fiction

The Sphatik
- Kalpish Ratna

Tulpule, the people's poet, was in the running for the Nobel. It seems an insignificant detail now, but in fact, that's why I met Tulpule. I was on assignment. My brief was to capture the poet in what might be his last hour of obscurity, and while his natural habitat was still uncluttered with props.

As I neared Tulpule's address, I realized how perceptive my editor had been. Tulpule had escaped the institutions that nurtured his poetry: the slum, the chawl, the roadside café, they were all memories. He lived now on the seventh floor of a high rise in Versova, the kind of building where the watchman makes you sign on arrival and escorts you all the way to the lift.

As I stepped out of the lift, I realized I didn't have the flat number. There were four doors I could choose from, and none of them had nameplates.

'You're looking for Tulpule?' The voice was soft, tired somehow. I was surprised to find it belonged to a very young guy, barely twenty, shabbily dressed in a faded tee and shorts. His shy eyes darted away, and a muscle twitched at the corner of his mouth.

I smiled. 'How did you guess?'

He didn't smile back. He nodded, pointed to the first door on the left, and shuffled away.

The door was answered by a small sharp woman, in a loud orange skirt.

'Come in, he's busy, you'll have to wait for a few minutes,' she said all in one breath as her eyes raked me, X-raying my clothes. Evidently, no harmful ingredients were revealed, for she smiled and asked what I would like to know.

'Why are there no nameplates on any of the doors?' I asked.

'Because all roads lead to Tupule,' she answered.

I had laughed before I realized she was dead serious. Her eyes glazed over with a film of displeasure so I said it was amusing that the neighbours basked in Tulpule's fame.

She shrugged. 'Tulpule is anonymous because he is somebody. Our neighbours are anonymous because they are nobodies.'

'May I quote you?'

She laughed. 'I like you. I will talk to you.'

'Thank you. Luckily someone guessed I was headed here and showed me the right door.'

'He didn't guess, he was told to do that. That was my son. He's stationed there expressly to direct visitors. Today the whole world is looking for Tulpule.'

I was a little surprised to find this gypsy-ish woman was the mother of the kid outside.

'You find it surprising that he's my son?' she laughed throatily, reading my mind. 'It surprises me, too!'

'Does it also surprise his father?'

'So much that he writes a poem about it every morning, every single morning, before he has his tea.'

'Is that when he does all his writing? Early in the morning?'

'Only his poems to me, emotional poems. Rest of the day is intellectual. Night time is physical. Early morning is aftermath, emotional. Take down! Take down, or you will forget!'

The last words were uttered in a kind of shriek. It took me a few moments to realize she expected me to take notes.

'Take down, I will repeat,' she said, and she did.

I scribbled obediently just to shut her up, made random marks on the page.

We were seated facing a shelf which was crowded not with books, but with photographs.

I now caught sight of the celebrated poet. There was little to celebrate in his appearance, which was prosaic to the point of banality.

Tulpule looked very like the politicians congratulating him, draping him in shawls, thrusting trophies at him. Like them, he was bullish and jowly, clothed in ill-fitting kurtas of ersatz raw silk, uncomfortable in churidars that showed off his bandy legs.

To distract myself, I stared at a line of studio portraits of a waif like beauty, trying to place her. Definitely an actress. She was posed here like a fisher-woman, now as a Parsi bride, now dressed for a Bollywood mujra, now clowning in a beret.

I would never have guessed who this sylph was if it hadn't been for the last portrait, posed with Tulpule.

'This is you?'

'Yes. I used to be quite glamorous. See that picture?' She pointed out one I had overlooked. 'That's how I looked when Tulpule first saw me.'

It was a close-up, taken in profile, her uplifted face in the ardent pose of the fifties' heroine. Her hair, luxuriously back-lit, was bound in a jooda, encircled with flowers.

'He often wants me to dress up like that, recreating the moment. His first poem to me was called Aboli, because I was wearing the flowers in my hair that day. White sari, and aboli in my jooda, ahahahaa, who will not be seduced?'

