By Rishidev Chaudhuri
He was the masseur of persimmons, and he attached himself to that statement with as much precision as he could. It would be so easy, ever so easy, to let go, to slip away, to fade into one of those reddish, tannic, slightly yielding fruit. Every morning, every hour, every lunch break, every minute, he had to remind himself that he was the masseur of persimmons (and not the persimmon itself).
Like many days, he woke in a mild panic, scrambling to congeal an identity before the warm light of day smoothed out the lumps of his self and left him nowhere. He brushed his teeth and bathed, because that is what one does, and dressed in a cream shirt with a floral motif and beige, slightly ragged pants, all the while repeating his name and the fact of his existence to himself. He stepped down the stairs and onto the street, hiding slightly from the bright glare of the ghoulish sun, and then on, down the pavement, blinking owlishly and wondering how many new clients he would have.
His studio was atop a tired warehouse, south of the city center, amidst intersecting streets and cars in the process of being stolen. He stepped up the stairs to his studio, nervous that he'd find himself back at home and relieved to walk into the familiar room. Small, wood-panelled, with a flat desk and a high chair with no arms, so that his hands could freely range up and down. The persimmons lay in little crates, stacked sideways on the floor, and as he sat he kept his gaze fixed on them (the threats to his self, his reason for existence). He sat watching them for at least an hour, perhaps more, barely moving to scratch or fidget and only occasionally moving to remind himself of the contours of his body. Then he got up, bending forward from the hips, spine straight and counterbalancing upwards with the grace of a natural athlete. He approached the crate, slowly, a little scared and reached forward. Eyes shut he hesitated, not breathing, then let his fingers brush the smooth surface of one of those round objects. As he did, he felt a shudder of contingency pass through his being and he pulled back sharply, suddenly desperate to remember his place and time. But, of course, he was the masseur of persimmons and he had to massage persimmons or he would be nobody. And, besides, who would massage them if he didn't?
So he reached forward again, gritting his teeth, remembering who he was and repeating his mother's name and place of birth to himself. He carried the persimmon over to his desk and sat down, turning it over and over and inspecting every square millimeter again and again, his eyes glazed and distant, looking for some blemish no other eye could see or finger could feel. Having picked his spot, he gently worked his finger across the surface, rubbing with the barest breath, spreading bitterness across and around and stroking it into sweetness. Again and again, with not a breath or thought out of place as he felt himself enter the space of stillness that he so loved. His thoughts stilled and he began to feel the forgiving smoothness as more and more real, as real as the dull ache in his foot or the soft urge of remembrance passing through the back of his mind below his thoughts. And his breath began to slide across into the fruit, to drift across into what he was not (except he wasn’t sure he was not) and he was less and less the masseur and more and more the persimmon.
A sudden recklessness possessed him, though he knew the risk. He didn’t pull back as he had so many times before. He didn’t pull back and sit there shuddering at how close to oblivion he had come. He went on, working his fingers gently over and over again into the surface of the fruit and feeling it become less and less surface, letting himself slowly drift away.
A knock on the door broke his spell and suddenly he was back in his aching, contingent, halfway flesh. His assistant walked in, a thin weedy boy whose name he had forgotten but whom he sometimes called George, a boy now called George, who understood nothing and sought to understand nothing, but who had an occasional dignity and took his job seriously. George was bringing another persimmon. Unusual at this time, but he had instructed George to always walk in even without a reply to his knock. Another safety measure and this time it had saved him.
He sighed, turned the persimmon over and took it back to the crate. Time for another.
I know now that I will die in this old house, witness to so many of my young and old awakenings, the first faint memories stirring in the garden, the halls that were once filled with the vibrant imaginings of a culture in its prime. I will die here, amidst creaking windows, long gloomy passages and the subliminal flutter of the bats in the roof, with the high exhausted ceiling fans laboring to blow air over my overheated body as it loses warmth.
I rarely go downstairs any more. Ranajit and I have sealed the empty rooms below and left them to their soft memories. It’s kinder that way. Once a week, Ranajit descends to an examination of the ground floor. He wanders (I imagine) from room to room, letting that sad, supremely ironical gaze of his rest on each dust-laden item in turn, each lopsided cupboard and shrivelled up dining table. He dusts occasionally, I know that, for I’ve seen him with dust cloth after dust cloth, moving the dust from one place to another or briefly chasing it into the air before it settles down with a tired sigh. He knows that it is futile. That, perhaps, is why he does it.
Somewhere, in that large book that he is both reading and writing, Ranajit has stumbled upon the foods of Mexico and has become obsessed with avocados. I do not know whether this obsession is fear or adoration, but he seems to have found a completely alien reference point, and is obsessed with orchestrating his world in response to it.
And so, he has been experimenting with ways of deconstructing avocados, of troubling their essence, of investigating them by stripping away the accidental to see if there is anything else underneath. A few days ago, wandering the house when I couldn't sleep, I stumbled upon his book, and found the outline for a chapter on 13 ways of deconstructing an avocado. Yesterday, for lunch, he served me a peeled, puréed and reconstructed avocado. I imagine he wanted to investigate the role that shape and structural integrity play in its essence. Today, he has surrounded an avocado with cream, to make it nervous, perhaps to make it question its own texturality.
I do not know where this is going, but I am concerned that I am becoming merely an extension of his experiments, that he might seek to poison me to see if palatability or edibility is essential to the avocado.
I am also suspicious that he is being influenced by radical Buddhism, and that he is beginning to factor the contingency of the eating subject into his calculations. I found this in his notes:
“Thus have I heard: Indeed, O Subhuti, the processes of cooking and eating reveal the nature of an ingredient. To infer from this, however, that the nature of the object exists independently and prior is false. To infer that the object possesses an essence is false. And why is this false, O Subhuti? This is false because the nature of the object is not independent, not unconditioned; it is dependent, conditioned. It is created in the process of cooking and eating, and passes away with the end of these processes. Simultaneously the processes of cooking and eating are not processes; cooking is not cooking and eating is not eating. Why do I say that cooking is not cooking and eating is not eating? Because the processes of cooking and eating are not independent, not unconditioned; they are dependent, conditioned. They are created in the ingredient and pass away with its ending.”
It would be futile to confront him about this, of course, but he is my cook and I am the obvious target for subversion. I have taken to surreptitiously following, watching his movements, trying to infer what he will do next. But this can only truly work if there is some underlying substrate, some consistent being who is acting. I can predict his routine gestures, the slow epicycles he wanders along through the house, but they are entirely determined by the regularities of the environment and are useless to predict his particular creative moments, those moments of rupture and genius that make the world strange. He appears from rooms that were certainly empty, drifting around the house, slow, ponderous, graceful, detached. Times without number I switch off the light in a room and he emerges from it, smiles apologetically at me and moves to the next room. He’s beginning to blend into the walls and passageways now, emerging from banisters and under pictures. If he stands in place too long, you can see him start to drift into the foundation. He denies and destabilizes this world with the effortless unawareness of either divine possession or long practice. I could ask him which it was, but he would not understand the question.
In a few minutes he will knock, with my tea, and there will be something to eat on the tray. It will probably be an avocado, in some form. He will enter and we will both be surprised, even though we are expecting each other. And then he will leave and I will too, and we will wander the rooms again, separately and occasionally together, neither sure who is following the other.