Aja’s discovery “that he was not who he thought he was” happened the day he was running naked on the streets. The year was 2004. The town was Vijayawada. The weather was sultry, feeding on his fear, wringing sweat from his body. The reason why he was naked was because his clothes were burnt while nothing had happened to him. No burns. No pain. Just fear. And just running.
The only thing he wore which was not pure cotton, the shoes, had melted and stuck to his skin. It was as if the plastic and synthetic material of the shoes had melted over an iron rod and recast themselves. Of course running for life he did not notice this at that time.
The realization came later sitting in a police station. He was sitting on the floor. Cross legged.
He tried to remember what had happened. He was still panting while a large bedsheet was thrown over him to cover his nakedness. He did not remember when he shut his eyes but he did not want to open them now. He wanted to just pretend that he was shocked and numb. He wanted the policemen to believe that he was going through the standard post-traumatic-stress-disorder like the policemen’s textbooks told them.
He pulled the bedsheet close to him with as little movement as possible so that he would not attract attention. He did not want his feet to show out. He pulled them closer, under the bedsheet. He then stretched the toe of the right leg up and then slowly let it touch with the other one beside it. He got it. Skin was not touching skin. He remembered those fingered socks he wore where cloth would touch cloth. The feeling was similar. Plastic touched plastic. His mind tried to make sense of the nonsense. His feet had just become a mould on which the melted material had just poured and become hard. He remembered those videos of glass making he saw on the internet – the glassmaker would take molten glass and pout it over a metal hand and would then let it cool. And voila, you would have a glass hand. A new thought jolted him – was now the melted material part of his feet. Could he peel them off? Scrub them off? Or did he need to slice it with a knife like a surgeon peels skin? Thoughts. But why didn’t he feel pain?
He had read about that disease where people don’t experience pain at all. But then things do happen to them – their bones get broken, they bleed and when they hit fire, there skin burns. That last thought stopped him from thinking more. He did not burn. And then he heard a voice breaking the silence.
“Smart kid. If he did not remove his clothes and throw them, he would have got charred.” The voice was calm and sounded like it belonged to a 50 or 60 year old man.
A walkie-talkie in the police station came alive with all its hisses and crackling sounds “9 confirmed dead. Over. Just keep two people in the police station and everyone rush. Follow standard emergency protocol when there is fire. Over. Confirm.”
He then heard the 50 year old voice “Confirmed. Sent all forces. Procedure already followed.”
“Sir. That auditorium can accommodate 1500 people. This is terrible.” The voice was young. Very concerned. Aja concluded that the owner of the voice lacked the “distance” that generally experienced policemen who have seen many tragedies possess.
“The dead will be better of. The worst happens to those who survive with burn injuries. Specially the ones who have more than 50% burns.”
“I understand sir” The young voice again.
“No. You don’t. Ask me. When you lose a leg and have to live with it. That is understanding. What you have is knowledge. Not understanding. Try tying your leg behind and pretend you have one leg. The unzip your pant standing with your crutch and a single leg and pee, that is understanding.”
Aja felt his shoulder being shaken. “Water?” The young voice.
“Don’t do that” growled the 50 year old “You don’t understand. You don’t understand shock. You understand nothing. Looks like he is knocked out. If only we had a bed in this poor police station? Give him time. He will recover.”
Yes. Recover. The word is RECOVER. Meditate. Breathe slowly. Loosen the eyelids. Don’t tighten them. Don’t relive the past few hours. Just be now. But now was changing rapidly into then. There was a new “now” with every passing minute. How could he still his mind? What was the smell?
The walkie-talkie came alive again. “Inspector General Santosh Sharma is arriving at Police Station 717. Be ready for briefing. Everyone free who are not at the crime scene assemble. Over. Repeat again. Inspector General Santosh Sharma is arriving at Police Station 717. Be ready for briefing. Everyone free who are not at the crime scene assemble there. Over.”
Agh! The smell. Aja knew that smell. The air was faintly Cardomom full. “Chai” the young voice.
It was Cardomom tea. What if? No. No. He had to remain calm. He had to remain as if he was still shocked. He had to. Otherwise he had to be ready to answer a barrage of questions for which he had no answers. Questions for which he himself needed answers. He took a deep breath. The smell of Cardomom tortured him more and stirred his stomach juice which announced “hunger”.
“Fast” the 50 year old voice said. “The Inspector General is coming. Keep everything in its place. Who knows? Maybe this may be your chance Vaisho to fall in his eyes and get a promotion. You never know how life turns.”
Was that the name of the young voice? Vaisho. V-a-i-s-h-o. It sounded “Why so?” How odd? He had never heard anyone have that name before. He decided that he would do a google search.