When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!
— Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
Surendra was firm.
So were they.
“You are mistaken,” said Raghu.
“No. I am not.” Surendra replied. “You are mistaken.”
“You are free! Free to move around and visit any place of your choice. Nobody can stop you. Nobody is stopping you. Inside or outside. Doors are open. Go for a stroll. You will realise this freedom. Why do you keep on saying this, father,” said the eldest son, while others listened and nodded.
“No, I am not free here—elsewhere. This is the truth. I am in chains. I carry them as a heavy burden, everywhere.”
“Why do you say that dear brother?” asked Mukesh. “Your son is trying to make you understand that there are no chains around you. But you are adamant…and wrong.”
“Where am I wrong, Mukesh? You know me better.”
“Sorry, bro! But you are wrong.”
“You say you are chained.” Mukesh replied patiently. “There are no chains. Look around — no chains. It is your illusion only.”
“It is a fact, Mukesh. I am in chains. Trust me, please,” said Surendra calmly. “I mean it. Every word. You know I never tell lies.”
A collective sigh!
Surendra was his usual composed self. Tall and dignified, he sat on the edge of the bed, in a meditating pose. A subtle aura made him appear otherworldly, a sage, among the philistines.
They sat for long. The distant forest could be glimpsed from an open window, a mass of soft shadows.
Raghu bent a look at his uncle.
“What nonsense, bro! You are totally free. I assure you. Absolutely free.” Mukesh broke the stalemate. “You are a well-read man. Why are you tormenting yourself and the rest of us? Please stop believing this wrong notion. You have always been logical. Now, come on. Walk with me to the nearest hotel on the highway. Nobody will stop you from moving around. I repeat, it is a free country!”
“Uncle is right. For the last three hours, we have been trying to prove the simple fact that you are not in chains. It is only a delusion! Come out of that, please, father and spare us this stressful drama.” Raghu pleaded with folded hands.
Surendra was unmoved: “That is the sad part!”
“That my chains cannot be seen by my own son!”
“Please! Do not start again this argument now. It is a democracy in which all of us are free. That is it. Final! I do not want to argue on a given. Period.”
“You are a fool. You are in chains, too, invisible chains but you don’t realize that, right now, like the silent majority. Living under the greatest illusion. That is it.”
Raghu gave his father a resigned look, “No point in talking further about this. Nobody can convince you. I am done.”
Raghu got up to leave.
“Fool! You will realize this fact soon.” Surendra said quietly. “It took me all these years to understand this simple and fundamental truth! We are all in chains in a free country! That is the biggest irony of human condition globally!”
Raghu did not engage with him. He exited, along with others, into the courtyard.
Ma waited there.
“Wastage of time and energy. Refuses to listen to reason. Stubborn as usual. He has never listened to me anyway. The fact is that he does not want to see reason. If not insane, he is not sane, either!”
Ma nodded. “I knew it from the beginning. Married to a top-class nut. Told you also many times. You never believed. Now face it.”
“He was a graduate, first in the community. Mad guys do not finish a B.Com with a first class,” replied Mukesh agitatedly. “Our mother said you drove him crazy. He was an intelligent man who did a lot to the extended family but you and your constant nagging made him mad.”
Ma retorted, “Defending the elder brother, as usual. You all gang up on me — mother-in-law, five brothers-in-law and two nasty sisters-in-law, all these years.”
The brother glowered. Ma glowered back. Mukesh muttered something and left in a huff.
Raghu and others met again, late night, to discuss ways of avoiding a possible public embarrassment of a rational, law-abiding, articulate man going mad in the autumn of his life, for no apparent reason.
It was a big mystery — his absurd claim of being in chains.
They discussed, debated but were unable to figure out the apparent trigger for such an odd behavior of the patriarch.
“We must act fast. The village should not learn that he has lost his mind,” Raghu said. “It will be great shame!”
They agreed to take him to the mental hospital the next afternoon on some ruse.
The gods willed it otherwise.
The village learnt about Surendra’s madness, very next morning, in a most dramatic manner. The author of this revelation was none other than a composed Surendra announcing it in the morning in the public square.
“You all are chained! Listen to me. Break your chains, you fools!”
Surendra shouted at the top of his voice.
People came out and watched, curious by the sudden transformation of a much-lauded supervisor in a textile factory in Kolkata, who had moved to Delhi, after the textile mills had closed down and driven taxi and finally owned three, in the Capital for two decades—saved money in the process, raised a large family and returned home in the village in Bihar to spend remaining years in the shadow of his ancestors. Surendra had renovated his old property in the village still mired in poverty. He taught children from the low-income families English and Math. A well-respected son of the soil who was not claimed by the city, like many others, and had returned to his roots.
At the moment, he appeared the usual self– calm, composed, dressed in simple cotton shirt and trousers, all white, and a pair of sandals. He wore a white Gandhi cap and spoke in measured tones.
As more crowd gathered near him, with children jostling for space and better view, he climbed a pile of crates, outside a grocer’s shop and addressed the audience in his familiar baritone: “Hear the truth! Be liberated!”
An old man asked lightly, “Okay. Give us the truth.”
Surendra smiled and said, “You ready for the shock?”
“Yes. We are.” The old man said. “Nothing surprises us anymore.”
Others chorused a big yes.
“Listen then, old man. This will surprise you a lot…” here he trailed off, building up suspense. Surendra surveyed the crowd and exhaled.
They waited for the fun.
Surendra looked again at the assembly of friends and neighbours and declared loudly: “Listen! The Truth. You are all shackled. All in chains!”
The old man was taken aback. “What? Are you drunk?”
Surendra laughed. “The drunk do not tell the truth. They spill secrets, after a peg too many.”
