(Inspired from the lives of a few real people)
Every November evening, Mr. Remarkable donned his glazed off-white kurta over his casual white pajamas, strutted down the street, cane in hand, to the municipal park, and touched the stars. Every evening, a throng of credulous pre-teens from our locality followed him down the brick avenue, bickering and laughing, as children do when they see a madman. Each child wishes to be amazed, even if by a man who claims to snare a star in front of their eyes. Poor kids! The adults knew that Mr. Remarkable was pulling off a cheap trick, with fireflies or with bright bulbs, but they could never be as certain of his deceit as the children were of his magic. No one dared say anything to Mr. Remarkable however, because old though he was, he had a sharp tongue that could outwit and outrage the most belligerent of us all.
This did not stop the rumours. Just the other day, Twinkle Maashi and Maa were talking from across the Hall, the two entrance doors facing each other. ‘You know, Mithu, ‘ Maashi began, with an expression that combined contempt and amazement in a way that only she could manage, ‘Mr. Remarkable was at it again yesterday. All these little rascals followed him to the park, and he pulled out his cheap jar of fireflies. If you ask me, he is not a good influence on the kids. I have heard that he curses out loud while he shows them the stars.’
‘O Baba!’ exclaimed Maa, and looked over at me through the small hallway, to where I sat sprawled like a starfish on the sofa. Maa was like that — she constantly worried about me, careful about everything that could harm me. Often, insignificant stories, which had no relevance for me, would have her started up. She would say things like, ‘Ayush, do not stand on the rickshaw. Pinky Maashi’s daughter fell off hers while trying to act smart,’ or ‘Do not come through the police station; you will have to cross the road twice that way.’ I knew that Mr. Remarkable’s profanity ignited her worries further. Maa was like that, troubled at the silly little things of life.
Not long ago, I was one of the children who followed the madman to his stage. He would lead us through the grey streets into the dusty park, and then to the handpump which squatted in the middle of the dimly lit grass like a plump fisherwoman amidst her catch. To our right lay the imaginary cricket pitch, pinned onto a sterile patch in the ground, and always up for claims by the ones who reached it first. Those who were late had to make do with other, grassy patches that speckled the field, and it was difficult to see the green tennis ball on this green background. The handpump, like the rest of the field, was ancient, probably predating Mr. Remarkable, but we couldn’t say for sure. He would sit on the head of the pump — his figure bending more and more each year, the wrinkles on his face deepening, and the pump rusting inch by inch. And then, he would tell us how he came to touch the stars.
‘It had been an ordinary day,’ he would recount, and peer at us over his large, flat nose and thin, disapproving lips. “It had been a very ordinary day,’ he would emphasize, and then shift his weight from one slender leg to another over his uncomfortable seat. ‘I was a small boy then, and I did not imagine that my life would be so transformed.’ His beard kept growing unkempt over time, and I remember having wondered how the razor could still cut his hair if his skin drooped and folded over his chin. His hands trembled more and more every day, and the cane had reduced from being a statement to being a necessity. Yet, the story-teller never hesitated with his story.
‘There I was, walking down the river-path alone at night — yes, I was unafraid then as I am unafraid now — and yes, it was a deserted country road. Suddenly, a child appeared out of nowhere and started crying.’
‘Why was he crying?’ someone would ask from the audience. ‘What was he wearing?’ I had asked. ‘Where did he come from?’ someone else added, and the children all agreed that the child’s position in this matter was too serious for us not to consider his background.
Mr. Remarkable waved his hands at us to dissuade our questions, and then said, ‘Rascals you all are! Let a person finish his story before you ask such questions. What was he wearing? Well, it was night time, wasn’t it? I could not see him properly. As for his native village, I did not ask him. I had never seen him before and I did not bother to ask him where he was from. I, however, asked him what he wanted.’
‘What did he want?’ we cried in unison.
Mr. Remarkable would smile at himself, and then at us, and in a moment exuding drama, he would lean close and whisper, ‘He wanted me to light up the dark.’
The statement would always have its effect. Our entire group, that of Abhi and Tomal, and Bunty and his sister (who would occasionally play with us, and whom we always made an umpire in our cricket matches, though she could arguably play better than I could) would talk about this while returning home. Bunty’s sister would comment how she found the line horrifying, and what we were to do if we saw a similar child on our path back home. We all agreed that it would be a horrifying incident indeed, and took turns to act out the scene.
Those were good winter days. Maa made me sweaters, and each of their mothers made them sweaters, and we would wear them around our waists as kilts from the back. The arms of the sweaters would be tied up in a loose knot in front, hanging there defeated, lifeless. Then one Sunday, Twinkle Maashi played Mohabbatein for us, and in the following years, our kilts rose to our shoulders, the knots in front of our necks.
And we fought every day like a horde of hounds unleashed upon a piece of meat. Abhi would never give up his batting, even though everyone agreed that he was out, because he had not seen whether the ball had struck the three lines we had drawn on the old, black wall. Two cricket seasons later, Tomal carried his newly acquired stumps proudly to the field, proclaiming from behind a row of shining teeth that the stumps were his Upanayan gift. That was after Bunty had stopped bringing his sister because Jia Maashi had told her that she was too old to play with the boys, and she had howled through the night because it meant she could no longer touch the stars with Mr. Remarkable.
