I will tell you a story. The story, of course, has a hero. This hero in the story is a doctor.
‘I will tell you a story…’ This very first sentence prepares your mood. A story has a hero, or at least ordinarily it does. (‘Good stories do have a hero,’ some would say.) As you know and are aware of this, I purposely put in the second sentence: ‘The story, of course, has a hero.’ The aim is to tune you and me onto the same wavelength. (I realise that there are many English words here. But I reiterate: the aim is to tune you and me onto the same wavelength.) The sentence, ‘This hero in the story is a doctor,’ evokes a whole atmosphere. A doctor, who is an MBBS or a BAMS, his apron, his stethoscope, medicine, clinic, nurses, the medicinal air at the clinic, the doctor within his chamber and the patients on the benches without, a large hospital, an organisation of doctors, blood pressures, cancer, some smiling doctors, the renowned love affairs of some doctors—all this. The story expects that you are familiar with all this; the third sentence rightly guesses it all and is successful. When this doctor-hero was eighteen, he had a dream. That dream was to become his undoing. He was possessed by a longing to rise above his conventional self and become a poet. He began to frequent the municipal library, where he would read poets’ biographies. This was to be his constant practice for two years. Later, he became a doctor. He got married. Then, at the age of twenty-nine, despairing at his failure to pen any exceptional poetry, he committed suicide. The story does not end there.
After the initial sentences, I was suddenly reminded of this story I had heard of a different doctor, so I narrated it. It is not a creation of mine, this one, though it appears so, and it is not false. Such stories are never false. Like the story of Ashvatthama, it is created, cultivated and expanded by tradition. It is not our place to comment on it. I did, however, notice something: my touch has introduced, for better or worse, some different types of sentences into the recollected story. For instance, ‘That dream was to become his undoing.’ We know the phrase ‘to become somebody’s undoing’. We use it wherever we see fit. What I have done may be no different. Now, with just another observation, I will come back to the real story. The observation is: why does the doctor in this recollected story study the lives of poets rather than their poetry?
Let us now turn to the real story. But some kings of logic demand to know how this possessed fellow managed to become a doctor at all. That is inconsistent, they say. To become a doctor, one must toil away at study, an impossible prospect for a possessed man. The story is not logical. My response to this is, you sleep at night and wake in the morning to leave for the office—is that logical? Or, you put on clothes and watch movies—what logic binds the two things together? Be that as it may. Now let us turn to the real story.
This doctor—the second, different one—is a decent man. ‘Decent’ puts you in mind of a non-cheating, gentle, good doctor. Perhaps, once in a while, he treats the poor for free. But that is not what I intend to say. What I want to say is that in his boyhood, this doctor was a bright student. However, when he was in his tenth class, he only managed eighty percent of marks. He had wished to be on the merit list; that could not be. But in the eleventh and the twelfth, he burnt the midnight oil and got excellent marks. He was selected for an MBBS. Where he failed during the first year. But, finding his footing, he got back on track. (‘To find one’s footing and get back on track.’) Then in the third year, he fell in love with a Buddhist girl. She rejected him. Once again, recovering self-possession, he stood steady in the world. To cheer himself up, he joined a violin class. Later, he leafed through some books on Buddhism. He learnt that craving is the root of all suffering. Mark that I do not say ‘Buddhism holds craving to be the root of all suffering’ is what he learnt. I am saying that our doctor learnt: craving is the root of all suffering. His worldview changed entirely. (Worldview: view of the world. Would it suffice to convey the same sense if I simply said ‘view’? Is not any view a view of the world?)
This doctor likes to rain-gaze. He keeps a diary of his thoughts. He enjoys using aromatic soaps of various kinds. Possibly, these three things—rain, diary, soaps—are adequate to draw an accurate character-sketch or word-portrait of this doctor. But in actual fact, all that went before the rain is a part of his wider life-picture. It appears to me that this doctor, experimental and intellectual though he may not be, is of a solemn demeanour. Of course, it may seem somewhat funny that he takes to Buddhism after being rejected by a Buddhist girl. But we must accept the facts of a situation as they are. If I said that this doctor is given to abusing tobacco, that would ring completely untrue. But it may indeed be the case that there is first a turning down and later a turning towards Buddhism. I will tell the story according to my observations and my calibre.
Think over it for a moment. There is a doctor in the story passed down to us and there is a doctor in my story too. Is there any likeness between the two of them?—apart from the fact that they both are doctors?
The first doctor was possessed. And in that state, under the spell of a certain longing, he committed suicide. On the face of it, this is sheer self-destructiveness. But look deeper and you will find an untainted character. What is strange, apparently, is that this doctor reads biographies of poets. But the truth does not seem as strange. Possibly, he wanted to mould his own life in the manner of the great poets. Someone among you might say that biographies are not meant to be used in that way. To this we could say, that is a personal call to be made by each one of us. That this man holds a desire to write good poetry after moulding his life in the light of certain other lives is, for me, not only a logical thing, but something that has a certain moral and philosophical depth to it. I concede: I am concocting this. But the truth is also that I have a particular fascination for the subject of suicide. Many say this. Some writers deliberately say it. But they do not go on to actually commit suicide.
