Written by Tushar Jain
What would a headache look like?
Balachander, turning in his bed, the pain roiling at his temples, tried to imagine the stress throbbing around his eyes, face, as something more.
A gazelle. An upside down gazelle on criss-crossed rafters, with carnivorous eyes. That’s it, thought Balachander, a headache if ever I saw one.
Outside, the day was tearing in. The sky was easing into dawn, and the pink glow had reached the rims of his skylight, bevelled at the three turns in the corridor. Cursive wafers of a breeze that had managed to slip in carried in perfumes of the city. Carrier truck exhaust, mixed with a pruned bougainvillea patch, mixed with armpit-sweat from insomniac joggers, mixed with bonsais at a window, where lovers opened mouths into each other, dug into olive bed-sheets.
Balachander tried standing. His legs felt like lumber, teak. Slowly, planting his feet down, he got up, shaking.
Am I, is this, he lowed to himself, a migraine? It wasn’t.
His eyes were open to singed half-moons. Spittle portioned the stubble on his chin. He walked to the bathroom as if treading an invisible high beam, soldiering one foot after the other. When he finally got near enough, he dived to hold on to the sink.
Even in the haze of the gorilla headache, he prioritized –
- Wash face.
- Make coffee.
- Have coffee.
- Wash face again.
- Have enough Dispirins to stir a dead horse.
But it was when he looked up into the mirror over the sink that the list became quite pointless. A little unplanned, Balachander got preoccupied screaming.
Four years. A small business can be filled in with blood-work in four years. A sandpapered mango-seed can be reared to flowers, fruit, and militated by weevils in four years. Bestsellers penned, Civil Services exams cracked, porticos revamped – simply put, a lot can be done over four years.
Balachander had deserted all life and stuck to eking out his thesis, for all of four long, determined years. Riven with lack of a ‘proper’ lifestyle, he’d paddled down to the library six days a week, sat in a corner, poring over tedious Romanian translations, tomes of criticisms, and a velvety stack of Ionesco books that, virginal, had never been issued. He’d kept the research simple, accessible, and churned out of the available literature, what he felt was a credible thesis.
‘Duality in Ionesco’. He’d even kept the title exact, austere. Close contenders had been: ‘Rhinocerosing: the two-ness of fiction in the Surreal Imagination’ and the daringly poetic one that had his supervisor’s eyebrows elevator up like a sun-rise: ‘If it weren’t for Ionesco’. Supervisor: “What’s the addendum? An implied sigh?”
On Sundays, he suffered through the K.A. Abbas DVD collection his father had sent for his birthday. Some films were insufferable, others still worse. And dutifully calling his parents the same evening, he was met with the inevitable questions: “You watched Neecha Nagar?!What did you think? Parallel, right?” “Yes, parallel, pa.” “I mean, cinema.” “I mean cinema, too, pa.” I mean parking. I mean pigeon ribs. I mean shiftless lines bronzed under graffiti. Balachander kept the phone down, irritated, and thinking of a cousin, with a body full of urban curves, cusps, carnival lore, he fell asleep.
Four years of this. But finally, in his dingy apartment, perched on the desk, the lettering on it slim, aquiline, slanted like wheat stalks in a gale, lay his thesis. It was bound at the borders with a plain white ribbon and its colossal binder sat next to it, its arms steepled, as if in prayer.
Going out or coming in, taking out the laundry or bringing in egg-curry from the nearby eatery, Balachander had gotten hooked on staring wildly at the body of work on the desk. When he checked himself finally, he realized that it was not pride or paranoia. It was, in fact, panic. Perhaps, if we evaluate in terms of neurosis, sixteen days of this odd behaviourism was the perfect precedent to what followed.
A handful of weeks from the interview, at two in the night, he woke up screaming. Balachander hadn’t peed in bed in the last sixteen years. An emphatic blow to the record, the bed-sheet under him was soaked, dripping to the floor. The stench of it all, sweat, urine, and the strawberry incense cello-taped to the edge of the work-desk, made the room intolerable that night, full of an odd, hostile tang. And following that day, his subconscious cluttered as a coop, Balachander lost the power to return to normal sleep.
How does insomnia work?
