A Loss of Identity – By Mouni

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Translated by Dr. Albert Franklin

 

He awoke suddenly, wide awake in the night, cleanly awake, as if something had startled him. Trailing across the edges of his consciousness like tatters of dream were junctures and disjunctures, meetings and partings of his entire life. Outside in the breathless dark, the sibilant cry of some nightbird faded, answered by, or answering, the sharp scolding of the owls. The steps of a man, perhaps two, passing along the street in that unseasonable hour before dawn seemed to fade without disturbing the surface of the silence. Beggars huddled in sleep on the walk below. Far into the night, till sleep had come, they had gossiped, now and then shouting uproariously, coughing, coughing their way toward beggar death. Now they would sleep until daylight.

Why hadn’t his life with her ended with the same sweetness it had had at the beginning? What had made events follow a course which confirmed the passing suspicion that had fallen between them? The world indeed blamed her, but was she really to be blamed for moving about in the world, showing her sweet beauty, delighting all who might see her wherever she went? He wasn’t sure.

The blackness of the night in his room was overpowering. He opened the window, pushed aside the shutter, and looked out. The immense expanse of the universe seemed to extend before him. Townlights merged with stars, as if the stars had come down from the sky to parade in long lines in the streets.

He wanted to retrace in his mind just what had happened the evening before, to get a clear idea of how it all had gone. To do this, he would have to gather the long shadows cast by things to come and piece them together with memories of things long past and forgotten.

 

It had all started evening before last when he had run into him at the corner of the side street. That had been unexpected. “Hello there! what a surprise to find you here! I never dreamed . . . ” There must have been some meaning behind these excessive reactions. You could tell by his face, his manner, that he was living on top of the world. Could it be that she was living with him now? He had asked for his address, and noted it down, promising to call on him the following afternoon at half past four. Then he had hurried away. The dull yellow of the lowering sun had glowed for a moment in the street and quickly faded.

His upstairs room was larger than he needed for himself alone. From up there, through windows looking in all directions, he could see off into the sky as well as look down to see what was going on in the village. But he had to stumble and grope up a long steep staircase to get to his room. The anticipated difficulty of getting back up usually quenched his impulse to get out on the street and wander around the village. Holding the shutter, he gazed out into the distance. He could see the first gray of the dawn.

The evening before, from four o’ clock on, in his excitement over the expected visit, he had begun to worry that the hour would come and the visitor not arrive. He had looked at the clock again and again. The effect of this had been to cause him to cease to focus on the exact time the visitor had promised to come, as if to console himself with the thought that it was not yet really late. And then, it often happens that, when one is waiting for someone, the identity of the person one is waiting for slips from one’s mind.

Couples with their children had been pouring in a flood down the street toward the seashore. What a fuss they made, and how they decked themselves out to wash away the humdrum of their lives with a few minutes in the sea breeze! The sky too, as if preparing for a celebration in the heavens, held a special clarity, poised for sunset and the sharp plunge into darkness. The street lights, not yet lit, ranged along the street in regular files to a distant vanishing point.

The time had come. The silence in the room had become a torture. It had been impossible to stay there quietly and wait. He had made his way down into the street. He had moved along staring intently at each passer-by so that his visitor would not pass without his seeing him. He had sidled up to a man wearing a wrist-watch and asked, “Sir, the correct time, please?” The man had given him a side-long glance, looked at his watch, and mumbled something to the effect that he was always forgetting to wind his watch and it had stopped. Then the man had said, “It must be about four-thirty. In any case, it’s not after five”, and had gone away.

He had considered going back to his room. Perhaps his visitor would already be there waiting for him, perhaps even sitting in his armchair, ready to chide him for having made him wait so long when he had arrived exactly on time. Walking along, pondering over how he would answer that the idea of returning to his room had slipped from his mind. The thought came to him that, on coming out, he had only closed his door, not locked it. He had gone on walking down the road.

He had come to a house within a garden wall. Walking past, he had found himself watching a beautiful young woman on the verandah languidly turning the pages of a book. Her reading and the play of her imagination were reflected in her features. It had occurred to him to walk straight up to her and point out to her that he had come at exactly six o’ clock as agreed, and that if she was bored, he was not to blame. But a doubt flashed in his mind whether he could become “him” to her, and he had walked on. It seemed absurd that life should ensnare one in such hazards through unexpected occurrences. Cars whizzed past, along the street and across the crossings, sometimes even grazing him. The street lights had not yet been lit.

Then the milk woman had come up to him in the street and he had stopped short. She had smiled at him and spoken “Why Sir, what on earth are you doing out so early in the evening! You even forgot I was coming to your room!” At first he had considered taking her back to the room with him. But what if his visitor should be there waiting for him? What if he should see them together? He had dropped that idea and considered whether to tell her to go there herself and leave some milk. Then he had said, “I don’t need anything today. You don’t have to go to the room”, and had walked off, basking in the sun of her smile, “Poor thing, how she loves me!”

