Kafka in Ayodhya
On 21st September I was at Tegel airport when I received on my phone an email from N., an Urdu poet who runs a small clothes shop in Varanasi: “The judgment, you know, is coming soon. The situation is tense here. Closing my shop and taking the train to Faizabad. Hope nothing untoward happens this time.” The email, it appeared, had been composed in haste. The reason was obvious.
The judgment from a court of law! I gave a gentle laugh, shaking my head at the cruel impossibility of the idea of justice emerging from a decadent bureaucracy. Joseph K. knows about it very well, doesn't he? I wish he were here to share the joke with me. But he had gone for a legal consultation after dropping me off at the airport. I kept waving back at him for a while–the devil looked dapper in his dark suit and black bowler hat.
At the airport, I was waiting for the boarding gates to open for my flight to Delhi. There was time yet so I called N. and, cutting short my plan to surprise him, I asked him to wait for me at the Varanasi airport the next day. He sounded worried but hearing my plan he agreed. “Thanks,” I said, my voice oozing with the controlled happiness of a shy man.
Having made the arrangement with N., I could relax a bit. I tried looking at the women in the lounge, just like in my youthful days at Madame Goldsmith's establishment in Prague. Ah, those were the days, I chuckled heartily at my own lustfulness, now more a memory than a sensation in my decaying body. With age, the deeper realm of sexual life was already closed to me. Two rows ahead of me, I saw a short girl wearing glasses sitting on a plastic chair and reading a paperback. She had plump little legs. Seeing her, memories of Hedwig Therese Weiler came rushing back at me. I was in love with Hedwig. Little did I know then, and that was decades ago, that my life would be a series of disappointments in love.
Gregor who I was taking along to India jumped about inside the suitcase. Perhaps he was hungry. I dropped a few slices of cheese for him and kept the case steady on my lap. I pretended to read a newspaper while listening to the scratching that Gergor's little limbs produced. That was not music to my ears but was still better than the noise that my sister used to make by rubbing a card between her teeth. My house was the very headquarters of uproar and even the doors screeched as though from a catarrhal throat. Between my house and the sanatorium, between company and solitude, honestly speaking, I always preferred the sanatorium, and of course, solitude.
What is it about the sanatoriums that perks me up–I don't know. Is it the Teutonic order that attracts me or is it the luxuries of the establishment? Hard for me to figure out. Or maybe it is the Luftbader, the hydrotherapy, the electric light baths, even the vaginal cooling machine–come to think of it–all these apparatuses to treat neurasthenia that produces the sweetness one experiences in a relationship with a woman one loves. Ah, how I miss Zuckmantel!
Ten more minutes passed. I patiently waited for the gate to open; it was almost time but the Chinese girl at the gate was busy chatting on a phone. How insensitive! Is the plane going to be late, I wondered. A stream of men, women and children visited the toilets that were just about a hundred meters from where I was sitting. I too felt the urge to visit the toilet but then thinking of Gregor decided against it. Poor Gregor was having his dinner and it was not proper to disturb him in that state.
Finally, fifteen minutes past the scheduled time, passengers were allowed to board the plane. I set Gregor nicely in the overhead luggage compartment, made a last call to Dora and switched off the phone. Considering the long journey, I was already feeling dazed and sleepy.
The long flight felt like a time in the sanatorium, only with very little leg room. A fat airhostess in a blue dress (she reminded me of the hostesses at Madame Goldsmith's who performed professional services for a set fee of ten imperial crowns in pre-war Prague) insisted that I had a nightcap. It would have been impolite to decline, so I acquiesced. I had a cognac from a small plastic glass and soon after I dozed off like a good old man, watching parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being between waking and sleeping. The film based on my fellow Czech writer Milan Kundera's novel was almost like soft porn, with a sex scene thrown in every ten minutes. The only insightful moment in the film was when Daniel Day-Lewis, the doctor protagonist, talks about Oedipus Rex: how Oedipus, after unknowingly killing his father and sleeping with his mother, was filled with guilt at his unethical act; on the contrary, the Czech politicians didn't feel any shame or remorse after having raped their own motherland and having sold it to the Russians; they could see everything but their own crime – that was the point Kundera seemed to make.
As the airplane floated through the night, I lost the sense of time. I was woken up by the fat airhostess just before we were to land in Delhi. As the plane descended, I nearly lost my hearing. My ears buzzed and rang with pain. After getting off the plane, I cleared immigration without any trouble and took a taxi to the domestic airport to catch the connecting flight to Varanasi. I felt overtired in my bones when I reached my final destination.
