One of our visiting faculty was Kuruvila, a journalist who was with a foreign newspaper for a couple of years. He nursed a sort of contempt for India, especially the media activities here. Kuruvila would occasionally come up with new projects, as if to prod and provoke us. A report on an altogether new issue, a scoop which had nothing obscene about it, an imaginary interview, two different editorials on the same theme….such were the projects he generally rammed on us. Whatever be our efforts in response, Kuruvila would find something or the other in them to ridicule us with. Hence some of us were intent on a story that would floor him beyond salvage.
I was living in an old lodge that was rather cheaply priced. Among the inmates, I was the only one who was a student. All the others were either middle-aged government officials who were eagerly waiting for a transfer to their home town or small time shopkeepers. The lodge consisted of two buildings facing one another, separated only by a little distance. The top floors of these buildings were connected to each other by a wide cement bridge. Access to the top floor was provided by an old wooden staircase. One had to be very careful going up and down the staircase; the sound of the railings loosening was all too audible and nerve racking.
I knew that there were three blind men living in the room across mine. But I had not met them nor bothered about them. I did run into one or two of them at some nook or corner of the city on rare occasions, but that was all. It would be more correct to say that I did not see anything special in them other than their being blind.
But that Saturday, I had a hard look at them, even as I was lazing around in the room doing nothing in particular. They were going out. All three came out of the room and one of them locked the door. He bolted the door and inserted the key with precision. Then they walked in a row, crossed the cement bridge connecting the two buildings and reached the staircase. Gently tapping the wooden step, as if confirming its strength, they climbed down. The rumbling of the loose railings remained in the air for some time.
I was baffled. Three blind men living together on the second floor without any assistance from any one else. Who were they? How did they become a threesome? Their decent attire and the fact that they were living in a lodge dispelled in me the images of mendicants which we generally tend to associate with the blind. Maybe it was the curiosity they aroused in me that made me scan my memory for those blind men with whom I was acquainted in the past. Apart from a beggar or two, there were hardly any one.
I walked to the end of the corridor to see where they were. They had already crossed the road and reached the other side. After a few minutes, two of them got into a bus and the third started walking in the opposite direction after confirming his position with the walking stick. I stood there till he gradually vanished from my sight. The road was not very crowded at that time of the day and there were not many people at the bus stop. And even those who were there, seemed to ignore the scene as an everyday happening.
Back in my room, I thought of Kuruvila and his boastful classroom sessions. Why not make these blind men the subject of a project? The life of three blind men; their livelihood, accommodation and food, their conversations? But could I be making myself a target of Kuruvila’s ridicule? It was then that the old proverb, “just as the blind saw the elephant” came to my mind. In fact it is more than a proverb; it is a sort of comment on their inadequacy. That they can see the elephant only in parts and not in its entirety. This, I felt is an apt subject. What ideas of an elephant do my neighbouring blind men carry? However, they also could be aware of this proverb. If I abruptly started a discussion on this, they may feel offended. I had to be careful in introducing it.
I remained in the room indulging in absolute lethargy till about four in the evening, even skipping lunch. I came out after a bath and wandered about in the city without any definite destination. There was a cricket match that day and there were crowds in front of TV showrooms. It was when I saw the threesome in such a crowd that the idea of an interview with them revived in me. But how did they get involved in this cricket-mad crowd? I stood at a distance and watched. I remained there till they left for the near by bus stop talking to one another. It was past six by then.
I returned to the lodge by half-past seven. Instead of heading for my room, I walked through the veranda and up to the room where they were staying. The door was closed. One could hear them talking, albeit indistinct. I knocked gently.
“The door is not locked. Please come in,” a voice boomed from the room.
I opened the door. They were sitting on a grass-mat on the floor. They seemed to be huddled together rather closer to each other than people generally did. The room was well-lit. A high-power bulb was being used, presumably to overcome the low-voltage problem plaguing the city. The unnaturalness, of these three, who couldn’t see, sitting in bright light surprised me.
