Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Toys Are Moving
By Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
The toys are moving. I hear them shuffling, on soft stuffed paws, on cheap plastic feet, hear them moving along the corridors, down the stairways. I do not fear them.
You will find treasures in the dirt. This maxim pulses in my brain, a constant tattoo, as I scour the listings of people selling their used books, old furniture, obsolete gadgetry and discarded doodads. I can buy nearly anything that catches my fancy. I am independent of the need for income; my brothers and I were fortunate enough to jointly inherit three prime pieces of property when our father passed away. These were sold to developers at the best price a booming real estate market could fetch. My eldest brother spent some of his share, and put the rest into investments for his children. The middle brother frittered his away on gifts for his dissolute wife and her ravening clan. I put my share in the bank and am living comfortably off the interest.
Maybe it’s because my security was bought at the cost of my ancestral homes; things that once meant home and family and continuity, now discarded to make room for new ways of life; maybe it’s just because I have too much time on my hands. But there is nothing that fascinates me more than looking through listings of things people once purchased and are now in their own turn selling, and buying the ones that catch my fancy.
These are fragments of people’s lives, things their lives no longer had room for, things once treasured, now discarded, gathered byme and neatly organized in my sprawling, ugly modern villa. (Yes, the roots of my interest – I hate the word ‘obsession’ – are clear enough in a mechanistic, psychoanalytic way. I do not know how much that really means.)
I have dozens of copies of all the bestsellers: brigades of Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly, Amish; platoons of Chetan Bhagat and Shoba(a) De and James Patterson and John Grisham; veritable armies of self-help and pop economics and plausible pseudo-science. A few smug squads of Nobel laureates and Booker shortlisters. I look at these books and reflect on another maxim: Leopardi’s observation that this is an age that publishes everything and reads nothing. I sift through the books looking for ticket stubs, letters, photographs, pressed leaves, newspaper clippings, anything that speaks of the lives the books intersected with for a while.
I am looking for real things.
Look at my things, second-hand, used, unwanted, but now afe, safely mine:
Battered toasters and weary microwaves take up shelves in a storeroom for the most overstocked kitchen in the world. Refrigerators stand like obelisks to freshness, a Stonehenge of washing machines and freezers. Some of these things have stickers on them, pictures of cartoon characters, pressed there by toddlers trying to make the word reflect their own childish enthusiasms. Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty, Chhota Bheem, Transformers and Dora march across dulled surfaces of green, red, yellow and the familiar, default off-white. (Am I trying to build a new set of childhood memories from these fragments? If you asked me, I’d deny it.)
Look at my things:
Furniture. Rooms full of it, stacked up like warehouses.
Clothes and bedding and electronic gadgets in towering piles. DVDs and VCDs and Blu-Rays and videotapes and CDs and cassettes and LPs.
Best of all are the TDK or Sony or Maxell or Meltrack cassettes and videotapes on which someone has recorded something.
There are classical concerts taped off the radio. A teenage boy’s stash of taped Headbanger’s Ball shows, complete with crude custom art for each volume – a skeletons dancing in a graveyard, a colony of bats clinging to the spires of a cathedral, a decaying zombie bursting out of a businessman’s body, werewolves feeding on a dead bishop, robots rampaging some parliamentary chamber and so on.
Compilations: love songs, hit songs, idiosyncratic best-ofs. Taped voices, audio letters from far-flung family. In the midst of a compilation of songs by The Doors, an especially ragged track, the instruments murky as if recorded underwater but Morrison’s voice coming through clear and distinctive singing no Doors song I’d ever heard but Danzig’s ‘Pain In The World’.
Look at my things:
On shaky old VHS, all sorts of delights: Christian puppet shows; action movies cashing in on the successes of Die Hard, Rambo, Hard Target, Lethal Weapon; 80s porn stars with mullets and poodle perms; Ramayana episodes in no discernible order; Karamchand, a detective serial from the heyday of Doordarshan.
I also found a particular category of beyond-obscure cult films; amateur productions, equal parts exploitation, satire and avant garde experimentation. They all seemed to have been made in the Philippines and sometimes featured members of that country’s expatriate American population alongside Filipino actors. The stories were a mish-mash of enactments of then-contemporary news stories, satirical depictions of the private lives of Marcos and Aquino, botched adaptations of Borges stories, weird scenes of interrogation and torture involving Filipinos in civilian garb and uniformed Americans, short skits based on Filipino folk tales twisted into surreal nightmares. They were edited so that one scene abruptly segued into the next and none of the storylines were ever resolved.
There were also several tapes containing episodes of old Scooby-Doo shows. I watched these more than anything else.
Once, I went and rounded up all the teddy bears and Barbie dolls and sat them down with me and watched videocassettes all night. I was drinking, and at around 3 AM one of the teddies started mixing the drinks for me. A Barbie gently massaged my back. It was great. I felt like I had a family and a home.
A friend of mine once explained to me why he only collected analog recordings: he said the digital media are tombs, strata in which fossilized voices and videos are fixed. I didn’t follow his reasoning, and he soon receded from my life into some obsessive cocoon of his own, but I did find that my tapes, audio and video, and my vinyl cross-fertilised in a way the digital media never did. Fragments of other shows would find their way into Full House episodes. A Bruce Springsteen ballad would include a middle eight from a Kraftwerk song. Alap and toccata. A romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts spliced with a Hum Log episode cross-pollinated with a Steven Seagal film.
The teddies and Barbies and I agreed that it was the greatest show on earth.
It was the gadgets that ruined it all.
Of course I tried all my purchases out, checked to see if everything worked. Ironed a few old rags, toasted some stale bread, ran a quick spin cycle, played a few levels of Doom, did a few KMs on an exercycle. But these old gadgets, their wiring frayed, their circuits fried, can be deadly.
The last few moments are a blur of mishaps. I plugged an iron in and I think there were sparks, a crisp, burning smell. I tried to yank the plug out but the cable came loose so I tried to pull the plug point out of the wall, getting a nasty electric shock in the process. Still quivering, I ran to the meter room, switched off the mains. Back in the room with the gadgets, sure enough, the sparks had set fire to a curtain. It was dark, smoky. I managed to reach the sink, poured water into a bowl, put the fire out. This resulted in more smoke, turning the air murky, choking me. I stumbled, fell - right onto a dropped knife, lying somehow with the blade facing up.
I’m bleeding from some place in my chest, thick dark ooze. That can’t be good.
Upstairs, the tape decks and VCRs and TVs click into life. I have, after all, found something real. Something that shelters me, something embedded in me.
They are playing a lullaby, a requiem.
I hear soft stuffed paws and cheap plastic feet treading down stairs, along passages. The toys are moving. I do not fear them. I wonder if they can save me or if they will gather around me, kindly Lilliputs around a beloved Gulliver, mixing me drinks and massaging my back and telling me stories and singing in their soft little voices, singing me into that final sleep.
Look at my things! Real things.