Unable to answer, I skenningly took notes.

She waited till I had finished, then took me by the hand. 'Come, we will go to him now.'

*****

The room we entered was crowded. They were all talking at once, and it was some minutes before we were noticed.

'It's going to be possible sooner than we think,' a birdlike man prophesied. 'I'd like to democratize immortality. Why reserve it for the gods alone?'

'If there are gods,' a thin voice put in. 'How many do we have? Three hundred? Four? A small number. But we have seven billion people. It won't do to democratize immortality. I couldn't bear to live with so many forever. You'll have to be choosy, Gonsalves.'

'I see you've chosen yourself already,' Gonsalves retorted. 'Do you expect the rest of us to fly away?' He flapped his arms, making the resemblance so complete, I couldn't suppress a smile.

'You are impressed. Good. They are all very impressive. Listen carefully,' Mrs Tulpule hissed. 'Wait. Now he will speak.'

'Ramakant will stay,' a deep bass rumbled. 'He is qualified. But you, Gonsalves, what are your qualifications for immortality? A few tunes — bah. Copied, most of 'em. Why should anybody want you around?'

'No, no, Gonsalves is a good fellow,' Ramakant protested.

'I have no time for good fellows, I have no use for good fellows, and Gonsalves knows this. He knows I endure him not for his wit, for he has none, and even less for his wits, for they are gone, almost — but only because he never comes alone. Am I right, Gonsalves?'

'As usual, Dada.'

'Wait. I endure you for the booze you bring with you, but why do you endure me? Why does the world endure me? That's the puzzling question nobody has dared to answer.'

'He will answer,' Mrs Tulpule sang out unexpectedly, and she grabbed my arm and thrust me forward.

The poet, stopped in mid-rumble, looked unkindly at us.

'What have you brought me?' he snapped.

'Your biographer.'

He gave a great snort. 'This?'

I returned his stare with interest.

'You write?'

'No, no,' Mrs Tulpule assured him. 'He takes notes.'

'You write — or take notes — in English?'

'Yes.'

'Why?'

'It's the only language I know.'

The poet came forward now and placed a hand on my skull. He had to reach up to do that, but it didn't faze him. His hand stayed like a slat of wood on my vertex all the while he spoke.

'Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the unilingual brain. It is a phenomenon of our age, this stripping away of languages from the neurons. When I place my hand here, I can almost feel the shrinking of brain cells as they flinch from every language but one. Maybe there's only one cell in there within this skull, eh? A single cell for a single language.'

When the laughter had died down, I said, 'I'd like to take you up on that, sir. I know you are a bilingual poet—'

'Bilingual!'

His bellow of outrage was echoed by the others. When the din ceased, Mrs Tulpule spoke.

'If you think Tulpule is bilingual,' she said, 'you cannot be his biographer.'

'Come here, young man. Sit down, sit down. Tell me, how many languages are there on the rupee note?'

'Ten?'

'Fifteen. Fifteen major languages make up the currency of this nation. How then can a man with only two languages be called the People's Poet?'

'Take it down, take it down!' Mrs Tulpule urged.

'I write in Marathi, English, Hindi, Gujerati, Bengali, Urdu, Tamil, Kannada, and of course Spanish and French. My brain is capable of thought in any of these languages. Compared to mine, your brain is a null. Not even single-celled. It has no more than a spark of electricity — but even that is ample to power your feeble thinking. Do you agree?'

The faces that ringed me gleamed with anticipation. Tulpule was getting ready for the kill.

'Do you agree?' the huff-snuff demanded again. But the question was rhetorical, only meant to punctuate his monologue.

'I'd like to take you up on that, as I said earlier.'

That stopped him short. He actually heard me. He gave a quick yelp of laughter, then asked, 'What? How do you propose to defend that rudimentary nubbin of nervous tissue within your skull?'