Not just that. The orderliness of the room would charm any one. Three walking sticks leaning in a far corner, in beautiful symmetry. There was only a table and chair that could be called furniture; not even a cot. Apart from a fan whirling with a mild hum, it was absolutely peaceful in the room. There were couple of bags and a not-very-new harmonium on the table.
“Hello!” one of the blind men greeted me.
“You can sit there,” another pointed in the direction of the chair.
“I stay in the next room…” I introduced myself, sitting on the chair.
“We know”, all three said in unison. “We were aware that you were coming to our room”.
“How is that? You have not seen me before”. Even though I posed this question I was not sure of how they would understand the essence of the usage ‘seen’.
“We could make out from the sound of your footfalls, on the stairs,” one of them said.
“You are a student, no?”
So they know me.
“We were discussing today’s cricket match,” he continued. “This fellow here is cricket crazy. He had placed a bet that India would win. Fortunately we were the bookies and we waived the stakes.”
“It was that silly run out; otherwise, you would have had to pay up”
The other two merely smiled.
“These days, even I don’t have that much of interest,” the cricket fan turned to me. His eye lids were permanently closed. But at times they seemed to move. He continued speaking: “I too have given up since Gavaskar retired.”
“All the rest are mediocre. Who else is there to stick on at the wicket?”
A general silence prevailed for some time. Then I made a coughing sound to remind them of my presence.
“I clearly remember the day Gavaskar completed ten thousand runs. It was a late cut for two runs.”
“O, what a great memory!’ one of them made fun of him.
“Earlier, there used to be ball by ball running commentary. But no one cares for it these days with the advent of TV,” lamented the cricket fan.
“We ought to buy a TV,” said the third blind man who had remained silent till now.
“What for? Should we usher in that mad game into this room too?” He turned to me with a smile: “Sorry. He is a gone case. Won’t stop once he starts talking cricket.”
“It’s alright. I walked in merely to meet you.”
“That’s indeed nice of you”. The cricket fan extended his hand to me and said: “My name is Sekhar. I’m a telephone operator.” Shaking my hand, he mentioned the name of the institution he was working for. It struck me that I was holding the hand of a blind man for the first time in my life.
“I’m a music teacher,” said the next one. “I give music tuitions at a few houses.”
“What’s your name?”
“Reghuraman. This harmonium is mine.” He got up, took the harmonium, sat down on the mat and played randomly for a moment. The crystal balls in his eyes were moving.
I too introduced myself.
My name is Chandran,” the third one said. “I don’t have a big job. I’m not much educated too.” There seemed to be a tinge of disappointment in his tone. “I’m a tourist guide now.”
“Guide?” I couldn’t restrain myself from asking. The astonishment in my question didn’t seem to affect him.
“But not a guide who takes people all around the city.” He explained that he worked as a guide in an ancient temple which lay just outside the city.
That temple is famous for its marvellous sculptures. He, who can’t see them for himself, shows them to the visitors.
Hoping that a measure of intimacy had been established between us, I was emboldened to broach the subject, but with great humility and deliberately making it sound a matter of vital importance. I was still apprehensive whether they would explode at me.
However, all three of them took it with due seriousness. Even though so worn out as to be a cliché, they were not affected by the narrowness of the proverb of the blind seeing an elephant. It was also possible that beyond such accusations, they may have been contemplating the quintessence of the proverb.
Sekhar reminisced, abandoning the pleasant demeanour he had while discussing cricket.
“It was a long time ago. When I was a child. Ours was a large family. Many more,- relatives and friends, would throng the house during the week-long festival at the village temple. They would keep on going to the temple and back irrespective of whether it was day or night.”
“As far as I was concerned, a recollection of festival was always redolent of sweet and succulent Arabian dates. No one would take me to the festival site. Even if someone chaperoned me, they would let me listen to the percussion band from a distance and then lead me home. But, one day, one of the grown-up boys took me to the festival ground. He was a cousin who studied in a distant town.