Entering the first week of sleeplessness, Balachander felt sluggish. Moreover, scrambling to the close of his work, picking away at overkill, needless footnotes, simian logic, he’d grown nebbish, a darkling. On the fourth day, at a kindly girl, sweetly peering into the spine of the book he was reading, he’d hissed, cat-like, scaring her back onto her beanbag.
In the second week, he became subject to metafiction. He found it difficult to figure when he was awake and when he wasn’t, what time it was and why at seven in the morning, the sun was ready to erode into the building tops. He’d shed the days into his diary, pages on pages choc-a-block with details of a tennis match with Gore Vidal, discussions on teleology, temporality he’d had with a mermaid in the lavatory, and spotting and obsessively chasing Federico Fellini over three kilometres, huffing out sawdust wallops of breath. Gore Vidal was a visiting cousin, concerned, anaemic; the mermaid was a urinal with the porcelain missing teeth in parts; Frederico Fellini was a middle-income banker/fledgling pianist, who’d kept on running long after Balachander had given way.
The only person who’d noticed this on-rush of neuroticism was the supervisor whom Balachander had begun addressing as ‘Yes, Mrs. Thatcher’. Shaking his head, the professor has tossed it off with: “Bloody upstarts! Everybody wants to be quirky fucking Salinger.”
In the final week, when sleep had remained aloof, things only got worse. The only consolation remained that somehow he’d managed to scrooge up elements of memory and concentration, and harvest that camel-hump of a pile, his dissertation, his thesis, the singular opus he would ever magnum.
And then, with barely a day left for the interview, in that knee-jerk nick of time – Bala, a prickling bag of nerves still, had winged it for his physician.
The doctor’s office was small, stuffy, with the paint on the walls turning pasty. There was an old calendar with big butchered rings irised around dates. Picture of a dark woman on his desk, pens with their noses in a stand, a friable plate of aloo-tikki which, every now and then, the doctor javelined a toothpick into and sunk the morsel under his tongue. Then, sucking it, as if draining an ice-cube, he’d chirrup an anecdote, coarsening the food in his mouth with laughter.
Balachander had been sitting there almost twenty minutes, listening to the doctor’s May trip to Nicaragua, a remote island-country unplumbed even by most jaded travellers. For B-, who had remained celibate in terms of travel for so long, the sultry descriptions of beaches, the mellow sun, the waves that scuttle up to your toes, had him curl up in cinders inside. “Playa Marsella,” the doctor traced a triangle of sauced aloo into his mouth, “is heaven… hevn won w’rth.”
It was almost a cool twenty minutes later when the doctor finally finished both his travel tales and the piping-hot tikki that had fogged up his glasses. Promptly, they went to work on Balachander’s insomnia. They both agreed that, with the interview only a day away, a long-term course of medicine to slowly cure or curb the condition was out of the question. What Balachander needed was something effective, something quick.
The doctor thought awhile, lolling his head, his eyes constellated up. Then, a little wary, penned him a single xylophonic word, a medicine with so many z’s and x’s that pronouncing it, he made it sound, garbling the syllables, like the mating cry of a Zapotec tribesman. But as Balachander was about to strip into the streets, relieved, the doctor clamped down on his hand, squeezing unto bone. Drawing B- closer, he cawed out two words, so unnerved, sedate, he could have bored them into his head: “Don’t. Overdose.” Balachander, a little terrified, nodded. And scampered out into the dull yellow of the July sun.
The evening before the interview, he sat on his bed for a long time, with the crimson pills in the open palm of his hand. It was five and still bright outside. One of the perks of having a windowless room was that he merely had to turn a switch to transmute all daylight into night.
He had taken a good look in the bathroom mirror an hour before. He looked haggard. Worse, actually. There was an archipelago, rampant islands of hair erupting all over his face. Unfortunate for Balachander, you couldn’t identify that as an academic beard. His face resembled a ground that had been freshly dug up for mines.
The inky crescents under his eyes had grown viscous, hammocky, thickened to vertebra. He looked pale, bluesy. On days he decided to dress as best as he could, with a trussed up corduroy pant and an easy shirt, he hoped to look genteel at best and in the least, sincere. He came across as a heroin addict on a second wind.
