Kurien is dead. I am outraged.
Forty hours ago, when I met him, he offered me no hints. Absolutely none. And now when I am a million miles away from him, he chooses to die. Not simply die, but die in my house. My house that he has never visited in the past fifteen years; and me, whose existence he has not acknowledged in that epoch. Even in this chilly Sydney weather that I am in, my insides are boiling, I fear that I might split open and spill out, and die too. I want to die too. That’s what I want.
The first time I met Kurien, I was taken by his smile. It seemed to rise from a lair in him; so open was the smile it bared him whole, and I feared it might leave him inside out. And it did.
We were classmates for six years, sixth grade to the twelfth, and he was better than me at almost everything but Physics. Physics was the only subject that came to me with ease; I have topped all exams in Physics I have ever written.
However, that didn’t matter then, Kurien was good at sports, he had girls behind him, he had the voice of God. I did not envy him a bit; I loved him dearly. In fact, I remember, even before I learnt that he was an orphan, I worried for him because of that smile of his. It somehow made me want to shield him from the world.
After the twelfth grade, I went onto pursue several degrees in physics while Kurien declared that he was done studying. It was because he didn’t want to depend on his uncle anymore; he wanted to earn and be on his own.
When Kurien was only seven, his parents, who were beaten by debt, ended their lives taking poison in their supper. Since then, Kurien lived with an Uncle and his family. I sensed that he wasn’t happy there and once I think he even mentioned it. I never saw his home or his uncle; he never disclosed where he lived. That was another thing with Kurien; sometimes, he built a wall around himself that barred you from reaching him. For that reason alone, most people deemed him arrogant, but that was not the case at all. It was his defence mechanism. What his smiles made me want to do for him, he was doing by himself. What saddened me was the fact that he felt the need to shield himself from me too.
I tried to encourage him to go back on his decision and to consider studies. I even told him that if he applied for a loan from the bank, I would help him pay it back. Of course, he rejected my proposal outright.
When I joined Madras Christian College for bachelors in Physics, Kurien waited at a bar called Vikings. During the holidays when I visited home, I also met him. He had started drinking; he told me on one such visit. It felt like he was trying to wreck himself up to prove a point. I was vexed by it but pleaded again, begged him to rethink higher studies. He said he will think about it, but I soon realized that he was saying that only to shut me up about it.
After two years into my degree, I got a long break, which was meant for us to work for experience. I chose to work for a company in Kochi, which was near Vypin, where Kurien was, still at the bar. After my first day of work, I went to Vikings the bar and asked for Kurien. The cashier, who was visibly surprised to see a visitor for Kurien, said that he had been fired from the bar but assigned a man to show me to his dwelling.
It was a tiny room behind the bar, beside a garage. The door was slightly open, so I went in. The place stank of urine or sweat, or both. It was dark, but for a strand of sunlight that fell through. There was no window. I pushed the door wide open and saw to my shock, and then dismay, a thin figure, head full of hair, asleep or dead, I couldn’t tell, on a cot without a bed that was pushed against a dilapidated brick wall.
I became accustomed to the stench as I waited for Kurien to wake up; it was close to midnight when he did, and by then, I had fallen asleep on the floor. Nonetheless, I woke up to his groans. When he saw me, and began to act hysterical and snivelled that he was in hell, he kept pulling at my shirt asking me to take him away. It was not the Kurien that I had ever known, I quite hated him at that moment, but despite his stench, I embraced him and promised that I would take him away.
I did. He came with me to Madras. He had agreed to apply for courses and pursue studies. So when I went to college, he stayed back in our room and prepared for entrance tests. He still occasionally consumed alcohol, but he assured me that he would never fall under again. Which was true, he never did. He got through the admission tests in the first attempt. It was undoubtedly the best time of our lives.
One night he came into my room and lay down on my bed. After a few minutes of listless lying, he declared that he couldn’t thank me enough. He said that he was feeling like himself again. We had a long talk, and at one point, I bent down to kiss him, and he let me.
For months we were consumed in each other, the world was nothing, but us. I loved him more than what I thought was humanly possible. And he loved me too, I am certain.