 

Aimless wandering, earnestly pursued, finds its own goal somewhere beyond the limits of intention. The railway station was there before him, glittering with a thousand lights. He stood awhile looking at it. Then somehow he was caught in its pull and became an atom in its bustling crowd.

Railway stations usually give an impression of isolation and helplessness. Both in their empty moments and their crowded ones, they are essentially sheds for people coming or going on the railway. But a great railway terminus is the point of origin and the point of return for travellers. From here, trains move out in all directions and return here again.

People set out from this place to everywhere; people come to this place from everywhere to take up new lives, new relationships. In such a place as this many people become detached from their essential natures, their souls, and here also those natures become lodged in other beings. A beginning-ending place, a place of crowds, noise, and straining, itself unshaken, a lofty, enigmatic shrine. At that moment there was a great surge in the crowd, an enormous confusion in which some arriving passengers became thoroughly mingled with a crowd waiting to leave. Noise seemed to come from everywhere. One seemed to be part of the noise. Forms seen and unseen, sound heard and unheard, all these rolled together into one great confusion, one great undifferentiated mass of noise, which rose and rose and broke as a wave breaks on the beach. Then each shape, each sound, each word or name seemed to have lost its harmony, slipped from its place, so that the senses could not grasp the message the mind seemed to be trying to convey.

One of the trains about to depart seemed to be waiting, delaying intentionally, purposely flaunting the temptation to travel. Its intended occupants swarmed and whirled about it, peering into it here and there, looking for a place. Some were already packed sardine-like inside the train, some were clinging to the steps and windows, others had even climbed onto the roof. Those who could not find a hold were giving vent to their frustration by shinnying up the posts, onto the platform shelter, even onto the roof of the station, like a frolic of blind monkeys. The engine stood belching smoke in a monstrous plume, snarling and gasping its exasperation at not being allowed to move, now that it was ready. The cars strung out behind it were a massive braid of human beings.

Departure was announced and the police moved in to impose order. They dragged those they could reach off the train, beat them, and drove them away. Some of these circled back to get a new hold somewhere else. Jolting first back, then forward, the train lurched to a start, shaking off several passengers. Those who failed to gain a new hold, ran alongside until they dropped from exhaustion. In all this confusion, somehow or other, he had got on the train. He was crouched in a luggage rack. He pulled his knee up, rested his head on them, and went to sleep. Whenever the train stopped or slowed down anywhere at all, passengers who had gotten on the train apparently for no particular reason, suddenly found some good reason to get off, and disappeared into the darkness. Now that he had more room in the luggage rack, he stretched out his legs and fell into a deep sleep. He opened his eyes and raised his body up. Shreds of dreams fluttered in his consciousness; he had the feeling that he himself was a dream-image.

A mischievous smile on a sleepy face was looking up at him from below as if waiting to speak to him. Smiling-face said, “That conductor came through while we were sleeping. He thought we looked like people who would not be traveling without tickets, so he didn’t disturb us. He won’t come back…”

He patted his shirt pocket. No ticket there! He couldn’t remember either buying or not buying one, or even starting out on this voyage. He suspected that if he had bought one, smiling-face had picked his pocket in his sleep. The conductor might come. He’d better get away from there. He dug his fingers into his scalp as if the drag himself off by his hair.

The train was crawling past a small flag-stop platform apparently uncertain whether it had been flagged or not. The carriage he was on came almost to a stop in an open field. He prepared himself, calculating its speed, and swung down neatly and expertly before it stopped. He had no luggage to hinder him.

As the train stopped and moved on, he looked sharply about and sensed, rather than saw, that there was no one else there but him.

But in that black void, the darkness itself seemed to glow and to illuminate objects and forms. Then this strange brightness would merge again with the dark. He heard a sound like the searing outcry of a soul parted from its body but still torn by its involvement, its bondage to earth and the flesh.

This dark, this death, this clarity, all gave the impression of being what they were not, as if slipping from their true natures. The severed head of a rooster, unable to find its own body, seemed to attach itself to whatever was near and unnaturally herald the dawn. A datepalm, a coconut tree, a goat, a cow, a man: in that eerie half-light might not any of them serve as cock’s body, crow cock’s crow? Even if one were aware of the cause of this slipping from role to role, how could one avoid it? Perhaps in perceiving the world itself as just such a slip, just such a mistake, one could.

 

A little before full daylight the milk woman knocked and shouted at his door, but he didn’t get up. He lay as if immersed in the world of his dream, as if bemused with the thought that it might be an extension of someone else’s dream. The milk woman called so loud he certainly should have heard, but he did not. It would be a mistake to wait for him any longer, the milk woman thought, and went on her way.


 

About the author:

S. Mani (1907- 1985), who wrote under the pen name ‘Mouni’ (Mowni) is one of the rare writers of 20th century Tamil fiction with his unique contributions of short stories. He was born at Semmangudi village in Thanjavur district, home to few other noted artists, including the famous carnatic vocalist, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. He had his high school education in Kumbakonam and lived there for fourteen years, since his marriage. He then moved to Chidambaram permenantly to look after his family properties.