Translated from the Hindi by Shubham Mamgain
It is a life made up of blessings. In childhood, he had helped a blind old beggar cross the road. The blind old beggar blessed him—Son, may you become like me. The blind old beggar must have referred to his long life. But he understood it differently and became a professor.
As a professor, he once saved the life of a bird. The bird blessed him—Friend, may you become like me. The bird could have meant anything by it, but he became an “intellectual.” He stays in the air, his head in the clouds, and sleeps on the ground with his feet pointing upward—arrogant and confident that he will catch the sky should it fall.
Thanks to a life made up of blessings, the income is in the vicinity of 2-2.5 thousand. He has a bungalow and a car. Both sons have landed good jobs. The daughter is doing research. In this circumstance, even the most simple-minded person is bound to become an intellectual. He is not a special simpleton. He is simply a late-bloomer.
Returning after two years of living abroad, his circle of acquaintances was animated with the fact that he had become an intellectual. Chaos-loving people often paid him a visit him and confirmed that he had indeed become an intellectual. Someone who managed a peek at him from their window told us—there was no doubt, he had become an intellectual for sure. Sitting in his room, he was caught staring at his ceiling as if calculating how many years will go by before it falls. Someone else saw him strolling in the garden. We learned—when he looks at a flower, the flower shivers, breaks into a sweat. He has become an intellectual of the highest, most terrifying order.
One day we went to meet him—me and my friend. On the call, he’d asked us to drop by half-an-hour later. Those days we were raising funds for those affected by the hurricane in eastern Bengal. We thought now was the chance to not only meet the intellectual but also to get him to donate.
We entered his room. Truly, he had transformed. He no longer wore black-framed glasses. In its place were glasses with a thin, golden frame. The glint of the eyes and the glint of the frame were reflecting off of each other to produce a blinding glow. His attitude carried static despair. Despair is typically sorrowful. But his face carried a despair of the cheerful kind. The despair was due to the sad state of the world. The tone of cheerfulness in it attested to his pride in having seen how sad the state of the world truly is. The lower lip on the left stretched towards the ear. This caused a gap to appear between the lips. Static despair and constant thinking combined to produce that effect. That little hole was the only thing on the entire mouth from where his voice issued. What remained of the mouth would stay shut. We speak with the whole of our mouth but the intellectual makes a hole by opening the left corner of the mouth wide enough to push selected words through it. When we laugh, we open our mouths wide; the intellectual slightly pulls the left corner of the lips towards the nose. The nostril near the lip is visited by a tremor and, thank our stars, we receive the signal that—I am amused! You are laughing but I am simply experiencing amusement. The illiterate individual laughs. The intellectual is only entertained.
5-6 books are lying face-down on the table as if carelessly laid in between the reading. But they are left there carelessly in a way that the title of each book is clearly visible. The cleverness of the books has my heart. Even in their carelessness, the books managed to fall on top of each other without obscuring any one’s name. It was amply clear to me that he was not reading the books. He had asked us to visit after half-an-hour. He must have spent that half-hour designing the carelessness of the books. The intellectual repeatedly tries to direct our attention towards them. He wants us to be amazed and say—What a variety of books you read! We didn’t even know their names! We are not amazed yet. The intellectual grows restless.
He has made us sit in a way that to face us he has to turn his head by 35 degrees. After achieving that slant and planting his chin on his hand when he takes a good, long look at us, we find ourselves subdued by his intellectual terror. We feel very small in front of him. His posture and sight take on a magical quality. Looking at us from that angle, when he uses a slow, profound voice emanating from the pit of his stomach to say—“To my mind”—we feel that the voice is coming from the clouds up above. But the sky is clear. After much efforts we are able to locate the source of the voice: the little gap on the left corner of the intellectual’s lips. When he says “To my mind,” I feel like I don’t have a brain. There is only one brain in the world and it happens to be in his possession. When his head is not turned 35 degrees and his chin is not perched on his hand, he looks like any other person. He must have trained a lot to learn the art of angular placement of intellect.
There is an elegance to the intellectual. Look how elegantly he turns his head, how elegantly he sets his hand, how elegantly he moves, how elegantly he raises his leg, how elegantly he opens the almirah, how elegantly he takes out a book, how elegantly he turns a page. Every movement is gentle. A less sophisticated person is always in a hurry. The burden of intellect weighs on the intellectual’s personality such that he is now unable to execute spontaneous movements. His intellectuality reminded me of a person with a thick, flabby constitution who walks unhurriedly owing to the heaviness of their gait.
He said—It occurred to me when I went to Europe that our country is collapsing.
I said—You had to travel so far to understand that we are collapsing.
The intellectual replied—The one who is falling cannot objectively view that he is falling. Only those standing at a distance can do that.
At that moment we felt like we were in a ditch and someone was telling us from outside that we have fallen. He has seen our fall and therefore is not among the fallen ones.
My friend asked—What is the cause of our decline?
The intellectual closed his eyes, pondered for some time. Then he looked at us and said—To my mind, we lack character.
The way he talked about our decline suggested that he was satisfied with the state of our decline. If we were not in that state then how could he have found the good fortune of knowing and telling us that we are falling and that he can clearly see our downfall?
My friend had the sense to now broach the subject of our visit. He said—A storm has ravaged eastern Bengal.
He told a tender tale of death, disease, and starvation.
