Hybrid work by Nachi Keta
Author’s note: “A picture of my existence” is a dense piece of fiction, a memoir, an essay on death, a prose-poem, a meditation on a book, all in one, about death, nature, climate and existence and does not play by the rules of time. It is a meditation of NaChi who, apparently, hikes with his alter ego ChiNa, and finds himself in a crematorium by a mountain rivulet. And ends up meeting a ghost, with whom he has a timeless conversation, during which a part of his friend/alter ego, ChiNa, gets metamorphosed. And he also goes through the same, eventually—carrying with him nothing but a few lines from a novella called “Metamorphosis” by Kafka, the crow.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself metamorphosed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
I remember. I was staying in a tiny mountain village then. And under a glaucous sky, in the lands still unfamiliar to us, once, ChiNa—my frog-faced friend, and I—a little dervish with impolite thoughts, started walking.
And got lost—in the spruce crawling up the hills swishing to an angry wind; water flowing beneath us to unknown territories; and hurrying clouds older than earth. We walked. Birds gurgled in our way. Dewdrops on yellow-green leaves left us dazed. And a moody zephyr welcomed us and bid goodbye alternately; dancing around a little plastic sheet on a small drain of fresh water.
Talking about this and that, sometimes with each other, sometimes with saplings and hills, we continued walking thus, and stopped near a bridge. An old one. Made of cast iron—with railings stained with rust. And stood there—my body, for many years, looking down at the shrinking river, whose frothy bubbles tumbled over little pebbles, making millions of little waterfalls.
Centuries passed. I was dazed for no reason other than my desire of swimming like fish. But then I heard the guttural voice of my friend coming from a distant land. I had almost forgotten about him. “NaChi, wait here on the bridge, and I’ll be back in no time,” he was saying.
His words brought me back to reality. I knew him. A wanderer, he was—always in search of new experiences. But how could he leave me alone? I needed him. “The water below is too tempting. It may pull me down. So, don’t leave me,” I said, my eyes pleading, my fingers touching the railing of the bridge—its iron rust reddening my fingers already.
He took his time. “Come with me, then. I want to go a little up and then down,” he said, his eyes beaming, a lisp on his lips, the cap on his balding head askew. After a while of thinking nothing, I said “Okay” with my eyes.
Now we were walking again. And time, that desultory ghost which fools us all, was churning. We stopped when we spotted a narrow gully paved with white stones on our right towards the ravine.
“I am going down,” ChiNa said, and without a second word, I followed.
Placing one foot after another carefully—we were a picture of dazed calmness. And there was a rivulet, a reedy thread like a string of pearls—its music ringing in our ears like an Indian woman walking in anklets. It pulled us even stronger. Our paced increased. We didn’t stop when plastic hidden behind bushes mocked us—chips bags, toothpaste tubes, milk cartons, and discarded clothes. They knew how to make us feel guilty. But we were human; we were beyond guilt. And with every step we took, we veered away from time—the delusion of delusions.
In time, I realized that my friend was taking me to a crematorium—a place where they burn humans who have ended their time on earth. So, to death, the finality, we were walking. The symbol of death. It was a regular assortment of artificial structures, like I had seen once on the plains. The elements were the same: An asbestos shed over a cemented bed for the dead body to rest before turning into ash. Another one where their loved one could talk and hiss words to each other, offer prayers and perform rites. And there was also a slippery platform beside a gully towards the rivulet, a sort of landing—on which one could stand and sprinkle ash in water, the ash that could once breathe.
When I reached the landing, I placed my bum on a wet stone, and at once felt calmer than I had ever been. I breathed in a lungful of air and started absorbing the world—which is what I had always been after, like my friend, ChiNa.
It was nothing but serene. Water was gushing before me—murmuring like senseless time, twinkling in the fading light and creating a tingling symphony which almost lulled me to sleep. And the mountains were whispering things in my buzzed up ears—things I had thought of once in my dreams and forgotten; things known and unknown; strange and familiar.
‘Death is time.’ The mountains and the river; the plants and the flowers, told me. ‘It is slowness, and whizzingly rapid. It is not a finality, and not a religious gateway to another land either. Death is like a rill, a river.’ But how? — I didn’t know. I could only say, ‘From time to death, I’ve traveled. From continuous movement to a full stop.’
And it was then that a not-so-novel thought struck me. That the dead people of surrounding villages, whose spirits have been wailing in this ravine for centuries, were burned in this very crematorium—their smoke clogged in the mountain crevices around. They must be nearby.
Centuries passed. Time was still. ChiNa was jumping and guttering in water, like frogs do when it rains. My toes were wet. I felt like standing. But I didn’t. I had never felt such calm before. No one could make me leave that stone. It was my home. And also, I knew, something was brewing. I could sense it. The world was on the verge of ultimate transformation. An ultimate metamorphosis. Yes. Like the one I had read about once and yearned for, in a small book called “Metamorphosis.”
A huge change was upon the world, walking towards us like Balrog, who was responsible for Gandalf’s metamorphosis from ‘the gray’ to ‘the white’. So I looked for ChiNa to ask him to come ashore. I wanted him safe. And I wanted him to keep me safe. But he was nowhere. I looked and looked. I searched for him—in the slopes of hills around, even though darkness had won over the sun. I pulled out my phone to call him.
Had he left me? — fear buzzed in my ears. If he did, I knew I’d drown.
