“... people who like to gossip and think the worst always have ways of finding out whatever they want, especially if it’s something negative or there’s some tragedy involved, even if it has nothing to do with them.”
Manmohan stared at the lines again. The narrator in Javier Marias’s latest novel, The Infatuations, made that statement. Manmohan loved it. He put down the book and reflected on the lines. So true, he said to himself. Then he wondered why people were so. The lines became an obsession. So he decided to take a walk. Walks were Manmohan’s remedies for obsessions.
He was stopped at the gate as usual.
“Who are you?” asked the gate keeper.
Manmohan was familiar with that question. Very familiar. He heard it every time he had to pass the gate of the residential school where he worked as a teacher.
The school had been taken over by a new management which replaced the entire security staff at the gate with a protean set of new staff. While the old staff used to salute on seeing Manmohan, the new staff (that kept changing at every few hours) invariably asked the question “Who are you?” Initially it was fun. Manmohan took it in good spirit and answered “Batman” or “Barack Obama” or “Signor Manomohano” or whatever suited his mood.
Today Signor Manomohano answered, “Signora Cassandra.”
Cassandra was one of the characters from Greek mythology who tickled Manmohan without rhyme or reason. She was beautiful beyond comparison with the singular exception of Helen, yes, the same Helen of Troy whose face launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium. Her beauty won her the gift of prophecy from none other than Apollo himself. The gift became a curse, however, soon. Cassandra’s beauty tickled Apollo’s solar plexus. But she refused to make him more immortal than he already was with a sweet kiss. A single kiss can alter history radically. The denial of a kiss altered Cassandra’s life radically. The same Apollo cursed her. “May none believe your prophecies.” Cassandra prophesied the destruction of Troy. She foresaw her own tragic end. But she could not prevent any of it. No one believed her.
Why do inquisitive gossipers enjoy more credibility than Cassandra? Wondered Manmohan.
“ID card dikhao,” demanded the gate keeper.
Manmohan took out his voter identity card which he always carried like a conscientious citizen. (That an obsession of his which walks could not remedy.)
“This is not a polling station,” snarled the gate keeper. “Produce the ID card given by the management.”
Manmohan now understood the meaning of the question “Who are you?” It does not matter whether you are a citizen of the country. It is not a matter of who you really are. It’s a matter of whether you are a number listed in the registers of the system or not. A number. You can be Batman or Barack Obama or Signor Manomohano. Or even Signora Cassandra. Be whatever you want as long as you have a number assigned to you through proper administrative formalities.
Manmohan returned home to fetch his numerical identity. On the way he ran into one of those “people” of Javier Marias’s narrator.
“You are in the hit list, you know,” she said curtly. That was her style. “People” like to punch you straight in the nose.
She went on to say that the new management had decided to sack the entire staff appointed by the old management. She had proofs, she claimed. Some proofs sounded rational to Manmohan. Some were far-fetched.
Is Cassandra reincarnating? Wondered Manmohan.
Or is it another instance of Javier Marias’s “people”?
For now the numerical identity is a relief. It can at least get him back through the same gate when the walk cures his present obsession. He clutched the ID card close to his heart as he approached the gate keeper with a salute.