Phantoms

Phantoms


by Vishwas R. Gaitonde

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream;
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

― Popular Children’s Song ―


The vague boundaries of the neighborhood around her home had always been the limit of her world. Now she had circled half the globe to see her uncle. She hadn’t seen him in years and didn’t know what he would look like — especially with the troubling news that his mind was dissipating like cotton candy in a greedy child’s mouth.

The mist that shrouded the mountaintops crept down the slopes in patchy disarray. She wondered if her uncle’s mind was like that. Through the gaps in the mist, Connie saw that the mountains close by were lush green, their slopes covered with tea shrubs; those in the distance were blue. The mist covered more than just bushes — here and there, lights twinkled behind the hazy veil, hinting that hardy souls lived on those heights in some fantasy world nestled on the mountaintops. Connie’s eyelids were heavy with sleep; she had to keep yanking them up again with an effort. Then she was wide awake as the car lurched precipitously around a hairpin bend in the road. The crazy driver had nearly gone off the road — they could have tumbled to their death in some uncharted ravine in the Himalayas.

But the jolt was good for her. She would not nod off now. They had told her it was important to fight off sleep and remain awake when the sun was shining, that was the only way to beat jet lag. Connie had no idea what that meant. She had rarely strayed far from her home in Connecticut. She had not even seen the Pacific Ocean. And here she was, on the other side of the world. When it was noon here, her family and friends back home were snug in their beds, the pale moon shining through their windows. It gave Connie the creeps to even think of it.

Calcutta (they called it Kolkata these days) was a nightmare from the moment she landed. The chaos at the airport was a fitting preamble to this vibrant but disorderly city, the milling crowds, the blazing colors, the crowded streets, the half-dead beggars, the swirling dust, the steady heat. Oh, Kolkata! But the air became more pure and cooler once she left the plains behind and ascended the mountains in her rental car — an old jalopy, but it came with a driver. Connie was glad about that; she could never have driven a car in this mad place.

A muscle in her cheek twitched as she thought of Uncle Clarence. She hadn’t seen him now for more than a decade. He lived in India, and as the years rolled by he had become increasingly cut off from his relatives, who were dying one after another. Now there was only his sister Ruth, Connie’s mother, who was frail and housebound.

They had been shocked to receive a letter from people they had never heard of — the Ambadis — who introduced themselves as Mr. Clarence Marble’s neighbors. Mr. Marble, they wrote, had not been himself for several months, had recently taken a twist for the worse and been admitted to a nursing home near Darjeeling that provided mental health care. Mr. Marble lived alone, and they were trying to track down his relatives.

Connie spent the night with the Ambadis. The Ambadis were an elderly couple and were indeed Uncle Clarence’s nearest neighbors, though not in the usual sense of the word. The houses were isolated here, and the Ambadis and her uncle lived at either end of a lane with nothing but trees and shrubbery in between.

“Such a sweet man, dear Mr. Marble,” Nilima Ambadi told Connie, “And always so full of military discipline; but these last few months, he really lost his mind, really lost it, could not even take care of himself, so his servant told us. And after we got him into the nursing home, we searched through his papers, neat little piles all over his cottage. He kept all his old letters, that’s how we got your address. So confusing it was — some letters from England, some from America but both from the same city.”

“We moved to America ages ago,” Connie said, surprised. They had moved from Bristol in England to Bristol in New England  it must have been a good eighteen years back. Her uncle was a real pack rat to have saved such old letters.

The next day, it was off to the nursing home where her uncle had been admitted.

Connie looked out of the window as the car rolled down the drive and stopped by a squat yellow building with bright chintz curtains fluttering in every window. She was ushered into the doctor’s office. The doctor’s desk was burdened with precariously balanced heaps of manila folders bursting with paper, medical journals, and newspapers with yellowing pages. But the most unusual feature in the room was the doctor himself.

“Good morning, Miss Constance Moss, have a seat. We’ve been expecting you. I’m Dr. Ngodup.”

Connie could not take her eyes off him. He had a deep olive complexion but he looked so Chinese, so out of place here. In India, one expected people to look, well, Indian.

“Have you been informed about your uncle’s condition, Miss Moss?”

“Not really, no,” Connie said. “All I’ve been told is that he has  er  lost his mind.”

“Lost his mind.” The doctor looked at her sharply. “We’re so adept in coining these vague terms, aren’t we? Lost his mind  what does that really mean? Where does the mind reside? I mean, if you found a lost mind, Miss Moss, where would you return it to?”

“To the brain, I suppose.” Connie said, taken aback at the question.

