“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
The helium lamp in the room blinked to the sound of a soda pop’s fizz. The threat of a resolute darkness had been sounded, but for now its steady hum had returned, and it glowed resiliently.
A few more hours.
An old brass gramophone sounded a track by the George Lewis New Orleans Jazz Band, an ancient vinyl from his father’s collection. Instinctively his attention switched to the beggars, squatter and vagrants on the street, as the needle on the turntable began to decipher the indentations of the ‘Mahogany Hall Stomp’. He watched entranced, his attention so forceful and precise that the people he focused on glowed like tiny orbs, incandescent in his vision, blazing thin luminous trails to their multitude of destinations. It was the end of their three hour long shifts, at which point the tramps would congregate at the feet of the blind old man who lay outside a sixty three year old pan shop. After every three hours they would deposit their earnings and then burst out again every which way, exploding with the sudden haste of a dandelion pod. The young ‘uns would march to the eastern stretch of the street, the more popular entry point from where the sightseeing crowd would enter. The more seasoned teenagers would head to the northern exit which connected to the business district of the city. While the adults, with heavily narcotized babies in their arms, would gravitate towards the central crossing, weaving back and forth through vehicles cramming for space, awaiting the beckon of the elusive green signal light.
He sat there staring outside a weathered sheet of glass that covered his window. Men and women walked along the pavement, proletariats, lovers, tourists, all conversing, all busy, busy, busy. From up here, on the seventh floor of this fast decaying building, it was all so peaceful and so profoundly melancholic. He had watched the crowds flock and flow, like the waves of the sea, threading through pockets of space, navigating through narrow channels of traffic, heaving gently and sometimes precariously under its own massive weight. It had all been so haphazard, so unpredictable, so infuriatingly random … and yet, there were patterns… patterns he had deciphered over fifteen years of a silent watch. Patterns he had had to learn. A watch he had inherited from his dead father (or was it his mother), much like the weather beaten house and the old vinyl records.
The music had helped him decipher these patterns better, building on the erudition of his father. He had assigned tracks from his collection to specific kinds of people. The Mahogany Hall Stomp was for the beggars, Louis Armstrong’s Cabaret was for watching the proletariat, the bankers and the white collared had been assigned Bing Crosby’s I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams, Paul Robeson’s Congo Lullaby was the track for the transvestites and prostitutes, the single women had ‘Rum and Coca Cola’ by The Andrew Sisters, the lovers romanced unbeknownst to the tune of Sinatra’s I Can’t Stop Loving You and so on and so forth.
There was no mathematical precision to it, just a method to the madness, a knitted up string unwound, a voyeuristic pleasure, to the predictability of it all. And for him, it was the only pleasure he knew. He was lonely, and suffered the worst loneliness that ever was – the kind in which you don’t even know that you are all alone. In a maelstrom of the unpredictable, it was his responsibility to eliminate chance, the whimsical tentacles of coincidence. He was Constant.
He was 37 years old, and after the death of his father (or mother) three years ago, had lost the only companion he had. But then he had seen that coming too. The signs were all there. He had known it would be peaceful. He had known there would be no mourners.
He had no aspirations, no fertile desires, for pleasures carnal, gastronome or otherwise and had no possessions of his own. The only purchases he consistently made apart from his daily rations, were of a white shirt, a black suit with matching trousers, a black silk tie, a pair of black socks and black Oxford shoes. One set of these he purchased once every month, and every time he purchased one, he would have seven older ones. The oldest of the lot he would sacrifice after making a fresh purchase. Over the years, the practice had assumed the sanctity of a ritual, precise to the last detail, including the stitch of the cloth, and the time of purchase. All his other belongings in the ancient studio apartment he had inherited from his mother (or father). One hour.
