Revolver

Sree Prasad

2022

Introduction

In Sree Prasad’s “Revolver”, his characters Manish and Shanti are burdened with doubts, dissatisfactions, and disillusionments. They love each other, but. Their parents have done a number on them, but. They have jobs and are financially secure, but. They are, but. They think and think, and then they think some more.

Our parents’ generation had it simpler. Not because they had simpler lives, but because they thought less about how complicated everything really was. We think too much. If our parents’ minds hovered like fly-swatters ready to thwack down any thought that had the temerity to attempt a crossing of the vastness between their ears, our minds are so stuffed with thoughts and thoughts about thoughts, it’s a wonder we don’t topple over. Still, I would rather be us, than them, and now, than then.

This kind of story, where the dominant rasa is bibhatsa (disgust, nausea), is neither easy to write nor read. It might seem like a modern fad, but the idea that art has to be necessarily pleasurable had been challenged as far back as the 10th century, for instance in Ksemisvara’s plays. This is one of those stories that broaden the mind’s palate, and hence, recommended for your attention.

— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Revolver

The woman left midway through their date because he complained that she had to make up her mind, that she couldn’t expect bureaucratic courtesy from men and still say they couldn’t flirt with zest or edge. Manish stayed on till closing time, drinking cheap whiskey, looking at the closely packed tables, and suspecting that people liked being arranged this way—close enough to eavesdrop without having to be stealthy, so you could gently distract yourself from the labour of conversation without looking away, and pretend you’re still listening to thoughts carefully honed and preserved for a drunken rant. There was no dancing here. Just frantic talking. Everyone at the bar seemed to have unanimously decided to believe they were in some talk show where they all played the audience, guest, and host at the same time.

When he trudged back home, he wasn’t sure if there was a mist that night, or if it was just the whiskey fog in his head that had somehow found an outlet. He imagined, for a few seconds, that the mist had emanated from his ears and filled the cold black night otherwise rippled only by the dripping yellow of the streetlights. When he turned left opposite a recently closed pharmacy, he noticed a cat lodged serenely on the remnants of an almost demolished wall, making what was left of it look like a pulpit for some curious exhibit. The cat looked simultaneously majestic and helpless, with its front legs tucked under its breast and closed eyes that looked like two thin, horizontal gashes one might have made in a mango with a curved kitchen knife. He thought the cat turned to look at him as he walked past its perch, without ever opening its eyes all the while. Some fifteen meters ahead of him, he saw two white dogs alerted by his stuporous excursion and the loud swish of his bathroom slippers. They stood up and peered. He walked toward the dogs, and they inched closer too, warily, determinedly. Both parties paused to take stock. There was only one winner: he turned around when he heard the dogs snarl.

Meanwhile, in her sunless, perennially bulb-lit room—a room so enclosed you could smell what a person does to it over time—Shanti dragged a pile of books about 1.5 feet tall, sat on it, and prepared to read and lick her wounds. She’d come far, and was in fact very close to that state of apathy-like strength she was sure she’d inevitably inhabit.

That she could still put her ass on the narrowest book now, the icing on her book-pyramid arranged in descending order of width, gave her mild joy. She faced her bed and the peeling, yellow wall. Her back faced the door, the world, the ugly heave of life outside.

So what if she couldn’t get by without reading? When she couldn’t concentrate, she’d remind herself that reading was hard work. Usually what distracted her was her desire to be seen reading—in this state of austere, careful, but fashionable, self-sufficiency. This was after all a display of dignified suffering. It was exemplary and deserved to be documented, this painful heuristic. She was by now also sort of an expert at freezing into brooding, absorbed states in public, especially amidst an audience she could tell would appreciate—and fear—even fragile displays of assuredness. Earlier she’d have been disappointed by the broken concentration. She’d wanted reading to be a swift, uninterrupted process, but she’d recently convinced herself that the many detours and the desire to be seen reading are also crucial aspects of the reading experience.

Now she worried that she was reading too much and writing too little, living too little. True, if nothing else, she was a reader, but this affirmation was no longer enough. She had to deal with things differently: she had to get her writing published, the only act that could tell the world and Manish that the outward stillness and raptness were productive and creative after all.

Shanti argued that people too often mistake boredom for depression. Not that one was better than the other, but she’d had three painful years of autonomous experimentation in college to learn how to cope with boredom, loneliness, and despair, so she felt qualified to say that. As she saw it, the biggest fruit of her college education was this acquired capacity to deal with these pangs, but college had nothing to do with it. She learned what she had learned despite college. What educated her was being alone away from home, around people who just didn’t seem to care. The lack of attention turned out to be a blessing after the disciplining she’d endured at home.