Sitting there for the last half hour, he kept looking sternly at the three pills in his hand. One pill wouldn’t cut it. He needed composure, presentability. He simply couldn’t turn up for the interview looking like a hippie.
Balachander cupped the pills, felt their shape a last time, and finally, popped them into his mouth, and washed them down with tap water. To the doctor’s warnings, like the Church to Galileo, he said, tchah! He was sure that one pill had at ten or two pills had at eight would never do the real good of three pills had at five. He concluded he’d wake up at eight in the morning, with the unbreakable lethargy shot, with anvils, to the very soles of his feet.
He did wake up at 8. And at 8:25, his scream helped hatch a mynah’s egg on the rump of his AC.
He stood before the mirror. The screaming [which had resembled a whistling cooker plummeting down a chute] had died down, but his face was very much the rictus of a minute ago. His jowls seemed unable to come back together; if you looked closer, you could see, by the molars, incipient scurvy washing over the teeth. The only good thing, perhaps, was that the headache, though not gone, was too secondary now to matter anymore.
From the base of Balachander’s neck, at the cautious geometry of 45 degrees, without straining his spine, back or neck – a second head had sprung up. On Balachander’s neck thus, planted with the delicacy of a large chess-piece, was a second Balachander!
The features were the same. The same pockmarked nose, the mole eyes, the acne-marks on the greasy skin, and the sideburns whiskering onto his cheeks. It was definitely Balachander. If anything, the second Balachander seemed a bit tanned, a definite improvement on the prototype. He appeared to be sleeping, a single, broken rivulet of drool hanging at the mouth like a beautiful, bare arm at a sash window.
Balachander splashed his face and looked back into the mirror. He splashed more, drank some of it, knuckled his eye-whites a flu red, and unmistakably, every time, the mirror showed him a second head. Balachander wiped the water on a sleeve, and in a flurry, scampered back into the room.
It was perhaps the trained instincts of a man drugged on cold reason for almost half a decade that made Balachander –
1. Crawl under the bed on his belly with a torch,
2. Upturn the orange dust-bucket and dive into the garbage,
3. Violate his work-desk, Indiana-Jones its cavities, pull out everything, even the lint
And that’s where he found it – first drawer on the left, under a tawny brick of stick-it notes. The sachet of the sleeping-pills. Snatching it up, he scanned the back for the green lettering. He drew in a deep snout-full. It read:
Side effects: The side-effects may include nausea, headaches, anxiety, and if taken in excess, may ideally beget involuntary lactation, and in particular cases, is known to cause a peculiar anomalous overgrowth (p.a.o.).
Peculiar anomalous overgrowth is right!, thought Balachander. He felt like wringing the doctor’s neck. However, as he sat down on the bed, hapless, his mind had already affixed itself on a single word: interview. He did not think beyond the furthest extremity of the letters themselves. His thinking tanked at ‘W’. Beyond that, he realized, apart from the P.A.O. peacefully asleep on his shoulder, he might also have to scuttle around with the hulk of a broken will.
A violet umbrella. A large raincoat buttoned up awkwardly at the collar. A Quasimodo stoop, in order to bury his face in the open umbrella that he held in front like an epee. A classic portmanteau [entrusted with thesis] slung on a free shoulder. Ingredients you’ll need in order to reach the nearby Metro with a redundant head bobbing inside a raincoat.
Balachander had hobbled out the building and into daylight and traffic, the bursting material of the raincoat snatched in a fidgety hand, bent, shambling horribly, looking like Richard the third in an Olympic relay. However, it was, unluckily, not a rainy day. Not by a long shot. It was a balmy May noon and sunbeams shot off motorcycle handle-bars to the bleached awnings to the glasses of a girl in a vinegary long skirt. And so, Balachander, dressed to overcome an apocalyptic flood, on a day ideal for a stinging tan and otherwise defunct solar cookers, unmistakably, drew the stray eye.
