Exorcism of the phantom of inaction

by Khurshid Anwar

lit08SOHEL is sitting on a chair with some books on a table before him. He is lost in meditation ransacking his golden treasure hoarded in his memory for a tiny ray of light which, after being activated by the unifying force of his knowledge steeped in day-to-day existence, is likely to burst forth into a constellation of sublimated ideas. It was since he was a university student that he began to fancy that he had been born in this world with a mission to fulfil. He believed that he had been destined to be a writer. He knew that this responsibility was by no means an easy one. But now this burden of responsibility has made him taciturn; a brooding melancholic cast has already etched a permanent frown on his forehead.
When he joined his service two years back, he was a full-blooded young lad of 24 years, quite often diffident and clumsy amongst his new acquaintances, but with a smattering of philosophy and philology that provided him with a lonesome world of imagination within the confines of which he could breathe easily. He used to pride himself covertly on account of this gift, though he still retained the naivety of a novice who was yet to be initiated into the rites of the aesthetic world of writing. But his colleagues never looked upon him as a prig for his pestilential introvert attitude which, transgressing the accepted code of conduct at times, threatened to upset a genial demeanour of a new acquaintance. His colleagues, on the other hand, used to pamper him as a promising writer who had made an auspicious start in the field of writing, and thereby unwittingly shoved him deep down into his personal world.
Without anybody’s noticing, the over-indulgence of his colleagues induced him to build some delusions of grandeur. But his colleagues reposed an enormous trust in him. They believed that he was doing his job with unflagging zeal. Feigning undeterred activities, he, on the other hand, lapsed into an agreeable state of passivity which he tried to enshrine by telling lies about writing. He kept savouring this state with relish because in this state he remained immune to any onset from the practical world of reality. This state of inaction also provided a favourable atmosphere for his delusions of grandeur. Therefore, when his colleagues happened to inquire about his progress in writing, he used to invent a story which eventually proved convincing to his fellows. They had already started revering him as an unusually gifted man whose intellectual activities were bound to get their recognition with great éclat.
Of late, he made a habit of concealing himself into his fortified shell of illusions for fear that any invasion from the outer world might topple his citadel. Getting abundant supply of victuals, the shadows of his illusions began to loom larger and larger, becoming more graphic. It was only when time proved propitious that he came out of his shell to have a chat with his colleagues. But his obsession with illusions made him dreamy and listless, making him perform his official duty perfunctorily with the expressionless expression stuck on the face of a robot. He began to lose interest in mundane affairs of day-to-day existence, confining his area of interest only into his self-made kaleidoscope of illusions. Incidentally, he started believing in his own fabricated accounts of progress in writing because the wall that divides the outer practical world from the inner world of imagination became emaciated into a tenuous thread, and both the worlds seemed to flow into each other with mutual affinity. But with the passage of time, his illusions grew so turbulent with a pent up yearning to swallow him up completely that they launched an offensive, perforating the demarcation-line, and finished with occupying the nucleus of the practical prosaic world.
It so happened that before long, for him, the outer practical world also became a phantasmagorical world of desire and aspiration, fraught with lofty ennobling ideas as well as depraved thoughts of perversion. But he continued to give a positive reply when anybody asked any questions about his progress in pursuit of his goal. And these mendacious replies no longer seemed some blatant lies to him, although he was yet to exorcise the spectral phantom of inaction from his fecund imagination. On the contrary, vindicating the veracity of a noble purpose, these lies assumed the form of a greater truth than a simple motiveless truth. However, days lengthened into months following their normal course. Nothing extraordinary happened, which could leave a cataclysmic impact on his mind.
Yesterday, Sohel was invited to a cultural function organised by the local cultural committee to celebrate Victory Day. To mark this occasion in a befitting manner, the auditorium was decorated with tawdry materials. Gentlemen and ladies gaudily dressed began to pour in, adding to the tinselly brilliance of the auditorium. The programme consisted of some hackneyed speeches crammed with trite phrases lacking any fervour of commitment, music and dance. There is no gainsaying the fact that the programme had a few inspiring moments free from any vulgar ostentation. Overall, the programme, with its look of a farrago, had only the trappings of high-office, not the fundamental harmony between feeling and action and an unfeigned spirit of togetherness. It has already been pointed out earlier that Sohel by nature is a shy fellow; and this shyness has always baulked at his efforts to be sociable in circumstances such as these. A crowd-infested place like this auditorium was enough to breed some baseless fears in his mind, giving him the impression of being gobbled up by a huge python.
