we couldn’t figure out why

When we were kids, sitting around in clusters, we used to put our heads together to begin in earnest voices to discuss life – we used to discuss dreams and plan the way we would deal with the end of the present.

Then we grew up, and the present had ended a lifetime ago. We were in the future, on the very first day of it – except the first day never seemed to end, maybe because each day was the same or maybe our hearts and minds were stuck, the ability to live in the present forgotten.
We were in search of any one thing of the several that we naively conjured when we were sitting around in clusters, our hearts beating in anticipation and our minds conceiving.

We became slaves of bitterness right in the middle of momentary happiness.
We couldn’t figure out why.

We couldn’t sit around in clusters anymore; we were lying in separate beds surrounded by walls in separate dimensions with relentlessly beating hearts and directionless minds.

We ended up jealous of everything.

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Out of the window

A flash of neon green under dark boots, dark pants and a dark shirt – a fluorescent-lined silhouette traipsed in the dark. The engine was loud enough to drown out sounds outside; it stammered every now and then to let horns blaring after streaks of light come through.
The window-sill was unrelenting; it wouldn’t let my arm rest in peace. Every time it did, my brain rang warning bells – never stick your arm out of a moving vehicle, or you might lose it.

There must’ve been about four other people on the bus when I got on. That was rare. I was already settled into the empty front seat (the bus’ huge windshield gives a nice wide view) when the conductor came for the ticket. He looked annoyed.

On the edge of the sidewalk outside, a man clad in a puckered dhoti was sitting with one leg crossed over the other, one of his hands flitting constantly between his calf and his foot. It took me a second to realize he was tapping out a rhythm. Silent music. A tall boy in a snapback passing behind him stumbled upon a loose rock and flailed to keep balance, his head immediately snapping up a second later to check whether anyone saw his gracefulness.

There was a schoolgirl in two neat plaits and a maroon pinafore zipping between the traffic like she was cutting through a crowd of old people instead of heavy, lumbering vehicles. She crossed the road and jumped into my bus, hurrying lest the light turned green and it started moving, and slid in beside me. I shot her a smile. I didn’t even have to think about it. Her face felt familiar, like a romanticized piece of the past.

She smiled back – instantaneous, dark-complexioned, beautiful. A bus comrade.

There were lives and vehicles and people and stray animals inter-crossing, threads twisting expeditiously, and there was absolute stillness too. There’s always some nook or the other somewhere that cuts itself off and becomes an entity of its own. I saw a baby sleeping, on the footpath, in a lap where no light entered to disturb, no sound rang through. There was a plastic wire that was helping him breathe. Through the traffic, out of my window, I wondered why he needed it. He looked healthy enough. He definitely looked too small for it. I’m not sure if it was the wire or the expression on his face that held my attention and made me turn around when the bus started moving. The mother was looking steadily at the baby.

A few meters away, a boy with messy hair and a face lined with grime walked along a graffiti covered wall. There was a comical outline on his forehead where the dirt contrasted against his pale skin, just where his hairline began. Like there hadn’t been enough to spread further. His uniform appeared close to a rag stitched from a washcloth at first sight; creases and folds at all the right places quickly made themselves seen as if to reassure that it had recently been ironed.  He trudged down the alley with heavy footsteps, a hand dropping down now and then to support his drooping frame on bended knees. Bright yellow light from the streetlamp above filtered through his lashes directly into his eyes, making him squint as he looked towards either side of the intersection back and forth as if trying to make up his mind about which way to go. He couldn’t seem to decide right then. Or maybe his feet refused to carry him further, because the span of a couple of minutes found him closely nestled against the wall, staring listlessly towards the traffic.

We moved on; my eyes flitting past. I don’t know why I wasn’t staring into space as usual, even though the music grinding out through my earphones was still doing its job of making me imagine myself as a singer rocking the stage every now and then. I looked away from another person I made eye-contact with every time we stopped across from people waiting at bus stops. It was different every time.
Maybe it takes years to get to know people, but maybe, to know a part of them, it just takes a random, unmasked second. I could feel a gaze still on me a lot of times after I’d looked away, and I wondered what it was looking at every time. Maybe those accidental glances are the shortest and the most honest stories ever.

I was shocked to find the aisle completely crowded when I looked back in and registered the rest of the bus for the first time since I’d gotten in. A wrinkled old lady was leaning on the handle; I got up to give her my seat. I couldn’t believe no one had done that already; it’s one of the easiest ways to feel like a nice person.

The walk back home was slow, with Ed Sheeran and cool air and dried leaves. The road was empty except for me and quiet parked vehicles, splattered with tiny, crushed green fruit and tiny yellow flowers. It was picturesque – the only thing missing was rain.

