Issue 130, Spring 1994
Ramani had been to Bandra that day, and he was talking about a bungalow on the seafront. It was one of those old three-storied houses with balconies that ran all the way around, set in the middle of a garden filled with palms and fish ponds. It sat stubbornly in the middle of towering apartment buildings, and it had been empty as far back as anyone could remember, and so of course the story that explained this waste of golden real estate was one of ghosts and screams in the night.
“They say it’s unsellable.” said Ramani. “They say a Gujarati seth bought it and died within the month. Nobody’ll buy it. Bad place.”
Zulfikar Ali, who had retired as a senior physicist at the Atomic Energy Commission, said decisively, “These are all family propeny disputes. The cases drag on for years and years in couns, and the houses lie vacant because no one will let anyone else live in them.”
I was remembering the pleasant midnight chill of telling tales in the dark. It was so long ago. “I prefer the ghost version,”
I said. I’d had three excellent gin slings and was feeling lazy and sad. “I prefer to believe in ghosts.”
“I’ve never met one,” Zulfikar Ali said. “And so I can’t.”
“It’s true,” Subramaniam said suddenly. He was sitting in his corner, and his voice was barely a whisper, but we all heard it. “Some people meet their ghosts, and some don’t. But we’re all haunted by them.”
I laughed with delight, because I knew I was going to get what I wanted. I waved my arm for another drink and settled back into my chair. It was dark already, and when I laid my head back against the wood I was very comfortable. “What do you mean?” I said, not too loudly.
“Listen,” Subramaniam said.
On the day that Major General Jago Antia turned fifty, his missing leg began to ache. He had been told by the doctors about phantom pain, but the leg had been gone for twenty years without a twinge, and so when he felt a twisting ache two inches under his plastic knee, he stumbled not out of agony but surprise. It was only a little stumble, but the officers who surrounded him turned away out of sympathy, because he was Jago Antia, and he never stumbled. The younger lieutenants flushed with emotion, because they knew for certain that Jago Antia was invincible, and this little lapse, and the way he recovered himself, how he came back to his ramrod straightness, this reminded them of the metallic density of his discipline, which you could see in his gray eyes. He was famous for his stare, for the cold blackness of his anger, for his tactical skill and his ability to read ground, his whole career from the gold medal at Khadakvasla to the combat and medals in Leh and NEFA. He was famous for all this, but the leg was the center of the legend, and there was something terrible about it, about the story, and so it was never talked about. He drove himself across jungle terrain and shamed men twenty years younger, and it was as if the leg had never been lost. This is why his politeness, his fastidiousness, the delicate way he handled his fork and knife, his slow smile, all these Jago quirks were imitated by even the cadets at the academy: they wished for his certainty, and believed that his loneliness was the mark of his genius.
So when he left the bara khana his men looked after him with reverence, and curiously the lapse made them believe in his strength all the more. They had done the party to mark an obscure regimental battle day from half a century before, because he would never have allowed a celebration for himself. After he left they lolled on sofas, sipping from their drinks, and told stories about him. His name was Jehangir Antia, but for thirty years, in their stories, he had been Jago Antia. Some of them didn’t know his real name.
Meanwhile, Jago Antia lay on his bed under a mosquito net, his arms flat by his sides, his one leg out as if at attention, the other standing by the bed, and waited for his dream to take him. Every night he thought of falling endlessly through the night, slipping through the cold air, and then somewhere it became a dream, and he was asleep, still falling. He had been doing it for as long as he could remember, long before para school and long before the drop at Sylhet, towards the hostile guns and the treacherous ground. It had been with him from long ago, this leap, and he knew where it took him, but this night a pain grew in that part of him that he no longer had, and he tried to fight it away, imagining the rush of air against his neck, the flapping of his clothes, the complete darkness, but it was no use. He was still awake. When he raised his left hand and uncovered the luminous dial it was oh-four-hundred, and then he gave up and strapped his leg on. He went into the study and spread out some maps and began to work on operational orders. The contour maps were covered with markers, and his mind moved easily among the mountains, seeing the units, the routes of supply, the staging areas. They were fighting an insurgency, and he knew of course that he was doing good work, that his concentration was keen, but he knew he would be tired the next day, and this annoyed him. When he found himself kneading his plastic shin with one hand, he was so angry that he went out on the porch and puffed out a hundred quick push-ups, and in the morning his puzzled batman found him striding up and down the garden walk as the sun came up behind a gaunt ridge.
“What are you doing out here?” Thapa said. Jago Antia had never married. They had known each other for three decades, since Jago Antia had been a captain, and they had long ago discarded with the formalities of master and servant.
“Couldn’t sleep, Thapa. Don’t know what it was.”
Thapa raised an eyebrow. “Eat well then.”
“Right. Ten minutes?”
Thapa turned smartly and strode off. He was a small, round man, not fat but bulging everywhere with the compact muscles of the mountains.
“Thapa?” Jago Antia called.
“Nothing.” He had for a moment wanted to say something about the pain, but then the habit of a lifetime assetted itself, and he threw back his shoulders and shook his head. Thapa waited for a moment and then walked into the house. Now Jago Antia looked up at the razor edge of the ridge far above, and he could see, if he turned his head to one side, a line of tiny figures walking down it. They would be woodcutters, and perhaps some of the men he was fighting. They were committed, hardy, and well-trained. He watched them. He was better. The sun was high now, and Jago Antia went to his work.
The pain didn’t go away, and Jago Antia couldn’t sleep. Sometimes he was sure he was in his dream, and he was grateful for the velocity of the fall, and he could feel the cold on his face, the dark, but then he would sense something, a tiny glowing pinpoint that spun and grew and finally became a bright hurling maelstrom that wrenched him back into wake-fitness. Against this he had no defense: no matter how tired he made himself, how much he exhausted his body, he could not make his mind insensible to his phantom pain, and so his discipline, honed over the years, was made useless, Finally he conquered his shame, and asked —in the strictest confidence—the colonel at Medical Services for medication, and got, along with a very puzzled stare, a bottle full of yellow pills, which he felt in his pocket all day, against his chest. But at night these pills too proved no match for the ferocity of the pain, which by now Jago Antia imagined as a beast of some sort, a low growling animal that camouflaged itself until he was almost at rest and then came rushing out to worry at his flesh, or at the memory of his flesh. It was not that Jago Antia minded the defeat, because he had learnt to accept defeat and casualties and loss, but it was that he had once defeated this flesh, it was he who had swung the kukri, but it had come back now and surprised him. He felt outflanked, and this infuriated him, and further, there was nothing he could do about it, there was nothing to do anything about.