“Think so?” The doctor looked at her gloomily as he drummed his fingers on the small space of desktop in front of him that was not covered with paper. The staccato rhythm was mesmerizing. “A lot of people think that, but I don’t. It’s like thinking of the ocean just in terms of waves beating on a shore. The ocean is more than just waves. I think the mind lives everywhere, in every cell of the body.

“But you didn’t come all the way to listen to my ramblings,” he continued. “You came here to see your uncle. After you’ve seen him, we can talk some more.”

He slapped his palm smartly on a hand bell, which emitted a shrill ping.

Connie followed the nurse down dim corridors to the room where her uncle lay. The nurse was a prim woman in a pristine, starched white uniform, and she wore a headdress that looked like a large white linen napkin meticulously folded and then fastened to the hair with pins. But thoughts of how a cloth could be folded like that disappeared when she saw her uncle, in his pajamas, curled up in his bed, softly sighing and moaning. She had not seen him in years and was unprepared for how much he had aged, how much his hair had thinned, how many new ruts and wrinkles had creased his face.

Memories of the old times with her uncle now trickled back to her one by one, some stronger than others. Her uncle was in the British army and had been posted to India during the days of empire. One of his favorite sayings was “Row your boat.” Britannia would rule the waves only if each man rowed his boat and rowed it well, he said. Obviously, there were many lousy oarsmen and the empire had ended. But her uncle had chosen to stay on in India and not return with his regiment to England. 

She remembered how baffled her family had been. A few others had also opted to stay behind, but they were senior officers in the army who had served in India practically all their lives. One could make allowances for them, but Clarence? He was not even thirty when India became independent. His parents had pleaded with him to return. He would be viewed by the Indians of the new India as one of their former oppressors. He would not be safe there. But Clarence had disregarded all of them and stayed on. Connie remembered how she and her cousins used to giggle and chant, “Uncle Clarence has lost his marbles!” knowing well that he was too far to hear them and that nobody would tattle either. Now she felt guilty as she saw her uncle’s thin frame and tortured face. Well, Uncle Clarence, she said to herself, I’ve done my duty. I’ve rowed my boat. I’m here.

“He keeps drifting in and out of his sleep,” the nurse told Connie. “All you can really do is wait here and hope he comes to soon.”

Connie leaned towards her uncle to catch what he was saying. It sounded like ‘Untie me.’ She threw a suspicious glance at the nurse and repeated what she had heard. The nurse, who was on her way out, looked horrified at the thought.

“We never tie our patients to the cots,” she said earnestly. “That only happened in the bad old days.” Then, from the door, she threw a backward glance at Connie, and said, “These days, we just use sedatives.”

*****

“Untie me!”

Clarence shouted his request again as he almost bounced off the horse, which had broken into a sharp trot with the other horses. He found it hard to keep his balance, though he was sandwiched between the teenaged boy who sat in front and a small pannier strapped behind him that dug into his back. The boy grunted, tugged at the reins and growled, “Wait. Coming to camp soon.”

Clarence grimaced. The ropes cut into his wrists with every jolt. The horses were galloping downhill now. All around him were majestic mountains, red, purple, brown, towering high. They were wild and desolate, all boulder and stone and rock and not a blade of grass. They rushed headlong down a rough trail. The horses in front of him kicked little puffs of yellow dust and scattered small stones in their headlong rush. Clarence was pushed against the boy and almost fell off. All the others in the group wore thick coats and turbans or skullcaps. They had thrown a blanket around Clarence, but he had no covering for his head and the wind blew his silver hair every which way. The sun was setting behind their backs, its dying fire reflected on the mountains. Ahead of them, the sky was blue-gray and the moon had appeared, flat, pale, anemic, somewhere between crescent and half. 

Nila, nila, odi va. The words popped up into Clarence’s head. He wondered where they came from. Something told him that they didn’t belong here, that they were from another time and place, but he couldn’t figure out why he thought so. Nila, nila, odi va. The phrase repeatedly fizzed up through his brain.

In the valley ahead of them, he could see clusters of tents set up in a circle, in the middle of which a large fire crackled, with men and horses gathered around it. The air filled with shouts and greetings as they thundered into the camp. Two men untied Clarence but his legs were wobbly and would not bear his weight, and he almost fell to the ground. The men pulled him up and supported him, and it was in this ungainly position that he once again confronted the leader of the party, a thickset man with a heavy black beard and heavier eyes. 

“I’m asking you again: why are you in Afghanistan?”