But we were considering the resemblance between the two doctors. What does the second doctor seem like? A diary-writer may perhaps strike one as being a narcissistic dandy. But what exactly does ‘narcissistic dandy’ signify? We say ‘bogus’, which is an English word: b-o-g-u-s—but what is the explanation for ‘narcissistic dandy’? Hark!—Dnyaneshvar would tell his audience. What should I say?—pay attention? Weave together the various threads. Exert your imagination to see the threads and their intermeshings. (‘To exert one’s imagination’—‘You sit on the fence, buddy, and send me in to fight’—is that how we exert our imagination? Sending it into the fray and watching as a spectator from the sidelines?)
There is a strong possibility, it appears, that ‘decent man’ would prove to be an erroneous characterisation. But some strands of the story show that this doctor grows with each incident and event that passes. He learns. And he remains standing. This too could be a meaning of decency. Perhaps the most important meaning of all. Though it is true that his study of Buddhism is not motivated by pure curiosity, his progressiveness cannot be overlooked.
But the fundamental question seems to have been sidelined. What is similar in these two doctors? Nothing, it would seem. But there are: enduring failures, achieving successes, picking oneself up each time and forging ahead, cheering oneself up, thinking about things. What then is the difference? Nothing but that they are two different individuals. Two. Different.
What is of essence is the story, not this matter of similarity and difference. What if I were to say at this juncture that this second story too is just as untrue? That it too is a fictitious tale, or a piece of lore? What would your reaction be? Or have you mixed up the two stories? That would be quite natural. It is hard to keep two stories apart when the key elements are alike. Just saying, we are not swans. But even a swan, scientists have demonstrated, cannot segregate milk from water. Anyway, it is not very appropriate to compare a story-reader to a swan. Nor are there any easy answers to the question of when a comparison is appropriate. And we have no reason to embroil ourselves in this dispute.
Dhrutarashtra was without sight; some construe this to be a blindness brought on by his undiscerning love for his sons. But is there such a thing really as ‘blind love’? Love, whenever and wherever it is, is with sight always. ‘Sighted love’ has been the subject of numerous poems till date. (It is a pitiable prejudice that society has tenaciously held on to since time immemorial that a human lacking vision is also, for that reason, deficient in understanding. It becomes an inevitable task for the mainstream—of storytelling—to examine all such subtexts, strong and sickly as they are.) So there are no rules for interpreting stories. Nor should we allow a particular interpretation to colour our vision and our intellect. I say this in the flow of my articulation, but it cannot be taken as the moral of the story. They are another sort, the stories that have morals.
There was a swan. It wished to be a painter. Off it went to the riverside. (I assume that you are attentive to the sentence construction.) There was a bird in the river. The swan said to it, ‘Swim, and I will paint a picture of you.’ So the water bird began to swim. When the painting was done, the swan went into the dream of a bird. It said to the dream bird, ‘Wake up, and I will paint a picture of you.’ The bird woke. The swan disappeared. The goddess of the art of painting touched its disappearance, and the swan regained consciousness, memory, and intellect.
Such was the swan and such is its story. A story without morals. How can a story with a moral still be without morals? The swan is not a symbol of either of the two doctors. Once regarded as a symbol, an import can be drawn out of it. I have decided: I shall tell a clean story, one without any symbols.
This second doctor—‘decent man’, Buddhist, violin—turning real, met me about town. He said, ‘All those things that you say—how experientially grounded are they?’ I floundered. The doctor met me in the childhood village of fiction. He asked, ‘How many prizes did you win at the prize distribution today?’
‘Five,’ I answered.
‘I got six,’ he said. Had the joy I had experienced on winning my prizes been real?
When I inhabited a dark room in town for six months, the doctor resided in a rented flat, and his wife was carrying a child. I would visit the stores that sold greeting cards and look at the pictures and the girls. He would tell me, ‘The days, they belong to you.’ I held out a foolish dagger. The doctor in later days gave up medicine and gained renown as a composer and performer of songs; I never went to any of his performances. How bright was the beam of light that shone on the seemingly disconnected musical life of this doctor, or was it that I was watching a scattering of motes alongside a pristine river? Do such stories have a meaning?—I said this, with all my being, and behind the taste of the tender coconut stood an ocean.
A municipal corporation, no, a municipality. A very small village. Not one from the stories. The villages in the stories are populated by heavenly folks who are stern on the surface and all love inside. In our village, there was almost no love. Or was it that I seldom used the word ‘love’? It is hard to recall now. The doctor and I on parallel benches. Pals sometimes, sometimes darlings, sometimes at daggers drawn. In the gooseflesh-inducing quietude of the late afternoon, when the sky of life reflects in the water below, there cannot be a forgetting of our shared consciousness, his and mine. At what point, with what kind of precision, and to which mode of consciousness are the strings of one’s passion to be tuned? What are these exigencies that make me forget my storytelling? There are metres in a poem, there are meanderings and precise portrayals, and things come full circle. A story is dry in comparison. But call a story a tale and one feels nostalgic. One feels as though one is caught up in a reverie of remembrance.
