When the doctor looked at his latest report and told him he had about six months to live, Akaash Didwania stared at the red bird in the calendar on the wall. It was an ordinary-looking bird in an ordinary-looking calendar that suddenly looked strange; its colours seemed to scream out of the letters and numbers. OCTOBER 29. The car horns outside seemed to have stopped suddenly, replaced by the slow sound of something falling as the doctor muttered through the AC purr. ‘I feel obliged to tell you the truth.’ Truth. A word Akaash had never quite liked for it had mostly caused him a great deal of trouble. And loss. The doctor rattled on. Akaash kept staring at the October bird.
Walking out of the doctor’s chamber, Akaash wandered aimlessly till he came by a massive open drain that stunk of human waste and sewage. The sun was setting above the rusty iron drain pipe which extended onto a track of train lines. The railway crossing was closed and a goods train was chugging in, cutting into an orange sky. Blending with the shit smell and the sunset spreading across car tops, the brown bogies became the slow sound of something falling in Akaash’s mind, for the second time. He walked off the main road and went down to the drain to smell it more fully, to see what waste looks like when it floats freely, waiting to be decomposed by sunlight and slow time. He leant close enough to the drain to see his own reflection. A pair of round glasses on a scared face; swimming with shit. Blending with waste. For twenty minutes, more or less, then his reflection was suddenly smashed to smithereens by a stream of water gurgling into the pool. A middle-aged man stood beside him, pissing into the drain. Akaash got up and smiled at the stranger. The bogie sounds were coming to an end.
Akaash worked in a chartered accountancy firm in South Kolkata that advised people on how to store and invest money. Rich men and women with hidden assets and accounts that suddenly became ticking bombs. Like when the Government of India suddenly declared that 500 and 1000 Rupee notes would become useless. Demonetization Day. Akaash remembers seeing a brawl in his neighbourhood grocery store that night where a crowd of people had gathered to change their 500 rupee notes on the pretext of buying biscuits, stale bread loaves and cheap toothbrushes. Almost everyone looked confused, angry and helpless as the government ordered to go cashless. The local grocery shopkeeper didn’t have a TV in his shop. He hadn’t seen the news and had happily accepted 500 Rupee notes until he overheard someone speak about the change. Then he panicked and stopped giving change. But by then a crowd of people had gathered demanding grocery goods. Even as the shutters were being quickly pulled down the angry mob stepped in, breaking in the cash box. Some local policemen who had come earlier in the evening to buy cigarettes and had got rid of their notes turned up to beat the mob. Akaash had stood and watched it all. He remembers the Demonetization Declaration Day viscerally as that night in bed he first felt the sickness in his lungs that would gradually grow into a grotesque body with cells. A growth that now left less than six month’s life in him. Next morning on his way to office he saw a man being beaten up by another mob. In front of the greying Greek Church in Kalighat. Apparently, he was a pickpocket who had nicked someone’s wallet the night before, a wallet that supposedly contained a pile of hundred rupee notes that were now missing. The man began to cry and said a friend of his had exchanged the 100s for four 500s which he was ready to return. Nobody listened to him. Everyone wanted 100 rupee notes. Walking to the Kalighat metro, Akaash heard a beggar woman wail for food and money. He stopped and gave her the only two 100 rupee notes from his wallet. His sickness was growing into something solid, dropping heavily, invading his lungs by then.
That day, in Aakash’s office everyone talked about demonetization; the keywords in those conversations – cashless, corruption, UP election – started banging against Akaash’s brain by afternoon. The office phones and mobiles kept ringing. Panicky clients called, seeking advice on the cash that was suddenly declared illegal. Nobody knew anything so there were lots of names and noises. The sounds were sonorous, the syllables slow, the pitches low. Akaash sat listening to the word bombs that exploded in the empty space in his brain where his attention had spread earlier. He felt like a sound magnet numbed by the noise, unable to attend to addresses. There was a greater strangeness in the air – the country had been suddenly directed to become cashless, nobody paid attention to Akaash’s behaviour. Until he fell. Akaash collapsed on his way to the gents’ washroom, swinging and smashing against the little litter bin where the waste waited to be thrown away. That too was the sound of something falling, but Akaash had long since passed out by then to listen. The last sound he had heard was one of nervous laughter. As somebody tried to explain to a client over the phone what could happen thereafter.