The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, January 28, 2001
Time Off

Indelible memories
By Manohar Malgonkar

THERE are moments in life — luckily rare — that stay with one for the rest of one’s days. Something happens which is so out of balance with our sense of perception that the mind refuse to accept it as the reality. Against all evidence to the contrary, we keep trying to convince ourselves that it is not true.

Remember Jackie Kennedy’s anguished scream when she found that her husband, sitting beside her in the motorcade, had been shot dead? A heartrending No! noooo!

But it was yes, yes! A split second of disbelief before the acceptance of the fact.

I suppose it is a part of human nature, to refuse to come to terms with something that you don’t want to happen, when your system rebels against whatever has happened. This was not how it was planned to go!... this is some foul trick...a jest devised by sick minds.

Then reason asserts itself, and you’re back in the real world. At that something has happened in that split-second of disbelief — something so powerful that the impression it makes on your mind is unforgettable. It is powerful that the impression it makes on your mind is unforgettable. It is like an internal cinema-clip which you can re-run at will, true in every detail.

No doubt psychologists have made a study of this condition and given it a name. But most of us are familiar with it from our own experiences: that when something shockingly unexpected happens within our sight and hearing, it becomes permanently fixated in our memories.

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Of officers & gentlemen
November 19, 2000
Officers and gentlemen
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Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
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The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
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Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000
What a tangled web !
June 25, 2000
Rivers for sale
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Knowing when to stop
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The lingering memory
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It does not matter if whatever we have witnessed does not affect us personally; were swept into its turbulence anyhow. The system has been given a jolt. The moment of horror becomes a permanent momory.

Here is an example of what I mean. It happened on the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera theatre one winter’s evening in early 1996. The Met, as New Yorkers like to refer to this theatre, is supposed to accommodate 4,000 people, and that particular evening, January 5, it was packed to capacity for the very first performance of a new opera by Janacek, The Makropulos Case.

The orchestra began its overture and the curtain went up. The scene on the stage was that of a lawyer’s office, sparse and businesslike. Just a desk and a couple of chairs, a steel filing cabinet, and at the back a bookshelf as high as the ceiling, crammed, ostensibly, with legal books.

And propped up against that back wall, a ladder, to facilitate the taking out of books from the higher shelves.

There is only one character on stage; the lawyer’s clerk, played by an actor named Richard Versalle. He is doing what lawyer’s clerks are supposed to do: he is seen standing about midway on the ladder, fumbling in the shelves — in the act of taking out or putting away one of the books, and then he is seen to lose his balance and fall down on the floor with a resounding thud. For a few seconds his arms and legs are seen to writhe and then he lies still.

A part of the action, surely? Or so the audience may be forgiven for thinking. For nothing happened for the next minute or so as the orchestra went on playing, and then the curtain came down abruptly, all within 10 minutes of the start.

And only then it became clear; that, even though what they had seen was enacted on a stage, this was not playacting but real life; not faked death but real death. The actor Richard Versalle had only a short distance to fall, but while falling he had broken his neck against the edge of the steel filing cabinet and had died on the stage.

Will those 4,000 men and women who had witnessed that scene ever forget it?

True, I was not among them, but a friend was, and he told me how its memory haunts him. I myself had no special reason to remember it. What brought it back to my mind was a newspaper headline in my local paper. That accident at the Met had been described in New York’s Post under a headline which said: Death at the opera. This other headline said: Death at the circus.

The report described how a circus, camped on Howrah’s Gulmohur Maidan, was giving its second performance of the day on December 15, 2000, a Friday. One of its special acts was for its nine full-grown tigers to jump through a loop suspended over a young lady lying prone on a bench. The ringmaster, Ramanand Thakur, had put his tigers through the same performance many times, so that it had now become a routine act.

But at this show, something went wrong. The young woman, Rita Kshetry was attacked by one of the tigers as it was doing its jump, and the sudden tumult seems to have provoked two other tigers into joining the fray. By the time Thakur and his head trainer, Pratap Biswas, were able to pull away the three tigers, Rita’s body had been severely mauled. She was rushed to hospital, but died soon after she was admitted.

Death at the Circus, was far more horrifying than Death at the Opera. What the circus-goers had seen was not just a death by accident; but an onstage killing: A woman’s body being ripped apart by angry tigers.

By comparison with either tragedy, my own memory of a death in public is far less messy, indeed almost sanitised. The strange part is that it should still remain with me when much of the savagery I saw in later life should have been forgotten.

I was in the Army then, in my 20s and we had been taken out on one of these quite senseless night exercises which entailed trudging through the countryside seemingly to no purpose.

It was early morning, and we had been given a 20-minute break to eat our haversack breakfasts, which we ate lying on our backs.

And in the sky above us were two aeroplanes, a fighter and a transport-plane ostensibly on their training exercise, for they were circling round each other like two birds. We envied the pilots. "Bastards are just fooling round before they go off to their mess for breakfast — ham and eggs and hot coffee!"

We of course, earthbound, were munching sandwiches made up of corse army bread smeared with butter, and washed down with water from tin cans.

And then, while making a pass, the two planes collided and fell to earth, one spiralling crazily, the other like a stone. A black plume shot out of the fighter and soon blossomed into a parachute. The other pilot had crashed to his death.

To be sure in later life, I, too, have seen a fair amount of violence and cruelty. For instance for five days in succession I did whatever rescue work I could in the worst-affected areas of old Delhi’s inner city, Daryaganj and Sabzimandi, at the height of the killings during Partition. But then that was a period of frenzy, quite senseless, and time has blurred its detail. But that pilot whom some of us had envied because of the ease with which he would be flying back to his breakfast and never made it, has remained with me.


Home This feature was published on January 21, 2001