Every day on my way to work I see one of the several amputees who languish in the streets of Delhi. This one drags his legless torso along the highway that skirts South Delhi’s Kalka temple. He props himself at the same spot each day, looking either at his fantom feet, or gazing vacuously into the one far too many cab windows, at the victims of some desperate rush. It makes sense that he never travels too far from where he is, given his severed limbs and homelessness, or perhaps attrition in any shape inspires some breed of fidelity.
The other day, I saw him again — he was looking at the clogged drain beside him, then at the sky. I was trapped in an Uber, zoned out of my mind until I saw that he was looking at me with eyes that were rather too still for anything living.
It isn’t the boy’s severed limbs or his homelessness that is at the heart of this inquiry — neither you nor I can claim to have known his life, and there’s a slim chance, practically emaciated to naught but bones, of him ever reading this. But there is something that ties all people — the fact that we are all, in some measure, looking at the sky with our legs cut off.
A lot of people, perhaps a part of me too, enjoy seeing others this way. Often, this behaviour is encouraged, even advocated by the state. Remember the old parable of the man who cried about not having boots until he saw a man with no legs? ‘Doing well’ maybe just means not doing the worst, I guess.
Earlier this year, I heard that a vagabond had found his way into our land. And there was fire wherever he went — an arsonist, but most people were alright with what he did. Some even invited him into their homes, and a few even volunteered to scale some nearby hill with him leading the way. There were stories about how he would then produce a flute out of his bag, perch himself on some rock, and begin playing some eerie tune. The men, the women, the children would sway as he played for hours at end. But there was a catch: after seducing them thus upon the hill, he would suddenly stop for a while, and start weeping. His followers, enamoured, would rush to console him, but nothing would ever be enough for the flautist. And seeing him wail, hearing him swallow his inconsolable, agonising cries would move those around him, and they would start seeing themselves in his face, in his skin — for all humans agree that they were once happier, better or perhaps just a little less miserable. It is every crying man’s conviction that he was once playing the flute. Thus this vagabond, this arsonist, would break them. And once broken, he would claim things that had never been claimed before, and say things that had never been said earlier. In as much as innate human prejudice allows, they accepted the vagabond’s tongue as the word, and promised to follow him to whichever hill he thereafter chose to climb. Some even cried that they’d do it barefoot, some wearing chains around their ankles, some with blindfolds on, and the others vowed to do it without a morsel of bread in their bellies.
But the flautist wanted something else — “Burn your houses”, he said, and there was a riot — for the ones who had the most to lose would gain the highest stature in their messiah’s eyes. Those with lavish courtyards and a hundred fruit-bearing trees in their backyards scuttled home to burn their mahogany, their brocade and velvet skinned ottomans. The others, having torched their humble lodgings, hurried to burn as many houses as they could to prove their devotion. And he would watch it all happen, and bring the flute to his lips again.
Thus the arsonist set ablaze villages, towns, and entire precincts.
Immortality is born out of death — beauty is the shackles forged in the blackest of hellfires.
The Aquilaria tree is native to the hills of India and the Middle East. Its heartwood has been prized for Oud — a scent that has perfumed the Silk Route for centuries. This fragrance is a vagabond, the same breed as our flautist, who plods along, trailing one caravan or the other, waiting to spot another land, some enticing little vantage point of a hill.
Here my inquiry assumes a more pointed nature — does our arsonist vagabond exist to inspire resilience rather than blatant vandalism?
The heartwood becomes fragrant only after the Aquilaria survives a life threatening battle quietly under its surface. Is the legless boy stronger now that he sits by the drains, shivering in a December Delhi night?
Banality: perhaps I haven’t touched upon this aspect of violence, quite ironically. But need it be touched? Those people burnt their homes despite anything, they did so religiously, gripped by their faith in their tunes and their tears — their tears which reject anybody else’s suffering — heartache that refutes the presence of a heart — hunger without a stomach.
The Aquilaria is hacked and felled no matter what the outcome of its silent battle is.
When I was six and saw someone die for the first time, I felt that something would happen, some anomaly that would resonate the void — but nothing did.
I still take the Uber to work every morning, looking at my wristwatch, the enamelled dial, the gilded digits. I pass by the legless boy each morning — the sky and the drains still reek as they did when he had his legs.
It is not obvious that I am as disgusted by this theme as one can get, I am dismissing it, having read Neruda’s ‘If You Forget Me’ far too many times. The banality, what instruments do I have? Do I speak of the rising smoke from some burning pyre? Do I write about streaks of red and yellow cruising along the highway in a sleepless blur? Do I talk about a woman, watering the same plant every morning with new bruises on her face?
You tell me, is it resilience or perhaps just routine?
Arsch, 27, has been writing professionally since 2018. He has penned several works of both creative fiction and non-fiction, including opinion pieces, essays, short stories, poetry and novellas.