In his fifteen minute odyssey to the station, he was (a) screamed at, (b) guffawed at, (c) gasped at, (d) honked at, (e) hollered at, and in the case of one thirteen year old pimpled and erratic science fiction enthusiast, chased for a stretch of the road with a cell-phone camera. In the end, it took Balachander, swaddled in bomb-squad apparatus, circa fifteen minutes to get to the coupon counter, past the amused security and hop into a metro set to launch.
Once in, he gave the exasperated cry of a nomad delighted with water, and in one go, discarded umbrella, portmanteau, and raincoat. He sat down at the very corner of the bench, slumped back, sweat-wracked, his calves pulped for movement.
At the notorious times of day that academics are active, the world at large is not. People plod in offices, galleries, workshops, showrooms, whilst the hardened academic, adds, after three hours of coffee and reflection, an extra comma to a sentence which he later removes. This, B- adjudged, in a sky darker than Limbo, was the single silver gleam that day: the metro was empty. Life, you see, was elsewhere.
Soon, his breathing normalized and finally, his thoughts, one by one, herded back together, settling in like the dispassionate bricks in Tetris. And this time, his mind broke into the soft vault of that three-syllabled word – interview. The word expanded, spread out, like tarpaulin, and Balachander, for the twenty minute ride, was forced to contemplate the looming horror of how the fate of his career and work, all depended on the sense-of-humour of the committee. The pettily competitive members of the senior-most committee of the University, known to be prejudiced, partisan and more ready to part with character and soul than a fervently hammed Faustus.
Balachander wept for twelve of those twenty minutes.
The room picked for the interview was, purely, all naked brick and mortar. Overhead, two fans croaked at each other. There were cobwebs along the walls with the spider in absentia, patinas of gold dust sheeted the chairs’ armrests, and right across from the door, peeping out, a glassless skeleton of a window was closed at the sternum. Something smelled of dry rot.
At the centre, there was a mango-wood table that’d gobbled half the space in the room. When the eight chairs were in fact pulled out, they catalysed tight gullies around the furniture, and the academics, their elbows poised, hips raised, had tippy-toed to their seats.
When Balachander entered, the seven were already in place. Of the academics, two of them were committed bachelors, one a rumoured virgin at fifty-eight, and another, a philandering pothead whose cabin had been often described as a harem. It was the kind of coterie you’d expect. All of them were men, all of them were over fifty, and all of them had the kind of eyes that could set off flasked potassium. Had it not been for the fix he was in, Balachander definitely would have pondered deep the nature of generality.
One of the seven, he noticed, wore a bowtie, a desert brown. A sober look at him and you knew that this was the sort of man that would do good with subtitles. The only heads perspiring in the room both belonged to Balachander.
Balachander entered the room sans umbrella and raincoat, fully cognito. His second head, still asleep, was steady, placid. As the members turned and gaped at him, jaws dropping low, he expected outrage. He expected being carted out by personnel. He expected, born of an imagination that had fallen off-kilter, being hurled out the nearest window. What happened, of course, was something much, much worse.
A minute into the interview.
Balachander sat stiffly in his seat, sweating into his collar. Under the table, his fingers were laced and his thumbs pecked away at each other like gamecocks. The committee members in front, old, starchy, hawkish, in the meantime, had begun to remind B- of Prague gargoyles. From his left, one gargoyle, grey tweed blazer and mousy ears, spoke. Someone burped.
“So, Mister Bala…” He squinted at the yellow sheet in front of him. “What is it?”
“Yes…” His grin broadened. His eyes twitched up to B-‘s face[s] and rolled back down again. Balachander noticed him rush a smirk into a cough.
“Hm! So, Mr. Balachander, I believe you must’ve been quite determined about this.”
“Yes, yes. When it comes to academics, I’ve always considered it sound judgement never to be in two minds.”
Three of the seven coughed loudly into their hankies. One, shaking hard, bowed his head down, tucking it under the table, mumbling something about a ‘dropped pencil’. Another, the virgin, easily excitable, let out a shameless chuckle. Balachander, taken unawares, slack jawed, gawked from side to side.
Almost at a jump, Bowtie was the next to talk. Pocketing his hanky, he cleared his throat.
