'Umnath' by Nod Ghosh
The whiteness of Umnath's bones hides beneath trembling fingers, but he scratches his shins oblivious to what's inside. He rubs until his skin becomes tomato red. His chin rests on brown-paper knees. The matchbox abrasions of his breath betray the uncertainty of diseased lungs, though those organs function better than his brain. The rattle of his breathing is a reminder of the impermanence of life. But it is the rattling of loose thoughts in moments of lucidity that tell Umnath he has lived too long.
The running. There was always the running. Long ago. The memory heightens the redundancy of his limbs.
Running. Running under the reddened sky. The sky is decimated by a blast-furnace glow. The relentless bloom of flies, the screams of children, throats tight with hunger. The kathakali dance of cicadas locked in ritual encounters. The scent of a hundred year's incense from the Gita Mandir, where dream-gods march next to sleeping ancestors. The tambour of beggar boys with bellies like drums. The disappointment of rice without meat.
Metallic fumes shorten the air. The juxtaposition of love and decay in roadside shanties. A screeching baby at its mother's breast, shocked by the enormity of its existence. Shit floating in a slow turning river. The mechanical beat of October's heat that refuses to die after nightfall. Umnath runs through all of this. It happened so long ago, and yet it is happening to him now. He runs until something tears inside his chest, and he can run no more. He stops by a stall selling aubergines and leather handbags.
Umnath catalogues his thoughts in jumbled disorder.
He runs to a new life. The improbability of escape becomes probable. A scholarship, long years of study, the accountability of dreams.
The transference of ambition to his guileless children. They know nothing about struggle. They know nothing about running. They hold his hand, and talk to him like he is stupid. And all he can do is stare back at them like someone who is stupid. Because that is what this disease has done to Umnath. It has made him stupid.
His son says 'good day', to the man in the bed opposite, a creature with yellow skin, the tallow hue of death. He runs to a different history. The beat of his memory takes a different path.
Though he has been there for five weeks, Umnath has never spoken to the man.
He never will.