“That is also the truth,” countered the old farmer who had once stood for local elections. “The drunken truth. It also reveals things.”
“Truth is much higher than the alcohol-induced revelation.”
A murmur went around. Some youngsters jeered at the pompous man standing atop his perch, like a self-appointed guru.
“Fools! I give you the truth and you laugh at me!”
They laughed more.
“There is more.”
“What is that?” the old farmer demanded. “More truths!”
“I am the republic!” declared Surendra. “I am the democracy.”
This made the crowd laugh uproariously.
“He is out of mind,” said a neighbor. “How can a common citizen be the republic and democracy?”
“He always thought in grand terms,” said a school chum. “Treated himself as superior to rest of us!”
They laughed and some repeated derisively, “Hey, Republic! Hey, Democracy!”
“Tomorrow he will say he is the President of the Great Banana Republic!” said the chum.
“And day after, he will be the God!” observed the old farmer.
Surendra did not flinch. “Fools! You do not understand. You, too, are the republic and the democracy.”
They jeered again. “He is the Government.”
“Yes. I am the government.” Surendra shouted at the top of his voice. “I am a citizen — and everything. The basic unit. The fuel that keeps the system going.”
The crowd began enjoying the show.
“You are the government?” They asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“Then solve the problem of poverty, my government.” The farmer mocked.
“Who is the government?” A burly inspector asked in a husky voice. He had joined the crowd few seconds earlier. The crowd made way for the new arrival, haughty and walking with a swagger.
“This old villager says he is the new government,” said the school chum sarcastically.
“And the republic and democracy.” Added the old farmer with glee. “See his arrogance, audacity, a common man claiming to be the government!”
The inspector was amused. “Did you say that, old man?”
Surendra showed no fear. “Yes, I did.”
“What did you say?” the inspector asked. “Say it again.”
“I am a citizen.”
“I am the republic.”
“Because I am saying that — the police officer who is the real government. My word is last.”
“You are a mere pawn in the power game.”
“Let it be but I am the real government of this area.”
Surendra was patient and then said quietly, “Let it be. Anyway, I repeat, I am a citizen, the republic, the democracy and the government.”
The crowd laughed. They were enjoying the show now.
The inspector was amazed by the bold assertion. “How dare you?’
“How dare you call yourself the democracy, the republic and the government?” blazed the inspector.
“And why not? Why cannot I claim that?” persisted Surendra.
“A puny citizen! A low-life — that is what you are — nothing else.”
“Why low-life, inspector? I am the basic unit, like you, of the democracy.”
“So you say you are the government?” the cop jeered.
“Yes. I am. Part of the elected government.”
The crowd clapped for the puny man facing the cop.
The inspector replied, “That is going too far. I have to arrest you…”
“For what crime?”
“For anti-government stand. Being a grave threat.”
Surendra laughed. “Do I look like a threat? An old man standing in the square? How do I constitute a threat to the mighty state?”
The inspector scratched his bald head, pondered and then said, “I say so. I am the authority to decide that.”
“Then you are abusing your office,” replied Surendra.
Surendra’s statement surprised the fat officer. He thought and then said, “Enough! You are proving to be a danger to the security of the country. You are a public enemy number one. I arrest you for inciting people.”
He clapped the handcuffs on Surendra who said nothing.
People mocked him: “The new government goes in handcuffs!”
Surendra smiled and declared, “Fools! If truth leads to arbitrary arrest, you too, are under threat. I am ready to die for my convictions, my truth, which is the universal truth. The real government is always the public!”
Now few youngsters began shouting, “He is right. We are the real power, the voters. He is right!”
A carload of tourist was passing by. They stopped and filmed the scene. There was a local journalist and a lawyer who demanded an explanation from the cop: “How can you arrest a citizen for claiming that he is the legit democracy?”
The crowd was split into two camps: pro- and anti-police.
The seasoned cop understood the gravity of the situation and the volatile mood of the frustrated masses. He was one pitted again a crowd that might question his ways.
The man in khaki dialed a number desperately. Soon two jeeps arrived and took the disruptor to the police station, 10 miles away, followed by a large crowd and the carload of tourists. Within hours, the video began circulating and became viral. Foreign press caught on. Then the national press arrived and parked itself outside the police station.
The inspector refused to budge. “He is a public enemy number one, out to destroy the general peace and to incite people against the state by his bizarre claims of being the State, Democracy and Republic. A real danger to the legitimacy of an elected government. He needs to be kept behind the bars for the sake of peace and order.”
As the “Free Surendra, the Citizen” drive spread within 24 hours, the cops secreted him away to some other place, and, he was never seen again.
Some said he died due to torture. Others said Surendra was put in a maximum security jail in an island. Others claimed he was offered money and land by an opposition party to run on a ticket against the ruling party member.
The opinion was divided: Surendra, the Mad vs. Surendra, the Prophet: The former challenged the status quo and the latter revealed the plain truth to an unbelieving public!
Meanwhile, Surendra’s joint family had gone underground.
As happens in such viral cases, public memory being short, the world soon forgot Surendra and moved on with other viral videos about crazy dancers, weddings and stars spotted in the public.
Videos that excited the popular imagination.
Surendra and his disappearance no longer mattered.
After all, he was nothing — a zero.
Add zeros — and you become millions! He had once declared.
Sadly, he was ignored.
The thing did not end so tragically, however.
…on moonless cold nights, the ghost of Surendra could be seen in many locations, breaking his big chains and occasionally heard muttering — some said — two Russian names: Akaky Akakiyevich Bashmachkin and Gogol. After such sightings, the witnesses too, began mimicking his action and wanted to break out of their chains.
But who knows? These can be urban legends.
Or truth. In these days of doctored versions, it is difficult to decide on such matters…