This is a brief history of how I lost the threads of my story: I sat about thinking some random thoughts. At an old table in a solitary corner on the fifth floor. It was a dark afternoon. Sounds were near to none. I was telling myself the story of nearly the hundredth doctor. (Telling oneself a story: casting about for the story to tell the world, composing, imagining, playing around.) The hundred Kauravs came to mind. Dhritarashtra had one wife but a hundred sons. Pandu had two wives but only five sons, three plus two. Wicked Kauravs, and virtuous but dice-addicted Pandavs. Dronacharya, learned, but in league with the evil side, helpless. And all these men from the lineage of the creator of the Mahabharat himself. How interesting. But so many people, so many substories, so many women, weapons, years, lives. The table I am sitting at is old, true, but the Mahabharat is ancient. I mean, a man wedding two women, or a couple having one, two, five, a hundred or however many children, or the third-gender Shikhandi becoming a pivotal part of the war at a point, or the immortal Ashvatthama hankering after milk as a child—while his father was in penury—Bhim finding love with a demoness, demons living life rapaciously like humans, gods participating in human affairs, a body being impregnable due to a divine endowment, the loss of virginity—through an imagined fancy—and pregnancy, and that being socially unacceptable… What is all this?
What is all this?
As I sit pondering these matters, it comes to my attention that when I think, I notice several possibilities. Marriage. A male human and a female human. But suppose there are two men and a woman. Or two women and a man. But suppose this too—a man, a woman and no marriage, or a man, two women and no marriage, or ‘marriage’ not deemed the word for a situation, or people without marriage in their thoughts. Noticing all this, I wondered, How many stories like the Mahabharat can we tell? A thing could be put to use in one way and also in another. But not in yet another way. A bridge. Vehicles running up and down. A suicide. But a time there was when there were no bridges around. Imagine a time when there were no stories.
There was a doctor. He worked with dedication. But it never occurred to him to examine the foundations of allopathy. That was beyond his capacity perhaps. How shall I tell his story? Say, he lived for seventy-one years. In the seventy-first year, he died. Survived by his wife, a son, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. It is believed that newspapers do not tell stories, but only facts. Pay close attention now. Take any news and try to link it with the three stories of our three doctors. Sometimes, I feel (Kabhi-kabhi mere dil me…—everything is an imitation) that I should write the one-sided love story of that second doctor and his one-sided beloved, the self-absorbed Buddhist girl. That I should look for the state where one loses oneself in someone’s eyes. But the search for possibilities has nearly been exhausted by the folks of the Mahabharat. One may then explore the possibilities of the sentence. And one may create a thing such as:
But the search for possibilities
Has nearly been
By the folks of the Mahabharat
One may then explore
The possibilities of
Now we play. (Play = recreation = creation of the world, re-creation = divine play, dalliance.)
Eighteen years of age
The dream’s letting him down
His picking himself up
For the life of poets
For exceptional poetry
The story completed
Hark, esteemed listeners! Dnyanadev is here. Having abandoned his aspirations for samadhi. For us. The one of Dnyaneshvari. The one of Amrutanubhav. Put questions to him. Have a candid conversation.
Imagine that a listener gets up to ask a question, a question that everyone has on their mind. Narrating the story of the two, three, doctors, he asks Dnyanadev, ‘Tell us, oh Dnyanadev, what is the meaning of it? That the story affects us deeply, what is the meaning of that? What is the remedy for it?’ Dnyanadev is quiet. Unable to contain herself, another one asks, ‘Oh Dnyanadev, why did you not write your biography? Why did you not demonstrate your human-ness? Why did you not write of your travails? You may yet pen a biography, Oh Dnyanadev.’
‘These are possibilities,’ says Dnyanadev, ‘but history has closed them off to me. I am incarcerated in the rock of samadhi. If I have emerged from that rock, it is for this antique table in the shape of a violin.’ And Dnyanadev relapses into quietude, a gentle smile irradiating his face. Whisper-dominated voices emerge from the audience that now pays him almost no attention.
We need an autobiography—
This is not true—
I need a story—
There can be no match for spirituality—
The twenty-first century the twentieth—
I—who converse with you while telling you the principal story—can easily create so many things out of myself.
Countless years were washed away in a rain of colourless sounds; countless writers met up with sadhus on the banks of the Ganga. But the sadhus journeyed on. Some writer then collected sand. Stored in it was history. Another one looked up to the Ganga as mother. In the spring of his writerly being, he remembered her. Writers exiled to foreign shores found flowers of snow. They were teased by girls of Chinese appearance dabbing their faces with embroidered handkerchiefs. They made the acquaintance of desi doctors who came running to their aid. They found ancient specimens among those. They grew versatile. They looked for gems among the answers that spread amid the questions. The shaping of the storyteller went on. Where are you? How far along have you come? I have something to say to you (too).
You may call me a scoundrel who plays with language, or you may call me a thief. Because you have secret afflictions. In secret places, imperative to be kept secret, better kept secret, possible to be wrapped in secrecy—such are your secret ailments. Such is your way of listening to stories, such are your icons, such your history, your sadhus, your gods, your irrefutable evidence, your newspapers, your loves, your stories.
Read the original Marathi story here.