"Shudhh Shakahari Desi" is all about you and me: my exposure and experiences with your culture, your food, your language, your music blended in a humor curry of my own hopeless attempts to become you and my struggle to evolve as the sole epitome of National Integration, as I grew up and cultivated my own self embracing all of my nation in over 15 states in India. Am hoping you will find some of yourself with a bit of me strewn in here...
Episode - 19
It’s well past midnight and I am unable to sleep. There is not a single whisper in the winds outside my window. It is as if the night is speechless, mourning the death of every victim of every genocide on this day by a minute’s silence, until the minutes add up to hours of a pervasive, dark and muffled reticence.
I reach out for my phone to check the time. It’s two in the morning and I am beginning to get restless, shifting sides, changing the angles of my pillow and wondering if I should just get up and pop in a pill to fight one of my worst enemies after claustrophobia--—insomnia. I pour myself a glass of water and decide against medication. I close my eyes again and try to focus on sleep. All I see through the dark filters of the night are electric blue lines and waves floating in a purplish pattern, almost like a graphic animation. My mind is hyperactive and refusing to calm down. I console myself and almost in what could sound like a self- disciplining order hear a voice dictate… “Stop thinking, just go off to sleep.” I don’t wish to be typecast as an idiosyncratic scatterbrained thinker sieving the nuisance from the worthy, not at this hour of the night. And then I hear a soft hollow laughter. Am I hearing voices, I wonder! It’s unlikely that I am hallucinating because I am so wide awake. I strain my ears…yes, I hear it again.
This time it is a hollow muffled guffaw. And it’s a male. It’s impossible that a neighbour could be awake at this hour and laughing aloud. Also, it seems like a hushed laughter, barely audible, like someone has cracked a very private joke amongst a group of very close friends, at a distance, not more than a few hands away. The feeling is eerie, but I muster the courage to leave my bed and follow the laughter. As I walk past the dining room, now bathed in a soft yellow night light, the laughter suddenly stops. It is as if someone has gotten the wind of my arrival and is expressing the disapproval of my trespassing into a private territory. Then I see her. She is sitting on the edge of the couch, her knees folded, and her mermaid like body turned at an awkward angle towards my antique His Master’s Voice Gramophone. A soft light is falling on the waves of her hair. From what I can see, she is brown, very brown. I have seen her before but I cannot recall where. She looks up at me and smiles.
“Shhh, don’t speak.….”she speaks to me with an authority as if I am an intruder in her house and not the other way around. For a moment, I am captivated by the artistry latent in those locks, almost hypnotized by the sheer beauty and uniqueness of my unusual guest. “Who are you? What on earth are you doing in my living room at this hour? I protest. “You don’t know me?” She throws back a question at me, almost disappointed. “Am I supposed to?” I try remembering.
“Yes, we met in Barcelona, by the sea. You brought me home,” she speaks softly. It is only when she says “Barcelona” that a bell rings in my mind.
“Goodness Gracious! But you…you are not real..how can you?…you are not supposed to be here, I put you up on the…er..wall.” I shout in disbelief! “Shhh…don’t be so loud. It’s the middle of the night. You will wake everyone up,“ she puts a delicate finger on her lips silencing me.
“I know you are surprised. Anyone in your place would be. This is our little secret. Every night, when you retire from the long hard day’s work and fall asleep, we come alive…” she continues. “Who is we? I can’t understand a word of this mumbo jumbo.”
“All of us…the masks you wear and the ones you don’t.” I hear a soft chorus from my favourite sunshine orange wall decorated with masks. This is where the world meets in my home. Wood, brass, and papier mache; ribbon-tied, red, blue, gold, sometimes in batik finish! I have hand-picked and painstakingly collected these masks from all across the globe. They are dramatic portraits of spirit beings, departed ancestors of forgotten African tribes, theatrical, symbolic and mysterious. And each one of them is special, because there is a culture, a tradition and a secret behind all the hollow eyes.