The mornings of city-people don’t usually start until after breakfast. The part of the day between waking up and getting onto the usual bus or train is taken care of by their robot versions. During peak-hours, the buses usually have enough space to stand if they’re lucky. Shirt patterns and dried jasmine flowers tucked into thick long braids press against them. The ones sitting sit shut in their minds, locked inside by whichever roll of thoughts the steady rumbling of the vehicle puts into motion. People get on at every stop, and no one gets off.
The majority of the city experiences one of these mornings at least thrice a week. The nights differ, from individual to individual – some live most of their day in the hours between midnight and dawn, their thoughts extra loud, defined and channeled by the silent darkness, and some religiously have dinner at 9 PM and go to sleep at 10 PM. Its the morning routine that’s never broken; unless a place of work or place of learning disappears overnight.
Feet running over a level landscape don’t trip unless hit by a sudden digression from regular plainness. Robot-versions don’t snap out of the practiced movements they’ve been lulled into without something else that breaks routine.
It takes an accidental stumble out of line to do that. A hand thrown out to help. An instinctive question asked, a tentative smile in answer. A remark at an occurrence shared with a neighbor of ten minutes. A boy walking against pounding rain being accompanied home by a woman with an umbrella after having met her halfway. Quiet introductions exchanged.
They’re humans walking human routines. The digression from those routines is humanity itself. Humanity in rare flashes. If a simple interaction, a shared bond of two minutes leaves you wondering about it days later, registers a nameless stranger in your memory as part of a beautiful instant, it makes you wonder what you’re doing the rest of the time.

After years

Conversations continue
Night looks in
Hours slip by.
Shadows play
Words fall
A dining table, round, sits in the middle.
Cadences rise and fall
Faces – open
Re-learn each other.
It’s dark outside
Air going cooler,
Still outside their quiet bubble.
It’s nearing morning when they part
Voids in their hearts filled –
The spaces that hadn’t announced they were empty.

Stares

Passers-by glance at, then glance away. She notices out of the corner of her eyes, every stare seeping into her skin, her clothes. Her eyes look steadfastly ahead through it all — out of an impassive mask perfected over years of practice. When she raises her eyes to meet the strangers’ she either finds no one staring back, or the same probing, empty eyes looking back at her out of a common face. Moving among them, she feels their gazes as they pass, and unbidden, visualizes what they saw, what the judgement was, what she looked like to them. What they thought.
Back home, queen once again within her own walls, she steps into her own skin, begins the process of shedding those layers of judgement, remembers who she is again. And she recognizes herself, regains her footing, until the next hooded glance passing over her tears down the security that never existed.

Some stories start and end with one glance, a chance meeting between a stage actor on the roadside and a player in a moving bus. Some lay dormant for years, with the characters around each other the entire time, until flared into existence by a chance occurrence; then continue to grow with each participant feeding the best of themselves into each other for years. Some are born in the purest of ways – between two timid school children who happen to sit together, and continue to do so for months or years until one or both move away with the knowledge of the other’s being clear as the back of their hand. Ten years later, even without the same characters, the story is still alive.

Sometimes a person starts and finishes a story without knowing it. A school girl does it when she laughs under pouring rain with her books getting drenched, and someone else denying themselves a simple pleasure for the sake of a phone or a watch or a project watches and notices her.
We participate in a plethora of such stories everyday. More often than not we don’t know when one starts. Those of us who are lucky and observant file away the most intriguing characters we come across in our memories. Some of them we hold on to, some we remember in flashes of images, some we stay aware of and love from a distance without contacting them again, and they might be a completely different version of the person we knew if we do see them again. We are made up of stories, those that we are a part of and those that we hear, every big or small chapter adding to us without our noticing.

 

Past

Mazes of lies
laughter in fits of sadness
midnight gorges
holes to the other end of the world
mud-caked palms
veiled eyes
A childhood fashioned out of stolen things
slashed lines
ears pressed against the soil, eavesdropping
A love uplifting
A crowd monotonous
Memories disappearing with the sand under the waves
Hazy outlines
Soulless voids
Quiet murmurs struggling under the weight of the air
Muddled boundaries
Moths and their shadows
Shimmering reflections
Stained lips
Sunburnt skin
Invincible innocence
A future desperately clawing to get back into the past.

Trust

She trudged up the stairs, feet leaden, her eyes searching for the child whose laughter she could hear. He was higher up the stairs, his mother beckoning from below; she turned to catch her eyes and smiled, placing her bag on the floor and starting to look for her key, catching the mother’s eyes in a warm smile. She watched as a mop of black hair atop a teasing face slowly came into view in her arms. Feeling her tiredness begin to recede under the force of that beatific grin, in front of the warmth of the stranger’s smile, she waited until they had left, made sure they had really left, before she stopped pretending to search and discreetly took her key from its hiding place inside the shoe-box.

