Suno now, listen to me: I thought about Papa when it happened. About his ballooned rosy cheeks, his thick square moustache. About his commanding voice from the head of the dinner table, silencing every other sound in the room. It’s strange, but you must believe me: the mind works in un-fucking-controllable ways. You can’t plan your last thoughts—that last taste on your lips, that last flash of colour. Death is so random, yaar. One minute you are sitting tipsy in the comfort of a noisy crowd, sipping beer, eating a cheeseburger, watching playoff basketball; the next minute your head is a mangled pile of shit. Red blood on your orange T-shirt, blood on your red meat, and blood on the fries, a suitably coloured replacement for the ketchup that you, too embarrassed of your foreign accent, never requested from the bartender. Red on the fat brown face of the friend whose life you possibly just saved.
And I ask myself, behenchod: you didn’t think you were going to die, did you? You didn’t think that your last meal was going to be this succulent beef in the company of your heathen Muslim and gora friends. In truth, I fear that autopsy more than whatever void that awaits. Thin brown-skinned youth with a bushy unibrow shot dead in Northwest D.C., with a mouthful of delicious cheeseburger and the stench of sweaty armpits. As a saving grace, at least he wore a fresh new pair of Nikes.
Yes, that’s me, that same kid who, after spending over three years in this country, still smelled like he had jumped fresh off that kela boat. That same young man who is now disintegrating into a fresh corpse, meat splatting on medium-rare meat.
And I ask myself, behenchod: you didn’t think you were going to die, did you?
And him? He was the same wild-haired man whom Hamid had confronted some twenty minutes before the fatal shot. We named him Wildhair, for the long blonde hair that fell down to his neck, spraying out in different directions, criss-crossing and spider-webbing within itself. It seemed as if each dark-yellow strand had a consciousness of its own.
‘Go back to your country, he had said before he pulled the trigger, and at least fifty other faces-black-brown-yellow-white- blue turned towards him, because half the people in that bar probably had a different country to go back to, even if they preferred to continue sitting right there watching NBA basketball and dipping onion rings into mustard sauce in the United States of Fucking Amreeka—theek hai?—thank you very much. Wildhair’s ‘go back to your country’ was meant for Hamid, of course, and it was all so ridiculous because I was definitely more likely to fly a few thousand kilometres back to India than Hamid was to return to see his family in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Hamid. Oh, he had a million expressions on his face after that shot: fear and anger and panic and sorrow. But it’s fine, let me tell you, he needn’t worry about me, yaar. It was as clean a death as I could have hoped for. A half-second of the absolute worst pain you could imagine in the forehead, where it felt as if someone had turned up the temperature to a few thousand degrees, and another half-second of the searing heat rushing down to my heart. And then: numb.
The last flashpoint left were the senses, which were paused in time forever at the moment I went from Vishnu Agarwal, the twenty-one-year-old, breathing, drinking, laughing, hot-blooded young man who couldn’t pronounce his V’s differently from his W’s, to a stinking, bleeding, about-to-shit-its-pants lifeless object. Those temperature valves? They descended to freezing point within seconds. Extreme hot to extreme cold. Mummy would say, in her voice that was the most delicate balance between affectionate and irksome: Beta, you’re going to catch a cold.
Yes, those senses, they lasted a little longer, and so did the needling sound of screams following the gunshot, and ‘Vishnu!’ from Jess who always said my full name, and ‘Viz’ from fat-ass Hamid, who had a rare moment of stress in his voice. I heard a rush of boots thumping against the floor and then felt a dozen pairs of hands on me. I still had the taste of meat and beer in my mouth. And, suno, it felt hot; I have told you that already, haven’t I? And then cold, but the cold didn’t last too long before all of those senses froze into an eternal end. OK. Tata. Bye-bye. And after that, only the memories remained. I swear, those memories, kasam se yaar, they are real. Memories of every moment before the final moment.
And, suno, it felt hot; I have told you that already, haven’t I? And then cold, but the cold didn’t last too long before all of those senses froze into an eternal end.
I don’t know where the rumour began, but there is a misconception that your life flashes before your eyes when you die. Nahi, nahi. What you see is every life flash before your eyes. You see every consciousness at every point of its experience. In that instant, I knew why that waitress with the cornrows stared longer at Hamid than she did at me. I knew the names, addresses, and favourite TV shows of all the fifty-three revellers at Lucky
Luke who witnessed my death. I could see Rishi bhaiya out in California insisting co-workers call him ‘Russ’. I knew that, despite my best hopes, Mr Palpreet Singh in the white Maruti would never walk again after that accident in Delhi. I knew the name of the Indian engineer from Vadodara to whom Wildhair lost his job last year. I knew why we were all here. And why I was going away.
The real challenge of this moment isn’t to imagine and understand everything, but to parse it and filter it down to what is truly relevant. To separate the connections that count from the malware of memories bombarding every thought, to draw a map from A to B and translate the entire Ka Kha Ga. From those dancing bears I grew up watching on Cartoon Network, to Papa in the passenger seat of his old Maruti, driven away from the riots in Muktigarh, to Wildhair and his handgun. Ah, fuck. It all matters. All of it.
The riots changed everything, but Death-the capital ‘D’ Death, the Bhayanak Maut, which hunted down wet-bloused girls in Hollywood movies-had a way of figuring out its own balance. And so, here ends the known human life of Vishnu Agarwal, born near Ayodhya, raised in Varanasi, shot in Washington D.C., soon to be cremated back in Varanasi, and resurrected as a roach to haunt your favourite hamburger joint, because all that gluttonous cow eating is definitely going to keep me rotating through a few extra cycles of reincarnation before achieving moksha.
‘Go back to your country,’ Wildhair shouted. Some people spilled their drinks; some froze chewing on their French fries midway. Wildhair held the handgun in front of him, and later, some of the media would report with horror at how easily he was able to carry it into Lucky Luke. Others would marvel with pride that, despite the tragedy that followed, the little weapon worked.
Excerpted with permission from A Beautiful Decay, Karan Madhok
Publishing/ Aleph Book Company (October 2022)
You can buy your copy here.
Karan Madhok is an Indian writer. His creative work and journalism have appeared in The Literary Review, The Bombay Review, The Caravan, Epiphany, Gargoyle Magazine, Fifty Two, Scroll, SLAM Magazine, and more. His short story ‘Public Record’ appeared in the anthology A Case of Indian Marvels. Karan is the editor and co-founder of the Indian arts and culture website The Chakkar. He is also the founder and author of the Hoopistani blog on Indian basketball. Karan has an MFA in Creative Writing from the American University in Washington D.C., where he won the 2018 Myra Skralew Award for the best MFA Thesis (prose). He is working on his first non-fiction book.