At college, she’d routinely sullied the air in the cafeteria with her unwashed body. Sometimes she went two weeks without a shower, a whole week without shitting, just lying on her bed, looking at her classmates’ Facebook and Twitter updates. By the end of what would be a two-week period, more or less, she wouldn’t be able to stand her smell. Only beggars, she believed, with no exposure to sunlight—of the kind she’d run into as a teenager smoking under the city’s many dilapidating skywalks or in the underpasses replete with mini craters that held pools of yellow, warm, syrupy piss—could even think of competing with her. Back then in college she often thought of one of her parents’ servants: the one who’d worked at four other places, wouldn’t or couldn’t bathe for days, applied kerosene to her hair because it was cheap, and claimed that she liked to eat powdered red brick. When she wasn’t complaining of diarrhea, the servant complained of severe constipation, so perhaps she did eat it.

Shanti’s mother hadn’t had as much time until recently, and she knew her mother was being blown away by this sudden, unwelcome excess. Whenever Shanti saw her limping in the house, or struggling to sit in and get up off her ergonomic chair to eat the food she’d prepared herself, Shanti felt sorry for her. For Shanti and her mother eating was the biggest reminder of the torment of being alive. Shanti ordered her meals online almost every day; she’d sit on that pile of books and watch some show or the other on her iPhone as she ate, and somehow it was this moment of the day, more than any other, that told her it was either better to be dead or die soon. She wanted to call her mother and tell her she understands, but what use would that be? Her mother would just ask her to come back home. Now she couldn’t, and didn’t want to, talk to Manish either.

Usually, her mother spent most of her time talking about the physiotherapists who were helping her deal with her diabetic neuropathy. Shanti’s mother was an insatiable, rampant talker who mostly spoke about herself, and these were doctors who preferred to call themselves medicos and took great care to sound like start-up gurus. Shanti was thus torn between wishing her mother would torment the physios with her talking and hoping that she really wouldn’t.

Manish liked to shave. When he made his way to the four-by-four (inches, not feet), plastic-framed mirror in his bathroom on a Tuesday morning, he realized he hadn’t shaved for a whole week. He’d trimmed his feeble but erratic mustache and the frizz on his chin, but he hadn’t really had the time to give his face the smooth sheen he was so fond of. His ability to concentrate was limited, and sometimes he forgot to check if he was in fact holding the tongue scraper, not the razor, when he wanted to scrape his tongue. He had to work hard to ensure that shaving wouldn’t result in a hospital visit. As a concession, he often allowed himself to brush his teeth mindlessly and too hard, often spitting blood as he rinsed.

Manish had been drinking especially steadily the past three days—Saturday, Sunday, and Monday: an extended weekend—and his willpower was at an all-time low. He’d woken up at five a.m. on Saturday to make sure he wouldn’t miss the garbage truck, but had retreated to his bed after taking a long piss. In the kitchen, where he’d kept the garbage bags—three of them, neatly tied and hermetic, a feat he’d congratulated himself for—he was sure he could now detect the smell of rotting onions and cucumbers, which came as side orders for most of the meals he purchased online. The vegetables almost always came in small, transparent plastic bags, reminding him of how as a kid he’d watched other kids carrying goldfish or young cichlids in similar plastic bags. The kids would dash barefoot on the half-road littered with stinging blue metal fragments toward their homes in excitement. Sometimes they’d spill a fish, and it would twitch and twitch before coming to a rest. Its tiny fish-body produced the lightest of thuds, which one was better off not hearing or imagining for it sounded all too ominous and sad, the sound of unmourned death. Sometimes the kids would pick up the twitching fish, shove it in an empty plastic bag, and watch it die. They’d then hold the dead fish between their thumb and index finger, roll it around, look it over, then toss it aside like molded booger. Breathing in the smell of steadily rotting vegetables, he found no way to deny that so much life ends in plastic bags.

Manish rubbed his eyes in the harsh fluorescent light of his bathroom and looked at his overused razor, which still worked well on his chin, but had long stopped producing satisfactory results under his nose, leaving behind more than a faint trace of his mustache. Something like that black, sticky patch that’s often there after halfhearted attempts to remove price stickers from book covers.

To him Sundays meant lying for hours on end on his thin mattress, reading intermittently and with poor focus; convulsing routinely from the pain of memories he was not willing to forget, memories he in fact routinely forced himself to think about, almost sadistically; running his nose and mouth along his bicep, smelling what he smelled like in his armpit, and kissing the part where his upper arm and shoulder joined, wishing he were kissing a woman on that same part of her body. Then, when his head throbbed and he felt dizzy, he’d overeat. For he couldn’t tell hunger from plain old mental fatigue or tumult; he just ate.