“All the way to the temple, we were accosted by people returning from the fair. Some were laughing loudly and some, may be children, crying out and blowing horns. Ice-cream vendors with their typical horns added to the melee. The crowd and the rush increased as we approached the festival ground. I was firmly holding on to the hands of my companion.
“Thus for the first time I heard the percussion instruments at close quarters. The drums rolled in a tremendous climax of high pitch like the growling of mad bees. The crowd was jam-packed jostling each other. One could breathe in the smell of the sweat of the others around.
“Suddenly…” Sekharan’s facial muscles became taut. Some kind of terror seemed to over power him. His white eyeballs wobbled. A strange loneliness seemed to seize him as if there were no one else in the room.
“Suddenly friends, my surroundings, which till then, seemed to be firm and immobile, started to move. And it was happening too fast. The closely packed crowd, which had seemed like a rock wall till then dispersed in a moment. Some one shouted that the elephant had run amok. I fell down in the stampede. Some jumped over me, while some trampled me. I had lost the hold of my cousin’s hand. I tried to get up. But every time more people stumbled over me and I repeatedly fell down. My whole body was burning. After some time, I experienced a silence and vacancy all around me as if there were nobody left in the festival ground. I slowly raised myself and sat down. I couldn’t do anything beyond that. I started crying, not knowing in which direction to move.”
It was as if we too had been transplanted into his helplessness. May be we had forgotten that he was the only one stranded alone.
“Then came an earth shaking sound. It was coming closer. Not at a quick pace. But each footstep had a terrifying resonance. Friends, please believe me. That sound passed quite close to me, (or was it over me…?).” Then he tried to simulate that movement as loud as possible. The closed eyelids trembled in the force he exerted.
Sekharan remained silent for a few minutes. Everyone seemed to be caught in a web of terror.
“I’ve never gone to festivals thereafter. When this friend here referred to elephant, I heard that rumbling sound. For me, elephant is that gigantic movement, pal. It is a series of episodes. None of them have an existence of its own, in isolation. The percussion instruments that suddenly fell silent, my fall, people running helter-skelter, those noises floating above the eerie silence…the whirl of the world, that passed me by as I lay forlorn.”
Sekharan did not speak after that. Was he recollecting the whole incident once again?
“Mine is not a singular experience as that of Sekharan,” Reghuraman, the music teacher broke the silence that was prevailing in the room. “I experience it frequently.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I frequently dream of elephants.”
“Yes, once or twice, even a herd of elephants.”
“How do you see dreams?” My curiosity increased. Let alone an elephant, how can a blind man have dreams! Suddenly I was afraid whether my question had upset him.
“I can’t explain certain things,” he turned to me and continued. “But what I said is true. I have certainly seen a herd of elephants in a dream. But they have not terrified me like Sekharan’s narration.”
“How do you see?” I asked. He looked at me as if he did not comprehend my question.
“Without light…how can you see without light?”
“Why should there be light in a dream?” Reghuraman asked after a short pause, “or, what is light?”
“Light…what I mean is…” Instead of spelling it out in words, I thought of pointing to the burning bulb in the room, but gave it up realizing the futility of it. Then I slowly said:
“There is light in this room”
“Yes, yes…” one of the other two mumbled.
“That’s why one sees,” I explained.
“But, what is sight? The curiosity on his countenance baffled me.
“But still you see dreams?” I asked.
“I’m certain about it. But you won’t understand that”.
“Elephants have never appeared in my dreams,” I felt I was standing still, at the very same point where I’d begun.
“But you have seen elephants, no? Please don’t misunderstand me,” he said bending low in humility. “What was the elephant you saw like?”
The interview was leading to a crisis, I felt. How could I describe an elephant to this poor man? I became aware of my language losing its lusture and also obtaining a dark pallor; I was as helpless as a carpenter who has many tools, but doesn’t know to use them.
The blind men were waiting with keen attention to hear me speak.
“You know that the colour of the elephant is black? Only its tusks are white.” I continued, desperately searching for an object with similarity, familiar to them. “Like a bus, as huge as a bus”.
