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Context & Code (after Vladimir Nabokov)



For the fifth time in as many years, She was confronted with the challenge of what birthday present to take to someone who was incredibly strange, to the point of being deranged. Gadgets were to him buzzing hives of evil, vibrant with malignant activity, much of which he felt only he could perceive, or vessels of shallow communication for which no use could be found in his abstract world. Only one thing obsessed him other than mathematics, and that was his favorite soccer team. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him, she chose a pleasant and tasty trifle – a basket with eight different pickles in eight little jars.

At the time of his birth, they had already been married for a long time; twenty-one years had elapsed, and now they were quite old. Her drab dark hair was pinned high above her head. She wore a cheap red sari. Unlike other women her age (such a Mrs. Suraj, their next-door neighbor, whose face was red with paint and who wore a cluster of pearls,) she presented a bare, tan countenance to the unforgiving winter’s light. Her husband, who in their village had been considered one of the elders, was now, in San Francisco, wholly dependent on his younger brother Ishaq, a Real American of almost twenty years’ standing. In reality, they seldom saw Ishaq, so busy was he running his company, so they nicknamed him Shehzada.

That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. The Muni train lost its life in the tunnel between two stations and for a quarter of an hour they could hear nothing but the repetitive throb of hip-hop and the wailing of a homeless man. The bus they had to take kept them waiting, and when it finally arrived, was full of insufferable teenagers. It began to rain heavily as they walked up the path leading to the hospital. There, they were required to wait again, and instead of their son, shuffling into the room as he usually did (head down, confused, ill-shaven, and scarred with acne), a nurse they despised appeared and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was safe, she said, but seeing them might disturb him. The hospital was miserably understaffed (a patient had recently died in a stairwell after wandering from her room and hadn’t been found for a week), so they decided not to leave him their gift but to bring it to him the next time they visited. Outside the building, she waited for her husband to open his umbrella and shyly gripped his arm. He cleared his throat rhythmically, as he always did when he was upset. They reached the bus-stop at the end of the street. A few feet away, under a swaying tree, a tiny unfledged bird twitched helplessly in a puddle.

During the long bus ride to the subway station, they did not exchange a word, and every time she glanced at his old hands, grasping the handle of his umbrella, and saw their swollen veins and evenly-spotted skin, she felt the mounting pressure of tears. As she looked around, trying to fix her mind onto something, she was given a shock, a mixture of compassion and wonder, to notice that one of the passengers – a girl with black hair and grubby red toenails – was crying on the shoulder of an older woman. Whom did that girl resemble? It was Radhika Bhatia, who had married one of the Wallias – in Lahore, many years ago. The likelihood of her son’s marriage prospects retreated in her mind like a reflection in a hall of mirrors, at once real and ephemeral.

The last time the young man had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not a fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in the sky and escape. The underlying system that gave rise to his delusions had been the subject of a dry, technical paper in an august scientific journal, which the doctor had given them to read. But even before that, she and her husband had puzzled it out for themselves. “Referential Mania”, the paper had called it. In these cases, the subject imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his work and very existence. Naturally, he excludes other initiates from the conspiracy, and he considers himself much cleverer than others in his field. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the sky transmit to each other, by means of undulating transformations, detailed information about his algorithms. His innermost ideas are discussed nightly, in binary alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains form highly detailed patterns, representing groups whose symmetries he must decode. Everything is symbolic and of everything he is the core. All around him are spies. Some of them are detached observers, like glass surfaces or still pools reflecting their innocence; others, such as mannequins in store windows, prejudiced witnesses, thieves at heart; others, again (running water, storms), are hysterical to the point of insanity, and grotesquely misinterpret what his programs are intended to do. He devotes every function and module of his code to interpreting the signs and symbols around him. The very air he breathes is indexed and stored for later retrieval. The fractal nature of time divides and divides again, until he is paralyzed by indecision. If only the applications he developed could assist him in mastering his immediate surroundings, but alas, they cannot. The silhouette of his red blood cells, measured tirelessly by algorithms, flit over vast plains; and still farther away, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up, in terms of granite and groaning firs, the ultimate quantification of his being.

When they emerged to the thunder from the foul air of the Muni, the last dregs of the day mixed uneasily with the street lights. She wanted to cook lamb for supper, so she handed him the basket of pickle jars, telling him to go home. Accordingly, he returned to their rented Victorian, walked up the landing, and then remembered he had given her the apartment keys. In silence he sat on the steps of the landing and in silence rose when, some twenty-one minutes later, she came trudging heavily up the stairs, smiling wanly and shaking her head in deprecation of his silliness. They entered the two-room apartment and he immediately went to the mirror. Straining the corner of his mouth apart by mean of his thumbs, with a horrible, blood-red grimace he removed the sachet of betel leaf, slaked lime and Areca-nut stowed under his lip. He read his Urdu-language newspaper while she laid the table. Still reading, he chewed on the dark meat that required all his remaining teeth. She knew his mood and was also silent.

