on her and that he had not wanted to have sex. Except for the first few times, after their arranged marriage, she had never driven any pleasure from it. In fact, her ability to adjust to dictates of fates was so strong that she had just imagined those pleasures she drove from the first few times. That, there was just no such thing as sexual pleasure for women.
It was Sunday so it was a good day to make up for the sleep lost during the week. He went back to bed after breakfast but even though his eyes were heavy and his body restless, he just couldn’t fall asleep. The images from his nightmare kept popping up in his mind and he couldn’t distract himself in any way.
Remembering the promotion he was getting soon, he decided he should be happy. When seven years ago, when his father died he had next to nothing – just a house and a graduate degree. And now he had made a life for himself had a wife and a daughter, the later he loved more than anything in the world. And it was only to secure her future that he would often stay out overnight and work overtime.
No, he deserved to be happy, he should be happy. He had worked so hard, cemented himself and killed his softer side …. and than he remembered the words of the factory owner. Yes, he needed to reward himself. He needs some real good company.
He hired a room in a hotel and requested services of a prostitute from a contact which was shared with him by his friend, the owner of the factory. Rajesh had kept offering him an adventure like this from the time they were together in college. But his romantic and moral notions had made him deny them earnestly. Though these same notions had made him get married (arranged marriage) within months of starting the job.
Diksha had not been able to lose the weight gained during pregnancy after the birth of his daughter, this made her unattractive in his eyes. Unable to feel any attraction toward her, he had started sneaking out on weekends and hiring prostitutes.
At first, he did so every week, feeling that he has found a sort of new treasure. He was careful to ask for only the prettiest ones. Over next few months, his visits grew less frequent, first because the novelty of variety of women exhausted itself, and second, the first shock of the ‘ugliness’ of his wife now being over, she seemed to serve the purpose despite her ugliness. Now the prostitutes were treats he would indulge himself in when his wife bored him.
Over time, it had occurred to him that it wasn’t anymore the idea of possessing anew beauty in itself when he wanted a new girl every time he took services as had been the case at first, but rather it was the simple, mundane conversations – the awkward introductions that preceded the act that gratified him. The few times he had asked for the same girl, it had seemed to him, that the girl was holding something back, that there was some sort of judgement in her. That he had done something, created an image in her mind that could never be changed. And thus he started fresh with a new girl every time these days, already knowing that by the end of the act, he would have acquired some sort of monstrosity in her eyes.
Perhaps it was this very observation that he desired novelty over the beauty that he decided to experiment this time by asking for middle age women. And these middle-aged women cost less which helped him save more for his daughter. It was this phase of his life when the recurring nightmare made him restless. A knock at the door. The woman greeted him with a smile. ‘Not bad’ he mused.
“Mother fucker! Whore!” he cursed the whole wide world and the woman as he put on his underwear and moved toward his pants. Fortunately, it wasn’t a girl in twenties this time who might have been scared but a woman in her forties, who just frowned musingly.
Treating it to mean that she was inwardly laughing at her, he started accusing her of his own failure “It is useless. You can’t do a thing right even though you have done it all your life.”
The woman ignored the accusation and just asked: “Should I consider it over then?”
He laughed bitterly “yes”
“Your money? It didn’t even get hard.”
But this was not his submissive wife who would be scared of such things, “Don’t you accuse me of your lack of manhood, mister” she said in a firm voice that also had a threat in it.
This brought Manoj to his senses and, anyway, he wasn’t the sort of man who would be given to passion for too long. He quickly accessed how it could turn into a scene. He took the wallet out of his pocket and paid the woman mumbling his grudges incoherently.
The humiliation of the whole thing sat on his mind as he made his way back home barely holding back his anger. He continued to mentally accuse ‘the whore’ of being so ugly that she couldn’t excite him. On the way back, he took a bottle of alcohol. It served two purposes – one he would get drunk, two, back home, Diksha would know not to bother him. She knew not to disturb him when he was in the mood to get drunk. He would fall asleep in front of the television in the same drunken state.