'Oh, my brain is of no interest to any of us here. I was talking about yours. I meant your multilingual brain.'

'What about it?'

'What about it? Everything's about it! When I came in you were discussing immortality, weren't you? You spoke about what gives us the right to claim immortality, you pointed out why only some may achieve immortality — but you ignored the how.'

'Hmm ... interesting. Please, O taker of notes, please continue!'

'Let me explain. You, sir, are immortal because your poetry makes you so. That factory of immortality is housed in your skull. Your brain manufactures immortality. I think the world needs to know how.'

I had their attention now. I reached for a glass of water and sipped tentatively. Tulpule quivered with impatience.

'Tell me,' I continued, almost lazily, 'have you ever imagined what your brain looks like?'

'Dada's brain has been imaged,' Ramakant said. 'We have all seen the MRI.'

'You have a disgustingly literal mind, Ramakant,' Tulpule shot him an irritated look. 'Have I ever imagined what my brain looks like? Frequently, and it's nothing like the MRI.'

'No? What does it look like then?'

'Sphatik. Luminous, coruscating — a crush of light, crumpled, compressed. Crammed into the cranium with the lid slammed down lest it dazzle the world. Only pinpoints of its radiance emerge through the skull's foramina. Sphatik! But I forget you are unilingual. Do you know what the word means?'

'Crystal.'

'There! You see how your solitary language fails you? Certainly, sphatik translates as 'crystal,' but the English word defines merely the material form. It does not even begin to hint at its quality, leave alone approach its essence.'

'I agree. What if I were to offer you a language that can distill the every essence of the Sphatik?'

'And what is that language, O taker of notes?'

'Science.'

'Science? Bah! I have rejected the MRI, I told you that.'

'I'd reject it too. The MRI is a road map for every brain. And every brain is not the Sphatik! The difference between my unilingual brain and your Sphatik won't be revealed on an MRI, will it?'

'No. It's too opaque, too dense, too black and white.'

'Exactly. What I have to offer you is not an MRI. How would you like to see every one of the million neurons in the very process of manufacturing immortality?'

'Bah again! A functional PET scan! A friend of mine is a top neurosurgeon and he put me though it while I composed a poem. Very pretty, but what did it show? We already knew which bits of my brain would light up. I have studied the areas in Gray's Anatomy. I could see it all glowing, but so what? In an earlier age there was phrenology, a bump here meant genius, a bump there meant a criminal mind. Old wine in a new bottle. Talking of which, Gonsalves, your last bottle of brandy is to blame for my new poem —'

'I'm not talking of a functional MRI or a PET scan,' I interrupted.

'No? What then?'

'It is a new technology to show the brain exactly as you described it — as the Sphatik. Crystalline, brilliant, every cell a scintilla of light. It shows each cell in the intact brain. Incredible.'

'You've actually seen this? Where?'

'Oh, you can see it too. It's on You-Tube1. The paper's been published online. One of my friends is involved in the project.'

This was not strictly true. The friend I meant knew nothing at all about this project. But she did know the friend of the friend of the friend of one of the authors of the paper that I had read online. The aesthetics of the method enchanted me, but I hadn't expected to conjure up a practical application so quickly.

'Come back tomorrow with the paper, show me what you have on You-Tube, and together we might yet make the Sphatik immortal.' Tulpule rose abruptly and flung out his arms. 'Yes! I will democratize the Sphatik! I will give it away!'

On cue, a hollow wail of dismay filled the room. He held the attitude, eyes shut, arms outspread.

'Think of me, Tulpule!' wheepled his wife.

'No!' he thundered. 'I cannot think of you! I have no right to think of you! You have my heart, my soul, my very life is yours. But the Sphatik? No!' He inflated his chest and let go. 'This Sphatik, this Sphatik — belongstotheworld!'

*****

The next day I brought along my laptop. I loosed the video on them first. You must have seen it — who hasn't by now? — and you'll agree it is breathtaking.

