Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, November 30, 2012

"The Lost Fingers" by Jose Varghese (a short story)

"The Lost Fingers" by Jose Varghese

"The Lost Fingers"
a short story by
Jose Varghese, PhD

This is the second short story by Jose Varghese that I am very honored to have been allowed to publish on The Reading Life.  

You can read his prior story, "Silent Woman", here.   "The Silent Woman" is a brilliant story and a profound work of art.   

Official Author Bio

Jose Varghese is Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at Sacred Heart College in Kochi, India. His PhD is in Post-Colonial Fiction (select novels of Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor and Rohinton Mistry) and he is currently working on a research project on the works of Hanif Kureishi. His collection of poems 'Silver Painted Gandhi and Other Poems' was listed in Grace Cavalieri's Best Reading for Fall 2009, in Montserrat Review. His poems and stories have appeared in the journals Chandrabhaga, Kavya Bharati, Postcolonial Text, Re-Markings, Asia Writes, Poetry Chain, Dhvani, Dusun and The Four Quarters Magazine. He has participated in a Faber Writing course in London. He plans to publish a collection of short stories soon. 

Jose Varghese, PhD

The taxi driver seemed reluctant to take his right hand out of his trousers’ pocket to receive the fare I gave him.It was when I tried to put the money in his hand that I realized there were two fingers missing in his hand – the thumb and the index finger. I wondered why I failed to notice it during the one hour drive to the college. I could sense his embarrassment from the way he held the currency notes for an odd moment betweenthe existing fingers and the palm. Then he put that hastily in his pocket and asked me whether he should come to fetch me in the evening.  I was just joining as a lecturer at the college and was not sure whether I should take a taxi in the evening as well or learn about the new place as fast as I could and start traveling by bus. But I said “Yes” to him in a reflex action.

    My first day at college went event less except for the fifteen minutes I spent in the cabin of the Head of the English Department. I was asked by the graying  bespectacled, gentlemanly HoD to go through the syllabus of the college’s bachelors program and identify the areas of teaching I am comfortable with  I took the task seriously and told him that there was nothing unfamiliar to me in it except Victorian Poetry. Almost suddenly, he handed me over a few booklets with a mischievous smile:

           “So, you better start preparing the Victorian Poetry modules. I need the newcomers here to work. You see, we oldies-prefer to sit back and relax for a while now, until we retire. “

    Though this came a little unexpected, I took it in a sportive manner and managed to say “Of course sir, thank you” before I walked back to my room in the department. I spent most of the morning reading the booklets and befriending the colleagues who came in to say hello to me. I had lunch in the canteen where I saw students of many kinds, some digging their nose into their books while they gulped down food inattentively, some taking time to flirt a bit, and some talking away the dry moments of a cold day. I went to the library in the afternoon to borrow a few books that I thought would be useful to prepare for my first class the next day. I was a bit listless when I walked to the college gate in the evening, but was greeted by the familiar face of my taxi driver there.

                “ Hello sir, I reached here just in time. My daughter studies here, and if you don't mind it, I could drop her home as well, which is just two blocks from your residence.”
                “ Of course”, I said, glancing sideways at the sheepish young girl standing next to the door doubtfully. She took the cue from me and quietly opened the front door to sit next to her father. As we moved out into the street, the driver told me that I had to pay only half the fare if I chose to travel in his cab every day,since he needs to fetch his daughter to and from the college. I agreed to the proposition  without thinking much. As I started to shuffle the pages of the books I took from the library, he introduced himself.

                “ I Am Benjamin. I had been a taxi driver much before I married her mother. Well,my daughter’s name is Susan.”
                “Hello,Susan. I am John. I have just joined your college as a lecturer in English.”
                “ Hello John. I am doing my Bachelors in English.” Susan said in a husky voice, looking back at me.
                “So,we will meet tomorrow in class”, I said, giving her a smile.

    She smiled back. Benjamin tried to give her a paternal pat on the shoulder  but I could see her shrugging away from his touch. I could see her staring indifferently at his right palm clung to the steering wheel. Somehow, Ifelt that he had lost his fingers in the not too distant past, but I restrained from queries on that, out of civility.
    Benjamin seemed to be in a talkative mood, though.

“Her mother passed away last year. I have a son too, but he has left us after her mother's death ” There was a moment’s pause as he waited for the green signal at a traffic joint. Then he continued his talk.

“You know,he was kind of too close to her, and I guess he couldn't stay in the same house afterwards  I've heard that he is working in some restaurant in the city”.