It was time for him to get ready. The trousers were on. So were the shoes. His straight hair had been gelled back, combed to a velvety sheen with generous assistance from a dollop of Brylcream, his shave had been crisp, his jaw crackled with the bite of aftershave, his deep set eyes scanned his reflection on the oval mirror, a few strands of hair had sprung back across his brow, he would comb them back to disciple, but not before he slipped his white shirt off the hangar, unbuttoned it swiftly and slipped his arms adroitly into them, wrapping it and fastening it around himself and then tucking it into his trousers. He now pulled up the collar, lit a cigarette and whipped his tie from the hangar in his closet, quickly snapping it around his upturned collar, tugging at it from both ends with brisk smooth flicks which slowed down as they arrived at the suture between the soft fabric of his shirt and the starched stiffness of his lapel. He whisked the cigarette away from his mouth, his deeply inset eyes narrowing from the constant flow of smoke, he pulled it back to his lips, took a long deep drag and unleashed the smoke, with a great degree of satisfaction as he let the cigarette rest at the rim of an ashtray. He now examined his wallet and once satisfied with its contents he slipped the wallet into his trouser pocket. Now all that was left was his suit and one final flourish of the comb through his hair. He slipped on a Sammy Davis Junior record, and as the rhythmic sizzle of the jazz cymbal signaled the arrival of the ‘Candy Man’ he switched off the lights, draped his suit around him, shut the door and stepped out.
He gazed at his watch, a Gallet chronograph – six minutes, thirty seconds to seven. He waited. Six minutes, twenty four, twenty three, twenty two… he was off. At a steady pace he descended the stairs. He exited the building at five minutes fifty eight seconds to seven. With four minutes and thirty seven seconds left he stepped three paces left from his otherwise precise linear walk on the crowded pavement, just as the door of the adjacent bakery opened violently missing him by millimeters as a man with a tray full of freshly baked bread walked out towards the nearby restaurant. At three minutes twenty two seconds he stepped onto the road to cross the street, a moment too soon it would seem for a multitude of cars were hurtling towards him to try and catch the green light. But just when it seemed that an accident was inevitable the signal turned red and the turbulence heading towards him came to a measured halt, in an almost matter of fact manner. He paused at the middle of the road at three minutes and two seconds just as a taxi mustered enough courage to slam the accelerator and break the signal, passing just a meter ahead of him. Only then did he continue across the street. At one minute thirty seconds he fished out three one rupee coins, just as a couple of urchins appeared from the crowd, right in front of him. He dropped the coins in their extended palms and proceeded nonchalantly till with twelve seconds to go before seven he arrived at the doorstep of his destination – An old Chinese restaurant.
It was time to get to work.
He stepped inside and made his way to the first floor – A massive seating area with a small private section in the mezzanine – a layout that was almost identically replicated in three other rooms. And already, a majority of the space was filled up. The manager of the restaurant spotted him and immediately had him escorted to his table, where he sat down promptly, pulled out a book, an old hard back copy of Ivan Hoe, and began to read. Over the course of the next few hours, nobody would disturb him.
Such was the nature of his job.
The restaurant business is a tricky one. Apart from sex, there is nothing else as pleasurable as ten thousand taste buds wrapped around a perfectly spiced, adequately chewed up mush of food. The working man’s joie de vivre. Buying food is legal. But the business of food, much like the business of sex craves variety. Seeking variety in food, after all, is not frowned upon. And hence loyalty in the business of food is an ephemeral quality. No matter the consistency in quality you uphold. No matter the glowing words of recommendation you consistently garner. When you are stuck with as much of space as this restaurant had, in a location as prime as the one this restaurant enjoyed, what do you do to survive for sixty five years in a metropolis, teeming with options, with a variety of pleasures beckoning, younger more delectable pleasures, pleasures from countries lesser known, to survive, to thrive, to fight and prevail over anachronism. You resort to cunning.
For the past twenty years, the restaurant employed people, to seat themselves at different tables in the restaurant. To create the grand illusion that even on the weakest, most anemic of days, the restaurant was always packed to the brim. And the ploy had worked phenomenally, the restaurant had been declared a heritage sight, a monument that could never be torn down. Another constant.
He had been sitting there for nearly two hours now. His demeanor, his poise, the placement of his body with regards to the space afforded by the chair was perfect and unmoving. A couple of hours more and his shift would end. He had been served his mandatory glass of water. It had remained untouched.