When Shanti felt compelled to share, to tell someone that only strange things seemed to happen to her, she’d talk herself out of it. She wanted to save everything for her writing. Yet she once found herself wanting to tell someone—anyone—that she’d recently banged her head against the underside of a low-hanging No Parking sign and realized only 24 hours later that she’d been bleeding. When she ran a comb across her head, she belched with pain, but couldn’t immediately make the connection. At first, she thought she’d run the comb with too much force, but when she touched the spot it’d felt like a deflated, wrinkled balloon. What if this was some nasty infection? She went to work looking unfashionably, irredeemably unkempt and could hardly get anything done. Two days later, when she went to the bathroom to stew in self-pity in front of the mirror, the spot had become a scab, which, as she tried to dislodge slowly with her pinkie fingernail, helped her make the connection. The No Parking sign!

She was also beginning to wonder if she was denying, defying too much. It didn’t bother her that she hardly ever spoke to people, went out, or experienced collective things, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was limiting herself to writing about things immediately under her nose. Besides, she’d never had trouble finding men, so was all this steeling really worth it, or even necessary? Even when she got on the phone with her mother, she only wanted to write down the things her mother said. Even when it was her turn to speak, Shanthi could only think about how she might improve or otherwise alter what she’d heard. Sometimes her inability to listen to her mother reduced Shanti to tears. These fortnightly calls and the annual visit were the most she could do for her mother. Shanti disliked her mother intensely, but also pitied her. She knew her mother had no one to talk to, that it was these calls that gave her mother some relief, but Shanti couldn’t really listen to her.

Shanti grew up hearing that her mother was the perfect Brahmin mother. Nearly every adult she knew as a kid had told her as much. Yet, even as a kid, she could only see her mother as a vicious simpleton in whom simple mindedness and the zeal for respectability were fully formed and at their most disarming. And this was true. Her father was a notoriously mute spectator. He’d died in bed three years back, a death described by the doctor who’d confirmed it as “another routine, peaceful death in this neighborhood.” As if the doctor was involved in some city-level survey about goodness of life indicators.

Shanti’s parents believed that the family was a perfectible thing, that it had to be perfected at all costs. This explained the violence Shanti’s puberty had wrought. Her parents came rather close to their idea of perfection: from renting exceptionally small two-room units in the center of the city to a rather wealthy suburban life. Bending Shanti to their will remained an incomplete project, though.

Manish’s parents weren’t all that old now, but their ambitions had demanded neglect of their bodies. His parents mumbled Ram-Ram as they struggled to get up off the floor. Ram-Ram was the intonation that accompanied the sound of their creaking joints. They cooed with pain whenever they had to stand up or sit down and looked decisively worn out even by the time he was fourteen. Years of being jostled, shoved, groped in deliriously packed buses. As if the rigmarole of getting ready for the day weren’t enough, they’d be forced to mend their hassled selves after alighting from the bus. Nonetheless they must have from time to time enjoyed being churned about by other bodies in a human current, a human whirlpool on bad days, being scraped by coarse, over-starched clothes, nudged by rough and soft skins alike, breathing in the sweat, hair oil, and cheap perfumes of others who’d woken up thinking about money and work and death and hoping for some kind, acceptable, unchallenging titillation to season the day. “City life,” his parents would say with a shrug and proud smile whenever someone asked them if all this wasn’t too much. When he’d watched these packed buses as a kid, he refused to believe there were people aboard. To his child’s eyes everyone in the bus looked like clothed, slobbering locusts.

#

Before the last time they called it quits, Shanti was beginning to dislike Manish’s approach to talking about how they grew up. She didn’t at all mind telling him, but he’d get really drunk and plead when he didn’t really have to. He’d start bawling before she could tell him, and she’d wait—feeling a cocktail of disgust, curiosity, and concern—for this sad, needless tantrum to play out.

Shanti had thus told him that there’d been a tussle every day.

“I was twelve or thirteen and I’d merely asked her if she could apply less oil to my hair, and she completely transformed. She looked possessed. She swung and missed a few times, but then she picked up ladles, pans, and rolling pins and landed several disarming blows. I clutched the part of my head reddened by blood and ran away to cry in the toilet and said something like ‘I’ll tell people what you did.’”

“Yes…and the whores you talk to, bring them home so I can batter them also,” her mother had said.