Despite the despicable nature of the show, he tried to look normal to be at one with the audience and kept watching the programme without giving away any feeling of disgust. Suddenly, the stupendous folly of being comforted in such an oppressive atmosphere like this, scandalised him both mentally and physically. Naturally, he became unstrung and began to feel dizzy. Instead of rousing him from this unhealthy condition, the occasional, deafening noise of the applause and murmurings, after each event, stupefied him, scaring him out of his wits, in other words.
His head seemed to be buzzing with a droning sound coming from a far-off place. He began to feel sick. Food-particles seemed to crawl into his mouth from the stomach, giving his mouth a bitter taste. All of a sudden, he felt an urge to spew up his entire meal. His face twitched in his effort to ward off this corporeal demand by closing his eyes. However, he could ward it off. But once he closed his eyes drowning himself in an inspissated darkness, he felt much pleased with himself for not being able to see the world around him.
Though now he could not see the outer world, the droning sound continued unabated. The more he tried to extricate himself from this sickening sound, the more possessive it became, incarcerating him in an atmosphere far away from the present state of things. Now, the sound multiplied itself and assailed him with vehemence hundred times the initial one. The darkness began to fade and the landscape of that far-off place started to become visible with its amorphous terrain, overgrown with cactus and brambles. A scorching sun was seen shining in the sky. In the sweltering heat, a tempestuous, scalding wind began to blow bearing blisters on his uncovered arms. He felt exhausted with a parched mouth and charred lips. The barren atmosphere seemed to wreak vengeance upon its arrant adversary, lying in wait with a diabolic design. The site seemed uninhabited with not a single being noticeable in the vicinity, save countless yellow dried leaves that were scurrying on the desiccated soil like multitudinous phantoms of death. The barrenness of the atmosphere seemed to reflect on the poverty-laden meanness of his own folks. But he could not identify the place. With his eyes still remaining closed, his gaze was fixed on a solitary spot on the horizon. He tried to disentangle his gaze from that spot but could not. His gaze seemed to be riveted.
He gradually grew accustomed to the condition and found that spot to be a thatched cottage around which, he did not know from where, a rabble had gathered. Observing the sinuous movements of the mob, it finally dawned on him that the persistent moans were coming from the centre of the rabble.
The place of his observation, with its tumultuous crowd, had now taken a sepulchral cast with the sun gradually setting below the horizon, streaking the sky in the west with a reddish hue. What added to its mournful gloom was a lamenting female voice that was mourning its dead relation. He was astounded when he could realise that he was also an integral part of the spot which he had been scrutinising with such a close look. He discovered himself and his father in the midst of this hubbub; as if they were also two important accomplices implicated in a cabalistic plot. His father, unwilling to get him mixed up or trampled upon by the gathering congregation, clasped one of his hands firmly. However, the congregation was engrossed in its solemn duty of observing the funeral rites in a purposeful way.
But Sohel’s head was teeming with questions because though the scene had a profound impact on him with the gravity of the situation, he could not grasp the inner meaning of it all. Something from the bottom of his heart prognosticated further disaster.
When his father proceeded further to the centre of the scene, he shrank in alarm. Sensing the fear in his son, his father persuaded him to stay in the care of a big, strapping girl whom Sohel used to address as Shumi Apu, for he was scared that the sight of the corpse might destabilise Sohel’s psychic equilibrium. Shumi Apu happened to be a girl from a neighbouring house. Though irascible by nature, she could easily inspire amorous feelings in a young man, with her sharply hewn physique, and a look of supercilious indifference emanating from a pair of mesmerising eyes lodged at proper places along with other features in her exceptionally expressive countenance. But young bachelors never succeeded in insinuating themselves in her favour, though many were, as Sohel could guess as an unusually gifted adolescent, mad for her.
But Sohel, with a pleasant personality of a restive boy who had already begun to show signs of a good academic career, was blessed with her favours. Shumi Apu, though not a blood-relation, could prove herself worthy of assuming the role of Sohel’s mentor by virtue of her knowledge and a serene air that had nestled on her as a tribute to that knowledge. She admonished him when she noticed any negligence in learning his lessons. But she had high hopes about a bright career for him and remained watchful. He began to hold her in high esteem. Within a short time, their proximity made him take a fancy to her as an ethereal princess, unrivalled by any worldly beauty and unsullied by the squalor of mundane reality. Shumi Apu’s presence was so overwhelmingly enthralling that he longed wistfully for the ecstatic moment when she would bestow one of her beatific smiles upon him as a blessing.