Dashing through the pouring rain, head ducked under her interlocked fingers, she cut a sorry figure as she attempted to escape the splattering of raindrops on her head by seeking refuge under the narrow canopy. Once safely inside, she raised one hand against her brow and looked upward, shielding her eyes against the dim streetlight, at the black sky above. She stood staring for about a minute before letting out a resigned sigh and leaning back, gravel rubbing against her dress, proceeding to pluck out the leaves and straw from her hair. She was only momentarily startled when the streetlight went off after a sudden flash of lightning. It was better that way, anyhow. Darkness suited her well. She closed her eyes, and opened them again, reassuring herself against the persistent blackness. She lost count of the number of bright flashes after a half hour. Her ears accustomed to the constant beating of water by then, she felt almost as though she was at peace, alone, in silence. It was at times like these that her brain finally shut off and all that occupied space in her thoughts was the silence, the darkness, the consistency of an uninterrupted rhythm. It was rare – for dreams of the next minute or the next day not to plague her, for the unfinished arguments and unsaid words of yesterday not to resound in her head. It wouldn’t last. It never did. The first threads of conscious thought were already beginning to form in her head. She wouldn’t register them yet. Instead, she waited as the night drew on like a large, irenic, empty space, tendrils of thought from the dark, sleeping recesses of her subconscious lazily reaching out towards an end that eluded them as tirelessly as they roved.

A sun-browned back
Calloused fingers
Eyes stark against a lined face
Piercing, knowing, reading too much
Feet scabbed, soles layered in tough skin
Arms held steady by his side, one palm spread out
You finished ordering, kept up the firmness in your tone
Wondering what it was
What made you turn away
Break under that gaze
You gave him the crisp notes
Why didn’t you look at him?
He was ten
How could you feel belittled?
You gave him as much as he deserved.
You even gave him the leftover lunch.
I think he was thankful.

The Secret Lives of Ants: Eldest (Inheritance Cycle #2)

Pointing to a white stump with a flat, polished top three yards across that rested in the center of the hollow, Oromis said, “Sit here.” Eragon did as he was told. “Cross your legs and close your eyes.” The world went dark around him. From his right, he heard Oromis whisper, “Open your mind, Eragon. Open your mind and listen to the world around you, to the thoughts of every being in this glade, from the ants in the trees to the worms in the ground. Listen until you can hear them all and you understand their purpose and nature. Listen, and when you hear no more, come tell me what you have learned.”

Then the forest was quiet.

Unsure if Oromis had left, Eragon tentatively lowered the barriers around his mind and reached out with his consciousness, like he did when trying to contact Saphira at a great distance. Initially only a void surrounded him, but then pricks of light and warmth began to appear in the darkness, strengthening until he sat in the midst of a galaxy of swirling constellations, each bright point representing a life. Whenever he had contacted other beings with his mind, the focus had always been on the one he wanted to communicate with. But this… this was as if he had been standing deaf in the midst of a crowd and now he could hear the rivers of conversation whirling around him.

He felt suddenly vulnerable; he was completely exposed to the world. Anyone or anything that might want to leap into his mind and control him could now do so. He tensed unconsciously, withdrawing back into himself, and his awareness of the hollow vanished. Remembering one of Oromis’s lessons, Eragon slowed his breathing and monitored the sweep of his lungs until he had relaxed enough to reopen his mind.

Of all the lives he could sense, the majority were, by far, insects. Their sheer number astounded him. Tens of thousands dwelled in a square foot of moss, teeming millions throughout the rest of the small hollow, and uncounted masses beyond. Their abundance actually frightened Eragon. He had always known that humans were scarce and beleaguered in Alagaësia, but he had never imagined that they were so outnumbered by even beetles.

Since they were one of the few insects that he was familiar with, and Oromis had mentioned them, Eragon concentrated his attention on the columns of red ants marching across the ground and up the stems of a wild rosebush. What he gleaned from them were not so much thoughts—their brains were too primitive—but urges: the urge to find food and avoid injury, the urge to defend one’s territory, the urge to mate. By examining the ants’ instincts, he could begin to puzzle out their behavior.

It fascinated him to discover that—except for the few individuals exploring outside the borders of their province—the ants knew exactly where they were going. He was unable to ascertain what mechanism guided them, but they followed clearly defined paths from their nest to food and back. Their source of food was another surprise. As he had expected, the ants killed and scavenged other insects, but most of their efforts were directed toward the cultivation of… of something that dotted the rosebush. Whatever the life-form was, it was barely large enough for him to sense. He focused all of his strength on it in an attempt to identify it and satisfy his curiosity.

The answer was so simple, he laughed out loud when he comprehended it: aphids. The ants were acting as shepherds for aphids, driving and protecting them, as well as extracting sustenance from them by massaging the aphids’ bellies with the tips of their antennae. Eragon could hardly believe it, but the longer he watched, the more he became convinced that he was correct.

He traced the ants underground into their complex matrix of warrens and studied how they cared for a certain member of their species that was several times bigger than a normal ant. However, he was unable to determine the insect’s purpose; all he could see were servants swarming around it, rotating it, and removing the specks of matter it produced at regular intervals.

After a time, Eragon decided that he had gleaned all the information from the ants that he could—unless he was willing to sit there for the rest of the day—and was about to return to his body when a squirrel jumped into the glade. Its appearance was like a blast of light to him, attuned as he was to the insects. Stunned, he was overwhelmed by a rush of sensations and feelings from the animal. He smelled the forest with its nose, felt the bark give under his hooked claws and the air swish through his upraised plume of a tail. Compared to an ant, the squirrel burned with energy and possessed unquestionable intelligence.