Once he had gone to bed, she remained in the living room with her pack of stained playing cards and old photograph album. Across the narrow courtyard, where the rain tinkled in the dark against some trash cans, windows were fiery alight, and in one of them a white-lungied man, hands clasped under his head and elbows raised, could be seen lying supine smoking a cigarette. She hastily pulled down the blind and examined the photographs. As a baby, he had always looked perpetually surprised. A photograph of the Nepalese maid they had taken in Delhi and her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album. She turned the pages: Lahore, Partition, Delhi, Ludhiana, Delhi again, a large courtyard, badly out of focus. Here was the boy when he was three, in a maidan, shyly, with creased forehead, looking away from a mongrel dog, as he would with any adult. Here was Aunty Rohini, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train-burnings and bacterial infections (until the fanatics put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.) The boy aged five – obsessed with repeating patterns and tilings, suffering from insomnia like an adult. His cousin, now also a mathematician. The boy again, aged about eight, already hard to understand, confused by the landscape on the wallpaper, afraid of a picture in a book, which showed an idyllic landscape with rocks on a hillside and a brightly colored butterfly hanging from a branch of a leafless tree, yet which to him was dark and full of foreboding. Here he was at thirteen – the year they left Asia. She remembered the shame, the pity, the humiliating difficulties when they first arrived, and the ugly, vicious backward children he was forced to contend with after they arrived in California. And then came a time in his life, coinciding with a long convalescence from pneumonia, when those little phobias of his, which his parents had regarded as the eccentricities of a prodigiously gifted child, hardened into a dense tangle of logically interacting illusions, perfectly expressible in code, yet totally inaccessible to normal minds.

All this, and much more, she accepted, for after all, living means accepting the loss of one joy after another, or not even joys in her case, but mere possibilities of improvement. She was dimly aware of his bliss at the machine, when he opened a portal into a universe of his own creation, designed to run according to a time-table of his own making. She thought again of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason she and her husband had to endure; and of the invisible giants hurting her boy; and of the incalculable amount of tenderness in the world; and of its fate, crushed, wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children whispering to themselves in unswept corners; of weeds that fail to escape the farmer’s scythe. It was nearly midnight when, from the living room, she heard her husband moan, and stagger in, wearing his blue pajamas and an old robe with a Nehru collar.

“I can’t sleep!” He exclaimed.

“Why not?” she asked. “You seemed tired.”

“I’m dying,” he said, and lay down on the couch next to her.

“It must be your stomach again. I will get you your medication.”

“No drugs, no drugs,” he groaned. “To hell with pharmaceuticals! They are instruments of the devil! We must get him out of there. Otherwise they will keep him pumped up on drugs and incapable of rational thought.”                

He pulled himself into a sitting position, both feet on the floor, placing his clenched fist on his forehead.

“All right,” she said quietly. “We’ll bring him home tomorrow.”

“I would like some chai,” He said, and went out to the kitchen.

Bending with difficulty, she retrieved the playing cards and the photographs that had slipped to the floor—the jack of hearts, the nine of spades, the ace of spades, the maid Rakhi and her bestial beau. He returned in high spirits, saying, “I have it all figured out. We’ll give him the bedroom. Each of us will spend part of the night near him and the other part on the couch. We’ll have the doctor see him at least once a week. It does not matter what Shehzada says. He won’t say much anyway, because it will be cheaper.”

His cellphone rang. It was an unusual hour for it to ring. He stood in the middle of the room, groping with his foot for one slipper that had come off, and childishly, toothlessly, gaped at his wife. Since he knew more English than she, he always took the calls.

”Can I speak to Charlie?” a girl’s dull voice said.

“What number do you want? . . . No. You have the wrong number.”

He put the receiver down. Her hand went to her heart. “It frightened me,” she said.

He smiled a quick smile and immediately resumed his excited monologue. They would fetch him as soon as it was day. Even at his worst, he presented no danger to others.

The ‘phone rang a second time. The same toneless, anxious young voice asked for Charlie.

“You have the wrong number. I will tell you what you are doing. You are entering the area code ‘408’ instead of ‘415’.” He hung up again.

They sat down to their unexpected, festive midnight chai. He sipped noisily; his face was flushed; every now and then he raised his glass with a circular motion, so as to make the sugar dissolve more thoroughly. The vein on the side of his head stood out conspicuously, and silvery bristles showed on his chin. The birthday gift stood on the table. While she poured him another glass of chai, he put on his spectacles and re-examined the luminous yellow, green, and brown jars. His clumsy, moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels—mango, brinjal, tamarind, lime. He had gotten to chili when the ‘phone rang again.




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