However, while Mr. Remarkable would still narrate the story, there would be an uneasy silence after his horrifying line, and he would use the tension to hop down from his metal seat and grab the orange side-bag on the ground. Then, searching through the contents of the bag, he would continue, ‘The child told me that he knew a perfect way to light up the dark — he said he could catch the stars in a jar. And he asked me if I had a jar.’
Mr. Remarkable was our hypnotist, and we became his unwitting victims.
Bringing out a small glass container, which resembled Baba’s office paperweight more than a jar, Mr. Remarkable held it up for us to witness. We could only see its shiny, silver lid though, for the jar itself was held tightly within his palms. He would then look up searchingly towards the skies, and ask, ‘Where is a star to catch? Where is a star to catch?’ And finding one, he would slowly raise his jar, and touch the jar’s lid to the star. Then he would drop a palm, and use the other to hold the jar by its lid, and a lone star would be captured within the jar, shining brightly in the darkness of the poorly lit municipal park.
That was the highlight of the spectacle. In that dimly lit park, the star was our amazement. It had the warmth of the dying evening sun which signalled the end of our games. It had the brilliance of the Diwali lamps which we arranged in a neat circle in our common courtyard. It had the beauty of the small shiuli flowers whose orange cores radiated bright white petals. When Mr. Remarkable allowed us to touch the jar, it would feel as if we were holding the entirety of the visible sky, with all its wonders and mysteries, all the constellations we had identified each summer night and all the times Maa showed me where my birth-mother stayed. Each child wishes to be amazed, and Mr. Remarkable never failed to amaze us all.
Every evening, the children would come back to their homes and ask their parents about the star in a jar, and the parents would talk to the children and talk among themselves. And so our winters began, with Mr. Remarkable walking us to the park every day and narrating the story of the child in the dark and the star in the jar. For two months he would entertain our curiosity, and when the schools changed their timings to suit the weather, and the children would no longer play in the park, Mr. Remarkable could not be seen anymore. Every year, for two months, the oldest member in our locality would catch a star for the children, and this was enough to upset the parents.
The town was turning just like the weather. When the fertilizer factory shut down, people began to migrate to the neighbouring city to look for better opportunities. The town streets were mostly unpeopled, and only during Durga Pujo or Holi did we find more than a handful of men out on the streets. This locality boasted a few old houses, and people who were reluctant to sell them off had stayed. We lived in a rented quarter, and Baba had recently bought a flat in the city.
We were shifting our household this November. Baba had been posted to the city, and the new flat had come up pretty fast. We were putting things in cartons and sealing them off with brown tape. My books had already been shipped, except the ones which I needed for school. The television had been shipped, and so had been the tape recorder. Baba’s Sony Walkman was our only source of entertainment, but my sister mostly possessed it, and I did not have much of a say in the matter.
So, I decided that day to go to the park and watch Mr. Remarkable in action one last time.
I put on my maroon half-sweater, which was a part of our maroon school uniform, and proceeded to the park. The children had already followed Mr. Remarkable that day, and when I reached the crowd of bubbling teenagers, I could sense their excitement. Mr. Remarkable took out his glass jar from within the bag, and questioned in broken Bengali, ‘Where is a star to catch? Where is a star to catch?’
His hands rose from the dark void of the handpump, and after a brief moment, the jar could be seen, illuminated and illuminating. When he brought the jar back to his face, I could see that his hands were shaking. His hair was thinner and whiter, and the lines below his eyes had deepened. Only his teeth had become younger, false as they were, within the confines of his deteriorating gums. The kurta was still an impeccable off-white, and I presumed that the pajamas were as clean a white as they had been in the yesteryears.
The children still crowded around him in a circle. Mr. Remarkable could still grab their attention. The children were still amazed.
After the Abhis and the Ayushes, and the Buntys and the Tomals of the modern day had left the scene, I went to Mr. Remarkable, unsure of what I would say. As I walked towards the figure struggling to handle his bag and his cane at the same time, he looked up at me.
‘You are Bhombol’s son, are you not?’ he asked, his eyes cutting through the dark.
I nodded, surprised that he would remember me in so quaint a fashion, when I had never seen Baba talk to him before. ‘What do you want?’ he asked.
That was a good question. I did not know what I wanted. Entertainment, maybe. Possibly even company or a memory, but I did not tell him that. ‘Can you show me the stars?’ I demanded.
Perplexed at being asked for a show after he had folded his stuff, he looked at me, as if sizing me up. After a long moment had passed, he brought out the jar and held it in the palm of his hand.
I spread out my palms, signalling him that I wanted more than just a distant engagement.
Cautious now, he slowly placed the jar on my extended palms. I raised the small bowl to my eyes and peered inside. It was bright like a star inside, and the entire vessel was lit up by its radiance. Outside the bowl, the light did not spread far, just enough to light up my knuckles.
I looked at him, amazed at the display. ‘People think that you use fireflies,’ I cried, and then showing disbelief, I emphasized, ‘But you should tell them that what you do is true, that you can actually touch the stars.’
He was unimpressed. ‘You do that!’ he said, before snatching the bowl from my hands and walking away. Looking at his disappearing figure, I knew I might not retain this memory or this company for long, but I would always have a story of a man touching the stars.