Then it leaped to another branch and faded from his awareness.

The forest seemed much darker and quieter than before when Eragon opened his eyes. He took a deep breath and looked about, appreciating for the first time how much life existed in the world. Unfolding his cramped legs, he walked over to the rosebush.

He bent down and examined the branches and twigs. Sure enough, aphids and their crimson guardians clung to them. And near the base of the plant was the mound of pine needles that marked the entrance to the ants’ lair. It was strange to see with his own eyes; none of it betrayed the numerous and subtle interactions that he was now aware of.

Engrossed in his thoughts, Eragon returned to the clearing, wondering what he might be crushing under his feet with every step. When he emerged from under the trees’ shelter, he was startled by how far the sun had fallen. I must have been sitting there for at least three hours.

He found Oromis in his hut, writing with a goose-feather quill. The elf finished his line, then wiped the nib of the quill clean, stoppered his ink, and asked, “And what did you hear, Eragon?”

Eragon was eager to share. As he described his experience, he heard his voice rise with enthusiasm over the details of the ants’ society. He recounted everything that he could recall, down to the minutest and most inconsequential observation, proud of the information that he had gathered.

When he finished, Oromis raised an eyebrow. “Is that all?”

“I…” Dismay gripped Eragon as he understood that he had somehow missed the point of the exercise. “Yes, Ebrithil.”

“And what about the other organisms in the earth and the air? Can you tell me what they were doing while your ants tended their droves?”

“No, Ebrithil.”

“Therein lies your mistake. You must become aware of all things equally and not blinker yourself in order to concentrate on a particular subject. This is an essential lesson, and until you master it, you will meditate on the stump for an hour each day.”

As he sat on the stump, Eragon found that his turbulent thoughts and emotions prevented him from mustering the concentration to open his mind and sense the creatures in the hollow. Nor was he interested in doing so.

Still, the peaceful quality of his surroundings gradually ameliorated his resentment, confusion, and stubborn anger. It did not make him happy, but it did bring him a certain fatalistic acceptance. This is my lot in life, and I’d better get used to it because it’s not about to improve in the foreseeable future.

After a quarter of an hour, his faculties had regained their usual acuity, so he resumed studying the colony of red ants that he had discovered the day before. He also tried to be aware of everything else that was happening in the glade, as Oromis had instructed.

Eragon met with limited success. If he relaxed and allowed himself to absorb input from all the consciousnesses nearby, thousands of images and feelings rushed into his head, piling on top of one another in quick flashes of sound and color, touch and smell, pain and pleasure. The amount of information was overwhelming. Out of pure habit, his mind would snatch one subject or another from the torrent, excluding all the rest before he noticed his lapse and wrenched himself back into a state of passive receptivity. The cycle repeated itself every few seconds.

Despite that, he was able to improve his understanding of the ants’ world. He got his first clue as to their genders when he deduced that the huge ant in the heart of their underground lair was laying eggs, one every minute or so, which made it—her—a female. And when he accompanied a group of the red ants up the stem of their rosebush, he got a vivid demonstration of the kind of enemies they faced: something darted out from underneath a leaf and killed one of the ants he was bound to. It was hard for him to guess exactly what the creature was, since the ants only saw fragments of it and, in any case, they placed more emphasis on smell than vision. If they had been people, he would have said that they were attacked by a terrifying monster the size of a dragon, which had jaws as powerful as the spiked portcullis at Teirm and could move with whiplash speed.

The ants ringed in the monster like grooms working to capture a runaway horse. They darted at it with a total lack of fear, nipping at its knobbed legs and withdrawing an instant before they were caught in the monster’s iron pincers. More and more ants joined the throng. They worked together to overpower the intruder, never faltering, even when two were caught and killed and when several of their brethren fell off the stem to the ground below.

It was a desperate battle, with neither side willing to give quarter. Only escape or victory would save the combatants from a horrible death. Eragon followed the fray with breathless anticipation, awed by the ants’ bravery and how they continued to fight in spite of injuries that would incapacitate a human. Their feats were heroic enough to be sung about by bards throughout the land.

Eragon was so engrossed by the contest that when the ants finally prevailed, he loosed an elated cry so loud, it roused the birds from their roosts among the trees.

Out of curiosity, he returned his attention to his own body, then walked to the rosebush to view the dead monster for himself. What he saw was an ordinary brown spider with its legs curled into a fist being transported by the ants down to their nest for food.

Amazing.

He started to leave, but then realized that once again he had neglected to keep watch over the myriad other insects and animals in the glade. He closed his eyes and whirled through the minds of several dozen beings, doing his best to memorize as many interesting details as he could. It was a poor substitute for prolonged observation, but he was hungry and he had already exhausted his assigned hour.

When Eragon rejoined Oromis in his hut, the elf asked, “How went it?”

“Master, I could listen night and day for the next twenty years and still not know everything that goes on in the forest.”