The intellectual kept listening. We waited for some effect to transpire. The effect transpired. The intellectual pushed some words through the corner of his mouth—Yes, I read it in the papers.
At that moment we felt that the people of eastern Bengal were so fortunate that the intellectual had read about their plight. The storm had served its purpose. Death and starvation had been shown great favor.
I said—We are collecting funds for the victims. We were there to ask for donation. He thought we visited him for knowledge.
He put his chin on his hand and said in the same cloud-bound, profound voice—To my mind, Nature has a way of balancing everything. The population had grown too much in eastern Bengal. To balance it out, Nature sent a storm their way.
Amid all this, with no help forthcoming from his end, another person in eastern Bengal must have contributed their life to the death toll.
If someone happens to be drowning, the intellectual will not deign to save them, instead he will think about the density level. If someone is dying of starvation, the intellectual will not give them roti.
He will hold forth on the food production figures of different nations. On seeing a sick person, he will not arrange for medicine. He will read to them the World Health Organization’s latest report. If someone brings him the news of his father’s death, the intellectual will not grieve. He will begin discussing genealogy.
We gave up on the hope of receiving a donation. If we ask the intellectual to donate then he will start telling us about the global economy.
Now we have given ourselves up to the intellectual.
He was thinking, thinking. Having thought for some time, he fished for us from deep down a truth that nobody had reached till now. He said—To my mind, our greatest enemy is poverty.
Having presented this sentence like an aphorism, the intellectual gave us some time to think. We thought. We thought a lot. But to find a solution to poverty we had to turn to the intellectual again. I asked—How can poverty be eradicated from the world?
The intellectual said—I have thought about it. Both capitalism and socialism are anti-humanity. None of these can eliminate poverty. What we need is to use modern technological resources to boost production.
I asked—But what will be the arrangement for distribution?
The intellectual said—That’s exactly what I’m thinking about these days. I’m working on a theory.
After extending a ray of hope towards humanity, the intellectual fell silent.
My friend said—We will need to build a new society.
The intellectual again glared at us inferior beings and said—The primary duty of a society is to destroy itself. This society made brittle by discrimination based on caste, class, color and race must get erased first, and then begin anew.
Here I thought to ask—When all of society is destroyed, how many lakh years will Nature need to create human beings? But I restrained myself. I satisfied myself by observing that thinking “Only I understand” makes an idiot of a person.
The intellectual can talk about Marxism. He can talk about Freud and Einstein. He can talk about Vivekananda and Confucius. After every sentence, he gives us the time to understand and digest it. He knows that we are hearing these things for the first time.
We asked—Then what have you thought about the disease of the human condition? How will this disease be eliminated?
He closes his eyes. He thinks! We prepare ourselves to listen to something profound. The intellectual says—Ultimately, I have to return to Gandhi. Love.
The intellectual has now stepped into the domain of revolution. He says—Student power! Youth power! We must provide freedom to the young people of society. Only they will subvert this world. Only they will bring change. Any community that oppresses its young can never advance. Look at this book by Professor Marcuse! And this book by Cohn-Bendit!
The intellectual is now serious. He has told the ultimate truth.
We prepare to leave when a servant brings an envelope to him.
The intellectual reads the letter. As he reads on, a change comes upon him. The 35-degree slant of his head starts diminishing. The intellectual sits up straight. The twist of his lips is gone. It has been replaced by distress. The face has grown blank. He is breathing heavily. The intellectual now looks utterly demented.
The intellectual crumples the letter in his fist. He takes off his glasses. We were now looking at naked eyes. They looked extinguished. The glow went away with the glasses. Perhaps the arrogance was crushed along with the letter.
I said—You look troubled. Is everything okay?
The intellectual was dumbstruck. To us he looked like a kid who has dropped his toy in a bucket.
Taking a deep breath, the intellectual said—What a time we are living in.
I asked—What’s the matter?
The intellectual said—Daughter had gone to visit her mausi in Lucknow. There she got married behind our backs.
I asked—What does the boy do?
He replied—He’s an engineer.
I said—That’s a good thing, no?
The intellectual shot back—Good thing?
I will get that bugger sent to jail!
We were witnessing a significant moment. A great truth is about to issue from his mouth about the interpersonal relations between humans. His mouth is now beginning to open wider. Wearing glasses, he used to speak from the hole in the corner of his mouth in a grave voice. Now he speaks with his whole mouth.
What analysis does the intellectual offer of this incident? Youth power? The foundation of the relationship between man and woman? The freedom of marriage?
We look at his mouth. He looks more upset by the second. He is still crushing the letter. Maybe he is eager to share the news with his wife. But we are eager to learn why he is so upset about a magnificent marriage? Surely there is some great visionary fact implicit in the affair that can only be understood by an intellectual.
I said—The boy and the girl are adults. The marriage has taken place with her mausi by her side. The groom is a good match. Then why are you so sad and distressed? Tell that secret to us curious people so that we can also adopt an intellectual perspective towards life.
He looked at us with naked, extinguished eyes. With an extremely heavy voice, he said—The boy is from another caste!
Harishankar Parsai (1922-1995) was an Indian writer who wrote in Hindi. He was a noted satirist and humourist of modern Hindi literature and is known for his simple and direct style. He won Sahitya Akademi Award in 1982, for his satire, Viklaang Shraddha Ka Daur.
Shubham Mamgain is a writer and translator based in Dehradun. He completed his postgraduation in English Literature at the University of Delhi.