“Is the elephant like a bus?” Reghuraman asked.
“Not exactly, but in size…”
“Elephant is a whirl, a tumble” Sekharan ruminated. “Reghu, haven’t you heard a bus growling?”
“Okay, pal” Reghuraman said as if extending an affectionate invitation. “If you could enter the space where I have my dreams, you would also see the herd of elephants,” he continued laughing loudly. “This is all I can say. As it is, I’m not good in story telling.”
I merely smiled; rather naively.
“Ganapathy is my favourite god,” Reghuraman announced. Then he started playing the harmonium and sang a composition of Deekshitar in praise of Lord Ganesha.
“I too love elephants,” Chandran, the guide said, shuffling his glasses. “I know all the elephant sculptures in the temple, with all their details and nuances. Some of the elephants in the front row do not have tusks and some have broken tusks.”
“May be Ganapathy,” Chandran tried to guess.
“No, the tusks were broken during an invasion in the past. Now the government takes care of them.” He said correcting us.
“I have this craze for elephants from childhood. No, it was not developed from going for festivals. Somehow elephants were always around. The ones brought to the river for giving them a bath… mahouts coming to our house demanding palm-leaves for feeding them… I had a ring made of the hair from the elephant’s tail. The trumpeting of elephants still reverberates in my mind and I also remember the commands given to the elephants for moving about. I’ve even touched an elephant once.”
“Really!” Sekharan, who had experienced elephant through earth shaking tremors, was stupefied.
“But I was not thrilled. I knew that this was not my elephant. I wanted an elephant that I could hold in my fists, touch all over and know.”
“Like the stone elephants,” I mumbled.
“Not even that, another which would always be mine,” he paused for a moment. “Everyone in my village, used to get themselves tattooed. It was done on the skin with a needle. They were pictures etched with the help of a chemical. It would leave an impression in, they say, green. It will never fade away, a figure on the skin. Most of them were pictures of gods and goddesses; Hanuman, Vishnu, Devi…”
He took off his dark glasses. Pale in colour, the eyelids had a kind of nakedness around them.
“I have seen tattoos of conch shells” I said.
“Yes, they do all such figures. But I wanted only an elephant. But the tattoo-artist would not hear of it. Will not gods suffice, he asked. It is going to be an elephant and if not, nothing, I told him. I wanted one that would always remain with me. I was firm.” Chandran said with pride. “He finally agreed.”
“Where is it?” all three of us asked in unison.
Chandran hesitated for a moment. Then he shyly rolled up his lungi and exposed his hairless thigh just above the knee.
I was shocked by the distorted figure on the fair skin. That figure, which could be taken for an elephant, was standing there seamlessly, absolutely unaware of its shape. A mark which could be imagined to be the trunk, stood out like an erect phallus. A fierce trumpeting pierced my ears.
Chandran softly touched the tattoo. The other two hesitated for a few moments as if afraid of my presence. Then they too spread their fingers on the green lines and knew the elephant. I thought that Chandran was feeling awfully tickled when those fingers touched the tattoo. And also that the dimensionless, seamless elephant was throwing a challenge at me.
He rolled down the lungi and smiled mysteriously, but content. Then he put on his dark glasses and glanced at me without any emotion.
Every one was silent for quite some time.
The old clock chimed once. It was half past nine.
I stood up and thanked them. The three blind men accompanied me to the door. As I stepped out of the room, I heard Sekharan say: “the clock said half past nine? It is fast by at least five minutes. Friend, go fast, power goes off at half past nine.”
I did not hurry. As soon as I opened the door of my room, the power went off, drowning everything around in pitch darkness.
I was wondering if an elephant carrying an idol of darkness was waiting for me in the room.
(Note from the Editor: This story has been updated on 04,05,2022)
E. Santhosh Kumar is one of the leading contemporary Malayalam writers. He has won numerous awards, including that of Kerala Sahitya Academy. Andhakaranazhi, published in 2012 and recipient of 2012 Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Novel, is considered as one of his best.