I don't think they heard a word of the commentary as they travelled on the wings of some really spooky music into the depths of a rat brain. They watched a pasty little clump of brain turn completely transparent. Showers of green and gold neurons rose and fell as the field rotated. It was all alive, pulsatile, dynamic.

Then, as immunofluorescence twinkled in neon stipples of pink, green, yellow, blue, the room exploded in applause.

'That—' Tulpule gasped. 'That is the Sphatik!'

I was clapped on the back as if I had done it all.

Mrs Tulpule wept.

Their son had joined us silently, and he too met my eye with a smile.

Everybody had enjoyed the show.

I then offered to read the paper, but nobody, really, wanted to hear it. I tried telling them that the video was a bit too dramatic. It was a teaser, no more. The real stuff, the hard science, clear and logical, was in the paper. It was, really, a beautiful paper.

But they wouldn't read it.

Tulpule held up a hand for silence. 'Get some tea!' he barked.

His son walked off obediently in the direction of the kitchen.

'Make sure the fool doesn't forget the sugar, like yesterday,' Tulpule growled at his wife. 'Get some biscuits, something to munch. Is this the way we treat our guests?'

'No use telling him,' his wife shrugged. 'He's completely uneducable.'

Tulpule made a gesture of disgust and addressed the company. 'And that — is my son. Unbelievable! I wrote this about him, a small observation on parenthood. It will interest you. Listen:
"Seventy million strong, all night long,
seventy million strong,
marching in the dark—
and the only one to hit the mark,
went completely wrong."

'Take down! Take down!' Mrs Tulpule said. 'If you want, he can repeat.'

After tea, I urged them again to read the paper.

'We will give it to Zubair,' Tulpule said. 'It might improve his brains a little.'

The audience laughed.

'For a neurosurgeon he is really stupid. This will show him his MRIs are all very old fashioned. He had the gumption to tell me my brain, my brain, was no different from his! Certainly, Zubair must read the paper. Ramakant, take a printout immediately. Now, if you have all finished your tea, we can settle down to business. All of you here are my dearest friends, so I put you in charge of the project. You will plan it, nurture it, see it to fruition. Promise me you will do it!'

'Certainly!' said Gonsalves. 'But what is it you want us to do?'

'Really, Gonsalves! You grow worse by the hour. Why, you must make sure the Sphatik is examined by this new technology — and give it to the world.'

'On You-Tube?' the literal-minded Ramakant asked.

'That too, if needed. In which case, Gonsalves, I leave the music to you.'

'No, no, it's too great an honour. I don't think I could measure up to it.'

'Nonsense. I can hear the overture already. Ta-da-da-dum-ta-da! And as for you—' He turned to me and laid a heavy hand on my shoulder. 'I want you with me every step of the way.'

'Wouldn't have it any other way,' I assured him.

And that's how it began.

******

I began spending a couple of hours with Tulpule every day, but the rest of the time I was online.

The friend of the friend of the friend was dating the janitor in the lab that had produced this amazing bit of research. He was a nice guy and said it would be no trouble at all to gift the lab a brain provided the paperwork was all above reproach, and sure, he could mail me particulars. The authors of the paper were a mixed bunch, two Indians, a French Canadian, a Chinese American and a guy with a German sounding name: I thought the Chinese American would be the best bet. So I got my friend Tad to do the part and set up a videoconference with Tulpule at an unearthly hour.

I had decided wisely. Tulpule would never have trusted the Sphatik to the Indians, we were a mongrel lot, incapable of original thought. Europeans, he told me, were devolving rapidly into brutes. All the brains were with China.

You can imagine how busy all this kept me. Surprisingly, I stayed out of trouble. Someone else, yes, Chinese, had got the Nobel and my editor was no longer interested in Tulpule. I didn't stop to ask why I was doing this, and to what end. It had all spun out of control.