He leafed through to the next page. Page sixty seven.
“But, Isaac,” said the Pilgrim, smiling, “dost thou know that in these sports, the arms and
steed of the knight who is unhorsed are forfeit to his victor? Now I may be unfortunate,
and so lose what I cannot replace or repay.”
“No, no, no. It is impossible. I will not think so. The blessing of Our Father will be upon thee. Thy lance will be powerful as the rod of Moses” said a voice from across the table.
He looked up. A girl now sat across the table. Her hair was badly disheveled, her clothes mismatched, loud colors, and a purple ribbon bound her stained dress at the waist. She reached over and drank the water in his glass. He couldn’t remember who she was. But he had seen her before. She seemed to be enjoying the perturbation her presence caused. Not merely enjoying, she reveled in it.
She sat there staring intently at him. Not a word was said between the two during the ensuing moments. But she kept smiling and his demeanor remained the same. There was little to measure her motive, there was a lot he could do to render her incumbent. But she was fearless. He knew that. And everything he would try would eventually fail.
He watched her entranced, her furtive movements, scratching her hair, checking the vials containing condiments, pulling the shriveled up rose from the porcelain vase at the centre of the table and chomping it down. She extended her leg out just as a waiter was passing by with a tray full of food, making him stumble and fall over. All the food spilled over. Some of the sauce fell on his white shirt, but he didn’t move. He couldn’t move. She was a juggernaut of destruction. Her every move prompted disaffection. Around the room, placidity had been replaced by discomfiture as if a gray shadow of madness had descended, a vortex of anarchy. And at its ugly depth, at its most feral, and potent core was she. She reached over and held his hand now, her touch like a bristling wire of saccharine pain shooting through to his spine. He wanted to move, to adjust his hair that had fallen out of place, to brush off the stains from his perfectly manicured outfit. But her touch had anesthetized him. He could perceive, but his body would not respond. Only to the machinations of her will would it succumb. And it now willed him to move.
“This must fallYou. Must fall” she said.
“No. You mustn’t. I am…”
“I knowAnd. ThatTHat. Is why you will fall.”
An explosion erupted from the kitchen. The restaurant was on fire.
She held his hand and guided him out to the streets. It is not yet time to leave. He wanted to look at his watch. But his hand felt shackled his strength was feeble. He stumbled and was about to fall, but her resolute grip kept him steady. They forced their way through the crowd, not lithely, with no grace, but with brute force. She was spectacularly stronger than she looked. They crossed the street as cars whizzed past them, missing them by inches. A few of them hit the brakes, screeching to discourteous halts and being bumped from behind by their unsuspecting tailgaters. She dragged him now towards his building, his body seething with pain and incumbency. His lungs bellowed screams that his throat could not voice. She let go of his hand now and dragged him up the stairs by tugging at his hair. She kicked open the door of his apartment, the rotting door, shattered on impact. She dragged him to his bed and flung him down. She walked over to the gramophone and unceremoniously snapped off its needle, as the vinyl now spun listlessly. She lay him on the bed now, smoothing out his arms and legs that had wound up in muted protest. He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was not yet time for him to sleep. This was all so terribly wrong. He glanced at her face now. And she smiled at him. The most painful and kindest of smiles. And he smiled back, almost bewildered at this most inexplicable of responses from the muscles on his face and then persisted with it, just because it felt so good. So unexpectedly good. And now she sat beside him. Her hand on his, as his eyes drifted off to the cushioned confines of the unknown realm of sleep.
20th May 2011
She sat next to him till dawn. By then his body had completely evaporated. There was no trace of him left. Just a compressed impression of where he lay on the white sheet of the mattress. Sunlight came through the window pane in a muted shade of orange that morning. It filtered in with a faint warmth, a few clouds had mitigated its blaze. For now. She stood at the window and watched. The streets were empty. The day was so very young. She would head out in a few hours. There would be no more watching for some time now. Not forever though. One day, she would become him.
And then he would come for her. Much as she had come for him.