 

Sunlight brings those creatures hidden that I forget to look for, those in plain sight that I’m blind to unless one pops up suddenly under my feet, breaking into thoughts like a pin-prick of light entering through a slit into a dark room
Night light brings them closer
The artificial brightness of my lamp attracts them
Pulls them out of other midnight wanderings, wings clicking towards luminescence.

The Room at the End of the Hallway: Roxanne Nunes

The room at the end of the hallway
was once a glorious sight.
It was where the princess lay
and dreamt of princes and fairy tales.

The room at the end of the hallway
was always filled with laughter
and love. Where her highness danced
and sung about things to come.

The room at the end of the hallway
slowly began to change,
once her lady moved away.
But promised she would come back again.

The room at the end of the hallway
soon became a home for lost things,
broken, torn, and useless pieces of life,
were forgotten and soon faded away.

The princess at long last had returned.
To find the room old and burnt.
She tried to bring it to life again,
but her efforts were in vain.
So she too vanished, into the darkness of
the room at the end of the hallway.

– Roxanne Nunes (https://anotherapotheosis.wordpress.com/)

 

The horizon holds,

more than I know.

A burden

that weighs my heart.

My touch so cold,

My laugh, a robot;

My eyes, betraying.

 

An urge to run

propels me.

The thrust of the wind threatens

to push me off;

I want to fly,

I want to sink.

 

To touch that spot

where earth meets sky

and disappear

into an oblivion.

That is where I belong.

          – Written by Roshini Sridhar

The Bell Jar: Sylvia Plath

I flipped through one story after another until finally I came to a story about a fig tree. This fig grew on a green lawn between the house of a Jewish man and a convent, and the Jewish man and a beautiful dark nun kept meeting at the tree to pick the ripe figs, until one day they saw an egg hatching in a bird’s nest on a branch of the tree, and as they watched the little bird peck its way out of the egg, they touched the backs of their hands together, and then the nun didn’t come out to pick figs with the Jewish man any more but a mean-faced Catholic kitchen maid came to pick them instead and counted up the figs the man picked after they were both through to be sure he hadn’t picked any more than she had, and the man was furious. I thought it was a lovely story, especially the part about the fig tree in winter under the snow and then the fig tree in spring with all the green fruit. I felt sorry when I came to the last page. I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig tree.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

 

The most relatable passage in The Bell Jar.

Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami

Around eleven-thirty two women come in together, wearing identical jeans. The shorter of the two has cropped hair like a swimmer, while the taller woman wears her hair pulled back. Both of them have on jogging shoes, one a pair of Nikes, the other Asics. The tall one looks around forty or so, with glasses and a checked shirt, the shorter woman, a decade younger, is wearing a white blouse. Both have little daypacks on, and expressions as gloomy as a cloudy day. Neither one says very much. Oshima relieves them of their packs at the entrance, and the women, looking displeased, extract notebooks and pens before leaving them.

The women go through the library, checking the stacks one by one, earnestly flipping through the card catalog, occasionally taking notes. They don’t read anything or sit down. They act less like people using a library than inspectors from the tax office checking a company’s inventory. Oshima and I can’t figure out who they are or what they could possibly be up to. He gives me a significant look and shrugs. To put it mildly, I don’t have a good feeling about this.

At noon, while Oshima goes out to the garden to eat his lunch, I fill in for him behind the counter.

“Excuse me, but I have a question,” one of the women comes over and says. The tall one. Her tone of voice is hard and unyielding, like a loaf of bread someone forgot on the back of a shelf.

“Yes, what can I do for you?”

She frowns and looks at me like I’m some off-kilter picture frame. “Aren’t you a high school student?”

“Yes, that’s right. I’m a trainee,” I answer.

“Is there one of your superiors I could talk to?”

I go out to the garden to get Oshima. He slowly takes a sip of coffee to dissolve the bite of food in his mouth, brushes the crumbs from his lap, and comes inside.

“Yes, may I help you?” Oshima asks her amiably.

“Just to let you know, we’re investigating public cultural facilities in the entire country from a woman’s point of view, looking at ease of use, fair access, and other issues,” she says. “Our group is doing a yearlong investigation and plans to publish a public report on our findings. A large number of women are involved in this project, and the two of us happen to be in charge of this region.”

“If you don’t mind,” Oshima says, “would you tell me the name of this organization?”

The woman whips out a business card and passes it to him. His expression unchanged, Oshima reads it carefully, places it on the counter, then looks up with a blazing smile and gazes intently at the woman. A first-class smile guaranteed to make any red-blooded woman blush.

This woman, strangely enough, doesn’t react, not even a twitch of an eyebrow. “What we’ve concluded is that, unfortunately, this library has several issues that need to be addressed.”

“From the viewpoint of women, is what you’re saying,” Oshima commented. “Correct, from the viewpoint of women,” the woman answers. She clears her throat. “And we’d like to bring this up with your administration and hear their response, so if you don’t mind?”

“We don’t have something as fancy as an administration, but I would be happy to listen to you.”

“Well, first of all you have no restroom set aside for women. That’s correct, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right. There’s no women’s restroom in this library. We have one restroom for both men and women.”

