Friday, December 09, 2016

A short story about despair

I

Brawjoe Bagchi woke up after fifty years. He felt strange at first, but when he saw that the sun was still the same, burning up the Kolkata sky at eleven in the morning, he was convinced that things haven’t changed much all these years. Drops of sweat made his shirt wet, and Brawjoe felt a sudden urge to strip and run naked.

So it was true! All the money he spent all those years ago didn’t go to waste. He had to sell his own house, his estranged wife’s jewellery and illegally sell his father’s farmhouse without his knowledge. All for a little over a million dollars. Well, in 2016, that was the price one had to pay to have a shot at being brought back to life.  

Between the years 2000 and 2015, Brawjoe, by his own exalted estimate, had consumed over two thousand litres of alcohol. 4 pegs a day on weekdays, which would usually keep him sober, unless he followed it up with a joint of marijuana. And on weekends, his usual way to keep count of the pegs would be to see how many cigarettes he had smoked. Brawjoe was a man of principles- a cigarette a peg, never more, never less. There have been weekends when he had finished a twenty’s pack, passed out in a whorehouse, woke up with his puke all over him, and happily trudged off for a big brunch that also included unlimited alcohol.  Life, to Brawjoe, was to be lived every moment. When he would be drunk beyond reproach on a Friday evening, he would quote one of his favourite film dialogues from Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’- ‘ektai life, ektai chance’ (one life, one chance).  Some great man had said, ‘live every day as if it’s your last day on earth’. Brawjoe took it literally; he even bought a poster with the quote and hung it on his bedroom wall.

When he was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2015, Brawjoe’s friends were not surprised. It seemed as inevitable as Brawjoe’s four pegs on weekdays. When the doctors told him he had less than a year to live, Brawjoe took an impulsive decision. He had seen people in his family wither away in the onslaught of cancer, dumped in a heap on a hospital bed, pathetically waiting to die and still longingly pumping their veins with chemo with the false hope of a miracle. Brawjoe would have none of that. He resigned from his job. Alcohol, debauchery and dope had finished off a large part of his savings, but he still had enough to live like a king for a year. His wife had left him several years ago and had gone away with a friend of his. A friend who would always score great dope, but ended up stealing his wife eventually. Brawjoe felt no anger. He never felt any emotion particularly strongly. He didn’t feel particularly close to his parents. In his life, they were just there- like that old painting of  Jamini Roy stuck in his drawing room, which didn’t mean anything to him, but he felt good having it around.

Brawjoe went on a trip of a lifetime. He travelled along the Himalayas, something he had always longed to do. He started off near Turtuk, a village on the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir. Six months later, when he was finally brought to Kolkata in a delirious state, he was found in Arunachal Pradesh. He had a beard like Tagore, and smelled like a blanket that hadn’t been washed for years.
Brawjoe’s parents arranged for palliative care for him. The doctors gave him three months. Brawjoe hated it. Here he was, a fifty kilo skeleton withering away on a rotten bed, stuck in his parents’ clutches.

It was then that Brawjoe fell in love. It was the nurse who cared for him, as part of the palliative care. Ahanaa was her name. Her parents had added the “a” at the end of her name, on the family astrologer’s advice. The extra “a” was supposed to be a harbinger of good fortune for her. Brawjoe found it fascinating talking to her. She would tell him about the last wishes of the people she had been with. And the commonest regret she had heard was that people wanted to live longer. Brawjoe wanted to just tuck his head on her lap and sleep. He wanted to kiss her, make love to her all night till they would be too exhausted.

Brawjoe made up his mind. He had a friend in cancer research, who had been telling him for some years that a cure for cancer is only a few decades away. All he needed, Brawjoe convinced himself, was to freeze himself up, and be resuscitated whenever they found a cure for liver cancer. Cryonic suspension was easier than it was before. You needed a good deal of money, and there were agencies in India who would do the rest.

Brawjoe set to work. He sold off whatever he had. His father had a farmhouse about a 100 kilometres from Kolkata. It was a place where the family got together every month. The indulgent father had ensured that the farmhouse was in Brawjoe’s name, and Brawjoe made sure his father paid a price for his misplaced indulgence. He sold off the farmhouse to a rich Marwari businessman, who was pleasantly surprised at the sheer lack of negotiation on the seller’s part.

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II

Brawjoe realised he could not strip, even if he wanted to. He was strapped to the bed, and it wasn’t even part of any sexual foreplay. A bored looking doctor came over with a few gaping interns, who looked at Brawjoe the way Brawjoe would look at lengurs in the Alipur Zoo when he was young.  

The sun was shining through the transparent roof. Brawjoe hadn’t ever seen a hospital like this, assuming this was even a hospital. The doctor, however, spoke the same gibberish that he had always been used to. He always secretly suspected that doctors and lawyers spoke in gibberish just to appear important.

With a condescending look, Brawjoe asked the doctor, “So, I’m actually back? What year is it?”