During that time, I won a scholarship that I had applied for, to study in Canada, and things changed, as they always do. Of the forty-eight months that I was in Canada, I wrote to him every month.
Not once did he write back. I knew it was not because he didn’t have things to tell me, but it was because he was not the kind of person who could sit down to write on a piece of paper and wait days for a response.
He was the kind of person that needed to be lived with to love. His love was in the way he moved around you. In the way, he smiled at you or did not smile at you. His love was his presence.
Despite knowing all this, throughout my time in that foreign land, not knowing if he was well or not, a part of me perpetually ached.
When I returned to India, I found out that he had three papers to clear in the college and hence hadn’t earned the degree yet. It took me several weeks before I tracked him down because nobody I enquired knew of his whereabouts; and when I did, what I saw, completely and irrevocably, broke me.
Kurien, a despicable version of him I must add, was crouched on the sidewalks of a government hospital. His hair had grown down to his shoulders; they were raggedy and had begun to grey. One could see his hollow cheeks despite the untamed beard that covered it. His eyes were blank, no, not blank, they were lost. He looked homeless, a person whom everybody chose to avoid looking at. He was deranged.
It paralyzed my mind, and that day I left without trying to talk to him. I feared that he might not even recognize me. Later at night, however, I couldn’t fall asleep.
I had never experienced pain like I did that night. It felt like pieces of my heart was being scooped out. And ground. I borrowed my neighbour’s motorbike and went to the sidewalk that I had found him on. He was still there, asleep. Somebody had given him a blanket. His face was pressed against the dirty, grimy concrete slab. His feet were bare; they were as black as night, dirtier than the road itself. I didn’t wake him. Honestly, I was scared. Through the night, I paced up and down the length of the sidewalk. I was just relieved to be in his presence.
The next morning he woke up at the crack of dawn. For a couple of hours, he listlessly lay on his back. His eyes were open, lost in the sky above him. He didn’t notice me pacing. I didn’t disturb him.
When the sun got stronger, he stood up and walked. I followed. His manly athletic walk that I admired was gone, he had developed a lunatic’s walk, aimless and swaying and unnaturally slow. I kept a safe distance away, of about twenty feet; it was more for the people around than Kurien himself. I was positive that he wouldn’t spot me, and even if he did, I doubted that he would recognize me. I was both relieved and saddened by it. However, I needed to be in his presence. I needed to fully know what he had become.
As I followed him around through the day, I realized what he was all his life. Despondent. Varying degrees of despondency shaded every moment of his life. And the man off the hook that dazed forth before me, he was wholly, utterly just that, despondent.
Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps Kurien was the happiest then. Carefree. Without a shred of responsibility weighing him down. Threadbare clothes, dirty feet and a head full of nonsense; it may have been blissful.
I will never know. All I know is that, since that day, when I stalked him and saw, felt, tasted, touched his staggering lunacy; I have been living with a hole in my heart. A hole that sucked in a portion of every breath I took.
An aperture with infinite sorrow that constantly seeped out and filled my veins like IV fluid off a drip; a crater in which my youthful laughter echoed and fizzled out. It is not fair of me to make it about me; it was not, I am aware, still. Still.
As any reasonable man would do, with unreasonable optimism, I proceeded to get him help. Admissions. Discharges. Therapy. Treatment. Kurien complied with all my selfish whims like a zoo animal.
They trimmed his hair. Shaved his beard. Fed his pills. Stretched his limbs. Clothed him in uniforms. Numbered him. Labelled him. Walked him. Sat him. Chained him. Unchained him. Maintained him. Handled him. Spoke to him. Shouted at him. Of course, there were moments when some of it seemed to work.
Then one day, Kurien looked at me, straight into my eyes. His warm brown met my frigid grey. His weightlessness met my disconsolateness.
And his gaze spoke to me, quite simply – as a dog speaks to his human informs dying man to his dreams – that he wanted to be free. There was no anger or hatred or love in that gaze. It was absolute and pure. It was like death.
The zoo animal was freed. He went back to the streets.
That day was fifteen years ago, and since then, not one day has gone by without me seeing him. I knew his spots, and I knew where to find him on any given day, any given hour. It must sound implausible for a madman to have a pattern, but Kurien did.