The same dream, the same man, same whip, same girls. Same hated in their eyes, the same coquetry in his. On seeing him, the monster smiled and shoved a girl ahead and, though finding her so young and knowing it to be wrong, he went forward and kissed her, as if compelled by some sort of spell and feel her body. She kneeled in front of him and took his sex out. As if a button was clicked, it got hard and, this prompted him, now it was an act of will and not done because he felt compelled, he took her up in arms and kissed her and he was kissing her neck now when suddenly he heard laughter. It was the laughter of the other girl and he felt a shiver as he heard it. Only a moment later, this laughter of girl was joined by that of many – he looked around and saw several faced appearing on the curtain of darkness that surrounded them and they were all laughing. Even the girl in his arms freed herself and took a couple of steps back laughing – he himself took a step back in terror wondering why everyone was laughing at him. Only one person seemed embarrassed and that was the monstrous man whose head seemed sunken down. And it was the look on this man’s face that made him look down at his sex to find it ridiculously small. He woke up in the same state of terror on his couch but felt unable to move around. He closed his eyes and tried to go to sleep again. He would spend the rest of night watching television.
The next day he was fallen to a new low. He managed to scold Diksha thrice before breakfast, won’t even kiss his daughter goodbye before leaving. He cursed workers even though they were doing their best. And it was perhaps trying to act too fast that one of them accidentally threw the product of factory breaking it. Enraged, Manoj half ran to the worker and slapped him. But this very act of slapping him acted like a moment of epiphany for him. It was him. He. He was the ugly monster, the ugliness and cruelty himself. The worker who was agitated and humiliated by the slap had slapped back, the hand falling on Manoj’s neck. The worker.had backed it up with another punch and was soon beating Mamoj. But Manoj was so absentminded, so removed from his own body. that even when they were separated by guards (the workers were too happy to see Manoj receive the beating) he didn’t say anything..He was suddenly conscious of an unending abyss of darkness inside him. And he just couldn’t look away from it. The workers, his wife, the prostitutes – what he had become for all.
There are many among us who seem to live naturally – like animals, adapting to conditions, changing without ever thinking about themselves, without a sense of self-criticism either for good or for bad, going with the tide without ever struggling against it. Manoj who was a highly extroverted being was incapable of introspection lasting more than a few minutes. He was of a sort who would live almost instinctively and all his instincts seem to be suited to get him immediate pleasure in the present moment. It is not to say that he didn’t have a philosophy, a view of life with which he lived but he just didn’t want conscious of it. At this moment, he realised how ugly his soul had grown in his selfish pursuit of happiness. Rajesh, who had arrived at the spot told him to take the day off – a fact that he barely registered but he silently took the suggestion and left the factory, his head sunk down in deep introspection, but also of guilt, that kept him from looking into eyes of workers.
Rajesh didn’t go home directly. Instead, he went to the highway just outside the city limits, there stopping the car on one side, he got out and sat down on a milestone. Everything wrong in his life had become clear to him by now and, yet, a sort of haze had stayed over what he should do next. And no thoughts or ideas suggested themselves to him for the next few hours. It was only in the evening that he made up his mind about how he could try to correct at least some of the wrongs that he had done and he decided to go back home.
When Diksha took his lunch box, he saw that fear in her eyes too. He would have to become better, won her trust back, make her fear him less. But the change must take its time. For now, he just sunk his head and went to the sofa.
Next day, Manoj talked to Rajesh and tried to convince him to roll back the ‘reform’ which was his own recommendation but Rajesh just laughed this away as if it was just a joke. Manoj persisted and got fired as a result. He would spend the next few months searching for a job, only ending up as a salesman in a gift shop. His relations with his wife improved despite a fall in their financial position. He realised he had forgotten how beautiful she looked when laughed. His face lost the sharp features as his health took a fall because of a more taxing job. He was growing ugly, Manoj realised, but the ugliness of the oppressed is better than the ugliness of oppressor.