Amid the lockdown, everyone is tuned to the silence that is all-pervading. The shrill whistle of my neighbour’s kitchen makes me burst out of my afternoon reverie.
My neighbour’s name is Carl. He lives in a basement. He has an owl for company. You thought he was imaginary, didn’t you? Well, he isn’t. He’s a barn owl. Barn owls usually sleep during the day and are awake all night. He’s a simple barn owl and doesn’t really care what anybody calls him, but Carl calls him Oculus. I think Oculus could have been a Pharaoh if he wanted to be, traipsing through the golden sands of Egypt, and pooh-poohing Tutankhamun’s pyramid. “I deserve a better name,” I can always imagine him say, grumpily.
Oculus is a moody owl. Before the lockdown happened and Carl and I were forced to communicate with each other through our secret sign language and passing pieces of paper from across the wall, Oculus would sometimes greet me merrily and at other times treat me like I did not exist. “He’s very cat-like, you see,” Carl would remind me when I sulked. “They decide when they want affection. You don’t.”
Oculus used to live on a banyan tree, not far from my house, a few days ago. But they cut down his tree. I’ve never really seen Oculus get so emotional. He’s quite hardened, that fellow. You’ll hardly see him shed tears. But he wept copiously that day. I gave him a rather awkward hug. I don’t quite like giving hugs. I’ve never gotten too many myself. And besides, Oculus seems to have too much gravitas sometimes. Anyway, I mustered all my courage to give him a hug. You can still hug owls.
Social distancing rules only necessitate that I cannot hug other humans.
These days, Oculus lives permanently with my neighbour, Carl. There are enough dead rats lying around in his basement. To be honest, these rats really stink up the place. I would spend hours cleaning up when I would go over to play Overwatch with Carl. Now that Oculus lives with Carl, he probably has nothing to worry about. He eats all of the rats and also the earthworms that crawl about. I have no idea what those earthworms taste like. But Oculus says they’re very gooey!
Now let me be clear with you. My neighbour’s name is Carl. It’s a variation of Charles. From what he’s told me, his parents were French and he was born and brought up in Pondicherry. So, he’s French, but of Indian origin. People expect him to speak fluent French and often call him “velle karan” in Tamil, but he actually speaks fluent Tamil and not a lot of French!
Since Carl grew up in India, a lot of people assume that he was named after Karl Marx. Let me just clarify that he was not. Although I must say Oculus and Carl spent many hours poring over the Communist Manifesto. It was bright red in colour. “Workers of the World Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!” Carl actually asked Oculus what “chains” they were talking about. Oculus, ever the erudite owl, explained to him that the chain here was a metaphor. We are all in shackles, being controlled by other people with power and money.
I am only fourteen years old. I have no power and no money. But if I do, I have decided that I will certainly not put anyone in chains.
Do you want to know what Carl stores in his basement? He has a hundred-year-old typewriter that he inherited from his grandfather. His grandfather was quite the romantic. He had an entire book of silly love poems. Carl used to live with him before he died. He was gentle and caring. When the flowers bloomed outside their garden in springtime, he would pick one out delicately, admiring each petal. During summers, he would chop up the ripe mangoes, mix them with cold milk and put it in our refrigerator. He would attach an ice-cream stick at the end of it. It was his version of an ice-cream. The presentation was crude but the taste, delicious!
Carl’s parents decided to become monks and relinquish material comforts. They live in an ashram in Haridwar now. In the Seventies, Carl’s grandfather told him, that his parents were influenced by the flower power movement and spent quite some time in Uttarakhand. They listened to a lot of Beatles and even lived in Rishikesh for a while. “They never wanted to have me; I think. It simply ‘happened’ along the way,” Carl had once told me, quite matter-of-factly.
‘“Yes, you can take off your pants.”
“But uncle, I’ve already taken my bath today.”
“Just do as I say.”
And that was that. He spanked my bottom and started touching himself. My blood turned cold.
Uncle George and I had never really been particularly close. When I was about seven and my grandfather had gone to visit my aunt — my father’s youngest sister — in Chennai, leaving me in Uncle George’s care, Uncle George told me to stroke him. I stroked his face and he said, “not there silly, beneath my waist.” This continued for years. Whenever I told anyone, they told me to keep quiet.’
“But he’s family,” they said. F-A-M-I-L-Y. As if that one word would make me overlook every wrong.
As Carl told me this horrific story, both he and I burst into a pool of tears. “How awful,” I told him. “Adults pretend to be hoity-toity and know everything, but they don’t let us talk. Ever. It’s almost like they don’t dare to hear what we have to say.”
Right after he’d finished crying, Carl looked at me with his tear-stained eyes and gave me a sunny smile. “Let’s not dwell on the past too much,” Carl said.
“He’ll never bother me again.” I just assumed that Uncle George had identified his wrongdoings and left Carl alone. It was such a difficult subject to broach with Carl, so I changed the subject. We started playing dominoes and scrabble, our favourite games to play together.
Once the lockdown started, I didn’t really get a chance to visit Carl.
Today is the first day I am visiting him. Carl is in his basement as usual, but his personal diary is lying open on the kitchen table. For some reason, I am very afraid to read it.
Dear Diary, this is Carl. I turned fifteen yesterday but I haven’t had a chance to meet Jonaki because of the lockdown. She’s my only friend in the world, outside of Oculus. If Jonaki were here on my birthday, we’d eat a birthday cake from Kookie Jar and blow out candles. I haven’t had the courage to tell Jonaki about what happened to me. My uncle George raped me. Yes, raped. And after he was done, he pulled on his pants and said to me, “We’re friends, okay? Let this be our secret.”
One day, I mustered the courage and took a kitchen knife and stabbed him. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the blood gush out of the gaping red wound. I saw my face against the rusty edge of the knife. I liked what I saw. My inexperienced hand hit muscle and bone. His rotten heart escaped unscathed. Luckily for him, he survived. The neighbours complained to my grandfather about what an odd boy I was. When I told them my version of the story, nobody wanted to believe me. “Men can’t be raped,” they all said dismissively.
Grandfather died two years ago. If I was older, I would have been tried for attempted murder. But the Supreme Court decided that I was a juvenile and had made a genuine “mistake”. I had done it deliberately. I was engulfed in rage and wanted to see this evil, vicious, obnoxious person dead.
I want to tell Jonaki the truth. I also want to tell her that I know that Oculus does not exist. That he is a stuffed toy. That she’s been pretending he exists because she wants to help me cope with the pain. I think I …”
Tears welled up in my eyes and I could not read further. As the evening sunlight filtered in, I saw Carl standing there. His eyes were brimming with tears too.
I ran up to him and said, “It’s okay, Carl. I got you. I’ll always be your friend.”
(Jonaki is the pseudonym of Reeti Roy. She has a first degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University and has a Masters degree in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and political science. Her writing and other intellectual endeavours have been generously supported by the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship, The Choice Fellowship from the Seagull Foundation for the arts, The LAMP fellowship from PRS Legislative Research, The Matador Network Travel Writing Scholarship, the Goethe-Institut/ Zubaan Books fellowship, the Vonda N. Mcintyre Sentient Squid Scholarship four times and the Ann Mclaughlin Scholarship. Twitter: https://twitter.com/reet. Views expressed in this article are personal and may not necessarily reflect the views of Outlook Magazine.)