“I told you the first time,” Clarence said, weakly. “I was posted in Kabul in the old days of the British Raj. I loved it here, and wanted to visit the old haunts again.”

A crowd had gathered around them. Somebody made a coarse-sounding comment and a shout of laughter swept through the crowd. The leader translated the remark for Clarence.

“For someone who lived here before, don’t you know which road leads to Kabul, and which to Kandahar?”

The same man made another comment, and the laughter was twice as loud.

“The Americans must be in real trouble if they’re sending tottering old men like you to spy on us.”

“I’m British, not American.”

“What’s the difference, old man? I can’t understand why the Americans keep up this pretence of two separate nations. They should just annex Britain and be done with it. Now, spy, vomit the truth or we will take other measures.”

Clarence felt himself going cold, though the wind no longer whipped his face and he was near a roaring fire. He had read that the tribal warlords who now commandeered Afghanistan were not above using torture. He was an old dog now. He would not be able to withstand whatever the fiends inflicted on him.

They dragged him to a large tent. His feeble attempts at resistance were ignored as though they had been never offered. But his eyeballs spun around when he was inside. Several comfortable-looking silk bedding rolls were spread around the floor, with long tubular pillows to recline against. The silks were of gorgeous colors, their kaleidoscopic patterns alight from the many hurricane lanterns hanging from the poles. Between the bedding rolls were large pans of glowing embers, adding warmth to the glitter. They left him there, standing foolishly.

Then a plump man in flowing black robes and a golden turban entered the tent. His face was not like the hardened, weathered faces of the men who had captured Clarence; it was soft and fleshy, and his sleek beard looked oiled and combed. He beamed at Clarence and gestured towards the beds. Clarence hesitantly lowered himself, luxuriating in the brush of silk against skin. He saw the plump man do likewise at the adjacent bed, then clap his hands authoritatively. His eyes looked crafty now.

As if on cue, a scrawny young man came in with two contraptions, which he set up between the reclining men. Clarence’s eyes lit up when he saw what they were. Hubble bubbles! This was high style, the posh life. The man set up each hookah expertly, filling the vases with water, fitting the heads and smoking pipes, deftly packing in the tobacco with skilful pinches, and finally lighting the coals. The hookahs themselves were exquisite. The vases were painted delicately with beautiful floral patterns, and the metal parts were made of burnished silver and gold.

“In the old days, the British generals would puff on the hubble-bubble at the court of the Afghan king,” Clarence blurted out, as much to himself as to his companion. “I was, of course, too low in the ranks ever to have the privilege.”

“Ah, yes.” The plump man’s eyes lit up. “Every commoner becomes a king when he smokes the hookah. A royal ritual this, smoking the hookah. When the Ottoman Sultan did not offer the hookah to the French ambassador, France almost declared war on Turkey. We want no such trouble with America, and so  we will smoke together, my lord.”

Clarence looked up quickly, sensing he was being mocked, but the other’s face was impassive. He continued to speak softly, after he took a pull on the stem, “We are the kings of Afghanistan now. We, the Pashtun. We are proud, we are noble, and we fight well. Nobody can take our land from us. The British tried it and failed. We sent the Russians packing with their tails between their legs. The Americans will not succeed, either. Tell that to your masters, my lord.”

Clarence nodded, then wished he hadn’t. The nod could be taken as an acknowledgement that he was a spy, that he had masters. He had nodded unthinkingly, having just taken a long pull on the hookah, enjoying the soft bubbling of the water as he drew up the smoke through the long serpentine tube. His head was feeling light and airy.

“Why were you wandering on your own in these mountains? What did you hope to find, my lord?”

To delay answering, Clarence took another long, slow pull. This time the bubbles seem to rise up in his brain and noisily pop, one by one, against the vault of his skull. His eyelids turned into heavy metal as they slowly and inevitably lowered themselves.

*****

In all my years (and there have been a great many of them) I had never known the sun to be so hot as it was that day, when I tramped down the dusty road that led to the small village. The road had been paved once; now it had cracked up into cavernous potholes bridged by patches of asphalt. It was late afternoon, I felt close to collapse and I must have looked ghastly. Perhaps it was this that prompted the woman who walked briskly ahead of me to stop and ask me where I was going.

“To Trincomalee.”

She almost dropped the bag of vegetables that she was carrying.

“What? On foot? It’s a long way, and you don’t look fit enough. Besides,” Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t you know there’s a war? That it’s dangerous to go there?”

“I know, but it’s something I must do.” I gave a long sigh. “My name is Clarence Marble. I was in the British administration here many years ago. I want to see some of the places I loved before my days are done.”