“Even if you are a private facility, since you’re open to the public don’t you think–in principle–that you should provide separate restrooms for men and women?”

“In principle?” Oshima says.

“Correct. Shared facilities give rise to all sorts of harassment. According to our survey, the majority of women are reluctant to use shared bathrooms. This is a clear case of neglect of your female patrons.”

“Neglect…,” Oshima says, and makes a face like he’s swallowed something bitter by mistake. He doesn’t much like the sound of the word, it would seem.

“An intentional oversight.”

“Intentional oversight,” he repeats, and gives some thought to this clumsy phrase.

“So what is your reaction to all this?” the woman asks, barely containing her irritation.

“As you can see,” Oshima says, “we’re a very small library. And unfortunately we don’t have the space for separate restrooms. Naturally it would be better to have separate facilities, but none of our patrons have ever complained. For better or for worse, our library doesn’t get very crowded. If you’d like to pursue this issue of separate restrooms further, I suggest you go to the Boeing headquarters in Seattle and address the issue of restrooms on 747s. A 747’s much bigger than our little library, and much more crowded. As far as I’m aware, all restrooms on passenger jets are shared by men and women.”

The tall woman frowns at him severely, her cheekbones jutting forward and her glasses riding up her nose. “We are not investigating airplanes .747s are beside the point.”

“Wouldn’t restrooms in both jets and in our library–in principle–give rise to the same sorts of problems?”

“We are investigating, one by one, public facilities. We’re not here to argue over principles.”

Oshima’s supple smile never fades during this exchange. “Is that so? I could have sworn that principles were exactly what we were discussing.”

The woman realizes she’s blown it. She blushes a bit, though not because of Oshima’s sex appeal. She tries a different tack. “At any rate, jumbo jets are irrelevant here. Don’t try to confuse the issue.”

“Understood. No more airplanes,” Oshima promises. “We’ll bring things down to earth.”

The woman glares at him and, after taking a breath, forges on. “One other issue I’d like to raise is how you have authors here separated by sex.”

“Yes, that’s right. The person who was in charge before us cataloged these and for whatever reason divided them into male and female. We were thinking of recataloging all of them, but haven’t been able to as of yet.”

“We’re not criticizing you for this,” she says.

Oshima tilts his head slightly.

“The problem, though, is that in all categories male authors are listed before female authors,” she says. “To our way of thinking this violates the principle of sexual equality and is totally unfair.”

Oshima picks up her business card again, runs his eyes over it, then lays it back down on the counter. “Ms. Soga,” he begins, “when they called the role in school your name would have come before Ms. Tanaka, and after Ms. Sekine. Did you file a complaint about that? Did you object, asking them to reverse the order? Does G get angry because it follows F in the alphabet? Does page 68 in a book start a revolution just because it follows 67?”

“That’s not the point,” she says angrily. “You’re intentionally trying to confuse the issue.”

Hearing this, the shorter woman, who’d been standing in front of a stack taking notes, races over.

“Intentionally trying to confuse the issue,” Oshima repeats, like he’s underlining the woman’s words.

“Are you denying it?”

“That’s a red herring,” Oshima replies.

The woman named Soga stands there, mouth slightly ajar, not saying a word.

“In English there’s this expression red herring. Something that’s very interesting but leads you astray from the main topic. I’m afraid I haven’t looked into why they use that kind of expression, though.”

“Herrings or mackerel or whatever, you’re dodging the issue.”

“Actually what I’m doing is shifting the analogy,” Oshima says. “One of the most effective methods of argument, according to Aristotle. The citizens of ancient Athens enjoyed using this kind of intellectual trick very much. It’s a shame, though, that at the time women weren’t included in the definition of ‘citizen.'”

“Are you making fun of us?”

Oshima shakes his head. “Look, what I’m trying to get across is this: I’m sure there are many more effective ways of making sure that Japanese women’s rights are guaranteed than sniffing around a small library in a little town and complaining about the restrooms and the card catalog. We’re doing our level best to see that this modest library of ours helps the community. We’ve assembled an outstanding collection for people who love books. And we do our utmost to put a human face on all our dealings with the public. You might not be aware of it, but this library’s collection of poetry-related material from the 1910s to the mid- Showa period is nationally recognized. Of course there are things we could do better, and limits to what we can accomplish. But rest assured we’re doing our very best. I think it’d be a whole lot better if you focus on what we do well than what we’re unable to do. Isn’t that what you call fair?”

The tall woman looks at the short one, who looks back up at her and opens her mouth for the first time. “You’ve just been evading the point, mouthing empty arguments that avoid taking responsibility,” she says in a really high-pitched voice. “In reality, to use the term for the sake of convenience, what you’re doing is an easygoing attempt at self-justification. You are a totally pathetic, historical example of the phallocentric, to put it mildly.”

“A pathetic, historical example,” Oshima repeats, obviously impressed. By his tone of voice he seems to like the sound of that phrase.

“In other words you’re a typical sexist, patriarchic male,” the tall one pipes in, unable to conceal her irritation.

“A patriarchic male,” Oshima again repeats.