They often joked that what they had was really only an endogamous affair because they belonged to what his vain professor liked to call the “caste of battered children.” They were both convinced that families were a sham. Yet, whenever they saw a reasonably happy family or one that sort of knew how to compromise, they felt deserted by everything, like they were living on the very edge of society. Was this the price of thinking that a questioning life was unquestionably better than whatever its opposite is supposed to be? Were they disillusioned with familial love or love altogether? Every time they spotted a family like that, all the work they’d done to gather themselves and take control of their lives was undone. They couldn’t shake the feeling that they were significantly blunted by how they were raised and also disliked that this sounded like typical self-pity.

Sometimes watching friendly families meant they’d helplessly circle back to the question that had given rise to many heated disagreements: How must one love? Shanti liked to tell him that we learn how to make inroads with people, but don’t care to learn how to retreat. He argued that she never really forgot or forgave, and that she wasn’t a “love from a distance” sort of person, as she liked to claim. She was vengeful and had no interest in understanding his point of view, he’d continue.

“Usually you don’t have a point of view, you’re so afraid of even casually contradicting me. There is no charge or friction here. Just suffocation, I need space,” she’d retort.

In the beginning, when she could smell the makings of an ugly argument, Shanti could remind herself that most families she knew, even the happy ones—rather, especially the happy ones—didn’t exactly lack imagination. She thought they feared it, and this fear being strong, it’d taught them to catch early symptoms of a flowering imagination in other people, especially children. This calmed her sometimes, but remembering as much usually took time and effort, and by then she and Manish would be deep in the throes of it. She was tired of the veneration of happiness and found most public displays of happiness to be almost psychotic.

When he sensed a fight coming, he’d simply try to count how often she blinked per minute. He could get away with not listening, as long as he still kept looking at her. He concluded that she blinked more regularly than most people he’d met. She looked like she was bursting with ideas, feelings, and thoughts that might as well escape unsaid or unexplored if she didn’t bat them back into herself. He could tell very early that she was an agitated thinker. Whenever she withdrew into herself, Manish tried to amuse himself without bursting her frenzied reverie. Lately he’d begun to resent her for not realizing how easy he’d made it for her in this regard. Sometimes though he felt sorry for her.

She touched her face quite often, too, with those pale, twig-like fingers, almost as if to tell him how she’d really like to be touched. But he was terrified of touching her when he knew all she wanted was to be left alone. Sometimes at bars he’d peer at her with enlarged, gobbling eyes, sitting at the edge of his stool, almost toppling it, confident that the dim lighting was both an aid and excuse for this sort of staring. During these moments he would be seized by the desire to pluck her hand from her face, to hold that exiled hand in his, and replace it with his trembling, doting fingers.

Other times, they reveled in causing families discomfort. Usually, their preferred method was to roll up his shorts and play games of tic-tac-toe on his thigh. Nothing united them more than their mutual distaste for people. The shorts would be rolled further up after each game, though they almost always stopped at three. Then she’d put her head on the thigh and they’d take pictures mock-painstakingly. Only bits like this caused them to giggle together in mutual appreciation, egging each other on, spontaneously recognizing and understanding things about each other. There were times though when he took part in these shenanigans without really wanting to. If he was hesitant it was usually because he felt threatened by the ugly stares their drama elicited, especially from the gadget-studded, SUV-driving young male, who more often than not also happened to be freshly married. These guys, though they came in all shapes and sizes, were all quick to throw him a warning glance. Like he was the mastermind driving this small-scale affront to the common sense, good values, and every other prim thing that must have colluded to forge their fresh marital heaven. But he couldn’t say no to her.

When he was in the mood for these things though, he could be silly and loving and caring. What kept them going was the belief that a goodbye was imminent, always around the corner. So playing along lovingly and earnestly was also a way for him to show her what she’d miss. For her part she knew that he usually chose crowded, unfriendly streets for their walks simply because he liked the way the men looked at her and then at him in disbelief. It was always unnerving, but she’d never do that for anyone else.

Some nights between one and three a.m., as they walked the streets or squatted in the terrace lighting up the half-smoked cigarettes they’d scavenged from the many makeshift ashtrays in their house, they could hear a dozen or more dogs barking furiously, working collectively to drive away an unwelcome stray. They’d give the dog some story: A groveling, ragged intruder with bald patches in the fur that looked like continents, landscapes visited only by the sorry dog, documented on its own body like some secret, wartime communication technique. Perhaps it was the journeys, the things the dog witnessed in these landscapes otherwise condemned to eternal night, eternal invisibility, that made the dog so unpopular. He’d wanted to add that the sorry dog had the aura of having seen too much and of somehow having run into a convincing argument for the futility of retaliation, but she’d told him that he must stop trying to make ugly parables out of every situation.

