While contemplating suicide, as he was frequently wont to do, Ceylon Nathan happened to look closely at the plateglass window and noticed a snail crawling slowly across it. He went towards it and… luckily, it was on the other side of the glass pane. He tapped his right forefinger against the glass as though to attract its attention. The snail raised its head along with its four tentacles, paused for a while and then resumed its laborious progress.
While he wasn’t sure how long it had been pouring, the rain had persisted since the previous day, and that must have brought the snail out. This was the third snail to emerge during this year’s rains. The first specimen had been bigger than this one. It had been green all over with a larger shell. The second snail had been more or less the same size as this one, but its antennae had not been quite symmetrical – one had been longer than the other.
Ceylon Nathan was raising a snail of his own in a glass case. This was its third year with him. He had found it as a small slug during one rainy season and had given it a home. For some strange unknown reason, he had named the snail ‘Ceylon Nathan’ after himself.
He grabbed a towel and went to take a shower. As the warm water cascaded through his bushy hair and flowed throughout his body, his thoughts once again turned towards suicide. These thoughts were not novel. They have repeatedly been affecting him for several years now.
Suicide also did not seem all that tough a proposition. All that was required was a strong beam and a length of stout rope. You merely needed to loop the rope over the beam, make sure it was securely fastened by tugging at it, and if not secure, re-tie it again tighter. You then make a noose at the other end of the rope and insert your neck into it. The rope would constrict your carotid arteries, jugular veins or the airway…
All that’s well and good. But the biggest drawback in dying is that we ourselves are unaware of our passing. This is perhaps the height of suffering and can be considered more painful than the agony of death itself.
It was this thought that tormented Ceylon Nathan more. He had, in fact, once fastened a noose around his neck and tried to commit suicide. Holding on with both hands to the rope around his neck, he had even jumped off the stool he was standing on. The rope had tightened around his hands and neck; his vision had darkened, his breathing had become laboured, his throat had been constricted, and, for a moment or so, he thought he was about to die. He had scrabbled hard and with much effort somehow managed to get a toehold on the floor. His neck was burning terribly. In a disjointed manner, he managed to drop on to the bed and spent the next ten minutes or so recovering from a frightful fit of coughing.
When he finally managed to stand up, he inspected his neck in a mirror and found bloody welts all around it. He touched them gingerly and found they stung. He kept repeatedly massaging his throat, prolonging the stinging sensation. So, while Ceylon Nathan had no problems in dying, the hitch lay in who would apprise him of the fact after his death.
After his bath, he emerged with the towel around his waist and went to the glass case and looked in on his pet snail which was crawling on a twig leaving a slimy trail behind.
He picked up a notebook titled ‘Snail’ and had a picture of a snail under the heading, leafed through it and read a few sentences. They were as follows:
• I am the owner of a pet snail. I have named it Ceylon Nathan after myself.
• A snail has two antennae on its head and belongs to the gastropod family. The pulmonata group of snails breathe via their lungs while aquatic snails breathe underwater using their gills.
• Another feature of snails is that they carry their homes on their own backs in the form of a coiled shell that is large enough for them to retract completely into. They go into their shells during inclement weather or to protect themselves from predators.
He added an additional item under the foregoing, as follows:
• A snail takes at least a week to cover a distance of one kilometre.
In the western corner of Ceylon Nathan’s room was a cupboard containing all his books. The shelf’s centre was entirely occupied by a large white statue of the Buddha in silent contemplation.
In an inexplicable departure from his normal practice, he began arriving at the bus stop an hour before his bus’s scheduled arrival. Somehow he seemed to like this practice. Instead of simply staying at home, the expectation for
Something seemed to provide him with happiness and fill his empty heart with excitement. In one way, he equated the waiting for the bus to anticipating his death. He knew very clearly in his own mind that he was different from others. He felt that something was hovering around him, bothering him and that it had pervaded inside of him like a mystical spirit. He even went to the extent of absurdly resigning himself to the thought that he had been constrained and locked up in something intangible, like capitulation or surrender.
He got into the bus and seated himself in the last row. There was a glass cover in front of his seat. He believed that it screened him off from the rest of the passengers while he indulged in his habit of talking to himself. Based on that belief, he would begin speaking to himself. At such times, Ceylon Nathan’s body would tighten like a lump of iron and his legs would flutter. His head would swell, and it would seem as though his brain would explode. He would feel like stabbing himself in his head at such moments.