He never looked at me or even saw me, I suppose. But that was not important anymore. Nothing was but him and his world.
I declined job offers that required me to travel or move base. I settled down and sank like sediment. I depleted.
Lately, however, after fifteen years of depletion, my kernel instincts defied my willingness to atrophy. I was a drowning man, and I was at my final trepidation. Every night in my house all-alone, I considered moving away. Going to a new place, a new job and maybe a new love. Yet every morning I let the thought slide, until two months ago when I got a mail from an ex-colleague, Subaida Aleef.
In the mail, along with updating me about her life, she also persuaded me to apply for a teaching job at her Alma Mater, University of Sydney. She said that with the kind of expertise I have in the subject I could make it there. On those fickle nights, I found her words ultimately comforting. I applied, and I got the job.
It was a one-year contract and whether to take it or not was perhaps the toughest decision of my life. The scope for a new way of life scared me to bits. It left me feeling inadequate and outdated. Yet I knew, to Kurien, it didn’t matter if I stayed or left. He wasn’t even aware of my existence. For the first time, to be frank, I was quite glad about it.
I made the decision to leave.
It took me weeks to find a person whom I could trust to look out for Kurien while I was away, somebody who could make the effort to go see him at least once a day and informs me. The people I asked either deemed me an oddball or didn’t seem guileless enough. A week before I was to leave, I found Nandu, he was an old friend, and he knew Kurien too. He was a bus conductor in the private bus called Mary Matha. Mary Matha passed a few of Kurien’s spots every three hours and Nandu said he already saw him most of the days. He seemed genuine and didn’t deem me a creep. I offered to pay him too, but he declined. That was settled.
On the night of my flight, I packed up, and on my way to the airport, I went to the bus stop where Kurien was. He was sitting on his heels watching a group of ants that marched hoisting a spider. As usual, he didn’t acknowledge me, but I spoke to him. I wept. I watched the ants with him. After nearly two hours, I left. Even as my cab drove off with me, Kurien continued to watch the ants. I felt an unfounded anger bubble up in me; it stayed with me all through the journey, but once I landed in the new country, it went away. Until this morning, after a goodnight’s sleep when I called Nandu, and he told me what he saw and then messaged me a photograph too for me to see. The bubbling fury was back.
Nandu on a bike was on his way to the bus stand, two junctions from my house. Once he reached my house, he deliberately glanced at it based on our newfound association, and to his bewilderment, inside the locked premises, found Kurien flat on the ground. He hesitantly walked to Kurien and discovered pretty soon that he was dead.
In the photograph he sent me, I could see the gate to my house and the even earth that led to my porch.
Kurien was on his back, his eyes were open, strangely they were no more lost, but looked content like they had found what had been lost. His palms were linked on his chest, neatly arranged, like dead bodies’ in coffins.
His feet were slightly apart and angled outward to the ground, as dirty as ever. His lips were whitish, and a part of his yellow-black front teeth was visible.
He looked dead. Not an ounce of life was left behind.
I am on the cold floor of the Sydney apartment that I am yet to start living in. I am benumbed. My rage has crystalized, it has taken over my heart, weighing it down, stalling the beat. I might die soon too. I told Nandu that I wouldn’t be going back to collect Kurien’s body, which is presently in the municipal mortuary. They would cremate him tomorrow, with maybe a bunch of other decrepit ones.
It could be just an utterly devious coincidence that Kurien died inside my house. Maybe he was just mad; madmen are free to do anything. It’s us who are madder to try and deduce it. But, the bus stop that he was in when I saw him last was seven kilometres from my house. Who helped him travel seven kilometres in the middle of the night? Did he fly?
If I die now, would it be another one of those coincidences? I want to die now, but I am certain I won’t. I will live for years, perturbed forever by my mad lover’s final joke—his death.
The floor is hurting my back. I have to be at work tomorrow, my first day, at eight in the morning. Perhaps Kurien would be ash by then. I wouldn’t collect the ash. It’s not important. Nothing is, anymore.
My only love is dead and will always be. I am furious. I want to die too. That’s what I want. Boil up and split open to spill out and die.
Yet I won’t, because there ought to be more to the joke. I must remain, so I shall endure.
I must remain.
By Anagha Unni