On a hot and sticky summer evening , Retfird decided to shake off his laziness and get a few odd jobs done. Mother had been shouting herself hoarse. Retfird with the characteristic irritability of an idealistic adolescent, ignored her pleas with a mildly condescending shake of his head. But, today he felt too tired to even lie down on his bed and stare into the emptiness. His obsessive fixation with the non-existent had abandoned him today. The rusty fan circulated unbearably hot air within his small stuffy room coupled with a screeching noise. Retfird lay on the floor reading a book in a pool of sweat.
At 15, Retfird remained submerged in a bemused kind of trance more often than not . To the unaccustomed eye his drooping countenance could be quite unnerving. His Mother couldn’t quite fathom why there was a perpetually arrogant smile plastered on the boy’s lips. Retfird wasn’t aware of the feelings he stirred in people – revulsion, curiosity, hostility and sometimes that of despair. He was oblivious. Sometimes he could discern those eyes boring onto him but he ignored.
His world revolved around too many things. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with them. Sometimes he would spend hours listening to not so deafening Rock. Then he would switch to LPs of Cliff Richard and Anne Murray. Mother’s old gramophone attracted him for its sheer quaintness. At times he would switch off all the lights. The red indicator light emanating from the slits on the sides of the old machine formed ghostly patterns on the white tiled floors. Retfird would stare till his eyes hurt.
Sometimes he would spend hours reading. Some things he understood, some he didn’t. Once he saw Henri Cartier-Bresson photos while going through the newspapers and started clicking with his digi-cam. He never cared to know the technicalities. He was a willful evader. He learnt technicalities only when he thought it was necessary, not because that is how you learn things. He liked what he clicked, mostly in black in white. He carefully studied the photos he came across and found stories behind each one of them. When he walked the lanes of his city, he seemed to find a frame everywhere.
On this day, as he lay on the floor devouring on the cheap erotic thriller, Retfird felt drained. He couldn’t see the line between what was and what wasn’t. Strains of Dylan’s ‘I am not there’ resonated. The more he tried to make sense of his existence the more entangled he became. Months ago he had seen A Short Story About Love- mesmerised. More than the story it was the motif that amused him-the man in white, wordlessly gliding around with his baggage, as if watching over everything.
He had tried so many times to form his own interpretation of the motif. He had searched the net like a mad man. The recurring image of the man in white haunted him. He had been looking for a ‘sutra’ to merge his worlds- the one that was there and the one that wasn’t- subconsciously. The man in white brought it to the conscious. And he couldn’t rest. He needed an explanation.
As the heat subsided, he tenderly inserted a marker in between the pages of the book. A distinctive orchestra tune played on at the back of his mind, as he wiped off the beads of perspiration from his wide forehead, . He couldn’t quite place the tune though. No matter how hard he tried, the tune wouldn’t leave him.
Retfird entered the shower and let the still warm water wash off the day’s heat. As shards of water from the shower hit his face he shut his eyes tight. The orchestra played on. Images of a blue tinted celluloid screen whirled around him and suddenly he remembered the tune. The incomplete notes in Trois Coleur: Bleu. His muscles relaxed. Turning off the shower he dried himself with the withered towel. He liked its smell. It almost felt like he was wrapped in himself.
Going through these motions, his arrogant smile turned into disdainful laughter at the thought of interacting with the palpable milieu today. Not that he wanted to. But on this evening he had to be far away from being the Kafkaish youngster.
Retfird put on a pair of worn out jeans and a checkered shirt. He never combed his hair. Slowly he descended the stairs. He had to collect his favourite blue jacket from the laundry, buy story-books for his little cousins and collect bed-covers for Mother! As he boarded the auto, the breeze caressed his face, his muscles became tensed again. He liked the wetness on his face, a result of his overactive sweat glands. The breeze violated his smug feeling.
The auto stopped at a signal and Retfird could feel the dried up salty sweat on his face. He grimaced and took of his glasses to wipe his long drawn features with the shirt sleeve. When he put back his glasses he was stunned. It seemed he was reliving a moment . But he kept on staring till the auto restarted. The breeze stopped bothering him. If anything, he could only thank it for what it had just let him see, frame, contemplate.
He had seen the man in white – in flesh.
The man stood against the rusty brown shutters of a shop. He held a striped nylon bag in one hand. Rubber sandals on his feet and two white yards of cloth draped around his tall frame. An unshaven face and unkempt hair. Vehicles zoomed past him. But he stood still. A gust of wind loosened up the white yards around his body. The man seemed weightless. The cloth pieces waved about as he tried to adjust them in vain.
Retfird couldn’t take his eyes of him. He had found his answer. The motif didn’t matter. The demarcation didn’t matter. It was all there. The man was there and the next moment he was a fluid form. He wasn’t the go-between. He wasn’t gliding around. He existed and he didn’t. Suddenly, Retfird didn’t want his worlds to merge. The pointlessness of his existence didn’t bother him any more. He didn’t want to get away. He belonged. He wanted to belong. He couldn’t deny the existence of the practical and the mundane that was the source of his ideal musings. If it weren’t for those stark, vulgar contours of the city’s everyday life, he wouldn’t have been able to conjure up his surreal existence.
He remembered Cliff Richard and the screechy fan and he wanted to hear them both. His black and white photos that so deftly erased the blemishes on his subjects regained their colour in his mind’s eye with all their faults and discrepancies. The red pattern of the gramophone gave way to white light. And he realised…..the beauty he created was a part of the reality. He saw that his non-existence was a subversion of what did exist. He couldn’t possibly have one without the other.
At the last stop he collected his belongings. When he got back home, his Mother was surprised. He didn’t head straight to his room like he usually did. He sat with his her and chatted for a while. The condescending young boy was no more there. When he went inside his room, he turned on the fan, splashed water on his face and peered into the mirror. There was something amiss. He never looked at himself carefully. Today he did. His features weren’t drawn, the perpetual smile had gone. There was no disdain either. He wiped the glass………. to have a better look.
Retfird was no more the Drifter.