The short one ignores this and goes on. “You’re employing the status quo and the cheap phallocentric logic that supports it to reduce the entire female gender to second-class citizens, to limit and deprive women of the rights they’re due. You’re doing this unconsciously rather than deliberately, but that makes you even guiltier. You protect vested male interests and become inured to the pain of others, and don’t even try to see what evil your blindness causes women and society. I realize that problems with restrooms and card catalogs are mere details, but if we don’t begin with the small things we’ll never be able to throw off the cloak of blindness that covers our society. Those are the principles by which we act.”

“That’s the way every sensible woman feels,” the tall one adds, her face expressionless.

“How could any woman of generous spirit behave otherwise, given the torments that I face,” Oshima says.

The two women stand there as silent as icebergs.

“Electra, by Sophocles. A wonderful play. And by the way, the term gender was originally used to indicate grammatical gender. My feeling is the word ‘sex’ is more accurate in terms of indicating physical sexual difference. Using ‘gender’ here is incorrect. To put a linguistic fine point on it.”

A frozen silence follows.

“At any rate, what you’ve been saying is fundamentally wrong,” Oshima says, calmly yet emphatically. “I am most definitely not a pathetic, historical example of a patriarchic male.”

“Then explain, simply, what’s wrong with what we’ve said,” the shorter woman says defiantly.

“Without sidestepping the issue or trying to show off how erudite you are,” the tall one adds.

“All right. I’ll do just that–explain it simply and honestly, minus any sidestepping or displays of brilliance,” Oshima says.

“We’re waiting,” the tall one says, and the short one gives a compact nod to show she agrees.

“First of all, I’m not a male,” Oshima announces.

A dumbfounded silence follows on the part of everybody. I gulp and shoot Oshima a glance.

“I’m a woman,” he says.

“I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t joke around,” the short woman says, after a pause for breath. Not much confidence, though. It’s more like she felt somebody had to say something.

Oshima pulls his wallet out of his chinos, takes out the driver’s license, and passes it to the woman. She reads what’s written there, frowns, and hands it to her tall companion, who reads it and, after a moment’s hesitation, gives it back to Oshima, a sour look on her face.

“Did you want to see it too?” Oshima asks me. When I shake my head, he slips the license back in his wallet and puts the wallet in his pants pocket. He then places both hands on the counter and says, “As you can see, biologically and legally I am undeniably female. Which is why what you’ve been saying about me is fundamentally wrong. It’s simply impossible for me to be, as you put it, a typical sexist, patriarchic male.”

“Yes, but–” the tall woman says but then stops. The short one, lips tight, is playing with her collar.

“My body is physically female, but my mind’s completely male,” Oshima goes on. “Emotionally I live as a man. So I suppose your notion of being a historical example may be correct. And maybe I am sexist–who knows. But I’m not a lesbian, even though I dress this way. My sexual preference is for men. In other words, I’m a female but I’m gay. I do anal sex, and have never used my vagina for sex. My clitoris is sensitive but my breasts aren’t. I don’t have a period. So, what am I discriminating against? Could somebody tell me?”

The three of us listening are flabbergasted and don’t say a word. One of the women clears her throat, and the jarring sound reverberates through the room. The clock on the wall loudly ticks away the seconds.

“I’m very sorry,” Oshima says, “but I’m in the middle of lunch. I’m having a tuna-spinach wrap and had eaten half of it when you asked me over. If I leave it much longer the neighborhood cats will make a grab for it. People throw away kittens they don’t want in the woods near the sea, so this neighborhood is full of cats. If you don’t mind I’d like to get back to my lunch. So excuse me, but please take your time and enjoy the library. Our library is open to everyone. As long as you follow the rules and don’t bother the other patrons, feel free to do whatever you’d like. You can look at whatever you want. Go ahead and write whatever you like in your report. We won’t mind. We don’t receive any funding from anywhere and pretty much do things our own way. And that’s the way we like it.”

After Oshima leaves the two women share a look, then they both stare at me. Maybe they figure me for Oshima’s lover or something. I don’t say a word and start arranging catalog cards. The two of them whisper to each other in the stacks, and before long they gather their belongings and start to pull up stakes. Frozen looks on their faces, they don’t say a word of thanks when I hand back their daypacks.

After a while Oshima finishes his lunch and comes back inside. He hands me two spinach wraps made of tuna and vegetables wrapped in a kind of green tortilla with a white cream sauce on top. I have these for lunch. I boil up some water and have a cup of Earl Grey to wash it down.

“Everything I said a while ago is true,” Oshima tells me when I come back from lunch.

“So that’s what you meant when you told me you were a special person?”

“I wasn’t trying to brag or anything,” he says, “but you understand that I wasn’t exaggerating, right?”

I nod silently.

Oshima smiles. “In terms of sex I’m most definitely female, though my breasts haven’t developed much and I’ve never had a period. But I don’t have a penis or testicles or facial hair. In short, I have nothing. A nice no-extrabaggage kind of feeling, if you want to put a positive spin on it. Though I doubt you can understand how that feels.”

“I guess not,” I say.

