OTHER PARADISES: Reincarnation Thriller
Excerpt from film director A L Shenoy’s forthcoming memoirs, kindly printed with the permission of the author
On weekends our group used to go to the cinema hall, where we would watch Bollywood blockbusters like Sholay and Satyam Shivam Sundaram, or regional films. The movies from South India were very different from those of North India, with charms distinct from those of Bollywood (Telugu actresses not the least of them). Occasionally we’d catch a foreign flick, Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Avanti, The French Connection, Brown Belt Jones, Pink Panther, Ten Commandments. Afterward we’d usually stop at a street vendor’s for pau bhaji, ragha patties, kulfi, street kababs, samosas or masala corn-on-the-cob, then sit talking until late, sometimes very late, when the sound of the night trains reminded us to get home. On the way back we’d grab another snack at the trucks, chicken biryani, masala omelettes, uttappa, masala dosa, rava dosa, mango lassi, finally reaching back around 4 am…
Seeing a film at the Mangalore cinema hall required planning in advance. On Mondays, I was given Rs10 allowance, and that day could spend Rs1.25 for a meal, skipping lunch the rest of the week. That way I’d only spend Rs3.75 and have the rest for a Rs5 movie. The theatres were beauties, left over from the British Raj, and had a sort of faded glamour, a bit musty inside with velvet seats that were almost but not quite red. People packed in, a hundred at a time, and were treated to short BBC documentaries, the first thing to screen with a sound of whirring tape reels. Then the main film came on, accompanied by increasingly loud oohs and aahs as the crowd gained in confidence, echoing what happened onscreen. It wasn’t unusual for people to come to the same film multiple times, so a good number already knew the lines by heart, and had no shame about vocalising them during the action.
The movies weren’t so sacred that scenes couldn’t be interrupted by a key cricket or hockey game, though. India v Pakistan shut down theatres temporarily and had everyone glued to their radio sets. Even a good local game like Bombay v Karnataka, starring Gavaskar v Vishwanatha or Patandi, could have that effect. A five-day cricket match could keep folks enraptured for weeks, just like a three-and-a-half hour Bollywood movie. If not that, then news of smugglers, or the Indo-Pak war, on everyone’s mind just like US v USSR. Going to the cinema hall could be a lot of fun, but it wasn’t always easy to be a dedicated film fan in the city. That’s why we decided to set up the Mangalore Cinema Club, for those who wanted to take movies a little more seriously. And what better film to start with than Kamini, a remake of Mahal?
All of us had seen the original. I, the Secretary, had watched it over and over growing up, since it was my mom’s favourite. When it came out in 1949, she saw it in the theatre three times. Its magic has to do with its ambiguity. It isn’t clear whether the plot is a supernatural ghost story in the form of a ‘reincarnation thriller’, a beautiful lover come back to life, or a simple deception plot, in which the gardener’s daughter pretends to be beautiful dead Kamini, to win the love of handsome Shankar. We gathered for the viewing, and I prepared to take notes. ‘Any minute now, problem with the projector. Jammed again…’ said the Treasurer. That kind of thing always used to happen. We stared at the white screen. As Club Secretary, I knew I should only record what was official, but until the first selection got started, I kept my pen moving across the page to keep the rhythm.
That film club was my real life, even if others complained of escapism, or timewaste. Growing up I watched movie after movie, until they all blurred into a single extended sequence. No matter what people said, it wasn’t a way of escaping reality, just a different and perhaps better way of understanding it. Everything is clearer and simpler at the movies. They have significance, and serve as a refracting lens to create new meanings. Pleasure, too, like when the treasurer shouted ‘got it!’ and the Bombay Talkies Limited opening credits began to the tune of soft instrumentals, lush images gliding past in black and white…
The palms were black silhouettes against emerging day when I heard her sing. The pure birdlike lilt of Lata Mangeshkar, aural shadow in movement. One sustained note vibrating up and down, playful. She stood in the Loop, hair loose and flowing. Face luminous, eyebrows inverted crescents. Mouth a blossom, dark eyes jewels. When I approached, she giggled and ran off, whether as escape or a request that I follow to this day I can’t say. I’ll never see her again, I thought. But things didn’t happen that way. I followed, and that changed everything. Why had she come back? To tempt me, to mock? There she was again, finding me. Every few nights she showed up with the insomnia. Even the long daytime walks around the premises were mostly unnecessary, ways to avoid thinking.