At Varanasi, the airport was crowded and people walked around without grace, defying the idea of serenity that one hoped would emerge from a divine Ganges flowing through the city and holy men taking dips in its water. N. was waiting for me at the reception, wearing a green cotton shirt and blue jeans. “Herr Kafka, so good to see you,” he said and wrapped me in his embrace. I was already feeling the warmth of Indian friendship. “So lovely to finally meet you N.,” I told my friend. N. and I had started off as pen friends and had progressed to the next stage, becoming phone friends. Now, don't you think I've changed much–I'm still not gregarious, I'm still very much a misanthrope, but after meeting Max and Dora, I have opened up a little bit more to friends from strange shores. As I spend most of my time in sanatoriums, sometimes the loneliness becomes unbearable. After all, how much could one read Kierkegaard and Chekhov and Dickens? Dora had gifted me a cellphone and it was easy to keep in touch with my friends in the East, N. in India and F. in China. F. had helped me during my visit to China when I was researching for my story, The Great Wall of China.
So, finally I was in the heart of spiritual India the fabled land of wisdom. We used to discuss Indian wisdom at “At the Unicorn”, the Prague salon of Berta Fanta where intellectuals such as Meyrink, Franz Werfel, Willy Haas, Max Brod, Rainer Maria Rilke and Albert Einstein would assemble. And how could I forget the Indian dance girl in Prague who provided me with a miracle of a Sunday.
Luckily no one recognised me at the airport, so we had an undramatic exit. I wanted to avoid the marigold garlands and the Hindu religious mark on the forehead. It was such a cliché for a tourist in India. It was hot and sunny outside and the air was redolent with the smell of Indian soil. I took some deep breaths, checking the air if it gave me any coughs. Thankfully, the air did not irritate my lungs. I was happy to be in a new place and yet I hated my body that was so weak and brittle. I needed to be cautious.
We had a train to catch to reach Ayodhya. N. suggested that we should eat something first. I could hear Gregor scratching the surface of the leather case indicating that he too was hungry. We stopped by a roadside eatery and had roti and dal, the least spicy food available there. I threw some breadcrumbs to Gregor. The bugger heartily consumed it. The smell of pure ghee on the roti created a sudden urge in me for the Prague butter. I miss it, I miss it everyday.
The train ride to Ayodhya in a crowded non-air-conditioned railway compartment was a reminder of the Eastern suffering, even cruelty, of many bodies packed in small spaces, in the cartography of claustrophobia. Outside the train's windows, the countryside passed in a blur, like a girl undressing in haste; its outward silence and stillness a reminder of my incapacity. Gusts of wind, laden with fine dust, came through the windows and I began to cough violently. N. looked worried and pulled out a bottle of water from his bag. I took a gulp of water. “I've always felt it my special misfortune,” I told him, running a hand over my chest, “that I literally do not have the lung power to breathe into the world the richness and variety that it obviously has.”
As the train kept chugging leisurely, N. and I talked about life and business. “I admire you because you have a business, you are your own master” I told N. “Before joining Assicurazioni Generali, I had toyed with the idea of starting an asbestos manufacturing plant in Prague. Well, it was more my brother-in-law's idea than mine. But it never worked out.”
“Do you regret it?” N. said, running his fingers through his hair. “Not being your own master?”
“I don't know. Life is a mystery. It was not meant to unfold like that for me.”
N. sat there smiling by the coach's window, his long curly hair swept up by the wind. He had a burnished face, his round cheeks puffed up with fat and muscle. My old cheeks were sunken, his was a young face. “But more than that business thing, you know,” I said, scratching my chin, “I admire you for your luck. You have a wife and a son. Marrying, founding a family, accepting all the children that come is the utmost a human being can succeed in life at all.”
N. nodded his head and looked up, his hands in supplication, as if thanking God for bestowing mercies on him. Contrary to me, it was clear that he was a man of faith. “You never got married?” he said with an awkward smile.
“Unfortunately, I never had the good fortune of marrying and having children,” I said, sucking air that flowed through the window on my right. I looked out listlessly. Now, the train was pulling over at a station. The station was nothing but a cemented platform with a tin shade; a signal block and a small office for the station master with a ticket window punctuated the platform's length. Vendors with tea cattles and fried food on trays ran through the train's coaches hawking their merchandise.
“Do you want some tea Herr Kafka?” N. asked politely.
“No, actually, I am fine,” I said, fearing infection of some kind from consuming the hawker food.
Some villagers climbed into our coach and for a minute or so, the bogey came alive with mutterings and murmurings. The new passengers found their seats or squatted on the train's floor, after adjusting their luggage in the crooks between people's legs. About two minutes passed, the train whistled and jerked into motion. A painful stillness descended.
Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based Indian writer and journalist. The concluding part of the story will be published next week.
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