THE FREE MAN

Aditya Sudarshan

A young man stepped into the room. He was wearing a plain white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up, and blue jeans. He was clean-shaven; his hair, well-combed, was dark and glistening, and when he smiled at Madhav, he showed good teeth. Then he pulled up the chair, sat and crossed his legs in one easy motion.

‘I am very happy you have come here,’ he said. ‘Did you sleep well?’

The voice fit the face. It was jaunty, to the point of arrogance. Madhav said nothing. There had been lit, in a corner of his mind, a tiny spark of recollection.

‘Yes,’ said his captor, ‘We have met before. We have even fought before.’

He shifted his position in his chair, and pulled at the fingers on his left hand, with his right. Then he did it again, and then again and again, tightening his grasp each time, before tugging free. In between he settled on Madhav a look of encouragement. ‘Do you remember’, he seemed to be saying, and with that repetitive movement, to be assisting recollection, ‘Try and remember.’

As he watched the stranger’s hands, locking and unlocking like the seatbelts on an aeroplane, a tremendous outrage took growth inside Madhav. It seemed to him that he was being condescended, and moreover, in respect of an activity that he had no interest in undertaking, which only exacerbated the insult.

‘Who are you?’’ he said with scorn,. ‘I am not going to jog my memory. It is for you to introduce yourself. It is for you to explain yourself.’

The young man looked disappointed. He let his hands rest on his knees. ‘You’re very touchy.’ he sighed.

‘I am an officer in a Ministry of the Central Government,’ answered Madhav. ‘And I have not, as you put it, come here. I have been forcibly dragged here. I am not accustomed to being treated in this manner and I have no desire to play games. Now, will you please–’

‘It is not a game,’ said the other. ‘There is a purpose’

‘Nonsense!’ replied Madhav with an added annoyance at being interrupted, ‘There is no conceivable purpose that warrants the abduction of a free man in a free country!’

He felt now completely unafraid, even though he had put into words the very thing that had clearly happened to him. An unexpected light-heartedness was swelling within him; it bolstered his spirits; dispensed with the need to dwell on the danger. He felt suddenly that if he rose to his feet and merely waved his hand, he could sweep aside this dandy boy and the table and chair to boot, and skip free through the doorway.

But this ebullience, radiating outwards, seemed to strike his captor like a chill wind. The young man straightened his back, and crossed his arms. He fixed dark eyes on Madhav, as though to pin him to the spot where he sat.

‘That is how you spoke the last time we met.’ he said, in a voice now low and grave.

‘I think’, said Madhav, ‘I remember.’ It was indeed coming back to him. ‘We met at Vinay’s party, didn’t we? Last December?’

The young man bent his head in assent.

‘Of course, that’s right! We had a conversation too! About-’

‘About the ennui of our lives.’

‘The ennui of our lives!’ Madhav laughed. He was suddenly buoyant with good humour. ‘What else? What else does one talk about at Vinay’s parties? But I’ve forgotten your name.’

‘And the future of the country.’

‘Yes, that’s the other thing’, Madhav chuckled.

‘You were saying,’ said the young man, ‘that a sense of ennui is inevitable, when one is well-off and privileged, with no great problems of life and death to confront. No great battles to wage for oneself. No great evils to conquer.’

‘Was I?”

‘And that as the privileged few in a nation so poor and backward, we bear the additional burden of leading the way. That this burden can be heavy and wearisome at times, that it adds to our fatigue, but that a sense of its importance- and a sense of humour- will keep us going.’

‘It all sounds very wise’, said Madhav ‘so I must have said it.’

The young man’s chair went crashing to the floor. He had jerked to his feet, toppling it over in his clumsiness, but he seemed not even to flinch, so powerful was the thrust of his emotion.

‘It is a lie!’ he cried, ‘Every part of it!’

‘Ah!’ Madhav grinned delightedly, ‘I remember your name now. Sachin something or the other, right? You’re the new boy at Outlook, am I right?’

The scenes from the party floated back into his mind, in soft and pleasant hues. It had been a lovely evening, cold on the terrace, but warm with liquor, with the urbane city haze obscuring the stars, and settling comfortably over the smoke of cigarettes and the easy chatter of a familiar lot. They knew each other well, they knew who they despised, there were no surprises.

Except for this clean-cut young man, the same young man who now stood before him, shivering with passion. Vinay had introduced him around with an air of charitable amusement; clearly, he had been taken up on a purely casual invitation; perhaps he did not even recall it. But the world was small, notoriously so in the city, and Sachin was soon taken care of; various connections, more distant or less, were quickly established. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, his closest acquaintance had turned out to be the prettiest girl at the party- Monica Sharma, she of the mischievous mouth and the quick-silver intelligence. At some point in the drift of the night, they had both appeared before Madhav, and that was when the young man had showed his immaturity.

‘Never indulge in a philosophical debate if you are going to take it seriously. Now that,’ said Madhav, ‘I remember saying. Do you remember my saying it?’

‘Yes,’ said the young man. He was still on his feet. ‘And that was the biggest lie of them all.’

***

Excerpted from Aditya Sudarshan’s novel, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi (Harper Collins India, 2015)

***

Aditya Sudarshan Photo Credit: Vidhyalakshmi Vijaykumar

Aditya Sudarshan
Photo Credit: Vidhyalakshmi Vijaykumar

Aditya Sudarshan is the author of A Nice Quiet Holiday (Westland Books, 2009), Show Me A Hero (Rupa and Co., 2011) and The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi (Harper Collins India, 2015). His short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of a number of produced plays, including The Green Room, winner of the Hindu Metroplus Playwright Award for 2011. He writes literary criticism for The Hindu Literary Review and other publications, and political satire for NDTV’s The Great Indian Tamasha.
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