“British service? Are you an Englishman?” She pulled up a fold of my skin, which hung loose on my forearm, and rolled it between her thumb and middle finger. “Hmmm, I’ll say this much for you  you were white once. The sun has roasted you well.”

I pulled my hand away, greatly annoyed and a little amused. Look who was talking! She was a dark woman, somewhere between the color of chocolate and charcoal, and the sweat glistened on her brow around the red dot on her forehead.

“You look tired and hungry  you must be, if you’ve walked all day. Why don’t you rest in our village for the night? You can start again at dawn when it is cool.”

I had my own misgivings about this but I was in no state to pass up her offer. We entered the village but we did not walk down the main street. Instead she took me along the perimeter, walking along a muddy trail sandwiched between the backs of huts and clumps of trees interspersed with dense brambly undergrowth that drew blood from my arms. Her hut was a one-room dwelling made of mud walls and thatched coconut fronds, a different corner of the room serving a different purpose. I had thought that my army barracks had been Spartan, but this was truly bare bones living, every shred of flesh stripped off the skeleton. The woman rolled out a straw mat on the floor and tossed an old, soiled and torn pillow from which the cotton stuffing protruded. She asked me to rest while she picked up her child that had been left with a friend. 

She returned with a skinny little thing all of two years old, with a mucus-encrusted nose. The child was asleep, and to my consternation, she placed it by my side and then busied herself cooking at an earthen stove over a wood fire in one corner of the room. We made a strange threesome.

“The British left long before I was born.” The woman struck a conversation as she deftly diced a bunch of tomatoes. “So why did you come back?”

“Oh, I never left.” I said. “I stayed behind. I love it here. You know, I’ve done it many times over but I still cherish my first memory on the verandah of the Galle Face Hotel, sipping a chhota peg and watching the red sun sink into the seaa splendid, splendid sight. And the little boys playing cricket or flying kites on the green. And shopping at Cargill’s.”

“Mister, you did all that in Ceylon. Ceylon is no more.”

“Then you haven’t been to Colombo lately. The hotel, Cargill’s, they’re very much there. As grand as they’ve always been.”

“You misunderstood me, mister. They may be there, but they belong to Sri Lanka now, not to Ceylon.” She paused, and patted the ground. “And some day, this may not be Sri Lanka anymore. This may be the soil of Eelam.”

Eelam! It reminded me again that I was in a country that was tearing itself from within. The Tamil minority, tired of being discriminated by the Sinhala majority, now believed that they could live in honor and dignity only when their ancient Tamil kingdom reincarnated itself as the modern state of Eelam. The Tamil Tigers were the fiercest guerilla army in the world. And Trincomalee was slap-bang-wallop in the danger zone. An intense sadness crept over me as a few lines of poetry floated into my mind:

Our world has passed away,
In wantonness o’erthrown.
There is nothing left to-day …
…Only ourselves remain
To face the naked days
In silent fortitude,
Through perils and dismays
Renewed and re-renewed.


I wondered whether I should give up my trek to Trinco. But oh, just to stand there on the cliff top in front of the Temple of One Thousand Pillars and gaze down upon the expanse of the Indian Ocean, to let the mind soar free in the air and across the miles of warm turquoise water stretching on without end, no land interrupting, all the way to the snows of Antarctica at the bottom of the world.

“Eat. You must be hungry.” The woman gave me an earthen bowl of hot, steaming rice porridge with some tomato chutney on the side. There was no cutlery so I would have to eat it by hand as these people did. The porridge was too hot to put into my mouth anyway, so I set it down to cool and lay on the mat again. 

I must have dozed off, for when I opened my eyes, it was dark except for a patch of pale moonlight that streamed in from the rear window. There were shouts of glee and tinkling laughter coming in with the moonlight, so I crept to the window and looked out.

“Nila, nila, odi va.” The woman called out in a singsong voice and the child, now awake and giggling and gurgling, repeated it, and then they were laughing. Nila, nila, odi va. They were inviting the moon to join them. The moon was bright, full, lustrous, shining through the leaves of the trees and seeming to alternately move towards them and away from them as the branches of the trees swayed in the breeze. The air was thick with a sweet smell, and I noticed that white orchids had bloomed everywhere, each stem bearing several star-shaped blossoms. It was as though the stars had come down from the heavens for the little child, and now it was calling out to the moon. I was touched.