He would start blabbering in a loud voice, forgetting everyone around him. He had no fixed time limit for this practice. And, when he regained normalcy, he would look around him in a guilty, flustered manner.
Once while he was speaking to himself, a caucasian girl happened to notice him. This resulted in a huge embarrassment to Ceylon Nathan. The next time he encountered her, she stared at him unblinkingly for a while and then turned her face away towards the window with a small laugh.
Then she turned again and looked at Ceylon Nathan with a smile. It was then Ceylon Nathan’s turn to look away in embarrassment. From that day onwards, Ceylon Nathan avoided that particular bus. He would board a later one, get off at midpoint and catch another bus to his final destination. This became his regular habit thereafter.
In this fashion, death had managed to create huge anxiety and depression inside of his mind. He felt there was hardly any gap between life and death. That gap was a mere illusion. An empty space filled with nothingness. He felt that life was nothing but lunacy in a way. Everyone around him was nuts. Life was not permanent; death alone was unchanging.
We are nothing after death. Death erases everything – the body, the soul and life itself. When we cannot realise our own deaths, what was the purpose of our lives? This thought amused him. Ceylon Nathan laughed within himself. What was life? It was nothing but waiting to die. There was nothing certain in this material life other than death.
Death is the beginning of everything. Pleasure, grief, love, lust, anger, affection, imperfection, virtue… all of this only help drag us inevitably towards death. Life is nothing but a mere journey. The final destination is death. Knowingly or unwittingly, we are all travellers headed towards this common destination.
Then what about rebirth? That is nothing but bogus propaganda unleashed by someone with a personal agenda. Death is the end of every human being. There was nothing beyond it. The only difference between life and death is … while life can let you down in the most unexpected ways, at the most inopportune of moments, death will never forsake us. We are all walking. There is a huge cave in front of us. That cave is death. All of us who are marching will surely enter that cave sooner or later. The cave is like the maw of a voracious beast.
A lady with neatly coiffed hair is the day’s first customer. She purchases two rye bread rolls and four others topped with olives. Ceylon Nathan picked up a white and blue checked apron and tied it around himself. He then turned towards the dough already kneaded by Mr Michael Fosberg, laid it on the table and began skillfully proportioning it into little balls.
He finished all his allotted work within half an hour. Now all he had to do was stop the machine when it beeped, collect the prepared bread rolls and stack them in an orderly fashion on trolleys. The second customer of the day was an aged person. He waddled in slowly like a turtle, approached Fosberg, and bought six pumpernickel rolls. After he left, Ceylon Nathan approached Fosberg and greeted him.
“Ah, the man with the death wish! How are you doing?” Ceylon Nathan could not help but laugh. He reported that the fresh batch of rolls was being cooked and, when done, he would stack them in order. Fosberg nodded his head in acknowledgement. He then lit the six big red candles that were kept behind him. Bringing out the piggy bank, he inserted a five euro note into it as his contribution for the day. Ceylon Nathan wiped all the tables clean with a wet dishrag.
A middle-aged woman then came in to buy ten pieces of rolls and a cup of coffee. When Fosberg tendered her change in coins, she muttered I am not a beggar, and walked out.
They brought in a young girl bleeding from a broken leg. I took the wailing girl in my arms and laid her gently on the ground. It was raining heavily outside and the roof of the hospital leaked. Add to that the unceasing wailing and moaning of the injured and the dying. Shutting my ears to the cacophony, I busied myself in trying to save the little girl’s leg. Half the bone was broken and the wound was bleeding heavily.
The priority was to set the broken bones. I gathered them together and tied a cloth bandage tightly, immobilising them. The bleeding slowed down. I gently stroked the girl’s head and asked if it hurt a lot. Without uttering a word, she squirmed like a snake biting her lips tightly. I looked to see if we had any pethidine. But we only had morphine. Morphine was a little dangerous as it would act directly on the central nervous system to decrease the feeling of pain.
While I was debating with myself whether to administer the morphine or not, several army personnel barged into the hospital premises. All women soldiers in green fatigues. They arrested all of us and marched us away.
We were kept confined in an unnamed army camp. It was an enormous structure with huge windows at the top of the walls, which allowed the rays of the evening sun to filter through. They came down a circular staircase. Their leader appeared to be a woman over forty years of age. Her voluptuous breasts belied her slender appearance. She walked in smartly, took off her cap and hurled it on the table.