However, I am intrigued by the revelation of this non-inclusive private meeting in my own home! And if I must admit, I am upset.
“Really? Wow!! So what do you gather to discuss behind my back every night?
The Korean theatre mask with the biggest smile and two strands of black braided hair on either side of his bald head starts chuckling. “We bitch about your guests and debate over the men you must see and the funny bunch of hypocrites you call friends. Are you insecure?”
he asks. “Why should I? And how dare you, who is but a formless head, insult my friends!” I retort immediately at the insolent jester.
“Chuck, stop!” says a deep throated voice from the wall. I notice the mouth of the Chief of the Ashanti tribe move. “Yes, your highness.” He obliges. “Who is Chuck?” I am curious now.
“That idiot who opens his mouth so wide that his brains fall out,” responds another voice from the top. I see the hollow of the mouth of the vicious looking Tibetian Mahakaal mask in red, open and close. The big long off-white canines are shining in the soft light of the lamp like the fangs of a deadly snake. It’s one of the ugliest in my collection, and I sometimes wonder if it can really ward off the evil eye as it is meant to scare the enemy. He spots the rejection in my face immediately and as if, reading the thoughts in my mind continues…
"Tibetans are characterized by our red faces and history is a witness to this truth. Did you know that the troops of Tubo Kingdom painted their faces with blood to terrorize the enemy? In our culture, red masks represent bravery, intelligence and the skill to use strategy to conquer or advise others.”
I am impressed by the story. I decide to sit on the floor now facing the wall, listening to the whispers of the night. The Ashanti chief speaks again. “Unlike you humans, we respect courage. From where I and several of my fellow Africans come, every mask has a traditional or spiritual meaning.” “Tell me about it,” I probe like a keen student.
“Conceptually…” he clears his throat and carries on…” The wearer of the ritual mask surrenders his human identity and transforms into the spirit represented by the mask. He then becomes a medium for any dialogue between the spirit and the community. Also, traits representing moral values are found in masks.”
“What kind of trait?” I enquire. “Masks from the Senefou people of Ivory Coast have their eyes half closed, symbolizing a peaceful attitude, self-control, and patience. In Sierra Leone, small eyes and mouth represent modesty, whilst a wide, protruding forehead represents wisdom. In Gabon, large chins and mouths represent authority and strength. Round eyes may represent alertness and anger, and a straight nose represents unwillingness to retreat.”
I hear a yawn and look up to see my Indonesian Batik couple stretch their facial muscles. “If you are done asking questions, can I ask you for a favour?” The woman in the couple speaks to me. “Yes, please!” “Can you move me to the left of my male? I am bored with being on the right and seeing only this part of him.” I stand up and oblige to enable a change of perspective.
My eyes begin to search for the quieter ones now. What’s their story? Does the red Chinese mask with golden painted eyes have a Cantonese mystery to share? What about the Arabian ones with gilded bodies? Does the Vietnamese mask carved out a tree root know where it came from and identify with the history of the beaded one from Ghana? Do they know each other’s countries, culture, language?
I don’t know how long I have been asleep. A light rain screens through the open French windows spraying droplets of restless dreams on my face and hair. When I wake up, I find myself lying on the carpet, facing the bright orange wall. All the masks that were so alive last night are silent now. As if they have never spoken before. I begin to gather myself up, unable to comprehend if I were awake or dreaming last night when my eyes fall on a soft brown piece of a very fine fabric. I reach out and pick it up.
No, wait! It is not plain fabric;, it feels like peeled off skin…and it has imprints of a nose, a lip and two hollows of the eyes….
About the Author : Ananya Mukherjee, former editor of HRM Asia, is an acclaimed writer and journalist with more than 1000 publications to her credit. Her journalistic acumen in print and television covers a whole gamut of subjects including politics, lifestyle and business. She is a passionate short story writer, columnist, avid reader, keen traveller, blogger, theatre artiste and a trained dancer. Ananya currently lives in Singapore and spearheads Internal Communications in a Multi-national Company.