“It’s the year 66”, said the doctor, nonchalantly.

“What? So I’m back in time? But it doesn’t make any sense. The world didn’t have such facilities in 
AD 66”.

“AD 66? What’s that?”

“Anno domini, you know”.

One of the intern giggled, “Hey, he speaks Latin!” Brawjoe felt like slapping him.

The doctor explained, “We have done away with the concept of adding 2000 before years. It was taking up too much space in our databases, and after the last worldwide system crash, everything has been shortened.”

Brawjoe felt disgusted. “Can I just go now?” he asked.

“Of course, you can check out any time you like. All your fees are paid for in advance, when you signed up 50 years ago.”

Brawjoe tried to add wittily, “but I can never leave, right?”, but no one got the Hotel California reference. They all stared at him blindly.
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III

Outside, on the road, Brawjoe felt strangely liberated. The doctor had told him that he was 36 all over again, and he could live for well over a hundred years. That was the life expectancy in India now. He could begin it all, start with a clean slate, with a clean bill of health. He could live his life to the fullest, again.

But along with the sense of liberation, there was a throbbing pain in his head. A craving for something that he couldn’t quite pinpoint at first. He soon realised he needed a cigarette. Brawjoe walked along the streets. The area looked like Park Street, but there was not a single soul on the road. His favourite cigarette stall, right ahead of Olypub, was not there anymore. It had been replaced by a very small departmental store.

“Can I buy a pack of cigarettes? What are the brands available?” he asked at the counter, directing his questions to an expressionless man.

“Cigarettes? Which year are you in, friend? They have been banned over ten years ago.”

Looking at Brawjoe’s flabbergasted face, the man with the deadpan face leaned forward and whispered, “you can always go to New town phase 48. I’m told that some underground bars there still sell vintage cigarettes.”

Brawjoe trudged along. He walked several miles towards his house on Southern Avenue. He didn’t have much of a choice. There were no taxis on the road. Some sort of an advanced elevated railway system seemed to manage the metropolis’ public transportation system. He also saw lots of saucer like contraptions in the sky, which looked like Tata Nanos without wheels. These contraptions would come down on the road, and the passengers would touch the door with their fingers and get in. It looked like a highly evolved version of the radio taxis Brawjoe used to take back in the day.

Brawjoe’s house was still there. He knocked on the door. The sense of familiarity made him happy. His parents were no longer there, but his sister was still alive. She was old, over 80 years old, and very frail. Even though they were meeting after 50 years, Brawjoe found his sister unusually cold. Apparently, no one in the family had forgiven Brawjoe for selling that godforsaken farmhouse.
Brawjoe went in search of his friends. Most were dead. The ones who were alive seemed very distant. He finally managed to find Aritra, his oldest friend. After Brawjoe was frozen, Aritra became close to Brawjoe’s nurse, Ahanaa. He made her drop the extra “a” and got married to her. Ahana was no more, she passed away five years ago.

Aritra didn’t drink anymore. Alcohol consumption was linked to Aadhar cards now. Everything you did was linked to Aadhar, apparently. Drinking more than two pegs a week meant a fine of a million rupees. The measure of a peg itself was only 25 ml now.

Brawjoe begged Aritra for some cash. Aritra smiled. There was no cash anymore. Shortly after Brawjoe was frozen, a cashless revolution began in India. Many died, but those who survived it vowed never to use cash again. India was a rich country now. There were no farmers, all food was processed and machine produced and usually tasteless. The word “vegetarian” had been added to the Constitution’s preamble a couple of decades earlier. One could still get meat, but since it was also linked to the Aadhar card, it was rationed to 100 grams a year. And because it was also machine produced, it tasted like stale rubber, in Aritra’s words. The good part though, according to Aritra, was that there were no gays or Muslims any more either. It was compulsory to be a heterosexual Hindu, and a bill had recently been passed in the lower house of the parliament to add the words “heterosexual” and “Hindu” also to the Constitution’s preamble. Pollution control was taken very seriously. Everyone was allowed a certain amount of carbon footprint (linked to Aadhar, of course), but exceeding the permissible amount meant you had to stay home till your footprint came down to an acceptable level. Aritra had gone slightly overboard during his son’s fifth wedding recently. He had gorged on processed paneer and had taken out his vintage car for a quick spin. He has been under compulsory home arrest (senior citizens were allowed a 25% discount) for the last one month, and is required to be home for another three months.

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IV

When Brawjoe had gulped down his thirtieth peg, smoked his thirtieth cigarette (bought at a fortune from the very shady New Town Phase 48) and finished almost a kilo of mutton rogan josh (which he had cooked himself), he did not wait for the police to arrive. According to the current penal code provisions, he had researched, he would spend about 34 years in jail for his indiscretions.

When the police found Brawjoe Bagchi after two days, he was hanging from the ceiling, a noose round his neck, his eyes protruding and his middle finger pointed upwards. He was found naked. It was the first suicide in India in over fifteen years.


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