“I apologize for my throat… Mr. Bala – Balachander, was it? Yes. It acts up this time of year. Now, your work! The thesis… very, very impressive work it is. And at your age! Commendable! But I hope you got the opinion of a senior or at least, a fellow candidate. I mean, you simply cannot argue the fact that in serious academia, two heads are always better than one.”
This time they didn’t bother with the thin camouflage. They let the laughter rip. Two of them curled up in their chairs, cackling hard, clasping their sides. The fat Bowtie, still looking at Bala, sniggered lowly at first and then, blew into a rumbling mound of school-girlish giggling.
So far, the one man who had not only maintained his calm but had balled up his fists in the interim was S. Murlidharan, the Head of the Department. Seated right opposite Balachander, he now seemed furious, glaring round at his chuckling peers. Reaching his limits, he shot up straight, unmindful of his seat that flopped back from the force.
“Outrageous!” he shouted, a characteristic booming baritone that an understudy had described as “a lion auditioning for the part of Basilio in Le Nozze Di Figaro”. “I have never” he roared, “by God, never witnessed such antics at a doctoral interview!”
All fell quiet. In this new silence, Murli thundered. “This poor man,” a sympathetic, knobby finger pointed Balachander out to the room. “This poor man comes here for a serious – Oh, stop it!” Bowtie, who’d still been giggling, went out like a candle. Murlidharan turned to B-.
“Mr. Balachander, I deeply apologize on behalf of my colleagues. I am anything but completely embarrassed at this utter lack of professionalism.”
“It’s perfectly alright, Professor.”
“No, it isn’t,” he muttered, glowering at the others, “but it is time anyway that we start with your interview…” Grumpily, he stooped, picked up his chair and settled back down. “Okay, Mr. Balachander, to begin at the beginning, may I know what’re you calling your thesis?”
“Yes… Sir, I’ve decided to call it, ‘Duality in Ionesco’.”
Murlidharan, who had been fingering through a splash of papers in front of him, went still. Slowly, his head levered up.
“You’re calling it what?”
“Uh… ‘Duality in Ionesco’?”
Murlidharan’s face froze, as if some winding key somewhere had halted. And then, slowly, it cranked into stages of animation. First: a grin, giddy and Norman-Bates-y, sneaked up on it. Following, his face turned a patchy vermillion all over. Then, his nostrils flared, and both his cheeks puffed up like paper bags buffeted by rough wind. Finally, Murli, raising a trembling finger at Balachander’s two heads, spluttered:
“Du – du – du – duality… in… Io – Io – Io – Ionesco!”
When Murli burst laughing, it was as if someone had punctured a blimp. He was followed almost instantly by the gang of six. Two of them fell off their chairs, now, literally, rolling on the floor, unstrapped barrels on a ship on a turning tide. One shrieked, “Duality!”, and broke into a fresh wave of hysterical laughter. Another cried, “Ionesco!”, and laughed himself into an asthmatic cough. The diabolical Bowtie hollered, for reasons privy only to him, “Placenta!”, and this had Murlidharan snort so hard, his belt-buckle popped loose.
When I later asked Balachander what happened next, he described it all, cringing badly, as a ‘blur’.
When he regained consciousness, – his eyes narrowed, focusing slowly – B- found himself sitting on a park bench under a sprawling mango tree. Two women, dressed in matching red slacks, scowling at him, jogged by. Past an artificial pathway, kids buzzed, kicking a football about in the wet grass. The dimness of the day, the crisp air, and the birds unsettling in the branches overhead, suggested dusk.
Soon, as the interview came back to him, Bala groaned.
Curiously, he felt for the ‘other’ Balachander. Still asleep, the head, to his great relief, appeared to have shrunk, deflated. The effects of the medicine, it seemed, were wearing off. And all of a sudden, Balachander, sitting there, with a spatter of dead leaves at his feet and the scent of wild jasmines from a bush nearby, knew two things for sure. First, that he was done with academics. Through. Finally! Ionesco could go jump in the colony gutter, stay there, live there, pick apartments. And second, while he may have to struggle a little with the old man, he was going to make that quack of a physician swallow at least a pack of those crimson pills!
And believe me, he did.
Check out the winners of the 2014 DWL Short Story Competition and read the top 3 stories.
Check out the 2014 Dastaan Award Winner announcement.