That night I saw a patch of white. I ran after her, caught her wrist and made her talk. We kept talking as we walked back up the path to the clearing. She seemed to understand everything as I said it, everything about before. The room with the leaves, the inlaid gold panels. The frame with a picture of a girl on a swing. She understood it all right away, like she was part of me. Our talk—a climbing vine of sweetness. She surprised me with her cleverness, and told me how she’d snuck her way in. I half-listened. I’d never seen a woman as she was that night, in white. In the eyes of the world I don’t know if she was beautiful, but she was Kamini, my Kamini. Years before, she’d been taken, but now she’d come back.
Little by little we returned to the ways of old times. Kamini, my love, had returned; my wish had done its trick. I delighted to discover my beautiful ghost made flesh, I ran my hand over her soft curves and hair. I dressed her in gold bangles and kissed her feet, tucked a flower behind her ear. O joyful one, I said, and those lines returned too: ‘As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge, clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time…’
A VERY SPECIAL HOME
IN THE HEART OF NATURE
That sign appeared before me every day. I was approached for my experience in isolated regions, as people who only have experience of city life aren’t equipped to face the loneliness. True, most tasks related to the elderly are alike everywhere: bathing, dressing, food preparation, toilet needs, arrangement of personal possessions, money management, communication with family. In all such places, the most important thing is to maintain a structured routine: keep accounts neat, divide up hours in the day. But here it mattered more than ever, since this wasn’t just country, but jungle. If you weren’t very careful it could swallow you up.
I’d gone to Infinity Lab for medical tests before I arrived, so I knew what the place was like: hardness and steel, metal and glass. A few weeks later, a representative from the lab came to Kamini Manor and explained what would happen. Immortality technologies. There was a time I would have laughed. We sat at the table where I always take tea, and I ordered it as I would any other day. She sipped hers with precise movements, well-dressed, not a button out of place, hair tied back like a flight attendant’s, voice crisp. In comparison, the kitchen girl who delivered our tea seemed even clumsier than usual, bumbling toward and away from us with her tray.
(A theory — in this country, movement works on something like a bell curve. The poor move quickly, the working middle class slowly, the wealthy professionals quickly. The super wealthy are fat and slow, I admit, so maybe my explanation doesn’t work after all. Then again, as there are so few of them, and they tend to move to places like Switzerland and the Bahamas, they don’t count. Mine is a purely nationalistic model. End digression.)
The woman explained everything in detail. I listened carefully, adding more sugar to my tea. Sweets have always been my weakness, along with runaway thoughts. The plan: white vans would come by once a week to implant encapsulations in the embryos. Things would be quick, discreet. ‘You almost won’t notice we’re here,’ she said, voice calm. ‘Go on as you would at any other aged home. You’re technically our employee, but we’ll send Eva, who will organise everything. You can help if you like, but feel free to leave things to her. She can be trusted.’ Nothing in what she said seemed objectionable, and after we signed a few papers she went back to the city.
A week later, the technicians arrived in their white vans. I’d been shown the consent forms in quadruplicate. Just in case, I confirmed by phone with the families abroad. Their voices were firm. They assured me that they wanted to proceed. Our facility was private, outside the city, far from the police beat, distant even from the prying eyes of hospital doctors and nurses. We too could be trusted. Those who came all had illnesses, and arrived knowing these were their final days. The families who paid for their stay were aware of the same.
With all parties privy, there was no reason not to go through with the procedure. One final hope. Perhaps those who had resigned themselves to death would be the ones to receive eternal life, even if they could not know in advance. Their spirits were encapsulated, their physical body passed away just after. Eva didn’t make herself likeable; she wasn’t warm, never a smile on her face, a city woman less smart than shrewd. But it must be admitted she was efficient in her work.
