Fiction / March 2013 (Issue 20)

A Meander Through Memory after Death

by Saptarshi Basu

"Sahib, do we have such bombs in India?" Shantaram enquired with his funny, idiotic look. I was getting highly annoyed as he was frequently stopping me with his bullshit questions. I looked around and the owl was still there, still trying to look through us for the humans. The abandoned machineries still kept their silence. Naren, you don't have much choice after death, calm down, I said to myself. If this old piece of shit had had the guts to ask me the same question while I walked alive, I would have surely taught him a good lesson. Asking Naren Shekhawat about the nuclear bomb, bloody slum-dweller, doesn't he know who I am? "Didn't you read newspapers, Shantaram?" my irritation was now reaching a peak. "Yes Sahib, we used to read the Lokjanbharti which was pasted on the walls of the nearby railway station. But it was mostly political news about what the local government did for us…new health plans, roads, drinking water, compensation for the poor…things which never got to us and things which they said were successfully completed. Years before the factory killed us, it was making us ill day after day. The factory sludge mixed with the drinking water, made it undrinkable. But the paper said on our behalf that we were extremely happy and doing really well. Mostly it was full with all such stuff." "To answer you," I cleared my throat and raised my voice a bit, "yes, India is highly capable of such things. And I was the pioneer of such nuclear experiments…be patient, and we will come to it eventually." I shortened my speech, flushing out the residual anger, and went ahead with my tale.

I took admission in physics in Broadway University. My personal inclination, if you ask, was the same as Seigo's—literature. But then Mamaji emphasised that to have a flourishing career you need to study science. By flourishing, he meant money. Since Mamaji was in the faculty of physics, my parents went ahead with his decision, thinking it would be easier for me to get an admission. The same old Indian mentality! Anyways, leave it. And so my fate was sealed—physics.

The initial days at the college happened to be a strenuous struggle for me. From my very childhood, I always dwelled within myself, listening to the noises inside my head. Apart from Seigo, I hadn't had much of a friend in Shikohima. The sombre thoughts of my family also troubled me. In the lectures, where the professors taught different subjects ranging from magnetism to the theory of relativity, I used to sit beside Li Mei exchanging smiling glances occasionally. Both being from the other side of the world, somewhere we connected.

Rodney Marsh was my first American friend in college. We used to call him Rod. Texas-born, Rod completed his high school at Godchurch Institute in Arlington and then took up physics at Broadway. A tall lanky guy with auburn hair, he had the air of a Hollywood star. It was only from Rod that I came to know that most of his friends treated "Japs" as virtually subhuman beasts. The hatred had grown, taking the shape of an inferno in American's hearts after the Pedlar Harbour incident. I explained to Rod that basically I was an Indian and that my family had migrated to Japan very recently. I had to alter my ancestral history a bit to avoid being bullied and harassed by other students.

Li Mei always kept quiet but attentively listened to all our conversations. I once asked her what her opinion was about war, and she shrugged at the very mentioning of it. I was surprised that such a soft girl like her had had a horrible past. Li Mei's grandfather died fighting in Manchuria. We were sitting on the college lawn where white butterflies sat on the grass flowers. I quietly listened as she described how the Kwantung army bombarded a railway station near Huanggutun, a plot to kill the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin. Tan Chungui, Li Mei's grandfather was his general and personal bodyguard. I was shaken with fear as Li Mei described how he lost his two hands in the explosion and how the enemy soldiers dragged his still living body, pissed on it and beheaded him. His head was then posted atop a bamboo pole as a sign of victory. I still remember the day when she told the story. She cried continuously for half an hour on my lap. I felt it was somewhere deep within, piercing her each moment, bloodying her soul. I didn't have much to console her with. I remained silent, slowly caressing her light black hair.

Shantaram looked eager, and I felt he wanted to share his thoughts. Although I was least bothered about his opinion, I allowed him to vomit up his rural illiterate feelings. "Sahib, I have heard of Chinese chicken manchurian….Salim Mia used to prepare the best in the whole of Mauthganj. During diwali, we all gathered near his Firdous Dhaba gobbling up chow mein with chicken manchurian. Are you speaking of that Manchurian, Sahib? But I never thought there was a nation called Manchuria." I could clearly see him drooling at the very thought of food. Now, that is the basic problem of this almost naked, half-fed, skinny, lice-infested clan. They will just hear a word from god-knows-where and think they know everything. "Shantaram," I tried to be as polite as possible, "Manchuria is not chicken manchurian for heaven's sake, it's a place near China's eastern seaboard, almost barren." Shantaram had now grown more confused, I could see. "Then why so much fighting, Sahib, over a barren piece of land?" "Because of natural resources. Manchuria had enormous reserves of iron, coking coal, soybeans, salt and, above all, the land in itself was one of the major attractions." I rebuked myself for the futile attempt of explaining world politics to the rustic shanty-dweller and returned to my story.