    Susan remained silent for the rest of the drive, as Benjamin kept talking about the place and the initial days of struggle for him as a taxi driver  He dropped me near my residence and bid farewell, assuring me that he will turn up the next morning.

    My first class was a lame affair, since the students seemed tired of the Victorian sentiments and poetry in general. I wondered why they chose to punish themselves with a course which they disliked. I gave them a few written assignments, hoping to assess their proficiency and aptitude eventually.

    The arrangement with Benjamin went on smooth for a month, and I never even thought of traveling by bus. I took my own time to get familiarized with the place and my profession. The written assignments turned out to be just above average, except a very few that seemed promising to me. Susan’s writing belonged to the latter category. She was a quiet creature and never made any attempt to talk to me unless I asked her something. However, I mentioned to Benjamin accordingly that Susan’s creative and critical writing showed some-real talent.

“She takes after her mother.” Benjamin sighed, as Susan looked out blankly at the traffic.“She used to paint as well. She wanted to be a writer, but folks like us never get a chance to have a career like that, you know.”

“It was you who were not willing to give her a chance”, Susan retorted, quite uncharacteristically  and resumed her blank stare outwards. Benjamin was taken aback  but he tried to ignore this statement and went on talking about other neutral subjects.

    My days at the college began to feel so dry and event-less as I must have remained an ineffectual gentleman for the students and a hopeless bookworm form colleagues. I took to the profession mainly as a means of support for my research studies, and was glad that I could manage things without causing trouble to others. I did try to do my work sincerely and fade away quietly from the lives I came in touch with.

    After the end of the month, Susan was absent in class for a couple days,and I was forced to inquire about this to Benjamin.
                “ She has left home”. It seemed he was not going to say anything further.
                “ But why?” I asked.
                “ I have no idea. I try everything to make my children’s life better, and they just treat me like this”. His eyes glistened.

    I felt any further interrogation would hurt his feelings and remained silent about the matter.
    It was during my weekend visit to a restaurant in the city that I met Susan again. She was sitting in a corner talking with a waiter. When she saw me enter the place, she smiled at me and stood up, so that I had to walk to her.
                “ Hello Susan, how are you? I was wondering what happened to you.”
                “ Hello John. This is my brother Shane.” She introduced the waiter to me.
                “ Hi Shane, I have heard about you from your father”.
                “ Hi John. He is not my father, by the way.” He excused himself to rush towards anewly occupied table.
                “ Please do sit down John, if you don’t mind. I would like to have a word with you”.
    I sat down to have a coffee with her and Susan told me that Shane washer mother’s son out of her first marriage. She told me more about her family,while Shane could only throw helpless glances towards us a midst his busy schedule at the peak hour.

    Their mother’s name was Elizabeth,and she belonged to the rich class. She got married at a very young age to the famous artist Julian Fernandez, whose surrealist paintings adorned our college library  He left her for an elderly actress, old enough to be his grandmother.This shook Elizabeth’s very foundations, beyond repair. She was a small time writer, with some publications in national journals and newspapers. She used to paint, and was hoping to hone up her skills to make career out of it, with the help of Julian. But when Julian left her, she ended up a wreck in her early twenties, with the two year old Shane who was the only reason for her to live.

    Elizabeth tried in vain to get her writings published and to find sponsors to exhibit her paintings  When the going got really tough, she did resort to drugs and drinking  Benjamin found her unconscious on the sidewalk close to his home one day  and took her to the hospital. When she gained consciousness, she talked about Shane. Benjamin took her back to her home, where he found Shane locked up, hungry and scared.

    It did not take Benjamin long to propose to her, and Elizabeth accept edit in her state of confusion. After a year of blissful marriage, problems began to set in. Susan was born, and Elizabeth found it difficult to stay at home and look after the kids all by herself.Benjamin was not in a position to stay away from his work, which offered meager earning. Elizabeth tried to protest, by ignoring Susan and trying to indulge in painting, writing and socializing. This upset Benjamin and there were quarrels on a daily basis for a while. Then Elizabeth became silent and inactive altogether  She was diagnosed clinically depressed and remained a complete recluse for the rest of her life.

                “ She died last year”, Susan summed up the story. “She had violent bouts in the final stage and tried many times to harm Benjamin, accusing him of ruining her life.She attacked him with a knife once and that’s how he lost his fingers. She was locked up in an asylum for a few months where she refused to eat anything and died eventually of a cardiac arrest.”