Soon I got used to the way of things. When I needed a break I went for a walk in the loop. The loop was infinite and everywhere at Kamini Manor, one of the most beautiful concepts ever invented. Opening, cross, closure: opening. The loop, never ending, was the basis for routine and repetition. In the mirror, it seemed even to extend to the faint circles under my eyes, broken by the space over my nose. Outside, the path ran from gate to garden, garden to gate. To the religious it may have looked like a cross, to the mathematical a plus sign. As soon as I saw it, arms wrenched just slightly apart, I knew it was the loop of a chromosome with ends added.
Even our self-sustaining economy was a loop. We consumed the plants we grew in our garden, the animals we ourselves bred. The houses we lived in were built with our own hands. When things were used up, or crumbled, we replaced them with what we’d taken long steps to prepare. Our own community, that’s what we wanted to make from scratch. For a while Infinity Lab trusted me to manage it, and I let no one down. Strange images occasionally cut off the loop: discontinuities, un-infinite and broken. Not resurrections: inventions. But I could deal with the glitches.
With Kamini, I must admit that at first I doubted. Visions had come to me before, when I lived with the tribals. Strong winds, not visual, more like sensations. In the beginning I found them disturbing. Then they fascinated me, and I worked to hone them. Sometimes, instead of sleep I’d stay up late, and my body would grow heavy, cease to function. In the small hours of morning, some of my most vivid insights would come.
Of course the most beautiful vision of all came from the Lab. Migration into the loop, physical body cast off. Mind preserved for reincarnation in a healthy mould. Kamini was not a vision; she was real. Her beauty had come back into my life, born of itself or some other source. When she disappeared for the first time, I couldn’t understand. Now she told me what it had all been for. She’d chosen to leave her physical body to create an eternal spirit, but hadn’t wanted to worry me by talking beforehand. Instead she had spoken with the scientists at Infinity Lab.
Some are terrified of ghosts, some see them as friendly companions in life. Me, I used to pity them. They seemed restless and transparent, projections from a film. Even if they looked substantial, when you reached out to touch them, hoping to feel flesh and breath, they’d reveal themselves to be ephemera. With Kamini’s return, I was relieved to find that ghosts could be so concrete. She was just as she had been, a question of belief or love. Perhaps I’d already suspected the possibility of a miracle. After all, I had named the place after her.
Before she showed up I’d begun to wonder: Am I cut out for this? Should I just give it up? It’s true there were still times I doubted everything. Perhaps she was just another invention. Something to avoid the tedium of days and the guilt of Eva’s experimental failures in that place. Times I tried to touch her and felt nothing. Other times my only certainty was that she was real, all else a faint flicker. Certain elements were too much a version of the films I grew up with: absurd sci-fi, ludic romantic noir, F-grade golden age Bollydrama. But now Kamini had come, and the frequency of the fears that even I couldn’t take seriously faded. I made the decision to stop working at the aged home, to live with her. I’d dedicate myself to what I’d always said I would: making films.
We talked a lot about the old days, when we would go to the movies. The theatre was old and shabby, but it seemed heaven then. Just me and a few others, or just me, later just us, absorbing images and ordering chai, milky white with sugar, at the interval. Even now I still add three scoops. I can still taste the days when we’d rot our teeth out and hide from the world a while with those bandits, heists, love affairs. It didn’t stop at the cinema hall. I set up a club with a few friends, and we dedicated ourselves to screening films at the weekend. It was then I first decided not just to watch movies, but to start directing them myself.
‘Club’ might be an exaggeration for myself and five others. But we felt ourselves brushing the glitter and glitz of show biz. We entered a loop and constructed a world, where all elements could be incorporated into the plot, assume importance, merge. It was through the club that I met Kamini. Our first meeting was a disaster. ‘Secretary, what do you say we start over next time, pretend this never happened? Toss your notes, let’s go to the cinema hall, grab a bite. Turn that screen off, will you? Until we get this projector unjammed it’ll stay on that frame forever. Secretary?’
Kamini wandered along the path. In the desolate beauty, she sought her destination. Her heart stirred, in her presence the moths burned up even without a flame. He, the one with the glossy hair combed back, had seen her so many places yet never reached her, in her room, on the swing, rowing away in her little boat. She always slipped away just when he thought he’d at last achieved certainty. Her will was her own, though she was a ghost. Though she was real, she was a ghost. She was real. She was real. She was a ghost. She was a ghost, but she was real. She was…