Looking at us kneeling on the ground in front of her, she asked contemptuously, “You bloody beggars from India trying to scratch out a living here…you want a separate Tamil Eelam ?” At that question, something hard and lumpy seemed her misshapen yellow teeth in a wide grin and said, Utho.
Having heard this narrative keenly, like a child listening to a fairy tale related by a favourite uncle, he got up and went to the toilet. When he came back, he carried a bottle of wine and two glasses. He poured wine for both of them and gave one glass to Ceylon Nathan. He downed his glass in one swallow and poured a second drink for himself. He then addressed Ceylon Nathan.
“It is not unusual for good men to be often insulted in this fashion. But it is silly to keep agonizing over it constantly. A customer once called me an asshole. Like you, I lost my sleepover that insult. But luckily that phase only lasted a short while. My wife consoled me and brought me back to normalcy. I realised then that her words and her touch had the power to cure everything. There’s nothing greater in this world than a woman’s warmth and love.”
At this point, an eighteen-year-old girl walked in, greeted Fosberg, and purchased several sweet rolls from him. Fosberg started drinking again as soon as she left the store. Ceylon Nathan could not help but marvel at Fosberg. There must have been no more than seven or eight customers since the store opened that morning. The business could not be said to be booming. It was not as though today was a prolonged day.
It was much the same story on all their normal working days as well. But he had never heard Fosberg expressing any misgivings about this state of affairs. Ceylon Nathan considered Fosberg, who handed him his wages on the first of each month without a murmur, as nothing less than an angel descended from heaven.
Fosberg kept on drinking. Ceylon Nathan somehow finished his first glass. His thought went back to death. He shook his head to clear it of such notions and entered the real world. It was getting dark outside. He washed the floury trays and stacked them neatly one by one. The wine made him stagger a bit. When he took off his apron and hung it behind the door, Fosberg called him over to dance with him.
Ceylon Nathan’s glass was refilled once more. Chancing upon an old Germanic melody on his radio, Fosberg began dancing enthusiastically. He took hold of Ceylon Nathan’s hands, lifted them, used them to twirl himself around, then got hold of Ceylon Nathan’s shoulders, shook them and fell dead.
Mr Michael Forsberg’s body was laid out for viewing. A lady with large eyes and bobbed hair was weeping silently. The man next to her, consoling her, must be her husband. He was tall and skinny. A priest, with a tubby body and shorter than average height – four foot five inches – was standing by and praying. It was still drizzling. Ceylon Nathan kept looking at Forsberg’s lifeless body. Fosberg, who lay with his hands crossed across his chest, looked ashen in death. It had all ended in a flash. This was death. A man who was alive yesterday is no more. He has entered the cavern of death.
Ceylon Nathan felt an urge to shake the lifeless Fosberg awake and inform him of his death. But he immediately realised the contradiction in the thinking and laughed to himself. How was it possible to awaken a dead person? But something inside of him kept urging him to rouse Fosberg.
When Fosberg’s body was lowered into the grave, he mused on the theory of life. To be aware of being alive was the theory of life. But death did not possess any bloody theory. Nobody understood death. Then how come some of the sages of yore have talked about life after death? It was even claimed that a sage named Bhadra lived on after his death?
In truth, Ceylon Nathan was perplexed. Life, death, death, life – he seemed confounded by it all. He thought he should reread Simon Richard’s philosophy on life. All this confusion resulted from reading too much, which could easily cause one’s head to explode. He decided to ascertain if anyone had written a book exclusively dealing with life and checked it out of the library or purchased it from a book-seller. But what was he to do till then?
By now he had consumed four bottles of beer. When he felt his vision beginning to darken a little, he got up and started walking. Outside, it was drizzling still. Ceylon Nathan walked at the edge of the street. He tried to walk steadily, realising that his legs appeared to be uncoordinated. The rain stung his face like needles. He wiped the rainwater off his face with one hand and, not wishing to go home and, clueless as to where else to go, walked along with the rain.
It seemed an endless journey. When his legs grew tired, he would sit down on a bench for a while and then resume his aimless meandering again. While he was ambling along in this fashion, the idea of visiting a prostitute struck Ceylon Nathan.
It was Ceylon Nathan’s very first glimpse of a naked woman’s slick body. She was fleshy beneath her breasts and had wide hips and thick thighs. She gave a broad smile to Ceylon Nathan who looked down at the floor and smiled bashfully in return. The call girl crawled on her knees towards Ceylon Nathan, hugged him and began kissing him on his lips.