    I was not sure how to console Susan, but she seemed unshaken. When asked her about the long absence from college, she told me that she had dropped out of the course and is planning go to the USA to stay with Julian Fernandez who has offered to guide her with her painting.

                “ I hate my father touching me with that hand”. She said unemotionally. “Julian is a great artist. Shane hates him, but I get along well with him. I was completely neglected by my mother, and I never liked my father.”

    She bid farewell to me after getting some money from Shane. I wondered why she told me all this if she had already decided to forsake her studies. I tried to convince myself that I had perhaps made an impact to her as a teacher.
    I came home that day with a heavy heart. I tried to philosophize on the futile attempts of us human beings to get a meaning out of life. The Victorian poets did not offer a satisfactory answer to my doubts on such a general condition of life. They seemed to make it sound more complicated, especially the old chap Browning.
    Benjamin remained silent about Susan for the next week. I started paying the full fare to him, but did not think of disappointing him by choosing to travel by bus. He seemed dejected, despite everything.
    I met Shane at the restaurant on Sunday and he told me that Susan had left for the USA. He said he was close to Susan, but she had a very complex character that he failed to comprehend.
“She lives in an imaginary world created for her own sake. She should have completed her studies”, he said.
“She was a very good student”, I was obliged to say.
“I am ashamed to say this, but she is in love with Julian, my father. And it’s he who ruined her. She is living with him as his wife now”.

    I managed to ask him how he was doing, and he said he was sorry about Benjamin  He said he found it difficult to accept Benjamin for some strange reason.
                “ But it was entirely my own fault. I was spoiled by my mother. He gave her a very good life, and she deceived him.”
      I did resist the temptation to ask how,but he continued.
                “ She died by jumping from the terrace of our home, without provocation. After all these long years of happy life… I left the house because I could not stand the memories of our happy times there.”
    I was perplexed, since what he said seemed like an entirely different version of the story Susan told me. I kept my strategic silence, and tried to suppress my curiosity.
                “ It is true that she had some disappointment about not becoming a writer or an artist, but she was always grateful to Benjamin for saving us at a crucial time  I am at times ashamed of myself, because I could not explain my behavior.I could never connect with Benjamin. We never talked to each other.” At this point  Shane had to attend a customer. I was sipping my coffee and contemplating on leaving the place when he came back to me.
“I did hate his right hand. I was afraid of him touching me with it. He lost the fingers during work, when he was young. I hate the way he uses it as if it is normal.”

    I bid farewell to Shane in a hurry. I wondered who among Susan and Shane could be considered to have a character more complex! I did not try to find answers to any of my queries in the Victorian poets, and tried to sleep. But the image of Benjamin’s right hand did haunt me in my dreams. I could see how he missed the invisible extensions of the stumps that remained. No matter how and when he lost them, he was definitely still carrying the ghost of his missing fingers with him.
    Did he realize that his ‘touch’ was an offense to both his children? Had it been the same for Elizabeth?Was he after all an innocent man, or did he hide his dark shades the way he tried to hide his hand in his trousers’ pocket? I never even imagined that the loss of a couple of fingers can make a man’s personality so mysterious.

    I was a lot troubled the next morning when I got into Benjamin’s car.His face was swollen as if he spent an entire night crying or drinking. I looked at his right hand to make sure that the entire issue of the missing fingers was not an illusion. It seemed that with time, the stumps have got used to their fate that they were willing to take extra pain to make up for the missing parts.
                “ I'm afraid this is going to be our last ride in this car”. Benjamin spoke at last,as we neared the college.
                “ What happened, Benjamin?’ I asked
                “ I have to sell this car. I am leaving this place. I've made a mess of my life here. I need to escape.”
    Escape from what? I wondered so, but did not ask him that. But I mustered courage to ask another question.
                “Benjamin,I would like to ask you a question if you wouldn't mind it. How did you lose your fingers?”
                “Oh,I didn't lose them. I was born without them.” He said.
    The car stopped in front of the gate and I got out. Benjamin got out of the car as well, like he did on the first day. I gave him the fare. His right hand took it and went back to the trousers pocket.
                “Let us hope to meet again somewhere”. I extended my right hand towards him. He took his right hand out of the pocket to shake my hand. As I shook hands with him, I wondered whether I just touched his deepest hurt.

End of Guest Post

My thanks to Dr. Varghese for allowing me to publish this story.  I hope to read a lot more of his work in the future.   This story was first published in Four Quarters Magazine, August 2012.

Mel u

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