#

He paused tonight in front of some buildings, and from where he stood, the lights still on in these buildings evoked the cartographic feature of that dog’s torn skin. He walked backward, zooming out enough to accommodate all the lighted windows in his sight. People were either streaming videos or playing loud music, and the sounds gushed out into the night. Sometimes the same sounds emanated from two or more windows: atomized existence somehow welded together by the paraphernalia of individuality.

It was time for him to visit his parents, and he was feeling agitated. The last couple of months he’d felt badgered by them. There’d been messages—sometimes a dozen a day—relating what they argued was their failing health, how it was becoming more and more difficult for them to maintain their large apartment, and how futile it felt for them to live just with each other, without him, their son, whose duty they argued it was to make their lives lovable and livable again. He rubbed his forehead as he looked at the buildings.

Presently he could summon no sense of affiliation and had never felt less human. He felt like an infiltrator whose survival depends on indifference and camouflage, as if he was passing through a complex, endless, fascinatingly horrific exhibit of humanness, of what it means to be alive, to watch and be watched.

He left a week later, on a Monday night, a three-day visit, and he emailed Shanti before leaving, though he knew she wouldn’t at all appreciate it. It was five a.m. when he reached. It took another two hours for him to get to his parents’ apartment. His mother went back to sleep after letting him in. He tossed his bags in his room, came back to the living room and busied himself with the previous day’s newspaper. At around nine, he went back to his room and fell asleep. It was past noon when he woke up, and as he made his way to the living room, he heard his parents discussing frantically. He paused by the sofa.

“I can’t push any harder, no, no, no” said mom.

“Try now, please. I’m sure you can,” said dad.

Quietly, he repositioned himself to get a better look. He thought he could smell feces from the room his parents had reserved for prayer.

“This is enough, aah, this should be enough, let me just scamper to the bathroom.”

She froze on seeing Manish by the sofa. Her eyes grew large, her jaw dropped, and her mouth began to quiver. She was about to burst into tears. Dad walked out now, and was rendered speechless for a good thirty seconds. Finally managing— “We didn’t want to tell you, but your mom, your mother, she’s become incontinent. Can’t you move back here? it will really help.”

He slept on the sofa in the living room for the next two nights. He dragged it close to the eight-feet-tall windows, a failed imitation of French windows his parents had so coveted. The windows faced East, and unlike French doors, did not play portal to a balcony or porch, but simply overlooked a neighbor’s front yard, which was spacious and had a functioning well, several banana trees, two or three coconut trees, and a mango tree.

In his parents’ house, the sun seemed to ooze in like scorching pus just after dawn during summer. Now, in what passed for winter in the region, early sunlight seemed thin, indecisive, and crept in only slowly through these huge windows. This despite the suburban baldness, the relative lack of tall buildings, the spaced apart but planning-starved squat residential buildings, some of which housed beauty parlors run by middle-aged women—stunned by marriage—for other married, middle-aged women. Sunlight now inched in like some lukewarm sheet someone or something was pushing painstakingly slowly as if to plead with us to take it easy, slow. Then, either in defeat or in a glorious bid to really drive home the sincerity of this plea, the day turned all too yellow and bright all too sudden, driving away leisurely tea drinkers at roadside shops and jolting those taking a pensive shit into productive action. In that instant, he was sure, traffic became more violent, more impatient, demanding to be managed.

He’d grown up close by. Many of his male friends from school still lived here, and he couldn’t tell if they couldn’t or didn’t want to leave. Sewage lines that ran along the roads were still left uncovered, and dust reigned supreme. They’d all watched porn together in high school, humping the floor, or each other’s legs. The internet hadn’t yet taken hold in the region, and it was still all CDs and DVDs. They’d all lived in homes with one bathroom, so oiling up and stroking at home wasn’t easy. Some of them didn’t have the time to usher cum down the drain, or wash the oil off their hands. Every visit to the bathroom was timed. So they’d gathered, usually before after-school tuition, in homes where both parents worked. Humping the floor or each other’s legs meant they didn’t have to clean up immediately afterward. Rough and quick was the way to go, though after a point it was only rough. They went home at night in uniforms that reeked of sweat and semen. Now most of them were married with kids. Manish was glad he didn’t work in this city, that he didn’t live with his parents in this house.

Shanti was already at the gate. He rushed upstairs to his apartment and tossed his bags and returned swiftly. Tonight, as they walked, crushing dead blanket worms underfoot that were being blown about in the wind, Shanti and Manish listened to the dogs’ ruckus and absently looked at the windows on either side of the street.

Contributor

Sree Prasad

Sree Prasad was born in Madras. He studied Sociology, Literature, and Philosophy at Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal. He currently lives and works in Bangalore.

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