“Sometimes I don’t understand it myself. Like, what the heck am I, anyway? Really, what am I?”

I shake my head. “Well, I don’t know what I am, either.”

“A classic identity crisis.”

I nod.

“But at least you know where to begin. Unlike me.”

“I don’t care what you are. Whatever you are, I like you,” I tell him. I’ve never said this to anybody in my whole life, and the words make me blush.

“I appreciate it,” Oshima says, and lays a gentle hand on my shoulder. “I know I’m a little different from everyone else, but I’m still a human being. That’s what I’d like you to realize. I’m just a regular person, not some monster. I feel the same things everyone else does, act the same way. Sometimes, though, that small difference feels like an abyss. But I guess there’s not much I can do about it.” He picks up a long, sharpened pencil from the counter and gazes at it like it’s an extension of himself. “I wanted to tell you all this as soon as I could, directly, rather than have you hear it from someone else. So I guess today was a good opportunity. It wasn’t such a pleasant experience, though, was it?”

I nod.

“I’ve experienced all kinds of discrimination,” Oshima says. “Only people who’ve been discriminated against can really know how much it hurts. Each person feels the pain in his own way, each has his own scars. So I think I’m as concerned about fairness and justice as anybody. But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T. S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to. Like that lovely pair we just met.” He sighs and twirls the long slender pencil in his hand. “Gays, lesbians, straights, feminists, fascist pigs, communists, Hare Krishnas–none of them bother me. I don’t care what banner they raise. But what I can’t stand are hollow people. When I’m with them I just can’t bear it, and wind up saying things I shouldn’t. With those women–I should’ve just let it slide, or else called Miss Saeki and let her handle it. She would have given them a smile and smoothed things over. But I just can’t do that. I say things I shouldn’t, do things I shouldn’t do. I can’t control myself. That’s one of my weak points. Do you know why that’s a weak point of mine?”

“‘Cause if you take every single person who lacks much imagination seriously, there’s no end to it,” I say.

“That’s it,” Oshima says. He taps his temple lightly with the eraser end of the pencil. “But there’s one thing I want you to remember, Kafka. Those are exactly the kind of people who murdered Miss Saeki’s childhood sweetheart. Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.”

Oshima points at the stacks with the tip of his pencil. What he means, of course, is the entire library. “I wish I could just laugh off people like that, but I can’t.”

 

I had to post this. Given how long the extract is, I debated for a pretty long while whether to do it or not. This was one of the times when someone else came along and wrote something that resounded with me so much because it’s something I’ve forever been meaning to put into words, but never came around to it. And Murakami has done it with a kind of beauty and perfection that makes me half grateful I never tried.

Every personal encounter with irritating pseudo-feminism and the hollowness talked about in the last paragraph reminds me of these lines included in the beginning of Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi:

I have a man’s body. I accept this body. I offer it to everyone.
I have a woman’s body. I accept this body. I offer it to everyone.

I have a man’s body. I reject this body. I desire no one.
I have a woman’s body. I reject this body. I desire no one.

I don’t know if my body is a woman’s or a man’s. I feel I am a woman.
I don’t know if my body is a man’s or a woman’s. I feel I am a man.

I have a man’s body. It should be a woman’s. I desire men.
I have a woman’s body. It should be a man’s. I desire women.

I have a man’s body. It should be a woman’s. I desire women.
I have a woman’s body. It should be a man’s. I desire men.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire men.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a man. I desire women.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire women.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a man. I desire men.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a man. I desire both men and women.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire both women and men.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a man. I desire men.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire women.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a man. I desire women.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire men.

I am a man. I desire only one woman.
I am a woman. I desire only one man.

I am a man. I desire only one man.
I am a woman. I desire only one woman.

I am neither male nor female.
I am both male and female.

I am firm and flexible.
I am aware and I am not.

To appreciate this fluidity of nature
and the shifting rigidities of culture
Is to appreciate queerness.

I don’t know whether I’m emotionally male or female. I don’t think I’ve understood that yet. I’m not sure where to start identifying.

“Sometimes I don’t understand it myself. Like, what the heck am I, anyway? Really, what am I?”

I shake my head. “Well, I don’t know what I am, either.”

“A classic identity crisis.”

Oshima is one of the most beautiful fictional characters I’ve ever come across. I would also give anything for one-tenth of his charm.

Everybody please go read Kafka on the Shore.

Where the water turns a deeper blue

Seas.
Depth.
Oceans.
A horizon.
This space, hypnotic —
Falling into blue.
Noiseless —
Except for waves.
A gaze strung taut —
Deep blue on the other end.
Rising and falling —
The motions,
The sounds.
Water —
Hypnotic.
Feet sinking,
Stationary
This feeling underneath —
Earth shifting.
Eyes glued ahead —
Entranced,
Unmoving.
Thoughts clamor —
Everything at the surface,
Disappearing.
Peace and chaos —
Periodically.
You stay still.
Time stretches its limbs.
Silence resonates.

The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, it hates, it weeps.
It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles.
No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.

–  Christopher Paolini, Eragon