Her right hand entered Ceylon Nathan’s thick cluster of hair like a five-headed serpent. He stammered and searched for words which wouldn’t come. A droplet of sweat trickled down the centre of his back and stopped when it reached his buttocks. As the woman’s left hand reached for his cock, he batted it aside, somehow getting out the words, ‘don’t, I don’t like it.’ His eyes were still fastened on the ground. The sex worker lifted Ceylon Nathan’s head with her hand and asked, is this your first time? He again lowered his head, resisting her pressure and nodded his head in assent.
When she asked, ‘Don’t you want anything at all from me?’ he laid her down on the bed and spent some time gazing at her nakedness. How wonderful is a woman’s body! He felt that, in truth, there was nothing more interesting than a woman’s naked body. A woman is a riddle. A woman’s body is an enigma, a puzzle that could never be solved. Ceylon Nathan spread the streetwalker’s thighs apart and sat cross-legged between them. Her clean-shaven sex was slightly distended. Ceylon Nathan grabbed hold of her thighs and buried his face between them.
He felt an indescribable pleasure spreading through him, and wished the feeling would continue for the rest of his life. He felt life, at last, had a meaning. As though he was a beast charged with electricity, he began having sex with the prostitute. She continued to smile at him with her painted lips. Tsk …what sort of a girl is this? How is she able to fake a smile at someone for the sake of a few euros? He could not help but wonder at the ease with which women get their own way with the help of a smile – whether real or false.
It was morning when he woke up from his drunken stupor. Ceylon Nathan was initially confused about whether his visit to the brothel was a mere dream or a reality. When he realised that it had indeed been real, his throat constricted and his whole body shivered. He sat immobile for a short while, then got up and went into the toilet. The shivering in his body did not stop. He looked at himself in the mirror and, seeing that his eyes were red and bloodshot, splashed some water onto his face. As he came back and dropped heavily back on the bed, the harlot’s painted face and the fake smile came to mind.
These images bothered him so much that he began wailing loudly. He felt that the prostitute’s memory had permeated into every crevice of his brain and was lodged there permanently. He felt it would be impossible to rid himself of the memory any time soon. As such, thoughts of suicide once again invaded his mind.
He filled the bathtub with water and lay immersed in it. He was determined not to get out of the tub, no matter what. Bubbles began to emerge from Ceylon Nathan’s nostrils. His lungs became congested and seemed to swell. Ceylon Nathan still could not escape the memory of the prostitute. When he opened his eyes, it seemed to him the call girl’s face was also under the water, smiling at him. The light emanating from that smile seemed to have a shape of its own and appeared to be all-pervasive.
The woman’s tongue, red like that of a snake’s, was kissing his dry lips while he had his face tucked into her hips. His sweaty body copulating with the prostitute, while she bites her lips in simulated ecstasy. All these scenes played out inside his mind as images. Ceylon Nathan could no longer hold his breath. He erupted out of the bathtub, splashing water droplets all around the bathroom.
He wandered around for a few days with a vacant mindset. While the memory of the prostitute was now somewhat fainter, he still experienced a thrill every time he thought of her. He confined himself to home during the daytime and wandered about in the evenings. Sometimes he wrote a bit about his snail. He painted for a while. While painting, his hands would begin to tremble, and he would hurl the palette aside violently.
He would close his eyes with his hands and view the unfinished painting through the latticework of his fingers. He would yell in frustration. He would delve into Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera’s works until he felt he would go mad. He would argue against Kundera’s thought processes with theories of his own. He would get exceedingly confused with the statement by an author that “I am not a single entity; I transform into a different me after death.” He would argue extensively against this statement and, just as he would conclude, he would get further muddled by Alexander Bukanov’s writings.
How about a drink? But, that might again trigger thoughts of visiting the prostitute. So what? What was wrong with revisiting her?
The bartender smiled at him and offered up a foaming tankard of beer.
He took a swallow and wiped the foam off his lips. He looked out through the large plate glass window and saw a wrinkled older woman playing the violin on the street. A white cloth was spread in front of her, and it held a few coins. Beyond that, on Klingenstrasse, a newspaper vendor opened up his stall and arranged the day’s newspapers and magazines.
What Fosberg had said was quite true. One achieves satisfaction by humiliating the enemy than by defeating him. As far as he was concerned, humiliation was a crueller punishment than death. It came from a mindset determined by circumstances and power. Begging someone for mercy today, a man may himself turn into a monster and humiliate someone else tomorrow. The distinction lay basically in the power that the man possessed. In most circumstances, power and authority normally turn good persons into blackguards. It is a rare few that can escape the blandishment.