By the end of that week I had all the paperwork ready for the Sphatik to be examined with this new technology, and the results placed, in perpetuity, in the public domain. No money was involved in the transaction at any level, and Tulpule pronounced himself perfectly satisfied.

'I cannot tell you how profoundly relieved I am,'

he confided. 'The Sphatik has been a tremendous burden all my life.'

'A burden?'

'Lucky boy, the burden of privilege is something you're unlikely to know. Let me tell you what privilege does to you — it oppresses you. It makes you impatient of your fellowmen, their slowness, their insensitivity. Their plutonic stupidities drive you demented. All you want to do is to give away this supernova trapped in your skull. You want to hurl it at the world and yell — see by its light, or burn in it, motherfuckers! I can't be bothered anymore. I'm tired of writing for you, tired of baring my soul to you louts. Now take my brain, take this Sphatik, I'm laying it open, transparent and guileless in your gaze. You understand?'

By now, I felt a little sorry for him.

'I've been looking at the video,' he said. 'Did you know the method clears the brain of all fat? All that's left is pure intelligence.'

He was subtly wrong, but I let it pass.

'And about this fixative, formaldehyde. Apparently the brain has to be soaked in it. I hope it's not too uncomfortable!'

'It won't be,' I assured him. 'You'll feel no discomfort at all.'

*****

The very next day, a delegation called on me.

There was quite a crowd at my door.

I recognized Gonsalves, Ramakant, and another guy whose name I didn't know. The other three were strangers.

'This may not be a suitable time,' Ramakant said, 'but we would like to discuss the Sphatik.'

I assured them they were very welcome, and whistled to the chaiwallah across the road, six specials and a cutting.

They perched awkwardly on available plane surfaces. Very few were available, so most of them stood.

'We are his oldest friends,' Ramakant began. They seemed to have elected him spokesman. 'Naturally, we are concerned about this new technique.'

'You should read the paper,' I said for the millionth time.

Gonsalves sighed. 'We have read it. That's why we're here. Will he go through with it?'

'You tell me, you know the guy.' I shrugged. 'I just — provide the information.'

'Are these results believable? Can we really see the Sphatik crystal clear?'

'As on You-Tube?' Ramakant again.

'And then, what will it all mean?' one of the new three asked. 'Supposing we do see the Sphatik in all its splendour, so what?'

'As I said, I don't know Tulpule. All I did was to tell him of this technology, and put him in touch with the research group. But you guys, you know him, he's your friend. Think of what it will mean to you, Mr Gonsalves.'

'Hah. It will mean I won't blow my pension on booze.'

'My blood pressure will ease up, without having to run errands all day.'

'Won't have to hear him bellow like a buffalo at the sight of that poor kid of his.'

'Yes, that's the most consoling thought — the silence. It will be so quiet.'

'Can you imagine an evening, an entire evening, without that pompous fart—'

There was no stopping them for the next half an hour. They spat out scorn, contempt, acrimony.

'And yet,' observed Gonsalves, 'Dada has only to call out Gonsalves! —and Gonsalves is his slave. What to do? I was a young man of forty when I first read Deeksha. It changed my life. And now I look at this oaf and ask myself, did he really write that poem? You gave us the answer. The Sphatik wrote Deeksha. Dada didn't. So we have decided, all six of his good friends, we have decided that the Sphatik must live forever.'

'If we are to live the rest of our lives in dignity,' added Ramakant.

'Therefore the logistics. Let us talk logistics.'

'By all means.'

'We have read the paper. Our dear friend Dr Zubair Ahmad has also read it and explained it to us. So you see, you can be fully assured we are cognizant of every detail.'

'Great.'

'So tell us. When? Where? By whom and how?'

'The research laboratory will accept the Sphatik. The papers are ready, he only has to sign them. Mrs Tulpule —'

'Mrs Tulpule wants the money,' Ramakant stated. 'How much money will there be?'

'Not a rupee, as far as I know.'

'Then she must be appointed custodian of the Sphatik.'