Eventually the gnawing in my stomach pulled me back. The porridge had gone all cold and lumpy, and it reminded me of the gruel that we were served in the army. I remember how we had to line up in the cantonment of Wellington after our morning drill, holding our bowls, and Sergeant-Major Winkler would dish out the kedgeree with a fat ladle. “Fancy food won’t toughen you up, lads, but this will!” he would say, as he plopped our breakfast into our bowls with a grim smile. We would scowl, imagining him eating his fried eggs with sausage and bacon and buttered toast and marmalade in the officer’s mess. Good old Winky-Winks, he wasn’t a really bad sort. My eyes misted again.

When I woke up the second time that night, the moon had vanished and the darkness was cold and stygian. A man and a woman were speaking outside, their voices urgent and low, but loud enough for me to hear snatches of their talk.

“What else could I have done? I wanted to talk to you before I told anybody about him.” The woman’s voice was defensive.

“And he said he was on his way to Thirukonamalai?”

“Yes, but he still called it Trincomalee. He sounds genuine, but he can’t be, can he? Do you think he is a Sinhala agent?”

“He could be. He must have made up that story  only a madman would walk all the way to Thirukonamalai. Look, I must be off now to the meeting at Sinnathambi’s place. Make sure the stranger does not leave until you hear back from me.”

This was ominous. I decided to stay awake at all costs and leave right at dawn, but I nodded off again, and when I awoke, the sun was up. Cursing under my breath, I slunk out of the hut and headed out the way I came. As I walked out of the village and onto the main road, several people saw me and threw curious glances my way, but nobody stopped me. I couldn’t understand a word they said to each other. Scary. How was it that yesterday I conversed with that woman, who was little more than a peasant? Was she really fluent in English? Or did I speak to her in Tamil, only to have totally forgotten the language the next day?

When I had gone a little ways off from the village, I heard a great commotion and glanced back. A crowd had gathered by the village entrance, and the woman was pointing at me and gesticulating. When they saw me, a shout went up. Just then, an open jeep trundled down the road, with many dark men in battle fatigues holding rifles. All the people began to shout and point at me, and the soldiers also shouted something at me. The next minute, they began firing and bullets spattered in the ground around me. There was a little girl, her hair in braids, riding a bicycle alongside me. She shrieked and fell down. I thought she had been shot. Then I saw she had flung herself off her bicycle and flattened herself on the ground. Swift reflexes! I could hear the jeep gather speed behind me. Where could I hide? I was such a conspicuous target and I was getting out of breath.

The road was on an embankment and the sides sloped down to rice fields. I quickly started to move downwards. The little girl had raised her head from the ground and was yelling at me, mortal fear on her face. I sensed she was warning me, but then I lost my footing and slithered down the slope, straight towards an odd piece of metal sticking out of the ground. A landmine! That’s what it was!

The explosion was tremendous and I could hear nothing after that. My whirling mind could feel pain that quadrupled by the second, could smell charred flesh. Then suddenly there was only a deathly silence that seemed eternal.

*****

The first slivers of dawn had begun to brighten the eastern sky. The men stood by the prone figure lying on the floor of the tent.

“We’ll have to move along shortly,” one said. “Should we leave him here on the mountainside to die or strap him onto a horse and take him along?”

The plump man trembled with suppressed anger.

“That imbecile, Hanif. He deserves a hundred lashes for this. He put too much opium in the hookah. I wanted just enough to loosen up the old man and make him talk. Hanif should have known that a small quantity for a young colt is a large quantity for a horse on its last legs. Have you people no common sense? Must I teach you everything?”

“But what do we do now?”

In reply, the plump man swung his leg in an arc into the prone man’s side. There was the sickening sound of cracking ribs.

*****

Clarence woke up with a gasp, rolling on the bed and clutching at his side. Large drops of sweat stood out on his brow. Connie immediately rose from her chair, dropped her book and was at her uncle’s side. He looked up at her in disbelief.

“Hi, Uncle Clarence. You’re not dreaming, it’s not a ghost, it’s me, Connie. Your niece.” Connie held her uncle’s clammy hand to demonstrate that she was flesh and blood. “I know I’ve changed a lot since you last saw me, so I’m glad you recognized me. The Ambadis wrote to us that you had taken ill and were in hospital, and I got onto the first flight to India. Don’t worry, Uncle Clarence, it’s going to be all right.”

But Clarence Marble was only half-listening. He was deep in thought. Finally, he spoke up solemnly.

“Connie dear, it’s wonderful to see you. But how can you be sure that I’m not dreaming? Or for that matter, that you’re not dreaming? Whose dream, whose fantasy are we part of? And what happens when that person wakes up?”