Mamaji disliked Li Mei from the very first day she came to our house in southwest Jordon. We were having a quite stroll down the swirling road dwindling down towards the Greencity Park. It was a beautiful evening with an orange sky. Li Mei was feeling cold, so I offered my Carhartt winter coat to her. It was a gift from Mamaji a few days after my arrival in Utah. A black furred one, long down to the knees and a hood on top. I invited Li Mei for a cup of coffee. As we entered, I was surprised to see Mamaji at home at 6 in the evening. Generally, his official hours spread quite late. At times, I used to dine alone and go to sleep. Later, Mamaji asked me if something was going between us, and I fearfully said no. "Naren, I hope you concentrate more on your studies. Of late, I am getting disturbing feedback about you. And stop hanging out with that noodle chick." He kept it short. I could clearly see the anger in his eyes through the scotch glass in his hand.

Indeed, my performance was ailing, more due to my lack of interest in physics than mixing with Li Mei. The images of beautiful times I spent in Shikohima also pained me at times, hindering my concentration. But I couldn't tell that to Mamaji as already he had done a lot for me. I held him in high regard at the depths of my heart and always acknowledged his help. Mamaji was a widower, having lost his wife in an accident. It had happened almost five years before I came to live with him. He never remarried till his death. I had heard from my mother that Mamaji was married to the only daughter of Jon Sorenson, a stinking rich American owning a real estate conglomerate. It was Sorenson who gave a new turn to Mamaji's fortune wheel. After his death, the whole wealth was passed on to his daughter and eventually to Mamaji when Mrs Jacqueline Chouhan died pathetically on the Timpanogos Highway near the Utah-Arizona border. Mamaji continued his job as a lecturer in Broadway University rather than joining Jon Corporation, which he now owned. Mathew Wilson took care of all the day to day operations. It was only from him that I came to know it was not an accident. At a celebration held by Mamaji for having got a promotion, a drunken Mr Wilson reeking with alcohol had slipped the crucial information to me before rushing to toilet with severe bouts of vomiting.

My father used to write once a month reminding me of my responsibilities. Being a strict authoritarian, his letters started with the family doing quite well and contained an elongated list of preaching and advice for me. My mother seldom wrote, and somewhere I terribly missed her love in my father's letters. Seigo kept his promise of writing two letters each week. From him, I came to know that the Ebisukou festival where people bought good luck charms has passed and the flower festival was approaching. "Ka" he used to call me by that name.

Shantaram, who had been unexpectedly quiet for a long time, giggled. "Sahib, he called you 'Ka'...hah…hah" he burst out laughing. Annoyed, I told him that Ka meant fire in Japanese. In his last letter, Seigo wrote: "I really missed you at the Yokaichi kite flying competition. Remember Ka, how we use to buy those enormous dragon kites from Mituashi's shop. We used to run at the very site of a falling kite. I didn't compete this time. Didn't feel like. Without you, those colourful kites with long tails have no meaning. I watched those boys from the nearby Shimusiko colony sprinting to grab the prized catch, and it reminded me of you. How is it in America? You know, last week I read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain. How are your studies going on? I heard things are worsening rapidly. We have got accustomed to the sight of the American aircrafts hovering above us all the time. The Japanese army have lost bitterly in the battle of Iwo Jima. I heard that our brothers fought valiantly. Even local civilians joined the war. The fight lasted around two months but then luck was not at our side. One thing is good though, the battle might now come to an end soon but the fate of the Emperor still hangs in loom."

I read the letter a second time. A silent tear dropped on the bluish mail making a rounded patch. I checked the date, and it said April, 1945. Folding it, I put the letter preciously in the folder specially meant for Seigo. I looked out of the window. Sun soaked in the greenish trees with purple blooms. Somewhere, in the utmost hidden chambers of the nuclear lab, Little Lad was slowly gaining power. An enormous power to kill a million sinners, as we have all sinned. My friend Rod who watched the event on television later said that the purple mushroom cloud which almost touched heaven was quite an interesting sight.

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