'No. Tulpule is quite clear it must be public property. But is Mrs Tulpule of your mind? What about the son?'

'You have seen for yourself how they treat the boy. Mrs Tulpule agrees that the Sphatik must be made immortal. It will be hard for her to accept there will be no money. I was sent here to talk numbers,' Ramakant muttered.

'Oh, don't worry. She'll write a bare-all biography,' Gonsalves said. 'Besides, he's made book deals already. Maybe for the first time in twenty years we won't be paying all their bills.'

'So, how will the Sphatik reach the lab? Will they come here?'

'No.'

'Then we must er ...'

'Yes.'

'What do you have in mind?'

I really hadn't thought about it. I had detailed instructions for packaging and transport, but had overlooked the earlier step. Luckily, a thought struck me. 'What about Dr Ahmad? What did he suggest?'

Gonsalves coughed. 'He wanted to know if he could help. You see, after that MRI incident, Dada has been talking badly of him everywhere. Zubair would like to do his best to make it up to Dada. He's really anxious to help.'

'Great,' I said, relieved. 'Let's fix it up, then,'

*****

And this was how it happened.

The following Sunday we were all gathered around Tulpule in the hospital corridor.

It was an emotional moment when Tulpule held out his arms and said, 'My friends, if I have ever hurt your feelings, today you will learn why. As the Sphatik glitters before you in all its vibrant complexity, you'll understand the tremendous pressure it has placed on me. Blame your injuries on the Sphatik — not on me.'

They loudly assured him he had never wounded them in word or deed.

Tulpule called his son. 'Learn from the Sphatik,' he admonished, and then added, 'if you can.'

'You speak as if the Sphatik were not part of you,' I observed.

'The Sphatik is somebody. I am nobody. An unhappy marriage of un-equals.'

'Take down! Take down!' urged Mrs Tulpule in a frenetic whisper. 'Last chance, take down.'

Now Dr Ahmad approached, syringe in hand.

'Zubair! This is the injection?'

'Yes, Dada.'

'Ask your nurse to give it. You're no good at injections.'

'She has the day off.'

Zubair slid the needle into Tulpule's arm. There was a crimson gush into the syringe. Tulpule looked at it in a sort of wonder.

'Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?' he quoted. Then, 'Is this the defatting agent?' he asked.

'What?' Zubair was taken aback.

'The name eludes me— Form ... formaldehyde?'

'Good heavens, no! This is just sedation.'

'For what? Aren't you going to drench the Sphatik in formaldehyde?'

'In a little while. Now please just relax.'

Tulpule's eyes were suddenly alert.

'And the formaldehyde will be applied directly on my brain?'

I remembered his questions, and my answers to them.

His eyes were still on Zubair.

'Yes,' the neurosurgeon said unwillingly. 'It will be applied directly to the brain.'

'I thought you would inject it, and it would circulate—'

'No, no.'

'Finish the job, Zubair. What are you waiting for? You were always a tardy chap. Gonsalves, where are you? Tuning up? Good, good. Play, then.'

Beside me, Ramakant wept noisily.

Dr Ahmad withdrew the needle and stepped aside.

Tulpule was drowsy now, and everybody summoned courage to step a little closer. Only Gonsalves, hard at his fiddle, stayed back.

A convulsion shook Tulpule, and then suddenly, stilled him.

Without warning, his eyes flew open and met mine with a look of deep irony.

'I didn't get it, did I?' he asked, quite distinctly.

And then, he died.

13 April 2013

1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-NMfp13Uug

Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed write together as Kalpish Ratna. Their most recent work of fiction is The Quarantine Papers (2010). They see science, particularly medical science, as an integral part of the humanities. Uncertain Life and Sure Death (2008) is an itinerant history of the epidemics of Bombay between 1500 and 1900. Their most recent work of nonfiction Once Upon a Hill (2012) is the story of the lost hills of Bombay. Ishrat and Kalpana are both surgeons.