Now Sohel was left in the loving care of his Shumi Apu. The confusion caused by the sudden killing of the man whose corpse lay blood-spattered, and which confounded him a while ago, dissipated in her soothing presence. He recovered his equanimity. He asked her questions about the dead man around whom so many people had gathered to pay their homage as a martyr. Though he did not even have a rudimentary grasp of the matter, he made some relevant queries on the inchoate war of independence, the causes provoking it, its significance, and the iniquitous regime established and nurtured by the then West Pakistan to exploit the Bengalis. She, on the other hand, tried to pacify his curiosity by revealing some hideous truths.
This revelation gave him a discerning insight into matters that he previously considered to be the monopoly of adults only. Therefore, it was in this great moment that, leaving behind his adolescence, he seemed to have entered the realm of adulthood. For a brief moment, he felt the thrill of getting deliverance from the captivity of a benighted state. No sooner had this thrill subsided than he was seized by an unbounded grief for his mother land and compatriots. Dusk gradually thickened into an ominous night with a solitary crescent moon wandering like a forlorn foundling in the all-pervasive void of the sky. A misty haze, belched out from the firmament, hovered over the cortege like a huge bird of prey, and the droning sound of the funeral continued.
Suddenly, he awoke as if from a dream when a female voice called him aloud, addressing by his name in the midst of this buzzing noise. He opened his eyes to find himself amid a noisy crowd in an auditorium. He felt very awkward, because he had a strange feeling of being abandoned in an alien world filled with unknown people. He threw his glance in the direction of the voice which seemed to come being wafted along by a gentle breeze from eternity to assert its presence amid this unhealthy noise. It was an amazing discovery for him when he discerned a young woman who, at first sight, startlingly resembled his Shumi Apu.
In a moment of confusion he was about to beckon her addressing ‘Shumi Apu’; but he could manage to hold back detecting some subtle differences between these two women. Finally, however, he could identify this woman named Samia who was a lecturer in a government college of the town. He remembered that he had talked to her on many occasions. Incidentally, the fact that these two women were identical in their appearances was left unheeded by his instinctual indifference with which he used to view the outer world.
But today Samia seemed not the Samia who had been an ordinary acquaintance of his but a Samia who had come to him swimming a long distance from a distant past which was the abode of his Shumi Apu, carrying her spirit. So, now Samia stood transfigured in his eyes, embodying the image of Shumi Apu. This new impression of Samia lay indelible in his mind.
Apart from this fictitious image thrust upon her by Sohel, Samia herself had some rare qualities in her. In any socio-political or literary discussion, she was not only conspicuous by the vivacity of her physical presence, but she could outshine anybody by her great display of acumen, witty rejoinders and scathing remarks charged with poignant feeling, while voicing her opinions. In her youth, she had already become a celebrity. Today, Sohel regretted this act of negligence on his part in not noticing these noble traits which had made her a darling in the vicinity. Now, however, they exchanged greetings and left for their respective apartments.
Sohel entered his personal room and had his supper earlier than usual time because he felt sick. At half past nine, he turned the light out and went to bed. But sleep seemed to hoodwink him with its evasive duplicity, taking away nocturnal peace of his mind. Something kept festering in his mind as if to recapture its voice. Fragments of different images, landscapes, scenes and forms rose in his memory like fleeting flashes of lightning, now and then, crystallising into a complete picture and epitomising an absolute truth. He felt like a woman in labour pains. He was torn by an urge to make a record of these revelations which began to come rushing from his inner depths.
Dazed by the forays of these revelations, he started pacing up and down the floor. At last when he looked out of his window, he glimpsed a new day that had dawned pledging new promises to fulfil.
So, on the same day, Sohel is seen sitting on a chair, scribbling some lines on a piece of paper. If we take a close look, we will see that he has written ‘he used to admire a lady for her cerebral activities. But, in course of time, his interest in her becomes so intense that, unwilling to confine itself within her world of intellect, its devastating tide surges into the territory of her physical charms, culminating into a sensual passion for her finally.’
As regards to this awkward start, it remains to be seen what these lines will lead to. But what we feel certain about is that the flow of his writing will continue till it reaches its destination overcoming all predicaments, with Shumi Apu and Samia as its guardian angels, the former representing ‘past and the latter ‘present’. It needs to be noted that for Sohel his past, embodied in Shumi Apu, has been summed up in his present, embodied in Samia.
But the buzzing noise still continues to exorcise the phantom of inaction from his fecund imagination.

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