But then I heard a frog’s croak. And saw it as well, in the brightness of moon aided by stars. It looked like ChiNa. Even without investigating, I knew… my friend had metamorphosed into a frog. And believe me when I say it—it made me burn with jealousy. Why was he the chosen one, and not me?
He was now free from the shackles of being human. Jumping and jumping over millions of little waterfalls—spread like hope—made by the boulders in the rivulet’s path. He frolicked with water alone, as if he had forgotten me, and my tendency of falling into water for no reason other than my fantasy of being a fish. His long bent legs, his croak, the dots on his skin and his gigantic eyes made me cringe. I felt more useless about my existence than ever. I should have been in his place—I almost yelled.
With these feelings, lines from a little weaver of words, called Kafka, the crow, from his book called “Metamorphosis” came gushing to me, which made perfect sense when ChiNa was concerned… “Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.”
I wanted to feel the same. So my heart grieved, because I could not.
Centuries passed… while I munched upon thoughts of life and death and change. And the evening continued to metamorphose from orange to red, and then from red to violet. But as soon as the violet metamorphosed into dark, I felt a change. I felt their presence—the spirits of those who were burned in this crematorium—their cold ethereal bodies, and their airless sighs. The smoke they were made of moved and murmured, clogging the crevices of the hills, wailing every night, longing for the dreams they couldn’t achieve when they were human. But they were also happy. They had passed into another world—this time a dreamless one.
I stood up. Suddenly. And started walking to the bedrest of ghosts. Why? I had no idea.
It was like any other final resting place—like the one on which they had cremated my grandmother, once; standing on which, after she was done turning into ash, I had picked up her skull, and through a crevice near its neck, I had seen my father wiping his eyes—first time for me. So I had to drift away. And into a nearby copse I went… where I met a twittering Myna, who told me, “Death is Sapling. It doesn’t even exist. Only crematoriums do. And saplings. And there is only one thing in the world—Metamorphosis.”
Centuries have passed. I am still walking to the bedstead of the dead—even when dark has taken over the ravine, full of moon and stars, and the clouds have gone. Though I’m not sure what I’ll do when I reach it. I even feel I may be walking to my death. But it’s okay. I don’t fear it. I just want to lie on the bedstead and experience what my grandma must have that day in August when the sky was glaucous, and everyone was quiet, and the concrete bench was being heated by her melting body.
I never reach it—the bedstead for the dead. Of course.
‘And isn’t it what you had expected all along?’ I ask myself… ‘Even wished for.’ And as if in response, I hear — “You are not dead, yet; so you’re not allowed in here. Your shed is different, the one for the living.”
The words seem to come from the landing. I’m pretty sure whose they are but don’t want to put it into words. Time takes a dense pause before I hear him again. “Come, here, let’s talk,” the ghost says.
I turn back. He is sitting on my boulder—now his. And when I reach it, he says, “So. Do you want to hear the stories of the villagers of these mountains?”
His image isn’t clear. He is mostly smoke. Except for a faint and whitish profile, I can’t make much of him. But I can hear his words. Yes—I say to his proposal; and he begins his tiring tale… which goes on and on. He does not talk about kings and wars, though. No. Rather, he talks about common people and their mundane lives—how they used to feel so puny before mountains that they were unable to fear death. And there are stories of great love, he tells me. And stories of great men, hidden in mountain crevices, along-with the smoke of ghosts, still chanting Mantras and seeking Moksha.
The nameless ghost tells me the stories of the villagers one by one—where and when they were born, how well they lived, who were their best friends, how was their married life, how were their kids, and how they ended up as spirits. He doesn’t tell me his own story, though. Not even his name. He’s very particular about it. He doesn’t want to share even an iota of himself with me. But what he shares is more than enough. It has quenched my thirst for stories, for which I have been wandering in these hills, like a ghost. And now, even if I die tomorrow, I won’t regret it.
A few seconds flutter by. My ghost friend is not speaking, but his sighs fill the ravine, and my heart. The day has faded. Violet has dissolved into Black. Even the cold has increased. But his ethereal aura keeps me warm. ChiNa, on the other hand, (and how can I forget him?) is still jumping from one stone to another, his big round eyes looking left and right, his two long sinewy legs springing up and down, and his throat croaking and croaking … the croak getting thinner every passing century, as he tumbles away from me—farther and farther he goes… to meet other ghosts, who are making dinner by another creek.
And I continue turning into one myself.
So, this is how metamorphosis goes. After a moment of blankness, my ghost friend hisses “Welcome.” He hisses, for he doesn’t want a passing goatherd to be afraid of ghosts—of us. “Death is metamorphosis,” he says, talking like the Myna of the copse near which my grandma was burned.
I sigh. Another repetition. Even though I am no longer human. But it’s okay. Nothing has changed. And nothing ever does. And I say, now that my existence has come to an end, copying the lines from a small novella by a crow: “A picture of my existence… would show a useless wooden stake covered in snow… stuck loosely at a slant in the ground in a plowed field on the edge of a vast open plain on a dark winter night.”
A kidney transplant recipient, Nachi Keta considers himself too old for this world, which is too full of healthy bodies, which is too stuffed with words, that are too despairing for this world, which is too young for him. He is a dropout of two of the most prestigious universities in the world, loves his privacy and does not tweet as SAGE (@KetaNachi).
Image by Yuriy Bogdanov from Unsplash