Ceylon Nathan ordered another stein of beer and emptied it in one swallow. When he felt a faint buzz, he got up and began walking. As soon as he reached home, he fell on the bed. He was bombarded by memories of both the prostitute and the army woman. Hoping to erase memories of the army woman, he recalled his encounter with the prostitute and tried masturbating.
In his faintly drunken state, he failed to get an erection. He opened the window and looked out. A ten-year-old girl was playing on the street, and her exertions had rucked up her skirt to reveal her thighs. Immediately Ceylon Nathan’s member stood fully erect. His hand began to operate like a clockwork machine. Ejaculation brought him some relief.
I had first met Ceylon Nathan on a snowy Christmas day just like this one. When he finished relating all his problems to me, as though to a close friend, I assuaged him by merely saying ‘Jesus will take care of all your problems.’ He sat with his head down for a while and then, holding my hands in both his, asked, “Couldn’t you write about my travails?” In turn, I held his hands hard and assured him, “If not today, I shall certainly write about you and your journey someday.”
Two months after this incident, I wrote all about Ceylon Nathan’s torments as above, added two paragraphs as the ending to the story, titled it Utho and sent it to a friend of mine. After having gone through it, he emailed to say, “Have read it. I feel it does not gel together as a story. Now, it’s up to you.”
I, therefore, needed to meet Ceylon Nathan once more to write this as a story. Unless I talked to him, I wouldn’t know how it all turned out after our first meeting, and I wouldn’t be able to complete this story. I began looking for him every opportunity I got. I enquired of all our common acquaintances about his current whereabouts. No one knew about his present activities. I even went to the street in Germany where Tamils have their shops and described Ceylon Nathan’s physical appearance and sought information about him. No!… no one there knew of him.
While I was engaged in the search for Ceylon Nathan, a snippet appeared on the TV news of an incident at the place where I’m residing. I immediately focussed on that news item closely as a matter of interest. Authorities had apparently discovered a body that had frozen to death because of the extreme cold. According to the news report, it appeared to be a male Sri Lankan body who had submitted false documents to secure residency rights in the country. As soon as they mentioned ‘Sri Lankan’, I lost interest in the news and switched off the TV.
A few days later, I received a book titled “Snail” from Ceylon Nathan, with a picture of a snail on the cover. That’s when I recalled having given him my address when we had last met. On page 84 of the book that contained his notes, a note had been written in red ink. I read that note with quick interest, wishing to see if it was of special importance. When I finished, my legs felt rubbery. It felt as though the veins in my brain had haemorrhaged inside my skull. The note read as follows:
I am a person looking forward to my death. In a novel I read recently, the hero waits twenty years for his death on a hilltop. Even though I do not live on a mountain top, I too am looking forward to death. While the hero of the book had no particular reason to embrace death, he does so of his own volition. But I am unlike him; there is a specific reason why I look forward to my death. In those dark days, they had imprisoned the little girl, Catalina, in the same underground dungeon with me. They ensured that her half-broken leg was now fully broken. After three days of unconsciousness, little Catalina kept painfully imploring, “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me…” throughout the fourth day. Wordlessly, I lay on the ground. At midnight they came back and brutally assaulted me again. I felt my bones crack and wailed in great pain. They didn’t let up on the beating.
When I felt I couldn’t stand it any longer, I blurted out something I had vowed never to reveal to them under any circumstance. “Please don’t hit me any more…I’m actually, truly a Sinhalese…my full name is Wickramabahu Karunaratne. I belong to a village in the South of Sri Lanka but have lived in Vanni for the last two years. I don’t know anything about the LTTE or any of these people. My mother must be anxiously looking for me…please let me go…”
When I said that one woman in the group renewed her assault on me saying, “As a Sinhalese, why the fuck do you allow the Tamils to bugger you?” The whole group joined in, and I swooned with the agony. Two months later, when I was being released from the cell, little Catalina caught hold of my legs and pleaded, “Don’t leave me behind…please don’t leave me behind here…” Unable to face her, I walked on with her clinging still to my legs. A woman soldier then kicked her aside brutally, causing her to release her hold on my legs. But even then her plaintive cry, “Don’t leave me here…don’t leave me behind…” kept following me.
When I quickly shut the book, feeling overcome with emotion at the description of that scene, I suddenly saw a snail crawling near my legs and let out a loud “Aah” at the suddenness of its appearance.