Neat little perforations one after another, left to right, top to bottom, making up eleven vertical and eleven horizontal lines, dividing the sheet into hundred regular squares. A hundred little brown Gandhis looking over their left shoulders.
“Three one-rupee stamps.” A grubby hand pushed a grubby note through the counter window.
“No change,” replied Vishal, eyeing the note. The hand persisted, waving the note under his nose. He didn’t deign to speak again. Presently, the hand withdrew, allowing Vishal to concentrate on the sheet of postage stamps again.
Sad, straight lines crossing each other at abrupt right angles. Straight lines, right angles, planes and assembly-line production have supplanted hominoid curves and irregular shapes. We are impotent to recognise the beauty of asymmetry.
Vishal’s mood lightened as he turned over this gem in his head. Perhaps, just perhaps, a spark of originality was growing in him. After all these years, could it be possible that his latent genius had woken up?
The others would know. Yes, they would definitely notice some change. But, of course, they would be the last people on earth to acknowledge it. After all, weren’t they, too, dreaming the same dreams, floundering in the same murky river? Had he managed to reach the bank, or at least somewhere close from where he could just wade across?
“Sooner or later, humanity will find the confines of the Euclidean space claustrophobic.” Vishal wondered how they would respond to this contribution from him. He particularly wanted to know Guru’s reaction. Guru was their tacit leader. That was because of his ability to sustain his arguments the longest. He was a writer, though not a successful one.
But not being successful was a prerequisite for belonging to that motley bunch of artists, intellects, activists or good-for-nothings. Not successful, mind you, didn’t always imply failure. Successful failures was what they saw in themselves. And Vishal desperately wanted to be one.
They clung with fierce pride to their attitudes, saw achievement in obscurity and scorned accolades (if any came their way). Indeed, many of them secretly waited for an award or recognition just to have the gratification of rejecting it. Luckily, perhaps, none of them ever had to face the dilemma of accepting or refusing honours; they welcomed anonymity and, in return, it embraced them in its limitless arms.
Their perpetual grouse was against the system. Vishal loved the way they sibilated the word. They gathered it in their tongues and spat it out with such contempt that he could almost imagine a personified system, sputum-covered and cowering from them.
Vishal remembered that day, months ago, when he had dropped in at the Janata Coffee House to take shelter from the rain and had first met them. Seated irregularly around two tables joined together, they were engaged in a heated discussion as usual. But whatever they said, or the manner in which they said it, struck a concordant note in him.
Thereafter, he had come nearly every other day to savour their dialectics. They exuded an air of aiming for loftier, profound achievements, but somehow they had been done in by society. Vishal could readily empathise with them, for he was never convinced that all that destiny had in store for him was a position at the stamps counter in a godforsaken post office.
Their different personalities gradually drew in the fascinated hangers-on on the periphery of their circle. Vishal was keen to know their ambitions, their plans to infuse freshness into a stale world and the Utopia they dreamt of.
Strangely, he discovered, it was not so simple to know what they desired. They talked of the evils of the system (that accursed word again!), the need for a complete overhauling of the establishment, the self-defeating blindness of the people in recognising what was good for them. But, to Vishal’s bafflement, they seldom dwelt upon the changes they wanted to implement. When they did, they were exasperatingly nebulous.
In time, his disgruntlement mellowed. He saw through the hazy smoke rings of bravado and rebellion they dispelled; he comprehended that they were as retarded as he was in the quest for solutions.
He never knew for certain what aspirations each nurtured in his heart. He gathered that some of them wrote, some painted, some sculpted and some thought. The medium didn’t matter, they grandly concurred, as long as their creation put forth their message. By then, Vishal had learnt not to look for their elusive message; if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you wouldn’t find it.
Despite the disillusionment, he didn’t rebuff them; he strove harder to gain acceptance into their fold. After all, they weren’t bad; they never smashed windows or burnt buses. Their ‘fight’ was on a phrenic plane, which Vishal, with an intrinsic abhorrence for violence, wholeheartedly approved of. It also gave him the tag of a thinker, an original, which he found most soothing.
He gradually adopted their mode of behaviour and appearance, wore khadi kurtas and jeans and Hawai chappals. But he did not sport a beard, deciding that that would be pushing the cliched image of an artist too far. He developed a capacity for endless cups of coffee, but couldn’t overcome his distaste for cigarettes. Mostly, he’d get away with a puff or two, letting the rest burn away at the ends of his fingers, as if he was engrossed in the discussion.
Vishal soon graduated to an inner circle where he could be called upon to give a second opinion. Still, he was not expected to offer an original statement that would set off a debate. But that was his goal: To make a statement.
That evening, Vishal quietly slipped into his usual place. Guru was expounding on Rushdie. “…a sham. Just stringing together uncorrelated words doesn’t make a good book. Most people who claim to enjoy him don’t know what he’s talking about. Neither does he, I suppose. But no one will admit it. A case of the emperor’s new clothes,” he snorted.
“I disagree.” Wide eyes and unbelieving heads swirled towards Vishal. “At least he doesn’t go for linearity. He follows the unconventional, opening up a different horizon. Joyce did that. You know, today, I was looking at the stamps in the PO; I was struck by the monotony of the straight lines and right angles and hundreds of regular squares. Everything is stale, predictable. Imagine, what if stamps were irregular polygons, each one different from the other? Something like snowflakes.”
“Then you would have a tough time detaching the stamps from each other for your customers, I guess,” smirked Guru.
“That’s what I meant. The value of everything is based on its utility. Replication and mechanisation have taken over our idea of structure and form. Sooner or later, man will find the confines of the Euclidean space claustrophobic.” Vishal looked around. No one broke in, even Guru was waiting for him to proceed. Vishal was exhilarated. He had arrived.
“The beauty of asymmetry, you know…”